Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell

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George Orwell on the cover of Time Magazine

Audiobook Review
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
by George Orwell

   I think I've mentioned before that there are actually only 990 entries in the 1001 Books list.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is the 959th book reviewed on this blog, and the remaining titles are almost all books I've read before.  Progress, however, is slow. The books I haven't read before that are left on this list are the most obscure- there are at least two books I have in mind that I don't think I can actually find.

   Of course, I've read Nineteen Eighty-Four, though not recently.   I checked out the Audiobook because I figured it would be a fun listen, and I wasn't wrong- Orwell's protagonist, though not quite narrator, Winston Smith, is a classic twentieth century literary figure, and there is something about actually hearing Nineteen Eighty-Four in his actual voice, English BBC accent and all.  The Audiobook also calls attention to Orwell's weaknesses as a writer of prose- his prominence as a writer of classic fiction has obscured his deficiencies as a prose stylist.

  I was also stuck, this time around, by Orwell's incredible prudishness and sexual frustration.  Part of Big Brother's program is to keep the population in a state of sexual frustration so they have more energy to support the regime.   Nineteen Eighty-Four also has a terrible third act, and almost no resolution.   When Smith is captured two thirds of the way through the book, events basically end.   His torture and subsequent rehabilitation almost seems tacked on to turn a novella into a novel. 

   Still, a classic is a classic, and there is no denying Orwell's role as, essentially the co-founder of dystopian fiction (alongside Aldous Huxley, who published Brave New World fully 17 years before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published.)

Notes from a Native Son (1955) by James Baldwin

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James Baldwin
Audiobook Review
Notes from a Native Son (1955)
by James Baldwin

   I'm just looking for Audiobooks to fill time- ones that I don't have to wait several months to obtain via the Libby library app.  It occurred to me that non-fiction titles are probably less popular and therefore easier to get than fiction.   Notes from a Native Son is a common "top 100 non fiction" title- with a recent appearance on the Guardian Top 100, and James Baldwin is also a canon-level novelist.  Notes from a Native Son is only five hours and change in it's audio format, and the sequence of shortish essays is easily digestible in fifteen minute listening increments.

   Baldwin touches on a range of topics, from contemporary literature and film to his complicated relationship with his preacher father- who was eventually institutionalized with chronic mental illness.  The title of the collection is also the title of the best essay in the book- the one dealing with his father- but it also refers to a separate essay which provides a critique of the novel Native Son, that essay is called Many Thousands Gone.

    There is no question that the reader is the better for reading Notes from a Native Son, I would imagine that most who read this book will have already read his canonical works of fiction: Giovanni's Room and Go Tell it on the MountainNotes from a Native Son works as his third canonical title.

Friday, January 04, 2019

The Honey Farm (2018 ) by Harriet Alida Lye

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Canadian author Harriet Alida Lye published her debut novel, The Honey Farm, last year.

Audiobook Review
The Honey Farm (2018 )
 by Harriet Alida Lye

  The Honey Farm is the debut novel from Canadian author Harriet Alida Lye.  Lye tells the story of a group of would-be artists drawn by the offer of a free "artist retreat" at a working honey farm run by the mysterious Cynthia.   The primary drama involves Sylvia, a very young woman, recently graduated from college, who is more or less fleeing her religious family and Ibrahim, a talented painter from Toronto.   Ibrahim deflowers Sylvia, they fall into affair, and of course she instantly becomes pregnant.  It seems to be required in literary fiction, as much as in television and film, that a youthful affair will result in pregnancy, and I found myself loudly sighing after this development.

  Other reviews have hinted at "dark secrets" being revealed in the course of The Honey Farm, but I'll be damned if I could tell you what they are.  Lye is strong on conjuring atmosphere, and it seems like she actually knows how to run a honey farm, but I thought the story was weak and Sylvia, like many millennial protagonists, annoyed me to no end.   I wouldn't not read Lye's next book because there is promise in The Honey Farm, but I wouldn't recommend it outside of all but the most dedicated readers/listeners of debut literary fiction.

Killing Commendatore (2018) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
Killing Commendatore (2018)
by Haruki Murakami

  Killing Commendatore was the first pick for my new book group.  I picked it because I knew the people in the book group would want to read it.  Murakami has that kind of pull- almost unique among top drawer serious writers of literary fiction.  Compare his sales figures to recent Nobel Prize winner Ishiguro, and I'm sure Murakami wins by a wide margin.  That impression was reinforced during a recent trip to that temple of the English language book trade- Foyle's in London, where Murakami gets two whole shelves to himself. 

  The book group was only so-so on Killing Commendatore, people thought it was a trifle long and  meandering for a Murakami book (although that describe almost all of his books).  Due to the 700 page length, we discussed it over two weeks- that was awkward- since people read to different points for the first session, and many didn't finish the book on time.  I guess that is typical in book groups.

  The story in Killing Commendatore will be familiar to any reader who has read any of his other books: A recently divorced man, who is taking an extended break from his career as a portrait painter, an isolated retreat, a strange twist into the supernatural, owls, cats, you know the drill...  I don't think it is a top Murakami book- but maybe the top of the second tier.  

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