Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Wars (1977) by Thomas Findley

Book Review
The Wars (1977)
 by Thomas Findley

Replaces: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

   Another Canadian writer who was overlooked in the original 1001 Books edition, Thomas Findley got added in 2008 with The Wars, his 1977 work of "historical metafiction" about the experience of a Canadian man who enlists in the British army during World War I.  Findley combines disparate narrators and adopts first, second and third person viewpoints during the 277 pages of The Wars.

  Robert Ross is a Canadian teen who enlists at the beginning of the war, eventually making his way to the front lines for some of the worst of the fighting.   The description of the battle scenes are harrowing, but any reader well acquainted with the voluminous (and still being written) library of literature on the First World War is unlikely to find anything new.   Predictably, he cracks up and is institutionalized before returning to the front, and a surprising ending mad less surprising by the prologue, which sets the scene for that surprise without giving any context.

  The Wars replaces Old Masters by Austrian Thomas Bernhard- another loss for the German literature category of the 1001 Books list, and another win for Canada, whose writers seem to be the major English language winners in the first revised edition.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Crossing (2019) by Pajtim Statovci

Image result for pajtim statovci
Finnish-Albanian writer Pajtim Statvci

Book Review
Crossing (2019)
 by Pajtim Statovci

  The 2019 National Book Awards are set to be announced on November 20th.  Crossing by Patjim Statovci is a finalist in the new category of best translated work, alongside Death is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa (my pick), The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (I thought it was just ok) and two books I haven't read, Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming by Hungarian author  Laszlo Krasznahorkai and The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga.  It's unclear whether this award is going to function as a proxy for a career achievement award- in which case Krasznahorkai would be a clear favorit and Ogawa a runner up, or whether it will be based on the book itself, in which case I think Death is Hard Work, about adult Syrian siblings trying to transport the corpse of their father to its final resting place at the height of the Syrian civil war,  is the clear winner.

  Crossing though is a worthy shortlist pick, translated from the Finnish(!) but written by a gay or trans Albanian immigrant, who I imagine resembles the author in some important biographical detail, and it takes the form of a bildungsroman, starting with life at the end of the Enver Hoxha regime, and following the narrator through a perpietic asylum seeker who makes stops in Italy, New York and finally lands in Finland, where *he* gets into a relationship with a Finnish trans woman, steals her life story, and seeks fame on a Finnish version of American Idol.

   Bujar, the narrator, makes for a complicated figure and Crossing isn't merely a ra ra tale about an immigrant overcoming hardship.  Bujar is forced to make impossible choices between relationships and survival, family and freedom, personal safety and happiness.  His motives are complicated and his actions fall on either side of the imaginary dividing line between ethical and non ethical behavior. 

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) by Manuel Puig

Book Review
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)
by Manuel Puig

Replaces: Fools of Fortune by William Tevor

   This book is better known in the English speaking world for it's Academy Award winning movie version (1985) and the subsequent musical (1993), but the book stands out as a pathbreaker in Argentina, both for its frank depiction of the life of prisoners under the Peronist dictatorship and for its treatment of LGBTQA themes, a rarity for that time and place.  Such was the controversy that Kiss of the Spider Woman was actually published in English translation before the Spanish language version came out, and it was several years before the Argentinian authorities allowed it to be officially published inside the country.

   The story is straight forward, but the execution is not.  Two people are in prison in Argentina, one, Valentin, is a political prisoner of great interest to the authorities, the other, Molina is a transgender woman (biologically a man) imprisoned for "corruption of a minor."  The prison authorities want to use Molina to get information out of Valentin.  Molina is eager to take advantage of the benefits of such a arrangement but becomes predictably conflicted when it comes to actually divulging any information and betraying Valentin.

  The plot is interrupted or supplemented by several lengthy recapitulations of "films" told by Molina to Valentin, some based on real films, others invented, in an attempt to while away the endless hours.  The style of the book is stream of consciousness, and it is left to the reader to deduce who is speaking, and indeed, what is actually happening.

   Puig's gain as an add to the 2008 edition of the 1001 Books list is another loss for Ireland, since Puig's book replaces Fools of Fortune by William Trevor.  Of course, Puig is another win for Spanish language literature

Quartet in Autumn (1977) by Barbara Pym

Book Review
Quartet in Autumn (1977)
 by Barbara Pym

Replaces: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

  Quartet in Autumn was part of an unlikely second act for the English novelist Barbara Pym, whose first act lasted through the 1950's and early 1960s.  The first part of her literary career was characterized by commercial and critical success until about 1961, at which point she was told by her publisher that was too "old fashioned" and that she was no longer publishable.  She then went on hiatus between 1963 and 1977, when she reemerged with Quartet in Autumn, a novel about a coterie of four office drones on the verge of retirement.  Quartet in Autumn was a surprise hit, and earned her a Booker Prize nomination, leading to a revival of interest in her and her writing before her death in 1980.

  She ranks as a major omission from the first edition of 1001 Books, the second edition included two works, this one and Excellent Women- from her first period (1953).  Her omission must have been an oversight based on over-familiarity, since I imagine the editors of the 1001 Books project being the type of people who would not have given Quartet in Autumn the time of day in 1977.  She generally fits into the category of "domestic fiction" about the quiet lives of ordinary men and women, mostly written by women. 

  Quartet of Autumn is also interesting because it tackles old age, and the lives of older people, a set of problems which are typically excluded from the youth and child rearing obsessions of writers of literary fiction.   It replaces Old Masters by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard- one of my favorite discoveries from the first edition of 1001 Books, and a rare second edition subtraction for German language of literature.   German language literature is a huge winner in the second edition of 1001 Books, but Bernhard is well represented in the first edition, with six(!) titles, so some reduction in representation should be expected.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Last Witnesses (2019) by Svetlana Alexievich

Book Review
Last Witnesses (2019)
by Svetlana Alexievich

   Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a career maker for everyone, but Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich went from being essentially unknown to getting her entire back catalog translated and published in English, with all the trimmings- including Audiobook editions for her big hits.  Last Witnesses is her second book focused on World War II, the first being The Unwomanly Face of War, about the experience of women during World War II, and together they make a good trilogy with The Last of the Soviets, about the end of the Soviet Union.   All three are incredibly powerful, and they all make for superior Audiobooks- thank you Nobel Prize for making that happen.

  Last Witnesses is not of epic length like Unwomanly and Soviets, probably because most of the interviewees are talking about events that happened when they were under ten years old.  Many say so, "What can I remember, I was three."  Still, they remember enough.   I'm glad I encountered Alexievich, she's spurred a small obsession with the experience of life in the USSR.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Couples, Passerby (1988) by Botho Strauss

Book Review
Couples, Passerby (1988)
by Botho Strauss

Replaces: The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker

   Botho Strauss ranks as a major omission from the original edition of the 1001 Books list.  The status of cross-over playwrights and novelists is a point of friction within the canon as constructed by the editors of the 1001 Books project.  There are no plays- presumably because plays are not books.  Their status mirrors that of creative non-fiction, which is almost entirely excluded from all editions.  The unspoken assumption behind the 1001 Books list is that Book = Novel, with multiple exceptions for novellas, some for short story collections, and essentially none for individual short stories, plays and poetry.

  The biggest exemption from the unspoken Book = Novel for the purposes of 1001 Books is experimental literature, works of which are frequently included in the 1001 Books list.   Strauss is essentially unknown in the English speaking world- his wikipedia page is almost non existent, and I'd personally never heard of him before I read The Young Man- his other contribution to the 2008 1001 Books list.   Like The Young Man, Couples, Passerby is most explicitly not a novel, being more a collection of observations and aphorisms surrounding interpersonal relationships.  Unlike The Young Man, Couples, Passerby is comprehensible.   The Young Man is so dense and surreal that making heads or tales of it requires careful note taking and line by line consideration.  Truth be told I didn't derive much from either book, and it's hard to make a case for Strauss' late inclusion, except as he provides another multi-volume German language author.

The Book of Night Women (2009) by Marlon James

Image result for marlon james
Author Marlon James
Book Review
The Book of Night Women (2009)
by Marlon James

   The Book of Night Women was Marlon James' second novel, after John Crow's Devil- published in 2005.   James broke through into the wider public consciousness when his A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the rise and fall of Bob Marley as told by a chorus of different voices, won the Booker Prize in 2015.  Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published this year, is on the shortlist for the National Book Award-opening up the possibility of James as a rare double Booker/National Book Award winner.   Like John Crow's Devil, about the goings-on in an isolated Jamaican town in the 1950's, The Book of Night Women is squarely in the category of "historical fiction."  Unlike John Crow's Devil, The Book of Night Women is set in the eighteenth century, at a time when slavery was still a fact of the present.

  Lilith is the protagonist, the daughter of a slave who died in childbirth and the now retired overseer of the estate.  No one would ever accuse James of being a bloodless aesthete, all of his books have visceral scenes of sex and violence that combine realism and a sensitivity to the taste of contemporary audiences of literary fiction for sadistic cruelty.  I purposefully sought out the Audiobook for Night Women- it is read by Robin Miles- she has to be the best narrator working for books that require a Jamaican accent, and again, she didn't disappoint

  At times, I wished I was reading so I could just skip some of the more brutal moments, but that would have been cheating.   The plantation slavery world that James has drawn is well informed, you can hear the clear echoes of the Foucaultian preoccupation with the infliction of coercive power on the body of subjects (I'm not sure if James has read Foucault or not, but I would guess so...)   

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi

Book Review
Woman at Point Zero (1975)
 by Nawal El Saadawi

Replaces: The Newton Letter by John Banville

    Any thorough reader of the Western literary canon will notice a paucity of works translated from Arabic, let alone works published in English where the writers are the children of immigrants to the West.  Only one writer in Arabic has won the Nobel Prize in Literature (Naguib Mahfouz- 1988).  Mahfouz is absent from the 1001 Books list- I found some Audiobooks in the Libby Library app but just can't generate the energy to tackle him.

   Woman at Point Zero is a feminist era book that blends fiction and non-fiction- with the text purportedly based on a real interview El Saadawi conducted with a female prisoner awaiting execution for murder.  Nawal El Saadawi is interesting in her own right, a female doctor and public intellectual who clashed with the- also secular- dictatorship of Anwar Sadat, eventually being stripped of her public status and even sent to prison.   Obviously, prostitution is an issue in Egyptian society but it isn't really out there, Egypt being a pretty conservative, repressive place, even during the secular 70's. 

  It's an easy choice to replace The Newton Letter by the excellent but overrepresented Irish author John Banville.   The diversity bonus from a book written in Arabic, by a secular, Egyptian author, about a member of the urban underclass- that's like quadruble diversity bonus points- the mere fact that it has been translated into English is enough to warrant a canonical inclusion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Southern Seas (1986) by Manuel Vasquez Montalblan

Book Review
Southern Seas (1986)
by Manuel Vasquez Montalblan

Replaces: The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams

  Southern Seas is one of a long series of books featuring the exploits of Pepe Carvalho, Barcelonian private detective and gourmand.   The thirteen book series is notable both for the gritty, "noir"-ish presentation of Barcelona, the writing about food and a take on politics that leans left and reminded me of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series by Swedish marxist Steig Larrsson

  Pepe Carvalho is sure to win you some cool points if you run into a sophisticated fan of detective fiction, and if you have been or are planning to go to Barcelona for any reason I'm sure any of the thirteen books makes for a fun backgrounder on the city.  There's a level of sex and violence that registers at the "R" level in the USA: readers who are fed up with straight white guys and their tough talk won't find any relief with Carvalho and his man servant, Biscuter.

  In this book, Cavalho is hired to solve the mysterious murder of a wealthy industrialist who had allegedly decamped to the "South Seas" a year before he was found murdered in a half-built apartment building in an unfashionable suburb.   

Love Medicine (1984) by Louise Erdrich

Book Review
Love Medicine  (1984)
by Louise Erdrich

Replaces: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

  The absence of Chippewa-American author Louise Erdrich from the first edition of the 1001 Books list was a major omission, and they rectified the oversight in the first revision, replacing Black Dogs by the highly over-represented Ian McEwan with Love Medicine, Erdrichs' first book.  Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House, and she has a galaxy of lesser awards and nominations.   Until Sherman Alexie broke through a decade later, she was the only Native American writer of literary fiction with a national/international profile.   Certainly, this was the case in the early 2000's, when the editors of the 1001 Books project were formulating their list, so her omission is puzzling.  It's probably due to the part that the UK isn't a big market for Native American issues and the editors were mostly or all from the UK.

   Love Medicine is exactly what your would picture in your head if you only knew that Erdrich was a writer of literary fiction, a Native American from Northern Minnesota, i.e. a complicated multi-generational family saga with plenty of inter and intra generational drama revolving around substance abuse and the genocidal legacy of the Europeans at the hands of the Natives. 

  The Ojiibwe suffered like all Native groups, but their experience was more akin to the managed retreat of the Iroquois than the genocidal experience of the tribes of the plains and southeast. Today, they are the fifth largest Native group in the United States.  So, the dysfunction is bad, but not the worst, and Erdrich's early emergence as a writer of Native themed literary fiction speaks the relationship between Natives and the locals (Erdrich herself is the daughter of a German-American and his Native wife.)


Monday, October 21, 2019

HHhhH (2012) by Laurent Binet

Book Review
HHhH (2012)
 by Laurent Binet

   HHhH is what you might a call a "dazzling work of metafiction" and it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt for first novel- different from the main Prix Goncourt- which is like the Pulitzer Prize for France.   The unnamed narrator is determined to tell the story of Nazi leader Richard Heyrdrich, notable for this role as an architect of the "final solution" and Nazi leader of the occupied Czech Republic.   Heyrdrich was killed by two partisan's during World War II, and his assassination was the most significant assassination of a Nazi by a partisan group during World War II.

   HHhH is about Heydrich, the plot to murder Heydrich and the life of the unnamed narrator, who is not Author Binet but resembles him in several notable respects, including time living in Prague.  The narrator is not unaware of contemporary trends in Nazi inspired lit- notably The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, published in 2006 and winner of the Prix Goncourt, it covers similar territory but is closer to a late 19th century realist novel than the metafictional wizardry of HHhH.

   I enjoyed this Audiobook, which wasn't long- racing through it to the detriment of the other books I was listening to at the same time.  There is, about Binet- fun in the hatefulness, in the same way that Michel Houllebecq is fun. If people are going to be hateful miserable fucks they should at least be fun about it.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015) by Sven Beckert

Book Review
Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015)
by Sven Beckert

    Sven Beckert, a Professor of History at Harvard University, won the Bancroft Prize in 2015 for Empire of Cotton: A Global History, which explores the role of the cotton industry in the advance of what we call "global capitalism."   Beckert is a Professor of International History, the study of history that crosses temporal and geographical barriers ("American History," "19th century history.") to provide a larger perspective on global events through a focus on international forces like capitalism, colonialism and communism/socialism.   It's both economic and social history, and it owes something to the "Annales School" of French history which focuses on normal lives and larger trends at the expense of the traditional "great man" school of biographical history. 

   Beckert is himself not clearly a socialist, though he describes capitalism in terms derived from that world.  He is clearly not a fan of "free market" capitalism of the Chicago school, and if the Empire of Cotton stands for anything, it is to refute the idea that global capitalism somehow exists independent of state power.  Quite the opposite, as Beckert shows again and again, the cotton industry could not have expanded in the western United States (United States government expropriated Native land) or Central Asia (Russian military invasion) or China without the heavy handed and direct intervention of Western military power.

   Empire of Cotton: A Global History is a must read for fans of the history of international capitalism and economic development.  I listened to the Audiobook, and it was a good fit- I've seen reviews mentioning the density of the text, but as an Audiobook it was an easy listen, even at double speed.  

Monday, October 14, 2019

Fado Alexandrino (1990) by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Book Review
Fado Alexandrino (1990)
by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Replaces: At Home of the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

  I'm going to have to protest the replacement of At Home of the End of the World, an excellent gay coming of age story by a talented American writer, with Fado Alexandrino, the ponderous (500 pages!) meandering tale of five Portuguese soldiers, united by their service in the Mozambique Liberation War, catch up and tell each other stories about their lives in the intervening years.

  Fado Alexandrino makes for extremely difficult reading.  The narrative, which is largely but not entirely stream-of-consciousness veers between different narrators and time and place with minimal breaks in the text.  There are parts and chapters, but each chapter mostly eschews paragraphs, meaning that the reader is basically forced to read at least one chapter at a time, and the chapters are usually 20 plus pages of one or two or three paragraphs of text, written as a stream-of-consciousness and no guide to who is speaking, when it is occuring or why it is occuring.

  I would refer you to the suspiciously excellent Wikipedia page for further details.  Fado is one of those books where everyone who reads it must feel compelled to hail it's genius, because it sure is not fun to read in any way, shape or form.  I mean, it took me a solid month plus of keeping this book on my nightstand to finish.  Just horrific.

The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst

Book Review
The Line of Beauty (2004)
 by Alan Hollinghurst

Replaces:  The Light of Day by Graham Swift

  The "little library" down the street has proved valuable supplying me both with this book and a paperback copy of Infinite JestThe Line of Beauty was an addition to the 2008 edition of the 1001 Books list, replacing The Light of Day by Graham Swift.    It won the 2004 Booker Prize, beating out The Master by Coim Toibin and The Cloud Atlas, both shortlisted.   It's fair to say that Hollinghurst is the "best" writer on the gay life (for well-educated, if not necessarily wealthy white guys) in the UK.  He's shown some progress in this area in his recent novel, The Sparsholt Affair, which departs from the "Sloane Ranger" milieu in terms of time and place, but The Line of Beauty represents an apogee of this highly succesful period in Hollinghurst's career, where he ascended to the heights of literary fame, at least in the UK, on the strength of his smartly constructed portraits of modern gay life in the UK.

  Compared to his earlier books, The Line of Beauty is an epic- 400 pages in the UK edition paperback I found in the little library.  It tells the story of Nick Guest, an upwardly mobile gay university graduate who attaches himself to the troubled household of a rising conservative MP Gerald Fedden via his son and Nick's Oxford classmate, Toby.   Told in three parts: 1983, 1986 and 1987, it covers the triumph of the Thatcher era conservative party- with a cameo by "The Lady" herself, and the consequences: notably AIDS and public scandal.  Cocaine and gay sex are prevalent: Don't call Hollinghurst and English prude!

   There is a little diversity in the characters of Nick's lovers- Leo, a black guy who lives with his Church going mother, and Wani, the urbane, sophisticated son of a Lebanese millionaire who made his money "combining the grocery store with the corner store" and prominent conservative donor.  Wani is also closeted, complete with a "fiance" on the payroll of his mother, and Wani and Nick spend most of the book snorting cocaine and fucking in the bathroom.  So, I guess it's a satire, at least that is what people seem to think, like the comedy category at the Emmy's, I think sometimes satire is a category for drama that makes the viewer especially outrageous through the unconventional behavior of the characters, and The Line of Beauty is that no doubt.

  The Line of Beauty replaces The Light of Day by Graham Swift- which was not his Booker Prize winner (Last Orders 1996) and represents a conventional updating of priorities in terms of viewpoint diversity.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Warlow Experiment (2019) by Alix Nathan

Book Review
The Warlow Experiment (2019)
 by Alix Nathan

  I juggle five or six Audiobooks a time in the Libby app (thanks China!).  There's a clear hierarchy of the books I check out.  First tier is books I can't wait to get through, to the point where I fail to rotate through the rest of the books until I finish.  That's less than 10 percent of the books I listen to- 175 as of this review.  The lowest tier is books I either don't like or fail to finish- I keep track of those within the Libby app and the count is 42.  All the rest of the Audiobooks are in the middle tier- ranging from titles that I like but don't love to books I either need to revisit more than once or finish but don't enjoy.

  The Warlow Experiment, a work of historical fiction about a 17th century gentleman squire who recruits a local member of the working class to live underground without human contact for seven years, is at the bottom of this broad middle category of Audiobooks.  I finished it, but I didn't really enjoy it, and I probably wouldn't have finished it if I had better options at the time.  Part of the problem with The Warlow Experiment is that there is no element of surprise.  Any modern reader knows EXACTLY how the proposed experiment will end: Warlow will go mad and probably end up murdering someone.  I mean, you can guess that from the paragraph long description that the provide in the app.

  Especially tedious in the Audiobook format is the journal penned by the barely literate Warlow- the narrator sounding out his primitive sentences is border-line excruciating, even is Nathan is kind enough to drop the pretence halfway through the book.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) by Mohsin Hamid

Book Review
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)
 by Mohsin Hamid

  I was a big fan of Exit West (2017) and also enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), which was his second book and his break-out.   Hamid is a British-Pakistani writer who lived in the United States- attending Harvard Law School and working in New York.   Set in a nameless South Asian city in the recent past, Hamid adapts the format of a self-help book, to the point where How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is written in the second person, ex. "You ask yourself what you have to do to escape the poverty of your childhood."  It's an unusual, difficult choice for a novel, and it's a tribute to Hamid's technical skill that How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia holds together.  In addition to the trappings of the self-help genre, Filthy Rich is also a take on the O Henry rags to riches tale, with the narrator finding success as a seller of water in a thirsty city.

  Hamid is not a great depictor of female characters and I think all of his protagonists have been men. The female counter part of his narrator, a classmate who evolves from a high priced call girl to an independently wealthy television celebrity, is less well drawn, and their relationship becomes central in an ending that seemed a little pat.  Hamid also touches on LGBT issues with a gay son, but doesn't get deep into it.  It's not his best book, but he's also readable, or listenable, as I listened to the Audiobook.

Honeymoon (2011) by Patrick Modiano

Book Review
Honeymoon (2011)
 by Patrick Modiano

    The Nobel Prize Committee awarded to prizes in Literature this year, one for 2019, and one for 2018, when they didn't award a prize because of the committee members husband was a rapist, more or less.  Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won for 2018 and Austrian writer Peter Handke won for 2019.  Tokarczuk is a great pick, Handke is more controversial, mostly because of his support for convicted Serbian war criminal and dictator Slobodan Milosevic.  Neither writer is a stranger to this blog- I've read three books by Handke and I can tell you I don't like him, and two books by Tokarczuk, who I do like- and I'm excited that this will result in more of her works being translated into English and/or sold in the United States.

    Meanwhile I'm three deep into the bibliography of French author Modiano- the 2014 winner- and like Handke, I can tell you that I don't much like him.   On the plus side his works are freely available in Audiobook format from the library, and they average about five hours each, so it isn't much of a time investment.  I can see why Modiano won, his books are difficult and complicated but in a delicate way, and he deals in the kind of existentialism that seems to be favored by the Nobel Committee.

  Honeymoon is about Jean, a documentary films maker who becomes obsessed with a Ingrid Teyrsen, a woman who has just killed herself.  Jean realizes that he knew Teyrsen when she was a girl, and he goes on to piece together her life, specifically her relationship with a man named Rigaud, a wealthy but slightly dissoulate Parisian who helps her escape the Nazi's as they occupy Paris. It's not exactly clear why Teyrsen has to flee Paris, I assumed it is because she was Jewish but Jean never specifies. 

   Like Modiano's other books there are elements of a detective story, spy novel and existential European novel, but you can't describe Honeymoon as any of these, it's more of a "meditation" on themes of memory, forgetting and the gaps in biography synonymous with the modern world.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Death is Hard Work (2019) by Khaled Khalifa

Syrian author Khaled Khalifa- give the man a prize already.
Book Review
Death is Hard Work (2019)
by Khaled Khalifa

  The finalist for the five National Book Award categories were announced this week.  I'm trying to keep up with two of the five categories, fiction and translated fiction.  Death is Hard Work made the shortlist in translated fiction- a newish category- and even though it's only the second of the five titles that I've read, I would pick it as my choice for the winner.  First, consider the competition- you've got The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, which I've read- it just is not as good as Death is Hard Work.  Straight up- there is simply no saying that The Memory Police is better than Death is Hard Work.

  As for the rest of the competition, you've got maybe the last novel by Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, a sentimental favorite perhaps, but Ogawa also has an entire career behind her, so they would probably cancel each other out in the legacy oriented judges on the panel.   The other two books: The Barefoot Woman by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga sounds intriguing but is out on a tiny press.   Then you've got Crossing by Pajtim Statovci- a Kosovan author, and I sincerely doubt that he can drum up anything to top Death is Hard Work, about a trio of siblings who need to bring the corpse of their father from Damascus to Aleppo during the height of the Syrian Civil War.

  Khalfia apparently still lives inside Aleppo, he should get a medal for that fact alone, but Death is Hard Work is genuinely moving- with a story that tackles the big issue of the Syrian civil war and the small story of  Bolbol, the youngest son of the dead man. I just can't believe any other book would win the 2019 Booker Prize for Translated Fiction.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier (2019) by Kevin Barry

Book Review
Night Boat to Tangier (2019)
by Kevin Barry

  Night Boat to Tangier, by Irish author Kevin Barry, is a good pick from the 2019 Booker Prize longlist- in fact- after listening to the Audiobook- which is memorably narrated by the author- I was surprised that it didn't make the shortlist- if you look at the shortlist book- at the very least you would think Barry would have been picked over Salman Rushdie, who is going on a streak of six duds in a row- and whose shortlist title, Quichotte, was panned by the New York Times last week.  That makes  four books from the longlist, and none from the shortlist.   I guess you could say that Barry, was a white, hetero Irishman scores a zero on the diversity meter, but seriously- Rushdie? In 2019?

  The shorthand for Night Boat to Tangier is "Crime Fiction a la Beckett," with two over-the-hill Irish drug dealers keeping an eye out for the twenty-something daughter of the boss of the pair.  At first, it's basically the two crooks bantering, waiting for this daughter who never (to their knowledge) materializing, while the boss tracks back and forth in time, describing the details of his autobiography in terse but memorable detail.   Like many books written by Irish authors, the Audiobook is an excellent experience as you actually hear the accent of the characters- again- here narrated by the Author. It's a shame it didn't make the longlist, but it did get a recent American publication, so be sure to check it out.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Book Review
Stoner (1965)
by John Williams

  Stoner is not about weed, it's about a guy named Stoner.   I've been aware of Stoner since the New York Review of Books put out a paperback version- that was back in 2005- and then in 2012 is Waterstone's book of the year, which spurred more interest in the United States- for the last few years I've seen it everywhere that carries New York Review of Books Editions.  Sadly, New York Review of Books doesn't do Audiobooks, but I guess someone else got the rights and BOOM- I'm listening to the Audiobook.

  John Williams spent most of his life in Denver as a tenured assistant professor at the University of Denver.   He wasn't unrecognized in his lifetime- his 1972 novel, Augustus, about the life and times of Caesar (of ancient Rome) won the National Book Award, but he isn't what you would call "canonical."  If he is, it is because of this book- Stoner, his anti-bildungsroman slash existential hero, about a character who bears a marked resemblance to the Author.   William Stoner is what you call a "tragic hero," born to a pair of Missouri dirt-farmers who decide to send him to the then brand new University of Missouri (Columbia) with the thought that he will learn agricultural science and return to the farm.

  Instead, young Stoner- who is, it must be said a "square"- he represents the polar opposite of of Kerouac's Sal Paradise in On The Road- falls in love with English literature and abandons his planned course of study to become a university English instructor.  What follows takes place almost entirely on or near the University of Missouri, making Stoner a charter member of the first generation of the "campus novel" of American literature.

  The pathos really starts to build when Stoner makes the ill-advised choice to court and wed Edith, the mentally ill daughter of a wealthy St. Louis area banker who is affiliated with the university.   Edith is literally the first woman that Stoner dates, so a modern reader won't miss the warning signs, and the use of a third part narrator makes sure that the reader is aware of how bad things are likely to get.   Edith is a memorable character, and the miseries Stoner experiences at her hands are only exceeded by the misery he experiences in his job as a tenured assistant professor- he has a lifetime job, but no guarantee of when or what he will be teaching, a hitch that comes to the fore when Stoner gets into a spat with his department head over the progress of a student.

   Stoner is a sad book, very sad.   It's certainly a nice counter-point to the beat influenced/classic 60's era American books from this period.  One thing that Stoner is not is experimental, nor is it difficult to read.  My understanding of books reprinted by the New York Review of Books is that they are often experimential/modernist/difficult to read, and that was not the case here.

Friday, October 04, 2019

The Confidence Man (1857) by Herman Melville

Book Review
The Confidence Man (1857)
 by Herman Melville

   Melville's last novel was The Confidence Man, published in 1857- after it tanked he retired from writing and spend the last 20 years of his life as a government employee.  The crazy thing about Melville and his literary career was not that he basically gave up because people didn't understand how great he was- but that he had an early period of success and fame based on his earliest travelogue style books- and THEN when he started publishing his epochal, canonical books, audiences deserted him and critics turn against him. 

   I've bought, started and promptly lost at least three different copies of The Confidence Man over the past two decades, so when I saw there was an Audiobook edition readily available I thought to take the plunge.  Most of The Confidence Man consists of a series of dialogues between characters in the form of flowery, rotund 19th century rhetoric, and that is the kind of the book that makes for much better listening than reading.  True, you can't effectively stop and look up references or vocabulary, but you also don't fall asleep reading pages of dry philosophical back and forth.

  The Confidence Man is filled with characters based on real life people in the 19th century, and it is apparently supposed to be, at some level, a satire and/or funny.  Listening, it struck me that The Confidence Man is as involved and elaborate as any mid 20th century work of "metafiction" or post-modernist literature, but again- listening as an Audiobook, I couldn't really stop and review passages and make notes etc, BUT I actually finished it,

   The Confidence Man of the title is not just a con-man in the modern sense of the word, instead he is literally obsessed with the word "confidence" and swindles people by playing on their desire to be perceived as trusting.  As he works a riverboat travelling the Mississippi, each chapter features a dialogue between the Confidence Man, who assumes a variety of different forms, and a mark, the object being to part the mark from some money.  Each dialogue revolves around different understandings of the word "confidence" and the allegorical approach- if not the specific subject of said allegory- is never far from the surface- this isn't a book where you lose yourself in the story.


Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Witness (1990) by Juan Jose Saer

Book Review
The Witness (1990)
 by Juan Jose Saer

Replaces: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

   Saer is one of the top Argentinian novelists of the 20th century, but he's little known in the United States/larger English speaking world.   The Witness is an inviting tale that combines elements of Conrad and Borges in a story about a young man who travels to the brand new-new world only to be taken captive by cannibalistic natives when the exploratory expedition he is attending is killed by said natives.   Also, they are eaten, and Saer brings an anthropological eye to the accompanying human feast and attendant debauchery.  Several years later, the boy, now a young man, is returned to another boat of Spanish explorers and returns to Spain, where he wrestles with questions of memory and, indeed, larger questions about humanity.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1934) by George Orwell

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An Aspidistra of the sort named in the title of the book Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell
Book Review
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1934)
 by George Orwell

    George Orwell only published nine books in his too-short life:
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman's Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia

   He's got two all-time world-beating classics, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both of which continue to be a commonly understood reference point in the English speaking world.   Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia are still commonly available in every book store.   Out of his second tier of titles, Burmese Days is still read, though mostly by specialists and students.  That leaves A Clergyman's Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air and The Road to Wigan Pier in Orwell's second tier.
    I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying for the first time in college, while studying in London, as part of a class on the History of London.  I had to write a term paper, I chose George Orwell.   Aspidistra is usually read as a roman-a-clef of Orwell's struggling artist days.  The narrator, Gordon Comstock,  is a university graduate who spurns a career in the burgeoning advertising industry in London to work in a book shop and write poetry.  He has a disappointed girlfriend, a disappointed sister and an enabling friend and patron.  Most of the story involves Comstock complaining about money.  He "sells out" in the end after knocking up his girlfriend, making Aspidistra a sort of anti-bildungsroman.
    I selected the Audiobook when I saw it was narrated by the actor Richard Grant- I'm a big fan- and I wasn't disappointed, even if the prose sometimes evoked cringing.   Not because it's bad writing, but because Comstock is   When I read the book in college it was an important factor in deciding to abandon vague ideas of pursuing "writing" and journalism in favor of going to law school.  If I was going to compromise, I wanted it to be in a field where I could control my own destiny.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019) by Silvia Moreno Garcia

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Author Silvia Moreno Garcia
Book Review
Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019)
by Silvia Moreno Garcia

   Gods of Jade and Shadow is a jazz-age magically-realist bildungswoman-fairy tale about a young woman from an impoverished branch of wealthy Yucatan area family, cursing her fate at her plight, when she awakens a Mayan God of Death, imprisoned for the past several decades by his evil twin with the connivance of the mean old patriarch of the protagonist, Casiopeia Tun. Casiopeia is a pretty garden variety hero, with super high diversity points as a half-Mayan half-Mexican heroine, even is Casiopeia behaves more like a contemporary American teen then her biographical details would dictate.

  More power to her, Moreno-Garcia is obviously going for a modern day fairy tale, and I thought it was pretty good.  The ambition of it, the creativity of the narrative.  I'll look forward to future books, and I wouldn't be surprised by a movie or television version in the near future.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Christmas Oratorio (1984) by Goran Tunström

Book Review
The Christmas Oratorio (1984)
by Goran Tunström

Replaces: Possession by A.S. Byatt

  The Christmas Oratorio is a multi-generational family drama set in Sweden between 1930's and the present day (the 80's.)  The common theme linking the three generations- the father, the son, who qualifies as the protagonist, and a third generation.  The Nordensson family suffers tragedy from go, when the family matriarch dies in a freak bicycle accident, trampled by cattle on her way to the Church to perform the title track.

  Aron, the father, gives up the family farm and emigrates to the city, where he finds work minding the liquor supply of a local hotelier.  Sidner, the son (Aron is the father), has an unusual childhood in pre-World War II- I'm assuming it's Stockholm but I guess it could be Malmo or really any city in Sweden.   Sidner is a sad little boy with a weird little friend.  He hooks up with an older bohemian broad who is obsessed with a local explorer- they end up producing the third generation.  The father becomes increasingly erratic and leaves for New Zealand to meet a spinster- she becomes the last major character of the story.

  It's a classic second edition of the 1001 Books list pick- an underrepresented area (Sweden/Scandinavia) but the selection is a pedestrian one in terms of diversity: white, christian, men.

The Soft Machine (1961) by William S. Burroughs

Book Review
The Soft Machine (1961)
by William S. Burroughs

  One of my signal accomplishments in terms of personal development was moving from being a voracious reader of the science fiction section of my local suburban public library at 14/15 to being a reader of Beats like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg by 16.  The Beats were my entrance point to world literary culture, and it was something I accomplished in the pre-internet era without any help or formal guidance.  I had the good fortune to grow up in the Bay Area, though not in San Francisco or Oakland, and I figured out how to get to the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where you could sit in a room full of Beats and read to your hearts content (You still can!)

  Burroughs was my favorite Beat- I'm not a poetry fan, so Ginsberg was out, and Kerouac was too obvious and cliche.   I was a fan of Naked Lunch, Queer and Junky but after that I lost interest- I wasn't that into the Beats, and once you leave his big three Burroughs revels in incoherence, which was my juvenile perception of The Soft Machine, book one of this proto-cyberpunk Nova Trilogy.

   Recently though I was thinking that perhaps The Soft Machine would sound better as an Audiobook, giving me a reason to revisit something that was too difficult for me to grasp as a teenager, the last time I encountered a physical copy of The Soft Machine: either in City Lights itself or Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. 

   The six hour Audiobook features a full hour long introduction discussing the tortured textual history- it's also marketed as the "full restored" version of the original 1961 text- but that's hardly something that casual listeners will follow.  As a casual listener myself, I barely followed it.  It's worth noting that Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg used to verbally perform sketches in their pre-fame New York days- and I've read that Burroughs was fond of working out his material aloud, so the Audiobook facilitates that concordance.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Memory Police (2019) by Yōko Ogawa

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Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa
Book Review
The Memory Police (2019)
by Yoko Ogawa

  The 2019 National Book Awards Longlist: Translated Literature was announced last week.  Ten books made the list:

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections by Eliane Brum, translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price

and The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa.   I already listened to the Audiobook of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk.  I've got Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa on my Kindle- I think that book- about the Syrian civil war is a lock for the shortlist and maybe a winner- it's shocking and amazing and I'm only halfway through.  I may be able to land Crossing and Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming from the library- for the rest of the books I'm going to wait and see about the shortlist.

  I was already listening to The Memory Police Audiobook when the National Book Award: Translated Literature longlist was announced, so that was mild thrill.  I was interested by the reviews referencing dystopian literature and intrigued by a Japanese language novelist who isn't Murakami or Endo.    I think The Memory Police is meant to be an allegory of some sort- it's about a woman living on an isolated island where the government is making everyday items disappear, one by one- everyone is required to destroy all their objects and that follows by everyone forgetting that the disappeared objects ever existed.  People who remember things that have been disappeared are hunted by the Memory Police in a manner that evokes the extirpation of the Jewish population in Europe outside Germany by the Nazis.

    The Memory Police was originally published in 1994, so the depiction of a "present" without internet connected computers and smart phones is not a purposeful anachronism.  Despite the seeming promise of violent action, The Memory Police is quiet to the point of somnolent- passive resistance is the order of the day, and all of the violence takes place off stage.

  The third act introduces some genuinely surprising twists, but the ending  is more like the rest of the book, abstract and elliptical. Which is not a bad thing- in fact- that is how you know it's literature and not genre.  Ogawa is a major writer in Japan- where she's won "every major literary award" but English translations have seemingly proceeded in random fashion. I'm sure a win here would do much to bolster interest in her books in translation- probably the strength of her international reputation will get her to the shortlist, but I wouldn't pick The Memory Police as a prize winner.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013)
by Haruki Murakami

  The amazing fact about this Audiobook is that it is narrated by a reader in English with a heavy Japanese accent.  The explanation I heard from a friend is that it must be a situation where it was supposed to be like the author- Murakami speaks in heavily accented English- reading the book to you, but I found it incredibly distracting.

 Aside from the accented narration, everything else is classic Murakami: An emotionally shut-off man living alone in Japan, puzzling over unresolved issues from his childhood- here the central issue is a close knit group of friends the narrator had in high school and the fact that they expelled him suddenly without explaining why.

  There is also hints of the supernatural, parallel universes and carefully described food preparation.  Missing in this book are actual supernatural characters, cats and/or owls and references to jazz.  At times, I feel like Murakami has only written one book, and he just adjusts the various ingredients, like a chef experiencing with a recipe he knows by heart.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Inland (2019) by Téa Obrecht

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Balkan-American writer Téa Obrecht 

Book Review
Inland (2019)
by Téa Obrecht

 Inland is the second novel by Téa Obrecht.  Her first novel- The Tiger's Wife, published in 2010, it won the Orange Prize in the UK and was short listed for the National Book Award.    Nine years is a long time between published novels, and I checked out the Audiobook last month with the thought that Inland might but a National Book Award longlist- although it might not be eligible till next year- it didn't get nominated this year.

  The Audiobook is partially narrated by Anna Chlumsky- who I loved in VEEP- and the stroy is set in pre-statehood Arizona in 1893.  Narrating duties are shared by Nora (voiced by Chlumsky) a wife and mother who is anxiously awaiting the return of her husband- an intellectual pioneer who has failed in a succession of western towns.  The other narrator is Lurie- a former outlaw who falls in with a bunch of camel jockeys.

  I read some rhapsodic reviews, and I like revisionist stories of the old west- Cormac McCarthy- to name the most famous writer in that area; but I wasn't taken by Inland.  Nora did not move me with her plight, and Lurie was barely interesting.   Everyone in the book is simultaneously over-articulate for the character and largely unsympathetic.

The Map and the Territory (2010) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
The Map and the Territory (2010)
 by Michel Houellebecq

     The 1001 Books Project included Houellebecq's first three novels in the first and second editions.  The Map and the Territory, his fifth book, was released after the second edition came out, and it was included in any subsequent edition, but it did win the Prix Goncourt, which is the French Pulitzer Prize, more or less, and Houellebecq continues to publish with regularity, though he was hasn't yet had a hit in the USA, and I'm assuming that he has more of a following in the UK, since there are plenty of literate people over there who actually read novels in French, and a greater audience for literature in translation.

   If I was to trace a trend in his novels it is that each successive novel has grown more "high concept" and elaborate in terms of the characters and the story.  Whatever, his first book is basically an anti-bildungsroman in the mold of Catcher in the Rye, but French, and the protagonist is a yuppie working with computers. Atomised begins the trip towards elaboration with the character of Michel, the biologist who eliminates sexual reproduction, but also keeps to his root obsession with the unhappiness of families and the emptiness of modern existence.

   Platform is very high concept, with sex tourism, extensive monologues on the state of the leisure-industrial complex and a gruesome bombing by Muslim terrorist.   This thematic ambition is rare to non existent in contemporary European fiction, which mostly involves sad failures being sad about everything, call it the European existential novel.   And while most Houellebecq's characters are miserable assholes, they at least do things besides being poor and sad.

 The Map and the Territory delves into the world of modern art, featuring a typically Houellebecq-ian protagonist who sounds like a post-modern artist who could really exist.   Sure, he's hateful, but he's fun- fun to read- so much of the literature I read is tedious or a chore.  

Monday, September 16, 2019

Scrappy Little Nobody (2016) by Anna Kendrick

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Sexy Anna Kendrick/GQ photo
Book Review
Scrappy Little Nobody (2016)
by Anna Kendrick

  It's only mildly embarrassing to declare myself a fan of Anna Kendrick, based on her performance in Up in the Air.  I learned from this book that she was in the Twilight movies but the closest I've come to that franchise is a sighting of Kristen Stewart with her girl posse in Echo Park five years ago.  The Audiobook is freely available at the Los Angeles Public Library- over 60 copies available at a time!  Also, Kendrick herself reads her own book, which was something I enjoyed listening to Julia Louis Dreyfus read the Veep memoir of her television character.

  So yeah, I listened to Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick's best-selling 2016 memoir, and I have to say that I found it incredibly, heart crushingly sad, and I can't believe that Kendrick and her publishers didn't see it the same way.  Take, for example, the saddest portion of the book, where Kendrick describes the imaginary parties she would like to throw for her non-existent friends, she doesn't have time for parties or friends because she has been working non stop since she was in junior high.

 I'm not a snob when it comes to celebrities, I'm interested in the process of fame as it relates to art, and you can make an argument that actors are artists (they would certainly make that argument.)  Unsurprisingly, Kendrick doesn't spend any time on the craft/art of acting, presumably because the assignment is to create a series of themed "essays" with the depth you expect from twitter- where Kendrick maintains a well-curated presence.

  I am of the frequently voiced opinion that all famous artists are monsters because they possess the irrational believe that they, among thousands, are destined for fame.  I also think Kendrick is interesting enough to have some thoughts on that subject, but baby, they ain't here.

Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel (1990) by Julian Rios

Book Review
Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel (1990)
by Julian Rios

Replaces: Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

    It is hard to say much about Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel.  Originally published in Spanish in 1983, it was immediately hailed as a "post-modern masterpiece," which should tell you that it is most likely five hundred pages long and nonsensical.  That does indeed proof to be the case!  Larva shares similarities with Joyce and anticipates the concerns of psycho-geography.  I guess the idea is that Larva is a present-day retelling of Don Juan set in a well articulated London, but I only know that because I read it on the internet and the front flap of the book jacket. 

   I'm not sad to see Senor Vivo get replaced- Louis de Bernieres seems like a one book guy, and that book is Captain Corelli's Mandolin, not Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, but I'd be hard pressed to tell anyone, "Yes, you must read Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel," and I'm almost positive the readership for this book in the US is restricted to participants in university writing programs.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk

Book Review
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019)
by Olga Tokarczuk

  Big ups to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who is finally receiving some English language attention in the aftermath of her Booker International Prize win for Flights- originally published in Polish in 2007, then published in English translation in 2018, where it promptly won the Booker International Prize and scored a National Book Award for Translated Works nomination in the same year.  Similarly, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was originally published in Polish  in 2009 and received an English translation (and an English language Audiobook- bless you PenguinRandomHouse for your largess) this year. 

  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is described as both "detective fiction" and "literary fiction."  It also has strong roots in the existential/philosophical literary tradition of late 20th century central and eastern Europe.   Anyone who has read Flights will expect witty, sparkling prose from Tokarczuk and those readers will not be dissapointed.  Janina Duszejko, Tokarczuk's narrator, is what you might call an "old crone," living alone after a career as a civil engineer.  She spends her retirement on an isolated plateau near the Czech border, where she teaches English part time to the local school kids, cares for the summer houses of city dwellers during the off season, and carries on a long running, low intensity skirmish with the local hunting/poaching culture.

  The status quo is interrupted when a neighborhood poacher turns up dead.  The first death is followed by a series of deaths among the local power elite, and Duszejko decides to investigate.   The mention of literary fiction and the tradition of the European philosophical novel should be enough to forewarn potential readers that this is not your normal whodunit, and Duszejko is no Ms. Marple in that she despises the local victims.

  The Audiobook edition, read by a narrator who used a Polish accent- raises a question about Audiobooks read in translation.  Why, if the book has been translated into English, does the English language reader affect a Polish accent?  After all, the narrator is speaking in Polish, not English.  Isn't more consistent for the reader to use an American accent?   It's also an issue in a lesser-Murakami book I'm listening to right now, where all the characters speak heavily Japanese accented English, and the characters don't speak English at all.

   Generally speaking I'm up for ANY author who can get their non-English work of literary fiction a major label release in the United States- if there's an Audiobook- I'm there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

John Crow's Devil (2005) by Marlon James

Book Review
John Crow's Devil (2005)
 by Marlon James

  I've been waiting for the single copy of the Los Angeles Public Library Audiobook on this title for over six months!  There is no doubt that interest in Marlon James is way up- it wouldn't surprise me if John Crow's Devil, his 2005 debut novel, gets a reissue one of these days.  I would have listened to the Audiobook in any case, following one of my theories that Audiobooks are at their best when the reader possesses an accent that the listener does not- I can't imagine myself reading the heavy Jamaican patois of most of the character in John Crow's Devil without doing them a disservice.

  Reader Robin Miles is the gold standard for books requiring a Caribbean accent- she's done all of Jamaica Kincaid's  and Edward Danicat Audiobooks.  John Crow's Devil is an excellent first novel, if not a world-beater like his Booker Prize winner about Bob Marley, but it is confident and self-assured, and shows many of the themes he would revisit in his break-out books.

  Set in an isolated village in World War II era Jamaica, John Crow's Devil could be called "Jamaican Gothic," with an element of the fantastical that you could describe as "magical realism" although I'm certain James would bristle at the usage of that phrase. His characters: the Rum Preacher, the Apostle, the Widow possess an allegorical weight, even as James develops the narrative by delving into the pasts of most of the main characters in flash-back form. 

  There is plenty of sex and death to be had- clearly, James from the beginning has been inspired to give a "red blooded" edge to his stories, even as he incorporates LGBT themes into the mix.    When I saw James speak, he professed to despise the bloodlessness of contemporary intellectual culture- that is present here, in his first book, and I think it is a key to why he managed to break out with a Booker Prize- if you can fit it in the form of literary fiction, sex and death still sell.

The Wall (2019) by John Lanchester

Book Review
The Wall (2019)
by John Lanchester

   With an abiding interest in the intersection between dystopian futurism and literary fiction, I was a fool for The Wall by English journalist/author John Lanchester even before it made the 2019 Booker Prize longlist.  It didn't make the shortlist.   The Wall posits a near-future Britain after "the change" which, though never explained (see: differences between dystopian genre fiction and dystopian literary fiction) appears to be a massive rise in sea levels by the melting of the polar ice caps.  Global civilization is a state of disrepair.  Great Britain (or at least England, Scotland and Wales) have clung to a semblance of normality behind an island encircling wall.

  Kavanagh, the narrator, is a fresh recruit to the Defenders, the civil-defense entity who is tasked with keeping out the rest of the world, called, "the others."  Supposedly, all citizens of whatever they call the UK in this book are tasked to serve a two year term.  Letting an other through the wall means exile- in the event of penetration, one defender is sent "to sea" for every other that makes it through the wall.    The first portion reads like an update on The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, a book from the 1940's about a  young soldier similarly situated on the cusp of a gigantic desert, but Lanchester pumps up the action as the plot proceeds.

  It was a great Audiobook- it didn't really get a wide release in the US, so I was able to pick it up from the Los Angeles Public Library with a minimal wait, and the first person narration by Kavanagh makes for an easily translatable experience.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Professor Martens' Departure (1984) by Jaan Kross

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Estonian author Jaan Kross
Book Review
Professor Martens' Departure (1984)
 by Jaan Kross

Replaces:  Wise Children by Angela Carter

  Estonian author Jaan Kross is one of those "almost but not quite" Nobel Prize nominees who are always described as, "the best known author of country x and nominee for the Nobel Prizee."   Here, the country is Estonia.   Kross is better known in German, where his career spanned the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union- he was imprisoned both by the Nazi's for his Estonian nationalism and the Soviets for the same thing, before returning to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic in the mid 1950's and settling down as a professional writer.

   Kross was prolific during his career, he died in 2007, leaving behind 17 novels- maybe six of those have been translated into English, including Professor Martens' Departure, which most reminded me of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguo- both books involve a notable historical figure recalling his life with regret.   The Professor Martens of this book is actually two Martens'- separated by a century- both of whom where Estonian scholars of International Law who made their names and careers working for the Russian Empire.

  The later Professor Martens is the major narrator, and he shifts relatively seemlessly between episodes from his life and the life of his earlier "double."   Important episodes include an affair with a Belgian artist, his role in the Russo-Japanese Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) and his career and education.  There is also a portion where the contemporary (late 19th early 20th century) bemoans his failure to win the just-launched Nobel Peace Prize.  Maybe that's why he never won.

 Kross replaces Wise Children- Angela Carter's last book.   Carter actually lost two of her three titles in the 1001 Books project in the first revision- keeping only Nights at the Circus, and it's another example of how the first revision of the 1001 Books list replaced "diversity" picks from the UK and USA with straight white men from lesser known countries. 

Saturday, September 07, 2019

My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009) by Karl Ove Knausgård

Book Review
My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009)
 by Karl Ove Knausgård

    I was lukewarm about the first volume of My Struggle- I listened to the Audiobook- as I ended up doing for Volume 2 after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to read an Ebook copy.  At the end of Volume 1, I felt like I could understand the appeal, but that I didn't quite connect with the book.

  Volume 2, which I mostly listened to while helping my Mom with her hip surgery in the Bay Area the past week, was quite a different experience- often moving me close to tears and leaving me with the conviction that at least the first two volumes of My Struggle- both of which were written before the first book was released and became a world-wide phenomenon- are among the greatest works of 21st century literature, and are both dead-bang canonical.

  I can see where the following four volumes- all of which were written and published after Knausgard became a world-wide literary phenomenon, might be...different, since the theme of the first two volumes deals so explicitly with Knausgard's perceived failings as a writer and human being.   If the sacrificial family member of Volume One is his father- a man who quite literally drinks himself to death in that book, the sacrifice of the second book is his second wife, Linda Boström, a Swedish poet and mother of his children.  In this book, Knausgard reveals the nature of his struggle for the first time- that is, to maintain a quest for artistic and/or personal greatness while surviving the prosaic mundanities of everyday life.  In this regard, his wife and children are cast as the role of the villains, as is Knausgard himself.

  I resisted My Struggle for so long that I feel almost ashamed lauding it now, but man- I really connected with the themes as a I drove to and from the hospital surrounding my Mom's surgery.  Knausgard truly is a Proust for the twenty first century.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Young Man (1984) by Botho Strauß

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German author Brotho Strauß
Book Review
The Young Man (1984)
by Botho Strauß

Replaces: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

  "More obscure" is one observation to be made about the difference between the original edition of the 1001 Books project and the 2008 revision.  The general trend is to include more authors from less represented regions and languages, replacing authors largely from the United Kingdom who had three or more titles in the original edition.

   Strauss went from zero books in the first edition to two books in the second- making him a big omission, especially since both titles were published before 1990 and were presumably known to the editors when they were putting the first book together.  It's hard to say anything about the contents, but I am going to quote liberally from the excellent wikipedia page to spare myself the labor:

Leon Pracht, a young man, abandons a budding career in the footsteps of his father—a historian of religion specialised on Montanus—after the positive reception of his debut as a theatre director. He is recruited for an adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids in Cologne, starring the two diva actresses Petra "Pat" Kurzrok and Margarethe "Mag" Wirth. However, Pat and Mag turn out to be too much to handle. Leon asks for advice from the local star director Alfred Weigert, but still fails to actualise his vision for the play.

A woman enters a forest and finds a department store named The Tower of the Germans. After a phantasmagorical episode she finds herself naked in front of the proprietor of the Germans. The proprietor of the Germans is a large, floating head which is half man and half carp.

A man is doing a study on an alternative community whose members are known as the Syks. After observing their unusual habits he commits a social error which freaks out a local woman. He is banished from the colony and takes part in a dreamlike ritual involving scatological sexual activity. Afterwards his female colleague writes a scathing report about his unprofessional behaviour.

A king dies and is condemned as a criminal, which becomes a long-lasting national trauma. At a terrace behind the castle, a number of people are gathered: the paramedic Reppenfries, his sister-in-law Paula and wife Dagmar, the beautiful Almut, the "modern" Hanswerner, the mail clerk Yossica, and the narrator, Leon. Each person tells a personal story or discusses art and philosophy.

Later, Leon finds Yossica who has been transformed into a clump of earth with a face. She explains how she, an aspiring songwriter, had met two peculiar talent scouts, Schwarzsicht and Zuversicht. The first, dressed in ragged clothes, offered her a slowly developing talent which eventually would result in timeless quality. The second, dressed elegantly and dancing, offered her to become the leading star of a new trend. Yossica tried to trick the agents so she could have both, but the attempt failed badly and she became a lump of earth. She asks Leon to bring her with him and put her in soil so she can grow into her former self.
Leon works as a photographer and lives with Yossica. She convinces him to go and meet Alfred Weigert who is staying at a skyscraper hotel in their city. Weigert has had a massive success as Ossia, the main character is a series of comedy films which he also directed. As Ossia—the name he has become known under also in private—he brilliantly captures the German national character, playing a Prussian vagabond described in the press as a mix between Parsifal and Paracelsus. Leon had been involved in the making of the first Ossia film but after that left the industry. When Leon and Yossica meet Ossia in his room, he has aged poorly and become an overweight recluse. He has not appeared as an actor in his last two films, which have been disjointed, pseudo-profound and not nearly as successful as the previous ones. In desperation, Ossia asks Leon to collaborate on a new film project. Ossia hands him notes to read and starts to explain the project, intended as a vehicle for Pat in a great female comedic role, but the film lacks structure and Leon disapproves of it. Leon asks Ossia to come along for a walk to get some fresh air, but Ossia declines and remains inside the tower.

       There you go, people! Even reading the description it is hard to make sense of what any of it means.  The fact that it is a "phantasmagorical" type of book written in German and translated into English doesn't help, but I would observe that it seems more like a book that would have been written in the 1920's than the 1980's.   It also reminded me of Italo Calvino, another author I need to revisit because I just didn't get much out of him the first time through. 

Disappearance (1993) by David Dabydeen

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Guyanese author David Dabydeen
Book Review
Disappearance (1993)
 by David Dabydeen

  Every remaining title from the original 1001 Books edition is an event around here! David Dabydeen is a Guyanese author- with fiction, non-fiction and poetry books to his credit.  Disappearance was extremely tough to track down- I ended up buying a paperback copy from the UK on Amazon.   The obvious comparison as far as this novel goes- about a Guyanese engineer who is brought to the Southern Coast of the UK to help with a break-water project, is V.S Naipaul.

  The engineer spends most of his spare time hanging out with Mrs. Rutherford- his landlord- and through her he gains knowledge about the local landscape and reflects on his own experience as a member of a nascent post-colonial elite in Guyana.

Dabydeen seems reasonably well known in the UK, in the US he's seems to be almost unheard of- I couldn't find a single review of this book on the first page of a Google search of the book title and author.    I'm generally interested in the line of authors that starts with Conrad and continues with Naipaul.  He seems like a solid one book contributor to the core 1001 Books list- I would read another book by him, but not sure I'd recommend this one to all but the biggest fans of Naipaul and post-colonial literature (I don't know any of those, personally.)

The Devils Dance (2018) by Hamid Ismailov

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Uzbekistani author Hamid Ismailov has lived in the UK for the past twenty five years.

Book Review
The Devils Dance (2018)
 by Hamid Ismailov

    Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbekistani author who fled the country in 1992, just after this book was originally published in Uzbekistan, and landed in the United Kingdom, where he spent 25 years working for the BBC. 

  Uzbekistan is a core element of  Central Asia, one of the most interesting, least understood regions on Earth.  The region emerged from Soviet dominance after the collapse of the USSR only to confront a series of (still ongoing) dictatorships of the largely secular variety.  The west has been quiescent in the repression, since the dictators over there are, by necessity, key partners in the war against radical islam.  Recently, the Chinese part of Central Asia has been in the news for an anti-Islamic gulag prison camp system.   

  At one point- maybe in the period between the conquest of the region by Islam through the conquest of the region by the Mongols, you could make a case that the area was one of the bright spots of global civilization.    By crushing the Oasis-centered Islamic city-states of the region, the Mongols ushered in a still-ongoing dark age that has led to a region that is not only under the boot of a variety of dictators, but also one of the poorest places in the world.

  In theory, it is a rich history that would seem to call for a rich literature, but of course, repression and a century of Russian Communism have not helped its authors make a dent in the global literary marketplace.    I was pretty excited to find The Devils' Dance available as an Ebook through the Los Angeles Public Library system- score one for global capitalism!

  Set during the winter of 1938, under the boot of Stalinism, Abdulla Qodiriry, one of Uzbekistan's most famous authors, is taken from his home by the Soviet Secret Police (not for the first time) and thrown into a prison with a grab bag representing the region's cultural diversity.   This was really a book where I wished I had read it as a physical book as supposed to an ebook, but I'd wager that I will never, ever see a physical copy of The Devils' Dance unless I buy one. 

    The narrative ping pongs back and forth between the secret prison and 19th century Tashkent, a relative high point in the post-Mongol historical record, and the time of the "Great Game"  which was a struggle for cultural hegemony in Central and South Asia fought between the British Empire and the Russian Empire.  Uzbekistan and the environs were on the margins of this conflict- which was focused further south in Afghanistan, but Ismailov/Qodirity bring it alive through the novel that Qodirriy composes in his cell.

    It's compelling material, but dense in terms of references that the average (or even above average) Western reader is unlikely to grasp without looking stuff up on the internet.  If you see a hard copy- grab it- who knows when another Uzbekistani novelist will get an American publication of one of their novels.

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