Dedicated to classics and hits.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka

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Franz Kafka
Book Review
The Trial (1925)
by Franz Kafka

    Seems to me that if you really like a book you'd want to read it AND listen to it.   These days, when you buy a book on a Kindle it gives you the option to upgrade and get the Audiobook for another ten bucks or whatever, but I'm more about reading the physical book, then getting the Audiobook from the library app.  Franz Kafka is one of a handful of Authors who are on my list to go back and listen to the Audiobook after reading the physical book- others are Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Henry James- people like that.

  It's also a good opportunity to revisit the weaker "first takes" that I made when I read a book the first time.   I read The Trial in 2014- and I think it was the first time I'd read it- maybe the last major Kafka book/story that I hadn't read at least once.   I didn't retain a lot the first time through- especially compared to The Castle- published in 1926, which I read just before I read The Trial- particularly the initial description of K, the surveyor, entering the town.    The Castle is a much more complete text than The Trial- 416 pages to the 76 pages of The Trial, but you can argue that the shorter length of The Trial is a more plausible success in the digital age of ebooks and Audiobooks, where 420 pages constitutes a big attention span ask.

   If The Trial passed me by the first time I read it, listening to it was a revelation.  Considering all the hub-bub about translating Kafka into English, listening to an up-to-date text felt good.  I'm pretty sure I read the older version.   This time, I really connected with the despotically bizarre descriptions of the Court and the court staff.   Listening, it was the centrality of K's lack of knowledge about what charges he faces was crystal clear.  That lack of knowledge is further compounded by a failure to identify the Court itself- which seemingly only meets in the abandoned top floor of city apartment buildings.

Book Review from 2014:

Book Review
The Trial (1925)
by Franz Kafka

   Hard to figure how Kafka gets three titles into 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and none of them are The Metamorphosis or The Hunger Artist.  I'm under the impression that every high school student in the western world reads The Metamorphosis in high school.  Maybe just my high school?  The book I checked out from the library had The Castle and The Trial in the same volume, with The Castle (published in 1926) first and The Trial (published in 1925) second. It's easy to see why you read the two novels in the same volume: They are both in an unfinished state, and they have stylistic and thematic similarities.  Oh, and the main character in The Castle is called K. and the main character in The Trial is Josef K.

  I would argue that The Castle, with its self-contained snowy village and remote and inaccessible castle, is more fully realized as a locale then the nameless city of The Trial.  That said, as a criminal defense lawyer (Kafka was trained as a lawyer) the nameless criminal trial facing Josef K. struck a resonant chord with me personally.  The idea of being dragged into an endless cycle of criminal charges with no resolution is a fair description of the story of my professional career.  I regularly represent clients that have cases that go on for years at a time, so only the ending of The Trial (Josef K. has his throat slit.) came as a surprise. 

The Commandant (1975) by Jessica Anderson

Book Review
The Commandant (1975)
 by Jessica Anderson

Replaces: The Names by Don Delillo

    When I checked out The Commandant, by Australian writer Jessica Anderson, I was taken aback.  The cover art makes it look like a romance novel- with a drawing of a be-bonneted woman surveying a plantation from an arriving ship.   The Commandant is not a romance novel, but rather an early-feminist-ish work of historical fiction loosely based on the life (and untimely death) of Australian Penal Colony Commandant Patrick Logan, who was murdered by native Australians.

   The feminist-ish part is based on the role of narrator being assigned to the 17 year old sister-in-law of the Commandant, who is there for a visit when the shit hits the fan.  Seems like the editors of the 1001 Books project went a little against the grain by picking this book over Tirra Lirra by the River, which was a huge hit for Anderson and cemented her status as a top-drawer Australian author.


The Red Haired Woman (2017) by Orhan Pamuk

Book Review
The Red Haired Woman (2017)
by Orhan Pamuk

   Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, and in the decade and a half since his substantial bibliography has received the full English language treatment, including a nearly full set of Audiobooks that are freely available from the Los Angeles Public Library- Turks aren't very popular in Los Angeles.   The question of whether a Nobel Prize win results in widespread English language translation and dissemination for non-English language winners seems to largely track with recency- a writer who wins in the present era gets the benefit of all the recent trends in publishing, but an Author like Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer and the first Nobel Prize in Literature winner writing in Arabic, who won in 1988, is largely absent from the ebook and Audiobook worlds.

   The Red Haired Woman is the second novel by Pamuk I've read where the action is related to the activities of a travelling 1970's era leftist Turkish theater troupe- the other book is Snow, and I'm beginning to suspect that Pamuk must have himself been involved in this scene (travelling 70's era leftist Turkish theater troupes.)   Here, the troupe is embodied by the eponymous red haired woman of the title, actress, and the devirginizer of the apparent narrator, a wealthy Turkish real estate investor named Cem,  who is forced to revisit his past when he receives some surprising news.

  The first segment of the narrative deals with Cem's experiences as a young man, when he was apprenticed to a old-fashioned well digger who went to work outside the town where the troupe of the red haired woman was temporarily performing.  What appears to be a straight forward recounting of an important coming-of-age episode by a wealthy Turkish businessman begins to twist and turn after the preliminary episode (of the well digging by teen age Cem) ends.

  Suffice it to say, all is not as it appears, and Pamuk does not disappoint.   Istanbul plays a central role, here it is the rapidly expanding Istanbul of 70's and 80's.   The Red Haired Woman isn't a top 3 type Pamuk book- The New York Times actually panned it back when the English version was released in 2017, but I enjoyed the ride, and Turkish language literature is still novel enough for me that I enjoy simply soaking up the milieu. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Maoism (2019) by Julia Lovell

Book Review
Maoism: A Global History (2019)
by Julia Lovell

    Anyone who considers themselves interested in world affairs needs to take an interest in China, periodt, as they say.    And if you are going to take an interest in the history of China, in its people, and the issues that face it today, Chairman Mao is a great place to start.  No one is more responsible for China in 2019 than Mao.  Lovell, rather than turning out another biography, takes a look at the movement he spawned, Maoism, and the underappreciated role it has played in various, often extremely bloody third world revolutionary movements (and some extremely strange and non violent first world intellectuals) in the 20th century. 

  Her project requires going to some less-understood places of the globe- with substantial chapters on southeast Asia, Peru and Nepal.  Somehow, Albania doesn't make the cut, but she does include chapters on Africa and the west.  Often times, the historical irony lies close to the surface, as in the case of the Shining Path from Peru, a peasant glorifying intellectual-hating Maoist movement 100% founded by a group of university professors and largely populated by urban elites.   Lovell is providing a useful service in that China itself has done everything possible to obscure this earlier, activist history in favor of the current stance of being a benign, non-judgmental of friends of governments everywhere, left, right and center.  

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Annihilation (2014) by Jeff VanDermeer

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Natalie Portman played "the biologist" in the 2018 film version of Annihilation by American author Jeff VanDermeer
Book Review
Annihilation (2014) 
Book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff VanDermeer

   If I had to pick on sci-fi representative for "best science fiction book of the 21st century," I'd pick The Three-Body Problem, the first book of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy by Liu Cixin.   The Three-Body Problem, published in the original Chinese in 2008, wasn't published in English translation until 2014, the same year as Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, was published by American author Jeff VanDermeer.  The Southern Reach trilogy has proved a spectacular success, with the combination of popular and critical acclaim that often coincide with canonical status.   Science fiction has a small but enduring place in the canon of modern literature, with a two to three writers a decade that achieve lasting regard outside the genre itself.

  So, Liu Cixin is one of those authors, but the second slot is still open, and VanDermeer, and American writer and biggest success of the so-called "New weird" literary movement makes a case for his presence as that second representative of hard science fiction.   I hadn't heard of the New weird genre until I read VanDermeer's wikipedia page, but I was struck by the citation of H.P. Lovecraft on a major influence on VanDermeer and other practitioners of that sub genre, because for me, Annihilation is deeply influenced by the Lovecraftian technique that I like to call "nameless horror" where the reader doesn't really get a clear idea of what is going on because the inevitably unreliable narrator has his or her mind melted by some force of evil beyond comprehension.

  This influence becomes clearly the further the reader gets into the Southern Reach Trilogy, which I managed to mainline during a couple of long drives to the desert this month in Audiobook format.  I suck up genre type Audiobooks- whether science fiction or crime fiction, like I'm drinking a milk shake, with none of the discipline required to make it through a similarly lengthed work of literary fiction or non fiction.

  To say that I gobbled up Annihilation and the other two books isn't to say that I fell in love with them.   Like much genre fiction, it is hard to do more than hint at the major plot points since the spoilers are the plot.  The Lovecraftian obfuscation becomes particularly prominent after Annihilation, which is the best of the three books in the trilogy by a country mile.  The final two books do little to extend the appeal of the first book and the reader has to get all the way through the second volume before any of the characters refer to the mysterious "Area X" a self-contained biological free-fire zone where DNA mutates at an astonishing rate.

   I had seen the generally well regarded movie version- starring Natalie Portman as "the biologist" and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) before listening to the trilogy, and I went back and watched it again after, gaining a new appreciation for the film, which certainly should be an asset to any argument that Annihilation may obtain canon level status as a representative of science fiction in the early 21st century. 

   I can imagine reaction varying with the level of familiarity an individual reader has with H.P. Lovecraft.  If you know enough about Lovecraft to make jokes about his style- epitomized by the "nameless, creeping horror" that runs through most of his stories, you will likely appreciate Annihilation but not be wowed, whereas, if you've never read Lovecraft, you very might well love Annihilation.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)
 by Haruki Murakami

  Non-english language novelists who achieve a combination of critical and popular success in ENGLISH occupy the highest rung of my canonical hierarchy.  Both critically acclaimed and popular native writers of English have an almost insurmountable advantage beyond knowing English as a native language- they also live in English speaking societies and often draw on those experiences to create literature that connects with readers.  Thus the achievement of a Murakami, a writer who does no write in English, and does not write about English speaking people, is worth exploring.

  As a baseline, it helps to be incredibly prolific and consistent.  Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was already his fourth novel but it came before Norwegian Wood- his English language break-through, and so the English language edition of Hard-Boiled didn't come out until 1991.   It's nice that almost all of his books have Audiobook editions, though I've found the quality inconsistent. I think I'm ready to observe that there is something about Murakami- perhaps it is the quality of the translated prose, that makes the Audiobook format feel awkward.  In the last Murakami Audiobook I listened to, the narrator had a strong Japanese accented English, which was strange.  In this case the characters have different recognizable "western" methods of speaking- the absent minded professor, the noirish calcutec at the center of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland portion of the narrative (interspersed with the allegorical/fantastic chapters of the End of the World.

  Hard-Boiled Wonderland is a good book for Murakami completist, but the alternating chapters might be off putting for the casual reader.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Ducks, Newburyport (2019) by Lucy Ellman

Book Review
Ducks, Newburyport (2019)
by Lucy Ellman

  Ducks, Newburyport, by British author Lucy Ellman, about an unnamed ex-college professor turned housewife in a small midwestern town, is my pick for book of the year.  Also it is one thousand pages and one sentence and narrated entirely as a stream of consciousness of the narrator, often divided by variations on "it's a fact that" interspersed with an apparently unrelated story about a wild "eastern cougar" who loses her cubs and creeps across Ohio in a quest to be reunited.

  Just reading Ducks, Newburyport is a minor achievement, and given the length, it's possible that you could read Ducks, Newburyport and only engage with large portions of the book at the barest level of "reading."   There are entire pages of lists, grocery lists, for example.  Much of the critical attention has focused on the "everywoman" character of the narrator and whether that perspective makes Ducks, Newburyport, genius, specious or potentially unworthy of the time it takes to read a thousand page, one sentence book.   My technique was to focus on 50 page blocks for a day- broken into two 25 page segments, once a day, and then doing a couple hundred page days at the end.  Took me about a month.

  I found Ducks, Newburyport to be far more enjoyable on a day-to-day basis then I would have thought possible given the kind of modernist predecessors from which Ducks derives inspiration.   Ellman is treading in the path establish by Joyce, Proust and Gertrude Stein, but Ducks is more fun to read than anything written by ANY of the original group of modernists.   This is my book of the year.  There's an argument that Ducks is the book of the decade.  Just the achievement of it, and making a book that isn't absolute torture to read.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Madness and Civilization (1964) by Michel Foucault

Book Review
Madness and Civilization (1964)
by Michel Foucault

  I had the idea that Michel Foucault would be a good author for the Audiobook format, since I find his prose dense at the best of the times and incomprehensible at worst.  I was RIGHT- I'm not sure when, if ever, I would have gotten around to reading Foucault's classic Madness and Civilization, but it was pretty easy to digest driving back and forth on the freeways of Southern California.  Foucault writes like he is giving a lecture to a group of graduate groups. 

  I think the best way to appreciate Foucault and his message of cultural relativism- here developed by the different responses to French society to the "problem" of madness over time- is to just think about how different Foucault's views were from the mainstream of cultural-political thought at the time, and how mainstream they've become a half century later.  Today, any university educated student in any number of Western countries is steeped in Foucault, and taught by people who take his work as a given.

  Foucault holds up best as a theorist- his approach to evidence and statistics is less than minimal. and I think you could say that one of the end results of this book is the homeless situation in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. In that regard, I can see the outlines of a conservative counter argument that says, "Yeah, but if people are substance abusers and mentally ill and they won't agree to medication to help them with at least being a substance abuser, maybe they should be locked up against their will."  I'm not saying that it is a valid argument, but it's an argument.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Celestial Bodies (2019) by Jokha Alharthi

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Omani author Jokha Alharthi, this year's winner of the Booker International Prize

Book Review
Celestial Bodies (2019)
by Jokha Alharthi

  Jokha Alharthi made waves this year as the first Arabic-language winner of the Booker International Prize (which is admittedly only a couple years old in the present incarnation of awarding a book instead of an author).  Celestial Bodies is also, according to what I'm assuming is press release language, the first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English.  However, you don't need to be a compulsive reader of literary fiction to recognize the rarity of a novel from the Arabian peninsula.

 I couldn't name a single novelist- male or female, from any of the Gulf states.  It's hard to write anything about Celestial Bodies without observing that Oman was among the last (the last?) nations in the world to outlaw slavery- which happened in 1970-  meaning that the legacy of slavery is very much a live issue in Oman.

   Celestial Bodies takes the familiar form of a multi-generational family drama- three sisters- their parents and children and husbands.   Alharthi eschews the kind of langorous prose style you might expect from a "first" novel from Oman- her manner is more like Sally Rooney then Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  I listened to the Audiobook- a decision I regret- the narrator has an English accent, which I guess makes sense for some of the wealthy characters, but generally I would have liked to have different voices for at least the three sisters at the center of the narrative.

Cataract (1976)by Mykhaylo Osadchy

Book Review
Cataract (1976)
by Mykhaylo Osadchy

Replaces:  Yes by Thomas Bernhard

   This Soviet era prisoner memoir by Mykhaylo Osadchy, a Ukrainian poet is hard to figure as an addition to the 2008 edition of the 1001 Books list except as a diversity pick- Ukraine and all the other ex-Soviet Republics being sorely absent from the original 1001 Books list.  Of all the nations subject to the 20th century Soviet embrace, only Czechoslovakia and Poland had any success getting the attention of Western readers of literary fiction.  In recent years, that's changed- Svetlana Alexievch, the Belarussian Nobel Prize winner in 2015, and Olga Tokarczuk, the co-winner this year, have introduced two potential representatives that are Ukraine adjacent.

  Honestly, with those two writers in mind, it is hard to make a case for Cataract, which is pretty much your standard Soviet era prison memoir.  The minor twist is that Osadchy is from a post-World War II generation that was actually raised to believe the promises of the Soviet Union, and much of Cataract has the tenor of late 20th century American teen who goes off to an elite college and learns that capitalism is bad, man.  Only here, Osadchy gets a two year prison sentence.  If you know anything about the Soviet prison memoir you know that two years is basically a slap on the wrist.

  Cataract replaces yet another Thomas Bernhard title- I feel like that is maybe four of the last five 2008 additions to the 1001 Books list- that they've replaced Bernhard titles. 

Monday, December 02, 2019

The Beggar Maid (1978) by Alice Munro

Book Review
The Beggar Maid (1978)
by Alice Munro

   Replaces: A Maggot by John Fowles

  Canadian short-story specialist Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in 2013, five years after the first revision of the 1001 Books list, where she was included (2 books) for the first time.  Her omission from the original edition is a minor embarrassment- especially when you look at the over representation of other recent Nobel winners like J.M. Coetzee.    Munro was awarded her Nobel for being a "contemporary master of the short story," but The Beggar Maid is as close as she gets to a Novel.  Indeed, a reader could be forgiven for thinking (as I did while listening to the Audiobook) that The Beggar Maid is a novel, since every story is about the same woman- Rose, and the episodes proceed in largely chronological order over the course of her lifetime.

  Like many of Munro's protagonists, Rose is a woman from a disadvantaged socio-economic background in rural Canada who transcends her origins but faces difficult choices along the way.  The Beggar Maid replaces A Maggot by John Fowles- a post-modernist metahistorical fiction  that confuses as much as it entertains, and Fowles himself is a marginally canonical figure if you look at 21st literary trends.  He scores a fat zero for diversity purposes, and his literary reputation is less secure then his (strong) sales record and continued presence in international book stores.

The Power of the Dog (2005) by Don Winslow

Book Review
The Power of the Dog (2005)
by Don Winslow

   As a criminal defense lawyer who frequently works in federal court, I've had a decades long interest in the "drug war" of the United States.  Federal defense attorneys are frequently paid by the Court itself i.e. the United States government, so I'm maybe not as critical of drug war mainstays like mandatory minimums and the millions and millions they spend on prosecuting low level drug mules caught with loads of drugs at the border as I might otherwise be as a liberal-ish type.

  As a reader, I would think there would be more great novels about the drug war and its consequences.  No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is pretty great.   No Country for Old Men was also published in 2005.  The Power of the Dog was a huge best-selling hit.  It spawned two sequels in addition to topping 500 pages.  Don Winslow doesn't have a literary reputation- being more on a par with your basic best-selling writer of genre detective fiction (which he is, also, see the Neal Carey mysteries) than a "serious" writer of literary fiction.  I've been avoiding reading The Power of the Dog almost since it was published out of what you might call professionally spawned aversion, but the lure of a free Audiobook proved too strong. 

   First of all, the narration is terrible, Ray Porter- I mean- Porter is obviously a pro, and he matches the style of the writing, but that style is tough-guy crime-detective fiction, and the portions, for example, where he narrates graphic sex from the perspective of a female character are off the chart cringe-inducing.  Cringe inducing also describes much of the writing, although Winslow has his moments.  Mostly those moments are the action scenes, the scenes where the major characters interact.

  Still, it is hard NOT to appreciate the research.  The Power of the Dog is obviously fiction, but the events depicted- specifically the relationship between anti-communist paramilitary forces in central and south American and the American drug trade and the American government at the highest levels (George Bush Senior instigated many of the policies as head of the CIA and then became President while said policies- arming right wing militants through the Mexican cartel- allegedly- took place.   Because it is still ongoing, the War on Drugs is a history perhaps best told through fiction.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Gods of the Upper Air (2019) by Charles King

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Young Margaret Mead
Book Review
Gods of the Upper Air:  How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (2019
by Charles King

 It's no exaggeration to call "cultural relativism" the border of the liberal/conservative divide in the west.  On the one side, you've got people- both religious (Christian) or not religious (Market Capitalists) who think that the west is the best, and the rest of the world needs to get with the program.  On the other side you've got people who actively disagree with the first group, and generally argue that diversity needs to be embraced, elevated, etc.  The first group- conservatives, if you will, hate cultural relativism and for the other group- liberals- cultural relativism is the starting point. 

  The basic tenet of cultural relativism is that different groups of people can handle their issue in different ways, and one way is not superior to the other.  In this viewpoint, there is no inherent advantage to being a sophisticated westerner over an uncontacted Amazonian tribesman.  To the extent that the former exceeds the later in objective measurements of physical or mental wellbeing, it can be ascribed to the exercise of "privilege" not the objective superiority of one way of life over the other.

  Gods of the Upper Air is a survey of the evolution of cultural relativism by American based academics.  The story starts with Franz Boas, a German from the non-differentiated 19th century German academic tradition.  He emigrated to the United States and became the founding father of American anthropology.   Boas spent most of his professional career at Columbia University, where he nurtured a second generation of largely female students, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria.    King alternates between mini-biographies of the main actors and chapters that situate the growth of cultural relativism within the consciousness of the larger American public.

  Margaret Mead proves to be the star of Gods of the Upper Air, with a biography that would make for a great multi-part quality television/streaming series:  Early marriage to a clergyman, liberation in the academic atmosphere of New York, lesbian affairs, field work in the farthest reaches of the Pacific islands, best-selling books that introduced the very idea of cultural relativism to the non-academic reading public, divorce, remarriage, divorce.   Any reader will quickly see the connection between Mead's desire to escape the sexual mores of 20th century American society and the direction of her fieldwork.

 These findings directly inspired the 1960's counter-culture, and cultural relativism continues to be a vital argument in global thought: widely accepted in many places, and also widely rejected.  I subscribe to a mild ideology of culture relativism that recognizes value in diversity for its own sake, and rejects the idea that there is some kind of global human perfection that can be achieved.  Gods of the Upper Air did nothing to convince of the need to adopt a more radical ethos of cultural relativism- in her lesser moments Mead in particular can appear ridiculous, but it supports the idea that before cultural relativism, the public didn't see a value in preserving non-western culture, and that afterwards, it did.


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Year of the Hare (1975) by Arto Paasilinna.

Book Review
Year of the Hare (1975)
 by Arto Paasilinna

Replaces: Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

  This extremely popular (in Finland) picaresque novel didn't get an English translation until 1995- also an Audiobook- but it was a welcome departure from the parade of woeful existentialist protagonists who have featured prominently in most of the additions to the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  I get it, if you include diverse viewpoints you are going to end up getting voices that sound similar to the voices that already exist inside the canon- with a different viewpoint but similar structure.

    Kaarlo Vatanen is a ennui stricken Finnish journalist, who, after injuring a hair while driving to a small Finnish town on assignment, spontaneously decides to abandon his life and embarks on a series of adventures with said hare.  He gets drunk, gets into fights, works as a firefighter, sells salvaged German armaments from World War II, gets engaged even though he is married, goes on two separate bear hunts and ends up getting arrested inside the Soviet Union.  Year of the Hare was a fun Audiobook- seemingly the first addition to the 1001 Books list that has an Audiobook version available.    Year of the Hare replaces yet another title by Austrian author Thomas Bernhard- I feel like three of the last four books I've read from the revised 1001 Books list replaced Bernhard books.

Typee (1846) by Herman Melville

Image result for young herman melville
Young Herman Melville
Book Review
Typee (1846)
by Herman Melville

   The crazy fact about Herman Melville is that his first book, Typee, more or less a travelogue about his adventures as a cannibal captive on the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific, was a hit, and made him a popular and literary celebrity.  You can surmise that none of his later creative and critical failures, i.e. Moby Dick, would have been countenanced were it not for the success of this book.   In other words, Melville was a variation on the pop star who decides he or she only wants to be known for "serious" music, or the matinee idol equivalent in film.    This makes him not just a forerunner of literary modernism but also an example of "modern" celebrity culture and the impact it can have the creative life of the artist.

   Melville is one of the older writers I've singled out for further review in Audiobook format.  I think I read Typee in high school english- and I still have that paperback on my book shelf, but I enjoyed the last Melville book I listened to in Audio format, so Typee seemed like a natural choice.  I wasn't disappointed, Typee is perfect as an Audiobook, being a single narrator recounting of an adventure- akin to a story you might hear someone tell in person. 

   Other than his obessession with cannibalism- which ultimately proves to be a valid concern, Melville is pretty slim on culture specific details that might have shocked his mid 19th century readership.  He references slim, beautiful maidens who cavort in the nude, but doesn't appear to engage them in sexual encounters.  Still, considering he was writing before the 20th century rise of cultural relativism, he is progressive, inveighing against the influence of Christian missionaries and defending the island lifestyle on its own terms.


Friday, November 15, 2019

Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff

Book Review
Fates and Furies (2015)
 by Lauren Groff

  I enjoyed Florida, the collection of state-centered short stories that Lauren Groff published last year.  It was a National Book Award shortlist nominee- losing to The Friend by Sigrid Nunez but making the longlist over An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and There, There by Tommy Orange- two books I thought were better than Florida.  I thought There, There, about the lives of "urban Indians" living in the Bay Area, was good enough to win and should have won.

  Still, when I saw Fates and Furies, Groff's popular 2015 novel- also a National Book Award finalist- in the Little Library down the street, I grabbed it.  Groff is one of the those few authors who is able to combine a wide general audience with critical acclaim, so she bears watching.  Basically the criteria are "New York Times Bestseller List" and "National Book Award Nominee" are the minimum levels of success to grab my attention, as far as American fiction goes.  Fates and Furies is the kind of literary fiction that relies on spoiler level surprises in the course of 400 or so pages.   You can't really criticize Fates and Furies without ruining the plot for a potential reader- something straight out admitted in a New Yorker review that questioned it's literary merit.

  I think I side with the haters for Fates and Furies.  I just didn't buy any of it, and I didn't like anyone and it was set in a milieu (the world of serious theater) that I also don't like.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

So Long a Letter (1979) by Mariama Ba

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Author Mariama Ba
Book Review
So Long a Letter (1979)
 by Mariama Ba

Replaces: Marya by Joyce Carol Oates

  Huge canon diversity win here, replacing a second-tier Joyce Carol Oates title with a book written by a female, Francophone, West African (Senegalese) writer.  Francophone West Africa is entirely absent from the 1001 Books with the exception of this title.  Slim, at 96 pages, is a novella written in the form of a letter from the wealthy first wife of a deceased government minister, about her experience being abandoned by her husband for a younger woman, but surviving the experience, and also reflecting on the Senegalese liberation movement, of which her husband plays an important part as a teacher and Union organizer.

  It is a privileged view point of the post-independence African experience, no terrible civil war here, but it is also entirely African in perspective, also the characters (and Ba) are Muslim, which is as underrepresented as Francophone Africa.

Blaming (1976) by Elizabeth Taylor

Book Review
Blaming (1976)
by Elizabeth Taylor

Replaces: The Diary of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing

  No, it's not that Elizabeth Taylor, rather it is English author.  Blaming was published after her death.  Like Barbara Pym, another overlooked English author who was omitted from the original 1001 Books but added to the first edition, Taylor writes what you might call "domestic fiction": fiction about ordinary people living ordinary lives, with no meta-fictional fuckery, unusual viewpoints or exotic locations.  In Blaming, Amy, a 60's empty nest housewife is suddenly widowed when her painter husband dies unexpectedly during a Mediterranean cruise.    Amy is befriended by Martha, an awkward American novelist, and they continue a halting friendship upon Amy's return to London, where she tries to figure out what to do with her life.

  The characters are unlikeable in a manner that reminded me of the Larry David school of interpersonal relationships: Friends are a bother, people are terrible.  Despite being the wife of a succesful painter, Amy is about as unartistic as you can get, she doesn't seem to read or have any unusual opinions.  She doesn't like caring for her grandkids, and cringes at almost any social interaction.   I can see why Taylor might be the type of author to see her career rescuitatted in the decades after her death, a woman writer, writing quiet, domestic, fiction, it is the precisely the type of literature overlooked in the literary critical/popular marketplace of the mid to late 20th century.

  The book(s) it replaces on the 1001 Books list is the collection, The Diary of Jane Somers, originally published by Lessing under that pseudonym Jane Somers.  Lessing was decades away from her 2007 Nobel Prize, but still, it is a strange, if not uncommon stunt for an established author to pull.  Lessing was incredibly prolific, with forays into science fiction (the Canopus in Argus series, five books) and her wild quasi-fictional biography the Children of Violence series, which has its own dystopian science fiction entry, five books.  She's also got close to twenty separate volumes of short stories and even four books grouped as "Cat Tales" about Cats, I presume.

  So, it's hard to mourn the loss of The Diary of Jane Somers from any canonical list of 20th century literature.  I think it's probably not even her third of fourth best book, all told.  Taylor doesn't do anything to increase diversity except in the introduction of a petit bourgeois/non family based "office worker" milieu, basically unrepresented in the serious precincts of literary fiction.

Sabrina & Corina (2019) by Kali Fajardo Anstine

Image result for kali fajardo-anstine
Author Kali Fajardo-Anstine, photographed in Denver, the scene of most of the stories in Sabrina & Corina.
Book Review
Sabrina & Corina (2019)
by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

   The 2019 National Book Award Prize Ceremony is next week, and I've been racing to finish up the shortlist before the award is handed out.  The nominees are Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, The Other Americans by Laila Lailami, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi.  I'd read Black Leopard before the shortlist was announced.  I couldn't make it an hour into Trust Exercise when I checked out the Audiobook.  It's a coming-of-age-novel set in the American south, I just couldn't handle the precious teen protagonist. 

  I made it slightly further into Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, about two young sisters who disappear in Kamchatcka(!?!) and the way it impacts the lives of people living there, mainly a precocious adolescent girl.   Again, with the precocious teen girl protagonist, and also I couldn't get over the fact that it was set in the Russian Far East, and written by an American author.   I'm finishing up The Other Americans Audiobook, about the hit and run death of a Moroccan high desert, told by a variety of different narrators, but mostly by his daughter, a precocious post-college composer who returns from the Bay Area after the accident.   I live The Other Americans, but I don't love it, and it just doesn't seem like a prize winner.

  That leaves Black Leopard and this book, Sabrina & Corina, a series of short stories about the lives of indigenous/latina women living in the Denver area.  Sabrina & Corina seems precisely like the type of book that both could and should win the National Book Award- Fajardo-Anstine has a genuinely novel perspective, that of women from the lower quartiles of the socio-economic ladder with mixed indigenous/white/latina heritage.   I found Sabrina & Corina to be mildly revelatory in that regard, and I think Kali Fajardo-Anstine is a major talent.   She would have my vote if I were on this jury!  I love her social media presence! Authors need to do more of that.

The Back Room (1983) by Carmen Martin Gaite

Book Review
The Back Room (1983)
 by Carmen Martin Gaite

Replaces: Foe by J.M. Coetzee

  Another diversity win- female Spanish language authors being a rarity in the 1001 Books project.  Isabel Allende is in there.  Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) is in there.  That's it for women authors writing in the Spanish language.  Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer is represented, but Portuguese isn't the same as Spanish.

  The Back Room is familiar as another representative of the European existentialist novel with a hero- this time a woman- doing nothing, wallowing in memories and tacking between the uneventful present and the eventful past.  Basically, the narrator is interviewed by a stranger who comes to her apartment, she is a writer, and the questions concerns her past and the recent past of Spain, the Republic, the rise of Franco, etc.

  Gaite replaces yet another title by J.M. Coetzee- getting his 10 books trimmed to a more manageable number in the 2008 first revision of the 1001 Books list.

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

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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

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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

Image result for aspidistra
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

Image result for silvia moreno garcia
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.  

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