Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Nickle Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead

Image result for colson whitehead
Colson Whitehead
Book Review
The Nickle Boys (2019)
 by Colson Whitehead

  Colson Whitehead is a top 5 American writer of literary fiction, he's coming off Underground Railroad- a career highlight- that won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Pretty incredible for a book that is basically science fiction.   In The Nickle Boys, Whitehead turns to a more realistic milieu, a school based on the real-life horror of Florida's Dozier School for Boys.

   Whitehead manages to walk the fine line between writing a book that soft pedals the horror enough to guarantee a large general audience and the kind of realistic description of emotional and physical pain that defines canonical literature.   The nature of the plot and the narrative pay out is such that any lengthy description risks compromising the experience for another reader.   I listened to the Audiobook, which is very well done- it's a good book for Audiobook format in terms of length and the material.

   The Nickle Boys isn't an endless catalog of gothic horror, in fact it's the quiet moments that elevates the material into the stratosphere.  Neither the Pulitzer or National Book Award is known for repeat awards, but The Underground Railroad was three years ago.   It does look like another sales hit- still in the Amazon top 100 two months after publication.


Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013) by Svetlana Alexievich

Book Review
Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013)
by Svetlana Alexievich

  I can't get enough of 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.  Her books take the form of extensive interviews with dozens, maybe hundreds of individual sources, each book tackles a different subject, this book is about the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. The overwhelming theme is regret and a sense of nostalgia for the loss of the Soviet state.

  The regret and nostalgia is intermixed with the stories of many who suffered greviously at the hands of the state during the Soviet period, who survived and eventually were able to access their files and figure out which among their friends and neighbors denounced them.  Victims and executioners, that is a phrase that reccurs frequently.

  Another frequent topic is the presence of salami in the stores after the fall of Communism, "We were no longer equal, but there was salami in the stores."    The voices of the losers out number those of the winners- just like life; but there are no interviews with oligarchs or the thuggish mafia who serve as the bogeymen to the normal people she interviews.

  Many of the most horrific stories come from the events in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and the Caucuses, where Russians and Armenians were ethnically cleansed in horrifying fashion.  

Exit Ghost (2007) by Philip Roth

Book Review
Exit Ghost (2007)
 by Philip Roth

  Exit Ghost is the final of the nine book Nathan Zuckerman series by Philip Roth.   I think you can probably divide Roth's career into the period before Portnoy's Complaint, when he was three novels into a career as a writer that showed promise, but hadn't delivered fame and fortune, and after Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969, which catapulted Roth into the world of general and literary celebrity that comes maybe three or four times in a generation.   The Zuckerman series started a decade after Portnoy's Complaint, and a common theme in the first four books is Nathan Zuckerman dealing with the consequences of his post-fame live, specifically, the impact on his immediate family.

  Family continues to dominate through the fifth book, The Counterlife (1986), and then the last three books before Exit Ghost feature Zuckerman as a listener, and the plots revolve around the characters talking to him.   Exit Ghost returns to the earliest book and picks up with a Zuckerman centered narrative, with Nathan in Manhattan and returning to the territory of the first book, The Ghost Writer, which was about Zuckerman's relationship with an reclusive, isolated author when he was a young man.

  Exit Ghost picks up the thread half a century later, with Zuckerman seeking medical treatment in New York City, leaving his isolated cabin in New England for the first time in a decade.  Impulsively, he responds to an ad placed by a young pair of New York writers who want to swap their apartment in the city for an isolated cabin.    Zuckerman quickly becomes obsessed with Jamie Logan, the wife of the young couple, and through her he is introduced to Richard Kilman, a young man trying to write an autobiography of E.I. Lonoff, the reclusive mentor figure from The Ghost Writer.   Kilman knows about an incestous affair Lonoff had with his older sister, and Zuckerman swears to stop him from publishing about it. 

  Like Prague Orgy, Exit Ghost is more of a coda and less of stand-alone novel, clearly secondary to the the other seven books. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Electric Hotel (2019) by Dominic Smith

Book Review
The Electric Hotel (2019)
 by Dominic Smith

   American-Australian author Dominic Smith is five novels deep into his career- which is great, but he hasn't had a hit yet.  Last time out, he made a move onto Farrar, Straus, Giroux and The Electric Hotel is his second book for them. It's a sprawling work of historical fiction mostly about the silent film era and World War I.   Claude Ballard is living out his days in a decrepit Hollywood area SRO when an enterprising film student induces him to revisit his lost silent film classic The Electric Hotel- years ahead of it's time but essentially lost and forgotten in the present day.

  Much of the book involves Ballard recounting his biography:  Childhood in Paris, recruited by the Lumiere brothers to market their motion picture machine  internationally,  pre-Hollywood film impresario, love of a Greta Garbo esque silent film star, clashes with Thomas Edison over motion picture patents- and I really had trouble making it through this first half of the book- even in Audiobook format, because the plot often seemed more like an essay on film history than the kind of narrative you look for in a early 21st century work of literary fiction. 

   However, Smith continues the story into Ballard's sojourn as a would-be journalist on the western front of World War I, and at that point, the pace really picks up, and the fairly mundane details of the pre-Hollywood silent film era are replaced by a more engaging story about World War I. 

Lanny (2019) by Max Porter

Book Review
Lanny (2019) 
by Max Porter

  Lanny is a Booker Prize longlist nominee this year, written by English author Max Porter.   His first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was critically acclaimed, but it didn't make much of a splash over here in the USA- that was in 2015-   it did well enough to get him an international release for Lanny, which was already on Eshelves in the United States when the Booker longlist was announced this year, and thus it's the first of this year's nominees that I managed to track down.  And an Audiobook, no less!   

  It's a good fit for the Audiobook format, with a polyphony of voices revolving around the disappearance of the eponymous Lanny, a Manic Pixie Dream Child who is likely to either enchant or annoy the reader, depending on their feelings about the merits of manic pixie dream children irl.  Lanny lives in a small bedroom village on the outskirts of London, with his City-Trader father, who is also not such a fan of manic pixie dream children himself and his mother- who is a dominant narrative voice in the greek-chorus style Porter embraces.  It's reminiscent of recent price winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

  The fantastical element of the set up involves Dead Poppa Toothwort, an ancient earth spirit who watches the village- leading to dada-esque sequences of overheard dialogue- and malevolently covets Lanny, because, ancient evil spirits, innocent manic pixie dream children.   Unlike many of the reviewers in the UK, I was not charmed.  Which is not to say that Porter is being cloying or sentimental- Lanny is a sharply observed, nasty piece of work that says as much as the environment of a commuter village outside London and the dynamics of the people who live there as the missing boy narrative.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Kitchen (1993) by Banana Yoshimoto

Image result for banana yoshimoto
Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto)
Book Review
Kitchen (1988)
 by Banana Yoshimoto

Replaces: The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

  I honestly feel like Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto's early 1990's cross-over hit, was added after someone pointed out that the edtiors of the 1001 Books list had included a book by a French woman about living in Japan, but had managed to include not a single Japanese female author.  Japan as a whole is basically represented by Haruki Murakami with a handful of other authors in the 1001 Books list. Yoshimoto is the first, and I think the only Japanese woman to make it on to the list.

  Mikage Suraki is the narrator, she's a young Japanese woman stuggling to overcome the death of her beloved grandmother.  She comes under the influence of a neighbor, Yuiche Tanabe, a young man a few years her junior, and his transgender (male to female) mother, Eriko Tanabe, who owns and runs a local gay bar.  This is pretty progressive stuff for Japan circa 1980, which isn't especially known for embracing LGBT issues, and the laconic prose style makes for easy reading.

  Yoshimoto has been prolific in her native Japanese, but almost none of her more recent books have been translated into English.   Seems to me that puts her in the category of a one hit wonder, and not that huge a hit. 

Mason & Dixon (1997) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Mason & Dixon (1997)
 by Thomas Pynchon

   I own a first edition hardback of Mason & Dixon-  one of Pynchon's representative titles in the first edition of 1001 Books, but dropped in the second edition in favor of Faceless Killers (1991) by Henning Mankell.   I can hardly remember anything from my initial reading back in 1997-1998- "too old timey!" I remember thinking, since Pynchon insists on using his own version of the non-standard orthography and capitalization that was common in the 18th century, the time of the book.

   Twenty years later, I've added the entire 18th century canon to my mental library, re-read all of Pynchon's earlier books and set up a situation where I was able to read Mason & Dixon in small portions, always at my ease.  You would think that I would have enjoyed it much more the second time through, but no.  Mason & Dixon was almost as impenetrable as I found it the first time.  I guess you could say I got more of the jokes and puns, but if there was any deeper meaning to be gleaned, I did not glean it. 

  Pynchon's re-telling of the adventures of English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon does cover their famous American line, but it also has adventures in Africa, in England and on the open seas.    Other subjects include, "the call of the West, the histories of women, North Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the after-life, the eleven days lost to the Gregorian calendar, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure."  (from the Wikipedia page on Mason & Dixon)

    What is referred to as the "inexact narrative structure" could also be described as a bewildering multiplicity, far beyond what Pynchon put forward in V and Gravity's Rainbow, to name two of his other big books.   At times, Mason & Dixon embraces literary pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism in the same page.   Even describing the plot is exhausting- again- see the Wikipedia page, where someone managed to describe each of seventy eight episodes.  Maybe Pynchon isn't one of my favorite authors, after all.   The fact is that I haven't enjoyed Vineland or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not looking forward to Against the Day- an addition to the second 1001 Books list.   I do see The Crying of Lot 49, V and Gravity's Rainbow as all time canon level classics, and I enjoyed The Bleeding Edge Audiobook- I would have LOVED to have gotten my hands on a Mason & Dixon Audiobook, but the Los Angeles Public Library doesn't have a copy.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville

Book Review
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852)
by Herman Melville

    Herman Melville and Henry James are two American authors I've singled out for further reading- checking out the non canonical titles and revisiting the hits that I didn't quite get the first time around.  Basically, all of Henry James passed me by the first time through- I'm hoping that the Audiobook format might make the experience more fun than actually reading Henry James- which is really not very much fun at all.   With Melville I'm more focused on revisiting the non-canonical titles- Melville is one of the best examples of an artist moving into the canon after a lifetime of relative obscurity.   Melville had a couple of hits with his early books, basically travelogues of the sailing life circa the mid 19th century.  Moby Dick was his masterpiece but it was sorely underappreciated when it was released, and typically the story of Melville is that after it flopped he got a job as a customs inspector and lived in obscurity until his death.

  Not true! He continued to publish in a variety of formats after Moby Dick- including The Encantadas, a novella and two novels: Israel Potter and The Confidence Man.   Pierre; or The Ambiguities is an incredibly strange novel- combining elements of gothic fiction with a bildungsroman.  The elements are the wealthy scion of an ancient American family, his still attractive mother, who he calls "Sister," his fiance and a mysterious half-sister who emerges from the ether and throws Pierre Glendenning- the protagonist but not narrator- into a positive tizzy.

  There is no way to take Pierre at face value- only if the reader is familiar with the conventions of 18th century gothic fiction and the state of American literature in the early 19th century can one begin to develop an appreciation, and even then it takes.... some gumption.   Here, the Audiobook format was crucial- no way I would have ever sat down and read it as a physical book.

Friday, August 02, 2019

The New Me (2019) by Halle Butler

Image result for halle butler
Author Halle Butler.  She also reads the Audiobook for her novel, The New Me. 

Book Review
The New Me (2019)
 by Halle Butler

   This was an Audiobook read by the author- I love that! It should happen more often.  The New Me is a an existential bildungswoman about Mildred, a 20 something college graduate living in Chicago and working a terrible temp assignment as the assistant to a receptionist at a downtown design firm.   Most of the book is narrated by Mildred, with some chapters told by Mildred's boss at the design firm- the receptionist- who is the only potential villain in the piece besides Mildred herself, who is a basket case.

   Mildred, basically friendless and alone in Chicago, relationship-less, poverty stricken, surviving only on a monthly stipend paid by her well off, well adjusted suburban Chicago area parents, is unhappy, deeply and sadly unhappy in nearly comical fashion, if you happen to be a reader who doesn't immediately identify with Mildred's millennial specific plight.  

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Cities of the Plain (1998) by Cormac McCarthy

Image result for matt damon all the pretty horses
Matt Damon played cowboy John Grady Cole in the poorly received movie version of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Cole returns in Cities of the Plain, where he becomes obsessed with an epileptic Mexican prostitute.

Book Review
Cities of the Plain (1998)
by Cormac McCarthy

  I agree with literary critic Harold Bloom, "[who] named McCarthy as one of the four major American novelists of his time, alongside Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth."   I'm not a huge DeLillo fan, but I can undetstand grouping the four together, and I'm a huge fan of the other three.  Pynchon, Roth and McCarthy are on my completist list, and it looks like I'll finish with McCarthy first, if only because Pynchon's books are so long and dense, and Roth has so many books. McCarthy, on ther other hand, has a very manageable bibliography.  After Cities of the Plain I've only got his very earliest books to go.

  Cities of the Plain is the last of his Border Trilogy.  I think critics have placed the border trilogy in the second level of McCarthy's oeuvre, above the first four books, up through Suttree but below the trio of Blood Meridian, The Road and No Country For Old Men.   Blood Meridian although separated by time, takes place in basically the same landscape occupied in The Border Trilogy- West Texas, New Mexico and the part of Mexico that runs along the other side of those places.    You could probably also argue that Cities of the Plain is the least of the Border Trilogy, with a plot that strongly resembles the major points in the first book of the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses.

  Both books revolve around Texas horse-whisperer and incurable romantic John Grady, although Billy Parham, the protagonist of the second book, returns in a supporting role.   This time, Grady falls in love with an epileptic Mexican prostitute named Magdalena, and well, if you don't have some idea of how it all works out, you obviously have not read much Cormac McCarthy.  I can see where critics at the time might have thought, "Enough;" but 20 years on, it's pretty clear that McCarthy is straight canon, and Cities of the Plain, even if it's not his best, is a GREAT Audiobook, perfect to listen to during long hot runs in the Los Angeles desert heat.

Genetics in the Madhouse: the Unknown History of Human Heredity (2018)by Theodore M. Porter

Image result for theodore m porter
Professor Theodore M. Porter author of Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity
Book Review
Genetics in the Madhouse: the Unknown History of Human Heredity (2018)
by Theodore M. Porter

  I was reading a Michel Foucault book recently, really not understanding very much, when I had the idea to find an American disciple of Foucault, someone heavily influenced by his thought, but a native English speaker and someone who was teaching at a major university in the present day.  Enter Theodore M. Porter, who cites Foucault as a major influence and has a tenured professorship at the University of California Los Angeles in history.  Simply reading the title recalls the title of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, and this book is rooted deeply in the Foucauldian analysis of the malleability of what we call knowledge, and the boundaries and categories of knowledge at various points in history.

    Genetics in the Madhouse is largely about the pre-DNA world of Mendelian heritability of various undesirable traits, children inherited traits from parents in various combinations, expressed in fractions and combined in different ways.  What Porter describes is the increasing systematization of the quest for unraveling the parentage of men and women who were confined to Asylums, with a focus on curing OR determining that a cure was impossible.   The scientists of these institutions, called Alienists, were pre-Freudian and not always medical doctors.   Their ideas have been entirely discredited in the past century, but Porter makes the point that they were trailblazers in trying to use genetics to "solve" mental illness- using genetic knowledge to cure human sickness.

  Whether that gives you pause about current efforts to help humanity with "real" genetic knowledge probably depends on your pre-existing feelings about the subject.  I'm all for it, as a Professor memorably exclaimed in an undergraduate literature class I attended, "They are already making clones in secret underground labs in Switzerland! In Saudia Arabia!"  He later took a job teaching in Dubai.  

Monday, July 29, 2019

We Cast a Shadow (2019) by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Image result for we cast a shadow by maurice carlos ruffin
Aithor Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Book Review
We Cast a Shadow (2019)
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

 It's hard not to think about the "satire" of We Cast a Shadow, set in a slightly futuristic, slightly more dystopian world then the one we inhabit presently, and not think about Paul Beatty, and The Sell Out another racial satire, and one which one the Booker Prize in 2016.   So says Roxane Gay, whose quote making that comparison is splashed all over the promotional materials put forward by Penguin Random House.  I finished the Audiobook just as the 2019 Booker Prize longlist was announced- as it turned out only one American author made the longlist, not Ruffin.  My observation is that We Cast a Shadow is very much a prize winning type of book, in that it takes a serious subject, race and identity in America, and layers on near-future dystopia in such a way that the reader is disarmed by whatever preconceptions they bring to the table.

  The unnamed narrator is an African American man, on the cusp of partnership at a prestigious law firm in a similarly unnamed near future city in the southern United States.  He has a white wife, and a bi-racial son, Nigel, who is sole and abiding obsession.  Specifically, he wants Nigel to be white.  The long term goal is race switching surgery, but in the short term he makes do with very not-science-fiction whitening creams.   His white wife doesn't support his behavior, neither does his mother.

 We Cast a Shadow is a great Audiobook because of the single narrator, and Ruffin makes his unnamed narrator a uniquely "unreliable" due to a combination of anti anxiety-pill popping and genuine inter-personal trauma.  Ruffin errs on the side of literary fiction in describing his near future dystopia.  The North still won the Civil War, but the civic activism of the "civil rights" era appears to have created a "white lash," where African American are still free, but are subject to increasingly harsh persecution through "legal" and quasi-legal means.

   Like Beatty in The Sell Out, Ruffin creates an uncomfortable world that SHOULD challenge a readers pre-conceptions about race and identity in our own world.  The narrator is easy to despise, but Ruffin wants us to understand how he reflects a persistent desire in our own world to eradicate blackness by "blending in."

Woman of Ashes (2018) by Mia Couto

Mia Couto cropped.jpg
Mozambiquean author Mia Couto.
Book Review
Woman of Ashes (2018)
 by Mia Couto
Book One of the Sands of the Emperor Trilogy

   Mozamibaquean author Mia Couto is the biggest writer of fiction to ever emerge out of Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony on the south eastern coast of Africa, north of South Africa, nestling Zimbawbwe in the middle, with Tanzania to the north.  Mozambique finally gained independence from Portugal after a decade long war, in 1975.   The Portuguese were replaced by a Communist dictatorship.  The Communist dictatorship was pushed out in 1990 after a mysterious plane crash (probably staged by the South African) wiped out the dictator and 33 more of the party leadership.   Elections were staged in 1994, and since then things have been relatively stable.

  Couto has been a prolific writer of both fiction and essays.   A handful of his major works have been translated into English.  Woman of Ashes is the first volume in a projected trilogy about the colonial history of Mozambique, and narration duties are split between Imani a 15 year old girl, who comes a tribe that is allied with Portugal;  and Sergant Germano De Malo, the exiled representative of the Portuguese emperor.  Both groups: Imani's tribe and Germano's men,  face emperor Ngungunyane, a native African ruler who stands opposed to the Portuguese.

   The colonial dynamic that Couto is interesting: this is not the aggressive efforts of an ambitious empire like France or England, but rather the fringe of an already decrepit empire.  The Africans in this book are not subjugated, indeed, the primary villain is not the colonialism but other Africans.   It's easy enough to slot Woman of Ashes into the "developing world magical realism,"  category with plus points for the location.  But truth be told I wasn't wowed, and I was even less wowed when I learned that the author wasn't an African woman but rather a white African man.  I should have known more about Couto going in, I suppose.

I Married a Communist (1998) by Philip Roth

Image result for claire bloom
English actress Claire Bloom, widely regarded as the model for Eve Frame
Book Review
I Married a Communist (1998)
by Philip Roth

   This is the end of the Audiobook portion of Philip Roth's bibliography as far as the Los Angeles Public Library system is concerned.   I Married a Communist is the third to last volume in the Nathan Zuckerman series- Zuckerman being the alter-ego who features in all seven books.  The Zuckerman series is to be distinguished from the Roth series, which features a character named Philip Roth (Operation Shylock, The Plot Against America).   I Married a Communist is also the last Zuckerman novel written before the character becomes obsessed with the complications arising from his prostate cancer surgery: impotence and incontinence.

  I Married a Communist was also controversial, especially in the UK, where critics argued that Eve Frame- the sad/evil wife of Ira "Iron Rinn" Reingold, is a barely disguised version of Roth's own ex-wife, English actress Claire Bloom, who wrote a memoir that was heavily critical of Roth.   Like many of the later Zuckerman books, Zuckerman himself is present largely as a listener to the narrator of the story, Ira's younger brother Murray, who was also Zuckerman's teacher growing up in New Jersey.  Thus, the story of I Married a Communist is the story of Ira Reingold, told by his younger brother Murray to Zuckerman.

  Ira "Iron Rinn" Reingold is a character who could only have emerged before the Red Scare:  A leftist/Communist former coal miner who parlays a notable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln into a career as a radio performer.  He also acquires said wife, who brings along her  20-something daughter, still living at home as she pursues a career as a professional harpist (Claire Bloom had a daughter who was an aspiring opera singer.)    The title refers to the memoir written by Frame that leads to Reingold's downfall.

  It's possible that this is Roth's worst book, especially if you take the opinion that Frame is a stand-in for Bloom.   It's mean spirited.  Compared to the other Zuckerman books, this Audiobook took me weeks to complete.  Just endless fulminating against this Eve Frame woman.   Also, they switched up the narrator for I Married a Communist, using actor Ron Silver- I didn't much care for him.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me (1966) by Richard Fariña

Image result for Richard Farina pynchon
Richard Farina, Pynchon friend, and noted novelist and folk singer 
Book Review
Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me  (1966)
 by Richard Fariña

  Richard Fariña is one of those tantalizing "what-if's" of 20th century American popular culture.  He went to college at Cornell with Thomas Pynchon- Pynchon officiated at his wedding, and Pynchon authored the foreword for the re-issue of Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me, which I think, is pretty high up there on the list of "lost" classics of counter-cultural literature.   Farina also cut two folk albums with his wife - Joan Baez's sister- and it isn't hard to find people who will compare him- favorably- to Bob Dylan.   Unfortunately, Farina died in a motorcycle accident in 1966- extinguishing his light, and ultimately leaving him an interesting foot note.

   It is easy to see the relationship between Farina and Pynchon- and it made me think about the degree to which all the major writers of the 1960's in American Literature were influenced by "jive" the particular slang of New York City jazz musicians- black and white.    It's particularly striking in Been Down So Long because the characters are students at Cornell University in the mid 1960's- true- the protagonist is Greek, and one of the gang is African-American, but we aren't talking a hep situation up there in Ithaca.   Whereas with Pynchon- his early books set in California- or the past- the jive influence is muted and blends into the larger "Pynchonian" style.

  I didn't love it- Farina has his antic and mad cap moments, but there are a lot of poop jokes and a generally deplorable attitude towards women.   There is little in the way of plot- call it a picaresque, which is probably what the the author intended.  I haven't yet listened to his folk records but I plan to.

American Spy (2019) by Lauren Wilkinson

Image result for lauren wilkinson
Author Lauren Wilkinson
Book Review
American Spy (2019)
by Lauren Wilkinson

  It's a spy novel about an African American woman!  If there is one thing you can say about the genre of spy fiction, its that it lacks diversity.  In fact, spy fiction embodies many of the "dead white male" values where women are desirable objects and minorities are the enemy, or simply non-existent.   Like the blidungsroman and mutli-generational family drama, there is a strong argument that EVERY group should get their own spy novel- an argument that has already carried the day in more progressive genres like science fiction and detective fiction.

  Told in a modified flashback format as ex-FBI agent and ex-CIA contractor Marie Mitchell takes refuge from the aftermath of a shadowy attempted assassination of herself at her home in Connecticut. She dispatches the assassin and flees to Martinque, where she takes refuge with her mother and her twin boys.  The "modified" flashback approach consists of a book length letter to her still-too-young-to-understand twins, describing to them her childhood, work as an FBI agent in New York City and involvement in a shadowy Reagan-era CIA-sponsored plot to compromise real-life left-leaning leader Thomas Sankara. 

   Mitchell's back story is more bildungsroman than spy novel, and it's equally and arguably more interesting then the spy story intself, as Mitchell struggles to answer the question as to why an African American woman would choose to the join FBI, which, even among the world of law enforcement has a pretty shitty records vis a vis minority rights.   Mitchell's semi-mentor at the agency is Ali, a long time friend of her father (a New York City Police Officer) who made his bones infiltrating and compromising civil right's groups in the 50's and 60's.

    I'm just assuming that Wilkinson is setting up some sort of franchise, so it was difficult to really fear for Mitchell's safety, reinforced by the flashback format, assuring us that Mitchell has survived her travails.   In the end- and I'm sure this is by design, Mitchell never really answers the questions, and it's unclear what her post-FBI/CIA career involves, exactly.   At least one more book is required to finish the narrative that is set into motion in American Spy.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

2019 Booker Prize longlist Announced: Unreleased Books, UK Based Authors Dominate

2019 Booker Prize longlist

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)
Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)
Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)
Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)
John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)
Deborah Levy (UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)
Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)
Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)
Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)
Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

    The 2019 Booker Prize longlist headlines include several unreleased heavyweights, particularly forthcoming titles by Margaret Atwood- her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale and Salman Rushdie, who has perhaps finally connected in his "American period" with a version of Don Quixote embodied in an American salesman. 

    If I was to handicap the shortlist, I would put Atwood and Rushdie on it.  I think probably Oyinkan Braithwaite is a good bet as the only debut novelist and one of two African writers.  My Sister, The Serial Killer, established a new dimension in contemporary African literary ficiton, in my opinion.   Turkish writer Elif Shafak has been in the new lately for her persecution at the hands of the Turkish government, she's a good shortlist bet.     Jeanette Winterson is a good blind bet- a canon level author who hasn't had a hit in some time.  Finally I have a feeling that Ducks, Newburyport, a one sentence, one thousand page stream of consciousness novel written from the point of view of an Ohio house wife, by an author who is the daughter of a prominent Joyce scholar, has the makings of an experimental classic. 

  The only one of the 2019 Booker longlist I've actually read is My Sister, The Serial Killer Ducks, Newburyport, The Wall, Lost Children Archive, An Orchestra of Minorities and Lanny are all on my radar or in my borrowing queue.   The Wall hasn't gotten a United States release yet.  Atwood and Rushdie are going to be literary events- either one could win the Nobel Prize.   I know Lost Children Archive and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World  have United States editions, they shouldn't be hard to track down.  That leaves only four books that look to be UK only at this point.   

 Whether you read Ducks, Newburyport is probably going to be *the* book for serious readers of literary fiction.   Atwood winning for a sequel would be pretty unheard-of, but The Handmaid's Tale has seemingly ascended to Brave New World/1984/The Hunger Games levels of cultural presence and resonance. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Crossing (1994) by Cormac McCarthy

Book Review
The Crossing (1994)
 by Cormac McCarthy

   The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy focuses on two characters: John Grady and Billy Parham.  Grady is the subject of the first book, Parham the subject of the second, and then both characters are in book three.   The Crossing is the second book in the trilogy, and it's about the childhood and young adulthood of Billy Parham,  the son of a small rancher in New Mexico, growing up shortly before World War II when the book starts, and then continuing through the beginning of World War II.    Like All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing is a bildungsroman/coming-of-age story that mostly takes place in Mexico, and like Grady, Parham experience many and various travails while riding around on a horse. 

    Wolves, Native Americans, bandits, stories told by blind old men, conversations with half-crazed missionaries, a fetching underage Mexican girl as a love interest, The Crossing has everything a reader or listener expects from the second volume of The Border Trilogy.    McCarthy is an awesome author for the Audiobook format- his style of narration is ideal for the spoken word, and I could listen to Cormac McCarthy novels on a loop on Audiobook.  The Crossing is one of McCarthy's longer books: 432 pages, and it feels so- with the individual episodes stretching into novella length territory. The initial encounter between Parham and a wolf, which he kills and then attempts to return to Mexico for burial, feels like a book in and of itself.

   I've lately become convinced that McCarthy is, in fact, my favorite author- simply if I consider the pleasure of his work, compared to the chore that other favorite authors like Pynchon and Roth can feel like at times.    As I write this I'm listening to the third book of The Border Trilogy, and that will leave only his very earliest novels left.   Basically, every book that McCarthy has written since 1980 has been a hit and a classic, and I agree on both counts.  

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) by John McGahern

Book Review
That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002)
by John McGahern

   That They May Face the Rising Sun was the last novelist by Irish author John McGahern.  McGahern died in 2006, and at the time of his death he was lauded as, "the most important Irish writer since Beckett" among other accolades and plaudits.  The 1001 Books project rewarded him by removing this book from their first revision, replacing it with a book by Jose Carlos Somoza, and reducing him to one book (Amongst Women.)

  Published in the United States as By The Lake- I had a hard time tracking down a copy- since I didn't figure out about the different title until after I'd found a copy with the UK title, bought it on Amazon and then let it sit around my house for a solid year before finally gritting my teeth and sitting down to read it.

   That They May Face the Rising Sun charts a year in the life of an Irish couple who have moved back to the Irish country side after living in London, he a writer and she an advertising executive.  A reader could be forgiven if they would expect lots of information about the life left behind, but quite the opposite- both the wife and husband of the repatriated pair, the Ruttledge's do their best to obscure themselves in the farming community which surrounds them.

  The first hundred pages are so low key that they are practically somnolent- after buying this book it took me a half dozen tries to get past the first 50 pages, but the reader is rewarded, as the 'action' picks up towards the middle and end: selling lambs at the county fair, a mail order bride for the local rake, etc.  Nothing really happens with the Ruttledge's themselves- no dramatic infidelity or one or the other decamping back to London.

  The country side is evoked beautifully, as you'd expect.  

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970) by Michel Foucault

Book Review
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970)
by Michel Foucault

  I was reading in what you might call a systematic fashion long before I started writing about it.  Before I started the 1001 Books project over a decade ago, I was mostly reading history, especially medieval history, as well as philosophy.  I abandoned both areas, more or less, because it was hard to keep a constant supply of unread books on hand, and the subject matter in both areas tends to be dry- not good for the lifestyle of more casual reading I wanted to embrace.

  Only now am I getting back into it, by "it" I mean philosophy.   I found a used copy of The Order of Things at a used book store down the street, and I thought Foucault would be a good place to resume: He's challenging, but not super challenging, and incredibly influential on the current generation of scholars both inside and outside philosophy.   One of my take-aways from reading The Order of Things is that I might be better served by going and finding the works of English language authors who have been deeply influence by Foucault.

   The major point of The Order of Things is that knowledge, and specifically categories of knowledge, are contingent and rely on a variety of environmental factors to gain their meaning.  It is one of the core teachings of the "relativism" which has been embraced by educators first, and later by politicians and normal folks.

  Foucault's method is to SHOW the manner in which scientific discourse emerged from earlier, non-scientific discourse by focusing on three disciplines: biology, linguistics and economics.  He does this by going back to the 18th century or thereabouts and performing heavy textual analysis.  The lack of familiarity that any modern, English reader has with any of his source materials contributes to the difficulty, but there is also the problem of Foucaltian analysis itself, which seems purposefully obscure.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Woman First: First Woman (2019) by Selina Meyer

Image result for selina meyer
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as President Selina Meyer on VEEP, the television show.
Book Review
Woman First: First Woman (2019)
 by Selina Meyer

   I've been a huge fan of the television show VEEP from Day one, was already a fan of Armando Iannucci via his work in The Thick of It.  I was also a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Post-VEEP,  Louis-Dreyfus is set to make history as the most Emmy winning Actress of all time.  VEEP survived the departure of Iannucci half-way through the show, and prospered even after he left.   Surely Louis-Dreyfus was key to this longer-term success, though I thought she was matched by other members of the cast, especially Tony Hale- who joins Meyer/Louis-Dreyfus on the Audiobook, reprising his role as "body man" Gary Walsh.

  Fans of the show are sure to love the Audiobook, which is as funny as the writing for the show, and adds some depth to the Selina Meyer biography, including her sexual obsession with her own father, her fondness for fox hunting and blood-sport of all types and manages to leave out any mention of the time she freed Tibet.  Like Meyer herself, you get a lot of her back story, childhood and college years- which Meyer's herself thinks should have been the focus of Woman First- and very little actual politics.  It is, of course, because Meyer, who emerges as a near sociopathic personality by the end of Woman First, is motivated by nothing but an unquenchable thirst for "more," and a total lack of commitment to any ideology or even single idea.

  One part of Woman First that adds to the show is Meyer's account of her rise through the house and Senate, which was almost never discussed on the show.  Meyer displays contempt for both institutions, hilariously, in what is some of the best material in Woman First.  Meyer is also forthright about her contempt for, you know, voters, portraying the act of campaigning and even just talking to your constituents as an onerous chore.

   The whole book was hilarious- specifically AS an Audiobook, I don't think it would be nearly as funny without it being read by Meyer herself (since most of the humor of the book revolves around the fact that she didn't write the book herself, and is therefore unfamiliar with the details of her own auto-biography, amplified by her reading the book herself for the Audiobook, seemingly for the first time. 

Wit's End: What Wit Is, How Wit Works & Why We Need It by James Geary

Book Review
Wit's End: What Wit Is, How Wit Works & Why We Need It
by James Geary

   Wit's End came out at the end of last year, I finally got around to checking out the Ebook from the library, in keeping with a comes-and-goes interest in philosophy and rhetoric.  The loss of rhetoric as a subject for contemporary education is understandable if regrettable.  It still has a way of popping up in creative non fiction via a variety of routes.   A major popular route is in books related to speaking and speech, and speechmaking, and all aspects of speaking, including humor, which is where you locate Wit's End: What Wit Is, How Wit Works & Why We Need It.  An sub-title might be, "Why puns are funnier than you think," because puns play a major part in the text of the book. 

  Geary also quotes liberally from sources extending back centuries in time- the story of wit is rooted in ancient Greece and Rome, and Geary also finds a way to fold in Buddhist, Jewish and Chinese holy men to make his conception of wit as nearly universal as the existence of humor.  Aside from his broad case for the universality of wit to written/spoken human discourse, he also delves into the mechanics of wit, see puns, above, but he also spends pages on the importance of ambiguity, including lofty claims about the preferences of large groups of human beings for "ambiguous" painting styles over realistic painting styles that I'm still thinking about.

  Geary doesn't talk about timing very much, which seems like a clear element of spoken wit, and also the distinction between spoken and written wit is obscured, or maybe just left unexplained.

The Gallows Pole (2017) by Benjamin Myers

Book Review
The Gallows Pole (2017)
by Benjamin Myers

    I actually heard about The Gallows Pole from my girlfriend, who is friends with the Author's wife.  Before I bought it I heard that Third Man books would be issuing an American edition...someday, but in the meantime I picked up the UK paperback edition (was there even a hardback edition?) in December when I was last there.

    Let me tell you, if the idea of  a band of 18th century counterfeiters, (or "clippers") in the parlance of the day, operating in 18th century Yorkshire excites you, then The Gallows Pole is the book for you!   Less so for fans of English literary fiction and historical literary fiction, and maybe not at all for your average American reader of literary fiction- the jury is still out on that question!

  I found The Gallows Pole delightful- it is apparently based on real events, and the experience of people from Yorkshire at this particular time is scarce enough that The Gallows Pole can serve as a rough history of the same subject. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Eileen (2015) by Otessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh in New York. ‘I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism.’
Author Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review
Eileen (2015)
 by Ottessa Moshfegh

  If you want to find commercial/literary cross-over success, head to your local major metropolitan airport- New York, Los Angeles, and look at the display for the airport bookstore.  If a work of literary fiction is getting major shelve space, as is the case for Moshfegh's latest book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I saw it myself at JFK airport in New York three weeks ago, Boston two weeks ago and Los Angeles this week.   Surely, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a good prize for the major book awards- maybe not the Pulitzer, but a Booker Prize or the National Book Award would seem to be in reach.

  It's also a pretty good sign that after I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation I ran out and BOUGHT paperback copies of her first two books, the novella McGlue and her debut novel, the sleek n' nasty Eileen, about Eileen Dunlop, who narrates the events as a much older woman a la Titanic.  The events take place in a small town in Massacusets in the mid 1960's.  Eileen Dunlop works at a local juvenile prison and lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father, still a semi-respected figure in the town even though he has completely lost his mind and spends his days tormenting Eileen, drinking himself into a stupor, and pointing his gun at local school children who happen to walk past his house on their way to and from school.

   Eileen and her Dad live in a squalor familiar to watchers of TLC style reality shows like Hoarders and 600 LB Life.  Neither one cooks or cleans, Eileen also drinks and suffers from a variety of physical and mental maladies ranging from constipation to severe anxiety and depression.  She is, in other words, a classic Moshfegh narrator/protagonist.   I found it a compelling read, like all of her books.  I'm a believer! The cross-over success of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no fluke!

  It's also worth noting that Eileen made it to the Booker Prize shortlist in 2015, the first year American published books were eligible, losing out to The Sellout by Paul Beatty.   That automatically makes her a contender for the Booker Prize this year.  The commercial/critical success makes her a good candidate for the National Book Award. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Vineland (1990) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Vineland (1990)
by Thomas Pynchon

 I've owned a hardcover first edition of Vineland for over a decade- a remaindered first edition and I've never read it- never really even thought about reading it, even as it became one of the last 50 books from the original 1001 Books list I hadn't read, and even as I profess Thomas Pynchon as one of my favorite twentieth century writers.  Even after Vineland I've got one more Pynchon title from the original 1001 Books list- Mason & Dixon- which is a re-read for me.

  Vineland has a reputation as the least of Pynchon's novels- there are probably people who would argue that Bleeding Edge is worse than Vineland, but I'm more of a Bleeding Edge fan.    Trying to explain the plot of Vineland is a typically Pynchonian chore, but the elements involve the consequences of the 1960's, rogue federal prosecutors, northern California hippies, drugs, the Reagan era, etc.  Pynchon doing Pynchon stuff.  I found myself yearning for the Audiobook- which appears to be an Amazon/Audible exclusive, published late last year.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Vernon Subutex One (2017) by Virgine Depentes

Book Review
Vernon Subutex 1(2017)
 by Virgine Depentes

   Vernon Subutex 1 is one of the last titles from the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, alongside the winner, Flight by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, The White Book by Han Kang,  Like a Fading Shadow by Anotnio Munoz Molina, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai.  That last one is the only book on the shortlist I haven't read.    I thought Vernon Subutex 1 would get a United States release in the aftermath of the shortlist, but I was mistaken.  Eventually I tracked down the UK published English translation in London over Christmas.

  Flash forward to summer vacation, and I actually pulled it off the book shelf and read the darn thing.  I figured the lack of US publication put an end to any possible English language audience made available by the Booker International shortlist.  I suppose it's possible that the US publication rights are held by the UK publisher- that would account for a delay or absence.

 Her Wikipedia lists volumes 2 and 3 of Vernon Subutex- I don't think either book has been translated into English yet- volume 3 was published two years ago.  Subutex is the protagonist, though he shares narrating duties with varieties of friend and enemies.  Comfortable in his role as the proprietor of a Parisian record store specializing in vinyl, in the opening page he is hit with a triple whammy: the death of his Kurt Cobain-like pop star friend, the loss of his record store and eviction from his long time apartment.

  The eviction puts him on the road to homelessness, though not without a half dozen rest stops at the apartment and homes of friends from his past, each of whom gets their own narrated chapter.  Depentes tells her story mater-of-factly, there is nothing maudlin about Subutex and his descent.   He's arguably unsympathetic, since he does nothing to try to stop his fall.

  Also there are terrible decisions along the way: stealing from a wealthy divorcee who takes a shine to him, banging the tranny love interest of another temporary landlord.  Again, I'm surprised there was no American release. Hell, I'd put it out.  There is an audience among the urban hipster-lit crowd, particularly among vinyl nostaligists and/or people who 'love Paris' any of whom might be inclined to pick this up in a local indie bookstore.

The Farm (2019) by Joanne Ramos

Image result for joanne ramos
Novelist and journalist Joanne Ramos, author of The Farm.
Book Review
The Farm (2019)
by Joanne Ramos

   One of the interesting aspects of the entertainment-industrial complex is watching the process by which a debut novel by a previously unknown author is introduced to the critical and general public.  Joanne Ramos is a very interesting example of this process, being with her pedigree: Daughter of Filipino immigrants, raised in Wisconsin, educated at Princeton, worked on Wall Street, became a journalist, has a position at the Economist.   Next you've got the announced pre publication value a "six figure" sale for the publication rights.

  Then you've got the pre-publication role out, gathering up the book jacket quotes, early reviews and whatever public appearances a multi national publishing corporation can arrange for a first time author with no pre-existing celebrity.   I listened to The Farm Audiobook after fully witnessing that process for Ramos and her debut novel, about a shadowy, but very well-heeled surrogacy operation running in upstate New York.  The narrators include Jane, a failed Filipino-immigrant baby nurse, looking for a way to secure a future for her father-less daughter;  Ake, the Grandmotherly cousin of Jane who plays a vital role in the local (Manhattan) immigrant community, connecting new arrivals with families needing child care solutions;  Mae, the half-white, half-Chinese corporate executive, running the business for her billionaire boss; and Raegan, the privileged, white fellow "host" who becomes central to the narrative.

   There is a definite "thriller" feel to the later parts of the plot that preclude any kind of detailed description.  I would also dissent for the more hyperbolic prose which compares The Farm to The Handmaid's Tale and other works of feminist-dystopian fiction.   Whether situations such as those described by The Farm actually exist in America, they certainly exist in other parts of the world.  The issues around surrogacy are incredibly complex, but turning it into a market transaction takes away much of that complexity.  If the host and the client agree on the terms of the transaction, that's great.  If the host fails to understand the full meaning of the contract because of her status as a non-high school graduating immigrant to America, that's not great, but hardly unusual in this (or other) countries.

  I didn't love The Farm, but I liked it.  Ramos lands halfway between writing a standard-issue thriller type book and something more complicated.  I guess the year end Awards will provide the first verdict.  It doesn't look like it's been a huge sales success- it looks like the press exceeded the sales, but a run on the year end prize lists/best of lists would likely elevate those numbers.

  The Farm is a great Audiobook- another example where the accents make all the difference.  I don't think I could have put on the female, Filipino accent which describes the speech of several of the main characters in my own head, they would, at best, not sound like Filipina's.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Traitors Head (2019) by Ismail Kadare

Book Review
The Traitors Head (2019)
by Ismail Kadare

   This 2017 nominee for the Man Booker International Prize finally got an American release in June of this year, allowing me to pick up the Ebook from the library after only a couple months on the waiting list. (Not a huge number of Ismail Kadare fans in the Los Angeles Public Library system?)
Ismail Kadare is THE Albanian author to read if you are going to read one Albanian novelist, and he's got a great reputation in France.  Also, he's the kind of writer the New York Times calls a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.   Seems like a long to medium shot to me, and he's generally in the same category as Ohman Pamuk  (2006 winner).   Or I guess you could call him a Balkan writer- which hasn't produced a winner since 1961. 

  The Traitors head is historical fiction, set in the time of the Ottoman Empire, and it is quite literally about the head of a traitor having his head transported to the so-called traitor's niche in Istanbul, where the head's of traitors are displayed and maintained by a doctor so the public can bear witness.   Like many of Kadare's books, the characters- there are maybe a dozen different narrators, are obsessed with power, and Albania's relationship to power. 

Audiobook Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Image result for tom stechschulte
Narrator Tom Stechschulte

Audiobook Review:
 The Road
 by Cormac McCarthy

    The Road is one of those classics: best seller, critical hit, great movie version; to which I find myself returning.   Cormac McCarthy is an author  in my top 10, if you are talking about contemporary American writers it would be McCarthy, Pynchon and Roth at this point.  For each of those writers, I'm going  back through the various back catalog titles and formats, filling in the blanks as it were.

   Cormac McCarthy and the Audiobook seem like a particularly good combination of canon level author/and format- most of his Audiobooks are narrated by actor Tom Stechschulte, including The Road.  He's the first Audiobook narrator who seems a star in his own right- it helps that all of McCarthy's books work SO well as Audiobooks.   His prose-style is unmistakable: economical and violent, and it translates directly into the spoken words.

  Hearing McCarthy's sparse descriptions of what we call "the After Time" around here, are particularly compelling in Audiobook.  At times more evocative then the also very good movie.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman (2019) by Niklas Natt Och Dag

Bok Review
The Wolf and the Watchman (2019)
 by Niklas Natt Och Dag

   There is no question that the "Scandanavian Noir" genre has a pedigree which carries the potential to ascend into the precincts of literary fiction, from Smila's Sense of Snow to the Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, we are talking about close to two decades of critical-popular cross-over hits in English translation, with movie adaptations in the bargain.   One of the characteristics of the genre is a thematic darkness that is more apt to evoke the Marquis de Sade than Raymond Chandler as an influence.   Sexual abuse, torture, sexually abusive torture, all figure prominently and it's possible that the idea of European sophistication allows some of these writers to get away with material that would be beyond the pale if set in America.

   So, when critics call The Wolf and the Watchman a combination of Sherlock Holmes and True Detective, but set in early 18th century Stockholm and when said combination wins best Swedish Crime Novel in 2017, the reader can be assured shit is going to get mental.  Just the set up should be enough:  A corpse is discovered floating in the water around Sweden.  It is limbless, eyeless and has had it's tongue ripped out.  Who is the victim?  Who did this to him, and why?

  I listened to the Audiobook- it was a good choice for the format, as crime/detective fiction always seems to be.  At slightly over 10 hours, The Wolf and the Watchman runs a bit long, largely because Natt Och Dag splits his narrative between a handful of narrators.   The Sherlock Holmes character, a consumptive lawyer-detective and his sidekick, an alchoholic night watchman with one arm, haunted by his experiences in the Swedish-German wars of the late 18th century, turn into an appealing duo and the general similarities with "Sherlock Holmes" are overwhelmed by the difference in setting and Dag's interest in the actual history of Sweden. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Power Trip: The Story of Energy (2019) by Michael E. Webber

Book Review
Power Trip: The Story of Energy (2019)
 by Michael E. Webber

  There is a school of thought that our whole modern civilization is basically a century long ponzi scheme based on the exploitation of our available fossil fuel resources.  Once the fuels are gone, so our the advances that we have attributed to our human ingenuity.  It's a hypothesis that is intriguing even without the bonus kicker: that it is these fossil fuels that are causing global client change and the imminent collapse of said civilization enable by fossil fuel exploitation.

   Michael E. Webber is an engineer/professor/energy executive, not a liberal climate-change obsessed muckraking journalist, and Power Trip goes deeps into the the role of energy and energy exploitation in human history.  He is deeply concerned in the same way you might imagine the chariman of Exxon/Mobil might be in his/her private moments: Sure, the planet faces some pretty stiff challenges, but we wouldn't even be here without fossil fuels, and we've got plenty of ways to fight this thing together!

  Contrast this perspective to the more alarmist The Uninhabitable Earth, which covers many of the very same subjects but without the engineering/energy industry can-do enthuasism for ways we can get out of this mess.    It's an interesting take- I'd recommend the incredibly detailed product page written by Basic Books.

Last Day (2019) by Domenica Ruta

Image result for domenica ruta
Author Domenica Ruta
Book Review
Last Day (2019)
by Domenica Ruta

  I'm trying to keep up with contemporary literary fiction.  This basically involves subscribing to the book review feed of the New York Times, the Guardian (UK), Kirkus Reviews (not very useful), The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books.  The physical copy of Entertainment Weekly, to which my girlfriend is a subscriber.  The physical copy of the Los Angeles Times Sunday edition.  The nominations for the Booker Prize, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer.

  I managed to check out the Ebook edition pretty close to the release date of May 28th.  Ruta has a non-fiction best-seller about her childhood, and the New York Times review raved about this book. I wasn't taken by it, but that might be because of the Ebook format- which does a disservice to any title that strays outside of conventional genre territory: ok to read crime fiction or science fiction, but not literary fiction.

 Last Day is a book about people and their relationships, covered with an alternate world situation where the End of the World is celebrated each year in the same way that we celebrate New Years.  The various characters- nerdy Sarah and Kurt, her reprobate love interest, crazy Karen, on the precipise of homelessness as she struggles with mental illness and an international cast of characters on the space station orbiting above the earth.

  Details on the holiday are scarce- that's one way to tell that Last Day is a work of literary fiction, not genre fiction.  It's more of a collection of short stories about the various characters then a conventional novel, linked by the temporal element of the Last Day celebration.


Friday, June 28, 2019

A Memory Called Empire (2019) by Arkady Martine

Book Review
A Memory Called Empire (2019)
by Arkady Martine

  If you search the term, "space opera" on Google, you will read that it was coined as a pejorative term to describe over-wrought science fiction which mimicked the "opera" of a soap opera on television.  It was never a reference to opera the art form.  Space Opera is known for imitating models like ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, ancient China, etc, except with advanced weaponry and fast than light speed travel, all of it poorly explained to the reader.

  So to call A Memory Called Empire a space opera is accurate, but also a little dismissive.  There's nothing wrong with space opera per se, but it would be hard to imagine such a work transcending genre limitations.   However, Arkady Martine- a pseudonym for Anna Linden Weller, a scholar of the Byzantine Empire, is not your average space opera debutante, and I think her publisher, Macmillan, has high hopes for her Texicalaan, of which A Memory Called Empire is the first volume.

  I listened to the Audiobook- I think I might actually be too ashamed to read an actual copy of A Memory Called Empire.  They used a woman to narrate, which makes sense because the narrator and protagonist is a woman- a young ambassador sent from an independent mining outpost to the center of a giant galactic empire.  It is a human universe, though Martine appears to be setting up a conflict with the first "non human" civilization in the galaxy.  Martine's academic background shows up in her loving description of the Texicalaan imperial bureaucracy.

  Oh also Martine is LGBT and so is the main character, so that's cool, because the world of speculative science fiction can be pretty male and cis male heavy. 

The Porpoise (2019) by Mark Haddon

Book Review
The Porpoise (2019)
 by Mark Haddon

   You could call English author Mark Haddon a one-hit wonder on the basis of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which has spawned a theatrical version and which, to this day, continues to sell buckets.  Just in the past week, I check his Amazon sales rank- which was impressive- and I saw Curious Incident on display at the local Barnes & Noble.

  But, as my girlfriend reminded me when I brought up The Porpoise, Haddon's new novel, he actually has published multiple novels since Curious Incident as well as a collection of short stories.   Both novels were standard issues white people and their problems type books, but the collection of short stories included flights of fancy and science fiction type themes which hinted that Haddon was figuring out what he should have known after Curious Incident proved a hit:  YOU NEED A HOOK.

  Curious Incident, a detective story about an autistic kid, had a hook.   The Porpoise also has a hook, being a remaking of the Greek myth of Antiochus, the Greek tyrant with incestuous leanings.   Shakespeare remade the Greek myth in his Pericles play, and Haddon layers his own modern interpretation on top.   Haddon really lets himself go in terms of themes, in addition to the incest, which is unavoidable with the source material being what it is, he also adds ghosts, time travel and Godly interventions, while juggling narrative in the present, the Mediterranean middle ages and the Elizabethan era.

  The Audiobook I listened to made for an exciting listen- I raced through, and emerged convinced that Haddon maybe had another hit on his hands, but it doesn't seem like he's generated alot of buzz and/or sales, so maybe not.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Beautiful Mrs. Siedenman (1989) by Andrzej Szczypiorski

Book Review
The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1989)
by Andrzej Szczypiorski

Replaces: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

   A clear theme from the 1001 Books revision in 2008 was adding in new and different viewpoints, and as you move back in time, the interest in diversifying the viewpoints embodied by the books on the list becomes clearer.   Szczypioski is a Polish author, not Jewish, and was a staunch critic of the Communist regime and member of the Solidarity movement.  The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman is sort-of about the title character, the Polish looking Jewish wife of a recently deceased Doctor, trying to avoid internment in the Warsaw ghetto by posing as the Polish widow of an Army officer (not Jewish.)

   But really the approach is kaleidoscopic and we get the perspectives of several different characters- the resistance fighters who spring into action when she is denounced by a local Jewish informer.  The perspective of said informer.  The sympathetic ethnic German who has lived in Poland his whole live but finds himself as an officer in the German army, but secretly helps the Polish resistance, the German officer who is in charge of ferreting out secret Jews among the Polish population.  The activity of the book takes place over a single day: Mrs. Seidenman is denounced, arrested and released, and the various characters reminiscence about life before, during and after the invasion.

  Mrs. Seidenman replaces another Margaret Atwood novel, The Robber Bride.  How crazy is it that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in 2013- a  Canadian writer unrepresented in the 1001 Books list, while Atwood is among the most listed authors.  It must drive Atwood NUTS.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Ancestral Voices (1986) by Etienne Van Heerden

Book Review
Ancestral Voices  (1986)
 by Etienne Van Heerden

Replaces:  The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

  Etienne Van Heerden is an under-appreciated South African writer with strong American and European ties, including stints at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and the University of Leiden.  Van Heerden was raised speaking Afrikaans, but Ancestral Voices was written in English.   Van Heerden never formally broke with the Apartheid era South African regime, and he wasn't persecuted, but he was on the right side of history, and a member of one of the first organized group of Afrikaner writers to meet with the African National Congress.

  Ancestral Voices takes the form of an investigation into the mysterious death of an intellectually challenged bastard-child of a wealthy Afrikaner farming family.  The child falls down one of many bore holes that dot the property in an endless effort to secure fresh water for the farm.  The magistrate- the central figure in the story- arrives from the city months after the death, and only one thing is clear: no one is talking. 

  Ancestral Voices is a frank narrative about the Afrikaner ruling class, in all their ugly glory.  Like books about the white slave owning class of the Southern United States, it's possible to see glory and shame in the achievements of the pioneer Afrikaners.  Yes, they were genocidal towards the unorganized tribes men who they found near their land.   I guess, in their favor, you could say that they didn't get involved in trading slaves, and frequently dealt with the remaining black-African population with something resembling respect.

  Not the family in this book though- where the interracial offspring of a son of the family and the daughter of an early black servant becomes a subject of generations of tension.   At times, it is unclear where Van Heerden is headed with the investigation itself, which ends up being an exploration of generations of racial and family grievances.    Of course, that is the point, and the detective story who dun it is just a hook to get the reader involved in the lives of this tragic clan.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

After Dark, My Sweet (1955) by Jim Thompson

Image result for rachel ward after dark my sweet
Rachel Ward playing the femme fatalle in the Palm Springs set movie versino of After Dark, My Sweet, by Jim Thompson
Book Review
After Dark, My Sweet (1955)
by Jim Thompson

   There is a strong argument that Jim Thompson is the BEST writer of pulp-style crime fiction between 1950 and 1965, when Thompson was turning out canon level works every two or three years, and publishing a book or two EVERY year.   He wasn't recognized as canon-level at the time his books were coming out, except perhaps by the New York Times, but during the crime-fiction revival of the 1980's, with an assist from Hollywood, Thompson was elevated to secure canon status, meaning that in 2019 there are four Thompson titles available as Audiobooks from the library- and all of this book-books.

   You've got this book, The Grifters (1963),  A Swell-Looking Babe(1954) and The Killer Inside Me (1952).  Of those four  After Dark, My Sweet, about an ex-boxer, insane asylum escapee "Kid" Collins, and a kidnapping intrigue involving two co-conspirators in an unnamed small town somewhere in America, stands out for the character of "Kid" Collins, a particularly disturbing Thompson-style unreliable narrator, who alternates between the gee-whiz lingo of mid-50's Americana and occasional uncontrollable "red rages" that end poorly for other people nearby.

  Like crime fiction as a genre, After Dark, My Sweet is great material for the Audiobook narrator- any book with a single narrator, under ten hours in length, requires little or no "extra" effort to follow plot or characters.  It's hard not to visualize the Audiobook as a film- it was a film in 1990, and the Wikipedia page for the name After Dark. My Sweet is for the film, not the book, with no link to a separate page for the book.

   The kidnapping plot was genuinely effective, crime fiction, for me works better in Audiobook then the related detective genre.  It's interesting, because it would be easy to simply say that After Dark, My Sweet, the book is a noir, but noir refers to films, not books, and the movie version didn't come out until decades into the "neo-noir" period.   In general Thomson anticipated the psychological complexity that turned out to be one of the primary criteria to distinguish genre transcending canon crime fiction of the 50's and 60's from the also-rans. 

McGlue (2014) by Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review
McGlue (2014)
by Ottessa Moshfegh

  I was intrigued enough by My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh to turn around and check out the Audiobook for McGlue, her 2014 debut novella (or novel if you want to stretch the term.)    McGlue is a sailor living in the mid 19th century.  He wakes up in the hold of a ship where he was employed as a sailor.  His captors tell him that he has murdered his best, and only friend, an act McGlue can not remember.

   Soon enough, McGlue finds himself in a prison cell in Salem, Massachusetts.   He is alcoholic, a deviant and he has a literal crack in his skull through which the brain is visible.  The prose is biting, bitter, sardonic.  In other words, similar to the other Otessa Moshfegh book I've read, which is narrated by a young woman living in the late 20th century.   That is what you call style.

  I'm inclined to think that McGlue is another exhibit in the case that Moshfegh is a major talent. 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019) by Sara Collins

Sara Collins
Author Sara Collins grew up in the Caribbean and studied creative writing in England (at Cambridge University, in case anyone is asking)

Book Review
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019)
by Sara Collins

    I managed to check out the Audiobook for this new novel by Sara Collins- no wait- which is hugely unusual in the library/Audiobook universe, probably because of a quirk in international publishing where books will be published in multiple English speaking countries at the same time but only promoted in certain territories.   Here,  The Confessions of Fannie Langton received a good bit of press in the UK but almost none in the United States.

  Like recent Booker Prize winner and personal favorite Marlon James, Collins is of Jamaican decent but left Jamaica to find her voice- James to the United States and Collins to the United Kingdom.  Also like James, she includes LGBT voices in her fiction- not particularly unusual outside of Jamaica, but still controversial inside Jamaica, which has a terrible track record for protecting LGBT rights, and in fact, was actively persecuting LGBT people until late into the 20th century.

  The Confessions of Fannie Langton is Collins' debut, and I agree with The Guardian that she is a  star in the making.  I would be surprised if Langton isn't longlisted for one or more major literary prizes.  The two major touchstones for Collins- outside of what appears to be her voluminous historically based research- are Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe, a book to which Langton refers regularly as she recounts her Confessions and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which is similar in terms of the narrative:  A servant accused of murdering her employers.

  Set in the 1820's, an awkward period after the slave trade had been outlawed in the British Empire, and inside the United Kingdom, but where slaves themselves were legal in places that already had them (Jamaica), the first setting of Confessions is set on the inappropriately named "Paradise" where Langton is plucked as a young girl to be a house servant.

    After a difficult childhood and adolescence, where she is taught to read and write and eventually adopted by the plantation master to be his "scientific" assistant in his experiments into the nature of racial differences, she is gifted to London based scientist and scholar George Benham, who is married to the eccentric daughter of French (presumably) Hugenot's, Marguerite.  In England, Frannie is no longer a slave, but also, as she often observes to herself- far from free- with no friends outside the home (or in it) and no place to go should she wish to leave.

   The Audiobook was read by the author herself, and it was enjoyable as an Audiobook, and works well in that format, since it is the voice of a single narrator, recounting her past in a prison cell.   It's possible to make it half-way through Confessions wondering if there are to be any twists and turns beyond the "did she or didn't she" murder narrative, but they do begin to appear, and they are fascinating and horrifying, and such that I would recommend  The Confessions of Frannie Langdon as an ideal beach read (as did The Guardian) and a great candidate for the Booker Prize longlist.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh

Image result for ottessa moshfegh
Author Ottessa Moshfegh
Book Review
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018)
 by Ottessa Moshfegh

    This was a book club selection- I'm in a book club in Atwater Village- if there are any la readers who want to get in on it LMK- NO WEIRDOS!  Unlike most of the book club picks, I was actually excited to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation, having heard a plot summary, "Young woman uses pills to try to sleep her life away" which deeply aroused my interest.    Set in the year before the 9/11 attacks, in Manhattan, the unnamed narrator is a young/thin/blond Manhattanite woman, recently orphaned via the death of her father from disease and her mother from suicide.  She is wealthy enough to be able to hatch her plan- to self medicate herself into oblivion for a year as an attempt to deal (or not deal) with the unresolved trauma surrounding the deaths of her parents.

   Her partner in crime, and almost the only other character in the novel, is Reva, the aspirational Jewish sidewalk to the narrator's waifish WASP.  In what constitutes almost the entire "action" in the whole book, the narrator makes her way to Long Island for the funeral of Reva's mother.

  But most of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is about the narrator, her pills, and her interior monologue.  And yet, I found My Year of Rest and Relaxation impossible to put down (it isn't long) and read it in one sitting.  After finishing it, I had suspicions that Moshfegh might be one of those rare writers who can evoke both sales and critical praise.  It's also interesting that some readers HATE My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and that can also be an indication of greatness.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Underground (2019) by Will Hunt

Image result for cave buffalo france
The famous and rarely seen Bull and Cow Bison from the French cave at Tuc D'Audobert

Book Review
Underground (2019)
 by Will Hunt

   Underground by writer/"audio journalist" Will Hunt is a work of creative non-fiction about humanity and it's relationship with caves, basically.   Incredibly, in between the time it took me to request and listen to the Audiobook (read by the author, fyi) ANOTHER book came out about a similar subject, Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane.  That's crazy, right?

  The tone of Underground varies between capable reportage and summaries of recent academic research about various caves.  Early chapters trace the author's fascination with the underground, from abandoned railway tunnels in his native Rhode Island, to formative years spend urban-spelunking with hipsters and graffiti artists in New York.  Adulthood arrives with a south-to-north journey through the catacombs of Paris.

   Hunt concludes with two of his strongest chapters- the first a visit to the rarely visited cave at Tuc D'Audobert with the 14,000 year old pair of bison shown above.  That chapter counts as a genuine coup, and I wonder if it helped sell the book.  Finally, there is a chapter about the Maya and the Yucatan, which, as any world traveler knows, is the world capital of underground caves.

  My interest in each individual chapter peaked when Hunt wrote about lesser known subjects, and slackened in areas where I had some background.  For example, I own a first edition hardback of Mole People by Jennifer Toth, which is pretty much all you need to know about the New York Underground.   The Parisian Catacombs are familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of 19th century French literature- I wasn't sure what a group of early 21st century spelunkers could bring that writers like Zola lacked.

Early Riser (2019) by Jasper Fforde

Book Review
Early Riser (2019)
 by Jasper Fforde

   Jasper Fforde is an English novelist who slots into the comic/science fiction genre area notably occupied in the past by Douglas Adams, a legit canon level writer who never wrote anything resembling "serious" literary fiction but managed to transcend genre both in the realm of science fiction, with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series AND in detective fiction, with the Dirk Gently Holistic detective series.  Both were represented in the original edition of 1001 Books, and I agree- I loved The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in middle school, and enjoyed re-reading it more recently.

  Fforde imagines an alternate-Earth where human hibernate during the winter, leaving a skeleton crew of maintainence workers and law enforcement to deal with the many perils of winter:  "Nightwalkers" (humans who fail to wake up from hibernation at the end of winter), small scale nuclear disasters caused by reliance of nuclear powered hibernation chambers, and depredations by various groups of winter raiders.

  The alternate history scenario includes a world where Wales is independent, and the remaining English nobility are exiled to the far reaches of northern Wales, where they persist in speaking English and observing antiquated customs, like afternoon tea.  The characters of the novel are presumably speaking Welsh.   Fforde doesn't skimp on alternate history detail, including repeatedly mentioning that the Ottoman Empire has survived the 20th century and the Nazis, and Stalin, are nowhere to be seen. 

  The primary concern of this world is reproduction, and the cold fact that a certain percentage of the human population doesn't make it through the winter.  Within this world, the major development of the mid 20th century is a drug called "Morpinox" which greatly increase the chance that a specific human will survive the winter, but which has the unfortunate side effect of creating Nightwalkers.

 Charlie Worthing, the narrator and protagonist, signs up for the Winter Consul Service out of a yearning to escape the quiet desperation of his young adult life, where he is stuck in a dead end job as an assistant at a nursery/orphanage where the goal is to generate new humans in a collective environment, run by nuns who are kept perpetually pregnant.

  For his first assignment, Worthing, is dispatched with his sponsor/mentor to the mysterious "District 12" (Northern Wales).  First, his boss is killed, then he is drawn into a plot involving the sinister corporation behind Morphinox, a woman with a split personality who spends half her time as the head of the Winter Consul Service and the other half as head of security for the Morphinox producing corporation. 

   Early Riser is interesting as a work of funny science fiction- it was a great listen as an Audiobook.  There is ambition in the scenario, though the execution ends up being pretty rote and genre-y.  Still, I'd recommend it to genre fans and non genre fans who happen to like Douglas Adams type jokes.

Blog Archive