Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Spinoza of Market Street (1963) by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Image result for isaac bashevis singer young
Isaac Bashevis Singer is a suprising omission from the 1001 Books list
Book Review
The Spinoza of Market Street (1963)
 by Isaac Bashevis Singer

   Isaac Bashevis Singer doesn't rate in the 1001 Books list.  I'm not shocked- Singer, despite winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, doesn't have much of a contemporary audience.  I'm not sure how many (if any) of his books you would see on the shelf at your average Barnes & Noble let alone an indie book store- despite the Nobel Prize in Literature, despite the fact that he lived and worked in the United States for most of his adult life.  I've never had a friend bring up Singer in conversation, never heard of one of his books being adapted for film or television, never read an article about him.  The more I consider his absence from my literary consciousness, the more bizarre it seems.

  That's what I was thinking when I saw him on the list of Nobel Prize winners, and I found this stand alone Audiobook version of his short story, The Spinoza of Market Street.  Spinoza was incredibly prolific with a career full of novels, short story collections and children's literature, all of which was lauded, but also it seems, almost forgotten not fifty years after he was canonized.

  The Spinoza of the story is an elderly professor, living in the pre-destruction Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe.  Basically what happens is he falls in love with his housekeeper, or rather, the owner of the boarding house where he has been consigned during a patch of ill health in middle age.  It all seems very innocent, almost 19th century in the tone,   It certainly represents a clear "before" the Holocaust portrayal slice  of Jewish life.  Honestly, Singer has published so many books I'm not even sure where to begin,

Ghost Wall (2018) by Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss PIC: Pako Mera/REX/Shutterstock
English writer Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall
Book Review
Ghost Wall (2018)
by Sarah Moss
Published January 2019

  In my post 1001 Books list era, I source many of my new choices from my feed.  The Guardian, in particular, provides many new ideas for books, both newly published and for catalog titles. The Guardian was founded in Manchester, though these days it is more typically associated with London, where it has it's present base of operations.   It certainly appears true to me that on a per capita basis, the UK has the strongest market for literary fiction both in terms of an actual audience for purchasing books and also for the critical audience. 

  That's how I came across Ghost Wall, the sixth novel by Sarah Moss, and English novelist who is well into her career but hasn't had the big splash, either in terms of cross-oceanic commercial success or a Booker Prize nomination.    Ghost Wall tells the story- of Silvie, an adolescent girl who is on a week long "Iron Age" retreat, with her bus driver father , who has the kind of working class intellectual obsession with the iron age that you only seem to hear about in British television shows and books.   As becomes clear, Silvie's father Bill is an abuser, of both the physical and mental variety (though not sexual, or maybe sexual, but not within this book, as told by Silvie). 

  Any reader familiar with the mentality of the victims of domestic violence will view Silvie with sympathy.  Moss stuffs Ghost Wall with authentic detail from the sub-culture of students and fans of iron age culture- it's a world where the Romans are viewed as arriviste's .  For Silvie's father, Bill,  there is a clear link between his mentality and the mentality of pro-Brexit voters: Immigrants out, even the ones from two thousand years ago.

  Ghost Wall isn't long- 144 pages in print and under four hours in the Audiobook format.  I don't think the physical book has been released in the United States, but in what is becoming an increasingly common occurrence, the Ebook and Audiobook were released simultaneously in the United States and the UK.  It was an excellent Audiobook- Silvie speaks with a north England accent, and the student characters she interacts with have the more common southern English accent, and this difference is an important part of what happens in Ghost Wall.

    Moss throws in a third act twist that leaves the reader satisfied with their minimal investment of time and energy.  Also, there is nothing supernatural or gothic about Ghost Wall, it's more like a work of kitchen sink realism with the iron age thrown in as a twist to engage the audience. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Book About Blanche and Marie (2007) by Per Olov Enquist

Book Review
The Book About Blanche and Marie (2007)
 by Per Olov Enquist

Replaces: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

  I might have lived by entire life without hearing about Swedish author Per Olov Enquist (P.O. Enquist) were it not for the first revision of the 1001 Books list. Enquist made it onto the list with The Book About Blanche and Marie, about the relationship between and lives of famous scientist Marie Curie and Blanch Wittmann, the "Queen of the Hysterics" and later triple amputee as a result of her being the subject of early x ray experiments.

  The major take-away from this slim volume, besides the fact of Blanch Wittmann's existence and the role she played in the development of Freudian Psychiatry, is to add color to the life of Marie Curie- one of the few people, let alone women to win  the Nobel Prize in two separate categories.  As the book relates, Curie became entangled in an affair with a married man (after her own husband died) which became a post-Dreyfuss affair cause celebre in fin de siecle Paris.

 Enquist adopts a neutral tone, neither canonizing nor demonizing Marie, and allowing the reader to puzzle through what, if anything, it all means. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Waiting for Eden (2018) by Elliot Ackerman

Image result for elliot ackerman
Author Elliot Ackerman

Book Review
Waiting for Eden
by Elliot Ackerman
Published September 2018

    Elliot Ackerman is the latest in the fine American tradition of soldier-authors, or Ambulance drivers near the theater of war in the case of the Lost Generation, but FWIW Ackerman actually won some military commendations, and he combines his experience with the style of any ivy league educated writer of literary fiction (and maybe somebody who doesn't need to earn a living from his writing, based on his refusal to write the kind of book that would be a smash best seller/spawner of a feature film or television show, etc.)

   Waiting for Eden is his take on a Samuel Beckett novel- narrated by a dead soldier whose spirit is hovering over the mangled almost-dead body of his friend and fellow soldier, Eden, who is the "most injured man" to actually survive a war wound.   A more accurate title for Waiting for Eden would have been "Waiting for Eden to Die," because that is what the reader, and all the characters are awaiting.

  Fortunately, Waiting for Eden isn't overly long, only 192 pages in hardback, and the Audiobook I listened to was only four.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe

Image result for tom hanks bonfire of the vanities
Who can forget the casting in the movie version of  The Bonfire of the Vanities: Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis as English(?!?) journalist James Fallows
Book Review
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
by Tom Wolfe

    Many of the remaining unreviewed titles from the original 1001 Books list share the following attributes:

  -I've read them before
  - Over 500 pages in length
 - Written in the mid to late 20th century

   The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's 690 page (28 hour as an Audiobook) Magnum Opus, ticks all three boxes.  In fact, I've been dreading having to reread this tome- especially since the entire enterprise hasn't aged well.   The aging process was irrevocably sabotaged by the disastrous Brian DePalma directed, Tom Hanks starring movie version, which is high on the matrix of films that lost money AND were critically reviled AND featured across the board A list talent.

  As far as Wolfe's canonical reputation is concerned, he's got one mortal lock: The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.    You can make an argument for The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities.  His later work- everything after The Bonfire of the Vanities, was basically a flop.  Perhaps there is some hope for a posthumous reevaluation of his post Bonfire novels- there were three of them spread over a decade and a half- but I doubt I'll be reading any of them.

   I waited months to check out my copy of the Audiobook from the library- then I had to rush through the 25 plus hours in 21 days- making for some uncomfortable days of listening.  The entire time I was waiting for the actual trial of Sherman McCoy for the hit and run incident that defines the book, having forgotten that Wolfe actually had the gall to write a seven hundred page book almost entirely about the criminal courts of New York City without writing a trial into his book.

 Surely, we could have done without the hundred pages of describing dinner parties and tony restaurants favored by the British expatriate journalist community- but no- it's satire, don't forget, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, is at a very basic level, supposed to be funny.  If that's the case, I didn't laugh a single time the entire time I was listening.  In fact, I found The Bonfire of the Vanities deeply unfunny, and while I'm not the kind of reader to get offended by satire, some of his portraits- particularly his Al Sharpton derived Reverend, occasionally evoke a cringe.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Faceless Killers (1991) by Henning Mankell

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Kenneth Branagh plays mercurial (is there any other kind) Swedish Police Detective Kurt Wallander

Book Review
Faceless Killers (1991)
 by Henning Mankell

Replaces: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

  Faceless Killers is the first "Wallander" novel- about mercurial small-town Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander  and his personal and professional problems.  Mankell is one of the canonical authors of "scandi-noir" which more or less burst into the international consciousness when Smilla's Sense of Snow made it big, and reached a height during the Girl with A Dragon Tattoo era.  Wallender isn't quite as explosive as Lisbeth "Dragon Tattoo" Sanders, but the two share a similar fascination with coupling straight forward detective work with deeper Scandinavian social issues.

   Here, immigration is the social issue, and the murder is that of an elderly farming couple, who at first glance have nothing to hide.  Wallender's personal issues include a troubled relationship with his father, a recent separation/divorce, a troubled relationship with his daughter, an episode of unprotected drunk driving and a very mild attempt at sexual battery.  The personal problems get as much attention as the crime itself.  It's hard to say why Wallender captured the attention of the international crime fiction community, but my best guess is it is the novelty of the setting: small town Sweden, that attracted audiences more used to big city crimes and big city detectives.

  I listned to the Audiobook- a good choice for this and other works of Detective fiction, since this book, like others in the genre, is told in a single narrative voice- that of Wallender himself. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Fever and Spear (2002) by Javier Marias

Book Review
Fever and Spear (2002)
Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 1
by Javier Marias

Replaces: Unless by Carol Shields

   Fever and Spear is actually the first part of a single work which was published in three separate volumes over the course of the decade.  Despite the intent by the author, the only way to read the three volumes in English is by reading the three books- i.e. there is no single volume version.   The tagline for all three volumes of Your Face Tomorrow is either "Henry James meets John Le Carre" or "Proust meets Ian Fleming," but both comparisons adequately convey the extent to which Your Face Tomorrow contains spy fiction motives and high modernist stream-of-consciousness musings on bigger issues.

  Deza, the narrator and protagonist of all three volumes is a Spaniard, living in London after the break up of his marriage, who is recruited by a shadowy agency which, it is strongly implied, is a super secret wing of the British secret service.  In Fever and Spear, the action doesn't progress beyond the initial recruitment, brief "spy" type encounters interspersed with lengthy digressions by Deza about the past and his personal history.

   Fever and Spear replaces Unless, the novel by Canadian-American writer Carol Shields.  It's hard to believe that Shields got two volumes in the first version of the 1001 Books list and eventual Nobel Prize in Literature winner and fellow Canadian writer of "domestic fiction" got zero.  Marias, though represented in the first edition, is another member of the wave of Spanish language fiction which features so prominently in the later parts of the revised version of the 1001 Books list- a veritable flood!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Heretic (2007) by Miguel Delibes

Book Review
The Heretic (2007)
 by Miguel Delibes

Replaces:  An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma

  So many Spanish language books in the 2008 revision of the original 1001 Books list- like they didn't even know about Spanish language books when they were putting together the first edition. Maybe they added a specialist as an editor for the second go round.

  Miguel Delibes died in 2010 after a distinguished literary career inside Spain, and to, a lesser degree, Europe.  I don't think he ever really developed an English language audience, maybe because he achieved his success in Spain when it was still a vaguely Fascist state.   The Heretic is a work of historical fiction, about a Spanish nobleman, Cipriano Salcedo.   Salcedo leads a tortured life after his mother dies in childbirth and his father essentially abandons him, first to a hired nursemaid, and then to a boarding school. 

  Salcedo discovers the thinkers of the reformation at the very dawn of that era, and it isn't a spoiler to tell a prospective reader that the Inquisition is a' comin'.   And that is about it for The Heretic- it's not long- not even three hundred pages, but this was his prize winner in a hugely prolific career- the The Heretic won the top literary prize in Spain when it was published in Spanish in 1996, so I guess that is what us English speakers get, as far as Delibes is concerned.  I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend The Heretic unless you are specifically interested in the experience of the Spanish Inquisition- I mean I am- but how many others.  I've certainly not come across anything similar written in English.

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