Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Electric State (2018)by Simon Stålenhag

Image result for the electric state stalenhag nuerocaster
Simon Stalenhag's American road trip, The Electric State, centers on the disastrous consequences of  a headset virtual reality device called the nuerocaster

Book Review
The Electric State (2018)
by Simon Stålenhag

   Author and artist Simon Stalenhag has developed a cult following world wide based on his drawings of an alternate history Europe where giant robots co-exist with bucolic rural scenes of the Swedish country side.

 It was, perhaps, inevitable that Stalenhag, like any good Swedish artist with ambition, has turned his sights on America.  The Electric State is the result, another alternate past (the 1990's) where a teen girl and her robot wander westward in a world that is first of all, eerily empty, second  in the aftermath of an unspecified apocalypse which involved spaceships and third, has recovered enough so that the remainder of humanity has been enslaved by the Neurocaster device, shown above.  Also, giant self propelled robots patrol the countryside with Neurocaster wearing humans attached by long hoses.  It is a nighmarish dystopia, but it is, like Stalenhag's other works, very laid back. 

  The teen girl, it turns out, is searching for her brother- that is about it for a plot.  The pictures sometimes depict important events in the written story- but not always- and some of the most horrifying word images were left maddeningly undrawn.   I got the Ebook version from the library- I was curious to see how a largely visual book would work in the Kindle app- it was great!   No complaints.  I could just enlarge the photos and pan across it- as big as I wanted.

  The Electric State is neither a graphic novel, or an illustrated novel- it's not long enough for a novel, and the drawings don't contain any cartoon style/comic book style text, just the drawings (paintings?) themselves.  It's most like an art book, the kind of thing that might accompany a museum exhibition. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Waiting for the Darkness, Waiting for the Light (1995) by Ivan Klima

Book Review
Waiting for the Darkness, Waiting for the Light (1995)
 by Ivan Klima

Replaces:  Timbuktu by Paul Auster

 Late 20th century European literature is a dour affair to be sure. Struggling to think of an angle for a review of yet another dour central European author, I thought to look at other authors listed under the European literature tag to check for dourness as a theme, and here is what I got:

Herta Muller: dour
Javier Marias: dourish
Jorge Volpi: dour
Orhan Pamuk: super dour
Ismail Kadare: dour
Slavenka Drakulic: dour
Knut Hamsun: dour
Halldor Laxness: dour
Laszlo Krasznahorkai: not that dour
Peter Esterhazy: not dour
Antonio Munoz Molina: dour
Jose Saramago: dour
Milan Kundera; dourish
Jachym Topol: dour
Milorad Pavic: dour

  I could go on, but as far as the English language market for European literature in translation goes, the experience of life under Communist dictatorships after World War II in central and eastern Europe is where it is at, and if you are not writing about that subject- good luck- try a detective novel withe supernatural overtones, perhaps, otherwise forget it.

  I mean where is the joy in European literature?  When do these characters ever get to have fun? To stop living in a morally compromised world of regret.  European literature of the late 20th century reminds me of a color swatch you would see at a paint store that covers the spectrum of white or grey: a million different shades of grey.   One of the merits of this area of world literature is that it gives a genuine underdog role to the kind of well educated liberal professionals who annoy when cast in English or American books.   A bored yuppie in New York City can be a heroic freedom fighter or morally compromised protagonist in places like Czechoslovakia, Romania or Hungary. 

  That's the case here, where the main character is a former political prisoner who has rehabilitated himself all the way into a leading role in the first post-communist advertising industry in Czechoslovakia.  It's hard to shed a tear for Timbuktu the novellla(!) which Waiting for Darkness, Waiting for the Light replaced in the first revision of the 1001 Books list.   It's a novella, written from the perspective of a dog- that's what Timbuktu is.   Hardly a classic and I'm at a loss as to how it snuck into the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  There is no good explanation.

The Order of the Day (2018) by Éric Vuillard

French author Eric Vuillard won the Prix Goncourt in 2017 for The Order of the Day.  The English language translation was published late last year.
Book Review
The Order of the Day (2018)
by Éric Vuillard

  The Order of the Day won the Prix Goncourt- France's most prestigious literary prize- in 2017.  That typically means an automatic translation into English, and so it was no surprise that anEnglish language translation was published in October of last year.  Only 144 pages in length, The Order of the Day fictionalizes the real world events that preceded World War II, specifically, a meeting held between Hitler and a dozen of Germany's industrial families where said families gave the Nazi's enough money to take over the government.

   This is followed by a longer investigation of Austria's utter capitulation to an invading German army.  Readers familiar with 20th century literature about World War II are sure to anticipate the tone of The Order of the Day, yet another illustration of Hannah Arendt's comment about the "banality of evil" but perhaps the emphasis her is to point out that people like the representatives of Germany's leading industrial families and the sitting Austrian government were a little bit more than innocent victims of historical forces beyond their control.

   It's not a new observation, but Vuillard manages to get the message across in 144 pages of laconic fiction, and in this regard his take is probably more likely to reach a wide audience than a dozen tombs of history or political science exploring the same subject. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015) by Luccia Berlin

Image result for lucia berlin
Luccia Berlin is ready for her revival.

Book Review
A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015)
 by Luccia Berlin

  American short-story writer Luccia Berlin is undergoing the kind of post-humous literary revival that canon dreams are made of, A Manual for Cleaning Women representing a re-collection of her previously published self stories, a "best of" if you will, complete with a foreword, an introduction, a biographical post-script that confirms the biographical origins of all of her stories.  If you wanted to point to a reason for Berlin's revival it would seemingly lie at the intersection of the rise of "auto-fiction" or autobiographical fiction that Berlin embodies and her status as a non-conventional female author who combined incredible erudition with Bukowski-like life experience, including a lost decade or so as an alcoholic- a period which produces many of her most harrowing and best stories.

  I gather from the prefatory material that is more kosher to compare Berlin to Carver than to Burkowski, perhaps as a way to lessen the emphasis on her period as an alcoholic, but man- those stories really dwarf the other periods of her life: peripatetic childhood as the daughter of a mining executive in various western towns ranging from Alaska to Arizona, adolescence as the wealthy child of an expatriate mining executive in Chile, checkered student career and early marriage and divorce, second marriage to a heroin addicted jazz musician, aforementioned decades in the East Bay of California as a single mom, school teacher, alcoholic and then house cleaner, and post-recovery life in Boulder Colorado as a well-loved but non tenured college professor.

  The stories are told out of chronological sequence, although there has obviously been thought about how to structure the stories, with a general build towards the heavier stories, and short stories interspersed with longer stories.   But uh, clearly she was ahead of her time, or at the very least she was underappreciated in terms of her contribution to auto fiction, as an early practitioner of the form.   Maybe some of the under-appreciation has to do with her status as a short story writer exclusively.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Obabakoak : A Novel (1993) by Bernardo Atxaga

Book Review
Obabakoak : A Novel (1993)
by Bernardo Atxaga

Replaces: The Infomration by Martin Amis

    A major theme that emerges from the 1001 Books project is that it a Noah's Ark of literature with at least one representative for as any distinct literary viewpoints and techniques as can be agreed upon by editors.  So it shouldn't be a surprise that Basque author Bernardo Atxaga made it in to the first revision as a representative of the Basque region, whose language is the second most well known  (Korean) language isolate (i.e. a language unrelated to other languages) in the world. 

  Obabakoak is putatively about the inhabitants of a small Basque village, but it winds and wends it's way through a variety of sources, and stories within stories.  The overall impact places Atxaga in the tradition of Borges and many of his stories evoke the pan-European tradition of post-war fiction about members of dispossessed minority group.  It's a trope that doesn't quite ring true for the Basque, who despite the presence of a long-running separatist movement, where never forcibly removed from their homeland, and who continued to maintain a huge majority of population in their traditional homeland.

  In fact, you could say that the Basque are the most succesful indigenous people in Western Europe- perhaps them and the Welsh.  Atxaga replaces The Information by Marin Amis in the 2008 revision of the 1001 Books list- I like Amis, but it's hard to argue his over-representation in the first edition.  I mean one book for Martin Amis, right?  London Fields? I think that's enough.

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter (2016) by Herta Müller

Book Review
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter (2016)
by Herta Müller

  It is kind of amazing how little a difference a Nobel Prize in Literature can make inside the English language world when the winner doesn't write in English.  Müller was and continues to be a virtual unknown in the English speaking world- her first Google hit is her criticism of 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan for his complicity with the Chinese Communist regime.

 I think the Nobel Committee's own statement on Muller's importance is as good as any:

Herta Müller's literary works address an individual's vulnerability under oppression and persecution. Her works are rooted in her experiences as one of Romania's German-speaking ethnic minority. Herta Müller describes life under Ceaușescu's regime - how dictatorship breeds a fear and alienation that stays in an individual's mind. Innovatively and with linguistic precision, she evokes images from the past. Herta Müller's literary works are largely prosaic, although she also writes poetry.
  It seems to me that German language writers have a relative advantage because of the cultural similarity between German and Swedish culture, and the position of German culture as a parent culture to Scandinavia.   Muller has a spotty record in translation- for example, her Wikipedia bibliography is a mess- this book doesn't even have an English language title within Wikipedia.  As her Nobel's winner's bio plainly states, she specializes in life as a German speaking minority in the repressive Ceausescu regime.   

  There were mere many ethnic German trapped behind the Eastern bloc after the end of World War II.  Several hundred thousand were shipped to Soviet prison camps, and by that standard Muller's people did better than others. Muller herself emigrated to Germany in the 1980's, which seems like a pretty savvy move for your average writer writing in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.   

   Muller is far from straightforward in her prose style, despite knowing that The Fox Was Ever the Hunter was about life towards the end of the Communist era.  It is difficult enough to follow that I actively regretted choosing the Audiobook instead of getting a paper copy.  I only had the barest outline of the story in mind even halfway through.  Muller does get her act together in terms of the story towards the end, and the resolution was almost enough to make me forget the lengthy poetic passages.

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