Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Transcription: A Novel (2018) by Kathryn Atkinson

Image result for kate atkinson
English author Kate Atkinson

Book Review
Transcription: A Novel (2018)
by Kathryn Atkinson

  I hadn't heard of Kathryn Atkinson before Transcription, her sixth novel, was published last fall.  She won the Whitbread/Costa Prize for her last two books, and Transcription made an opening week appearance on Amazon's weekly "Most Sold" fiction list, so Transcription looks like a good bet for a Booker longlist- the Costa being a "fun" cousin of the Booker, but with a winners list that broadly overlaps with Booker Prize winners and repeat shortlisters.

  Her own Wikipedia page lists her as a "crime fiction" writer, which seems a little unfair.  Transcription, for example, is a work of historical spy fiction, the only crimes are treason committed. during wartime, with much of the malfeasance bearing the imprimatur of MI5.   Transcription is told entirely from the prospective of Juliet Armstrong, reflecting on her life as she approaches death in an anonymous London area hospital in 1981.  Armstrong is winningly voiced by English actress Fenella Woolgar,  I'm mentioning it because it was very rare that I'm listening to an Audiobook and the voice of the book is something that especially draws my attention, and when it does it's usually negative, so Woolgar's excellent interpretation of Armstrong is worth pointing out- listen just for Woolgar's voice.

  Atkinson folds the main narrative of Transcription inside the beginning and ending chapters set at Juliet's deathbed.  Much of it is a recounting of her service as a spy for MI5 during World War II, when she helped with the investigation of fifth columnists within England, seeking to support Germany.    The second layer of plot takes place in 1950, after the war, when Armstrong is working in children's programming in the BBC out of their famous headquarters in London.  Armstrong receives an anonymous note threatening her, "You'll Pay for What You Did" and that sets the second level of the plot in motion, as Armstrong revisits players from her war time exploits.  It eventually culminates in a third act that some critics have called implausible, but it by no means wipes out the good of the rest of the book.

  Only 352 pages in hardback, and a seven hour Audiobook, Transcription is an enjoyable romp, suitable for light reading situations like lunch breaks of commuting.  Fenella Woolgar is excellent voicing Kate Armstrong- really funny and charming.



Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Half-Blood Blues (2011) by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in 2018
Esi Edugyan reads from her 2018 novel Washington Black.
Book Review
Half-Blood Blues (2011)
by Esi Edugyan

   It is pretty impressive when a new author can reach the Booker Prize short list for both her second and third novel.  It's almost more impressive then winning once and never having another short-listed book.  I think that is because the jury changes every year- totally changes with entirely new judges- so a win in one year might just be because that particular jury was in a crazy mood that day, but making the short list twice in a row means that two different juries agreed that both books could have actually won the award, and that trumps one win followed by no further nominations.

  Of course Edugyan ticks all the diversity boxes without being too challenging for the general audience for literary fiction in the English speaking world:  She is the child of African immigrants to Canada, she writes historical fiction (blessedly not historical meta fiction) and she isn't experimental in the way that word is used in 21st century literary fiction.

  I thought Washington Black was very good- even if it didn't win, and were it published during the period when Hillary Mantel was winning twice in four years for her Wolf Hall series, it might well have been the winner.  However the fact that Half-Blood Blues, which almost wasn't published after the original Canadian publisher went bankrupt, made it to the Booker Prize shortlist speaks volumes.

  Several critics, writing about Washington Black, commented that they preferred Half-Blood Blues so it seemed clear that I would at least enjoy it the same way I enjoyed Washington Black: great writer, great subject, great execution, probably not going to be her best book. 

  I checked out the Audiobook from the library, it proved a less than ideal choice, even though Edugyan's mainline style lends itself well to the Audiobook format.  The narrator and most of the characters are African American or African German, the title refers to the state of native or immigrant African-Europeans under the Nazi regime.   It isn't a topic unknown to literary fiction- Thomas Pynchon features the Schwarzcommando- a fictional group of German rocket technicians who are mostly the off spring of mixed couples from German southwest Africa- in Gravity's Rainbow, and his book V also has a plot line about the genocidal German experience in southwest Africa.

  For a book that largely takes place immediately before and during the beginning of World War II, Half-Blood Blues has surprisingly little in the way of action.  Instead, Sidney "Sid" Griffiths, who is the narrator, spends an interminable amount of time wooing an African-French singer, first in Berlin, then in Paris.   It does prove integral to the resolution of the plot, and even though the finale doesn't unspool as a surprise, there is no arguing that it packs an emotional punch.

  I can only wonder what Edugyan's next project is, she hasn't been prolific, so a multi-year wait would seem to be in order.  I'd expect a bildungsroman, a multi generational immigrant family saga or some combination of auto fiction and auto biographical fiction- any of which could be a prize winner, international best seller or BOTH.  The sky is the limit for Esi Edugyan.

The Debatable Land (2018) by Graham Robb

Illustration of the Anglo-Scottish border with the Debatable lands highlighted, circa 1552

Book Review
The Debatable Land (2018)
by Graham Robb

  Graham Robb is an interesting writer, specializing in French literature but with a burgeoning career writing about the lost history of Great Britain. In 2014 he published The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, which appeared both in the UK and the US, and he follows with this book, about the Debatable land, an anarchic ungoverned anomaly that Robb believes is the oldest political border in the United Kingdom.

  The Debateable lands are located between England and Scotland, close to the west coast.  The nearest significant city is Carlisle, in England and if you go today you will encounter distinct English and Scottish accents on either side of the border- with the author noting that schooling tends to determine the accent. Twas not always the case!  For generations, this area was home to so-called reivers, or raiders, who were "above the law" in that they were not subject to Scottish or English law.  Prominent families bore surnames that made it to America- the Nixons, for example, with the Armstrongs being the leading clan for most of the relevant period.

   The highlight, or lowlight, from the perspective of the inhabitants, is the period in the late middle ages when the Debatable Lands were frequently burned in an attempt to keep the area unoccupied.  Other tactics included mass deportations to Ireland- England's own "trail of tears" centuries before the United States inflicted the same fate on the Cherokee.

   Although Robb doesn't press the point, it seems like the Debatable lands and its inhabitants have an argument as the first victims of colonialism.  Forced destruction of homes and government sponsored mass deportation are both very colonial things to do to a population.  A major theme of this book is the extent to which this interesting history has been essentially erased from the history books but Robb has a light touch, and The Debatable Land is written for a general reading audience, not people interested in the Foucaultian analysis of the uses of power on the body.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (2001) by Apostolos Doxaidis

Book Review
Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (2001)
by Apostolos Doxaidis

Replaces: Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi

  Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture is another example of the "international bestseller" category of canonical literary fiction. Doxaidis is of Greek ancestry but raised in Australia, however he started his literary career in Greek, and Uncle Petros was originally written in Greek, then translated by the author himself and published in the UK and US, where it was, I gather, a hit.

   The unnamed narrator is a Greek student who leaves to study math in the United States (echoing the life experience of the author, who studied math at Columbia University.  Uncle Petros is the brother of his succesful merchant father, a family black sheep, who had early, precocious success as a mathematician but failed to leave a mark.  To the narrator he is a washed up loner, and it is only over the court of the novel that the narrator learns the truth of his uncle's life, who is both more brilliant and sadder than he initially believed.

  Doxaidis clearly knows his math and he cleverly includes real life mathematicians from the early 20th century as characters in the story.  There isn't anything particularly Greek about Uncle Petros- even the Greek locations seem generic.  I positively hated Intimacy, the Kureishi novel about a middle aged man who decides to leave his wife and children.

My Struggle: Book One (2013) by Karl Ove Knausgaurd

Book Review
My Struggle: Book One (2013)
by Karl Ove Knausgaurd

  Karl Ove Knausgaurd is the international literary sensation to emerge in the past decade.  His six volume, 3600 page autobiographical novel, My Struggle, was published in the original Norwegian in 2009.  It has since made it's way into 22 different languages, and in 2013 it got an American version, with My Struggle: Book One coming out in 2013 and the final volume, Book Six getting a release last year.  Given the length and recent publication dates of the books in English, I believe that few have actually read Knausgaurd in English- as supposed to Norway- where one in every nine adults in the entire country owns a set. 

   2017 marked another important milestone for Knausgaurd when he won the Jerusalem Prize, which is basically the second biggest global literary prize behind the Nobel and serves as a who's who of almost winners of the Nobel and actual winners.   Considering the length and general level of "heaviness" that confronts the prospective reader, I am happy to report that the actual book is the opposite of its ponderous reputation, and it was maybe five hours into the sixteen hour Audiobook version I listened to that I realized who people actually bother reading My Struggle.

  My Struggle is a landmark of autobiographical fiction, and Knausgaurd has a range that stretches from Proust to Seinfeld.   The struggle that Knausgaurd refers to is his ability to exist as an independent artist despite the distractions of contemporary existence: family life, money and the banalities of the day-to-day.  He introduces this overriding theme but it is mostly absent from Book One which mostly deals with his childhood and the death of his father.

   It is the Dad's death- which occupies maybe half of Book One, where I really began to recognize the genius within Knausgaurd.  His father, a distant parent and eventual alcoholic who, ended up drinking himself to death, locked in a flat with his own mother, is portrayed "warts and all" but there is no terrible violence or deprivation, just the more or less ordinary frustrations of an unusually artistic son and his unemotional father.

  I'm actually excited to tackle the second volume- I think Audiobook is a very solid option for this series of books, since it is basically the Knausguard talking about himself ad naseum- no other voices to confuse the flow, and all settings of time and place are narrated dear diary style, with an awareness of the presence of the reader.   Surely My Struggle is canon worthy, more worthy then Falling Man by Don Delillo, for example, which was the last book added to the 2008 revised version of 1001 Books. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell

Book Review
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
 by George Orwell

   George Orwell is one of my favorite writers.  He is very much on my completist list, of authors where I'm trying to read all their books.  The Audiobook of Orwell's 1937 poverty tour in northern mining towns is readily available via the Los Angeles Public Library, and it also ranked #39 on the Guardian's 2011 list of Best 100 Non Fiction books, so I picked it as a space filler during my long weekly drives.

  I didn't expect to be disappointed by Orwell, and I wasn't.   Poverty is a consistent theme of the second tier of Orwell's books- not the ones you read in school but books you might come across if you take an interest in Orwell beyond his big canon-busting hits like Animal Farm and 1984.   The most popular of his poverty books is Down and Out in London and Paris, (1933) which explores similar themes and probably explained why this book was commissioned by Victor Gollancz.   Besides the non-fiction, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, an early novel, deals explicitly with the theme of poverty in the guise of a kunstsleroman.

  The 2011 Guardian list of 100 Best Non Fiction books takes The Road to Wigan Pier as it's representative of the Orwell bibliography, and it's hard to argue, if only because it is the only one of Orwell's books where he well and truly gives his opinion about his subject, and I think the reader can see a hit of the kind of public intellectual he could have become were it not for his very early death at the age or 50, in 1946.

  The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier is a straight forward description of the living conditions and working conditions for the miners in northern English coal mining towns, the second is a polemic directed against the socialist leadership for not doing enough to appeal to actual working men, as supposed to the effete intellectuals who tended to be socialists back then.   It's a critique that holds true into today- you can think of the Democrats in America repeated failures to appeal to white working class voters in the industrial midwest and south.

  The descriptions of actual living conditions, it's hard to believe he's talking about life in England during the 20th century- for example, he describes a common condition of people who can't afford to buy bedding and just sleep on piles of rags placed on top of the bed frame.  It's also very clear that nutrition was terrible for the English working class.   What marks out Orwell from a half century of anti-poverty crusaders is that he actually lived it- experienced poverty both as a reporter and as a bohemian- so both naturally and unnaturally, which was very much not the case for educated writer inveighing against working class poverty in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen

Book Review
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (2018)
 by David Quammen

   The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life is a must fro anyone looking to come terms with the new scientific developments in genetics, and the way those developments have changed the way scientific thinkers evaluate Charles Darwin and the Darwinian theory of evolution.

   It's a story that the moderately well informed will have heard in bits and pieces.  The development of CRISPR and the ability to manipulate individual genes and pieces of DNA is one of the last chapters in the story that Quammen is seeking to tell, and also a story that has been heavily featured in the news.   Much of the service that Quammen provides in The Tangled Tree is to trace the pre-history of the science that has led to the CRISPR.  It is a story that largely takes place in the margins of big science- the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (I think that is the main University of Illinois) plays a critical role in nurturing the scientists who discovered, essentially, that the tree of life as described by Darwin and his followers is more like a tangled bush.

  Specifically, scientist Carl Woese plays a central role in the extremely complicated (and uncompleted) story that Quammen is trying to tell.   Woese discovered Archea- a third form of live- neither Eukaryote(multi celled organisms) and Bacteria(single celled), and to summarize about five hundred pages of descriptive text, it was HELL OF hard to look at DNA in the 1970's, when Woese started down his path.  The other facts you need to know about Woese is that he never won a Nobel Prize, which made him very sad and angry, and he spent much of his later career railing against Charles Darwin in an increasingly personal tone, while science rocketed beyond Woese's discoveries (although his discoveries made later breakthroughs possible).

  The Tangled Tree loses momtentum towards the end, as Woese lapses into irrelevance and it becomes clear that the story is far from being finished.  What is most amazing is the restraint with which the CRISPR technology has been deployed- you'd think people would be having their babies genetically altered in the womb, which we can do.  But it seems like it isn't happening- except for that one time in China- or maybe it's happening on the DL.

The Swarm (2004) by Frank Schätzing

Book Review
The Swarm (2004)
by  Frank Schätzing

Replaces: The Double by Jose Saramago

   The Swarm is an eco thriller in the vein of Michael Crichton, about  a series of catastophic disasters that come from the sea: Whales attacking whale watching ships, jellyfish clocking the water intakes of trans-national shippers, mysterious worms destroying the methane hydrate that holds the sea floor together.  The question is what or who is behind the attacks.

  It is honestly hard to figure why the editors of the 1001 Books project picked what is at heart a pedestrian eco thriller that also happens to be over 850 pages long.  Surely, if The Swarm rates includion in the 1001 Books project, Michael Crichton deserves to be in there with Jurassic Park (1990), which I don't think gets enough credit for the prescience of it's eco-catastrophe theme.  I suppose The Swarm made the cut because it is written by German, and is the rare example of a work of non-English genre fiction making it into the 1001 Books list.

  The Swarm is at times interminable, what with nearly a dozen primary protagonists, a few of which get fifty page long back stories that add nothing to the main plot.  You can't reasonably expect an 800 page plus eco thriller to go without dozens of pages of exposition, and Schatzing does not disappoint, especially after the main characters are gathered together at the North Pole for a last ditch effort to save the planet, and apparently, convene an endless series of meetings.  The reveal of the villain in the third act seemed a little inconsistent with the previous 750 pages, but Schatzing resolves the central plot in a satisfying fashion.   Schatzing shouldn't be accused of the humorlessness of similar authors like Crichton- the characters repeatedly reference Hollywood films that have inspired different plot elements: The Abyss, Armageddon- it shouldn't be surprising to learn that Game of Thrones producer Frank Doelger has optioned the Swarm for German television (and one would imagine, Netflix.)

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