Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Shadow Lines (1988)by Amitav Ghosh


Book Review
The Shadow Lines (1988)
by Amitav Ghosh

Replaces: American Pastoral by Philip Roth


  The term "Indian Literature" is about as broad as "European Literature" in terms of the number of literary languages represented.  Ultimately though, Indian Literature is rendered extremely accessible by the presence of English as a lingua franca for the Indian nation-state, and the almost universal acceptance of English by the ruling elite and educated, i.e. those most likely to write (and read) literary fiction.   It also makes sense that English speaking audiences for literary fiction would be more interested by books and characters who exist between the west and India- more relate-able.  So it is not surprising that The Shadow Lines is yet another work of South Asian literary fiction featuring action that switches between partition era India and the environs of London.

  Like most of the South Asian writers on the 1001 Books list, I hadn't heard of Ghosh before picking up the list mandated selection, but once again, I'm glad I did.  Judging from the lack of e books and audiobooks, Ghosh hasn't made much of an impression in the United States- compared to is status in the UK- but that isn't surprising.   If a South Asian writer wants to make a dent in the USA, he or she either better be a major literary award winner or a writer who grew up in the United States itself.  Ghosh replaces American Pastoral- Roth's first Pulitzer Prize winner but otherwise a mundane example of the nine volume Nathan Zuckerman series. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Requiem for a Dream (1978) by Herbert Selby Jr.

Image result for jennifer connelly requiem for a dream
Jennifer Connolly Heroin chiced it up in the Darren Arnofsky directed movie version of Requiem for a Dream.
Book Review
Requiem for a Dream (1978)
by Herbert Selby Jr.

Replaces: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson


   Requiem for a Dream is a clear example of a book gaining belated entry to the canon via a succesful movie version.   Here, Darren Arnofsky made the movie version, in 2000, presumably leading to the inclusion of the book version in the second edition of 1001 Books.    Before the movie came out, Selby already had achieved what you might call "cult status" which in the USA is generally good for an adjunct faculty job at a major university teaching writing to undergraduates (see Luccia Berlin, as well.)

  I remember watching the movie when it came out- in the theater- later that same year I dressed in a film inspired costume alongside my partner, who wore Ellen Bustyn's famous red dress- also a focal point of the book.   Requiem for a Dream details the travails of the Goldfarb family.  Mother Sara is widowed, living alone in her Brooklyn apartment, suffering from periodic visits from her son,  Harry- a confirmed heroin addict, who steals her television every few weeks when he needs money for heroin.

  Harry has a partner- Tyrone Love- and a girlfriend, Marion, his part novel is a straightforward rags to riches to southern prison sentence story about heroin addicts in 70's New York.  Marion descends into prostitution, Harry and Tyrone end up in said southern prison- Harry loses an arm to a monstrous abscess caused by his heroin addiction.  I was surprised to see that the editors of the 1001 Books project gave Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit- a very pathbreaking LGBT bildungsroman from a non-London based English writer, and I'm just generally surprised that Requiem for a Dream made the cut over Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is the more compelling tale in my mind, and was also written almost fifteen years before Requiem for a Dream was published.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Frog (2009) by Mo Yan


Book Review
Frog (2009)
by Mo Yan

  Chinese author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009.  He was the second author from China to win the Nobel Prize in Literature- the first was Gao Xingjian- an emigre who settled in France.  China has been underrepresented on the world literature scene- even today it's a struggle to keep abreast of contemporary Chinese fiction published in English.  The situation is improving, but it's impossible to ignore the paucity of first rate literary fiction translated from Chinese to English.

  Still, a Nobel Prize in Literature does a lot for a non English language author in terms of getting their recent work more attention in English language markets, and Yan is no exception.  His 2009 novel Frog got a post-Nobel reprint in 2016, and with that came an Audiobook edition- extremely rare for fiction translated into English, even for recent Nobel Prize winners.

  Frog is a straight forward retelling of the abortion-intensive one child policy, as seen through the eyes of an extended family living in rural north-east China.  The narrator, a man named Tadpole, tells the story of his Aunt Gugu, who begins her career as a new obstetrician in the area where her family lives.  She is celebrated as a hero of the revolution, and ascends to a position of leadership within the party.

  This early period of glory is quickly supplanted by the horrors of the one child Chinese family planning policy, where most families were limited to one child, with additional children being subject to fines.   Many women attempted to have unpermitted pregnancies, and these pregnancies were extirpated- with abortions being performed well into the third trimester of pregnancy.  This policy comes to roost dramatically in Frog, when Tadpole's own wife is essentially murdered when she attempts to have an illicit pregnancy (without her husband's knowledge).

  It didn't leave me panting for more Mo Yan, but I'm glad I read Frog, since it is an interesting dramatization of a pivotal period in 20th century Chinese history.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2018) by Marlon James


Book Review
Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2018)
by Marlon James

  Marlon James won the Booker Prize in 2015 for his kaleidoscopic novel about Bob Marley and Jamaica,  A Brief History of Seven Killings.  When the post-win wave of publicity arrived, he was ready with a description of his next book, an African set fantasy trilogy that he jokingly referred to as an "African Game of Thrones."    Watching James in conversation with critic and author Roxane Gay at a recent Los Angeles Public Library sponsored event,   Both Gay and James chuckled over the degree to which that tossed-off reference has become the central description of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in his Dark Star trilogy.  According to what James said the other night during his conversation with Roxane Gay, the trilogy will be a Rashoman style retelling of the same events from different perspectives.

  Book one is told mostly by Tracker, a man with an uncanny nose which has led him into a career as a finder of lost people.  The Black Leopard of the title is a were- creature- a leopard, obviously, who switches between the form of man and beast (though his man form is usually marked off by yellow cat eyes and/or whiskers.   Eventually, Black Leopard, Red Wolf resolves itself into the form of conventional fantasy narrative of a mis matched party of adventurers seeking on a quest.  However, it is a testament to the non-conventional nature of Black Leopard, Red Wolf that this conventionality doesn't come into focus until about 2/3rds of the book is complete.

  Before the various plot elements coalesce into a recognizable form, James demonstrates an almsot preternatural ability for world building while avoiding almost all the pratfalls of genre fiction- another joke that Roxane Gay made during her conversation with James was that fantasy and science fiction often featured lengthy portions of background description in the form of some kind of lecture to the characters by a figure of authority.   James wholly avoids this by embracing the story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story formula of  One Thousand Nights and a Night (1001 Arabian Nights.)   The trade off is that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is extremely difficult to follow, and fans used to the conventions of sword and sorcery fantasy are likely to be baffled.

    Black Leopard, Red Wolf has already attracted some negative reviews for the prevalence of violence, but I see where he was coming from- like an attempt to out-genre the genre itself, much in the same way Brett Easton Ellis exploded a type of self aware fiction in American Psycho.  During his conversation with Roxane Gay, James made repeated reference to the fact that he spent two years researching Black Leopard, Red Wolf and it shows in the various cities and the grammar of the various characters- at least a half dozen different dialects were reflected in the Audiobook I heard.

  One place the research doesn't show up is in the physical description of the alternate fantasy Africa.  Many of the outdoor locations sound like the Europe of medieval fantasy, with none of the set-piece grandeur that you might expect.   I quite enjoyed Black Leopard, Red Wolf and I'm interested to see the impact it has in the larger culture- if it gets that far.   I would have to regard the recent news that film/television rights had been sold to actor Michael B. Jordan with a grain of salt.  Perhaps the incredibly level of violence is no bar, but I would say that the equally as frequent gay and queer sex very well might be.   But I'll be cheering for its success.  James' vision of a fantasy Africa is a powerful vision, and it deserves attention.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The Ghost Writer (1979) by Philip Roth


Book Review
The Ghost Writer (1979)
by Philip Roth

   The interesting fact about the Audiobook edition of The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth- a book published in 1979, mind- is that it was published only in 2016.   That means Roth's publisher went back to these earlier books and decided to put out Audiobook editions.  In the context of Roth and his publishing career, a 2016 Audiobook edition of the first Nathan Zuckerman novel qualifies as a new release.

  Roth published an astonishing nine books in the Nathan Zuckerman series, starting in 1979 with The Ghost Wrtier and including such later career standouts as The Human Stain, American Pastoral and I Married A Communist, all of which could be considered as canonical Roth books.   Roth was prolific not just within the nine book Zuckerman series but outside it as well, with other multi-volumes series including the Roth series (with Roth as the narrator), the Nemeses series, with four volumes, and a half dozen novels not tied to any series.   It strikes me that Roth may be suffering simply because of the difficulty and amount of time it takes to read even a fair portion of his bibliography.

 For example, I am nine books in, and I still wouldn't be able to tell you much outside of some plot descriptions and the observation that many of his books deal with very personal issues relating to family and sex, but that he also has a facility with the big novel of ideas, and even high concept works with genre roots.   In other words, Roth is hard to pin down.  At the same time, he is undeniably an unfashionably straight white male, American-Jewishness aside, and the sheer number of books means that he will face a diminished level of interest from newer readers.

   The Ghost Writer isn't long- the Audiobook was just over four hours, practically making it a novella.   In it, the young Zuckerman grapples with the impact of his nascent literary career on his family (they are upset at his portrayal of his Jewish family) while he seeks mentor-ship from from E.I. Lonoff, who is said to be based on either Henry Roth or Bernard Malamud.  While ensconced in upstate New York seclusion with Roth and his melodramatic wife, he becomes enamored of a young woman, who may or may not be the real Anne Frank. 

  At the time, The Ghost Writer was a big hit- it almost won the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  And it's only 180 pages long!  Highly recommend the Audiobook, which is readily available via the Libby library app. 

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998) by Dubravka Ugrešić


Book Review
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998)
by Dubravka Ugrešić

Replaces: Don't Move by  Margaret Mazzantini

  There is no doubting that The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a pointillist take on the trauma of exile, as experienced by an unnamed narrator who has emigrated from Croatia in the aftermath of the violent post-Yugoslavia unrest.  Beyond that general statement of theme, it's hard to discern much of a plot inside this book- maybe it's a novel- it's probably fiction, by Croatian (now living in Amsterdam) novelist Dubravka Ugrešić
 
  Ugrešić's exile was tied to her protests against what she saw as the stupidity of nationalism and general lack of freedoms in post-Yugoslavia Croatia.  In her time abroad she has established herself as a first rate writer of literary fiction, though that fame is tied more to Europe and the UK- she was nominated for the Man Booker international prize in 2009, and of course she lives in Amsterdam now.  Much of The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is semi-random observations, often presented in a series of numbered paragraphs, interspersed with short stories that take place in Europe, pre-war Croatia and the United States, mirroring Ugrešić's personal history. 
 
  I didn't get a whole lot out of of The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, rather I was left with a vague memory.  I get the sense that it is Ugresic's gauzy uncertainty that separates her from more straight-forward wrtiers from the former Yugoslavia.   She isn't simply telling a story of exile in flashback form, she's creating her own alternate reality out of that experience. 

  Ugresic replaces Don't Move by Italian writer Margaret Mazzantini- replacing a one hit wonder of the "international best-seller" category with a more serious writer from a less well represented part of Europe (trading an Italian author for a Croatian author.)   Again, the real question with including a book that was already out when the first edition came out is why it wasn't included in the first edition.  What happened?  They simply hadn't heard of Ugresic, or didn't think she was worth including?  Either way it's another easy demonstration of the contingencies of the canonization process. 

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