Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Before Night Falls (1992) by Reinaldo Arenas


Image result for javier bardem before night falls
Jacvier Bardem played auhtor Reinaldo Arenas in the well received movie version of Before Night Falls.

Book Review
Before Night Falls (1992)
by Reinaldo Arenas

Replaces: Sputnick Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami


  Reinaldo Arenas is yet another poet-writer who makes it into the canon based on prose, with his corresponding poetry nowhere to be found.  Before Night Falls was the beneficiary of an extremely well received movie version, directed and produced by Julian Schnabel, released in 2000, that introduced a fair segment of the cultured American public to both Before Night Falls and the existence of Arenas, who died, in New York, in 1990, from complications related to HIV.

  Often referred to as his auto-biography, but more akin to autobiographical fiction in terms of theme, arrangement and presentation, Before Night Falls tells Arenas' own story as a gay intellectual in Cuba, one who first worked for the regime, but later fell into the hazy Cuban persecution complex, including harrowing stints in medieval prisons, and a formal blackballing of him from obtaining any gainful employment.

  Castro was an active persecutor of homosexuals, but it was as a peculiar kind of persecution owing to the distinction between "active" homosexuals- who were ok, and "passive" homosexuals- who were the persecuted group.  Thus, one could escape punishment for being a homosexual per se by simply insisting on playing the active role. 

   Arenas was also a critic of the Castro regime, and his imprisonment was tied to that status, and it was his contact with the outside world via his published writing that proved to be his eventual salvation, leading to his eventual emigration as part of the Muriel Boat Lift in 1980.   Arenas saves much of his bile, not for the Cuban regime itself, to which he occupies a position similar to that of the "old bolsheviks" of the USSR, who were integral to the early stages of the revolution, only to fall into pre and post Stalin persecution, but for American and western European intellectuals who saw Castro as a hero figure for his resistance to the west.

  For those like me who have only displayed a passing interest in recent Cuban history, Before Night Falls is a must, and I am interested in seeing the film soon.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Man Booker International Longlist for 2019 Announced



    Congrats to all the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (for best translated fiction).  The award is now yearly and for a a specific work (before last year it was awarded to an author for a body of work, every two years.)

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue (China), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe)

Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf (Iceland and Palestine), translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta)

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor (Granta)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Quercus)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)

  The only book on the list I've read is The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez- it was good, but not amazing.  Olga Tokarczuk was last years winner, she has to be a shortlist favorite.  Small presses are well and truly represented- I recognize Granta, of course, and Yale University Press, but the other publishing houses are unknown to me.  I look forward to tracking down as many as possible. 

A Dry White Season (1979) by Andre Brink

Image result for marlon brando a dry white season
Marlon Brando played sympathetic lawyer McKenzie in the 1989 movie version of A Dry White Season.

Book Review
A Dry White Season (1979)
by Andre Brink

Replaces:  The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

  Andre Brink was the biggest name in South African fiction in the 1970's, getting two Booker Shortlist nominations in a row for his second and third novels, An Instant in the Wind and Rumours of Rain (1975, 1978).   He then followed up with A Dry White Season in 1979, which became a genuine international hit, even spawning a well received film version in 1989 (with Donald Sutherland and Marlon Brando(!) above.   Although he has consistently published since then (15 novels since then, most recently in 2012 he was almost totally eclipsed by the emergence of fellow South African J.M. Coetzee, who actually won the Booker in 1989, and in 1989 and then, of course, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.   The first 1001 Books list is filled with Coetzee- I think he is the most represented author in the first book, but Brink was excluded, so it makes sense that they would add him in for the first revision.

   By the standards of apartheid era South Africa, A Dry White Season, about a wealthy white Afrikaner who intervenes on behalf of a black father and son who are judicially murdered by the police, was racy stuff- banned in South Africa of course- but the entire plot is highly vulnerable to the "White Savior" critique of this sort of book.  Ultimately, South Africa collapsed, not because of the activity of individual Afrikaners but from a combination of international pressure and effective political organization by the black majority population.   In this way, Brink is an evolutionary dead end, representing the extremely limited liberal Afrikaner population who failed to effectuate the needed change. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson

Image result for annette bening the grifters
Annette Bening played the girlfriend part of the mother/son/girlfriend triangle in the movie version of The Grifters.
Book Review
The Grifters (1963)
by Jim Thompson

  The ability to stream Audiobooks in my car via the Los Angeles Public Library app has been so revolutionary that I've been forced to create new categories on the fly.  Nobel Prize for Literature winners is one category,  current non-fiction is another category, a third category would be Audiobooks of books I've already read by canonical authors.  A fourth category is non-canonical titles by canonical writers- the lesser works, as it were.  The Grifters fits into this last category-- his The Killer Inside Me (1963) is a 1001 Books pick from the original edition. 

  Many of Thompson's books are readily available as Audiobooks, and they also seem like they make for great Audiobook selections, since they are short, to the point and filled with tough talk style dialogue that sounds better read aloud then read to oneself.   Today, the movie version of The Grifters has maintained the book in print.  I've seen the movie several times, but not recently, and I had forgotten the plot to the point where hearing the book didn't ring any bells.

  The story, about a mother-son-girlfriend triangle of grifters operating in Southern California is a classic- including a memorable trip to San Diego taken on the same train I take back and forth every month.  They even describe the since abandoned cocktail lounge car that I've only seen a couple times in the years I've been taking the train. 

Annie John (1985)by Jamaica Kincaid


Book Review
Annie John  (1985)
by Jamaica Kincaid

Replaces: A Heart So White by Javier Marias

  Everyone would have to agree that the Caribbean is a prime location of post-colonial fiction.  Led by V.S. Naipaul (Trindad) the Caribbean has produced a generation of authors- almost all of whom write in English- who have depicted the issues central to Caribbean identity, both on the island and in emigrant communities in the UK, US and Canada.   Jamaica Kindkaid (Antigua) is one of those cross-geographical writers, raised on a small Caribbean island and later educated and resident in the United States (New Hampshire for school, teaches in Vermont).

  The distinction between writers with that split in experience is crucial in all post-colonial fiction, I think.  It is much more difficult/impossible for authors who actually RESIDE in post-colonial locations like the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and India to find an international audience for their literary fiction, and the domestic market is sometimes non-existent.   Here, Kincaid entirely omits her personal life experience in the United States, and Annie John is entirely about the eponymous protagonist and narrator, who lives on a small island on the Caribbean with her difficult (but loving?) mother and her much older carpenter father.

  This isn't a "hard" third world bildungsroman- it is clear that Annie's family is not well off, but they are relatively well educated for their societal position- in a memorable scene near the end Annie John recalls her mother telling her about Louis Pasteur being the reason for keeping her hands clean.  Annie John is in many ways the epitome of the too-smart-for-her-surroundings child narrator but is unique in her troubled relationship with her mother.

  This troubled relationship and her depiction of it is the reason- more than any geographical or racial/gender considerations, which mark Annie John as a canonical work.    Kincaid was famously embraced by arch-canonist Harold Bloom in his Bloom's Modern Critical Edition volume dedicated to Kincaid.  I haven't read that edition, but I think it is likely accurate to observe that there is much  more to Annie John and Kincaid then might at first be apparent.   Because of the hidden complexity, I have some regrets about choosing the (2016) Audiobook edition- I would have liked to see the printed pages of this book.

  On the other, hand, like many other books written by Caribbean writers, the Audiobook version is a treat for the accents.  Surely it is an under-appreciated merit of the Audiobook that you get to listen to someone who actually speaks the same dialect as the characters.  If I was reading the printed book, in my head, the characters would probably just sound like regular Americans.


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