Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Four Soldiers (2018) by Hubert Mingarelli


Book Review
Four Soldiers (2018)
by Hubert Mingarelli

  Four Soldiers is a French novel by Hubert Mingarelli.  It was translated by Sam Taylor, published in October of 2018, and received a longlist nomination for the 2019 Booker International Prize, for books translated into English.  Set on the Russian front during the waning days of World War I on the Eastern Front, Four Soldiers is just what it says it is, a book about Four Soldiers.  There isn't much in the way of conventional warfare, the Russian army having largely disintegrated, the four soldiers spend most of the book hiding in the woods.

    For it's advocates, Four Soldiers is what you call a "timeless mediation on an eternal subject," but for that same reason it is hard to say much about Four Soldiers or the author.  Part of the appeal of the reading is the feeling of astonishment that this is a book that was just published, like it could have been published at any point in the past two centuries.   I can't see Four Soldiers making the shortlist, but maybe the brevity will push it over the top.  

Runaway (2004) by Alice Munro


Book Review
Runaway (2004)
 by Alice Munro

  I like these characteristics of Canadian author Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2013:  First, all her Audiobooks are available without a wait in the Public Library Libby Audiobook app.  Second, all her books are short stories, so listening to one of her books never requires a huge listening effort.  What I don't like about Munro would be her limited range, at least from what I've seen in two books, as described by the Wikipedia page for this book:
   
There are eight short stories in the book. Three of the stories ("Chance", "Soon", and "Silence") are about a single character named "Juliet Henderson".

"Runaway" – a woman is trapped in a bad marriage.
"Chance" – Juliet takes a train trip which leads to an affair.
"Soon" – Juliet visits her parents with her child Penelope.
"Silence" – Juliet hopes for news from her adult estranged daughter Penelope.
"Passion" – A lonely small town girl flees a passionless relationship with an outsider.
"Trespasses" – Lauren, a young girl, meets an older woman, Delphine, who is too interested in her.
"Tricks" – Robin, a lonely girl, lives life alone due to bad luck and misinterpretation.
  I mean there you have it, Alice Munro in a nutshell. Every story is about women on the margins of society for various reasons, isolated by domestic violence, mental illness or just plain bad luck. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Black Notebook (2016) by Patrick Modiano


The Audiobook of The Black Notebook is narrated by Bronson Pinchot, AKA Balki Bartokomous from television's Perfect Stangers.

Book Review
The Black Notebook (2016)
by Patrick Modiano

  One of the long term subjects on this blog- going back over a decade at this point- is quantifying, describing and measuring the audience size for a particular work or artist.   One advanatage on focusing on audiences instead of artists when writing about bands, books or studio artists is that you avoid getting into the business of making artistic judgments on the artists themselves.  Being an art critic in the sense that you look at a specific work and say, "Yes this is good, No this is bad" has beyond being unfashionable.  Criticism in that sense, "This work is good and that artist is bad" in the age of the internet often means that sort of critic is saying such a thing directly to the artist.

  The artist is always part of the audience for criticism of their own art work, but the internet has multiplied the number of artists, and the possibility for individuals to react to the art, and anyone trying to perfect a critical voice in this environment is going to face the artist, the fans of the artist, and people who disagree with their critical opinion in the most intimate fashion. 

 On the other hand, you can describe, say, the audience at a Justin Timberlake show without being mean to Justin Timberlake.  Perhaps you might be mean to the fans, but not in an individual sense.  A corollary of these observations about the artist and audience relationship is that art that DOES NOT have an audience is not worth discussing.

  This is a statement that is dramatically opposed to the perspective of avant garde artists and their fans, who, overtly disdain the mass audience.   But it is also true that the internet affords the possibility of an individual critic creating an audience for a new work or artist simply by writing it into existence.

  This leads me to The Black Notebook, a 2016 "novel?" by 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, French author Patrick Modiano.  Modiano essentially had no American audience before he won the Nobel Prize in 2014.  In the five years since he won, many of his books have been translated into English, or in the case of The Black Notebook, Audiobook editions.  They are all freely available from local libraries- no waiting list for these books!

  In fact, if you look as his English language Wikipedia page, you will see an avalanche of translation activity in the aftermath of the 2014 win:  new translations of already translated books, first translations of previously translated books.   All in search of an audience that presumably appears by fiat after the Nobel Prize win.  Personally, I don't know anyone who has read a single book by Modiano, and I would be hard pressed to name anyone who knows he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014.

   Meanwhile, I'm out here looking for a hit, something that I, the reader, can sink my teeth into and say, "This is a hit, this is the one Modiano book to read in English translation, this is his best book."  Modiano has so little an audience in English that I can't even get that far.  The Black Notebook, an ellipitical sequence of observations by a narrator named Jean and his attempt to track down an old flame named Dannie, a mysterious woman. like So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood (and from what I can gather, many of this other books), The Black Notebook overlaps detective fiction, existentialism, psycho geography and elliptical, non-linear modernist narrative technique.

  In other words, The Black Notebook can be hard to follow, and even when it isn't, the pay off can be hard to fathom.  On the positive side of the equation, Bronson Pinchot, television's Balchi from TV's Perfect Strangers 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Child of God (1973) by Cormac McCarthy


Book Review
Child of God  (1973)
by Cormac McCarthy

  Critically reviled when it was published in 1973, Child of God is an excellent example of a failure that presages later artistic success.   Lester Ballard is the serial-killer protagonist of Child of God, living alone in Sevier County (pronounced severe county) in the 1960's.   He is very similar to the Gene Harrogate character in Suttree (1979).   The theme of a monstrously isolated outsider clashing with society is repeated in many of his books, but Lester Ballard is the most extreme example, and all of Child of God is about him.  In other books- Suttree for example, the Ballard-like character only plays a supporting role.

  I checked out the Audiobook version from the library- I think I mentioned before that McCarthy makes good material for an Audiobook, one of those authors where being able to hear the voices of the character really helps.  I can't do an Appalachian accent in my head for a four hundred page book, let alone keep track of different variations on the theme. For readers who love McCarthy's later, more succesful books, Child of God is a must because you can really see how he developed between then and his more recent now.

  It is also incredibly violent and depraved, and there is frequent unapologetic use of the n word- though not as much as in Suttree, almost putting him beyond the pale of current literary fiction conventions. 

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) by Daniel Immerwahr


Book Review
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019)
 by Daniel Immerwahr

  Popular history has what I call a "Dad History" problem.  Basically, if you want to sell a non academic history book in the United States you have the following subjects available:

1.  Presidential biographies
2.  Civil War
3.  World War II
4.  General studies of the United States

  Everything other subject in the entire history of the world is either marginally or not at all commercial.   Even in great independent book stores, world history might take up one or two shelves.   How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is interesting because it is in one of those four categories, but is not boring or repetitive in the way that the most recent biography of John Adams might be.   Immerwahr seems to be taking thematic cues from popular social science writers like Malcolm Gladwell, writing about a wide range of subjects unified under a theme that might alternatively be called, "The Secret History of the Greater United States." 

  By great United States Immerwahr is talking about Puerto Rico, the Philippines before independence, Guam, Alaska and Hawaii before statehood, and an intriguing group of possessions he calls "the guano islands."   At one point, the idea of the Greater United States was generally accepted, before the 20th century made it deeply unfashionable as the United States defined itself in opposition to European imperialism.

   The United States has used a variety of techniques to obscure the history of United States empire.  Primarily, though, the major technique is to deny a Greater United States exists through the dexterous deployment of terms like commonwealth and associated territory.  Immerwahr demonstrates the country-wide schizophrenia via our continuing Puerto Rican adventure, but his strongest chapter is on the Phillipines, where we "liberated" a country from a colonial power, only to immediately fight a bloody proto-Vietnam style conflict for half a decade, up to and including well publicized episodes that read like stereotypical war crimes. 

   Immerwahr is being kind by sticking to the "confused" theme, because certainly many of the episodes- the war crimes in the Philippines, unauthorized medical testing in Puerto Rico, the atomic bombing of occupied South Pacific islands, seem more like the actions of a fascist dictatorship than a global democratic super power. 

Dirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutierrez


Book Review
Dirty Havana Trilogy (1998)
by Pedro Juan Gutierrez

Replaces: Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

  One of the ironies of being an artist in your average 20th century Communist dictatorship is that the people outside the country who you might reasonably expect to support your work: artists and intellectuals in western democracies, are also those most favorably inclined to support your local oppressive communist dictatorship, while the people least inclined to be interested in cutting-edge art from these same places: conservative financial and political leaders, are most favorably inclined to support local artists challenging Communist regimes.

  This irony is most apparent in Cuba, where Fidel Castro's long running Communist dictatorship long maintained sympathy with Western intellectual artistic and intellectual elites, leading to a delay in acknowledging the terrible persecution suffered by opponents of the regime. 

  There is no denying the raw power of Dirty Havana Trilogy, actually sixty short stories most directly involving explicit heterosexual sex.   It makes a great book end with Before Night Falls, which covers the subject of gay sex in Cuba.  Both books overwhelmingly evoke the well-ordered decay of Cuba under Castro, what happens when you give a racially mixed island nation a decent education and universal health care, but make disagreeing with the state and owning private property illegal.  Set largely during the economic depression of the 1990's, the poverty-related horror is quite tangible, embodied by the frequent descriptions of the smell of feces and sex, which functions like the proverbial relationship between Eskimos and descriptions of snow.

  In fact, I think you'd have to go back to De Sade to find another author who writes as much about the smell of feces as Gutierrez and Arenas.  Maybe it something about the status of Cuba as a tropical dictatorship.   Lest one think that Dirty Havana Trilogy is only about sex, well it is, but there is plenty of trenchant political commentary and a touch of light cannibalism.   That's Cuba under Castro for you:  Sex, death and an inability to critique the state.
  

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