Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Half a Life (2001) by V.S. Naipaul

Book Review
Half a Life (2001)
by V.S. Naipaul

  Half a Life is book one of Naipaul's two book series about the life of Willie Somerset Chandran, the son of a Brahmin "Holy Man" and his untouchable wife.  Half a Life covers Chandran's early life in India, his time as a student in London, and his 20 years in Mozambique as the husband of a wealthy half-Portuguese, half-African woman, Anna, who claims him as her own after she reads his book of short stories.

  I managed to listen to Magic Seeds, the 2004 sequel, as an Audiobook before I heard Half a Life.  Both books are on the short side- Half a Life is only 211 pages in print and it is a little surprising that Naipaul decided to publish Half a Life and Magic Seeds as two separate volumes.  Half a Life was a Booker Prize longlister, unlike Magic Seeds. Chandran is a classic Naipaul protagonist, the most unique aspect of that role being his unusual mixed caste parentage.

  Perhaps it isn't surprising that Half a Life ends up being more about sex than anything else.   In particular the final chapter- which is nearly half the length of the book, involves Chandran monologuing to his sister, to whose Berlin house he has decamped after abandoning his wife about the series of erotic adventures that immediately preceded his decision to leave Mozambique behind.

  Naipaul is endlessly fascinating to me, I just can't get enough of his perspectives. It's enough to make we want to read secondary books on his work, get to know the criticisms better, read a biography.   I have the idea in my head that he was a miserable person in real life, that seems pretty common for prize winning authors. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

All Souls (1992) by Javier Marias

Book Review
All Souls (1992)
by Javier Marias

Replaces: Trainspotting by Irving Welsh

   Javier Marias burst into the 1001 Books project in the 2008 revision, where he added three titles to the list.   All Souls is the oldest of the three, but it combines translation, life at Oxford University and Graham Greene type British spy stuff- not so overtly as his later stuff, but the hint of British Intelligence Services hovers about All Souls.

  I'm at a loss to account for Marias emerging into the canon in so spectacular a fashion.  Getting three books onto the revised list is unheard of, new authors get one or maybe two books.  I can see it for Marias, since he is a foreign writer who writes about the very English concerns of the English intellectual classes.   I thought it was funny that All Souls replaces Trainspotting by Irving Welsh, since one of the observations that accompanied revisiting Trainspotting this time around was just how many OTHER Scottish writers have traversed, more or less, the same terrain, albeit with less Iggy Pop-referencing savvy.

 All Souls is nominally about an extra marital affair between a visiting Spanish lecturer (the narrator) and a young English tutor name Clare Bayers.   This book is as rich with Oxford ritual as a Harry Potter novel, specifically the institution of the "high table" which is literally a table that higher than the tables of the other diners and is stuffed with Oxford Dons in full pomp and regalia, plays an important role in the book. 

The Feral Detective (2018) by Jonathan Lethem

Zosia Mamet narrator of The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem

Book Review
The Feral Detective (2018)
 by Jonathan Lethem

   I've never been a Jonathan Lethem fan.  I've never been a Paul Auster fan either, and it seems to me that there are some superficial similarities between the two writers: obsessed with New York City, mixes genre fiction convention with literary fiction themes, characters tend to be white and well educated, if not financially succesful.    It seems like Lethem must have a limited fan base inside Los Angeles, because The Feral Detective, published only in October of last year, was freely available to check out from the library as an Audiobook, narrated by Zosia Mamet, daughter of David Mamet and star of HBO's Girls.

   Promoted as a "return to detective fiction" after his post-Motherless Brooklyn run of books, The Feral Detective is more accurately described as a Detective-client fiction, since the Zosia Mamet voiced narrator is in fact, a client of the so-called Feral Detective, who is an eccentric private investigator operating out of Upland, California (the Inland Empire.)   Most of the action in The Feral Detective takes place in the scrubbier parts of the Inland Empire and the High Desert.  I'm intimately familiar with both areas, and almost every physical location Lethem describes is a place I'd either seen with my own eyes, or when invented, was based on places I've been and seen.

   I know that is no standard for judging the work of an author- it's like the worst part of failing to suspend disbelief, but spending ten hours listening to Zosia Mamet complain about Southern California while trying to locate her poorly-explained disappeared friend among a group of counter-culture outcasts called Bears (men) and Bunnies(women), was almost too much to bear, and the only moment I really enjoyed in the entire book was reaching the end of it.

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