Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Insurecto (2018) by Gina Apostol

Image result for gina apostol
Author Gina Apostol, possible National Book Award in Fiction nominee?
Book Review
Insurecto (2018)
by Gina Apostol

   Filipino-American author Gina Apostol reminds me of Sigrid Nunez, last year's winner of the National Book Award in Fiction for her novel, The Friend.  Nunez had been around for a while, teaching and writing in the United States, but she hadn't had a hit, or really received much critical attention.  Then, boom, she wins the National Book Award in Fiction.   I'm thinking that it could be the same kind of deal for Insurecto, a book that has the sort of vibe that induces interest from the people who decide the nominations for major literary awards.

  I regret listening to the Audiobook instead of getting a hard copy.  The narrator, Justine Eyre, also narrated the Audiobook for Deviation by Luce D'Eramo.  Deviation is about an Italian woman who volunteers to serve in a German labor camp during World War II.  Insurecto mostly takes place in the present, though one of the plot lines involves an American woman, a photographer, who documented war time atrocities committed by United States during the war between the "liberating" US troops and the existing indigenous independence movement.  I found it disturbing that narrator Eyre used the same accent for her Italian characters in Deviation and the Philipina translator-narrator in Insurecto.  Surely they do not sound the same?

  This was a topic that was central to another- non-fiction book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, by Daniel Immerwahr.  Immerwahr makes a straight-forward case that the US/freedom fighter conflict was the crystallization of the not-so-low-key imperialism that the US has done it's best to forget in the past half century.   Immerwahr writes from the perspective of an American historian-journalist, whereas Apostol is a native of the Philippines and a writer of fiction.

  Insurecto blends the present, where a Sofia Coppola-type character hires an extremely literate translator to help her with a script about the American atrocities in the Philippines, specifically the incident that took place in Balangiga, Samar, in 1901, after rebels killed a few dozen United States troops.   US Forces were told to turn the offending area into a "howling wilderness" and to exact vengeance on the women and children.

  Midway through Insurecto is a much deeper read than I expected from the description.  Apostol supplies her characters with insights that sound like they were worked out in an academic talk about post modern literary theory.  Thus, I found myself craving the actual book, so I could physically see what Apostol was doing.  It's also this combination of subject and style that makes me think she has a shot at the National Book Award- or at least the shortlist, this year.

Offshore (1979) by Penelope Fitzgerald

Book Review
Offshore (1979)
by Penelope Fitzgerald

  I'd never heard of Booker Prize winning English author Penelope Fitzgerald until I heard the afterword to The Transcription, the new novel by Kate Atkinson.  The Transcription is a World War II era spy novel, and the main character works at the BBC.  In the afterword written by the Author, she recognizes the work of Fitzgerald as being the "last word" about fictional depictions of the BBC.  I'd never heard of Fitzgerald, and then I found her 1979 novel Offshore, about the life of a single mother living with her two daughters on a houseboat moored in the Thames river, on the list of Booker Prize winners.

  Even more incredibly, I found an Audiobook version, recently published (2016) that was available from the library.   GO FIGURE!  Like many Booker Prize winners, Offshore is off-beat- not what you would expect, except it seems like very Booker Prize winner is a weird.   The center of Offshore is Nenna James, a woman recently separated from her husband, raising two pre-teen girls on her houseboat.  Edward, her husband, refuses to live on a boat, and has decamped to the apartment of his friend's mom in North London.

  Her boating companions are a group of almost entirely male eccentrics, led by Sam Willis, a semi-retired painter of maritime scenes, who lives on the decrepit Dreadnaught, the sinking of which is a major event during the course of Offshore.

   Other than that you've got Nenna flibbing and flubbing about getting back with her husband, and possibly removing herself to Canada under the patronage of her wealthy older sister.  There is also a German visitor, and James' two daughters get their own sub plot, which is blessedly PG.   

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Great Believers(2018) by Rebecca Makkai

Book Review
The Great Believers (2018)
by Rebecca Makkai

     I'm a book finisher, not one to give up on a book just because I don't like it. I respect the other side of the equation, life is too short, etc, but there is plenty of great literature that just doesn't qualify as "pleasure reading" under any circumstances- starting with everything written before Charles Dickens, and of course basically every work of high literary modernism, whether you are talking about Joyce or Proust.  Most of the 20th century avant garde, in England, the United States and Europe are not writing for the enjoyment of the reader, and many are actively opposed to the leisurely enjoyment of a light plot by the reader.

   Besides the avant garde, you've got the well established literary tradition of the big issue novel, which also flirts with the attention span of the casual reader in that books of this sort can contain a half dozen plot lines and multiples of characters.  Which is all in the way of an introduction to The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, which is an admirable attempt at a novel about the AIDS crisis as experienced by the residents of "Boys Town" Chicago's version of the Castro or West Hollywood, in the 1980's.  Makkai does her best to keep reader attention by deploying two narrator/protagonists, Yale Tishman, a young gay man working for an art museum in acquisitions and Fiona, the little sister of Yale's friend Nico, one of the first of their circle to die of AIDS. 

  The part of the book taking place closer to the present only concerns Fiona, as she travels to Paris seeking information about her estranged daughter.  Yale narrates his portion in conventional fashion, watching his circle succumb to the ravages of the early AIDS epidemic.  I listened to the Audiobook, which I deeply regretted.  I would have loved to skim parts of The Great Believers, particularly the lengthy plot about Yale's attempt to acquire the collection of relative of Fiona, a woman living in upstate Wisconsin who collected in Paris between World War I and World War II. . Those chapters had me climbing up the walls, and there was a lot of that stuff- endless trips to Wisconsin.

  It took me months to make it through the Audiobook- two check out's from the library, so 42 days.  The Great Believers isn't short, either.  If you are serious about the AIDS crisis in the 1980's The Great Believers is a must but for more casual readers of American Literature it's a pass.

Americanah (2013) by Chimanda Ngozie Adichie

Adichie in 2013
Author Chimanda Ngozie Adachi

Book Review
Americanah (2013)
 by Chimanda Ngozie Adachi

   Chimanda Ngozie Adachi is one of the best authors out there- both Half a Yellow Sun, her 2006 work of historical fiction about the Biafran-Nigerian Civil War is a classic, and so is Americanhah, her bildungsroman about Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who makes her way in America, only to return home to Lagos.   Along the way she recounts her adventures, early days in Nigeria, the only daughter of a well educated but not wealthy civil servant.  She makes through a year of university in Nigeria before she wins the opportunity to study in America.

  She experiences some mildly traumatic events getting her sea legs, but eventually solidifies her position working for a well to do white family in the Chicago suburbs, which is also the point where it becomes clear just how acute and observer Adachi is when it comes to the relationships between Americans and the "help."   From there, Ifemlu starts a wildly succesful blog about the perspective of a non-American African in the USA and even more fortuitously, a green card via the connections of her white boy friend, the brother of the wife of the family for whom she nannies.

  Ifemelu's story is contrasted to the experience of Obinze, Ifemelu's once (and hopefully future) love.  While Ifemelu struggle to success in the US, Obinze takes the route of an illegal immigrant in the UK, where he is caught and deported on the eve of his illegal green card marriage.  Obinze returns to Nigeria, where the bookish youth becomes a succesful real estate developer.  Americanah kept my attention throughout, particularly on those rare moments where we get glimpses of Adachi herself- as when Ifmelu's intellectual friends critique American Literary Fiction and its concerns (sad white people), or when an in-book character references the work of Philip Roth.


Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The Years(2008) by Annie Ernaux

Book Review
The Years(2008)
 by Annie Ernaux

  The shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize was announced today.  I think The Years, by French author Annie Ernaux is probably a co-favorite with The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vazquez.  The other short-listers include last years winner, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and her detective fiction novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,  as well as three long shots, Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann and The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran.

   I would argue that The Years has the edge because of it's popularity inside France, where it has a canon-level reputation, and the natural relationship between English and French literature, historically speaking.    Personally though, I wasn't a huge fan of the terse, elliptical approach, a cross between roman a clef and auto-fiction, run through a food blender.   I believe the approach is more or less chronological, and this passage, from the earlier part of the book (page 35) gives the reader an idea of Ernaux at her best:

There were dead children in every family, carried off by sudden incurable diseases: diarrhea, convulsions, diphtheria. All that remained of their brief time on earth were tombstones shaped like baby cribs and inscribed "an angel in heaven." There were photos that people showed while furtively wiping their eyes, and hushed, almost serene conversations that frightened surviving children, who believed they were living on borrowed time. They would not be safe until the age of twelve or fifteen having made it through whooping cough, measles, chicken pox. mumps, ear infections, and bronchitis every winter escaped tuberculosis and meningitis, at which time people would say they'd "filled out." In the meantime, "war children peaky and anemic with white-spotted nails, had to swallow cod-liver oil and Lune deworming syrup, chew Jessel tablets, step on the chemist's scale, bundle themselves in mufflers, avold chills, eat soup for growth, and stand up straight un-threat of wearing an iron corset.
  I wasn't particularly impressed by the other short list title I've read, The Shape of the Ruins, and it makes sense that Ernaux would win.  My money is on her. 

Magic Seeds (2004)by V.S. Naipaul

Book Review
Magic Seeds (2004)
by V.S. Naipaul

  The category of post-colonial literature dominates global fiction.  The first wave of this phenomenon was mostly literature written by expatriate/diaspora writers, with a heavy emphasis on English language writers who were educated at top English universities.  The second wave mixes expatriate/diaspora voices from new and different places- the US and Canada, and also European nations like France and Germany, with newer voices of writers who either never left their country of origin or returned back.

    Naipaul is the quintessential, and probably the most succesful, of this first wave of expatriate writers, and much of the criticism of his work concerned his lack of authenticity in relationship to his past.  No surprise then that Willie Somerset Chandran, the narrator of Magic Seeds and it's prequel,  Half a Life, picks up with Chandran adrift and brooding in Berlin, living at the sufferance of her sister, who has escaped India for a more or less comfortable life in Berlin as the somewhat happily married wife of a radical German filmmaker.

  Under his sister's influence, Chandran returns to India, where he hooks up with one of several Marxist rebel groups.  No one who has read Half a Life will be surprised that Half a Life, like his two decades in Africa, proves to be a  moderately embarrassing failure.  After an initial burst of enthusiasm, Chandran becomes dissatsfied with rebel life, with rebels themselves and with the peasants they are supposedly trying to liberate.

  With a comrade, he escapes the rebels and ends up imprisoned, before he is liberated via the timely intercession of his sister.  He returns to London, where the friends of his long forgotten student days in London pull him into the drift of their own intermittently self-satisfied and miserable lives.  It is hard to ignore Chandran's self contempt, which issues forth from each of his increasingly desperate attempts to find a self he can live with.   At the end of Magic Seeds it is left unclear whether Chandran ever resolves his dilemma, but you'd have to doubt it.

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