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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Golden State(2019) by Ben Winters

Book Review
Golden State (2019)
by Ben Winters

  I am very interested in writers who move from popular/best-seller/genre work into the world of literary fiction.   That is as supposed to the more traditional route of a "serious" writer with low sales who breaks through with a major prize winning book and thereafter gains a popular audience.  Ben Winters is definitely working his way "out" of genre work, beginning with his classic, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009) and then making a career of combining detective/crime fiction with science fiction, see his The Last Policeman Trilogy.   Most recently he landed on the New York Times best seller list with Underground Airlines (2017),   I didn't read Underground Airlines at the time, perhaps because it came on the heels of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)- both books dealing in an alternate present/past where slavery has continued legally in parts of the south.

  Also, Ben Winter is white, not black, and I thought, at the time, that the choice of subject, with an ex-slave narrator, no less, was a little questionable, but still, it signaled that Winters was making a play at breaking out of genre fiction.  2019 brought Golden State, which returns to the conventions of detective fiction but conjures a real winner of an alternate history scenario, a place where California has emerged from some kind of murky Apocalypse to become "The Golden State" a place where lying is illegal, and everyone has to record everything they do every day.

  Lazlo Raresic is a twenty year veteran of what is called the Speculative Service, tasked with policing the truth in every day life.  They work alongside but slightly above the standard police, and are characterized by an innate sensitivity to the "truth": a lie made in their presence literally causes the air to shift, in a way similar to what you see out in the desert when it is super hot- the air shimmering and shifting.

  The idea of a society built around only speaking truth is inherently interesting to anyone familiar with the past half century of philosophy and critical theory.  The "linguistic turn" as it is known spawned generations of linguistically obsessed intellectuals, and it was hard not to hear J. L. Austin and his classic of linguistic-philosophy, How To Do Things With Words.    If full points are given for the underlying concept, the story itself is more conventionally genre, but a distinct combination of detective fiction and post-apocalypse science fiction.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Day the Sun Died (2018) by Yan Lianke

Image result for yan lianke
Chinese author Yan Lianke, potential winner of the Nobel Prize?
Book Review
The Day the Sun Died (2018)
 by Yan Lianke

  China is not a place that most think of when it comes to satire.  The Chinese government seems like a pretty humorless entity, and they exercise a level of censorship that is best described as, "active."  As China's most renowned practitioner of literary satire, author Yan Lianke occupies a precarious position within China, and his international reputation has lagged, as has the translation of his back catalog- which includes two novels that remain untranslated.

  Trying to get into the controversy that surrounds Lianke within China is both too complicated to get into AND the single most important key to understanding why western critics see him as potential Nobel Prize in Literature winner.  Certainly, he belongs to the generally well received of (mostly European) contemporary writers who have lived all or part of their lives under the eye of censorious government.   To the extent that someone is going to make the case that literature is a life or death situation, it helps to have authors who put their lives on the line with their work.

  As much as I'd love to say that I really enjoyed The Day the Sun Died, I didn't.   It might be the translation, or it might be my general level of ignorance and lack of familiarity with Lianke.  The story, about a village seized by near universal sleep-walking, during which the townspeople commit various crimes and misdemeanors,  has aspects of science fiction/fantasy, 20th century anti-totalitarianism political protest fiction as well as the distinctive cadence and rhythms of translated Chinese prose.

    I picked it up because it sounded like a fun read, but it was not, more akin to something written by an experimental modernist living in central Europe under Communist rule.   It wasn't enough to turn me off Lianke entirely, and just the fact that he is now a Chinese writer of literary fiction that I've read makes it more likely that I will continue to read his books. 

Book Review: The Library Book (2018) by Susan Orlean

Book Review:
The Library Book (2018)
 by Susan Orlean

  As a rule I'm not someone who reads books because someone says that I "have to," but such was the case with The Library Book, Susan Orlean's absorbing account of the 1986 fire in the central Los Angeles Library that damaged hundred of thousands of books while managing to leave the library itself largely intact.  Of course, this being a Susan Orlean book, The Library Book is about much more than just the fire, and actually covers the entire history of the library albeit in episodic fashion.

 The Audiobook I listened to was narrated by Susan Orlean herself- which is a much rarer occurrence in the world of Audiobooks then one might naturally expect.  Orlean has a crisp, pleasant voice, like an NPR announcer, and I thought having her read the Audiobook was a huge plus to the listening experience.

    As for the book itself, if you are a huge library nerd it's a must, even if you've never been to the Central Los Angeles library itself.  Orlean doesn't shy away from the tough issues surrounding modern library practice, specifically the homelessness issue- which gets it's own thoughtful chapter.  Other stand out chapters include those dealing with the history of the librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library and her investigation into the cause of the fire- although a suspect was pursued charges were never filed and a finding of responsibility was never made.


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