Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me (1966) by Richard Fariña

Image result for Richard Farina pynchon
Richard Farina, Pynchon friend, and noted novelist and folk singer 
Book Review
Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me  (1966)
 by Richard Fariña

  Richard Fariña is one of those tantalizing "what-if's" of 20th century American popular culture.  He went to college at Cornell with Thomas Pynchon- Pynchon officiated at his wedding, and Pynchon authored the foreword for the re-issue of Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me, which I think, is pretty high up there on the list of "lost" classics of counter-cultural literature.   Farina also cut two folk albums with his wife - Joan Baez's sister- and it isn't hard to find people who will compare him- favorably- to Bob Dylan.   Unfortunately, Farina died in a motorcycle accident in 1966- extinguishing his light, and ultimately leaving him an interesting foot note.

   It is easy to see the relationship between Farina and Pynchon- and it made me think about the degree to which all the major writers of the 1960's in American Literature were influenced by "jive" the particular slang of New York City jazz musicians- black and white.    It's particularly striking in Been Down So Long because the characters are students at Cornell University in the mid 1960's- true- the protagonist is Greek, and one of the gang is African-American, but we aren't talking a hep situation up there in Ithaca.   Whereas with Pynchon- his early books set in California- or the past- the jive influence is muted and blends into the larger "Pynchonian" style.

  I didn't love it- Farina has his antic and mad cap moments, but there are a lot of poop jokes and a generally deplorable attitude towards women.   There is little in the way of plot- call it a picaresque, which is probably what the the author intended.  I haven't yet listened to his folk records but I plan to.

American Spy (2019) by Lauren Wilkinson

Image result for lauren wilkinson
Author Lauren Wilkinson
Book Review
American Spy (2019)
by Lauren Wilkinson

  It's a spy novel about an African American woman!  If there is one thing you can say about the genre of spy fiction, its that it lacks diversity.  In fact, spy fiction embodies many of the "dead white male" values where women are desirable objects and minorities are the enemy, or simply non-existent.   Like the blidungsroman and mutli-generational family drama, there is a strong argument that EVERY group should get their own spy novel- an argument that has already carried the day in more progressive genres like science fiction and detective fiction.

  Told in a modified flashback format as ex-FBI agent and ex-CIA contractor Marie Mitchell takes refuge from the aftermath of a shadowy attempted assassination of herself at her home in Connecticut. She dispatches the assassin and flees to Martinque, where she takes refuge with her mother and her twin boys.  The "modified" flashback approach consists of a book length letter to her still-too-young-to-understand twins, describing to them her childhood, work as an FBI agent in New York City and involvement in a shadowy Reagan-era CIA-sponsored plot to compromise real-life left-leaning leader Thomas Sankara. 

   Mitchell's back story is more bildungsroman than spy novel, and it's equally and arguably more interesting then the spy story intself, as Mitchell struggles to answer the question as to why an African American woman would choose to the join FBI, which, even among the world of law enforcement has a pretty shitty records vis a vis minority rights.   Mitchell's semi-mentor at the agency is Ali, a long time friend of her father (a New York City Police Officer) who made his bones infiltrating and compromising civil right's groups in the 50's and 60's.

    I'm just assuming that Wilkinson is setting up some sort of franchise, so it was difficult to really fear for Mitchell's safety, reinforced by the flashback format, assuring us that Mitchell has survived her travails.   In the end- and I'm sure this is by design, Mitchell never really answers the questions, and it's unclear what her post-FBI/CIA career involves, exactly.   At least one more book is required to finish the narrative that is set into motion in American Spy.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

2019 Booker Prize longlist Announced: Unreleased Books, UK Based Authors Dominate

2019 Booker Prize longlist

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)
Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)
Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)
Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)
John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)
Deborah Levy (UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)
Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)
Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)
Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)
Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

    The 2019 Booker Prize longlist headlines include several unreleased heavyweights, particularly forthcoming titles by Margaret Atwood- her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale and Salman Rushdie, who has perhaps finally connected in his "American period" with a version of Don Quixote embodied in an American salesman. 

    If I was to handicap the shortlist, I would put Atwood and Rushdie on it.  I think probably Oyinkan Braithwaite is a good bet as the only debut novelist and one of two African writers.  My Sister, The Serial Killer, established a new dimension in contemporary African literary ficiton, in my opinion.   Turkish writer Elif Shafak has been in the new lately for her persecution at the hands of the Turkish government, she's a good shortlist bet.     Jeanette Winterson is a good blind bet- a canon level author who hasn't had a hit in some time.  Finally I have a feeling that Ducks, Newburyport, a one sentence, one thousand page stream of consciousness novel written from the point of view of an Ohio house wife, by an author who is the daughter of a prominent Joyce scholar, has the makings of an experimental classic. 

  The only one of the 2019 Booker longlist I've actually read is My Sister, The Serial Killer Ducks, Newburyport, The Wall, Lost Children Archive, An Orchestra of Minorities and Lanny are all on my radar or in my borrowing queue.   The Wall hasn't gotten a United States release yet.  Atwood and Rushdie are going to be literary events- either one could win the Nobel Prize.   I know Lost Children Archive and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World  have United States editions, they shouldn't be hard to track down.  That leaves only four books that look to be UK only at this point.   

 Whether you read Ducks, Newburyport is probably going to be *the* book for serious readers of literary fiction.   Atwood winning for a sequel would be pretty unheard-of, but The Handmaid's Tale has seemingly ascended to Brave New World/1984/The Hunger Games levels of cultural presence and resonance. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Crossing (1994) by Cormac McCarthy

Book Review
The Crossing (1994)
 by Cormac McCarthy

   The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy focuses on two characters: John Grady and Billy Parham.  Grady is the subject of the first book, Parham the subject of the second, and then both characters are in book three.   The Crossing is the second book in the trilogy, and it's about the childhood and young adulthood of Billy Parham,  the son of a small rancher in New Mexico, growing up shortly before World War II when the book starts, and then continuing through the beginning of World War II.    Like All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing is a bildungsroman/coming-of-age story that mostly takes place in Mexico, and like Grady, Parham experience many and various travails while riding around on a horse. 

    Wolves, Native Americans, bandits, stories told by blind old men, conversations with half-crazed missionaries, a fetching underage Mexican girl as a love interest, The Crossing has everything a reader or listener expects from the second volume of The Border Trilogy.    McCarthy is an awesome author for the Audiobook format- his style of narration is ideal for the spoken word, and I could listen to Cormac McCarthy novels on a loop on Audiobook.  The Crossing is one of McCarthy's longer books: 432 pages, and it feels so- with the individual episodes stretching into novella length territory. The initial encounter between Parham and a wolf, which he kills and then attempts to return to Mexico for burial, feels like a book in and of itself.

   I've lately become convinced that McCarthy is, in fact, my favorite author- simply if I consider the pleasure of his work, compared to the chore that other favorite authors like Pynchon and Roth can feel like at times.    As I write this I'm listening to the third book of The Border Trilogy, and that will leave only his very earliest novels left.   Basically, every book that McCarthy has written since 1980 has been a hit and a classic, and I agree on both counts.  

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) by John McGahern

Book Review
That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002)
by John McGahern

   That They May Face the Rising Sun was the last novelist by Irish author John McGahern.  McGahern died in 2006, and at the time of his death he was lauded as, "the most important Irish writer since Beckett" among other accolades and plaudits.  The 1001 Books project rewarded him by removing this book from their first revision, replacing it with a book by Jose Carlos Somoza, and reducing him to one book (Amongst Women.)

  Published in the United States as By The Lake- I had a hard time tracking down a copy- since I didn't figure out about the different title until after I'd found a copy with the UK title, bought it on Amazon and then let it sit around my house for a solid year before finally gritting my teeth and sitting down to read it.

   That They May Face the Rising Sun charts a year in the life of an Irish couple who have moved back to the Irish country side after living in London, he a writer and she an advertising executive.  A reader could be forgiven if they would expect lots of information about the life left behind, but quite the opposite- both the wife and husband of the repatriated pair, the Ruttledge's do their best to obscure themselves in the farming community which surrounds them.

  The first hundred pages are so low key that they are practically somnolent- after buying this book it took me a half dozen tries to get past the first 50 pages, but the reader is rewarded, as the 'action' picks up towards the middle and end: selling lambs at the county fair, a mail order bride for the local rake, etc.  Nothing really happens with the Ruttledge's themselves- no dramatic infidelity or one or the other decamping back to London.

  The country side is evoked beautifully, as you'd expect.  

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970) by Michel Foucault

Book Review
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970)
by Michel Foucault

  I was reading in what you might call a systematic fashion long before I started writing about it.  Before I started the 1001 Books project over a decade ago, I was mostly reading history, especially medieval history, as well as philosophy.  I abandoned both areas, more or less, because it was hard to keep a constant supply of unread books on hand, and the subject matter in both areas tends to be dry- not good for the lifestyle of more casual reading I wanted to embrace.

  Only now am I getting back into it, by "it" I mean philosophy.   I found a used copy of The Order of Things at a used book store down the street, and I thought Foucault would be a good place to resume: He's challenging, but not super challenging, and incredibly influential on the current generation of scholars both inside and outside philosophy.   One of my take-aways from reading The Order of Things is that I might be better served by going and finding the works of English language authors who have been deeply influence by Foucault.

   The major point of The Order of Things is that knowledge, and specifically categories of knowledge, are contingent and rely on a variety of environmental factors to gain their meaning.  It is one of the core teachings of the "relativism" which has been embraced by educators first, and later by politicians and normal folks.

  Foucault's method is to SHOW the manner in which scientific discourse emerged from earlier, non-scientific discourse by focusing on three disciplines: biology, linguistics and economics.  He does this by going back to the 18th century or thereabouts and performing heavy textual analysis.  The lack of familiarity that any modern, English reader has with any of his source materials contributes to the difficulty, but there is also the problem of Foucaltian analysis itself, which seems purposefully obscure.

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