Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Nickle Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead

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Colson Whitehead
Book Review
The Nickle Boys (2019)
 by Colson Whitehead

  Colson Whitehead is a top 5 American writer of literary fiction, he's coming off Underground Railroad- a career highlight- that won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Pretty incredible for a book that is basically science fiction.   In The Nickle Boys, Whitehead turns to a more realistic milieu, a school based on the real-life horror of Florida's Dozier School for Boys.

   Whitehead manages to walk the fine line between writing a book that soft pedals the horror enough to guarantee a large general audience and the kind of realistic description of emotional and physical pain that defines canonical literature.   The nature of the plot and the narrative pay out is such that any lengthy description risks compromising the experience for another reader.   I listened to the Audiobook, which is very well done- it's a good book for Audiobook format in terms of length and the material.

   The Nickle Boys isn't an endless catalog of gothic horror, in fact it's the quiet moments that elevates the material into the stratosphere.  Neither the Pulitzer or National Book Award is known for repeat awards, but The Underground Railroad was three years ago.   It does look like another sales hit- still in the Amazon top 100 two months after publication.


Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013) by Svetlana Alexievich

Book Review
Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013)
by Svetlana Alexievich

  I can't get enough of 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.  Her books take the form of extensive interviews with dozens, maybe hundreds of individual sources, each book tackles a different subject, this book is about the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. The overwhelming theme is regret and a sense of nostalgia for the loss of the Soviet state.

  The regret and nostalgia is intermixed with the stories of many who suffered greviously at the hands of the state during the Soviet period, who survived and eventually were able to access their files and figure out which among their friends and neighbors denounced them.  Victims and executioners, that is a phrase that reccurs frequently.

  Another frequent topic is the presence of salami in the stores after the fall of Communism, "We were no longer equal, but there was salami in the stores."    The voices of the losers out number those of the winners- just like life; but there are no interviews with oligarchs or the thuggish mafia who serve as the bogeymen to the normal people she interviews.

  Many of the most horrific stories come from the events in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and the Caucuses, where Russians and Armenians were ethnically cleansed in horrifying fashion.  

Exit Ghost (2007) by Philip Roth

Book Review
Exit Ghost (2007)
 by Philip Roth

  Exit Ghost is the final of the nine book Nathan Zuckerman series by Philip Roth.   I think you can probably divide Roth's career into the period before Portnoy's Complaint, when he was three novels into a career as a writer that showed promise, but hadn't delivered fame and fortune, and after Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969, which catapulted Roth into the world of general and literary celebrity that comes maybe three or four times in a generation.   The Zuckerman series started a decade after Portnoy's Complaint, and a common theme in the first four books is Nathan Zuckerman dealing with the consequences of his post-fame live, specifically, the impact on his immediate family.

  Family continues to dominate through the fifth book, The Counterlife (1986), and then the last three books before Exit Ghost feature Zuckerman as a listener, and the plots revolve around the characters talking to him.   Exit Ghost returns to the earliest book and picks up with a Zuckerman centered narrative, with Nathan in Manhattan and returning to the territory of the first book, The Ghost Writer, which was about Zuckerman's relationship with an reclusive, isolated author when he was a young man.

  Exit Ghost picks up the thread half a century later, with Zuckerman seeking medical treatment in New York City, leaving his isolated cabin in New England for the first time in a decade.  Impulsively, he responds to an ad placed by a young pair of New York writers who want to swap their apartment in the city for an isolated cabin.    Zuckerman quickly becomes obsessed with Jamie Logan, the wife of the young couple, and through her he is introduced to Richard Kilman, a young man trying to write an autobiography of E.I. Lonoff, the reclusive mentor figure from The Ghost Writer.   Kilman knows about an incestous affair Lonoff had with his older sister, and Zuckerman swears to stop him from publishing about it. 

  Like Prague Orgy, Exit Ghost is more of a coda and less of stand-alone novel, clearly secondary to the the other seven books. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Electric Hotel (2019) by Dominic Smith

Book Review
The Electric Hotel (2019)
 by Dominic Smith

   American-Australian author Dominic Smith is five novels deep into his career- which is great, but he hasn't had a hit yet.  Last time out, he made a move onto Farrar, Straus, Giroux and The Electric Hotel is his second book for them. It's a sprawling work of historical fiction mostly about the silent film era and World War I.   Claude Ballard is living out his days in a decrepit Hollywood area SRO when an enterprising film student induces him to revisit his lost silent film classic The Electric Hotel- years ahead of it's time but essentially lost and forgotten in the present day.

  Much of the book involves Ballard recounting his biography:  Childhood in Paris, recruited by the Lumiere brothers to market their motion picture machine  internationally,  pre-Hollywood film impresario, love of a Greta Garbo esque silent film star, clashes with Thomas Edison over motion picture patents- and I really had trouble making it through this first half of the book- even in Audiobook format, because the plot often seemed more like an essay on film history than the kind of narrative you look for in a early 21st century work of literary fiction. 

   However, Smith continues the story into Ballard's sojourn as a would-be journalist on the western front of World War I, and at that point, the pace really picks up, and the fairly mundane details of the pre-Hollywood silent film era are replaced by a more engaging story about World War I. 

Lanny (2019) by Max Porter

Book Review
Lanny (2019) 
by Max Porter

  Lanny is a Booker Prize longlist nominee this year, written by English author Max Porter.   His first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was critically acclaimed, but it didn't make much of a splash over here in the USA- that was in 2015-   it did well enough to get him an international release for Lanny, which was already on Eshelves in the United States when the Booker longlist was announced this year, and thus it's the first of this year's nominees that I managed to track down.  And an Audiobook, no less!   

  It's a good fit for the Audiobook format, with a polyphony of voices revolving around the disappearance of the eponymous Lanny, a Manic Pixie Dream Child who is likely to either enchant or annoy the reader, depending on their feelings about the merits of manic pixie dream children irl.  Lanny lives in a small bedroom village on the outskirts of London, with his City-Trader father, who is also not such a fan of manic pixie dream children himself and his mother- who is a dominant narrative voice in the greek-chorus style Porter embraces.  It's reminiscent of recent price winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

  The fantastical element of the set up involves Dead Poppa Toothwort, an ancient earth spirit who watches the village- leading to dada-esque sequences of overheard dialogue- and malevolently covets Lanny, because, ancient evil spirits, innocent manic pixie dream children.   Unlike many of the reviewers in the UK, I was not charmed.  Which is not to say that Porter is being cloying or sentimental- Lanny is a sharply observed, nasty piece of work that says as much as the environment of a commuter village outside London and the dynamics of the people who live there as the missing boy narrative.

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