Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk

Book Review
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019)
by Olga Tokarczuk

  Big ups to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who is finally receiving some English language attention in the aftermath of her Booker International Prize win for Flights- originally published in Polish in 2007, then published in English translation in 2018, where it promptly won the Booker International Prize and scored a National Book Award for Translated Works nomination in the same year.  Similarly, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was originally published in Polish  in 2009 and received an English translation (and an English language Audiobook- bless you PenguinRandomHouse for your largess) this year. 

  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is described as both "detective fiction" and "literary fiction."  It also has strong roots in the existential/philosophical literary tradition of late 20th century central and eastern Europe.   Anyone who has read Flights will expect witty, sparkling prose from Tokarczuk and those readers will not be dissapointed.  Janina Duszejko, Tokarczuk's narrator, is what you might call an "old crone," living alone after a career as a civil engineer.  She spends her retirement on an isolated plateau near the Czech border, where she teaches English part time to the local school kids, cares for the summer houses of city dwellers during the off season, and carries on a long running, low intensity skirmish with the local hunting/poaching culture.

  The status quo is interrupted when a neighborhood poacher turns up dead.  The first death is followed by a series of deaths among the local power elite, and Duszejko decides to investigate.   The mention of literary fiction and the tradition of the European philosophical novel should be enough to forewarn potential readers that this is not your normal whodunit, and Duszejko is no Ms. Marple in that she despises the local victims.

  The Audiobook edition, read by a narrator who used a Polish accent- raises a question about Audiobooks read in translation.  Why, if the book has been translated into English, does the English language reader affect a Polish accent?  After all, the narrator is speaking in Polish, not English.  Isn't more consistent for the reader to use an American accent?   It's also an issue in a lesser-Murakami book I'm listening to right now, where all the characters speak heavily Japanese accented English, and the characters don't speak English at all.

   Generally speaking I'm up for ANY author who can get their non-English work of literary fiction a major label release in the United States- if there's an Audiobook- I'm there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

John Crow's Devil (2005) by Marlon James

Book Review
John Crow's Devil (2005)
 by Marlon James

  I've been waiting for the single copy of the Los Angeles Public Library Audiobook on this title for over six months!  There is no doubt that interest in Marlon James is way up- it wouldn't surprise me if John Crow's Devil, his 2005 debut novel, gets a reissue one of these days.  I would have listened to the Audiobook in any case, following one of my theories that Audiobooks are at their best when the reader possesses an accent that the listener does not- I can't imagine myself reading the heavy Jamaican patois of most of the character in John Crow's Devil without doing them a disservice.

  Reader Robin Miles is the gold standard for books requiring a Caribbean accent- she's done all of Jamaica Kincaid's  and Edward Danicat Audiobooks.  John Crow's Devil is an excellent first novel, if not a world-beater like his Booker Prize winner about Bob Marley, but it is confident and self-assured, and shows many of the themes he would revisit in his break-out books.

  Set in an isolated village in World War II era Jamaica, John Crow's Devil could be called "Jamaican Gothic," with an element of the fantastical that you could describe as "magical realism" although I'm certain James would bristle at the usage of that phrase. His characters: the Rum Preacher, the Apostle, the Widow possess an allegorical weight, even as James develops the narrative by delving into the pasts of most of the main characters in flash-back form. 

  There is plenty of sex and death to be had- clearly, James from the beginning has been inspired to give a "red blooded" edge to his stories, even as he incorporates LGBT themes into the mix.    When I saw James speak, he professed to despise the bloodlessness of contemporary intellectual culture- that is present here, in his first book, and I think it is a key to why he managed to break out with a Booker Prize- if you can fit it in the form of literary fiction, sex and death still sell.

The Wall (2019) by John Lanchester

Book Review
The Wall (2019)
by John Lanchester

   With an abiding interest in the intersection between dystopian futurism and literary fiction, I was a fool for The Wall by English journalist/author John Lanchester even before it made the 2019 Booker Prize longlist.  It didn't make the shortlist.   The Wall posits a near-future Britain after "the change" which, though never explained (see: differences between dystopian genre fiction and dystopian literary fiction) appears to be a massive rise in sea levels by the melting of the polar ice caps.  Global civilization is a state of disrepair.  Great Britain (or at least England, Scotland and Wales) have clung to a semblance of normality behind an island encircling wall.

  Kavanagh, the narrator, is a fresh recruit to the Defenders, the civil-defense entity who is tasked with keeping out the rest of the world, called, "the others."  Supposedly, all citizens of whatever they call the UK in this book are tasked to serve a two year term.  Letting an other through the wall means exile- in the event of penetration, one defender is sent "to sea" for every other that makes it through the wall.    The first portion reads like an update on The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, a book from the 1940's about a  young soldier similarly situated on the cusp of a gigantic desert, but Lanchester pumps up the action as the plot proceeds.

  It was a great Audiobook- it didn't really get a wide release in the US, so I was able to pick it up from the Los Angeles Public Library with a minimal wait, and the first person narration by Kavanagh makes for an easily translatable experience.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Professor Martens' Departure (1984) by Jaan Kross

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Estonian author Jaan Kross
Book Review
Professor Martens' Departure (1984)
 by Jaan Kross

Replaces:  Wise Children by Angela Carter

  Estonian author Jaan Kross is one of those "almost but not quite" Nobel Prize nominees who are always described as, "the best known author of country x and nominee for the Nobel Prizee."   Here, the country is Estonia.   Kross is better known in German, where his career spanned the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union- he was imprisoned both by the Nazi's for his Estonian nationalism and the Soviets for the same thing, before returning to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic in the mid 1950's and settling down as a professional writer.

   Kross was prolific during his career, he died in 2007, leaving behind 17 novels- maybe six of those have been translated into English, including Professor Martens' Departure, which most reminded me of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguo- both books involve a notable historical figure recalling his life with regret.   The Professor Martens of this book is actually two Martens'- separated by a century- both of whom where Estonian scholars of International Law who made their names and careers working for the Russian Empire.

  The later Professor Martens is the major narrator, and he shifts relatively seemlessly between episodes from his life and the life of his earlier "double."   Important episodes include an affair with a Belgian artist, his role in the Russo-Japanese Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) and his career and education.  There is also a portion where the contemporary (late 19th early 20th century) bemoans his failure to win the just-launched Nobel Peace Prize.  Maybe that's why he never won.

 Kross replaces Wise Children- Angela Carter's last book.   Carter actually lost two of her three titles in the 1001 Books project in the first revision- keeping only Nights at the Circus, and it's another example of how the first revision of the 1001 Books list replaced "diversity" picks from the UK and USA with straight white men from lesser known countries. 

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