Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Warlow Experiment (2019) by Alix Nathan

Book Review
The Warlow Experiment (2019)
 by Alix Nathan

  I juggle five or six Audiobooks a time in the Libby app (thanks China!).  There's a clear hierarchy of the books I check out.  First tier is books I can't wait to get through, to the point where I fail to rotate through the rest of the books until I finish.  That's less than 10 percent of the books I listen to- 175 as of this review.  The lowest tier is books I either don't like or fail to finish- I keep track of those within the Libby app and the count is 42.  All the rest of the Audiobooks are in the middle tier- ranging from titles that I like but don't love to books I either need to revisit more than once or finish but don't enjoy.

  The Warlow Experiment, a work of historical fiction about a 17th century gentleman squire who recruits a local member of the working class to live underground without human contact for seven years, is at the bottom of this broad middle category of Audiobooks.  I finished it, but I didn't really enjoy it, and I probably wouldn't have finished it if I had better options at the time.  Part of the problem with The Warlow Experiment is that there is no element of surprise.  Any modern reader knows EXACTLY how the proposed experiment will end: Warlow will go mad and probably end up murdering someone.  I mean, you can guess that from the paragraph long description that the provide in the app.

  Especially tedious in the Audiobook format is the journal penned by the barely literate Warlow- the narrator sounding out his primitive sentences is border-line excruciating, even is Nathan is kind enough to drop the pretence halfway through the book.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) by Mohsin Hamid

Book Review
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)
 by Mohsin Hamid

  I was a big fan of Exit West (2017) and also enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), which was his second book and his break-out.   Hamid is a British-Pakistani writer who lived in the United States- attending Harvard Law School and working in New York.   Set in a nameless South Asian city in the recent past, Hamid adapts the format of a self-help book, to the point where How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is written in the second person, ex. "You ask yourself what you have to do to escape the poverty of your childhood."  It's an unusual, difficult choice for a novel, and it's a tribute to Hamid's technical skill that How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia holds together.  In addition to the trappings of the self-help genre, Filthy Rich is also a take on the O Henry rags to riches tale, with the narrator finding success as a seller of water in a thirsty city.

  Hamid is not a great depictor of female characters and I think all of his protagonists have been men. The female counter part of his narrator, a classmate who evolves from a high priced call girl to an independently wealthy television celebrity, is less well drawn, and their relationship becomes central in an ending that seemed a little pat.  Hamid also touches on LGBT issues with a gay son, but doesn't get deep into it.  It's not his best book, but he's also readable, or listenable, as I listened to the Audiobook.

Honeymoon (2011) by Patrick Modiano

Book Review
Honeymoon (2011)
 by Patrick Modiano

    The Nobel Prize Committee awarded to prizes in Literature this year, one for 2019, and one for 2018, when they didn't award a prize because of the committee members husband was a rapist, more or less.  Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won for 2018 and Austrian writer Peter Handke won for 2019.  Tokarczuk is a great pick, Handke is more controversial, mostly because of his support for convicted Serbian war criminal and dictator Slobodan Milosevic.  Neither writer is a stranger to this blog- I've read three books by Handke and I can tell you I don't like him, and two books by Tokarczuk, who I do like- and I'm excited that this will result in more of her works being translated into English and/or sold in the United States.

    Meanwhile I'm three deep into the bibliography of French author Modiano- the 2014 winner- and like Handke, I can tell you that I don't much like him.   On the plus side his works are freely available in Audiobook format from the library, and they average about five hours each, so it isn't much of a time investment.  I can see why Modiano won, his books are difficult and complicated but in a delicate way, and he deals in the kind of existentialism that seems to be favored by the Nobel Committee.

  Honeymoon is about Jean, a documentary films maker who becomes obsessed with a Ingrid Teyrsen, a woman who has just killed herself.  Jean realizes that he knew Teyrsen when she was a girl, and he goes on to piece together her life, specifically her relationship with a man named Rigaud, a wealthy but slightly dissoulate Parisian who helps her escape the Nazi's as they occupy Paris. It's not exactly clear why Teyrsen has to flee Paris, I assumed it is because she was Jewish but Jean never specifies. 

   Like Modiano's other books there are elements of a detective story, spy novel and existential European novel, but you can't describe Honeymoon as any of these, it's more of a "meditation" on themes of memory, forgetting and the gaps in biography synonymous with the modern world.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Death is Hard Work (2019) by Khaled Khalifa

Syrian author Khaled Khalifa- give the man a prize already.
Book Review
Death is Hard Work (2019)
by Khaled Khalifa

  The finalist for the five National Book Award categories were announced this week.  I'm trying to keep up with two of the five categories, fiction and translated fiction.  Death is Hard Work made the shortlist in translated fiction- a newish category- and even though it's only the second of the five titles that I've read, I would pick it as my choice for the winner.  First, consider the competition- you've got The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, which I've read- it just is not as good as Death is Hard Work.  Straight up- there is simply no saying that The Memory Police is better than Death is Hard Work.

  As for the rest of the competition, you've got maybe the last novel by Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, a sentimental favorite perhaps, but Ogawa also has an entire career behind her, so they would probably cancel each other out in the legacy oriented judges on the panel.   The other two books: The Barefoot Woman by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga sounds intriguing but is out on a tiny press.   Then you've got Crossing by Pajtim Statovci- a Kosovan author, and I sincerely doubt that he can drum up anything to top Death is Hard Work, about a trio of siblings who need to bring the corpse of their father from Damascus to Aleppo during the height of the Syrian Civil War.

  Khalfia apparently still lives inside Aleppo, he should get a medal for that fact alone, but Death is Hard Work is genuinely moving- with a story that tackles the big issue of the Syrian civil war and the small story of  Bolbol, the youngest son of the dead man. I just can't believe any other book would win the 2019 Booker Prize for Translated Fiction.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier (2019) by Kevin Barry

Book Review
Night Boat to Tangier (2019)
by Kevin Barry

  Night Boat to Tangier, by Irish author Kevin Barry, is a good pick from the 2019 Booker Prize longlist- in fact- after listening to the Audiobook- which is memorably narrated by the author- I was surprised that it didn't make the shortlist- if you look at the shortlist book- at the very least you would think Barry would have been picked over Salman Rushdie, who is going on a streak of six duds in a row- and whose shortlist title, Quichotte, was panned by the New York Times last week.  That makes  four books from the longlist, and none from the shortlist.   I guess you could say that Barry, was a white, hetero Irishman scores a zero on the diversity meter, but seriously- Rushdie? In 2019?

  The shorthand for Night Boat to Tangier is "Crime Fiction a la Beckett," with two over-the-hill Irish drug dealers keeping an eye out for the twenty-something daughter of the boss of the pair.  At first, it's basically the two crooks bantering, waiting for this daughter who never (to their knowledge) materializing, while the boss tracks back and forth in time, describing the details of his autobiography in terse but memorable detail.   Like many books written by Irish authors, the Audiobook is an excellent experience as you actually hear the accent of the characters- again- here narrated by the Author. It's a shame it didn't make the longlist, but it did get a recent American publication, so be sure to check it out.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Book Review
Stoner (1965)
by John Williams

  Stoner is not about weed, it's about a guy named Stoner.   I've been aware of Stoner since the New York Review of Books put out a paperback version- that was back in 2005- and then in 2012 is Waterstone's book of the year, which spurred more interest in the United States- for the last few years I've seen it everywhere that carries New York Review of Books Editions.  Sadly, New York Review of Books doesn't do Audiobooks, but I guess someone else got the rights and BOOM- I'm listening to the Audiobook.

  John Williams spent most of his life in Denver as a tenured assistant professor at the University of Denver.   He wasn't unrecognized in his lifetime- his 1972 novel, Augustus, about the life and times of Caesar (of ancient Rome) won the National Book Award, but he isn't what you would call "canonical."  If he is, it is because of this book- Stoner, his anti-bildungsroman slash existential hero, about a character who bears a marked resemblance to the Author.   William Stoner is what you call a "tragic hero," born to a pair of Missouri dirt-farmers who decide to send him to the then brand new University of Missouri (Columbia) with the thought that he will learn agricultural science and return to the farm.

  Instead, young Stoner- who is, it must be said a "square"- he represents the polar opposite of of Kerouac's Sal Paradise in On The Road- falls in love with English literature and abandons his planned course of study to become a university English instructor.  What follows takes place almost entirely on or near the University of Missouri, making Stoner a charter member of the first generation of the "campus novel" of American literature.

  The pathos really starts to build when Stoner makes the ill-advised choice to court and wed Edith, the mentally ill daughter of a wealthy St. Louis area banker who is affiliated with the university.   Edith is literally the first woman that Stoner dates, so a modern reader won't miss the warning signs, and the use of a third part narrator makes sure that the reader is aware of how bad things are likely to get.   Edith is a memorable character, and the miseries Stoner experiences at her hands are only exceeded by the misery he experiences in his job as a tenured assistant professor- he has a lifetime job, but no guarantee of when or what he will be teaching, a hitch that comes to the fore when Stoner gets into a spat with his department head over the progress of a student.

   Stoner is a sad book, very sad.   It's certainly a nice counter-point to the beat influenced/classic 60's era American books from this period.  One thing that Stoner is not is experimental, nor is it difficult to read.  My understanding of books reprinted by the New York Review of Books is that they are often experimential/modernist/difficult to read, and that was not the case here.

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