Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Last Witnesses (2019) by Svetlana Alexievich


Book Review
Last Witnesses (2019)
by Svetlana Alexievich

   Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a career maker for everyone, but Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich went from being essentially unknown to getting her entire back catalog translated and published in English, with all the trimmings- including Audiobook editions for her big hits.  Last Witnesses is her second book focused on World War II, the first being The Unwomanly Face of War, about the experience of women during World War II, and together they make a good trilogy with The Last of the Soviets, about the end of the Soviet Union.   All three are incredibly powerful, and they all make for superior Audiobooks- thank you Nobel Prize for making that happen.

  Last Witnesses is not of epic length like Unwomanly and Soviets, probably because most of the interviewees are talking about events that happened when they were under ten years old.  Many say so, "What can I remember, I was three."  Still, they remember enough.   I'm glad I encountered Alexievich, she's spurred a small obsession with the experience of life in the USSR.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Couples, Passerby (1988) by Botho Strauss


Book Review
Couples, Passerby (1988)
by Botho Strauss

Replaces: The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker

   Botho Strauss ranks as a major omission from the original edition of the 1001 Books list.  The status of cross-over playwrights and novelists is a point of friction within the canon as constructed by the editors of the 1001 Books project.  There are no plays- presumably because plays are not books.  Their status mirrors that of creative non-fiction, which is almost entirely excluded from all editions.  The unspoken assumption behind the 1001 Books list is that Book = Novel, with multiple exceptions for novellas, some for short story collections, and essentially none for individual short stories, plays and poetry.

  The biggest exemption from the unspoken Book = Novel for the purposes of 1001 Books is experimental literature, works of which are frequently included in the 1001 Books list.   Strauss is essentially unknown in the English speaking world- his wikipedia page is almost non existent, and I'd personally never heard of him before I read The Young Man- his other contribution to the 2008 1001 Books list.   Like The Young Man, Couples, Passerby is most explicitly not a novel, being more a collection of observations and aphorisms surrounding interpersonal relationships.  Unlike The Young Man, Couples, Passerby is comprehensible.   The Young Man is so dense and surreal that making heads or tales of it requires careful note taking and line by line consideration.  Truth be told I didn't derive much from either book, and it's hard to make a case for Strauss' late inclusion, except as he provides another multi-volume German language author.

The Book of Night Women (2009) by Marlon James

Image result for marlon james
Author Marlon James
Book Review
The Book of Night Women (2009)
by Marlon James

   The Book of Night Women was Marlon James' second novel, after John Crow's Devil- published in 2005.   James broke through into the wider public consciousness when his A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the rise and fall of Bob Marley as told by a chorus of different voices, won the Booker Prize in 2015.  Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published this year, is on the shortlist for the National Book Award-opening up the possibility of James as a rare double Booker/National Book Award winner.   Like John Crow's Devil, about the goings-on in an isolated Jamaican town in the 1950's, The Book of Night Women is squarely in the category of "historical fiction."  Unlike John Crow's Devil, The Book of Night Women is set in the eighteenth century, at a time when slavery was still a fact of the present.

  Lilith is the protagonist, the daughter of a slave who died in childbirth and the now retired overseer of the estate.  No one would ever accuse James of being a bloodless aesthete, all of his books have visceral scenes of sex and violence that combine realism and a sensitivity to the taste of contemporary audiences of literary fiction for sadistic cruelty.  I purposefully sought out the Audiobook for Night Women- it is read by Robin Miles- she has to be the best narrator working for books that require a Jamaican accent, and again, she didn't disappoint

  At times, I wished I was reading so I could just skip some of the more brutal moments, but that would have been cheating.   The plantation slavery world that James has drawn is well informed, you can hear the clear echoes of the Foucaultian preoccupation with the infliction of coercive power on the body of subjects (I'm not sure if James has read Foucault or not, but I would guess so...)   

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