Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Black Box (1990) by Orhan Pamuk

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Turkish Nobel Prize winning novelist and author Orhan Pamuk
Book Review
The Black Box (1990)
by Orhan Pamuk

    There are a seemingly endless number of English translation Orhan Pamuk novels available in Audiobook format.  He has published at least 20 books in Turkish, about half of those have English language Audiobook editions.  Narrator John Lee is one of my favorite Audiobook narrators- he narrated HHhH by Laurent Binet,  When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro and the entire Pamuk back catalog.   Lee has over 300 Audiobook titles to his credit, ranging from fantasy to non fiction, to classics  and really just every sort of Audiobook you could imagine.

  There doesn't seem to be any constraint among Audiobook narrators about what type of books to read- it seems like it is a "gig is a gig" world. But Lee has a diction that I find relaxing and he elegantly captures Pamuk's difficult sentences- which merit a postscript by the translator of the most recent translation (the first was in 1994, the second in 2004.)  discussing the difficulty of translating Turkish into English.  Specifically, that the passive voice is prefered in Turkish literary culture, whereas as any college undergraduate in an English college knows, the passive voice is to be avoided in all forms, whenever possible, in favor of the active voice.

    The Black Box is a strictly contemporaneous (Istanbul circa the late 1980's) post-modern detective novel- with an emphasis on the post-modern, with twisting identities and stories within stories within stories.  In a sense, the plot can be described in a single sentence:  Dissatisfied Istanbul lawyer Galip discovers that his wife, Ruya, has disappeared and he tries to find her.

    However within that Pamuk weaves a complicated garment, with Galip becoming increasingly obsessed with Celal, a newspaper columnist and lifetime friend, who has disappeared at the time as Ruya.  Gradually, Galip assumes Celal's identity while also recounting newspaper columns by Celal as a part of trying to find Ruya. As a detective story, spoilers lurk, even if they are the kind of low pay off surprises that fail to evoke the mildest gasp of surprise. 

Atlas of a Lost World (2018) by Chris Childs

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Examples of Clovis points, the first continent spanning culture group in North America

Book Review
Atlas of a Lost World (2018)
 by Chris Childs

  I'm unsure where or how I heard about Atlas of a Lost World by "adventure travel" writer Chris Childs.  The description I read promised that Childs would revisit the paths of entry to the "New World."   Like many of the "facts" that people thought they new about pre-contact North America, the very routes of entry and time of entry are being contested using newly available evidence and techniques of analyzing that evidence.    For example, linguistic evidence suggests three separate entries over a thousand years.  As Childs develops the argument, the archeological evidence suggests multiple entries- the conventional Siberian land-bridge entry, but also a separate entry, perhaps by a Austronesian population, that went down the Pacific coast, all the way to Chile.   There is also strong, but controversial evidence that the "Clovis" culture came from the Iberian peninsula, all of them between fifteen to seventeen thousand years ago.

  Several chapters recount his efforts to recreate these efforts- trekking across an Alaskan glacier near the Bering strait, kayaking down the coast of British Columbia, and hiking through a swamp in Florida, in all of them trying to put himself in the position of the first humans in North America. A major theme that cuts across the entire book is the role of megafauna- enormous examples of modern animals, who were, it appears, hunted to extinction by the first Americans.  Within the category of megafauna, the mammoth appears as the central figure of interest, with Childs devoting substantial pages to the hypothesis that the clovis culture was a mammoth obsessed death cult. 

  Atlas of a Lost World is part adventure story, part geography, part archeology but almost no anthropology.  His worst chapter was a visit to the Navajo nation, where he tries to argue with a Navajo elder who insists that the Navajo came from the ground, and did not immigrate to their present location.  Linguists would disagree, the Navajo language being the best known example of the language family generally thought to correspond to the major wave of Bering strait immigration.  Childs lamely tries to argue, before catching himself.

 The idea of a wave of immigration from the Iberian peninsula seems well supported by the archeological evidence, but I've never heard of any other link, genetic or linguistic, for example.  Childs isn't an academic, and Atlas of a Lost World  is a good pick for the intersection of rugged outdoor adventure and New World pre-history.


The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Book Review
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll  &  Mr. Hyde (1886)
 by Robert Louis Stevenson

   The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, generally gets the credit for "inventing" the idea of a split personality into literature, but it owes a very heavy debt to a book published anonymously in 1824, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner- written by James Hogg, also a Scot.  Justified Sinner wasn't a hit at the time, but Stevenson copped to having read it, and admitted that it influenced Jekyll and Hyde.   Published as the 1886 equivalent of an exploitation paperback, Jekyll & Hyde sold upwards of 50,000 copies after a positive review in The Times was published in February.  After that it became an early example of a what is now called a pop culture phenomenon, with Jekyll and Hyde eventually becoming a synonym for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
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Isabell Huppert played Madame Hyde in a 2017 remake of the novella, one of literally dozens of movie versions. 

  Jekyll and Hyde works just as well as an early example of junkie lit- Stevenson was never a healthy guy, and rumors have long persisted that he was variously under the influence of cocaine or ergot (hallucinogenic yeast mold) when he wrote the whole novella over the course of two days and nights.   Certainly, the multiple narratives eventually reveal that drugs are indeed the reason for the transformation from healthy Dr Jekyll to monstrous Mr Hyde.

  Characteristic of many canon level titles from the mid to late 19th century, before literary modernism made everyone self conscious about writing "serious" literature, Jekyll and Hyde isn't particularly well written, there isn't much of a plot to speak of, and if it hadn't been such a hit, it is doubtful that critics would have embraced it.   It helps the canonical status that Stevenson has a half dozen books that could be considered canon level-  Treasure Island (1883)is his forever number one, and then you've got good arguments for Kidnapped (also 1886) and The Master of Ballantrae (1888) in addition to another half dozen books that no one reads anymore.

Original review from 2012:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
originally published 1886
this edition Barnes & Noble Classics
2003 w/ Introduction and Notes by Jenny Davidson

  Is it fair to Robert Louis Stevenson to say that he's over-represented in the original edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die?  He's got four books on the original list: Treasure Island- his break-out hit- published in 1883.  Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- both published in 1886- and The Master of Ballantrae- 1889.

  Having now read all four novels- I feel like the answer is yes, he is over-represented with four titles in the original edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  There is no way to deny Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- but considering the sheer number of possible contenders, it's rather harder to make a case for Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae- even though they both possess the outstanding quality of being action packed, brief and easy to read.

   Stevenson is an Author who was as popular as he could be for a while- and then had that favor rescinded in a way that is familiar to students of other artistic genres- his success created a back lash, mostly by inspiring his followers to make him into some kind of bohemian hero saint.  ANNOYING!

  Still, there's no denying the enduring appeal of the Stevenson canon- Treasure Island- pretty much directly responsible for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise- and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde having entered the popular consciousness as a synonym for a schizophrenic personality.  Quite an achievement evening leaving out Kidnapped and Master of Ballantrae.

  Stevenson was hardly original in his subject matter- but his treatment of familiar themes was bracing and engaging.   Stevensons prose style was effortless- a forerunner to the airport novel style of the best seller list- and he's probably contributed as much to popular fiction as any other Author.

  Shame he's not taken more seriously today- I think his work could teach would-be Artists of many different genres how to maintain Artistic integrity while pleasing a broad Audience.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Fall, or Dodge in Hell (2019) by Neal Stephenson

Book Review
Fall, or Dodge in Hell (2019)
 by Neal Stephenson

 I actually bought this book with a Barnes and Noble gift card because it was fifty percent off and basically the only book in the entire store that I had any remote interest in reading.   Weighing in at a solid 883 pages- which is all book- no notes, end essays- Fall, or Dodge in Hell is further proof that Stephenson gets to publish whatever he wants, and that he may be great or terrible, and during this book is frequently both.

   Describing the "story" in anything but the broadest terms is like trying to describe the plot of Dickens novel, but the themes are the idea that people can have their brains/bodies scanned at the time of death and brought back as Avatars in a world where they are "alive," except, inexplicably to my mind, for their entire stock of memories of the "real" world.   Stephenson engages in some mind boggling shifts of tone, writing half a novel set in a more-or-less recognizable near-future with a dystopian edge before he abandons it and dives in for another four hundred pages set entirely in the virtual life-after-death world.

   It's all bat shit insane, and the occasional pleasures of the dystopia-light near future disappear in the second half for what turns into a literal mythic quest set in the after-life which showcases Stephenson's either intentional or unintentional inability to write a compelling fantasy scenario to save his immortal soul.  I'm not sure how to read the second half of a book other than as a cack-handed critique of Christianity and celebration of the Devil- I am NOT making this up.  Ultimately, I'm thankful that it wasn't published as TWO books, which it very easily could have been.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2014) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Book Review
Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

   When it comes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Audiobook library, you've basically got his big hits, and Memories of My Melancholy Whores, a novella about a 90 year old who decides to fuck a 14 year old virgin(!) because it was published in 2014.  Absent are his six short story collections, which seem like an obvious Audiobook pick for a Nobel Prize winning author who is still widely read.  None of his Non Fiction is in Audiobook format- he published nine volumes over decades of activity.

    It's the kind of story that might be Me-Tooed out of existence if it had been published a couple years later, or maybe it wouldn't have been translated, let alone released as an English language Audiobook.  Particularly disturbing was the fact that the narrator- a revered journalist- resembles, at least biographically speaking, the author.

  There are points during the relatively brief run time (about four hours as an Audiobook, 128 pages in print) where I thought maybe the 90 year old fucks a 14 year old virgin was just a hook for some other subject, but no, the book is about this 90 year old basically buying this poor young girl and then working up the nerve to actually fuck her.   And while I'm not a big fan of woke/politically correct culture, there are limits to be reached, and a book entirely concerned with a 90 year old man obssessed with fucking a 14 year old child is worth excluding solely on grounds of plot and theme.

The Forest of a Thousand Daemons - A Hunter's Saga (1938) by D. O. Fagunwa

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Yoruba author D.O. Fagunwa, his The Forest of a Thousand Daemons is credited as being the first Yoruba-language novel (1938)
Book Review
The Forest of a Thousand Daemons - A Hunter's Saga (1938)
by D. O. Fagunwa

  I am a BIG fan of Marlon James, Booker Prize winner for his novel about Bob Marley, A Brief History of Seven Killings, he just published Black Leopard, Red Wolf, his African-mythology infused claim to a mass audience, and as, it turns out, also a podcaster, with Marlon & Jake Read Dead People, which he does with his editor, Jake Morrissey.  Marlon & Jake Read Dead People is the first podcast I've ever hard.  I think podcasts are pretty dumb as a rule.  I try not to judge people who listen to them, not everyone spends six hours a day behind the wheel, and podcasts make more sense if you have a 30 minute commute, or if you are a busy parent who doesn't have time to read a book.

  Marlon & Jake Read Dead People did an episode on "epic fantasy" and of course James had much to say on the subject, particularly on African contributions to the field.  In particular, I wanted to check out The Forest of a Thousand Daemons- which was published in Yoruba in 1938, is credited with being the first novel written in Yoruba.  It was translated into English in the late 1960's, and I'd never heard of it, nor the author until Marlon James talked about it on the podcast, where he put it forward as being published before the Lord of the Rings series.

The Forest of a Thousand Daemons is closer to Grimm's Fairy Tales and Norse saga' than Lord of the Rings, but there is no doubting that it a  red blooded adventure with plenty of terrifying monsters, aggressively non-western spell casting and enough graphic violence to satisfy an R-rated movie. 

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