Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Glutton (2023) by AK Blakemore

 Book Review
The Glutton (2023)
by AK Blakemore

   I'm quite sure I never would have heard of The Glutton, by English author-poet AK Blakemore, were it not for the New York Times book review published on October 29th of this year.  It is Blakemore's second novel after publishing some poetry- original and in translation (Chinese!) Her first novel was published by Granta Books but this book is published by Scribner- a hallowed name in American publishing, so someone at that conglomerate has faith in her!  I checked out the Audiobook without even reading the NYT review- all I had to see was that it was a work of 18th century French historical fiction with a body horror/freakshow twist- sold. 

   It makes for a fun Audiobook- the story is recounted by the Glutton himself on his deathbed.  It's a story that is based on a true event- a French Revolution era peasant who could and did eat everything in sight.  This book makes him seem like a 1/1 but any reader knows that American sideshows frequently featured a "geek" who would bite the head off of live chickens and eat all sort of disgusting filth.  Here, of course, Blakemore is free to weave her poetic spell.   While the grotesque eating does provide some extremely memorable moments, they aren't matched by the adventures which give rise to them.  Tarare is a genuine son-of-a-whore who eeks out a hardscrabble existence with his mom in a small french village until his step-father tries to murder him.  It is the resulting injury which transforms Tarare from a common village half-wit to Tarare the Great.  

   I can see where Blakemore- and Scribner- was going with this idea- The Glutton reminded me of much of the interesting fiction emerging out of Latin America and South Korea- typically written by women though often not about women.  It is the weaving of body horror, historical fiction, science fiction/horror/gothic genre literature and writerly technique.   Interested to see Blakemore's next work of fiction to be sure, though I'd stop short of calling this one of my favorite books of the year.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Father of the Rain (2010) by Lily King

1001 Novels: A Library of America
Father of the Rain (2010)
by Lily King
Massachussets: 19/30
Boston, Massachussets

   I was prepared to trash this book, but then I went and read the favorable New York Times review from 2010 and her current review count on Amazon (her top two books have 14k and 12k reviews, which is an order of magnitude bigger than what even succesful literary fiction titles register on that site).   It looks like she traded in an earlier segment of her career, epitomized by this book, which won her some regional literary awards for a later portion of her career where she just spins out bangers.  

   What I'm trying to do here is not be unreasonably mean, even though I found Father of the Rain hard to bear, with its relatively privileged protagonist, an anthropology student who has landed a tenure track professorship at UC Berkeley.   Daley Armory is headed in the right direction when her past, in the form of her alcoholic, waspy, father has a medical emergency and summons her back to the tony Boston suburb where she grew up.  King doesn't actually tell the book in flashback format, rather we get a straight narration, taking you from Daley's mildly difficult childhood through her sub-optimal choice to chuck a potential tenured professor at UC Berkeley to teach high school and raise a couple kids with her husband- which is where she ends up- sorry for the spoiler but is that really a surprise- I felt like the resolution to this book was luminous from the very first page.   Of course she isn't going back to get that job but also of course it works out for her in a different way in the end.

  Like many parents in the pages of the 1001 Novels: A Library of America, Daley has a Mother who thinks she knows what's best for her daughter (leaving a mildly annoying, alcoholic husband who is none the less a good provider) when her daughter almost certainly disagrees with her.  The formative moment in this book comes when Daley's mom announces to Daley that they are leaving the next day, without so much as a conversation with the Dad.  I'm not hugely sympathetic to alcoholic wasps from Massachussets, but simply as a human being it seemed like Daley's mom was making a poorly reasoned choice. 


White Holes (2023) by Carlos Rovelli

 Book Review
White Holes (2023)
by Carlos Rovelli

   I snatched the Audiobook of this short treatise on the theory of "white holes" (physics) from the library because I love a good general interest books about the nature of time and space.  In particular, I find the treatment of time in physics to be very interesting.   I was a terrible math and science student in school, and never seriously pursued any subject tied to either after I left high school, but as I get older I realized that physics, and specifically its description of time, space and "space-time" are very interesting indeed.

   This book is about the theory of White Holes.  White Holes are what lay on the other side of the event horizon of a black hole.   It is, of course, just a theory, since obtaining proof of white holes would seem to lie beyond human capacity (since nothing, not even light, ever escapes from a black hole).   I will confess that I didn't understand much, if any, of the theoretical underpinnings of the white hole theory.  Rovelli does make the claim that time runs backwards after you emerge from a white hole, which is a pretty interesting theory about time- that it can, in fact, run backwards.  One of the points Rovelli makes repeatedly is that physics is time agnostic, i.e. that time can run backwards and forwards in the standard model of physics and much of the book is devoted to explaining the subjective experience of time vs. its actual role in the universe.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Revolutionary Road (1961)by Richard Yates

 1001 Novels: A Library of America
Revolutionary Road (1961)
by Richard Yates
Revolutionary Hill Estates, Connecticut
Connecticut: 8/9

     That's a wrap for Connecticut- the last book- On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong- I've already read- so Revolutionary Road  closes out non-Massachussets New England.   The 2008 movie version had me thinking that the book was of more recent vintage- something from the 80's or 90's so I was mildly surprised to learn, after I finished the book, that it was written in 1962, putting it in the literary vanguard of American critiques of suburban ennui, rather than a second generation effort references that earlier period. 

     The book is about a suburban, married couple who meet as young bohemians in New York City, he a GI Bill college student fresh off his World War II service (in France, which becomes a major plot point), Frank Wheeler has artistic aspirations- ill defined, to be sure, but in existence. April Wheeler, who comes from a troubled background with dilletante parents who seemed uninterested in raising their daughter, marries Frank in the hopes of bringing regularity to her disordered life.  The book picks up with them in the suburbs, adopting the now familiar pose of disgruntled urban intellectuals forced to compromise their artistic-intellectual pursuits- well familiar now, but probably a bit of a novelty in the early 60's American literary scene.

  Frank acts like a down-market Mad Man at work- having an affair with a co-worker and drinking his lunches while struggling with writing business-speak brochures for the same company his Dad worked for as a salesman.   It's all pretty familiar terrain in 2023, but of course, the publication date of 1961 is a whole different story.  I've never seen the movie, figure I probably will if only to see DiCaprio portray Frank.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Giant's House (1996) by Elizabeth McCracken

1001 Novels: A Library of America

The Giant's House (1996)
by Elizabeth McCracken
Massachussets: 18/30
Brewster, Massachussets

   Ok,  I'm out on Cape Cod right now- more than halfway through the interminable Massachussets chapter of the 1001 Novels: A Library of America.  I think I'm close to 10% through this list and... a lot of teen girls coming of age and sad single moms so far.   Speaking of which, The Giants House is another sad single lady- though the mom bit takes the whole book to arrive.  The Giants House is an example of a book that does not make for a good Audiobook- which- I'm coming to learn, is a book where the narrator is someone I don't sympathize with or empathize with.  The closer the Audiobook narrator is to me, the better- which is an example of how bias works unconsciously.  The "voice" of a book never bothers me when I read it, because the voice I hear is "my" voice.

  All I'm saying is that I would have had fewer issues completing this title if I'd read it vs. listening to the Audiobook.   Now, The Giants House was a National Book Award nominee back before they had a longlist/finalist- so it was like one of five or four books.  I went back and read the New York Times review at the time it was released and it wasn't a "whoa, all hail this masterpiece."  If anything I would call it essentially a negative or at least neutral review- close to what I felt.  The problem is with the narrator- Cape Cod Librarian extraordinaire Peggy Cort.   Peggy... does not have a lot of romantic self confidence, and even allowing for the fact that this book is set in the psycho-sexual dark ages- 1950 small-town Massachussets, but you'd at least think a Boston trained librarian would have access to books about sex and such that would allow her to get beyond her one-note neurosis. 

   Peggy falls in love with James Sweatt, a teenager destined to become the worlds tallest man.   Cort meets Sweatt when he is a very tall teenager, and the book follows the two and their curious relationship over the course of about five years.   To McCracken's credit, shit gets extremely weird and dark before she closes up the story.  

Loot (2023) by Tania James

Author Tania James

Book Review
Loot (2023)
by Tania James

  Loot was a National Book Book longlist title this year and the description caught my eye, I'm just cut and pasting from Penguin Random House promo copy here,  "A spellbinding historical novel set in the eighteenth century: a hero’s quest, a love story, the story of a young artist coming of age, and an exuberant heist adventure that traces the bloody legacy of colonialism across two continents and fifty years."

   The story starts in pre-British rule India (James is an American author of Indian decent) and makes its way to late 18th century England and France.  Abbas, who starts Loot as a child in the Sultanate/Kingdom of Mysore, is the main character- he has a .talent for carving that leads him to apprentice to Lucien de Leze, a French clockmaker who is in favor at the court of Sultan Tipu.  Anyway, if you look at James' publishing history you can see a familiar trajectory- a first novel that is a multi-generational family saga from the perspective of an immigrant to America (or their children), which is well received critically but doesn't land with a mainstream audience (58 amazon reviews), a follow-up book of short stories.  A second novel (written from the perspective of a rampaging Elephant) which is interesting but again, not a huge seller (239 amazon reviews).   And now Loot, which seems designed to contain both adventure, sophisticated cultural commentary on 18th century colonialism and a love story!

 I'm here for it- looking forward to the film or tv version.  Would certainly read another by Tania James but unlikely to go backwards and check out the catalog titles.

Tremor (2023) by Teju Cole

 Book Review
Tremor (2023)
by Teju Cole

  I'm a big Teju Cole fan- I like the way he mixes up fiction, art criticism and biographical detail in a way that reminds me of W.G. Sebald- one of my favorites.  The New York Times reviewer agreed:

He has written admiringly about, and frequently been compared to, the German writer W.G. Sebald; they share among other things a capacity to tunnel back from a single image or artifact to scenes of historical barbarism. (I almost wrote that Cole seems like a postcolonial version of Sebald — but Sebald is already the postcolonial Sebald.)
  There are quite a few Sebaldian takes in Tremor, notably the initial chapter where Tunde, a Nigerian-American professor who serves as the Teju Cole figure, and his Japanese wife, go antiquing in Southern Maine and come across a poorly maintained African artifact.  Later there is a chapter length "lecture" on the JMW Turner painting, "Slave Ship," which depicts a historical episode where the captain of a slave ship through his human cargo overboard in an attempt to save his vessel during a storm.

   There are also some non-Sebaldian features in Tremors, like the part in the middle where he voices 24 different people who live in Lagos, Nigeria. All of it is very entertaining to readers interested in the kind of art criticism/fiction pioneered by Sebald, but perhaps less so to those unfamiliar with that world.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek (2013) by Michelle Tea

 1001 Novels: A Library of America
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek (2013)
by Michelle Tea
Massachussets: 17/30
Chelsea, Massachussets

    Despite having spend close to an entire month in Boston over the past decade, I've never got a sniff of Chelsea, which is technically a Boston suburb but functionally part of Boston.  Chelsea is separated from Boston by the Mystic River, a body of water that serves as a divider between cosmopolitan Boston and the working-class, white suburbs north of town.   Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is, you guessed it, another YA title about a sad teen being raised by a single mom.  She amuses herself by going down to a dirty creek and playing the suffocation game, where you hold your breath until you pass out.  During one of these episodes the titular mermaid appears to her and points her to a destiny that includes- can you guess?!?!- great magical powers and a destiny which includes saving the world, or something.  Mermaid is the first of a trilogy so Sophie Swankowski doesn't get very far in this, the first book.

  The reader is introduced to a variety of characters, some magical (talking pigeons!) and others less so.  As far as YA books go, Mermaid is relatively benign and readable for an adult- probably because it was published by McSweeney's and not a mainstream publisher.  Still, it is hard not to be irritated with yet another YA book about a struggling teen girl.   Look, I get it, it is tough to be a teenage girl in a disadvantage neighborhood.  It seems like there is plenty of thematic overlap in these books:  Issues with their parents, issues with their school, a lack of direction to their future.  Sounds like teenagers everywhere, right?

   Mermaid in Chelsea Creek was one of these 1001 Novels books where I checked out the Audiobook and then quickly realized that listening to an Audiobook of this title would be a nightmare- I can't take ten hours of a teenage girl complaining about her life, it's just interminable. All their complaints are exactly the same.  So then I checked out the hardback from the library and it went down easy.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Cursed Bunny (2022)by Bora Chung

 Book Review
Cursed Bunny (2022)
by Bora Chung
Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur

   Cursed Bunny was a 2022 Booker International Nominee.  It was translated from the Korean by Anton Hur- who also translated Counterweight by Djuna.  Chung graduated from Yale and a PhD in Slavic Literature at Indiana University and she teaches Russian in Korea as her day job, which means she is fluent at a professional/artistic/specialist level in at least three different languages.  You would think she could have either composed Cursed Bunny in English or provided her own translation but Korean appears to be a complicated language to translate because they have their brand of experientialism that has to do with the placement of the written figures of Korean on the page. 
  I'm not sure if that was in play here, but I often feel with Korean literature that something is lost in the translation or at least that a deeper knowledge of Korean culture is required to really appreciate the fiction.  Cursed Bunny is a collection of ten short stories that combine the supernatural, body horror and 'magical realism' in different shapes and sizes.  

     To give an example drawn from the title story, a family is in the business of making fetish curses. They create one for the head of a corporation who has wronged a victim who hires the family to make him a curse.  Instead of taking the cursed fetish (a rabbit lamp) home, he puts it into storage.  Chaos ensues.  It's not the only story about a curse, and roughly half have some kind of supernatural element.  Like many Korean books that get translated, I found myself wondering about the motivations of the characters in a way that rarely happens when I read books from the west. 

Thursday, November 09, 2023

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (2022) by Shehan Karunatilaka

 Book Review
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (2022) 
by Shehan Karunatilaka

   I missed this 2022 Booker Prize winner during my long COVID era- which lasted roughly one year from when I got COVID to when I was back to something close to like what I was before in terms of reading capacity.  Long COVID is no joke- though I count myself lucky that I didn't have any PHYSICAL long COVID symptoms, continued to do my job etc.  At the time I thought if that was the worst COVID impact- well it could have been much worse.

  For me, the Booker Prize is the primary way I keep track of literary fiction from South Asia:  India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lank included.  The level of interest inside the US is basically nil, and promoting authors from all corners of the Commonwealth is at the center of the Booker Prize mission.  Most of the works of literary fiction written by South Asian authors inside the US tends to be immigrant coming-of-age stories or a variation on the multi-generational family history book.  Shehan Karunatilaka is from Sri Lanka, which is a particularly interesting place for literary fiction right now being both an English speaking place, a place of tremendous diversity- human and otherwise and a site of recent generational trauma (the long civil war against the Taiml separatists), and present uncertainty  (Chinese influenced debt crisis.)  In this regard, Sri Lankan literature sometimes feels like it belongs in Latin America since the Sri Lankan experience roughly mirrors the history of Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Chile.

  One might reasonably expect a burst of creativity out of the cultural conditions outlined above, and thus, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which combines a very specific Sri Lankan narrative with plot devices and themes that are in common with those in other cutting edge works of literary fiction in the west, was a worthy Booker Prize winner.  I checked out the Audiobook, because I figured the narration would be a real accent fest- what is a Sri Lankan accent, anyway? I was not disappointed- I loved the Audiobook.

  I also loved the book itself which combines the supernatural, civil war and LGBTQ issues with humor to create an intoxicating stew of a novel.  It's no wonder it won the Booker Prize. 

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