Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison

Book Review
The Bluest Eye (1970)
by Toni Morrison

 In 2016 it's hard to imagine a world where Toni Morrison didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, where she isn't the beneficiary of an incredibly productive relationship with Oprah Winfrey, where she isn't synonymous with the elevation of questions surrounding race and gender to the forefront of societal concern.  Approaching The Bluest Eye in 2016 is the experience of reading the first published work of an universally acknowledged master of the form of the novel.   But if you get to the afterword she wrote in the Oprah Book Club version of The Bluest Eye that I read, you learn that The Bluest Eye was ignored when it was published initially.  That's surprising, although Morrison was not the first female African American author, she was just far ahead of the curve to benefit from it when the rest of the world started to catch up a decade later.

   Timing is everything, in life, in art.  Morrison was well situated to reap the benefits of the wider trends society.  The plot of The Bluest Eye deals with a neighborhood of African Americans living amongst a larger white population in Lorian, Ohio, an industrial suburb of Cleveland.  The narrator is Claudia,a young African American neighbor of the Breedlove family, Pauline, the Mom, Cholly, the Father and Pecola, the teen age daughter.  As Morrison reveals on the first page, Pecola is raped and impregnated by her Father.  The rest of The Bluest Eye discusses the personal history of the Breedlove family, showing the childhoods of Cholly and Pauline, in an attempt to give depth to the horrific rape of Pecola at the hands of her own Father.

   The title refers to Pecola's desire to be white, she asks a minor character, operating as a kind of faith healer in their neighborhood, for "the bluest eyes" so that she can be white.  Pecola is awkward, ugly, ignored, the victim of persecution at the hands of other African Americans, and literally ignored by whites.  The Bluest Eye is a startling work of art, and a good illustration of why novels are such an amazing art form.  The novel is flexible enough to accommodate any story- not just those of hyper intellectual English/Western European elites living in the wealthy parts of the great cities of the world.  And by reading these different perspective, the reader gains insight on the lives of people he or she may never encounter in real life. 

Pricksongs and Descants (1969) by Robert Coover

Cover of Ircksongs and Descants, Robert Coover's seminal 1969 collection of short stories that helped define the term "metafiction."
Book Review
Pricksongs and Descants (1969)
 by Robert Coover

   Pricksongs and Descants gets you pretty close to the heart of the secret literary Illuminati that find eventual employment in the academy, teaching or in the culture industry.  Coover's breakthrough collection of meta-fictional stories is best known for the much anthologized The Babysitter.  That story gives the reader a shattered mirror of different possible scenarios that unfold from the conventional "babysitter home alone" trope.  Other, less popular stories pioneer meta-fictional techniques of using fairy tales and comic books to inspire shard-like narratives.

   So deep and profound have Coover's ideas about fiction penetrated subsequent writers efforts that Pricksongs and Descants feels dated and obvious, like a Roy Lichtenstein comic art canvas, or a Warhol Campbell's Tomato Soup Can.  A bit like a museum piece, if you will.   However, there is the graphic sexual parts to keep a contemporary reader interested.  Coover is not exactly transgressive in the vein of a Henry Miller or William Burroughs, he's a more sober writer interested in the fullness of human weirdness. 

    Amazingly, Coover is still publishing novels- he put one out in 2014, but he never achieved the kind of popular attention that the writers he influenced achieved.  It's hard to explain why the 1001 Books series essentially ignores the short story as a genre.  If you were relying on this project for your information, you might think that nobody wrote short stories before the late 1960's.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) by John Fowles

Meryl Streep memorably portrayed the title character in film version The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Book Review:
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)
 by John Fowles

   English post-modernist/existentialist author John Fowles has three books on the first version of the 1001 Books list.  Two of them, The Collector and The Magus, I read in high school.  I may have actually pulled them off of my parent's book shelf, because I'm not sure how else my 15 year old self could have tracked down John Fowles.  That is proof enough that Fowles was still a popular author widely in circulation circa the mid 1990's in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  The French Lieutenant's Woman was a hit on it's own merit and also popular in the 1981 movie version, which actually featured a script written by playwright Harold Pinter.   I guess the association with my high school taste (which also included Ayn Rand, in addition to the usual Beat/Existentialist/Russian suspects) and my parent's bookshelf has prejudiced my present self against him, but it's hard to dislike The French Lieutenant's Woman, which, I think, is probably the first full-blown post-modernist work of historical fiction.  The combination of post-modern technique and the conventions of the 19th century novel has proved to be an enduring formula for both popular and critical success.  The Wikipedia page is called "Historiographic metafiction" and it's worth listing some of the well known examples:

E.L Doctorow's Ragtime (1975)
Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children (1981)
A.S Byatt Possession (1990)
Michael Ondaatje The English Patient (1992)
Thomas Pynchon Mason & Dixon (1997)

  That makes The French Lieutenant's Woman first by half a decade. Fowles achievement is to write a mid 19th century novel from the perspective of a contemporary narrator.  Thus, the book both addresses the concerns of a 19th century novel as well as the concerns of the contemporary reader of upscale popular fiction.  The plot of The French Lieutenant's Woman blends heavy elements of  Thomas Hardy- acknowledged repeatedly by the narrator by having character's reference Hardy during the action- with the Dickensian all-knowing narrator, who also happens to be a time traveler, in that he is narrating a tale set in the 19th century.  Fowles goes so far as to introduce himself as a character in the third act.

 In 2016 all the post-modern chicanery is  a little much, but I can imagine it was quite the revelation in 1969, and it certainly stands up as a worthwhile read today.


Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965) by Flannery O'Connor

Author Flannery O'Connor
Book Review
Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)
by Flannery O'Connor

    The genre of literature known as "Southern Gothic" is essentially William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.   A major difference between Southern and other iterations of literature known as Gothic is the absence of the supernatural as a major motif.  Instead, "Gothic" in the context of southern literature refers to quirky characters and dark plots.   Everything That Rises Must Converge was the last book published by O'Connor before she died of Lupus at 46.

  Everything That Rises Must Converge is a group of short stories, nine in total, six of which were published in various publications prior to their collection.  The characters and themes are familiar: racist mother's, religious fanatics, disappointing sons, class and race conflict.  The pairing of a disaffected, failed, intellectual son and an elderly, widowed mother reoccurs in multiple stories.  This is also a frequent dynamic in the work of William Faulkner, and it is a combination that foreshadows the dynamic between conservative parents and their more liberal offspring for decades to come.

  Flannery O'Connor was herself no hipster, she was a practicing Catholic and remained so until her untimely death.  Her appeal to hipsters is a combination of a little bit of the dead-before-their-time rock-star, a little bit of the consanguinity between her concerns and the concerns of 1960's youth culture and a little bit of the darkness and weirdness of her vision, which spread so far, particularly in the worlds of film and tv to the point where her influence isn't cited.   Whether cited or not, her influence on the artistic concept of "weird small town America" can be traced back to her work.  For example, it's hard to imagine David Lynch or Tom Waits without Flannery O'Connor.

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