Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book Review: Ragtime (1975) by E.L Doctorow

Elizabeth Mcgovern In Ragtime Young
Elizabeth McGovern played original "It-Girl" Evelyn Nesbit in the Milos Forman film version of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime.

Book Review:
Ragtime (1975)
by E.L Doctorow  

I quite enjoyed Ragtime, Doctorow's 1975 work of historical fiction.  Set largely in New York in the years prior to World War I, Doctorow blends a large cast of fictional and non-fictional characters in refreshing and novel fashion.   You've got J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit (America's first "It Girl."  Each of these historical figures have a sub-plot where they are treated in an irreverent fashion, blending factual history with a work of fiction.

   The major plot concerns a wealthy family living outside of New York.  They are referred to only by their family names, Father, Mother, Younger Brother.  The narrator at times appears to be a young son of the family, other times Doctorow adopts the third person.  The plot takes some time to develop, what with all the existential musings by Houdini and J.P. Morgan's obsession with the Egyptian pyramids and immortality.  

  Mother finds an abandoned African American infant in their spacious yard.  She save the child and agrees to shelter the child's mother, an African American servant with no family.  Coalhouse Walker, the child's father, eventually finds his way to the family, where he slowly courts the mother of his child.  All appears to be headed towards a happy resolution for the young couple, when Walker's Model T Ford is vandalized by some local firefighters, resentful at the figure of an African American motorist using their roads.

   Coalhouse becomes obsessed with obtaining justice for his vehicle, and when his fiance suffers an untimely death, he goes off the rails and launches a terrorist campaign against the men who have wronged him.  Doctorow covers an amazing amount of territory in roughly 300 pages.  It's a lesson in succinctness that might have been better observed by his succesors.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou

Book Review
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
by Maya Angelou

  Maya Angelou actually wrote a seven volume autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume, covering her childhood up to the birth of her son.  Angelou led an incredible life but Caged Bird is the single work which defines her.  Angelou was never a novelist in the mode of the typical twentieth century writer.   Her writing ranged from journalism to poetry.  She also worked in entertainment and politics.  Angelou had a huge revival/canonization during the 1990's, when President Bill Clinton had her recite a poem at his first term inauguration.

  In 2016 she remains a staple of student reading and the Oprah crowd.  Although described as an autobiography, the level of narrative art and skill applied to the material makes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings more like autobiographical fiction.   Like Toni Morrison's, The Bluest Eye, or Harper Lee in To  Kill A Mockingbird, Angelou makes use of an unsophisticated child narrator to describe some very adult events.

   The matter of fact depiction of Angelou's violation as an eight year old at the hands of her Mother's companion escapes being unbearable only because the Angelou-narrator child lacks the vocabulary to describe the events accurately.   Like The Bluest Eye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is about children but it is not children's literature.   The Angelou narrator character manages to cover most of the United States as she is shuffled between both sets of grand parents and her separated parents.

  The action begins in rural Arkansas, moves to urban St. Louis, then switches between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Part of the value of Caged Bird is Angelou's skilled depiction of these different areas and the relationship dynamics between blacks and whites, and within the black community. Towards the end, the Angelou narrator character goes so far as to become the first black employee of the San Francisco street car company, lowering a barrier before she was out of high school.

  As is made very clear, Angelou was no ordinary child, reading Dickens and Defoe before she was out of grade school.  And despite the rape, she writes about a life that was essentially free of hardship.  In Arkansas, her father's mother, who she calls Momma, is almost the sole member of the black bourgeois, running the only shop that sells to African-American's in that part of Arkansas.  In St. Louis, her mothers mother is an essentially white mulatto who serves as a ward boss and commands a gang of her three sons and their cronies.

  Only her father, working a series of menial jobs and living in a trailer in Southern California, would fail to meet normal standards of middle class existence.   For African American author writing about life in the early part of the 20th century, little conflict needs to be invented.  The mere description of day-to-day existence is harrowing enough, every moment fraught with tension, or at least the potential for tension.

  It's no wonder that Caged Bird is close to being required reading for students.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) by John Le Carré

Book Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
 (1974) by John Le Carré

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Le Carré's fictionalization of the Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five spy ring:  Upper class Brits who were caught spying for the Soviets in the early 1960's.   Le Carré famously blamed Philby for betraying his identity to the Soviets and being directly responsible for his termination from the English intelligence service in 1964.

    Tinker is regarded as an enduring classic of the spy-espionage genre.  Le Carré is an excellent example of a writer who has emerged from a popular genre to obtain a level of critical acclaim commensurate with the second tier of novelists- those who combine popular and critical success but have failed to win one of the major literary prizes for "serious" literature: A Nobel Prize, a National Book Award, the Booker Prize.

   Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Le Carré's career is it's length.  He is still publishing new novels, and he has a very viable brand in popular culture.  Witness The Night Manager- based on a more recent novel- being in talk for Emmy nominations.  The key to longevity for Le Carré is that he was never exclusively concerned with the Cold War, rather, the Cold War was simply the setting for a set of themes having to do with morality and ethics in the modern world.

  The moral ambiguity central to most of his books is largely absent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in favor of a more conventional bad guy who-dun-it scenario.   Still,  it's clear from the continued vitality of his work that he transcended his time and place.  You could say that the world has grown to be more like the world Le Carre portrayed forty years later than it was when his books were published.  

  The idea that the good guys and the bad guys are morally equivalent is more tenable after then it was during the Cold War.   Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first of his series of three Karla novels- named after the Soviet spy master who, it is clear, the author admires. Karla makes an actual appearance in Tinker only briefly- held in captivity in India during a low point in his relationship with his own country.   Smiley, the protagonist and some-times narrator of Tinker, is shown to be quite the lesser man than Karla in their brief encounter- admitted by Smiley.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book Review: High Rise (1974) by J.G. Ballard

High Rise got a movie version this year.  It was poorly received by critics and audience

Book Review:
High Rise (1974)
by J.G. Ballard

    High Rise is one of several J.G. Ballard titles to rise to "classic" status.  Ballard is best known for his dystopian sci fi and obsession with the intersection of consumer society, sex and death.   High Rise is one of a couple of classic distillations of this obsession that Ballard published in the mid 1970's- the other is Crash.    Ballard may have been the author who suffered the most between the initial edition of 1001 Books and the 2007 revision.  He starts out with seven titles in 2006, and by 2008 he is down to two titles:  Empire of the Sun and Crash.  

   Honestly, I was a little surprised that High Rise made it in the first place.  Not that I didn't enjoy reading High Rise- I've decided that Ballard is one of my favorite authors of this time period- but there is something a little too high concept about the plot of High Rise: What happens when the inhabitants of a brand new high rise turn against one another?  It's also fair to observe that the particular critique of modern life that Ballard is advancing in High Rise:  A concern with the isolation of individuals in block tower flats, isn't the same kind of hot button issue today (or in 2008) that it was in the early 1970's, when urban decay was very much the order of the day.

  There's also the fact that any human being familiar with the crack epidemic and its impact on huge public housing developments in the United States in the recent past will be only mildly shocked by the depredations that the white, upper class, inhabitants of this High Rise visit upon one another.  Call it fiction being outpaced by reality.   

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