Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Delta of Venus (1977) by Anaïs Nin

Image result for anais nin
Anaïs Nin.
Book Review
Delta of Venus (1977)
by  Anaïs Nin

  This book of erotic short stories was published posthumously in 1977.  As the foreword by Nin recounts, she forced be economic circumstances to write erotica for a wealthy collector during the 1940's.   She remembers that he told her to be "more mechanical, with less emotion."  If you could accurately describe the difference between mere pornography and literature, that would be the formula.  Her main reference points (besides her imagination and the experiences of her various bohemian friends) are the 1000 Nights and a Night  and D.H. Lawrence.  The Arabian Nights influence is more in terms of the linking of stories within stories and the lack of main narrative focus.  D.H. Lawrence permeates the manuscript.  Also, one would imagine, Henry Miller, with whom Nin is forever associated.

  And it's also clear that Nin was familiar with 18th century writers like the Marquis de Sade and 19th century writers like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.   Delta of Venus somewhat systematically explores a catalog of perversions including every sort of intercourse, different brands of sexuality, fetishes and a deep emphasis on female character who want to be penetrated to the depths of their womb.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ratner's Star (1976) by Don Delillo

Book Reiew
Ratner's Star (1976)
by Don Delillo

  The 1001 Books project is well into the present of literature.  Most of the authors on the list after this point in time are still publishing.   Don Delillo occupies a rank just below the rank of Nobel Prize for Literature:  He's well regarded by both audiences and critics, he's won national level book awards, at least one of his books is a staple of 20th century lit classes in colleges nationwide (White Noise).  The only thing Delillo is missing besides a major international award is a successful movie adaptation of one of his works.

  Delillo's place within the 1001 Books project is far from clear.  He had eight titles in the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  He lost four of those in the 2008 revision but gained a new listing, then he lost that new listing not two years later, leaving him with three remaining titles.   I would observe that Delillo hasn't had a hit since Underworld in 1997- he's published five other novels since then, so it's not from lack of effort.

  Ratner's Star is a famously difficult book, and it most closely resembles Grimus by Salman Rushdie- which was published in 1975.  Both novels take the framework of genre fiction- science fiction and fantasy, and then ornament that structure with similar accroutements:  A firm grasp on the "linguistic" turn in 20th century thought a la Wittgenstein and Beckett, a separate debt to Beckett for his exploration of language in the form of the novel and a playful idea that serious fiction can also be "fun" and/or "funny.'

 I say this because both Grimus and Ratner's Star are described as "comic" despite being wholly unfunny.  That is a characteristic of Beckett himself, but very much in evidence in the work of his followers as the "post-modern" period of the novel begins to arrive in the mid 1970's.  Ratner's Star revolves around a teenage mathematical prodigy who is whisked away to work on a mysterious radio transmission from a distant star.  His job is to decipher the meaning of the message.

  Like the work of his contemporary Thomas Pynchon, Delillo studs Ratner's Star with numerous, elaborate discussions of higher mathematical theory, astronomy and geometry.   These bodies of technical knowledge, analogous to the way Pynchon uses rocket technology in Gravity's Rainbow, are a distinctive characteristic of "serious" American fiction in the mid to late 20th century, and it is a development unique to American writers.   These is nothing of such a technical obsession in the work of the modernists.  If anything, they are anti-technology.

  Now I'm not actually recommending Ratner's Star to anyone as a fun read.  It literally is a combination of Beckett style linguistic dueling and complicated higher math and geometry.  The characters all have funny names.  It is, in a word, interesting but tedious, and at 420 pages, it is not a short book.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr

Book Review
Dispatches (1977)
by Michael Herr

  It turns out that Dispatches is the book from which every single Vietnam era cliche is derived.   Considering the extent to which the Vietnam experience has been depicted in popular film over the last several decades, it's surprising that such a rich source of material would have escaped any mention, but the fact that this copy of Dispatches is an Everyman's Library edition demonstrates that Dispatches is, in fact, a classic.

  Dispatches is most unusual in that it is one of the only non-fiction title on the list.  Most of the titles that appear on the list as "non fiction" are war memoirs, and perhaps that can be chalked up to the importance of the battle field experience in the western imagination, and the difficulty about describing the experience without first hand knowledge.

  You can't call Dispatches cliche because I'm sure that when Herr was writing none of the cliches about Vietnam had crystallized.  Still, you can't beat Dispatches for really nailing down the Vietnam War experience in 250 pages of crisp, clean, professional prose (Herr was a journalist.)

Petals of Blood (1977) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Book Review
Petals of Blood (1977)
 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

  I actively look forward to African authors when they appear on the 1001 Books list.   So far that list consists of a handful of white people from Southern Africa, Chinua Achebe (west Africa) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o (east Africa).    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o  famously dropped English as his preferred language, instead choosing to develop the literature of his native Gikuyu.  Petals of Blood was written before that shift, and it is a novel that is steeped in the Western literary tradition, with elements of Balzac and American detective fiction entwined with the themes of colonialism and economic development.

  It is a classic mix of inspirations, transported to East Africa.  Nominally a who-dunnit about a detective trying to solve the deaths of three local big wigs in the home of a powerful local madam, Petals of Blood is really a broad statement about the impact of independence on the Kenyan people. Spoiler alert: The rich get richer.  

The Left-Handed Woman (1975) by Peter Handke

Still from the 1977 movie version of The Left-Handed Woman , also written by Handke.
Book Review
The Left-Handed Woman (1975)
 by Peter Handke

   The Left-Handed Woman is hardly a novella, let alone a novel.  At 70 pages, with large spaced between lines and equally ample margins, The Left-Handed Woman reads like a New Yorker short story, which, according to the jacket copy, it actually is.   Confusingly, Handke himself made the movie version, which is "better known" as far as the English language audience for German literature is concerned.   Like The Goalkeepers Anxiety of the Penalty Kick,   The Left-Handed Woman is a 70's German take on the 1950's era French exisentialist novel.  Who are we? Why are we here?  What are we doing with our lives?

  In The Left-Handed Woman, this classic plight is acted out by the narrator, a youngish haus frau named Marianne, who abruptly orders the husband and father of her children out of their apartment after she experiences a revelation that her husband, Bruno, will leave her "some day."  Having been through my own personal experience with a woman whose behavior closely mirrored Marianne in this novel, I can say that Handke accurately describes the sudden change of mind that suddenly descends upon utterly normal type people.   One minute you are in a happy marriage, the next you desperately need to escape.   That is a way that people behave in our world.

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