Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

If on a winter's night a traveler (1979) by Italo Calvino

Book Review
If on a winter's night a traveler (1979)
by Italo Calvino

  If on a winter's night a traveler is a fully post-modern novel in  every sense of that phrase.  Calvino using a framing narrative, switches between second and third person narrators within the same chapter,  uses the "reader" as a central character and assorted other tricks which are central to post-modern literature.   On top of that, the plot is a twisting, turning snake involving the attempt of the reader to read a novel which has been mis-translated, lost in the mail and may not actually exist.  Near the end, he introduces the idea of a Japanese company constructing fake novels of an Irish author.  There are also multiple instances of Calvino inventing languages, lands and peoples.

  Obviously, If on a winter's night a traveler is confusing, but unlike other experimental fiction from this time period, at least it's fun.  For me that, is the main difference between successful and unsuccessful post modern literature, the successful stuff is fun.  After all, if reading a novel requires the level of concentration one typically uses for work, the text itself better not be dull.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Safety Net (1979) by Heinrich Boll

Book Review
The Safety Net (1979)
by Heinrich Boll

    Man, I am KNEE DEEP into Henrich Boll oeuvre and I still don't have a firm grasp on him.  For example, I picked up this three hundred page book, and noticed that it had a two page long "cast of characters" in the front, before the novel starts, and I thought, "Hmm, that's certainly odd for a 300 page novel written in late 1970's.  But, as it turns out, The Safety Net is written from a variety of perspectives, not just within chapters, but between chapters.

  Although typically described in American reviews as a novel about surveillance and the state, the foreword by Salman Rushdie takes pain to note the comparisons to the real life events surrounding the Baader Meinhof Gang.   I happen to have read a recently written factual account of the Baader Meinhof Gang, and I noticed the similarities between those events and some of the events discussed by the characters in this book.   As I write this, I'm still unclear what the "Association," whom the main character is the recently elected Chairman of, actually did.  I guess it's supposed to be some sort of capitalist Illuminati conspiracy but that element was muted, with an emphasis on the day-to-day emotions of the Chairman and his extended family, and the impact that constant protective surveillance has on their lives.

The Safety Net is also the only one of four Boll titles to be removed at the first revision.  I get that, I literally didn't understand what was happening until I remembered the cast of characters, then I had to leaf back and forth to make sense of the variety of constantly shifting narrators.   I'm always up for a meta-fictional challenge, but the narrative pay-off didn't seem to equal the amount of time invested for such a short book.  Still, there's no denying the formal sophistication of Boll's method, and the relevance of the themes to this day.  The Safety Net actually might be more relevant today then it was in 1979.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Singapore Grip (1978) by J.G. Farrell

Book Review
The Singapore Grip (1978)
by J.G. Farrell

  J.G. Farrell, along with Salman Rushdie are the most Booker-y of the Booker Prize wining authors.  Rushdie has TWICE won the "Booker of Bookers" for best of all the Booker Prize winners, both times for the 1981 novel Midnight's Children.   Farrell, on the other hand, first won for the Siege of Krishanpur, and was retroactively awarded the 'lost" Booker, awarded because a change in the qualifying dates for the yearly award, several years back.   Unlike Rushdie, Farrell did not become an international celebrity, but that may have been more due to his untimely death than any other reason.

  The Singapore Grip is the third book in his Empire Trilogy, and the only one that didn't win the Booker Prize.  The Singapore Grip, while powerful, is a bit ponderous compared to the other two titles in the trilogy.  Specifically, Farrell dives deep into the economics of commodity protection on the Malayan peninsula in the early part of the 20th century in such detail that for large portions The Singapore Grip reads like a work of non-fiction, and a boring work of non-fiction at that.

    Which is not to say that The Singapore Grip doesn't have it's moments.  Starting with the title, which is a slang term for a kind of sex where the man lays flat on his back and the woman uses her interior vaginal muscles to induce orgasm.  The meaning of the title is not revealed until late in the book, which leads me to believe that the title is meant to be a metaphor for the experience of the British Empire in Singapore on the eve of the successful Japanese invasion of the colony.  

  This parallel is drawn out by the extensive description of the Japanese invasion, and the comparative impotence of the British Command, assisted by the equally impotent Australian Command, who are depicted lacking adequate troops, materiel or any kind of strategic understanding that would have allowed them to defeat the Japanese.  This being a book published in 1978,  Farrell also has a Japanese army private as a character, to show the invasion from the perspective of a common Japanese soldier.



The Cement Garden (1978) by Ian McEwan

Book Review
The Cement Garden (1978)
 by Ian McEwan

  The Cement Garden is another example of a classic that was only retrospectively awarded that status after the author obtained a critical and commercial audience with the success of a later work.  In this case, that later work is Amsterdam, which won the Booker in 1998.  He had another hit with Atonement, the movie version of which won an Oscar.   He continues to publish new titles, and his hits are airport book store mainstays.  His q rating among people who have actually purchased a book in the last twelve months is probably close to 100%.

  Which is all to say that The Cement Garden, a dry, sparse, horrific tale about three siblings who suffer the natural deaths of both parents within the space of a few months.  They are alone, without family, friends or even neighbors, since they occupy the single standing home in a development of abandoned, decaying, lots.   There is also an explicit incest theme which ends up playing a critical role in the denouement.   It's no wonder that The Cement Garden was not the hit that MacEwan needed, but it was his first novel, and so here we are.

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