Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Shipping News (1993) by Annie Proulx

Book Review
The Shipping News (1993)
by Annie Proulx

  The Shipping News was pretty ubiquitous in the Barnes & Nobles and the independent book stores when i was in high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Proulx won a Pultizer AND a National Book Award for The Shipping News, her spare, "darkly comic" northern gothic.  Set in Newfoundland, (Proulx is from the US and lived in New England when she wrote The Shipping News),  this book is one of those "international best-seller" type titles that move across national boundaries (Canada and the US, at least), and spawned a poor but well intentioned movie version in 2001 that starred Kevin Spacey as protagonist Quoyle, and Juliette Moore as love interest Wavey Prowse.

  In 2017, The Shipping News still has an audience- and Proulx- thanks in part to the movie version of her short-story Brokeback Mountain, has a life time pass to publish or not publish as she desires.  Most recently, she published a 730 page novel about a multi-generational family of French immigrants living in Canada over the course of 300 years..  Perhaps too ambitious for the Barnes & Noble crowd.

  Proulx writes convincingly about loneliness and spiritual redemption. The Newfoundland location is memorably described, and The Shipping News is filled with convincing local detail.  The double National Pultizer/National Book Award is rare, and I enjoyed The Shipping News but I'm surprised it did so well during award season back in 1993/1994.

The Invention of Curried Sausage (1993) by Uwe Timm

Book Review
The Invention of Curried Sausage (1993)
 by Uwe Timm

  No, The Invention of Curried Sausage isn't *just* about that subject, of course. German author Uwe Timm packs A LOT of 20th century issues into his sparse 215 page novella (small pages, wide margins).   The narrator is a writer living in Berlin, he returns home to seek out a woman who he swears was the first person in Germany to sell the now staple German fast food dish curry-wurst- basically a sausage sliced up and cooked, and served with a sauce that combines ketchup and curry powder.   The narrator remembers buying it from her in the immediate aftermath of World War II, so he returns to track down the story.

  As one might expect from a work of fiction, the truth is very complicated, and Lena Brucker, tells her story about World War II: an absent husband, a job working in a food distribution center during the war and her encounter with an AWOL soldier who she shelters during the chaotic days around the end of the war, and who she then tricks into staying long after the end of hostilities in Germany.

  Again, as one might expect in a novel involving Germans and World War II, fraught with moral ambiguity. Timm has a light touch- particularly when compared with his contemporary German authors.  I wouldn't exactly call The Invention of Curried Sausage a comic novella, but it has some funny moments.

A History of the Alans in the West (1973) by Bernard S. Bachrach

Image result for alan roman horseman
Alan horseman from the steppe region settled in France during the late Roman period.
Book Review
A History of the Alans in the West (1973)
by Bernard S. Bachrach
University of Minnesota

   One of the most common misconceptions surrounding the late Roman Empire is imputing our own racial hierarchy to ancient times.  The familiar racial schematic of "white = good", "brown = not as good", "black = bad" did not apply in Roman times.  Rather, there were good Romans and bad Barbarians.   Bad Barbarians could and often did become good Romans, and there were no racial restrictions on that elevation.  It follows that the Roman army made use of whatever forces it could find- especially at the end.  Almost all of the late Roman generals were either full or partial Barbarians who had assimilated into the Roman army.

   Many of these groups are familiar- the Goths/Germans, the Gauls, Burgundians, etc.  These were peoples who were living in Western Europe when the Romans arrived, and they are typically considered to be the ancestors of the current native populations in those areas.  However there were also groups like the Alans, a multi-ethnic group of Central Asian steppe nomads who were pushed west in the early 3rd century AD.  Alans fought on horseback, at a time when the Romans didn't typically use calvary- see photo above.  They fought for and against the Romans, but eventually many were settled in and around Southern France and Switzerland to serve as guards for the roads- then under threat from a variety of internal and external forces.

  The Alans spoke an unknown, Indo-Iranian language- still in the Indo European family but on the opposite side of the family tree. It's unclear what, exactly, happened to the settled Alans in the west after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but as a horse riding, elite cavalry military force, they bear a striking resemblance to the Knights of the Middle Ages- and they were in the right place (France) to participate in the creation of the feudal system.

  Bachrach puts together using a variety of Roman sources and contemporary place names- many variations on Alan in Southern French place names- and in Brittany/Breton. Bachrach notes that the native Gauls and Bretons didn't even have horses, let alone ride them into battle carrying lances. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Autumn (2016) by Ali Smith

Book Review
Autumn (2016)
by Ali Smith

   Scottish author Ali Smith is the Susan Lucci of the Booker Prize: Two short-list appearances before this year (2005, 2014), no wins. Autumn is the first of a projected four book series about the state of contemporary Britain, each book named after the seasons.  E.g., the next book is Winter.  The Ladbrook's odds have her in fourth place with 9/2 odds.   You also might call her the sentimental favorite, she's Scottish, the prior nominations and the topicality of Autumn (the New York Times called it "the first post-Brexit novel."

   I wouldn't vote for Autumn- what is there is good, but if we're talking about a four book series Autumn/Winter/Spring/Fall I can't see voting for the first book in the series.   Autumn is a slim book- under 200 pages in hardback, with ample margins and line spacing.   Smith writes in an elliptical style, which makes Autumn easy to read, almost breezy.

   Which is not to say that Autumn is simple or facile- quite the opposite.  Smith explores time, memory and the post-Brexit atmosphere of the UK (spoiler alert: it's mean, and vaguely dystopian.)  The central plot concerns a friendship between Elisabeth, the narrator, and Daniel Gluck, here childhood neighbor and friend.  Gluck is lying comatose in a nursing home at 101 throughout, and some of Autumn features his consciousness drifting through space and time.

  Autumn also brings to an end my survey of the 2017 Booker Prize short-list- I have a hunch that Elmet, by first time English, lesbian author Fiona Mozley could be an insiders favorite- she is tied with Mohsin Hamed's Exit/West  at 4/1 odds.  Regrettably, Elmet doesn't have an American publisher and the LA library hasn't bought a copy.  History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund has the longest odds.  Fridlund is American, History of Wolves is set in northern Minnesota.

  I don't feel comfortable making my own pick in the absence of Elmet, but I think favorite Lincoln in the Bardo is a solid choice. 

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