Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Whatever (1994) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
Whatever (1994)
by Michel Houellebecq

  A major difference between literary culture in the United Kingdom vs. the United States: the two biggest English language audiences, is the relationship with French literature.  In the United States, French literature is essentially only known in translation, because the audience for French originals is limited to native French speakers and academics.  In the United Kingdom, the roots of English/French bilingualism go back a thousand years.  Many of the aristocratic families of England had roots and branches inside France, and England had a more direct relationship with French culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was preferred to English in the halls of power throughout Europe.

  Thus in England there is a small but important audience for French originals.  Translations are just as important for reaching a wider audience, but it is the difference between a small and no audience for French originals.  So in a project like 1001 Books- squarely based in London, there is a higher awareness of French authors, and this leads to a bigger audience for French fiction than in the United States, even though the US market is much larger.

  Michel Houellebecq who is barely known in the United States, but a quasi-celebrity in the United Kingdom.  He's known for courting controversy with his fiction- his most recent book, Submission, is a work of speculative fiction where France has become a Muslim majority and falls under Islamic "Shariah" law.

  Whatever was Houellebecq's first novel- one can read it as an updating of The Stranger, or a French version of The Catcher in the Rye.  The protagonist and narrator is a young software engineer, dispatched to the provinces in a multi-week training assignment.  He is filled with ennui.  Given the time period, you can see Whatever as a French version of Douglas Coupland/Generation X era young adult angst.

  To his credit, Whatever is the first book inside the 1001 Books project to really convincingly portray the nascent "computer" culture of the 1990's (and forever after.)  

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)
by Haruki Murakami

  Haruki Murakami was 15 years into his career as a novelist, including translation into English, when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle cemented his status as a purveyor of international best-seller literature.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a hit both domestically, where it served the purpose of answering his (then) numerous critics that his fiction wasn't authentic; and internationally, where the 1997 one-volume translation became an "instant" best-seller and beloved companion to a generation of casual readers of literary fiction.    In fact, Haruki Murakami is arguably a household name in houses where people read literary fiction.

  And amazingly I've never picked up a Haruki Murakami book, despite the fact that I could "tell you" that he is a fan of jazz, cats and magical realism, all of which figure prominently in this and other books. But one incorrect assumption I made is that his fiction was "soft" or, perhaps "genteel," when in fact   b has some of the most horrific depictions of 20th century war-time atrocities I've ever read, in addition to the jazz and cats.

  The prose isn't dense, but the ideas are. The speculative fiction/magical realism elements are so tightly described that it seems more appropriate to emphasis the realism of the "magical realism" formula in the context of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  The translation allows for ambiguities, and as you make your way through this book, which was originally a set of three, shorter books in Japan, you realize that part of Murakami's genius is the way he lets ambiguity grow within the context of his story.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko

Book Review
The Leavers (2017)
 by Lisa Ko

   This strikes me as a worthy winner of the 2017 National Book Award, the third of the finalist I've read after Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman.  The Leavers is a bildungsroman about a young Chinese-American named Deming/Daniel, and his Mom, an illegal immigrant and pregnant teen, who is surprised when she can't get an abortion for her 7 month fetus. Fine, she says, I'll have him.  Despite The Leavers being a fairly conventional coming of age tale about the son, it is the chapters written from the Mother's perspective that stay with you.

  When Mom disappears without explanation, Deming is adopted by a well-meaning pair of childless college professors in New York City, renamed Daniel Wilkinson, and expected to "do well" by going to college, etc.  He screws this up and finds himself in China.  The denouement of The Leavers concerns the circumstances surrounding Mom's mysterious departure, although anyone with even a passing familiarity with how things work for illegal immigrants in the United States could probably guess on the first try.

  The Leavers is a firmly realistic novel- no touches of magical realism or speculative fiction here.  Ko and her editors have wielded a heavy hand- The Leavers barely covers 300 pages, and the prose is not tense- as close to the popular authors of "chick lit" as it is to "serious" literary fiction.  But I found The Leavers to be very serious, and while perhaps it isn't the most well-written book of the year, it was the most effective in terms of it's ability to create empathy for its subjects. 

  This leaves only two more books from the list of 2017 nominess for the National Book Award- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado.    Thus far, I'm for The Leavers to win.

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