Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Amsterdam (1998)
 by Ian McEwan

  There is no doubting that Ian McEwan is a top flight writer of literary fiction, with genuine cross-over potential- see best seller's on both side of the Atlantic and an Oscar winning movie version of his biggest, most ambitious work, Atonement.   And he is still very much active and writing, with six titles in the last decade-ish.   McEwans' rise is well chronicled in the 1001 Books list.  Atonement, published in 2001, six years before 1001 Books first edition came out, was his huge break out, but he actually won the Booker Prize in 1998, for Amsterdam, which bears strong elements from his "Ian Macabre" phase, but also the exquisite plotting and character development that (I guess) made Atonement such a smash.

  Like many of his books, there is something to lose by a thorough description of the story.  There is no question that McEwan's rise has been at least partially to his darkness and dramatic third act denouements.  If you make your way through his stuff in a leisurely way, each book comes as a mild surprise.  If there is any surprise to reading Amsterdam it's that it won the Booker Prize.  It's a short book, not three hundred pages long with decent sized print and generous margins.  There is no diversity element- all the character are well off Londoners.  The plot does concern itself with contemporary social issues in a certain way- that gives Amsterdam an element that his earlier stuff lacks.

  But I think the Booker Prize was just a "damn this is a great book by a great writer, and he sells, too, let's do this!"  That is how I imagine the Judges discussion that year.  Or maybe it was just a weak year- I don't recognize any of the other books on the shortlist from 1998.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

A Way in the World (1994) by V.S Naipaul


Book Review
A Way in the World (1994)
 by V.S Naipaul

  V.S. Naipaul is another writer I think is underrepresented in the 1001 Book project.  I get it, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the lineage that connects him to Joseph Conrad, and his mixed treatment of the colonial experience, viewed as an apologist for the bad guys in some circles of contemporary literature, means that he isn't in the fashionable club, at least not as of 2006- which was five years after the Nobel- when the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

  I find myself drawn to Naipaul, probably because I am also a huge fan of Joseph Conrad- and view Conrad as being really pivotal to 20th century literature.  If you look at the interesting area of contemporary literary fiction as, broadly speaking, "the voices of dispossesed," narratives by people exlcuded from traditional literary fiction (basically everyone who wasn't an upper class/intellectual in Western Europe for most of history),  you have to find a link between 18th and 19th century fiction where these groups simply didn't exist, and the voice of those people, expressing their own narratives.

  That link is not, for example, the great modernists of the early 20th century.  James Joyce never made it out of Dublin.  Most of the high literary modernists were just as racially and economically priveleged as the writers they sought to supplant.  Conrad, on the other hand, was out there.  And while it's true that he himself wrote from the perspective of a colonizer, at least there are characters and locations that turn out to be critical to the development of 20th century fiction- places in Latin America and Africa that form such an important part of the recent canon.   The audience for Conrad was the audience for these new writers from different places.

  Naipaul continues that progress.  Again, V.S. Naipaul is not exactly a voice of the dispossessed, he's more like a Cambridge don who happened to be born on Trinidad.  Regardless of his socio-economic status, in A Way in the World he is writing the story of a place- his native Trindad and the nearby areas of Guyana and Venezuela that few English speaking readers understand.

  A Way in the World was marketed in the United States as a novel, but in the UK it was called a literary "sequence" which is a more accurate description of the combination of personal memoir, history lesson and exercise in creative writing that A Way in the World appears to be.  Whether or not the narrator of A Way in the World is actually supposed to be Naipaul himself in unclear.  I think the answer to that is no... but there is no denying that the narrator bears a mirror-like resemblance to Naipaul.

  Naipaul only has three books in the 1001 Books list, all part of the "permanent" 700 book list which has survived all revisions.  I would up that allotment to double that- six titles. Maybe more.  I'm not sure A Way in the World would be one to add, but I'm determined to make my way through more of his books.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A Kind of Freedom (2017) by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton


Book Review
A Kind of Freedom (2017)
by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

  One of the themes of this blog is that being an audience member is an aesthetic act- after all, an author or artist might be brilliant, but if no one reads/listens/watches, it doesn't very well matter. The romantic concept of the undiscovered artistic genius may be a well established trope for artists and audiences alike, but from a "real world" perspective, those people might as well not exist.

  If you read books, what you read is more important than whether you read at all.  Better to read nothing then to fill one's head with trash.  Which is not to say that "trash" is some objective concept- there are plenty of counter-examples in genre fiction, but, for example, plowing through romance novels or sci fi series about orcs and trolls

  So when I saw A Kind of Freedom on the National Book Award long list, and saw that author Margaret Wilkerson Sexton was not only an African American BUT ALSO a trained lawyer, and that the book dealt with several generations of African Americans living in New Orleans, I immediately put it in my Los Angeles library queue.   Six months later... voila!

   Sexton paints a picture of the long toll that discrimination takes against generations of African Americans.  The grand parents, the first African-American doctor in New Orleans and his light skinned wife.  Their daughters, one a lawyer, the other a struggling single mother and the son of one of the daughters, a just released from jail aspiring marijuana grower with a son on the way.

   It's the grandson that I felt was the most distinctive character.  Hard to say why A Kind of Freedom didn't make the short list.

The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich


Book Review
The Unwomanly Face of War (1985)
by Svetlana Alexievich

  To the surprise of many English-language readers, Svetlana Alexievick, a Belarusian journalist, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.  My understanding that she was basically unknown, and at the time she won, none of her books were in still in print, in English.  All of her big titles received new English language translations with mainline US publishers after her Nobel win, and I decdied to take the plunge after my recent experience reading The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine.

  The Unwomanly Face of War is largely (but not entirely) prose renditions of various interviews conducted with female Red Army veterans who participated in World War II.  The passages are interspersed with italized musings by the "author": although presented as non-fiction, the material is clearly stylized in a way that brought her to the attention of the Committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature.  At the time, she was hailed as the first journalist to win the prize, but in the aftermath of the win, her interviews made it clear that she does not view herself as a journalist.

 As Alexievich makes quite clear, women in the Red Army fought in front line combat roles, and even had roles as field commanders and field "commissars" (the representative of the Russian Communist government, serving alongside the military staff.)  Alexievich, despite her prose style, let's the women speak for themselves, and limits her observations to breezy, philosophical type musings and comments about her method.  Well worth the time it take to read, Alexisevich is a welcome addition to the canon via her Nobel Prize win in 2015.

All the Pretty Horses (1992) by Cormac McCarthy


Book Review
All the Pretty Horses  (1992)
 by Cormac McCarthy

  I think Cormac McCarthy is dramatically under represented within the 1001 Books project.  I would put him up there in the same category as major contemporary authors like Coeteze and Auster and if I had to pick my personal top 1000 he would probably be represented over a half dozen times.  His status within the 1001 Books project is interesting.  He only had one title in the 2006 edition (The Road) then added titles in 2008, this one and Blood Meridian, then lost All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian in the 2012 revision, taking him back down to The Road as his only representative.  

  McCarthy's expanded canonical status can be based on several arguments:  He has always had a supportive critical following.  He has experienced world-wide commercial success, including the adaptation of at least two works into films (The Road and No Country For Old Men) that can lay claim themselves to being canonical works.   He has expanded his scope of work, moving into post-apocalyptic fiction and crime fiction.  He's the main and perhaps only canonical author with a particularly "Southwestern" point of view.  It is, perhaps, given the genre success and bloody mayhem that figures prominently in almost all of his works, that he will ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but certainly a Booker Prize wouldn't be out of the question.

 All the Pretty Horses was the first book of his "Border Trilogy."  In 2000 it got a dud movie version starring Matt Damon as narrator John Grady Cole and Penelope Cruz has his Mexican rancher's daughter love interest.  Directed by Billy Bob Thorton, the movie version received poor critical reviews and bombed at the box office. 

  All the Pretty Horses was also a popular break-through for McCarthy, entering the New York Times best-seller list, ostensibly because it was a "softer" book, with an actual love story, and contrasted favorably with his "bleaker" earlier books.  I knew of that reputation coming in, but other than the Mexican/American forbidden love plot, All the Pretty Horses does pack a McCarthy-ian punch, with much of the third act taking place inside the walls of a Mexican jail.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Sputnick Sweetheart (1999) by Haruki Murakami


Book Review
Sputnick Sweetheart (1999)
by Haruki Murakami

   Sputnick Sweetheart reads like a variation on The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, in the sense that term is used in classical music, when a composer revisits a theme or motif in a different key or configuration of instruments.  Many themes, locations and even characters are repeated in the two books, treated expansively in The Wind Up Bird Chronicles and more concisely in Sputnick Sweetheart.  Both books feature somewhat listless male protagonists drifting at the edge of employability, with troubled family and personal relationships.  In Sputnick, K, the protagonist and narrator, is a school teacher who is off on break. He recounts his non-relationship with Sumire, a "manic pixie dream girl" type.

   The action revolves around the relationship between Sumire and Miu, a stylish, succesful older woman who convinces Sumire to work for her in the import/export business.  When Sumire disappears during a business trip on a small Greek island, Miu reaches out to K, who agrees to come look for Sumire.  The Greek Islands appear in both books- though no one actually goes there in the pages of The Wind Up Bird Chronicles.  Both books feature a stylish older woman as a mysterious agent of fate.  The main characters in the two books are so similar that they could be the same person.

  Even the mysterious metaphysically/supernatural revelation in both books involve the same kind of description.   Given the similarities, it seems like the 1001 Books project might be justified in keeping one or the other, but here we are.   Call it a testament to the power of Murakami- Sputnick Sweetheart is still in print, and I was able to buy a new, recently printed paperback copy at the indie bookstore down the street.  to me, the most remarkable thing about Murakami is his incredible international success in translation, almost more impressive than a Nobel Prize for Literature in my mind.

Monday, January 01, 2018

The Future Home of the Loving God (2017) by Louise Erdich


Book Review
Future Home of the Living God (2017)
 by Louise Erdich
Published November 14th, 2017

  Louise Erdich is a first rate writer of literary fiction with a solid domestic reputation- cemented by a National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House.  She was also a Pulitzer Finalist in 2009 with  The Plague of Doves.  Many (all?) of her books are deeply influenced by her Native American heritage, with the landscape of Northern Minnesota taking center stage.   Future Home of the Living God is her foray into speculative/dystopian fiction, with a heavy emphasis on the reproductive themes that are familiar to anyone who knows about Margaret Atwood and the success of A Handmaid's Tale.

   I haven't actually read A Handmaid's Tale yet, but the Hulu version was so popular that I'm hip to the story line, a dystopian future where reproduction is strictly controlled and women who can reproduce are treated as chattel.   It would not be wholly unfair to describe Future Home of the Living God in the exact same terms.  There are, of course, huge differences between the two, with Erdich's particular turf of northern Minnesota and Native American taking over from the puritanical New England of A Handmaid's Tale.   Another difference is the timing- A Handmaid's Tale takes place after whatever happened has happened, in Future Home of the Living God, the narrator/protagonist Cedar Hawk Songmaker, watches as society disintegrates around her.

  Erdich is a renowned author of literary fiction, and Future Home of the Living God never sucumbs to the YA conventions of lesser dystopian-reproductive rights efforts, but it's hard to imagine that she accomplishes anything beyond the success of A Handmaid's Tale.  Again, I'm saying that not having actually read the book or watched the show, but... c'mon.

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