Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Light of Day (2003) by Graham Swift

Book Review
The Light of Day (2003)
by Graham Swift

  Curious that the editors of 1001 Books would omit Graham Swift's Booker Prize winning novel, Last Orders and include The Light of Day, which is a sort of detective novel by way of the tradition of English kitchen sink style realism, about an ex cop, who resigned in disgrace, being hired by a woman to investigate an affair between her husband and a Bosnian refugee who has been living in their post suburban home.

   The plot is typical genre stuff, but the execution, both in terms of the non linear plot and the emphasis on the interior life of George the private investigator, makes The Light of Day a clearly literary rather than genre effort.   Has Graham Swift really made it in the United States? Several of his books have been made into films, but not in a really big, Hollywood, way.   He hasn't had any break through best selling books. His best books are experimental fiction. All signs point to no. 

Steppenwolf (1927) by Herman Hesse

Book Review
Steppenwolf (1927)
by Herman Hesse

  German author Heman Hesse has two core titles on the 1001 Books list, this book and Siddhartha (1922).  He also has two non-core titles, both of which were on the first list and removed in 2008.  I read all four Hesse books in high school.  Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980's and 1990's, his paperbacks were readily available, cheap and plentiful, a consequence of his popularity among college students in the area and status as a counter-cultural icon, decades ahead of his time.   I read Steppenwolf in 9th or 10th grade, undoubtedly the best time to read a book that is, at best, a pile of romantic clap-trap.

  Steppenwolf has been so influential on the generation of cultural sophisticates from the 1960's onward that it is possible to understand the book merely on the basis of the tropes or cliches it has generated in popular culture.  Not the least of those is the rock band, of the same name, which had multiple "good time" party rock hits in the late 1960's.  Less obviously, there is every style or ideological manifestation of "the sixties" all of which seem to be expressed by Hesse, writing in German, in 1927, about what was to come. The line though, between Hesse in 1927 and the Summer of Love, in 1968 is not direct, since it was in fact those same group who "re-discovered" Hesse and brought him back from obscurity.

 It's not fair to separate them, the artist revived and the audience which participates in the revival. I haven't made a study of it, but just based on my personal experience, San Francisco and the environs were positively flooded with Hess paperback in the decades after the 1960's, meaning a vast number of people must have been reading these newly reissued, sometimes retranslated, editions.  The Hesse revival phenomenon is an excellent example of the rarely observed direct revival, where a forgotten writer is almost wholly exhumed and revived.  Such events fly in the face of the capital industrial complex, since they reduce the amount of audience attention for new products, and open up the possibility of profitable intellectual property which is owned by no one (public domain titles).

  This time, I listened to an audiobook recording, narrated by Peter "Robocop" Weller. It was terrible! Something I've noticed about audiobook is that the older the underlying text, the less amenable it is audiobook adaptation. Prove me wrong, Los Angeles Public Library Overdrive App. 

Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) by Arthur Golden

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Zhang Ziyi played Chiyo Sakamoto (Geisha name Sayuri Nitta) in the Rob Marshall directed movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha.
Book Review
Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)
by Arthur Golden

  Is there a bigger one hit wonder in 20th century literature than Arthur Golden?  He published Memoirs of Geisha in 1997, and as far as I can tell, hasn't done anything else. The only blemish on the status of Memoirs of a Geisha as an enduring classic is a less-than-fully-succesful but still pretty decent movie version, which managed to cast every Asian actress of note in the lead roles, and be directed by Rob Marshall, in the same movie.  Honestly the way Hollywood works I wouldn't have been surprised to see Scarlett Johansson in the cast listing.

  In 2018, the very existence of a book written by a white American purporting to the Memoirs of a Geisha, even one as well written as this book, borders on cultural appropriation.  This queasy feeling is reinforced by a lawsuit by one of his primary sources for interviews when Memoirs of a Geisha was translated into Japanese. Perhaps the most charitable way to look at Memoirs is as a loving act of homage to a poorly documented time period, but then again, Memoirs is not particularly kind to Japanese society. Little Chiyo Sakamoto is essentially sold into slavery by her father, a poor fisherman with a drinking problem. Her sister is sold directly into a house of prostitution, the prettier Chiyo is apprenticed as a Geisha.

  As Chiyo-then-Sayuri observes during the course of the book, Geisha are neither prostitutes nor mistresses but the succesful ones are largely within the category of "kept women" in terms of their relationship with a primary benefactor who supports her various endeavors, which include yearly dance performances, and endless rounds of entertaining at the various tea houses in town.

  Part of the appeal of Memoirs of a Geisha is the status of the Gion district of Kyoto as the last stronghold of "traditional" geisha culture, uninfluenced by Western modes of dress, style and culture.  Only after the traumatic events of World War II do Americans emerge as peripheral characters, and only at the end of the book does Sayuri make her way to America, presumably the basis for the many comparisons to Western culture that pervade her recollections.  

  One difference between this book and a hypothetical book written by a Japanese author is of course the frequency of those comparisons.  While Japanese literature may be influenced by Western literature, the characters rarely, if ever have cause to comment or interact with the West.  It's probably that added level of context, which, ultimately, is only likely to be introduced by a non-Japanese author that was perhaps the key to the widespread success Memoirs of a Geisha saw in the marketplace.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ficciones (1944) by Jorge Luis Borges

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Jorge Luis Borges as a young man.
Book Review
Ficciones (1944)
by Jorge Luis Borges

  In what could be described as in a Borgesian fashion, there are two slightly different English language translations of Borges' fiction, both published in English in 1962.  Before I went back and looked closely at both books, I had assumed that they were the same, and indeed, that was the reason I didn't read Ficciones my first time through the 1001 Books list: I read Labyrinths for the first time as early as high school and I was under the impression that the two books simply carried different titles in the United States and the UK, a not unusual situation even for English language titles.

  As it turns out, the two books share a good deal of overlap, but Ficciones is the more compact collection, and seems to be preferred by contemporary readers.  The most illustrative Borges tales are in both books, so it seems like you would just pick up which ever one came your way, rather than seek out either.  As my friend the Rabbi observed, "It would be more Borgesian if there were no difference."  I might add that additional levels of Borgesianism could be achieved by two books, neither of which contain stories by Borges, two equally blank books, or two equally nonsensical books.   

  Borges was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up.  The gap between the original publication of Ficciones in Spanish in 1944 and the English translation in 1962 was long enough so that he had an English language audience that was ready to appreciate what he was bringing to the table.  I'm sure, had an English translation been published during the closing months of World War II, it would have been roundly ignored.  In 2018, Borges is still very much in print and practically required reading for any young, English language student looking for the high points of 20th century literature.

  His achievement is all the more stunning when you consider he emerged out of literary back-water (Argentina) writing in a second tier world language (Spanish) and in a format that is often relegated to the back benches of literary achievement (the short story.)   Writers like Anton Chekhov and Raymond Chandler, who essentially specialized in the short story, are entirely excluded from the 1001 Books list, making Borges all the more extraordinary. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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The Little Prince got a movie version in 2015, over 50 years after it was released. 
Book Review
The Little Prince (1943)
 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

   At the time I was reading through the 1940's section of the 1001 Books list, I just couldn't bring myself to check The Little Prince out of the San Diego Public Library.  Circling back through the 1940's, I noticed it and pulled down the illustrated (!) ebook from the Los Angeles Public Library.  The Little Prince is one of those books that proves the distinction between kids and adult literature is a permeable boundary, and that many classics of the adult canon began as a book written for children.

  I can't think of another illustrated book/picture book that made it onto the 1001 Books list.  Saint-Exupery both wrote and illustrated the book, and the image of this winsome prince standing on his tiny planet is more iconic than any of the language in the book.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

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Elizabeth Moss played "Offred" in the highly succesful television version of The Handmaid's Tale

Book Review
The Handmaids Tale (1985)
 by Margaret Atwood

   I wasn't hugely surprised when Hulu announced a Season 2 for their smash hit television version of The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  The book, of course, has no sequel, so presumably they'll be writing a new chapter.  I haven't finished the television series yet, but the idea that they would write a whole second season out of nothing doesn't offend me as I thought it might.  The book itself is more or less genre fiction, Margaret Atwood's literary pedigree.  What is unusual about The Handmaid's Tale is the anti-feminism which animates The Republic of Gilead, the authoritarian dictatorship which has replaced the United States of America in Atwood's alternate present of the book.

   The key, animating fact in Atwood's dystopia is a precipitous decline in the birth rate, brought about by a poorly understood intersection of chemicals and ungodliness.  This decline spurs a shadowy network of "think tanks" called the sons of Jacob, to come up with their new model society, which combines elements of New England Puritanism and Mormon pluralism with more far a field influences like Asian-style quietism and an economy that functions without money.

   Offred's gilded cage is contrasted both with her life before Gilead, where she married a divorced man (illegal under the new regime) and gave birth successfully to a child who was taken by the new regime; the other alternative is being dispatched to "The Colonies" (roughly the south and south east) where a series of nuclear explosions and chemical attacks have rendered large swaths of territory uninhabitable.   Offred isn't stoked about her role as a breeding object, but she isn't exactly leaping at the prospect of a nasty, brutish and short existence in the Colonies.

  There is no denying the visual power of the imagery- which is well take by the television version.  The book, I think, is clumsier, in a way, particularly in the way Atwood included a thirty page addendum written from the far future, presenting the book as an authentic historical manuscript.  I understand why you would do that in the context of dystopian fiction, but it seems like a genre move. 

Monday, April 09, 2018

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
Never Let Me Go (2005)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

  Never Let Me Go is the last book in the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  I haven't adhered to a strictly chronological approach, but that is how the books have tend to be read, just because it's easiest that way and requires the least amount of time acquiring the titles.   With about 150 books left over, I've still got work to do.  Most of the remaining books are either books I read in school or on my own.  20th century fiction, in particular, has whole swathes of books that I skipped over because of prior familiarity.  I wasn't even sure I was going to go back and re-read any of those books until recently. Now that I've decided in favor of that executing that task, the chronological end of the list seems less important, but still, 850 plus books.  That is something.

  I listened to the audio book version on the Overdrive app- many of the audio book versions that have made it online or into mp3 format have done that with the inter cd breaks intact, so that the process of listening to an audio-book on my smartphone involves breaks every 50 minutes or so and a voice intoning "play next disc." Sometimes there is a little swatch of music to accompany the voice, sometimes not.  It gives me pause to think of the material wasted in the production of audiobooks on cd, surely the mp3 format is superior.

  This is the second Ishiguro novel I've listened to rather than read.  The other was Remains of the Day.  That is vs. the three Ishiguro novel's I've read;  An Artist of the Floating World, The Unconsoled and The Buried Giant.   I found the written novels to be difficult, on the other hand, Ishiguro's recursive prose style seemed well suited for the audiobook format.  Never Let Me Go, in particular was a great audio book listen.  His dive into a particularly Ishiguro-ian parallel universe dystopia, where clones are raised alongside regular humans as a source for organ transplants in late 20th century England rewards the listener, and helps mitigate the slow early portions of the novel, before the reader becomes aware of the true horrors of the world of Never Let Me Go.

  Never Let Me Go was both the last book selected and the first book removed from the list in the initial 2008 edition.  You would think it might be added back if they ever do a post-Nobel Prize win edition of the book- the last revision was in 2012.  On the other hand, Ishiguro continues to write, which raises the possibility of a better book coming out to displace one of his remaining titles.  

The Lambs of London (2004) by Peter Ackroyd

Book Review
The Lambs of London (2004)
by Peter Ackroyd

 In the United States, Peter Ackroyd is known for his non fiction, particularly his books about London.  In the United Kingdom he also has a solid reputation for well-researched historical fiction, often retracing events he has written non-fiction books about in the past.   Charles Lamb, the brother of the brother/sister duo to which the title refers, must be close to Ackroyd's heart, since he himself was one of the first "chroniclers" of London life, back in the late 18th century.  The events of The Lambs of London revolve around a real life controversy surrounding a young book seller, William Ireland, who claimed to have discovered multiple new works written by William Shakespeare.

  The biggest real life event surrounding the Lambs, sister Mary's murder of her mother some years later, is not a subject tackled in this novel, but presumably Ackroyd depends, at some level, on the reader being familiar enough with how the tale ended in the real world to be interested in Mary's increasingly frantic despair as the book move through the otherwise Shakespeare focused plot. 

The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham

Book Review
The Hours (1998)
by Michael Cunningham

  I think if I had to nominate a single author for the "least enjoyed" author in the 1001 Books list, I would nominate Virginia Woolf.  Maybe Henry James a close second.  It's no surprise that, were you to poll a group of English professors and graduate students in English from the United States in the past twenty years, those two authors would probably be one, two in terms of favorites.   It can be no coincidence that by the turn of the the last century, contemporary authors were turning to these canonical authors as characters within their newly published books.  Both this book, which features a prominent part for Virginia Woolf herself, and The Master, by Colm Toibin, about Henry James.   This represents an extension of the already well established tactic of re-writing a classic from the perspective of a different character, Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre) or Foe by J.M. Coeteze (Robinson Crusoe.)

   Personal tastes aside, The Hours was a smash hit- as a big a hit can be in terms of literary fiction, which was followed by an Oscar winning movie version.  The Hours, I think, was succesful at making it's readers feel clever.  Also, like all succesful stream-of-consciousness books, there is an extraordinary amount of time spent "inside the heads" of three generations of women:  Virginia Woolf herself, a woman planning a birthday in post-World War II Los Angeles for her military husband, and a woman planning a literary celebration for a long-time friend who is dying from AIDS.

   The Hours starts with a prologue featuring the famous stone-abetted suicide of Woolf herself, and then moves back and forth across the three stories, using Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.   I would recommend reading The Hours either immediately after completing Mrs. Dalloway itself, or having that book in mind, lest the reader miss the sophistication of Cunningham's technique.   I would not recommend the Ebook version of The Hours- for it or any other experimental work of fiction, a printed page is required to generate the requisite attention required. 

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