Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981) by Alisdair Gray

Scottish author Alisdair Gray was also an artist, and his drawings illustrate Lanark: A Life in Four Books.
Book Review
Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981)
by Alisdair Gray

  Lanark: A Life in Four Books is an unlikely combination of Kunstlerroman (like a Bildungsroman but for an artist) and dystopian-ish mind fuck in the mold of Samuel Beckett.  Duncan Shaw, the central character in the kunstlerroman, is an obvious stand in for Scottish author Alisdair Gray.  Shaw is raised by a single father, in a working class home in Glasgow.  The narrative of the two books concerning Shaw are bleak, but not relentlessly so.  Shaw tries, and fails to find his way as an artist making life choices that only make sense in the context of mental illness or an existentialist novel.  Shaw is like a Dostoyevsky character without the random violence.

  The other two books, which bracket the kunstlerroman like bread brackets a sandwich, are about Lanark, who is living in a nightmarish parallel present/near future, perhaps after some horrific world wide disaster. The world he portrays is closest to the world that Franz Kafka depicts in The Castle- at time it occured to me that this might even be the same world.   Like Kazuo Ishiguro in The Unconsoled and The Buried Giant, Lanark plays with memory and not-memory.  Both parts of Lanark: A Life in Four Books, work on their own.  How they related together is less clear: Is Lanark some version of Shaw? Is Shaw a creation of the mind of Lanark, or vice versa?  No answers are provided.

 Lanark: A Life in Four Books is an excellent 1001 Books selection- little known here in the United States- and very much a must read for fans of strange literature. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Transit (1942) by Anna Seghers

Book Review
Transit (1942)
 by Anna Seghers

  I read Transit back in May of 2015, but I case that was a crazy month for me, because I never wrote a review.  Half the reason I do reviews for each book, even for the uninspiring ones, is to simply keep an accurate list.  Anna Seghers is a rarity: East German, Communist, her perspective adds a new viewpoint to the canonical German language authors of the period.   Her unnamed (male) narrator of Transit, has escaped a pre-war concentration camp.  In Paris, waiting for the Nazi's to arrive, he inherits the suitcase of a German writer, Seidler,  who is well enough known to have secured a hard-to-get visa to resettle in Mexico.

  As the Nazi's take Paris, the narrator moves to Marseilles, which is the setting for the rest of the book.  Seghers memorably portrays World War II Marseilles, which is romantic locale a la the Cabana in Casablanca.  Seghers is too straight laced an author to have much fun with the scenario, but it is a more or less real life cloak and dagger scenario that still has considerable aesthetic appeal. Also remarkable is that Transit was written during and not after World War II- unusual for the World War II themed books in the 1001 Books list, many of which are written decades after the war itself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding

Book Review
Lord of the Flies (1954)
 by William Golding

   For an English language Nobel Prize in Literature (1980), William Golding isn't particularly well read.  He does, however, have Lord of the Flies which I believe is read by every junior high school student or high school student in the English speaking world.  You could argue that Lord of the Flies is the first book in the genre of YA dystopian literature- certainly for several generations of students up until The Hunger Games generation, Lord of the Flies was 100% likely to the first work a student would encounter that could plausibly fit the description of a literary dystopia.

  Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984- those are the three books that birthed dystopian fiction as a category of literature and a subject for popular fiction.  I still own my high school copy of Lord of the Flies.  I think. I can picture the cover art and my name written inside in pencil.  This time, I listened to the audiobook, read by Golding himself(!)  It also features an insightful introduction, also by the author himself, who defies those who would saddle Lord of the Flies with one, single meaning.  Golding makes clear that Lord of the Flies can mean whatever the reader thinks it means, and that readers should not allow themselves to be bullied by teachers or parents who tell them what to think about this book.

   I could barely remember the plot outline of Lord of the Flies, other then, "kids, island, Piggy, murder, rescue." The Audiobook was a rollicking adventure- there was little time to consider deeper meaning in the way the book is typically taught in American schools.  Hearing it in the voice of Golding himself was fantastic.  Paul Auster read one of his books in the Audiobook format, but Golding, a Nobel Prize winner is special.

The Sky is Yours(2018) by Chandler Klang Smith

Image result for the sky is yours
Detail of cover art from The Sky is Yours (2018) by Chandler Kland Smith, features two dragons in a modified Ouroboros
Book Review
The Sky is Yours (2018) 
by Chandler Klang Smith

  I'm generally interested in literary dystopia- as supposed to the strictly genre YA dystopian fiction market- less obvious, not always featuring a YA protagonist, grappling with contemporary societal issues ETC.  It's an interest that ties in with a larger interest in the border between popular and critically acclaimed, and particularly, what are artists and works that are both at the same time.  I enjoy reading science fiction, or did, as a youth, and it's really only the merest pretext of literary aspiration in a review that's required to trigger my interest.

  So it is with The Sky is Yours- a Penguin Random House release from January of this year, by a first time author Chandler Klang Smith (a woman, just because you wouldn't know from the name.)  Reviewers have dropped comparisons to  David Foster Wallace in terms of her depiction of a realist-fantasy of American dystopia.  The twist, as it were, are dragons, a pair of them, endlessly circling a stand in the New York City, which has been burned to a crisp, and a hollowed out, leaving only the very rich and condemned criminals.

 In a cast of dozens, the major players are the Ripple clan- father, scion of one of the last remaining land owning clans in not-New York;  Son- Duncan- is a past-his-prime  his intended bride- Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg- the real star of The Sky is Yours, and her aged, gun toting bad-ass mom.  On the eve of his impending (arranged) marriage, Duncan is blasted by on of the dragons, and lands on a garbage island where he meets, beds, and falls in love with Abby, a feral girl-child with a secret past.  That is basically chapters one and two- and The Sky is Yours keeps on for about 500 pages.

  The Sky is Yours is NOT a YA title- there is sex and violence aplenty to merit an R rating.  At the same time Smith writes with such a vigor that it isn't hard to imagine a world where high school read it.  I would observe that Smith's prose really pops, and that The Sky is Yours is evidence of an author who can be popular and critically acclaimed at the same time. 

  I'm not sure that The Sky is Yours is, actually, a hit.   If it isn't, that's a drag, but you should still give it a spin on the off the chance that either catches fire or is picked up a for a prestige tv or movie version.  Not that a tv version or movie version is likely to be good.  I could well imagine it being terrible, since it is really Smith's deft touch and talent for layered references that would be hardest to convey in another medium.     

A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess

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Still from the Stanley Kubrick movie version of  A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Book Review
A Clockwork Orange (1962)
by Anthony Burgess

  The cocktail party banter to know about A Clockwork Orange is that 1) Anthony Burgess HATED A Clockwork Orange even though it proved to be his single canonical novel in a career that would otherwise be considered second-tier. 2) There are two different versions of A Clockwork Orange- a UK version with an additional chapter where Alex gives up his youthful life of Ultra-violence, and a US version where that chapter is omitted, leaving the reader to think that Alex is unreformed.

 It is this issue that Burgess addresses on the very good Audiobook edition of A Clockwork Orange- which includes the final chapter. He also uses his introduction to castigate the Stanley Kubrick movie, which adheres to the American version, and leaves Alex unredeemed, so to speak.  Burgess has repeatedly claimed that he dashed off A Clockwork Orange for a bit of cash, and it turned into his enduring legacy.

  A Clockwork Orange is also a classic example of a book having it's canonical status secured by the success of a film.  Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, despite Burgess' dislike, did more to crystalize a dystopian aesthetic in the mass media than any other single work except perhaps the first Bladerunner.   A Clockwork Orange demonstrates that whatever their other respective strengths and weaknesses, film is best for cementing a visual aesthetic in the mind of a mass audience.

    Burgess is largely remembered as a comic writer, and here the comic element is his clever invention of a Russian influenced slang he calls navsat.  The linguistic element of A Clockwork Orange, with Alex addressing his "droogies" and talking about "devotchka's" and "babushka's" is fun for its own sake, much in the way you enjoy the writing in Lolita by Nabokov. 

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