Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 07, 2018

The Mill on the Floss (1860) by George Eliot

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Signet classics paperback edition of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Book Review
The Mill on the Floss (1860)
by George Eliot

  The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (T/N Mary Ann Evans) was the first book I was assigned to read at my admittedly strange high school.   I was, of course, a precocious reader, but certainly not familiar with much literature beyond what could be found in the science fiction section of my local public library.  I was not impressed, fair to say.  Found it tedious. I remember staring at the cover of  the Signet Classics paperback edition I was reading and wondering how I was going to survive high school.

   Reading The Mill on the Floss certainly did not inspire a life-long love affair with literature.  Besides a brief flirtation with creative writing in college, I didn't read much fiction until after I had attended law school, graduated, passed the bar and got my legal career going.  Revisiting it as an Audiobook as I try to wrap up the last 50 or so titles from the first edition of the 1001 Books list, I wasn't struck my any recollections of the book itself, just the circumstances of reading it as the first book assigned in high school English.

 The Mill on the Floss is another Audiobook sweet spot in 19th century fiction, long enough to be more convenient in audio than written form, modern enough in prose style to be comprehensible to a modern ear,  but old enough that the voices lend some understanding to the words of the characters.  For example, the (female) narrator uses what I am guessing are Midlands accents for all of the characters, and also varies them according to levels of class and education, less educated characters sound rougher.  It's unlikely that any American reader would catch that distinction or even know what exactly a Midlands accent sounds like.

  It was around 19 hours in length- 612 pages in paperback- so on the long side, with a first act- recounting the destruction of the Tulliver family through the impudence of their mill-owning patriarch, Mr. Tulliver (no first name).  The rest of the book deals exclusively with the young adulthood of his children, Tom and Maggie.   Truly it was the voice characterization that made listening to the Audiobook of The Mill on the Floss a breeze compared to reading the 600 page book.   It has almost a soothing quality.  Of course, Eliot's writing, while not funny is certainly clever, and she can't be accused of currying favor with her prospective audience. None of her major characters come off particularly well, the character of Maggie being one of the great frustrating protagonists of 19th century literature. 

Thursday, September 06, 2018

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (1000 AD) by Anon

Book Review
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (1000 AD)
 by Anon

 Replaces: 282. Aesop’s Fables – Aesopus (May 2015 Review)

  The major difference between the 282 books that were replaced between the first and second edition of the 1001 Books list is the addition of more books by non-English authors and the removal of authors from England, greater Britain and America.  It seems that another potential change is that fewer female authors are included in the second edition, since that was one area- specifically the inclusion of white, English language female authors in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries- where the first edition of the 1001 Books did make an effort to diversify from the traditional white-male centric literary canon.

   The very first switch is the introduction of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th century example of the "Japanese fictional prose narrative" that functions as a parallel tradition of literary fiction. In fact, the first two replacements, this book and the overwhelming Tales of Genji (which might actually be the first novel in the world) are Japanese leading to the question of how they were excluded from the first edition. Aesop's Fables, on the other hand, was an uninspired choice- just a compilation of short fables that reads nothing like the modern novel.

   Similar to Aesop's Fables, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter belongs to the world of "folk-tales" with mythical and quasi-science fictional elements. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter remains obscure in the west- the only print copy owned by the Los Angeles Public Library is an art-book edition published in 1998. 

Snap (2018) by Belinda Bauer

Book Review
Snap (2018) by
 Belinda Bauer
Released July 2018 by Atlantic Press

  The 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist can be read as a response to critics- including many past winners and nominees, that the expansion of the eligible countries to the United States represents a threat to the identity of the Booker Prize as the best of the former UK Commonwealth.  Presumably, those critics don't have the same hard feelings about a similar expansion to include books published in Ireland.  This year, it is the Irish, with three nominees, that look to be disrupting the traditional regions like Africa (zero nominees) and Australia/New Zealand (zero nominees).  

  The inclusion of Snap, an above average work of detective/suspense fiction set in Scotland by the British/South African author of other works of detective fiction, is a good example of the "home isles" emphasis in the 2018 Booker longlist.  My own predilection for investigating the borders of genre and literary fiction mean that I don't find the inclusion of a genre book on a literary fiction longlist surprising.   That distinction would belong to the graphic novel(!) that was included on the longlist this year.

  Reading it on my Kindle app, I found the first 30% or so of Snap difficult to enjoy, then of course, as the pace quickens and you find out what it is that makes Snap a longlist nominee, it was easier to find the time to finish.  It would be even more surprising to see Snap on the shortlist, but perhaps this enough to jump start an audience for her in the United States, since the book itself is an easy sell.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev

Book Review
Fathers and Sons (1862)
 by Ivan Turgenev

  Turgenev is the famous third man of 19th century literature, not Tolstoy, and not Dostoyevsky, but honestly just as good really and none of his books approach the length of a single Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky book.  Fathers and Sons, for example, is a scant 226 pages, about as long as an average length work of literary fiction today.  Fathers and Sons was also written prior to the other canonical texts of 19th century Russian literature.  Notes from Underground was published in 1864, Crime and Punishment in 1866, War and Peace 1869, Anna Karenina 1877.

  Turgenev is credited with coining the term "nihilism" in Fathers and Sons, to describe the attitude of Bazarov, the anti-hero and predecessor of Raskolnikov and all the other ennui afflicted anti-heros of Russian literature.   What were to become the common themes of the mid to late 19th century Russian novel: an educated but directionless younger aristocracy, and the older generation of aristocrats who are puzzled by the ideology of the young are on full display in Fathers and Sons.  Again, like many other Russian novels from this period, much of the "action" consists of characters declaiming to one another across the sitting rooms of great houses in cities or rural parts of Russia.

  And compare the attitude of Turgenev to that of Dostoevsky.   A reader is likely to get the impression that Turgenev considers himself more of a "father" than a "son;" whereas with Dostoevsky it is clear that he is a "son" of the first order.  A generational shift, in other words, is what distinguishes the earlier work of Turgenev from the later work of Dostoevsky. 

  Like other works of 19th century Russian literature I've listened to on Audiobook- The Idiot, by Dostoevsky recently, but also War and Peace and Crime and Punishment in the not to distant past, Fathers and Sons is easier to listen to than it is to read, probably because of the frequency in all these books of the characters making lengthy speeches to one another without interruption.  Is such a book better to read than to listen to? I would argue not.

 Another issue with 19th century Russian literature which remains unaddressed here is the role of Constance Garnett.  She translated essentially every Russian 19th century literary classic into English in the early 20th century, and so almost every Russian novel read in English is via her translation.    Over a hundred years later, I would guess that an updating would have a considerably different feel.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Animal Farm (1946) by George Orwell

Book Review
Animal Farm (1946)
 by George Orwell

    George Orwell was a socialist sympathizer until he turned against Stalin,  Animal Farm was written between 1942 and 1943, the short period when the Russian Communists were fighting allies of both the United Kingdom and the United States. Into the Cold War and after, Animal Farm was considered almost children's literature, and I believe I read it as early as Junior High School- 6th or 7th grade.  Like 1984, Orwell's other contribution to the 20th century canon of world literature, Orwell managed to create a universal allegory out of very specific concerns, i.e. the usurpation by Stalin of what Orwell perceived as the glorious Marxist-Leninist revolution.   In fact, the major failing of Animal Farm as it relates to the Communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union is that Lenin was himself a monster and just as ruthless as Stalin himself- Stalin just managed to stick around for several decades after Lenin died.

  Seen this way, Stalin is less an aberration than a logical culmination, and in the context of Animal Farm. it seems clear that Orwell has no problem with a worker controlled socialist paradise, provided it is not corrupted by a Stalin-like dictator.

Florida (2018) by Lauren Groff

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Author Lauren Groff was a 2015 National Book Award finalist for her novel Fates and Furies.  Her new collection of short stories, Fates and Furies, is a possible contender for a nomination this year.

Book Review
Florida (2018)
 by Lauren Groff
Published June 5th, 2018 by Riverhead Books

  Psychogeography isn't a genre or sub-genre of literary fiction, it is a state of mind, specifically a state of mind linked to a particular place.  Originally that place was London due to the number of English and London based authors who developed psychogeography in their fiction.  Despite this link, there isn't anything inherently English or London centered specific to the idea of writing about the psychology of a place.  Nor is there anything to link this concern to a specific literary format- novel, short story, novella, poem.  Nor is psychogeography limited to literature itself- it is very easy to imagine studio art informed by this mind set, film (Los Angeles Plays Itself comes to mind).

   Still, a psychogeographical work written in America, about America hasn't ascended to the highest levels of critical and popular acclaim.  Florida, by American author Lauren Groff, is being put forward as a candidate to be this book, and the sponsor is publishing giant PenguinRandomHouse, so that puts it into direct contention for a National Book Award nomination.  Groff, of course, was herself nominated in 2015 for her novel Fates and Furies.  I listened to Florida as an Audiobook read by Groff, and I'm a big fan of having authors read their own books, here it was again a good choice.

  The mostly nameless, almost entirely female characters in Groff's stories often resemble Groff herself: Northern immigrants who relocated to Florida for college, and then stick around or leave- one of the stories is set in Brazil, and France makes multiple appearance- and struggle with the vicissitudes of life in different ways.   Always, Florida is there, and Groff's careful description runs through each of the stories like the rampant Floridian vegetation.

  For the type of people who read literary fiction, both here and abroad, Florida is a kind of punch-line for "crazy America" in the same way that California and New York are symbolic for "cool America" and Texas symbolizes "uncool America."  Each of these places: California, New York and Texas have their own authors who have established a literary identity for the place in the mind of readers, until Groff came along, it would be hard to argue that anyone has done the same for Florida, unless, perhaps, you want to include Elmore Leonard.

  Lauren Groff then, has added to the literary map.

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