Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 14, 2018

2018 National Book Award Fiction Finalists Announced

2018 National Book Award Fiction Longlist

A Lucky Man(stories), by Jamel Brinkley (Gray Wolf Press) #
Gun Love, by Jennifer Clement (PenguinRandomHouse) !
Florida, by Lauren Groff (Review Sept. 2018) !
The Boatbuilder, by Daniel Gumbiner (McSweeneys) $
Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson (Soho Press) @
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones #
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai $
The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez $
There There, by Tommy Orange (Review Aug 2018) @
Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires #

# = African American author
! = Florida
@ = Native American author
$ = Inside the Bubble

    All hail the 2018 National Book Awards Fiction longlist.  The National Book Award also added an "in translation" category, similar to the one that the Booker Prize introduced.   I'm interested in the in translation category but not this year!  Surprising that The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner wasn't nominated (it made the Booker Prize longlist) and same with The Overstory by Richard Powers.   Circe, by Madeline Miller was another title I thought had a cut and it didn't make the cut. 

  No Asian American representatives, despite a full slate of candidates, including Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.  I thought There There was a very strong book, and looking at the other choices, I don't see any books that have separated from the pack.  In fact, I haven't heard of any of the books I haven't read except The Boatbuilder, which was published by McSweeney's, and I read McSweeney's in my feed.   

  Many of these titles aren't even available at the library, which I think tracks with the fact that I haven't seen any reviews of the books I haven't read.  I read Florida and There There because I saw prominent reviews and read them.  The National Book Award Longlist is a huge springboard to get those reviews out there- so it's really a starting point for most of these authors.  It seems like they focus on longlist authors who can really benefit from the designation, in a way that Kushner and Powers do not.   It makes, sense, and I can dig it.  They certainly spent enough years handing out prizes to white dudes.

   Looking forward to the longlist and all the different viewpoints.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid

Book Review
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
by Mohsin Hamid

Replaces: On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith (Review 2018)

  The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid  is one of over 250 books that was added in the first revision and removed in 2012.  It seems reasonable that there would be a lot of "like for like" swaps as the list moves onward into the present.  On Beauty, by Zadie Smith scored major WOC points for the first list, but deviates from the second edition priorities of non-English, non-white voice in the sense that Smith's voice is largely a voice of privilege, even if the narrator writes as an outsider.  Also, On Beauty is a campus novel, which is under-represented in the first edition, and clearly out of sync as a genre with the priorities of the second list.

  Hamid is a candidate for achieving the kind of South Asian/English language audience for literary fiction that is very rare.   His most recent book, Exit West (Reviewed 2017) was a very well received sci-fi/literary fiction genre straddler that continues to sell reasonably well and won some prizes and got on some year end top 10 lists.  Like his narrator,  Hamid attended Princeton University and he writes from a point of privilege.  Changez, the narrator, is telling his story to an unnamed American visitor (not tourist) at a market stall restaurant in Lahore, Pakistan.   The entire book is Changez talking to the American- no responses are included, though it is obvious that Changez is in conversation.

  This makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist an excellent Audiobook choice, since the book itself consists of a person speaking at length without interruption, mirroring the format of the Audiobook itself as a medium.   Changez is a charming narrator, although his American dream of making 80,000 a year working for a firm that values businesses for the purpose of acquisition price seems almost laughably prelapsarian, and the events of the book, framed around the trauma of 9/11, mirror the before and after motif.

  As the reader learns, the title describes Changez in terms of the attitude he develops towards his business life of analyzing business value for sale, and Hamid leaves alternative interpretations in doubt almost until the very last page.

Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens

Image result for josiah bounderby
Josian Bounderby of Coketown, as a risible a Dickens villain as one can find.

Book Review
Hard Times (1854)
 by Charles Dickens

   Charles Dickens was a major casualty of the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  Between 2006 and 2008 he lost six of his ten titles, including Hard Times.  I don't agree with their choices, specifically the decision to drop both Hard Times and A Christmas Carol, his two most accessible books, and the only two out of his ten original selections that clock in at under 500 pages.  The mere fact that Hard Times clocks in at 240 pages is sufficient to recommend it as a canon worthy title.   The reader receives the same reading/listening experience in a third of the time it takes to tackle one of the major works- and they are pretty much all major works.   It isn't as if Dickens was a great literary craftsman-  where we hang on his every word.

    Hard Times is also notable because of the direct critique of mid-Victorian period utilitarianism in the character of Josiah Bounderby, who might be the first character in the history of literature to conceal a normal upbringing in favor of presenting himself as someone raised in the gutter, while his mother sneaks in once a year to watch him from afar. 

  Like most of the 19th century canon, Hard Times makes for an ideal Audiobook.  Dickens himself was obsessed with reading his books aloud to an audience, and spent an incredible amount of his time both preparing and executing this approach on a series of reading tours.   I'm sure, were Dickens alive today, he would read his own titles himself on the Audiobook edition.   Along with Coetzee, Dickens is the only author to have 10 books on the original list.   His presence on the core list with four titles is second only to Coetzee's five.

  It's always worth noting that while Dickens was always a popular success, his critical appreciation lagged for half a century- it was decades and decades before he was firmly elevated and ensconced in the canon, and it wasn't until after World War II that he became the 19th century novelist- him and Jane Austen, appreciated in a way that almost escaped him entirely during his own life.

Metamorphica (2018) by Zachary Mason

Book Review
Metamorphica (2018)
 by Zachary Mason
Published July 2018 by Macmillan Press

  I try to keep abreast of new forms of fiction.  "Flash fiction" is a term that may or may not represent a new literary genre, depending on who is asked.  The wikipedia entry for this term is illustrative noting that flash fiction has "its roots in antiquity" and has more recent antecedents in the "short short story" developed for American magazine's in the early 20th century.  Recent developments in technology have given the idea of flash fiction a push, as writers experiment with stories written one tweet at a time, or in the comment section of blog posts.

  As is often the case, the canon keepers have resisted flash fiction, probably because it is tough to base an entire classroom lecture around a fifty word short story, and equally hard to base a lecture on twenty different short stories that are each more than fifty words.  At the same time, "real" novelists have incorporated some techniques popularized by flash fiction- I'm thinking of the many voices and perspectives of last year's Man Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, written by American author George Saunders. 

  I checked out the Audiobook of Metamorphica by Zachary Mason based on a capsule description, "Ovid's Metamorphoses as flash-fiction," which struck me as a potential critic and audience pleaser.  Published in July of this year, Metamorphica doesn't appear to have struck a chord with the reading public, but the reviews have been good.  My choice of an Audiobook for this title, was a poor one- I don't think the Audiobook format works for fiction that progresses in units that average under one page per "story."  Without the lay out of the text, the Audiobook tends to blend different stories together, and even with the chapters and sections announced by the narrator, the listener lacks a sense of the format.   Metamorphica is less confusing then another Audiobook of flash-fiction might be because he hews closely to the structure of Metamorphoses itself-  a compendium of Greek myths written for a "modern" (i.e. Roman) audience.

  Metamorphica is ideal for a reader who hasn't read Metamorphoses itself,  Conversely, if you have read Metamorphoses you might find yourself asking, as I did, whether brief snippets recounting the same stories from the view point of an Instagram model, who the Godlings of Greek myth often resemble in the original prose, is a worthwhile exercise.    It doesn't help Mason that Madeline Miller has recently scored a cross over critical/popular success with a similar work, Circe, which tells the tale of that witch with a modern voice.

  For the less familiar stories, the Audiobook format was fatal- if I was reading the print or Ebook edition I would have stopped to look up the underlying myth, but you can't really do that in an Audiobook.   I also remain unsold on flash fiction as a genre. Convince me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Tell the Machine Good Night (2018) by Katie Williams

Image result for katie williams author
American author Katie Williams makes her literary fiction debut with her gently dystopian novel, Tell the Machine Good Night.
Book Review
Tell the Machine Good Night (2018)
by Katie Williams
Published June 2018 Riverhead Press

  It makes sense that children's books authors would be a rich potential source of authors of prize-winning, best-selling, literary fiction.  Presumably publishers only put out children's books that sell, so any author from that realm knows about bending an artistic vision to the whims of the book-buying public.  Children's literature is itself an occasional source of canonical works, Alice in Wonderland is a good example.  At any rate, it is unlikely that a children's book author has developed a style that would be too sophisticated for the reading public.

  Katie Williams is from the world of children's and y/a fiction, with what I assume is a good track record. Tell the Machine Good Night is her first work of adult fiction, and it is a gently pessimistic work of domestic fiction set in a familiar San Francisco of 2031.   It's not a dystopia, and hardly science fiction.  The "Machine" of the title being a handheld device called "Apricity" that dispenses happiness in five, often opaque, suggestions at a time.  The suggestions can be banal, "take piano lessons;" shocking, "stop talking to your sister;" or even grotesque, "Amputate the tip of the little finger of your right hand."

  The story in Tell the Machine Good Night revolves around Pearl, a divorced mother of one who shares narrator duties with Rhett, her manorexic teen age son and Pearl's ex-husband, Elliot.   Also playing a part are Elliot's new wife and Pearl's boss.  Pearl works for the Apricity manufacturing corporation as a device administrator, basically she goes into different work places and does readings for all the employees.   Pearl's central preoccupation is her son, Rhett, who has been in and out of the hospital with a severe eating disorder.  Elliot, the feckless man-child ex-husband is in and out of the picture.

 I picked up the physical copy from the "new release" selection of the library after reading a couple of laudatory reviews.  I wasn't disappointed in the "soft sci fi" approach, and Williams maintains the human interest in her tale of technology gone ever so slightly wrong.  Going back and reading the same reviews having read the book, I was a little surprised at the level of enthusiasm that Williams generated, and it doesn't look like it's been a sale success.  Still, those looking for titles at the intersection of genre and literary fiction will enjoy Tell the Machine Good Night.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Dead Air (2002) by Iain Banks

Book Review
Dead Air (2002)
 by Iain Banks

  No surprise that Dead Air was cut from the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  Banks, a Scottish author who straddled the upper echelons of genre science fiction and middle echelons of literary fiction, landed four books in the original 1001 Books list- a very British decision- many of his books didn't even get published in the United States, including this one, which I had to buy- an English edition- from Amazon, because the library doesn't have a a copy. When the Los Angeles Public Library doesn't have a copy, it is hard to argue that a book is canon level material.

  In fact, I can't really come up for a justification for the inclusion of Dead Air, a fairly mundane comic-thriller about a left-liberal Scottish shock jock living in London in the aftermath of 9/11.  He becomes entangled with a mobster's wife, complications ensue, etc.  Dead Air keeps company with contemporaries like Will Self, Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan.  In 2006, perhaps there was an argument that Dead Air was worthy of making the cut, but once you include all the hundreds of excluded books from places like Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America, schock jock Ken Nott doesn't seem worthy of inclusion.

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