Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Big Money (1936) by Jon Dos Passos

Book Review
The Big Money (1936)
Book III of the USA trilogy
by Jon Dos Passos

  If you take a look at the full 1001 Books list you will see that the "core list" is 708 titles, and the number of books removed from the first revision is 282, and if you add the two numbers together, you get 990 titles, which is 11 short of 1001 books.  Included in the 990 titles are at least three different individual listings that seemingly list a 10 volume series as one book.  Multiple trilogies are listed as a single entry- this trilogy is one example.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is another.   

  Depending on how you want to do the math, the actual numbers of titles in the original edition of the 1001 Books list is somewhere between 990 and something like 1050.   I don't have an answer here, and I'm taking different approaches to the multi volume series' listed as a single title on the original 1001 Books list.  For the Jon Dos Passos USA Trilogy I decided to do separate reviews for each book, and I also listened to the last two as Audiobooks- each is close to 30 hours long.

  All that said, if you've read the first volume, you might as well have read all three novels.   All three books are more or less the same thing and although they do move through historical events- notably World War I and up to just before the Great Depression- they show events from the fringes.  Dos Passos deserves credit for his ambitious, modernist portrait of American society, but none of his works have aged particularly well.  His style, a pastiche of half-understood modernist technique and the more descriptive realism of early 20th century American writers like Theodore Dreiser, has always been awkward.  The length of the trilogy- well over a thousand pages for the three volume set, makes the time commitment outlandish relative the value.

  All three books are best tackled on Audiobook, easy to get from the Public Library app, and it will spare you the slog of trying to read any of these three doorstops, which aren't that easy to find in print in the first place.

The Accidental (2005) by Ali Smith

Book Review
The Accidental (2005)
 by Ali Smith

Replaces Thursbitch by Alan Garner (Reviewed April 2018)

  Ali Smith is an excellent example of a British (Scottish) author with an international critical attention, including multiple trips as far as the Man Booker Prize shortlist, but without the mass-market breakthrough. Recently, she's been publishing her Seasons cycle, Autumn (2016) was one of her Booker Prize shortlist books, Winter came out last year and Spring is due next year.   In addition to Autumn, she was shortlisted for How to be Both (2014) and this book, which replaces another Scottish author, Alan Garner, and Thursbitch.

  I had imagined that her books would lend them well to the Audiobook format, and The Accidental is an excellent prospect in that regard because the narrative voice switches between five different voices, a 40ish author Eve Smart, seeking to overcome some writer's block by renting a vacation house in Norfolk, England.  With her is Michael, her second husband and step father to her two children, Magnus, a high school aged adolescent, and Astrid, 12, on the cusp of adolescence.

  The straw that stirs the proverbial drink in The Accidental, is Amber, a mysterious twenty something who shows up on the doorstop of their Norfolk vacation house, and through a series of misunderstandings that should be intimately familiar with the narrative conventions of both Hollywood film and English television, gets integrated into the life of this post-nuclear family in surprising ways.

  Each narrator has a different voice reflecting their age and gender.  Eve Smart clearly resembles the biographical description of Ali Smith, though she is English, and Scottish.   Like all first-rate writers of literary fiction (those with an audience and a publisher), Smith is incredibly insightful- she integrates riffs on works of contemporary popular culture- Love Actually, the 2003 schmaltz fest, is the subject of a lengthy monologue by son Magnus.

   Smith also injects a surprising amount of graphic sexual content, which I don't remember in Autumn- the only other book I've read.   There is some plot, but The Accidental most resembles an updated version of a book by a high modernist with Virginia Woolf: 10 hours inside the heads of normal people living a relatively normal life for members of the international Anglo-American literati. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Asperger's Children (2018) by Edith Sheffer

Book Review
Asperger's Children (2018)
by Edith Sheffer
Published May 2018 by WW Norton & Company

   The Nazi eugenics program, which resulted in the murder of thousands of so-called 'defective' children and adults, is a less flamboyant cousin of the more famous Holocaust.  Although all aspects of the Holocaust are remarkable for the full assistance and ingenuity they received from a variety of highly trained professionals: Chemists to synthesize the gas, engineers to design and build the gas chambers and the many trained lawyers and executives that populated the Nazi SS ranks, the eugenics program stands out for the leading role that medical professionals played in the design, selection and implementation of this facet of Nazi organized, state sponsored murder.

   By contrast, the Holocaust itself was imposed by fiat from the very top, over the objection of many active Nazi's who favored alternatives like deportation and simple confinement.   The Eugenics program aroused sporadic opposition from "the people" but none from within the Nazi's themselves, where the murder of so-called defective children was seen as a positive good for the "volk culture."

  Enter Hans Asperger, who is today best known for lending his name to "Asperger's Syndrome" which is a broader label for the range of behaviors generally called Autism.  Asperger's didn't fully emerge until the 1990's, and the decision to give Asperger's it's name was made by a female English academic working a half century after the events of Asperger's Children.  It seems likely that a renaming is in order, particularly since Sheffer's argument: That Asperger was wholly involved with developing the criteria by which the Nazi's murdered children, seems uncontroversial in light of the matters of public record reported by Sheffer in her book.

   Those facts are as follows:

1. Hans Asperger directly participated in the creation of the criteria which himself and others used to designated children as "ineducable" and thus fit for state sponsored murder.
2. Hans Asperger never protested against this program, and in fact used it to advance his career.
3. The children who were murdered by the Nazi's were often non even severely handicapped, and included many who might be termed juvenile delinquents in other similarly situated societies.

   It seems an open and shut case to me, not even particularly controversial.  Obviously, the academics working in the 1990's who gave his name to Asperger's Syndrome did not know about his Nazi work history.

The Successor (2003) by Ismail Kadare

Book Review
The Successor (2003)
by Ismail Kadare

   Replaces: In the Forest by Edna O'Brien (Reviewed April 2018)

   I like reading the novels of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, and gaining the experience of writers like him- often twice translated, first from Albanian to French and then French to English, is precisely the benefit of a reading program like the 1001 Books list.  Kadare occupies that tier of international author that sits just below the Nobel Prize Winners.  He won the first Man Booker International Prize, when it was simply awarded to an author a la the Nobel (it is now awarded to a specific book).  He's won the Jerusalem Prize, which overlaps Nobel winners and shortlisters alike.   He doesn't have a huge English language audience, and to the extent that he does, it is located in England, where a "big in France" pedigree takes you a lot further than it takes you in the United States.

  Kadare presents a uniquely Albanian viewpoint, while still writing within the mainstream of early 21st century literary fiction.  Unlike his other 1001 Books list titles, The Successor deals with a real story: the unexplained murder of  Mehmet Shehu, long time second in command to even longer time Communist dictator Enver Hoxha.  Shehu died in a mysterious "suicide" after the famous split between Albania and Communist Russia.  Kadare teases out various conspiracy theories in a fashion that should be familiar to readers of 20th century fiction.  At times, I caught myself thinking that I was reading a Mario Llosa Vargas novel about a fictional South American country.

   It is unclear to me why the 1001 Books list would pick The Successor, which is the second book in a two book series about Shehu and his family, and omit the other book, Agamemnon's Daughter.  Even more unclear when you consider that Kadare has about 20 novels in English translation.   The book it replaces, In the Forest by Irish author Edna O'Brien, is similar thematically speaking because both books deal ellipitically with a murder.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Everything is illuminated (2002) by Johnathan Safrsn Foer

Book Review
Everything is Illuminated (2002)
by Johnathan Safrsn Foer

    It's hard for me to say that I vastly disliked Everything is Illuminated, a novel written by an author with a similar date of birth, ethnicity and social class as myself, and by transitive property the closest I'll ever come to seeing my own perspective in the canon, but there you have it.  I really didn't like Everything is Illuminated, a combination Holocaust memoir and imaginative (some might even say whimsical) work of literary fiction.  There can be no doubting that the whimsical element of the book, including a co-narrator from the Ukraine who speaks a slightly daft version of English (and writes the same way, amazingly enough!), helped this book obtain that rare combination of critical applause and measurable sales, but I thought it out of step with the central event of the book: The massacre of thousands of Jews at the hands of Ukrainian auxiliary forces during the opening days of World War II on the Eastern front.

  This event, known for the place where it took place, Trochenbrod, is known in the fictional version as Trachimbrod.  The historical significance of Trochenbrod/Trachimbrod is that it was a massacre perpetrated not by Nazi soldiers themselves, but by their Ukrainian auxiliary troops.   This phenomenon is well detailed in The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell,  another recent fictional take on the events of World War II, where the eagerness of Ukrainian auxiliary troops to massacre their former neighbors  often eclipses that of the more cosmopolitan SS officers.   It's worth noting that the eagerness of locals to participate in the Holocaust varied vastly in different Nazi organized territories.  The areas that are now Poland and the Ukraine were at the high water mark of local collaboration, and generally cooperation lessened as you moved West and South from there.

    No doubt too that part of the success of Everything is Illuminated is the integration of the contemporary American Jewish perspective with that of contemporary Ukrainians, though the Wikipedia entry notes that some Ukrainians take issue with the "facts" of the massacre in Everything is Illuminated, presumably in defense of said Ukrainian participants.   The irony of the historical fate of the Jews of the shetls of now-Poland and Ukraine lies in a fact that is often repeated in works of fiction and non fiction, that Jews of the area actually fled towards the Nazi's, and initially viewed the "honorable" Germans as a source of protection against the local populations, thirsty for revenge against a population that was perceived as favored by the Russian Communist government.

  I suppose the other achievement of Everything is Illuminated is that he packs a heavy narrative theme and literary inventiveness into a book which clocks in at under 300 pages, meaning, essentially, that it is suitable for sale in airport bookshops, and would intimidate no one. 

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