Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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First time novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree a bildungsroman about life in the time of Pablo Escobar
Book Review
Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018)
 by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

  Fruit of the Drunken Tree  is another debut novel by a young American author with much promise.  Although most of Fruit of the Drunken Tree is set mostly in Colombia, Contreras wrote in English, and she lives in San Francisco. Contreras was raised in Bogota, and while fiction, this book draws heavily on her girlhood in Colombia.  The central narrator and author stand in is Chula, a perceptive seven year old who lives in an upper middle class neighborhood with her older sister Cassandra and her Mother, a rare example of a woman from the slums who has ascended into the middle/upper class.  Their father, an engineer who works on an oil platform, is present less often.

  The plot arrives in the form of Petrona, a teenage maid from a near by slum.  Petrona shares narrating duties with Chula, and it is through her that the reader grasps that harrowing events are in store for Chula and her family, while Chula herself remains unaware, and even hides facts from her mother and sister which may have prevented the dangerous events of the second and third act.

    It is clear from the first chapter, which makes clear that Chula and her family have left Colombia permanently for the United States, that something terrible will happen, but it is the genius of Contreras from guessing, what, exactly is afoot until it is actually happening in the book.  It's authorial craft at it's finest and I'm sure that it is the pacing that has drawn much of the positive attention paid Fruit of the Drunken Tree by critics.

 You might call Fruit of the Drunken Tree a good example of the late 20th/early 21st century kriegbildungsroman or "war education novel" a twist on the traditional coming-of-age novel which defines the bildungsroman formula.  A kriegbildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of armed conflict, either international or civil, and it finds its roots in the aftermath of World War II, when authors in all parts of the world, but especially Europe and the colonial south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, had the life experience of coming of age in the midst the mechanized horror of mid to late 20th century armed conflict. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Comedown (2018) by Rebekah Frumkin

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The Comedown is the first novel by American author Rebekah Frumkin
Book Review
The Comedown (2018)
by Rebekah Frumkin

   I checked out the Audiobook of the first novel by American writer Rebekah Frumkin based on strong Kirkus review.   The "first novel" is an important category of literary fiction.  The first novel is the best chance of an previously unknown/little known writer gaining some kind of traction with a popular and/or critical audience.  Considering the difficult economics of literary fiction (low sales, specifically) firing a miss with your first book of literary fiction might very well mean you don't get a second novel published.

 The Comedown is an auspicious debut, filled with multiple voices and enough sex and drugs to get a casual reader interested in the story of two families who are united by a drug deal gone bad.  Frumkin develops characters of all races and genders.  One family is white, one family black.  There are Jews, Christians and cults.  There are straight people, gay people and trans people. The characters take drugs: cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, LSD, crystal meth. 

   Frumkin seems more concerned with character than plot.  The sheer number of different narrators means that the same events are retold from the perspective of different characters, condensing the number of events in the plot.   I thought the major weakness was the plotting of the third act, and found the ending so unsatisfactory that it made me question the worth of the entire book.

   Still, The Comedown is notably for the plurality of voices, and her treatment of drug usage is perceptive and beyond the simple "drugs bad, people who use drugs bad;" equation that continues to permeate popular culture despite years of education about the role of disease in spurring addiction.  

Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan

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Canadian author Esi Edugyan was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize this year for Washington Black

Book Review
Washington Black (2018)
by Esi Edugyan

   Washington Black is Canadian author Esi Edugyan's second novel.  Her first novel, Half-Blood Blues, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.   Same for Washington Black, which made it to the shortlist this year but lost to Anna Burns for her parable about Northern Ireland, Milkman.    Edugyan has the right stuff for a career in literary fiction, both of her books bringing alive different parts of history with characters who are well drawn. 

  Washington Black is filled with adventure, following the eponymous hero from his roots as a slave on a west indies sugar plantation to a career in London as the assistant to a well known marine biologist.  Black's voice is undeniable, managing to encapsulate both the slave experience as well as the energy of being a participant in the heroic period of 19th century naturalism. 

   I enjoyed the listening experience of the well crafted Audiobook, which clocks in at about 12 hours.  I would have preferred to read the hard copy, but I couldn't find it. Washington Black is an easy choice for fans of literary fiction and historical fiction alike.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Namesake (2003) by Jhumba Lahiri

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Kal Penn played Nikil, the central narrator in the Mira Nair directed movie version of The Namesake, the 2003 novel written by Jhumba Lahiri.
Book Review
The Namesake (2003)
by Jhumba Lahiri

Replaces: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Reviewed June 2018)

     The Namesake was a break-out hit for Bengali-American writer Jhumba Lahiri, and it followed her debut collection of short-stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.    Her next novel, The Lowland, published in 2013, made the shortlist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, which I think was unheard of for an author based out of the United States in 2013.  In other words, Lahiri has demonstrated that she is an author who pleases both critics and audiences alike.  Her perspective, that of the child of Bengali-Indian immigrants raised in the Boston area, is different enough to evoke interest, but similar enough to the experience of the type of white Americans who read literary fiction to not raise any hackles.

  Similarly, the style of the novel, which combines aspects of the bildungsroman with the multi-generational immigrant family story, seems both familiar yet different enough to prevent boredom.  Lahiri skillfully deploys multiple narrators while largely relying on Gogol, the male child of the immigrant couple of Ashoke and Ashima, to be the "main" narrator.    Like many immigrant family narratives, the immigrant parents come across as borderline super human and heroic, while the children seem more like disappointments.    Gogol fits this pattern, excelling reasonably well in his schooling, but rejecting his parents and the life they have built in a way that seems callous, if understandable.

  The ambivalent relationship between the immigrant parents and the fully American children is captured by the title and central metaphor of the book: Gogol is named after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, an inspirational figure for his father, but spends basically the entire book complaining about it, ultimately changing it to Nikhil.   Nikhil was played by Kal Penn in the Mira Nair directed movie version, and I was actually thinking of Penn even though I didn't know he played Nikhil in the movie.

  I wasn't sad to see Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides get the boot.  I wasn't sold on Middlesex- the first edition hardback sat unread on my shelf for a decade, and it is still unread, since I listened to an Audiobook version.  I also picked the Audiobook version for The Namesake, mostly because it was immediately available but also because I wanted to hear the voices of the characters.  I do recommend the Audiobook.

Mother's Milk (2006) by Edward St Aubyn

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Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the eponymous "hero" Patrick Melrose, in Showtime's version of the five volume set of novels about Melrose's (and St AUbyns) dysfunctional, upper class upbringing. 
Book Review
Mother's Milk (2006)
 by Edward St Aubyn

Replaces: Dining on Stones by Iain Sinclair (Reviewed June 2018)

    English author Edward St Aubyn has received increased attention in the United States following the somewhat inexplicable decision by Showtime to produce a Benedict Cumberbatch starring version of The Patrick Melrose novels, of which Mother's Milk is the fourth of five. What possessed Showtime to think that America wants a five part series about Patrick Melrose and his incredibly disturbing family is beyond me.

  Melrose, the narrator and protagonist of all five novels, is a perpetually aggrieved barrister who suffered a quintessentially upper class English version of a traumatic childhood (lowlights, left unexplored in this volume, including being raped by his father for several years as a young boy.)  As you might expect from a work of contemporary fiction which includes such a detail, St Aubyn himself was raped by his father.  Mother's Milk takes place when Melrose is an adult, unhappily married with a child, living in London.

  Much of the book deals with the decision by his hated mother to donate his beloved French summer house to a new age type charlatan from Ireland.  To call Melrose "upset" about this decision is to vastly underestimate the level of anger that Melrose feels about this choice.  Mother's Milk was nominated for the Man Booker prize in 2006, which I guess explains why the editors of the 1001 Books list picked this title to replace Iain Sinclair's psychogeographical love letter to East London, Dining on Stones, but it seems like picking the first book in the series, Never Mind, is the only book to pick, if you are going to pick one book to represent the series.

  I doubt I'll see the Showtime version, since I don't subscribe to Showtime.  Indeed, I find St Aubyn's inclusion unnecessary, surely there are enough novels about virulently dysfunctional wealthy English families.  Maybe not if you are from England and are, yourself, from a virulently dysfunctional wealthy English family, but I'm not.

Monday, October 29, 2018

London Orbital (2002) by Iain Sinclair

Book Review
London Orbital (2002)
by Iain Sinclair

  Psychogeography is the last literary trend that made it into the pages of the first 1001 Books edition, published in 2006.   Other books from this period fall into different categories: the sprawling, multi plot historical epic, the anodyne international best seller and the immigrant bildungsroman are three that seemingly dominate the period between 1996 and 2006 in the first edition of the 1001 Books list.   Psychogeography, on the other hand, is a genuinely novel literary genre, equal parts situationist influence post-modern theory and a refraction of "the world around us," psychogeography grasps for universal truths at the same time it focuses on increasingly discrete areas in the real world.

  Here, the focus is the M25, a "ring road" that surrounds the greater London metropolis.  As one might well imagine from reading that sentence, the m25 is not a particularly beautiful place, quite the opposite- it is a giant, concrete ring road which encircles London.  Sinclair, along with companions, vigorously walks the route, and at each turn, introduces another writer whose work was influenced by the M25 and environs.  Notably, J.G. Ballard, but many others that a fan of 20th century literature will recognize.   There is no plot, other than the completion of the walk itself.  There is little to no character development, with the narrator closely resembling the author.   Much of London Orbital consists of densely woven quotations from other authors about the sights of the London Orbital.

  It should come as no surprise that there is limited interest in London Orbital outside of England itself.  At the same time, it is the single most ambitious book to which a reader can apply the psychogeography title and it earns a place in the canon on that basis.

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