Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A House for Mr Biswas (1961) by V.S. Naipaul

Book Review
A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
by V.S. Naipaul

   Death functions as a critical milestone in the canonization process of literary figures.  First, we all know there will be no more original works.  Second, death spurs the publication of obituaries which  in their very nature function as a career retrospective. Third, audiences are reminded of the existence of said author, and the reasons why the author may or may not be canonical.

   Although a Nobel Prize in Literature isn't exactly a guarantee of immortal literary fame, it does certainly work that way for native writers of the English language.  Naipaul won his Nobel in 2001 and he died in 2018, almost the perfect length of time between winning and death, giving him and his representatives almost two decades to get things in order.   Naipaul has also attracted a great deal of criticism from literary critics which generally posits Naipaul as an "Uncle Tom" type figure, imitating the English upper class and adopting their intellectual perspective on his own people. 

   A House for Mr Biswas was Naipaul's break-out book, commonly read as a love and hate filled ode to his own father, represented in this book as Mohun Biswas.   Mohun is the youngest son of a family of Brahmin immigrants to Trinidad.  The immigrant experience of Biswas and his family is distinctive, combining aspects of the slave/migrant laborer experience with aspects of the "white European/Latin American" immigrant experience.  Biswas' family is desperately poor, as is, basically, their entire community, but they have high status within that community by virtue of their Brahmin heritage and the tools (literacy, community support, lack of legal impediments) to "make a go of it" in their adopted homeland of Trinidad.

  Biswas embodies this contradiction, a self educated man who manages to marry into the local gentry (albeit it at a low level) and develop himself as a journalist in the colonial capital.   The title refers to the desire of Mr. Biswas for a house of his own, where he is free from the influence of his overbearing in-laws.   His struggles are bitter sweet, with an emphasis on the bitter.  This is not the kind of rose-colored memoir of struggle rewarded ingrained in the mind of the reading public.

 Instead, it seems clear that the only logical conclusion that the reader can draw from the experience of Mr. Biswas is that one should strive to escape such a fate, and it is best done by succeeding academically and leaving Trinidad entirely.   Considering the criticism that has dogged Naipaul even after his Nobel Prize win (especially after?) I can understand why projects like the 1001 Books list might exclude Biswas in favor of his later, less obviously self-loathing projects.  In my mind, there is nothing wrong with a little self-loathing and in fact it is typically a part, small or large, of any immigrant narrative anywhere, but I can see why a canonizer might avoid it.  Biswas is also very long, over 500 pages, making it a less attractive prospect for someone looking to dip into the Naipaul oeuvre.

The Melody (2018) by Jim Crace

Jim Crace at the 2009 Texas Book Festival.
English Author Jim Crace has two Booker prize shortlists and a host of lesser prizes.

Book Review
The Melody (2018)
by Jim Crace
Published June, 2018
Nan A. Talese

  There are a very few number of writers of literary fiction who manage to "make it" without having a break-out international best-seller (or American best-seller).  These writers make it to the short list of the major literary awards and win lesser awards.  They usually have multiple publishers and universally positive reviews but are less impressive when it comes to actual sales or recognition outside of the precincts of literary fiction.

   Jim Crace is a classic example from this group, with two Booker shortlists and a Whitbread win in 1997.   He established his reputation writing historical fiction- deep historical fiction, with books set in a Neolithic village (The Gift of Stones) and the Judean desert 2000 years ago (Quarantine.)  In more recent books he has moved into the present, perhaps because he feels more secure as an established author of literary fiction.  I mention all this because The Melody is very much the work of an established author, dealing as it does with the psychological minutiae of the artist in decline, very much an insiders work of theme and topic.

  Said artist is Alfred Busi, a semi-popular, semi-famous singer and musician, living by himself (after the death of his wife) in a semi-abandoned villa overlooking the Mediterranean sea (I actually managed to listen to the entire Audiobook under the impression that the location was inside England, perhaps on the southern coast.)   One night, Busi is attacked near his garbage bins by an unknown creature- he can't say whether it is animal or man, though he settles on describing the attacker as a feral, male child.  This attack sets off a precipitous decline, which sees additional attacks on his person from various sources and the abandonment of the twilight of his professional career.

   You might call this a hard sell, and certainly there is a whiff of the sales pitch in the advertising copy which focuses on the attack itself without mentioning that this activity is just a trigger for 300 pages of ruminations by Busi.  Crace is, of course, a brilliant novelist, but The Melody was a bit of a slog, and left me wanting to go back and read his break-through, award nominated books.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Money To Burn/Burnt Money (1997) by Ricardo Piglia

Book Review
Money To Burn/Burnt Money  (1997)
 by Ricardo Piglia

Replaces:  Nineteen Seventy Seven (2000) by David Peace (Reviewed March 2018)

  Money to Burn is a straight crime fiction swap for Nineteen Seventy Seven- South America (underrepresented) for regional England (overerepresented).  Piglia (who died last year) was Argentinian and he generally gets credit for introducing "hard boiled" crime fiction to that country.  Money to Burn most closely resembles the movie Reservoir Dogs: a group of cons pull off a heist only to be cornered by authorities in their hideout.    Piglia delves into the back stories of the gang members- similar to the method employed by Peace in Nineteen Seventy Seven: the reader knows how things are going to turn out, and the interest is generated by the complexity of the normally one dimensional cops and robbers. 

Carry Me Down (2006) by M.J. Hyland

Book Review
Carry Me Down (2006)
 by M.J. Hyland

Replaces: The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd

  English author M.J. Hyland is better known in the UK, where she writes a column on writing for the Guardian, teaches and often appears as a public intellectual. Carry Me Down is her Booker shortlisted novel from 2006, about an autistic Irish boy living in a pre-autism awareness society.  John Egan is never properly diagnosed during the course of the highly dysfunctional events of the book.  Living with his paternal Grandmother and parents- a dad who refuses to work and mother who is increasingly terrified of her incomprehensible son.   Egan has characteristics that are obviously autistic: he believes that he is a "human lie detector," is obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records and has an almost total absence of social skills.

  Besides the issues surrounding Egan's undiagnosed Autism, the rest of Carry Me Down is standard post-Kitchen Sink Realism albeit in Ireland not England.   It is hard to argue with Carry Me Down replacing The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd, a minor work by an author better known for non-fiction than fiction, and one who scores negative points in terms of biographical or thematic diversity.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Troubling Love (2006) by Elena Ferrante

Book Review
Troubling Love (2006)
by Elena Ferrante
Replaces House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Reviewed May 2018)

   Ferrante didn't really break out until the last year or so in the United States, mainly on the success of her four volume work known as the Neapolitan Novels, the first of which, My Brilliant Friend, is currently receiving the prestige television treatment on HBO.  Troubling Love is NOT part of that set, but is her first novel, about a middle aged Italian woman trying to unravel the scandalous details surrounding her mother's untimely death.

 Troubling Love is the work of a first time novelist who is already at the top of (presumably her) game, in the sense that Troubling Love is a work of literary fiction that both delves insightfully into the human conditions while creating a story of suspense and revelation for the reader.  Ferrante richly evokes the world of mid 20th century Naples, which I think is the setting of many if not all of her books.

  Her replacement of House of Leaves by American author Mark Z. Danielewski in the first revision of the 1001 Books list seems like a fair swap. House of Leaves is an eccentric work which hasn't aged particularly well, and the bulky, mixed media nature of the book itself doesn't lend to canon stature.   Troubling Love, on   the other hand, is brisk, manageable, and introduces a regional Italian viewpoint essentially absent from the canon before her arrival.

Northland (2018) by Peter Fox

The Northland- from the artist's own Kickstarter page.
Book Review
Northland  (2018)
by Peter Fox
Published by WW Norton & Co.
July 3rd, 2018

   Borders are one of my non-fiction subjects of interest.   Not simply in a theoretical sense, but practically.  Part of the interest stems from my day job working as a criminal defense attorney in the San Diego area, where the border, and crimes taking place on or near the border constitute the bulk of my day-to-day work, but also it's just a native interest of mine, part of a larger interest in what you might call psychogeography, the study of the interaction of mind and place.

  In recent years, I've been spending some time closish to the northern border: multiple trips to mid-coast Maine and a trip to the Duluth/Bayfield Wisconsin area, and those visits have drawn my attention to what Porter Fox calls our neglected Northland. Enormous in terms of physical size, but minute in terms of the role it occupies inside the American weltanschauung.  Fox seeks to rectify this, adopting the breezy combination of personal narrative and fact based research that should be intimately familiar to anyone who delves into travel based popular non fiction or PBS/History channel type documentaries about trips.

  His material involves many canoes, many conversations with educated but cantankerous locals, and a good amount of historical research about the creation of the border itself.  Nothing, it turns out, is particularly mind blowing, and Fox never gets too crazy with his back and forthing between the United States and Canada, this being a post- 9/11 northern border.  In fact, if there is a central theme of Northland, it is the way that the recent intensification of all American borders has negatively impacted the lives of the people who live and work there.

  Northland is 100% focused on the American side of the border, which seems almost as arbitrary as the border itself.  Surely, the story of one side of a two sided border is a story only half told.

Scribe (2018) by Alison Hagy

Image result for alison hagy
Author Alison Hagy

Book Review
Scribe (2018)
by Alison Hagy
Published by Graywolf Press
October 2nd, 2018

   Scribe, the new novel by author Alison Hagy, takes place in an Appalachian flavored dystopia, that runs somewhere along the lines of Cormac McCarthy in his blood-soaked westerns. Hagy blends together many themes of apoca-lit, "migration, pandemic disease and the rise of authoritarianism" according to the copy on her publisher's page.   Scribe is narrated by a nameless young woman, who lives in a (see above) world where the most distinctive characteristic is the disappearance of universal literacy.  The narrator is a writer of messages, which she memorizes and repeats by travelling to the location of the intended recipient.

  The basic story involves the appearance of a mysterious stranger- albeit in a world where all strangers are mysterious.  The narrator exists by trading her literacy for favors, food, work on her land.  She also manufactures paper, which apparently has some independent value of it's own accord.  Narrator has twice inherited her land, first from her deceased doctor father, and second from her witchy-healer older sister, whose death is a substantial part of the story that unspools.   Hagy does a solid job of keeping what sounds like a very R rated world PG-13.  It is basically a frontier world lacking modern technology or government (or literacy) but still plentiful in terms of food and clean water.

  Hagy keeps the action moving, and the choice to keep her narrator nameless isn't distracting, this being the kind of world where everyone knows your name, so to speak.  Scribe isn't quite YA, but it does exist at the border of YA and literary fiction.  The central device of her first writing down the letter of her patrons and then having to personally deliver the contents of said letter seems a stretch to me, but it is the mechanism driving the story, so the reader either takes it or leaves it. 

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