Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Inland (2019) by Téa Obrecht

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Balkan-American writer Téa Obrecht 

Book Review
Inland (2019)
by Téa Obrecht

 Inland is the second novel by Téa Obrecht.  Her first novel- The Tiger's Wife, published in 2010, it won the Orange Prize in the UK and was short listed for the National Book Award.    Nine years is a long time between published novels, and I checked out the Audiobook last month with the thought that Inland might but a National Book Award longlist- although it might not be eligible till next year- it didn't get nominated this year.

  The Audiobook is partially narrated by Anna Chlumsky- who I loved in VEEP- and the stroy is set in pre-statehood Arizona in 1893.  Narrating duties are shared by Nora (voiced by Chlumsky) a wife and mother who is anxiously awaiting the return of her husband- an intellectual pioneer who has failed in a succession of western towns.  The other narrator is Lurie- a former outlaw who falls in with a bunch of camel jockeys.

  I read some rhapsodic reviews, and I like revisionist stories of the old west- Cormac McCarthy- to name the most famous writer in that area; but I wasn't taken by Inland.  Nora did not move me with her plight, and Lurie was barely interesting.   Everyone in the book is simultaneously over-articulate for the character and largely unsympathetic.

The Map and the Territory (2010) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
The Map and the Territory (2010)
 by Michel Houellebecq

     The 1001 Books Project included Houellebecq's first three novels in the first and second editions.  The Map and the Territory, his fifth book, was released after the second edition came out, and it was included in any subsequent edition, but it did win the Prix Goncourt, which is the French Pulitzer Prize, more or less, and Houellebecq continues to publish with regularity, though he was hasn't yet had a hit in the USA, and I'm assuming that he has more of a following in the UK, since there are plenty of literate people over there who actually read novels in French, and a greater audience for literature in translation.

   If I was to trace a trend in his novels it is that each successive novel has grown more "high concept" and elaborate in terms of the characters and the story.  Whatever, his first book is basically an anti-bildungsroman in the mold of Catcher in the Rye, but French, and the protagonist is a yuppie working with computers. Atomised begins the trip towards elaboration with the character of Michel, the biologist who eliminates sexual reproduction, but also keeps to his root obsession with the unhappiness of families and the emptiness of modern existence.

   Platform is very high concept, with sex tourism, extensive monologues on the state of the leisure-industrial complex and a gruesome bombing by Muslim terrorist.   This thematic ambition is rare to non existent in contemporary European fiction, which mostly involves sad failures being sad about everything, call it the European existential novel.   And while most Houellebecq's characters are miserable assholes, they at least do things besides being poor and sad.

 The Map and the Territory delves into the world of modern art, featuring a typically Houellebecq-ian protagonist who sounds like a post-modern artist who could really exist.   Sure, he's hateful, but he's fun- fun to read- so much of the literature I read is tedious or a chore.  

Monday, September 16, 2019

Scrappy Little Nobody (2016) by Anna Kendrick

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Sexy Anna Kendrick/GQ photo
Book Review
Scrappy Little Nobody (2016)
by Anna Kendrick

  It's only mildly embarrassing to declare myself a fan of Anna Kendrick, based on her performance in Up in the Air.  I learned from this book that she was in the Twilight movies but the closest I've come to that franchise is a sighting of Kristen Stewart with her girl posse in Echo Park five years ago.  The Audiobook is freely available at the Los Angeles Public Library- over 60 copies available at a time!  Also, Kendrick herself reads her own book, which was something I enjoyed listening to Julia Louis Dreyfus read the Veep memoir of her television character.

  So yeah, I listened to Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick's best-selling 2016 memoir, and I have to say that I found it incredibly, heart crushingly sad, and I can't believe that Kendrick and her publishers didn't see it the same way.  Take, for example, the saddest portion of the book, where Kendrick describes the imaginary parties she would like to throw for her non-existent friends, she doesn't have time for parties or friends because she has been working non stop since she was in junior high.

 I'm not a snob when it comes to celebrities, I'm interested in the process of fame as it relates to art, and you can make an argument that actors are artists (they would certainly make that argument.)  Unsurprisingly, Kendrick doesn't spend any time on the craft/art of acting, presumably because the assignment is to create a series of themed "essays" with the depth you expect from twitter- where Kendrick maintains a well-curated presence.

  I am of the frequently voiced opinion that all famous artists are monsters because they possess the irrational believe that they, among thousands, are destined for fame.  I also think Kendrick is interesting enough to have some thoughts on that subject, but baby, they ain't here.

Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel (1990) by Julian Rios

Book Review
Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel (1990)
by Julian Rios

Replaces: Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

    It is hard to say much about Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel.  Originally published in Spanish in 1983, it was immediately hailed as a "post-modern masterpiece," which should tell you that it is most likely five hundred pages long and nonsensical.  That does indeed proof to be the case!  Larva shares similarities with Joyce and anticipates the concerns of psycho-geography.  I guess the idea is that Larva is a present-day retelling of Don Juan set in a well articulated London, but I only know that because I read it on the internet and the front flap of the book jacket. 

   I'm not sad to see Senor Vivo get replaced- Louis de Bernieres seems like a one book guy, and that book is Captain Corelli's Mandolin, not Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, but I'd be hard pressed to tell anyone, "Yes, you must read Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel," and I'm almost positive the readership for this book in the US is restricted to participants in university writing programs.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk

Book Review
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019)
by Olga Tokarczuk

  Big ups to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who is finally receiving some English language attention in the aftermath of her Booker International Prize win for Flights- originally published in Polish in 2007, then published in English translation in 2018, where it promptly won the Booker International Prize and scored a National Book Award for Translated Works nomination in the same year.  Similarly, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was originally published in Polish  in 2009 and received an English translation (and an English language Audiobook- bless you PenguinRandomHouse for your largess) this year. 

  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is described as both "detective fiction" and "literary fiction."  It also has strong roots in the existential/philosophical literary tradition of late 20th century central and eastern Europe.   Anyone who has read Flights will expect witty, sparkling prose from Tokarczuk and those readers will not be dissapointed.  Janina Duszejko, Tokarczuk's narrator, is what you might call an "old crone," living alone after a career as a civil engineer.  She spends her retirement on an isolated plateau near the Czech border, where she teaches English part time to the local school kids, cares for the summer houses of city dwellers during the off season, and carries on a long running, low intensity skirmish with the local hunting/poaching culture.

  The status quo is interrupted when a neighborhood poacher turns up dead.  The first death is followed by a series of deaths among the local power elite, and Duszejko decides to investigate.   The mention of literary fiction and the tradition of the European philosophical novel should be enough to forewarn potential readers that this is not your normal whodunit, and Duszejko is no Ms. Marple in that she despises the local victims.

  The Audiobook edition, read by a narrator who used a Polish accent- raises a question about Audiobooks read in translation.  Why, if the book has been translated into English, does the English language reader affect a Polish accent?  After all, the narrator is speaking in Polish, not English.  Isn't more consistent for the reader to use an American accent?   It's also an issue in a lesser-Murakami book I'm listening to right now, where all the characters speak heavily Japanese accented English, and the characters don't speak English at all.

   Generally speaking I'm up for ANY author who can get their non-English work of literary fiction a major label release in the United States- if there's an Audiobook- I'm there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

John Crow's Devil (2005) by Marlon James

Book Review
John Crow's Devil (2005)
 by Marlon James

  I've been waiting for the single copy of the Los Angeles Public Library Audiobook on this title for over six months!  There is no doubt that interest in Marlon James is way up- it wouldn't surprise me if John Crow's Devil, his 2005 debut novel, gets a reissue one of these days.  I would have listened to the Audiobook in any case, following one of my theories that Audiobooks are at their best when the reader possesses an accent that the listener does not- I can't imagine myself reading the heavy Jamaican patois of most of the character in John Crow's Devil without doing them a disservice.

  Reader Robin Miles is the gold standard for books requiring a Caribbean accent- she's done all of Jamaica Kincaid's  and Edward Danicat Audiobooks.  John Crow's Devil is an excellent first novel, if not a world-beater like his Booker Prize winner about Bob Marley, but it is confident and self-assured, and shows many of the themes he would revisit in his break-out books.

  Set in an isolated village in World War II era Jamaica, John Crow's Devil could be called "Jamaican Gothic," with an element of the fantastical that you could describe as "magical realism" although I'm certain James would bristle at the usage of that phrase. His characters: the Rum Preacher, the Apostle, the Widow possess an allegorical weight, even as James develops the narrative by delving into the pasts of most of the main characters in flash-back form. 

  There is plenty of sex and death to be had- clearly, James from the beginning has been inspired to give a "red blooded" edge to his stories, even as he incorporates LGBT themes into the mix.    When I saw James speak, he professed to despise the bloodlessness of contemporary intellectual culture- that is present here, in his first book, and I think it is a key to why he managed to break out with a Booker Prize- if you can fit it in the form of literary fiction, sex and death still sell.

The Wall (2019) by John Lanchester

Book Review
The Wall (2019)
by John Lanchester

   With an abiding interest in the intersection between dystopian futurism and literary fiction, I was a fool for The Wall by English journalist/author John Lanchester even before it made the 2019 Booker Prize longlist.  It didn't make the shortlist.   The Wall posits a near-future Britain after "the change" which, though never explained (see: differences between dystopian genre fiction and dystopian literary fiction) appears to be a massive rise in sea levels by the melting of the polar ice caps.  Global civilization is a state of disrepair.  Great Britain (or at least England, Scotland and Wales) have clung to a semblance of normality behind an island encircling wall.

  Kavanagh, the narrator, is a fresh recruit to the Defenders, the civil-defense entity who is tasked with keeping out the rest of the world, called, "the others."  Supposedly, all citizens of whatever they call the UK in this book are tasked to serve a two year term.  Letting an other through the wall means exile- in the event of penetration, one defender is sent "to sea" for every other that makes it through the wall.    The first portion reads like an update on The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, a book from the 1940's about a  young soldier similarly situated on the cusp of a gigantic desert, but Lanchester pumps up the action as the plot proceeds.

  It was a great Audiobook- it didn't really get a wide release in the US, so I was able to pick it up from the Los Angeles Public Library with a minimal wait, and the first person narration by Kavanagh makes for an easily translatable experience.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Professor Martens' Departure (1984) by Jaan Kross

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Estonian author Jaan Kross
Book Review
Professor Martens' Departure (1984)
 by Jaan Kross

Replaces:  Wise Children by Angela Carter

  Estonian author Jaan Kross is one of those "almost but not quite" Nobel Prize nominees who are always described as, "the best known author of country x and nominee for the Nobel Prizee."   Here, the country is Estonia.   Kross is better known in German, where his career spanned the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union- he was imprisoned both by the Nazi's for his Estonian nationalism and the Soviets for the same thing, before returning to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic in the mid 1950's and settling down as a professional writer.

   Kross was prolific during his career, he died in 2007, leaving behind 17 novels- maybe six of those have been translated into English, including Professor Martens' Departure, which most reminded me of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguo- both books involve a notable historical figure recalling his life with regret.   The Professor Martens of this book is actually two Martens'- separated by a century- both of whom where Estonian scholars of International Law who made their names and careers working for the Russian Empire.

  The later Professor Martens is the major narrator, and he shifts relatively seemlessly between episodes from his life and the life of his earlier "double."   Important episodes include an affair with a Belgian artist, his role in the Russo-Japanese Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) and his career and education.  There is also a portion where the contemporary (late 19th early 20th century) bemoans his failure to win the just-launched Nobel Peace Prize.  Maybe that's why he never won.

 Kross replaces Wise Children- Angela Carter's last book.   Carter actually lost two of her three titles in the 1001 Books project in the first revision- keeping only Nights at the Circus, and it's another example of how the first revision of the 1001 Books list replaced "diversity" picks from the UK and USA with straight white men from lesser known countries. 

Saturday, September 07, 2019

My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009) by Karl Ove Knausgård

Book Review
My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009)
 by Karl Ove Knausgård

    I was lukewarm about the first volume of My Struggle- I listened to the Audiobook- as I ended up doing for Volume 2 after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to read an Ebook copy.  At the end of Volume 1, I felt like I could understand the appeal, but that I didn't quite connect with the book.

  Volume 2, which I mostly listened to while helping my Mom with her hip surgery in the Bay Area the past week, was quite a different experience- often moving me close to tears and leaving me with the conviction that at least the first two volumes of My Struggle- both of which were written before the first book was released and became a world-wide phenomenon- are among the greatest works of 21st century literature, and are both dead-bang canonical.

  I can see where the following four volumes- all of which were written and published after Knausgard became a world-wide literary phenomenon, might be...different, since the theme of the first two volumes deals so explicitly with Knausgard's perceived failings as a writer and human being.   If the sacrificial family member of Volume One is his father- a man who quite literally drinks himself to death in that book, the sacrifice of the second book is his second wife, Linda Boström, a Swedish poet and mother of his children.  In this book, Knausgard reveals the nature of his struggle for the first time- that is, to maintain a quest for artistic and/or personal greatness while surviving the prosaic mundanities of everyday life.  In this regard, his wife and children are cast as the role of the villains, as is Knausgard himself.

  I resisted My Struggle for so long that I feel almost ashamed lauding it now, but man- I really connected with the themes as a I drove to and from the hospital surrounding my Mom's surgery.  Knausgard truly is a Proust for the twenty first century.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Young Man (1984) by Botho Strauß

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German author Brotho Strauß
Book Review
The Young Man (1984)
by Botho Strauß

Replaces: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

  "More obscure" is one observation to be made about the difference between the original edition of the 1001 Books project and the 2008 revision.  The general trend is to include more authors from less represented regions and languages, replacing authors largely from the United Kingdom who had three or more titles in the original edition.

   Strauss went from zero books in the first edition to two books in the second- making him a big omission, especially since both titles were published before 1990 and were presumably known to the editors when they were putting the first book together.  It's hard to say anything about the contents, but I am going to quote liberally from the excellent wikipedia page to spare myself the labor:

Leon Pracht, a young man, abandons a budding career in the footsteps of his father—a historian of religion specialised on Montanus—after the positive reception of his debut as a theatre director. He is recruited for an adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids in Cologne, starring the two diva actresses Petra "Pat" Kurzrok and Margarethe "Mag" Wirth. However, Pat and Mag turn out to be too much to handle. Leon asks for advice from the local star director Alfred Weigert, but still fails to actualise his vision for the play.

A woman enters a forest and finds a department store named The Tower of the Germans. After a phantasmagorical episode she finds herself naked in front of the proprietor of the Germans. The proprietor of the Germans is a large, floating head which is half man and half carp.

A man is doing a study on an alternative community whose members are known as the Syks. After observing their unusual habits he commits a social error which freaks out a local woman. He is banished from the colony and takes part in a dreamlike ritual involving scatological sexual activity. Afterwards his female colleague writes a scathing report about his unprofessional behaviour.

A king dies and is condemned as a criminal, which becomes a long-lasting national trauma. At a terrace behind the castle, a number of people are gathered: the paramedic Reppenfries, his sister-in-law Paula and wife Dagmar, the beautiful Almut, the "modern" Hanswerner, the mail clerk Yossica, and the narrator, Leon. Each person tells a personal story or discusses art and philosophy.

Later, Leon finds Yossica who has been transformed into a clump of earth with a face. She explains how she, an aspiring songwriter, had met two peculiar talent scouts, Schwarzsicht and Zuversicht. The first, dressed in ragged clothes, offered her a slowly developing talent which eventually would result in timeless quality. The second, dressed elegantly and dancing, offered her to become the leading star of a new trend. Yossica tried to trick the agents so she could have both, but the attempt failed badly and she became a lump of earth. She asks Leon to bring her with him and put her in soil so she can grow into her former self.
Leon works as a photographer and lives with Yossica. She convinces him to go and meet Alfred Weigert who is staying at a skyscraper hotel in their city. Weigert has had a massive success as Ossia, the main character is a series of comedy films which he also directed. As Ossia—the name he has become known under also in private—he brilliantly captures the German national character, playing a Prussian vagabond described in the press as a mix between Parsifal and Paracelsus. Leon had been involved in the making of the first Ossia film but after that left the industry. When Leon and Yossica meet Ossia in his room, he has aged poorly and become an overweight recluse. He has not appeared as an actor in his last two films, which have been disjointed, pseudo-profound and not nearly as successful as the previous ones. In desperation, Ossia asks Leon to collaborate on a new film project. Ossia hands him notes to read and starts to explain the project, intended as a vehicle for Pat in a great female comedic role, but the film lacks structure and Leon disapproves of it. Leon asks Ossia to come along for a walk to get some fresh air, but Ossia declines and remains inside the tower.

       There you go, people! Even reading the description it is hard to make sense of what any of it means.  The fact that it is a "phantasmagorical" type of book written in German and translated into English doesn't help, but I would observe that it seems more like a book that would have been written in the 1920's than the 1980's.   It also reminded me of Italo Calvino, another author I need to revisit because I just didn't get much out of him the first time through. 

Disappearance (1993) by David Dabydeen

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Guyanese author David Dabydeen
Book Review
Disappearance (1993)
 by David Dabydeen

  Every remaining title from the original 1001 Books edition is an event around here! David Dabydeen is a Guyanese author- with fiction, non-fiction and poetry books to his credit.  Disappearance was extremely tough to track down- I ended up buying a paperback copy from the UK on Amazon.   The obvious comparison as far as this novel goes- about a Guyanese engineer who is brought to the Southern Coast of the UK to help with a break-water project, is V.S Naipaul.

  The engineer spends most of his spare time hanging out with Mrs. Rutherford- his landlord- and through her he gains knowledge about the local landscape and reflects on his own experience as a member of a nascent post-colonial elite in Guyana.

Dabydeen seems reasonably well known in the UK, in the US he's seems to be almost unheard of- I couldn't find a single review of this book on the first page of a Google search of the book title and author.    I'm generally interested in the line of authors that starts with Conrad and continues with Naipaul.  He seems like a solid one book contributor to the core 1001 Books list- I would read another book by him, but not sure I'd recommend this one to all but the biggest fans of Naipaul and post-colonial literature (I don't know any of those, personally.)

The Devils Dance (2018) by Hamid Ismailov

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Uzbekistani author Hamid Ismailov has lived in the UK for the past twenty five years.

Book Review
The Devils Dance (2018)
 by Hamid Ismailov

    Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbekistani author who fled the country in 1992, just after this book was originally published in Uzbekistan, and landed in the United Kingdom, where he spent 25 years working for the BBC. 

  Uzbekistan is a core element of  Central Asia, one of the most interesting, least understood regions on Earth.  The region emerged from Soviet dominance after the collapse of the USSR only to confront a series of (still ongoing) dictatorships of the largely secular variety.  The west has been quiescent in the repression, since the dictators over there are, by necessity, key partners in the war against radical islam.  Recently, the Chinese part of Central Asia has been in the news for an anti-Islamic gulag prison camp system.   

  At one point- maybe in the period between the conquest of the region by Islam through the conquest of the region by the Mongols, you could make a case that the area was one of the bright spots of global civilization.    By crushing the Oasis-centered Islamic city-states of the region, the Mongols ushered in a still-ongoing dark age that has led to a region that is not only under the boot of a variety of dictators, but also one of the poorest places in the world.

  In theory, it is a rich history that would seem to call for a rich literature, but of course, repression and a century of Russian Communism have not helped its authors make a dent in the global literary marketplace.    I was pretty excited to find The Devils' Dance available as an Ebook through the Los Angeles Public Library system- score one for global capitalism!

  Set during the winter of 1938, under the boot of Stalinism, Abdulla Qodiriry, one of Uzbekistan's most famous authors, is taken from his home by the Soviet Secret Police (not for the first time) and thrown into a prison with a grab bag representing the region's cultural diversity.   This was really a book where I wished I had read it as a physical book as supposed to an ebook, but I'd wager that I will never, ever see a physical copy of The Devils' Dance unless I buy one. 

    The narrative ping pongs back and forth between the secret prison and 19th century Tashkent, a relative high point in the post-Mongol historical record, and the time of the "Great Game"  which was a struggle for cultural hegemony in Central and South Asia fought between the British Empire and the Russian Empire.  Uzbekistan and the environs were on the margins of this conflict- which was focused further south in Afghanistan, but Ismailov/Qodirity bring it alive through the novel that Qodirriy composes in his cell.

    It's compelling material, but dense in terms of references that the average (or even above average) Western reader is unlikely to grasp without looking stuff up on the internet.  If you see a hard copy- grab it- who knows when another Uzbekistani novelist will get an American publication of one of their novels.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Half of Man is Woman (1988) by Zhang Xianliang

Book Review
Half of Man is Woman (1988)
by Zhang Xianliang

Replaces: The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin

 You would think the editors of the 1001 Books project would have put this groundbreaking Chinese novel in the original edition, but it didn't make it in till the first revision, replacing the forgettable The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin- a book I literally can not remember.  I would suspect it's about Irish people.   I believe what is unusual about Half of Man is Woman is part the frank sexual content- which I guess was quite unusual in China at the time- and the fact that it is a book about life in a Chinese prison camp that was approved by the Chinese government.   China's reckoning with the "excesses" of the Cultural Revolution has been a mixed bag:  Some regrets, some denial, but hey it wasn't entirely bad, which is also the tone of Half of Man is Woman.

 Looking back, it can be hard to even remember the pre-Tiananmen Square vibe in China (Tiananmen Square happened in 1989), but at the time many Western observers thought that China was on the path to something more than a single party dictatorship.  Half of Man is Woman reflects that thawing, in the same way that Perestroika opened up the path for the official acknowledgement of Stalin era prison camps in literature.

  Like the narrator, author Zhang Xianliang had the (mis)fortune to be sent off to a Chinese prison camp BEFORE the cultural revolution- in 1957, as a "rightist" during a period where many upper class, middle class and intellectual families were being wholesale removed from society.  The upside is that he was already in prison when the Cultural Revolution reached it's insane peak, and the narrator of Half of Man is Woman is actually thankful that he has a safe place to exist during the frenzy.

  His life at a Chinese labor camp borders on the ideal, the major issue being a lack of sexual potency.  Most of Half of Man is Woman concerns the relationship he has with a woman who has been incarcerated for immorality, and after his virility is restored in the aftermath of some flood-avoiding heroics, he finds that sexual potency opens up new problems.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The White Castle (1990) by Orhan Pamuk

Book Review
The White Castle (1990)
 by Orhan Pamuk

   There are a SURPRISING number of Orhan Pamuk novels available as in the Audiobook format.   I jumped at the opportunity to listen to The White Castle because I saw it was a period piece- set during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.  Ismail Kadare- the Albanian author- also writes about the Ottoman empire- and I'm generally interested in the subject- reading about the Ottomans is one of those sweet spots in literature where you can learn history at the same time.

   Most of the action in The White Castle in the 17th century, where an Italian scholar is captured by the Ottomans and enslaved.   He proves his worth serving as an unofficial doctor, and eventually draws the attention of Hoja, a kind of freelance scholar who is close to the Sultan.  Eventually, Pamuk develops a classic unreliable narrator, as the relationship between the Italian scholar and Hoja- who he closely resembles- blurs, eventually sparking a secret exchange of identities near the end of the book- I'm sure that might be considered a spoiler but seriously- it's Orhan Pamuk.

   Clocking in at under 8 hours- it's hard to consider The White Castle a waste of time-  but it's not particularly satisfying in a way similar to much contemporary European literature- who am i, what am i doing here- it's a stereotype of European existentialism, and in that sense Pamuk is as European an author as any French or German writer.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Nickle Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead

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Colson Whitehead
Book Review
The Nickle Boys (2019)
 by Colson Whitehead

  Colson Whitehead is a top 5 American writer of literary fiction, he's coming off Underground Railroad- a career highlight- that won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Pretty incredible for a book that is basically science fiction.   In The Nickle Boys, Whitehead turns to a more realistic milieu, a school based on the real-life horror of Florida's Dozier School for Boys.

   Whitehead manages to walk the fine line between writing a book that soft pedals the horror enough to guarantee a large general audience and the kind of realistic description of emotional and physical pain that defines canonical literature.   The nature of the plot and the narrative pay out is such that any lengthy description risks compromising the experience for another reader.   I listened to the Audiobook, which is very well done- it's a good book for Audiobook format in terms of length and the material.

   The Nickle Boys isn't an endless catalog of gothic horror, in fact it's the quiet moments that elevates the material into the stratosphere.  Neither the Pulitzer or National Book Award is known for repeat awards, but The Underground Railroad was three years ago.   It does look like another sales hit- still in the Amazon top 100 two months after publication.


Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013) by Svetlana Alexievich

Book Review
Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013)
by Svetlana Alexievich

  I can't get enough of 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.  Her books take the form of extensive interviews with dozens, maybe hundreds of individual sources, each book tackles a different subject, this book is about the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. The overwhelming theme is regret and a sense of nostalgia for the loss of the Soviet state.

  The regret and nostalgia is intermixed with the stories of many who suffered greviously at the hands of the state during the Soviet period, who survived and eventually were able to access their files and figure out which among their friends and neighbors denounced them.  Victims and executioners, that is a phrase that reccurs frequently.

  Another frequent topic is the presence of salami in the stores after the fall of Communism, "We were no longer equal, but there was salami in the stores."    The voices of the losers out number those of the winners- just like life; but there are no interviews with oligarchs or the thuggish mafia who serve as the bogeymen to the normal people she interviews.

  Many of the most horrific stories come from the events in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and the Caucuses, where Russians and Armenians were ethnically cleansed in horrifying fashion.  

Exit Ghost (2007) by Philip Roth

Book Review
Exit Ghost (2007)
 by Philip Roth

  Exit Ghost is the final of the nine book Nathan Zuckerman series by Philip Roth.   I think you can probably divide Roth's career into the period before Portnoy's Complaint, when he was three novels into a career as a writer that showed promise, but hadn't delivered fame and fortune, and after Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969, which catapulted Roth into the world of general and literary celebrity that comes maybe three or four times in a generation.   The Zuckerman series started a decade after Portnoy's Complaint, and a common theme in the first four books is Nathan Zuckerman dealing with the consequences of his post-fame live, specifically, the impact on his immediate family.

  Family continues to dominate through the fifth book, The Counterlife (1986), and then the last three books before Exit Ghost feature Zuckerman as a listener, and the plots revolve around the characters talking to him.   Exit Ghost returns to the earliest book and picks up with a Zuckerman centered narrative, with Nathan in Manhattan and returning to the territory of the first book, The Ghost Writer, which was about Zuckerman's relationship with an reclusive, isolated author when he was a young man.

  Exit Ghost picks up the thread half a century later, with Zuckerman seeking medical treatment in New York City, leaving his isolated cabin in New England for the first time in a decade.  Impulsively, he responds to an ad placed by a young pair of New York writers who want to swap their apartment in the city for an isolated cabin.    Zuckerman quickly becomes obsessed with Jamie Logan, the wife of the young couple, and through her he is introduced to Richard Kilman, a young man trying to write an autobiography of E.I. Lonoff, the reclusive mentor figure from The Ghost Writer.   Kilman knows about an incestous affair Lonoff had with his older sister, and Zuckerman swears to stop him from publishing about it. 

  Like Prague Orgy, Exit Ghost is more of a coda and less of stand-alone novel, clearly secondary to the the other seven books. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Electric Hotel (2019) by Dominic Smith

Book Review
The Electric Hotel (2019)
 by Dominic Smith

   American-Australian author Dominic Smith is five novels deep into his career- which is great, but he hasn't had a hit yet.  Last time out, he made a move onto Farrar, Straus, Giroux and The Electric Hotel is his second book for them. It's a sprawling work of historical fiction mostly about the silent film era and World War I.   Claude Ballard is living out his days in a decrepit Hollywood area SRO when an enterprising film student induces him to revisit his lost silent film classic The Electric Hotel- years ahead of it's time but essentially lost and forgotten in the present day.

  Much of the book involves Ballard recounting his biography:  Childhood in Paris, recruited by the Lumiere brothers to market their motion picture machine  internationally,  pre-Hollywood film impresario, love of a Greta Garbo esque silent film star, clashes with Thomas Edison over motion picture patents- and I really had trouble making it through this first half of the book- even in Audiobook format, because the plot often seemed more like an essay on film history than the kind of narrative you look for in a early 21st century work of literary fiction. 

   However, Smith continues the story into Ballard's sojourn as a would-be journalist on the western front of World War I, and at that point, the pace really picks up, and the fairly mundane details of the pre-Hollywood silent film era are replaced by a more engaging story about World War I. 

Lanny (2019) by Max Porter

Book Review
Lanny (2019) 
by Max Porter

  Lanny is a Booker Prize longlist nominee this year, written by English author Max Porter.   His first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was critically acclaimed, but it didn't make much of a splash over here in the USA- that was in 2015-   it did well enough to get him an international release for Lanny, which was already on Eshelves in the United States when the Booker longlist was announced this year, and thus it's the first of this year's nominees that I managed to track down.  And an Audiobook, no less!   

  It's a good fit for the Audiobook format, with a polyphony of voices revolving around the disappearance of the eponymous Lanny, a Manic Pixie Dream Child who is likely to either enchant or annoy the reader, depending on their feelings about the merits of manic pixie dream children irl.  Lanny lives in a small bedroom village on the outskirts of London, with his City-Trader father, who is also not such a fan of manic pixie dream children himself and his mother- who is a dominant narrative voice in the greek-chorus style Porter embraces.  It's reminiscent of recent price winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

  The fantastical element of the set up involves Dead Poppa Toothwort, an ancient earth spirit who watches the village- leading to dada-esque sequences of overheard dialogue- and malevolently covets Lanny, because, ancient evil spirits, innocent manic pixie dream children.   Unlike many of the reviewers in the UK, I was not charmed.  Which is not to say that Porter is being cloying or sentimental- Lanny is a sharply observed, nasty piece of work that says as much as the environment of a commuter village outside London and the dynamics of the people who live there as the missing boy narrative.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Kitchen (1993) by Banana Yoshimoto

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Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto)
Book Review
Kitchen (1988)
 by Banana Yoshimoto

Replaces: The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

  I honestly feel like Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto's early 1990's cross-over hit, was added after someone pointed out that the edtiors of the 1001 Books list had included a book by a French woman about living in Japan, but had managed to include not a single Japanese female author.  Japan as a whole is basically represented by Haruki Murakami with a handful of other authors in the 1001 Books list. Yoshimoto is the first, and I think the only Japanese woman to make it on to the list.

  Mikage Suraki is the narrator, she's a young Japanese woman stuggling to overcome the death of her beloved grandmother.  She comes under the influence of a neighbor, Yuiche Tanabe, a young man a few years her junior, and his transgender (male to female) mother, Eriko Tanabe, who owns and runs a local gay bar.  This is pretty progressive stuff for Japan circa 1980, which isn't especially known for embracing LGBT issues, and the laconic prose style makes for easy reading.

  Yoshimoto has been prolific in her native Japanese, but almost none of her more recent books have been translated into English.   Seems to me that puts her in the category of a one hit wonder, and not that huge a hit. 

Mason & Dixon (1997) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Mason & Dixon (1997)
 by Thomas Pynchon

   I own a first edition hardback of Mason & Dixon-  one of Pynchon's representative titles in the first edition of 1001 Books, but dropped in the second edition in favor of Faceless Killers (1991) by Henning Mankell.   I can hardly remember anything from my initial reading back in 1997-1998- "too old timey!" I remember thinking, since Pynchon insists on using his own version of the non-standard orthography and capitalization that was common in the 18th century, the time of the book.

   Twenty years later, I've added the entire 18th century canon to my mental library, re-read all of Pynchon's earlier books and set up a situation where I was able to read Mason & Dixon in small portions, always at my ease.  You would think that I would have enjoyed it much more the second time through, but no.  Mason & Dixon was almost as impenetrable as I found it the first time.  I guess you could say I got more of the jokes and puns, but if there was any deeper meaning to be gleaned, I did not glean it. 

  Pynchon's re-telling of the adventures of English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon does cover their famous American line, but it also has adventures in Africa, in England and on the open seas.    Other subjects include, "the call of the West, the histories of women, North Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the after-life, the eleven days lost to the Gregorian calendar, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure."  (from the Wikipedia page on Mason & Dixon)

    What is referred to as the "inexact narrative structure" could also be described as a bewildering multiplicity, far beyond what Pynchon put forward in V and Gravity's Rainbow, to name two of his other big books.   At times, Mason & Dixon embraces literary pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism in the same page.   Even describing the plot is exhausting- again- see the Wikipedia page, where someone managed to describe each of seventy eight episodes.  Maybe Pynchon isn't one of my favorite authors, after all.   The fact is that I haven't enjoyed Vineland or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not looking forward to Against the Day- an addition to the second 1001 Books list.   I do see The Crying of Lot 49, V and Gravity's Rainbow as all time canon level classics, and I enjoyed The Bleeding Edge Audiobook- I would have LOVED to have gotten my hands on a Mason & Dixon Audiobook, but the Los Angeles Public Library doesn't have a copy.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville

Book Review
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852)
by Herman Melville

    Herman Melville and Henry James are two American authors I've singled out for further reading- checking out the non canonical titles and revisiting the hits that I didn't quite get the first time around.  Basically, all of Henry James passed me by the first time through- I'm hoping that the Audiobook format might make the experience more fun than actually reading Henry James- which is really not very much fun at all.   With Melville I'm more focused on revisiting the non-canonical titles- Melville is one of the best examples of an artist moving into the canon after a lifetime of relative obscurity.   Melville had a couple of hits with his early books, basically travelogues of the sailing life circa the mid 19th century.  Moby Dick was his masterpiece but it was sorely underappreciated when it was released, and typically the story of Melville is that after it flopped he got a job as a customs inspector and lived in obscurity until his death.

  Not true! He continued to publish in a variety of formats after Moby Dick- including The Encantadas, a novella and two novels: Israel Potter and The Confidence Man.   Pierre; or The Ambiguities is an incredibly strange novel- combining elements of gothic fiction with a bildungsroman.  The elements are the wealthy scion of an ancient American family, his still attractive mother, who he calls "Sister," his fiance and a mysterious half-sister who emerges from the ether and throws Pierre Glendenning- the protagonist but not narrator- into a positive tizzy.

  There is no way to take Pierre at face value- only if the reader is familiar with the conventions of 18th century gothic fiction and the state of American literature in the early 19th century can one begin to develop an appreciation, and even then it takes.... some gumption.   Here, the Audiobook format was crucial- no way I would have ever sat down and read it as a physical book.

Friday, August 02, 2019

The New Me (2019) by Halle Butler

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Author Halle Butler.  She also reads the Audiobook for her novel, The New Me. 

Book Review
The New Me (2019)
 by Halle Butler

   This was an Audiobook read by the author- I love that! It should happen more often.  The New Me is a an existential bildungswoman about Mildred, a 20 something college graduate living in Chicago and working a terrible temp assignment as the assistant to a receptionist at a downtown design firm.   Most of the book is narrated by Mildred, with some chapters told by Mildred's boss at the design firm- the receptionist- who is the only potential villain in the piece besides Mildred herself, who is a basket case.

   Mildred, basically friendless and alone in Chicago, relationship-less, poverty stricken, surviving only on a monthly stipend paid by her well off, well adjusted suburban Chicago area parents, is unhappy, deeply and sadly unhappy in nearly comical fashion, if you happen to be a reader who doesn't immediately identify with Mildred's millennial specific plight.  

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Cities of the Plain (1998) by Cormac McCarthy

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Matt Damon played cowboy John Grady Cole in the poorly received movie version of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Cole returns in Cities of the Plain, where he becomes obsessed with an epileptic Mexican prostitute.

Book Review
Cities of the Plain (1998)
by Cormac McCarthy

  I agree with literary critic Harold Bloom, "[who] named McCarthy as one of the four major American novelists of his time, alongside Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth."   I'm not a huge DeLillo fan, but I can undetstand grouping the four together, and I'm a huge fan of the other three.  Pynchon, Roth and McCarthy are on my completist list, and it looks like I'll finish with McCarthy first, if only because Pynchon's books are so long and dense, and Roth has so many books. McCarthy, on ther other hand, has a very manageable bibliography.  After Cities of the Plain I've only got his very earliest books to go.

  Cities of the Plain is the last of his Border Trilogy.  I think critics have placed the border trilogy in the second level of McCarthy's oeuvre, above the first four books, up through Suttree but below the trio of Blood Meridian, The Road and No Country For Old Men.   Blood Meridian although separated by time, takes place in basically the same landscape occupied in The Border Trilogy- West Texas, New Mexico and the part of Mexico that runs along the other side of those places.    You could probably also argue that Cities of the Plain is the least of the Border Trilogy, with a plot that strongly resembles the major points in the first book of the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses.

  Both books revolve around Texas horse-whisperer and incurable romantic John Grady, although Billy Parham, the protagonist of the second book, returns in a supporting role.   This time, Grady falls in love with an epileptic Mexican prostitute named Magdalena, and well, if you don't have some idea of how it all works out, you obviously have not read much Cormac McCarthy.  I can see where critics at the time might have thought, "Enough;" but 20 years on, it's pretty clear that McCarthy is straight canon, and Cities of the Plain, even if it's not his best, is a GREAT Audiobook, perfect to listen to during long hot runs in the Los Angeles desert heat.

Genetics in the Madhouse: the Unknown History of Human Heredity (2018)by Theodore M. Porter

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Professor Theodore M. Porter author of Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity
Book Review
Genetics in the Madhouse: the Unknown History of Human Heredity (2018)
by Theodore M. Porter

  I was reading a Michel Foucault book recently, really not understanding very much, when I had the idea to find an American disciple of Foucault, someone heavily influenced by his thought, but a native English speaker and someone who was teaching at a major university in the present day.  Enter Theodore M. Porter, who cites Foucault as a major influence and has a tenured professorship at the University of California Los Angeles in history.  Simply reading the title recalls the title of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, and this book is rooted deeply in the Foucauldian analysis of the malleability of what we call knowledge, and the boundaries and categories of knowledge at various points in history.

    Genetics in the Madhouse is largely about the pre-DNA world of Mendelian heritability of various undesirable traits, children inherited traits from parents in various combinations, expressed in fractions and combined in different ways.  What Porter describes is the increasing systematization of the quest for unraveling the parentage of men and women who were confined to Asylums, with a focus on curing OR determining that a cure was impossible.   The scientists of these institutions, called Alienists, were pre-Freudian and not always medical doctors.   Their ideas have been entirely discredited in the past century, but Porter makes the point that they were trailblazers in trying to use genetics to "solve" mental illness- using genetic knowledge to cure human sickness.

  Whether that gives you pause about current efforts to help humanity with "real" genetic knowledge probably depends on your pre-existing feelings about the subject.  I'm all for it, as a Professor memorably exclaimed in an undergraduate literature class I attended, "They are already making clones in secret underground labs in Switzerland! In Saudia Arabia!"  He later took a job teaching in Dubai.  

Monday, July 29, 2019

We Cast a Shadow (2019) by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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Aithor Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Book Review
We Cast a Shadow (2019)
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

 It's hard not to think about the "satire" of We Cast a Shadow, set in a slightly futuristic, slightly more dystopian world then the one we inhabit presently, and not think about Paul Beatty, and The Sell Out another racial satire, and one which one the Booker Prize in 2016.   So says Roxane Gay, whose quote making that comparison is splashed all over the promotional materials put forward by Penguin Random House.  I finished the Audiobook just as the 2019 Booker Prize longlist was announced- as it turned out only one American author made the longlist, not Ruffin.  My observation is that We Cast a Shadow is very much a prize winning type of book, in that it takes a serious subject, race and identity in America, and layers on near-future dystopia in such a way that the reader is disarmed by whatever preconceptions they bring to the table.

  The unnamed narrator is an African American man, on the cusp of partnership at a prestigious law firm in a similarly unnamed near future city in the southern United States.  He has a white wife, and a bi-racial son, Nigel, who is sole and abiding obsession.  Specifically, he wants Nigel to be white.  The long term goal is race switching surgery, but in the short term he makes do with very not-science-fiction whitening creams.   His white wife doesn't support his behavior, neither does his mother.

 We Cast a Shadow is a great Audiobook because of the single narrator, and Ruffin makes his unnamed narrator a uniquely "unreliable" due to a combination of anti anxiety-pill popping and genuine inter-personal trauma.  Ruffin errs on the side of literary fiction in describing his near future dystopia.  The North still won the Civil War, but the civic activism of the "civil rights" era appears to have created a "white lash," where African American are still free, but are subject to increasingly harsh persecution through "legal" and quasi-legal means.

   Like Beatty in The Sell Out, Ruffin creates an uncomfortable world that SHOULD challenge a readers pre-conceptions about race and identity in our own world.  The narrator is easy to despise, but Ruffin wants us to understand how he reflects a persistent desire in our own world to eradicate blackness by "blending in."

Woman of Ashes (2018) by Mia Couto

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Mozambiquean author Mia Couto.
Book Review
Woman of Ashes (2018)
 by Mia Couto
Book One of the Sands of the Emperor Trilogy

   Mozamibaquean author Mia Couto is the biggest writer of fiction to ever emerge out of Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony on the south eastern coast of Africa, north of South Africa, nestling Zimbawbwe in the middle, with Tanzania to the north.  Mozambique finally gained independence from Portugal after a decade long war, in 1975.   The Portuguese were replaced by a Communist dictatorship.  The Communist dictatorship was pushed out in 1990 after a mysterious plane crash (probably staged by the South African) wiped out the dictator and 33 more of the party leadership.   Elections were staged in 1994, and since then things have been relatively stable.

  Couto has been a prolific writer of both fiction and essays.   A handful of his major works have been translated into English.  Woman of Ashes is the first volume in a projected trilogy about the colonial history of Mozambique, and narration duties are split between Imani a 15 year old girl, who comes a tribe that is allied with Portugal;  and Sergant Germano De Malo, the exiled representative of the Portuguese emperor.  Both groups: Imani's tribe and Germano's men,  face emperor Ngungunyane, a native African ruler who stands opposed to the Portuguese.

   The colonial dynamic that Couto is interesting: this is not the aggressive efforts of an ambitious empire like France or England, but rather the fringe of an already decrepit empire.  The Africans in this book are not subjugated, indeed, the primary villain is not the colonialism but other Africans.   It's easy enough to slot Woman of Ashes into the "developing world magical realism,"  category with plus points for the location.  But truth be told I wasn't wowed, and I was even less wowed when I learned that the author wasn't an African woman but rather a white African man.  I should have known more about Couto going in, I suppose.

I Married a Communist (1998) by Philip Roth

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English actress Claire Bloom, widely regarded as the model for Eve Frame
Book Review
I Married a Communist (1998)
by Philip Roth

   This is the end of the Audiobook portion of Philip Roth's bibliography as far as the Los Angeles Public Library system is concerned.   I Married a Communist is the third to last volume in the Nathan Zuckerman series- Zuckerman being the alter-ego who features in all seven books.  The Zuckerman series is to be distinguished from the Roth series, which features a character named Philip Roth (Operation Shylock, The Plot Against America).   I Married a Communist is also the last Zuckerman novel written before the character becomes obsessed with the complications arising from his prostate cancer surgery: impotence and incontinence.

  I Married a Communist was also controversial, especially in the UK, where critics argued that Eve Frame- the sad/evil wife of Ira "Iron Rinn" Reingold, is a barely disguised version of Roth's own ex-wife, English actress Claire Bloom, who wrote a memoir that was heavily critical of Roth.   Like many of the later Zuckerman books, Zuckerman himself is present largely as a listener to the narrator of the story, Ira's younger brother Murray, who was also Zuckerman's teacher growing up in New Jersey.  Thus, the story of I Married a Communist is the story of Ira Reingold, told by his younger brother Murray to Zuckerman.

  Ira "Iron Rinn" Reingold is a character who could only have emerged before the Red Scare:  A leftist/Communist former coal miner who parlays a notable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln into a career as a radio performer.  He also acquires said wife, who brings along her  20-something daughter, still living at home as she pursues a career as a professional harpist (Claire Bloom had a daughter who was an aspiring opera singer.)    The title refers to the memoir written by Frame that leads to Reingold's downfall.

  It's possible that this is Roth's worst book, especially if you take the opinion that Frame is a stand-in for Bloom.   It's mean spirited.  Compared to the other Zuckerman books, this Audiobook took me weeks to complete.  Just endless fulminating against this Eve Frame woman.   Also, they switched up the narrator for I Married a Communist, using actor Ron Silver- I didn't much care for him.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me (1966) by Richard Fariña

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Richard Farina, Pynchon friend, and noted novelist and folk singer 
Book Review
Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me  (1966)
 by Richard Fariña

  Richard Fariña is one of those tantalizing "what-if's" of 20th century American popular culture.  He went to college at Cornell with Thomas Pynchon- Pynchon officiated at his wedding, and Pynchon authored the foreword for the re-issue of Been Down So Long it Looks Up to Me, which I think, is pretty high up there on the list of "lost" classics of counter-cultural literature.   Farina also cut two folk albums with his wife - Joan Baez's sister- and it isn't hard to find people who will compare him- favorably- to Bob Dylan.   Unfortunately, Farina died in a motorcycle accident in 1966- extinguishing his light, and ultimately leaving him an interesting foot note.

   It is easy to see the relationship between Farina and Pynchon- and it made me think about the degree to which all the major writers of the 1960's in American Literature were influenced by "jive" the particular slang of New York City jazz musicians- black and white.    It's particularly striking in Been Down So Long because the characters are students at Cornell University in the mid 1960's- true- the protagonist is Greek, and one of the gang is African-American, but we aren't talking a hep situation up there in Ithaca.   Whereas with Pynchon- his early books set in California- or the past- the jive influence is muted and blends into the larger "Pynchonian" style.

  I didn't love it- Farina has his antic and mad cap moments, but there are a lot of poop jokes and a generally deplorable attitude towards women.   There is little in the way of plot- call it a picaresque, which is probably what the the author intended.  I haven't yet listened to his folk records but I plan to.

American Spy (2019) by Lauren Wilkinson

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Author Lauren Wilkinson
Book Review
American Spy (2019)
by Lauren Wilkinson

  It's a spy novel about an African American woman!  If there is one thing you can say about the genre of spy fiction, its that it lacks diversity.  In fact, spy fiction embodies many of the "dead white male" values where women are desirable objects and minorities are the enemy, or simply non-existent.   Like the blidungsroman and mutli-generational family drama, there is a strong argument that EVERY group should get their own spy novel- an argument that has already carried the day in more progressive genres like science fiction and detective fiction.

  Told in a modified flashback format as ex-FBI agent and ex-CIA contractor Marie Mitchell takes refuge from the aftermath of a shadowy attempted assassination of herself at her home in Connecticut. She dispatches the assassin and flees to Martinque, where she takes refuge with her mother and her twin boys.  The "modified" flashback approach consists of a book length letter to her still-too-young-to-understand twins, describing to them her childhood, work as an FBI agent in New York City and involvement in a shadowy Reagan-era CIA-sponsored plot to compromise real-life left-leaning leader Thomas Sankara. 

   Mitchell's back story is more bildungsroman than spy novel, and it's equally and arguably more interesting then the spy story intself, as Mitchell struggles to answer the question as to why an African American woman would choose to the join FBI, which, even among the world of law enforcement has a pretty shitty records vis a vis minority rights.   Mitchell's semi-mentor at the agency is Ali, a long time friend of her father (a New York City Police Officer) who made his bones infiltrating and compromising civil right's groups in the 50's and 60's.

    I'm just assuming that Wilkinson is setting up some sort of franchise, so it was difficult to really fear for Mitchell's safety, reinforced by the flashback format, assuring us that Mitchell has survived her travails.   In the end- and I'm sure this is by design, Mitchell never really answers the questions, and it's unclear what her post-FBI/CIA career involves, exactly.   At least one more book is required to finish the narrative that is set into motion in American Spy.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

2019 Booker Prize longlist Announced: Unreleased Books, UK Based Authors Dominate

2019 Booker Prize longlist

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)
Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)
Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)
Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)
John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)
Deborah Levy (UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)
Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)
Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)
Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)
Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

    The 2019 Booker Prize longlist headlines include several unreleased heavyweights, particularly forthcoming titles by Margaret Atwood- her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale and Salman Rushdie, who has perhaps finally connected in his "American period" with a version of Don Quixote embodied in an American salesman. 

    If I was to handicap the shortlist, I would put Atwood and Rushdie on it.  I think probably Oyinkan Braithwaite is a good bet as the only debut novelist and one of two African writers.  My Sister, The Serial Killer, established a new dimension in contemporary African literary ficiton, in my opinion.   Turkish writer Elif Shafak has been in the new lately for her persecution at the hands of the Turkish government, she's a good shortlist bet.     Jeanette Winterson is a good blind bet- a canon level author who hasn't had a hit in some time.  Finally I have a feeling that Ducks, Newburyport, a one sentence, one thousand page stream of consciousness novel written from the point of view of an Ohio house wife, by an author who is the daughter of a prominent Joyce scholar, has the makings of an experimental classic. 

  The only one of the 2019 Booker longlist I've actually read is My Sister, The Serial Killer Ducks, Newburyport, The Wall, Lost Children Archive, An Orchestra of Minorities and Lanny are all on my radar or in my borrowing queue.   The Wall hasn't gotten a United States release yet.  Atwood and Rushdie are going to be literary events- either one could win the Nobel Prize.   I know Lost Children Archive and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World  have United States editions, they shouldn't be hard to track down.  That leaves only four books that look to be UK only at this point.   

 Whether you read Ducks, Newburyport is probably going to be *the* book for serious readers of literary fiction.   Atwood winning for a sequel would be pretty unheard-of, but The Handmaid's Tale has seemingly ascended to Brave New World/1984/The Hunger Games levels of cultural presence and resonance. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Crossing (1994) by Cormac McCarthy

Book Review
The Crossing (1994)
 by Cormac McCarthy

   The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy focuses on two characters: John Grady and Billy Parham.  Grady is the subject of the first book, Parham the subject of the second, and then both characters are in book three.   The Crossing is the second book in the trilogy, and it's about the childhood and young adulthood of Billy Parham,  the son of a small rancher in New Mexico, growing up shortly before World War II when the book starts, and then continuing through the beginning of World War II.    Like All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing is a bildungsroman/coming-of-age story that mostly takes place in Mexico, and like Grady, Parham experience many and various travails while riding around on a horse. 

    Wolves, Native Americans, bandits, stories told by blind old men, conversations with half-crazed missionaries, a fetching underage Mexican girl as a love interest, The Crossing has everything a reader or listener expects from the second volume of The Border Trilogy.    McCarthy is an awesome author for the Audiobook format- his style of narration is ideal for the spoken word, and I could listen to Cormac McCarthy novels on a loop on Audiobook.  The Crossing is one of McCarthy's longer books: 432 pages, and it feels so- with the individual episodes stretching into novella length territory. The initial encounter between Parham and a wolf, which he kills and then attempts to return to Mexico for burial, feels like a book in and of itself.

   I've lately become convinced that McCarthy is, in fact, my favorite author- simply if I consider the pleasure of his work, compared to the chore that other favorite authors like Pynchon and Roth can feel like at times.    As I write this I'm listening to the third book of The Border Trilogy, and that will leave only his very earliest novels left.   Basically, every book that McCarthy has written since 1980 has been a hit and a classic, and I agree on both counts.  

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) by John McGahern

Book Review
That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002)
by John McGahern

   That They May Face the Rising Sun was the last novelist by Irish author John McGahern.  McGahern died in 2006, and at the time of his death he was lauded as, "the most important Irish writer since Beckett" among other accolades and plaudits.  The 1001 Books project rewarded him by removing this book from their first revision, replacing it with a book by Jose Carlos Somoza, and reducing him to one book (Amongst Women.)

  Published in the United States as By The Lake- I had a hard time tracking down a copy- since I didn't figure out about the different title until after I'd found a copy with the UK title, bought it on Amazon and then let it sit around my house for a solid year before finally gritting my teeth and sitting down to read it.

   That They May Face the Rising Sun charts a year in the life of an Irish couple who have moved back to the Irish country side after living in London, he a writer and she an advertising executive.  A reader could be forgiven if they would expect lots of information about the life left behind, but quite the opposite- both the wife and husband of the repatriated pair, the Ruttledge's do their best to obscure themselves in the farming community which surrounds them.

  The first hundred pages are so low key that they are practically somnolent- after buying this book it took me a half dozen tries to get past the first 50 pages, but the reader is rewarded, as the 'action' picks up towards the middle and end: selling lambs at the county fair, a mail order bride for the local rake, etc.  Nothing really happens with the Ruttledge's themselves- no dramatic infidelity or one or the other decamping back to London.

  The country side is evoked beautifully, as you'd expect.  

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970) by Michel Foucault

Book Review
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970)
by Michel Foucault

  I was reading in what you might call a systematic fashion long before I started writing about it.  Before I started the 1001 Books project over a decade ago, I was mostly reading history, especially medieval history, as well as philosophy.  I abandoned both areas, more or less, because it was hard to keep a constant supply of unread books on hand, and the subject matter in both areas tends to be dry- not good for the lifestyle of more casual reading I wanted to embrace.

  Only now am I getting back into it, by "it" I mean philosophy.   I found a used copy of The Order of Things at a used book store down the street, and I thought Foucault would be a good place to resume: He's challenging, but not super challenging, and incredibly influential on the current generation of scholars both inside and outside philosophy.   One of my take-aways from reading The Order of Things is that I might be better served by going and finding the works of English language authors who have been deeply influence by Foucault.

   The major point of The Order of Things is that knowledge, and specifically categories of knowledge, are contingent and rely on a variety of environmental factors to gain their meaning.  It is one of the core teachings of the "relativism" which has been embraced by educators first, and later by politicians and normal folks.

  Foucault's method is to SHOW the manner in which scientific discourse emerged from earlier, non-scientific discourse by focusing on three disciplines: biology, linguistics and economics.  He does this by going back to the 18th century or thereabouts and performing heavy textual analysis.  The lack of familiarity that any modern, English reader has with any of his source materials contributes to the difficulty, but there is also the problem of Foucaltian analysis itself, which seems purposefully obscure.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Woman First: First Woman (2019) by Selina Meyer

Image result for selina meyer
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as President Selina Meyer on VEEP, the television show.
Book Review
Woman First: First Woman (2019)
 by Selina Meyer

   I've been a huge fan of the television show VEEP from Day one, was already a fan of Armando Iannucci via his work in The Thick of It.  I was also a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Post-VEEP,  Louis-Dreyfus is set to make history as the most Emmy winning Actress of all time.  VEEP survived the departure of Iannucci half-way through the show, and prospered even after he left.   Surely Louis-Dreyfus was key to this longer-term success, though I thought she was matched by other members of the cast, especially Tony Hale- who joins Meyer/Louis-Dreyfus on the Audiobook, reprising his role as "body man" Gary Walsh.

  Fans of the show are sure to love the Audiobook, which is as funny as the writing for the show, and adds some depth to the Selina Meyer biography, including her sexual obsession with her own father, her fondness for fox hunting and blood-sport of all types and manages to leave out any mention of the time she freed Tibet.  Like Meyer herself, you get a lot of her back story, childhood and college years- which Meyer's herself thinks should have been the focus of Woman First- and very little actual politics.  It is, of course, because Meyer, who emerges as a near sociopathic personality by the end of Woman First, is motivated by nothing but an unquenchable thirst for "more," and a total lack of commitment to any ideology or even single idea.

  One part of Woman First that adds to the show is Meyer's account of her rise through the house and Senate, which was almost never discussed on the show.  Meyer displays contempt for both institutions, hilariously, in what is some of the best material in Woman First.  Meyer is also forthright about her contempt for, you know, voters, portraying the act of campaigning and even just talking to your constituents as an onerous chore.

   The whole book was hilarious- specifically AS an Audiobook, I don't think it would be nearly as funny without it being read by Meyer herself (since most of the humor of the book revolves around the fact that she didn't write the book herself, and is therefore unfamiliar with the details of her own auto-biography, amplified by her reading the book herself for the Audiobook, seemingly for the first time. 

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