Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Corelli's Mandolin (1994) by Louis de Bernières

Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Nicolas Cage played the eponymous Captain Corelli in the movie version of the book.
Book Review
Corelli's Mandolin (1994)
by Louis de  Bernières

  I supposed I avoided Corelli's Mandolin because I could only think of the Nicholas Cage starring movie version (with Penelope Cruz playing the Greek love interest)- 28% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Also, I spent a year or so looking for a book called Captain Corelli's Mandolin- which is the name of the book in the UK and the movie version, but not the name of the US edition of the book.  I read the Ebook- it took forever- Corelli's Mandolin is 550 pages in paperback, meaning more than a thousand pages read in Eformat.

  At the least the book presents a marginally fresh take on a little known part of World War II- the Italian and German invasion of Greece, told from the perspective of an omnipotent third party narrator and a variety of characters: Corelli, the Italian Captain with the soul of a musician,  Dr. Iannis- the local daughter, and his strong willed daughter Pelagia. There is also a galaxy of supporting characters and even interludes told from the perspective of historical figures like Benito Mussolini.  The Author obviously took pride in his historical research- he says in much in an afterword, but at it's heart Corelli's Mandolin is a very typical "international best-seller" that deals with the theme of love during war-time.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Diamonds Are Forever (1956) by Ian Fleming

Image result for sean connery diamonds are forever
Sean Connery playing James Bond in the movie version of Diamonds Are Forever
Book Review
Diamonds Are Forever (1956)
by Ian Fleming

  Ian Fleming is an interesting subject in the debate over the 20th cenutry literary canon.  He is at best quasi-canonical, and recommendations regarding his novels often acknowledge that the lasting success of the books is based entirely on the success of the movie version of James Bond, in particular the role as embodied by Sean Connery in the first seven Bond films.
  Connery's portrayal of Bond in the first seven films is arguably the most succesful, canonical reoccuring film performance of all time.  I think you would be hard pressed to find a single person on planet Earth that doesn't have some kind of familiarity with the character of James Bond specifically as Connery played him in the movies.  The central irony that this presents vis a vis the Fleming novels is that Fleming's Bond is a quintessentially ENGLISH spy,

  Sean Connery is, of course, Scottish making the movie character a vaguely British chap- neither Fleming nor the films ever delve into his backstory, presenting him in the single dimension in his role as a super-spy- the super spy.  If anything, Connery turned Bond into a more dangerous figure than the character in the book.   A major revelation in Diamonds Are Forever are the several pages where Bond thoughtfully considers the emotional composition of his love interest.   The consensus, however, is that the films completely eclipse the books, which are essentially only of interest because they gave birth to the films.

   I don't think that is very fair to Fleming, particularly considering that he published the Bond books entirely between 1953 and 1966, and the movies have been going strong since 1962, and continue to draw positive attention today.   This is longer than a half century that James Bond has remained a central cultural figure- the kind of length that beings to approach other fictional stalwarts like Sherlock Holmes or comic book super hero's like Batman and Superman.

  Listening to the Audiobook of Diamonds Are Forever- or "the one where Bond goes to Vegas"- I was struck by the impression that Fleming is not as bad as all that, and that people might be basing their criticisms of the writer on their viewings of the film.  Also, if you consider that Diamonds Are Forever was published in 1956- making his depiction of a mob owned Las Vegas one of the earliest such depictions of a milieu that would become a trope of mid 20th century genre fiction and popular film, it is easier to consider the value of Fleming as a writer outside of the movies.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

My Sister the Serial Killer(2018) by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Image result for oyinkan braithwaite

Audiobook Review
My Sister the Serial Killer (2018)
by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published by Double Day

  I was immediately interested by the caption description I read about My Sister the Serial Killer when it was published last November.  Debut novel by a Nigerian author that combines family drama and, yes, a serial killing sister.   You had me at debut novel by a Nigerian author!  It's a slim volume- 240 pages in print, and a little over four hours as an Audiobook.  It was an interesting choice as an Audiobook- the narrator- a Nigerian woman working as a nurse with a solid education and social background- speaks with something like an American accent, but then many of the secondary characters speak with a pronounced Nigerian accent- similar to those displayed in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie- another contemporary Nigerian author.

  It must be said that getting the accents is one of the pleasures of the Audiobook, and it makes we want to back and see what Scottish classics might be available in the same format.   There is nothing to dislike about My Sister the Serial Killer, I very much enjoyed it, and it seems like a choice for a movie or television version.   There's no question that there is a rise of distinctive African voices, including many young women, coming out of Nigeria right now. 

Too Much Happiness (2009) by Alice Munro

Image result for young alice munro
Alice Munro, Canadian short story writer and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
Book Review
Too Much Happiness (2009)
by Alice Munro

   One of my major Audiobook "fill" categories is Nobel Prize winners.  I thought that all the Nobel Prize in Literature winners would automatically have all their books available in Audiobook format, or at least those who won in the past twenty years.   Just to take recent winners- there are no available Audiobooks for 2014 winner Patrick Modiano (French.)  This is despite the fact that Modiano's works are typically translated into English and remain in print (they were all on the shelf at a recent visit to Foyle's Books in London.)

  BUT- Alice Munro- Canadian Apostle of the Short Story- she won in 2013 (which I did not even know) and ALL of her books are available as Audiobooks.  She's got 14 volumes of short stories published between 1968 and 2012, and then there are a handful of separate compilations. I selected Too Much Happiness, more or less randomly, because it was published shortly before she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and I'm of the opinion that the Nobel Prize prefers to give the award to Authors who are still doing their best work.

  I think the Audiobook and the short story go well together, in the same way that the novel really fits the paperback/hardback physical book format.  It's easy to dip in and out of an Audiobook, vs when I read a physical book,  I don't like to reset my attention frame every half hour.   Munro's Wikipedia tag line is that she revolutionized the architecture of the short story, especially the tendency to move backward and forward in time.    That last clause really resonates with me, "the tendency to move backward and forward in time," which has to be one of the techniques of writers that I most frequently call out after reading an entry on the 1001 Books list.   It's a technique I associate with the novel, specifically with the high modernists, though by mid century it was making it's way in the mainline literature.

    It strikes me that Munro has an incredibly low profile for the first North American to win the Nobel in Literature since Toni Morrison won a decade earlier.  I guess that win is reflected in the availability of her books in Audiobook format, but I'd be hard pressed to name a single person I've ever met who has read her, let alone would name Munro as one of their favorite authors.

   Of course, I'm not going to trash a collection of Munro short stories, but like all short story collections I'm left grasping at a sold critical approach.  Talk about themes? Individual stories?  All of the stories are set in contemporary Canada except for the title story, about an 19th century Russian mathematician who was the first woman to teach in Sweden (Nobel Prize committee catnip, no doubt.)

 I listened to Too Much Happiness in a variety of circumstances- it took me 40 days to get through the 11 hours.  Some of Munro's protagonists are men, most are women. Domestic relationships gone wrong feature strongly in several of the stories in this collection.  Too Much Happiness is another beast entirely- I wonder if it could be a novella, it seemed long enough on it's own.  I happened to be flying back from Iceland when I listened to most of Too Much Happiness, and I thought the Russian/Scandinavian angle was particularly well thought out and clever.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

In Search of Klingsor (2003) by Jorge Volpi

Book Review
In Search of Klingsor (2003)
by Jorge Volpi

Replaces: The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

  Mexican author Jorge Volpi made it onto the second edition of the 1001 Books list with In Search of Klingsor, his Pynchon/Stephenson-eque book about Nazi scientific efforts during the Second World War.  Volpi remains largely unknown in the United States- only half of his books have been translated into English, and In Search of Klingsor is the only book that has been widely read.

   It's clear that Spanish language artists were the big winners in the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  Unlike an author like Roberto Bolano, Volpi isn't as glaring an omission, but it's hard to argue with Volpi taking the place of The Body Artist by Don DeLillo- since The Body Artist is a marginal book by an over-represented author.   Volpi is working in crowded territory, with In Search of Klingsor recalling elements of Gravity's Rainbow and Cryptonomicon, but without the stylistic complexity of the former or the sheer epicness of the later (and the former, for that matter).   In Seach of Klingsor also integrates the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler by a group of disaffected German army officers as a plot element.   None of it really worked for me, but I'll take it over a book about disaffected wealthy English people any day.

When We Were Orphans (2000) by Kenzo Ishiguro

Audiobook Review
When We Were Orphans (2000)
 by  Kenzo Ishiguro

   Like I've been saying, I'm having trouble staying stocked up on Audiobooks so I'm developing new categories on the fly.  Canonical non fiction titles is one,  non canonical titles by canonical authors is another.  As a recent Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Ishiguro has all of his books published in Audiobook format- this book was actually just the CD version re-uploaded onto the library app.

  When We Were Orphans is well established as Ishiguro's least succesful novel, largely, I think because his awkward embrace with the detective fiction genre.  Compare the largely positive reception his two other dives into genre fiction received:  The Buried Giant (Arthurian fantasy) and Never Let Me Go (Dystopian sci fi).  Of course, calling any Ishiguro novel a work of genre fiction isn't totally accurate, it's more like he assumes some of the elements of each genre as a vehicle for his favorite theme of human memory.

  So it's not like I expect a Ishiguro penned detective story to be good in the same way a conventional work of detective fiction is good, but even by the lenient standards of serious lit authors working in genre fiction territory, When We Were Orphans is not a success.  The central mystery: what happened to the parents of a London based Sherlock Holmes type detective after they disappeared in Shanghai when said detective was a boy, is treated by everyone within the world of the novel as a mystery that can and will be solved by the narrating detective, whereas any reader knows from page one that this is a hopeless and insane quest doomed to failure.

   This central dissatisfaction with the underlying logic of the plot only grows as the book moves forward, and unlike the characters in his other books, the narrator in When We Were Orphans should be able to see how insane his quest is, in reality.  For example, in The Buried Giant, the characters are literally subject to a spell cast by a Merlin figure that makes them forget the traumas of recent history.  In The Unconsoled, the characters are clones.  The prosaic resolution of the central dissapeared parent mystery at the heart of When We Were Orphans does nothing to alleviate the concern of the reader that he or she has wasted their time.

    On the other side of the equation, Ishiguro has only written one book that could plausibly be considered a failure, which makes When We Were Orphans an interesting exception to the over-all world beating quality of his bibliography.   Also, I can't be mad listening to an Ishiguro novel in Audiobook format, the digressive style of his narrators makes for good listening.

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