Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Nervous Conditions (1988) by Tsitsi Danarembga

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Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Danarembga

Book Review
Nervous Conditions (1988)
 by Tsitsi Danarembga

   Nervous Conditions by Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Danarembga is one of the last books on the original 1001 Books list that I had left.  No Audiobook, No Ebook version, only a single copy in the Los Angeles Public Library.   Her Wikipedia page says that Nervous Conditions is the first book written in English by a black Zimbabwean author.

    The narrator is Tambu, a young woman growing up during the closing days of colonialism.  When her older brother dies while away at missionary school, she is chosen to replace him.  There she befriends Nyasha, the daughter of her wealthy uncle (who has sponsored her education.)   Nyasha has recently returned from school in England, and it is the conflict that this return creates which provides the title of the book, Nervous Conditions

   Nyasha is plagued by emotional conflicts with her patriarchial father and eventually develops an eating disorder, while Tambu balances her new education and village bound family with more aplomb.   I read Nervous Conditions after finishing The Old Drift- set in Rhodesia but written by an expatriate, and it is clear that the difference between native and expatriate fiction in Africa often boils down to the fact that the former have a grasp of African village life, and the transitions from that world to the modern urban world, and expatriate writers do not. 

The White Book (2019) by Han Kang

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Korean author Han Kang

Book Review
The White Book (2019)
by Han Kang

  I really enjoyed The Vegetarian by this author.   The success of that book- she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016- really made her at the international level, and The White Book was nominated for the Booker International Prize last year- 2018- and made it to the shortlist.  The American publication followed this year- February- to be specific.  I managed to get the library copy of the Audiobook quickly, and I wasn't surprised to see that it was barely three hours long- The Vegetarian was itself very spare, and I gather that is Han Kang's style.

    Hang is also what you call poetic and elliptical,  The White Book is described by the published as a "meditation on the death of her older sister" who died as an infant, while the author is on a literary tour of Warsaw.   Truth be told, nothing really grabbed me about The White Book, it came and went and I barely registered it- another book that would have been better in print to allow me to meditate on the mediation, as it were.

Notes From the Fog (2018) by Ben Marcus

Book Review
Notes From the Fog (2018)
 by Ben Marcus

   Ben Marcus has a pretty amazing resume for a writer of literary fiction: his dad is a Jewish mathematician and his mom is a Irish Catholic Virginia Woolf scholar.  He was raised in Austin.  He is a Professor at Columbia University.   Marcus has written novels and short stories, Notes From the Fog is a collection of short-stories that share a theme of near future dystopia.  It is a world that is immediately recognizable, it's a place where a pharma company uses employees as guinea pigs to test a new method of feeding human beings through light (with disastrous consequences), a couple specializes in designing memorials to victims of mass shootings, a ten year old boy hates his parents.

   Like George Saunders, Marcus is an accomplished prose stylist, and I gather that many of his earlier books used challenging grammar and plot construction.  Notes From the Fog is very straight forward with none of that sort of literary experimentalism- the only challenge is orienting yourself to the parameters of each individual scenario, since it isn't clear that the stories take place in the "same" world.   I listened to the Audiobook- a choice I regretted- I would have liked to have seen the actual book.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Machines Like Me (2019) by Ian McEwan

Book Review
Machines Like Me (2019)
by Ian McEwan

  Ian McEwan is a giant of literary fiction in the United Kingdom, in the United States he isn't as popular, but McEwan is still one of those non-American writers of literary fiction who sells enough to merit a United States specific press campaign and book tour.   I therefore had high hopes for Machines Like Me, McEwan's latest book, sparking a wave of McEwan related press and excitement, but alas, it seems like the public reception for Machines Like Me  has been muted. 

   It was hard to read Machines Like Me without thinking about Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Both books take place in a parallel science-fiction past/present where technology has advanced beyond that of our own world while at the same time maintaining a retro air in the area of aesthetics and creature comforts.  In Never Let Me Go the sci fi element where clones grown for organ transplants, in Machines Like Me, the hook is artificially intelligent androids, produced in a limited edition of 26, 13 Adam's and 13 Eve's. 

 Charlie Friend, the narrator of Machines Like Me, purchases one of the Adam's, the Eve's already sold out.  Friend is not the kind of independently wealthy gentleman you would imagine buying such a cutting edge technological innovation: he has recently inherited some money after the death of his mother, and he scrapes by day trading and engaging in a desultory affair with his upstairs neighbor, who may or may not have framed a man for rape.

  McEwan doesn't stint on his alternate history/past, a world where Alan Turing refused chemical castration, avoided suicide and emerged as an apostle of open world science (and artificial intelligence).    McEwan is known for his interest in technical research in many of his books, sometimes it is intimately intertwined with the plot, other times it just kind of sits there.  Machines Like Me is more of the later than the former,  at times the exposition is closer to what you would find in genre fiction. 

 Like every Ian McEwan book, events take a dark turn.  He didn't earn the nickname, "Ian Macabre" for nothing!

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney

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Irish author Sally Rooney

Book Review
Normal People (2018)
by Sally Rooney

  Irish author Sally Rooney is being hailed as a millennial J.D. Salinger, and I can't say I have a problem with it.  I first heard about Rooney last year when she made the shortlist for the Booker Prize. It wasn't quite at the level where I bought a UK edition of Normal People during a recent visit to London, but that was only because I knew it would be getting a big release in the United States.  I was willing to wait, not being overly excited about a novel concerning the lives and loves of young people in Ireland, no matter how deafening the buzz.

  I mean, the mere fact of the buzz around the book and the author based on a such simple description can only make a prospective reader anticipate some kind of near universal literary magic.  There can't be more than a half-dozen serious non-American writers of literary fiction that receive the kind of attention Rooney received, irrespective of age.  More attention than Ian McEwan received for his most recent book.

The story she tells about the on again off again will they won't they between two brilliant young people: Marianne, the emotionally isolated and abused daughter of a wealthy barrister mother and a deceased barrister father and Connell  the only child of a single mother who cleans the house of the girl's family.   Rooney revisits the two as they fall into and out of love while also building a lasting, complicated friendship. 

 Like I said earlier, I'm sold.  I really enjoyed Normal People, and I'm a believer in Sally Rooney and her future status as a potential "voice of a generation."  The Irish accents of the Audiobook readers were intoxicating- if you ever think about it, get an Audiobook written by an Irish author.  

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The Old Drift (2019) by Narwalli Serpell

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Zambian-American author Narwali Serpell

Book Review
The Old Drift (2019)
 by Narwalli Serpell

   The Old Drift is Zambian-American author Narwalli Serpell's first novel.   It is sprawling and ambitious in all the best ways, introducing the reader to multiple generations of families who live in what is called Zambia today, though the book covers the pre-Independence era when it was called Northern Rhodesia.  Serpell traces the fortunes of three families, one of Italian immigrants, who come to build the great dam- the biggest in the world at the time, a mixed family founded by a marriage between a black Zambian studying in England and his white wife, who is blind.   The final family is black Zambian.   Serpell herself is mixed race, the daughter of a white Zambian professor of economics who left to teach in the United States and his wife. 

  Even though I pride myself on my interest in Africa and familiarity with the history of the continent, Zambia is itself a major character, particularly the capital of Lusaka.  I found myself looking up locations on Google Maps, and reading the Wikipedia page for the real-life Zambian Space Program, which pops up in the lives of the black-African family.

 Serpell isn't content to merely tell the story of modern Zambia through the interlinked lives of three families, she also throws in a near-future science fiction plot that takes up the bulk of the end of the book, and includes a meta voice of a swarm of mosquitoes- voiced on the Audiobook by the inestimable Richard Grant.

   The Audiobook was a positive delight- specifically, the Zambian accents, which sound like an off shoot of the Dutch accented English spoken by the Boer people in South Africa.     The Old Drift isn't perfect, but it stands out simply for the combination of place and the ambition and execution of the narrative.  Don't be caught sleeping, but be aware that the print version is 566 pages.

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