Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

After Dark, My Sweet (1955) by Jim Thompson

Image result for rachel ward after dark my sweet
Rachel Ward playing the femme fatalle in the Palm Springs set movie versino of After Dark, My Sweet, by Jim Thompson
Book Review
After Dark, My Sweet (1955)
by Jim Thompson

   There is a strong argument that Jim Thompson is the BEST writer of pulp-style crime fiction between 1950 and 1965, when Thompson was turning out canon level works every two or three years, and publishing a book or two EVERY year.   He wasn't recognized as canon-level at the time his books were coming out, except perhaps by the New York Times, but during the crime-fiction revival of the 1980's, with an assist from Hollywood, Thompson was elevated to secure canon status, meaning that in 2019 there are four Thompson titles available as Audiobooks from the library- and all of this book-books.

   You've got this book, The Grifters (1963),  A Swell-Looking Babe(1954) and The Killer Inside Me (1952).  Of those four  After Dark, My Sweet, about an ex-boxer, insane asylum escapee "Kid" Collins, and a kidnapping intrigue involving two co-conspirators in an unnamed small town somewhere in America, stands out for the character of "Kid" Collins, a particularly disturbing Thompson-style unreliable narrator, who alternates between the gee-whiz lingo of mid-50's Americana and occasional uncontrollable "red rages" that end poorly for other people nearby.

  Like crime fiction as a genre, After Dark, My Sweet is great material for the Audiobook narrator- any book with a single narrator, under ten hours in length, requires little or no "extra" effort to follow plot or characters.  It's hard not to visualize the Audiobook as a film- it was a film in 1990, and the Wikipedia page for the name After Dark. My Sweet is for the film, not the book, with no link to a separate page for the book.

   The kidnapping plot was genuinely effective, crime fiction, for me works better in Audiobook then the related detective genre.  It's interesting, because it would be easy to simply say that After Dark, My Sweet, the book is a noir, but noir refers to films, not books, and the movie version didn't come out until decades into the "neo-noir" period.   In general Thomson anticipated the psychological complexity that turned out to be one of the primary criteria to distinguish genre transcending canon crime fiction of the 50's and 60's from the also-rans. 

McGlue (2014) by Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review
McGlue (2014)
by Ottessa Moshfegh

  I was intrigued enough by My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh to turn around and check out the Audiobook for McGlue, her 2014 debut novella (or novel if you want to stretch the term.)    McGlue is a sailor living in the mid 19th century.  He wakes up in the hold of a ship where he was employed as a sailor.  His captors tell him that he has murdered his best, and only friend, an act McGlue can not remember.

   Soon enough, McGlue finds himself in a prison cell in Salem, Massachusetts.   He is alcoholic, a deviant and he has a literal crack in his skull through which the brain is visible.  The prose is biting, bitter, sardonic.  In other words, similar to the other Otessa Moshfegh book I've read, which is narrated by a young woman living in the late 20th century.   That is what you call style.

  I'm inclined to think that McGlue is another exhibit in the case that Moshfegh is a major talent. 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019) by Sara Collins

Sara Collins
Author Sara Collins grew up in the Caribbean and studied creative writing in England (at Cambridge University, in case anyone is asking)

Book Review
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019)
by Sara Collins

    I managed to check out the Audiobook for this new novel by Sara Collins- no wait- which is hugely unusual in the library/Audiobook universe, probably because of a quirk in international publishing where books will be published in multiple English speaking countries at the same time but only promoted in certain territories.   Here,  The Confessions of Fannie Langton received a good bit of press in the UK but almost none in the United States.

  Like recent Booker Prize winner and personal favorite Marlon James, Collins is of Jamaican decent but left Jamaica to find her voice- James to the United States and Collins to the United Kingdom.  Also like James, she includes LGBT voices in her fiction- not particularly unusual outside of Jamaica, but still controversial inside Jamaica, which has a terrible track record for protecting LGBT rights, and in fact, was actively persecuting LGBT people until late into the 20th century.

  The Confessions of Fannie Langton is Collins' debut, and I agree with The Guardian that she is a  star in the making.  I would be surprised if Langton isn't longlisted for one or more major literary prizes.  The two major touchstones for Collins- outside of what appears to be her voluminous historically based research- are Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe, a book to which Langton refers regularly as she recounts her Confessions and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which is similar in terms of the narrative:  A servant accused of murdering her employers.

  Set in the 1820's, an awkward period after the slave trade had been outlawed in the British Empire, and inside the United Kingdom, but where slaves themselves were legal in places that already had them (Jamaica), the first setting of Confessions is set on the inappropriately named "Paradise" where Langton is plucked as a young girl to be a house servant.

    After a difficult childhood and adolescence, where she is taught to read and write and eventually adopted by the plantation master to be his "scientific" assistant in his experiments into the nature of racial differences, she is gifted to London based scientist and scholar George Benham, who is married to the eccentric daughter of French (presumably) Hugenot's, Marguerite.  In England, Frannie is no longer a slave, but also, as she often observes to herself- far from free- with no friends outside the home (or in it) and no place to go should she wish to leave.

   The Audiobook was read by the author herself, and it was enjoyable as an Audiobook, and works well in that format, since it is the voice of a single narrator, recounting her past in a prison cell.   It's possible to make it half-way through Confessions wondering if there are to be any twists and turns beyond the "did she or didn't she" murder narrative, but they do begin to appear, and they are fascinating and horrifying, and such that I would recommend  The Confessions of Frannie Langdon as an ideal beach read (as did The Guardian) and a great candidate for the Booker Prize longlist.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh

Image result for ottessa moshfegh
Author Ottessa Moshfegh
Book Review
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018)
 by Ottessa Moshfegh

    This was a book club selection- I'm in a book club in Atwater Village- if there are any la readers who want to get in on it LMK- NO WEIRDOS!  Unlike most of the book club picks, I was actually excited to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation, having heard a plot summary, "Young woman uses pills to try to sleep her life away" which deeply aroused my interest.    Set in the year before the 9/11 attacks, in Manhattan, the unnamed narrator is a young/thin/blond Manhattanite woman, recently orphaned via the death of her father from disease and her mother from suicide.  She is wealthy enough to be able to hatch her plan- to self medicate herself into oblivion for a year as an attempt to deal (or not deal) with the unresolved trauma surrounding the deaths of her parents.

   Her partner in crime, and almost the only other character in the novel, is Reva, the aspirational Jewish sidewalk to the narrator's waifish WASP.  In what constitutes almost the entire "action" in the whole book, the narrator makes her way to Long Island for the funeral of Reva's mother.

  But most of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is about the narrator, her pills, and her interior monologue.  And yet, I found My Year of Rest and Relaxation impossible to put down (it isn't long) and read it in one sitting.  After finishing it, I had suspicions that Moshfegh might be one of those rare writers who can evoke both sales and critical praise.  It's also interesting that some readers HATE My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and that can also be an indication of greatness.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Underground (2019) by Will Hunt

Image result for cave buffalo france
The famous and rarely seen Bull and Cow Bison from the French cave at Tuc D'Audobert

Book Review
Underground (2019)
 by Will Hunt

   Underground by writer/"audio journalist" Will Hunt is a work of creative non-fiction about humanity and it's relationship with caves, basically.   Incredibly, in between the time it took me to request and listen to the Audiobook (read by the author, fyi) ANOTHER book came out about a similar subject, Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane.  That's crazy, right?

  The tone of Underground varies between capable reportage and summaries of recent academic research about various caves.  Early chapters trace the author's fascination with the underground, from abandoned railway tunnels in his native Rhode Island, to formative years spend urban-spelunking with hipsters and graffiti artists in New York.  Adulthood arrives with a south-to-north journey through the catacombs of Paris.

   Hunt concludes with two of his strongest chapters- the first a visit to the rarely visited cave at Tuc D'Audobert with the 14,000 year old pair of bison shown above.  That chapter counts as a genuine coup, and I wonder if it helped sell the book.  Finally, there is a chapter about the Maya and the Yucatan, which, as any world traveler knows, is the world capital of underground caves.

  My interest in each individual chapter peaked when Hunt wrote about lesser known subjects, and slackened in areas where I had some background.  For example, I own a first edition hardback of Mole People by Jennifer Toth, which is pretty much all you need to know about the New York Underground.   The Parisian Catacombs are familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of 19th century French literature- I wasn't sure what a group of early 21st century spelunkers could bring that writers like Zola lacked.

Early Riser (2019) by Jasper Fforde

Book Review
Early Riser (2019)
 by Jasper Fforde

   Jasper Fforde is an English novelist who slots into the comic/science fiction genre area notably occupied in the past by Douglas Adams, a legit canon level writer who never wrote anything resembling "serious" literary fiction but managed to transcend genre both in the realm of science fiction, with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series AND in detective fiction, with the Dirk Gently Holistic detective series.  Both were represented in the original edition of 1001 Books, and I agree- I loved The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in middle school, and enjoyed re-reading it more recently.

  Fforde imagines an alternate-Earth where human hibernate during the winter, leaving a skeleton crew of maintainence workers and law enforcement to deal with the many perils of winter:  "Nightwalkers" (humans who fail to wake up from hibernation at the end of winter), small scale nuclear disasters caused by reliance of nuclear powered hibernation chambers, and depredations by various groups of winter raiders.

  The alternate history scenario includes a world where Wales is independent, and the remaining English nobility are exiled to the far reaches of northern Wales, where they persist in speaking English and observing antiquated customs, like afternoon tea.  The characters of the novel are presumably speaking Welsh.   Fforde doesn't skimp on alternate history detail, including repeatedly mentioning that the Ottoman Empire has survived the 20th century and the Nazis, and Stalin, are nowhere to be seen. 

  The primary concern of this world is reproduction, and the cold fact that a certain percentage of the human population doesn't make it through the winter.  Within this world, the major development of the mid 20th century is a drug called "Morpinox" which greatly increase the chance that a specific human will survive the winter, but which has the unfortunate side effect of creating Nightwalkers.

 Charlie Worthing, the narrator and protagonist, signs up for the Winter Consul Service out of a yearning to escape the quiet desperation of his young adult life, where he is stuck in a dead end job as an assistant at a nursery/orphanage where the goal is to generate new humans in a collective environment, run by nuns who are kept perpetually pregnant.

  For his first assignment, Worthing, is dispatched with his sponsor/mentor to the mysterious "District 12" (Northern Wales).  First, his boss is killed, then he is drawn into a plot involving the sinister corporation behind Morphinox, a woman with a split personality who spends half her time as the head of the Winter Consul Service and the other half as head of security for the Morphinox producing corporation. 

   Early Riser is interesting as a work of funny science fiction- it was a great listen as an Audiobook.  There is ambition in the scenario, though the execution ends up being pretty rote and genre-y.  Still, I'd recommend it to genre fans and non genre fans who happen to like Douglas Adams type jokes.

Instructions for a Funeral (2019) by David Means

Book Review
Instructions for a Funeral (2019)
by David Means

   I enjoy listening to short story collections more than I enjoy reading short story collections.  Thus, the increase in Audiobook consumption has led to a corresponding increase in reading short story collections.   David Means is six short story collections into a career that includes stories published by New Yorker-level magazines and journals, as well as a Booker long-listed novel in 2016.  That novel was Hystopia, and it is the kind of alternate-history, sci-fi, literary fiction cross-over that I would expect to know, but did not, before reading this book.

   The characters of Means' stories in Instructions for a Funeral are mostly men, and mostly men grappling with different aspects of masculinity:  A fist-fight in the back alleys of Sacramento in the 1950's,  a father watching his young son fall off a sea-wall, and the eponymous title story, which involve the highly detailed instructions left by a still-living real estate investor, as he contemplates the legacy of a deal gone dramatically wrong.   His prose has the kind of tightly wound sentences that appeal to literary critics and fans of "serious "literature, but might well leave the casual reader cold.   Six short story collections in, Means has defined his voice and his insights leave the reader with plenty of quiet insight into the human conditions, as long as you are talking about a white guy who is married with  young kids. 

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