Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.

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