Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Double (2002) by Jose Saramago

Book Review
The Double (2002)
by Jose Saramago

  Jose Saramago is not a good choice for an Ebook read.  His sentences spin and sprawl, a modern version of a Borgesian language labyrinth, meaning that one Ebook page might not even contain a full sentence.  It's not the plot that is complicated, a fairly standard "man discovers he has an doppelganger in the world and becomes obsessed" riff that is weighed down by the layers of self reflection that dog haunt Tertuliano Maximo Alonso, the history teacher and protagonist.   I find a common reaction reading Saramago is that I want the characters to do something, anything, besides reflect.

   Like, the The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which turns on a momentary decision by a translator to insert a "not" into a single sentence, The Double turns around a single moment where Alonso sees his double as an extra in an rented video cassette.  His obsession is understable but Saramago's obfuscation of every possible action or conversation left me unmoved.  The Double was written after his Nobel Prize in Literature, so he was writing after having his greatness confirmed and to me, The Double read like an author who has no more points to make.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Master (2004) by Colm Tóibín

Book Review
The Master (2004)
by Colm Tóibín

   I genuinely I got more out of The Master by listening to the audio book than I would have if I read the book itself.   If ever there was an author who needs a little help to "come alive" for contemporary readers such as myself, it is Henry James, to whom the title refers.  The Master captures a time in James' life, after the failure of his play on the London stage, when he was taking stock in his life, and most of The Master consists of lengthy recollections by James as he intricately examines past episodes in his life.

   Much of what concerns James in his recollections is his obsession with the hidden self and the manner in which his personal reticence, particularly as it relates to his relationship with his deceased sister, Alice, and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who perhaps killed herself after being abandoned by James in Venice.  James also spends ample time reflecting on the nature of literary fame and fortune- including the opening chapters featuring the failure of his play, and a late encounter with his brother, famous psychologist and scholar William James, where his brother urges him to write a historical drama that "everyone can understand." 

  In the hands of Tóibín, Henry James"comes alive" in a way I had previously thought impossible, and it left me looking forward to revisiting his books on my way back through the canon.  The Master is also the second book, chronologically, on the "core" list.  I fully agree with that decision.   The Master by Colm Tóibín

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle

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English actor Benedict Cumberbatch is the most recent to play Sherlock Holmes on screen.

Book Review
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
 by Arthur Conan Doyle

   No one would argue that the Sherlock Holmes mysteries written by Arthur Conan Doyle were Literature, capital L, but it would be equally hard to argue that Doyle created the most memorable fictional character in 20th century fiction.  Any canonical status for a selection from the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries is surely based on the enduring popularity of the fictional character, rather than a fondness for the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle.

  I've read The Hound of the Baskervilles at least two or three times, and I've seen a movie/tv version at least once, so I thought I would try the re-read on Audio book, my new, most favorite way to take in a book.  I sense, from the limited discussions I've had with peers about that the format, that it is frowned upon by serious readers, but I think, in many cases, it provides a better experience for the reader/listener, particularly when the text is familiar to the reader.  Unless the writing is particularly challenging, little is lost from not having the written text available.  When listening to an audio book, there is ample time to consider the mechanical elements of the plotting and the relationship between character and story.

  Out of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Hound of the Baskervilles was likely selected because it is widely considered to  be the "best" original story about Holmes.  It was the first story wrote after apparently consigning Holmes to death in The Final Solution, written sometime after the first group of stories brought the stories to the attention of the reading public.  The gap between that first group and Baskervilles was approximately 8 years, long enough to give Doyle ample time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of his character. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) by Nathanael West

Book Review
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
 by Nathanael West

  I'd convinced myself that I had actually read Miss Lonelyhearts, when in fact, what had happened, is that I had owned a book which combined Miss Lonelyhearts with his other hit, Day of the Locust, read Day of the Locust, never read Miss Lonelyhearts, and then lost the book.   That is how Miss Lonelyhearts became a skip in the 1001 Books project, remedied today via an audio book version I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library.

  Miss Lonelyhearts is dark, dark, dark, decades ahead of it's time in terms of the tone, which is called "expressionist" because it was written in 1933 and expressionism was the avant-garde art movement of the time, maybe also because the quasi-hysterical affect of the main character, the unnamed male newspaper columnist in charge of the Miss Lonelyhearts column for a New York tabloid.   You'd have to jump ahead to William Burroughs and Hubert Selby to find writers who depict urban America with such grotesque regard.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Shroud (2002) by John Banville

Book Review
Shroud  (2002)
 by John Banville

  Irish author John Banville won the Booker Prize for his next novel, The Sea (2005) and Shroud similarly finds him in peak form, with a densely woven story about a Jewish Belgian who assumes the identity of a Nazi sympathetic non-Jewish classmate who dies during World War II. Shroud is squarely in the category of literature that treats World War II and the Holocaust as a symbolic, rather than personal event.    Shroud is part of a trilogy of novels from the "Alexander and Cass Cleave Trilogy" but the only one of the three to be included (the first novel in the trilogy was published in 2000 and the last in 2012.

   If I haven't said it before, I'll say it now- Banville is Literature capital L, like, decent odds to win the Nobel Prize in Literature type prose.   All of his books, I'm sure (except maybe the crime fiction he writes under a pseudonym) bear careful and even multiple readings.  I was comforted to read after finishing that Banville considers his main character "despicable," I was worried he was supposed to be sympathetic.  Shroud takes the form of Axel Vander, famous man of letters, reminiscing about his past as he prepares for a confrontation with a young woman (Cass Cleave) who is going to expose not only his assumed identity, but also pro-Nazi editorials written by the real Axel Vander before he died.

  Writing it in summary form as above does not do justice to the density of the prose. In fact, it's again hard to really appreciate Shroud without having an understanding of the plot outline before you start. When you are dealing with Literature capital L, making use of study aids before and during reading is perfectly acceptable. 

Schooling (2001) by Heather McGowan

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Thérèse by Balthus, used as the cover illustration for Schooling by Heather McGowan.
Book Review
Schooling (2001)
 by Heather McGowan

  Schooling is the debut novel by American writer Heather McGowan.  It was published in 2001 to general acclaim, including being named the 2001 Newsweek Book of the Year. Adorable! Who knew such a thing existed?  McGowan didn't really make a career out of it- she's got a stub Wikipedia page and no Facebook page.   That's just evidence that she doesn't have much of an audience, not that those things matter in particular. 

  Like all other stream-of-consciousness style novels I've ever read, Schooling is not fun, despite the distinct impression of naughtiness conveyed by the decision by the publisher to use Thérèse (above) by Balthus as the cover illustration.    All I'm going to say is, that, the use of the cover illustration and some of the text leads me to the conclusion that thirteen year old Catrine Evans has sex with Mr. Gilbert, the piano teacher. Is that a spoiler? Not if you understand the context of the Balthus painting they use as the cover illustration.  That painting pretty much signifies child sex, even if in an artsy sense.   After I finished Schooling, I went online and read reviews- something I should have done BEFORE or DURING the reading, because there were major plot elements that I just missed entirely.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Platform (novel) (2001) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
Platform (novel) (2001)
 by Michel Houellebecq

   I hate myself for loving Houellebecq, but I can't help it.  His bleak existenialism and grasp of consumer society jargon (in translation, no less) transcends the French setting.  Surely among the greatest of mysteries is the way an author can maintain status as a prose stylist in translation.  It must be a credit to the translator, but here, Houellebecq actually writes in a kind of hybrid language, with English language words included amongst the French.

  Platform is about a French civil servant who falls into a relationship with the assistant of a succesful business man in charge of marketing tourism in France. Valerie is her name.  Valerie is more than an assistant, and she and her boss make a quick move to a large hospitality conglomerate seeking to resuscitate a recently purchased chain of Club Med style all inclusive resorts.

  It should surprise anyone with the least familiarity with Houellebecq's oeuvre that Platform contains a lot of explicit sex, rendered in most non-pornographic tones.   Houellebecq sets up a satisfying denouement that calls into question his critcs- who often castigate him for encouraging anti-Muslim sentiment.   My take is that Houellebecq has trenchant things to say about French society, and French critics don't like it, and they don't understand the point he's trying to make.  Or maybe they do and they are afraid he's right. 

Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life (2002) J.M. Coetzee

Book Review
Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life II(2002)
J.M. Coetzee

  Part of the unique appeal of being a succesful novelist is that you can stand apart from your artistic identity in a way that is difficult to impossible for people like actors and musicians.  Literature is not immune to the fame fairy, particularly in places like France, where writers of fiction can become first class public intellectuals.  England, too, the United States, not so much.  More notable are canonical 20th century authors who have maintained total anonymity, J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon being good examples of that type.

  Before he began to publish his three part Scenes from a Provincial Life, Coetzee was more of the later than former, his Provincial Life trilogy established his actual, personal identity.  The province in question is South Africa, particularly Boer South Africa, where Coetzee was raised by parents who he has willfully left behind, at the beginning of Youth, to make his own way through university.   Before long, Coetzee has made his way to London, where he tried to balance a career (and contingent residence visa) as a computer programmer with his artistic aspirations.   Young Coetzee takes Ezra Pound as his lode-star, and references to the business career of T.S. Eliot are frequent.

   Coetzee, like Paul Auster, is one of those late 20th century authors who simply swamped the last few decades of the 1001 Books list, even including such an obviously secondary work like Youth.  I kept trying to understand what his parents did to him, he never explains.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is still frequently read in American schools as an example of "muckraking" progressive journalism. 
Book Review
The Jungle (1906)
by Upton Sinclair

  Not sure when I read The Jungle.  I want to say junior high.  I'm sure there is some alternate universe where Upton Sinclair somehow managed to win the governorship of California in 1930, maybe in that universe socialists were actually succesful.  In fact, in this universe, The Jungle is an example of how socialist-radical ideas can be co-opted by the mainstream.  Written as a call to socialism, The Jungle had the impact of leading the existing political parties to pass the Food and Drug Act, some of the first public-health protections for the food supply in the United States, no socialism required.

  The nut shell description of The Jungle is that it exposes conditions in the packing houses in Chicago, but really, that only covers about a fifth of the length, nearly five hundred pages in print and a thirteen hour audio book.   Jurkus Rudkus is the protagonist, the narrator, it would seem, is the author, writing in the high omniscient narrator style of 19th century fiction.  Rudkus, a strapping farm hand from Lithuania, quickly emigrates to America when he hears about high wages (no one mentions the equally high prices), he and an extended family of women and children (of the 12 mentioned in the immigrant party he is the only working age man, which seems a trifle unusual if you know anything about actual migration patterns to the US in that period) settle in the stock yards of Chicago, where he quickly finds work on the slaughterhouse floor.

  He can't KEEP the job though, within the book, only four or five scenes are actually set in the slaughterhouse.   Then Jurkus gets hurt, loses his job and ends up assaulting the plant foreman after he forces Rudkus' wife into prostitution.  When Rudkus leaves the slaughterhouse for good, the book is barely begun, and what follows is a kind of horrific picaresque about life in turn of the century America.

   One of the aspects of listening to an audio book is that you don't really skip or skim anything- giving the listener plenty of time to think about what is happening in the book.  Here, I found myself wondering why a bunch of peasants from Lithuania had such a hard time in a Chicago winter.  Aside from a reference to the fact that the houses in Lithuania are reinforced with mud, you would think this bunch of immigrants came from Jamaica, so horrific is the impact of the cold on their lives.  Sinclair repeatedly hammers home how woefully naive and exploitable are his poor characters, but you think, at least, they would have some useful skills for surviving in cold weather, or be used to it, because, you know, Lithuania is cold.

  Towards the end Rudkus falls in with socialists, and the last fifty or so pages are a series of speeches about socialism is so great. Early 20th century socialists tend to get a past since they didn't know about how things would go down in the Soviet Union. Looking back, even leftists can say that state run socialism tends to be a bit of a disaster.  That leaves you with "meat processing in early 20th century America was disgusting."  Point taken.

On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith

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English author Zadie Smith
Book Review
On Beauty (2005)
 by Zadie Smith

  1001 Books to Read Before You Die was published in 2006, but the cut-off for included titles was 2005, meaning that On Beauty is one of the last books on the first edition list.   You'd have to be a cretin to not see the charm in On Beauty, a loose take on Howard's End by E.M. Forster.   Smith's version features two families, the first being Howard Belsey, a white Englishman, married to his African-American wife, Kiki.  They have three kids, all of whom identify as African American .  The other family is the Kipps'- Monty Kipps, a black Englishman and his Afro-Caribbean wife Carlene.

  Both patriarch's are professors of art history, Kipps a fashionably (or unfashionably) conservative Christian who has sold a million copies of his Rembrandt treatise and inveighs against affirmative action.  Howard, an almost stereotypical post-modernist, an art professor who hates beauty.  The lives of them and their children become intertwined when Kipps accepts a visiting professorship at the university where Howard is seeking tenure.

  As I said, you'd have to be a cretin not to see the charm in On Beauty, which is more or less what you call a "campus novel" with an incredibly close up focus on the world of faculty tenure.   The campus novel has been largely excluded from the 1001 Books list, Smith likely managed to sneak in on the basis of charm and wit.  I wasn't totally won over- I regret reading the ebook version.  On Beauty clocks in at around 450 pages in print, and I've come to the conclusion that 300 pages is optimal, and any ebook over 350 pages turns into a chore.

  I gather that unwieldiness is part of the charm of Zadie Smith.  I'm interested to read more of her books, but I'm not sure that On Beauty would be the one I would recommend to a would-be reader.

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