Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Back in 2009 this was the first book I read by Ishiguro, which I followed up with Never Let Me Go later that year. At the time, I was impressed that he could tell two such different stories and yet have the sense of regret and sorrow. The same applied to his fantasy novel, The Buried Giant which I read around the time it was published. His approach remained the same regardless of the genre he was working in. More recently, I read his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, both of which are excellent. Rereading this in the context of the first two, I like it even more than I did a decade ago. 

Ishiguro says he sees this as a rewrite of An Artist of the Floating World, and reading the two in quick succession really highlights the themes of coming to terms with your obsolescence as generations change and a sense of wasting one's life. More than that, both are about characters coming to terms with their own culpability in the evils of their times, Ojo for abandoning his art in favor of war propaganda and Stevens for loyally serving Lord Darlington despite the latter's nazi sympathies. I really appreciate this. Too often it's easy to point out the moral failings of others, but harder to come to terms with your own failings. I certainly have this tendency. Social media exaggerates this. I love that these books force readers to consider their own small place in the world while simultaneously not letting them off the hook for their own part in societal ills. It's subtle, but incredibly effective.

And on top of all that, it's a great unrequited love story and often very funny. Stevens' dithering about how well he is bantering had me audibly laughing in a room by myself. And, as in all the other books I've read by him, Ishiguro is masterful at having characters talk around what they mean while making it clear to the reader what is actually happening. I know that after these first three books he played around more with various genres, so I'm really looking forward to more of his work. Next up is (if I've been properly informed), his take on the crime novel, When We Were Orphans, though I will eventually read all of them.

Canon Worthy

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I remember liking A Visit From the Goon Squad both in terms of story and structure, but I don't remember the particulars well, but I'll be revisiting it later this year, I'm sure, after reading The Keep and Manhattan Beach, The latter two are as different from each other as from Goon Squad, and both great. I knew from a couple of online friends that this was crime adjacent, but, despite that heads up but I wasn't quite prepared for the genre shift. There are several writers I love that never do exactly the same thing twice. I'm thinking of Jeff Vandermeer and Jonathan Lethem in particular, (and Ishiguro in genre if not in mood) but I have to add Egan to that category.

This is a genre mashup of the highest order. It's a noirish gangster story. It's a life during wartime historical novel. It's almost, but not quite a romance. It's woman making her way through a male dominated world novel. It's an underwater adventure novel (briefly). And all of these are pulled off. 

The novel opens with Anna Kerrigan, then 12, visiting a gangster with her father. Her father is a go between for gangsters, politicians and union bosses. The exact nature of his involvement is initially unclear. The book jumps forward to Anna's late teens/early twenties, during WWII. Her father has disappeared years earlier. She was then working in a factory making battleship parts and longing to learn to dive. She runs into the gangster again. I won't give any other plot points, but the novel plays out perfectly. 

Overall this was a great historical novel that belongs on the same shelf at Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Carter Beats the Devil or Underworld. 

Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The adjective brave gets thrown around too freely in descriptions of novels, so I try not to use it. That said, Isabel Allende published The House of the Spirits less than a decade into the Pinochet regime. Considering that the final quarter or fifth of this book is a fictionalization of that regime's brutal rise to power, she clears the bravery bar by some distance. All fiction comes from a point of view, even if that point of view is neutral. Still, I don't care for work that gets too didactic, even if I agree with the bulk of the sermon. But I do love generational fantasy novels, and this fits the bill. 

The language (at least in translation) is excellent. I love that she pokes fun at Garcia Marquez and 100 Years of Solitude by pointing out (multiple times) that naming every generation of a family the same thing is needlessly confusing. I love that even though there is an evil businessman, and Esteban Trueba is truly an evil business man, that Allede doesn't A) pretend he's not evil and B) pretend he's not a person. This archetype can get tiresome but she makes him very real. I love the little details like the fact that he's a conservative ideologue who can't distinguish between the liberals, the socialists and the revolutionaries, which is incredibly true to life. And in the end, even he has to admit that military regime he helped install is a terrible thing.

And by giving three generations of women, Clara, Blanca and Alba tell the story Allende manages to show bot the brutality of the patrician class there and a sense of some of what was lost when the junta took over. But the novel is also celebratory and funny at times. This generational and fantastical approach is the main thing that keeps the ending from being didactic, but it also makes the condemnation of the Pinochet regime far more powerful giving a long context. That generational style of storytelling is powerful. 

This is, to be sure, an incredibly tough read, especially in the final act. But it is an incredible novel. I will be reading it again, I'm sure and I'll likely track down more of her work.

Canon Worthy