Thursday, May 17, 2018

IN THE DISTANCE by HERNAN DIAZ (2017)

In the Distance was named one of the two finalists for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Unlike the other finalist, The Idiot, this novel is original in concept and execution and is highly memorable. I have never read a more evocative account of loneliness.

Haken Soderstrom arrives alone in California from Sweden around the time of the Gold Rush, having become separated from his beloved brother when he mistakenly took the wrong boat. He knows no English, and when he gives his name it sounds to English-speaking ears like "Hawk can," so he becomes known as Hawk. He knows he must head east, because he was supposed to be on a ship to New York and he will find his brother there. His first encounters include an obsessed gold prospector, a naturalist, a wagon train of settlers, and an unusual ally, but the loss of these only intensifies his aloneness when he retreats to the desert to avoid capture for a crime he didn't commit.

Hawk is separated from his fellow men by his language, by the fear his great height inspires, and, finally, by his undeserved fierce reputation. His life becomes a circle, with day after day repeating itself. The featureless landscape echoes his isolation.

I tremendously admire the writing skill of Hernan Diaz. The most impressive parts of the book are the times when nothing happens -- that's not easy to accomplish. Most novels depend on events to propel attention, but Diaz immerses the reader in primal emotions. The ending brings to mind the final pages of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Thank you to the Pulitzer Committee for drawing attention to this most excellent novel.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

FOUR SHORT REVIEWS

THE LIAR'S GOSPEL by NAOMI ALDERMAN (2012)
This novel is composed of four accounts of events from the life of Jesus: from the viewpoints of Mary, the mother of Jesus; of Judas, who betrayed him; of Caiaphas, the High Priest of Jerusalem; and of Barabbas, the rebel/thief who was chosen by the mob to live instead of Jesus. All are written from a very Jewish viewpoint, so Christian believers will most likely find the book offensive, as it does not present Jesus as the Son of God, but as one of many preachers stirring the passions of the Jewish people against the domination of the Romans. He is even portrayed as perhaps mentally deranged.

I have always felt it to be extremely impolite and in poor taste to write insultingly of someone's religion, whatever that religion may be. I would find equal fault with Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which denigrated the Muslim faith. Thus, I did not like this book at all, however well written it may be.


THE BRONTE MYTH by LUCASTA MILLER (2001)
This non-fiction book would be of interest only to those who already know something of the lives of the Bronte sisters. The author attempts to show how early biographers and literary critics, and then writers through the years following, portrayed the women, not as they were, but as prejudices and current literary preoccupations dictated.

This was particularly of interest to me, as I have long been fascinated with Wuthering Heights and Emily Bronte. I had not previously realized how scandalous and course the Bronte books were perceived to be by society at the time of their publications, and how doubly shocking it was to find out that women wrote them. Thus the literary writers of the time who recognized their worth tried to soften the criticism by portraying the maligned authors in a more flattering light, giving birth to the Bronte Myth.


THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS by ARUNDHATI ROY (2017)
I have read several novels set in India, written by Indian authors, and I can only come to the conclusion that India is a very unpleasant place to live for anyone not of the elite few. This one is no exception.

What is unusual about this novel is that the central character, around whom all the other characters revolve, is a transgender person, born a male and living as a female. Through a narrative that covers many years, a group of misfits and lost souls form a family in an abandoned graveyard. Along the way, I learned about the war with seemingly no end in Kashmir, which was entirely new information for me.

As with all the novels by Indian authors that I have read, this one tells a fascinating story filled with despair and heartbreak -- and love. This is a most satisfying and informative read. I recommend it.


THE BEGGAR MAID by ALICE MUNRO (1977)
Alice Munro is celebrated for her short stories. In fact, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. This volume is composed of interconnected stories about Flo and Rose, a step-mother and step-daughter. Taken together, the stories form a loosely connected narrative, which could almost be considered a novel, but not quite.

I much prefer the novel format over the differing structure of the short story; thus, I was frustrated somewhat when connections and motivations were omitted, which would have been present in a novel. That being said, these are outstanding short stories, revealing much more than is usual in the shorter form. For someone who enjoys the short story format, this will be a treat. For those addicted to novels, like me, it is nevertheless rewarding reading.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

THE IDIOT by ELIF BATUMAN (2017)

The Idiot was one of the two finalists for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. I don't understand that, at all. I would have thought that a book deserving of such serious consideration would be one that had something important to say and that stayed in the mind long after it was finished. This novel is clever and dryly humorous, but it has nothing new to offer and is immediately forgettable. It is a coming-of-age story, but the protagonist is one few will relate to.

Selin is a first-generation Turkish American who is an intellectually gifted freshman at Harvard in the 1990s. The story follows her through her first year of college as she makes new friends and adjusts to new surroundings, and particularly as she becomes obsessed with a fellow student through an e-mail correspondence. When she finally begins to talk in person to her e-mail "love," she finds that he has a girl friend and is about to graduate and leave for California. Nevertheless, she takes a summer job teaching English in a Hungarian village, because he is a Hungarian who is returning home and she may be able to see him there. They do meet. He leaves. She goes to Turkey to visit her aunts. The End.

I have obviously somewhat spoiled this novel for anyone who might want to read it, because I would recommend passing it by. It is narrated by the protagonist at an unnamed time after the action, in a semi-diary form. Much of it consists of mundane and boring actions and conversations which do nothing to advance the story. The tone, which is ironical and supercilious, is extremely off-putting, at least to me. The author does nothing to encourage sympathy or empathy for the protagonist. The author herself is a Turkish American who attended Harvard in the 1900s, so one aspect of the novel I found puzzling: all the students the protagonist encounters are first-generation Americans from other countries, mainly Eastern Europe, or international students. Did the author not attend college with any American citizens from Western Europe who had been here for generations?

Some of the action involves satires of the pretentiousness of Harvard professors, which are humorous. The author also has a felicity for apt and original metaphors. Still, these do make up for all the defects I perceive.

Despite the glowing reviews and honors awarded to The Idiot, I did not like it. Oh, well.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

YEAR EIGHT OF READING

It's that time again. Another year of my life has passed. From my birthday in 2017 (April 22) to my birthday this year, I read 111 books. These were my favorites. Included are the date of first publication and the date of my review. I recommend all these without reservation.

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by AMOR TOWLES
A deliciously charming book about a Russian aristocrat under house arrest in a hotel in Moscow from 1922 through 1954, as he befriends people from all walks of life, including a child whom he comes to love. It is not very believable, but the telling of it is elegant and gently humorous and life affirming. A welcome departure from most current "problem" novels. (2016, reviewed May, 2017)

THE WAY WEST by A.B. GUTHRIE, JR.
The story of the Western Migration, following one family and their wagon train from Missouri to Oregon. Guthrie writes so believably that one can suppose that he took the trip with them. He is a wonderful writer, realistic and poetic simultaneously. A Pulitzer winner.(1949, reviewed June, 2017)

THE LONG GOODBYE by RAYMOND CHANDLER
I love everything Raymond Chandler ever wrote. He is so stylish, so good at dialogue. He is proof that genre stories can be Literature, with a capital L. This is typical Chandler, with private detective Philip Marlowe involved in the twists and turns of a mystery which includes betrayals and sexy women and, of course, dead bodies. (1953, reviewed June, 2017)

A PERFECT SPY by JOHN LE CARRE'
More than a spy thriller, this is a psychological examination of a man who became a master spy, capable of self-justification for his betrayal of those who trust him. Another example of genre fiction which has achieved Literature status because of the writing skill of its author. (1986, reviewed August, 2017)

THE NORTH WATER by IAN McGUIRE
A harsh and brutal tale of the sailors on a whaling ship in the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. Despite its violent subject matter, this is a beautiful book, almost mythic in its portrayal of human corruption. Not for everybody, maybe, but it really impressed me. Short-listed for the Booker Prize. (2016, reviewed August, 2017)

NEWS OF THE WORLD by PAULETTE JILES
The story of an old man's journey to return a girl rescued from capture by Kiowa Indians to her white family, taking place in Reconstruction-era Texas. Although the plot is somewhat derivative, the writing is poetic, and Jiles's portrayal of the landscape and the vernacular of Texas are spot-on. It is also pleasurably heart-warming without being too syrupy. A finalist for the National Book Award. (2016, reviewed Sept. 2017)

HISTORY OF WOLVES by EMILY FRIDLUND
A coming-of-age story in which a girl does not grow up to be a wiser and happier adult, in contrast with reader expectations. There is a mystery, but it is secondary to the character development and the use of the harsh landscape of Minnesota as an integral part. Disturbingly fascinating. Short-listed for the Booker Prize. (2017, reviewed November, 2017)

EXIT WEST by MOHSIN HAMID
What begins as the realistic story of a young couple caught up in the chaos of a civil war in their unnamed country suddenly switches to magical realism, as they embark on a quest to find a safe home where they will be welcomed. The result is a fable of the emigrant experience, particularly relevant today in light of the plight of the Syrian people. Short listed for the Booker Prize and winner of the LA Times Book Prize. (2017, reviewed November, 2017)

SING, UNBURIED, SING by JESMYN WARD
A 13-year-old black boy and his little sister take a surrealistic road trip with their mother to bring his white father home from prison. They are accompanied home by ghosts from the past, both figuratively and literally. I believe this book is destined to become a classic. Winner of the National Book Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. (2017, reviewed January, 2018)

PACHINKO by MIN JIN LEE
A highly entertaining multi-generational family saga following a Korean family who are immigrants in Japan. While telling a fascinating story it also points to the experience of any immigrant who finds himself devalued because of ethnicity. Finalist for the National Book Award. (2017, reviewed January, 2018)

THE POWER by NAOMI ALDERMAN
Imagine a world of the future when women have become dominant over men, because they have developed the power to deliver electric shock unaided by any device. If you imagine a kinder, gentler world, you would be wrong. As it turns out, power corrupts. What a surprise! This slyly humorous satire has much to say about power and gender and stereotypes. (2017, reviewed January, 2018)

THE MEMORY OF RUNNING by RON McLARTY
A 40-something overweight, beer drinking, chain smoking loser impulsively embarks on a cross-country bicycle trip, and finds himself along the way. I developed a great fondness for this character because the author presents him with such compassion. (2004, reviewed March, 2018)

THE GRIP OF IT by JAC JEMC
First rate psychological horror about a couple who buy a house that is (or might be) haunted. The title accurately describes the hold the book took of my mind. I have seldom read a creepier story. (2017, reviewed March 2018)

Contrary to my usual reading habits, I read several non-fiction books this year, primarily histories and presidential biographies. The best were APRIL, 1865 by JAY WINIK (history, reviewed October, 2017) and WASHINGTON, A LIFE by RON CHENOW (biography, reviewed February, 2018)

I read only one book this year that I would not recommend to anyone: AMERICAN PSYCHO by BRET EASTON ELLIS (1991, reviewed September, 2017).

So I'm off for another year of reading adventures. Onward through the fog.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

ROMOLA by GEORGE ELIOT (1863)

To say that this book is not very accessible would be an understatement, at least for me. I started reading it at least four times before I finally stuck with it. It takes 50 pages for Romola, the heroine, to enter the picture and for the actual plot to get started. Those first 50 pages were non-starters, filled with details about Florence in the late 1400s, Latin phrases and quotations, and mentions of famous (at the time) personages, all unfamiliar to me. A 50-page Notes section at the end of the book clarified things somewhat, but it took a great deal of time to page back and forth from the text to the notes to understand what was being conveyed.

Once the actual story gets started, however, the book begins to be very engrossing, although still filled with unfamiliar events, phrases, and people. (About this time, I decided to dispense with the Notes and just charge ahead.) When Tito, a beautiful stranger to the city, becomes secretary to her scholar father, Romola's whole life changes. She is charmed by his good looks, delightful personality, and obvious intelligence, and they soon become engaged. There's just one problem: unbeknownst to Romola, Tito is a real snake in the grass. His only love is himself, and he is ready to betray anyone and everyone to obtain his desires, precisely as he begins to do soon after he and Romola are married.

Will Romola discover what a mistake she has made? How will she react if she finds out? Can she bear to go on when her world crumbles? These were the questions in my mind that kept me reading to the end of this long, rather difficult book. That George Eliot so fully and believably delineated Romola's character and that the situation of a woman betrayed by love blindness is so universal and timeless were added incentives.

Before reading this, I knew next to nothing about the time and place. I had heard of the religious reformer and mystic Savonarola, who has a major role in the narrative, but I knew nothing of his involvement in Florentine politics. Now, thanks to this novel and Wikipedia, I know a good deal more than I did before. It's always good to learn new things.

This would have been a more enjoyable novel for me if its setting had been more familiar. The base story and the writing are impressive, but the background details and political maneuvering sometimes made it a chore.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

4 3 2 1 by PAUL AUSTER (2017)

If I had not first read the cover flaps on my copy of 4 3 2 1, I would have become totally confused as I progressed through the book. The first section, titled "1.0" tells the background story of the protagonist's grandparents and parents, from the arrival of the family in America from Minsk in 1900 until Ferguson's birth in 1947. The second section, titled "1.1" recounts Ferguson's childhood up to age 9. His father owns an appliance store, employing two uncles, and his mother has her own photography business. Their life is uneventful until Albert, one of the uncles, betrays the father by spearheading a robbery of the warehouse, and he must close the store.

That's when the confusion begins. The third section, titled "1.2" seems to be telling further details of Ferguson's youth, except suddenly some of the facts don't match up. For example, Albert does not rob the store, but the other uncle burns it to the ground for the insurance money. Then in section "1.3" the store also burns, but this time Ferguson's father dies in the fire. In section "1.4" Ferguson's father has opened several stores and the family is wealthy.

And so it goes, for 868 pages, up through section "7.4" and Ferguson's young manhood, telling the story of the four paths Ferguson might have taken or may have taken. It is all very disorienting, and I had to resort to taking notes about the major events to keep the four stories straight in my mind. It's like reading four books at once, all about the same person, with none of them telling the same story.

Paul Auster is an excellent writer, and thus this novel is very readable (except for the confusing part). But I really dislike books built on gimmicks. That Auster winds up with a metafiction climax is the ultimate gimmick. In addition, the constant name-dropping of high-browed writers and artists and composers to emphasize how intelligent Ferguson is (and by extension, how intelligent Auster is) becomes very irritating.

This novel has received good reviews, but it is not my idea of a good read.



Friday, April 6, 2018

IMPROVEMENT by JOAN SILBER (2017)

Improvement is billed as a novel, but it is actually more a series of short stories featuring characters who are tangentially connected. The first story, narrated by Rayna, a young single mother, concerns her involvement with a boyfriend and his pals to smuggle cigarettes across state lines. Her decision to sever herself from the enterprise leads to unforeseen and tragic consequences, including the death of Claude, a member of the theft ring. Then we move to the third-person story of Darisse, Claude's girlfriend, following his death. Then to Teddy, the truck driver who accidentally killed Claude in a traffic accident. And so on. The stories end with a return to Reyna, as she attempts to atone for her part in Claude's death.

These are very quiet stories, with a minimum of drama, written in an unadorned yet graceful style. The author exhibits great compassion for her characters, who become understandable and real in just a few pages. Each story could have become a novel all by itself, and I found myself disappointed each time one ended that it was not expanded further.

All that being said, I found this to be a very forgettable book. I finished it about a week ago, and I had to look back over it to write this review. I am surprised that it won this year's National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award, especially because another of the finalists for the award was Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is a much better book.