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 untimeless 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.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

JOHN ADAMS by DAVID McCULLOUGH (2001)

I feel sorry for John Adams. I think he is the most undervalued of our Founding Fathers. Here was a man who was one of the leaders in the push for independence and who worked tirelessly for the cause. He was the one who negotiated the final peace treaty with England, and who negotiated loans from Dutch banks when they were needed most. As president, he held the nation to a steady course, building a strong naval defense while ensuring a peace, all while war with France would have been the politically popular move. He was intellectually brilliant. He was a faithful husband and friend. He was man of incorruptible integrity who never spoke ill of an adversary for political gain, while being subjected to some of the most malicious attacks ever endured by a president.

So why doesn't he get the popular recognition today received by some of his contemporaries? In modern eyes, the Alien and Sedition Act, particularly the limitations on the press, is the primary blot on his record. Although he didn't sponsor the act, he didn't veto it when it passed in Congress.

Mainly, I have come to believe, he is undervalued because he was not a politician. Along with Washington, he believed that political parties were harmful to the emerging democracy. Thus he was caught between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, both of whom did all they could to undermine him. He knew from the beginning that Hamilton was not his friend, but he believed that Jefferson was, until he finally realized that he, too, was secretly plotting against him.

And yet later in life, when both he and Jefferson were retired, Adams forgave him and began an extensive correspondence. That's more than most would have done, but Adams was a strong adherent of Christian precepts, including forgiveness.

More than any of the Founding Fathers, Adams' life is an open book, because he preserved his letters and writings, including his letters to his wife. In contrast, Jefferson destroyed much of his private correspondence. (He had many things to hide, as it turns out.)

These were the opinions I gained from reading this highly recommended biography of our second president. Privately, I also believe that Adams was undervalued because he did not look the part. He was relatively short and fat and not impressive in appearance, in contrast to the tall and patrician-appearing Washington and Jefferson.

This is an extremely well-written biography which reads much like a novel, seamlessly including massive research. I highly recommend it as a way to re-evaluate our second president.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

THE COMMITMENTS by RODDY DOYLE (1989)

This short novel by the Irish writer Roddy Doyle reminds me very much of the mock-documentary movie This Is Spinal Tap. I know a movie has also been adapted from this book, but I have not seen it. This is the story of a group of Dublin working-class youths who style themselves as a soul band. It chronicles their small triumphs and petty tribulations, as greed, egotism, and women tarnish their dream. It is hilarious.

Warning: All of this is written in the vernacular of a specific time and place, and thus many terms and phrases are unfamiliar to the American reader of the here and now. However, this does not distract from enjoyment.

This novel provided me with a day's pleasant distraction and enjoyment. It is highly entertaining.

-------------

Doyle's 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won England's Booker Prize.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

THOMAS JEFFERSON THE ART OF POWER by JON MEACHAM (2012)

This is the second Jefferson biography I have read (American Sphinx, reviewed 9/17), along with several other accounts of the fathers of our nation. Contrary to the other authors, Jon Meacham paints a largely favorable portrait of our third president. For instance, he calls it "pragmatic" that Jefferson accused his predecessors of aspiring to be monarchs, yet behaved more like a monarch himself, wielding unprecedented executive power while president, in addition to indulging himself in a lavish lifestyle. He includes the smallest details of Jefferson's daily life, yet leaves out the instances when Jefferson secretly used others to defame his opponents and then lied about it if he got found out, or when he expressed conflicting opinions to different people at the same time. He does comment on Jefferson's lifetime avoidance of conflict with others, but presents it as an admirable trait rather than mentioning that it often meant that Jefferson shook someone's hand while stabbing him in the back.

Meacham also admits that Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves and fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemmings. (How could he not, with the current DNA evidence as proof.) However, he somewhat excuses this as being typical of the times in Virginia. He does not comment on the ironic fact that this same man proclaimed that "all men are created equal."

The sub-title of this book accurately reflects Jefferson's greatest talent -- he knew how to gain power. While Washington and Adams were our first leaders, Jefferson was our first politician, not above lying to achieve his desired ends. Meacham skirts around this issue, but even his favorable account reveals that Jefferson's public words did not always match his actions.

I am even more confirmed in my opinion that Jefferson is undeserving of the adulation accorded to him today. I believe that he was a champion of states rights mainly because he wanted his elitist, slave-holding lifestyle to continue, and that his first allegiance was always to Virginia rather than to the United States.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

THE GRIP OF IT by JAC JEMC (2017)

It takes great deal of talent to turn a stock plot into a first-rate story; Jac Jemc is up to the task. This horror novel centers on the familiar haunted house theme, but it is a cut above most of the rest. It is a novel of the first tier -- literary, psychological horror rather then gore and mayhem and bumps in the night. It can be favorably compared to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, which is high praise indeed.

A young couple moves from the city to the outskirts of a small town, hoping to help the husband break the gambling addiction which has almost destroyed the marriage. They buy an old, many-roomed house at a ridiculously low price, and, predictably, strange things start happening. Large dark spots appear on the walls and are mirrored in unexplained bruises on the wife's body; the house constantly groans or hums in a low register; they discover secret rooms and passageways; even the dense woods behind the house seem to be moving closer.

Narrated in revolving chapters by the husband and wife, the story as well as its language reflect the growing anxiety of the couple, along with the crumbling of the trust they have in each other and even in themselves. The wife says, "We can lose ourselves behind a trapdoor, whether in our minds or in the house."

The title of the book could well describe the hold of the story on my mind. I have seldom read a creepier or more disorienting book. I give it an A+.