Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Julian English seems to have it all: He is the son of one of the city's most prominent men, is president of the Cadillac dealership, is married to a beautiful and intelligent woman, and socializes with the young Country Club set. And then one night, with a bit too much bootleg liquor inside him, he throws a drink in the face of a "friend" (who happens to have loaned his business $20,000) who is irritatingly telling long-winded stories. Julian's wife is upset and embarrassed and they argue. And the next night he further humiliates her by again drinking too much and apparently seducing a mobster's mistress right in front of her and their friends. And things go downhill from there.

This novel, set in 1930 in a fictional mid-size city, reads like a Greek tragedy. Social circumstances and Julian's own fatal flaws combine to bring about his downfall. The combination of slangy conversation and mundane details with the epic-like tragedy makes for an interesting contrast.

This book is #22 in Modern Library's Top 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century. I would not rate it nearly that high, but it is very good.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

If you are going to read crime fiction at all, read the best--and this is the best (although Raymond Chandler fans might disagree). Hammett invented the "hard-boiled" detective, writing with a gritty style, witty and fast-paced dialogue, and picture-perfect character descriptions. His hero has a strong sense of right and wrong, but does not back away from letting the ends justify the means in cleaning things up.

In this novel, the Continental Detective Agency operative (never named) is brought into town by the newspaper's publisher, who turns out to be dead by the time the operative arrives. Soon finding out that the town is "owned" by the dead man's father, the operative finagles a contract from the father to clean up the town, which has been taken over by four gang factions (and a crooked police force), who had originally been brought to town by the same father to break a labor strike. The plot from here on is very complicated, with the operative cleverly pitting gang against gang, leading them to all-out warfare. In the process, the body count mounts, but the operative escapes harm, through cunning and just blind luck.

All this "red harvest" is almost too much for even the jaded operative, who says he is finding joy in the killing and is going "blood-simple." I think, although I don't know for sure, that the Coen Brothers must have taken the title of one of their movies from this book. It fits.

To compare books to food, this would not be gourmet cuisine, but it would be one of the best hamburgers you ever had. It seems absolutely authentic; I would be willing to bet that mobsters are just as sordid and amoral today as they were in 1929. And the people who deal with them still run the risk of going "blood-simple."

I don't think this is even Hammett's best book; check him out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Some books you wish you'd not wasted your time on; some books you enjoy but know you will never read them again; some books you can enjoy two or three times if you let some time pass between readings; some books you can read multiple times and find something new every time. Moby Dick is that kind of book, for sure.

This time I noticed more of the humor and caught more of the symbolic elements, such as the many oppositional pairings. I have never taken a class where the novel was analyzed, nor have I read more than superficial discussions, so my reading of this book has always been an adventure of discovery. That means that I don't know the most up-to-date thinking about the symbolic meaning of the White Whale, and I can try to puzzle that out for myself. And that is enjoyable. It gives me something to think about!

Notice I have not discussed the plot of the novel here, because I think almost all Americans are familiar with the basic story. I remember that I had my junior English students analyze a chapter and then showed them the movie, and told them that ever after they could pretend to have read it.

All that being said, I do still feel that Moby Dick is two books: one about whales and the mechanics of whaling and one about mad Ahab and his obsession with the White Whale. For one thing, the writing is different is the two kinds of chapters. The ones about whaling are more matter-of-fact and less poetic, while the chapters that tell the story seem straight out of Shakespeare, often with a structure and rhythm that would be at home in King Lear. My bold assessment is that more people would read this novel if Melville had stuck to the plot and left out the information.

This is not my favorite book; I like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Joseph Conrad better, and they both dealt with similar themes. But it is among my Top 10.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

This book was named "One of the Best Novels of the Year" by several newspapers in 2010; I think 2010 must have been a slow year for novels, then.

It's not a poorly written book, but it is not at all outstanding, either in plot or in freshness of expression. Actually, I would not call it a novel, but rather a series of connected short stories. Each one gives a tidbit from the life of a staffer of an English-language newspaper in Rome. Short between-chapter passages trace the history of the newspaper from its founding through its demise. And strangely enough, most of the stories concern loneliness and love and the misadventures that can create love or destroy it. So it is essentially not about the newspaper business at all, as I had expected from the Barnes & Noble blurb that tempted me to buy it.

Actually, I can see why it came to be a bestseller--its characters are interesting, the plots are sometimes funny and sometimes a little sad, and it reads very quickly. It just seems so surface somehow and so forgettable. For those looking for fast entertainment, it would probably be an enjoyable way to pass the time. But I don't think many would be tempted to read it again; I know I won't.

My review is vastly different from those found on the back of the book. They all praise it, with words such as "hilarious," "heart-wrenching," "thrilling," "superb," and "breathtaking." I would be interested in hearing the opinion of anyone out there who has read this. I could be wrong in my assessment. (Though I don't think so.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Oil by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair is a writer with an agenda, and his cause is the promotion of socialism. This was somewhat apparent in his most well-known novel, The Jungle, but that book also included an interesting story and a most horrifying picture of the meat packing industry, which caught the attention of the public and actually led to legislative changes. Unfortunately, Oil's story line is less engaging and the abuses revealed of oil price-fixing and government corruption are less immediate (and less fixable, perhaps) than was the problem of unsanitary meat. The edition I read is a re-issue, because the movie There Will Be Blood used the novel as inspiration. (More about that later.)

The novel tells the story of Bunny Ross, the privileged heir to the fortune of a self-made independent oilman, following his life from the age of 9 or 10 until his mid-20's. Through his (somewhat contrived) life story, the reader meets wildcatting wheeler-dealers, corrupt politicians, self-involved rich college students, Hollywood starlets, a cynical evangelist, and various idealistic socialist and communist young people. The plot is episodic and seems to be tacked together so that Sinclair can air his views about various segments of America's capitalistic society and promote socialism as a solution to the country's problems.

This sort of didactic writing can be effective when the central characters are fully realized and sympathetic (as in The Grapes of Wrath), or when the plot is inventive or suspenseful (as in 1984) . Unfortunately, Oil lacks both these elements. Sinclair is a very capable writer, particularly in his descriptive passages, but in this book he seems clearly to be more concerned with persuading and airing grievances than with telling a story well.

The movie There Will Be Blood focuses on the father rather than on Bunny and follows the novel's plot only at the beginning, before totally departing to create a new, very different story-line. Despite the movie's somewhat vague focus, I would have to say I found it more interesting than the book.

I will not read this one again.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

After reading several relatively dense and serious books in a row, I decided to lighten up, and this book fit the bill exactly. It is "an action-packed adventure" about two Jewish con-men and swords-for-hire in what is now Russia in about A.D. 950. Against their inclination, they find themselves helping a dispossessed young prince regain his kingdom, and in the process encounter sword play, exceptional elephants, and the answers to secrets. In language and sentence structure it reads much like The Three Musketeers, but it is much funnier. In fact, it is very funny.

I am much impressed by Michael Chabon. While some writers seem to write essentially the same book over and over again, he changes subject matter and tailors his writing style to match it. He never lets you forget that he is a Jew, however, much as most black writers never let you forget that they are black. I find that strange, but then, as a member of the majority, I can't totally empathize with how a minority group member feels. By the way, his working title for this book was Jews with Swords.

I recommend this book for times when you want to be amused, but you want masterful writing at the same time. It's a quick read, too.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

This is the story of Hazel Motes, who is desperately running from Jesus, running to cure himself of belief. He founds the Church of Christ Without Christ and preaches his message of non-redemption from the hood of his "rat-colored" car. In the course of his flight he meets a cynical "blind" preacher and his corrupted 15-year-old daughter, a grifter who wants to use him to make money, and Enoch Emory, a young man with "wise blood," who provides him with a mummified child to serve as his new Jesus. His struggles end as he punishes himself for his failure to destroy his belief. (Anyway, that's how I interpreted it.)

In an Author's Note at the beginning of the book, she describes the book as a "comic" novel, but I did not find it comic at all--the irrational and often seemingly meaningless actions of the characters had a grotesque quality that was not amusing, but instead disturbing.

This is a profoundly religious book, though it would not seem so from the description. Wise Blood will stay in my mind for a long time, and I plan to read it again in a while after I have thought about it some more. It would be worth reading again just to notice O'Connor's use of symbolism and her unique descriptive language.

Just a thought: I guess this could be classified, along with most Faulkner novels, as Southern Gothic. Is it any wonder that many Yankees think of Southerners as deranged degenerates?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

This is the story of Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, telling her story from the time she was a small child until her death. I am generally of the opinion that an author who takes another author's story is cheating somehow. Current examples would be The Hours, A Thousand Acres, and the absurd Bridget Jones's Diary. This one is somewhat different, however, in that only the very last part is actually taken from the inspiration novel. We learn about the events that shaped Antoinette Bertha Mason, eventually driving her insane, and that Mr. Rochester is not the blameless Romantic Hero we thought him to be. I found it very interesting, though if I had not read Jane Eyre it would have been much less so. The writing is good, and I would recommend this to anyone who has read Jane Eyre, particularly if you ever thought to yourself that Jane deserved better.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

After almost two weeks, I finally finished this l-o-n-g novel and realized that it's just a very literary, somewhat pretentious SOAP OPERA. Here is the cast of characters:
Maggie--a very rich, very innocent young American woman, who turns out to be not as clueless as everyone thought her to be; has an unusually strong emotional attachment to her father.
Adam Verver--Maggie's father, who made such a pile of money in America that he can just drift around Europe collecting art; also not as clueless as everyone thought him to be.
The Prince--a member of Italian high nobility, very charming, excitingly handsome, but no longer rich enough to maintain the lifestyle he undoubtedly deserves.
Charlotte--American by birth, but reared in Europe; charming, beautiful, and also in need of money to maintain the high lifestyle.
Mrs. Assingham--a real busybody who finds amusement and fulfillment in "arranging" things for her friends.

Here is the basic plot: The Prince and Charlotte had a love affair, but they parted because they were both poor (relatively) and they both needed to land a rich spouse. Then enters Mrs. Assignham, who knows about the affair but decides to try to make a match between the Prince and her new friend Maggie anyway, because Maggie and her father clearly have the money the Prince needs. The plan works, and Maggie and the Prince are married. But wait, Charlotte comes back into town, and Mrs. Assignham encourages a match between Mr. Verver (Maggie's father, remember) and Charlotte. That plan works, too. So now Charlotte is the mother-in-law of her former lover.

The plot thickens: The two couples (none having to work, of course) hang out together constantly. To make matters worse, Maggie and her father are not really fans of the society whirl and all its obligations, and so they often stay together at home, asking their spouses to represent them at balls, weekend house parties, etc. Can you see trouble brewing here?

The inevitable happens, but, surprisingly, Maggie (who has seemed so innocent and trustful) begins to suspect. Through a Dickens-like coincidence, she finds out about the prior relationship between her husband and Charlotte. What does she do? Does she confront him and demand answers? Does she tell her father about his wife?

Out of consideration for anyone who has not read this book and who might be inclined to do so, I will not reveal the end.

This book does develop a good bit of suspense (What will Maggie do?), but the writing itself is so stylized, so convoluted, that it becomes too time-consuming to be really enjoyable for the modern reader, I think. I did not come upon any new insights about humanity in general; everything was specific to a mode of life that is entirely foreign to me. And the symbolism of the golden bowl was a little thin, although almost too obvious. I would not really recommend this book, except to someone who feels the need to read the "classics." Who knows? Perhaps I am just too "low-brow" to really appreciate its merits.