Saturday, April 30, 2011

White Noise by Don DeLillo

This novel was on the Times Top 100 list. Some time ago I read that DeLillo is "the most important writer of the 20th Century." So I decided to try him. I should have been warned by the fact that, in the edition I bought, the novel took 325 pages and the remaining 200 pages were devoted to critical essays explaining the novel--never a good sign.

The plot, as such, is easy to summarize. The first third is composed of short chapters detailing the daily lives of Jack Gladney, a Professor of Hitler Studies at a small college, his wife Babette, and five of their children from various previous marriages. They watch television (seemingly constantly), shop at the supermarket and the mall, and the children spout facts (often humorously erroneous) that they have gleaned from TV. This part resembles a family sit-com more than anything.

The next section tells of an "airborne toxic event" which forces the town to evacuate temporarily, exposing Jack to toxins which may or may not lead to his death in 15 or more years. Jack becomes obsessed with a fear of death, only to discover that his wife has long been similarly obsessed, and has taken an experimental drug to help her cope with the fear. Though the drug did not work for her, Jack becomes convinced that he needs to try it.

The third section concerns Jack's rising fears about death and his search to find the man who gave the drugs to Babette (she won't tell; she promised). The eventual confrontation solves nothing, and the ending is enigmatic and non-conclusive.

So I read some (not all) of the critical essays and found that this is a "post-modern" novel. Evidently that means that the author provides a minimum of linear plot; employs irony and satire to reveal the perils of living in today's world; utilizes a restructuring of various literary genres. And so it goes.

While this book was often very humorous, I certainly would not put it in the Top 100 of the 20th Century. The novels Catch 22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Slaughterhouse 5 were also mentioned in the critical essays as post-modern novels. Those authors did it much better. I don't believe I will read another DeLillo book.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Giants in the Earth by O.E, Rolvaag

"There were giants in the earth in those days...." Genesis 6:4

O.E. Rolvaag took his title from the Bible, telling a story about the very early Norwegian pioneers to the Dakotas, who were indeed giants--not in size, but in courage, determination, and endurance through extremely adverse circumstances.

Four family groups have already made the voyage from Norway to America, finally ending up in Minnesota, when they are stricken with the fever to "go west" where good land and opportunities beckon. The story focuses mainly on Per Hansa and his wife Beret, as they face unimaginable obstacles in making a home and surviving on the open, flat, treeless prairie. Indeed, the prairie, with its featureless landscape and extremes of weather, is one of the main characters; Rolvaag writes, "But more to be dreaded than this tribulation was the strange spell of sadness which the unbroken solitude cast upon the minds of some....It is hard for the eye to wander from sky line to sky line, year in and year out, without finding a resting place."

The settlers, living in sod houses, face savage summer storms, winters that last from October through April with 20-foot snow drifts, a pestilence of grasshoppers, a lack of medical help, toil from daybreak to dark, a lack of sufficient food and fuel--and still they survive. "They threw themselves blindly into the Impossible, and accomplished the Unbelievable."

This is a beautiful book. Originally written in Norwegian, it was translated by the author himself, with the help of some who were more proficient in English. Not restricting himself to plot and descriptions of the many challenges faced, he focuses on the psychological aspects of his characters and the human costs of building a new nation. If a better book about pioneering in America has been written, I have not read it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Year of Reading

At the end of last April I began writing on Facebook about the books I read, later switching to blogging, with links to Facebook, and I am so glad I did, even if few even read the entries. For the first time in my life I have a record of what I read during the year. I wish I had kept a reading log forever.

I looked through my entries today, and, can you believe, I had already forgotten that I read some of them. The list included re-reads of classics and other old favorites, books from the Modern Library Top 100 (I'm aiming to have read all of them by the time I die!), books recommended by friends, best sellers, detective stories, science fiction and fantasy, and one non-fiction book (which has recently been revealed to be mostly fiction: Three Cups of Tea). I also counted them and found that I had read 92 books this year. This surprised me and tells me that maybe I need to get out and about more.

Here is my list of the top 10 books from a year of reading (in no particular order). It does not include books which I re-read.
Deliverance by James Dickey
The Wapshot Chronicles by John Cheever
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgacov (thanks to Aaron Baker)
The Cave by Jose Saramago (thanks to Brandon Watson)
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtyngart
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

OK, so that is the top 11. I can count; I just couldn't decide.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I have a theory about the author of this book: I think he has been a reader all his life and has always dreamed about writing a novel. He had several plot lines in mind, and then in his mid- forties he finally started writing. Rather than choose one of the plots, he decided to combine them in one book.

The plot goes this way: Edgar and his parents continue the work of dog breeding and training started by his grandfather, with the goal of creating a special kind of dog, with the intelligence and understanding necessary to make decisions. By the way, Edgar is mute, not deaf but he cannot speak, so he communicates with his parents and the dogs in sign language. This section has much information about dog training and examines the bond between Edgar and his special dog, Almondine, with a portion written from the dog's point of view.

And then Edgar's long-absent uncle (his father's brother) comes back to the area, and it soon becomes apparent that the brothers do not get along. Edgar's father dies suddenly, possibly of a brain aneurysm, but later his ghost appears to Edgar and intimates that he was murdered by his brother. Just four months later the uncle moves in with Edgar and his mother and becomes her lover. Edgar does not know what to do--does he trust that what he saw was actually his father's ghost? He decides to enlist some confederates to re-enact the crime to see how his uncle reacts. The reaction prompts Edgar to confront his mother, but in a heightened emotional state he accidentally kills a busy-body family friend. Does this sound familiar? That's right--it's Hamlet. The one startling (and unintentionally funny) difference is that the re-enactment is done, not by traveling players, but by dogs that Edgar has trained.

Then comes a wilderness adventure portion, as Edgar flees with three of his dogs. During his travels he gains understanding of himself, his dogs, and their relationship. He has supernatural visitations and is befriended by an unlikely ally before deciding to return home.

The rest of the book is back to Hamlet.

So Wroblewski has written a modern rehash of Hamlet (with dogs), a wilderness and coming-of-age tale (with dogs), a supernatural story (with ghosts and oracles), and a dog story (with almost-human dogs). In the process he ripped off Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and even Stephen King.

And, unbelievably, it works quite well, because the author is a more-than-competent writer. He has lovely descriptions, good characterization, and moves the plot along nicely. Even after I realized that I already knew the basic plot, I was interested to see how he interpreted it into modern day. It's a long book, but it reads very fast. I can see why it became a best seller. I am a late reader to this, since it has been out for a good while and has already been picked by Oprah! I raced through it, but I will not read it again.

By the way, the role of Ophelia is taken by the dog Almondine--another (perhaps unintentionally) funny bit.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Loving by Henry Green

This novel was #89 on the Modern Library Top 100 and also included in the Time Top 100. In the introduction to the edition I read, the writer John Updike praises Green for his "surrender of self, this submersion of opinions and personality in the intensity of life itself...." Updike also quotes other notable writers who admired Green: Elizabeth Bowen and W.H. Auden. So I expected to really like this book. And I was disappointed.

Loving takes place in an Irish manor house during World War II, and concerns the doings of a group of servants, mostly during a time when the employer is not present. They fall in love, gossip about their employers, bicker and fight with each other, and express their fears of an invasion by the Germans and of the IRA (they are English, except for one). The central character, Charley Raunce, reveals himself to be a devoted son and lover, but also a bit of a petty thief and liar. Most of the other servants also see no shame in pilfering small bits and pieces from their employer and some frequently "take to their beds," knowing that the wartime makes it almost impossible to obtain new English servants. They are, in short, much like a group of workers in an office today, who have some admirable qualities, but who see no harm in taking home office supplies, fudging time sheets, and "playing sick" when they feel like taking a break. The only character to seem idealistic and somewhat noble is the youngest one, barely 18.

There is much mention of peacocks (meant to symbolize the useless upper class???), and the ending is ambiguous and abrupt. I felt the author was saying, almost in mockery: "You want a happy ending--well here it is." Some parts were very funny; for example, the old governess tells her charges a pretty story about a baby dove while the children watch actual doves fighting and copulating.

When my opinion of a book differs from that of actual literary critics, I generally assume I missed something. In this case, I believe the difference in opinion comes from the difference in the way a working writer or critic reads a book from the way the general reader reads a book. (Does that make any sense?) This book is about 80 percent dialogue, and it is so well done and natural sounding that it could be transcripts of tape recordings. I'm sure authors who have labored over writing dialogue really admire this skill. But Green does not edit his dialogue to advance a plot--he includes every little inconsequential remark and the roundabout way people in actual conversations have of getting to their point, even the way they sometimes lose track of what the point of the remark was in the first place. The author provides no clues or directions as to what the characters are actually feeling; the very trait Updike praises, Green's "submersion of opinions and personality," is the trait that made this book less than enjoyable for me. I can admire the author's skill greatly while not liking the book very much.

Writing these non-scholarly reviews is very helpful to me, because I actually think about a book after I have read it, trying to analyze my reaction so that I can try to convey it. Sometimes this means that I realize the book really wasn't that well done, but that I just liked the story. Sometimes this means that I discover that maybe I appreciated the book more than I had thought. So I say, "Well done, Henry Green, but I guess I don't really want people revealed this fully. It's discouraging, and I want to really believe in the happy ending."

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

This is a historical novel of a little-known place and time, and one only wonders how Mitchell ever came to pick this setting. It takes place in 1799 on Dejima, a small island in Nagasaki Harbor in Japan, headquarters of the Dutch East India Trading Company, Japan's only contact with the Western world. The hero is a young Dutch clerk, Jacob De Zoet, who has come to make enough money in five years to marry his sweetheart back in Holland. With a very Dickens-like cast of characters and plot, the novel includes a flawed hero, an intelligent young woman in distress, various self-serving petty villains, and one truly monstrous evil villain, who eventually receives his just punishment. We have betrayals with long-lasting consequences and heroic sacrifices. Along the way we get a smattering of history and Japanese culture, but this is mainly an engaging story of human beings attempting to find honor and happiness, which could have taken place any time, any place.

The dust jacket says that Mitchell did "prodigious research" to write this book, so I presume it is historically accurate, but that is almost beside the point. The value of this book lies in its plot, which is absorbing; in its dialogue, which is so well done that each character has a different "voice"; and in its narration, which is inventive and original. His inclusion of small descriptive sections in the form of traditional Japanese poetry was an interesting addition.

I have read two other books by Mitchell, Number 9 Dreams and Cloud Atlas, and both were very good, but entirely different from this one. I look forward to reading his two remaining books; he is an author worth following.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I'll just leave the title off this one.

Ha! Got you. I meant to post this yesterday (April Fool's Day), but I got tired and went to bed instead. You see, I just figured out that I can see how many people logged on to see each blog (the record is 9 so far), and I wondered if this would generate more views. Don't worry--I can't see who viewed, just how many.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Farewell,My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Since I just recently read a Dashell Hammet novel (Red Harvest), I decided to read a Raymond Chandler book to compare the two, since the two authors are usually lumped together as the founders of the "hard-boiled" detective novel. I had read this Chandler novel before, but it's the only one I had handy.

Farewell, My Lovely begins when private detective Philip Marlowe accidentally witnesses a murder being committed by a just-released-from-prison bank robber, who is looking for his lost love. Without any current work to do, Marlowe begins looking for her, too. The next day he is hired as a bodyguard for one night, only to be black-jacked and his client murdered while Marlowe is unconscious. Thus begins a series of events during which Marlow meets a psychic reader, the head of a gambling circuit, various corrupt policemen and a few good ones, and the beautiful blond wife of a millionaire, who tries to seduce him. In the end, of course, he ties everything together and solves the mystery.

Now to compare the two writers:

*Both novels have convoluted plots and a large cast of unsavory characters. Chandler's plot has more "red herrings" and develops some suspense, while Hammett's is more straight-forward and the suspense stems from whether the detective can accomplish his goal and still stay alive. Also, Chandler's plot hinges on some rather implausible instances of accidentally meeting just the right person at the right time, while the progression of Hammett's plot seems inevitable and logical.

*The heroes are both smart-mouthed and sarcastic and survive completely against the odds--that's part of the fun of this genre. But Hammett's dialogue is much the snappiest and more natural sounding; Chandler's hero sometimes quotes Shakespeare and somehow that does not quite fit with the rest of his street-smart conversation.

*Chandler has a real talent for place description: "On the porch stood one lonely rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard."
Now can't you imagine just what kind of person lives in this house, without being told anything further? Chandler also frequently uses a kind of sarcastic reverse description, which is interesting: "The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building."

On the other hand, Hammett excels at quick character descriptions: "Her coarse hair--brown--needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking." The novel is full of these quick sketches, which reveal much more than the mere physical appearance of the characters.

*Hammett was the first to come up with the tough, hard-drinking, smart-talking, cynical private detective formula, and his book seems much more authentic to me. He was, after all, a Pinkerton detective for some years. Chandler, a product of an upper-class British school, started writing about ten years later, and his writing has more polish and less grit. I felt that Hammett had actually observed the dark side of America and that Chandler had just learned how to write about it.

Neither of these novels is considered to be the best from the two authors, so this comparison is probably not terribly accurate, but it was interesting to think about. Both Hammett and Chandler are very fun to read and pointed the way for so many subsequent writers of this genre.