Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

WOW! What a great book.

Maybe it's just that my notions of what constitutes great writing and that my preconceived ideas about politics and morality coincide with those of the author, but I was impressed by this novel more than any I have read in a long time. Thanks to Aaron Baker for recommending it.

The narrator is the Magistrate in a frontier outpost occupied by a foreign Empire in a country of nomads, who are Barbarians to the occupiers, because they don't share the same values and style of living. A lack of understanding leads to fear, and the Empire sends its Third Bureau to capture some barbarians and discover their plans. Using torture to find out "the truth," they find essentially nothing, and release the living captives, with the exception of one girl, who is so crippled from torture that she cannot walk away with the rest. A crisis of conscience leads the narrator to attempt a journey to return the girl to her people, leading to his being arrested for treason, for aiding the enemy.

I have great difficulty in reducing this story to a general summary, because it conveys so much more and opens so many questions. It is obviously an allegory, and since Coetzee is South African, is perhaps somewhat targeted at that country and its history. But since it's an allegory, it can apply to any similar set of circumstances in any place at any time. This novel could take place anywhere a population considers itself superior to the "other," fails to understand the way of life and motivations of the "other," stands back while its military uses "barbaric" methods to extract information in the name of "peace," and wants only to ignore any troubles as much as possible.

Even the narrator, who reacts to the torture when he finally allows himself to see the real "face" of the supposed enemy, is not exempt from blame. He is, after all, a willing participant in the Empire, who only wants to be left alone with his comfortable lifestyle.

We are left with this question: Who, exactly, are the barbarians?

This novel leaves the reader something to think about, is not simplistic black and white, is subtle in its use of symbolism, reveals the soul of a man, and is superbly well-written. What more could a reader ask?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Just some early morning musings on good writing....

The book I am reading right now (Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee) is one of the most well-written I have ever read, and I have read a lot. So waking up at 4 a.m. and not being able to get back to sleep, I get to thinking about exactly what makes it so good, and I can't really figure it out exactly. What does he do that other writers don't do? Why are some people good writers, while others are not? What exactly does being good as a writer mean? Does it depend somewhat on the reader and his preferences? Or would the quality be recognized by everyone? Is there a book I can read on the subject? Can one learn to be a good writer?

I'm not talking about plot here at all. An adequate writer with an original plot can come up with a best seller, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. Suspense is always helpful in keeping a reader turning the pages. But a good writer can get along with only a minimum of plot. I'm thinking of Milan Kundera, for example (Immortality). His novels are filled with such sharp, universally true observations about life and humanity that they get along very well without being filled with events and suspense.

Instead, I'm thinking about the pleasure some writers can provide just with their writing, with its beauty, clarity, elegance, style, whatever. Ease of readability is important, I think, but that does not mean that sentences have to be simple and short. Gabriel Garcia Marquez ( Love in the Time of Cholera) has sentences that go on forever, and yet are easy to read because they flow. In contrast, Henry James' (The Golden Bowl) long sentences jerk and have no rhythm, making him almost unreadable (at least for me).

I think part of being a good writer is having the ability to really see things and people and then being able to translate the visual into words. Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels) made me see a Civil War battlefield. Joseph Conrad makes me see his characters.

I've come to the conclusion that one can be taught to be an adequate writer; a writer of best-sellers, even; a writer of "important" books, even. But I'm thinking that being a really good writer is an inborn talent. In my mind, I compare writers to singers: anyone can be taught to be a better singer; a great many people can learn to be adequate singers, to hit the notes, etc. But then some people come along who are really good, and it all appears to be so effortless, so natural for them. It seems they were just born with the ability.

I am thankful for good writing, however it was accomplished. It brings me joy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

It's been a stressful week, so I looked for something very easy to read, engrossing, and well written, and this book fit perfectly. Even though I had read it before, it is such a treat to read the dialogue and the plot is so intricate that it is worth rereading, and maybe even more enjoyable the second time around.

Private investigator Sam Spade is asked by the beautiful Brigid O'Shaughnessy to shadow a man who has run away with her little sister; it turns out that the story is a lie, and Spade's partner is murdered while on the job. But Brigid always has a new story, and gradually Sam learns about a black statue of a falcon that several unsavory characters are desperately seeking; in fact, they are willing to kill for it. Along the way, Sam falls in love with Brigid, even though he knows that she lies and manipulates. Sam's job becomes a race to solve the mystery before he is arrested himself or ends up dead, all the while trying to maintain some personal integrity.

The plot is intricate and suspenseful, but the best part of The Maltese Falcon is the dialogue, some of the best I have ever read--sharp, witty, and realistic.

The first time I read this, I had not seen the movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. During this second read, I could see Bogart in my head and hear his voice all the way through. What perfect casting--right up there with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

I highly recommend this book. By the way, it is #56 on the Modern Library's Top 100.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

If I had known anything about this book ahead of time, other than that it was #53 in the Modern Library's Top 100, I probably would have passed it by. It is certainly unique and inventive in its method of telling a story, and that's a plus. It held my attention, and that's a plus. It is satirically humorous, and that's another plus. But it is very labor-intensive to read, and after finishing, I still don't know what really happened, or if anything really happened at all.

Pale Fire begins with a forward, which is not the usual kind that the reader can skip. This forward is actually part of the story, introducing one of the two main characters--Dr. Charles Kinbote, who is supposedly the editor of a 999-line poem written by the poet John Shade, the other main character.

The second part of the novel is the poem "Pale Fire," Shade's poem, which covers about 36 pages. It concerns Shade's meditations on death and the suicide of his daughter, as well as details of his daily life. Here I encountered my first problem: the poem seems mediocre to me, certainly not an authentic effort by Nabokov. It is written in rhyming couplets, much in the style of Robert Frost (he is referenced in the poem), has some arresting images, but then turns mundane and silly in spots. Not knowing whether to perceive the poem as satirical or serious really bothered me.

The third and longest part of the novel consists of the "commentary" on the poem by Kinbote, with the customary line-references back to the poem for each entry. Now, for 230 pages, the reader turns back and forth from the poem to Kinbote's references to lines from the poem. Many times the poetry has nothing to do with the commentary, as Kinbote begins to tell his own story. He is an undependable narrator, for sure, obviously egocentric and most probably insane. But he is entertaining and it's fun to see how Nabokov leaves little clues all over as to what really happens in the book.

But then, the reader never really knows. Did John Shade write both the poem and the commentary? Did Kimbote write both the poem and the commentary. Was the assassin (spoiler alert) really Professor Botkin? Was the assassin really Gradus, send to kill an ex-king? Was the assassin really an escapee from a mental institution? Was Kimbote really the dethroned king of Zembla?

I broke a self-imposed rule during the reading of this book: I never read commentary (other than the book-seller's) or critical essays before or during the reading. I want to form my own opinions, without input from "experts." But the question of the poem bothered me so much that I googled up Wikipedia, the expert on all things. I read that more than 80 major interpretations had been written about the novel. So I figured that it was OK to be puzzled, since I surely wasn't the first. I think Nabokov wrote a puzzle-book on purpose, and probably derived great amusement from scholarly-types trying to figure it out.

Coincidentally, I recently read What the Shadow Told Me, which tried to be much the same kind of puzzle book, much less successfully. I wonder if they consciously had this book in mind.

Despite the problems, I am really glad I read this.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

In the song "Eleanor Rigby" the Beatles asked, "All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?"

Winesburg, Ohio tells their stories. This is a series of very short sketches, unified by the location of the people and a recurring character, George Willard, a young reporter for the town's newspaper. Sensing that George might be the one person who could understand them, lonely people seek him out to try to communicate their hopes and dreams, their longing to be understood. George doesn't fully understand them either, but he listens and he remembers. And that is important.

This is a sad book, because it captures the longing we all feel for a connection, another person who will really understand us. It is written in a straight-forward style, with short, to-the-point sentences. I believe Hemingway learned some lessons about writing from Sherwood Anderson.

This review does little to capture the strange beauty of this book. As I write about it, it sounds boring and depressing, but it is not. Winesburg, Ohio fully deserves its place on the Modern Library Top 100 list (#24).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What the Shadow Told Me by Kurtis Davidson

This is a strange book. It is satirical about writers, book publishers, Asian-Americans who learned English from reading, English professors and college presidents, rappers, protesters, and every other character in the novel, however minor. It is a take-off on the life of Ralph Ellison, who wrote the acclaimed Invisible Man in 1952 and never delivered another novel, until 2,000 pages of writing were discovered after his death almost fifty years later and edited into the novel Juneteenth. Sadly enough, I would not have realized this at all, but for a comment by a reader on Amazon.com, where I ordered the book. This novel was actually written by two white college professors, who used Kurtis Davison as a pen-name, is mainly about black people, and is not politically correct at all. And it is very funny.

Invisible Man, as I remember it, was about how nobody saw the narrator for who he really was, but viewed him as a certain "type"; in other words, as a stereotype. And all the characters here are portrayed as stereotypes: the book publisher interested only in the money, not the literature; the college president interested only in the financial bottom-line, not the scholarship; the professor interested only in self-promotion, not intellectual integrity; and so on.

This is something of a detective story--did the writer Rufus Walter Eddison leave a manuscript of new work when he died? where is the manuscript? is the writer Henry David Monroe actually Eddison's altar-ego? did Eddison father children with women other than his wife?

I imagine the authors must have had great fun writing this book, adding characters along the way just so they could be lampooned, trading jokes, thinking of new ways to tie the Eddison story to the Ellison story. It's very clever, with many one-liners. For example, there's this bit about the English professor: "Here she goes, Malcolm thought, launching into Litspeak, the kind of talk that makes you not want to watch PBS." And then there are the stilted and much-too-literal translations of Eddison's first book to pidgin-English by Biminim Strimpoonanamam, which head most chapters. It's really humorous to make fun of the ridiculous mistakes of foreigners when they try to speak English, right?

The novel is amusing on first read, but my final verdict is that it is too self-consciously clever to be worth a second read. After all, when you've already heard the joke, it's not as funny anymore.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H,.G. Wells

I had read this book before--when I was 13 years old. I remember because that summer my mom was enrolled in summer school at Texas Tech, and, thus, was able to check out books for me. I spent the summer reading H.G. Wells and Jules Verne as fast as I could, because I only had six weeks before my supply would be cut off. (Lockney, Texas, was sorely lacking in its library offerings.) I loved this book then, and I loved it almost as much this time. Of course, I'm sure I missed some of the philosophical implications back then, but Wells tells a great story, enjoyable for people of any age.

The narrator of the novel, Edward Pendrick, is shipwrecked and alone in a small life-boat, when he is picked up by a freighter. Strange circumstances lead to his being left on a small island with an ex-medical student, who is prone to drunkenness, and Dr. Moreau, a disgraced scientists. Also on the island are various strange-looking "natives," who are almost animal-like in appearance.

It soon becomes apparent that Dr. Moreau has been performing bizarre experiments, transforming animals into a semblance of humanity, with the ability to walk upright and to speak. Unfortunately, they tend to revert to bestiality.

And what happens next? That suspense is the strength of this story. That and the very literate writing.

What did I miss the first time? I missed Well's suggestion that man is not so far from beast as he would like to think. The narrator says, "A strange persuasion came upon me that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate, in its simplest form."

I really liked this comment on the difference between man and beast: "An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie."

Jules Verne tended to be scientific, often predicting inventions yet to come (the submarine of 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea, for example). I can see now that Well's science was not even plausible, but, at 13, that mattered little to me, if I even realized it. It still doesn't matter.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Zoli by Colum McCann

I was really looking forward to this book, because McCann's Let the Great World Spin was one of my favorite books from last year. And I was disappointed. Perhaps if I had not expected so much....

This is the story of Zoli, a Romani (Gypsy) poet in 1930s Slovakia. Persecuted by Fascists, who killed the rest of her family, Zoli and her grandfather join a new clan and she begins a new era in her life, as a singer and poet. Once the Communists take charge, she becomes a celebrity among Communist intellectuals, even being used on posters for Gypsy resettlement. Eventually, her clan is forced by the new government to abandon their wagons to live in multi-story apartments, all in the name of progress; her secret lover betrays her by publishing her poems (frowned upon by Romani tradition); and she is formally shunned by the Romani, never again to be part of any clan. She flees, to begin life again. Almost half of the novel is devoted to her flight and her new life.

In my judgment, a successful novel must have at least one of these elements: a riveting plot, good characterization, a poetic voice, something worthwhile to say about humanity or the world, some general wrong addressed that needs to be righted, a unique way to tell a story. The ideal novel would include all of these attributes.

For me, this novel did not include enough of any of the above to make it worthwhile; I nodded off while reading. (This was my "night-book." I almost always read two books at once--one in the day while I'm babysitting and one at night.) It was not a difficult book to read, but I found it tedious and boring, because I really didn't care about the characters or what happened to them.
I suppose it does call attention to the almost-universal rejection by the world of the Romani people, but the case was not presented forcefully enough to involve me.

I would not recommend this book, nor would I read it again. It's back to Half-Price Books with this one.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This is one of those books that you read really fast because of the suspense--you want to see what happens; at the same time, you know you are skimming through some really great writing, so you know you'll want to read the book over, slowly and deliberately. In short, this is a masterpiece.

Verloc is a dealer in light pornography, a trusted member of a rather inept group of anarchists, an occasional snitch to the police, and an undercover spy, reporting the anachists' plans to an unnamed embassy, which orders him to provoke his group to blow up Greenwich Observatory to bring discredit to the movement and to push England to be tougher on its dissenters. This is the stuff of the typical spy thriller, but Conrad takes it so much further.

Delving into the minds of his characters, Conrad reveals a very bleak picture of humankind: they are not even totally villainous, but only petty, self-seeking, casually corrupt, and, more often than not, capable of hiding their true motivations even from themselves. The London of his story is also bleak, dark, wet, unwholesome. Sounds pretty depressing, right? But it seems very real. This is not a good guys versus bad guys, happily-ever-after kind of book.

The genius of the novel lies in Conrad's ability to convey a characterization indirectly. He says of Verloc, "...he had an air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed," and, "Mr. Vorlec extended as much recognition to Stevie (his wife's retarded brother) as a man not particularly fond of animals may give to his wife's beloved cat...." Every character in the book is revealed in a similar manner, and their thoughts are conveyed in such a way that the reader can understand more about the character than he does himself.

So Conrad combines a suspenseful political spy plot with a psychological study of an unsavory London underworld, and he comes up with a masterpiece. I am sure Graham Greene must have been inspired by it, as some of his books are very similar in tone and method.

Although I have loved other Conrad novels, I had never read this one before. It is #46 on the Modern Library Top 100. I believe it should be listed much higher, certainly higher than The Golden Bowl.