Saturday, July 30, 2011

Old School by Tobias Wolff

I wish I had attended the prep school in this book, where the entire school revolves around the English faculty and the young writers and scholars who love literature. In my high school the faculty and student body revolved around the football coaches and team and cheerleaders. Tobias Wolff attended a prep school much like the one he writes about here, and he has written this most extraordinary book; no writers, great or otherwise, came out of my high school. No professional football players, either.

In the early '60s, the unnamed narrator is in his last year as a scholarship student at his school, although at this school great care is taken to maintain a "classless" atmosphere, so that supposedly nobody knows who has money and who does not. He is also half Jewish, although his last name does not reveal that. And he takes great care to hide both of these facts, perfecting a pose as a privileged-class intellectual. Even with his long-time roommate, he is never really himself, and he feels that with his roommate the same is true. They are always playing out their assumed roles.

This fortunate school has, three times a year, visits from famous writers, and the students submit literary works to be judged by the writer, the reward being a private meeting, to be "anointed" by the great. This year the writers are Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway (the literary hero of the protagonist).

The winner of the Frost meeting has submitted a poem intended to be an homage to Frost, which Frost has perceived as a parody. No win there for the narrator. He feverishly reads The Fountainhead several times in preparation for his submission to Ayn Rand, falling completely under the spell of the book's philosophy and of its larger-than-life characters. But he comes down with some serious flu and does not even submit anything. He does, however, attend the gathering of Rand with the students and faculty, and her reality destroys the fantasy he has built in his mind about superiority and being a "misunderstood loner."

He returns to his idol, Hemingway, and gains a new appreciation for his honesty in revealing human (and his own) inadequacies. And then Hemingway's visit is announced, and the narrator wants desperately to win the audience, but can he write honestly and truthfully, as he perceives that Hemingway did?

The climax of the book answers that question. But then two more sections rather perfunctorily summarize the narrator's life after prep school and tell an additional part of the story of school days that he missed while there. These sections seemed weak and very anti-climactic.

The school-experience part of this novel was absolutely accurate and true, conveying the almost universal behavior of teenagers as they adopt "roles": the jock, the prom queen, the dork, the weirdo, the rebel. (Remember The Breakfast Club?) In this case, the roles are the rich kid, the intellectual, the budding writer, but they are roles just the same.

For someone who was briefly seduced by Ayn Rand and who later realized how Nazi-like her philosophy is (that would be me), the depiction of her visit is worth the price of the book alone.

But this is mainly a book for writers--about writing "the truth," no matter how painful or revealing that may be. And for avid readers who appreciate truthful writing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

A Bend in the River tells the story of an Indian man whose family has lived on the coast of Africa for three generations. He travels to an unnamed country in the interior to open a store, at the bend of the river. The town there has been a thriving European-run city, but is now largely ruins after a revolution, which put "The Big Man" in power. The protagonist's life there is a cycle of fairly stable times with rebuilding, and times of fear and dread, as counter-revolutions and government crack-downs repeatedly threaten the area. He encounters other Indian businessmen, young Africans trying to find a place in their new world, Europeans trying to adapt themselves to the new order. It is basically a story told through the eyes of an outsider of a country trying to find a balance between the modern world and the past and traditions of Africa, where tribal warfare is an inescapable fact of life.

I finished this book a couple of days ago but put off writing the review because I did not know what to say. It is well written, conveying a constant tension. The characters all seem to be uncertain, feeling their way through life, reinventing themselves to fit the circumstances but never at ease. Naipaul is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and this book is #83 on the Modern Library Top 100. It is well-done so that it has exactly the effect he intended.

But I did not like the book.

I think that's because I don't like the way Naipaul looks at life. He sees no glimpse of hope anywhere. This is my third Naipaul book: A House for Mr. Biswas and The Suffrage of Elvira reveal the same pessimistic attitude, (although the latter was not so bitter). One of his characters in this book says, "Nobody's going anywhere. We're all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We're being killed. Nothing has any meaning." This quote pretty much conveys Naipaul's attitude toward living, it seems to me.

Life is too hard as it is, without adopting this attitude. Without hope, we should just all give it up and die. This is my last Naipaul book.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick has imagined a world of the future in which those who die, if they are frozen quickly after death, can be kept in "half-life" for a period of time and can communicate with loved ones through the use of a "protophason amplifier." In this future, some people have developed strong psychic powers, many working for a company that specializes in sending psychics into businesses, who don't really like being spied upon. To counteract the psychics, "prudence organizations" employ people who can sense psychic activity and ferret out the snoopers.

Thus enters Glen Runciter, owner of the foremost prudence organization; his wife Ella, who is in half-life; and Joe Chip, his second-in-command. The company receives a big job on Luna, taking 11 psychic-sensors along, only to be caught in an ambush staged by its psychic competitors. And Glen Runciter is killed, or is he? Everyone else lives and escape back to earth, but then time begins to shift for the 11 survivors, sometimes with disastrous results. And they keep receiving cryptic messages from their dead boss, sometimes written on bathroom walls. Just what is going on here?

This is not your standard sci-fi novel, needless to say. "Ubik" is short for "ubiquitous"--existing or being everywhere at the same time. In the novel it is a product which can be used for almost anything, including an aerosol spray that can halt the killing effects of time-shift. Questions are raised here about the nature of reality and belief, and the reader thinks he has received the answer to the puzzle, until the last chapter. Then, oops, maybe all that was the wrong answer.

Science fiction is often dismissed when critics are choosing "great" novels, but this one was chosen by the Times Top 100. And I don't think it was even his best. It is funny; it gives you something to think about; it keeps you riveted to find out what happens next. It is short on character development, by then sci-fi is notoriously plot-driven.

It is well worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Back in 1964, the Rolling Stones sang, "Time is on my side." A character in Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel says, "Time is a goon." (Webster's definition--a man hired to terrorize; an enforcer.)

This is a book about time and about what it does to people and to the culture and to rock and roll! It's a series of glimpses into the interconnected lives of many characters over a period of about 40 years. Every chapter could be a stand-alone short story, but, taken together, they tell the story of...well--time, and people, and culture, and rock and roll.

Almost every character mentioned reappears in another character's story, so that the stories all weave together. But the reader has to pay close attention to names and time clues, because the chapters are not in chronological order. Thus, chapter 1 is about Sasha at age 35, chapter 2 mentions Sasha at a little younger age, chapter 10 is about Sasha at age 21, chapter 11 is about Sasha at age 19 or 20, and chapter 12 has Sasha in her late 40s. I imagine some people will grow irritated at all this jumping around, but then "Time is a goon," isn't it.

The last two chapters are set in the future, and the next-to-last one is a power point diary! The last chapter pictures a time when people are uncomfortable talking to each other and prefer to text-message even when face-to-face, when four-year-olds determine the music that is produced, and when paid "parrots" can generate enthusiasm about almost anything,over the internet. The character Alex is paid to choose among his 15,896 friends to find 50 who have need, reach, and corruptibility and will go along with his scheme for promoting a concert--people who have "stopped being themselves without realizing it."

All of this review makes the book sound like it is incoherent, but it isn't. It is so well done that the parts make sense, the time-shifts make sense, the different narrative viewpoints make sense. It is very funny in some parts. Even an attempted rape, the "Suicide Tour" of an aging rocker, and the public relations campaign for a genocidal dictator come off as humorous (and that's not easy to do). It is very depressing in some parts: one character wants to ask Lou, the aging rock producer, "How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?.... Did you know this was coming and hide that you knew, or did it ambush you from behind." Now that's depressing.

But time can also be redemptive, and people and the culture and the environment and rock and roll can improve and bounce back from really low places. And that makes this novel very hopeful.

Several fairly recent books I have lately read utilize the format of interconnected short stories: Cloud Atlas(David Mitchell), Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri), and Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout). Maybe this is a trend, but Jennifer Egan does the best job of making the parts into a coherent whole.

This novel is highly recommended. It is inventive, has well-developed and believable characters, has something important to say. and most of all, it's fun to read.

I wonder if Mick Jagger still thinks that time is on his side.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

Eyeless in Gaza covers the life of Anthony Beavis, from the death of his mother in 1902 when he is 11, until 1935 when he is 44. It is a story of finding courage, both physical and moral courage, and achieving purpose and meaning in life.

The book focuses on selective periods of the protagonist's life: the year of his mother's death, a year while he is attending university and having an affair with an older woman, a year in his mid-30s when he is involved in his career as a sociologist and writer, a year in his early 40s when he is having an affair with the daughter of the older woman, and finally a year of self-discovery.

Until the last pages of the book, we see Beavis behaving badly: he bullies classmates and betrays friends in order to impress others; he takes pride in his intellectual superiority and despises those who fail to meet his standards; he rejects love in favor of sensuality; he is cynical and arrogant. Then he meets a man who changes everything for him (rather suddenly, and almost unbelievably).

All of this seems fairly straightforward, but Huxley chose to structure the book with all the years mixed together: each of the 54 chapters is from a different year, and they are not in order. Thus, the book begins in 1933, then it's 1934, then it's 1933 again, then it's 1902, then it's 1926, then it's 1902 again, and so on. This means the reader will probably spend some time turning back in the book to locate the narrative thread. I can't understand exactly why Huxley did this, except possibly to place the two climactic events close together at the end of the book. It seems to me that this could have been done with the use of the flashback.

The writing is very good, and the plot is interesting. The structure makes it time-consuming to read, but I have the time. The ending is rather preachy, expounding on Huxley's life-views, which were influenced by humanism, Buddhism, and pacifism.

I'm glad I read this, and I might even read it again, if only to try to understand why Huxley structured it the way he did.

Favorite quote: (about allegiance to an economic system rather than to a life-philosophy) "Individuals must murder one another, because the interests of the Nation demand it; must be educated to think of ends and disregard means, because the school-masters are there and don't know of any other method; must live in towns, must have leisure to read the newspapers and go to the movies, must be encouraged to buy things they don't need, because the industrial system exists and has to be kept going; must be coerced and enslaved, because otherwise they might think for themselves and give trouble to their rulers."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

This book really disappointed. I was looking forward to some clever hard-boiled detective, like Hammett's Sam Spade or Continental Operative. What I got instead was ex-detective Nick Charles, who is medium-boiled, at best.

Nick Charles quit the detective game when he married the wealthy Nora, instead managing their (her) fortune and spending most days sleeping late, attending and hosting cocktail parties with the rich, going to all-night clubs, and coming home drunk in the wee hours. While on a trip to New York City he happens to meet up with the 20-year-old daughter of a former client, who of course needs his help. She just wants to find her father, whom she has not seen in many years.

Then her father's secretary is found dead, and the father cannot be located (although he keeps sending notes to people). It turns out that nobody has seen the father for several months, except, possibly, the secretary. Several suspects emerge, most notably the missing man and members of his dysfunctional family.

The Thin Man contains echoes of Hammett's razor-sharp dialogue, but it seems unnatural for a character who spends most days drinking and socializing with the wealthy. The suspects may be neurotic and slightly immoral, but they are not the street-smart toughs of Hammett's other books. Even the body count pales in comparison, and Nick is in danger only once, almost by accident. And the most disheartening element of all: I anticipated the ending about half-way through.

This was Hammett's last novel, even though he lived almost 25 more years. And it was first published, not as a "pulp mystery," but as a serial in Redbook, of all places (essentially a woman's magazine). This was in 1933 during the Depression, so maybe he really needed the money. No one knows, even those closest to him, why he never wrote another mystery.

The one aspect of this novel that stands out for me is the alcohol use. Nick and Nora have a drink or two, "to cut the phlegm," before breakfast. Every time anyone shows up, including the police, they all have drinks. They have drinks with lunch; they have cocktails in the afternoon, they have drinks with late suppers; they go out to late-night clubs and have many, many drinks. I have read that Hammett was an alcoholic. If he drank only half as much as the fictional Nick Charles, it is no surprise that he had a problem.

If you want to sample the origin of the hard-boiled detective story, read Red Harvest or The Maltese Falcon, not this one.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dune by Frank Herbert

Back in the '80s, a TV commercial for a bath-water softener named Calgon featured a harassed, stressed-out woman. She says, "Calgon, take me away," and is then transported to a bathtub surrounded by a calming, misty forest.

When I face stresses I wish to escape, I don't use Calgon. I read The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien), The Dark Tower series (Stephen King), or Dune. This time I chose Dune.

These three writers have created complete alternative worlds in which I can escape. The characters face seemingly unsolvable problems, but they keep on keeping on and they prevail. Luckily, I have the ability to lose myself in a well-told story, so these three, in particular, can "take me away."

Dune is the story of a feudal society of the future, when humans have spread to many planets. The Atreides House has been given control of Arrakis, a desert planet also known as Dune, which alone supplies "spice," a substance that has geriatric qualities and also allows the pilots of the Spacing Guild to navigate from planet to planet. Treachery awaits them, and the Duke Leto Atreides is killed, but his 15-year-old son Paul and his concubine Jessica escape into the desert. There they must face the dangers of the environment, of the natives of the planet, and of the worms, giant (really, really giant) sandworms, who devour everything that they sense.

Herbert has included every aspect of his created world in this book--the language patterns, the politics, the mythology, the religion, the life-style, the environment. His treatment of the science of desert ecology is apparently accurate (so I have read). Mysticism and mind-enhancing drugs also enter in, which may be one reason this book was so popular in the late '60s. This world is so clearly delineated that I would recognize it immediately if I ever found myself there.

The plot here is intricate and not easily anticipated; the politics are also intricate; the characters are somewhat archetypal, but that is fitting.

One must wonder at the kind of mind that can create an entire alternative universe. I believe these authors must have entered that universe themselves, because all three wrote sequels (and sequels) and included the universe in other things they wrote. Is it possible those universes do exist, or did exist once, or will exist in the future? (What a hippy-dippy comment!)

Suffice it to say, if you have the kind of mind that can suspend disbelief and escape from reality, you should read Dune and at least two of its sequels. If you have not read them already.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dead Souls by Nicolai Gogol

In the mid-1800s in Russia, the protagonist Pavel Chichikov is traveling through the countryside buying up dead souls--serfs who have died since the last census. Under the laws of the time, the owners have to pay taxes on their serfs, even if they have died, until the next census. By selling them, as if they were still alive, the owners would profit. But why would anyone buy them?

Chichikov has a plan. When he has collected the papers of enough dead souls, he can mortgage them (as if they were alive) and earn enough to buy his own estate. Of course, all this is illegal and most owners have to be tricked and lied to so that they will go along with him, but he is surprisingly successful. Until things start falling apart, that is.

This is basically a picaresque novel, much like 'Don Quixote,' with Chichikov meeting a different type of owner in each chapter. All this is intended to be very humorous, with most of the humor based on exaggeration. According to the introduction to the edition I read, the novel also contains many instances of playing with words, puns, humorous names, and so forth. All this was lost on me.

This edition also included parts of a sequel to the original book, which was not completed when Gogol died. The second part was much more serious in tone, and seemed almost preachy about the sad state of Russia at the time.

'Dead Souls' is a very famous and respected book, particularly in Russia. For some reason--cultural difference, ignorance about Russian history, a poor translation,
poor understanding on my part, whatever--I found it a chore to read.

If you feel inclined to read this novel, disregard this review. 'Dead Souls' has been considered a classic since 1842, and my opinion matters little.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Suffrage of Elvira by V.S. Naipaul

Contrary to my expectations, this novel was actually humorous, although it does point out a serious problem. This last novel I read by this author, 'A House for Mr. Biswas,' was very depressing to me. Sometimes a book can be so well-done about a tragic situation that it can be agonizing to read, and that was the case with 'Mr. Biswas' for me. This one also highlights serious issues, but the treatment is lighter.

The new democracy of Trinidad is having only its second elections (1950), and Surujpat Harbans, a Hindu, is running for office. To win he must secure the votes of the Hindus, the Moslims, and the Spanish. He has little chance of getting the Negro vote, because his opponent is a Negro. So he courts influential men who have influence in the various factions, offering them jobs and favors to help him. Superstitious elements also come into play: two Jehovah's Witnesses ladies and a black dog thought to be an evil spirit. So what does he do? He buys the vote, essentially, with little favors to various segments.

Forgive me for translating this story, in my mind, to today's America. We have the Republicans, the Democrats, the Hispanic vote, the Negro vote. In Trinidad, in 1950, the differing religious elements were mostly cultural differences. In America, in 2011, the two political parties seem to be more and more aligned along religious interpretations. And if you don't think superstition comes into play, think again of the reliance some put on the Book of Revelations. And what do most people do? Follow some influential leader of their segment who tells them what to think.

Back to the novel. Naipaul's dialogue is excellent; the wheeling and dealing of various factions to gain the most benefits are funny; the conclusion is even funnier, in a dark-humor kind of way. It's a very interesting book to read.

Naipaul seems to be making a comments about the pitfalls of democracy, but perhaps I am reading that in, though I think not. I recommend reading this book and thinking about elections in the USA at the same time.

This novel has an outstanding first sentence: "That afternoon Mr Surujpat Harbans nearly killed the two white women and the black bitch."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Andorra by Peter Cameron

This is a strange book about escaping reality and about deceit--deceiving others and self deceit. It could be read as a straight mystery, perhaps, although the solution to the puzzle is easily anticipated. The dream-like first-person narration quickly alerts the reader that this book contains undercurrents that don't fit the mystery genre.

Mr. Fox travels from America to the fictionalized country of Andorra to live, when he is "compelled by circumstances to begin my life again in some new place." From his room at the top of the Excelsior Hotel, he sees a picture-perfect seaside town, and his room, according to his first guest, is "God's room," complete with an antique alter. But he does not live for long in these perfect heights, and when he descends to the town he quickly becomes enmeshed in a downward spiral.

He becomes acquainted with an unusual assortment of people, all with secrets from which they wish to escape. Then a mutilated dead body is found at the harbor, and both the narrator and one of his new friends are suspect--that's the on-the-surface mystery part.

The real mystery lies in the hidden lives and troubled souls of the characters. All, most particularly the narrator, seem to be attempting to create a dream world where everything will be perfect.

I found this novel to be almost very good, but not quite. It is subtle, but not enough so, perhaps. It was certainly interesting.