Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

The protagonist of this book could be compared to Henry Chinaski in Bukowski's novel Post Office or Sebastian Dangerfield in Donleavy's novel The Ginger Man: all three go from woman to woman, drink too much, and live rather aimless lives. The difference is that this hero, Jake Donahue, is actually a decent human being, albeit somewhat misguided. The novels could be considered similar, also, in that they are all comic (or aim to be) and feature fantastic escapades. The difference is that this novel is actually funny. Very funny, in fact.

Jake claims to be a writer, but he actually spends all his writing time translating French novels into English. Ousted from his free lodgings by a lady friend, he goes in search of new digs, and returns to a former love, discovering that maybe he still loves her. But it seems that she has become involved with another old friend of his, Hugh, with whom he had once had grand discussions about philosophy. Jake becomes obsessive about finding Hugh again. The plot from here is complicated, but logical, and comes to a very satisfactory conclusion. It includes laugh-out-loud accounts of the kidnapping of a movie star who happens to be a dog and a fist-fight in a film-set of ancient Rome. All this mayhem seems logical and inevitable, surprisingly.

Jake's fault, which he finally realizes, is of "having conceived things as I pleased and not as they were."

I really enjoyed this book. It is #95 on the Modern Library Top 100 (only 9 more to go!) and is also included in Time's Top 100. Recommended.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn is a very quiet novel. There is no great conflict, no drama, no angst, no soul searching. And yet, against the odds, it is fascinating in its own unique way. The language accounts for much of the book's charm--it is straightforward and unadorned, yet has an honesty and a rhythm all its own.

Eilis Lacey is a very ordinary Irish girl: religious, obedient, kind, conscientious about her duties and obligations. It is the early 1950's, and job opportunities are very limited for a young Irish girl with no specific training. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers her the opportunity to go to America, she feels it is her duty to her family to go, even though she really does not want to.

In her new country Eilis suffers greatly from homesickness, but does her best as a shopgirl and even takes a course in bookkeeping to better her job chances. Just as she begins to feel at home in her new country, she meets a young man at a parish dance and cautiously finds herself falling in love, only to be called back to Ireland by a death in her family. Once there she again suffers a sense of displacement, no longer knowing where her true home lies.

The story is so simple; the characters are so ordinary; Eilis is so passive, letting others determine her future time after time. But it sounds so true, especially for a girl like Eilis in her time and place.

Recommended as good reading to calm your mind. If you crave excitement and/or challenge, pass this on by.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This Philip K. Dick novel would be shelved in the science fiction section of a bookstore, but it has no science and it is not set in the future. Instead, this is an alternate-reality account of America in 1962, with the country ruled on the west coast by Japan and on the east coast by Germany, after the Allied forces have lost World War II. In the west, life is very formalized and the Americans have largely adopted the values and culture of their former enemy, including the practice of using the ancient fortune-telling book I Ching to make important decisions. In the east, slavery has been revived and all Jews are eliminated as they are found by the ruling Nazi Party. And the Nazis are still obsessed with territorial expansion. They want the west coast, too.

With most of the action taking place in the west, the large cast of characters includes a high-ranking Japanese official, who collects early-American artifacts; an American antique dealer, who supplies the artifacts (which may or may not be authentic); Frank Frink (changed from Fink), who is a secret Jew; Frank's ex-wife Juliana, who goes on a journey with a disguised Nazi assassin; and Hawthorne Abendsen, an author who has written an alternate-reality book in which the Allies have won the war.

In this novel nothing is what it seems to be; many times what appears to be real turns out to be fake, and what appears fake turns out to be real. Eventually, Dick even introduces questions about the nature of reality itself: Is there one reality, with all the rest fake? Is it possible for more than one reality to exist, perhaps in different dimensions? Is there such a thing as reality at all, or is everything an illusion?

Philip K. Dick wrote many, many novels, and some are straight-forward science fiction and others are really, really strange and speculative. Three explanations might exist for his unusual writings.

#1 Dick was widely known to be mentally unstable for much of his life. Perhaps some of his books are the result of mental glitches he was undergoing at the time of the writing.
#2 Dick was widely known to be a user of many drugs, including amphetamines and LSD. Perhaps some of his books are the result of a drug-altered mind.
#3 Dick really believed that he had witnessed more than one alternate reality. Maybe he is right and is just more perceptive than the rest of us.

I would recommend that you read this book with an open mind.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee attempts the rather tricky business here of using a real-life person as his protagonist--the Russian author Dostoevsky--and the even trickier business of writing in the real-life style of his character. And I would say he succeeds, because I am left depressed and disturbed, as I was left after reading Dostoevsky's The Possessed. Quite an accomplishment for Coetzee; quite a downer for me.

The Master of Petersburg takes place in 1869 when Dostoevsky returns from exile in Germany because his stepson Pavel has committed suicide (or perhaps been murdered). As he peers into the life that Pavel has led in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky is drawn into the lives of his stepson's landlady and her young daughter and into the intrigues of a group of political terrorists, led by the immoral Nechaev. Finding the answer to the mystery of his stepson's death, however, becomes secondary to a confrontation with his own "demons" and ambivalent feelings about the nature of love, political rebellion, and the purpose of writing.

I am glad this was not the first Coetzee book I ever read; if it had been I would have stopped here and never read Disgrace or Waiting for the Barbarians. The language is wonderful, the execution is clever, the ideas are thought provoking, the tone is suitably dark and drear--what's not to like? Well, it left me feeling that human relationships and political systems are so basically flawed that there is just no fixing them. And I don't like to feel that way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Canaan's Side by Sabastian Barry

This book is beautiful, wonderful, magical--I must restrain myself here before I start gushing like a teenager. (Not to denigrate teenagers--I envy their instant and overwhelming enthusiasms and wish I could experience like feelings more often.)

Sabastian Barry is my FAVORITE LIVING WRITER, and this newly published book more than fulfilled my expectations. Reading Barry (who is Irish) is exactly like reading Irish poet W. B. Yeats; his language is so beautiful it can make you cry. Never mind the story, which is also wonderful. The very words themselves have a rhythm and an imagery that evoke sadness and joy, often at the same time. And it all sounds so natural, not forced or self-consciously clever. As witness to this, please read this somewhat lengthy passage, which tells of the thoughts of a witness at the bedside of a man soon to die.

"His face looked like it was ticking, like a clock. The clock had lost its hands long since, but somewhere in the old face there was a ticking, or a whirring, like the works gathering for its chime. Perhaps I was so sensitized now, so alert, I could actually hear the blood pulsing through his neck. The old heart wearying itself with a last weariness, a final effort. Truth is everything. We do not know it, we do not know how to get it, we do not have it in our possession, God will slap it on us like a police warrant as we arrive breathless at the gates, it is entirely beyond us, truth, bloody truth, but it is everything." I rest my case. And this is just a small sample, and probably not the best one, of Barry's use of language, rhythm, and imagery.

On Canaan's Side reports the history of 89-year-old Lilly Bere, as she writes the story of her life prior to ending it voluntarily. She tells of her brother's death in World War I, of her escape to America upon learning that she and her husband-to-be have been put under a death sentence by Irish nationalists during the struggle for independence from Great Britain, and of her life in America, always haunted by the threats of violence and war. She endures great sadness and tragedy, but also experiences great joy.

In an entirely understated and implied way, this novel is a powerful indictment against war. Five times Lilly finds herself separated from those she loves by war and its repercussions.

I cannot say enough good things about this book: it is beautifully written; it is not stylistically innovative but it rings of great truth; it tells a satisfying story, even though it is not a happily-ever-after, as some seem to crave. It is the best book I have read this year.

Enough already. End of gushing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

This was a book I couldn't stop putting down. I started it Sunday-before-last and read about 50 pages. I was flying to Phoenix on Monday, and I am an extremely fearful flier, so I wanted a book to read that would absorb my mind completely. I put this one down (though I did pack it to go with me) and read Special Topics in Calamity Physics instead. After I finished that one, I went back to Fortress for 200 or so more pages. Then my son took me to a book store, and I bought Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, my Second Favorite Living
Writer. I couldn't wait to read it; Fortress was put aside again. After I finished Black Swan Green I went back to Fortress and read until I had about 50 pages left. But then it was time to fly home, and again I wanted an eyes-glued-to-the-pages book. My son had taken me to another bookstore, and I had purchased On Canaan's Side by Sabastian Barry, my Favorite Living Writer. I read some of that on the plane. Back at home, even though I very much wanted to continue with the Barry book, I made myself finish The Fortress of Solitude. Finally.

Obviously, this book did not hold my attention.

The Fortress of Solitude tells the story of Dylan Edbus, growing up motherless in the 1970s as the lone white boy in a black and Puerto Rican section of Brooklyn. His friendship with Mingus Rude, a mulatto boy who is also motherless, protects him somewhat from the muggings and random violence of the neighborhood, as they find a common ground in their love of super-hero comic books. Then Dylan is given a ring by a mysterious, dying alcoholic that gives him and Mingus the power to fly!

Fast-forward to the grown-up Dylan, a free-lance music writer specializing in '70s rhythm and blues (the street music of his youth). He is not happy. He has tried to leave his past behind but cannot. He finds the magic ring again. He decides to go see Mingus (in jail). And so it goes.

This is not a poorly written book; Lethem is a more than competent writer. If book jacket acclaims can be taken seriously, many reviewers consider it "a masterpiece," "brilliant," "wickedly good." And so forth. I found it "somewhat boring," "pretentious," "smug." And so forth.

I would have liked this book more if:
#I had ever been to Brooklyn, so that I could have been amazed by the descriptive powers of the author;
#I had been knowledgeable about '70s rhythm and blues and '80s hip-hop and rap, so that I could have been terribly impressed by the author's comprehensive knowledge of these musical genres;
#I had even remotely understood why Lethem added the magic realism element, so that I could have been awed by the symbolism;
#I had identified with or sympathized with the main character at all, so that I could have understood why he turned out to be so despicable.

I chose it (because of the reviews), I read it (finally), and I didn't like it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Author David Mitchell is one of the best of the best! This is the fourth of his books I have read, and all have been excellent, and all have been totally different, not only in plot and characters but also in style. That is quite an accomplishment, as so many writers tend to write the same book over and over, just changing the plot. The one constant in a Mitchell book is his ability to write in a distinct voice for each separate character--his ear is extraordinary.

Black Swan Green is a first-person narrative by a 13-year-old boy and tells the story of one year in his life. The voice here is so natural, with thoughts and words so typical of a young person of this age, that it reads like a true journal; it is totally believable.

Jason Taylor lives in a small village in England; the year is 1982; his main concern in life is not falling to the outcast-level at his school because of his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it from everyone because it would be considered "gay," and to be considered "gay" also means an instant drop to the bottom of the social ladder. During this coming-of-age year, Justin experiences first kisses, first cigarettes, the first instance of the death of someone he knows, a first realization that other people have lives which are different from the one he knows.

Nothing very shocking or ultra-dramatic happens here. Rather, it is the very ordinary catalog of events which makes the novel seem so true. Jason's year unfolds typically; even the slow dissolve of the marriage of his parents is an all-too-common occurrence. But during the course of the year Jason matures and learns how to confront many of his fears.

Mitchell has said that this novel is semi-autobiographical (he is himself a stammerer), and perhap that is one reason for the "trueness" of this narrative; only a very few writers have done as well in the coming-of-age genre.

I give it 6 stars out of 5--most highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

No, I have not suddenly developed a scientific bent, as the title of this book might lead you to believe. Rather than a science textbook, this is a creatively done coming-of-age/mystery novel. Despite some irritating problems, it is an eyes-glued-to-the-page book, a very good read.

The mystery to be solved is revealed in the first few pages: did the teacher Hannah Schneider commit suicide and if so why, or was she murdered? The remainder of the novel is a flashback to the narrator's senior year in high school and to the events leading to the death.

Blue van Meer is a 17-year-old, precociously intelligent girl who is moving yet again to a new school, accompanying her professor father who changes jobs as many as three times a year. Contrary to her usual new-school experiences, however, she is almost immediately befriended by a socially elite group, called the Bluebloods by other students, who are disciples of the charismatic teacher. Socially awkward, Blue has in the past related almost exclusively only with her handsome, arrogant, information-spewing father and is understandably puzzled by her sudden social inclusion, particularly by the actions of the teacher, who has apparently forced the Bluebloods to include her.

As Blue gradually gets to know the group members, she learns that the beautiful Hannah Schneider is also something of a mystery to the other students. Then, while on a camping trip with Hannah and her new friends, Blue finds her teacher dead from an apparent suicide.

Refusing to believe the death a suicide, Blue becomes an amateur detective in the last half of the book, and the answers she finds are surprising and change her life forever.

Problems with this book: Author Pessl has her narrator include an end note (as in a research paper) after every little item which could be considered scholarly information. Yes, this reflects the narrator's upbringing by a father who recites facts in the most casual conversations, but it becomes annoying and interrupts the pace. These notes could have been reduced by at least half while still getting the point across.

Another annoyance: the over-the-top use of similes and metaphors. While some of these are perfectly evocative, some are pretty silly, and THEY ARE EVERYWHERE! Maybe this is supposed to reflect the writing style of the high-school-age narrator, but she is portrayed as being genius-level and amazingly well-read. So what is the excuse for the annoying excess?

I could give a few more reasons why this novel isn't perfect. But that would just be me being overly critical and maybe jealous. This novel is brilliant even if it is not perfect. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth tells the story of Archie Jones, a white lower-middle-class Englishman, and his best friend Samad Iqbal, a devout Muslim immigrant to England from Bangladesh, and of their ancestors and their children. It covers a lot of ground and features a great hodge-podge of nationalities and religions. For example--Archie's wife is a Jamaican-English mix who was reared as a Jehovah's Witness but who has rejected her religious upbringing; Samad's wife is from Bangladesh, but for her the Muslim religion is inconsequential; Archie's daughter Irie is just a mixed-up, mixed-race girl trying to find a direction; Samad has twin sons--Magid, who grows up to be an atheist, and Mallat, who grows up to be an almost-accidental Muslim extremist. The lives of the two families become entangled with the lives of Marcus and Joyce Chalfen, who are upper-middle-class English and lapsed Catholic-Jewish atheists, and their son Joshua, who turns into an animal-rights activist. Suffice it to say, many viewpoints are represented here.

This book had a strange effect on me. When I was reading it, I liked it very much and read far into the night to complete it. When I had finished and thought about it, I didn't like it nearly as much.

The tone is satirical and humorous, but on reflection it seems to me to be almost mocking and superior. Smith comes up with some very, very funny observations about people and culture, but when events turn more serious her tone trivializes the gravity of consequences. She seems to be ridiculing her characters; Irie is the only character not lampooned, and she is, obviously, the intelligent observer--in other words, Smith herself.

Smith introduces several themes--nature versus nurture, fate (what goes around comes around), and the perils and advantages of cultural assimilation. It is unclear, however, what her point is intended to be. She never really follows an idea through to completion.

(SPOILER ALERT) The ending, which brings together all the various ethnic and religious factions, is predictable, on reflection. I had anticipated, long before, that Archie was hiding a secret and what that secret might be. However, it did take considerable ingenuity in plot construction to get all these people involved in one event in order to have the grand finale.

This is a feel-good novel, in that you come to believe, "We can all get along." But I don't believe (regardless of opinions in the opposite direction)that it is a GREAT novel--in spite of the fact that it is listed in the Times Top 100.

So I would say, "Read it!" It will hold your attention; it is often very funny; it has just enough suspense that it will carry you through to the end. Then think about it--was it as good as you originally thought? I will welcome different opinions.