Sunday, October 30, 2011

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Midaq Allay is a slice-of-life picture of several months in a small alley in Cairo during World War II. The residents of the alley all have their small dramas, and Mahfouz manages to weave all their stories together to tell an interesting tale of love, lust, greed, selfishness, religious devotion, depravity, and drug addiction. It's an Egyptian soap opera!

Mahfouz is an excellent story-teller, and the various characters and their actions come alive and make continued reading a compulsion. Of course, I have no idea if this is a true picture of life in that place and time, or if everything is slightly exaggerated (which seems likely to me).

Mahfouz has received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and this is not one of his most acclaimed novels. I plan to read others of his soon. It is always interesting to perceive how those of another culture think, believe, behave. Plus, Mahfouz tells a darn-good story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton

Every now and then you happen upon a book that you never heard of before, and it is so good you are amazed that you hadn't heard about it. This is that kind of book.

Elmer Kelton is well known by those who read "westerns," books about cowboys,Texas Rangers, and so forth. This is his most prize-winning book (Spur Award from Western Writers of America and Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum), but I would not call it a "western" in the usual sense. Instead, it is a novel set in the West, with problems that will sound familiar to farmers and ranchers today.

Charlie Flagg is a stubborn, hard-working, courageous, somewhat-cantankerous rancher making a pretty good living on a ranch near San Angelo, Texas, until the historic drought of the early 1950s comes along. He is unrelenting in his efforts to adapt to a period of no rain, but also unrelenting in his refusal to accept federal assistance, taking pride in his self-sufficiency even though his banker tells him, "There's no way a man can still make it all by himself."

In the hands of a less-capable writer this novel could have been a formulaic tale of the last of a (perhaps) dying breed, the independent man of the West. But Kelton is a better writer than that. His Charlie is a fully realized character, faults and all.

The dialogue and even the narration is absolutely authentic for the place and time. Perhaps Kelton's very authenticity prohibited his acceptance as a novelist outside the West: one of his characters "tells a windy." Do people in other states even know what that means? I do, because I heard the expression all through my growing-up.

Another unusual aspect of the novel is its frank depiction of the relations between Anglos and those of Mexican descent in their shared land. Even though he is not guilty of some of the overt bigotry of his neighbors, Charlie is still guilty of "paternalism," thinking he has to take care of his resident ranch hand's family. By the end, though, even his thinking changes somewhat as times change.

The ending is not "happily-ever-after," but it is true to real life and to the spirit of the narrative. It provides hope, because we all know true Texans never give up.

Highly recommended for Texans and for anyone who wants to read a real picture of what Texans are like (or should be, anyway).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough

Imagine yourself to be a sheltered and pampered 18-year-old girl living in Virginia in a snug house surrounded by orchards, flowers, and streams. And then a family death and overwhelming debts force you to move to live with a relative in an unpainted wood-frame shack on a ranch, where the area is suffering its worst-ever drought--no trees, no greenery, no water. And the wind blows all the time. How would you fare?

The year is 1887 and the ranch location is outside Sweetwater, Texas. Letty Mason is not at all prepared for her new environment, particularly not for the weather. Circumstances go from bad to worse as her relative's wife begins to resent Letty's intrusion, and she finds herself almost forced into making a loveless marriage. She begins to think of the constant wind as a demon, and "began to dimly comprehend how women tried beyond endurance might sometimes go mad."

Later in the novel she thinks that the demon winds are trying to destroy her. She thinks, "Hell was a place where the winds blew all the time, winds that tormented you, but would not let you die....Demon winds!...."

This novel is somewhat melodramatic, although historical accounts do tell of pioneering women who did, indeed, go mad. A reader who has not ever lived "where the wind comes sweeping down the plain" may dismiss the heroine's obsession with the wind as illogical. But for anyone who has ever lived in West Texas, it will seem entirely plausible.

The Wind was written in 1925 by a woman who had lived in Sweetwater. It caused great furor at the time from Chambers of Commerce in that area, but today it is acknowledged as a classic of Texas literature.

Recommended for Texans who have ever lived in West Texas, the South Plains, or the Panhandle. Let me ask you, is the wind blowing right now? When was the last time you experienced a bad dust storm? Did you feel as if you might go crazy if it didn't stop?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

In noodling around on the computer at book-geek websites, I came across accounts of a big controversy in England just lately when one of the judges for the Booker Prize (England's most prestigious award for literature) said that they looked for "readability" and "the ability to zip along." Literary critics were immediately incensed, claiming that the Booker judges were ignoring "artistic achievement" in favor of popular readership.

Room was on the Short List for the Booker Prize last year, but it didn't win. If the judges were looking only for readability, this book should have won hands-down. It "zipped along" better than anything I have read this year. I couldn't put it down--it was literally a one-day read.

This is the story of a young woman imprisoned by a sexual predator in an 11' x 11' room, rearing her 5-year-old son. Sounds like it was "ripped from the headlines," doesn't it. (It was written before JaCee Dugard was found, however similar it may sound.) This could have been just a creepy, sensationalistic thriller in less capable hands, but Donoghue turns it into a moving testimony to the bonds of love between a mother and child. The second half of the book focuses on another equally touching aspect of mother-child love--the necessity of a mother's letting go to allow the child to flourish as a separate human being.

Taking a big risk, Donoghue tells her story in first-person through the voice of the child. This could have turned out badly if the voice had sounded at all wrong. But it sounds right for an intelligent child who has had constant adult companionship. This allows the author to put the emphasis of the story where she wants it to be--on the emotions of the two captives rather than on the circumstances of their captivity.

I cannot claim to have objectivity about this book, because for me (as a mother) it had such a strong emotional appeal. I don't know if men would like it nearly as much. I doubt that it can be counted as a great "artistic achievement," in the sense of being groundbreaking, innovative, or cerebral. But boy, is it a good read!

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kraken by China Mieville

A preserved specimen of a giant sea squid, also known as the kraken, suddenly disappears, tank and all, from a London Natural History Museum. There is no way the tank could have been removed unnoticed. Yes, this is the story of a squidnapping!

That should give you a big clue about the nature of this novel: it is a seemingly tongue-in-cheek blend of a Dashiell Hammett-style detective novel (with red herrings and much random bloodshed), a Harry Potter-style alternate magical sub-culture (with a struggle to save the world from a dire consequence), and Alice in Wonderland (with ordinary people suddenly thrown into a somewhat whimsical, illogical world).

Museum curator Billy Harrow (some echoes of Billy Pilgrim here) is hijacked into the search, accompanied by Dane, a member of a cult which worships the kraken, and Wati, a disembodied soul who can only speak when he enters a statue or human figurine. (There is much referencing to Star Trek here, including the fact that Wati speaks much of the time through an action-figure of Captain Kirk.) Also searching are a trio of London detectives, including the foul-mouthed Colleywood, who seems to be modeled upon Amy Winehouse. Competing with them to find the kraken is Tattoo, a crime boss of the magical underworld, whose essence is imprisoned in a tattoo on the back of a hapless captive.

Other participants include such Alice-like characters as the knuckleheads, who have giant fists in place of heads; witch and wizard familiars, such as cats and birds, who are on strike; and gunfarmers, who "grow" guns. And that's not all.

This is grand romp through a hodge-podge of genres and cultural references, and it was much fun to read for the first 250 pages. Then it got a little old and too much piled up, but the need to know the solution to the mystery kept me reading for the next 250.It was just a little too much and went on way too long.

I would recommend this book to people who like to read really weird stuff!

I forgot to mention, but this novel owes more than a little for inspiration to Neil Gaiman's American Gods. But all these inspirations were so transparent that I believe Mieville intended for the reader to notice and to feel "in the know." So that's OK. I guess.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago

It is disconcerting when I finish a book and realize I don't have a clue as to the author's message or purpose. If the book is poorly written otherwise, I attribute the fault to the author's lack of skill and/or talent. If the book is well written, I must then attribute the fault to my own lack of understanding and/or sufficient intellect.

This leads me to an admission--I did not understand this book at all. It is extremely well-written and Saramago is a Nobel Prize winner. The three books by him I have previously read (Blindness, The Cave, All the Names) are among my favorites. So I know the fault here was my own.

Saramago is not featuring the plot here, because nothing much happens. Ricardo Ruis, a physician and poet, returns to Lisbon, Portugal, after 16 years in Brazil. He comes partly to visit the grave of a recently deceased friend, Fernando Pessoa, another poet. During his year in Lisbon he takes long walks, reads the newspapers obsessively, engages in an emotionless affair with a chambermaid, finds himself fascinated by a much younger woman with a crippled hand, and entertains visits from his dead friend from time to time. The ending is somewhat startling, allowing the plot to be interpreted in an entirely different light.

Perhaps part of the goal of the novel is to highlight the turmoil of the world in the years just prior to World War II, as many of the newspaper articles Reis reads concern the rise of nationalism in Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Perhaps Saramago is commenting about the failure-to-connect in romantic love, as neither of the character's entanglements turn out well. Certainly Saramago is commenting extensively about the actual literature of Portugal, as Fernando Pessoa was an actual poet who also sometimes used the pseudonym of Ricardo Reis. (Yes, I read Wikipedia).

Whatever. This was not a good reading experience for me, even though the writing is very good. I would not recommend it except to people smarter than I am.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction can take several approaches. For example--it can provide a picture of the people and society of a past era, while inserting a totally fictitious story; it can examine the life of a famous person from the past, providing psychological insight as to motivations; it can take specific historical events and people, extending the reader's understanding of what happened and why.

Author Hilary Mantel takes the last approach. This novel examines England in the 1520s and 1530s, as Henry VIII seeks to annul his marriage to Katherine (who has produced no male heirs) and marry Anne Boleyn. The story is told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, the commoner son of a brutal blacksmith who rises to the position of the King's closest adviser.

Political maneuvering takes center stage here, with few of the details included which can immerse the reader in a past time and place. Cromwell is the only character into which the reader gains psychological insight, and that is rather limited. This is mainly the story of the wheelings-and-dealings involved in statecraft, which have perhaps not changed that much, except in the details, through the many years.

This novel was strangely fascinating, despite its length (650 pages), mainly because of its very clever dialogue (although I can't believe all those people were really that funny and satirical), and because of its alternative interpretation of events and characters (differing markedly from the ideas I had always held, which were taken primarily from other historical novels and movies).

One strange and disturbing aspect of the novel was Mantel's method of presenting it. It is told in present tense, first person, through the eyes of Cromwell. Except, the author does not use "I" when telling the story. Instead she uses "he" (where any other writer would use "I"), and this results in great confusion as to pronoun reference, especially in conversations. This style took me away from total immersion in the book and reminded me, again and again, that I was reading a made-up story.

Wolf Hall won England's 2009 Man Booker Prize, and I have almost always been impressed by the quality of the books which have won. I was not quite so impressed by this one.

Recommended for those who really, really like historical fiction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

"This writing is so powerful that it steals your breath...."

The above is a quote from the Milwaukee Journal, about this novel. They took the words right out of my mouth.

I always read the back-cover and inside-cover blurbs about a book, but I take them with a grain of salt, as they say. In a first-edition, the blurbs are written by published writers, and I cynically assume that they were paid or that they just like to see their names in print or that they are trading tit for tat. (I'll praise you if you praise me later.) If the edition is a subsequent printing, the blurbs from newspapers are very often (rather obviously) edited and sometimes come from second or third tier newspapers or magazines. So I've found that it's best not to take the blurbs too seriously.

The edition I read of this novel had eight pages of blurbs at the beginning, AND I THINK THEY WERE ALL ACCURATE; for example: "A stunning performance." (New York Times Book Review); "Evocative and haunting...." (Wall Street Journal); "This book is persuasive in the desperate hope that stories can save us." (Publisher's Weekly); "It is the ultimate, indelible image of war in our time, and in time to come." (Los Angeles Times); "The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get...." (Chicago Sun-Times); "Go out and get this book and read it." (The Veteran). And much more--all to the point that this is an astonishingly good book.

It's specifically about the war in Vietnam, but it's actually about any war, particularly the new kind of war where the enemy does not wear a uniform and can lurk anywhere, where civilians and enemy soldiers look the same, where no "front" exists, where the young men (and now women) live in constant tension, waiting for an unseen enemy to attack.

O'Brien served in Vietnam and the stories told here ring of absolute truth, but through several digressions he tells us that the events are invented, but true, nevertheless. He says, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth....What stories can do, I guess, is make things present." I have read very few books that seemed as present as this one.

I wish I were still teaching, so that I could assign this book to my students. For one thing, it provides textbook-worthy examples of the skillful use of language and detail to create impact. But more importantly, it conveys ideas that are important today. O'Brien says, "But this too is true; stories can save us."

I wish I could make this book required reading for everyone.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Sometimes when a person has read many, many books, he or she becomes a book snob. This is particularly true if the person has attended graduate school and has learned all the literary criticism lingo and so forth. This kind of reader has perhaps ceased using reading as a recreation and responds to books on an intellectual level only, paying little attention to whether or not the book is actually enjoyable to read. This would explain why literary critics consider James Joyce's later books as masterpieces. They are (probably) important on an intellectual level, but I sincerely doubt if anyone has found them fun to read.

Let it be known that I am not a book snob. I judge books almost solely on whether I enjoy them or not. True, I may be more critical than many others who read purely for recreation, but I have been reading so consistently for so long that I have many more books in my head than most people and, thus, more examples for comparison. When the writing is trite or awkward, when the plot is unoriginal or contrived or not even logical, when the author fails in his/her purpose--I am disturbed in my enjoyment. When I come to inhabit the author's made-up world and forget that I am reading, then I consider that I have read a good book. Sometimes I don't like the world or world view that I have inhabited. Then I don't like the book, even though I know intellectually that I have read a well-written book because it has transported me; I just do not like the book because I do not like the destination.

All this is an urging to recreational readers to read all kinds of books. No reading time is wasted, even when you read a really bad book. That just gives you a measure for comparison. Whenever possible consult your reading friends for recommendations--you will soon find those who like the same kind of books as you do. Read book reviews on book-selling web-sites. Enter the name of a book you really like and see what others who bought this book also purchased. Look up the lists for prize-winning books--Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker, Pen-Faulkner, Book Critics Circle, Hugo, Nebula, Mystery Writers of America, and so forth. Expand your reading horizons to include many genres--"literature," popular fiction, mystery, suspense, science fiction, and so forth.

Now to the review of this book--It was very good. I have not read many mysteries lately, although when my mother lived with me I read a great many, because she loved them and I read books with her. So I do have a knowledge of pretty current mystery writing for comparison and I believe that P.D. James is much better than most. Her writing is clever, literate, and smooth; her characters are believable and complicated; the solution to the mystery is a surprise, but logical.

Writing a good mystery is more tough than one would think, I suspect. The writer has to strew about "red herrings" and yet keep the solution believable and surprising. P.D. James does it here very well. This was the first mystery she wrote, so I shall make it a point to read more of hers. She tops Mary Higgins Clark and Sue Grafton, I can guarantee.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

I did something unusual before I started reading this book--unusual for me, anyway. Reading from the back cover that it tells the story of John Brown, who led the raid on Harper's Ferry before the start of the Civil War, I realized I actually knew next-to-nothing about him or what his raid accomplished. So I did some internet research. Here is some of what I found out:

John Brown, along with his sons, had been involved in abolitionist activities long before Harper's Ferry, working with the Underground Railroad and later being heavily involved in the bloody skirmishes in Kansas when pro-slavery and free-state adherents clashed. In contrast to most prominent abolitionists, who were often Quakers and pacifists, Brown believed that bloodshed was unavoidable, and indeed even necessary, to achieve the goal of freedom for slaves. Brown was seemingly motivated primarily by religious fervor, believing that he was being instructed by God and the Old Testament to use terrorist methods. Historians are divided as to how to understand him: some believe him to have been a visionary leader and martyr for the cause, and others believe him to have been a madman who saw no contradiction in shedding blood for a holy cause.

So on to the novel. It is narrated by Owen Brown, the third son, who has escaped from Harper's Ferry and who writes down his story as an old man, nearing death. His narration tells the story of historical events, but more importantly, sheds light on motivations. But he is an unreliable narrator, as any son would be in writing about a father of an overpowering personality, and his story tells as much about father-son dynamics as it does about historical happenings. Owen worships his father as he would God (whom he has ceased to believe in), but he hates him at the same time, in the end refusing to be Isaac to John Brown's Abraham.

Russell Banks here uses language to great effect, with Owen's narration sounding appropriately 19th century and biblical at the same time. Owen, seemingly subconsciously, reveals more about himself and about his father than he intends. This aspect is subtle and very skillfully done.

I'm sorry that the novel was so long (750+ pages), because I feel fewer people read it because of this, and everyone should read it. It is not a fast read, and few people these days have the time and leisure to give to extended reading, as I do as a retired person with no outside responsibilities.

This novel made me think about many things:

*How does a person come to believe that God is telling him to shed blood in a holy cause? What comes to mind here is people who kill abortion doctors and even incidental bystanders to stop what they consider to be the killing of innocents; Muslim extremists who justify the killing of innocents in the cause of their religious beliefs; a supposedly Christian nation which seems to be engaging in a "holy war," counting many innocent victims as collateral damage.

*John Brown was passionate about the freeing of the Negro slaves, but he had two wives who bore a total of 20 children, and he frequently left them alone to care for the children and to eke out a sustenance living while he carried on his holy war. The wives were not bound by law, but were they not bound by the circumstance of the time? Were they not, too, slaves?

*Is not pure blood-lust a part of any "holy crusade"? Owen Brown, in this narrative, admits this motivation.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with the time and leisure to read it. It has given me additional historical knowledge and, more importantly, much to think about. This is a mark of a good book--thinking is good.