Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lords of the Plain by Max Crawford

In the Foreward to the new edition of this book, novelist Larry McMurtry tells the story of attending a White House dinner and hearing from Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff, that the President had stayed up all night reading Lords of the Plain. Not surprising--if this book had been written in 1955 instead of 1985, it could very well have been turned into a movie, with Reagan as the young cavalry captain charged with keeping the peace and persuading the Comanches to move to the reservation. The final, decisive battle in Palo Duro Canyon would have made great cinema. Of course, the Hollywood of that time would have removed all hints of the moral and ethical ambiguity which permeates this telling of the "winning of the West."

Max Crawford has written a fact-based fictional story of cavalry versus Indian (the defeat of the last great Comanche tribe, which was led by the half-white Quanah Parker), but he has refused to follow either the old-Western formula of "good" civilization versus "evil" barbarity or the new-Western formula of sympathizing with and apologizing for the "noble Redskin." Instead, he has created characters who are all capable of both good and evil. As one soldier says, "Men will consider anything. We are all savages in thought...."

The novel is written as a first-person narration by Captain Philip Chapman, as if he were keeping a journal of his adventures and hardships. The language is just stilted and formal enough to be believable as the written thoughts of an educated young man in the 1870s. The pace of the plot development seems to be slowed somewhat by many of the day-to-day routines of army life, but they do serve to illustrate the incredible difficulties imposed by the isolation, terrain, and weather.

Looming over all the story elements is the eerie presence of the llano estacado, the flat, featureless staked plains of Texas. The narrator says, "No formation of any sort, no work of man or nature, was to be seen anywhere...there was nothing," and "The plain's monotony and desolation and unboundedness are those of eternity...." Author Max Crawford was born at Mt. Blanco, a community just at the edge of the caprock and went to school in Floydada, a small farming community on the plains. His descriptions are accurate, poetic, and haunting.

Recommended for those who enjoy thought-provoking Western adventures and for anyone who has lived on the llano, as I have.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I really wish I had read this book before I saw the movie, so that I could have been a better judge of the writing. As it was, I "saw" every scene in my head as I was reading, and the scenes came from the movie, which was powerful and (evidently) memorable. In particular, the actor who played the psychotic killer Chigurh was constantly in my mind's eye, because he so totally captured the essence conveyed in the novel of an amoral force of retribution.

The surface story is simple: Llewelyn, an amiable young welder, goes hunting and happens upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of the West-Texas badlands. With dead bodies everywhere, he discovers the money, over $2 million. He decides to keep it. Bad decision.

Now everyone is after Llewelyn--the drug suppliers, the drug buyers, and the conscientious Sheriff Bell, who realizes Llewelyn's danger and feels duty-bound to try to help him. The mysterious Chigurh becomes the hand of fate, dispensing "justice" as he sees it. Sheriff Bell is his opposite, as he attempts to dispense "mercy."

No Country for Old Men operates on so many levels. It is a first-rate crime thriller, in the Raymond Chandler style. It is an examination of the life-consequences of decisions. It is a meditation on aging and on changing culture. Even the title can be viewed from different perspectives. It is the first line of a poem by Yeats, in which he uses a voyage to Byzantium to symbolize a late-life quest to examine his own soul. The title can also be understood to reflect the inability of Sheriff Bell to comprehend and defeat modern evils.

After I read a Cormac McCarthy novel, I always vow to myself never to read another one. He is depressing; he is ultra-violent. But he is so good, so powerful. His novels can be read on so many levels. They stay in your mind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

Did you ever know an old lady (maybe your grandmother) or see an old lady (maybe a bag-lady on the street) and suddenly wonder about their lives and how they got to that place or how they were as young people? As revealed in his "Author's Preface" to this book, author Arnold Bennett was inspired to write this novel by observing an old woman in a restaurant. He observed, "...there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos."

This novel tells the story of two such women, Constance and Sophia Baines. It follows them from their teenage years in the 1860s in Burslem, England, to their deaths more than 60 years later. The book is divided into four sections: their teenage years with their parents, the subsequent life of Constance, the subsequent life of Sophia, and their old-age, when they are reunited after 30 years.

The two, as young girls, appear to be almost opposites--Constance is dependable, conventional, cautious, and obedient to her rather domineering mother; Sophia is undependable, non-conforming, adventuresome, and rebellious, defying her mother by eloping with a traveling salesman.

The second section finds Constance marrying the sensible and industrious assistant in the family store. After the death of her parents, Constance and her husband operate the store, have a son, become financially well-off, and lead mostly quiet, small-town lives. As the idol of Constance's life, the son becomes excessively spoiled and neglects his mother while taking for granted her continued financial support.When the husband dies and the son moves to London, Constance is left alone.

The third section follows Sophia to Paris with her new husband, where in four years he spends all of his inheritance and subsequently leaves her. Because her pride will not let her return home to her family, Sophia must make her own way in the world, eventually becoming a successful hotel owner. When her health begins to fail, she sells the hotel and finally returns to her home town to visit her sister.

In the fourth section, what starts as a visit for the sisters becomes a life spent together, until their deaths within a short time of each other.

I'm not spoiling the book for anyone by detailing the plot, because plot is not the important element here at all. Instead, Bennett is giving a picture of societal changes, observations about human nature in general, and psychological insights about human motivations. What I find particularly interesting is that the core behavior of the characters remains the same despite all that happens to them. They may be behind-the-times and unattractive and sickly as they age, but inside they are much as they were as young girls.

Written in 1908, the novel is naturalistic and straight-forward. I found it quite interesting while I was actually reading, but when I put it down for a bit I had no urge to pick it up again. Maybe it was just too English, too understated for a mind trained by television and less realistic novels to crave action and high drama.

This is #87 on the Modern Library Top 100.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I sometimes read "young adult" novels when they've garnered a lot of buzz, just to see for myself if they are worthwhile as well as popular. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised--the Harry Potter series turned out to be well written, imaginative, and compulsively readable. Sometimes I am left dumbfounded--the Twilight series (I read only the first one) turned out to be poorly written, hackneyed, and totally silly. I know that many adult women are fans, which I can't understand at all. Whatever.

This is the first novel of a series that is also wildly popular. And it is A-OK: not as well done as Harry Potter by a long shot but 10 times better than Twilight.

One plus--the premise is interesting. The ruling class of a future America each year demands a tribute of one young man and one young woman from the twelve subject districts to take part in televised games in which participants kill each other until only one remains. This is not particularly original: Think of mythology and Theseus and the labyrinth with the Minotaur. Think of the gladiators in the coliseum in Rome. Think of Death Race 2000. Think of Beyond Thunderdome. Most chilling of all, think of the television series Survivor. When a culture becomes degraded, one signpost must be the public's interest in watching scenes of violence and death. True, nobody is killed on Survivor, but would ratings soar if someone were killed? I'm just saying....

Another plus--this book has a point to make. Is it enough just to do what it takes to survive? Or is it important to stay true to yourself and your values?

A third plus--Collins does a credible job of creating an alternative world, gradually and unobtrusively introducing the reader to the realities of existence in this America of the future. Her writing is direct and simple, showing skill in delineating character. The pace is exceptional, creating a building suspense.

One interesting aspect of the novel is the "created" love interest between the main two characters, generated to attract more sponsors. Have you ever seen a television reality show which seemed to have a "created" love interest to attract more viewers? Enough said....

One reason I read this book was to see if it would be a good book for my 10-year-old granddaughter. Although the reading level would be acceptable, I do feel that the violence, particularly toward the end, might be disturbing to her. I would recommend this book for ages 12 and above. Adults could enjoy it, too, even if it is a bit simplistic.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Forget "Just Say No." That campaign doesn't do much good anyway, evidently. If you want to keep your teenagers off drugs, just give them this book to read.

This novel totally caught me off guard--I was expecting science fiction, because that is Dick's genre, although his books are weirder and more interesting than most. This is not science fiction! In fact, much here is not even fiction. Instead it is a fictional framework for heavily autobiographical material about the author's experience as part of the drug world in the 1960s, as he makes clear in the "Author's Note" at the end of the book. His comments give you an idea of the theme of the book:

"This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyway. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshittine and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief...."

As for the fiction part, the book tells the story of the undercover police agent Fred, who has been assigned to infiltrate the drug culture. Secrecy is so tight that his police bosses don't even know what he looks like. One of his chief assignments is Bob Arctor, a dealer and addict of Substance D, a drug with the side effect of gradually splitting the user's brain into two distinct, combative parts. What the bosses don't know and what Fred eventually forgets is that Fred is Bob Arctor, so that he is narcing on himself. By the end he is barely functional.

Both sides of the drug experience are portrayed: the sitting around being stoned and funny, followed by the paranoia, the suicides, the psychosis, the permanent brain damage. This is powerful stuff, made more-so by the fact that much of it was experienced by the author. At the end of the "Author's Note" Dick dedicates a memoriam to 15 of his friends who died or suffered irreparable damage from drug use.

Seriously, this book should be required reading for anybody who thinks it is "fun" to get high.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time 2nd Movement by Anthony Powell

This volume contains novels 4, 5, and 6 of Powell's 12-novel series. I can see now that this is actually one giant book. Since each separate novel is about 250 pages, at completion this is a 3,000-page story of the upper class in Great Britain from the 1920s to the 1970s. And a very good story it is. It's Upstairs, Downstairs without the "downstairs" part.

At Lady Molly's
(novel #4) finds the narrator Jenkins in his mid-20s, employed as a screenwriter. Author Powell is then able to bring in a new character, Chips Lovell, a fellow employee, who introduces Jenkins to his relative, Lady Molly. At her house, Jenkins meets the large Tolland family, which includes Jenkin's future wife. All three of Jenkins's school acquaintances turn up again, including the always awkward but surprisingly successful Widmerpool, whose brief engagement provides the most overtly comedic episode in the novel.

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (novel #5) opens with an extended back-flash to the initial meeting of Jenkins and his new friend Moreland, a composer of serious music. This seemed to me a rather awkward way to introduce a new major character. Anyway, Moreland's artistic and marital difficulties become a major part of this novel. Jenkins's school friends Templer and Stringfellow reappear. Much sport is made at the expense of the novelist St. John Clarke, who Powell supposedly modeled after the English novelist John Galsworthy.

Novel #6, The Kindly Ones
, begins with an extended back-flash to Jenkins's childhood as the son of a career army officer. This provides author Powell with the opportunity to introduce new characters and to provide motivation for subsequent actions. Even while social and sexual intrigues continue, stirrings of war with Germany escalate. The end of this "set" of novels finds Jenkins ready to enter the army to go to war.

It is extremely difficult to attempt to summarize these novels, because so much happens and so many characters are introduced. But all is fascinating (in the fashion that soap operas are fascinating), all is subtle and understated, and all is elegantly and beautifully written. This series deserves to be included in the Modern Library Top 100 and the Times Top 100. I will quickly order the last two volumes in the series.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time 1st Movement by Anthony Powell

Imagine watching one of those television dramas on Masterpiece Theater about the doings of the British upper class in the period between the two world wars. The action plays out slowly against the backdrop of changing times--small human dramas reflecting the larger changes in society. Reading this book is exactly like that.

Actually, this volume includes three novels, part of a twelve-novel series that carries the narrator from the early 1920s through the late 1960s.

A Question of Upbringing introduces the series narrator, Jenkins, as a teenager at a prestigious boarding school, as he interacts with his friends Templer, already a womanizer, and Stringham, a moody aristocrat. A fourth character, Widmerpool, is notable as a awkwardly ambitious object of ridicule. A Buyers Market follows the four characters and introduces many others as the young men continue at university or start careers. The Acceptance World finds Jenkins in his 20s as a published novelist involved in his first love affair, Templer as divorced and financially successful, Stringham as divorced and seemingly on a down-hill alcoholic slide, and Widmerpool as a surprisingly adept businessman and budding politician.

No hugely dramatic events take place here--no mysterious deaths, no great intrigues, no strong conflicts. Rather, this is a picture of the day-to-day doings of a certain class of people in a certain place and time. It is slow, it is understated, it is very British. It is also very, very funny, in an entirely ironic, subtle, British way.

Particularly subtle is the way the author reveals how mistaken Jenkins was in his initial assessment of his friends and other school acquaintances. Also subtle is the way Powell reveals the changing times through the actions and activities of the characters.

All of this sounds very boring, but I loved these books. The writing is thoroughly readable, although formal. And it is surpassingly elegant. I think this is the kind of writing Henry James aimed at but often just missed. Would it be too grammar-geeky to say that I loved the punctuation in these books? The sentences were complicated, but punctuated absolutely correctly, so that the language flowed. I admit to being excessively annoyed by the arrogance of writers who decide for one reason or another to dispense with the rules of punctuation and expect the reader to do the extra work of deciphering their texts.

This novel series is #43 on the Modern Library Top 100 list and also included on the Time Magazine Top 100. Highly recommended for those who like to watch Masterpiece Theater.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is widely credited with bringing realistic fiction back into vogue--straight forward story telling with no fanciful post-modern flourishes. He writes about families, with all their misunderstandings, hurts, secrets, and unresolved psychological problems. Evidently this resonates with many readers. I feel like saying to his characters, "Just GET OVER IT!"

This is the story of the Berglunds: Walter and Patty, an environmental lawyer and his seemingly perfect stay-at-home wife; and their children Jessica, a serious over-achiever, and Joey, a charming manipulator. Other major players include Walter's best friend Richard, a feckless musician who incites in Patty a long-lived fascination and lust, and Connie, Joey's girl friend who immolates her entire self in order to bind him. Everything goes downhill fast, as the father finds himself involved in a seemingly environmentally friendly cause, only to find out that it is greed-based exploitation, and the mother yields to her long-repressed sexual impulses. This is all played out in the George W. Bush years, with much of the action centered around the "moral corruption" of the people and the time.

So this is a family drama about people who screw up royally (literally and figuratively) mainly because they had really bad parenting. (Actually, all the parents had been fairly well-intentioned and nobody was tortured or deprived, but anyway.) All the characters are smart and analyze their feelings obsessively, but they still behave badly. What is missing here are real family love, some sort of moral code, less self-involvement. This may be a picture of a typical modern upper-middle-class American family in the 21st century, but it is not a family that I have ever known.

Franzen tells a good story and keeps the reader's interest, even if the reader (me) is terribly frustrated with the selfishness of the characters. He inserts much reference to War and Peace, seemingly hoping to copy its template of family drama against the larger backdrop of historical events. He also rather obviously highlights many of his own pet opinions about environmental concerns and liberalism versus conservatism in America. Not that I am not in agreement with him much of the time, but his preaching did somewhat obtrude.

This novel is an interesting read, but I don't agree with many critics that it was at all a great novel. It is too long, includes too much preaching, includes story lines left unfinished and others too needlessly explored, has implausible plot elements, and, finally, has no really sympathetic characters. I'm glad I read it, but I won't read it again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

What could these nine characters have in common? How could their lives possibly intersect?
1. a cult member who becomes a terrorist and then hides out on a tiny Japanese island.
2. a record-shop geek in Tokyo who falls in love.
3. a British attorney in Hong Kong who becomes involved in a money-laundering scheme.
4. an old Chinese woman who has spent her long life running a tea shack on the mountain trail leading to a Buddhist shrine.
5. a "noncorpum" intelligence who is seeking in Mongolia for a body to inhabit.
6. a prostitute/gallery attendant/art thief in Petersburg who longs to retire to Switzerland.
7. a slacker drummer in London who decides to reform his womanizing ways.
8. a physicist who is hiding out in Ireland because the CIA wants her to create the ultimate weapon.
9. a late-night radio DJ in New York who may soon be a witness to the end of the world.

Trust me, David Mitchell connects all these lives together in multiple and ingenious ways. Indeed, part of the fun of the book comes from spotting the connections.

Each of the nine characters gets his or her own chapter, and all are excellent stand-alone short stories. But taken together, with the inter-connectivity and an overriding theme, they form a cohesive novel. Quite a feat of virtuosity.

What stands out here is the author's ability to write with a different voice for each character. All the stories are first-person, and the narrator in each sounds spot-on perfect, with the possible exception of the Russian woman, who sounded more American to me. It seems almost as if each story was actually dictated to Mitchell, who then became the "ghostwriter."

This was Mitchell's first novel, and he repeated the structure of connected short stories in his later, more famous novel Cloud Atlas. In some ways this book was even more enjoyable to read than his later effort.

The last page of the novel asks the question, "What is real and what is not?" I wonder if Mitchell as a youth read the novels of Philip K. Dick, who in many of his novels posed the same question.

This novel is addictively readable, has characters who are totally believable, provides the reader with some things to think about, and is overwhelmingly clever (perhaps just a tad too much so). Highly recommended.