Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

This is the story of what can happen to the teenage offspring of flower children who never gave up being hippies. When the parents are free spirits, making a living from the drug trade, getting high, and practicing free love, how in the world can a teenager rebel? One option, the one these characters choose, is to become straight edge--swearing off alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, and sometimes even meat--and embracing the hardcore punk scene, with its mosh pits and barely contained violence.

Actually, the only straight edge punk I ever personally knew came from just such a background, so I know it can happen, as unlikely as it seems.

The time is the late '80s and most of the events take place in the seedier parts of New York City. Three teenagers become bound together by the death through a drug overdose of a 16-year-old boy. The dead boy's best friend, the boy's half brother, and the girl pregnant with the boy's baby through a one-time encounter come together to form a household of sorts, to protect the unborn child and perhaps assuage their guilt, as each one feels some responsibility for the boy's death. With little guidance from the adults in their lives, they attempt to "do the right thing," all the while trying to understand their own feelings and their emerging sexuality. But they are just kids, and they are all confused.

This novel was rated by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best of 2011, so I was very disappointed to find that it left me cold. The premise had so much potential, and the plot, while a bit contrived, was interesting. But the presentation seemed like only the reporting of events and what people said and did--this happened, and then this happened, and then she said, and then he said, and so forth. At no time did I feel that I really knew the characters. So I did not really care about what happened to them all that much.

And the whole straight edge world, which is treated almost as a fourth major character, is strangely flat. We are told about mosh pits, where young men are often injured and where fights frequently begin, but we are never put in the middle of one. We are told that the music is fast and something about the message of the lyrics, but we are never put inside the music to understand why it is loved and what emotions it engenders. The author has obviously done a great deal of research and drops many names about the hardcore music scene in New York City, but I did not for a minute believe that she had lived it.

This is Eleanor Henderson's first novel, and she shows a great deal of promise, in my opinion, particularly a talent for original descriptive bits. I just hope she will learn to get inside her characters and her setting.

"Oh, yea," you are saying to yourself, "Raye knows more than the New York Times. How arrogant." You may be right.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

One quote from this novel (about the character who is a writer) perfectly describes how I feel about Ian McEwan himself: "From the very first paragraph you are in his hands, you know he knows what he is doing, and you can trust him."

I have read all McEwan's novels, and I have never considered any of them less than first-rate. He has written several different kinds of novels, and some I have liked better than others because I enjoy that style, but all are written to perfection and convey exactly what he intended. All the plots seem somewhat predictable in the beginning, but turn out to be anything but what you would have expected. And this is the highest praise that I, personally, can give a writer: When I read McEwan I forget that I am reading a made-up story. The actions and characters become real to me, true accounts of actual happenings.

This one features a young female protagonist, who is hired in the 1970s by the British secret service (M15) following her graduation from Cambridge. Even though she studied maths in university, she is an avid, non-discriminatory reader of novels, consuming three and four a week. (I felt some kinship, here.) With the Cold War and the struggle for hearts and minds still going on, she is sent as an undercover operative to get to know a young writer who might turn out to be helpful to the government. She falls in love with his writings, and then she falls in love with him. Obviously, she has a conflict of interests.

Despite the basic plot description, this is not a typical spy novel by any means. The danger here is not of being physically harmed, but of being revealed to a loved one as duplicitous and to the world at large as being a fool.

This is also a consideration of the difference between real life and fiction and of creating a reality through writing. And it is funny in the smooth, understated British way. (Not in the wacky British way; they appear to have two, distinct styles of humor over there.) But, most of all, it is a great story. For me, as for the female protagonist of this novel, the story's the thing.

Sometimes when I was reading this, I thought to myself, "McEwan missed it there. I'm disappointed in him." I should have trusted him. The ending causes it all to make perfect sense and makes me want to immediately re-read the book to see how he accomplished what he did--a total surprise, yet with all the clues there.

Here's one of the more obviously humorous bits that I must mention: The first novel the fictional writer comes up with, which wins a prestigious prize, sounds very much like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Also, McEwan often seems to be making fun of himself (in a most kind way, naturally), as plot summaries of the fictional writer's early short stories sound very much like McEwan's early writings.

I loved this novel. I know that it will not be counted as McEwan's most important writing, but I liked it best.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Consider the improbability of this: A man, born in Australia of English parents, grows up as a privileged rich kid in Mexico City, with a mansion, servants, luxury cars, exclusive private schools, and all that. As an adult, he enjoys a drug-fogged life as a jet-setter, living in the West Indies, Australia, and Ireland, among other places. Having cleaned up his act, he writes this, his first novel, at age 38. He chooses to write something of a rip-off of Catcher in the Rye, with a first person narration by a 15-year-old small-town boy from Central Texas, although he has no clue how such a boy really sounds. He includes all the derogatory stereotypes anyone ever had about Texans, and fills the novel to bursting with "the seven words they can't say on TV," to give it authenticity, I guess. And then the novel wins England's Booker Prize in 2003. Go figure!

I can only presume the judges that year were a bit miffed at Americans in general, and Texans in particularly, so that they relished the caricatures of Texas residents as bumbling, ignorant, racist, barbecue-obsessed, reality show-addicted, sex-crazed, inbred yokels. (Remember what was going on in 2003 and who the President was?)

Our protagonist is the only survivor when a bullied boy shoots and kills everyone in his classroom, including himself. Even though the narrator swears he had been sent on an errand by the teacher and was not even there at the time of the shooting, he is immediately arrested by the gung-ho police as being a partner in the massacre. With the "eyes of the nation" on their small town, residents rush to get their five minutes of fame by denouncing the boy for the television cameras, and he becomes convinced he will be convicted, so he high-tails it for Mexico.

From here on the plot gets even more surreal. Among other adsurdities, Texas death row becomes a television reality show, with viewers voting as to which inmate will be the next one to be executed.

Even if I weren't offended by this portrayal of Texas, I would recognize that the author's narrative voice is not at all authentic. His hero alternates between sounding uneducated and ignorant (using "ain't" and other substandard grammar, talking about not wanting to be a "skate goat"), and using words no American teenager would use, outside of exclusive private schools, perhaps. For example, he goes to a barber shop "behind the abattoir." What teenage boy in Texas has even heard this word. Heck, how many Americans of any age use this word? And here's a quote: "Infinite distance rolls by outside; spongy, darkened distance, like rug-lint balls on wet graham cracker." Do you know a 15-year-old who would say this? Heck, what does it even mean?

I keep being tempted to use some of those seven no-no words in talking about this novel, but I will resist.

To be fair, sometimes the author comes up with some really funny bits; I laughed out loud several times.

I have read many Booker Prize winners, and they are typically serious and contemplative. I don't feel that satiric and comedic books are necessarily inferior; I think Catch 22 is one of the greatest books ever, and I think it is quite possibly harder to write satirically than to write seriously. But I do think the author should really know his subject matter, and portray it convincingly, even if exaggeratedly. And I do find it offensive when an outsider makes fun. I can gently (or not) ridicule my own family, but you should beware if you do it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Iron Heel by Jack London

All those good capitalists (Republicans) out there today who worship at the shrine of Ayn Rand should, in the interest of intellectual fairness, read this dystopian novel about the evils of capitalism and the need for socialist revolution. Way back in 1908, famed adventure novelist Jack London produced a book which rather eerily predicts a good bit of the political climate in America today. Strangely enough, both this book and Rand's Atlas Shrugged suggest that a general strike is the most effective weapon; in Rand's book the plutocrats strike and in London's book the proletariat strike. Both books seem to suggest that compromise is unacceptable. (We don't seem to be seeing much willingness to compromise today, do we?)

Among other predictions made by London which seem to have come about are these:
*a war between the United States and Germany, which he predicted for 1913, occurred in 1914;
*a national secret police force (A few months after the publication of this book, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created);
*the creation of attractive suburbs for a favored strata of the working class, with the central cities being turned into ghettos for the menial laborers, thereby converting privileged working class citizens, for the short term, to the side of the plutocracy (oligarchy, in London's book);
*adequate food, health care, and housing priced above the reach of more and more people;
*"witch hunts" seeking to destroy all who oppose the oligarchy (remember Eugene McCarthy, and, later, anti-war protesters);
*public education for proletariat children neglected, while the children of the oligarchy attend private schools;
*giant corporations economically forcing out private small businesses and family farmers, destroying the middle class;
*secret agencies of the government conspiring in political assassinations (The cover of the current edition of The Iron Heel is a drawing of a boot stomping on a "Viva Allende" poster. Allende, the socialist leader of Chile, was assassinated with the help of the CIA.);
*the frustrated downtrodden of the inner cities rioting (sound familiar?).
* and so its goes.

All this is very convincing, particularly in the light of today's political climate. And yet, we all know that communism, the extension of socialism, did not work. The oppressed became the oppressors. And many Americans today are seeing that the capitalism of the oligarchy is not so far from fascism. And into all this mix of fiscal philosophy, today we have thrown in questions of morality and religion versus personal freedom. What a mess!

The plot of this novel is the account written by the wife of one of the leaders of the socialist movement toward revolution. As in Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the plot is subservient to the message, and large portions are given over to speeches made by the characters. I will have to admit that Rand's plot is more interesting, even though it is totally unrealistic and enacted by Nietzsche-like super-people.

I would recommend this novel to everyone, not as a great story or an example of great literary talent, but as one that will make you think about your beliefs. Thinking is good.

P.S. Did you know that Ronald Reagan was the last president elected who was not a graduate of either Harvard or Yale? Elitism? Oligarchy?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

This is a hell of a book, in both the figurative and the literal sense of the word. In the figurative sense, it is a novel of tremendous power and impact, one apt to stay in my mind for a long time. In the literal sense, it is a story of the living hell of two Viet Nam vets twenty-something years after the conflict, one a poor white boy/man from Mississippi who has a disfigured face and is subject to periodic blackouts as a result of a head injury, the other a poor black boy/man from Mississippi who is paraplegic and has lain helpless in a hospital bed for 22 years.

Brown tells their stories through their conversations in a VA hospital, mainly through one long night of drinking beer and smoking joints. The ending is predictable to the reader (and inevitable) almost from the first page, due to references to the novels Johnny Got His Gun and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Anyone who has read those books now knows the ending, but that little matters in the effect the conclusion exerts over susceptible emotions.

Brown's narrative voice of the two characters is perfect, showing their sameness rather than their difference, despite being black and white. One of the sadnesses of Viet Nam was that the war was fought mainly by the very young and the very poor, boys who had no choice, but who did their best.

This is a novel which can be read in one sitting, and should be, if possible. It is, obviously, an anti-war novel. For that reason, some would not like it, and some would like it even more. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged as a literary accomplishment.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

If I could switch identities with a writer, I would like to be Michael Chabon. He has total command of the English language; creates colorful, yet believable, characters; displays a wonderful sense of the comic and the absurd in daily life; is compassionate about the faults and frailties of human beings; believes in the ability of people to mature and change for the better; and just seems to be having so much fun being a teller of tales. I can't put his books down and I always feel more cheerful when I have finished one. He is my FAVORITE LIVING AMERICAN WRITER.

This novel is the story of two families living and working in a region of California on the borderland between yuppie Berkeley and down-and-out Oakland. The men, one white and Jewish and one black, run a "church of the vinyl," a used record store specializing in jazz and early rhythm and blues and hip-hop, a business being threatened by the proposed opening of a mega-store which will have its own used vinyl department. Their two wives are partners as well--nurse midwives--and their livelihood is being threatened by a looming lawsuit about a birthing gone wrong. On top of all this, the black couple, who are expecting their first baby, are suddenly surprised by the appearance of the man's teenage son from a long-ago romance, and the white couple's teenage son has fallen completely in love with the boy.

The large cast of memorable supporting characters includes a wheeling-and-dealing city councilman and funeral home director, an elderly organ-playing musical legend, a former blaxploitation kung-fu movie actor and his long-legged former costar and current girlfriend, the "fifth-richest black man in America," an incredibly old female Chinese martial arts teacher, an overweight lawyer who defends whales and calls himself Moby, and an extremely verbal and talented parrot.

All these are written about in prose that is dense, lush, and full of metaphors and $2 words. Another writer using so many words when just a few could tell the same story would surely come off as pretentious. But somehow Chabon does not. His writing is so joyful and exuberant, and he is so obviously and unashamedly showing off that it works as part of his charm. When he includes a 12-page chapter which is all one sentence, he seems like nothing so much as a young teen boy saying, "Hey, look at me. I can ride my bike with no hands."

This novel bears so many similarities to The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Latham: Both have a mixing of black and white characters, both include homo-erotic sub-plots, both have much specific mention of '70s and earlier music, primarily black performed. And I disliked that novel, but I loved this one. Why? It's all in the author's attitude, I think. Latham's characters all ended up thoroughly dislikable, and Chabon's characters are essentially lovable and capable of growth and change. I can't exactly pinpoint why I felt offended when Lathem talked about older, esoteric music that I had never heard of, and why I found Chabon's like comments inoffensive. I just know that Latham didn't work for me, and Chabon most definitely did.

Few writers in my reading experience have had the power to carry me along just with the words, regardless of plot. Mervyn Peake can with his gothic grandeur; Sabastian Barry can with his lyric Gaelic rhythms; and Michael Chabon can with his enthusiasm and hopefulness.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this novel.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

These three short novels first present themselves as typical mysteries, perhaps in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, but it soon becomes apparent that they are not in any way traditional, and that, in fact, the mystery is not what is contained in the plot but what in the world the author is intending to impart to the confounded reader.

The novels, essentially, all tell the same story, just with different protagonists and different scenarios: An investigator becomes so immersed in another person's life that he loses himself, becoming the other person in his mind. In this regard, Auster includes discussion of Don Quixote, which recounts how an immersion in stories of knights and deeds of chivalry can lead a reader to retreating into another life.

The first novel, City of Glass, tells the story of an author, a writer of mysteries under a pseudonym, who receives a mis-directed phone call to a detective (named Paul Auster) and then pretends to be that detective. He is hired to shadow a father just released from prison, convicted of imprisoning his son for years without human contact to allow him to develop his own language.

The second novel, Ghosts, is more obviously metaphoric, with the detective Mr. Blue being hired by Mr. White to watch Mr. Black, for an undisclosed reason.

In the third novel, The Locked Room, a failed fiction writer is drawn into the world of his childhood friend, who has disappeared. Receiving a note from the disappeared man, the protagonist becomes obsessed with finding him.

These "detective" novels all become absurdist novels, with the protagonists performing inexplicable obsessive actions. All involve writing, often in a red notebook. All involve a loss of selfhood. All involve, I think, a quest for meaning in life. The good news is that the last novel seems to indicate the love and family can provide that meaning. (Who knows? The meaning is elusive. I could be mis-interpreting according my preconceived values.)

I will have to admit that this kind of book is not my favorite. I generally like a good immersive story with a minimum of pretentious flourishes and open-ended conclusions. This was interesting, but I will never read it again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Out the Summerhill Road by Jane Roberts Wood

This is not the kind of book I would ordinarily have read, but it is set in East Texas, is written by a Texan, and I thought I might review it for TexasLive, a magazine I do book reviews for. It is a mystery, sort of, but mainly it is a story of friendship between women of a certain sort in a certain place--the almost Old South gentility in East Texas. In that sense, it is a novel of manners, with a good bit of the conversation taking place around the bridge table, between the luncheon of asparagus soup and salad and homemade roles (prepared by the black maid) and the after-bridge glasses of sherry.

The mystery is provided by two murders. The first, in 1946, is of one of a group of four friends when they are seniors in high school. Because he leaves town a few days later without graduating, a local high school boy is suspected by the whole town.

Skipping forward to 1980, the remaining three friends have added another fourth, the Irish widow of a home-town boy. When they hear rumors that the suspected boy has returned to town, each woman reacts differently, some harboring secrets that they have kept since 1946. And then another murdered woman is found, one of the four.

The solution of the mystery did not come as a surprise to me, but then, that was not really the primary focus of the book. It is more an examination of friendship, and life choices, and resilience even as actions fly in the face of a culture.

This was a pleasant read, even though a slight one. The action in 1980 is all in present tense, which presents itself as somewhat awkward and strange. A digression of one section into the 1960s (in past tense) seemed unnecessary and mostly filler. It had a pretty unrealistic "happily ever after" ending (except for the dead woman, of course).

I could recommend this to those who like idealized stories of women's friendship and those who know and love East Texas.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

"He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness."

So Mary Doria Russell begins her novel of the "single season" in the tumultuous life of Dr. John Henry Holliday, better known as Doc, companion of the Earp brothers and one of the shooters at the O. K. Corral.

Holliday has left his home in Georgia for the West only months after completing dental school, hoping that the dry air and sunshine will restore his health. As a classical pianist, conversant in French, Greek, and Latin, with a sly and ironic wit, he has little in common with the motley inhabitants of Texas and Kansas until he meets Maria Katarina Harony, known as Kate, who is a classically educated Hungarian whore. The unlikely couple heads for Dodge City, Kansas, where Doc can supplement his income as a dentist with gambling and dealing faro in the saloons when the Texas cowboys flood the town during the trail-drive season. There he begins the friendship with Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp, and the other Earp brothers which will eventually lead to the famous gunfight.

The citizens of Dodge are all so fully realized by Russell that they form pictures in the mind's eye and their conversations sound in the ear. They become "real," with believable motivations leading to logical actions. Russell's Doc Holliday becomes a kind of Western Odysseus, tricked by fate into becoming a wanderer, a cultured Southern gentleman making his way the best he knows how in a strange and savage land.

This novel won't become a classic, but it is very well done, very charming, very engrossing. Recommended.

Side Note: As I read this, I saw and heard in my mind Val Kilmer in his portrayal of Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone. I wonder if the author had him in mind when she shaped her story and her conversations.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A World Out of Time by Larry Niven

Second reading; first read so many years ago I didn't realize I had read it before until about half way through.

This is old-school science fiction, with the emphasis on science, written in 1976. It was recommended to me by my son, who is a hard-core Larry Niven fan. Maybe I even introduced my son to this author, as I remember that I had Niven's novel Ringworld on my bookshelf back in the '70s, and it was one of my favorites in this genre.

The hero awakes more than 200 years after being frozen in the hope that the future will find a cure for his cancer, but wait, he is in a different body. He soon finds out that The State has transposed his memories and personality into the body of a young criminal who has had his mind erased. And he is being prepared for A Mission; he is to be a starship pilot to seed far off planets with life, for the time when The State might need to migrate to the stars. If and when he returns, he can become a full citizen of The State.

Never being one to follow orders, our hero alters the course of the starship and ends up bouncing off a black hole and returning home 3 million years in the future. Of course he finds a drastically changed Earth and dangers he never could have imagined. Can he escape? Can he find the immortality that some seem to have achieved? Can the human race be started again? Will the war between the sexes never end?

I'm making a bit of fun here, but the book is action-packed, fast and easy to read, and absorbing to the end. After slogging through the 500 depressing pages of the last book I read, I enjoyed immensely being entertained. There was a bit more science here than I care for, since I have no idea if it is at all accurate. I guess I really prefer what might be called "speculative fiction," with all the science bits left out.

Recommended for readers who like action and adventure with a lot of imagination and a good bit of science thrown in.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Ship of Fools tells the story of a voyage on a German passenger ship from Vercruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1931. It has a large cast of characters, including German, Swiss, Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, Swedish, Jewish, and American passengers, in addition to the German crew members.

It took forever for me to read this novel, because I kept thinking of urgent things I needed to do besides reading. Usually I have the opposite problem--I keep putting off other things while I read just a little bit longer. I had to make myself finish this, for a couple of reasons.

First, the structure of the book is just a series of incidents and social encounters on board a passenger ship, not leading to any climax or grand revelation, designed only to reveal the foolishness, shallowness, and prejudices of the characters. Thus, there is no narrative tension, and no real sympathy developed for any of the characters. This might work if the author had offered any great insights as to human nature or the human condition, but the only insight offered is a very negative one. And that brings up the second reason I kept being tempted to quit reading.

Porter's analysis of humanity seems to be that all are so flawed that life is a progression from purgatory toward hell, and that any hope for happiness is just a dream. The whole novel of a voyage seems to be a metaphor for this viewpoint. And that's damned depressing.

Among other failings of the passengers, Porter mostly highlights their prejudices. The men feel superior to the women; the upper classes feel superior to the perceived lower classes; the Anglo races feel superior to the darker races; the Lutherans feel superior to the Catholics; the Jews feel superior to the Goy; and everybody feels superior to the Jews, especially the Germans. One of the Americans, a man from Texas, longs to get back to Brownsville, where "a man knows who was who and what was what, and niggers, crazy Swedes, Jews, greasers, bone-headed micks, polacks, wasps, Guineas and damn Yankees know their place and stayed in it." (Porter, by the way, was born and reared in Texas.)

I'm sorry Katherine Anne Porter viewed life in this way as she reached her latter years, but I refuse to believe, even in my latter years, that humanity is so hopeless.

The novel is well written, and Katherine Anne Porter is an outstanding short story writer. This was her only novel. Even so, I do not recommend it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Third reading; first read about 1994.

I have to be just in the right mood to read Cormac McCarthy. His writing is by turns spare and muscular and lyrical and exuberant, sometimes in cadences straight out of the King James Bible; his books have a tone of the mythic, with distinct echoes of Faulkner; his dialogue is without equal. But his writing is so often also violent and brutal and depressing, with no "happily ever after" endings. If I am feeling especially discouraged about humanity in general or specifically anxious and depressed about something in my own life, then reading McCarthy might prove fatal.

This is my favorite McCarthy novel, most probably because I can become immersed in the language and the plot and still maintain admiration for the hero and a hope after the ending that he may someday find his "happily ever after."

The year is 1949 and John Grady Cole is 16, when his world of riding horses and ranching is pulled out from under him when his grandfather dies and his mother sells the family land near San Angelo. Feeling that his life no longer has purpose, he enlists a friend, Lacey Rawlins, and the two run away to Mexico on horseback to find a place where a horseman's skills are still valued. On the way they meet an even younger runaway, whose eccentric and impulsive actions lead to their first troubles, and from that time on a sense of dread and doom pervades the story. "Somethin bad is going to happen," says Rawlins. And, indeed, he is right.

John Grady's dreams fall apart just as they appear to be near to fulfillment, and he comes face to face with a harsh and violent world he never knew existed. He is told, "What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God--who knows all that can be known--seems powerless to change."

In addition to the engrossing plot, this novel contains an almost mystical celebration of horses, which is convincing even for someone who has never ridden. Those who know and love horses will surely find it impressive.

Many readers of McCarthy will undoubtedly be disturbed by his disregard for "correct" punctuation. For example, he uses no quotation marks. I'll admit to some initial irritation, because I tend to see this as a sign of arrogance on the part of the author. However, the way he handles dialogue leaves no doubt regarding who is speaking, so I soon forgot about the issue. Some readers may also dislike the sporadic use of untranslated Spanish dialogue. With only a high school level of instruction (and a lifetime in Texas), I was able to easily translate almost everything. Only twice did I have to resort to the internet to translate for me.

Forewarned is forearmed--McCarthy is not for readers who want sugar-coated reality. But for powerful writing, McCarthy is one of America's best.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

2nd reading; first read about 2004.

Being currently all out of unread books, I decided to read this one again, since I recently saw that a movie has been made.

It will be interesting to see what slant the movie takes. The novel itself can be read simply as an interesting tale of shipwreck survival, in the vein of The Swiss Family Robinson, just with a little twist at the end. Perhaps the filmmakers will settle for this.

But the author intended that the reader would get more than plot, however absorbing. The novel is also an allegory about the nature of religion and of story telling, and of the relationship between the two. As I interpret it, the author is saying that we all choose the stories which we will believe in order to deal with the world. Some of us choose stories which cannot be verified, which take a leap of "faith," because they are not realistic as to life as we have perceived it with our senses and our intellect. Others of us choose to tell ourselves only stories which can be verified or which seem to us to be realistic. Pi, the protagonist, says of these kinds of people, "You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently."

This novel is absorbing and quick and fun to read. The writing is vivid and immediate. The underlying allegorical material seems to me to be rather thin and contrived and pretty much a new-age way of looking at religion. I found the criticism of agnostics to be disturbing, as it seems to me that having an open mind is the best way to face the world, rather than deciding for all time what the "story" will be.

I realize I have neglected to summarize the plot, for those who have not read the book or seen the movie. A teenage boy from India is on board a ship carrying his family zoo to Canada, and the ship sinks. He shares a lifeboat with an adult male Bengal tiger. This is his journey.

This novel won England's Booker Prize. Recommended in spite of flaws.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Underworld by Don DeLillo

A review of this novel could be very, very long if one tried to summarize the plot lines, because so many stories are told, in bits and pieces. Even an overview of the many astute observations about the human condition and about America in the Cold War years (1951-1992)could take thousands of review words.

On the other hand, a review could be very short if one just summarized the overriding impact: here is what it was like to live during these times in these places in America. Reported in gorgeous language. In page-turning style.

DeLillo begins with a 60-page immersive description of a famous baseball game played in 1951. The winning home run was dubbed by the press as "The Shot Heard Round the World." Ironically, on the same day, the Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb,in effect beginning the Cold War.

The author then jumps to 1992, and introduces his main character, by then a 57-year-old man. From this section the novel travels backwards in time, introducing multiple connected characters and plot lines. Some stories reach a revelation and some are left hanging, but taken together, they form a pattern. This is hard for a reviewer to convey, and how much harder to accomplish. But DeLillo did it in fine style.

Good things: The dialogues are amazing, with people talking at cross purposes, as they usually do (being focused on themselves). Somehow, DeLillo manages to maintain reader interest, although the structure of the novel is non-linear and fragmented.

Criticisms: The book is too long (827 in paperback). Some portions grow repetitive and could have been shortened to good effect. I seriously considered putting it down several times, but somehow I couldn't. (I guess maybe that's on the "good things" side.) Also, the observations pertain overwhelmingly to New York City and its citizens. As a reader who grew up and grew old during these times, my experience was much different, so I guess I felt left out somehow. Realistically, however, I realize that DeLillo couldn't report about every region.

This is a book about hope, danger, fear, miracles, and garbage. What more could you ask?

(P.S. It reminds me very much of Doctorow's Ragtime.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Although this novel affected me very deeply, I find it very difficult to express my thoughts about it. Published in 1983, it was obviously inspired by events in South Africa in the tumultuous years of apartheid. Yet it is non-specific as to time and place and written with an allegorical tone, so that it can apply just as well to any violence-torn country anytime, anywhere.

Michael K was born with a hare lip, so that he could not suck from the breast or the bottle and had to be fed from a teaspoon. When it became apparent that he was also "simple," he was institutionalized for the remainder of his youth. Now, as an adult, he is working as a gardener while attempting to care for his ailing mother. As the violence of conflict consumes his mother's neighborhood, she asks Michael to carry her back to the veld where she grew up, and he attempts to do so.

The journey becomes a confusing bad dream for Michael as he travels on foot, pushing his mother in a home-made rickshaw, dealing with curfews and road checks and the bad intentions of some of his fellow displaced persons. When his mother dies along the way, he knows of nothing else to do but to continue his journey and take her ashes to her childhood home. When he reaches the place, he finds a deserted farm where he can perhaps be left alone to grow things so that he can take his sustenance from Mother Earth. But he is not long allowed to follow his own path.

Through the course of this short novel, Michael K is imprisoned, relocated to a displaced persons' camp (supposedly for his own good), and forcibly hospitalized (again for his own good). And all he wants is to be left alone. "He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand."

I cannot properly express how sad this novel is, and I cannot help thinking about all the simple people (perhaps not simple in lack of intellect but in way of life) who are caught up in conflicts that they care nothing about. I think about Afghanistan and the mountain people, who perhaps do not even care about jihad and religious extremism and do not even want the help of their American "saviors." I imagine them, and others like them in other places, just wanting to be left alone.

This novel won England's Booker Prize and Coetzee has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I highly recommend it as a book that will make you think long after you have finished it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending seems, in many ways, to be mainly a thoughtful essay about aging and the passing of time and what it does to our memories. Not so much that we forget as that we mis-remember, painting a picture of our lives that others will think well of, even managing to lie to ourselves. The protagonist of the novel says, "How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but--mainly--to ourselves."

The plot of the novel is the supporting evidence for Barnes's musings. A divorced and retired Englishman, who has led a quiet and somewhat complacent life, receives a strange bequest from the estate of the mother of a girl he once courted while at university. Included in the bequest is the diary of a friend of his youth, who had begun a relationship with the former girlfriend after she and the protagonist parted. The friend subsequently committed suicide, according to his parting note for philosophical reasons. The mystery begins. Why did the mother own the diary? According to the lawyer administering the estate, the old girlfriend currently has it and is not ready to give it up. Why not?

The protagonist first writes of the memories of his youth, about his friend and his girlfriend and of their relationships. Then, in the second part of the novel, he begins a renewed contact with the girl (now a 60s-something woman), first to resolve the mystery and gain possession of the diary, but later, perhaps, hoping for a re-connection.

Throughout, the protagonist is shown to be unreliable, as he even repeatedly tells us. We suspect, and sometimes even find out for sure, that he has repainted his past to himself.

The surprise solution to the mystery, when it is revealed to the protagonist, at first seems to answer all the questions. But then....we remember many clues that are not at all explained. Perhaps the solution is not the right one. Perhaps time and the false memories of those involved have obscured what really happened.

This is a book which takes some thinking about afterwards. It will be better understood by older people, I think. It won England's Booker Prize in 2011. I'll bet the judges were all over 50. It's a bit depressing. As an example, here's a quote:

"Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."

Still, highly recommended.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

I am beginning to be a little wary of novels with catchy title and clever covers. As I mentioned in a previous blog this month, The Sisters Brothers, with its dynamite cover, was more flash than substance. And now there's this one. The title is obviously a play on "rorschach test," and the cover of the hardback has a cut-out in the shape of a shark with text on the page underneath showing through.

Well, the plot does include a shark of sorts, a Ludovician shark, "an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect." Got that? Clear as can be, right?

Eric Sanderson awakes one morning and can't remember who he is or anything about his past. A note he finds leads him to a psychologist, who tells him that he has been suffering from a rare mental condition known as psychotropic fugue, stemming from the death of his girlfriend who died in a scuba diving accident. The psychologist tells him not to open any letters he may receive from his former self, because they will mislead him. He does begin receiving letters and he does resist for some while, although he does save the letters and packages. Finally, of course, he opens them and discovers that he has been the prey of a Ludovician shark, which has eaten his memories and emotions. And goodness, it appears that the shark is still out for him as he gains new memories and emotions.

What's a poor boy to do? He goes on a quest to find answers as to how to evade or kill the shark, and soon finds himself teamed with a young girl, to whom he feels strangely attracted. A touching love story ensues.

The plot from here on gets curiouser and curiouser, with an ending that is seemingly purposefully enigmatic--hence the "rorschach test" reference, as that is something which is interpreted by everyone in a different way. I have my own theory, of course.

This books strongly calls to mind Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, The Matrix movie, and certainly Jaws, the plot of which it follows for 50 or so pages. About 40 pages are consumed with a flip-book of a swimming word-shark.

The Raw Shark Texts is too self-consciously clever, too gimmicky, for my old-fashioned tastes, but I predict it will be (and maybe already is) something of a cult classic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Once in a great while an author comes along who writes such beautiful, elegant prose that it hardly matters if the plot of the book is at all interesting. When the story being told is also insightful and intriguing, the gift being given to the reader is beyond price. Thank you, Joseph O'Neill, for this wonderful novel.

In its relatively few pages (around 250, at a time when so many authors are so long-winded), Netherland includes an examination of love and loss, a vivid look at the New York City not seen by tourists, the exuberant and somewhat tragic story of one man's pursuit of the American dream, and much discussion of the game of cricket.

The plot: Hans van den Broek from Holland is a stock analyst working in London when he learns of the murder of an American man who was once his friend. He remembers the time when he was living in New York City and his wife took their small son and returned to her parents' home in England in the aftermath of 9/11. Lonely and adrift, Hans found some solace in playing cricket, the game of his youth, with immigrant Americans from countries where cricket is loved. He formed an unlikely friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic Trinidadian who introduced him to a different New York City from the one he had known.

O'Neill effortlessly and seamlessly moves between scenes from his youth, from his time in America, and his present in England. His Ramkissoon character has unmistakeable echoes of The Great Gatsby, but one has no sense that this is a "rip off," more of a homage perhaps. The ending is impressive.

This one won the Pen/Faulkner Award and several "Best of the Year" nods in 2008. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Catchy title, yes? And you ought to see the book jacket. (I know most people could probably transport it to this blog from some other web site, but I can't. You owe it to yourself to look it up.) This has one of the best covers ever.

The story is about Eli and Charlie Sisters, two brothers who are hired killers in the Old West, at the time of the California Gold Rush. For most of the book they are traveling (by horseback, of course) from Oregon City to Sacramento to kill a prospector who has "probably stolen" something from their employer. Along the way, they meet several unique characters, have life-or-death adventures, and casually kill several people who don't cooperate with them. Once they reach California, events take a surreal tone and the ending is not what any of the characters would have anticipated.

All along the way, Eli (who is the narrator) is thinking about how he would like to get out of the killing business and perhaps become a storekeeper. It's not so much a crisis of conscience as a desire to have some human closeness, which his profession pretty much precludes.

This novel reads like a cross between Charles Portis's True Grit and a Quentin Tarentino film. From Portis we get the narrative voice, which is formal and stilted, with no contractions. From Tarentino we get the intermingling of clever dialogue about random subjects with episodes of ultra-violence, which creates a kind of black graveyard humor. I see this novel as a parody of the serious western and of the film noir genre. It is clever; I'll give you that.

But, ultimately, I am less than impressed. I believe I am in the minority with this opinion, because this book has many positive reviews, and it was short listed for the Booker Prize. Whatever.

The Sisters Brothers is amusing in a dark way, it reads very fast, and it will make an excellent movie. It already reads like a movie script.

A final note: Comparisons have been made between this novel and the books of Cormac McCarthy. Yes, they are both very violent, but McCarthy's violence is real and visceral and disturbing. The violence in this book is presented in such a way that it seems incidental. That's a world of difference.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

Artemio Cruz is a ruthless business man in 1959 Mexico. Extravagantly rich, he has risen to power through corrupt and underhanded dealings, often selling out the interests of his own country to foreign investors. And he is dying.

This novel takes place on the day of his death, as he suddenly collapses and lies in pain. It alternates between his stream-of-consciousness thoughts and several first and third person narrations of pivotal episodes in his life. We learn of his first love, of his service as a soldier of the Mexican Revolution, of his rise to wealth, of his betrayal of the supposed principles of the Revolution, of his sell-out to foreigners, of the death of his son, of his extreme loneliness, and finally of his youth. In the end, the reader is left with some understanding of and sympathy for this complex man.

This is also the sad chronicle of a turbulent Mexico which experienced multiple changes of leadership, and under all of them the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor.

I found this to be a very difficult book to read. The writing is very dense, and I often had to read the stream-of-consciousness portions more than once to make sense of them. Nevertheless, it was hypnotically fascinating and extremely poetic. The construction of the novel was inventive and amazing. I am sure it reads even better in the original Spanish. I did have to do some background research about the various stages of the Mexican Revolution to understand the book. Thank heavens for the internet.

Recommended for the reader willing to go the extra mile for a book.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Even though I love Dickens, I had never before read this one, probably because it so thick that it is intimidating and because the title sounds really depressing. It took a little while to get through, but the effort was worth it. I thought this one of the best of the Dickens novels.

As is typical, Dickens is up on his soap box about injustices in the England of his day. In this instance, he is railing against the inefficiency and corruption in the Court of Chancery, which dealt with matters pertaining to wills and estates. The novel centers around the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a case which has been considered, and reconsidered, and considered yet again for untold years. Obsession with the case has already destroyed one of the Jarndyce family, and begins to exert its tragic toll on the mind of a younger member of the family.

Dickens also includes caustic criticisms of lawyers who are like vampires, sucking their clients dry; of do-gooders who spend time and effort in various great causes, while ignoring their families; of parents who are so self-centered that their families suffer; of a government which takes better care of its prison inmates than of the honest poor.

Of course all this social criticism is slipped into a melodramatic and touching story of a young orphan girl with a mystery-shadowed origin, who is befriended by a kind and sensible guardian. Along with her story, we get a murder mystery with a very clever detective. Naturally, coincidences abound (this is Dickens, after all), as the many threads of the plot come together.

In this jaded era, perhaps it is considered as a criticism when a book causes a reader to cry. Yes, Dickens is melodramatic, and, yes, he can make me cry time after time. I love that.

I also love the Dickens names: Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Krook, Harold Skimpole, Allan Woodcourt, Esther Sommerson. So many times the names are clever reflections of the personalities of the characters. I also love the way Dickens can portray characters so that I can see them in my mind. They are all slightly exaggerated, but so often remind me of someone I know.

I will have to say that I find many of Dickens's female characters to be almost insufferably self-sacrificing and self-deprecating. That includes the heroine of this novel, Esther Sommerson. Perhaps Dickens considered these to be very desirable female traits. I sincerely doubt if he ever found a woman this perfect. If he did, I'll bet she was probably boring to him eventually.

If you like an old-fashioned good story, if you appreciate clever satire, if you have the time to read 800 pages, you will like this book.

Monday, October 1, 2012

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

An attractive young woman climbs down an emergency exit stair from a freeway, and finds that the world seems to have changed just a bit from what she remembers. For instance, the night sky has two moons. She is an expert assassin, who eliminates men who have abused women.

A enigmatic 17-year-old girl writes a rather amateurish, yet highly original, first-person novella about Little People who emerge from the mouth of a dead goat and create an Air Chrysalis, which finally opens to reveal an exact copy of the narrator. The girl says that the story is true. In her account, the earth has two moons.

A young man who is an aspiring novelist is persuaded by an ambitious editor to rewrite the girl's story and let it be published under the girl's name. It becomes a best seller. One day he notices that the sky has two moons.

A private detective is hired by a religious cult to investigate matters pertaining to the above characters. He finds a connection that has escaped the cult's notice.

This is a page-turner of a cat-and-mouse thriller, a highly romantic (although somewhat implausible) love story, a reconciliation story between parent and child, an examination of religious belief, and a fantasy/alternate world adventure. That's a lot to accomplish in one novel.

By allowing himself 926 pages, Murakami manages to pack all of this in, plus a good bit of filler, to my way of thinking. He includes descriptions of clothing worn (even though the garments are, at best, nondescript), of the preparation of many simple Japanese meals (These characters prepared very healthful foods.), and even of the day-to-day grooming details (They were very clean people.). I can only suppose that these mundane matters were included to provide contrast with the many surreal matters.

This novel was impossible to put down and very easy to read, so that I finished it as quickly as I have most books half its length. I found it more readable than the other Murakami novels I have read, but it was also less thought-provoking than those.

A most enjoyable read. Recommended.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

I don't understand exactly what J.M.Coetzee was trying to accomplish with this book, but I can say that he did it very well.

This is perhaps an autobiography of the writer just as he was beginning to be published, written in the form of a novel. Then, again, maybe it is an entirely fictional account, just using his own name for the central character to give it the flavor of authenticity. Maybe he is mounting an oblique campaign against the cult of personality which often surrounds an honored author and implying that the life of the writer is unimportant; only the writings are important. Maybe he is anticipating the criticisms of future biographers by detailing and perhaps exaggerating his personal inadequacies. Maybe it is a combination of some of the above, or something else entirely.

As for the "plot" itself, the novel is structured as the transcriptions of interviews by a biographer of the deceased John Coetzee with some of the people who knew him during the time in question. We hear from a restless wife who had an affair with him, from his cousin who was also his childhood first love, from the mother of one of his students, from a male teaching colleague, and from a female colleague with whom he also had an affair. We also have purported notes from a journal kept by John Coetzee at the time.

All of this portrays John Coetzee is a most unflattering light. He is viewed by those interviewed as being inadequate in personal interactions, cold, somewhat arrogant, distant, an awkward and disconnected lover, almost asexual, and a bad son. One has to wonder if this is how J.M.Coetzee judges himself or if he perceives that this is how others must judge him. Or what?

The wonder is that all of this could be even remotely interesting to a reader, but it is. Even without a linear plot or a resolution, it is compulsively readable. That is, in itself, a grand accomplishment.

This "novel" was shortlisted for England's Booker Prize. J.M. Coetzee has also won the Nobel Prize.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

This is one of the most unusual books I have ever read.

Azaro is a spirit child, born to stay on earth only a short time before returning to an idyllic spirit world, but the vision of his mother's love as shown on her face convinces him to stay alive, despite the enticements of spirits who are constantly luring him to return to them. The place is an unnamed African country (the author is Nigerian), and the time is just as the country is trying to move out of its tribal background into the modern world.

Azaro and his family live in the direst poverty, coexisting in their one room with insects, lizards, and rats. Okri mixes accounts of the deprivation and violence of the family's daily life with flights of dreamlike encounters with the world of myth and superstition. Often the "real" world and the spirit world blend so seamlessly that it is hard for the reader to know which is which. This is a work of magical realism carried to the extreme, perhaps reflecting a culture in which the fantastical is an accepted part of everyday existence.

The language of the story is in turns brutal and beautiful. However, without any background of knowledge about Nigerian fable and mythology, I often grew weary at the pages and pages of excursions into the spirit world, as they often seemed to me to be repetitive and essentially meaningless, despite being very visually presented.

Sometimes, though, the magical visions give clues as to the meaning of the novel, especially as Azaro witnesses the building of a road which is never completed, but is destroyed and began again time after time, new improvements added each time by new builders. I believe he is commenting about the fact that human civilizations build and then are destroyed, but that they are followed by new civilizations that begin again, trying to do it better. This theory is complemented by the last sentence of the book, which puts many facets of the story into perspective. (If you read this book, don't dare look ahead. You will destroy the delight of discovery).

I found this book to be too long, and at no time was I transported, as I have been by other books of magical realism. But it was very interesting.

This is a winner of England's Man Booker Prize.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Have you ever felt that your computer had it in for you and was messing up your important stuff intentionally? Have you ever been creeped out by children's robotic toys, particularly by the Furby? Have you ever felt that people were becoming too dependent on computerized devices? If so, you will believe that what happens in this book might really be possible.

Just a short jump into the future, an overwhelmingly powerful artificial intelligence is invented and escapes the control of its creator. After making a few experiments, the intelligence launches a massive attack on the human race. All the smart phones, smart cars, factory and household robots, and everything else controlled by computer suddenly turn on their owners, and WHAM. Planes fall from the sky; cars chase down pedestrians; robotic devices hunt down and kill people. It's the end of the world as we know it!

Will humanity survive?

We are told in the beginning chapter that the enemy has been defeated, so that takes away some of the suspense (even though with a book like this you always figure the humans will win, anyway). The story of how all this plays out, from beginning to end, is told in very short vignettes, with a cast of recurrent characters. It's action, action, action, with a minimal amount of character development, but it's interesting in that you wonder how they will win. Also interesting, but very scary, are all the new robotic devices the computer comes up with to kill and maim his human foes. I expect they are very plausible, since the author of this book holds a PhD in robotics.

Steven Spielburg is making a movie from this book, and it will be easy to write the script because much of it already reads that way. I predict it will be a blockbuster.

Recommended for those who like straight-ahead action science fiction.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This is what it means to be 15 and motherless and pregnant and poor in Coastal Mississippi just as Hurricane Katrina is headed your way. Yet from this comes a story, not of despair, but of the fierce saving power of family love, written in a voice both poetic and extravagant, giving it almost the quality of myth. This is, in short, a savage and beautiful novel.

The protagonist, Esch, is the only girl in a family consisting of her father, who sometimes drinks to excess and becomes violent; an older brother, who hopes to make his way out of poverty through basketball; a just-younger brother, who seems to give most of his love to his prize pit bull; and a much younger brother, who has been cared for and reared mostly by his siblings. The story all takes place in 11 days, leading up to, through, and just after Hurricane Katrina.

Sometimes the narrative is hard-to-take, such as the scenes of a dogfight. Sometimes it is heartbreaking, such as when Esch realizes that the father of her coming baby cares nothing for her. Sometimes it is breath-taking, such as the scenes of the escape from the storm. Sometimes it is even a little over-the-top in its use of similes and metaphors, however poetic they may be. But always it is present and immediate and powerful, particularly in depictions of the surroundings and of the oppressive weather.

This is a writer who knows the South intimately, and this book reminds me very much of William Faulkner, particularly of his novel As I Lay Dying. It has something of the same feel of language and of the mythic quality of the narrative.

I highly recommend this novel. It won the National Book Award in 2011.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

As they get older, some people "mellow out," becoming less judgmental, more accepting of human weaknesses. Other people, as they get older, seem to turn in the opposite direction, becoming angrier and more discouraged about the human race. Philip Roth seems to be the second sort.

The central characters in this novel all pretend to be something they're not, and they are all wretchedly unhappy. Much of their deception is prompted by the prejudices and expectations of American society, but some is prompted by their weakness in not daring to face life as they really are.

The time is the late 1990s, when America was on "an enormous piety binge," about whether or not President Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky. The main character, Coleman Silk, is a respected and successful college professor who is suddenly accused of racism after making a chance remark that is interpreted to be derogatory to African Americans. Ironically, Coleman himself is Negro, having passed for white and Jewish for 50 years. Rather than reveal his secret, Coleman resigns in anger. Then, in a last-of-life effort to live freely, he engages in an affair with a woman half his age, who herself guards a secret. Small town society is not pleased. And so it goes.

Roth is a very, very good writer, so that it is often a delight to read even his diatribes about America, small town gossip, political correctness, the pretensions of academia, etc., etc. But this book is so angry, so discouraged, that it just beats you over the head into a state of depression (or at least it did me).

This is a well-done novel. I believe it won the Pen/Faulkner Award. I enjoyed the reading of it, but I did not enjoy the aftermath of how it made me feel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

The last werewolf is Jake Marlowe, and he knows that he is the sole target of the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, who will be out to kill him when he changes at the next full moon. But he is undergoing an existential crisis after 200 years of life, and decides to just let it happen. Then love surprises him, and he decides he really does want to live after all. He finds that some people want to help him survive (including a family of vampires), for their own dark reasons, while others are just as intent on doing him in. He doesn't know which people to trust or which way to go.

I can't entirely make up my mind about this book.

On one hand, I could find it to be a cleverly written ironic take on the werewolf legend, with an interesting anti-hero who sprinkles his first-person saga with philosophical musings and numerous references and quotes from literature. It tells a rather suspenseful yet trite story, but with a tongue-in-cheek and darkly humorous tone, making it somewhat of a parody. Looking at the novel in this way, it would be literary fiction rather than genre fiction.

On the other hand, I could find it to be a run-of-the-mill suspense thriller, which casts the hero as a werewolf rather than as a spy or private detective or ex-CIA agent to take advantage of today's Twilight-fueled fascination with manly monsters. It is drenched in graphic blood and violence in keeping with the conventions of this genre, and also features the genre's abundant sex, complete with the use of the most crude terms to describe the sex act. (The sex scenes, however, are not erotic in the least.) All the literary flourishes might seem to be preening on the part of the author, to show that even though he is basically writing just a conventional thriller he is really a very deep thinking and literary guy.

I think I've decided, then, that Duncan tried to straddle the line and write something that would sell as genre fiction and that would be respected as literary fiction at the same time. In one telling aside, the hero talks about the author Graham Greene, saying that he "had a semiparodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited...." Yes, Graham Greene did adopt the conventions of various genres, but he did not openly satirize or disparage them. He just did it better than anyone else. This writer was not comfortable enough with himself and his image to do that, in my opinion. He hedged his bets too much.

I don't know how much my opinion is influenced by the photo of the author on the back page, but I do know that he looks rather exactly as I would have pictured his werewolf to look. He is over 40, and has very long and curly dark hair and a purposefully soulful and "deep" expression. When I saw it, I thought to myself, "I'll bet this guy is an arrogant prick."

Many have liked and praised this book, but I don't believe I can fully recommend it. I could be wrong.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

Dr. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was assassinated on May 30, 1961, after ruling the Dominican Republic for 31 years. Although he brought his country more stability and prosperity than it had ever known, he also suspended most human rights and maintained control through violence and terror. More than 50,000 people were killed on his orders. This novel is a fictionalized account of his rule, his assassination, and its aftermath, told from three viewpoints.

Llosa gives us the backgrounds of the conspirators, exploring the reasons they became assassins, and also telling the stories of their fates in the subsequent bloodbath of revenge carried out by Trujillo's oldest son.

We also read the story of Urania, who left the Dominican Republic as a girl of 14 in 1931, following a horrifying personal encounter with the dictator. Returning in 1996, she remembers and relives the terrible incident.

And we have the story of the last day of Trujillo's life, told from his viewpoint, giving us a glimpse of the kind of man who can maintain a cult of personality for three decades.

Even to someone having a minimum of knowledge about the actual Trujillo (that would be me when I started the book), this is fascinating reading. Demagogues, strongmen, and ruthless dictators continue to appear with regularity. We in the USA may naively ask ourselves how this can happen, how a populace can be so enslaved. This tells how.

We in the USA may sometimes wonder how and why our country can support another country one year and condemn it the next. This helps explain why.

We in the USA often suspect that our CIA is engaging in aiding assassins in other countries. This will reinforce that idea.

A very interesting and informative book, and written with such power and skill that it would still be a good novel if it were entirely fiction, and not based on actual events. Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Second reading; first read about 2003

What a treat it is sometimes to read a novel without any gimmicks or post-modern flourishes, without any pretentious exhibition of the author's scholarship and/or cleverness, without any deep philosophical musings. Sometimes it is refreshing to enjoy an interesting, well-told story about people who seem like the people you really know, all with faults and weaknesses, but most with some redeeming qualities, as well. If you would like to read a book like that, read Empire Falls.

The large cast of characters here includes Miles Roby, a mild-mannered and self-sacrificing manger of a restaurant who has dedicated his life to doing what is "right"; his soon-to-be ex-wife Janine; his bright 17-year-old daughter Tick; his reformed-alcholic brother David; his reprobate father Max; and, although she is dead when the novel begins, his mother Grace, who shaped his life. Many other of the townspeople are included, with each one being made unique and knowable through Russo's skill of characterization.

The setting is a smallish factory town in Maine after all the factories have closed.

This is small-town America, with all its drama and heartache and challenges, and all its people who will never be known beyond this small stage. And Russo writes in so true a voice that it seems he knows this place and these people intimately.

One might assume that the plot of such a novel as this might be formulaic, but Russo provides many surprises and twists. The expected never happens, and the unexpected does. But that's how life is, really, so it all seems authentic.

"Authentic" is indeed the word that best describes this novel. Other descriptive words would be "a page turner," and "heartfelt," and "compassionate." This won the Pulitzer Prize. A must-read. You will like it, I promise.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins

Third reading; first read about 1991.

Many would like to believe that children are inherently blessedly innocent and good. Those of us who have been observant parents and/or teachers tend to believe that children are inherently selfish and cruel, and that it is the role, mostly of parents, but also of teachers and society in general, to teach them empathy, ethics, and what it means to be civilized human beings.

William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, was teaching at an English all-boys school as he wrote his now-classic story of boys separated from society who revert to savagery. Marianne Wiggins, author of John Dollar, may never have been a teacher, and I don't know if she was a parent, but she obviously knows that young girls are just as capable of savagery as boys, although it may be more sly and covert, making it even more menacing.

This is probably the most chilling novel I have ever read, overshadowing even Lord of the Flies in its impact.

Charlotte is a young English World War I widow who travels to Burma to teach the daughters of the English families in residence there. She unexpectedly meets love again, in the person of John Dollar, a somewhat mysterious sea captain. A tragic and bloody set of circumstances leads to the girls and John Dollar being stranded together on an island, with no help in sight. The terrible events that ensue are obvious, although not described in specific detail but in hints, giving the reader's imagination free reign, making the account even more disturbing.

This novel is not one that I would recommend to people in general, but I would highly recommend it to readers who value good writing technique (Wiggins is very talented.) and to readers who don't crave a "happily-ever-after." The story is hard to take and it is very disturbing, but the message is valuable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Third reading; first read about 1985.

I remember really liking this book when I first read it, and even when I read it again 5 or 6 years later. I have kept it for almost 30 years, but now I can't really understand why.

Maybe I really liked it because the basic premise was fascinating and new to me. A relatively small dense woodland in England is revealed to be a "ghost" wood, where the further in you go, the bigger it gets. Inside the wood, primal mythological creatures and characters (mythagos) can be brought to life, presumably through the human racial unconscious of the modern day explorers. Two brothers become obsessed with the wood, mostly because both fall in love with one of the mythagos, Gwynneth, the prototype for many of mythology's warrior princess characters. As they become rivals and enemies, the two find that they, in a sense, have become mythagos--the Outsider, who is destined to be killed by his Kin.

Some of the obvious source inspirations for the plot are John Crowley in Little, Big and Jungian psychological theory, but this was not obvious to me when I first read it, so I was quite taken with the plot.

With this reading of the novel, however, I realize that so much more could have been done with the story to impart a dreamlike sense of wonder and fear. The fault is in the presentation, which is "telling" rather than "showing," in a very straightforward, factual, and ultimately boring narrative voice. Both the miraculous and the horrific are stripped of emotional content because of the tone.

Mythago Wood won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best science fiction novel. It is still considered by some to be a classic of the fantasy genre.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Second reading; first read in 2010.

Some writers can write character dialogue so believable and true-sounding that a reader can forget he is reading the words of a made-up person. Some writers can tell such an interesting story, with all the necessary suspense and pacing, that a reader is compulsively impelled to keep turning the pages. Some writers can include philosophical and ethical ideas in a novel that cause a reader to think about the implications long after the reading is over. Some writers can successfully invent new forms and methods of telling their stories.

David Mitchell does all of the above, all in Cloud Atlas.

On the surface, the novel contains six linked stories, with half of each of the first five given first, then one central story in its entirety, followed by the second half of each of first five in descending order. Confused? It goes like this:

Part 1 and 11 is a journal account written by Adam Ewing, a young notary on a sea voyage in the 1800s. Mitchell writes this portion in the style of Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, and, indeed, it begins with the finding of footprints in the sand of a South Sea island.

Part 2 and 10 is told in the form of letters from young composer and all-around rake Robert Frobisher to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith in 1931, as Frobisher is working for (and stealing from and cuckolding) the ailing master composer Vyvyan Ayrs.

Part 3 and 9 is a third-person thriller in the pop-fiction style, taking place in the 1970s in California. The heroine, Luisa Rey, is a plucky young journalist, who is alerted to the potential dangers of a new nuclear facility by Rufus Sixsmith, one of the scientists who worked on the project, reappearing from the previous story.

Part 4 and 8 is a comic tale set in the 1990s about the publisher Timothy Cavendish, as told in a first-person memoir. Imprisoned by his brother in an old-folks home, he plots a daring escape with some of his fellow "inmates."

Part 5 and 7 jumps to the unnamed future, in a question & answer session between the clone Sonmi-451, who has been sentenced to immolation, and an unnamed Archivist, who is recording the interview. Sonmi-451 has been created to work in Papa Song's restaurant (which resembles McDonald's more than a little) in a world dominated by corporations, where clones are used virtually as slaves and viewed as less than human.

Part 6, the central story told in its entirety in one entry, takes place in an apocalyptic future, as an oral story told by Zachry about his world as one of the most "civilized" tribes of the residents of Big I (Hawaii). Into his world comes Meronym, one of the Prescient who have tried to keep civilization and learning alive.

All of the above are absorbing stories in their own right, but wait, there's more. All are connected in some way. Frobisher from 2 and 10 finds a copy of Ewing's journal (from parts 1 and 11). Rey from 3 and 9 finds the letters written by Frobisher (parts 2 and 10). Cavendish from 4 and 8 receives a copy of the story of Luisa Rey (from 3 and 9)as a potential manuscript to publish. Sonmi-451 from 5 and 7 views a film made from the memoir of Cavendish (in 4 and 8). And Zachry, in 6, views the holographic record of Somni (5 and 7) in an orison given to him by Meronym.

But wait, still more. More than a few clues hint that some of the characters are reincarnations of previous characters, the most obvious clue being the persistence, from character to character, of a comet-shaped birthmark. In the central story, Zachry says, "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow?...only the atlas of clouds."

More than obvious is the larger message, that history seems to repeat itself endlessly. All the stories feature the themes of human greed and the urge to enslave the less powerful by the more powerful. Not a very uplifting message, except that the last paragraph (as written by the part 1 and 11's Adam Ewing) indicates his vow to fight slavery, even though he is only "one drop in the ocean." He says, "What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

I could write more and more and more. It is one of those novels which can be read time after time with new insights and delights each time. I was prompted to reread the book after learning that a movie made from the novel was to be released in October and by seeing the trailer, which was very intriguing. I so hope that the movie makers did justice to this most wonderful novel.

This made my "best of" list for Year I of reading on this blog. I can't recommend it too highly!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

War Trash by Ha Jin

Second reading; first read about 5 years ago.

"When a general evaluates the outcome of a battle, he thinks in numbers--how many casualties the enemy has suffered in comparison with the losses of his own army. The larger a victory is, the more people have been turned into numerals. This is the crime of war: it reduces real human beings to abstract numbers," writes author Ha Jin in this fictional account about the Korean War. He postulates that the nations and the generals involved in a war view the individual soldiers as expendable pawns, "war trash."

Jin's protagonist, Yu Yuan, is a "volunteer" soldier of the Chinese Communist army who is captured by the Americans and becomes a prisoner of war, already dishonored in the eyes of his government because he did not die fighting. As a proficient speaker of English, he becomes an intermediary between the Chinese and the Americans and thus enjoys a rather privileged status, yet he soon finds that he has more to fear from his compatriots than from his captors.

For those in need of a quick history lesson (which I was), the Korean War started just a few years after the Chinese revolution, when the Communists gained ascendancy under the leadership of Chairman Mao, and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Formosa. Thus, the Chinese POWs were given the choice of being returned to mainland China or to Formosa. Although Yu Yuan is not politically minded at all, and actually fears the Communists, he longs to return to the mainland to care for his aging mother and to be reunited with his fiance'. His account of his imprisonment includes incidents of extreme cruelty from the Communists, from the Nationalists, and sometimes from the Americans, as the battle for his allegiance is waged inside the POW camps, not because he is valued as a human being, but because he is a pawn in the public relations campaigns of the factions.

The actual recounting of events here sometime becomes tedious, yet the narrative elements all add up to a powerful indictment of ideologies and of war when they disregard the human beings involved.

Recommended for history buffs and for those inclined to be receptive to an anti-war message. Winner of the Pen Faulkner Award.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies

Second reading; first read about six years ago

Canadian author Robertson Davies begins his last novel with this sentence, "Should I have taken the false teeth?" With this intriguing question, he introduces the sudden death at the alter of an Anglican priest. The novel that ensues contains a little dash of mystery; a reminiscence of youth; a remembrance of old friends; many ruminations about art, music, literature, and philosophy; and a growing acceptance of the limitations and new challenges of old age. This is probably not a book which would be especially appreciated by readers of middle age or younger, as it moves very slowly, contains a minimum of plot, and rambles more than a bit about matters which I would not have understood when I was, say, 40. But it is the perfect book for me.

Davies seems to me to have a deep and wise understanding of human beings and their foibles, employing a most gentle, kind, and extremely witty satire. Every sentence is impeccably and gracefully written. He displays an enormous breadth of learning, while never seeming arrogant or superior.

Davies has long been one of my favorite authors, particularly for his Deptford Trilogy and his Cornish Trilogy. To me he accomplishes what Henry James attempted. For readers new to Davies, the earlier novels are much more plot-driven and might, therefore, be more appreciated.

The last sentence of this novel is as impressive as the first sentence: "...this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night."

So must we all say, "Good-night."

Among the many special observations and tidbits in this novel is this one, which was a special favorite of mine: "Homosexuality had become, not the love which dares not speak its name, but the love that never knows when to shut up." I was forcibly and amusingly reminded of the recent Chick-Fil-A uproar. (Don't let this make you suppose that Davies was homophobic at all. Almost all his novels have sympathetically-treated male and female gay characters.)

Highly recommended for readers of "a certain age."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Second reading; first read about 2002.

Ned Kelly is a well known outlaw in Australia, having much the same status down under as the U.S. outlaws Jessie James and Billy the Kid. Some consider him a common thief and murderer (bushranger in Australian lingo), and some consider him a folk hero who was persecuted by the ruling British because of his lowly Irish origins. Many documented facts exist about his life of crime, which began at age 15 and ended with his hanging at age 26. Carey supplies the in-between, gathered from legend and hearsay and his own imagination, to provide Ned Kelly's motivations and misadventures which led to his life of crime. Carey utilizes a fictional "found" group of hand-written reminiscences, purportedly written by Kelly before his death to explain himself to his small daughter.

Thus the novel is written in the supposed language of Ned Kelly, who has been only marginally educated. Punctuation is largely absent, making it very slow reading. The strangest thing, though, is that Ned Kelly seems to know how to spell very well. For this reason and others, I never succeeded in believing I was actually reading the words of Ned Kelly. I was always aware I was reading a novel. It actually became somewhat tedious after a bit, as event after event was recounted.

Since Ned Kelly's final capture is told of in the prologue of the novel, there was no suspense. Since I never fully bought into the supposed Ned Kelly narrative, there was no immersion into the action. I think I must have enjoyed this novel more the first time I read it, but this time I found it, quite honestly, to be a chore.

True History of the Kelly Gang won England's Booker prize in 2001, beating out Ian McEwan's Atonement and David Mitchell's number9dream, two of my favorite books. I don't know what they were thinking!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Second reading; first read about 2007

This is a book that will keep you awake at night. This is a book that will haunt you long after you have finished it. This is a book that will break your heart.

Willie Dun is a 17-year-old Irishman from Dublin, who volunteers to fight in World War I, mainly because he is too short to be a policeman, as his father has long wanted him to be. He survives two years of the almost unimaginable horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks, only to find himself, on his first furlough home, derided by some for fighting for the English and asked to fire on fellow Irishmen in the streets of Dublin in the Easter Uprising of 1916, when Irish nationalist defied England to demand Home Rule. Torn in two by the situation, Willie returns to the front to fight, even though he no longer understands exactly why he is fighting or what he is fighting for. During a blessed lull in the fighting, as Willie sings "Ave Maria" for his fellow Irish soldiers, he grieves for their predicament: "...he sang for these ruined men, these doomed listeners, these wretched fools of men come out to fight a war without a country to their name, the slaves of England and the kings of nothing...."

The terror and the maiming and the slaughter of the soldiers is pictured in excruciating detail, in language that flows like a very torrent of grief. Barry also gives us the mechanisms that such fighters must use to keep from going mad--their humor, their grumbling, their constant cursing. And also their moments of heroism and self sacrifice brought about by friendship and a sense of honor.

Only the very best of writers could take a plot like this and tell it in language so lyric and beautiful, and not have the result be incongruous. Barry is one of the very best of writers, in my opinion the best writing today. The rhythm and perfection of image in his writing reminds me of his countryman, the poet William Butler Yeats. In fact, Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" contains lines which perfectly reflect the message of this novel:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Everyone should read this novel of World War I, because its message is one that stands for all time. I know the young men who fought in the jungles and swamps of Viet Nam and came home to a country divided, where war protesters were being shot, will understand it. I believe the young men and women who fought and who continue to serve in Irag and Afghanastan, where the friends and the enemies wear the same face, will understand it. War is indeed hell. Sometimes, perhaps, it cannot be avoided, but it should not be entered into without a careful consideration of the terrible consequences upon those who fight.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

This is a re-read, for maybe the third time. For the next little while I am going to be doing re-reads, instead of books new to me. After all, what is the purpose of keeping books if they are never read again? Not that I keep all the books I read, but I do keep all those which I feel merit a second look.

This author, Richard Adams, is best known for his book Watership Down, a rather whimsical book written from the point of view of rabbits. It was a best seller in the '70s. This was followed by Shardik (about a bear) and The Plague Dogs. This book breaks that pattern, as it is entirely different in tone and concerns very human happenings and passions. It is not well known, and may even be out-of-print now, but for me it has long been a very special read.

The narrator is a (perhaps) typical English member of the middle class: classically-educated, moral and upright, diligent and hard-working, reserved and understated, emotionally and sexually repressed. Then he meets Kathe, and falls immediately and irredeemably under her spell. To him, she is a beautiful, mysterious pagan goddess who has deigned to love him. He lives as if in an enchantment as she marries him and introduces him to a sensual and erotic world of which he has never even dreamed.

But into their marital paradise, where all riches and rewards seem to be possible, creeps a troubling fear, a result of the psychic talents of the narrator (perhaps), or of the guilt felt by Kathe (perhaps), or of actual supernatural manifestations (perhaps). Unfolding as in a Greek tragedy, inevitable retribution follows, because paradise cannot last.

This novel reminds me of Wuthering Heights in its tone and depictions of a love that transcends death and time, of The Magus by John Fowles in its blurring of real and mythical, and of the Biblical quote in "Song of Solomon": "Her love was stronger than death...."

I really, really like this book. This time through, the hints and foreshadowing seemed a little obvious, but I was completely surprised at the ending the first time I read it. A couple of people I recommended this to back in the '80s came away saying, "What?" So I don't suppose that everyone would like this, but I do.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I can't believe I read the whole thing. Often I became so annoyed at this "science fiction classic" that I felt like abandoning it unfinished, but I kept reading, despite the fact that I did not understand half of what was going on.

I would not even attempt to summarize the plot, even if I completely understood it. Snow Crash contains these elements: a virtual-reality universe called Metaverse, a computer virus that can also attack the mind of an operator who can read code, Sumarian mythology, a Mafia don, a 15-year-old skate-boarding female Kourier named Y.T., and a sword-wielding computer hacker named Hiro Protagonist (really!). All these and many other colorful elements combine in a futuristic, satiric techno thriller about an attempt by a fiber-optics millionaire to control the world.

And it is all so self-consciously cool and hip and arrogant that it's obnoxious. If I met Mr. Stephenson, I would want to pull his pants down in public or to catch him on camera picking his nose just to take him down a notch. He obviously considers himself a member of the "power elite," people who "control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages," who are a "technological priesthood." (Notice--quotes from the book.)

This book was written in 1992, and it was apparently much ahead of its time in predicting development in the computer world. (I wouldn't know, really.) It is occasionally satirically humorous in its depictions of the future, particularly in its portrayal of the United States as being covered by one franchised business after another. It was morally offensive to me in its portrayal of a sexual coupling between a 15-year-old girl and a 30-something man. Sex, even graphic sex within reason, is OK with me, but child-adult sex is not.

I was tricked into reading the novel by the Times Top 100 list, which included this, along with such books as The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Lord of the Flies, and so on. I have always considered that for a book to be considered "great" or "a classic," it should be somewhat timeless and universal. While Snow Crash may have been cutting-edge and influential in its time, it has (probably) already become somewhat dated in its technology, and only a relatively small techno-savvy population can really completely understand its message.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Valdez Is Coming by Elmore Leonard

The delightful thing for me about my habit of soliciting book recommendations from other readers is that often I am led to read very well-written books which I ordinarily would never have found. This is one of those fortuitous finds.

Elmore Leonard is certainly a familiar name to me from shopping in book stores. He seems to have written hundreds of books (maybe only 50 or so), most of them crime novels. I had never read a book of his, however, because I am probably a book-snob, even though I try not to be. I think I just suppose that any author who is widely and wildly popular must be bogus. When I have ventured into "popular" fiction, my opinion has often been confirmed. But sometimes I am surprised. Stephen King is sometimes very good at what he does, as is John Grisham. Elmer Kelton was excellent. Of course, pulp fiction writers Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Philip K. Dick have long been recognized for their genius.

This Leonard book is a Western, published in 1970, before the many crime novels. It is a very well-executed story of a complex man who decides he has to stand up for what is right.

Bob Valdez works for a stagecoach line and is a part-time town constable. He is affable and seemingly mild-mannered and everyone likes him. But then he is put into an untenable position by a crowd of vigilantes and has to kill an innocent man to save his own life. He believes the only right thing to do then is to give the dead man's pregnant widow a large sum of money for the wrong done to her, so he asks the powerful man who started the whole business, with a wrongful identification, to contribute. He is refused and is punished for his presumption. Then a part of his person which he has suppressed comes forward, and he becomes again Roberto Valdez, the Army tracker, and he begins impelling justice, with a gun.

All this sounds very formulaic, but it is much more than that. The opening chapter is extraordinarily well done, with the characteristics of the entire cast of central characters revealed, not through "telling" but by their actions and reactions. The writing is terse and straight to the point, reminding me of Hemingway. The descriptions of terrain (very important in a Western of this kind) are not lyrical, but descriptive to the point of visualization. The ending is not the stock ending one might expect, but very true to the characterizations previously portrayed.

I understand that a movie was made from this book, and I would like to watch it to see how they handled it. But it starred Burt Lancaster? As an apparently non-threatening Mexican-American? I don't hold out great hopes.

Recommended for those who like Westerns and those who like effective writing.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Take a premise borrowed from the novel and movie The Omen, about the birth of the Antichrist; add a little sharp Twain-like satire about religious fanaticism, new-age fads of the week, and various other human oddities; spice with a generous portion of the Hitchhiker's Guide/Monte Python type of British silliness. The result is Good Omens.

The baby Antichrist is supposed to be substituted for the newly born baby of the American Cultural Attache' to Britain, but Sister Mary Loquacious, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, messes things up and mistakenly gives the Son of Satan to someone else. Now the scheduled time for Armageddon is fast approaching, and the angel Aziraphale and the fallen angel and Satanic representative Crowly must locate the now eleven-year-old Antichrist so that the final battle between good and evil can take place. The only trouble with this is that neither one is sure he wants the end of the world. They have come to like humans.

This novel is irreverent, sometimes keenly insightful, but mostly it's just silly, wacky, outrageous, etc., etc. It's fun to read, but you can forget it immediately afterward.

Two bits I particularly liked: audio tapes (now it would be CDs) left in a car for more than two weeks all turn into The Best of Queen; and when Marvin O. Bagman got religion, it "was not the quiet, personal kind, that involves doing good deeds and living a better life; not even the kind that involves putting on a suit and ringing people's doorbells; but the kind that involves having your own TV network and getting people to send you money."

Recommended to people who liked The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Monte Python's The Life of Brian.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

This is a novel with several pieces--a picture of a Balkan country trying to recover from a war; the story of a young doctor's memories of her beloved grandfather and of the search to discover the manner of his death; and the telling of two legends, those of "the deathless man" and of "the tiger's wife." Miraculously, all of the pieces come together at the end to create an enchanting whole.

Several themes emerge in the telling of this tale: the strength of love, the nature of man's confrontation with death, the necessity of legend in dealing with the harshness of reality, the possibility that sometimes legend is real.

The writing is assured and natural. The novel is satisfying as a purely plot-driven narrative, but has underlying layers. Perhaps a few tangents were needlessly explored, but perhaps I just missed the connection. All this proficiency seems almost miraculous, because the author is a young women in only her mid-20s.

I am seeing a trend here of creative talent coming to the fore in young women everywhere: for example, Karen Russell in Swamplandia, Marisha Pessl in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Jhumpa Lahiri in Interpreter of Maladies, Zadie Smith in White Teeth. What an encouraging development!

This novel is recommended.