Monday, February 27, 2012

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

One of the lovely aspects of the internet and of social sites in particular is that a reading addict (that's me) can get recommendations of interesting books from other readers. For me, this often means that I will read a book which otherwise I would never have chosen or maybe never even have heard about. That is the case with this book, which was recommended to me by Patti Watson, my sister-in-law. It is classified as a travel book, but is, I expect, much different from most travel books. However, since I don't ordinarily read travel books, I may be wrong.

A Walk in the Woods is the thoroughly charming account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, which extends about 2,150 miles from Georgia to Maine. The middle-aged author and his out-of-shape friend don't manage to hike the entire distance, even though they give it a good try. We don't have here much description of the wilderness surroundings, but rather a humorous account of the people and adventures encountered along the way. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, but not in the mean-spirited way sometimes seen in humor writers.

The background and history given about the trail and about wilderness preservation in general is interesting, but seems tacked on, information anyone could provide who took the trouble to do some perfunctory reading.

This is not classic literature, such as Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, for instance, which happens to be the only other travel literature I have read. But it is fun to read and rather endearing.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Time to Stand by Walter Lord

When William Barrett Travis wrote his most famous appeal for aid for his besieged troops in the Alamo, he did not address himself to specific military commanders or even to "all Texans." Instead, he addressed his message "To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world." And, indeed, his words did reach their intended audience, and have been remembered through the years. When he wrote, "I shall never surrender or retreat," and, "Victory or Death," he caught the imagination of America, so that today, more than 175 years later, most Americans understand the meaning of the phrase, "Remember the Alamo."

In this 1961 popular history, Walter Lord provides a readable account of the people involved and the progression of events which occurred through the course of this most mythic of battles. Basing his conclusions on primary sources rather than on previous accounts, Lord casts doubt on some aspects of the legend, while supporting others. Although this history reads almost as a novel, examining all of the primary sources consulted gives confidence that the author has a basis for his account of events.

I found it most interesting to learn more about the Alamo defenders. Aside from such obvious well-knowns as Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett, they were rather ordinary-seeming people--farmers, clerks, doctors, lawyers, a blacksmith, a house painter, a jockey, a shoemaker, a Baptist preacher. Yet they all shared a fierce love of liberty and the vision that the time had come "to stand."

Recommended for Texans and all those who still believe that some things are worth dying for.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

All the time I was reading this book I was as sick as a dog with the flu. I pretty much stayed in bed for six days--I would read a little, fall into a fever sleep, wake up and read, fall asleep again, and so on. Consequently, part of what I remember about the book may have been dreamed. It seems to me that the plot was surreal and dream-like, yet with characters so real that I longed to commit bodily harm upon their persons, to pinch and pummel them and slap their faces. I can't remember ever before having such a visceral response to a novel. I will certainly need to read this again at some time when my facilities are intact.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family with parents who hate each other with an unequaled passion. The father is one of the most unusual and uniquely drawn characters I have ever encountered. He is supremely and steadfastly self involved and self satisfied, fancying himself the perfect father, husband, employee, despite all evidence to the contrary. He habitually speaks to his children in a kind of baby-talk, humorous country-bumpkin language, which he obviously considers to be supremely clever and endearing. He speaks of himself in third-person, variously calling himself "poor little dad" and "Sam the Bold." The mother refuses to buy into Sam's fantasy of himself. She alternately refuses to speak directly to him or launches into hysterical tirades, aimed not only at her husband but also at her hapless children.

The story conclusion is perhaps inevitable, but it is also infuriating.

These characters seem at once so exaggerated and so real. The sad truth is that I know someone who could have served as a model for Sam--someone so completely self involved that he considers himself the perfect example of mankind; someone who habitually speaks of himself in the third person; someone who ignores actual facts when they conflict with his view of himself. In this man's case, the wife does buy into the whole illusion, so marital strife is absent. But the children have still suffered.

This is a pitiful review because it is too filled with my personal reflections. It is the best I can do right now.

This novel is included in the Time's Top 100.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Sea by John Banville

This is a novel about loss and memories, but throughout it seems strangely detached, as though the narrator is attempting to feel the appropriate emotions but his lifetime habits of deception prevent him from honestly confronting his tragedies. He seems to be equated with the vast indifference of the sea. At least that is my interpretation, but the meaning here is very nebulous, and alternate interpretations would probably be just as valid.

The plot finds the narrator returning, following the death of his wife, to a seaside town where he spent summers as a child. He remembers most his interaction with the Grace family and the role they played in his first experiences of love and death. Interspersed with these are his memories of his wife's year-long illness and death.

The writing is oh-so-elegant and beautiful that that often seems to be the whole purpose of the novel--to display the author's prodigious talent. The book is a delight to read, but in the end I felt cheated somehow. The ending is somewhat predictable and more than a little sensationalistic.

This book won Britain's Man Booker Prize in 2005. I would recommend it with reservations.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek

This amazing collection of short stories manages to be both lyrically dreamlike and grittily realistic at the same time, which is a large part of the charm. They concern the growing up of a young man in a Polish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago which has been designated as an Official Blight Area. Mixing small sketches with fully developed short stories, Dybek expresses nostalgia for a lost time along with loneliness and longing for a brighter future. The writing is beautiful.

My favorite stories were the first and the last. In the first, "Chopin in Winter," a young boy and his elderly family-problem uncle listen to the upstairs neighbor as she plays through the works of Chopin on the piano. The music connects them as they long for the past while moving to a new future. The last, "Pet Milk," is haunting and pretty much the perfect short story. A young man recently graduated from college and on his way out of the world of his youth remembers his grandmother drinking Pet milk in her coffee and watching "the Pet milk whirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street." This leads him to a remembrance of his after-college girlfriend, and a passion-invoked incident. Let me repeat--the story is perfect.

I know I would have liked this story collection even more if I had ever even been to Chicago. As it was, it made me remember incidents of magic in my own childhood in entirely different but almost equally bleak surroundings.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Golden Torc by Julian May

Part two of Julian May's four-book story of time travelers who go back to Pliocene Earth, only to find barbaric humanoid aliens in charge. The first installment of this series, The Many-Colored Land, was the subject of my last blog.

This novel is not as much fun as the first one, mainly because the action is much more predictable. Since the aliens have more-or-less enslaved the time travelers who have arrived over the years, the reader must anticipate that humanity will revolt. I mean, we all know how superior and independent Earthlings are.

I am going to give away much of the plot development here, so if you intend to read this series, don't read any more of this review.

As it turns out, the humans are able to achieve a limited victory over the aliens through a combination of the use of iron and water. Ring any bells? We all know that elves can be killed by iron, and will not cross running water. It becomes clear that May intends us to believe that the legends and myths about elves and dwarves are remnants of knowledge from actual happenings six million years ago. That's more than a little hokey.

I'll not re-read the remaining two novels in the series right now. I'll wait until my mind needs another installment of escapist reading.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Many-Colored Land by Julian May

Sometimes when I read I want my mind to be challenged; I want to understand new viewpoints about the human condition or to be enthralled by the writer's skill with words or to receive hints and clues about a meaning that I have to figure out for myself.

But sometimes I just want to be entertained, to read a rousing good story. This is that kind of book. It's science fiction (sort of) that I first read about 25 years ago and have read at least once since. The character development is much better than that in most sci-fi books, the story is fast-moving and suspenseful, and it's decently written. All-in-all, it's great fun.

The set-up is very intriguing: In a future time, when Earth has become part of a Galactic Milieu, a time-travel device is invented. It operates only one-way to a time 6 million years in the past, to the Pliocene Epoch (mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, etc.). The device cannot be duplicated or programmed to go elsewhere, so it seems useless, until those who just don't fit in with society or who long for a simpler time begin asking to take the time trip.

Forty years later, eight archetypal time travelers take the trip: a nun, a barbarian, a jokester, a seeker of love, a virgin huntress, a healer, a pirate, and a professor. Fortunately, all this is not too obvious, and each traveler is presented as a fully-developed character.

And when they get to their destination,they are greeted by--GUESS WHAT--ancient aliens. Yes, indeed. Humanoid beings from another galaxy have been on Earth for more than a thousand years, and they have utilized Earth's time travelers to enhance their somewhat barbaric lifestyle.

Oh, my, the possibilities with this build-up! Author Julian May interweaves mythology and folk tales (mainly Celtic) into the plot and names of participants, giving the reader great entertainment in recognizing motifs and archetypes.

This is a series containing four novels, and I may not re-read all of them right now. I highly recommend these for escapist reading of the better sort.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

C by Tom McCarthy

Some novels are plot-books: You read to see what happens. This is not that kind of book. Some novels are character-books: You come to know and understand the central character, and perhaps others, so well that they seem like real people. You care about what happens to them. This is not that kind of book. Some novels are setting-books: Time and place are so wonderfully delineated that you feel you are there. This is not that kind of book. A few novels are puzzle-books: The whole narrative feels like a fever or drug induced dream, so that you never quite know what is real and what is not, what is concrete and what is symbolic. This is that kind of book.

To begin with, the protagonist, Serge Carrefax, is born with a caul, obscuring his vision, and he periodically sees life ever after as through a mist or a haze. The novel depicts him as a child in the chapter "Caul," as a young aviator during World War I in "Chute," as a prisoner of war and later as a heroin-addicted returnee to England in "Crash," and as an almost-accidental tomb explorer in Egypt in "Call." (Notice, all "c" words.)

Throughout, McCarthy strews motifs, themes, hints, clues, leading to the (possible) interpretation of the book. We have multiple mentions of communication and miscommunication, rebirth mythology, communication with the dead, tunneling and tombs, and insects. This last gave me the clue to my idea as to the "meaning" of the book. I believe this to be a story of mourning and longing for reunion by the protagonist for his dead sister. In this light, "insects" and "incest" are linked.

However, I am sure multiple understandings of the novel are possible, as are possible ideas as to why the book is called C.

McCarthy has written a very clever book here, obviously planning it from start to finish beforehand. I really cannot decide if it is a work of genius or a self-conscious display. I only know that I liked it very much.