Monday, April 30, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

In Victorian literature, the marriage plot is the one where the heroine has to choose between two suitors for her hand in marriage, as in Pride and Prejudice, for example. The climax of the plot is the moment the choice is made, after which the couple lives happily ever after.

Eugenides has written a more modern version of the marriage plot, his romance taking place in the early 1980s. His three protagonists, all seniors at Brown University when the novel begins, are Madeleine, from an affluent and cultured family, whose intellectual passion is Victorian literature; Mitchell, a serious-minded young man from a loving family who has become obsessed with Christian mysticism and with Madeleine; and Leonard, a charismatic and intellectually brilliant youth from a dysfunctional family, whose brooding charm makes him seemingly irresistible to women. Guess which one Madeleine chooses?

Eugenides rather obviously selected this time period for his novel because he, also, graduated from Brown in the early '80s, and because the character Mitchell is, also rather obviously, patterned after himself and some of his post-college experiences.

The plot of the novel unfolds in a rather hodge-podge manner, jumping backward and forward in time and from character to character in its third-person viewpoint. The first part recounts time in the university and includes much intellectual preening on the part of the characters, which is oh-so-typical of the liberal arts university atmosphere and is surely present even today. The second part tells of life-after-graduation, when the characters are dumped into the real world to figure out who they really are and what they are going to make of their lives.

The Marriage Plot is both engaging and infuriating. The pacing and suspense of the story demands attention, even when the writer seems to be indulging in some intellectual preening himself. The characters are well realized and realistic, even if not totally likeable. The section from the viewpoint of a manic-depressive character is so chilling and authentic-sounding, I have to wonder if Eugenides is not manic-depressive himself. The book trapped me and I read it far into the night.

Now comes the infuriating part. The writing is very uneven, veering from flashes of brilliance to triteness. (The mentions of the beauty of Madeleine rivaled the number of mentions of the handsomeness of Edward in the Twilight books, and when Madeleine tells Leonard, "You are so big," I felt like gagging.) But my main complaint is that the "point" or "message" of the novel seems muddled. On one hand, Eugenides seems to be commenting on the way the sexual revolution and the feminist movement have changed "the marriage plot." On the other hand, he seems to be saying that "the marriage plot" has not changed in its essentials at all. At least in Victorian novels the heroine finally makes the right decision. In this reworking, the heroine is so passive that she actually allows someone else (and a male) to make the final decision for her. So much for women's liberation.

I will have to think about this novel further, and maybe I will come to a more favorable conclusion, or maybe not. Recommended as a most interesting read.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This extraordinary book is both two novels and a history of the fall of France in World War II, unique in that the events it recounts were taking place simultaneously with its writing. And through the appendices and the reprinting of the preface to the original French edition (2004), it is also the tragic biography of the author, a Russian emigre to France of Jewish ancestry who died in Auschwitz in 1942.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Irene Nemirovsky and her family moved to France, where she graduated from university, married a banker who was also a Russian Jew, and became a respected and successful novelist, writing in French, her second language. With the advent of World War II, as the German army fought its way to Paris, her life changed.

She and her husband and two little girls fled Paris ahead of the conquering army, and the first novel of this two-novel suite concerns just that subject. Called Storm in June, the story follows several wealthy upper-middle-class families and individuals as they attempt to take their valuables to safety from the Germans. Without exception, they are revealed to be overly concerned with possessions, filled with class snobbery, and self-centered. The only sympathetic characters are the few of the lower-middle-class, who try to help their fellow countrymen.

The second novel in the suite, Dolce, concerns itself with the German occupation of France. As Nemirovsky and her husband lived in a small occupied rural village, she was writing the story of how the wealthy landowners and aristocracy adapted themselves to their status as a conquered people. Again, she conveys a critical tone toward the upper-middle-class. Surprisingly, she seems to be somewhat sympathetic toward the German occupiers, who are portrayed as barely more than children who are only obeying orders. She even includes a love story between conquered and conqueror, because, after all, they are only men and women.

Nemirovsky had planned the suite as five volumes, with the remaining ones being titled Captivity, Battles, and Peace. One appendix to this volume includes her notes as to the plot of the third novel. About the other two, she knew she would have to wait until events unfolded.

She was not permitted to complete her masterwork. She was arrested as a Jew of foreign nationality (She had never obtained French citizenship.) and taken to Auschwitz, where she died. Only a few months later, her husband was also arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where he was gassed in the ovens immediately. The two children were hidden by their nanny and moved from place to place, constantly on the run from the French police, until after the war.

The oldest daughter kept her mother's large notebook for 64 years, thinking it was a diary and never reading it because of the sorrow it would bring. Finally she read it and realized that it was the text of two novels and the notes for a third. And this volume was published.

It is extremely hard to separate the background story to consider the novels on their own merits. This was a first draft, and in one appendix her notes indicate some episodes she intended to revise. The novels are perhaps overly critical of France's upper-middle-class at the time, but this was Nemirovsky's milieu, and they had rejected her once the Germans branded her as a Jew. I would be bitter, too. But even unrevised and without the author's background story, this would still be a must-read. With her death, we have been deprived of a historical and literary masterpiece, written as it happened.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Desperadoes by Ron Hansen

Live again those thrilling days of yesteryear, when six-guns blazed and train robbers became as famous as rock stars, when the lawman and the fugitive were sometimes good friends, when good-hearted women stood by their men.

This is the story of the Dalton Gang. Author Ron Hansen casts his novel as a reminiscence written by Emmett Dalton, the last survivor of the gang, who ended his days in California as "a real-estate broker, a building contractor, a scriptwriter for Western movies, a church man, a Rotarian, a member of Moose Lodge 29, which is a true comeuppance for a desperado of the Old West...." And, amazingly, most of the tale as told here is true. Emmett Dalton did indeed survive the foiled bank robbery which spelled the end for two of his brothers, and, after 14 years in prison, became rich in California, even starring in a movie of the gang's exploits, playing his younger self!

Hanson's writing skill makes this novel much more than an adventure story or a run-of-the-mill historical novel. The narrator tells the story in a matter-of-fact dead-pan fashion, which sometimes lends itself to flashes of humor and surprisingly descriptive eloquence. For example, two of the gang, in leisure hours, are portrayed as "...leaping from the tin roof of a shed onto their saddles." I guess I never thought that such skills, often seen in movies, had to be practiced. One piece of description (among many such) reports that a train stoker "smelled worse than sparrows burned dead in a chimney." This concrete and descriptive tone is also used in the many depictions of violent death, which are not humorous in the least.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the revelation of why the Daltons seemingly drifted from being peace officers into being outlaws. The leader of the gang, Bob Dalton, confesses to obsessing about "how famous I'm going to be." As Emmett Dalton lies recuperating from the last shoot-out, lines of the curious stretch around the block to peer into a window at him. He says, "...I wished my brother Bob were alive instead of me because I know that he'd love that; how he'd love that."

And Emmett Dalton did become famous and was able to capitalize on his fame to make money in California. The irony of it all!

I recommend this book. It is great fun to read.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Year Two of Reading

I review my year's reading on my birthday rather than on January 1, because I first began posting about books on that date (April 22). This year I read 111 books, a mix of classics, best sellers, old favorites, detective stories, science fiction, travel (1), history, biography, and (what a treat!) one book-in-progress by a former student, Joseph Scott Coy.

I believe I read more REALLY GOOD BOOKS this year than in any other year of my life. And I can credit this completely to my computer and to the internet, something I would have formerly believed to be impossible. (I viewed all the time people spent on their computers as wasted time. Now I realize that one person's time waste may be another person's obsession!) The internet enabled me to scout out good books as nothing else ever has. I could find lists of prize winners--Pulitzer, National Book Award, Nobel, Booker, Hugo, Nebula, and so forth. Then I could look up the unknown books I discovered to learn more about them. I could happen upon the web sites and blogs of other readers and read their reviews and recommendations. I could receive recommendations from book sellers on the web ("If you like this, you might also like this."). I could find many "Top 100" lists from various sources (Modern Library, Times, Guardian, etc.). And I could pester some of my Facebook friends who are readers for recommendations. In this regard I thank Jonathan Aaron Baker, Brandon Watson, Patti Watson, Mike Myrick, Rachael Hall, Joe Coy, and Tim Ristow for their recommendations.

Here is my list of top 12 books for my reading year. I read so many good ones, I could not stop at 10.

*At Swim-Two Birds by Flan O'Brien--because it is funny, inventive, and the language is wonderful.
*Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake--because it evokes an atmosphere and a place better than any book I have ever read.
*Ghostwritten by David Mitchell--because he is better than anyone I know at providing distinctive voices for his characters.
*The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brian--because it conveys truth through fiction about war and what it does to participants.
*On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry--because the story is heart-wrenching and the writing is pure poetry.
*I, Claudius by Robert Graves--because it is the best historical novel I have ever read.
*Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter--because it blurs the boundaries between what is real and what is not, and I like that.
*A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan--because it is funny and sad at the same time and makes a complicated and inventive structure all fit together and not look like intellectual preening.
*Blindness by Jose Saramago--because it presents the "civilization-in-peril" scenario with more grace and humanity than anyone else has.
*Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee--because it is subtle but persuasive in its message for today. And the writing is impeccable.
+The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad--because it is the best and first of the genre and conveys characterization subtly. And because when I finished the last couple of pages, I realized I had been holding my breath.
*Nostromo by Joseph Conrad--because it has everything: plot, pacing, characterization, symbolism, relevance for today, and readable and masterful writing. Easily the best book of the year for me.

*Ubik by Phillip K. Dick--because his warped imagination can draw me in like no other sci-fi writer.
*Room by Emily Donahue--because her story touched my emotional heart-strings more than any other. Actually, it's not that outstanding a book, but I loved it anyway.

*Post Office by Charles Bukowski--because it is arrogant, self-indulgent, and glorifies general sorriness. Plus, it is not even well written.

That's it for this year.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

What a thoughtful, understated, subtle jewel of a book!

The middle-aged narrator of A Summons to Memphis receives a summons home from his two sisters, who are concerned that their recently-widowed 80-year-old father may be considering remarriage. Having seemingly escaped his father to live in New York City, the narrator is drawn back into the family problems and into reminiscences about his childhood and young adulthood as the son of a dynamic and controlling father.

The subtle nature of the novel comes in here: Taylor utilizes dramatic irony, causing the narrator to reveal truths to the reader which are not apparent to him. This is all done with such a masterful skill that it becomes only gradually apparent to the reader.

What Taylor is examining here are the ambivalent feelings all of us have toward our parents. Do we forget real or imagined offenses? If we can't forget, do we forgive? Do we make excuses for the misdeeds in our minds? Or do we sometimes, perhaps subconsciously, seek revenge? Do our childhood experiences determine the course of the rest of our lives?

This novel is short, but it contains much more food for thought than the much longer family books of Jonathan Franzen. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1987. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

If a person reads three mind-bending books in a row, is there a chance that person's mind might stay permanently bent? Just wondering....

I don't believe that is going to happen to me, however, since this mind-bender did not entrap me as completely as the last two I read, War with the Newts and At Swim-Two-Birds. Perdido Street Station is too obviously an extended ego trip by the author, who fell in love with his own words and exercised no control or discrimination about what he included in the novel. I can just imagine him writing the pillow-talk love scene between a human male and a khepri female, who has a curvilicious woman's body and a head that is a complete beetle's body. "Damn, this is good," Mieville is thinking. "The tension between instinctual disgust and feelings of love and understanding...Wow." So he includes it. Never mind that the whole love affair side-plot is unimportant to the real plot of the story. And then, because he has read and enjoyed Charles Dickens and Mervyn Peake, Mieville lets himself loose to create a bleak slum of a city. He does it very well. Never mind that when Dickens and Peake did the same, their landscapes had some pertinence to their stories. Although his landscape does not really influence the plot, Mieville includes it because "it is so well done."

And it is well done. Mieville is a very good writer, way beyond what is usually found in the Science Fiction/Fantasy aisle of the bookstores. But it's as if, with this book, he included every weird idea and thought that had occurred to him up to that time, never mind whether it fit or not. The plot of the book is interesting; never mind that it doesn't really start for 200 or so pages in. The atmosphere of urban decay is impressively accomplished; never mind whether that's even important. Some of the scenes are so well done that I'll remember them always; moth-sex is described in more arousing a manner than many a human sex-scene I have read.

So the first part of the novel is concerned with atmosphere and a consideration of cross-species love, and the last two-thirds is an adventure story, with a group of mixed-species heroes fighting giant vampire moths who suck the essence from thought-forming brains. And it all ends "miserably ever after."

This is a well-regarded book in sci-fi/fantasy circles; it was awarded the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Award. In certain aspects, I would agree. Mieville is a very proficient writer, but this book is too much, too long, too patched together.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

This is most likely the funniest book I have ever read. It is snigger, chuckle, laugh-out-loud funny, and I probably missed a good bit of the humor because part of it consists of lampooning various segments of Irish society and examples of Irish literature. It is not subtle in its humor, some of it being pure slapstick, much in the style of Monty Python. The plot, as such, is fantastical and sometimes confusing.

It's the writing that makes the novel rare and priceless. All characters have distinct voices and styles. And the book sings. There is something about English as spoken by the Irish (particularly from Dublin) that can give the language a lilt and a flow not present when those of other countries speak it. O'Brien's words sounded in my head so much that I actually read some of the book aloud to myself.

Just to give a glimpse into (part of) the plot: The unnamed narrator is supposedly a university student, but he spends most of his time in bed or consorting with his friends at drinking establishments. In his spare time, he is writing a novel about a Mr. Trellis, an author who also stays in bed a great deal of the time. Mr. Trellis likes to keep the characters for his novel close at hand, so he imprisons them in a hotel with him. Eventually they revolt and plot revenge. The son of Mr. Trellis,fathered by him with one of the female characters whom he ravished in a moment of weakness, writes the retribution for the other characters, giving Mr. Trellis his just punishment.

We also have one of the characters telling the story of his previous role in an Irish Western by a Mr. Tracy. And we have the story of another character who has been a part of an Irish folklore tale. And we have The Pooka Fergus MacPhillimey, an Irish devil with magical powers. And we have The Good Fairy. And so it goes.

This book is probably not for everybody, because of the absence of a coherent plot. It's maybe somewhat like James Joyce, but readable and funny. I believe it may be in my Top 10 favorites ever.

(Included in many Top 100 lists. Written in 1939.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

War with the Newts by Karel Capek

How come I never heard of this book before? My education has obviously been seriously inadequate. Thanks to my friend Jonathan Aaron Baker for recommending it and correcting this serious gap in my reading history.

The on-line bookseller compared this novel with 1984 and Brave New World, but Capek's book is nothing like theirs in tone, although they also depict a future world where things go seriously wrong. Those other guys were deadly serious as they pointed out disturbing trends in their world. Capek is funny, satiric, and often over-the-top farcical as he points out the foibles of many different nations, including his own, Czechoslovakia in 1936. He is much more in the vein of Swift in Gulliver's Travels and of Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse 5.

The "story" goes like this: A sea captain discovers a colony of intelligent newts on an isolated island who are about the size of 10-year-old boys and who walk upright and are seemingly intelligent. He arms them with knives to defend themselves against sharks, teaches them to talk, and persuades them to find oysters containing pearls. Gradually the news of these seemingly willing workers seeps out, and a giant syndicate is formed to sell the newts to various countries for work in dredging their bays and enlarging their lands. A new industry emerges: machines and devices to help the newts in their tasks. Then the idea comes up to arm the newts with explosives to defend the sea coasts against foreign aggressors. It's a newt arms race!

The newts multiply dramatically because they are finally able to defend themselves against all their natural enemies. In fact, they find they need more "living room," more shallow water, because that is their natural habitat. The solution? Demolish continents to make more shallow water. And so the war begins.

In the process of this story, Capek manages to ridicule many nations. For example: About America, he reports that newts are lynched, because young women report they have been raped by them. About Germany, he says that that nation claims their newts are racially superior to the newts of other nations. About Czechoslovakia (his own country), he depicts the people as complacent, because they do not consider themselves in danger, since they have no seacoast. (Remember this was all written just before Hitler started his campaign for leibinstrom (living room) in World War II.)

Capek's target of satire is not communism, fascism, or democracy. His target is blind nationalism, complacency, and greed, pure greed for more profits. That's why this satire is still relevant today. Perhaps greed is with us always. And it may be our downfall. Complacency? I'm OK, so why worry about those other guys?--And nationalism? Perhaps that has been replaced by adherence to different religious views.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Love is a Wild Assault by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland

The title makes this sound like a bodice-ripper romance, doesn't it! It is a romance, of sorts, but it is also the biographical novel of a true Texas heroine, Harriet Potter, who was a participant in the events of the most challenging days of early Texas, before and after the War for Independence from Mexico.

Author Kirkland was handed the plot of this novel on a silver platter, when she was given the long-forgotten manuscript of Harriet Potter's memoirs (written at the age of 83) by officials of the Texas State Historical Association, who asked if she would consider using it to write a novel. Although she already had several projects in hand, she agreed to read the account. She became fascinated. Several years and much additional research later, she produced this book.

What resulted is a true page-turner full of love, adventure, courage, hardship, and pain. Harriet's life encompasses settlement in a shack in a remote area of Texas, where she and her children almost die; the frenzy of the Runaway Scrape, as settlers flee in wagons, on horseback, and on foot before the threat of the Mexican army during the war; and life in an isolated home on beautiful Caddo Lake following the war, where her only close neighbors are the Caddo Indians. The novel is structured as a message from Hattie to her granddaughter to help her when she comes of an age to choose a husband.The book thus focuses on the three men who impact Hattie's life. She describes them this way:

"The merchant's disguise...with the face of a hero. False spring love. Sudden flower and withered dreams.

"The statesman...duality of dove and serpent...Summer tempest in her heart. Violence and near destruction.

"The trader...the searcher...hands of goodness...eyes of wisdom...All the seasons of love."

The drama and sometimes scandal that is Hattie's life is such that she becomes known and talked about in all the settlements of early Texas, sometimes called a whore and a wanton, sometimes called "kishi-woman" (kindred to the Indian Earth Mother), and sometimes called "The Bravest Woman in the Republic of Texas."

It is hard for a modern woman to even imagine the hardships and challenges of such a life and to accept this as a true account, but it is verifiable. Harriet's life story gives us not only a first-hand account of the historic events of early Texas, but also a sense of a real woman's passion and pain.

For truth's sake, I must report that the last two chapters of the book are vastly inferior to the rest of it. Having finished with Hariett's story, Kirkland switches to the granddaughter as she reaches 18 and to the three suitors for her hand in marriage. They are obviously somewhat similar to Harriet's three loves. As she is trying to choose, the granddaughter finds the hidden journal of her grandmother. That is more than a little hokey, an unfortunate conclusion to what is otherwise an excellent novel.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

Book #12 in the 12-novel Dance to the Music of Time series. FINISHED! The series is included in the Modern Library Top 100 and the Times Top 100. My reviews of the previous 11 books were done in November, January, March, and April, should any readers be interested.

Powell'a narrator Jenkins is in his 60s in this book, and it is a rather sad book as his friends and many acquaintances all seem to be dead, dying, ill, or going mad. The theme seems to be that Time has caught up with them, but the Dance goes on, with new dancers coming together in new patterns.

The novel begins in 1968, and the new characters are part of the youthful rebellion going on at the time--members of a mystical cult led by a young Mage, who keeps his disciples through a combination of magnetism and will. One of those drawn into this circle is an older man who gives up his post as a university chancellor to be a part of the commune. Surprise! It is Widmerpool, who has been a recurrent character from the first of the story.

At first this plot development seemed to me to be unbelievable and illogical. After all, Widmerpool has been a successful businessman and a respected Member of Parliament. He has been made a Lord, and has taken his place in the House of Lords. After being suspected as a spy, but cleared, he has succeeded in the education profession. And then he drops out to become a mystic?

On reflection, perhaps this is not too far-fetched. Widmerpool had been something of an object of ridicule during his school days, and perhaps in his old age he allowed himself to try once again to become a leader in a group of young people. Who knows what any of us will do when we become a little dotty?

This novel series as a whole has been most interesting as it chronicled the English upper class and the intellectual class from the 1920s through the early 1970s. It would actually be almost impossible to understand the later novels in the series without reading the first ones, I believe. For that reason, a reader should commit to reading from #1 on through. For those with the time, it is worthwhile endeavor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell

Book #11 in 12-novel Dance to the Music of Time
After book #10 of this series, which I reviewed last month, I was rather discouraged, because for the first time I was bored. I'm glad I persisted. This novel was maybe the best one yet, more humorous and with much more interesting action.

It begins in 1958. Narrator Jenkins is attending a literary conference in Venice, where he meets some new acquaintances (including an American professor who plays an important part later)and some old acquaintances (including the humbug Widmerpool, who has been present from the first book in the series, and his femme fatale wife Pamela, who has previously seduced a great number of Jenkins's acquaintances). Mainly following these characters, Powell gives us hints of espionage from both the political and the literary folks, sexual perversion (maybe including necrophilia), and other interactions between the literary, political, and social worlds in England at the time. SPOILER ALERT. Despite expectations, Widmerpool emerges from all the revelations and events intact. One can only hope that the final volume of this epic will include the comeuppance of this hypocrite.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to the final installment.