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.