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.