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.)