Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Nothing is more satisfying to a reader than a big, thick book with a suspenseful plot and a multitude of interesting characters, all of whom come alive on the page. It's an added plus when the dialogue is natural and sounds distinctive for each character, and when the setting is so clearly described that a reader can visualize and feel the surroundings. Dickens could come up with such novels, and so, it turns out, can Donna Tartt.

The story begins in Amsterdam, with 27-year-old Theo Decker, terrified and ill, hiding out in a hotel room after an unnamed violent event. Through his narration, we are taken back to the thirteen-year-old Theo, who survives the terrorist bombing of an art museum which takes the life of his mother. Clearly suffering from survivor's guilt and PTSD, young Theo is taken in by the wealthy family of a friend, his alcoholic father having recently departed for parts unknown. We follow Theo from his life in New York as a private school student to the desolate outskirts of Las Vegas when his father reappears. Then it's back to New York as a partner in an antique business, before Amsterdam and a reluctant involvement with the criminal underworld. Binding the plot together from start to finish is a small painting, The Goldfinch, the reason Theo and his mother visited the museum.

Tartt is particularly successful in the depictions of the many characters, through both indirect personal descriptions and accounts of their actions and an abundance of distinctive dialogue. The alcohol and gambling addicted father, the antique restorer Hobie who becomes a father figure, the amoral Russian boy Boris who befriends Theo in Las Vegas--all seem so real I can see and hear them in my mind.

I have never been to New York. I have never been to Las Vegas. I have never been to Amsterdam. But I feel that I know them, through Donna Tartt, just as I know Victorian England, through Charles Dickens.

This seems like an old-fashioned novel in many respects, in that it tells an extended story in detail. That seems to be rather out of fashion these days. But it is a modern novel in other respects, in that it addresses both current and universal human predicaments. The realistic ending is not "happily ever after," but then whose life ever is?

Onward through the fog.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald

I finished reading this detective novel five or six days ago, and I had to look back over it before I could review it because I could scarcely remember the plot, much less the details. That's how less-than-memorable it is.

It all begins when Sam, one of Travis McGee's old friends, comes back to town after a three-year absence, hoping to reunite with his abandoned fiance', Nora, who is also Trav's friend. He brings along a small and ancient solid gold statue (supposedly one of 27) which he says he plans to sell. Always a romantic at heart, Travis wants to help reunite the two, so he picks up the abandoned love to take her back to the friend's motel room. There they find the man murdered in a brutal and bloody fashion. And the statue is missing.

Thus begins an especially blood-soaked adventure that takes Travis and Nora to a remote village in Mexico as they attempt to find Sam's killer and recover the gold statues. Eventually, Travis ends up alone in Los Angeles, where he finally unravels the whole twisted mystery of who killed who and why and how and so on. Along the way he is severely wounded once and bedded four times by different sexy women. He even falls in love with one of them. He also recovers the gold statues, but ends up alone and gives most of the profits from the statues away, like the good guy he is.

I think the Travis McGee mystery series must be male fantasy novels, with the reader picturing himself in the place of the hero. (After all, women enjoy romance novels that allow them to picture themselves in an idealistic way.) Trav is big and rugged and can handle himself in any fight. He can kill a Doberman with his bare hands. He is smart and has sophisticated tastes. He is an independent loner who refuses to be tied down to a boring 9 to 5 job. He lives on a houseboat. Most of all, he attracts women like honey attracts flies. Every woman he meets comes on to him, but he is picky about the ones he accepts. He is such a great lover that he can heal grief and all manner of other feminine maladies through his sensitive and compassionate lovemaking. What guy wouldn't want to be him?

This is #5 in the series; it is not as good as #1, but much better than #2, #3, and #4. I think fans of this genre would really like it, but I see that it is not the genre for me.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

Most books have negative aspects and positive aspects, and when the positives outweigh the negatives, I consider it a good book. When the positives far outweigh the negatives, I consider it a great book. When I can spot no negatives, which is rare, I consider it a perfect book. This is one of those.

It's the war experience of Private Paul Berlin in Vietnam, both actual happenings and his imaginings about an escape from the war as he and his platoon go after Cacciato, a childlike soldier who deserts the fighting with the goal of walking to Paris. Real and unreal flow around and through each other into a surrealistic mix, with the truths about war coming from both.

I find it to be much harder to write a glowing review for a book than to write a mixed review or a negative review, because it is far easier to spot what's wrong than to pinpoint what's right. There's an ineffable quality to a perfect book, because everything comes together--the subject, the style, the structure, the rhythm, the language, the dialogue, the truths, both spoken and implied. The whole becomes greater than the parts.

So this is a short review, because I cannot tell you exactly what makes this book perfect. It just is. It won the National Book Award in 1979, and O'Brien's later novel The Things They Carried is almost as good.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

It is a tribute to Ann Patchett's charming style and story telling abilities that this book is highly readable despite having characters behaving in illogical ways and enough plot holes to sink most novels. While I was reading it I enjoyed the book very much, but when I finished it I was annoyed at the author for manipulating me and irritated at myself for being carried along on what turned out to be a pointless and fallacious journey.

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, is asked by her boss (and lover) to go to the Brazilian jungle to find out the status of a research project on fertility financed by the company and to learn more about the circumstances of the death of one of her colleagues who had been sent previously. To complicate matters, the leader of the jungle team is an intimidating former teacher of Marina's who was responsible, in part, for her decision to leave obstetrics in favor of research.

Marina's eventual journey into the jungle initiates the most riveting part of the book, as she confronts a frightening alien landscape. She gradually learns that female fertility is not the only focus of the research, that her colleague's death might not have occurred exactly as reported, that she is more competent than she had believed, that she can fight and defeat a giant anaconda, and that she craves the bark of a certain tree. Really.

It becomes apparent that Marina's journey is somewhat symbolic of a journey of self discovery and self realization, but for the reader the trip becomes secondary to the realization that the background does not make that much sense.

(SPOILERS INCLUDED HERE.) Here's a brief summary of some of the major suspicious plot turns:

*The jungle scientists have been with the Amazonian tribe for five years, and the professor who leads them has been there, off-and-on, for more than twenty years, and yet not one can speak the language of the tribe. And yet they have persuaded the women to give frequent blood samples and cervical swabs. How likely is that?

*The professor submits no reports and refuses to have a phone and nobody back at the pharmaceutical company knows exactly where she is, and yet the company continues to finance her and she has unlimited charge accounts back in the nearest Brazilian city. For five years. How likely is that?

*Although she has been a teacher in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology, the professor evidently does not realize that her 73-year-old body is incapable of carrying a baby to term, even if she can become pregnant. How likely is that?

*And that's not a complete list.

Other complaints:

*The native Indian tribe is treated dismissively, as almost childlike in comparison to the researchers. The women apparently spend most of their time grooming each other and going every five days to chew the bark off of specific trees (giving them life-long fertility). No mention is made of how the bodies of elderly natives handle the gestation of babies. As a side effect, none of the women contract malaria. The men do, and they don't chew the bark. Are they so childlike that they don't ever realize the connection?

*Marina forms a connection with a deaf mute native child, and sleeps curled up with him in a small bed. The only problem for the reader is that the boy is identified as being 12 years old. Does an educated woman not realize that even a pre-pubescent boy should not be sleeping curled up with a grown woman? Shouldn't Ann Patchett have realized that?

Suffice it to say, that even though I found this book enjoyable, I was extremely disappointed when I finished it; especially so so since Patchett's Bel Canto was completely enchanting for me.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

This is one of those books that comes with a "but," as in, "It's very good, but...." In this case the "but" is the length--it seems to be a 500-page book stretched to almost 900 pages. Its original publication was in 19 monthly installments, and I wonder how much more tightly constructed it might have been if it had been written for all-at-once publication. I think it would have been much better.

As is typical of Dickens, the novel carries several major plot lines and many subplots, and they almost miraculously come together at the end, like pieces of a puzzle. The central story concerns Little Dorrit, the daughter of a prisoner in a debtor's prison, and Arthur Clennam, the son of a family which appears to harbor a guilty secret. Their story is so intricate, with so many twists and turns, that even to outline the central plot would be a lengthy process. So I will just mention some of the many positive aspects of the novel which make it, in my opinion, one of Dickens' better ones.

*The title character, Amy Dorrit, is extremely sympathetic, even though she often seems too good to be true. However, since I have personally known someone who seemed to be just this self sacrificing and "good," I could believe in her. Of course, in today's world she would be recognized as a world-class "enabler," because she helps her loved ones persist in their selfish ways, never offering a word of complaint.

*You know you are in the hands of an author who is a master of characterization when you actually become angry at fictional people and wish you could give them a good talking to or even a good slap in the face. I frequently felt this impulse.

*Dickens, again as typical, has a rant he wants to vent against the abuses of the society of his time. In this novel, it's the "Circumlocution" Office, as he calls it, a part of the government bureaucracy which seems intent on seeing that nothing really ever gets done, just passed from one section to another, with formidable piles of forms and red tape along the way, with incompetents at the top who have their posts because they "know somebody." I don't know how accurate this was for England in 1867, but it could be a satire on big government in the USA in 2013.

*In another "ripped from today's headlines" plot development, a universally-celebrated financial genius manages to hoodwink crowds of investors into what sounds much like a Ponzi scheme. Of course, it all falls apart in the end, with financial ruin for many.

*Dickens' villains are most often slight caricatures, and this one is no exception, but he is very memorable. He is frequently described in this way: "...his nose came down over his moustache and his moustache went up under his nose, in an ominous and ugly smile." He also always wears a long cape. Remind you of anyone? You probably have to be of a certain age, but I am certain that the creators of Snidely Whiplash for the 1960s' Rocky and Bullwinkle Show must have had this villain in mind.

The only negative I perceive, other than the excessive length, is the pacing, which seems much too leisurely for most of the novel before speeding up drastically toward the end to bring matters to closure. Consequently, perhaps, the ending seems somewhat contrived.

This Dickens novel is darker and has fewer comic elements than many of his books, but it is also more believable than most. It is well worth your time, if you have that much time.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The House of Thunder by Dean Koontz

As an extremely fearful flier, I always try to carry a book along which has an interesting story but is easy to read, because I find it impossible to fully concentrate on reading while holding up the airplane. My daughter-in-law recommended Dean Koontz for this purpose, whose books she characterized as "mind candy."

Unfortunately, I think I must have chosen one of Koontz's worst offerings. I know he is extremely popular, and I cannot help but believe that most of his novels are better than this one. I should have been warned by the fact that it was originally published under a pseudonym. Even as "mind candy," it was less than successful.

The plot concerns a genius physicist who wakes up in a hospital with no memories of her past life. Gradually, most memories return, including the remembrance of a fraternity hazing incident from her college days which left her boyfriend dead and her as the testifying witness against four fraternity brothers. She remembers that at least two of the men are dead, and yet she begins seeing all four at the hospital, disguised as patients and orderlies, still looking to be in their early twenties although many years have passed. Are they hallucinations from a brain injury? Is she going crazy? Are they actually ghosts, as they claim to be? Is the whole situation a giant conspiracy with everyone in the hospital involved? To complicate matters, she falls in love with her doctor almost immediately.

This supernatural mystery was never actually scarey, and the solution (which is explained by a character in a very lame method of revelation) is so unlikely as to be laughable, and reveals many, many plot holes.

If I ever read Koontz again, I will seek out a recommendation for a specific title. Surely he has produced better.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ape House by Sara Gruen

This novel is a bit strange, in that its pieces don't seem to quite fit together.

The most interesting piece concerns the apes--bonobos--and their almost-human abilities to communicate through sign language and the computer. Gruen reportedly extensively researched the work being done with our first cousins, and her account of their abilities is both factual and fascinating. Although she explores the bonobos' personalities to an extent, I kept wishing she had expanded this aspect of the story.

The second piece of the plot concerns Isabel Duncan, a scientist working with the bonobos at the Great Ape Language Lab who is more comfortable with apes than with people. When the lab is blown up and the apes are sold and transported to an unknown location, she must finally trust a few other people in order to secure the safety of her beloved bonobos. This aspect of the story has a tenuous connection to the first piece, although her transformation seems almost to come out of nowhere.

A very large piece of the novel is the account of John Thigpen, the reporter who helps Isabel in her efforts to protect the bonobos. We learn about his employment troubles, his failed-novelist wife and her stint as a television script writer, the couple's in-law problems, the wife's wish to have a baby and the husband's ambivalence about fatherhood, what a good cook the wife is and how sexy she is, and so on and so on. This part of the story seems to have no connection to the ape story at all. In fact, it could just as well belong to another novel altogether, or perhaps be developed as a novel all by itself, with just a bit of expansion.

I could go on and on, mentioning several other subplots that don't seem to have any relevance to the ape story. There's the meth lab explosion, for instance.

I don't understand why some editor didn't step in and tell Sara Gruen to focus on telling one story.

I really wanted to like this book because I found Gruen's Water for Elephants to be charming. The best I can say is that I liked the part about the apes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

(I just returned from a trip and did not write reviews on the books I read while I was away. So, no, I did not read 4 books in a couple of days. I read fast, but not that fast)

I chose to read this translated Japanese book out of curiosity, because it is alleged by some that the author of The Hunger Games copied it. (She says not.) This one was written first (1999), and it does develop the same premise of teenagers forced to fight to the death, but the resemblance ends there.

Basically, I would say that The Hunger Games was written with pre-teen and teenage girls in mind, with the emphasis being on the character development of a young woman in a dangerous situation, while Battle Royale was written with teenage boys in mind, with the emphasis being on action and blood and gore. The Hunger Games aims for status as "Literature," while Battle Royale is unashamedly pulp fiction.

Here we have 42 participants, all from the same class in school. Only a few characters are followed, so most are just briefly sketched before they are killed in various creative and graphically described ways. Even the main characters are only perfunctorily delineated, so that the focus remains on the action. The fascist society that promotes the battles is only touched upon, and the rationale for the battles is never very clear.

This is not a novel to be taken seriously, even as a young adult offering, but it is fast moving and easy to read and somewhat suspenseful. According to reports, the movie version was extremely popular in Japan, although somewhat controversial because of the extreme violence. For what it is, it is well done.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I have often noticed that the back-cover blurbs of many novels do the books a disservice by overly extravagant praise, especially in their comparisons to outstanding works and authors. The reader is led to expect too much, which most often results in disappointment, even though the book in question may be interesting in its own way. That was certainly the case with this novel, which is compared to the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, and Jorge Luis Borges. Unfortunately, it did not in any way live up to that standard of creativity and excellence. So even though The Shadow of the Wind is something of a page-turner, with a succession of mysteries and melodramatic events, I was disappointed.

The novel begins in a very promising fashion when young Daniel is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he is permitted to choose one book to adopt, to make sure it will always stay alive. He soon discovers that his chosen book comes with a mystery, because someone has been systematically hunting down and burning all the author's novels. Intrigued, as he grows to adulthood he begins trying to learn the history of Julian Carfax, the author of his Forgotten Book, and of the identity of the unknown destroyer of Carfax's novels. Along the way, he finds an amusing sidekick who helps him in his quest and a young lady to love, a situation which comes with its own set of problems.

Actually, if I had not expected more from this novel I would have given it much higher praise. I will say it is much above average for popular fiction, but that it is not Literary Fiction, such as one would expect from Marquez or Borges or even Eco. I expect most readers would find it great fun to read.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Son by Philipp Meyer

This long Phillip Meyer novel set in Texas is often a page-turner and fun to read, yet I feel that much of the positive hype that surrounds it is undeserved. I would certainly not classify it as "The Great American Novel" or "an epic in the tradition of Faulkner and Melville."

It's hard to know what opinion I might have if I lived in Wisconsin or New York City, for instance, but since I have lived all my life in Texas I'm sure my opinion is skewed. This is how a native Texan sees it. Yet another "foreigner" has written a multi-generational Texas epic, following in the footsteps of Edna Ferber and James Michener. This author is from Baltimore, and even though he now lives "mostly in Texas," he continues the tradition of presenting unflattering stereotypes of Texans. None of the characters are admirable, not even the titular son, the only one with a conscience. Really, you guys, surely some Texans manage to be both successful and honorable.

The action follows three members of the McCullough family: Eli, born in 1836, the first male child of the new Republic of Texas; Peter, son of Eli, born in 1870, heir to infamy as well as to a fortune; and Jeanne Anne, granddaughter of Peter, born in 1926, a woman constantly striving to be accepted as "one of the boys."

The story of Eli, told in first person, is the most riveting, recounting his captivity at age 13 by the Comanche and his life as an accepted member of the tribe. Obviously (sometimes too obviously), much authorial research went into this portion of the story, and the details of Comanche life are vivid and absorbing. Once Eli is returned to white society, the story becomes less interesting, being an account of his overweening ambition and pragmatically ruthless opportunism and outright thievery as he amasses a fortune.

Peter's story is told in first person through his journals, beginning when he accompanies his father Eli and a group of vigilantes on a raid against a wealthy Mexican neighbor because of suspected cattle rustling, as they slaughter all in sight, including the women and children. Though he is tortured by guilt, Peter lacks the strength of character or courage to do anything to stop the carnage or Eli's subsequent fraudulent takeover of the neighbor's vast ranch. In fact, Peter is perhaps fully as blameworthy as the other characters because he recognizes injustice but weakly allows it, doing little more than wringing his hands.

Meyer switches to third person to tell Jeanne Anne's story, which is very definitely the least interesting of the three strands. Her life is extraordinarily uneventful, her ruling ambition not being to make yet more money but being to gain recognition from the male power brokers of Texas as one of their equals. In her attempt to do so, she, also, tramples on the rights of others. Poor little rich girl--making money hand over fist and she still can't get respect. The structure of the novel, which switches from character to character, ingeniously cloaks the weakness of the Jeanne Anne segments in between the more interesting sections.

The apparent theme of the novel, that all land and wealth is acquired by stealing it from someone else, is repeated numerous times in different contexts. In Texas, Indians had stolen the land from other Indians, the Mexicans then stole it from the Indians, and the Texans then stole it from the Mexicans. Blood watered the land and only the most ruthless survived.

Undoubtedly, variations of this scenario have always existed everywhere. And yet this bleak picture of humanity is not the whole story of any land, nor does it reflect the entirety of the history of Texas, despite what the television show Dallas and novels by Yankees might have you believe.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

As always, Philip K. Dick makes the reader question the nature of existence. What is real? Do alternate realities co-exist with perceived reality? Are we lost in our dreams? Are we lost in someone else's dream? Are we lost in a drug-induced nightmare?

Although this Dick novel is one of his most honored (nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and winner of the John W. Campbell Award), to my mind it is the least effective of his major works.

The premise is intriguing: World-famous singer and talk show host Jason Taverner awakes one morning to a reality where nobody knows his name--not his agent, not his girl friend, not even the police data bank which tracks everybody, everywhere. The world seems the same, but he is suddenly cast adrift as a non-person with no proof of his existence.

However, the enticing premise is never fully explored. What follows is a rather rambling narrative of a series of encounters by Taverner with women to whom he turns for help and of his more crucial experiences with the Police General and his bi-sexual sister. The solution to the mystery of Taverner's experience is eventually given, but it is rather far-fetched and entirely anti-climactic.

Along the way we have enticing glimpses of a claustrophobic police state following a second Civil War, but details are just dropped and not explored as to their effects.

Altogether, it seems to me that Dick probably wrote this novel without a clear focus or plan, in a stream-of-consciousness manner. It is perhaps revealing that the most effectively written portion of the novel is the account of a mescaline-induced hallucinatory experience.

Despite expectations, perhaps, the novel is often quite humorous in its ironic asides, and it often supplies impressive paranoic quotes, such as the following: "...don't come to the attention of the authorities. Don't ever interest us. Don't make us want to know more about you."

I believe that is good advice, in any reality.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Last month I read and reviewed Anne Bronte's first novel, Agnes Grey, and remarked that her relative lack of fame was deserved, as I found that novel to be dull as to plot, with an insufferably whiny and preachy heroine. Now I must revise my opinion of the third Bronte sister. This, her second (and last) novel, places her fully on the same literary level as her more famous sisters.

While Charlotte's Jane Eyre, and Emily's Wuthering Heights both contained elements of the Romantic and the Gothic, Anne's Tenant is notable for its realism in picturing degenerate behavior and the oppression of a patriarchal society which stripped women of all rights, even as regards to their children.

Anne's heroine, Helen, marries the handsome and charming Arthur Huntingdon despite the warnings from her prudent aunt, even knowing that he has a reputation for a bit of bad behavior. Like many a young girl before and since, she is seduced by his bad-boy sex appeal and believes she can reform him through her love. And like many a young girl before and since, she soon finds out that love is not enough to correct a spoiled young man's selfishness and lack of concern for others or for common morality.

Helen's life becomes a constant struggle as she tries to influence her husband for the good while he indulges in drunkenness and debauchery. She tries sweet appeals; she tries reasoning; she tries upbraiding; she tries preaching. Things just get worse. Then Huntingdon begins "making a man" of their young son. He and his carousing friends encourage the 5-year-old "to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr. Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man, and sent Mama to the devil when she tried to prevent him." She also finds that she is expected to tolerate her husband's adultery.

A young woman in this situation today would have more options than Helen had; at that time she would not be allowed to divorce, would not be entitled to any money or property of her own, and would not even have custody of children if she left her husband. How brave, and how desperate, she is when she runs away.

The scenes in the novel centering on Huntingdon and his group of friends are chilling in their realism. Sadly enough, Anne had more than enough real-life example of such behavior through observing the alcohol and drug-fueled degeneration of her brother Branwell. Her experiences as a governess also contributed to the realism, particularly as to the common practices of rearing male children to be self-centered and brutish.

When it was published, this novel garnered much praise, but also much criticism for its realistic portrayal of degenerate behavior. Some considered it exaggerated for the effect of sensationalism. Anne's sister Charlotte, for whatever reason, blocked further publication of the novel after Anne's death, saying that the novel, "...hardly seems to me desirable to preserve...the choice of subject in that work is a mistake." Perhaps she was wary of revealing so much of her brother's behavior; perhaps she was really shocked at some of the realism; perhaps she was just jealous of her sister's talents.

Today's reader may find the heroine to be a bit moralistic and goody-good, but Anne's stated goal was "to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it." This novel is the truth as she knew it. It is a truth which endures, and women today would do well to take lessens.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

This novel was written by a college professor with a PhD in scientific and medical history who had specialized in the research of alchemy. The couple of reviews I read were full of praise, and the book was a bestseller in 2011. I expected a serious novel about magic with a historical background. What I read, however, was a spectacularly silly romance novel in the tradition of the Twilight series, with the lovers being a powerful witch who is a PhD historian writing a paper on alchemy and an alpha vampire who is so drop-dead gorgeous that he turns heads wherever he goes. (Witches and vampires are traditional enemies, wouldn't you know it.) We also have daemons, a third non-human species. And a house that adds rooms when guests are coming. And a band of vampire knights of medieval origin who fight for the right. And the goddess Diana. And time travel. Sorry, no werewolves.

The novel begins in a promising fashion as the heroine researches ancient alchemical manuscripts, including explanations of how to interpret the drawings and text to reveal the alchemists' understanding of science. But then she requests a volume while at Oxford's Bodleian Library which her witchy senses tell her has been enchanted. Since she has relinquished the practice of magic (long story), she sends it back to the stacks.

Very soon the vampire hero shows up, along with a whole library full of witches, vampires, and daemons. They all want the manuscript, which has been presumed to have been lost, and they think she still has it. The powerful vampire steps up to protect her from the rest, and, rather illogically, she trusts him and soon falls totally in love.

From that point on, this is a trite romance novel combined with periodic episodes of witch versus witch, vampire versus vampire, and witch versus vampire conflict, often with bloody results.

Many questions arise in the mind of a reader:
*Will the vampire lover succumb to instinct and bite the witch? Will his friends and family members bite the witch?
*What do you feed a vampire for dinner? For the inquiring minds who want to know it's raw meat and nuts and wine, always bottles and bottles of wine.
*Will the vampire ever sexually consummate his union with the witch? Although she invites him to on several occasions, he asks her to wait and instead they indulge in some heavy petting, like teenagers in a parked car.
*How do you know when a witch has had a sexual climax? Believe me, you will know.
*Why would a centuries-old vampire decide to be a servant who cooks all the meals and makes the beds and lights the fires and candles and prepares the tasty picnic lunches?
*Vampires call those they have "made" (in the traditional vampire blood-sucking way) their children. If he "makes" her, will the witch become the vampire's child, as well as his wife? That's kinky.

About half way through the novel, I began to suspect that author Harkness was having us on. I can't believe an educated historian could seriously write such dialogue as this: "I would rather have had one moment with you--just this one night--than centuries with someone else," and "I'm not worried you're going to eat me for dinner...." Is it possible she intended a spoof which most took seriously? I know I laughed frequently.

I guess this is a step up from Twilight and the rest, because it does provide some interesting historical information, but for the most part it is just silly.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

An Angela Carter book is akin to a dream, where the everyday and ordinary can seamlessly slide into the surreal and fantastical, and sometimes into the nightmarish. And as in a dream, every detail is likely to have a symbolic meaning, often sexual in nature.

On the surface, this novel is a coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old girl. The novel begins when Melanie, clad in her mother's white wedding dress, is locked out of her home in the middle of the night and sheds her garments, which have become blood stained, to climb an apple tree into her bedroom. The next morning her childish life ends forever when she learns her parents have died in a plane crash. The symbolic picture of loss of innocence is obvious (perhaps even too explicit).

Melanie and her two younger siblings are sent to live with their maternal uncle, who makes toys and has a toyshop. There she meets her uncle's wife Margaret and Margaret's two brothers, and learns that her uncle is a brutal tyrant, who is perhaps more than a little mad. This, of course, all sounds like many, many folk tales and fairy stories and even modern novels--the orphaned children mistreated by a bad uncle, stepmother, stepfather, and so forth. But this is a fairy tale with a bite, similar to those of the Brothers Grimm. The magic of this toyshop is not good magic.

Myth and symbolism and allegory and our collective unconscious all come together in this remarkable novel, as in others by Angela Carter. The language is lush, perhaps too much so in this one, at times, but the totality is overwhelming.

My only criticism of the novel would be that some of the ending events seem contrived and illogical, with no previous hints of a major plot development. But perhaps I just missed the hints. I will read the book again.

For those who enjoy magic realism, the Gothic, and the just plain surreal, this novel is a treat. I also recommend Carter's Nights at the Circus, one of the best books ever.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Honesty and the Golden Rule have been abandoned in favor of dishonesty and greed. Financiers make huge fortunes in questionable schemes, ruining others in the process. The rich buy their way into political positions. Old values have given way to the new morality of every man for himself, regardless of others. That's "the way we live now."

Despite how current this situation sounds, Trollope's 1875 novel reflects his views about Victorian England. He wrote, "...a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."

As an illustration, Trollope includes all manner of dishonesty in his complicated plot: the financier who entertains royalty while selling worthless stocks, the investors who ignore questionable aspects of finance as long as they are getting a share of the profits, the lady novelist who gains favorable reviews by flattering influential editors, the aristocratic but short-of-cash young men who profess love for rich young women to get at their money. All these and more.

The main focus of the plot is the rise and fall of the financial "genius" Melmotte, who, despite reader expectations of a good-versus-evil villain, turns out to be a marginally sympathetic character, because he is at least honest with himself about his actions and motivations.

True to Victorian expectations, the many other characters are mostly involved in the marriage plot, wherein the course of true love never does run smooth but mostly sorts itself out admirably. The several romantic stories do not all end as expected or even, perhaps, as the reader would hope.

The structure of the narrative is much like a current soap opera, with the action switching from one story line to another from chapter to chapter. As in a soap opera, all the characters are connected in some way, sometimes only by a propensity to congregate in the same places. (I am reminded so much of Days of Our Lives, a program I have watched guiltily off and on for more than forty years.)

On the plus side, the characters seem real and I learned to care about some of them; there is no high drama, but there are several intriguing plot lines; as in real life, no characters are portrayed in strictly black-and-white terms.

On the minus side, Trollope gives us only one segment of society, the more privileged, and ignores the multitude of very poor people in portraying "the way we live now," and the book drags sometimes and seems over-long (767 pages in my edition). I think Trollope must have grown a bit cynical, because the two characters most honest with themselves and with others both end up as losers in the marriage plot.

Highly recommended, if you have the time. This is widely considered to be Trollope's best novel.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

You know you are in the hands of a master storyteller when you start a book at 7 a.m., before breakfast, and suddenly realize 150 pages later that you have been reading for three hours and that you have not yet eaten anything and that you are still in your pajamas. This was my experience.

No matter what literary and/or intellectual pretensions you may have, I challenge anyone to quit reading this novel after 20 or 30 minutes. The action and characters suck you in so that it is almost impossible to stop reading. I read a great many novels at varying levels of literacy and enduring values, and my opinion is that Stephen King (when at his best) tells the most absorbing stories among modern writers.

This is the story of Dan Torrance, the little boy in The Shining, when he is all grown up and has hit rock bottom in his attempt through alcohol to block remembrance and feeling. After tentatively eluding the demon of addiction through AA, Dan has come to be a valued employee of a hospice residence as Doctor Sleep, capable of guiding the dying to a peaceful end. Then he is contacted by Abra, a young girl with even more capability of "shining" than he ever had, and he is drawn into conflict with the True Blood, a group of semi-immortals who feed vampire-like off of children, not from their blood but from of the essence of their "shining," their paranormal abilities.

In less capable hands, this could be only a suspenseful and scarey story of good versus evil, but King makes it much more.

It's about family--dysfunctional families, loving families, families formed without regard for blood connection. And it's about inheritance--what comes to us through genetics and what we choose to do about our inherited tendencies.

And it's about substance addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous and its ability to help those who have trouble helping themselves. Those familiar with Stephen King's life story can readily see that this part, at least, is reflective of his life experience.

In addition to moving along his suspenseful story, King inserts numerous little asides which seem to be such true aphorisms that one is tempted to be believe that they are folk sayings. For example: "Your mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser."; and "When you couldn't sleep, when you were afraid to look around because of what you might see, time elongated and grew sharp teeth"; and "She was eighty-five and her sleep was as thin as her skin."; and "...the good thing about being old is that you don't have to worry about dying young."

An additional plus: King's narratives of the guidance of Dan Torrance as he assists dying patients are especially perceptive. They are tear-worthy, but more importantly they seem true.

For Stephen King fans who were looking for scarey, this one is not that frightening, but still you will never look at an RV park in the same way again. It is more theme-driven and contemplative than designed to provide chills in the night. I consider it to be one of King's best ever.

Monday, October 7, 2013

New Grub Street by George Gissing

In the literary world, some authors of fiction are so-called hack writers, who can quickly churn out novel after novel, appealing to the "half-educated," most often offering only trite sensationalistic plots, with little else to recommend them. These authors are pragmatic and commercially minded, tailoring their novels with an eye on monetary goals. Other authors, aiming their writing at the more educated crowd, have more idealistic goals and spend more time and effort, trying to write "important" books which impart universal truths in prose which is exact and graceful. And then there are the literary critics who can create a "buzz" for a book which may or may not be praiseworthy. Who gets the "buzz" is most often a matter of who-knows-who and personal feuds and jockeying for prestige.

This picture of the literary world sounds very current, but it is the premise of New Grub Street, written in 1891, about writing as a profession in Victorian England.

The plot follows two literary men with opposing attitudes toward writing: Edwin Reardon is the "old type of impractical artist" and Jasper Milvain is "the literary man of 1882." Milvain says, "Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets...." How modern that sounds. I can think of several current best-selling authors who follow this philosophy.

One very interesting aspect of the novel, which is not applicable to current day, is the picture it gives of the societal pressures created by the class system in England at the time. For an educated person to accept a menial job, even as a clerk, was considered humiliating and permanently lowering in rank and not to be considered even among those living in debt as they tried to hang on to middle-class status. Consequently, some well-educated men who adopted the writing of literature as a profession quite literally starved to death.

All this does not sound very entertaining, but it is, because of the very interesting story (with love conflicts) and the background of England in a time of change. The characters seem very real, although perhaps a bit stereotypical. A distinct thread of cynicism pervades the whole novel, particularly at the ending. It is interesting to speculate where Gissing placed himself in this portrayal of literary professionals.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone

First, if you believe that the Bible is a factual account of actual events as dictated to a human by God, this book will probably offend you and maybe even anger you. Consider yourself forewarned.

The thesis here is that from earliest times the primary deity and object of worship was the goddess. In the pre-history era, society was matriarchal and women occupied an honored place in all aspects of the community. The author details numerous archeological discoveries which would seem to support this contention. Then, the author asserts, the Middle East was invaded by Indo-Europeans, who conquered various regions and attempted to stamp out matriarchy in favor of patriarchy. This attempt to re-focus society peaked when the Levite tribe of the Israelites wrote the beginning chapters of what is now known as the Old Testament. Their account of Adam and Eve and the supposed beginning of humanity was a conscious attempt to stamp out goddess worship and denigrate women, casting them as naturally subservient to men (made from his rib), not too bright (easily tricked by the serpent), deceitful and seductive (persuading Adam to eat of the apple). Man must thus keep woman, who destroyed paradise, perpetually in check, regarding her as one would a small, potentially destructive child, lest she cause further harm.

The many Old Testament pronouncements about punishments for sexual transgressions were aimed at ensuring that the male could be as sure as possible that any children born of a union were parented by him, a necessity in a patriarchal society. For example, while a woman who committed adultery should be stoned, the husband might have numerous wives and concubines. The matter of sexuality was also important in that goddess worship probably included ritual sexual rites, and so the Israelite authors deemed sexual union to be shameful and sinful, to be only tolerated under the auspices of marriage when a man could just not restrain himself. This attitude extended into the New Testament. (Read the writings of St. Paul.)

The heritage of this teaching is alive and well in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions of today and has permeated culture, even among those who do not subscribe to religious belief. Women have never gained their previous status, being still considered by so many as less than and subservient to men.

So much for the premise, as I understand it.

Whether or not a reader buys into the totality of this premise, it should be obvious to anyone that the concepts promulgated by the three current major religions have determined many of the attitudes of today. In the Muslim world, women are sometimes still stoned for adultery and are admonished to wear a veil to avoid tempting men. In the Jewish and Christian world, some still blame the woman for being seductive when she is raped. In all these cultures, many still believe that it is desired by God that women should be subservient to men, supportive of their ruling males (fathers or husbands) and personally silent in family, religious, political, and intellectual matters.

Personally, I felt, rather than knew from my own research, that many of the evidences gathered from archeology were selectively chosen to support the predominance of goddess worship thesis. Particularly revealing were the large numbers of phrases such as "it is possible" and "the evidence suggests" and "perhaps." So, really, nobody knows for sure. I was often reminded of reading Chariot of the Gods, with its archeology-supported thesis of pre-history visitations by aliens from another planet. As presented, that thesis, too, seemed plausible. I felt that the archeology evidence was the weakest part of this book.

Again personally, I can see from my own observation as a resident of the evangelical South that current attitudes about the relationship between men and women are largely dependent upon the belief that God ordained men to be superior. From the news, I can see that many in the Muslim world also holds this view. Whether or not the goddess once ruled, it is apparent today that the god rules.

And whether or not any or all of the assertions of this book are believed, it is still very interesting in the light that it throws on the study of fictional literature.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I'm willing to bet that if you read 100 reviews of this short novel, 90 would include the word "charming," and I would not be an exception. I am completely captivated by this delightful picture of life in a small English village in the early 1800s among the old maids and widows who makes up the "genteel" society. They are so affectionately portrayed, all their small faults and eccentricities being more than offset by the kindness of their hearts, that I grew quite fond of them, as if they were real people.

Structurally, the book more resembles a series of short stories involving the same cast of characters than it does a conventional novel. Amidst the depictions of daily life, we have a story of missed romance, an account of a small feud, an alarm of possible dangers from thieves, and a search for a long-lost brother. The author, through the fictional eyes of a young visitor to the village, reveals the events of small-town life to be both touching and subtly humorous. In fact, the novel is tear worthy and chuckle worthy in equal proportion.

I really love this quote from Miss Matty, a character who is an unmarried woman in her 50s: "It is very pleasant dining with a bachelor....I only hope it is not improper; so many pleasant things are!" Yes, Miss Matty, I have also found many pleasant things to be perceived as improper. But these days, perhaps fortunately and perhaps unfortunately, we do not worry about impropriety as much.

Through her account of a select group of people, Gaskell has also provided us with a glimpse into the attitudes and life style of rural England of the time, and that is certainly interesting. Yet much of the action could have taken place in the small town where I grew up, because time and place may change, but people pretty much stay the same.

I highly recommend this novel. It is charming.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

If Anne Bronte were alive today, imagine how discouraged she might be to be known mainly as "the other sister." After all, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte, and Wuthering Heights, by Emily, are universally recognized as two of the classics of English literature, while Anne's two novels are relatively unknown.

I have not yet read her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so I can only judge by the strength of this offering, but I must say for now that I believe Anne's lack of fame to be entirely deserved. While the writing is competent and displays some flashes of humor, for the most part the plot is almost totally devoid of interest and the heroine comes across as well intentioned but insufferably preachy and whiny.

The plot concerns Agnes Grey's experiences as a governess in two wealthy families and her romance with a young cleric; the accounts of the two governess positions are considered to be largely autobiographical, since Anne Bronte did, indeed, hold two such posts. The romance appears to be fictional, perhaps a matter of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author.

A great proportion of the novel consists of criticisms of the parents of Agnes's young charges, who are indulgent to the children and give the governess no authority, while expecting her to make their offspring perfect in learning and deportment. The children in the first family are savage tyrants entirely out of Agnes's control, as they refuse to do their lessons, find amusement in torturing animals, and otherwise defeat all her best efforts to reform them. In the second family, the pupils are older and less subject to tantrums, but they, also, resists Agnes's efforts to instill knowledge and Christian values. Their parents are more distanced than indulgent, but also refuse to give the young governess any real authority. In recounting the case of both families, Agnes repeatedly expresses resentment for being treated as little more than a maid, obviously considering herself to be superior in intellect and learning to all the household.

It seems to me that Anne Bronte was very truthful in portraying her attitudes and reactions in relation to her governess positions, and thus the character Agnes seems very real and perhaps reveals more about Anne than she would have acknowledged. If this is, indeed, more fact than fiction, one can only feel sorrow for the intelligent and well-read young lady who had led an isolated life and was so shy and lacking in self confidence (and so prone to casting blame on others, a common human fault in the face of insecurity). It is doubly sad that the romance probably never materialized in Anne's own life.

Another reason for feeling sorry for Anne Bronte is the fact that her novel and Emily's Wuthering Heights were first published together. What an unflattering contrast: Anne's novel so restrained and uneventful and straight-forward and Emily's novel so unrestrained and dramatic and passionate. Almost anyone's novel would have suffered in comparison.

I would not recommend this novel as one to demand readership on strictly its own merits, but as a psychological portrait of a real person it is very interesting.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald (#4 in the Travis McGee series)

Maybe it is too soon to judge fairly after reading only the first 4 of this 21-book series, but so far it seems that MacDonald is just repeating the same book. Oh, he inserts a new mystery in each, but the case to be solved is almost incidental; instead MacDonald's focus is on Trav, his detective, who in all the books so far goes through all the same motions with very similar characters. He is always propositioned by more than one beautiful and seductive female but falls for the girl who is damaged or troubled in some way and salvages her through his compassionate lovemaking. Somehow, though, each romance falls through at the end, so that he can commence a new one with the next book. In his first-person telling of the story, he always manages to include a rant or two or three about the sad state of American society and culture and always emphasizes his status as an outsider who goes his own way. The first of the series, The Deep Blue Good-Bye, was actually very interesting, but the next three seem to be hastily written copies, and that gets a little annoying.

The plot of this one concerns a famous sex-symbol actress who is being blackmailed with photos taken of a full-on, four-day sex orgy, most of which illogically takes place outside on a terrace. In another rather illogical move, the actress sends her repressed and compulsively efficient female private assistant along with Trav as he attempts to track down the identity of the blackmailer. Guess who he falls into bed with.

This is not the kind of mystery that drops clues and red herrings. In fact, the main villain unexpectedly first enters the action in the last 25 pages of the book.

When I reviewed #3 in this series, I mentioned that I was disturbed by the apparent acceptance as normal and even admirable of a husband's paddling of his wife's behind when she misbehaved. MacDonald disturbed me again in this one, by his condemnation and ridicule of lesbianism. At one point he comments on the sad fates of those who were involved in the orgy: one is permanently mentally damaged, several have died violently, and one has (GASP) turned lesbian. Maybe this was the predominant attitude in 1964, but it still grates.

In looking at the copyright date of this novel, I see that the first four Travis McGee novels were all published in 1964. No wonder they all seem the same; he didn't have time to accomplish much. Maybe I will try one more of the series, but if it is the same I will stop.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Middlemarch by George Eliot

First, a cautionary tale for English teachers: More than 50 years ago, when I was a junior in high school, the English curriculum included Silas Marner by George Eliot. My teacher sought to combine grammar and literature by giving us the assignment of finding examples in each chapter of a compound sentence, a complex sentence, a prepositional phrase, a direct object, and so forth. We had a whole list of grammatical elements to search for. I not only completed the tedious assignment for myself, but also kindly helped my best friend. And by the end of this, despite the fact that I could find something to like in almost any book, I hated Silas Marner and avoided ever reading another Eliot novel, until now. (To be fair, my teacher was an outstanding instructor in grammar, responsible for the fact that I can still diagram a sentence in my head to figure out whether to use "who" or "whom.") The moral for teachers: At least do no harm. I surely hope that I never caused a student to hate a book.

Thus, when I have finally overcome my prejudice enough to read Middlemarch, I find myself totally surprised to discover that it is not just a good book, but a great book.

The highly interesting plot concerns itself with the doings of the middle class in England in the 1830s, particularly with three intertwined "love stories." But the actions are much more involved and realistic than in a standard marriage plot novel, involving disappointed dreams and compromise as often as fulfillment and unblemished happiness. What makes the novel outstanding is Eliot's perceptive portrayal of the characters, whose actions and motivations are entirely logical and realistic and recognizable, so that each character seems like someone you might meet. Or perhaps you might even see something of yourself. The most admirable characters sometimes reveal less than perfect traits, and the least admirable are not entirely devoid of worth. I have never read a novel with characters who seemed more real.

Eliot also excels in her depiction of the events and attitudes of the time and place, placing her characters and their actions and reactions in relation to their setting.

And Eliot is often very humorous, in a subtly ironic and satiric way. I often chuckled out loud.

For potential readers, I must say that this is not an easy book to read at all; it took me a much longer time to read than is usual for me. I don't think younger people, who want to believe that love always conquers all, would appreciate it. It perhaps requires a certain amount of compassionate cynicism.

I'll boldly proclaim that this may be the most well written book I have ever read. That is not to say it is my favorite book, but that is only because of my less-than-intellectual bent for high drama.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Children of Men by P.D. James

The premise of this 1992 futuristic novel is very intriguing--suddenly and all at once, all human sperm becomes non-viable, even that previously frozen in sperm banks. No more babies. The book opens in 2021, when the last children born are 25 years old and hope has died for a solution to the problem. The possibilities for plot development and speculation are myriad. How would people behave if they knew that humanity was doomed to extinction in 60 years or so? How might the youngest ones react, knowing that one among them may be the last person left alive? And what about the older people, as they realize that nobody may care to help them in their final years? Would civilized behavior go out the window?

Unfortunately, this novel does not examine many of those issues, concentrating instead on one middle-aged professor and his transformation from a detached observer with a seeming inability to love anyone into a loving human being capable of love and self sacrifice. Neither his abrupt change nor the actions of the other primary characters seem very logical.

For example, the most dramatic development is the pregnancy of a young woman with its implication for the salvation of mankind. Rather than revealing herself and the father with living sperm to the world, she insists on delivering her baby in secret in less-than-ideal circumstances, because she does not want the Warden of England (whom she considers to be evil) present at the birth.

And then there's the plot about the 5-person rebellion of sorts against the Warden of England, who has brought a measure of peace and order to the country, suggested not to exist in other countries. His pragmatic solutions appear to the dissidents to be evil, but most people welcome his rule and would vote for him if given the opportunity. (An examination of whether or not a benevolent dictatorship is sometimes a better solution to a dire situation than democratic chaos might have been interesting here.) Particularly illogical is the group's complaint that the mandatory government checking of male sperm is demeaning to the tested. Really? We are talking about the survival of humanity here and they find testing to be demeaning?

Ultimately, I was disappointed in this book because I believe the author could not decide whether it was a dystopian survival novel or an examination of one person's redemption through love. Perhaps these two themes could be combined successfully, but James did make either strand believable.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

This was not the book I expected it to be. In researching the history of the Gothic novel here and there on the internet, I found this novel mentioned as a satire of the genre, written by a friend of the poet Percy Shelley, the same Shelley who sat around telling ghost stories with his friends and his wife Mary, inspiring her to write Frankenstein. And while this novel does have a mysterious female who is suspected of being a mermaid, a secret room concealed in a tower, and a brief appearance by a supposed ghost, it is more of a satire of the fashionable intellectual trends of the time. And it is quite funny, in a very sly way.

I would not have realized it if I had not read the introduction written by an academic, but this is also a gentle satire of actual people: Scythrop Glowry, the main character, is modeled on Shelley, and the two women he loves are modeled on his first wife Harriet and his second wife Mary. Other subjects of satire include characters patterned after Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron, as well as several lesser-known people of the day.

However, it would not be necessary to know the sources for the characters to appreciate the book. While a knowledge of the trends of the Romantic Movement and of the three poets satirized here would increase enjoyment, a modern reader can recognize people with these types of behavior and thinking today.

The plot here is secondary to the conversations of the residents and guests at Nightmare Abbey. The main plot element is, of course, Scythrop and the two women he loves (at the same time).

The main target of satire is the intellectual nourishing of romantic melancholy, for "...it is the fashion to be unhappy. To have a reason for being so would be exceedingly commonplace: to be so without any is the province of genius." Mr Flosky, the Coleridge-type character, is portrayed as being "a very lachrymose and morbid gentleman" with a "very fine sense of the grim and tearful." Mr. Cypress, the Byron-type character, says, "I have no hope for myself or for others...." and "How can we be cheerful in the midst of disappointment and despair?" Peacock ever-so-subtly exaggerates (or maybe not) his characters' dramatic personas and conversations to reveal them to be pretentious and ridiculous.

For obvious humor value, we have the amusing names of the characters, for instance Mr. Listless, who is...well, listless; Mr. Toobad, who sees everything as the work the the devil; Mr. Larynx, who is the preacher; the servants Raven, Crow, and Graves. More subtle humor pervades the whole narrative, with ironic and deadpan little asides. The most humorous incident comes when the company is discussing ghosts, and Mr. Flosky dramatically proclaims, "I see a ghost at this moment." When the door opens and a ghastly figure walks in, the reaction of the characters is laugh-out-loud funny.

I liked this novel very much, both for its historical interests and for its humor. It is still funny today. It seems that some young people still consider it to be fashionably romantic and interesting to be dark and brooding. The Byronic hero is alive and flourishing in the 21st Century.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Back in the olden days when I was in high school and college, I am pretty sure we were taught that James Fenimore Cooper was the first American novelist. Now a younger and more well educated friend tells me that Brown is considered America's first professional novelist. Internet research tells me that there were indeed novelists previous to Brown, but they were all women, so I guess they don't count. (Being snarky; actually the ladies were evidently not very proficient at the craft.) At any rate, Brown was indisputably America's first Gothic writer, following an English/European trend of the time.

Written in 1798, Wieland is a most intriguing and passionate account of strange and deadly events in the family of Clara, an intelligent and perceptive young lady who is telling the story in a letter to a friend. As a participant in the tragedy, she would automatically be suspected of being an unreliable narrator. She even says, "What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?" Included in her "letter" are two even more suspect accounts, being told second hand, explanatory of the mysterious happenings. We are purposefully left a bit unsure about whether events are explainable, of supernatural origin, or a product of a diseased mind---or a combination of all three.

Included in the catalog of bizarre happenings: a spontaneous combustion, apparently disembodied voices heard by several participants, and the murder of his entire family by a father. Ventriloquism and a suggestion of mesmerism also figure into the inventive plot. The psychological aspect must have been especially innovative at the time, examining as it does a man who truly believes that he has received commands from God to sacrifice his loved ones.

Brown has included more here than just a suspenseful story. The novel also cautions about the perils of religious fanaticism, as well as the perils of trusting entirely to one's senses.

This novel will be slow at times for a modern reader, as is common for the writing of the time. But when Brown gets going on actual events, he really gets going. If the reader will read slowly, re-reading as necessary, the tension and suspense is equivalent to watching the movie Psycho, for example. Recommended. It beats the heck out of James Fenimore Cooper.

Friday, August 30, 2013

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

3rd reading; first read in the '60s.

I'm willing to bet that almost everyone who attended high school from the mid '50s on has read Shirley Jackson's 1949 short story "The Lottery." I know it was in my high school literature textbook, and it was still in the textbooks when I first taught in the '60s and when I returned to teaching in the '90s. I'll also be willing to bet that most who read it then can still remember it now, when much else has been forgotten.

This 1962 novel builds that same kind of tension and sense of dread, as the reader gradually realizes that something very bad is going to happen. This is a novel to be read twice: once to experience the impact and once to observe how skillfully Jackson introduces bits and pieces that hint that something very dark is going on which is outside the scope of the everyday experience of most people.

For example, here is the amazing first paragraph, which slyly and indirectly tells us so much:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Right away we know that the narrator must be what we might call "a little off." She is eighteen, yet sounds like a much younger person, although she is obviously not mentally challenged, knowing as she does both historical and scientific facts. She would consider it "luck" to be born a werewolf and twice mentions death. The most chilling phrase is "...I have had to be content with what I had." Instantly, we wonder, "So what does she have that would be just a step down from being a werewolf?"

As the plot develops, we gradually learn of the lives and history of the two sisters. They are isolated in their old mansion, with only Mary Katherine leaving to shop in the village twice a week. Soon we learn that Constance, the older one, who has been tried and acquited for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her mother, father, aunt, and brother, never leaves the grounds of the house. Their life of routine and restraint is guarded by Mary Katherine with little acts of sympathetic magic, such as nailing talismans to trees.

Then enters Cousin Charles, a formerly estranged kinsman, who Mary Katherine fears will upset everything. Events unforeseen yet seemingly inevitable upset the delicate balance of rationality that Constance has worked to maintain.

This is sometimes classified as a Gothic horror novel, but if so it is psychological horror, rather than horror of the supernatural. Mary Katherine's ritualistic magic has little to do with the developing action, except in her own mind. I am reminded so much of the Hitchcock movie Psycho, which had been released a few years earlier. There, too, tension was gradually built by subtle hints that the affable motel owner was not quite as harmless as he would seem.

Something I missed the first couple of times I read this novel: Constance, the rational sister, is perhaps not so normal as she would first appear to be.

I highly recommend this short novel, as well as Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4th reading, I think; first read in the late '50s

I never thought of this 1851 novel as a Gothic romance before I began researching and reading in that genre, but it certainly has many of the stock elements: a many-roomed, crumbling old house; a family curse; seemingly supernatural events. But it is so much more than that. Hawthorne wrote in the Preface that a writer of a romance should not "swerve aside from the truth of the human heart," but "...may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows...." He also reveals that his novel has a moral purpose: "...the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones...."

Thus, Hawthorne has written a tale wherein the characters do reveal recognizable human reactions and mostly behave in realistic ways, with an atmospherical background which is, indeed, Gothic, with supernatural events which may be explainable, but then maybe not. His moral question still continues to be a point of interest today. Are we doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers? Do some inherit the tendency to evil? Is it nature or nurture which determines our character? Or a combination of both?

The story begins with the history of the Pyncheon family in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts, when the avaricious Colonel Pyncheon serves as a judge in witchcraft trials and condemns Matthew Maule as a witch, thereby gaining access to Maule's land, which he has long coveted. As he is hanged, Maule pronounces a curse upon his judge: "God will give him blood to drink." After possessing the land and building on it a house with seven gables, Colonel Pyncheon is found dead, his front covered in the blood which has poured from his mouth.

The plot then moves forward 200 years, to a time when only a few Pyncheons remain. Living in the house with seven gables is the old maid Hepzibah, who soon welcomes her brother Clifford, who has been imprisoned for years for supposedly murdering a kinsman, and her young niece Phoebe, who brings a ray of light into the gloomy old house. Living in a secluded wing of the house as a boarder is a young man who takes a decided interest in the family, especially in Phoebe. The only other family member living in the town is Judge Pyncheon, who in appearance and actions seems almost a reincarnation of the Colonel Pyncheon who founded the family and received the curse. He is blamed by Hepzibah for framing her brother Clifford for murder in order to gain the Pyncheon money and land.

The action proceeds logically and inevitably toward an impressively dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

To my mind, one of the highlights of the novel is the picture of the character Hepzibah. She is portrayed as behaving and feeling entirely as one would expect of a lonely old woman at the time, in the situation. She seems to me to be Hawthorne's most fully realized character. I felt so sorry for her.

Hawthorne will be tedious for readers who are accustomed only to fast-moving and action-packed narratives. His action is dramatic, but it is not quick and does not move from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. He obviously loves words, and readers who share that attribute will appreciate his mastery.

This is my favorite Hawthorne novel. Even though I taught the more well-known novel The Scarlet Letter many times, I find this one to be more satisfying. Perhaps that's because I really want to believe that those who do evil will be punished in the end, and not just in the afterlife.

P.S. This is one of the best books ever if you will read it slowly, re-read parts if you don't understand them the first time, and really think about it afterwards.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

She by H. Rider Haggard

3rd or 4th reading; first read in the early '70s. I'm on a gothic novel kick right now, but I've run out of new books, so I'm re-reading from what I have on hand.

She has long been one of my escape reads. It has Gothic elements (journeys through dark catacombs and caves, supernatural and fantastic happenings, a dark family heritage). It has adventure story elements (a shipwreck with near drowning, a trek through uncharted Africa, fights to the death with natives). It has the lost-world scenario (an ancient civilization with long forgotten secrets). Plus it has a tragic romance of love lost and found and lost again, and one of the most fascinating female characters in literature. It's one of those books that can suck you in so that while you are reading it, you believe it's true. What's not to like?

This is the story of how an ugly bachelor professor, nick-named The Baboon, and his handsome golden-haired foster son, nick-named The Lion, journey to Africa to investigate a family history which has been handed down since the time of the Pharaohs. There they find She Who Must Be Obeyed, She for short, a surpassingly beautiful white woman who rules a kingdom of savage cannibalistic natives. She claims to know the secret of life almost-eternal, having lived for over 2,000 years waiting for the reincarnation of her lost love, whom she killed in a fit of jealousy. And she believes he has returned, in the person of The Lion.

You may ask, "Who could possibly believe all this?" If you have the sort of mind that can believe in the existence of Middle Earth and hobbits, in a desert planet called Dune with giant sandworms, in a lost land in the mountains of Tibet called Shangri-La, then you will believe in She Who Must Be Obeyed.

H. Rider Haggard was one of the most popular novelists of his day, and She, written in 1887, was his most popular novel. It is one of the best selling novels of all time, and yet few people read it today. I can't imagine why not.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker

Reading this novel by Bram Stoker made me very sad, not because of the contents of the plot but because the talent which produced Dracula in 1897 had so tragically and obviously diminished by 1911, when this novel was published. Stoker had suffered the first of the several strokes that led to his death in 1912, so the wonder is perhaps that he was able to write a novel at all. It's unfortunate that his inadequacies were exposed so publicly.

While Dracula certainly had its faults, the cumulative effect was to make the unbelievable believable. The plotting was tight and logical within its created framework; the method of exposition (letters and diaries from different characters) was effective; the tone of horror and increasing danger built to a satisfactory climax.

In contrast, The Lair of the White Worm reads like the script for a B-grade horror movie, one so bad that it becomes funny in a perverse way. It suffers from all the faults usually present in such movies: lack of focus, with too many different perils; inexplicably stupid actions by the "good guys," which constantly place them in danger; plot holes so enormous that the story hardly makes sense; a general lack of discretion and restraint.

The plot concerns Lady Arabella, a seductive woman always dressed in tight-fitting white clothing who has a hole in her ancient house in which apparently lives a large white serpent. Could they be one and the same? Also, a nearby wealthy landowner has powers of mesmerism, and engages in staring bouts with two of his neighboring young ladies, eventually ending when he stares one of the girls to death. He also constantly flies a huge kite shaped like a hawk which scares away all the birds in the neighborhood and has a supernatural effect on the neighbors. Also, the wealthy landowner has a frightening and hideously ugly servant brought from Africa who is a practitioner of voodoo. Although the servant's actions are very threatening toward the young lady heroines in the early parts of the book, he is removed about halfway when he is dragged into the hole by Lady Arabella, when he mortally offends her by a romantic (sexual) proposition. See what I mean by lack of focus.

A discussion of the inexplicable actions of the characters and the holes in the plot could take many pages. Just take my word for it.

As far as lack of discretion, Stoker openly displays an unbelievable amount of racial bigotry in his depiction of the African servant. As an example, here is a quote: "If you have the slightest fault to find with that infernal negro, shoot him at sight. A swelled-head negro, with a bee in his bonnet, is one of the worst difficulties in the world to deal with. So better make a clean job of it, and wipe him out at once....the law doesn't concern itself with dead negroes. A few more or less do not matter. To my mind it's rather a relief." Not only the quoted character but also the omniscient narrator displays this attitude, never failing to attach derogatory descriptions and comments whenever the servant is mentioned.

Stoker also fails to employ restraint in his Freudian subtext--he might as well have written in all caps: I FIND THE SEXUAL ASPECTS OF THE FEMALE TO BE REPULSIVE, SMELLY, VILE, AND GROTESQUELY BLOODY. His description of Lady Arabella's "hole" is so over-the-top suggestive as to become one of the funny bits.

Another funny bit: the manly young hero comments, "I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster would be such a complicated job."

I would not recommend this book to anyone. And that's sad.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vathek by William Beckford

This short novel, first published in 1786, is often mentioned in the list of prominent early Gothic offerings, but it is Gothic with a twist, owing more to the influence of The Arabian Nights than to The Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first Gothic novel. The setting is the opulent East, rather than a crumbling English castle, and the villain is a powerful Caliph who seeks ultimate knowledge and power. He is spurred on by his ruthlessly wicked mother as he travels to meet Eblis, the Islamic equivalent of Satan, to trade his soul for promised rewards.

Along the way, the reader is treated to accounts of numerous supernatural occurrences (the Caliph can kill with just a hard stare from his black eyes, for example) and even more accounts of atrocities committed to gain favor with Eblis (pushing 50 young children off a cliff, for example). The Caliph is distracted from his quest when he becomes enamored with a seductive young lady, but his mother tracks him down and pushes him into completing his journey.

But as we all know, pacts with the Devil never turn out well for mortals, and so it is with the Caliph.

Surprisingly enough, the novel is entertaining, although the plot consists just of one fantastical and bizarre incident after another, without any of the suspense or character development normally considered necessary for a good novel. The tone, which is slyly humorous and ironic, rescues the book from the boredom brought on by a mere catalog of incidents. My favorite part is when dwarves are pinched to death.

Even more of interest and wonder is the biography of the writer, as given in the introduction (augmented by my internet research). William Beckford was the richest man in England at the time, and built Fonthill Abbey, a huge Gothic cathedral-like castle with the highest tower in England, which housed his huge collection of art and other esoteric treasures and included a retinue of lavishly attired foreign servants, including a dwarf who opened the door. His sexual behavior was so reprehensible to society that he was forced from time to time to leave his home for the Continent to escape scandal and possible prosecution. He was widely supposed by neighbors to hold orgies with unspeakable acts in his isolated castle. More than one research source indicates that this novel was considered to be semi-autobiographical, particularly in reference to the mother of the Caliph and Beckford's real mother!

I would not recommend this novel to anyone not interested in Gothic literature and tracing its history.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis

O My, Yes! This is the real deal--early Gothic horror which actually inspires thrills and chills. Horace Walpole originated the genre with his unbelievable and awkwardly written The Castle of Otranto (1764), and Ann Radcliffe continued it with her widely-popular romantic and feminine-targeted adventures with after-explained seemingly supernatural events, including her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Then, only a couple of years later (1796), comes Matthew Lewis, who at 19-years-old writes such an impassioned and believable novel with authentic horrors that it can compare favorably with anything written in the genre today.

The Monk is a story of three parts. We have the love story of Antonia and Lorenzo, the love story of Agnes and Raymond, and the story of the fall from grace and morality of the monk Ambrosio. The three strands interweave and become one as the plot progresses, ending in a highly dramatic and unexpected fashion. I, for one, was left with my mouth agape in amazement and admiration for the talent of the author.

Not that the novel is without its discernible faults: the early exposition is awkwardly handled, and the two romances which form a part of the story are formulaic, for the most part. But when it comes to telling the story of Ambrosio the monk, Lewis bypasses all expectations. The horrors accompanying Ambrosio's fall are not adapted to the supposed sensibilities of a feminine or genteel readership, but are rendered in graphically described and chilling detail. Lewis displays a great deal of psychological insight in his portrayal of the monk, at the beginning a man seemingly without sin, but who is in reality filled to the brim with self satisfaction and overweening pride in his reputation and holiness. His submissions to temptation and descent into immorality proceed logically and are entirely believable. The supernatural elements are so vividly described that a reader has no problem in suspending disbelief.

I can well imagine the excitement this novel aroused when it was published. It was a best-seller, and probably was hidden behind other books in the libraries of many well-bred young ladies. It is sensational, subversive, sexy, and scary. Its writing is over-the-top, but always riveting.

I close with a description of Lucifer from the closing pages of the book:

"His blasted limbs still bore marks of the Almighty's thunder. A swarthy darkness spread itself over his gigantic form; his hands and feet were armed with long talons. Fury glared in his eyes, which might have struck the bravest heart with terror. Over his huge shoulders waved two enormous sable wings; and his hair was supplied by living snakes, which twined themselves round his brows with frightful hissings."

O My, Yes!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

O, to return to those gentle days of yesteryear when young women of education and good circumstance had nothing better to do than sketch and take nature walks and write melancholy poetry. And when they craved excitement, they could turn to this romantic gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, with its young heroine who bravely faces one danger after another and experiences many seemingly-supernatural visitations, in between her sketching and walking and poetry writing, only fainting every 20 pages or so.

Radcliffe's novels were tremendously popular in the late 1700s, so much so that Jane Austin even satirized a typical Radcliffe reader in her novel Northanger Abbey. I can only conclude that the young female novel readers of that time were so bored that they were willing to slog through pages and pages of tedium to experience a few chills and thrills.

Out of the 670 pages of this novel's very small print, we have perhaps 250 pages of actual story. So what about the rest? Here's an approximate rundown:
*300 pages of nature descriptions of various landscapes in France and Italy. As it turns out, only good and honorable people appreciate nature; people of doubtful honor or breeding don't properly appreciate it, and really dishonorable people don't even notice it or actually dislike it.
*50 pages of melancholy poetry composed by the heroine in response to nature and events.
*10 pages of repetitions of the word "melancholy." No kidding. Almost every page has at least one "melancholy," and many pages feature it twice.
*30 pages of accounts of fainting episodes. All manner of happenings can bring on insensibility, not just frightening events.
*30 pages of accounts of people dying and the heroine's response to the deaths.

However, in those 250 pages of story, Radcliffe does provide an interesting plot line, suspense, and several cliffhangers. In the most interesting section of the book her heroine is imprisoned in the crumbling Castle of Udolpho, where she faces a suitably heartless villain and his band of banditto, some of whom would like to ravish her! It is there, also, that she sees something supremely frightful beneath a black veil! The description of the sight and its explanation is withheld until the last pages of the book.

My conclusion is that Ann Radcliffe was the Stephenie Meyer of her time, with a huge readership for a mediocre talent. Just as the Twilight series has spawned a myriad of imitators, so did Radcliffe's fake supernatural. All Radcliffe's creepy events are explained rationally, and as for Meyer, it turns out that vampires are really pretty sexy guys.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I have long known about this book, because it is often mentioned as the first Gothic novel. Published in 1764, the story inspired many a writer of the time, and its influence extends even up to today. (Or so I have read!) I like Gothic novels, so I finally decided to read the Founding Father.

Indeed, here we find many of the stock elements of the genre: an ancient, many-roomed castle with secret passages and subterranean vaults, mysterious and ghostly happenings, long-buried secrets, hidden identities, a curse on a family, fair and virtuous damsels in distress, a dastardly and vile villain with evil designs, and a manly and brave young hero.

Yes, the elements are all here, but the result for this modern reader is not what Walpole intended, nor indeed what was evidently experienced by readers of the time. Instead of finding the book to be creepy or scarey or suspenseful, I found it to be quite funny, almost as if it were a spoof of the Gothic. I concede that one must give Walpole credit for coming up with a new scenario and a fresh combining of realism and fantastical romanticism, but I don't believe he was a very good writer.

The story begins on the wedding day of the fair Isabella to the sickly Conrad, son of Manfred, Prince of Oranto. Before the ceremony can begin, (get ready for this!) a giant (we're talking really, really big) helmet falls out of the sky and crushes the proposed groom. This happens on page 2, and it was impossible for me to take the book seriously from then on.

As it turns out, Manfred himself has designs on the fair Isabella, and she has to flee through underground passages to escape his unnatural desires. A myriad of new characters and new manifestations of the supernatural occur before all ends well (kind of).

I would recommend this novel purely on its academic interest as the progenitor of a genre, but for thrills and chills and even for immersion in a story, it fails abysmally.

Texas Vendetta by Elmer Kelton

Although I am not generally a fan of Western novels, I enjoy reading an Elmer Kelton Western from time to time because they are well done and I can trust that they are historically accurate. This one is part of his Texas Rangers series, and features young Ranger Andy Pickard, who had been raised by the Comanche as a captive. The events occur following the Civil War and Reconstruction period, when the Rangers became involved in law enforcement rather than in fighting Indians.

Pickard and an ill-tempered fellow Ranger are called upon to deliver a prisoner to the sheriff of a neighboring country, where the man is wanted for the murder of one of his neighbors. As it turns out, the killing was done as part of a blood feud, and Pickard lands right in the middle between the family of the dead man and the family of the accused murderer.

In Kelton's Old West, very little is all white or all black. Sometimes the lines between right and wrong and lawful and unlawful are very blurred. Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people are not as bad as they might seem. In other words, Kelton's novels are like real life. And that's one thing that sets him apart from many others who write in this genre.

Kelton is also adept at providing excitement and suspense, and his dialogue is flawless. Even though I am not a historian, I have been informed by those who are that his depictions of early Texas are always accurate and based on actual research.

The Western Writers of America honored Kelton as the Greatest Western Writer of All Time. Texas lost a treasure when he died in 2009 at the age of 83. Enough said....

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

As he does in several other of his books, Murakami here frames his novel around more than one story and tells it in alternating chapters. We have the split-brained human data processor of "Hard-Boiled Wonderland," who encounters a mystery, goons who want to do him in, harrowing and dangerous adventures, and seductive females who try to entice him into bed. In the "End of the World" sections, we have a new arrival into a mysterious walled town who has been separated from his shadow and who is assigned the task of dreamreading from the skulls of unicorns. Of course, the author ultimately brings the stories together. In contrast to others of his novels, this time Murakami actually provides a pseudo-scientific rationale for the strange events. Strangely enough, I prefer his usual open-ended conclusions when no explanation is provided and the reader is left to wonder.

Murakami is tremendously popular among younger people in Japan, possibly because he is such a departure from the usual. He is funny; he is seemingly entranced with English language music and film and literature; he is not restrained, but over-the-top. Though he may bring to mind some serious considerations (here, the nature of the mind), he never uses a serious tone. He is whimsical; he is ultra-hip.

I really enjoy Murakami, even though I seldom understand what is going on, exactly.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

In this third book of the Travis McGee series, MacDonald takes his hero to a desert town in Arizona, where he meets a potential client who wants his help in recovering money she believes her husband stole from her. Just as he is deciding not to take the job, she is shot and killed right in front of him. Of course, rather than getting out of town as quickly as possible, Trav stays to unravel the mystery of who killed her.

I was unexpectedly impressed by the first novel in this detective series, The Deep Blue Good-Bye, finding it to be much superior for the genre. Unfortunately, the second and third (this one) of the series seem to me to be not much out of the ordinary--competently written, but with little else to recommend them.

A couple of things really disturbed me here: It is revealed that the dead client's husband habitually paddled her behind until she could barely sit down when she "misbehaved." But here's the disturbing part--neither Trav nor anyone else seems to find this in any way wrong or abusive. The other thing--a reclusive, obsessive, sexually repressed, and otherwise neurotic young woman in brought to normality through the healing power of Trav's lovemaking. It would seem that he should hire out as a sexual therapist rather than as a recoverer of lost things, because he is very good at healing damaged women through his sexual ministrations. These ideas about male-female relationship seem to be severely out of date even for 1964, the year the book was written.

A fast and effortless read with a bit of suspense. That's about it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Despite the title, this is not the story of Sarah Canary, the excessively ugly white woman speaking in indecipherable hoots and trills who wanders into the camp in the woods of a group of Chinese railroad workers. Rather, it is the story of those who react to the mystery of her appearance and actions, each imagining her as something different. Is she a demon lover, an escaped murderer, a wild woman raised apart from civilization, a woman driven to madness by a perfidious man, a creature of supernatural or extraterrestrial origin?

So this is the story of the young railroad worker Chin, who unaccountably feels responsible for Sarah Canary; of B.J., an escapee from a lunatic asylum, who follows Chin because with him he feels real; of Adelaide, a feminist lecturing about the right of a woman to enjoy sex, who believes Sarah to be the victim of a man's domineering. Opposing them in their efforts to protect Sarah Canary is Harold, a survivor of the Civil War's Andersonville Prison Camp, who wants to use her in a traveling freak show. Numerous adventures and picturesque characters ensue, as the trio of heroes tries to bring Sarah to a place of safety, thwarted by the war-damaged Harold. All of this takes place in the Northwest and in California right after the Civil War.

Many reviewers have caught the correspondences between this tale and The Wizard of Oz. (I wish I had not read reviews before reading the book, so that I could have seen if I would have caught it unaided.) We have Chin, who has suppressed his emotions; B.J., who has lost his wits; and Adelaide, who pretends to be brave but actually has no courage.

Many themes run through the novel (almost too many): A person can become an alien from mainstream society in many ways; stories are often archetypical and repeat themselves throughout the years; time may have progressed but attitudes not so much; women were, and still are, considered as almost a different species from men.

This book is often considered to be science fiction, but I can't imagine why, since Sarah Canary's origins, extraterrestrial or otherwise, are never revealed. Maybe she came from SOMEWHERE ELSE, but maybe not. I would classify it as magical realism, along with Murakami and suchlike.

The writing is often creative and includes some memorable bits, but as a whole, the story begins to drag somewhat with the piling on of adventures. Fowler did an excellent job of taking the reader into the mistrustful mind of Chin and the clouded mind of B.J., so that by the end we care about them. The ending is more than a little anticlimactic.

The final verdict--some good summer reading, but I will never read it again.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Light by M. John Harrison

I'm pretty sure this is a very good book, because I kept wanting to keep reading even though most of the time I had not a clue as to what was actually going on. One of the cover blurbs says, "M. John Harrison is the only writer on Earth equally attuned to the essential strangeness of both quantum physics and the attritional banalities of modern urban life." Out of all that, I got only the "essential strangeness" part.

Imagine a soap opera set in the future, with the plot twists depending on the principles of quantum physics. That pretty much sums up the novel. The writing is most skillful, however, and the story and characters are well developed, so that even a reader totally ignorant of science matters can become involved.

The plot has three strands: *Michael Kearney in 1999, a serial killer who develops the technology enabling deep space travel. He is frequently visited by an overcoated woman with a horse's skull for a head, known as the Shrander. *Ed Chianese in 2400, a ex-adventurer and space pilot who is addicted to alternate reality tanks. He becomes an employee in the circus of Sandra Shen (an almost-anagram of Shrander) as a prophet of the future. *Seria Mau in 2400, a modified and wired-in pilot on a K-ship, who is no longer quite human. She is searching for a Dr. Haends (another almost-anagram of Shrander) who may be able to help her regain her humanity. For most of the book, it is not apparent what, if anything, these stories have in common, but in the end everything all comes together. Except that I do not really understand exactly what happened. Maybe if I knew quantum physics. Or maybe not.

I am reminded of the Buffalo Springfield song from the '60s: "Something is happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear." I enjoyed the book anyway.