Monday, January 28, 2013

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Third reading: first read when I was 15

I well remember the summer after my 9th grade year, when I first read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I thought it was the best book I had ever read, and I immediately re-read it. I planned to name my first daughter Esmeralda. (I'm sure my first daughter, who was born almost 20 years later, is glad I changed my mind.)

Immediately after those two readings, I walked to my town's library and checked out Les Miserables. I loved it, too, but not quite as much. Cosette and her romance did not catch my imagination as much as Esmeralda's had. And let's face it, at 15 a girl is pretty much caught up in yearning for romantic love, so that was my main focus. Still, I was also touched by the self-sacrifice of Quasimodo and Jean Valjean. And the stories were so involving and suspenseful. I'm sure I pretty much ignored any of the commentary about the society of the time and the moral and philosophical implications in the novels.

When I re-read Les Miserables in my mid-20's, I was able to appreciate it from an entirely different viewpoint, and then it was even more enjoyable. While I could still become immersed in the story, I could also find interest in learning more about the France of that time and in thinking about the themes and ideas proposed and how they could be applicable to current events. I could even appreciate the book from a strictly "head" level by observing how Hugo skillfully wove all his strands together.

Now about this reading: I ordered the book from an internet used book company, which failed to reveal that it was an abridgement. So I would estimate that this time I read roughly about one-third of the original. And I have never read such a hack-job. Not only was all content not directly telling the story removed (and that is actually quite a lot), but also removed was much of the actual plot development. For example, almost all Fantine's story was left out and most of the material about Javert. If I had not read this novel before, it would have made little sense. The moral of this is, DO NOT BUY AN ABRIDGED EDITION. Even if you choose to skim-read some parts, be sure you have the full text. I would even go on record in saying that abridging the work of even an author long dead should be prohibited.

I am not including a plot summation here, because I assume most know the basics.

I was prompted to read this, of course, by the release of the movie. I often do this and, almost always, end up by not seeing the movie after all. So I cannot absolutely say that the novel is superior to the movie, but I can almost guarantee it, if past experience is any clue. So I would say, if you loved the movie, read the book. And be sure you get a copy which is not abridged.

The main reason everyone should read this is stated by Victor Hugo in his "Author's Preface": " long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

I wanted to like this book more. All the jacket blurbs led me to believe that I would be overwhelmed with its power, comparing it to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the best war novels ever. I tried very hard to like it more, because I am sympathetic to its message. But I just couldn't.

Don't get me wrong, I would consider it one of the better books published in 2012, better than The Round House, which topped it in the National Book Award competition. But I don't believe it lives up to its hype at all.

This is the story of Private Bartle's experience as a soldier in Iraq and as a damaged civilian back at home. He has unthinkingly promised the mother of one of his fellow soldiers that he will see her son safely home, and he fails. The entire novel has a nightmare-like quality, which seems to me to be most fitting for such an account.

Some good things:

The first sentence is perfection: "The War tried to kill us in the spring."

The structure is effective, with alternate, non-linear chapters telling of Private Bartle's past and preparation for deployment, of his experiences in Iraq, and of his lack of adjustment back at home. All along we have hints about a crucial war incident, the secret of which is not revealed until near the end.

Sometimes it seems spot-on perfect in its descriptions of combat experience. When a reporter says, "Tell me the essence guys, I want to know what kind of rush you get," a solder answers, "It's like a car accident, you know. That instant between knowing that it's gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you've been riding along, same as always, then it's there staring you in the face and you don't have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it's either coming or it's not. It's kind of like the split second in the car wreck, except here it can last for goddamn days."

Some negative things:

Alongside such concrete material as that above, which gives immediacy to the experience, are paragraphs and paragraphs of very well-done poetic descriptions, which unfortunately actually detract from the narrative. They just don't fit, somehow. And these parts are overwritten, I feel, to the point of meaninglessness, almost. But they sound good.

The revealed secret is overly melodramatic, and detracts from the message about the effects of war on its fighters. I don't think it is necessary for a soldier to have one dramatic incident to cause him to come home and suffer PTSD. It seems to me that
the "normal" waging of war is cause enough.

The author Kevin Powers actually fought in Iraq for two years, and that certainly imparts an authenticity to this account. After his return to the US, he completed the MFA at The University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. Brazenly enough, I credit all the good parts of this novel to his first-hand experiences and his native talent (which is considerable), and all the negative parts to his MFA.

Still and all, recommended. But even more recommended in the war novel category are The Things They Carried, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, A Long Long Way, Dirty Work, and Johnny Got His Gun. Yes, and going far back, The Red Badge of Courage. Wars differ in the way they are fought, but they don't really differ in the effects on the fighters.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Wonderful title, don't you agree?

The bodies in question are those of Anne Boleyn, second of the six wives of Henry VIII of England, and of the five men convicted of being her adulterous lovers, all of whom are executed so that Henry can marry his third wife, the demure Jane Seymour. With only daughters, Henry is still frantic to have a male heir and hopes Jane can give it to him. Besides, he is besotted with her and she will not have him outside the marriage bed. Henry's go-to man in cases like this is Thomas Cromwell, his commoner-born Secretary who has risen to great power through uncommon intelligence and an unparalleled talent for intrigue.

This is Cromwell's story, told through his eyes, of how he accomplishes the wishes of his king to rid himself of Anne, at the same time enacting personal revenge on the men he has chosen as scapegoats. His pragmatic attitude is that they may or may not be guilty of adultery with the Queen, but they are demonstrably guilty of other offenses.

Many historical novels give a "thick" picture of the times--what people wore, what they ate, how they lived, what they did for pastimes, and so forth. This one does not. Rather it is concerned almost entirely with the political machinations of jockeying for power and wealth among those closest to the king. Because King Henry's quest to marry Anne Boleyn led to his being made head of the Church in England, rather than the Pope being the head, the story also includes the emergence of the Protestant influence, and how that led to even more political divisiveness.

All of this wheeling and dealing is very interesting and informative, and the character Thomas Cromwell is conveyed as being complex and intriguing. The novel is well written and often unexpectedly humorous. However, I daresay the novel would be much more entertaining for British folk, who perhaps already have opinions as to the how's and why's of the situation.

I have one very specific complaint about the novel: It is written as the present-tense account by Thomas Cromwell, except that the author uses "he" instead of "I." So what would be a perfectly readable account becomes all muddled with pronoun references. Consider this passage:

"Rafe pulls up a low stool and sits thinking....They are used to each other's silent company. He inches a candle closer and frowns at some more papers...."

Would you not assume the "he" in the last sentence to be Rafe? But, no, it gradually becomes apparent that the "he" is Cromwell. The previous novel in this series, Wolf Hall, was written in this manner also. In this novel the author occasionally writes, "he, Cromwell," apparently as a response to the criticism of her previous novel. But I cannot, for the life of me, understand why she wrote the novel in such a way that it would be difficult for a reader to follow the action. If any blog readers have an idea, would you please comment.

I believe it takes a great deal of talent to write a really riveting historical novel, because much of the suspense and tension is necessarily removed. After all, we already know what happened. Hilary Mantel has done an exemplary job here, and both Wolf Hall and this one won England's Man Booker Prize. I would not have thought they were that good, but then I am not British.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

You would find this novel shelved in the bookstore or library in the science fiction section, because it is framed as a first contact situation between human beings and the residents of another planet. But it has surprisingly little to do with the usual trappings of this genre. Rather, it is primarily an examination of religious belief and of how to understand the role of God in human affairs, particularly of how to understand why terrible things happen to good, well-intentioned people.

The novel begins when Jesuit priest Emelio Sandoz is returned to Earth by a subsequent group of explorers as the only survivor of an expedition to a distant planet. Physically maimed and emotionally and psychologically damaged, he is suspected of having committed unspeakable acts while on the planet. He is thus subject to interrogation by his Jesuit superiors, who want to find the truth of what happened to the expedition but who also, fortunately, have concern for his obviously wounded soul.

Author Russell rather cleverly constructs the novel with alternating chapters, some chapters being backflashes introducing the various characters as the space expedition is conceived and carried out, some chapters following the actions and interactions of Sandoz and his fellow Jesuits as they attempt to extract his story, and some chapters telling of the happenings on the alien planet. The crucial and dramatic revelations about the space expedition are, of course, kept for the very end. This creates a good bit of dramatic tension and suspense.

In considering the novel from a strictly literary viewpoint, I can list many faults: the science included seems pretty unsound, even to a non-scientist; some of the characters who are obviously meant to be sympathetic come across as obnoxious and too clever by half; the actions of the Jesuit priests seem inauthentic, since no mention is made that they even inquire about religious beliefs or discuss God with the "natives"; the emotional and spiritual healing of Sandoz happens too abruptly to seem realistic.

In considering the novel from the impact it made upon me, however, I can name one huge positive: it made me think about my religious beliefs. I confess to being increasingly cynical about people who claim to know all the answers about God and his intentions (particularly about current politics and social issues), and who claim to have direct, person-to-person communication. Perhaps because it coincides with what I wish to believe, I found it consoling to read that for some seeking the answers is more valuable than thinking you have the answers.

This is not really a very good review from a literary viewpoint. But I do recommend this book as a most worthwhile read.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Here's a question for you: Should it be considered cheating when an author pilfers parts of his plot from someone else's novel? I'm not talking about the stray borrowings or adaptations of incidents, which surely all writers do whether they mean to or not. I'm talking wholesale lifting of another author's story or scenario. Jane Smiley took King Lear, retold it as a modern tale, and A Thousand Acres won a Pulitzer Prize. Michael Cunningham transported Mrs. Dalloway to 1950s New York and also won the Pulitzer. More recently, for his The Raw Shark Texts Steven Hall replicated the shark hunt from Jaws, and had a best seller. It would appear that this is generally considered an acceptable practice, not frowned upon at all.

So when Lev Grossman's plot for The Magicians centers around the students at a hidden school of magic in the modern day, obviously mimicking the Harry Potter story, that's A-OK. And when the students (now graduated) gain entry to an alternate world which is a Narnia knock-off, Grossman is obviously just covering the fantasy bases. He also includes bits from the Oz books, Alice in Wonderland, John Crowley's Little, Big, and I'm sure from others which I didn't catch. Consequently, the book jacket hype and many reviews cast this novel as an adult Harry Potter, and unwary readers expect to be transported to a magical world of conventional fantasy, with its good versus evil escapism. Boy, are they in for a surprise.

Lev Grossman is up to something else entirely here. This is postmodern fantasy, you might say, with its students of magic being intellectually pretentious, jealous and snarky, chronically bored and unhappy, prone to excessive drinking and irresponsible sex. The focus is not on the fantasy elements (with none of those "thick" details that make Hogwarts and Narnia believable worlds), but on the angst of the characters, particularly of Quentin Coldwater, the central figure.

Quentin is unhappy at his home in Brooklyn, even though he is an intellectual "shining star" who is most surely about to be accepted to Princeton. Then he is recruited by a secret school for budding magicians, and it seems to him to be a dream come true. But then he is not completely happy there either. Something is still missing. He graduates. What to do next? He drinks a lot and betrays his girlfriend, who seems to be the one person who actually unselfishly cares for him. His childhood fantasy comes true when he finds that he can actually enter Fillory (patterned on Narnia). He believes that he can finally be happy there. But no. Etc.

I find this novel to be patterned more after Jonathan Lathem's Fortress of Solitude or Donna Tartt's The Secret History than on fantasy novels. I even perceive the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. All of these authors feature intellectually superior protagonists who never manage to be happy. I have never quite decided what the message is supposed to be here. That highly intelligent, sensitive souls are so above the rest of us that they are destined always to be seekers for happiness, never finding it? Do the authors consider themselves to be just such intellectually superior and sensitive souls? I have always suspected that to be the case.

Despite all this criticism on my part, I found the novel to be riveting. I stayed up late and woke up early to read it. Grossman can make you turn those pages, for sure. I love fantasy, but this is not fantasy any more than The New York Trilogy is mystery. (You could read my review of that, if you wish.) But I did enjoy this book very much; it is extremely well done.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

This novel won the National Book Award in 2012, and for the life of me I can't understand why. It is not poorly written and it has an interesting plot, even if somewhat illogical, but it is in no way outstanding, to my way of thinking. The book I reviewed just previously, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, was one of the finalists for the award, and it is maybe five times better than this one in all aspects. I can only suspect that politics and political correctness played a part in the decision. Or I could be wrong in my judgments of literary merit, but I don't think so.

Joe Coutts is just thirteen, living with his parents on a North Dakota Indian reservation, when his mother is brutally beaten and raped. As his mother retreats into depression and refuses to reveal the details of the attack, Joe is forced to confront adult situations, for which he is little prepared. Because of uncertainty about exactly where the attack took place and the complexity of law dealing with jurisdiction issues on and off the reservation, it is possible that the culprit will not even be prosecuted if and when he is caught.

Joe and his three best friends, all still children in many ways, addicted to the heroic exploits of Picard and Worf and Data of Star Trek The Next Generation, determine to find the attacker themselves and to see that justice is served.

The Round House seems to have such a variety of themes and purposes that all are diluted.

It is most effective in its coming-of-age motif, in which young boys of a transitional age drift back and forth between play and make-believe and sexual yearnings and adult examinations of conscience. This part is universal and very well done.

But then we have the theme of Native American heritage and traditional beliefs. Interesting information, indeed. This could have been successfully inserted into the coming-of-age story perhaps, if it had been accomplished more logically and naturally, but the material is handled very awkwardly, with much of it being told by Joe's grandfather as he talks in his sleep.

The injustices done to Native Americans in the past, many of which survive in antiquated laws today, is a major theme. This part sounds very academic and "beat-you-over-the-head" instructive. This is valuable information, not well understood by most Americans, but it certainly distracts a literary reader when it is inserted in such a variant tone from the rest of the narrative.

Various side plots are included, which seem to have little or no pertinence to any of the rest. In particular, a good bit of space is given to the story of the parish priest. I never caught the connection to understand why it was even included.

I have been very hard on this book, I realize, mainly because I felt it did not deserve the honor it received. In all fairness, it is well worth reading. Most readers will enjoy it (as did I), but it is not the best of the best.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Oh my, this novel is the real deal, so good that I predict it will become a classic, alongside Catch 22, to which it has been frequently compared.

I somewhat indiscriminately read many books, and only once in a while do I come across one which I believe has no positive merits to offer. Also only once in a while do I come across one in which I perceive no faults, one which seems perfect in all aspects. This is one of those.

Billy Lynn is one of the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad who become transformed into media heroes after an intense firefight in Iraq has been captured on camera by Fox News. Brought back to the U.S. for a public relations tour to bolster support for the war, the squad members end up on their last day before returning to the war at the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football game. Told in third person through Billy Lynn's eyes, the story follows them through one event-filled day.

Bravo Squad attempts to deal with a movie producer who is shopping their story with Hollywood movers and shakers, the ultra-powerful of Texas who all know George and Laura, the Dallas Cowboy players and cheerleaders, and an over-the-top halftime extravaganza complete with Beyonce' and PTSD-inducing fireworks--all as they are mourning their absent brothers in arms and dreading the return to Iraq, trying to behave publicly in a way that will bring honor to their training.

Author Ben Fountain includes black humor here, but the overwhelming tone is one of empathy and understanding for the young men who actually do our fighting for us. He gives us deeply believable characters that we grow to care about, and the writing in spot-on perfect.

Perhaps the only aspect of this novel that seems contrived is Billy Lynn's brief romantic encounter with one of the Cowboy's cheerleaders, but by this time I was believing in his actual living existence so much and rooting for him so strongly that I felt that I willed it to happen myself.

The comparison to Catch 22 arises because this, too, concerns war and warriors, and this, too, is a satire. However, the comparison is somewhat misleading, because, unlike in that book, the target here is not the military and its bureaucratic nonsense. In fact, the military seems to be the only solid and dependable aspect of young Billy Lynn's life. The target of satire is rather American society and its well-intentioned jingoism and obsession with spectacle. War has become for the country just another reality show, with its heroes, "as seen on TV," treated as media celebrities.

Also, this novel is just barely satirical, since much of the technique of literary satire depends on exaggeration; here the various surreal absurdities of American life are barely exaggerated, sometimes not at all exaggerated, I would venture to say. America today seems increasingly to be an unusually weird place. And unlike in Catch 22, the hero is not bitter about his situation so much as he is puzzled and confused. What satire that is expressed here is much less caustic, much more sympathetic, much less pointed at any one target, except possibly (indirectly and somewhat slyly) at Dick Cheney and the Dallas Cowboys franchise owner.

This novel was a finalist for this year's National Book Award, beaten out by The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I am reading that one now, and so far I don't understand why she won the award, but I will try to reserve judgment until I have finished that book. But as for this novel, I don't see how it could get any better. Most highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Life by Keith Richards

Yes, this is the Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, so you can easily guess what the autobiography talks about. That's right--sex and drugs and rock and roll.

The book reads as if it is the direct transcript of a long, somewhat rambling oral account, rather than as an organized, thought-out, written life history. And as such it is unexpectedly revealing and fascinating, rather like becoming Keith's new mate and sitting around yarning with him. At the end you feel that you really know and understand him, even though you realize that he has undoubtedly shaded the details to picture himself in a favorable light--at least what he considers a favorable light, although society in general might not agree.

There's the sex part, although by his own account he was not a Don Juan with a legion of lovers. He had long-term relationships with, and children with, only two women. Apparently, the "getting laid" aspect of rock and roll fame was not uppermost in his agenda. He actually comes across as rather shy in his self-reported dealings with women.

And the drug part, which loomed large in his life. Heroin was his drug of first choice, and he was indulging in it or withdrawing from it for most of his performing life. This aspect of his story comes across as most suspect of being slanted, as he insists that it did not interfere with his music career and downplays its effect on the people around him. In fact, as with many addicts and even former addicts, he seems to be boasting about his drug experiences.

But it's the rock and roll aspect that really animates this life history. Keith obviously loves music, all kinds of music, and lives to make music and to explore its possibilities. For a non-musician such as myself, a good bit of the book is over my head because it discusses in detail such things as open tuning and chord progression and such-like, but I can imagine that for a musician this aspect would be fascinating. As illustration, the person who recommended this book to me is a professional drummer.

Some interesting information that Keith Richards provides: He seems to be a devoted family man with obvious love for his children and his (now deceased) parents. Of course, how his frequent absences and drug-related problems affected them is overlooked here. His on-again, off-again quarreling with Mick Jagger is explained, although obviously from Keith's viewpoint. He takes a very humorous swipe at Mick with a dismissive description of his male equipment.

Autobiographies are obviously very suspect as to truthfulness, but this seems to be more truthful than most and certainly more interesting and amusing than most. I'm glad I read it. (And as I write this, I can hear "Start Me Up" in my head. I have always loved the Stones!)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Aztec by Gary Jennings

This l-o-n-g novel is truly multi-purpose.

If you want to learn about all aspects of the Aztec people--their history, their Flowery Wars with neighboring tribes, their religious beliefs and practices, their language and picture writing, their dress, their lifestyle, their buildings and temples and pyramids, their great city Tenochtitlan, and so forth--then this is certainly the book for you. The author spent twelve years in Mexico researching and learning the language of the Aztecs, and by all accounts has provided a very accurate picture of that world.

If you enjoy a picaresque novel with a lively and intelligent hero whose many adventures include the observation of and participation in all of the most historic events, you will find this is the book for you. It is the story of Mixtli, who rises from a lowly station in life to become a scribe, a traveling merchant, a warrior, an explorer, an adviser to rulers, an interpreter for the Spanish conqueror Cortes, and a chronicler to King Carlos of Spain of the history of himself and his people.

If you find it interesting to read specific details about the violent and blood drenched religious practices of the Aztecs or about the atrocities perpetrated by the Spanish in the name of king and religion, then choose this book. Readers not only learn that the foul deeds are done, but also hear in graphic language exactly how they are accomplished. The account of the method for ripping a beating heart from the breast of a sacrificial victim is particularly visual in its description.

If you are amused/titillated/aroused by accounts of various sexual escapades, then by all means read this book. It includes sexual episodes of all kinds for a variety of tastes: incest, child/adult sex, object-assisted self gratification, male-male sex, female-female sex, and even regular old male-female sex. Sorry, no bestiality. One particularly noteworthy sub-plot involves an Aztec princess who, when she tires of sexual partners, has them killed and boiled to remove the flesh from the bones, and then uses the skeletons as the foundations for life-size statues.

All of this is put together as a first-person oral account by Mixtli, given to the Bishop of New Spain, to be sent to the king of Spain. Throughout, the author gives his narrator a sly and ironic voice, as he pretends to be a loyal subject of the king and a Christian convert, all the while portraying the Spanish in a very unfavorable and mocking light and seemingly slipping in the sexual matters to shock and/or excite the prurient interest of his listeners. (And surely the author was being doubly ironic here, intending the same result for his readers.) As such, the story is often unexpectedly amusing. For example, ostensibly praising the high sexual standards of the Spanish, the narrator says, "I can truthfully say I never saw a single Spanish soldier rape one of our women except in the one orifice and one position permissible to Christians."

Written in 1980 and still in print, this novel is well executed and better than most of its kind. It beats James Michener's history-based novels by a mile. It's not a book for the ages, but any book of over 1,000 pages that can become a best seller and then stay in print for over 30 years has got to have something going for it.