Monday, February 25, 2013

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

Imagine a combination of Alice in Wonderland and the inspired silliness of Monty Python, with some bits of the TV show Lost thrown in for good measure, narrated with an Irish lilt. The result is The Third Policeman.

The outstanding first sentence tells how the story all begins: "Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade...." This leads to a quest story as the narrator (who soon forgets his own name) tries to locate the missing black box containing Mathers' treasure. The ensuing zaniness includes such a hodge-podge of fanciful happenings that the plot is impossible to summarize.

One central feature of the story is the "Atomic Theory," whereby atoms of people can become mixed with the atoms of objects they are often in contact with, so that "...people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them...." That's the kind of skewed, almost plausible logic that reigns supreme here. You will never look at bicycles in the same way again, and you will begin to wonder what object is becoming part of your personality.

The humor comes not only from the situations, but also from the dialogue, which is laugh-out-loud funny. I can't imagine why a film has not been made of this novel.

Here's something important to know: The edition I read included a "Publisher's Note" at the end. If you have an edition with this note, DO NOT READ IT BEFORE READING THE BOOK. It spoils the ending, and you will be deprived of part of your reading pleasure--figuring out what's really going on.

O'Brien's novel At Swim Two-Birds is the funniest book I have ever read. This is maybe not second (there's always Catch 22), but it is right up there.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

Have you ever thought about the enigmatic nature of some of the cover blurbs on books, particularly those contributed by other writers, rather than by professional reviewers? For example, the front cover of this novel quotes David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas): "A beautifully written echo chamber of a novel." What do you think he meant? The "beautifully written" part is clear enough, but what about the "echo chamber of a novel"? In common parlance an echo chamber is a large empty space. Is Mitchell slyly saying that this is excellent writing with a hole of nothingness?

No matter what Mitchell really meant, that's what this novel feels like to me. Kunzru tells several stories here, all connected by the Pinnacles, three mysterious towers of rock arising out of the Mojave Desert, taking place at various times from 1775 to 2009. Some of the stories are very interesting, some are intriguing, some are insightful, and some seem to be pointless. Many of the stories feature seemingly supernatural or super-terrestrial occurrences, including disappearances and re-appearances of children. Taken together, the whole emerges as fascinating and highly readable, yet so devoid of coherent meaning, or filled with so many possible meanings, as to become meaningless, empty on the inside.

The central story is that of Jaz and Lisa, whose autistic son Raj mysteriously disappears while they are sightseeing at the Pinnacles. This part is very engrossing, as they are confronted with the media circus surrounding such disappearances, as they become the focus of suspected blame circulated on the internet, as they become estranged, blaming each other and themselves. This part could have been expanded to become an excellent novel all by itself.

Another entertaining and insightful storyline develops around a cult which gathers at the Pinnacles, a site of cosmic power to them. This, also, could have been expanded into a full length novel with good effect, as it describes how full belief can devolve into chaos.

Native-American lore enters here, too. The story of how Coyote entered the world of the dead to retrieve a friend and was tricked into taking the friend's place is part of the mix.

Particularly surreal, even though not central, is the story of the Marine training camp near the Pinnacles where immigrants to America from Iraq and warriors bound for that country act out scenarios that might occur as they try to woo the hearts of minds of villagers while battling insurgents. Here's a quote: "Usually the soldiers just walked around with sh**-eating grins on their faces saying Salaam alaikum. This seemed to be the main plank of their counterinsurgency strategy."

Here are some of the possible goals of this novel: a examination of American weirdness, an exploration of the search for faith, a revelation of the "the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world," a search for the face of God.

It is impossible to ignore comparisons with David Mitchell when considering this novel, particularly as his quote graces the front cover. He, also, told several stories in Cloud Atlas and connected them together to make a whole. In my judgment, his stories were better, his narrative voices seemed more realistic, his goal or theme resonated more clearly. While I would definitely recommend this book as worthwhile and engaging reading, I believe it will leave most readers feeling that it is empty inside.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Occasionally, I become so emotionally engaged with a novel that I lose all objectivity. This is one of those instances. So if I overstate the merits here it's because this book resonated so strongly with my heart, rather than with my head.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is the coming-of-age story of 14-year-old June as she faces the loss of her beloved uncle, seemingly the only person who really understood her, from AIDS. The time is the late 1980s when fear of the disorder reigns, with no treatment yet known. In addition, she faces all-too-common teenage sources of angst: a sense of being "different" and misunderstood; estrangement from her older sister, formerly her best friend, who is also facing her own teen issues; a dawning realization that parents and other adults are people who make mistakes, too; a tentative desire to exert independent control over her own life, even though she is often impulsive and perhaps selfish in her actions and judgments.

Most of all, this is a love story--romantic love, parent-child love, love of siblings, love of friends. And it is story of forgiveness for mistakes, many of which are often the by-products of love.

Brunt tells her story through the first-person narrative voice of June, which could have been disastrous if she had mis-stepped as so many do when they try to duplicate a younger voice, but the voice came through as absolutely authentic to my ears, remembering my own teen years, having parented a teen girl, and having taught girls of this age. Even though the AIDS aspect is time-specific, the emotional and intellectual challenges of growing up are universal.

This would be extremely worthwhile and suitable for teen reading, yet is subtle enough and contains sufficient nuances for adult interest. I believe it is extremely well written, although I became so caught up that I soon ceased to remember I was reading. I "lived" with the narrator. And I can't tell you how many times I cried, although the book did not seem mawkish or manipulative in the least. Quite possibly this novel will resonate more with girls and women than with males, because I suspect they have different expectations of life and of themselves, but I believe it would still communicate powerfully. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel

First published in 1901, this apocalyptic novel has been reissued as a "forgotten classic." While the "classic" label may be something of an overstatement, it is important as one of the first science fiction novels, and the first "last man alive" doomsday novel. In addition, it is great fun to read.

The plot is segmented into three distinct parts:
*The first part covers an expedition to reach the North Pole, a feat which had not been accomplished at the time the novel was written. It climaxes with only one man, Adam Jeffson, left alive.
*The second part follows Adam as he makes his way back to habitation, only to discover that a mysterious purple cloud has covered the rest of the earth, seemingly leaving him as the only human alive. Slowly sinking into dark madness, he unleashes his own destruction, burning the great cities.
*The last segment cannot be discussed without becoming something of a spoiler. Suffice it to say, it includes Adam's return to sanity and to belief in the future of the earth.

The pre-apocalypse first section is actually the most suspenseful and well written, conveying in frenzied language the mystery and actual horror aroused by the frozen Pole region. Of his race toward the Pole, Adam relates, "...I sped, I spun, with grinning teeth that chattered and gibbered, and eyeballs of distraction: for a Fear, too--most cold and dreadful--had its hand of ice upon my heart...."

The second section unfortunately drags somewhat as Adam relates with numbing detail of his search of town after town and of underground caves and mines for survivors. Only when Adam begins his frenzy of burning does the narrative again come alive, as he watches the burning of London while smoking opium, drinking wine, and playing the harp.

The last section features an entirely different tone, as Adam progresses toward reason and hope. Although the story line is more than a bit illogical (if that can even be said of this kind of novel), the ending is very satisfactory.

This novel cannot be judged by modern standards, certainly, but it can be judged as a product of its time. Those who appreciate H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard, and others in this vein will really appreciate this "forgotten classic."

Friday, February 15, 2013

Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins

Evidence of Things Unseen has an extraordinarily good novel lurking inside its pages, but it is very often "too much," including so many plot pieces, so many thematic references, so many superfluous passages, that its power is sometimes almost lost in the clutter.

The plot is interesting and touching, as it charts the course of the love of Fos and Opal between the years of the two World Wars, of his fascination with the science of light and of her longing for a child, of the rash actions of their friend Flash which lead to tragedy, of their displacement by the Tennessee Valley Authority to make way for the electrification of rural America, and finally of their time at the Oak Ridge Laboratories, where unbeknownst to them a bomb is being made. Then, after science has betrayed them, their son Lightening takes center stage, and the plot follows him as a young adult as he tries to make sense of his life, both his past and his future. The love story is charming, but the section with Lightening seems tacked on and is riddled with unbelievable coincidences and improbabilities. The book would have felt more authentic if it had not included so much.

Notice the names of the characters, which provide a good example of the "too much." All pertain to different properties of light; Fos is short for Foster, but it also refers to his fascination with phosphorus. Fos and Flash are photographers, working with light to capture images. Fos and Opal first come together as they count shooting stars, and at the end of the book their son Lightening and his newly-met love Ramona fall in love as they count shooting stars. (She has named herself after a yacht called "Ramona de la Luz" or "Ramona of the Light." Also, she is the daughter of Pearl. Also, as an artist she uses as her paint the crushed hearts of fish, producing pictures which only show up in the dark because they are luminescent.) Other discussions of light and references to light in the novel are too numerous to count. Also thrown into the mix are a myriad of references to Moby Dick, including quotes from the novel as chapter headings. Wiggins belabors her themes to the point of reader boredom.

The writing, which often takes off on very lyric and poetic flights, is often a little too much, over the top, interrupting the action with passages which seem to be included just because they are beautiful. But they are impressive, even if intrusive.

Despite these criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I wonder if it would have won if it had not included too much.

I strongly recommend John Dollar, an earlier novel by Marianne Wiggins.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry

These are the kinds of people who will especially cherish this book:
*Those who grew up in farm families, knowing something of the love of the earth;
*Those who believe that a life of producing is more honest than a life of amassing wealth or fame;
*Those who have been close to loved ones near the end of long lives;
*Those who are nearer to the end than to the beginning of their own lives.

Readers who can claim none of the connections above will still cherish this book if they value writing that is flowing and poetic, intimate and authentic.

This is a beautiful book.

On the last day of his life, Old Jack follows his established routine in his small town, visiting the general store, the barber shop, and other places of rest and reflection for old men. All the while, he is also touring in his mind the landscape of his youth and vigorous manhood, remembering the joy of caring for his land, the long, lonely years of his disastrous marriage, his brief years of happiness as a lover. He also thinks of the men and boys who have shared his values and work ethic and who have stood in as father and sons for him.

What emerges is a picture of a deeply decent man, who despite mistakes and failings, nears his end as an example of dignity and endurance, worthy of respect and emulation.

The Memory of Old Jack is not the kind of book to become a best seller, because it does not have the kind of fast moving and suspenseful plot generally belonging to that kind of book. But it is the kind of book that rings so true and that portrays the kind of life that so many people wish would return that it is still in print today, although it was never a best seller and was written almost 40 years ago.

Highly recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Fourth or fifth reading; first read when I was 15

When I first encountered this book at age 15, I thought it was the best book I had ever read. Now, all these many years later, I still find it to be one of the best. It's not that I now find faults with it which I didn't see earlier, to now say it is not the best; quite the contrary, I see so much more to admire from a mature viewpoint. It's just that I have since read additional books which are equally admirable, for a variety of reasons. Still, I consider this to be one of the best of the best.

Many people believe that they know the plot of the novel, because multiple film treatments have been made, unfortunately including an animated one for children from Disney. To all those who have not read the novel itself, I would say, "YOU DO NOT KNOW THE STORY AT ALL."

Yes, this is a love story, but the true unselfish lover of the gypsy girl Esmeralda is not the handsome Captain Phoebus, who is admirable in the novel only because of his exterior, but instead the deformed and visually repulsive Quasimodo. Esmeralda and Phoebus are not star-crossed lovers, but instead the deceived and the deceiver. The story has a villain, Archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, but he is not the one-dimensional evil portrayed on film, but instead a complex man who descends against his will into the madness of sexual obsession. And the story does not end happily-ever-after. Esmeralda and Phoebus do not ride off into the sunset with a smiling Quasimodo looking on.

Criminally, Hollywood has evidently decided that viewers cannot stomach tragedy. Film makers saw a terrific plot, except for the actual character portrayals and ending. So they adapted it all to the tastes of their perceived audience, because they could. Shame on them. (We are lucky that the movies have not yet, as far as I know, contrived for Romeo and Juliet to ride off into the sunset together.)

Here are just some of the parts the movies missed:

* A major theme is the working of fate or destiny. So many times events could have transpired to thwart the tragedy, but fate ruled otherwise. If only Quasimodo had not been deaf, he would have known that the mob was trying to save Esmeralda. If only, if only...there are many "if only's."

* This is most probably the earliest literary example of a journey through the mind of a sexually-obsessed stalker, one who would rather the loved one be dead than with a rival. Hugo is so insightful in presenting this aspect of the personality of his "villain" that Frollo becomes almost a sympathetic character as the reader observes how his madness escapes his control.

* This is probably not something that film can easily portray, but the cathedral itself is a major character. In fact, the title of the novel, in the original French edition, was Notre Dame de Paris, or "Our Lady of Paris." Much attention is given here to architecture, and how before the printing press it served to report the beliefs and history of an era. I did not much appreciate this aspect the first times I read this book, but this time I found it very insightful, although I do not have the background to fully understand it.

As with all really, really great books, this one can be read time and again with new insights each time. If you are a new readers to the novel, even if you skim-read some parts (which I did in some previous readings), you will find this one of the best books you have ever read.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Second reading; first read when I was a teenager

Often when I re-read books which I first read in my youth (particularly the "classics"), I find that I missed a great deal back then. Some books just take more maturity and reading experience for full appreciation. For example, when I re-read Huckleberry Finn for the first time, I discovered that I had missed the point the first time through. Each time I re-read it (I taught the novel, so I read it many times.), I found more to appreciate.

Sometimes when I re-read a book, I find that something I loved as a younger person just does not hold up as well to an older person's scrutiny. This novel is one of those.

As most everyone knows, The Count of Monte Cristo is the "classic" story of Edmond Dantes and the revenge he takes against those responsible for his years of wrongful imprisonment. After escaping from prison and discovering a secret treasure, he assumes a myriad of disguises as he skillfully manipulates his foes into bringing about their own downfalls.

I remember really loving this book "back in the day." I think its premise fulfills a typical fantasy we probably all have as teenagers--that of becoming rich and/or famous and getting back at everyone who has ever been mean to us or ignored us. And if we have to do some things that might be considered a little bit morally suspect, well, they deserved it. (This was the first excuse my little grandson always gave when he used to slug his sisters, before being persuaded that he just couldn't go around hitting people, even if he did think they had it coming.)

Throughout this tale, Dantes feels that he is acting as the agent of God in punishing wrongdoers and rewarding faithful friends. Only toward the end does he consider that he might have been mistaken or excessive in exacting his revenge, but he seemingly resolves his moral questioning and sails away, presumably to live happily ever after.

The plot here is the focus, of course, and it is intricate and interesting, however unbelievable it may be. A Romeo and Juliet-type fake death scenario is inserted which seems entirely superfluous except for melodramatic purposes.

As an adult, then, I would say that I can see why I loved this novel as a teenager, but I cannot recommend it now. It is morally ambiguous, offers almost nothing on a level other than plot, and is not particularly well written. (However, this is a translation from the French, and the fault there may be in the translator.)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Second reading; first read probably 50 years ago

Dare I do it? Dare I criticize Charles Dickens, the greatest storyteller of all and the master of creating memorable characters? Yes, I do, but only in the context of comparing this novel to his others. Although I have not read all his novels, I would have to say that this is the weakest of the many I have read.

Little Nell (she must have the adjective attached) is the granddaughter and sole companion of a grandfather tormented by an addiction to gambling, in which he (supposedly)indulges only for her hoped-for monetary benefit. Brought to ruin through his borrowing of money from the super-villain, the dwarfish Quilp, the grandfather and the supremely selfless Nell flee London, going "on the road," so to speak, to escape both Quilp and opportunities for the grandfather to resume his gambling habits. In the course of their travels they meet many colorful characters, some kindly and helpful and some up to no good.

Meanwhile, back in London, Quilp continues his evil ways, plotting revenge for slights and tormenting various characters, just for the joy of it. Nell's friend Kit Nubbles and the humorous character Richard Swiveller are featured in these sections.

The primary criticism I have of this novel is that is not tight, with all action leading to the climax, as is usual for Dickens. Instead, it tends to be episodic and somewhat rambling, with some incidents having no pertinence to the central plot at all. Dickens wrote and published this in weekly installments in his magazine, and it appears he had not planned the novel from start to finish as he usually did.

The second criticism I would offer is that the central character, Little Nell, is so unfailingly sweet, self-sacrificing, and uncomplaining as to be saccharine and unbelievable, and ultimately uninteresting. Most Dickens heroes seem like real people, with both good and bad character traits. Nell seems like Dickens' idealization of the perfect woman, meek and angelic.

Some of the novel's praiseworthy attributes: As always with Dickens, the names of the characters are wonderful and evocative of their personalities; the descriptions of the surroundings, particularly of the industrial part of England, paint vivid mind pictures; the comic sections are cleverly and slyly humorous; the villain is appropriately and despicably evil (although Quilp is maybe a little over-the-top, even for Dickens). The character Richard Swiveller proves to be the most interesting, because he alone displays some growth, changing from being thoughtless and rather selfish to being a concerned friend. (In this regard, notice his name.)

This, then, is not the Dickens novel I would most recommend, but Dickens is better than most even when he is not at his best.