Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

Just a pre-notice: Anyone reading this review expecting to read about a religious book will be disappointed.

I did not expect to like this book at all. From descriptions I had read, I expected it would be similar to Post Office by Charles Bukowski, which I hated, because it seemed to glorify and justify addictions. Besides, that one was not even very well written, in my opinion. But then a friend whose literary opinions I trust said Jesus' Son was "beautiful," so I decided to give it a chance.

And it is beautiful. And powerful. And brutally humorous. And about the saddest book I have ever read.

In a series of very short stories, Johnson gives us a look into the hallucinatory world of a heroin and alcohol addict, and, believe me, it is not a nice place to be. The narrator seems (figuratively) to be lost in a terrifying carnival fun house with no idea how to get out, not sure of what is real and what is not any more, and having perhaps even lost memory of the "real" world. The ending story does give some sense of hope, even though the narrator has been perhaps irreparably damaged.

The writing combines grittiness and poetry, with the contrast making each more powerful.

This would not be a book that all would like. It is very intense and not very cheerful. It's good that it is short, because I, for one, could have not have been immersed in that world for too long without extreme discomfort. But it is, indeed, beautiful.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Complete Amber Chronicles, Part I by Roger Zelazny

Second reading; first read in the '70s.

I read and liked the first five books of this fantasy series when they were published in the 1970s and recently decided to read them again, only to discover I no longer had the books. On looking to Amazon to see if they were still in print, I was delighted to discover that a Great Book of Amber has recently been published, containing all ten of the Amber novels. I have not read the last five, which feature a different character and were written in the 1980s, so I have those to look forward to. This is a review of the first five in series.

The Amber Chronicles follows in the grand fantasy tradition of Tolkien and Frank Herbert in creating an alternate world. Although Zelazny does not even approach the previously mentioned authors in the complexity and believability of his creation, he does come up with some interesting ideas. For example, Amber is the only true place and the myriad of alternate worlds are merely Shadows (including the earth we readers live in, of course). The narrator of these first five books, Prince Corwin, says, "Of Substance, there is only Amber, the real city, upon the real Earth, which contains everything. Of Shadow, there is an infinitude of things. Every possibility exists somewhere as a Shadow of the real Amber." Only the royal family of Amber has the ability to travel from one shadow world to another, although they do have the ability to take others with them. They can also contact each other and travel through the use of a pack of tarot-type cards.

Nine Princes in Amber, Book 1, gives the reader the background information about Amber and its royal family through Zelazny's clever device of having the narrator, Prince Corwin, awake from a coma with amnesia on our world. As he learns about his home through regained memories, with the help of some of his relatives, we learn along with him. The main action of the book is the attempt by Corwin and his brother Bleys to defeat their brother Eric, to keep him from taking the throne. It seems the king, Oberon, has been whereabouts unknown for some time, although we have hints that he may not be dead.

The Guns of Avalon, Book 2, finds Corwin with a new plan to defeat Eric, which includes a trip to Avalon (a Shadow with the King Arthur characters) to secure ammunition for a weapon previously unknown in Amber. A new danger also appears: a black area with a black road, which seems to be present not only in Amber but also in all the Shadow earths. Out of this darkness come all kinds of strange creatures and demon-like humans, threatening all peoples in Amber and in its Shadow earths. If this concept sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Stephen King, who used it in several of his novels. And Zelazny came first. Coincidence?

Sign of the Unicorn, Book 3, concerns itself mainly with plots and counter-plots among the brothers and sisters of Amber. Some are killed, and nobody completely trusts anybody else. This family makes the Game of Thrones people look like amateurs at the art of intrigue. Some metaphysical elements begin to enter the story, culminating in a dramatic concluding scene.

The Hand of Oberon, Book 4, follows Corwin as he continues trying to unravel the tangled schemes of his siblings. One brother is murdered, another is rescued from a tower prison only to disappear again, and a long-lost son is found. The origins of Amber are disclosed and the cause and destination of the black road is discovered.

In The Courts of Chaos, Book 5, the Amber royals (with the exception of one) unite to fight the army of The Courts of Chaos, where the black road originates. At the same time, the one renegade Amberite has gone mad and is attempting to destroy the primal Pattern which allows Amber and its Shadows to exist. The action includes a l-o-n-g trip through surreal Shadows by Prince Corwin which sounds like an acid trip gone bad.

The individual books are all short (novellas, really) and easy to read, so that reading all five is no chore. If any are read, all should be read, in order to get the full story. After the first two, however, the plots and schemes of the characters become a bit tedious and contrived. This is somewhat enjoyable as escapist reading, but not nearly as well done as many others of the genre.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Third reading, I think; first read when I was a teenager

Way back in 1860 Wilkie Collins wrote what most consider to be the first mystery novel, and it is also one of the best ever, providing an example which has been much copied but seldom matched. We have a mysterious woman dressed all in white who has apparently escaped from an insane asylum; a member of the British aristocracy with a secret that he will go to any lengths to keep; a beautiful young woman who is in peril; an intelligent young woman who is devoted to protecting the damsel in distress; a courageous man who loves the beautiful maiden; an eccentric uncle who provides some comic relief; and one of the best super-villains ever, who is interestingly portrayed as a study in contrasts.

The plot is intricate in the extreme and quite suspenseful. Collins originally published this in installments in a magazine, so periodically we have cliff hangers, much as in television serials today. Many skillful misdirections are included (today known as "red herrings") which lead readers to the wrong conclusions. In the end, it is all quite logical and all the mysteries are explained.

Many of the characters rival those of Charles Dickens in their believability and memorability, particularly the intelligent young woman (half-sister of the damsel in distress) and the villain.

The structure of the novel is interesting and clever, being accounts or diaries written by various of the characters. This allows to Collins to advance the story while revealing aspects of the characters' personalities through their own words.

All in all, I would say this is one of the best mysteries I have ever read. It is like combining Charles Dickens (who influenced Collins) with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was influenced by Collins).

Recommended for those who like mystery stories and who appreciate Victorian literature.

This section is kind of a postscript to my review. To my more modern mind, the beautiful maiden in the story is insipid, child-like, and not very intelligent. She can't seem to withstand any psychic stress at all, falling into insensibility at the slightest hint of trouble. The half-sister is portrayed as being intelligent, courageous, resourceful, and ugly. And who does the hero choose as his true love? Interestingly enough, the villain of the piece apparently falls for the ugly sister.

Somehow, it seems to me that Collins may have secretly shared my opinions about the relative value of the two sisters, while adhering to more popular expectations in his plot line. If I were a Ph.D. student, I would research a dissertation on this aspect.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wise Children by Angela Carter

What a charming novel this is! It is full of humor that ranges from sly to broad, of fantastical and surrealistic happenings, of larger-than-life characters from the worlds of theater and film, and of multiple Shakespearean references and plot devices. The narrative voice, that of a delightfully lusty 75-year-old former song and dance girl, is perfect.

This is the story of Dora and Nora Chance (vaudeville stage name, the Lucky Chances), identical twin illegitimate daughters of Melchior Hazard, stage actor in the grand tradition of his own father, Ranulph Hazard, renowned Shakespearean actor. Melchior is also a twin, and his brother Peregrine assumes the (largely absent) father role for the twin girls. Melchior and his first wife also have twin daughters, as do Melchior and his third wife. And that's not even the last of the twins. Of course, sometimes the assumed fathers (and even mothers) may not be the strictly biological contributors.

Along with the rich plot and wonderful characters, we have implications about reality versus illusion and illegitimacy versus legitimacy (and not just as regarding paternity), along with a consideration of what really comprises a family.

The most fun part of the novel is the account of the filming in Hollywood in the lavish 1930s of a musical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This includes an interlude with an alcoholic writer of Irish ancestry who surely has to be patterned on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am sure the other Hollywood characters portrayed also have real-life counterparts, which could be discerned by those more in the know about those things.

I'm also sure a more comprehensive knowledge of Shakespeare than I possess would lead to more references than I caught, and would make the novel even more enjoyable.

I loved this book because it seems to be a celebration of life, with all its messiness and its joys. I also highly recommend Carter's Nights at the Circus.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Second reading; first read back in the '80s, I think.

The cool thing about Raymond Chandler novels is that they can be just as fun to read the second time around as they were the first. The plots are so intricate and convoluted that the twists and turns fascinate, even if the end is known. And the dialogue is just as fresh and clever the second time around.

The mystery here begins with the hiring of private detective Philip Marlowe by a dying millionaire with two wayward daughters. What starts with a simple case of blackmail quickly escalates into multiple murders and an underworld of gambling, pornography, and narcotics. Along the way, Marlowe is enticed by not one, but three, seductresses, and faces down several armed adversaries, all the while maintaining his cool and his principles and staying one step ahead of the game. The ending is somewhat surprising but logical, with all the clues given beforehand.

The multifaceted character Philip Marlowe is subtly and admirably portrayed. He is cynical and sentimental, sympathetic and pragmatic, tough and tender. Just the kind of guy I would like to know if I ran into a spot of trouble.

The dialogue, as always with Chandler novels, makes me envious of Philip Marlowe in the extreme. I certainly wish that I could think of such splendid come-backs on the spur of the moment. Don't all of us wish we could?

For readers today, the plot is slightly dated, because pornography (what would now be considered as soft pornography) and drug use are not as scandalous as they once were. Also, the attitude portrayed here toward homosexuality is subtly derogatory. Still, the time this was written (1939) must be taken into consideration, and the novel could easily be translated into modern day crimes and attitudes and still be valid and believable.

One of the best of the best of the hard-boiled detective genre. Recommended.

Monday, March 18, 2013

World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

Second reading; first read about 15 years ago

Book 3 of The Deptford Trilogy

For this final volume of the trilogy, Davies returns as a compelling storyteller after somewhat neglecting this aspect of his talent in the second volume. This is the life history of Paul Dempster, the son of the woman who was permanently injured by the snowball thrown by Boy Staunton in volume 1. As Paul reports it, he has essentially lived four lives--first, as an object of scorn in Deptford, the son of the women called "hoor" by the local bullies; second, as Cass Fletcher, after he is kidnapped by a sodomite who is a member of a carnival troupe and forced to become part of a magic act; third, as Mungo Fetch when he becomes the double for a famous actor and enters the world of the theater; fourth, as Magnus Eisengrim when he becomes a world-famous magician.

Of course, Davies imparts so much more than just as engrossing and inventive plot. The reader is left with many avenues for further thought, including considerations of the effects of viewpoint on any history of events and the inevitability of the consequences of all actions, even those which might seem trivial. Myth-making and Jungian psychology and religious philosophy also enter in.

And we find out who really killed Boy Staunton (maybe).

Volume 1 of this trilogy, Fifth Business, and this one work well as stand-alone novels, but I don't feel that the second book, The Manticore, would be well understood by itself. Ideally, all three should be read one after another, making for a most satisfactory reading experience.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

Second reading; first read about 15 years ago

Book 2 of The Deptford Trilogy

I have read, I believe, eight of Robertson Davies' novels, and this is my least favorite, for several reasons. The first reason (and this is my fault, not Davies') is that a great deal of the interest of the novel depends on a reader having a considerable background of knowledge about the writings of Karl Jung, which I do not have, unfortunately. The second reason is that it repeats so many of the plot details of Fifth Business, the first book of the Deptford Trilogy, except that it's from a different viewpoint. It is intriguing to see how the same events can be interpreted differently by different people, but the tension of the story is necessarily absent for anyone who has read the first book. The third reason is ambiguous, even to me, but this novel does not seem as elegantly written as his other books.

Book 1 of the trilogy ended soon after the death of Boy Staunton, who was extremely rich and politically prominent, and who was murdered (or perhaps committed suicide). This one, Book 2, follows Boy's son, David Staunton, a highly successful criminal lawyer who is also an alcoholic, as he undergoes a year-long analysis with a Jungian psychiatrist following his father's death. A goodly part of the novel consists of the dialogue between patient and doctor as she guides him to an understanding of himself.

Davies very subtly allows David to reveal aspects of his history which are revealing to the reader without being fully discerned or consciously admitted to by him. Here Davies shows one of the greatest of his strengths as a writer--he gives the reader credit for some degree of understanding and never over-explains or pontificates.

This was written so that it could be read as a stand-alone book, and as such I do not think it would be fully understood by the average reader. As part 2 of one big book it works much better.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Second reading; first read about 15 years ago

Book 1 of the Deptford Trilogy.

Canadian writer Robertson Davies was a wonder. His writing is surpassingly elegant and subtle. His flashes of humor are understated and never mean or bitter. He displays great intellect and scholarship without appearing pretentious. His plots are interesting, often convoluted, and suspenseful. His characters are fully realized and seem to be real people, people we might know. And his stories always include deeper layers, with considerations of such weighty issues as religious belief and mythology and Jungian psychological theory. Many consider this novel his best.

The narrator here is Dunstan Ramsay, writing a letter to his former Headmaster after retirement. He begins with an incident from his childhood in Deptford, Canada, that influenced the rest of his life: the throwing of a snowball meant for him by Percy Boyd Staunton, which permanently injured a local minister's wife instead. He concludes the story with a revelation about the identity of the murderer of Percy Boyd (now known as Boy) Staunton. In between comes an account of the lives of Ramsay and Staunton, as well as the life of Leora, who loved them both after a fashion, and of the lives of the minster's wife and of her troubled son.

All of this would be very interesting if written about only from a plot perspective, but author Davies reveals the "why" of what happens in a masterful demonstration of dramatic irony, so that the reader understands what the narrator unconsciously reveals even when he does not understand it himself.

Davies is well known and honored in Canada, but somewhat overlooked in the U.S., and I cannot imagine why. I believe he equals, and often surpasses, the best that we can offer in the way of 20th Century writers.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

I believe you would find that the readers of this novel would fall into one of these groups: those who really sincerely love it; those who want to love it, who think they should love it, who maybe even pretend they love it, but who really don't; those who don't love it even a little bit, who want to throw it across the room when, or if, they finish it.

Those who love it would certainly include those English professors and graduate students who love analyzing books and teasing out hidden meanings and clever puns and metaphorical references. These folks don't read a novel for its plot or characterization and generally dislike books with a clearly discernible message or emotional content. This book, then, is perfect for them. Usually their favorite book is Joyce's Ulysses.

The second group, those who want to love it, are those graduate students and others with intellectual pretensions who can see the cleverness involved in the writing, who get some of the references and word plays and can understand some others when they are pointed out, who maybe think if they were just smarter they would like the book more. These folks, however, in their heart-of-hearts would really like a novel to make more sense and to have characters who seem real, even if exaggerated.

Those who don't love this novel might laugh at some of the satirical comedy, including the names of the characters, and might catch glimpses of the supposed metaphorical meanings, but they would find this book to be pretentious and empty. These folks don't like to think that there are no answers, that none of life makes sense, that people cannot connect and communicate. All of that may be privately suspected, but they hope it's not so.

I fall somewhere between the last two groups, although I tend to veer toward the last in my old age. I did not throw the book across the room; I could appreciate it on one level; but I did not love it, or even like it, at all.

The plot is pretty superfluous, but here it is: Oedipa Mass is named as executrix of the will of a past lover and starts finding clues about a centuries-long (possible) conspiracy involving Trystero, an alternate postal service. Three possibilities occur to her: she is hallucinating and going mad, her dead lover arranged the whole series of clues as a practical joke, or the secret conspiracy actually exists. Do we find out the answer....NO.

Privately, I even wonder if the whole novel was a practical joke by Pynchon, satirizing post-modern writing. Surely not.

Anyway, I do not recommend this novel to the average reader.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

Captain Corelli's Mandolin is a novel of many aspects: It's both a history of one small, tragic part of World War II and a wonderful love story--no, make that three love stories. It contains both bleak and disturbing visuals of the horrors of combat and slaughter and humor that is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sweet and sometimes bitter and sarcastic. It's a celebration of music and its power to transcend national boundaries. It carries a strong anti-war message. As novels go, it's a real keeper.

Most of the action of the novel takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia after it is occupied by both Italy and Germany after the Greek defeat. The Italian officer Captain Corelli brings his mandolin and his love of buffoonery into the lives of the islanders and into the heart of the Greek girl Pelagia. But their blossoming of love is no match for the politics and vicissitudes of war.

In the tradition of master storytellers, de Bernieres does not limit himself to just one love story, but includes a story of the love between Pelagia and her father, as well as a sensitive story of the love of the driver Carlo for the Italian captain. And the author does not paint his characters in black and white, as perfect, but as real and believable human beings who make mistakes.

This author reminds me of that grandest of storytellers, Charles Dickens, because of the novel's combinations of pathos and melodrama and broad humor and satire and social commentary and characters who come so alive that they become visual.

Oh, well done, Louis de Bernieres. I highly recommend this novel.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Waiting by Ha Jin

This is a most unusual book, in several ways.

Taking place in China from the early '60s through the early '80s, it is the story of a married doctor in the Chinese army as he tries to divorce his tradition-bound peasant wife to marry Manna Wu, a more modern and educated nurse. Year after year, his wife agrees to the divorce, only to withdraw her consent at the last minute, so that Dr. Lin Kong and his intended new wife are forced into "waiting" for 18 years to pass, when by law Dr. Lin can divorce his wife without her consent.

This sounds like a highly romantic love story full of passion and longing, but it is not that at all. Instead, the "lovers" seem strangely complacent about their situation, both deciding at various times that waiting is not the answer. Lin Kong even tries twice to help Manna Wu find another man to marry. And when their waiting is over, the outcome is not happily-ever-after.

The portrait of China provided here is very interesting and revealing. picturing as it does a society in transit, with superstitious peasant life and the new order of the People's Revolution present at the same time. Dr. Lin Kong is portrayed as a man constrained both by the heritage of the past and the laws of his new present. The author, Ha Jin, was himself a member of the People's Revolutionary Army before coming to America in the 1980s, so he can probably be trusted to be providing a true analysis.

The writing is unique for the time (published in 1999), in that it is extremely straight-forward and without embellishment or emotion, almost choppy, in fact. Yet somehow this style seems to reflect the content perfectly, since the characters all seemed to be almost emotionless.

At the end, I could not decide exactly what the author intended I should take away from the reading. Should I believe that both the old ways of China, with its arranged marriages, and the new ways of China, with its strict laws of conduct and decorum, sapped the romance out of male-female relationships? Should I believe that Lin Kong is a flawed human being, with concern only for his own comfort and well being? Should I consider this an allegory for the aphorism, "Be careful what you wish for"? Maybe all of the above?

This novel was the National Book Award winner in 1999, and I found it fascinating, but I still can't decide what to make of it exactly.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

This novel is one more reminder that different cultures, and even different nations with somewhat similar cultures, see things differently. It was awarded two of the top literary prizes in France and was a best seller. It was also well received in England, called by some critics the War and Peace of the Second World War. And yet, it has not done well in America, even being thoroughly bashed by the literary critics of some of our major publications. As for myself, I found it distasteful, pretentious, and often very boring. Most of all, it seemed to me to be schizophrenic, undecided about exactly what kind of book it intends to be and sending very mixed messages.

The narrator, Dr. Maximilien Aue, is recounting his experiences during World War II as an officer of the SS, assigned to researching and writing reports on various problems encountered in dealing with Germany's undesirables, mainly the Jewish populations of conquered countries and areas. As such, he witnesses the wholesale slaughters in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus; escapes gravely wounded when the Germans are surrounded at Stalingrad; inspects Auschwitz and its satellite camps; experiences the last days of Berlin; and even meets Hitler in a highly unlikely scene in the last bunker. This is not a story of the armed conflicts of war, really, but a story of the bureaucracy and politics of government, albeit a government which has convinced itself of the necessity of eliminating millions of people in the name of racial purity.

Distasteful: Into the war story Littell inserts Max's personal story, which includes incest with his sister, anal self gratification, and vicious murders having nothing to do with war, all graphically described. Littell also includes feces, almost as a motif, with uncountable descriptions of s**t in all its manifestations. And the slaughter of the Jews is written about in such a disturbingly visual way that it nears to being a pornography of violence, almost like a snuff film.

Pretentious: The author is undoubtedly very intelligent and cultured and did a prodigious amount of research, but we do not need so many examples of his scholarship. For example, a very lengthy discussion of the languages of the Caucasus region seems to be entirely superfluous. The many discussions of the relative merits of composers just serve to illustrate that the author knows much about music. We learn the detailed results of Max's research, complete with statistics which are quite probably all accurate, but seem only to serve to illustrate that the author did his homework thoroughly.

Boring: Pages and pages and pages are given over to the infighting between various personalities and factions within the structure of the government bureaucracy. Many of the participants are actual personages, so perhaps this is very interesting to those in Europe and England more familiar with the names, but less interesting, for sure, to non-historians in America. The usage of all the initials for the various levels of the Nazi political structure make this even more opaque to an average American reader. The book's almost 1,000 pages includes at least 300 pages of material that is entirely non-essential to the plot.

Schizophrenic: What, exactly, is Littell trying to say here? He begins the novel this way: "Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened," and seems to be making a case in the opening chapters for the theory that anyone would have behaved as the Nazis did if put in the same situation. Max says, "But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did." He makes a good case for this viewpoint, particularly in citing Russia's history of political murder and America's history with the treatment of its Native Americans. Yet Littell then paints Max as such a degenerate that he is obviously not typical of most men. It is unclear whether or not Littell is trying to say that the Germans directly involved in the genocide of the Jews were all latent psychopaths.

Perhaps this novel is just so subtle that straight-forward-thinking Americans miss the point. I surely did.