Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I have very mixed feelings about this book, so much so that I put off writing the review for a couple of days after I finished it while I thought about it further.

This is the story of Bit, beginning with his birth in a hippie commune in the 1970's. More than half the book is the story of the commune and its rise and fall, from its idealistic beginnings to its disintegration brought about by egoism and other human frailties. While Bit is nourished by the lifestyle, others of his contemporaries seem to be destroyed by it, principally Helle, the daughter of the leader and Bit's first love.

The rest of the book concerns Bit's life in New York City, after leaving the commune at age 14, and extends to his early middle age. It very briefly describes Bit's initial adjustment to the real world and his re-meeting and marriage with the damaged Helle, before a concluding section set in 2018. This final section includes Bit's relationship with his and Helle's daughter, a world-wide pandemic, and a long and graphic account of the death of his mother from ALS.

Thematically, the author seems to be commenting on the entropy of modern society and on the possible ways to deal with it. Her conclusions seem to be that just trying to change things makes a difference, that a small like-minded community can help (the Amish neighbors of the commune are frequently referenced), and mainly that the circle of family love can make the struggle worth attempting.

The first part of the book is fascinating, told from the viewpoint of young Bit in very concrete and immediate detail, particularly in his interactions with his parents. Although the writing is sometimes overblown and hints of the MFA Creative Writing tendency of over-reaching for arresting metaphors, it is often beautiful. I would actually have preferred that the book would have ended here.

The rest of the book seems rushed and "tells about" what happened rather than presenting a picture. Only the death of Bit's mother is detailed, and that account is needlessly excruciating to read for anyone who has seen a parent's decline, especially as I cannot see any purpose in emphasizing this aspect of the story. Bit's romance at the end seems tacked on and unconvincing.

All this carping about the faults seems petty, since this is a much better novel than usual, but I was expecting so much more from reading the beginning section that I became very disappointed in the ending sections. Also, I felt that the depiction of the state of the globe was overly dramatic and pessimistic.

I believe most people would consider this an excellent novel, and I can see why it was considered a contender for the Pulitzer. I'm sorry I couldn't like it more.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I have long been familiar with the name of this author and knew he was one of the most popular Victorian novelists, but I had never read any of his works. I decided to start with this one, which is the first of six which comprise The Chronicles of Barsetshire, his most popular series. I expected exaggerated characters and high drama, but that was not at all what I found.

Instead, the central characters are all rendered in a very realistic manner and are similar in personality to people you could meet today. None are completely without fault or entirely evil. In fact, the antagonists are all acting out of principle rather than personal animosity, and the hurt they inflict on the protagonist is not out of malice. The protagonist, a clergyman, reacts as his conscience dictates, but is perhaps remiss in not recognizing an inequity before he has it pointed out to him. His sacrificial reaction (which turns out not to be that enormous a sacrifice) is prompted as much by his concern for his reputation as by a realization that he has behaved wrongly.

The plot is certainly not sensationalistic or melodramatic: An arrogant liberal do-gooder who specializes in crusading against perceived inequities in society takes up the cause of a charity home for old men which was funded by a long-ago will and is administered by the Church of England. He contends that the old men are being short-changed (although not ill-treated otherwise), since the estate has much increased in value, and the Warden (or on-site administrator) wrongly receives too large a portion of the charity bequest. He files a lawsuit and speaks to members of the press, who spread the news of the case, much to the embarrassment of the Warden. A conservative archdeacon who defends the policies of the Church on all matters strongly opposes the lawsuit and also seeks legal counsel. The poor Warden is caught in the middle.

Ah, but complicating the matter is the fact that the Warden's youngest daughter is in love with the reforming do-gooder and the Warden's oldest daughter is married to the conservative archdeacon. What's the poor man to do? Believe the suitor of the youngest daughter that he is behaving wrongfully or follow the advice of the husband of the oldest daughter to uphold the dignity and authority of the Church by ignoring the adverse publicity?

All of this is rendered in so low-key a style as to be rather boring, frankly.

Actually, the most interesting part of the novel is Trollope's attack on his contemporary, Charles Dickens, as he has one of the characters read a book by Mr. Popular Sentiment (obviously meant to be Dickens). The character comments, "...his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest." The rest of the attack is also scathingly accurate about Trollope's literary rival.

Still, when it comes down to reading fun, I choose Dickens. But I will give Trollope another chance.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Year Three of Reading

Once again I look back on the books I read in a year of my life. (I have been posting this on my birthday for the last three years.) It's maybe a little bit sad that reading a lot of books is my main accomplishment in a year of life, but so it goes. I read 107 books, but I don't believe I read as many really good ones this year as I read last year. Still, many were excellent; here are the top 13. Keep in mind that these are not necessarily the best in terms of lasting literary value or in the eyes of knowledgeable critics, but the ones which were most enjoyable to me. When I made the list I spotted a trend--see if you notice it.

*Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres An Italian soldier is part of the occupying forces on a Greek island during World War II. A little bit of everything--war, love, sacrifice, humor, tragedy, lovable characters. A celebration of resilience. (Mar, 2013)

*Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt A young teenager deals with insecurity, the death of loved ones, and family estrangement, learning life lessons along the way. Very emotionally involving. It speaks to the healing power of love, love of all kinds. (Feb, 2013)

*The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills A very dark comedy about three blokes who build fences and cause some fatal accidents along the way. A fable of sorts. Highly surprising and original. (May, 2012)

*The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry One day in the life of an old farmer, as he remembers his past and the people who were important to him. A portrait of rural America and its values. My background prepared me to like this no matter what, but it was very well done. (Feb, 2013)

*Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain A somewhat satiric look at America, as an Iraqi War hero and his comrades are featured at a Dallas Cowboys' halftime show. National Book Critics Circle award winner, and I really thought it would win the Pulitzer. The best contemporary novel I read this year. (Jan, 2013)

*Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon A story of two families in a changing California, with some colorful and over-the-top supporting characters. Mainly, I just like Chabon and his writing style. He is joyful and exuberant in the extreme. He also shows off on occasion. (Dec, 2012)

*Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee An allegorical tale of simple people displaced by war and conflict. Actually rather depressing, but it is so well done that I overlooked that. (Oct, 2012)

*Bleak House by Charles Dickens Master storyteller Dickens at his best as he wages war on England's Chancery Court system with the story of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, a court case lasting for years, destroying lives along the way. Includes all the usual Dickens attributes, such as colorful characters, some who are humorous and some who are villainous and some who are too good to be true. (Oct, 2012)

*Swamplandia by Karen Russell A highly imaginative, satiric, and surreal story of a theme park in Florida. A young girl, deserted by her whole family, goes in search of her sister who has eloped with a ghost. Really, that's the plot. (Jun, 2012)

*Cloudstreet by Tim Winton The history of two families, living in a large dilapidated house in Australia, with love, violence, adultery, guilt, tragedy, and some ghosts. Totally engrossing. (Jun, 2012)

*Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami Twin stories of a young man who has been prophesied to be the killer of his father and an old man who can neither read nor write due to a mysterious occurrence. This is how they come together. Dreamlike and subject to multiple interpretations. (Jun, 2012)

*Wise Children by Angela Carter A charming story as told by an aging song-and-dance girl about her colorful theatrical family. Playfully includes multiple Shakespearean plot devices and references and some magical realism. (Mar, 2013)

*Villette by Charlotte Bronte A psychological study of how a young woman faces the world after suffering great tragedy. Semi-autobiographical. Most perceptive.
(Apr, 2013)

Out of all the books I read I can find only three that I totally disliked:
*Roses by Leila Meacham A drugstore romance novel disguised as literature. (Jun, 2012)
*The Red Tent by Anita Diament A poorly written new age women's empowerment novel disguised as a retelling of an Old Testament story. (Jun, 2012)
*Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion Similar to Villette in that it examines the actions of a woman who has faced tragedy. Except that instead of trying to cope this heroine falls apart. A really depressing story of aimless lives. (Apr, 2013)

In reading over my last year's of favorite books, I saw that I left one out which should certainly have been there:
*War With the Newts by Karel Capek A very funny fanciful satire of greed and nationalistic jingoism. Written in the 1930s but still pertinent today. (Apr, 2012)

Notice that I have very helpfully included the month each book was read, in case any are interested in reading a complete review. (As if...!) Happy reading!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

I am quite sure this is a "book of outstanding literary quality" (from the back cover). I can see that. The writing style is reflective of the content. Skillful use is made of symbols and thematic motifs. It conveys the emotional impact it intends with great power. It was included in the Time's Top 100 list. I will long remember it.

And yet I didn't like it, not at all. I wish I had never read it.

This is the kind of novel that really cool and sophisticated people would like, people who applaud Charles Bukowski and Bret Easton Ellis. (Is it cool to use the term "cool" anymore? Probably not.) This is for people who enjoy reading "a scathing novel, distilling venom in tiny drops, revealing devastation in a sneer and fear in a handful of atomic dust" (also a quote from the back cover).

So if you think you would like to read a well written book filled with "venom" and "devastation" and "fear" and emptiness and aimlessness and despair, then this is the book for you. As for myself, I do not accept that this "captures the mood of an entire generation" (back cover again, writing of the 1960s). This was my generation, and fortunately, I did not know any of these people.

For those who might be interested, this is the story of Maria Wyeth, a sometimes model and sometimes actress, once married to a famous movie director, with an institutionalized child who suffers from some unnamed disorder, who deals with her very real problems by indulging in excesses of alcohol, drugs, indiscriminate sex, and driving very fast on the freeway.

To be clear, I would not have been disturbed by this novel as much if it had been less well done.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Villette is a tale of such heartache and psychological realism that reading it is a painful experience. It's heroine, Lucy Snowe, has been thoroughly damaged by unnamed tragic events and reacts by constantly shielding herself from emotional involvement with others, feeling that it is better not to love than to have love torn away. This is, then, not so much a novel of events and plot (like Bronte's more well-known Jane Eyre) as it is an insightful examination of one woman's life journey and responses to a Fate which deals her a very bad hand. She says, "I had wanted to compromise with Fate: to escape occasional great agonies by submitting to a whole life of privation and small pains." She thus constantly represses her feelings and her natural inclinations, presenting a false face to others and even attempting to deceive herself. When she does first allow herself to feel human closeness, her tentative hopes are disappointed, and she has to pretend to others (and to herself) that she is not at all affected. But then she allows herself once again to hope for love.

The ending is emotionally wracking, but still we see Lucy continuing to keep on keeping on. She is the essence of resilience in the face of loss, and whether or not hers is the best way of surviving, it does allow her to endure.

Knowing the life history of Charlotte Bronte certainly makes it impossible not to consider this novel as autobiographical. Her mother died when she was five years old, and her two eldest sisters died when she was still a child. The three remaining sisters (Charlotte, Emily, Agnes) and one brother (Branwell) then became isolated and especially close, joining together to create imaginary worlds and write about their fantasies. When the grown-up sisters failed to make a success of teaching, they each wrote novels, and found success there. But then, within a year's time, Charlotte's beloved brother and two remaining sisters all died. This novel was written following those deaths, only a short time before her death at age 39. Despite suffering from depression and ill health, she, like her heroine Lucy Snowe, kept on keeping on.

In many ways, this seems to be a much more modern novel than others of the same time period, in that it examines the interior life of a woman whose exterior is most often overlooked or misinterpreted. At a time when almost all heroines of novels were pretty, charming, well-born, and pampered, Lucy Snowe is plain, socially introverted, poor, and has to make her own way in the world. The depth of the psychological insight provided is remarkable.

Potential readers should be pre-warned that the sentence structure and language make this rather a difficult and slow read. Also, a good bit of the dialogue is untranslated French, which is rather annoying for those of us who decided it was more practical to study Spanish.

I consider this a better book than Jane Eyre, but it easy to see why it is not as widely read. Most folks prefer the happily-ever-after.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald

Wow, did this book surprise me. I picked it up in my little town's only book source (except for Wal-Mart), which is a combination used book store and junk shop. It's the kind of place that smells like rotting paper in a damp garage. Everything is covered in dust and you can hardly move around. You hardly expect to find much of value there. In amongst literally thousands of romance novels and suchlike I spotted this, and since I remembered reading good things somewhere about MacDonald and his Travis McGee series, I gave it a chance, especially since it only cost 60 cents.

What a bargain! I have spent double-digit dollars on "literary" novels that were not half as fun to read and not as well written. Seriously.

MacDonald follows somewhat in the noir footsteps of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. His Travis McGee is not as smart talking and cynical as their heroes, but we have the same proliferation of sexually available females and the same looming darkness from the underbelly of civilization. This novel, the first of the 21-book series, is not really even a mystery, since the bad guy is known from the first. But what a villain he is--much creepier to me than any of Hammett's or Chandler's, because he is not an underworld figure such as I am never likely to come into contact with, but a psychopathic rapist and sadist who is seemingly charming on the outside, such as anyone might meet anywhere and never know it until it was too late. About the villain, Travis McGee says, "...evil, undiluted by any childhood trauma, does exist in the world, exists for its own precious sake, the pustular bequest from the beast...."

In between tracking down the bad guy, rescuing ladies in distress, and participating in some well-described violent fist fights (which he doesn't always win), Trav (as his friends call him) indulges in rants about such things as the uglification of Florida and the false promises of the American dream, in descriptive language that is immediate, concrete, and arresting.

Since finishing this book, I have read up on John D. MacDonald and have learned that through the course of this series his hero develops as a character and that the books also interestingly reflect societal changes. I won't jump right in to a marathon 21-book read, but I do plan to read others in the series, in order.

Recommended for all readers, not just for those who like detective stories.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

I'd be willing to bet that a modern reader unfamiliar with this very funny book would be far into it before suspecting that its author is not contemporary. Although it was written in 1889, it is still just as amusing today because apparently people have not changed even after all these years. They still behave in much the same ridiculous and predictable ways, making them fit subjects for farcical satire.

This is a travel guide, of sorts, of a boating trip down the Thames river. The author does provide factual information about the history of the villages and towns along the way, but all that is secondary to the rambling accounts of the mishaps of the three men, and of the people they meet and the people they remember in their stories to each other, and of the adventures of their dog.

The many people you read about will sound familiar to you, with all their infuriating idiosyncrasies, which become funny when only slightly exaggerated and having to do with somebody else. I particularly appreciated the portrait of a man who always insists he is best qualified to do any bit of skilled work, but his efforts consist of telling others what to do while he criticizes their efforts. And then when the task is completed, he claims full credit. I know this guy well; he once directed me while I tiled a floor and then told everyone what a good job he had done.

Only one aspect of human behavior not typical of the modern era (at least not in England, or America) is portrayed by the discovery of the body of a woman dead by suicide who was rejected by her Victorian peers because she had borne a baby out of wedlock. This incident is unsettling and strangely out of place with the tone of the rest of the book. But it does serve to illustrate to us that maybe some human behaviors do change, and for the better.

This book reminds me very much of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a modern humor and travel book. If you liked that one, you will like this one.


Monday, April 8, 2013

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Following World War II, Americans proudly congratulated themselves, applauding both the soldiers who fought and the civilians who aided the war effort. Almost all agreed they had accomplished something grand. Even today, those alive at that time have been popularly named "the greatest generation."

Try to imagine what it must have been like to those who were the losers of the war. All their atrocities were revealed, and those who led and those who supported the leaders were blamed by the winners of the war, and often tried for war crimes. The population was encouraged to feel a national guilt, and many of the losing populations reacted by also blaming those who had led them.

An Artist of the Floating World is the story of Masuji Ono, a once-celebrated Japanese painter, in the years immediately following the war as he fills his retirement years with family concerns, house repairs, and nostalgic meetings with old associates. What should be a tranquil time, however, is marred by the changing culture and the changed perception of the younger generations toward those they feel were responsible for sacrificing the country and its youth for imperialistic designs.

Ishiguro tells his story through the first-person narration of Ono, and he is an unreliable narrator at best, even often admitting they he may have misstated or misquoted. As he recounts his current events in 1948-1950, he also tells of his path from youth to becoming an artist of posters supporting the war effort. Throughout, he tries somewhat unsuccessfully to comes to terms with his portion of the collective guilt, sometimes excusing himself for actions and at other times perhaps overestimating his contribution to the war effort.

The writing here is so understated, so restrained, so subtle, so filled with dramatic irony, that just the reading of it--never mind the story--is an extraordinary delight. Its style fits the character and heritage of its narrator perfectly, making it even more effective.

This novel won England's Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1986 and was also short listed for the Booker Prize.

Private Note: This novel made me think about what would have happened had we lost in WWII. Would we have been vilified by the rest of the world for the fire bombing of Dresden, for the internment of the American Japanese, for the atomic bombs? (Well, with the atomic bombs on our side, it's highly unlikely we would have lost, I guess.) Would the American people have then been expected to feel guilt, rather than pride? After the war, would we have adapted fairly quickly to a Japanese or a German way of thinking? Is the accepted history of a war always dependent on who won?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I really expected this to be a better book, because the author is a past Pulitzer Prize winner (for March in 2005). Then again, although I remember reading that book and the general premise, I don't remember much of anything about it, and one would expect Pulitzer winners to be at least memorable.

The premise for this novel is promising: the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish illuminated prayer book from the 1400s, has been rescued from destruction in war-torn Bosnia by a Muslim museum director. (This is a real book and the rescue really happened, but the rest of the events and characters are fictionalized.) A young book conservator from Australia is hired to stabilize the condition of the book, and finds several clues inside which speak to its long history--a butterfly wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain, a groove for an absent clasp. From these small clues come five stories tracing the progress of the book from one hand to another through the centuries. Framing the history of the book is the modern-day story of Hanna, the book conservator.

Unfortunately, as all this plays out, the novel is less than riveting. The historical episodes all seem to be "tellings" of events, rather than living representations of people and their interactions. Most characters are portrayed as stereotypes, with the Jewish people as the persecuted, the Christians as the persecutors, and the Muslims as sympathizers with the Jews. That struck me as rather odd in view of today's political climate.

The story of Hanna is most explored, and she is by far the most fully realized character. The problem is, though, that she is not a very sympathetic character and her story seems to have little to do with the rest of the book. The way she is portrayed turns a novel of historical fiction into "chick lit," in my opinion. I found the account of her intellectual involvement with the book as observed by the museum director, followed immediately afterwards by her sucking on his fingers in a restaurant, to be highly amusing but unconvincing. And why is her continuing conflict with her surgeon mother even pertinent?

Obviously a great deal of research went into the writing of this novel, and all that information is somewhat interesting. But, altogether, this is just a ho-hum read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

This is one of Dickens' earliest novels and is not among the most well known of his books today, but back when it came out in installments it was a best seller. It is more humorous than most of the later novels, although it did reveal some abuses that needed to be corrected, and actually appears to have succeeded in bringing about societal changes. Few works of fiction can make that claim.

The problem addressed is that of boarding schools existing at the time which were schools in name only, being more like prisons for children who were unwanted and inconvenient for the parents, where boys were brutally mistreated and almost starved, all for profit. After Dickens brought this to the public's attention, most were closed.

This Dickens crusade, however, is only a part of a long account of the trials, travails, and triumphs of the title character, as he valiantly strives to make his way in the world while providing for his widowed mother and beautiful younger sister. He is opposed at every turn by an avaricious and spiteful uncle who continually plots against him, but helped along the way by kind friends, who recognize the nobility of his character.

We have high melodrama here, with not one, but two, virtuous and unselfish beautiful young women who are threatened with dishonor and ruin at the hands of unscrupulous villains. We have love stories, not one, but three, with all the right people ending up together. We have pathos, with the death of an innocent. But most of all, we have humor.

The humor comes from the characters rather than from the situations. Of course they are exaggerated, but barely. One of the most absurd characters in the novel is the mother of Nicholas, whose remarks are all at length and somewhat stream of consciousness. I was forcibly reminded of her yesterday when I met a neighbor at the grocery store, and it took 20 minutes to say hello. Dickens includes an interlude wherein Nicholas becomes part of a theatrical troupe, which actually has no pertinence to the plot line, but which includes some of the most humorous characters in the novel.

I perhaps stray from review into ranting here, but I hate the way what passes for humor seems to have changed. Much of the humor of Dickens depends on the slight exaggeration of recognizable human characteristics, and it always carries a tone of fondness. Most of today's humor (especially American humor), both in books and television, seems to be either bitterly satiric, based on insult, or dependent upon sexual innuendo. That's kind of sad.

This novel is recommended for those who love Dickens, those who appreciate Victorian literature, and those who have time to read 900 pages.