Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

This is the second of the 21-book Travis McGee series, and, I regret to say, is not nearly as well done as the first of the series, The Deep Blue Good-by, which astonished and impressed me.

This one takes place in New York City rather than in Trav's home base in Florida, and the strong sense of place is absent. Also largely absent are the thoughtful digressions. What is left is more the usual formulaic detective novel. That part is more than satisfactorily done, if that is all a reader is looking for.

The story begins when Trav's army buddy asks him as a favor to investigate the death of his little sister's fiance. As he tries to unravel the clues, he uncovers hints of an elaborate scheme to embezzle money and stumbles into an expected world of hallucinatory drugs, becoming a helpless victim of psychic experimentation.

In the end, it is not Travis who actually brings the villains to justice. That part is rather anti-climactic. The focus has shifted to his romance with the little sister and their love life. I will have to say that the accounts of their love making are very erotic (at least to a female), focusing not on various body parts and specific descriptions of actions but on feelings and emotions.

It will be interesting as I continue to read the Travis McGee books (in order) to see if his seemingly irresistible sexual attractiveness continues for the entire series. This is the only aspect that seems to me to be contrived, and surely it could not continue through 21 books.

I am hoping #3 in the series, A Purple Place for Dying, will be more satisfactory.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Doom That Came to Sarnath by H.P. Lovecraft

Second reading; first read in the early '70s.

I first became a fan of scarey stories when I was about 10, and my older boy cousin let me borrow from his collection of horror comic books. I had to read them in secret, because my mother had forbidden them, saying I would have bad dreams. As so often happens, Mother was right. I did have bad dreams, and I can still remember some of the plots and images today. But I was hooked.

H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote short stories in the '20s and '30s, is one of the acknowledged masters of this genre, influencing many who came after him, including Stephen King. His horror is not the jumping-out-at-you kind, but the kind that comes to you in nightmares when some horrible nameless, faceless entity is stalking you and you are sure you will die of fright (or go mad) if it catches you. His stories invoke the instinctual dread which certain old houses or locations inspire. His horror is perhaps the kind experienced by some who take LSD and have a very bad trip. (I assure you, I don't know this for sure.) I believe we all sometimes have the feeling at the fringes of our consciousness that very bad things may exist of which we are usually not aware. Lovecraft taps into that wellspring of fear.

One way he does this is with the style of his writing, which is consciously archaic, invoking a bygone age when people were less attuned to the strictly rational and more susceptible to instinctual feelings and superstition.

But it's in his word choices that he especially shows genius in capturing horror and disgust, being particularly fond of such words as "eldritch" and "flabby" and "putrescent" and "abyss" and "demoniac." He also uses alliteration to great effect, such as in "crawling chaos" and "sinister secrets" and "writhing of worms."

Lovecraft specializes in telling just enough to arouse fear and anxiety and letting the reader's imagination and subconscious supply the rest. One story protagonist says, "I flung myself into the oily underground river, flung myself into the putrescent juice of earth's inner horrors before the madness of my screams could bring down upon me all the charnel legions these pest-gulfs might conceal." He never describes the "charnel legions," but can't you see them in your mind's eye?

This collection of short stories comes from early Lovecraft, before he really hit his stride in the horror genre. It includes stories influenced by Poe, stories in the fantasy style of Lord Dunsany, and even one science fiction story. Other collections, especially At the Mountains of Madness, are more representative of the style for which he is most well known.

Certainly not everyone enjoys this kind of literature, but for those who do, this is a must-read.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Second reading; first read in the '70s.

Miss Jean Brodie is a woman "in her prime," a teacher of pre-pubescent girls in a private school in Scotland. Unconventional and charming, she favors six young girls in her class as the "creme de la creme," and they become known as the "Brodie set." The narrative follows them through their school years and beyond, telling of the results of Miss Brodie's influence.

This is one of the most skillfully developed books I have ever read, as it effortlessly switches from one period of time to another, so that it early becomes known that one of the "set" ultimately betrays Miss Brodie. The question becomes the "who" and "why." The novel is also brilliant in the subtle way it inserts humor into what is essentially a very serious subject.

This novel spoke to me in an entirely different way this reading. When I first read it in the '70s my focus of attention was on the six girls and the effects a charismatic teacher had upon them. This time, probably because I had recently taught for several years, I was made uncomfortably aware of the terrible responsibility of a teacher toward young students, wondering if I, myself, had abused the power given, as Miss Brodie did.

Teachers are in the unique position of having a captive audience who are obliged to listen. A skillful teacher with the right personality can use this to advantage to excite interest and enthusiasm in the subject matter or in learning in general. A self-absorbed and egotistical teacher can abuse his or her position by influencing students in other ways, encouraging a "cult of personality." Parents should beware of those. I hope I was not one of them, but there exists, indeed, a powerful temptation to become such a teacher.

This novel was included on both the Modern Library Top 100 and the Time Top 100 novel lists. It is short, easy to read, can be viewed from more than one viewpoint, and is wonderfully accomplished in execution. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Third or fourth reading; first read back in the '60s.

"...on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion."

He is, of course, Count Dracula, once the world's most well-known vampire, before vampires became sexy and started dating teenage girls.

If you have not read Stoker's classic novel but think you know the entire plot from watching some of the many movies which adapt various aspects, you are mistaken. No movie in my knowledge has actually included all the characters and events that Bram Stoker did.

Stoker tells the story entirely with letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. This might seem to be an awkward form of narration, but it is entirely effective in giving immediacy to the events and in building suspense, making the action seem as if it is happening in real time to real people. Though the book was written in the late 19th century, it is surprisingly contemporary in feel, without the many asides from narration often found in novels from that time.

I found myself glued to this novel even though I had already read it more than once. If you would like to experience a suspense/adventure novel with overtones of the conflict between good and evil, if you want to go to the source of our cultural lore about the habits of vampires and how to protect yourself from them, if you like to read a good book, read this.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

I ordered this book, the second in the Barchester Series, at the same time I ordered the first of the series, The Warden (reviewed last month). I found that novel to be so low key and undramatic as to be rather boring, and I probably would have abandoned Trollope then, if I had not already bought this sequel. I would have missed a treat.

Barchester Towers is an absolutely delightful read, with realistic and well delineated characters who are striving to gain love, money, power, and prestige. But most of all, it is quietly and slyly humorous in a very gentle and fond manner. Whereas a Dickens novel might include some broad or satirical humor amidst high drama and pathos, this Trollope novel's humor is more subtle, more based on the essential comicality of ordinary people in everyday life.

The main characters are all clericals of the Church of England and their female relatives, and the plot concerns the conflict between passionate High Church adherents and Low Church devotees, coupled with the very secular desire on the part of some to rise to higher position to gain more income and/or prestige. Thrown into this scheming and counter-scheming is a love story, as the Warden's beautiful daughter is wooed by three suitors, representatives of the warring factions. At no time is the reader in doubt as to which she will choose, partly because Trollope tells us in a direct address to the reader that she will not be seduced by the two undesirable candidates for her hand. Thus, little suspense is involved here, but the charm comes from the manner of the telling. In tone and plotting, the novel is more similar to Jane Austin than to Charles Dickens.

The villain of the piece is absolutely believable, and will surely remind you of someone you know who is entirely self serving and hypocritical. This slimy schemer, Obadiah Slope, arrogantly assumes that he fools everyone, but, in the end, he fools nobody. (Trollope, like his contemporary and literary rival Dickens, has a genius for appropriate names for his characters. Among the most amusing names is Mr. Quiverful, for the man who has 14 children.)

The story can be a bit confusing for those of us Americans who are not familiar with the elaborate clerical structure of the Church of England, with its archdeacons and deans and curates and so forth. That little detracts from the reading enjoyment, however, since the actions of the characters could as well have taken place in a modern corporate or bureaucratic setting.

From now on, I will absolutely recommend Trollope, and I plan to read the rest of the Barchester series, as well as some others of his. He wrote 51 novels, so I will have plenty from which to choose.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Here's what it felt like to read this novel: It was exactly as if someone had read a book with a very interesting storyline (including a mysterious disappearance, sexual atrocity, suicide, attempted murder, and a jailbreak), then retold the story to me, in detail. I could appreciate the plotting, but I would be removed and not become emotionally or intellectually involved.

Call me old fashioned, but I have always felt that one sign of a good novel is that it draws the reader inside. Amanda Coplin leaves the reader outside. That's where she left me, at least.

William Talmadge is a reclusive orchardist in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century, when he is suddenly confronted with the plight of two pregnant teenagers who have escaped from enforced prostitution. The story continues through the years, following the efforts of the orchardist to protect those who he feels have been left in his care.

It's the choices the author makes in telling her story that puzzle me, especially in that I believe they were conscious choices. A major theme of the novel seems to be the difficulty of communication between people, even between those who love each other. Very little dialogue is included in the novel, one of the characters even being mute. Interior monologues from various characters are included, but even in those the characters are not forthcoming enough to engage the sympathies of the reader. The many dramatic events that occur are only told about, not experienced through the eyes of the characters, so that the whole reading experience becomes passive in the extreme.

In fact, this is perhaps the most emotionally passive novel I have ever read, especially considering its somewhat sensational plot twists. Despite the fact that I am ridiculously susceptible to pathos and melodrama, I never shed a tear throughout, despite all the pathetic and melodramatic events.

OK, not all novels are meant to elicit emotional response; some choose instead to provide intriguing ideas, or are metaphoric in content, or include such perfect and/or poetic expression as to be memorable. The Orchardist did not, for my mind, accomplish any of the above.

This 2012 novel received very good reviews from many sources. I would encourage others to read it, because it does have an interesting story and does provide glimpses into another time and place. Just don't expect too much.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The major villain in this last completed novel by Charles Dickens is money. All of the many characters react to its presence or absence, most changing (for good or bad, as the case may be) because of its influence. The heroes are those who remain remain unchanged, resisting the lure of wealth and its attendant social status, and those who change for the better, as they realize that money does not buy happiness.

Maybe I have just read too much Dickens lately, but I was disappointed in this novel, as I noticed so many instances of Dickens' stock characters and situations. For example:

*The two love-interest females are both overwhelmingly beautiful and men fall in love with them at first sight.
*The main female characters all are excessively attached to and loyal to their fathers.
*We have a sorely mismatched couple, with the woman being foolish and disagreeable and the man being made of finer and better stuff.
*We have the pathetic death of a simple yet honest innocent.
*And I could go on with instances and characters I have met lately in other Dickens novels. Suffice it to say, it does somewhat detract from a novel when so much can be anticipated. But it is interesting in the aspect that these repetitions perhaps reveal to us something of the psyche of the author.

Contrary to most Dickens novels, the beginning is very slow, taking many pages (actually about 200) to actually enter the main plot. The writing of this portion is somewhat unwieldy and difficult to follow. It took me a week to read this part. The center portion of the novel (about 350 pages)is much the best, with actual events, rather than philosophizing, and a very suspenseful story line. I read this part in a day. But then comes the ending(about 250 pages), the denouement, which is not credible or logical, given the previous behavior of the characters. What a letdown!

I believe if I had read this previous to, rather than subsequent to, several other of the less-well-known Dickens novels, I would have like it better.

Dickens has provided some really perceptive moments here, some memorable characterizations, some very funny bits, some very dramatic bits, some bits filled with pathos and melodrama, but this is not Dickens at his best.