Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

As he does in several other of his books, Murakami here frames his novel around more than one story and tells it in alternating chapters. We have the split-brained human data processor of "Hard-Boiled Wonderland," who encounters a mystery, goons who want to do him in, harrowing and dangerous adventures, and seductive females who try to entice him into bed. In the "End of the World" sections, we have a new arrival into a mysterious walled town who has been separated from his shadow and who is assigned the task of dreamreading from the skulls of unicorns. Of course, the author ultimately brings the stories together. In contrast to others of his novels, this time Murakami actually provides a pseudo-scientific rationale for the strange events. Strangely enough, I prefer his usual open-ended conclusions when no explanation is provided and the reader is left to wonder.

Murakami is tremendously popular among younger people in Japan, possibly because he is such a departure from the usual. He is funny; he is seemingly entranced with English language music and film and literature; he is not restrained, but over-the-top. Though he may bring to mind some serious considerations (here, the nature of the mind), he never uses a serious tone. He is whimsical; he is ultra-hip.

I really enjoy Murakami, even though I seldom understand what is going on, exactly.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

In this third book of the Travis McGee series, MacDonald takes his hero to a desert town in Arizona, where he meets a potential client who wants his help in recovering money she believes her husband stole from her. Just as he is deciding not to take the job, she is shot and killed right in front of him. Of course, rather than getting out of town as quickly as possible, Trav stays to unravel the mystery of who killed her.

I was unexpectedly impressed by the first novel in this detective series, The Deep Blue Good-Bye, finding it to be much superior for the genre. Unfortunately, the second and third (this one) of the series seem to me to be not much out of the ordinary--competently written, but with little else to recommend them.

A couple of things really disturbed me here: It is revealed that the dead client's husband habitually paddled her behind until she could barely sit down when she "misbehaved." But here's the disturbing part--neither Trav nor anyone else seems to find this in any way wrong or abusive. The other thing--a reclusive, obsessive, sexually repressed, and otherwise neurotic young woman in brought to normality through the healing power of Trav's lovemaking. It would seem that he should hire out as a sexual therapist rather than as a recoverer of lost things, because he is very good at healing damaged women through his sexual ministrations. These ideas about male-female relationship seem to be severely out of date even for 1964, the year the book was written.

A fast and effortless read with a bit of suspense. That's about it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Despite the title, this is not the story of Sarah Canary, the excessively ugly white woman speaking in indecipherable hoots and trills who wanders into the camp in the woods of a group of Chinese railroad workers. Rather, it is the story of those who react to the mystery of her appearance and actions, each imagining her as something different. Is she a demon lover, an escaped murderer, a wild woman raised apart from civilization, a woman driven to madness by a perfidious man, a creature of supernatural or extraterrestrial origin?

So this is the story of the young railroad worker Chin, who unaccountably feels responsible for Sarah Canary; of B.J., an escapee from a lunatic asylum, who follows Chin because with him he feels real; of Adelaide, a feminist lecturing about the right of a woman to enjoy sex, who believes Sarah to be the victim of a man's domineering. Opposing them in their efforts to protect Sarah Canary is Harold, a survivor of the Civil War's Andersonville Prison Camp, who wants to use her in a traveling freak show. Numerous adventures and picturesque characters ensue, as the trio of heroes tries to bring Sarah to a place of safety, thwarted by the war-damaged Harold. All of this takes place in the Northwest and in California right after the Civil War.

Many reviewers have caught the correspondences between this tale and The Wizard of Oz. (I wish I had not read reviews before reading the book, so that I could have seen if I would have caught it unaided.) We have Chin, who has suppressed his emotions; B.J., who has lost his wits; and Adelaide, who pretends to be brave but actually has no courage.

Many themes run through the novel (almost too many): A person can become an alien from mainstream society in many ways; stories are often archetypical and repeat themselves throughout the years; time may have progressed but attitudes not so much; women were, and still are, considered as almost a different species from men.

This book is often considered to be science fiction, but I can't imagine why, since Sarah Canary's origins, extraterrestrial or otherwise, are never revealed. Maybe she came from SOMEWHERE ELSE, but maybe not. I would classify it as magical realism, along with Murakami and suchlike.

The writing is often creative and includes some memorable bits, but as a whole, the story begins to drag somewhat with the piling on of adventures. Fowler did an excellent job of taking the reader into the mistrustful mind of Chin and the clouded mind of B.J., so that by the end we care about them. The ending is more than a little anticlimactic.

The final verdict--some good summer reading, but I will never read it again.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Light by M. John Harrison

I'm pretty sure this is a very good book, because I kept wanting to keep reading even though most of the time I had not a clue as to what was actually going on. One of the cover blurbs says, "M. John Harrison is the only writer on Earth equally attuned to the essential strangeness of both quantum physics and the attritional banalities of modern urban life." Out of all that, I got only the "essential strangeness" part.

Imagine a soap opera set in the future, with the plot twists depending on the principles of quantum physics. That pretty much sums up the novel. The writing is most skillful, however, and the story and characters are well developed, so that even a reader totally ignorant of science matters can become involved.

The plot has three strands: *Michael Kearney in 1999, a serial killer who develops the technology enabling deep space travel. He is frequently visited by an overcoated woman with a horse's skull for a head, known as the Shrander. *Ed Chianese in 2400, a ex-adventurer and space pilot who is addicted to alternate reality tanks. He becomes an employee in the circus of Sandra Shen (an almost-anagram of Shrander) as a prophet of the future. *Seria Mau in 2400, a modified and wired-in pilot on a K-ship, who is no longer quite human. She is searching for a Dr. Haends (another almost-anagram of Shrander) who may be able to help her regain her humanity. For most of the book, it is not apparent what, if anything, these stories have in common, but in the end everything all comes together. Except that I do not really understand exactly what happened. Maybe if I knew quantum physics. Or maybe not.

I am reminded of the Buffalo Springfield song from the '60s: "Something is happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear." I enjoyed the book anyway.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

Nothing can be so revealing and honest as a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a child, without the filter that adulthood and cultural expectations provide. J.G.Ballard is entirely successful in capturing that point of view in this novel, probably because this is a semi-autobiographical fictional account of his experiences when he was himself a child.

Eleven-year-old Jim is living with his English parents in Shanghai, China, when Pearl Harbor is bombed and the American and English residents officially become the enemies of the Japanese, who are already established there, having previously conquered the Chinese. Separated from his parents, young Jim lives for a time by breaking into deserted European residences and eating all the food left, before being seemingly befriended by a pair of American merchant seamen, who try to sell him. Eventually surrendering to the Japanese, he finds himself to be safest and happiest in an internment camp. When the atomic bombs fall and the war in over, Jim finds that World War II may be over but that World War III has begun, as China falls into the chaos of bandits, Chinese Nationalists, and Chinese Communists. He realizes that he longs for the haven of the internment camp and the Japanese.

Even though the experiences recounted here are not identical to Ballard's--he was indeed interned, but with his parents--one wonders if he still shares the feelings of Jim, about whom it is said, "Poor fellow, you'll never believe the war is over."

It is the honesty of Ballard in his characterization of Jim that this novel rises to the extraordinary and becomes real. His Jim is neither a helpless victim nor a self-sacrificing hero, but a realistic child with a survival instinct which drives him to ingratiate himself to whomever offers the most benefits. He is even puzzled by the self-sacrificial actions of one of his fellow internees. He behaves as I would expect a real-life resourceful child to behave who is without supervision and placed in brutal circumstances.

An award-winning movie was made of this novel many years ago. As I remember it, the movie was much more focused on the action and presented a much more heroic picture of the boy Jim. In contrast, the focus of this novel is on people and how they react to the chaos of war, which is most often in a survival-of-the-fittest manner without the patina of modern civilized behavior.

One last observation: This book was written in 1984 about the author's memories of 1941-45, and includes on its last page this statement: "One day China would punish the rest of the world and take a frightening revenge." Now that's chilling.

All in all, a very interesting book.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Michael O'Halloran by Jean Stratton Porter

This review comes with a life story. Skip over this paragraph if you wish. When I was in elementary school my tiny home town did not have a public library, nor did my elementary school (Can you believe that? It was in the 1950s.). Since I loved to read (or maybe lived to read), I often turned to my mother's books which she had kept since she was a child. A rich aunt had given her many very nicely bound books, including (as I remember it)most of Louisa May Alcott, classics by Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson and suchlike, the Penrod books by Booth Tarkington, and a set of Jean Stratton Porter novels. Out of all those, I most loved Porter's Michael O'Halloran; I read it multiple times, maybe 6 or 8. I still remember the plot, after these many years. So as I was thinking of books to buy for my granddaughters (9 and 12), I looked it up to see if it was still in print. Yes! In a 2007 trade paperback printing! I just had to read it again.

Now comes the sad part--although I once loved this novel above all others, I have now grown too cynical to fall into Porter's world, with its noble and wise poor people and unhappy and selfish rich people, and the saving power of nature. Of course, one would perhaps not expect my 1950s pre-teen self to have developed cynicism, but (sadly) I am afraid that today even my young granddaughters will not believe that such people and such simple solutions really exist. Oh, what a world, what a world.

Jean Stratton Porter was extremely popular in the early part of the 20th Century, estimated at one time to have 50 million readers. Although her novels were written for adults, because they are easy to read and include children in the cast of characters, they became popular for children, as well. Their good characters are invariably very, very good (and wise), and their characters with grievous faults are invariably persuaded to change their ways, most often by only a contact with nature and a brief talking-to by one of the good, wise characters. Don't we all wish the world was this simple. When I was 10, I believed it could be, I guess.

Michael O'Holloran is a plucky orphan boy of about 15, making his way by selling newspapers, who finds and "adopts" a beautiful little orphaned waif who has been severely mistreated and who cannot walk. Determined that she will not end up in the "Orphings' Home, to be raised in droves, not flocks, nor herds," Micky receives help in his parenting endeavor from kind, understanding adults who recognize his sterling qualities. Along the way, his instinctive wisdom helps the helpers to better their lives.

If one could suspend disbelief, this unrealistically hopeful story might be touching and uplifting. I just can't manage that any more, but perhaps less jaded readers might be able to. I will try it out on my granddaughters.

(Today, Jean Stratton Porter is most well-remembered for her novel Girl of the Limberlost, which has been adapted for film more than once.)

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Into one medium-length novel Connie Willis has managed to include time travel, a mystery that needs to be solved, a look at privileged class Victorian England, a comedy of manners, three love stories, many allusions to and quotes from other respected authors, two extraordinary butlers, a hideously ugly piece of Victorian art, and a lovable cat (to say nothing of the dog), all written in imitation of the style of Victorian humor writer Jerome K. Jerome in the travel book Three Men in a Boat (which was subtitled To Say Nothing of the Dog).

The hero, Ned Henry, is a time traveling historian poking about in 1940s Coventry Cathedral looking for the Bishop's Bird Stump when he is called in to return a cat which has been inadvertently brought back from Victorian England by another time traveler, the ravishing Verity Kindle. Together they must attempt to correct her mistake before it alters history, with who knows what consequences. All sorts of wacky misadventures ensue.

This novel is classified as science fiction, and it won the Hugo and Locus awards in 1999, but it certainly does not follow the usual genre conventions. I would classify it as literary humor.

It is not necessary to have read the Jerome K. Jerome book to understand this novel, but a reading of that one certainly increases the humor of this one. Luckily, I just read Jerome's book a few months ago. It also helps to have read or at least to be familiar with the writings of Wilke Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P.G. Wodehouse, as they are all heavily referenced.

I am most impressed with Connie Willis's cleverness and ingenuity. This is a delightful book.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

AEgypt by John Crowley

Crowley's Little, Big is one of my favorite books, so I was prepared to love this one, too. Sadly, I did not. Maybe I just expected too much.

The plot is rather complicated and fragmented, telling variously about historian Pierce Moffett in the 1970s; Peter Dees in the 1500's (a real historical figure who advised Queen Elizabeth and talked to angels with the aid of a crystal), Giordano Bruno in the 1500's (another historical figure, a learned monk who was burned for heresy for his views about God and the structure of the universe). All these threads are brought together when Pierce discovers an unfinished manuscript by another writer, which expresses in a novel the ideas that Pierce has formed to write a history of the ancient magic which has been lost from the modern world, which perhaps may be returning. He believes, "...there may be more than one history of the world."

Brought into this are philosophical and historical bits concerning hermeticism (from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, which concern magic and the occult), Gnosticism, Platonic thought, Rosicrucians, Aleister Crowley, astrology, the Tarot,and many other esoteric matters. For a reader not well versed in these subjects, even partial understanding must include some time spent on Wikipedia.

In Little, Big Crowley convinced me that the world of faery might exist within my own world, unsuspected by most. In AEgypt Crowley never convinced me of the existence of alternate histories, mostly supplying just academic theory and information. The magic was lost.

This novel reminded me of nothing so much as Valis by Philip K. Dick. That book also included many references to the same occult and esoteric matters. But here's the difference: While I did not believe in the world of Philip K. Dick, I believe that he believed in it. John Crowley does not seem to believe in it, only to know of it intellectually.

This is the first of four books in the AEgypt cycle, and evidently, one must read all four to reach some kind of conclusion. This one does not really end; it just stops. I don't believe I will read the rest.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Joyland by Stephen King

After being disappointed in the last few King books, I am excited to say that I believe this new novel is one of the best he's ever written.

Those who anticipate a horror novel will perhaps be disappointed, since this one has no really creepy bits and only a touch of the supernatural. Admittedly, King is the Modern Master of Scarey; the novel It gave me bad dreams and I still feel anxious when I think about it. But he is capable of excelling in other genres as well: post-apocalyptic (The Stand), psychological thriller(Misery), fantasy (The Dark Tower series), western (again The Dark Tower), historical (11/22/63), mystery (The Colorado Kid), and coming-of-age (many of his novels, most notably the novella "The Body").

Joyland is a combination of genres, as are many King books. It's a mystery thriller with a few supernatural aspects combined with a very convincing coming-of-age story. The hero (in every sense of the word) is a 21-year-old college student with a heart which has been broken by his first love who takes a summer job at an old-style amusement park, where he encounters a mystery, perhaps a ghost, danger, and the untimely deaths of innocents. Most of all he grows up.

King has an uncanny ability to delineate characters who seem so real you feel as if you could pick them out in a crowd. He is surprisingly adept, at age 60+, at conveying what it feels like to be young and confused. These talents are on display here in spades.

Many would denigrate King and classify him as a genre hack, but if a reader is looking for a good story with believable characters, an understanding of real people and how they behave in situations of stress, prose that is highly readable and natural, and even important themes that are relevant to real life, Stephen King, when he is at his best, is your man.