Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eleven short reviews of November-December books

In November my computer came down with a virus which necessitated a visit to an expert and a hefty bill. Then came Thanksgiving and a weekend of cooking and feasting. After that I had to stay with my daughter for a bit while some work was being completed on my rented home. And then I visited my son in Phoenix for a couple of weeks, coming back to home and computer a few days before Christmas. During all this hurly-burly, I had little opportunity to write reviews of books, but I did have much time to read. All this is to say that rather than writing full reviews of the books I read the last part of November and all of December, I am bundling short reviews of all the books in one posting.

*Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is a somewhat unusual writer in that he is capable of writing well in two distinct styles. His most well known novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, are both surreal, filled with magic realism, Japanese-style. The novel which first brought him super stardom in his native Japan, Norwegian Wood, is realistic and wistful. This novel is written in the latter style.

The protagonist in a single professional, in his thirties, who is lonely, detached, and filled with self-doubt, due in large part to an incident which took place when he was in his teens. He is helped by a young woman to realize that he can have a happier future if he better understands his past. The prose is tinged with sadness and loss, even as it ends on a hopeful note. I have to admit I like the surreal style much the best.

*Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The best adjective I can think of to describe this novel is hallucinogenic. In tone it is very much like Apocalypse Now, Coppola's film about the war in Vietnam which used the plot of Conrad's Heart of Darkness as inspiration.

This also concerns Vietnam, but concentrates more on the shadowy behind-the-scenes actions of the CIA than on the soldiers on the ground. It is cynical, frightening, and extremely powerful, most likely a masterpiece. That being said, I don't believe everyone would enjoy it, maybe because it manages to make the reading experience more than a bit uncomfortable. This is not a feel-good book, for sure. (Winner of the National Book Award.)

*From Here to Eternity by James Jones
Second reading; first read in the '70s
Another big war novel, this one taking place just as World War II begins. Written in 1951, it is based on the army experiences of the author and features a very realistic style, including much dialogue, as it follows several main characters who are stationed in Hawaii just prior to the Pearl Harbor attack.

In addition to some engrossing plot lines, Jones gives us a glimpse of the politics and inadequacies of the command structure. Although a little dated in some respects, the book is still impossible to put down. (Winner of the National Book Award and included in the Modern Library Top 100.)

*Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies
A comedic novel about a group of amateur actors in a smallish Canadian town who are mounting a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Quietly amusing, with characters who are only slightly exaggerated versions of people of very familiar types. This is Book 1 of Davies' Salterton Trilogy; his later novels which make up the Deptford Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy are much more accomplished.

*Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies
Book 2 of the Salterton Trilogy. This one concerns the mischief which ensues when a spurious notice in the local newspaper reports the engagement of two prominent young people. The small-town politics and sensibilities provide the subject for gentle comedy.

*Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
This is my favorite Trollope novel out of the several I have read, but since he wrote so many (47), I still have many to look forward to. He was a contemporary of Dickens, but his books are much less melodramatic, much more gentle in their humor, depending on a more realistic depiction of the foibles of humanity.

This novel follows the love problems of three women, all of whom must make a choice between two men. In all three cases, one of the options is dependable, even though perhaps a bit boring, and the other option is more dangerously exciting and sexy. (Although Trollope doesn't actually spell out the sexy part, it is certainly implied.) Will reason and prudence prevail, or will the bad boys win? A very amusing look at the upper classes in Victorian England.

*NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
(Pronounced "Nosferatu") A supernatural thriller by Stephen King's son. His villain is a vampire of souls, who abducts children to an alternative world which contains Christmasland (where everything is fun, all the time), robbing them of their humanity. The results will remind you of those spoiled, cruel, self-centered kids whose parents have granted their every wish. I found that to be kind of funny, although it probably wasn't meant to be.

I didn't find anything very original here; in fact, several ideas were apparently taken from Hill's father. But it was suspenseful and fast-paced and the characters were well drawn.

It must be hard to have literary aspirations and be the offspring of a wildly successful writer.

*The City by Dean Koontz
Koontz is a very prolific writer, one of the world's most successful in terms of revenue. I have yet to read anything of his which would justify this level of acclaim, but maybe I have just not read the right books yet. This one is a suspense thriller with a slight intrusion of the supernatural. The plot centers on a young black musical prodigy and his family, who become involved with some political terrorists. I don't know why Koontz named it The City. Moderately amusing to read but immediately forgettable.

*Innocence by Dean Koontz
Another Koontz thriller, with a big dose of the supernatural thrown in, including the fact that just a glimpse of the protagonist causes ordinary people to attack him out of revulsion and rage. We don't find out the details of his appearance until the end. I found the whole plot to be fragmented and illogical.

*Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
Second reading; first read in the '90s.
When I am visiting someone and run out of the books I brought with me, I borrow from the host bookshelf; thus I chose to read this novel for a second time. It is #5 of The Dark Tower books, a series I love, despite the fact that it is highly melodramatic and often pure hokum. Maybe that's why I love it. In this episode, Roland the gunslinger and his ka-tet of helpers are asked to rescue a rural community from man-like "wolves" who kidnap about half their children once a generation. The plot line is obviously lifted from numerous western movies, but that's OK. It still works.

*Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
This book completes my reading of all the Dickens novels. I would put this close to the bottom in my ranking of favorites. In the first half of the book the plot centers around a mystery and a couple of love stories. The second half focuses on the Gordon anti-popery riots of 1780, with an almost incidental solution to the mystery and conclusion to the love stories. The two halves make for a very uneasy fit. Plus, the solution to the mystery is easily anticipated, and none of the characters are very interesting.

One interesting aspect: Dickens' depiction of the make-up of the rioters would apply just as well today, I would venture to say. What may start as a peaceful demonstration by people of conscience is easily turned into a riot by various varieties of low-life with very different motivations.

For inquiring minds who want to know, my favorite Dickens novel is Bleak House and my least favorite is The Old Curiosity Shop.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado

It's always good to be reminded that no matter how many hardships you face and how insurmountable they seem, someone out there has been dealt a worse hand and has come out whole on the other side. This is the true story of how a planeload of 45 rugby players and their friends crashed high in the Andes mountains in the '70s and despite all odds 16 managed to survive. A previous book, Alive by Piers Paul, recounted the same story from a third person viewpoint, based on his interviews with the survivors and their families. The author of this book is one of the survivors, and thus his account differs by personalizing the experience.

At the time of the incident, much attention was focused on the fact that the survivors consumed the bodies of those killed in the crash and in a subsequent avalanche. From Parrado's viewpoint this sensationalistic detail assumes its rightful place as necessary and unavoidable if they hoped to survive. His attention is more focused on the endurance of the cold and snow, the dangers of the trek over the mountain, and the state of mind of the men.

I found it particularly interesting that the men depended on different inspirations to give them the will to survive. Some were sustained by religious belief, some by thoughts of sweethearts. For Parrado, the memory of the love of his father kept him from lapsing into despair.

I don't often read nonfiction, so I don't have much background for comparisons, but I believe this is better than most. It is certainly inspiring.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Falconer by John Cheever

Even though this is obviously a masterful novel, elegantly written and often darkly humorous, it is not one that I really enjoyed reading. I believe that's because the central character and his angst are so foreign to my experience that I cannot empathize or sympathize with him or even understand the problems which shaped his life.

Falconer is the prison where the central character, the drug-addicted Farragut, ends up after killing his brother (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not). The story follows him through the dehumanizing prison experience, with flashbacks to his former life as a university professor. Actually, very little of actual prison life is described and what is told is very mild in comparison to what one understands to be prison life today. As I perceive it, the prison is meant to be symbolic of America, with its hypocritical expectations of behavior and its soul-destroying atmosphere. The novel was written in 1975, and perhaps this is the way many white, upper-class, educated males felt back then, but it is not a mind set that I can really understand. For the record, I have never really understood Saul Bellow either. Maybe I am not perceptive enough or intelligent enough to feel angst.

I expect many would appreciate this novel more than I did. It is certainly well written, though curiously devoid of emotional content.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Here's yet another YA book recommended by my granddaughters. This is a sequel to Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and like that one, features vintage photographs. Whereas the first book was intended to be somewhat scary, this one is more of an action thriller, with the group of children facing one danger right after another. As such, it is a fun read, although again the author seems unable to decide what age group to appeal to. The story, the language, and the structure seem to be targeted to a child of 8-12, yet the novel continues its romance story between two of the older children.

As fantasy novels go, even children's fantasy novels, I would say that Riggs's books are grade B. The rules for his created world are not quite logical, and he keeps adding new rules to fit his story line. One also feels that he shapes his story to fit the photos rather than the other way around.

Still, if young people enjoy it and it encourages reading, it's all to the good.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Here's yet another of my granddaughters' (ages 10 and 13) favorite books that they recommended that I read, and it's a real keeper. Out of all the books they have steered me to, I believe this is the most well done. It's dystopian fiction of sorts, set in a future when the the United States and Mexico are separated by a wide strip of poppy-growing land called Opium. The central character is a young boy, Matt, who discovers at age 6 that he is the clone of the most powerful drug lord of all, El Patron. Considered less than human and despised by El Patron's family, Matt is forced to flee for his life when the old man dies, only to land in more trouble in the borderlands of what was once called Mexico.

What makes this better than most YA books is the attention to character building, the believability and logic of the created world, and the non-preachy consideration of serious issues. I would fault it only for the inclusion of a romance, since Matt is only 14 when the book ends. That seems a bit young for romantic entanglement, but I suppose the author felt it obligatory to appeal to her target audience.

The House of the Scorpian won the National Book Award for Children's Literature and several other honors. I recommend it for age 10 and up. It can be enjoyed by adults as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

If this novel were by an unknown author, I doubt that it would have made much of a splash at all. Since it was written by the author of the Harry Potter series, of course it attracted all kinds of attention and undoubtedly sold very well, despite the fact that it's not earth-shaking, groundbreaking, spirit lifting, thought inspiring, or page-turning. It's not a bad novel by any means, but it's not an especially good one either. It's actually pretty depressing in its picture of the people in a small English village.

The action follows several families as they interact with each other, centering around the death of a leading citizen and the subsequent election to fill his place on the Parish Council. The townfolk are variously revealed to be self centered, full of racial and class prejudice, petty, and sometimes just plain mean. Many have compared this to novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot in their portrayals of small town life, but both those authors convey a fondness for their characters even while revealing their flaws. Rowling conveys contempt for her adult characters, reserving sympathy for the teenagers, particularly the most down trodden of the lot. She does have a great talent for portraying the confusion and agony of the teenage years.

Rowling is not a literary stylist by any means, but the writing is serviceable and readable. The plot is mildly suspenseful, though it does grow a bit contrived and melodramatic toward the end. The strength of the novel lies in the character portrayal, and all these characters are memorable and believable, even if most are unpleasant and unlikable.

It must be hard for an author to try to follow up such universally popular and acclaimed books as the Harry Potter series. This was not a bad effort, but I believe she is capable of better.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan's most recent publication is as much a polemic against religion as it is a novel. The central character, Fiona Maye, is an English family court judge who rules on matters pertaining to the welfare of children. Among those cases mentioned is one involving two Jewish girls whose divorced parents cannot agree on their schooling because of their religious differences, one being Orthodox and the other not. Another case involves a Catholic couple who refuse to have their conjoined twins separated to save the life of one, considering it to be the will of God that both should die rather than one be sacrificed. Her latest case, the one central to the novel, concerns a Jehovah's Witness boy who needs a blood transfusion to survive, and both his parents and the boy himself (he is almost 18) refuse on religious grounds. McEwan makes abundantly clear that he perceives decisions based on religious belief to be wrongheaded, his wise judge always favoring rational action over emotional reaction. However, the usually exacting and stable judge is undergoing a crisis of her own, leading her to react emotionally and make a misstep, with unexpected consequences.

This is a short novel, but McEwan has previously proven over and over that he can pack great power into a few pages. I did not feel that power in this one. The subplot about the judge's marital problems is given much space, but appears to be included primarily to account for her being uncharacteristically out of balance. (And maybe to flesh out the novel to just over 200 pages, so that it's not a novella.) The whole thing has an almost allegorical feel, a kind of reverse Pilgrim's Progress, with the characters encountering the perils of religious belief and emotionalism on the way to a rational atheism.

Do not make the mistake of presuming I judge this novel harshly because I agree or disagree with McEwan's attitude toward religious belief. I just object to novels whose main thrust is to preach to me, no matter what the subject.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

One of the lead characters in this 6-part novel is the middle-aged writer Crispin Hershey who gets a very bad review of his latest book, Echo Must Die, which reads, in part:

"So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche' that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?"

All of the above would apply as aptly to this book as it did to the fictional novel. The question becomes, is Mitchell recognizing his own shortcomings and making fun of himself, or is he realizing that these are criticisms others might have of his latest and making a preemptive strike?

I would add a fourth critical comment of my own: David Mitchell is a pitiable amateur when it comes to describing a wizard-type duel and should leave this type of storytelling to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.

Other than the above annoyances, I really enjoyed this book.

Mitchell is a master of storytelling and making characters seem real, as he has proven in all his previous novels. He returns to a format here similar to that in Cloud Atlas, with multiple stories concerning seemingly diverse characters who, as it turns out, are all connected. The thread holding them all together is the character Holly who appears in each story, first as a 15-year-old runaway and last as a 70+ grandmother. Also running throughout is the account of a war between two groups of semi-immortals, with one faction being of the soul-devouring kind much similar to those created by Stephen King in his novel Dr. Sleep.

When Mitchell is writing about the normal humans (the "bone clocks"), he meets and often exceeds reader expectations, delivering engrossing stories about four diverse characters: the aforementioned Holly; a conflicted war reporter who is torn between fatherhood and an addiction to the dangers of war; an amoral Cambridge student who charms, cheats, and steals his way to wealth and status; and the middle-aged writer on a downward slide who plots revenge against the critic whom he blames for his decline in popularity.

I just wish Mitchell had come up with a better framing device, because his war between the two supernatural groups is not at all believable and is sometimes downright silly.

I am often much more critical of a favored writer who I believe has failed to live up to previous accomplishments than I would be of a writer of whom I have no expectations. That is the case here. Mitchell is always rewarding, even when he is not at his best.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My 11-year-old and 13-year-old granddaughters both recommended this book, and since I expect them to read the books I suggest to them, I always read the books they recommend to me. The cover is outstandingly full of promise for a creepy read, featuring an old-fashioned black and white photo of a little girl apparently levitating. Unfortunately, the book never does deliver.

The expected thrills and chills never really materialize. Sure there's a kind of monster who makes two brief appearances, and we have a chase through a bog, but it's never very exciting or suspenseful. In addition, I felt that the author never really pinpoints one target audience. The central character is a teenager, and a teen romance is included, but otherwise the book reads as if it is written for the tween set, more in line with the Goosebumps series.

This is a book with a gimmick -- the text is interspersed with vintage photos picturing the supposed characters. The photos are truly fascinating, but it often seems that characters are inserted into the plot just because the author happened to find a quirky photo.

Still, my granddaughters liked it so perhaps I am too harsh in my judgments or reviewing the book from too adult a viewpoint. The concept of including the photos is interesting, and, as I said, the cover is dynamite.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

One would think that Elvis Presley, who possessed talent and great charisma and wealth and unparalleled fame, would be a person to be envied. However, after reading this book I don't believe anyone could envy him. This is a story of one of the saddest lives imaginable.

Guralnick is not one who knew Elvis, but he has obviously compiled such a wealth of information from those who were with Elvis at various times that it must be believed that this is a very accurate and unbiased picture. The author offers few judgments of his own, instead presenting the what's and who's of events, letting the reader draw his own conclusions.

Any criticism I have of this biography would be that Guralnick erred by presenting too much information. For example, what musicians played on the various concerts and recording sessions and their backgrounds may be of interest to music insiders, but the information adds nothing to the general reader's understanding of Elvis and actually detracts from the narrative.

I was a typical teenage Elvis fan when he first became popular. I never got to see him in person, but I had an Elvis scrapbook and tacked photos on my wall and had a huge fight with my parents because they made me go to church on the Sunday night that he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Along with thousands of others, I was crushed when he was drafted into the army. But after he returned, I no longer perceived him in the same way. I often wondered if that was because I had changed, he had changed, or just that the times changed. He seemed to me to become a caricature of himself. Of course, before his death he became just pitiful and I was embarrassed for him.

These are some of the conclusions I reached after reading this biography:

**Elvis was a seriously flawed human being, who I think would be diagnosed nowadays as having ADHD and being neurotic, particularly in his obsession with his mother and his fear of being alone. His involvement in prescription drugs exacerbated tendencies which were already present.

**His fabled generosity (I should go back and count the number of luxury cars he gave away.) was not so much from goodness of heart as it was an effort to buy love and loyalty.

**His manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker, contributed greatly to his decline by considering only the money-making potential of projects, ignoring any questions of artistic integrity. This was particularly true of the movies Elvis made. Between Parker's own gambling debts and Elvis's extravagant spending habits, the ailing and drug-addicted star was almost literally worked to death because of their need for more and more money.

**As was true in the case of Michael Jackson, Elvis was enabled in his drug addiction by various doctors who continued to prescribe for him. Both super stars, of course, died as a result.

I would recommend this book to anyone who was ever a fan of The King.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Martin Chuzzlewitt by Charles Dickens

Call to mind the most hypocritical, selfish, self-serving person you know, and Charles Dickens has portrayed him to a perfection in his character Seth Pecksniff, one of the two major villains in this long (900+ pages) novel. Many, many others in the large cast of characters are afflicted with the defect of selfishness, but Pecksniff tops them all, because he is able to fool most people most of the time into believing that he is actually pious and self-sacrificing.

As to the hero of the novel, the titular Martin Chuzzlewitt is actually one of the selfish ones, at least in the beginning. But in the world of Dickens, often disappointment and physical hardship can cause a character to change, and that is what happens to Martin. Of course, to a regular reader of Dickens the transformation is not unexpected.

Also unsurprisingly, the best behaved and most unselfish characters are portrayed as being from humble stations in life and perhaps less intellectually endowed than the rest. And don't forget the women -- all the admirable ones are young and beautiful and small and dainty and completely dedicated to providing happiness and comfort to their men.

Yes, Dickens is predictable; yes, he is often over-the-top in his exaggeration of character; yes, he is often heavy-handed in his satire of human foibles. But he is almost always amusing and fun to read, and many of his characters, particularly the villains, are exactly like people you know, only more so.

Most of this novel seems planned out from the beginning, with apparently extraneous episodes actually containing clues about the eventual conclusion, except for one obvious exception: Martin Chuzzlewitt's stay in America. Obviously, Dickens' recently completed visit to the United States had not left a very good impression because he uses this wholly unnecessary side plot to portray the country in a very bad light indeed, with especial scorn for a population which boasts often and loudly of the freedom of its citizens, all the while being wholeheartedly supportive of slavery.

This is not the best of Dickens, but it is not the worst of Dickens, either. The characters are memorable; the names of the characters are a hoot; the story is somewhat suspenseful despite being predictable as to the outcome. It does take a considerable time commitment, but it is well worth your time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien

When I bought this book, I did not realize I was about to read a war novel, because the back-of-the-book blurbs led me to believe that it was about the disappearance of a wife and the subsequent suspicion that the husband had killed her, similar in content to the current bestseller Gone Girl. Those elements were certainly part of the plot, but the book concerns itself with much more: the violence of war (in this case, the war in Vietnam), the aftermath of the violence in the lives of the participants, the suppression of secrets and the damage it causes. It's part mystery thriller, part love story, part a harsh picture of war, and part (a large part) an examination of the darkness in one man's soul.

O'Brien constructs his novel most effectively, with a narration of the events by a supposed biographer or reporter, interspersed with sections titled "Evidence" and sections titled "Hypothesis." The reader is given several alternatives to consider as to what really happened. Some readers will most likely feel cheated that no sure solution is provided, but it appears that sometimes the truth is slippery, even to the participants in a drama. What or whom do we ever know for sure? Can even our own minds bend or suppress the truth we have experienced?

In the Lake of the Woods is written in a deceptively simple and straightforward style, but the subject matter and its implications are anything but simple and straightforward. That's part of the genius of this book.

Also highly recommended are O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, both concerning the war in Vietnam.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

This World War II novel, which was published in 1948, has many discernible faults, and yet it has undeniable power as it follows one platoon of foot soldiers who are fighting for control of a Japanese-held Pacific island. Mailer intersperses realistic and detailed accounts of their endeavors with background vignettes of the individual solders, so that the reader understands something of why they behave as they do. One thing they all have in common is an almost debilitating fear in the face of danger and a deep weariness of body and soul. That aspect seems very realistic.

What does not seem realistic is the misogynistic attitudes ascribed to the men. All seem to mistrust and denigrate women to such an extent that the reader strongly suspects them to be reflecting Mailer's personal attitude. (True Fact: Mailer stabbed one of his wives many years after this novel was written.) However, in Mailer's story the men aren't portrayed in any better light, all appearing to be somewhat despicable and deeply flawed in various ways. So maybe Mailer was a misanthropist, not just a misogynist.

One thing that takes getting used to is the writing style, which is essentially one declarative sentence after another, all structured the same. Eventually this even seems suitable because it conveys a sense of journalism rather than fiction and makes the narrative seem more true.

Some episodes stand out as so truthfully told that I could see them in my mind's eye and feel them in my body -- an ambush at a river, carrying a wounded man miles through the jungle, climbing a mountain through weariness past enduring.

I would say this is an anti-war novel only in the sense that war is just one more symptom of man's absorption with self and with maintaining the image he wishes to present to the world.

This novel was ranked as #51 on the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I would not have placed it on that list myself, but it is well worth reading.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick

If you, like me, were a teenager in the 1950s, and if you, like me, were totally in love back then with Elvis Presley, then you will be fascinated with this detailed biography which traces his life from birth through his entry into the army. However, if none of the above applies to you, I believe you might find it more than a bit tedious, because the author provides such a detailed account.

It seems to me that the most difficult task of the biographer who has done a prodigious amount of research is to pick and choose among the many facts at hand to provide as true a picture as possible of the personality and character of the subject. Guralnick has included so many details (who was present on such and such an occasion, where they went, etc.) that Elvis almost disappears into the background.

What does emerge is an Elvis who was a decent "white trash" Southern boy who just happened to be in the right place with the right people at the right time and wasn't at all prepared to handle the money and adulation which transpired. Other insights -- he was restless (ADHD?) and never still; he seemingly couldn't handle being alone, always surrounding himself with relatives, friends, and girlfriends; he considered himself a godly person, not smoking or drinking or using obscene language, yet he was by all accounts sexually promiscuous; he claimed his moves on stage were not designed to be sexually suggestive (I'm not buying that one, not for a minute.); he had a very strong relationship with his mother (to the point of obsession).

I will certainly be interested in reading Guralnick's second volume about Elvis, Careless Love, because I have always wondered why my one-time idol seemingly became almost a caricature of himself. Was it just the changing times, or what?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

London Fields by Martin Amis

It seems to me that clever and darkly humorous books come in two varieties. The first sort is absorbing enough that you don't think about how clever it is until after you have finished. You are so immersed in the content that the author's wit and erudition don't intrude but serve to enhance the rest of the package. Catch 22 would be an example. The second sort of book seems to be not much more than a vehicle for the author to show off. The plot and the characters are all incidental and only serve as a framework to showcase the author's self-perceived cleverness. This novel, London Fields, would be an example.

The plot, as such, is a mystery of sorts, as a sexy femme fatale who is intent on orchestrating her own murder manipulates two potential murderers -- a lowlife petty crook and a naively romantic rich man -- through homemade pornography (for the first) and sexual teasing (for the second), while confiding her plans to the narrator, a blocked writer who is using the situation as the plot for his first novel. The setting is a London at a time when the climate has gone crazy and the political situation seems headed toward a nuclear Crisis. The mystery is how she will accomplish becoming a murderee and who the actual murderer will be.

That sounds mildly interesting, but in actuality it all becomes quite boring, because nobody behaves as real people behave, not even remotely. Yes, novelists very often exaggerate their characters for humorous effect, but they (the characters) surely should bear some similarity to actual human beings.

I believe that the personality of an author almost always comes through, particularly in fiction. My main problem with this novel is, I think, that I don't believe I would like Martin Amis, as a person. I imagine him as arrogant, self-involved, mean-spirited, and pretentious. That's the message this novel left with me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Books Read Since July (That I Can Remember)

The Circle by Dave Eggers -- A story warning about the dangerous tendencies inherent in social media. Heavy handed in its preaching, with an unsympathetic heroine, the book is too simplistic to be very effective. It does have a fairly interesting story line and will make a hit movie, I'm sure.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry -- I'm sorry to say that I was disappointed in the newest novel from one of my favorite living writers. It's the tale of an Irish lad and the love of his life, and how it all went downhill. This one lacked the beautiful lyricism and strong emotional appeal of his previous books. That being said, it is still better than most.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace -- A great many intellectual types believe this novel to be a work of genius, and maybe they are right, because I kept compulsively reading it despite its 1100 pages and its apparently disconnected multiple plots, and with my packing and moving going on at the same time. It's about American addictions of all kinds: to drugs, to sex, to causes, to entertainment on the home screen. In the end most of the multiple plot lines come together, but then none of the stories really conclude. They just stop. Also, the novel has about 70 pages of footnotes at the end, in very small type, and several crucial plot elements are only found there; however, many of the footnotes contain only technical information about narcotics and tennis and other extraneous information. And then the novel is full to overflowing with $2 words which have to be looked up, along with page-long sentences and some rather iffy grammar. And still I couldn't stop reading. Somehow the sum adds up to more than the parts. Maybe that's a sign of genius.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King -- Something a bit different from the King of Horror: this is a detective novel, with no hint of the supernatural. As it turns out, plenty of creepy evil can occur in real life. Good characterization, but the whole novel seems pretty predictable. Not Mr. King's best effort.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry -- A children's book, recommended to me by my granddaughter. The author is the same Dave Barry who is a well-known newspaper humorist, and it is, naturally, laced with gentle humor. It is also quite ingenious, being a prequel to Peter Pan, explaining quite logically how all the various elements of the Peter Pan scenario (Tinker Bell, the mermaids, Captain Hook, the Indians, etc.) came about. Recommended for ages 7-12, but also enjoyable for adults because it is so well done.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson -- A slightly fictionalized history of a very creepy time and place -- Germany in the early '30s when Hitler was consolidating his power. It follows the American ambassador to Germany and his family, particularly his sexually liberated daughter, as they begin to understand just how threatening Hitler's Germany has come to be, both to the outside world and to many of its own citizens. A bit dry, despite its sensational subject matter.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon -- Second reading; first read a few years ago. Chabon seems to have such fun with his books, coming up with all kinds of improbable scenarios. This one takes place in a fictional Alaska which has served as a temporary homeland for Jews. The protagonist is a dysfunctional policeman who is trying to solve the murder of one of the fellow residents of his flea-bag hotel. It's funny, it's touching, it's exciting, it's typical Chabon.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand -- What an extraordinary biography! It's the life story of Louie Zamperini --juvenile delinquent, Olympic runner, World War II flyer, crash survivor in a lifeboat in the Pacific, captive in a Japanese prisoner of war detention camp. How he survived despite almost unimaginable obstacles and came out whole ("unbroken") would be unbelievable as fiction, but Hillenbrand provides such a prodigious number of facts garnered from witnesses that we must believe it is all true. She is also quite a writer, and the book is compulsively readable and inspirational to a remarkable degree.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn -- This highly popular novel (as sold at a Walmart near you) is part thriller and part examination of a dysfunctional marriage, part almost pulp fiction and part literary fiction (or at least with pretensions in that direction). A young wife goes missing and is presumed to be dead and all clues point to her husband as the main suspect (of course), but things may not be quite as they would first seem. At this point (about halfway through), author Flynn switches gears to begin the dysfunctional, more literary part of her novel. All in all, I would say that the book ends up as kind of a hodgepodge mess, with a particularly ineffective ending.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green -- Recommended to me by my 13-year-old granddaughter; Green is her favorite author. A breezily amusing short novel about teen romantic issues. All of the characters' dialogue reflects the way certain intelligent young teenagers aspire to talk -- all hip and ironic and sarcastic. I can see why Green appeals to this audience.

The Comedians by Graham Greene -- Third reading; first read maybe 15 years ago. I love Graham Greene -- whether he is writing a serious novel or one of his self-titled "entertainments," he always examines issues of good and evil and of conscience and of religious belief, all written flawlessly. This one takes place in Haiti during the reign of Papa Doc, and concerns a romance of sorts and a con man of sorts, against a backdrop of political terror. The best thing I can say about Greene is that his characters always seem totally real.

This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene -- Third reading; first read in the '80s. This is one of Greene's "entertainments," a thriller about political assassination and revenge. As such it is fast paced and suspenseful, but there's more to it than that. The anti-hero central character, the assassin Raven, is portrayed in such a skillful way that the reader feels both sympathy and disgust for him. As always, Greene can be appreciated on more than one level.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene -- Third reading; first read in the '80s. The most obviously humorous of Greene's "entertainments," this tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba who is recruited to be a spy by the British Secret Service. Desperate for money to support the extravagances of his daughter, he accepts the post and simply makes up information and even plans for new weapons to give to his handler. It's all quite cynical and perhaps uncomfortably close to the actual bungling of bureaucracies everywhere.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene -- Fourth reading; first read in the '80s. Another thriller from Greene, this one darker than most, with a sociopathic teenage mobster at its center. The unusual sleuth who works to bring the young killer to justice is an amiable lady of hard drinking and free sexual habits who nevertheless has a strong sense of morality about right and wrong. All the characters, even the bit players, seem totally real. The subtext -- the nature of good and evil and the conflicts between religion and morality -- is unobtrusive, yet ever-present. One of Greene's best, in my opinion, and much more than a mere "entertainment."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

This third book in the Song of Fire and Ice saga differs from the first two in several ways. We have only cursory mentions of wearing apparel and physical appearance instead of the constant stream of description which made the earlier novels read like staging directions for a play or film. We have few accounts of the meals eaten. Even a lavish wedding feast gets only a menu-type listing of the food.

The biggest difference between this novel and the first two? NO SEX! Well, almost no sex. We even have three weddings, and not one is consummated. Whether a reader considered the stream of sexy goings-on in the first two volumes to be titillating or comic relief, they kept things interesting, it must be admitted.

It's not like the characters don't have time for shenanigans, because this is mostly about the down-time in the wars for the kingdom, with the various characters planning their next moves and engaging in forging new alliances. The only sustained fighting happens at the Wall. We have political conversations and many characters on their way to somewhere else. And it is all boring and tedious and plodding.

And then, wham, suddenly we have ultra-violence at a wedding feast, with deaths of major characters. More plodding along, more plodding along. Pow, we have another wedding feast gone bad, with a groom suffering a rather anti-climactic end. More discussion, more tedium. Zap, another sudden spurt of blood with a parricide. With deaths happening at this rate, soon nobody will be left to lead the kingdom.

My copy of this book has 1128 pages. About 1000 of those were boring. Don't bother reading this book; watch the television show instead. (I never, ever thought I would say that sentence.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Fourth reading, I think. First read in 1960.

I well remember when I first read this 1936 novel; I was a freshman in college and I bought a used copy at my college bookstore. I had heard of Faulkner, of course, but I had never read any of his novels.

Boy, was I unprepared. I was overwhelmed by the flow of the language; I couldn't always figure out who was talking and even the narrator kept shifting on me; I was confused as new versions of the events kept popping up and assumed I had just missed something earlier; I couldn't even always figure out the "when" of the story, as time kept swinging back and forth. But I persevered, and when I finished I realized that I loved the novel in spite of being sure that I had missed some important clues that would explain the meaning of it all.

It was the language that captured me, probably because I am one of those who love words and their sounds and their rhythms and the way they can create a mood all by themselves. I really did not understand the novel intellectually, but I felt it -- the sense of impending inevitable doom, the darkness at the heart of the story, the guilt and tragedy of the South. And I realized that if I abandoned my expectations about conventional punctuation and grammar and linear plot and just let the words carry me along that the language actually sounded familiar to me. My grandmother told stories in exactly this way. Even today, my next-door neighbor from Tennessee talks to me in the same stream-of-consciousness fashion.

Subsequent readings have allowed me to better understand Faulkner's message, his themes, even the events portrayed. This is a novel that can be read more than once, with new revelations each time.

The novel tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who appears out of obscurity in Mississippi in 1833 and carves an empire, "Sutpen's Hundred," out of virgin land (perhaps) stolen from the Indians who owned it, and sets about creating a dynasty. As storyteller after storyteller relates their understanding of the how and why of the failure of his grand design, the reader gradually learns (perhaps) the inescapable truth of the matter, and along with it, the reason for the inescapable defeat of the South.

For readers new to Faulkner, I would suggest entering his unique world with another book, perhaps The Reivers or
The Unvanquished, for they are closer to the conventional than his others. For those brave souls willing to jump into strange waters, I would recommend reading at least some of the book aloud to yourself. Story-telling is a lasting Southern tradition, and I believe Faulkner wrote this just as he would have told it orally.

For those familiar with Faulkner, I'm sure you are captivated already or you would not be considering reading this.

This novel contains one of my favorite lines: "It was a summer of wisteria." You must read the book to truly understand the significance.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Second reading; first read in the 1960s.

There's a chapter in this classic 1848 English novel titled "A Cynical Chapter." I would venture to say that the whole novel could be classified with this subtitle; it's a most cynical and satiric look at English society at the time, in particular, and at the essential nature of human beings, in general. The actual subtitle of the novel is "A Novel Without a Hero," and that's also very accurate, as it soon becomes apparent that all the characters are guilty in varying degrees of human failings. Not one character escapes Thackeray's cynical analysis and comes out as entirely admirable. Some are foolish and self centered, some are shallow and self deluded, some are hypocritical, and some turn out to be what we now term as sociopaths.

The central character, Becky Sharp, is the most despicable, and yet she is the most interesting. She is smarter, more manipulative, more pragmatic, more self-aware. She has the attractiveness of many a subsequent literary and cinematic anti-hero; we perhaps secretly admire her even while realizing her guilt, just because she is successful in winning the game. (This human tendency -- to admire the winner -- is an additional testament to the accuracy of Thackeray's assessment of human nature.)

The plot follows Becky, the daughter of an impoverished artist and a Paris dancer, as she strives to advance her fortunes and her position in society, mainly through the seduction of various men. The secondary plot follows Becky's kind (and naive) friend Amelia, whose good qualities are obscured by her blind devotion to an ideal rather than to a reality.

This is undoubtedly one of the most well executed novels in the English language, accomplishing flawlessly its goal of a realistic examination of human motivations and failings. Thackeray was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, and the contrast is immediately apparent. Dickens specialized in idealized good characters and blacker-than-night bad characters. In Thackeray, all the characters are pictured in varying shades of gray.

This is yet another novel which I re-evaluated after many years between readings. When I read this in my twenties, I perceived it as excessively cynical. Now, I believe it to be an accurate depiction of the human condition.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Barren Ground by Ellen Glasgow

Third reading; first read in the 1960s.

A funny thing happened in the 50 or so years since I first read this novel -- its message changed dramatically. Since I am pretty sure that the book itself has not magically altered, I can only conclude that age and experience caused me to perceive it differently.

This is the story of Dorinda, beginning in the 1890s in a defeated and barren South and following her story through to her middle age. Betrayed and left pregnant by her fiance', she rebuilds her life and learns to live "without joy," as the author herself puts it. When I first read this, I thought it a very sad story about learning to live without love. I felt that Dorinda had allowed the loss of her lover to ruin her life; although she became successful as an independent farmer and businesswoman, she never again found passion. Now, these many years later, I see the same story as one of triumph; Dorinda suffered a defeat, but she refused to allow it to destroy her. She determined her own destiny rather than depending upon someone else to determine it for her.

As to her loss of passion, age and experience have taught me that passion (sexual attraction) is not always equivalent to love that endures through good and bad. Toward the end of the book, Dorinda marries a man whom she respects and trusts, and I would venture to say that he improves her life more than her grand passion would ever have. The type of "joy" Dorinda experiences in her young adulthood seems to me to be fleeting under most circumstances, and the challenge to all, both male and female, is to adjust to a more mature viewpoint and recognize that excitement is a transient state, that bad things happen to almost everyone, and that life must go on.

Just a word about the writing: This novel puts most modern writers to shame. It is precise while being non-theatrical, and conveys a place and time and a woman with unflinching accuracy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

This wildly popular young adult novel was recommended to me by my 13-year-old granddaughter, and I always try to read books she especially likes so that I can discuss them with her. In reading background on the Internet, I discovered that a great many adults also appreciated it, so this is kind of a two-audience review.

For Adults -- While it is true that a really well done children's or YA's novel can be read with equal enjoyment by adults, this is not one of them. An example of excellence would be the Harry Potter books, which are well crafted and portray a believable alternative world which is entirely logical within its created framework. In contrast, the writing here is extremely simplistic, and the author does a very poor job of world building, creating a society which makes no logical sense even if the basic premise is accepted, which is a stretch all by itself.

Unfortunately, book publishers, particularly in the Young Adult category, seem to be afflicted with the copy-cat mentality so prevalent with television producers -- if one entertainment becomes ultra-popular, copy it and copy it again for sure hits. The Twilight series sold books, so let's have novel after novel about vampires and other supernatural lovers. Then came The Hunger Games and its dystopian world. Now we have a whole new premise to imitate. I would say that this book is a second-tier rip-off of The Hunger Games, which was itself something of a rip-off.

For Teenagers -- While this novel is not very well written and pretty thin on logical action and characters, it is a fast and easy read with some intense action and a fairly believable budding romance. Go for it; I'm pretty sure you will like it, particularly if you are a girl. Its message of female empowerment definitely slants it toward the female reader, but its message about finding your true self pertains to all genders.

As an adult reader and former teacher, I encourage young people to read anything (almost) that catches your interest. If you read widely, from many levels of excellence, you will begin to find that you can more easily distinguish the best from the "currently popular." And that's a good thing.

I did not include a plot synopsis here, as it has been summarized so widely on Amazon and other book sites, and is now portrayed on screen at a theater near you!

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

I have loved all the previous Angela Carter novels I have read, but this one...not so much. Here's the difference: The others were beautifully written; contained interesting references, allusions, and symbols taken from mythology and fairy tale; were absorbing as to plot and character; and had a feminist subtext that was supported by the rest. This one takes the subtext and turns it into an AGENDA (with all caps), slights plot and character, and slams the reader over the head with the symbols. It is still beautifully written, in flowing and baroque prose, and that is its saving grace.

Set in an apocalyptic America, the bizarre plot concerns the forced sex change of the British male Evelyn into a female, a new Eve capable of bearing children, by a many-breasted fertility goddess. Obviously, this is not a plot to be taken literally, and that's OK for me under most circumstances. But when every single twist and turn and symbol and myth reference reiterate the same message, I want to shout, "I GET THE POINT ALREADY!"

To whom would I recommend this book? To scholars familiar with the symbolism found in mythology, folk story, and fairy tale--I'm sure I missed many references. To those highly interested in gender issues. To those who can enjoy a book just for the way it is written regardless of content. To those who don't mind being preached to. To all others I would recommend instead that they read Carter's Nights at the Circus or Wise Children.

The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor

This is yet another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (in 1959) which I had not heard about before, and that's a bit surprising, as I found it to be very interesting and enjoyable. It's the journal account of a young teenager's journey with his dreamer of a father in 1849 from Louisville, Kentucky, to the gold fields of California, many of the reported events purportedly taken by the author from an actual journal housed in the Yale Library.

Young Jaimie experiences one adventure after another, including capture by both murdering outlaws and bloodthirsty Indians. So many events are included, in fact, that the account begins to seem a tall tale, which takes away any suspense, of course. However, the narrative voice, which is lively and engaging, and the character portrayals, which are believable and skillfully accomplished, make up for the lack of narrative tension.

Whether or not the reader appreciates this novel on a literary level, it certainly should appeal on a historical level. Even if it is not believable that one boy experienced all these hardships and dangers, it is certain that some gold seeker or another encountered similar difficulties. The most interesting aspect is the picture it provides of the many differing kinds of people willing to leave the populated East and endure uncertainty, discomfort, and danger to reach the promise of California.

Just a note -- some have compared this novel to Huckleberry Finn. While it is true that both feature young male narrators on a journey, the similarity ends there. Twain's novel is so much more than just an adventure story, while that's basically what this book is. It's fun to read (though a bit too long, I think), but it will never be considered a classic.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Year Four of Reading

This is my birthday post of the books I read over the past year of my life. These are not necessarily the most well written books or the books most respected by professional reviewers, but the books I personally enjoyed most. I read 81 books this year, and these are the 12 I liked best.

*A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki A Japanese-American stalled writer finds the diary of a young Japanese girl washed up on a seashore and becomes obsessed with finding the author. An engrossing and touching story, with a bit of mystery, a bit of philosophical meditation, and some magical realism. A finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle Award and Booker Prize. (Feb. 2014)

*The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt A long, complicated book with a multitude of interesting characters, very Dickens-like. The story follows a young, orphaned boy to adulthood, telling of his adventures and misadventures and the people who influence him along the way. Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. (Dec. 2013)

*Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien One soldier's Vietnamese War experiences, both real and fantasized. Very dreamlike and surrealistic. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award. (Dec. 2013)

*Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens A typical Dickens novel with a heroine who is too-good-to-be-true and a villain who is too-bad-to-be-true, and yet they are like people you know, just a shade exaggerated. A complicated and suspenseful plot makes this one of the better Dickens novels, except that at 900 pages it drags on too long. (Dec. 2013)

*The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter The familiar plot of orphans left in the care of a villainous relative, with the special Carter combination of the grotesque and the surrealistic. I don't know if everyone would appreciate this author, but she is one of my favorites. (Oct. 2013)

*Doctor Sleep by Stephen King The compulsively readable story of the little boy from The Shining when he is all grown up and grappling with substance addiction and soul-sucking vampires. I generally love Stephen King and I refuse to believe he is no more than a genre hack. (Oct. 2013)

*The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. A realistic novel from the "other" Bronte sister, warning of the dangers when a good girl chooses a bad boy, thinking he can be whipped into shape. (Oct. 2013)

*Middlemarch by George Eliot Maybe the most well-written book I have ever read. Three intertwined love stories with spot-on character portrayals. It's lengthy, it's not easy to read, it's a bit cynical, but it's the best of the best. (Sept. 2013)

*The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis A no-holds-barred early Gothic novel with authentic thrills and chills. Also very sexy. (Aug. 2013)

*To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis I read several so-called "comic" novels this year, and this was by far the funniest. A very clever account of time travel to Victorian England. (July 2013)

*The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson A picture of North Korea through the eyes of Pak Jun Do, a sort of Forrest Gump-type character who is present in various roles at crucial events. In turns satirical, humorous, tragic, and horrifying. Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. (May, 2013)

*The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey A realistic picture of early settlers in Alaska, together with a magical realism account of love realized. It is not the most well written book I read this year, but it may be my favorite. Finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. (May, 2013)

I read only three books this year which I absolutely disliked, in spite of the fact that they were all well written. I just couldn't overlook the fact that the focus and subject matter were abhorrent to me. These were Being Dead by Jim Crace, about what it's like to be dead, in graphic detail; Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, about what it's like to be old and in bad health and bored and depressed; and Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, about what it's like to be aimless and without hope.

I actually read about 20 fewer books this year than in the years immediately past, and that's a good sign, in my case.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau

For the last couple of months I have been reading current contenders for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, plus several past winners. This novel, which won in 1965, is one that I had not read, or in fact even heard of before. Frankly, I am surprised it was chosen, as I would not have thought it to be of that quality. Perhaps it won because it concerns race relations and a woman's liberation from male dominance, two "hot topics" at that time.

The setting is the Deep South and the plot unfolds in a very Southern style, meandering back and forth to tell the story of one prominent family. The central character, Abigail, moves serenely from her role of pampered daughter and granddaughter to her role of dutiful wife, secure in her world, until a family scandal forces her to confront the suppression, hypocrisy, and incipient violence of her Southern heritage.

It's an interesting story, well worth reading, told by an author who is obviously a Southerner herself. My objections, then? The language doesn't hold up to the standard set by the classics of Southern writing; the pace of most of the book is slow and a bit boring at times, with much extraneous detail; the climax of the book is over-the-top melodramatic, with actions which do not seem realistic, even for the time and the place; finally, the whole plot is somewhat predictable, it seems to me.

Judged against novels as a whole, I would consider this one above average, but judged against what one expects of a Pulitzer winner, I would consider it weak. However, as I read more winners and think about the now-classic books which were passed over, I'm beginning to think that maybe the Pulitzer is not all its cracked up to be.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Within the 500+ pages of this book a reader will find two plot lines which, though they are connected, seem almost like two separate novels because they are so divergent in tone. Each one is well executed, but the two together make for an uneasy fit even though they are both part of the same story.

Plot #one is a science fiction story about time travel. Sometime in the 21st Century the favorite student of a university professor travels against his advice back to the year 1320. Sure enough, many things begin to go wrong from the first and the student becomes stranded in the path of the approaching spread of the Black Death. This part features an almost slapstick tone as the professor scrambles in his efforts to rescue the girl, dealing with bureaucracy, a flu epidemic and quarantine, visiting American bell ringers, and an almost total inability to get people on the phone. Despite the comedy, this part becomes a bit repetitive, as many set pieces are repeated time after time.

Plot #two is more in the vein of historical fiction, a chronicle of the student's stay in the 14th Century. The tone here is somber and tragic, as she confronts being lost in time, unable to escape the disease and death all around her. This part is very touching and often tear-worthy. A seemingly accurate picture of the period is presented, although the scope is limited to one relatively well-off family in one small village.

Perhaps Connie Willis used these two disparate tones to emphasize the relative silliness of most modern problems in comparison to the problems faced during the Middle Ages. Perhaps she had another reason that I missed noticing. Even if so, the shifting back and forth from comedy to tragedy was disconcerting for me as a reader.

Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, science fiction's highest honors, in 1992. In spite of my criticisms, I still found it to be quite enjoyable to read.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Any serious fan of science fiction will find it impossible to discuss this 1972 novel which examines the nature of reality without referencing the writings of Philip K. Dick, the Grand Master of alternate realities. In particular, his novel Ubik, published in 1969, will come to mind. Le Guin was an admirer of Dick's work and openly acknowledged his influence, and Dick, in turn, praised Le Guin. They apparently appreciated the fact that the plot elements they shared could be manipulated in two entirely different ways.

Le Guin's protagonist, George Orr, dreams "effective" dreams that literally change reality, both the past and the present, and he is the only one who realizes that the change has occurred; that is, he is the only one until he is forced to consult a psychiatrist because of his unlawful drug use. When the psychiatrist realizes he can partially direct George's dreams, he begins to impose his will upon his patient to bring about his own idea of a perfect world.

The only problem is that every manipulation of reality to reach utopia has unforeseen consequences, often tragic and terrifying. For example, the dream suggestion of the psychiatrist to reduce world over-population has the result of a viral pandemic resulting in the death of more than half of the world's inhabitants. The quest to solve one problem results in another problem, until the very nature of reality begins to disintegrate.

Le Guin focuses on philosophical questions in her treatment of alternate realities. Her ultimate massage would seem to be one taken from Chinese philosophy: "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven."

Dick, in contrast, elicits a less intellectual, a more primitive response. In his alternate reality stories, "paranoia runs deep," as the '60s song goes. In his world, we are not sure who is the dreamer, if there is a dreamer, if there is actually a dream, or if it's all a figment of a diseased mind.

This is a well-executed book which raises many questions for thought; it is much superior to most genre fiction. Still, I prefer Dick's take on the subject of alternate realities, perhaps because, tragically enough, I think he really believed. It's not exactly a comfortable belief, and I wonder how cutting-edge physicists nowadays, who subscribe to string theory (as I understand it) deal psychologically with the possibility of more than one reality.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel about old age is simply and beautifully written, with a truthfulness and understanding seldom to be met in fiction. In a very subtle and understated style, Taylor tells the story of Mrs. Palfrey's stay at a residential hotel catering to old people of limited means, where the residents fill their days with pointless yet comforting routines and strive to appear vigorous and cheerful despite being filled with aches and pains and boredom and loneliness. Despair, not death, is the enemy to be feared.

It is because of the considerable abilities of the author in creating a realistic and poignant picture of ordinary people that I would be cautious in recommending this book to anyone. It is almost unbearably sad. I wish I had not read it; I will be depressed until I can suppress it in my memory, along with all the other things I do not choose to think about.

If I had read this in my younger years (It was published in 1971.), perhaps it would also have made melancholy, but I might also have been prompted to be more attentive and loving to my grandparents. So maybe I would recommend this to young people, almost as a cautionary tale saying, "Remember, you will be old yourself in time."

For older people (say, over 55), I would say, "Pass this one by. It is too true, because it is too well done. There's really nothing good to say about old age; it's not fun for anybody, really."

I said this book made me depressed; maybe I will feel better tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I thought I knew what kind of book to expect from Haruki Murakami, having read and loved his novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and 1Q84. I anticipated a fanciful and surrealistic story combined with a healthy dose of references to Western music and popular culture. The Western-culture references are present, but the plot is a straight-forward tale of the coming-of-age of a young Japanese student as he confronts isolation, love, guilt, the longing for human warmth, and death.

This is a much more "Japanese" book than the others of Murakami I have read, particularly in the tone and in the attitudes of the characters. In many ways, it is like a very Japanese version of Catcher in the Rye, with the differences being informed by the two differing ways the two cultures confront common problems. The tone is one of wistfulness and vague melancholy, much similar to that portrayed in many Japanese paintings and haiku poetry.

The title comes from the song by the Beatles, which one of the characters in the novel plays for her friends. Even though the Beatles could be considered the pinnacle of Western music, the lyrics and the sound do seem to reflect a very Japanese sensibility, and the line "This bird had flown" could very well be the theme of the novel.

I found this to be a very lovely and haunting novel. It vaulted Murakami to super-stardom in Japan. But it is not a typical Murakami novel at all.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek -- a carnival performer who performs wild or disgusting acts, such as biting the heads off chickens.

This is the story of the Binewski family. Here's a typical day in their lives: The father, Al, who supervised his wife's ingestion during pregnancies of narcotics, poisons, radioisotopes, etc., to produce their own family of "special" children, is busy managing his traveling carnival/circus/freak show; the mother, Lil, who was formerly a geek in the show, is cooking, sewing, and doing other typical motherly things; the oldest son, Arty, who has flippers instead of arms and legs, is performing in his water tank or exhorting his many followers to free themselves by having body parts amputated to become more like him; the daughters Elly and Iphy, who are Siamese twins joined from the waist down, are performing their four-handed piano act; the daughter Olympia (the narrator), a bald albino hunchback dwarf who is not quite freakish enough to have a show, is serving as Arty's helper and worshiper; the youngest son, Chick, who appears to be a norm but who has paranormal abilities, is assisting Dr. P in the operating room where Arty's followers are having bits of themselves removed.

Not your typical family, it would seem. And yet....

The narrative by Olympia is two-fold, telling of a present during which she tries to protect her normal (except for a small tail) daughter who was reared in an orphanage and hence does not know her, and telling of the past with her siblings. Both parts are often distasteful, grotesque, and violent. Reading this book is somewhat equivalent to attending a freak show (I would imagine) or watching certain reality television productions -- you are a bit disgusted and have a certain amount of guilt that you are watching, but you can't look away.

And yet the family dynamics portrayed are not unfamiliar to many families. And the book brings many questions to mind, such as what is "normal" and what is not, and why the "normal" long so desperately to be unique and distinctive instead of one of the crowd while at the same time being disturbed by those who are truly born different.

I think this book is one that most people could not put down, but whether or not they would like it after is perhaps another matter.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Being Dead by Jim Crace

I certainly did not expect the title of this book to be so literal in describing the contents, but, sure enough, that's just what it's about: being dead. The book begins with the random murder of a married couple of middle-aged scientists among coastal sand dunes and ends with this sentence: "These are the everending days of being dead."

In between, the author performs some clever gymnastics with time, moving in a forward direction to trace the couple's last day from awakening until the murder, traveling in a backward direction over 30 years to the time when the couple first met and made love in the dunes, and moving forward again through the daughter's search for her missing parents. However, Crace spends the most time with the dead couple, picturing in graphic and extensive detail the actions of nature and decay on the dead bodies.

Crace is a master literary stylist, if you appreciate that style. I'm talking about the self-consciously poetic style of MFA creative writing schools, which lauds such descriptions as "...the wine-deep, sad, narcotic sea." It's no surprise to find that he has taught at both the Iowa Writers Workshop and at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers.

The front cover of my copy of the novel features a quote from a review in the Los Angeles Times which asserts that it is "an exquisitely gentle and unsentimental tale on the evolution of love." I surely missed that part. I read a bit about lust, a bit about resentment, but mostly I was banged over the head with the heavy message that dead is dead, with nothing after. I can appreciate the fact that many have this view, but I hardly see it as the entire premise of a novel. I certainly cannot understand how anyone could have viewed the book in any other light, especially since the introductory epigram quotes a poem which begins:

"Don't count on Heaven, or on Hell.
You're dead. That's it. Adieu. Farewell.
Eternity awaits? Oh, sure!
It's Putrefaction and Manure
And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot,"

By the way, the supposed author of the poem, Sherwin Stephens, is not actually a real person; thus the poem is Crace's.

I suppose many would appreciate this novel (after all, it won the National Critics Circle Award for 1999 and was a New York Times Editor's Choice of the Year), but I would not recommend it to the people I know.

And to all I would offer this advice: DO NOT READ CHAPTER 6 WHILE EATING BREAKFAST.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Somehow I had always thought that Terry Pratchett wrote straight-ahead alternative world science fiction, in the vein of Larry Niven and suchlike. Thus, I was surprised when I read somewhere on the Internet that he is considered a comic novelist and that his Discworld series is more akin to Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker series. Sure enough, I find him to be very funny, indeed.

For the few who are as clueless as I was, Discworld is an alternate reality very much like our own, except for the existence of magic and magical creatures like werewolves and vampires and banshees and golems and suchlike. The technology is a bit different, but the people and their motivations are pretty much the same.

Our hero in this installment is a petty conman who is reprieved from hanging only to be sent to work in the post office (a fate worse than death?), where he soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict with the white-collar conman who heads the clacks communication monopoly (think a more primitive e-mail). Hijinks ensue.

Pratchett uses all the gadgets in the comedy toolbox: we have satire of corporate greed and other current issues; we have ridiculous situations and misadventures; we have wacky characters with funny names (the love interest is named Adora Belle Dearheart); we have puns and plays-on-words (the title, for instance); we have, most of all, a constant stream of little jokes, mostly one-liners, which are variously chuckle-worthy, smile-worthy, or groan-worthy. My favorite one-liner characterizes democracy as a "vote-yourself-rich system." Isn't that the truth. Being vertically challenged myself, I also liked the part about the dwarfs and the "Campaign for Equal Heights," with the prohibitions against using terms like "small talk" and "feeling small."

The plot is actually very interesting and suspenseful, in contrast to many comic novels, as the reader wonders how in the world the hero is going to defeat his powerful opponent.

Pratchett has written over 30 Discworld novels and is one of the most popular writers in Britain. I will certainly keep him in mind for the next time I feel in need of some good laughs.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse said of his style of writing that he was "making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether." I consider that a very accurate description.

His featured players in this book of short stories are Wooster, an over-bred and under-brained English minor aristocrat, who is nevertheless charming, well-mannered, loyal, and an all-around nice bloke; and Jeeves, his very correct and ever-resourceful "gentleman's gentleman," who shrewdly extricates his Master from all sorts of predicaments, romantic and otherwise. With its similar time period of post-World War I, this is like a comic version of Downton Abbey.

And it is very funny, indeed, in a clever and dryly British way, filled with wacky escapades and misunderstandings and wonderful characters. Wodehouse wrote over 90 books during his long life and is widely acclaimed as a comic genius. Most consider the books in the Jeeves and Wooster series to be his best.

Reading Wodehouse is a pleasurable way to spend a cold, winter afternoon. He doesn't require his reader to tax the brain or think about solemn important matters. He just provides chuckles and a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Parody as a source of humor is a treat best consumed in small doses--when it continues too long it loses its punch. Thus, while this 1932 semi-classic novel is very funny at the beginning, its humor wears a bit thin before the end, even though it is relatively short.

The target of parody here is the melodramatic Victorian novel. We have rustic servants speaking in the vernacular, a religion-mad fanatic, a mad woman shut up in her room, a dark family secret, a fey elf-like young girl who roams the moors, a magnetically sexy stud. All these and more of the same ilk are the residents of Cold Comfort Farm. They seem to owe their personas to the characters created by the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, and D.H. Lawrence. Into their midst comes the practical Flora, a distant relative, who believes "that curtains must be washed and life generally tidied up before anyone could even begin to think of enjoying it." She immediately begins a self-imposed mission of bringing sensible order into their lives, much like Emma in Jane Austin's novel.

The writing style varies from a light and breezy style when Flora is in the forefront to a portentous and sexually charged style when the Cold Comfort relatives are pictured. The funniest bits are the parodies of the melodramatic writing style, with its verbosity and sexually symbolic nature references.

Gibbons also includes some satiric jabs at trends of her time, including the self-important artistic intelligentsia.

Who will best appreciate this book? People who are somewhat familiar with Victorian novels, people who happen to be British, people who liked Bridget Jones's Diary. I liked it, but it just went on a little too long for me.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Second reading; first read about 2006

I love this book. Even so, I can understand why many don't. It has multiple plot lines with so many characters that it is hard to remember who is who. It has no fixed time focus; a character is apt to be traced from birth unto the time of death. It meanders. It digresses. It has no clear heroes and few clear villains. It is not an easy book to read, but its rewards are many.

Jones here is addressing the historical fact that sometimes the slaves of the Old South were owned, not just by whites, but by free Negroes. How could it be, we ask from our distance in time and viewpoint, that some Negroes could reconcile themselves to owning others. Here is a possible answer, beginning with the death of the character Henry Townsend, a freed Negro who owns slaves in Virginia. The book follows his widow, his parents, his white mentor, his slaves, and many, many others, telling their stories in scattered bits and pieces, in the process explaining why so many, black and white, accepted their "known world" without question.

The book is so detailed, so filled with statistics and histories, that it seems to be based on facts, and even professional reviewers at the time of publication commented upon the prodigious research that must have been involved in the writing. However, in later interviews Jones has said that he did no research whatsoever, that every seeming fact came only from his imagination. And yet, it feels so true. This is a clear instance of what Tim O'Brien wrote about in his brilliant novel The Things They Carried: "...story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth."

Whether or not a reader loves or hates this novel depends mainly, I think, on whether or not he appreciates the narrative voice, which is in the tradition of Southern storytelling. Thus Jones sometimes sounds like Faulkner or others of the distinctly Southern writers, which also means that his prose often sounds like the King James Bible, because that is part of what contributes to the sound of language spoken in the South. Young writers are often advised to find their "voice," but real authenticity comes when the voice does not need to be found but is just part of the way the writer's mind works. That definitely seems to be the case here.

The Known World won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is informative; it is thought provoking; it flows with the sound of the South. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Second reading; first read about 1990

This is a beautiful book in so many ways. The descriptions of the wild landscapes of the 19th Century West--the mountains, the high deserts, the plant life, the clouds, the very feel of the air--are so wonderfully rendered that they are transporting. The twin stories--the wheelchair-bound historian in the late 1960s and the history he writes about his grandparents--are most interesting and come together most cunningly in the end to comment on ageless themes of loyalty and forgiveness. It's an impressive achievement, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

However, as I have taken to doing since I hooked into the Internet, I read biographical information about the author before beginning the book, and it almost spoiled the book for me. As it turns out, the pioneering grandmother in the story (Susan Burling Ward)is modeled on a real person, Mary Hollock Foote, who was a well known illustrator and writer of the time. That's all well and good; many writers of fiction pattern their characters on real-life people. Stegner even acknowledges "J.M. (Foote's granddaughter) and her sister for the loan of their ancestors" and writes that the novel "utilizes selected facts from their real lives." What was later discovered by researching academics was that fully 10 percent of the text of the novel is a verbatim copy of passages from Foote's actual letters and journals. Does that constitute plagiarism? It's debatable, but that blurring between fact and fiction bothered me throughout the reading of the book.

I could not surrender myself to the narration of the fictional Susan Burling Ward's life because I kept wondering how much was Stegner's imagination and how much was the actual writing of Mary Hollock Foote. Was the real person actually ashamed of and embarrassed by her husband? Did she actually feel herself so arrogantly superior to most of the people of the West? Was she actually a closet lesbian? Or was that Stegner's interpretation and imagination? Were all the many letters included in the text exact copies of her correspondence, or were some partial copies or entirely made up.

If I had not read the biographical information first, I would have given this a high rating, but as it stands I cannot. I wish Stegner had chosen to use his source material as the basis for a biography rather than for a novel, because the real Mary Hollock Foote did, indeed, lead a most interesting life.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Second reading; first read about 1995

When I picked this book off my shelf to re-read, I was surprised that I could not really remember anything about it, even though I must have liked it to have kept it. It won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, so others liked it, too. While I was reading it and immediately after finishing it, I would have given it 5 out of 5 stars, but now, just a couple of days later, I am changing my mind. Now I would give it only 3 stars: I liked it for the gracefulness of expression and creative structure, but the purpose, the goal of the narrative is eluding me. And already I find myself forgetting the details of the plot and only remembering the subtle sense of discouragement left behind.

This is the life of Daisy Stone Goodwill from her birth in 1905 until her death in the 1990s, told by her voice and by others, almost as if she is an observer of her own life. It is divided into sections titled Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, and Death. Throughout, Daisy seems to be living a life, not of "quiet desperation," but of quiet compromise. She says of herself, "Her greatest weakness--she's always known this--is her fear of giving injury...." She is never revealed as feeling great joy, or even great sorrow. In her last dreams she sees herself turning to stone. "She had always suspected she had this potential."

Now that's depressing.

So here's what I don't understand: Daisy Stone may have lost her mother at the time of her birth, but she had a loving foster mother and later a loving father to care for her; she had two long-time good friends; she found a man who loved her, although perhaps he never said the words out loud; she had concerned children who remained involved with her life; she had a career, even though it was short, which rewarded her creativity; she had a graceful retirement with new friends and diversions; her death was not agonizing. Why, then, does she feel so unrewarded? I would say that counts as a life well lived, by most measures.

This is a very well written novel which reads like a charm, but, I reiterate, the point eludes me.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Reivers by William Faulkner

Third reading; first read about 1975

Many people seem hesitant to tackle Faulkner, perhaps having heard that his books are unconventional and difficult to read. Or perhaps they even started reading his most famous book, The Sound and the Fury, and became hopelessly confused as he switched without warning from narrator to narrator. For all those reluctant readers, I recommend this one as a starting point, a place to start falling under the Faulkner spell. Surprisingly enough, it was his last novel, published just before his death. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963.

This novel is written in a straight-forward linear style, is narrated by only one person, and is much different in tone from his other works. Instead of the dark Southern Gothic filled with disturbing events and grotesque characters, we have the Southern picaresque, more in the vein of Huckleberry Finn. It is also very funny.

Eleven-year-old Lucius is enticed by Boon Hagganbeck (what a great name!), his father's hired hand, to join him in "borrowing" his grandfather's new car (the first in the county) in the family's absence. On their way to Memphis, when it is too late to turn back, the two discover they have a stowaway, the grandfather's Negro employee Ned. The three unlikely reivers (thieves) thus begin an adventure which includes a mudhole-for-profit, a stay at a whore house, the trading of the car for a stolen horse, the conversion of a whore to the honest life, and a horse race with surprising results.

All of this (quite possibly) tall tale is told by Lucius as an old man to his grandson. The conversations recounted are in the vernacular, and they all seem completely natural, which is most always not true when educated white writers attempt to duplicate the language of poor whites and uneducated Negroes in the old South.

Even with its differences, this novel is similar to others by Faulkner in its language and style, which is entirely original and unique. The writing has a rhythm, a cadence, which results in the near poetic. The best way to read Faulkner is aloud, because his most usual method of narration is a reportage of the spoken word. When read aloud, all the complex and seemingly bewildering sentence structure makes complete sense. I'm not sure if a non-resident of the South would be as impressed as I am, but I can remember the stories (quite possibly tall tales) told to me by my grandmother from Alabama, and they had the same sound and the same meandering style.

In my reading of contenders for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, I have been struck by their samenesses. They all seem a bit removed from their stories, a bit too concerned with writing striking descriptions, more than a bit too concerned with clever devices and gimmicks. It's like they all attended the same writers' workshop. (This is rather a rash judgment, I know; however, it's how it seems to me.) I am grateful as a reader for writers like William Faulkner who wrote the sounds they heard in their heads, not what they were taught was sellable. (At least that's the way it seems to me.)

In summary, I highly recommend this novel. It is a treat! Then move on to the rest of Falkner.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Martin Dressler--The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

Second reading; first read about 1999.

The American dream of rags to riches is the subject of this winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, but it is a far cry from the Horatio Alger myth. In fact, it might better be described as a rags to riches to rags again saga about the failure of the American dream to live up to its promise.

Martin Dressler is the son of a cigar shop owner in New York toward the end of the 20th Century who rises step by step up the ladder of wealth and success, before his dreams betray him. Always striving and restless to achieve more, "...it seemed to Martin that if only he could imagine something else, something greater, something as great as the whole world, then he might rest awhile." In the end he discovers "...he had dreamed the wrong dream, the dream that others didn't wish to enter...."

Paralleling the story of Martin's professional life is the story of his courtship and marriage to the beautiful blond Catherine, whom he views as a sleeping princess waiting his love to awaken her. Once again, he has dreamed the wrong dream.

What separates this seemingly simple plot from the mundane is Millhauser's choice to tell the story as an allegory, combining straight-forward narration of facts and actions with dream-like flights into the fantastical. I believe readers not reading the text from this viewpoint will find the juxtaposition of the two to be confusing, because the shifts are subtle, although very well done.

This novel reminds me very much of The Great Gatsby in many ways. It is not nearly as good (What is?), but it has plot elements in common and conveys something of the same message.

Millhauser has very skillfully written an insightful examination of the optimism of America. However, I feel that the same theme has been developed better, both before and since.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Third reading; first read maybe in the '70s.

After reading a small flurry of 2013 novels which are contenders for the year's Pulitzer Prize, I decided to turn to my bookshelves and reread some of the past winners. This novel won in 1921, the first time the prize was claimed by a woman. My conclusion: as clever as some of the modern offerings are, they in no way match the excellence of this one.

The Age of Innocence is set in New York City in the 1870's, so Wharton, in 1920, was writing a historical novel. The characters are members of the old-family aristocracy of wealth, with their rigid codes of behavior and expectations. A young man finds himself caught between a sense of duty and a longing for escape and passion when he falls unexpectedly in love with his fiance's cousin. Obviously, the basic plot is not at all new; it's the love triangle. But what Wharton makes of this is something entirely original, and the ending is not at all what is expected, although it is perfect.

What makes this book better than most more modern novels?

First, the writing is impeccable. It is not showy or self-consciously clever, but in a very understated way reveals the irony and tragedy, as well as the sense of safety, of a structured and restrictive society. Every small descriptive detail (and the book has many descriptive details) is pertinent to an understanding of the characters. The book abounds in jewels of writing genius and is one of those novels that reveals itself in new ways each time it is read, absorbing to read even if one already knows the plot. For example, I took away something entirely different from this reading than from previous readings, due, I think, to the perspective of my more advanced age. I understood the ending in an entirely different way.

This is a book of many aspects: a fascinating historical glimpse of a place and time; a meditation about choices and their implications; an examination of how environment influences behavior; an extraordinarily perceptive character study; a love story of heart-rending pathos. And it contains one of the most romantic lines of dialogue in all of literature--"Each time you happen to me all over again."

I unreservedly recommend this novel only to readers of about age 30 and above because I don't believe younger readers will have the perspective to understand the decisions and actions of the characters. I believe the older you are, the more you will appreciate it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

You will be amazed at how clever this novel is. And yet....

It's written in imitation of 19th Century novels, complete with appropriately formal language, a large cast of characters, and multiple plot strands. In true Gothic tradition, it begins on a dark and stormy night with a stranger arriving at an inn and happening upon a mystery. It even has those pre-chapter summaries favored by some Victorian authors. And yet, as it turns out, it is more a parody than an imitation.

The twelve men who have some involvement with the mystery reportedly have personalities based on the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. Astrological charts are given at the beginning of chapters. The action evidently proceeds according to the movements of heavenly bodies (luminaries). And yet, how many readers know that much about astrology and how many care to do the research to find out? But it must be admitted that the device is clever.

The book is divided into twelve parts (12 men, 12 signs of the zodiac--you get the picture), and each section is half the length of the preceding one. As the sections get shorter, the pre-chapter summaries get longer, until most of the action is reported in the summaries. That's cool; that's clever. And yet, it makes the last half of the book just a summary of the solutions to all the mysteries that have been introduced in Part 1, which is 360 pages long. (Did I mention that the novel is 830 pages?)

Even the dust jacket is clever, picturing twelve phases of a moon, from full to waning.

The mystery concerns three possible crimes that all happen in one night: the death, apparently from alcohol poisoning, of a former prospector for gold (or was it murder?); the attempted suicide of a whore (or was it just an opium overdose?); and the disappearance of a wealthy businessman (perhaps murder, too). The clues are given in bits and pieces, mainly reported through conversations repeated by the aforementioned twelve men. And yet, one of the men observes, "...never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person's point of view." All the carefully and lengthily documented information seems to lead to no clear conclusion until the last parts of the book when all is explained in a rather hasty manner.

This novel reminds me of a somewhat common Christmas or birthday joke, when one is given a beautifully wrapped large box which, when opened, contains a smaller beautifully wrapped box, which contains a still smaller box, and so on and so on, until the last tiny box, which usually contains a ring or something else small of great value. But what if the joke is a cruel one, and that last box is empty? All that lovely and careful craftsmanship leading to...nothing.

This novel is beautifully and cleverly planned and executed. And yet....

By the way, it won England's Man Booker Prize for 2013. Take my review as a second opinion.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is a novel of contrasting two's: two stories, two cultures, two diaries, two belief systems, two views of time, two participants in the act of storytelling--the writer and the reader. And it turns out that the contrast may also be a sameness.

One story told is that of Nao, a Japanese girl who has grown up in the United States before returning to Japan, where she encounters the contrasting cultures of modern Japanese youth and of traditional Japanese Buddhist belief. Her diary is found in a waterproof packet (along with a watch, another diary, and some letters), washed up on the shore of a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. The finder is Ruth, an American of Japanese heritage, whose story as a stalled writer is also told.

This is an absorbing mystery novel, with characters who seem real, but it is also a meditation on the nature of time and identity and many other ponderous matters. The magical realism which enters late in the story can be viewed either as affirming Buddhist beliefs or theories of quantum physics, but quite possibly both are the same.

I am making this novel sound much more complicated than it really reads. It is one that can be enjoyed on more than one level, and that makes it hard to describe. It is a book that most all would enjoy reading.

Ozeki was a finalist for England's Man Booker Prize for this novel, and she has also been shortlisted for America's National Book Critic's Circle Award (winner announced in February). Since she holds dual American-Canadian citizenship, she is also eligible for the Pulitzer, for which she is a strong contender. I hope she wins.