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, " 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.