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."