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?