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.