Thursday, December 31, 2015

God's Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell (1933)

God's Little Acre was Banned in Boston when it was published back in 1933 and its author, Erskine Caldwell, was tried for obscenity (though not convicted). The problem was the hyper-sexuality which permeates the novel; although no actual physical details are given about the several sexual couplings, the language throughout is frank and graphic. As the Chicago Tribune said at the time, "What William Faulkner implies Erskine Caldwell records...." In spite of all this controversy, or more likely because of it, the book became a runaway best seller.

I don't consider myself a prude, but, frankly, I found this book distasteful and offensive. This is the story of a Southern White Trash family who are obsessed with digging for gold on their fertile land instead of farming it. They are none too bright and are animalistic in their quite active sexual lives, with the women behaving like bitch dogs in perpetual heat and the men responding without regard for decorum. That is the distasteful part. The offensiveness comes from the overall picture of poor Southerners, who I don't believe ever fell quite this low on the humanity chain. As a poor Southerner, I take offense.

Obviously, Faulkner explored some of the same themes, but, as the Chicago Tribune said, he only implied and never resorted to the like of Caldwell's oft-repeated chunk of dialogue by the father in this story speaking of his daughter-in-law's "pair of rising beauties" which make him "just ache to get down and lick something."

Distasteful, right?

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2008)

Dennis Lehane has combined elements of the historical family epic, the crime thriller, and literary fiction to produce a very entertaining and thoughtful novel, one that also reminds us that greed, racial intolerance, fear of the "other," political duplicity, and even terrorist bombings are not unique to today's US of A.

The time is 1918-1919 and the place is Boston. The story focuses on Irish-American Danny Coughlin, a beat cop who is the son of one of the most powerful police captains, and Luther Lawrence, a young black man who is on the run from a gangster's revenge. During one eventful year the two men and the city of Boston see the influenza epidemic, terrorist bombings, labor unrest, mob violence, and the police strike of 1919. Ultimately, however, this is the story of two men who both come to realize that the key to a satisfying life lies in the love of family.

Lehane has a very engaging writing style, with striking, yet unobtrusive, metaphorical language and the ability to create extreme tension as called for by plot developments. The ending is perhaps a bit overly sentimental, but it is satisfying nevertheless.

For me, the primary benefit of this book is that it is a reminder that our country has undergone periods of unrest, fear, and intolerance before and has survived. In that way it is encouraging in this time of strife and polarization. Then again, it is kind of discouraging to think that maybe human nature is so flawed that history will keep repeating itself.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood (1861)

This Victorian pot boiler was a runaway best seller back in its day, and it is still a page turner of the first degree, despite writing that is clearly not of the best quality and a more moralistic tone than is generally preferred by modern readers. The plot is the focus here, and it is a dilly -- intricate and sensational and believable for the most part, with only a couple of those unlikely coincidences so often found in Victorian novels.

Mrs. Wood gives us a murder, a wrongfully accused man, characters in disguise, love, jealousy, seduction, a wayward wife, a tragic train accident, and two pathos-filled deaths. That's a lot for one book, but the author makes it work. This is high melodrama; with just a little modernization, it could be a current best seller, suitable for becoming a movie at your nearest multiplex. It's not great literature, by any means, but it is fun to read.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope (1880)

What parents do not build castles in the air for their children? We want them to grow up to be happy, certainly, and we think we know exactly how that can be accomplished. We imagine just the kind of spouses they should choose, the brilliant careers they should follow, the admiration they should attract from friends and society for their accomplishments and wise life choices. Maybe the tiniest bit of our dreams for them stems from our prideful knowledge of the glory to be reflected upon us as exemplary parents.

There is just one problem -- the children seldom have the same ideas as the parents about what constitutes happiness. They never seem to follow our fine plans. In this last novel of Trollope's Palliser series, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, suffers the common fate of parents -- his almost-grown-up children persist in making their own decisions about life and love.

The Duke's two sons both get into trouble at university and into money trouble with gambling; his oldest son goes into politics (as the Duke had wished) but chooses to stand for Parliament as part of the wrong political party; his daughter chooses to engage herself for marriage to a commoner without money rather than to a rich aristocrat; and his oldest son chooses to engage himself to (GASP) an American. What's a father to do?

Trollope fondly follows the Duke as he attempts to deal with his wayward children. In the beginning, he attempts to dictate that they will follow his will, which in those days it was still possible for a parent to do. In the end, of course, love conquers all: the Duke discovers that he loves his children enough to let them go to make their own choices.

It would be impossible for a parent of grown-up children to dislike this novel because it is so true to life. The Duke seems entirely real as he struggles to accept that his dreams and values are not the same as his children's. Of all Trollope's major characters he is the most believable and admirable, and, I think, must have been Trollope's favorite.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Scar by China Mieville (2002)

China Mieville does not classify his novels as fantasy or science fiction, but as "weird fiction," and this one certainly fits that description. The setting is a partly explored world populated by many, many different species of sentient life (human-types, fish men, cactus men, and mosquito people, to name a few). The world's limited technology is powered by a combination of steampunk gadgetry and magic. The plot centers on a floating city made up of lashed-together ships and boats of all kinds. The inhabitants of the city are pirates, led by two humans known as The Lovers who cut each other to make mirror-image scarring as part of their lovemaking. Their plan to harness a sea creature as big as an island to pull their flotilla to an unexplored part of a far ocean to seek the scar from the wounding of the world is opposed only by some press-ganged captives and by the vampire residents of the city.

It's as if the author took every fantasy/science fiction cliche' he could remember or imagine and crammed them all into one book, whether they fit or made sense or not.

Despite all these goings-on, the first half or so of the book is actually slow and pretty dull. Mieville does get going in the latter half and things get fairly exciting. A kind of psychological sub-plot whereby the female protagonist is manipulated by one male after another is funny in a perverse way, since she is such an unsympathetic character. (I couldn't figure out if Mieville intended this to be funny or not.)

One stylistic matter annoyed me intensely: Mieville fixates on a word and uses it over and over in close proximity. For example, I lost count of how many times he used "puissant," but it was at least 10 times within 50 pages. And that's not his only pet word. I can't imagine an editor letting this go, even if the author could.

This was Mieville's second novel, and I am pleased to report that he got better. His The City and the City, written in 2009, is excellent and straddles the boundary between genre and literary fiction.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray (1992)

Any number of novels have unreliable narrators (Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Nabokov's Pale Fire come to mind), but few others, if any, have three unreliable narrators as this one does.

The first narrator is the author, who claims to have been given a long-lost manuscript which was supposedly written in the late 1800s by a Scottish doctor. He even includes purported historical accounts taken from old newspapers and such which support the probable veracity of the account.

Then begins the found manuscript, which is titled, "Episodes From the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer," as written by Archibald McCandless. This narrator tells the fantastical story of a young woman whose body has been reanimated by McCandless's mentor following her death by drowning, with her damaged brain being replaced by the brain of her yet unborn child. Both men fall in love with her -- a beautiful woman who has adult passions along with childlike innocence and curiosity. Included in this section is a long letter from the woman to her creator (whom she knows only as her guardian, not remembering her prior life), recounting her learning experiences as she becomes a feminist and a crusader for socialist causes.

The next section of the novel is a refutation of Dr. McCandless's account by the woman in question, who has become a medical doctor herself. She says her husband's manuscript (yes, she marries him) is exaggeration and fiction, disputing each major incident by telling her rational version of what happened.

My paragraphs do little to convey how clever this book is, or how funny, or how serious, or how tricksey. When Dr. Virginia McCandless accuses her husband of imitating the popular literature of his time, the reader can easily see that he might have taken inspiration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. One can also easily see that the real author, Alasdair Gray, has also copied some of the conventions of 19th Century literature, most notably the device of the found manuscript. Such little ironies and references abound throughout the novel, making this a book worthy to be read more than once. When you think about it, such medical matters as electricity being used to shock life back into a seemingly dead body and transplants of bits and pieces of one body into another are not even considered unusual these days. Archibald McCandless's version may be intended to be the true one.

I must include here a quote coming from Dr. Virginia McCandless's supposed letter, which conveys how I feel when listening to Republican presidential debates: "And while they spoke I clenched my teeth and fists to stop them biting and scratching these clever men who want no care for the helpless sick small, who use religions and politics to stay comfortably superior to all that pain: who make religions and politics, excuses to spread misery with fire and sword and how could I stop all this? I did not know what to do."

I highly recommend this novel, which can be enjoyed from several different angles. It was the 1992 winner of England's Whitbread Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (2013)

Despite what the title would seem to indicate, the titular husband isn't the only one with a secret in this popular novel, and he isn't even the focus of the narrative. His secret does impact the lives of all three of the female protagonists, however, so I suppose the book is appropriately, if misleadingly, named.

The three women are skillfully and believably portrayed: Cecilia, the over-achieving, obsessive-compulsive wife and mother who accidentally finds a letter addressed to her from her husband, meant to be opened upon his death; Tess, the self-diagnosed sufferer from social anxiety whose husband and cousin/best friend suddenly announce that they have fallen in love with each other; Rachel, the still-grieving mother whose daughter was murdered fifteen years previously. Their actions and reactions and the way their stories come together create the considerable narrative tension. The plot developments are ingenious.

If this book has a glaring fault, I would say that it is that the men in the story never seem real but more like place holders. Their personalities and motivations are never fully examined, making their actions seem illogical. For that reason, I would classify this as Chick-Lit, mainly meant to be read by women.

I was also a bit confused about the message conveyed about the disastrous consequences of keeping secrets. At the end, when secrets have been revealed, one new major secret is kept. Are readers to assume that some secrets should be kept or to anticipate that this new secret, too, could have negative repercussions in the future?

The Husband's Secret is quite interesting and quickly read, but it is not a book to be kept and reread.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956)

Novels, at their best, are supposed to help readers understand and appreciate differing cultures and ways of thinking and behaving. However, despite having read several well respected novels recently which were written by upper class British folk, I have about decided that I am incapable of empathy with the sardonic, tongue-in-cheek, stiff-upper-lip musings of the British aristocracy. I continue to be disconcerted by their combinations of dry humor and tragic events. I'm assuming (since many novels portray it) that they really do confront life in this manner, but this attitude is as foreign to me as if they came from a different planet altogether.

Take this humorous novel by Dame Rose Macaulay, for instance. It breezes along in a flippant manner, sometimes verging on slapstick, about the travels in Turkey and thereabouts of a young woman, her headstrong aunt, and a retired Anglican clergyman (accompanied by a camel with mental problems). In the midst of all this levity, Macaulay inserts some serious discussions about religious faith, and, right after a fantastical episode wherein the young woman teaches her pet ape to drive and play croquet, she drops in an abrupt and unexpected catastrophe. This juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, especially tragedy without what I would consider a natural emotional response, is bewildering to me. Do some people really think and behave this way?

The Towers of Trebizond is often very amusing, contains interesting historical and travel information about the countries visited, and offers some contemplative reflections about religious faith. It just doesn't seem to fit together very well to my emotional American brain. It is considered a great achievement in Britain.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith (2013)

This is an OK book, interesting enough and well written in a workmanlike manner, but I had expected something else and certainly much more, so I was disappointed. From the descriptions of the book I read on-line, I expected that the focus of the story would be a fictionalized account of Zelda Fitzgerald's stay at a famous mental asylum. Instead, she is only one of a passing parade of the hospital's residents and is not portrayed in any detail. I was expecting a more powerful book because I remember being much impressed by Lee Smith's book The Devil's Dream, which I read maybe 20 years ago. This one pales in comparison. Well, so it goes.

The narrator of the novel, Evalina, is sent to the famous Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, as a young teenager following the death of her beautiful exotic dancer mother. She seemingly regains her mental health there after several years, during the course of which she receives intense training as a classical pianist. (To accept that bit of plot requires some suspension of disbelief.) Unfortunately, when she leaves the hospital things don't go well for her, and she returns for another extended stay.

Most of the book is given to accounts of the histories and behaviors of Evalina's fellow inmates, but Smith includes so many that they all tend to blur together after a bit. Some of her most memorable scenes involve the local Appalachian Mountain natives and their unearthly-sounding music (which is the focus of The Devil's Dream), but these episodes seem thrown in because of Smith's fascination with the music, not because they advance the plot.

Smith does have something to say about the thin boundary between sanity and insanity and the expectations of behavior that govern our perceptions of who is sane and who is not.

Somewhat enjoyable to read but immediately forgettable afterwards.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope (1876)

Trollope continues his depiction of the life and political career of Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, in this 5th Palliser novel. Planty reluctantly accepts the post of Prime Minister heading a Coalition Government but never feels that he is adequate for the job. His wife Glencora constantly tells him he is too thin skinned, because he suffers from embarrassment and self doubt at the slightest hint of criticism. In the meantime, she throws herself into hosting the most lavish of parties, believing that she is helping him in his political career.

The focus is not so much on the actual political processes as it is on the personalities and reactions of this political couple. Reading these Palliser novels in order makes it obvious what an extraordinary job Trollope has done of characterization. I feel that I actually know the Pallisers intimately as real people who grow and change in believable ways while retaining their core personalities.

Trollope does use the political backdrop as an opportunity to include a few lengthy conversations that reflect his own political views. As he was a frustrated politician, I think it only fair that readers should grant him the privilege of indulging himself a bit in this way.

No Trollope novel would be complete without The Marriage Plot (which here is only tenuously connected to the political plot). Young Emily Wharton impulsively marries the mysterious Ferdinand Lopez against the advice of all her family and friends and almost immediately realizes that she has made a grave mistake. Of course, a still-faithful childhood sweetheart is waiting in the wings. There are few plot surprises in this story arc, but there is something comforting in its very predictability.

One thing about this novel that is a bit disturbing is the overt anti-semitism; the most damaging objection to Ferdinand Lopez is that he is suspected of being a secret Jew. One might argue that Trollope is just reflecting prevailing attitudes of the time, but one might also suspect that he shared those attitudes.

Leo Tolstoy described this novel as a "beautiful book." I wouldn't go that far, but it's really good.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (2009)

If the front cover of this novel had not indicated that it had been given the Edgar Award as Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America, I would not have thought of it as a mystery novel at all, but instead as a character-driven literary novel about a young man scarred by tragic circumstances. I am not generally a mystery reader and would probably never have come upon The Lock Artist except that it was recommended to me by my reader friend Jonathan Aaron Baker. A majority of the mysteries I have read have tended to be formulaic and not very well written. I should have learned by now, however, not to prejudge a book because it is classified as genre fiction.

The first-person narrator, Michael, has been so traumatized by a violent event in his childhood that he has been mute ever since. The story begins with him as a prisoner for a yet-unnamed crime and then backflashes to his high school days. Isolated and lonely, by happenstance he discovers that he has an unusual talent -- he can unlock things: doors, padlocks, even safes. His abilities bring him to the attention of some very bad people, and he finds himself unwillingly drawn into their criminal activities by his wish to protect his first love.

Author Steve Hamilton does a fine job of creating a believable and sympathetic protagonist, particularly in his portrayal of the blossoming of young love. The considerable suspense comes from the problem of how Michael can extricate himself from the underworld he has been drawn into. Also, the account of the incident that left him mute is withheld until late in the narrative, adding to the tension.

This is a very enjoyable book to read, recommended to all readers, not just to those who favor mysteries.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)

What a strange and inventive book this is. It is hard to classify -- parts of it are realistic and parts of it are surrealistic; it is satirical; it is comic and playful; it has an Epilogue which is four chapters before the end and an Index of Plagarisms; it is certainly post-modern (the author even shows up as a character). It is in some ways two separate books published together, except that one of the books is a satirical and surrealistic reflection of the other. It has four parts, but they are not presented in order; you have book 3, book 1, book 2, and book 4. It is almost impossible to summarize coherently. It is like a combination of a classic coming-of-age story and an alternate universe created by Philip K. Dick, as told by Flann O'Brien. I loved it.

Though not as well known in the United States, in Scotland and England Lanark is considered a classic of Scottish literature. According to Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange), it is "a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom." The Evening Times of London said, "The nearest I've come to a Scottish version of James Joyce's Ulysses."

My words are inadequate, so this is a short review about a long and important book. I recommend that everyone read it (the book, that is).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (1989)

The Power of One follows the life of a boy in South Africa in the 1940s and '50s, beginning when he is five years old, the only English-heritage student at an Africaner (Boer-heritage) boarding school, and ending when he has just finished a stint of dangerous work in a copper mine to make enough money to attend Oxford University. The young hero, Peekay, becomes a winner in the literal sense of the word, rising to the top of every class and becoming an undefeated boxing champion and a rugby star. In an unlikely development, he comes to be a symbol of freedom for several black tribes. The story is so unrelentingly uplifting that it becomes unbelievable after a while, so that, in spite of the realistic style, it seems to be almost an allegory about the ability of an individual to make a difference.

The novel is also a lesson about racial and cultural prejudice. Peekay learns his first lesson about intolerance when he is persecuted and physically abused at the boarding school because of the continuing animosity between the Boers and English, even though the two groups have supposedly united to rule the black native population. As he grows older, he is confronted with examples of bigoted preconceptions about the black and colored population and about the Germans and the Jews, and even experiences the judgmental attitudes of conservative Christians. Throughout, Peekay is able to transcend the prevailing prejudices and to judge others on their individual merits.

The novel is saved from being overly preachy and moralistic by the fact that Courtenay is a fine storyteller and an engaging writer. The adventures of Peekay are always interesting, even when the reader comes to realize that he will inevitably come out on top. I was particularly impressed by Courtenay's detailed accounts of boxing matches, because I found them exciting and easily visualized, even though I have never watched a full boxing match.

I would characterize this novel as entertaining popular fiction. It was a best seller in Australia, where Courtenay resided as an adult after growing up in South Africa.. Parts of this book are supposedly fictionalized autobiography.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Second Nature by Alice Hoffman (1994)

When I was a kid and I did something particularly naughty or uncouth (tracking mud into the house or forgetting to flush the toilet come to mind), my grandmother often said, "What do you think you're doing? You act like you were raised by wolves." According to this novel, my grandmother was wrong: somebody raised by wolves can turn out to be surprisingly civilized.

The totally implausible plot begins when a young man who has been part of a wolf pack is discovered in the woods by some fur trappers. As it turns out, he is the lone survivor of a plane crash which happened when he was three years old. Through happenstance, while he is being prepared for transport to a permanent home at a mental facility for the incurably incompetent, he is spirited away by a divorcee who takes pity on him. Curiously, nobody notices that he never shows up at his scheduled destination. Under the woman's tutelage, within a matter of only a few months he has learned to read and write and play chess and can pass himself off in polite small-town society as an exchange student. And then he falls in love (lust) with his rescuer. As if that is not enough complication, cats and dogs and ultimately people are killed in the community by having their throats slit. Can you guess who is blamed when his secret past is outed?

This novel has an intriguing concept, but the way the premise is handled turns it into a B-grade romance novel with a bit of (supposed) mystery thrown in. Actually, the identity of the killer is easily recognized from the beginning, so the only suspense is whether or not the Wolfman will be killed by an angry mob (with pitchforks, maybe. haha).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)

The plot of this novel sounds quite exciting -- in a wartime London following the Blitz, Robert, a wounded survivor of Dunkirk who works for the Government, and Stella, a divorced 40-something mother of a soldier, have fallen in love. When Harrison, an obsessed stalker who claims he works for the secret service, tells Stella that her lover is passing secrets to the Nazis, he gives her a choice--his silence to his employers about Robert in exchange for her favors. She is faced with the dilemma of not knowing what to believe or what to do about it.

Sounds like a thriller, right? Well, it's not that at all. Neither is it a love story, although Robert and Stella are supposedly in love. Several subplots have a very tenuous connection with the main narrative, further confusing me about the intent of the author. To tell the truth, I don't know what I am supposed to take away from reading this novel. Maybe something philosophical about choices and how they are influenced by circumstances, especially the uncertainties of war.

What I do know is that the story contains a great deal of dialogue and all of it is stilted and unnatural. I don't believe anybody talked like that, ever, especially not in the 20th Century. The conversations sound as if they were lifted straight out of a Henry James novel. The characters are also very Jamesian, singularly unemotional and cerebral even in the face of death and betrayal. Consequently, they never seem like real people and never elicit any reader empathy or sympathy.

I also know that Bowen's writing style annoys me excessively, as it never flows but jerks along in fits and starts with interjections and asides and inverted order and all sorts of impediments to clarity. Consider this sentence: "One unity, this morning, the empty Sunday street had, up and down its length." This could have read, "This morning the empty Sunday street had one unity up and down its length." I spent a good bit of my time with this book rearranging Bowen's sentences in my head to make them less choppy.

This is a very British novel, very restrained, very subtle, very stylized. I did not enjoy it very much.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek (1921-1923)

Joseph Heller is reported to have said that he could not have written Catch 22 if he had not first read The Good Soldier Svejk, and, indeed, the similarities between the two are readily apparent. Both take a darkly satiric look at war and at the military bureaucracy from the viewpoint of the common soldier who tries to survive the insanity.

Hasek's "Everyman" soldier Svejk copes by allowing his superiors to view him as a good natured simpleton who is always eager to follow orders and to please, while in reality he is using his wits to circumvent their orders and to resist the system. The officers are almost all portrayed as drunken and/or incompetent, with some being full-out crazy. Hasek must have had a special dislike of Catholicism, because his chaplains are all especially corrupt and repugnant.

This book is inventive and often laugh-out-loud funny. Much of the humor comes from the fact that the reader understands the irony of Svejk's actions and conversations while the characters in the novel do not. That aspect is very cleverly accomplished by Hasek. The only problem here is that the story goes on too long (752 pages in my edition), so that the pattern of Svejk getting into a bad situation and getting himself out again becomes expected and repetitive and ultimately almost boring. Joseph Heller may have taken inspiration from this book, but he produced the much better novel. Still, this one is well worth the time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan (2005)

For readers who are already familiar with Amy Tan novels, this novel will be surprising, because it does not concern itself with her usual specific examination of family dynamics, which she generally centers on the mother-daughter relationship. Instead, the focus is on the universal: on how the "do-goodism" of individuals and organizations and even governments can backfire, leading to tragic results rather than to the fortunate results that have been intended.

Tan's plot concerns a group of twelve tourists on an art expedition through China into the jungles of Burma, with the narrator of the story being the ghost of the tour organizer, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Without their intended leader, the group falls into several humorous mishaps before a Christmas Day boat cruise when eleven of the travelers disappear into the jungle.

The tone throughout is satirically humorous, as the tourist are held as captives, without ever realizing they are captives, by a tribe of natives who are hiding from the repressive military government. Tan slyly addresses such issues as the impact of media and the difficulty in separating what is real from what is fiction. As a plus, the narration of the knowledgeable ghostly tour guide provides interesting historical information.

The plot itself does have several gaping holes: How is it that the ghost can communicate with some characters through their dreams, but not with all? Why is the health-obsessed tourist who is equipped with all sorts of medical supplies not carrying medication for malaria, the most common ailment in the jungle? How clueless must the tourists be not to realize that they are actually prisoners?

Nevertheless, this is an entertaining book to read, although I'll have to say it is a bit depressing in the end.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford (1945-1949)

It is always difficult for me, when reviewing a book, to separate my opinions about the merits of the book itself from my opinions about the actions of the characters. That separation is particularly hard with these two novels because the characters are all admittedly copied from the real life family and friends of the author and even modeled on the author herself in some cases, so they are not the typical "made-up people" of novels. Thus I could almost write two totally different reviews about these well regarded books -- one favorable and one condemnatory.

The first novel, The Pursuit of Love concerns the youthful upbringing of the aristocratic Radlett children, before concentrating of one of the daughters and her checkered love life. It is narrated by a cousin of the family, Franny, who also narrates the second book, Love in a Cold Climate, which concerns Franny's dear friend, Polly Hampton, who has a scandalous love affair.

In my favorable review I would say that these books are charmingly written, in a chatty and breezy manner, with sophisticated and witty dialogue. They are always comically satiric in tone and are often even chuckle-worthy. For those fascinated by Downton Abbey, they provide an alternate version of aristocratic English country life between the Wars, one that emphasizes the eccentricities and egocentric behaviors of the very privileged. I would characterize the novels as literary chick-lit with a bite.

In my condemnatory review I would say that the writing is also brittle and superficial and sometimes totally incongruous in tone to the situations, as when Mitford flippantly relates the death of a main character, or the still-birth of a child, or the sexual molestation of a young girl. I would say that people such as these are despicable, equivalent to current-day figures like Paris Hilton or the Kardashian clan, and that Mitford does not seem to satirize them to condemn but to display their misbehaving as humorous and even charming.

I will settle for a review which straddles the issue. These are well done books which amusingly accomplish the author's goals. They obviously appeal to a great many people, especially in Britain, where people seem to crave accounts of the doings of the aristocracy. On the other hand, these are also books which trivialize serious situations and promote the validation of the moral corruption of the rich and famous. Nevertheless, many will find them amusing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Atticus by Ron Hansen (1996)

Atticus is a love story, not about romantic love which can come and go, but about parental love which is constant and unconditional--a father's unceasing love for his modern-day prodigal son. That this is also a mystery story seems almost an afterthought, to make the story more appealing to novel readers who expect drama and suspense.

Atticus is the name of the father, a wealthy rancher from Colorado, who learns of his son's death by suicide at a resort in Mexico. When he travels to Mexico to claim the body and learn about his son's life and death there, he begins to suspect murder and attempts to unravel the mystery.

It is not too usual these days for the protagonist of a novel to be a deeply decent person, but that's what this one is. Of course, his name immediately brings to mind Atticus Finch, the exemplary father in To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm sure that it is not by happenstance that Hansen chose that name. This novel is a reminder to us in these days of cynicism and blame that many out there still live their lives as the best people they know how to be.

Hansen's writing style here is very understated and straightforward, and the story has something of the atmosphere of a parable, which, of course, it is. I do think the author could have been a bit less explicit in his interpretation. Readers sometimes like to make these leaps of comprehension by themselves.

This is a lovely book, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

I did something this week that I have never done before: I finished the last page of a novel and immediately turned back to the first page and read the whole book again. Here's why -- I wanted to study how Machart did it, how he took a story that is a little hackneyed and sometimes illogical and turned it into a family epic of mythic, almost biblical, proportions, one that is written in such a way that the reader is compelled to race through it at breakneck speed, much like the speed of the horse race that is the centerpiece of the story. It's been a good long while since I was this impressed by a book.

It's the story of the Skala family, four motherless sons raised by a harsh and brutal father who works his boys like animals, using them as plow horses while the actual horses are saved for racing. When a rich Spanish patriarch proposes a high stakes race that offers the three oldest a chance for escape into lives (and beautiful wives) of their own, the stage is set for brother against brother and father against sons. The story then shifts to fourteen years later, when Karel, the youngest son, must finally come to terms with his legacy of revenge and violence.

So how did Machart do it?

First and always, it's the language, the immediacy and the specificity and most of all the very rhythm, the cadence. It is every bit as good as, and sometimes better than, anything Cormac McCarthy ever came up with, to which it is somewhat similar. The accounts of the horse race, the epic fight between father and sons, and the coupling of Karel and Graciela are as impressive as anything I have ever read.

The time shifts are also genius, as Machart jumps back and forth between 1895, the year of Karel's birth and his mother's death; 1910, the year of the horse race; and 1924, the year of forgiveness. This allows him to skip the day-to-day and concentrate on the particulars. Along with the time shifts, Machart switches tenses, with the 1895 and 1924 pieces in past tense and the 1910 pieces in present tense. I actually didn't even notice this the first time through, but I can see now that the present tense gives the principal events much more immediacy and drama.

In addition, the details are right. The dialogue is pitch perfect for the time and place, South Texas in the early 20th century. The sights and sounds and smells and weather of the area are so vividly described that the reader feels he has actually been there.

Although this novel was published in 2010, I had never heard about it until lately when I just happened across mention of it in a blog by another eager reader. I can't imagine why it didn't win one of the major literary prizes that year. It is that good.

And, oh yes, the book includes a good many references to Shiner beer, still the best beer ever. A person could have a real good time by drinking a Shiner every time it is mentioned, making a good book even better.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Redux, #4 in Trollope's Palliser series, continues the story of the young Irish politician Phineas Finn, began in the #2 book in the series. At the end of that book, Phineas had taken a stand in Parliament in opposition to his Party, and had subsequently resigned and retired from political life, returning to Ireland and marrying the sweetheart of his younger days, leaving behind three separate unsuccessful love affairs. As this installment of the story begins, Phineas's wife has died and he has once again been elected as a Member of Parliament.

The first half of the book concerns itself somewhat with Phineas's efforts to regain his previous social footing, as he interacts as a very good "friend" with his previous sweethearts, but mainly it's about politics. Some of the political maneuvering became tedious to this American reader, but I did find it interesting and timely that the members of the Liberal Party all vote against a bill that they actually support in principle, just because it is introduced by members of the Conservative Party. Doesn't that sound just a little too familiar?

The second half of the book takes a turn unusual for Trollope and concerns a murder. The victim happens to be Phineas's chief political enemy with whom he has publicly quarreled, and that and other circumstances point to his guilt. He is thus arrested and tried for murder. But Trollope doesn't make this a mystery at all, because he reveals right away that someone else did it. The suspense then becomes the "how and if" Phineas will be acquitted, and, of course, which of his former sweethearts will he choose as the next Mrs. Finn.

As always, Trollope's strength lies his portrayal of characters, who are believable and sympathetic. Although his plots are generally predictable, he is still great fun to read.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling)

I'm not particularly qualified to write a review of a detective novel such as this because I seldom read in that genre, but from my limited knowledge, I believe this one to be very good. The detective is believable and likable, as is his secretary/sidekick. The clues to the solution to the mystery, along with several red herrings, are provided so that the reader can try to figure it all out, although I would say that some of the motivations and actions of the characters seem slightly far fetched to me. The writing is way above average for this genre, as far as my reading experience goes.

The plot concerns the death of a supermodel which has been ruled by the police as a suicide. Her adopted brother hires Cormoran Strike, the detective, to investigate what might instead be a murder.

I believe this to be more similar to Agatha Christie-style mysteries than to more more stylish offerings. I was somewhat disappointed that Rowling chose to continue to follow the hackneyed modern trend of making her detective wildly attractive to unbelievably beautiful women.

I will probably read Rowling's second book in this series, if only to see how she progresses her central characters. She did such a good job of that in the Harry Potter series.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Raye's Top 100 Novels -- Part I 1.through 33

Due to popular demand I am posting a list of my 100 favorite novels. (Actually, only one person even mentioned this, but whatever.) I will be posting in three parts, because I don't believe my blog page will hold them all at once. I estimate I have read close to 4,000 books in my lifetime, so I have read a great many good ones; these are the books that I have read more than once or, in the case of more recent ones, intend to read again soon, These are my keepers.

I have included only one listing per author, although some writers have produced multiple books which I treasure. The books are in no particular order except that the first on the list is my favorite. Most on the list are accepted classics, but some are less well known and reflect my unique preferences. You may notice the heavy presence of books from the fantasy/science fiction/magical realism genres. I believe in make believe. You may also notice the absence of some respected writers -- Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, and Henry James, for example. While I acknowledge the obvious talent of these, I just don't enjoy reading them that much. I have included the dates of first publication, because I find it often to be important to place a book in its time. For that information I thank the internet and my best friend Wikipedia.

I welcome your comments as to what I should have included or should have left out. I know I have forgotten some really good ones.

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55) by J.R.R. Tolkien
Hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents, wizards, and orcs. The best created world novel ever written. Always my favorite.

2. Catch 22 (1961) by Joseph Heller
Satiric novel about the insanity of military life and war. A very funny book with a very serious theme.

3. Zorba the Greek (1946) by Nikos Kazantzakis
An introverted intellectual learns from a peasant how to live life to its fullest. (Translated from Greek.) Also outstanding: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Greek Passion.

4. The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner
Hypnotic stream-of-consciousness prose in the story of a dysfunctional Southern family, told from several viewpoints. Several others by Faulkner are outstanding, including Absalom. Absalom, As I Lay Dying, and the Snopes trilogy.

5. Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
Highly emotional Gothic-tinged story of a love that transcends death.

6. Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert
Second best created world novel, about the struggle for a desert planet that is the only source of an essential commodity. Describes every aspect so completely that you could go there and feel right at home.

7. The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brian
Connected short stories about an American platoon of soldiers in Vietnam; anti-war by implication.

8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
A Romantic Gothic novel about a hypocritical priest, a naive Gypsy girl, and a deformed bell ringer. About as exciting a novel as they come. (Translated from French.) Les Miserables is also very fine.

9. Middlemarch (1872) by George Eliot
Several interconnected stories about residents of an English town. Particularly good characterization. Adam Bede is also recommended.

10. A Long Long Way (2005) by Sebastian Barry
A young Irish lad joins the British army and fights in World War I, only to be asked to fire on his fellow Irish during the Easter Uprising. One of the most beautifully written novels I've ever read by my favorite living writer. All Barry's are excellent, particularly The Secret Scripture.

11. Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens
A humble young boy acquires a mysterious benefactor, gets all full of himself, but turns out all right in the end. Bleak House is actually the better book, but I have special fondness for Pip and Joe the blacksmith.

12. Nights at the Circus (1984) by Angela Carter
A journalist becomes captivated by an aerialist in a circus who may or may not really have wings. Feminist magical realism. All Carter's books are unusual and fascinating, particularly Wise Children.

13. The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby tries to realize the American dream and win the beautiful princess during the excesses of the Jazz Age.

14. Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad
The allure of evil symbolized by a journey into the Congo. All Conrad's books are outstanding, particularly Lord Jim and Nostromo.

15. Titus Groan (1946) by Mervyn Peake
Grotesque characters, a crumbling castle, and intentionally archaic language create an alternate world in the Gothic tradition. The sequel, Gormenghast, is equally as good.

16. She (1887) by H. Rider Haggard
A Gothic-tinged adventure story of explorers who discover a lost kingdom ruled by She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I've tried to get my daughter to call me that, but she only does it in jest.

17. The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White
The best modern telling of the King Arthur story. I usually skip the first part with Arthur as a child and jump right into the legend portions.

18. East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck
The story of two families in the Salinas Valley of California. Better than his more well known The Grapes of Wrath, though that one is excellent, as is Of Mice and Men.

19. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Gothic story of a family curse lasting through the generations. I like it even better than The Scarlet Letter.

20. Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A love story of sorts extending over 50 years. The language is wonderful. (Translated from Spanish) Also outstanding: 100 Years of Solitude.

21. The Magus (1965) by John Fowles
A young British teacher in Greece gets involved with a trickster and his dark illusions. The Collector is also chilling.

22. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by J.M. Coetzee
The allegorical story of a nation so afraid of the "other" that they behave as barbarians themselves. Perfectly written. All his books are outstanding.

23. Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick
From the Master of Alternate Realities, for anyone who has ever asked himself, "What is real and what is not?" All of Dick's books are strange and mind bending. My favorite science fiction writer.

24. The Way We Live Now (1875) by Anthony Trollope
Greed and dishonesty in Victorian England. It could as well be about the 1% here and now. Also recommended: The Barsetshire series and the Palliser series.

25. The Girl in the Swing (1980) by Richard Adams
A socially awkward antiques collector falls in love with a mysterious young woman with a dark secret. A chilling story with touches of the supernatural.

26. Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson
The reflections of a Congregationalist pastor on his heritage and his life as he faces death. Very insightful in its examination of religious faith. Home and Lila. approach parts of the same story through different characters.

27. Look Homeward Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe
The coming-of-age story of a young American boy. Very lyrical and emotional.

28. The Glass Bead Game (1943) by Hermann Hesse
An imaginary school in an imaginary location where all knowledge is synthesized through the playing of a chess-like game. This book fascinates me and I have read it three times trying to understand it, and I still don't, really. Also favorites by Hesse: Steppenwolf and Siddhartha.

29. Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago
A chilling allegorical story about the downfall of society when everyone suddenly becomes blind. (Translated from Portuguese.) Also excellent: All the Names and The Cave.

30. Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan
A young girl tells an almost-innocent lie and then is afraid to admit the truth, with tragic consequences that follow her into adulthood. All McEwan's books are excellent, though most are a bit dark.

31. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) by Ray Bradbury
Two boys have a nightmarish experience with a traveling circus and the evil Mr. Dark. Truly scary. Also, of course, Fahrenheit 451.

32. The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
A Western about the dynamics of a lynch mob. Very insightful.

33. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon
Two cousins and their lives and careers in the early years of the comic book industry. All Chabon's books are quirky and interesting and often very funny.

Raye's Top 100 Novels Part II 34 through 66

As stated in the Part I post, these are in no particular order.

34. The Last Picture Show (1966) by Larry McMurtry
This may not be an accepted classic, but anyone who grew up in the '50s in a small town in Texas, as I did, will know that McMurtry tells it like it was.

35. The Master and Margarita (1966) by Mikhail Bulgakov
The satirical tale of the devil's visit to atheistic Russia. A really fascinating book (Translated from Russian.)

36. Kafka on the Shore ((2002) by Haruki Murakami
Two intertwined stories, of a young boy trying to escape a family curse and of an old man who is a finder of lost cats. Japanese magical realism. (Translated from Japanese) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is also excellent.

37. The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt
Precocious students at an elite college commit murder. Why?

38. All the Pretty Horses (1992) by Cormac McCarthy
A teenaged Texas boy heads to Mexico to be a cowboy and finds love and a pile of trouble. Not as dark and violent as most others by McCarthy.

39. Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville
Mad Captain Ahab hunts for the Great White Whale. People are still arguing about the symbolism.

40. Brighton Rock (1938) by Graham Greene
Murder in a British seaside resort. I picked this almost at random from the many by Greene that I love. This is one of those he called his "entertainments." He also wrote very serious novels, such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair and even very humorous novels, such as Our Man in Havana.

41. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
A chilling portrait of an amoral killer.

42. Emma (1815) by Jane Austin
The story of a well-meaning but inept matchmaker. My favorite Austin book because Emma is a charming character. Of course, all of Austin's novels are outstanding.

43. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
A dystopian novel about the sad plight of women in a theocracy. Quite timely in today's political climate.

44. Empire Falls (2001) by Richard Russo
One man's life in small town Maine. Funny and sad and totally engrossing.

45. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte
I love the early parts with little orphan Jane, but not so much the rest. Mr. Rochester is a prick and Jane should have kicked him to the curb.

46. 1984 (1949) by George Orwell
A prophetic dystopian novel about a nation engaged in perpetual war and a government that spies on every move of its citizens. Guess what? Big Brother is still watching us. Also prophetic: Animal Farm. Some animals are still more equal than others.

47. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy
A country girl becomes the victim of a judgmental society and of hypocrisy. May be the saddest book I have ever read. All of Hardy's are complex and meaningful.

48. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert
Also very sad, but this time the victim is the man, whose wife betrays him.(Translated from French.)

49. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979-1992)) by Douglas Adams
Wacky, off-the-wall comic adventures in outer space.

50. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) by Louis de Bernieres
About love, music, and the insanity of war. A beautiful book.

51. Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
Boys stranded on an island without adults turn savage. Can be taken literally or as an allegory.

52. Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov
A professor's sexual obsession with a 12-year-old nymphet. It's hard to believe that such a distasteful premise could result in such an good book, but it does.

53 Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding
The history of a good-hearted but somewhat rakish young man. Very funny.

54. Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
Six stories ranging in setting from the South Pacific in the 19th Century to the apocalyptic far future, connected thematically and by the reincarnation of souls. All Mitchell's books are wonderful.

55. Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro
A dystopian science fiction novel about clones raised to be organ donors. Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is also excellent. His Unconsoled is so well done that it made me unbearably anxious and I couldn't even finish it.

56. Swan Song (1987) by Robert R. McCammon
This one is kind of obscure. A post-apocalyptic story of a group of people traveling to find a place to build again. Very similar in theme and content to Stephen King's The Stand, but this one is better and it was written first.

57. Vanity Fair (1848) by William Makepeace Thackeray
Biting satire, with deliciously amoral Becky Sharp and her insipid friend Amelia.

58. A Passage to India (1924) by E.M. Forster
A friendship ruined by racial tensions and prejudices in 1920s British India.

59. The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S. Beagle
The magical tale of the quest by the last unicorn to find out what happened to the others. Fantasy that takes itself seriously.

60. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde
Dorian stays young and beautiful while living the wild life. Maybe we all secretly wish we had such a picture hidden away somewhere.

61. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey
A mental hospital perhaps stands for society as a whole in its inhumane treatment of the "different," with Nurse Ratched, one of the meanest villains of all time.

62. Grendel (1971) by John Gardner
The story of Beowolf and his monster from the monster's point of view.

63. The Dark Tower series (1982-2004) by Stephen King
The 7-book series about the quest by The Gunfighter to defeat the evil of The Dark Tower. Kind of a combination of King Arthur and a spaghetti Western, with some science fiction thrown in.

64. I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves
Written as the autobiography of the man who became the Roman Emperor Claudius. So well done that you could swear it is actually the emperor's own account.

65. Giants in the Earth (1925) by O.E. Rolvaag
The hardships of early Norwegian settlers in the Dakota Territory. The best account of pioneering I have ever read. (Translated from Norwegian.)

66. The Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara
An account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the viewpoints of several of the participants. Examines the question of how good men of conscience can bring themselves to kill each other.

Raye's Top 100 Novels Part III 67 through 100

As indicated previously, these are in no particular order. I just wrote them down as they came to me. I'm sure I left out some that should have been included.

67. At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O'Brien
A very Irish novel with several interlocked stories, including one about a writer who is imprisoned by his characters because he treats them so badly. More than a bit quirky and marvelously funny.

68. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein was a hippie before being a hippie was cool. This novel about an Earthling raised by Martians celebrates free love and communal living and peace and love. I really grok this book.

69. An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser
Like The Great Gatsby, a story of trying to achieve the American Dream, except that this fellow is not a sympathetic hero. I usually don't appreciate books that are this depressing.

70. War With the Newts (1936) by Karel Capek
Satiric fantasy fiction about a race of intelligent newts who are exploited by the major nations, until they finally decide to fight back. Particularly insightful, as it was written before the beginning of World War II. (Translated from Czech.)

71. Plainsong (1999) by Kent Haruf
Interrelated stories about characters in a small Colorado town. Proof that ordinary people can be meaningful and fascinating. Lovely in its simplicity.

72. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain
Maybe the best use ever of an unreliable narrator as Huck tells his story of his trip down the river.

73. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque
The story of a German soldier in the trenches of World War I. A powerful anti-war message. (Translated from German.)

74. The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton
The conflict between society's expectations and passion in upper class society of the late 19th Century. Wharton's House of Mirth and Ethan Frome are also among my favorites.

75. The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis
No-holds-barred in a very early Gothic novel, with The Bleeding Nun, The Wandering Jew, rape, incest, and murder.

76. The World According to Garp (1978) by John Irving
Comedy which is sometimes very, very dark in the life story of one man.

77. Scoop (1938) by Evelyn Waugh
A humorous satire of sensationalist journalism. Waugh's The Loved One is also great fun. Brideshead Revisited is serious but also very good.

78. Bel Canto (2001) by Ann Patchett
Terrorists hold hostages for several months. Unexpectedly, this is primarily a love story.

79. Fifth Business (1970) by Robertson Davies (Book 1 of The Deptford Trilogy)
The complicated plot follows the life of one man and includes love, suicide (or maybe murder), and magic.

80. Little Big Man (1964) by Thomas Berger
Kind of a parody of the myth of the West, about a white man adopted by Indians. Hilarious, but includes some real history and much food for thought.

81. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1920s) by H.P.Lovecraft
The ultimate in horror fiction, as far as I am concerned, using archaic language, highly evocative words, and many poetic devices to add to the terrifying situations. Lovecraft wrote short stories and one short novel, From the Mountains of Madness, which are now published in various collections. All will keep you awake at night.

82. Deliverance (1970) by James Dickey
Who would guess that the story of some city boys who meet up with some inbred white trash out in the Georgia backwoods could be so powerful?

83. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys
Remember Mr. Rochester's mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre? This is her story.

84. Lost Horizon (1933) by James Hilton
High in the mountains of Tibet lies the utopian community of Shangri-La. We could use their help right now.

85. John Dollar (1989) by Marianne Wiggins
Somewhat similar to Lord of the Flies, giving evidence to the fact that girls can become as savage as boys, perhaps even more so, under the right circumstances. A little-known book which deserves more attention.

86. Wise Blood (1952) by Flannery O'Connor
Southern Gothic story of a young man who has a crisis of faith. This one is really strange.

87. All the King's Men (1946) Robert Penn Warren
The rise and fall of a cynical politician. Particularly interesting in today's political climate.

88. Barren Ground (1925) by Ellen Glasgow
A young woman betrayed by her beloved takes charge of her own life.

89. High Wind in Jamaica (1929) by Richard Hughes
The supposedly innocent children taken captive by pirates prove to be more dangerous than their captors. Chilling.

90. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain
A unique crime novel, told from the viewpoint of the criminal.

91. The Forsyte Saga (1922) by John Galsworthy
A portrait of upper-class England around the turn of the century through the story of a failed marriage and its far-reaching implications.

92. A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
A dystopian England where the youth are out of control. Written using a made-up slang that takes some getting used to. Pertinent because we have a good bit of the old ultra-violence going on today, and we don't seem to know what to do about it.

93. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2012) by Ben Fountain
A soldier returned from Iraq experiences the surreal obliviousness and jingoistic patriotism of average American football fans.

94. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula Le Guin
From one of science fiction's most thoughtful and skilled writers, the story of an androgynous civilization facing peril.

95. Shadow Country (2008) by Peter Matthiessen
A fictional history of the life and death of a real person who carved an empire in Florida with a sugar plantation and perhaps some outlaw activity. Very Faulknerish.

96. Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card
I still find this science fiction novel about a war with an alien species interesting, both for its original concept and its larger implications.

97. Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
A one-of-a-kind satiric novel about a prisoner of war who experiences the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies and who later comes unstuck in time. So it goes.

98. Little, Big (1981) by John Crowley
A fairy story, literally. The long history of the Drinkwater family, who live on the edge of, or maybe in the midst of, the land of fairy. A truly magical book.

99. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
A deaf-mute and the people he befriends. A sensitive portrayal of the lonely and misunderstood. Also wonderful: A Member of the Wedding.

100. I left this open in case I think of something really great or in case someone suggests something that I did not think of.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

I have such old-fashioned reading tastes that I think every book should have a point, a reason for existing. Sometimes the point can be as simple as telling an exciting or scary or romantic story, and as long as it is done well that can be enough. Some more complex books examine their characters and convey a picture of human nature under certain conditions. Others are more theme driven and perhaps attempt to portray trends in society as a whole. Although this novel has an interesting premise, I suppose, for the life of me I cannot see that it has any point.

The central character is born without any scent; he doesn't have that human odor that is unique to each individual. Ironically, however, he has a supernaturally keen sense of smell, even more developed than that which we are told dogs possess. He becomes a perfumer, learning the methods of distilling the essences of plants and combining them to create fragrances. But then he discovers that a few young virgin girls have a natural scent more alluring than the best perfume, and he proceeds to try to distill their essence and bottle it, hence the subtitle of the novel: "The Story of a Murderer."

This brief summary makes the book sound more interesting than it actually is. Suskind's method of telling his story robs it of any vitality or suspense or horror or believability. This is a translation from German, so that might be part of the problem; maybe it comes alive in the original, but I doubt it. It has something of the tone of an allegory, but if so, his point is lost on me.

This was evidently a best seller in its time (1985). I welcome comments from any who appreciate it to explain to me what I missed.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Peter Carey is a tale-spinner of the very first order, fit to be in company with Dickens. The plot of this marvelous book is inventive and constantly surprising, making it a page turner from first to last.

The two title characters, Oscar and Lucinda, are misfits even in Australia, a country comprised of unconventional people. He is an Anglican priest who still harbors the beliefs of his devout Brethren father. She is a teenage heiress with feminist views who owns a glassworks. They come together through their mutual fascination with gambling, fall in love with each other without ever quite admitting it out loud, and eventually make a mad wager leading to an expedition to transport a glass church across the uncharted Outback.

In addition to telling a delicious story, Carey gives us the details of life and attitudes in 19th Century Australia. All the characters, even the minor ones, are so convincingly portrayed, with all their quirks and foibles, that they seem to be people you once knew. The writing is not pretentious or showy, but it is oh so effective.

This novel won England's Booker Prize in 1988. I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

My three youngest grandchildren suggested I read this book, one of their favorites. It is probably more in the children's literature category than in the young adult category. Adults readers will probably find it too simplistic.

This is a fairy-tale type fantasy, with a young woman cursed to look like an old hag, a wicked witch, a handsome wizard and his young apprentice, a scarecrow that comes alive, and a couple of fire demons. That might sound a bit scary, but it's not at all, not even a little bit. Instead, the tone is humorous, very much tongue-in-cheek. It's really a parody of the genre, not to be taken seriously. As such, it is quite entertaining.

Young people today seem to be very fond of books written in this fashion. I myself prefer serious fantasy that seems real when I suspend my disbelief, but then I wasn't raised on Disney movies which give everything a comic tone, even the stories from the Brothers Grimm and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Voss by Patrick White

In the mid 1840s a Prussian explorer led an expedition  to cross the  Australian Outback and was never heard from again. Australian author White used him as inspiration for this tale of the German Voss, his secret romance with an intellectual but naive young woman, his hubris, and his doomed journey. This is not so much an account of hardships endured on a physical journey as it is an examination of the journey of self discovery of the exploring participants and of the one waiting at home.

 In its totality, this is a very powerful book, but in its particulars, it can sometimes become very tedious. Voss's every thought and emotion are examined in relation to everything and everybody.  The prose is often extravagant and beautiful and filled with metaphor but sometimes is carried to excess, so that one thinks, "What a pretentious pile of meaningless garbage." It is extremely slow to read because the sentences often don't follow the expected conventions of structure and syntax and must be reread for understanding.

Still, it is clearly a work of genius. Rarely have I read a book which provided so much sense of place. The symbolism of  the path to divinity is just subtle enough, yet understandable enough. The drifts into dreamtime are mesmerizing and reflective of the mystical nature of the native culture.

Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, and this is considered his masterpiece. I recommend it to those willing to devote to it a considerable chunk of contemplative reading time.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

I swear I really do have a sense of humor. Just last week I laughed out loud while reading P.G. Wodehouse. But although this 1892 novel is billed as "the jewel at the heart of English comic literature" and "hilarious," I did not find it funny, not at all, not one little bit. In fact, I thought it was kind of sad.

Charles Pooter is a lower-middle class office clerk with a wife and one grown son. His diary records the day-to-day minor details of his ordinary life -- his worrisome interactions with tradesmen, his sometimes-annoying friends, his frivolous son, his frustrations at work. Occasionally, something out-of-the-ordinary occurs, such as an invitation to a party or a seance. He is always concerned with keeping up with appearances. He fancies himself a wit, making bad puns frequently (but not so bad as to be funny, unfortunately). He appears to be extremely accident-prone, frequently tripping and stumbling over things. He is all-in-all quite satisfied with his limited life.

I can see that all this could be made more obviously humorous with exaggeration or a different tone, and told from a different point of view perhaps. As it is, however, the comedy must be too subtle and too English for my dense American mind to appreciate.

Friday, September 18, 2015

To Let by John Galsworthy

Jon and Fleur, two young people who are strangers to each other, fall in love at first sight, but it turns out that they will face problems because their two families hate each other, though the couple can't get anyone to tell them why. What they don't know is that Fleur's mother is her father's second wife, and that his first wife, Irene, is now married to Jon's father and is Jon's mother. Thus we have two households with an "ancient grudge" and a pair of "star-crossed lovers."

This concluding book of the Forsyte Saga is more than a rendering of the Romeo and Juliet plot, however. Galsworthy includes examinations of how family traits and personality types are passed from generation to generation, of the psychology of possessiveness, of the changes in society in England as a result of time and war experience. And it certainly doesn't end as one might expect.

One of the great strengths of this trio of Forsyte novels is Galsworthy's sensitive portrayal of Soames Forsyte (Fleur's father), who is the bad actor in the plot. Galsworthy shows us that of all the characters, he is the one most deserving of our pity. The last sentence of this novel, referring to Soames, says, "He might wish and wish and never get it -- the beauty and the loving in the world!" Now, that's sad.

This novel could be enjoyed in itself, but it should not be. The three books together complete a fascinating extended story of an upper-middle class family over more than 30 years. Most highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In Chancery by John Galsworthy

In this, the second book of the Forsyte Saga, Galsworthy continues his look at an upper-middle class family in late Victorian England, concentrating mainly on the doings of Soames Forsyte and his wife Irene. At the end of book one, The Man of Property, Irene had left her husband after he raped her. This book begins twelve years later, when Soames comes to feel that he needs a son to inherit all the wealth he has so lovingly accumulated. He decides to seek a divorce so that he may remarry, but when he meets his former wife again his old passion is reawakened, and he begins to stalk her to browbeat her into coming back to him. When his first cousin, young Jolyon, helps Irene to escape from him, a family feud begins which will surely extend through the generations.

All of this sounds rather like a standard soap opera, but Galsworthy's extraordinary writing talent makes it so much more. It is also a picture of changing times in attitudes toward standards of conduct and of the roles and rights of women. Soames, who could have been portrayed in an entirely unfavorable light, is afforded a measure of sympathy as a man who has been shaped by his country's and his family's viewpoints concerning the importance of reputation and property who is thus entirely bewildered when his former wife refuses to conform to his wishes, even though she tells him she detests him.

Galsworthy is a wonder of a writer. I look forward to the final installment in the Forsyte Saga.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hadrian the VII by Fr. Rolfe (aka Frederick Baron Corvo)

It is always interesting to know something about the author before reading his/her book. Indeed, sometimes knowledge of the author's life experience is crucial to an understanding of a work. For example, a knowledge of the tragedy-filled lives of the Bronte sisters enlightens the reader as to their source material and the probable reasons why they wrote as they did. In the case of this novel, if I had not read about Frederick Rolfe beforehand, I would not have realized that this whole book is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of how the writer imagined his life should have gone.

If you look up Fr. Rolfe on Wikipedia, you'll find that it lists his occupations as "novelist, artist, fantacist, eccentric." What a grand occupation to have, because it can excuse all kinds of bizarre behavior. Some eccentrics calculatedly draw attention to themselves through their unconventional actions, all the while very slyly knowing what they are doing. These are con-men. Other eccentrics are those who are actually mentally ill, paranoid and self destructive. They sincerely feel they have been maliciously obstructed throughout their lives, and they distrust everybody and blame everybody for their failure to achieve greatness. This novel is the daydream of just such a fellow.

The actual story goes something like this: The protagonist has been dismissed from two schools (through no fault of his own, of course) where he was in training to become a priest of the Catholic Church. He is then forced to endure a hand-to-mouth existence at a variety of endeavors, all of which are terminated by the perfidious actions of others. All this reflects Rolfe's actual life story. Then begins the wish-fulfillment part. Through an entirely unlikely set of circumstances, he is suddenly accepted into the priesthood and is almost immediately elevated to the position of Pope.

The remainder of the novel is akin to the fantasy anyone might have if imagining "If I were the king of the world." The new Pope Hadrian breaks up the Vatican treasury to give to the deserving poor, brings peace to the world by persuading all the world leaders to follow his suggestions, and justifies himself against all criticisms of his past actions. Then (Spoiler alert) he dies as a martyr.

I am entirely mystified as to why the English newspaper The Guardian named this as one of the 100 Bast Novels. It is only interesting if one knows the background of the author, as a look into the paranoic personality. Otherwise, it is tedious and pretentious, filled with unnecessarily complex words and sentences intended to impress. It seems to me to be the ravings of a madman, similar to the diatribes sent to newspapers or posted on the internet by various modern killers. Perhaps England was fortunate that Rolfe just expressed his grandiose dreams and paranoia in literature, rather than acting upon his delusions.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Jeeves in the Morning by P.G.Wodehouse (in England, titled Joy in the Morning)

P.G. Wodehouse is the funniest writer I know. He's not sarcastic or ironic, in the style of so many, but just a master of the situation comedy kind of funny, with slightly goofy but lovable characters getting themselves into and out of all kinds of messes. This novel chronicles the wacky misadventures of the genial and somewhat dim English aristocrat Bertie Wooster, as he is once again rescued by his erudite and clever butler Jeeves. I often laughed out loud uncontrollably while reading it, so be prepared to embarrass yourself if you read this in public. I was alone at the time, so nobody was around to assume I was coming unhinged.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

The Eustace Diamonds, the third novel in the Palliser series, caused me to be a bit disappointed with Anthony Trollope, because it seems to me to be very derivative, as if he consciously copied the characters from Thackery's Vanity Fair and put them into a mystery plot copied from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. The result is a watered-down and not very tasty version of the two, with an anti-heroine not nearly as deliciously manipulative as Becky Sharp and a mystery which is not really very mysterious at all.

The heroine is Lizzie Eustace, a beautiful young widow. All who know her eventually come to the conclusion that she is a liar, but she is a consummate flirt and is fascinatingly rich, so she manages to attract many suitors. She is not a very interesting character, however, because she wins the games she plays more through luck and a pretty face than through cleverness on her part. In fact, she comes across as a trifle dim in the brain department.

The mystery has to do with the diamond necklace which she insists was given to her by her now-dead husband and which the Eustace family lawyer says is not lawfully hers because it is a family heirloom to be passed down to the head of the family. And then it is stolen. Who took it? Or did she hide it herself?

A sub-plot involves Lizzie's naively sweet friend Lucy Morris (a pale copy of Becky Sharp's clueless friend Amelia), who continues to stand by her man even when he doesn't come to see her or write to her because he is busy helping poor Lizzie with her problems. Get a clue, girl. He's not worth waiting for.

Even though I've been dismissive here, I moderately enjoyed reading this novel, mainly because I enjoy Trollope's writing style, with its mild irony and sarcasm. Maybe I've just read too much Trollope in too short a time. Maybe Trollope was just attempting a parody of Thackery and Collins and I took it to be imitating and doing a second-class job. Whatever, this is the Trollope novel I've enjoyed least.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - by Ron Hansen

Back in 1882, long before television and popular music would make celebrities of bad-boy rappers, newspapers and pulp fiction made celebrities of desperado bank and train robbers, most notable among them being Jesse James. He was a former Confederate soldier, and his popularity was somewhat a reaction to the sense of disenfranchisement of Southerners following the War. He was widely reported as robbing from the rich (Yankees) to give to the poor (Southern whites), although in reality he mostly kept the money for himself. The fact that Jesse had killed 19 men was largely ignored. He was a larger-than-life folk hero.

Enter Robert Ford, a 19-year-old boy who was Jesse's obsessed fan, having collected clippings and memorized facts about his hero from a young age. Desperate to be "somebody," to be himself idolized and remembered, he gained entry into Jesse's outlaw gang, and while a guest in his home, shot Jesse in the back while he was standing on a chair dusting a picture.

This is their story.

Author Ron Hansen does a bang-up job of bringing to life a fictionalized history. The climax of the plot is, of course, known to the reader in advance, so the narrative focuses not on what happened but on why it happened and on psychological portraits of the two involved. This is actually more a picture of the assassin than of the assassinated. Robert Ford had assumed he would be celebrated for his deed. Hansen reports him as saying, "I thought...that I'd be the greatest man in America if I shot him. I thought they would congratulate me and I'd get my name in books." Instead, Ford often heard himself being maligned in saloons by a popular song which called him "a dirty little coward," and people crossed to the other side of the street to avoid him.

Also notable in this novel is Hansen's writing style, which is very attractive and filled with arresting phrases and descriptions. Indeed, occasionally he is almost too original and striking, taking away from the narrative by drawing attention to the clever writing.

This novel provides a very enjoyable reading experience. I would also recommend Hansen's Desperadoes, another fictionalized history, and Mariette in Ecstasy, about religious obsession.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

The back cover blurbs of this l-o-n-g novel assured me that it is "...Charles Dickens reincarnated," and that turns out to be kind-of the case, except that it is not so much in the style of Dickens or a tribute to Dickens, as I had expected, as it is a parody of Dickens. Palliser has taken almost all the plot devices Dickens ever came up with for his many novels and has crammed them all into one book. Hence we have a young boy with unknown parentage, a silly and naive young mother, a lost will, a disputed property in Chancery, a young girl sequestered in a crumbling manor house, a mistreated governess, an avaricious (probably Jewish) money lender, an unscrupulous lawyer or two, an organized gang of crooks, a boarding school from hell, a madhouse designed to make residents go mad, the sewers of London, illegitimate babies, murder, kidnapping, bribery, blackmailing, thievery, grave robbing, prostitution, and just about every other disreputable tidbit that Dickens ever imagined.

But missing from this Dickens "tribute" is any of his humor, any of his celebrated ability to make characters come alive, and few of his "good" characters to offset the "very bad" ones. Almost every character in The Quincunx is a stock villain, and so the young hero meets with trickery and betrayal from all sides. And you know how Dickens and other Victorian novelists wrapped everything up neatly at the end, solving all the mysteries. Don't expect that here; many matters are left hanging, including the future actions of the protagonist.

Even though this book is immensely readable, I very soon felt that I was being tricked by the author, because as he was following so many of the conventions of Victorian literature he was at the same time upending them and employing a much more modern sensibility. In fairness, perhaps this was more the fault of the book reviewers who characterized the book as Dickens-like without noting that it was a negative of the generally optimistic viewpoint of Victorian literature that the right and the good would triumph in the end. All in all, this is a depressing and discouraging read.

The Quincunx became very popular when it was written (1989), despite its extreme length and extremely convoluted plot, or maybe because of it. Readers love a good story, and this one is action-packed from start to finish, going from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger with virtually no down time. The construction of the novel, with five family lines revealed in five books of five chapters each, reflecting the shared family crests of five roses, provides interest to those who search for hidden symbolism. I chose to read it because of the back-of-the-book blurbs, and I have plenty of spare time, so I only spent a few days with it. For those without that luxury, I would say spend your valuable reading time with something less depressing and more authentic. For instance, you could read actual Victorian literature rather than a post-modern rehash.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

"...people want to remember what it's like to be young. And in love." So says Park, the 16-year-old boy in this modern day Romeo & Juliet. He is right, of course. That's surely why this novel became so popular.

Park is half Korean, a bit of a punk rocker, and doesn't feel that he quite fits in with his peers or even with the other members of his own family. Eleanor is a 16-year-old plus-sized girl from an impoverished dysfunctional home who is intent upon keeping the world at arm's length to avoid being rejected yet again. This is the story of how they become star-crossed lovers (in the romantic, not the physical, sense) and of how forces outside their control try to rip them apart.

Eleanor & Park is a Young Adult novel which can be read with pleasure by an adult, even an old adult, as long as the memory still remains of how intense hand-holding could be, of the first kiss, of how it felt to fall in love for the first time. Cleverly, Rowell has set her story in 1986, so that a teenage reader's 30-something mother will find the book additionally interesting because of the many reference to the music and culture of that time.

Rainbow Rowell does an excellent job of portraying the hesitant actions and intense emotions of teenagers new to the game of love. She switches back and forth between the viewpoints of the boy and girl, but I think a teenage boy would probably rather die than be seen reading it (although he would most likely enjoy it). Of the several YA romances I have read at the suggestion of my granddaughter, this is the best.

A note about the language: I have read that some parents have protested about this book being in school libraries because of the language. Evidently, they have never actually listened to a bunch of teenagers, particularly boys, when they think no adult is listening. Believe me, no teenager will read anything here that he or she does not hear every day at school. It may not be classy, but it's life as it is now.

Recommended for age 14 and up.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

What a strange and quirky little book this is!

One of the adventures of trolling around the internet for ideas about books to read is coming upon something entirely unheard of before. This book, which was written in 1926, is #52 on a list from the British newspaper The Guardian of the 100 Best Novels Ever. It starts out as a novel of manners, kind of like Jane Austin, and ends up as a feminist allegory, kind of like Virginia Woolf. It even anticipates the magic realism of Angela Carter. As I said, strange and quirky.

Lolly Willowes is the dutiful daughter and later the helpful spinster aunt until her middle age, when she finally has enough of always being helpful and self-sacrificing and decides to move away from her family, to an out-of-the-way country village. Before long she realizes that she is, and has always been, a witch. In a long conversation with Satan, she explains that being a witch is "to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others...."

All of this is told in rather whimsical prose. It is often chuckle-worthy funny. Here's my favorite tongue-in-cheek quote: "One has to offer marriage to a young woman who has picked dead wasps out of one's armpit."

I would recommend this novel even to those without feminist or lesbian interests (Yes, there's a hint of that, too). Warner is much more charming than Virginia Woolf.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

Nothing is so exciting to a book lover as to read the first novel of a series, to love it, and to be able to look forward to several more. This is the first of the three-book Forsyte Saga, and six additional novels feature members of the extended Forsyte family, so I have eight books to anticipate. And anticipate them I certainly will, because this one captivated me.

To my knowledge, Galsworthy is not much celebrated these days, even though he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. Perhaps he is not exciting enough for today's sensation-hungry audiences or perhaps he was not enough of an innovator. Maybe I just didn't take the right classes to learn much about him in college. For whatever reason, I've come upon him late, but I'm so glad I have because he is an extraordinarily good writer. His prose is graceful, measured, and elegant; his humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek; his people are lifelike and treated sympathetically; his picture of upper-middle class England at the beginning of the 20th Century is fascinating. He reminds me of Anthony Trollope, only better, and of George Eliot, only not quite as good.

This novel principally concerns the unhappy marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte, including the actions and reactions of other family members to the situation. Like the other males in his family, Soames is extremely protective and prideful about his "property," which in his mind includes his wife. When she asks to be released from the marriage, he refuses. When he "asserted his rights and acted like a man...." the reader realizes that he has raped Irene, although the word is never used.

Surely Galsworthy was very progressive in his sympathy for the plight of women of the time, who essentially had no rights of their own. Indeed, many decades would pass before society would admit that it is even wrong for a husband to force sexual activity on a wife.

This is a slow-paced, thoughtful, and highly entertaining read, one that I highly recommend.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Cove by Ron Rash

Ron Rash wastes no time before letting readers know that The Cove will include violent death. In the Prologue, which takes place in the 1950s, a government surveyor attempts to bring up a bucket of water from an abandoned well in the Appalachians of North Carolina. Instead, he brings up a human skull. The ominous atmosphere of impending doom created by this beginning prevails throughout the novel.

The story flashes back to the midst of World War I, when veteran Hank has returned minus one of his hands to his hard-luck farm in a dark, gloomy cove under the shadow of a cliff, rejoining his lonely sister Laurel. Shunned as a witch by most in the community, Laurel has little to look forward to in life until she chances to rescue an injured stranger in the woods, who brings her new possibilities for happiness. Although he is a mute who can neither read nor write, the mysterious stranger and Laurel forge a bond, but he has a secret, one which threatens to destroy their growing love.

As a counterpoint to the idyllic romance, this is also the story of a community in the midst of war mentality, with fear of German treachery fanned by the local super-patriotic army recruiter, Chauncey Feith, who has been kept from the actual fighting overseas through the influence of his rich father. Rash does an exceptionally good job of portraying this character, who proves the truism that nobody is as dangerous as a coward with a gun.

There must be something strange going on in the Appalachian regions, because almost every book I have ever read with that setting has been Gothic and doom and gloom. Do the people who reside there always live under a premonition that something very bad is about to happen? Whatever the case, this wild region does provide a fitting setting for dark stories of tragedy, and this novel is an excellent example. That it is also lyrical and poetic is a plus.

I would also highly recommend Rash's novel Serena.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

One has to wonder what kind of relationship Amy Tan had with her own mother, because so many of her novels concern mother-daughter problems, beginning with her first best seller, The Joy Luck Club. This one tells a multi-generational story -- Lucia is a privileged American girl who feels ignored by her mother and escapes as a teenager to Shanghai to follow her infatuation with a Chinese artist. Pregnant and unable to convince her Chinese sweetheart to defy family and tradition to marry her, she eventually becomes the madam of an exclusive courtesan house. Her child, the half-Chinese Violet, also enjoys a life of privilege, until she is separated from Lucia by an act of trickery. Wrongfully blaming her mother for the separation, Violet is forced to become a "virgin courtesan," the privilege of deflowering her belonging to the highest bidder. After she bears a daughter, Flora, the child is taken from her by quasi-legal means and carried off by the father's family. Not remembering her true mother, Flora is reared as the daughter of her birth father's American legal wife.

Amid this tangled family history is the search for love by the three daughters, particularly of the missteps and tragedies of Violet. The many details about her courtesan life are extremely interesting quite apart from their pertinence to the plot.

I could nit-pick this novel to death for its faults in my eyes: the characters often behave quite illogically; Violet's story contains so many misadventures that it becomes picaresque and unbelievable; the pace is slow and detailed until near the ending, when it all wraps up in a rushed and summarizing manner. But all this becomes almost beside the point, because Amy Tan is such a good storyteller, and this is a fascinating story. It's not "literature for the ages," but it is first-class entertainment.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

#2 of the Palliser series

Whereas Trollope's Barsetshire novels concern clergymen and church-related problems, the Palliser novels are about politicians and Parliamentary politics. Those Americans who are mostly clueless about how British government works (why and how a government is dissolved, for instance) may find some of this book incomprehensible or even boring. I can be counted as one of those ignorant Americans. However, surprisingly enough, it turns out that though almost 150 years have passed since this novel was written and though the American and British systems of government differ, things are pretty much the same here and now as they were there and then. For example, the ultimate problem faced by Trollope's "hero" Phineas is one faced today -- can a politician afford to vote as conscience would dictate when he does not agree with the position of the Party to which he belongs? Is there room for principle in politics?

Phineas Finn is a young rising star is Parliament, much aided by his good looks, affable personality, knack of knowing the right people, and just plain luck. He is naive and clueless about how government really works in the beginning of his career, but soon finds that nothing is as simple and straightforward as he had supposed. He is also more than a bit bumbling in his private life, falling in and out of love/fascination with four different young women before the story ends. He does not always behave admirably, but he is always well intentioned and ultimately makes the right choices.

Trollope often surprises by taking the traditional Victorian marriage plot and twisting it a bit. Giving the young man four different "suitors" is certainly a departure, as usually it is the young woman who finds a mate. It is interesting and rather amusing to view the plot from a different angle.

Reading Trollope is comforting because not even his villains are totally evil, and one wishes real life to be like that. Unfortunately, evidence seems to indicate that some people are indeed total villains without redeeming qualities, that pure selfishness and evil do exist. So when I get discouraged about the world, I read Trollope. This is not his best, but it is still very good.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Monday Monday by Elizabeth Crook

Austin author Elizabeth Crook has seemingly grafted two entirely different stories together to create one novel, with only a tenuous connection between the two parts. The first story is an account of the first mass murder in U.S. history, the killing spree of Charles Whitman, the sniper who killed 16 people and injured dozens more from the clock tower of The University of Texas in 1966. The second story concerns the subsequent lives of three of the survivors of the carnage, but the connection to the first part seems to be only one of shared characters and could just as easily have occurred without the tragedy beforehand.

The events of the massacre are all recounted in the riveting first chapter, which is extremely well done. The details are specific and visceral and immediate, so that the reader feels very present. If the whole book had been written with this high standard and if the two parts had connected better, this would have been an outstanding book.

Unfortunately the rest of the book, the life stories of three of the survivors, reads like the plot of a soap opera or a Lifetime movie. We have an illicit love affair, a baby given up for adoption, lies told, truths revealed, and so on. I'm not saying this is poorly written or without interest, but it is predictable and somewhat lackluster.

One plus for readers who are familiar with Austin, particularly as it was in the '60s, is the specificity of the many references to places and landscapes. There's something fascinating about reading a novel and being able to say to yourself, "Yes, I've been there. That's what it's like." Of course, for those unfortunates who have never been to Austin, all this would be very much beside the point.

I would characterize this as light summer reading, suitable for vacations or by the poolside.