Saturday, January 31, 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

For me, the most difficult part of writing a review, or anything else for that matter, is getting started, coming up with something intriguing and creative to draw the reader in. I believe that most writing teachers and writers would agree that it's important to start strong in order to keep readers reading long enough to get to the meat of the piece.

That's why I was surprised when the first 100 pages of this highly regarded novel turned out to be dull almost past enduring. Only my habit of always finishing a book kept me reading.

This first section of the novel covers the years 1951-1982 in the life of the main character, Ellen Tumulty, an Irish American girl living in New York City. The problem is that it is almost totally just a telling of the events in her life--this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and so on. Dramatic events are reported, not shown, and consequently lose all their drama. I would compare the section to a Wikipedia article (lasting 100 pages).

Then, suddenly, the novel starts improving as it follows Ellen's marriage to Ed, a research scientist. We finally begin to know and understand her, not just learn the facts. When Ed begins to exhibit signs of early-onset Alzheimer's, the writing seems to change yet again, becoming very specific and immediate and riveting. For page 150 through to the last, all the praise on the back of the book seems justified.

The story is told by a narrator, mostly through the eyes and thoughts of Ellen, and some readers might find fault because Ellen is not a very likable character at all. A few chapters focus on the son, Connell, and he is also not portrayed in a favorable light, although he does show character growth. The reader is obviously supposed to conclude that these characters' actions have been pre-determined by the circumstances of their upbringings, but that understanding depends on reader acquaintance with pop psychology rather than on specific connections made by the author.

I have read that this is Thomas's first novel and that it took him ten years to write it. Since the last part was really good, I think he must have improved over that time. I look forward to his next novel.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

It takes a special talent to write a novel about ordinary people and to make the story extraordinary. A special talent to write in the grave and measured cadence of the King James Bible and to make the language relevant to today's readers. A special talent to interweave matters of faith and religion into a story and to not lapse into preachiness and sanctimoniousness. A special talent to write about the grace of kindness and love and not come across as overly sentimental and unrealistic. Marilynne Robinson has that talent. This is a beautiful novel.

It follows the life of Lila Dahl, who is rescued as a small child from neglect and mistreatment by a homeless migrant named Doll, who loves and protects her throughout her hard-scrabble youth. As a woman in her 30s, alone and friendless, Lila stumbles into a surprising romance with the Rev. John Ames, a minister more than twice her age. The third-person narration is limited to Lila's thoughts and actions as she tries to reconcile the minister's kindness and his teachings about redemption with the experiences of her previous life.

Because this is a book about thoughts and feelings and beliefs more than about dramatic events, some readers may find it slow and unexciting. Others, who expect certainty and strong evangelistic messages in a novel which speaks of religious belief, may find it lacking, because it speaks of doubt and a search for meaning. I can't think of any others who might not be entranced.

Robinson's novel Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, tells part of this same story, through the first-person narration of John Ames. I strongly suggest reading them both, as it is fascinating to compare and contrast the two.

I predict that Lila will win this year's Pulitzer.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

As I write this review, All the Light We Cannot See is the #1 best selling novel in America. That position does not often go to so-called "literary" fiction such as this; more frequently the top bestseller is genre fiction, a mystery or thriller, for example. Doerr has accomplished the feat of combining all the best attributes of both "literary" and "popular" fiction and has produced a book to be savored by all different kinds of readers. Well done, Mr. Doerr.

Those who appreciate lyrical writing will find it in abundance. Images and scenes and sounds are so vivid that they are experienced rather than just read about. The novel is full of phrases and sentences that are so beautiful they snatch your breath away. Looking for a suspenseful thriller? Hefty doses here. How about some romance? Even a bit of that. War stories catch your interest? The time and place are France and Germany during World War II. Do you require your reading to have serious implications, say about such matters as the nature of good and evil and the resilience of human beings? Oh, yes! This novel even includes much discussion and information about scientific matters, such as the properties of light and the construction of radios and the attributes of snails.

But it is surely Doerr's storytelling abilities that have turned this into a bestseller. No matter what the literary preferences and pretensions, almost all readers appreciate a well-told story with believable and sympathetic characters, and this novel succeeds on that count, unquestionably, beyond a doubt.

The plot focuses on two young people: Marie-Laure, a blind girl from Paris who flees with her father when the city is taken by the Germans; and Werner, a precocious orphan boy from Germany whose special talent with radios lands him in an elite academy for Hitler Youth. Their stories, told in alternating (very short) chapters, follow them from childhood to coming-of-age amidst the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo, where their two lives converge.

I cannot say enough good things about this novel. Everyone should read it. (All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the National Book Award and is a strong contender for the Pulitzer.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

J by Howard Jacobson

About halfway through this book, author Jacobson includes a retelling of "The Allegory of the Frog," you know, the one about the frog who lets himself be boiled because the water is warmed gradually. It seems to me that J in its entirety is an allegory rather than a novel in the usual sense, because its plot line and characters at no time appear lifelike (no more than the frog); however, they do carry an obvious message: humanity needs a scapegoat for its anger, and, for the Jews, this means that history can repeat itself.

The world of the novel occurs some time in the future following a largely undescribed violent event called by all WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, after which the population by common consent all chose new names (a curious blend of Celtic and Jewish), agreed to forget about the past, and adopted an apologetic "so sorry" superficial attitude. Despite their efforts to create a climate of peace and love, their society is filled with random violence, particularly against women.

The two central characters, who both feel themselves to be misfits who are threatened in some unspecified way, are thrown together by some mysterious agency and fall in love. The mystery becomes, who is trying to direct their lives, and why.

Favorable comparisons that have been made between J and the dystopian classics 1984 and Brave New World greatly overestimate the power of this book. J never seems real, lacks narrative tension, and, most of all, does not have an interesting plot at all, unlike those to which it is being compared. They are alike, however, in their generally bleak view of mankind. Jacobson appears to be correct in his contentions -- when life is not perfect, people tend to look for someone to blame and assume an "us" against "them" attitude. (This scenario is rampant in the US, though, in this case, the Jewish people don't seem to be the "them.")

In conclusion, I would recommend J for its ideas, but not as an interesting or intriguing novel. (It was a finalist for England's 2014 Man Booker Prize.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel of such extraordinary power that it left me disturbed for days after finishing it. The major portion follows a World War II Australian army surgeon through almost unimaginable adversities as a prisoner of war involved in the building of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, and that section is the most impressive, but the story also follows him, some of his fellow captives, and even their Japanese and Korean captors in the years after the war; and includes a romance between the surgeon and his uncle's wife.

In the POW section, after witnessing the murder by beating of one of his fellow captives, the surgeon "thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilizations it created...." This violence and horror is so effectively communicated by Flanagan that it becomes overwhelming and devastating and very real. This is the heart of the book.

The stories of the various men after the war, particularly of the surgeon, read as case studies in PTSD. The returned soldiers "died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases....too many of their marriages faltered and staggered....They went bush by themselves....they stayed in town with others and drank too much; they went a bit crazy...." The surgeon's life-after-war finds him highly successful in his profession and honored by his country for his role in the prison camp, yet he is filled with emptiness and guilt. All the accounts are profoundly moving, even those of the captors.

And then, unfortunately, there's the love story, which seems out of place and almost treacly in comparison to the rest of the book. I believe Flanagan meant it to be a contrast to the violence and despair, but it instead weakens the message and seems as if belongs in another novel entirely.

Still, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a grand achievement, the best current novel I have read in some time. (Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Mansion by William Faulkner

Faulkner concludes his story of the rise and fall of Flem Snopes with this third installment of the Snopes Trilogy, published 19 years after the first installment, The Hamlet. This can be enjoyably read as a stand-alone novel; for those reading it as the culmination of one long story, it can even be a bit repetitious, as large sections retell incidents already reported in the two earlier books, albeit often with additional or slightly different information.

The two central characters are those who bring about Flem's death: Mink Snopes, the convicted murderer first introduced in The Hamlet, who leaves prison after 39 years still intent on revenge against his cousin Flem for abandoning him during his trial; and Linda Snopes Kohl, the supposed daughter of Flem, who arranges for Mink's release for reasons of her own.

Faulkner's continued use of multiple narrators is particularly effective in this novel, allowing the reader to understand and empathize with both the simple minded Mink and the lawyer Gavin Stevens, the high-minded "knight" whose obsession is to "save" both Linda and, previously, Eula Verner Snopes, her mother. Interestingly, the reader is never allowed to see into the minds of Flem and Linda, so that their thoughts and motivations are always subject to the interpretations of other narrators.

The Mansion, both as a single novel and as the third of a trilogy, excels and enthralls as to plot and the grandeur of the language, but the story also has added significance and symbolism that can be thought about long afterward. I'm still thinking about it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Town by William Faulkner

For the first time I have perceived a Faulkner novel to be a shade less than perfect. This middle volume of The Snopes Trilogy continues the story of the rise of the shrewd and ruthless Flem Snopes into a position of importance in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi, in the early part of the 20th Century, though it is more concerned with the stories of his wife Eula and his supposed daughter Linda. In contrast to the first book of the Trilogy, The Hamlet, which was grotesquely humorous, often bordering on farce and parody, most of The Town is a doom-laden tragedy of near-mythical proportions. The inclusion of a couple of farcical incidents, particularly the mules in the yard episode, just don't seem to fit the overall tone, to my way of thinking. I wish Faulkner had ended the book with this impressive quote: "She loved, had a capacity for love, to give and accept love. Only she tried twice and failed twice to find somebody not just strong enough to deserve, earn it, match it, but even brave enough to accept it."

However, for me to criticize Faulkner is about equivalent to a grain of sand critiquing the ocean waves.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Hamlet by William Faulkner

The preponderance of William Faulkner's stories of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County concern the fallen Southern aristocracy and read like Greek tragedies; I can enjoy but not relate to these because, though I am a daughter of the South, my ancestors were not the plantation owners or the classically educated lawyers and such like. This saga tells of the rise of the Snopes family, Southern white trash who succeed through the sharpness of their skill at taking advantage of the greed of others. That's closer to my heritage. Wait, perhaps my people would not even have been classified as suitable members of the Snopes clan. Mine were more likely to have been some of the hapless victims, naive or greedy enough, or both, to be taken in by a Snopes scheme. To this I can relate.

This novel reads like a series of short stories, and it is very funny, albeit of a very grotesque sort of humor, almost a parody of a Greek tragedy. We read of injury, death, madness, greed, sexual obsession, imbecility, and even bestiality and can find it all a source of uncomfortable amusement. Not many authors could accomplish that stretch, conveying the levity of tragedy when it happens to someone else, while at the same time transmitting the emotions of sympathy and sorrow. Go, Faulkner.

Many are prone to saying that Faulkner is not really difficult to read, and in a way they are right. True, he does not explain everything, but requires his readers to form conclusions and to make connections for themselves. He does not follow the rules and conventions of prose, but instead writes stories as they would be told orally. He immerses readers in a veritable flood of words. He requires his readers to put their brains in an entirely different gear from that usually used for reading fiction, but the results are so rewarding that he is worth any amount of effort. And, surprisingly, after one gets "in the swim," so to speak, no effort is required.

This is a fable of the New South, where the manners and noble ideals of the old order have been supplanted by the raw and vigorous amorality of a new ruling class, a class which, just like the Snopes family, seemingly multiplies without end. In fact, I believe that the Governor of my state is one of the Snopes cousins.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Revival by Stephen King

King's latest novel is dedicated to a list of writers who, King writes, "...built my house." Among those listed is H.P. Lovecraft, and a couplet from a Lovecraft poem is referenced several times in the novel. For anyone familiar with Lovecraft's Gothic horror novels, the images described in the climax of King's book will seem very familiar, but King's horror falls far short of the power he is emulating.

For one thing, the entirety of a Lovecraft short story or novella always carries a tone of dread and near madness throughout, so greatly has the first-person narrator been affected by his experience. In contrast, more than half of King's novel is a very mundane and straightforward coming-of-age story which begins in the '60s, somewhat repetitive of several of his earlier works, such as the short story "Stand By Me." The protagonist's descent into drug addiction and subsequent recovery has also been covered by King in earlier works, often more convincingly, as in Dr. Sleep. Neither the tone nor the content of the first two-thirds of this novel prepare the reader for the ending. We have little rising tension. The two parts just don't seem to fit together.

Another thing: Lovecraft's sentence structure and word choices reinforce his atmosphere of horror; he wrote in a consciously archaic style and was a master of using descriptive words such as "eldritch" and "putrescent" and "writhing of worms." King's style is much more simplistic and much less evocative. His scene of horror is, consequently, never as horrific as it should be.

Obviously I am not a big fan of this King novel, even though I am generally a fan of his. He has done better; I hope he will do better in the future.

One disturbing thing: the endings of previous King books seem to carry the message that good can overcome evil, though perhaps not forever, because the evil may rise again to be confronted once again by the good. That pretty much corresponds with my world view, so I find it comforting. The ending of this novel carries the much bleaker message that evil will win in the end. The most horrifying aspect of this novel to me is the thought that the writer of The Dark Tower series has decided that the dark will defeat the light in the end despite all best efforts.