Monday, April 27, 2015

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

My best advice to a potential reader of this fascinating novel is not to read reviews beforehand, not even to read the back of the cover, because one of the strengths of the book is the sly way Faber gradually reveals his story in tiny clues. When the story begins, a female is driving the roads of Scotland, looking to pick up muscular male hitchhikers. Almost immediately, the reader has expectations about the direction the plot is taking, but then Faber lets slip a little detail that shifts the reader's expectations to a different path. But wait, a later small detail hints that something else, something really unexpected, is going on. Even by giving just this much information, I have probably said too much.

Just take my word for it: this is a book you should read. I hesitate to even place it in a genre category because that would also reveal too much. Let's just say it fits in more than one category and can be enjoyed on several levels. The second half is perhaps a bit weaker than the first half, but overall this is a darned good book.

I am much impressed with Michel Faber. After reading his 2014 novel, The Book of Strange New Things, I read the 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White, and now this one. All three are totally different, and all three are excellent. He has recently said in interviews that he will not write another novel. I hope he changes his mind.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett

It is understandable that this picaresque travelog novel would have been popular with readers back in 1771, when this was first published. It intersperses a narrative about the doings of a family as they travel in England and Scotland with detailed descriptions of the various towns visited and with many topical references to prominent people and events of the time. The story is very cleverly told through letters written by the family members to friends back home, and Smollett does an excellent job of giving each writer a unique voice, personality,and vantage point. The actual plot elements are often extremely humorous in the typical British satiric manner, particularly the efforts of the 45-year-old maiden aunt to snare a husband.

But for a 21st Century reader, this book is a real slog. Sorry, but I think most would agree. Over half the novel would be understandable or of interest only to people of that time and place, leaving the story bits too far apart to keep a modern reader engaged. I can't tell you how many times I was tempted to stop reading.

I would recommend this book only to those who have an academic interest in 18th Century English literature.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Year 5 of Reading

Once again I am posting on my birthday about my favorite books read in a year of my life. I read 87 books this year, a good many of them borrowed from other people, because I was often betwixt and between, in the process of packing and moving and storing my own books, as well as later enjoying an extended visit with my son. At one point in time, while having a pity party, I decided to give up reviewing books online, but thought better of it later because I realized I really enjoyed doing it, even if nobody read the reviews.

I've been on a Victorian literature spree this year, because I really enjoy the novels from that period and I had only read the obvious ones. I think I like them because they tell such interesting (though often predictable) stories, without self-conscious pretentiousness. As is usual for me, I read current releases only after Christmas, when I received bookseller gift cards. Otherwise I buy used, which means books published less recently. Don't bother suggesting public libraries to me -- I long ago proved to be unreliable in getting books back on time. True story: once in Austin a constable came to my door on Thanksgiving to demand payment of my library fines or else I would go to jail. Unbelievable.

These are the books I enjoyed most this year: (Rereads not included)

*Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson A surrealistic story of the war in Vietnam, but, more importantly and by implication, about how all war degrades and destroys the participants. Masterfully accomplished and thus quite disturbing. Winner of the 2007 National Book Award and a Pulitzer finalist. (Dec., 2014)

*Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope Victorian novel about three women fortunate enough to be courted by two very different types of men. Each has one suitor who is solid and dependable and another who is dangerously exciting. Which type will they choose? Very amusing and also highly instructive. (Dec., 2014)

*Lila by Marilynne Robinson A touching May-December romance between a formerly homeless migrant worker and a minister. Beautifully written. National Book Award finalist and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2015. (Jan., 2015)

*All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr An addictively readable story set in World War II about a blind girl from Paris and a precociously talented young man from Germany and how their lives eventually intersect. Finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. (Jan., 2015)

*The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan World War II experiences of a fictional Australian army surgeon, first as a prisoner of the Japanese involved in the building of the Thai-Burma Death Railway and later as a guilt-ridden survivor. Extraordinarily powerful. Winner of England's 2014 Man Booker Award. (Jan., 2015)

*The Hamlet by William Faulkner Southern Gothic tale about the rise of the Snopes clan, the epitome of White Trash in the New South. Only Faulkner could write about violent death, madness, greed, sexual obsession, and bestiality and make it grotesquely funny. (Jan., 2015)

*The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber A very thoughtful science fiction, religion-centered, apocalyptic, love story about a pastor posted to a far-away planet to minister to the aliens, leaving the love of his life behind. Sounds unlikely that this could all fit together meaningfully, but it does. (Feb., 2015)

*Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope Gossipy and affectionately told story of the romance between a young man who is heir to an estate seriously in need of an influx of cash and the poor niece of a rural doctor. A tenderly humorous look at the upper and middle classes of Victorian England. I love Trollope. (Feb., 2015)

*Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell Delightful Marriage Plot Victorian novel, this one about a love triangle and another triangle--the sweet heroine, selfish step-mother, and beautiful step-sister. Gaskell's skill in characterization makes this one much better than it sounds. Predictable, but so much fun to read. (Mar., 2015)

*The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick Perhaps the most hallucinatory tale from the master of alternate realities, about Palmer Eldritch, who is maybe an alien and maybe a god and maybe a devil, and Chew-Z, a drug that allows the user to enter an alternate reality for what seems like forever, but then maybe it is forever. (Mar., 2015)

*The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber A modern (2002) look at Victorian England through the life of Sugar, a second generation prostitute who becomes the favorite of an egotistical manufacturing magnate who has a mad wife and a neglected daughter. Sugar is so well portrayed that she is now one of my favorite fictional characters ever. Fascinating. ((Mar., 2015)

*Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Surely one of the most hopeful post-apocalypse tales ever, with the survivors preserving the best and brightest from the ruins of civilization. Brings several disparate stories together in a most clever fashion. Finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award.(Apr., 2015)

I read only one book this year which I absolutely hated -- London Fields by Martin Amis, because the novel's sole intent seemed to be to prove that the author is supremely clever and superior. I kept wishing I could meet Mr. Amis and slap his arrogant and condescending face.

Happy reading, and happy birthday to me.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Written in 1853, Ruth was specifically intended as a social-problem novel, with the problem being the attitudes of society, especially the religious elements, toward unwed mothers and their illegitimate children. The title character is a 16-year-old orphan when she is cast friendless into the world and seduced by a rich young man in his 20's. Deserted by her faithless seducer and pregnant with his child, she comes to the attention of a Dissenting minister, who, along with his spinster sister, takes her in because he knows how society will cast her away and believes the way to save her from a life of further sin is to keep her past a secret.

The minister introduces Ruth as a young widowed relative, and she becomes a trusted member of the community, behaving so faultlessly that she is hired as governess for the children of the most sanctimonious member of the congregation. Inevitably, her secret is revealed, with easily guessed consequences.

Gaskell intends to be advocating tolerance and forgiveness here, and she displays considerable bravery in writing about the subject of sexual indiscretion, considering the attitudes of that time. Reportedly, the book was banned from her own household, presumably by her Unitarian minister husband. And yet, she seems to be hedging her bets, so to speak, as she somewhat excuses Ruth's fall on grounds of youth and lack of guidance, while at the same time portraying her as spending the rest of her life in expiation of the sin, even to the point of martyring herself. The implication is that Gaskell herself believed sexual misbehavior for a woman to be so shameful that it must be atoned for even when it is repented. Her Ruth becomes such a paragon of virtue that she ceases to be believable.

For more balanced and sensitive accounts of "fallen women," read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in America three years earlier, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, written almost 40 years later.

The remainder of this review is a rant. Stop here if you prefer not to hear (read) it.

I became so angry at these fictional characters and the author while I was reading this novel that I could hardly judge the merits of the book itself. I know these judgmental people. I grew up with them in the 1950s. I still see evidence of their existence. The Bible contains many references to sins of all kinds, and yet the self-righteous seem perpetually intent on focusing their rejection on a select few sinners, while ignoring the lesson of Jesus about casting the first stone. The scorn heaped on unmarried mothers is no longer so universal or unrelenting, but they have been replaced as the ultimate of the sinful in many minds by homosexual people. Is it inevitable that some will always believe that religious devotion mandates intolerance? Some states, mine included, have passed laws saying it's OK to treat some people as less than worthy because they don't conform to standards of perceived morality. In my viewpoint, that is so wrong on both constitutional and religious grounds. End of rant.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven opens with the heart attack on stage of a famous actor and the futile attempts of a paramedic student to save him. Later that night the paramedic receives a phone call from a doctor friend, telling him that a quick-acting super flu has hit the city. Holed up with his wheelchair-bound brother in an apartment, the young man soon realizes that it is the "end of the world as we know it."

Fast-forward to 20 years later, and a girl who was present as a child performer on the night of the actor's death is traveling from village to village with an itinerant group of actors and musicians, providing entertainment for the scattered survivors of the plague. She carries with her two graphic science fiction novels (which had been given to her by the dead actor) about a space station long lost from Earth, called Station Eleven.

Jumping from character to character and backwards and forwards in time, Mandel tells these seemingly disparate stories, and more, before connecting them all together in a most clever fashion.

If this is to be classed an an apocalyptic tale, it is certainly the most hopeful and heart warming of that genre. Perhaps by setting the action 20 years after the event, Mandel has avoided the horrors and brutality which are central to most of the ilk, such as The Road, for example. One of her characters cannot even recall the first year after the epidemic, apparently shutting it out as too traumatic to remember. Mandel's story allows us to believe that most people are good and that they value what is best and brightest about civilization. The motto of the entertainment group is "Survival is insufficient," taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager. This phrase places the novel as one of rebuilding rather than of survival. It is comforting to believe that in the event of world collapse, the good would be preserved and the bad would be defeated.

Mandel's only failure here is in the treatment of her characters. Only the dead actor is examined enough to seem real, as the story of his life is told in flashback. The rest of the characters seem to be placeholders for "types," making the novel seem almost allegorical. But perhaps that is as she intended.

This is certainly one of the most compelling of the 2014 crop of fiction. It was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award. At this time, it remains to be seen how it will fare in the Pulitzer race; it is certainly a strong contender. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Egoist by George Meredith

In this 1879 novel, George Meredith turns the Victorian Marriage Plot on its end. Instead of a heroine trying to land a husband, we have a young lady trying to break it off with her fiance--for 600 pages and to great comic effect. Shortly after they become engaged, Clara Middleton realizes that her intended, Sir Willoughby Patterne, is a complete egoist. In other words, he cannot conceive of anyone not being enslaved by his charms, a view fostered by the adoration of the aunts who have reared him and the long-time worshipful admiration of a neighbor, Laetitia Dale. He judges others by how they will reflect on his personal glory, and thus he does not want to give up the beautiful and wealthy girl he mainly chose because so many other men wanted her.

In this day and time, engagements are broken with great abandon, but not so in the upper classes of Victorian England. A girl was considered almost as chattel, to be "given" by her father to her husband, and an engagement was considered almost as binding as marriage. Poor Clara cannot even get the support of her father, because Sir Willoughby lures him to his side with the enticements of his superb wine cellar.

Meredith highlights, with sensitivities unusual for his time, the unfortunate status of women, as they were almost universally considered as property to be passed from one male to another and as being childishly irrational, not capable of thinking and deciding for themselves.

The humor of the novel is most apparent in the many lengthy polite conversations, which are very clever and extremely funny. I am surprised that the BBC has not adapted this for television. It would make a great play.

I must admit that often Meredith was too intellectual for my understanding. Sometimes the plot seemed almost a digression from an essay he was writing. I had to read sentence after sentence multiple times to get the sense, and some passages still remained opaque as to meaning. This is not a quick or an easy read.

I would recommend this to readers who are fairly conversant with Victorian novels, as an amusing switch from the usual conventions.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

The very first paragraph lets us know that this is a book about secrets, matters which will not tolerate the light of day. The author describes a storefront church with the windows all covered in old newspaper "to keep folks from looking in." From this beginning, an atmosphere of evil and impending tragedy hangs over the narrative, because, inevitably, secrets will out.

A mute teenager who becomes the victim of religious zeal or murder or both; curious boys spying on the grownups; a congregation of fundamentalist believers who take scripture literally, including a verse in Mark about the handling of snakes; a charismatic preacher with a maimed hand and a criminal past; an old woman who recognizes evil when she sees it; a conscientious sheriff with a tragedy of his own; a faithless wife and her vengeful husband --all these lead inexorably to a chilling climax. This atmospheric tale is compulsively readable, impossible to put down.

Cash chooses three of the characters to narrate his story: Jess, the 8-year-old brother of the dead boy; Adelaide, the old woman; and Clem Barefield, the sheriff. These are people of little education from deep in the mountains of North Carolina, and the author would have doomed his project from the start if he had not been able to write believably in the vernacular of the region, but the mountain dialect seems quite natural, for the most part. Unfortunately, all three narrators sound the same, which is unnatural when the speaker is a young boy.

This is Wiley Cash's first novel, and though it may not be an instant classic, it is much above average.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

My 8-year-old grandson visited me while I was reading this book and asked, "What's that about, Gammy?" Searching for a way to answer that he could understand, I replied, "It's about a dude who started running around with a bad crowd because they were rich and popular, and when this guy he wanted to impress asked him to do something he knew was stupid and wrong, he did it because he was chicken to say no and wanted to seem cool. One thing led to another, and he kept getting into more and more trouble until finally he got caught and his whole family found out."

That's when I really realized that Anthony Trollope teaches us such universal lessons that even an 8-year-old can relate to many of the situations.

About this book, I might also have answered, "It's about people having false pride, taking joy in being martyrs even when it makes them and those they love miserable, just to impress others (and themselves) with how noble and self sacrificing they are." An 8-year-old might not understand that behavior as well, but he might recognize it, because even his grandmother has been known on occasion to be ostentatiously self sacrificing.

Never think, though, that Trollope is stuffy and preachy just because he teaches lessons about bad and good behavior. He is the most charming of story tellers and treats all his characters even-handedly, allowing his best behaved characters their few faults and even granting the nasty ones their few good traits. His satire is always gentle and always very, very funny.

This is #4 of the Barsetshire novels, and mainly concerns a young clergyman (the dude who messes up) and his younger sister and her romance with a Lord who is a near neighbor (she's one of the several who delight in being noble). As an ignorant American, I could not fully understand some of the humor because it concerns the hierarchy of the Church of England and the goings-on of British government. But, don't worry, there's plenty left to appreciate.

I would particularly point out how well Trollope portrays the ways of women, especially how they can cut each other to pieces while engaging in supposedly cordial polite conversation. His female characters seem like real people, in contrast to those in most Victorian novels. Some are highly intelligent; some are dumb blondes (so to speak); none faint at bad news or fall into illness when disappointed in love; none are perfect angels without blemish.

It would not be necessary to read the Barsetshire novels in the order they were written to appreciate them, but it would enhance the enjoyment, because it becomes a matter of meeting old friends.

Trollope, you rock!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train has a most intriguing and promising background situation--the real-life transportation in the early 20th Century of more than 200,000 homeless and neglected children from the East to the Midwest for "adoption." Unfortunately, sometimes the orphans did not find parents but instead found masters for involuntary servitude. I expected so much from this premise. I received so little.

This book is a current best seller; it receives predominantly good reviews on various websites; its author has good credentials (Writer in Residence at Fordham University and recipient of various fellowships). Despite all this evidence, I consider Orphan Train to be the equivalent of a Hallmark movie or a second-rate Young Adult novel. It's not totally without worth, but it's not nearly as good as it could have been.

The two-strand plot concerns 90-year-old Vivien as she recalls her life experiences, including being one of the orphan train adoptees; and 17-year-old Molly, a rebellious Gothic foster child. A rather illogical situation brings the two together, and they help each other to heal from their abandonment wounds. It ends just as you would expect a Hallmark movie to end. It is heart warming.

Here are some reasons why I consider Orphan Train second rate. #1 The characters are stereotypes--the irresponsible and/or hateful mothers, the ineffective fathers, the brilliant misunderstood teenager, the reclusive old lady alone in a big house. #2 The narrative is awkwardly all written in present tense, for no special reason that I could discern. #3 I spotted several instances of faulty grammar. #4 The writing is choppy and simplistic. On an interest and reading level the book actually seems to be written for young teens, except for a totally unnecessary love episode between two teenagers. #5 Aside from a few incidents, the author just tells about happenings, rather than drawing the reader into the experiences.

I only pick this novel apart to save other readers from making the mistake I made and presupposing Orphan Train to be Literature. It's not; it's just fiction, second tier fiction at that. I know that sounds elitist, but ....