Thursday, July 30, 2015

Adam Bede by George Eliot

George Eliot's Middlemarch is widely considered one of the world's most accomplished novels. It is certainly one of my favorites. What stands out most about it, for me, is the depth of the portrayal of the characters, so that every one seems real, with the mixture of good and less-than-good traits which makes up a human being. Adam Bede, Eliot's first novel, fails to meet quite this high standard, but it is very good indeed.

The plot is not especially creative or unique: a farmer's niece is courted in secret by a rich landowner's grandson, with an easily guessed unfortunate result. The tragedy which results affects the whole community, particularly the carpenter who also loves the girl. Eliot takes this framework, and makes of it an almost faultless depiction of a people, place, and time.

Two aspects of the novel especially stand out. The evocative landscape descriptions paint a picture for the mind and create a mood more successfully than almost any I have ever read. The dialogue, much of it in the vernacular, skillfully delineates the educational and cultural level of each character, giving each one a unique voice.

The only serious problem here is that the good characters are just too good to be true, so that they become less than believable. Adam, the title character, is more well built, more handsome, more talented, more admired, more principled, more everything than seems humanly possible. He does have one brief flash of temper, but is sorry immediately after. His eventual love interest, Dinah, is so sweet, self-sacrificing, and saintly as to be almost a caricature. The two remind me of Dagney Taggert and John Galt, the super-couple from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. And then there's Adam's brother Seth, who apparently never experiences even a slight pang of jealousy when all the characters, including their own mother and the girl Seth would like to marry, openly love Adam best.

Happily, the rest of the characters are all exceptionally well rounded and believable, even the two misbehaving ones. The pretty, childlike country girl, Hetty Sorrel, and her seducer, the local squire, are sympathetically pictured as thoughtless and impulsive rather than as evil.

You may not always read Victorian novels, but when you do, Adam Bede would be a good choice.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

I think it takes a very special kind of mind to write successful black comedy, and probably the same kind of mind to properly appreciate it. I'm not sure I have quite the required mindset, because not all books proclaimed to be black comedies are humorous to me. But this one is.

Freda and Brenda are two young English women, unlikely roommates who work in a wine bottling factory where most of the other employees are Italian. Timid Brenda and bold Freda face the prospect of a work picnic with opposite reactions --Brenda is worried about how she will be able to escape unwanted attentions from a fellow employee, and Freda is excited at the opportunity the outing may provide to secure the attentions of another fellow worker. But what begins as a farce-like account of misunderstandings and misadventures suddenly veers into something else entirely, and into some very dark comedy indeed. Suffice it to say it involves a dead body and a creative solution for its disposal.

Much of the humor is owing to Bainbridge's deadpan style of delivery. The novel is horrifying and funny at the same time, and it is all relayed in a very matter of fact manner. And somehow it works -- wonderfully. I personally consider William Faulkner the Grand Master of this genre, and I think Beryl Bainbridge would make him proud.

Note: I came upon this book from the Guardian list of the 100 best novels. It was #80.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Wow, you've got to hand it to Stephen King -- the man has one hell of a work ethic. He just keeps churning them out. And unlike some supposedly prolific authors, he really writes them all himself, in my opinion. With such an extravagant output, it is only natural that not all would be top of the line. Some would be so-so, and some would be duds. This novel is one of the so-so variety.

Finders Keepers is a crime thriller, with only a tiny hint of King's signature supernatural doings. It's not a mystery, like Mr Mercedes, with which it shares some characters, because the villain is known from the beginning. Like King's earlier novel Misery, it concerns a fan's obsession with a literary character, but this book is not nearly as creepy and suspenseful as that one.

Without going into the plot details, I would say that it is a bit contrived, dependent on some unlikely coincidences. As always with King, the story rushes right along and keeps the reader engaged, but this is not one I will long remember.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Looking for Alaska by John Green

This is one of my granddaughter's favorite books, and she wanted me to read it. Since she is reading Great Expectations at my suggestion, it's the least I can do.

When I was 14 years old back in 1957, my teenage crushes were Elvis Presley and James Dean, both of whom had a broodingly sex appeal. For my 14-year-old granddaughter and many like her who proudly proclaim themselves as nerds, the new idols are Benedict Cumberbach, a strange looking fellow who plays super-smart and sarcastic Sherlock Holmes on the BBC series, and John Green, the author of this novel and other Young Adult bestsellers about precociously intelligent teenagers who don't fit into the "popular kid" mold. I think this is an encouraging trend -- smart is the new sexy.

The narrator here is a male teenager who has left the small-town high school where he has no friends to attend a progressive boarding school, seeking a "Great Perhaps." He finds a group of kindred spirits, particularly a moody and reckless girl named Alaska, and together they step over boundaries and explore possibilities. When one of group dies, they are pushed to examine more philosophical questions about life and death.

This is Green's first book, and he went on to write the ultimate in teenage-death novels, the wildly popular The Fault in Our Stars. As an adult, I find him to be a tad melodramatic, but these were not written for adults, and I can see that they do a fine job of introducing young people to the concept of mortality and its implications.

If I had read this book before my granddaughter, I would have advised her to wait a couple of years before reading it because of the inclusion of smoking and drinking and sexual situations. I do not want her to assume that these behaviors are natural and/or desirable for those who are smarter than average. Some teens indulge in risky behavior and come out fine, but some fall down the rabbit hole and never emerge. I'm not sure Green's novels really address that concern. Since she has already read it, I will make it a point to discuss this aspect with her, which is perhaps the best way after all.

Green is an engaging writer, although I do think his books don't quite match up as to content and intellectual rigor. They seem somehow too mature for younger teens and too simplistic for older teens. I would recommend this for no younger than 14.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

To be honest, I must confess that I was powerfully tempted to pretend that I loved this book, because it is universally considered by the intelligentsia to be a masterpiece, and to admit that I found it pointless and tedious is to acknowledge that my intellect is...less than stellar, shall we say. But what the heck, I'll tell the truth. This went right over my head. For the most part.

The plot, sketchy as it is, concerns the memories of the main character, Austerlitz, as related bit by bit by him to an unnamed narrator who happens to meet up with him from time to time in various European cities. As a small child, Austerlitz had been sent to be fostered by an austere and emotionally distant Welsh couple. While always feeling misplaced and rootless, he nevertheless avoids trying to discover his origins for most of his life. When he finally discovers that he was a Jewish child sent from Czechoslovakia to escape the Holocaust which consumed his parents, the revelation causes him to suffer a psychological breakdown.

The actual story elements actually take up very little of the 300 pages of the book. There is much description and discussion about architecture and various specific buildings. There are many observations about time and history. There are many black and white photos, mainly of architectural details. But the point of all this is where the book lost me, or maybe where I lost the point of the book.

I will say that the writing style kept me reading, as it was rather hypnotic and dreamlike.

This is probably, most likely, surely a very important and meaningful novel. Too bad I wasn't up to it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, Sanctuary was "deliberately conceived to make money." It is, he said, "the most horrific tale I could imagine." By the time the galley proofs were ready, Faulkner realized he could not let it be published as originally written, so he rewrote it. "I made a fair job....," he said.

I agree with his evaluation. This novel is only "a fair job." The story elements are straight from potboiler pulp fiction --the criminal underworld, prostitution, bootlegging, voyeurism, rape, and murder. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the sensationalistic events lose much of their impact because of Faulkner's oblique manner of exposition. Some of this is related in typical pulp fiction style, but other times the novel erupts into more typical Faulkner, with extravagant bursts of baroque prose. And it just doesn't fit together very well. Sorry, Bill.

I generally love Faulkner, but this one not so much.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of Skin chronicles the background and current difficulties of a 22-year-old convicted sex offender known as the Kid, who has served his prison time. When the novel opens he is living under a bridge in a Florida city, one of the few places he is permitted to stay because it is not within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might gather. Backflashes reveal his lonely childhood, as he is exposed to the sexual couplings of his mother and becomes addicted to pornography by the age of 11. Although he is ironically still a virgin, his intent to meet and perhaps seduce a 14-year-old girl brands him as an offender alongside others who have committed much more predatory acts.

Then the Professor enters the Kid's life, supposedly to interview him for scholarly purposes. The Professor provides assistance and a kind of friendship, but it turns out that his own life is built on deception and lies, causing the Kid to reconsider everything he has believed.

This novel implies that our current laws regarding these offenders should be more closely examined. If you have ever looked online at the sex offender registry, you will know that the legal charge is listed, with no elaboration. Thus an offender found guilty of "Indecency with a child" could be a 19-year-old caught having sex with his 17-year-old girl friend or the rapist of a 5-year-old. Unlike other former convicts, the sex offender is forever publicly identified as such and is often restricted as to where he may reside. In an effort to keep the public safe, society has possibly created a new kind of victim.

I'll have to admit that I am extremely puzzled by the many highly favorable reviews for this 2011 novel. I recognize that it does reveal a current shortcoming in the American justice system, and that is a valuable contribution. The core examination of the background and life of the young sex offender is well done, creating understanding and empathy without condoning actions. So what's not to like? The other major character is unbelievable and his story seems to have no connection to the rest; the characters are not given names, only designations -- The Kid, The Professor -- leading to the appearances that this is an allegory, yet the point is unclear; the late introduction of a third major character, The Writer, to "explain things" is extremely awkward, and he really doesn't explain much of anything anyway.

So I would characterize this as a moderately interesting novel, but one with major flaws. I have read others by Russell Banks, so I know he is capable of much better.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Why does it happen that a seemingly highly intelligent young lady with multiple suitors will so often pick the very one who will make her life a misery? We've all seen it happen and maybe we have even tried to warn the girl, to no avail, just as the friends of Isabell Archer, James's heroine from Portrait of a Lady, caution her.

Isabell is a young American of meager fortune who is invited by a wealthy relative to travel with her in Europe. She leaves one suitor behind, but soon finds another, an English Lord, no less. She turns down offers of marriage from both, before unexpectedly becoming heir to a fortune. Almost immediately, she is befriended by an older woman, who introduces her to the man who will eventually become her husband. Over time, she comes to the realization that she has been manipulated and has chosen the wrong man. Her next choice then becomes what to do about it.

The basic plot here serves as little more than a framework for James's psychological investigations into the mind of his heroine, revealing the why's of her actions. The reader is able to understand how her very admirable strengths as a woman and an American lead her to act as she does. The novel is also filled with contrasts between Americans and Europeans, which are largely flattering to Americans, puzzling to me considering that James deserted his American citizenship.

This is Henry James in his "early period," before he became infected with a raging case of verbosity and began spewing out page-long, maze-like sentences, so it is more accessible than his other major novels. The many conversations are clever and witty; the psychological analysis seems valid; the expository digressions are few. All in all, this is the James novel I like best.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Serena by Ron Rash

Ron Rash's opening paragraph for his novel Serena grabs you and never lets go:
"When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart." So begins a tale drenched in blood.

Getting off the train with timber-baron Pemberton is his new wife, Serena.

This power couple are both filled with hubris and greed and boundless ambition. At the urging of the wife, they use every means to achieve their aims, including murder. Eventually, though, the husband finds that even his love for and fear of his wife are not enough to allow him to participate in some acts. If this scenario sounds suspiciously like Shakespeare's Macbeth, that is surely purposeful, although Rash's female protagonist does not suffer Lady Macbeth's remorse. No "Out, out damned spot" here. Serena puts Lady Macbeth to shame when it comes to amoral ruthlessness.

This all could have easily slid into melodrama and parody if not for Rash's writing abilities, which are more than considerable. He is also a poet, and that shows, but not ever self consciously or obtrusively. His events proceed inevitably toward tragic and violent conclusions, although I have to admit I was surprised at the ending. But that's good.

Just the plot and the characterization would have made this an outstanding novel, but Rash includes more. This is also a powerful and timely picture of how greed and and political corruption have led to a destruction of the environment. The Pembertons orchestrate the denuding of large tracts of North Carolina, leaving the land to resemble "the skinned hide of some huge animal," and Serena's plans are to relocate to Brazil, where, according to Pemberton, "...Mrs. Pemberton and I will cut down every tree, not just in Brazil but in the world."

The most chilling statement in this thoroughly chilling novel comes from a member of a tree cutting crew about the landscape after they cut down the final tree: "I think this is what the end of the world will be like."

I enthusiastically recommend this novel. It was a "Book of the Year" for 2008 for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Amazon. com. For me, it is one of the best of the 21st Century.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Feud by Thomas Berger

Maybe I'm losing my sense of humor in my old age, but this novel wasn't nearly as funny to me as the back cover review comments led me to believe it would be. I suspect the problem was that the actions and reactions of the characters, however inept and misguided, did not seem exaggerated to me, even though I'm quite sure they did to most people, who viewed it as parody and satire.

The titular feud begins when a resident of one small town travels to the hardware store of the small town nearby to buy paint remover, where he feels he is insulted by the owner's teenage son. The owner jumps into the dispute, along with an eccentric relative, and in the ensuing argument a gun is pulled. That night, the store burns to the ground, and you can guess who is blamed. From that point on the feud escalates and spreads, eventually even including the policemen of the two towns.

Although Berger situates his action in the 1930s, he does not specify location, but it seems to me to be very Southern. And that's where the humor problem comes in. As a life-long Southern resident, I have known these people -- the men who take offense at any perceived slight of their dignity and are willing to fight about it, the cowards who suddenly become bullies when they have a gun in their hands; the law officers who abuse their power and are little more than bullies with badges. So that part is not funny to me at all. The slapstick comedy of errors is somewhat amusing, and reminds me very much the the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?

This is a well done book, though not as successful a dark comedy as many others. Interesting fact: it was recommended by the Pulitzer jury for the Prize for Literature in 1984, but the Pulitzer Board overruled and chose another book instead. Maybe one of the Board members was a Southerner who felt the novel hit a bit too close to home.

Disclaimer: Perhaps Southerners do not behave in any way differently from people in other regions of the country. I wouldn't know. But I doubt it.