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.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Deadwood by Pete Dexter

Most dark comedy novels feature exaggerated characters and events, but Pete Dexter did not have to exaggerate very much, if at all, to create the larger-than-life characters and outrageous events in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. There really existed a handsome gambler and gunfighter named Wild Bill Hickok, who could shoot a shot glass off the head of a bulldog at thirty paces despite being half blind from syphilis; a homely and dirty wildcat of a woman named Calamity Jane, who loved Wild Bill and claimed to have married him; a "soft-brained" bathhouse owner called The Bottle Fiend, who was told many secrets; a vindictive hulking lawman named Boon May, who was a coward at heart; a lovely Chinese whore called China Doll, who was slaughtered in a brutal fashion; a sneaky little man named Jack McCall, who shot Wild Bill in the back. In fact, every character in this novel, save one, is based on a real person. The major events, including Hickok's murder and the fire which burned the town, really happened. By all accounts, Dexter carefully researched his book, so it is likely as true an account as legend mixed with known fact can make it.

Dexter has taken extraordinary people and events, historical research, and a keen sense of the ridiculous to create a book that is thoughtful, informative, immensely interesting, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I really liked this one.