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.