Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith (2013)

This is an OK book, interesting enough and well written in a workmanlike manner, but I had expected something else and certainly much more, so I was disappointed. From the descriptions of the book I read on-line, I expected that the focus of the story would be a fictionalized account of Zelda Fitzgerald's stay at a famous mental asylum. Instead, she is only one of a passing parade of the hospital's residents and is not portrayed in any detail. I was expecting a more powerful book because I remember being much impressed by Lee Smith's book The Devil's Dream, which I read maybe 20 years ago. This one pales in comparison. Well, so it goes.

The narrator of the novel, Evalina, is sent to the famous Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, as a young teenager following the death of her beautiful exotic dancer mother. She seemingly regains her mental health there after several years, during the course of which she receives intense training as a classical pianist. (To accept that bit of plot requires some suspension of disbelief.) Unfortunately, when she leaves the hospital things don't go well for her, and she returns for another extended stay.

Most of the book is given to accounts of the histories and behaviors of Evalina's fellow inmates, but Smith includes so many that they all tend to blur together after a bit. Some of her most memorable scenes involve the local Appalachian Mountain natives and their unearthly-sounding music (which is the focus of The Devil's Dream), but these episodes seem thrown in because of Smith's fascination with the music, not because they advance the plot.

Smith does have something to say about the thin boundary between sanity and insanity and the expectations of behavior that govern our perceptions of who is sane and who is not.

Somewhat enjoyable to read but immediately forgettable afterwards.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope (1876)

Trollope continues his depiction of the life and political career of Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, in this 5th Palliser novel. Planty reluctantly accepts the post of Prime Minister heading a Coalition Government but never feels that he is adequate for the job. His wife Glencora constantly tells him he is too thin skinned, because he suffers from embarrassment and self doubt at the slightest hint of criticism. In the meantime, she throws herself into hosting the most lavish of parties, believing that she is helping him in his political career.

The focus is not so much on the actual political processes as it is on the personalities and reactions of this political couple. Reading these Palliser novels in order makes it obvious what an extraordinary job Trollope has done of characterization. I feel that I actually know the Pallisers intimately as real people who grow and change in believable ways while retaining their core personalities.

Trollope does use the political backdrop as an opportunity to include a few lengthy conversations that reflect his own political views. As he was a frustrated politician, I think it only fair that readers should grant him the privilege of indulging himself a bit in this way.

No Trollope novel would be complete without The Marriage Plot (which here is only tenuously connected to the political plot). Young Emily Wharton impulsively marries the mysterious Ferdinand Lopez against the advice of all her family and friends and almost immediately realizes that she has made a grave mistake. Of course, a still-faithful childhood sweetheart is waiting in the wings. There are few plot surprises in this story arc, but there is something comforting in its very predictability.

One thing about this novel that is a bit disturbing is the overt anti-semitism; the most damaging objection to Ferdinand Lopez is that he is suspected of being a secret Jew. One might argue that Trollope is just reflecting prevailing attitudes of the time, but one might also suspect that he shared those attitudes.

Leo Tolstoy described this novel as a "beautiful book." I wouldn't go that far, but it's really good.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (2009)

If the front cover of this novel had not indicated that it had been given the Edgar Award as Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America, I would not have thought of it as a mystery novel at all, but instead as a character-driven literary novel about a young man scarred by tragic circumstances. I am not generally a mystery reader and would probably never have come upon The Lock Artist except that it was recommended to me by my reader friend Jonathan Aaron Baker. A majority of the mysteries I have read have tended to be formulaic and not very well written. I should have learned by now, however, not to prejudge a book because it is classified as genre fiction.

The first-person narrator, Michael, has been so traumatized by a violent event in his childhood that he has been mute ever since. The story begins with him as a prisoner for a yet-unnamed crime and then backflashes to his high school days. Isolated and lonely, by happenstance he discovers that he has an unusual talent -- he can unlock things: doors, padlocks, even safes. His abilities bring him to the attention of some very bad people, and he finds himself unwillingly drawn into their criminal activities by his wish to protect his first love.

Author Steve Hamilton does a fine job of creating a believable and sympathetic protagonist, particularly in his portrayal of the blossoming of young love. The considerable suspense comes from the problem of how Michael can extricate himself from the underworld he has been drawn into. Also, the account of the incident that left him mute is withheld until late in the narrative, adding to the tension.

This is a very enjoyable book to read, recommended to all readers, not just to those who favor mysteries.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)

What a strange and inventive book this is. It is hard to classify -- parts of it are realistic and parts of it are surrealistic; it is satirical; it is comic and playful; it has an Epilogue which is four chapters before the end and an Index of Plagarisms; it is certainly post-modern (the author even shows up as a character). It is in some ways two separate books published together, except that one of the books is a satirical and surrealistic reflection of the other. It has four parts, but they are not presented in order; you have book 3, book 1, book 2, and book 4. It is almost impossible to summarize coherently. It is like a combination of a classic coming-of-age story and an alternate universe created by Philip K. Dick, as told by Flann O'Brien. I loved it.

Though not as well known in the United States, in Scotland and England Lanark is considered a classic of Scottish literature. According to Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange), it is "a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom." The Evening Times of London said, "The nearest I've come to a Scottish version of James Joyce's Ulysses."

My words are inadequate, so this is a short review about a long and important book. I recommend that everyone read it (the book, that is).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (1989)

The Power of One follows the life of a boy in South Africa in the 1940s and '50s, beginning when he is five years old, the only English-heritage student at an Africaner (Boer-heritage) boarding school, and ending when he has just finished a stint of dangerous work in a copper mine to make enough money to attend Oxford University. The young hero, Peekay, becomes a winner in the literal sense of the word, rising to the top of every class and becoming an undefeated boxing champion and a rugby star. In an unlikely development, he comes to be a symbol of freedom for several black tribes. The story is so unrelentingly uplifting that it becomes unbelievable after a while, so that, in spite of the realistic style, it seems to be almost an allegory about the ability of an individual to make a difference.

The novel is also a lesson about racial and cultural prejudice. Peekay learns his first lesson about intolerance when he is persecuted and physically abused at the boarding school because of the continuing animosity between the Boers and English, even though the two groups have supposedly united to rule the black native population. As he grows older, he is confronted with examples of bigoted preconceptions about the black and colored population and about the Germans and the Jews, and even experiences the judgmental attitudes of conservative Christians. Throughout, Peekay is able to transcend the prevailing prejudices and to judge others on their individual merits.

The novel is saved from being overly preachy and moralistic by the fact that Courtenay is a fine storyteller and an engaging writer. The adventures of Peekay are always interesting, even when the reader comes to realize that he will inevitably come out on top. I was particularly impressed by Courtenay's detailed accounts of boxing matches, because I found them exciting and easily visualized, even though I have never watched a full boxing match.

I would characterize this novel as entertaining popular fiction. It was a best seller in Australia, where Courtenay resided as an adult after growing up in South Africa.. Parts of this book are supposedly fictionalized autobiography.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Second Nature by Alice Hoffman (1994)

When I was a kid and I did something particularly naughty or uncouth (tracking mud into the house or forgetting to flush the toilet come to mind), my grandmother often said, "What do you think you're doing? You act like you were raised by wolves." According to this novel, my grandmother was wrong: somebody raised by wolves can turn out to be surprisingly civilized.

The totally implausible plot begins when a young man who has been part of a wolf pack is discovered in the woods by some fur trappers. As it turns out, he is the lone survivor of a plane crash which happened when he was three years old. Through happenstance, while he is being prepared for transport to a permanent home at a mental facility for the incurably incompetent, he is spirited away by a divorcee who takes pity on him. Curiously, nobody notices that he never shows up at his scheduled destination. Under the woman's tutelage, within a matter of only a few months he has learned to read and write and play chess and can pass himself off in polite small-town society as an exchange student. And then he falls in love (lust) with his rescuer. As if that is not enough complication, cats and dogs and ultimately people are killed in the community by having their throats slit. Can you guess who is blamed when his secret past is outed?

This novel has an intriguing concept, but the way the premise is handled turns it into a B-grade romance novel with a bit of (supposed) mystery thrown in. Actually, the identity of the killer is easily recognized from the beginning, so the only suspense is whether or not the Wolfman will be killed by an angry mob (with pitchforks, maybe. haha).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)

The plot of this novel sounds quite exciting -- in a wartime London following the Blitz, Robert, a wounded survivor of Dunkirk who works for the Government, and Stella, a divorced 40-something mother of a soldier, have fallen in love. When Harrison, an obsessed stalker who claims he works for the secret service, tells Stella that her lover is passing secrets to the Nazis, he gives her a choice--his silence to his employers about Robert in exchange for her favors. She is faced with the dilemma of not knowing what to believe or what to do about it.

Sounds like a thriller, right? Well, it's not that at all. Neither is it a love story, although Robert and Stella are supposedly in love. Several subplots have a very tenuous connection with the main narrative, further confusing me about the intent of the author. To tell the truth, I don't know what I am supposed to take away from reading this novel. Maybe something philosophical about choices and how they are influenced by circumstances, especially the uncertainties of war.

What I do know is that the story contains a great deal of dialogue and all of it is stilted and unnatural. I don't believe anybody talked like that, ever, especially not in the 20th Century. The conversations sound as if they were lifted straight out of a Henry James novel. The characters are also very Jamesian, singularly unemotional and cerebral even in the face of death and betrayal. Consequently, they never seem like real people and never elicit any reader empathy or sympathy.

I also know that Bowen's writing style annoys me excessively, as it never flows but jerks along in fits and starts with interjections and asides and inverted order and all sorts of impediments to clarity. Consider this sentence: "One unity, this morning, the empty Sunday street had, up and down its length." This could have read, "This morning the empty Sunday street had one unity up and down its length." I spent a good bit of my time with this book rearranging Bowen's sentences in my head to make them less choppy.

This is a very British novel, very restrained, very subtle, very stylized. I did not enjoy it very much.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek (1921-1923)

Joseph Heller is reported to have said that he could not have written Catch 22 if he had not first read The Good Soldier Svejk, and, indeed, the similarities between the two are readily apparent. Both take a darkly satiric look at war and at the military bureaucracy from the viewpoint of the common soldier who tries to survive the insanity.

Hasek's "Everyman" soldier Svejk copes by allowing his superiors to view him as a good natured simpleton who is always eager to follow orders and to please, while in reality he is using his wits to circumvent their orders and to resist the system. The officers are almost all portrayed as drunken and/or incompetent, with some being full-out crazy. Hasek must have had a special dislike of Catholicism, because his chaplains are all especially corrupt and repugnant.

This book is inventive and often laugh-out-loud funny. Much of the humor comes from the fact that the reader understands the irony of Svejk's actions and conversations while the characters in the novel do not. That aspect is very cleverly accomplished by Hasek. The only problem here is that the story goes on too long (752 pages in my edition), so that the pattern of Svejk getting into a bad situation and getting himself out again becomes expected and repetitive and ultimately almost boring. Joseph Heller may have taken inspiration from this book, but he produced the much better novel. Still, this one is well worth the time.