Thursday, December 31, 2015

God's Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell (1933)

God's Little Acre was Banned in Boston when it was published back in 1933 and its author, Erskine Caldwell, was tried for obscenity (though not convicted). The problem was the hyper-sexuality which permeates the novel; although no actual physical details are given about the several sexual couplings, the language throughout is frank and graphic. As the Chicago Tribune said at the time, "What William Faulkner implies Erskine Caldwell records...." In spite of all this controversy, or more likely because of it, the book became a runaway best seller.

I don't consider myself a prude, but, frankly, I found this book distasteful and offensive. This is the story of a Southern White Trash family who are obsessed with digging for gold on their fertile land instead of farming it. They are none too bright and are animalistic in their quite active sexual lives, with the women behaving like bitch dogs in perpetual heat and the men responding without regard for decorum. That is the distasteful part. The offensiveness comes from the overall picture of poor Southerners, who I don't believe ever fell quite this low on the humanity chain. As a poor Southerner, I take offense.

Obviously, Faulkner explored some of the same themes, but, as the Chicago Tribune said, he only implied and never resorted to the like of Caldwell's oft-repeated chunk of dialogue by the father in this story speaking of his daughter-in-law's "pair of rising beauties" which make him "just ache to get down and lick something."

Distasteful, right?

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2008)

Dennis Lehane has combined elements of the historical family epic, the crime thriller, and literary fiction to produce a very entertaining and thoughtful novel, one that also reminds us that greed, racial intolerance, fear of the "other," political duplicity, and even terrorist bombings are not unique to today's US of A.

The time is 1918-1919 and the place is Boston. The story focuses on Irish-American Danny Coughlin, a beat cop who is the son of one of the most powerful police captains, and Luther Lawrence, a young black man who is on the run from a gangster's revenge. During one eventful year the two men and the city of Boston see the influenza epidemic, terrorist bombings, labor unrest, mob violence, and the police strike of 1919. Ultimately, however, this is the story of two men who both come to realize that the key to a satisfying life lies in the love of family.

Lehane has a very engaging writing style, with striking, yet unobtrusive, metaphorical language and the ability to create extreme tension as called for by plot developments. The ending is perhaps a bit overly sentimental, but it is satisfying nevertheless.

For me, the primary benefit of this book is that it is a reminder that our country has undergone periods of unrest, fear, and intolerance before and has survived. In that way it is encouraging in this time of strife and polarization. Then again, it is kind of discouraging to think that maybe human nature is so flawed that history will keep repeating itself.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood (1861)

This Victorian pot boiler was a runaway best seller back in its day, and it is still a page turner of the first degree, despite writing that is clearly not of the best quality and a more moralistic tone than is generally preferred by modern readers. The plot is the focus here, and it is a dilly -- intricate and sensational and believable for the most part, with only a couple of those unlikely coincidences so often found in Victorian novels.

Mrs. Wood gives us a murder, a wrongfully accused man, characters in disguise, love, jealousy, seduction, a wayward wife, a tragic train accident, and two pathos-filled deaths. That's a lot for one book, but the author makes it work. This is high melodrama; with just a little modernization, it could be a current best seller, suitable for becoming a movie at your nearest multiplex. It's not great literature, by any means, but it is fun to read.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope (1880)

What parents do not build castles in the air for their children? We want them to grow up to be happy, certainly, and we think we know exactly how that can be accomplished. We imagine just the kind of spouses they should choose, the brilliant careers they should follow, the admiration they should attract from friends and society for their accomplishments and wise life choices. Maybe the tiniest bit of our dreams for them stems from our prideful knowledge of the glory to be reflected upon us as exemplary parents.

There is just one problem -- the children seldom have the same ideas as the parents about what constitutes happiness. They never seem to follow our fine plans. In this last novel of Trollope's Palliser series, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, suffers the common fate of parents -- his almost-grown-up children persist in making their own decisions about life and love.

The Duke's two sons both get into trouble at university and into money trouble with gambling; his oldest son goes into politics (as the Duke had wished) but chooses to stand for Parliament as part of the wrong political party; his daughter chooses to engage herself for marriage to a commoner without money rather than to a rich aristocrat; and his oldest son chooses to engage himself to (GASP) an American. What's a father to do?

Trollope fondly follows the Duke as he attempts to deal with his wayward children. In the beginning, he attempts to dictate that they will follow his will, which in those days it was still possible for a parent to do. In the end, of course, love conquers all: the Duke discovers that he loves his children enough to let them go to make their own choices.

It would be impossible for a parent of grown-up children to dislike this novel because it is so true to life. The Duke seems entirely real as he struggles to accept that his dreams and values are not the same as his children's. Of all Trollope's major characters he is the most believable and admirable, and, I think, must have been Trollope's favorite.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Scar by China Mieville (2002)

China Mieville does not classify his novels as fantasy or science fiction, but as "weird fiction," and this one certainly fits that description. The setting is a partly explored world populated by many, many different species of sentient life (human-types, fish men, cactus men, and mosquito people, to name a few). The world's limited technology is powered by a combination of steampunk gadgetry and magic. The plot centers on a floating city made up of lashed-together ships and boats of all kinds. The inhabitants of the city are pirates, led by two humans known as The Lovers who cut each other to make mirror-image scarring as part of their lovemaking. Their plan to harness a sea creature as big as an island to pull their flotilla to an unexplored part of a far ocean to seek the scar from the wounding of the world is opposed only by some press-ganged captives and by the vampire residents of the city.

It's as if the author took every fantasy/science fiction cliche' he could remember or imagine and crammed them all into one book, whether they fit or made sense or not.

Despite all these goings-on, the first half or so of the book is actually slow and pretty dull. Mieville does get going in the latter half and things get fairly exciting. A kind of psychological sub-plot whereby the female protagonist is manipulated by one male after another is funny in a perverse way, since she is such an unsympathetic character. (I couldn't figure out if Mieville intended this to be funny or not.)

One stylistic matter annoyed me intensely: Mieville fixates on a word and uses it over and over in close proximity. For example, I lost count of how many times he used "puissant," but it was at least 10 times within 50 pages. And that's not his only pet word. I can't imagine an editor letting this go, even if the author could.

This was Mieville's second novel, and I am pleased to report that he got better. His The City and the City, written in 2009, is excellent and straddles the boundary between genre and literary fiction.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray (1992)

Any number of novels have unreliable narrators (Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Nabokov's Pale Fire come to mind), but few others, if any, have three unreliable narrators as this one does.

The first narrator is the author, who claims to have been given a long-lost manuscript which was supposedly written in the late 1800s by a Scottish doctor. He even includes purported historical accounts taken from old newspapers and such which support the probable veracity of the account.

Then begins the found manuscript, which is titled, "Episodes From the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer," as written by Archibald McCandless. This narrator tells the fantastical story of a young woman whose body has been reanimated by McCandless's mentor following her death by drowning, with her damaged brain being replaced by the brain of her yet unborn child. Both men fall in love with her -- a beautiful woman who has adult passions along with childlike innocence and curiosity. Included in this section is a long letter from the woman to her creator (whom she knows only as her guardian, not remembering her prior life), recounting her learning experiences as she becomes a feminist and a crusader for socialist causes.

The next section of the novel is a refutation of Dr. McCandless's account by the woman in question, who has become a medical doctor herself. She says her husband's manuscript (yes, she marries him) is exaggeration and fiction, disputing each major incident by telling her rational version of what happened.

My paragraphs do little to convey how clever this book is, or how funny, or how serious, or how tricksey. When Dr. Virginia McCandless accuses her husband of imitating the popular literature of his time, the reader can easily see that he might have taken inspiration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. One can also easily see that the real author, Alasdair Gray, has also copied some of the conventions of 19th Century literature, most notably the device of the found manuscript. Such little ironies and references abound throughout the novel, making this a book worthy to be read more than once. When you think about it, such medical matters as electricity being used to shock life back into a seemingly dead body and transplants of bits and pieces of one body into another are not even considered unusual these days. Archibald McCandless's version may be intended to be the true one.

I must include here a quote coming from Dr. Virginia McCandless's supposed letter, which conveys how I feel when listening to Republican presidential debates: "And while they spoke I clenched my teeth and fists to stop them biting and scratching these clever men who want no care for the helpless sick small, who use religions and politics to stay comfortably superior to all that pain: who make religions and politics, excuses to spread misery with fire and sword and how could I stop all this? I did not know what to do."

I highly recommend this novel, which can be enjoyed from several different angles. It was the 1992 winner of England's Whitbread Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (2013)

Despite what the title would seem to indicate, the titular husband isn't the only one with a secret in this popular novel, and he isn't even the focus of the narrative. His secret does impact the lives of all three of the female protagonists, however, so I suppose the book is appropriately, if misleadingly, named.

The three women are skillfully and believably portrayed: Cecilia, the over-achieving, obsessive-compulsive wife and mother who accidentally finds a letter addressed to her from her husband, meant to be opened upon his death; Tess, the self-diagnosed sufferer from social anxiety whose husband and cousin/best friend suddenly announce that they have fallen in love with each other; Rachel, the still-grieving mother whose daughter was murdered fifteen years previously. Their actions and reactions and the way their stories come together create the considerable narrative tension. The plot developments are ingenious.

If this book has a glaring fault, I would say that it is that the men in the story never seem real but more like place holders. Their personalities and motivations are never fully examined, making their actions seem illogical. For that reason, I would classify this as Chick-Lit, mainly meant to be read by women.

I was also a bit confused about the message conveyed about the disastrous consequences of keeping secrets. At the end, when secrets have been revealed, one new major secret is kept. Are readers to assume that some secrets should be kept or to anticipate that this new secret, too, could have negative repercussions in the future?

The Husband's Secret is quite interesting and quickly read, but it is not a book to be kept and reread.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956)

Novels, at their best, are supposed to help readers understand and appreciate differing cultures and ways of thinking and behaving. However, despite having read several well respected novels recently which were written by upper class British folk, I have about decided that I am incapable of empathy with the sardonic, tongue-in-cheek, stiff-upper-lip musings of the British aristocracy. I continue to be disconcerted by their combinations of dry humor and tragic events. I'm assuming (since many novels portray it) that they really do confront life in this manner, but this attitude is as foreign to me as if they came from a different planet altogether.

Take this humorous novel by Dame Rose Macaulay, for instance. It breezes along in a flippant manner, sometimes verging on slapstick, about the travels in Turkey and thereabouts of a young woman, her headstrong aunt, and a retired Anglican clergyman (accompanied by a camel with mental problems). In the midst of all this levity, Macaulay inserts some serious discussions about religious faith, and, right after a fantastical episode wherein the young woman teaches her pet ape to drive and play croquet, she drops in an abrupt and unexpected catastrophe. This juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, especially tragedy without what I would consider a natural emotional response, is bewildering to me. Do some people really think and behave this way?

The Towers of Trebizond is often very amusing, contains interesting historical and travel information about the countries visited, and offers some contemplative reflections about religious faith. It just doesn't seem to fit together very well to my emotional American brain. It is considered a great achievement in Britain.