Friday, December 30, 2016


This novel about the subduing of the Indian tribes of the Staked Plain is actually more history than fiction, with almost all the characters being the actual people who engaged in the battles and skirmishes. The exception is one fictional character who becomes an observer and a participant in the events. His thoughts about his lady love and his eventual return to her provide the only sustained narrative thread in what is otherwise an episodic account of how the buffalo hunters and later the U.S. Army destroyed the way of life of the Plain's tribes and forced them to choose reservations rather than starvation. The two main incidents recounted are the Fight of Adobe Walls and the decisive Battle of Palo Duro Canyon.

Initially, I had trouble with this novel because Johnston provides an extremely large cast of characters, and I didn't know which ones I should remember and which ones were incidental. After a bit, I realized that the book should be read as a history of events rather than as a conventionally constructed novel and my problems with it disappeared. Johnston obviously heavily researched his subject and is, as far as I can determine from cursory internet research, quite accurate in his depictions. Most of the incidents are narrated through the eyes of various Anglo characters, with a few from the viewpoint of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Kwahadi Comanche.

I don't know if Johnston intended that a reader should have this reaction, but I found myself rooting for the Indians, even though I obviously know that they were, indeed, subdued. He seems to be attempting to present a balanced account, portraying the good and the bad of individuals from both sides. The real villain is the U.S. government, which broke treaties and promises and then attempted to exterminate all those who resisted being herded onto reservations.

One thing I found amusing about Dying Thunder: Since the action concerns battles and skirmishes, women are obviously not usually present. Johnston thus introduces some pretty detailed sex scenes by having his fictional protagonist and the Comanche Quanah Parker think between battles about hot action with their respective women. That was pretty hokey, and also tells me that this was a book written primarily for men.


For those interested in the history of the struggle between the Comanche and the U.S. Army for the possession of the llano estacado I would also recommend the novel The Lord of the Plain by Max Crawford and the non-fiction Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Butcher's Crossing was one of the first revisionist Westerns, a reaction against the cliches' and stereotypes of previous treatments, and, as is often the case with such responses, it goes to the opposite extreme, creating stereotypes of its own. Instead of courageous and principled protagonists we find anti-heroes who are violent and without scruples. Instead of good versus bad we find almost all bad, in one way or another.

Williams tells the story of a young Harvard student in the 1870s who, influenced by the writings of Emerson, travels to Butcher's Crossing, Kansas, hoping to discover a relationship to nature and to "find himself" in the Western wilderness. Soon he eagerly agrees to join a buffalo hunter and two companions in a trek to a hidden valley in Colorado where perhaps the last great herd of buffalo can be found. The men almost fail in their endeavor in its early stages when they cannot find water in their ride across the plains, but they persevere and at last reach their goal. That's when things get brutal.

Faced with five thousand buffalo in an enclosed valley, the hunters begin an orgy of killing, taking only the hides, leaving the bodies to rot in place except for the little that they eat. The lust to kill every single buffalo overtakes them to the extent that they lose track of time and become trapped by the winter snows. When they finally make it back to Butcher's Crossing the following spring, they find that both they and the world have changed. Ironically, instead of finding himself in nature, the protagonist has lost himself and no longer knows who he is or who he will become.

This is considered to be an important book, an accomplished book, and I can see that, but I did not enjoy reading it. Instead of detailed descriptions of the natural surroundings Williams provides detailed descriptions of how to track and kill buffalo, how to skin buffalo, how to butcher buffalo. Even the writing style annoyed me, though I can't exactly pinpoint why, except that it does seem to be pretentious and academic. Perhaps it's just that I don't believe looking at a situation entirely from the dark side is good for mental health, at least not for mine.

Monday, December 26, 2016


What do you imagine happened to the shootists of the Old West--those mysterious lone gunmen who drifted from place to place--when they were lucky enough or skilled enough to survive into middle age? What if they fell ill? Who took care of them?

Glendon Swarthout tells us what might happen in this thoughtful novel. His shootist is John B. Books, the last gunfighter in the West. He is 51 years old and he has terminal cancer. He rides to El Paso to consult a trusted doctor and holes up in a boarding house owned by a widow who has a wayward teenage son. As news of his identity and his medical condition gets abroad, human vultures begin lurking, hoping to cash in on his fame. Determined to die with dignity, Books sees a way to spare himself a lingering death and to rid the town of some rotten skunks at the same time.

Even though Swarthout begins his story with an unusual situation, he could have let it slide into sentimentalized pathos and familiar cliches', but he avoids that by his matter-of-fact narration and by constantly introducing surprising developments. Just when you think you can anticipate what is about to happen, you find that you are wrong.

This novel is not written in a showy style, but it is extremely well done. The characterization and dialogue are excellent. It is not your typical feel-good-at-the-end Western or your revisionist ultra-violent Western. It has more in common with Elmer Kelton than with Louis L'Amour or Cormac McCarthy. I liked it very much.


The movie version of the novel starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall was really good until someone (writer? director? John Wayne?) decided to change the plot to make it end on a feel-good note, which entirely negated the theme of the book. What a shame.

Friday, December 23, 2016


Shane is a simplistic, highly romanticized treatment of the basic Western formula--a mysterious stranger with a gun arrives to help innocent homesteaders who are being threatened. In this case, the villain is the "big rancher" who hires a gunman to drive out the small land owners so that he can expand his cattle operation. The narrator of the story, the young son of a homesteader, describes Shane this way:

"He was tall and terrible there in the road, looming up gigantic in the mystic half-light. He was the man I saw that first day, a stranger, dark and forbidding, forging his lone way out of the unknown past in the utter loneliness of his own immovable and instinctive defiance. He was the symbol of all the dim, formless imaginings of danger and terror in the untested realm of human potentialities beyond my understanding."

Wow. Just wow. Who wouldn't run the other way?

Yet this same Shane has a softer side, inspiring hero worship in the young boy, a bromance with the father homesteader, and romantic love in the wife. Self sacrificing to the end, Shane rides away after defeating the enemies, resuming his lonely travels. As he leaves, the family wonders, "Who was that masked man?" NO, WAIT. That's the mysterious hero from another story. In this story, the wife says, "He's not gone. He's here, in this place, in this place he gave us. He's all around us and in us, and he always will be." (Cue the dramatic music and bring on the hankies.)

I am poking fun, but this novel is not as ridiculous as I make it sound. It has such a straightforward good-versus-evil format and such earnestness and high drama that it becomes affecting. It's a pity I did not read it when I was in junior high. I would have loved it then, I know. I am a bit too cynical these days, I guess.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I love reading Elmer Kelton Westerns because they sound like home to me. He was a Texan who wrote about Texas and he knew how Texans talked. His dialogue is spot-on perfect, among the best I've ever read. His characters are complex and never wholly black or white. His stories may not be as melodramatic as some, but they are more representative of life as it really was than those formulaic hero-versus-villain Westerns or those revisionist Westerns which portray a cynical ultra-violent world. The Western Writers of America named Kelton as the Greatest Western Writer of All Time.

Kelton based the beginning of this novel on an actual event--a strike in 1883 by cowboys on ranches in the Canadian River area of the Texas Panhandle. When the strike inevitably fails, the protagonist, one of the striking cowboys, tries to make it as a small-time cattleman, but the big ranchers (one of them a Yankee banker) want to drive out the small operators to reserve the open range for themselves, even hiring a "shootist" to threaten violence. Will the struggling underdogs be able to stand up to the rich and powerful? Has civilization reached far enough that the rules of law and order can prevail?

This is a depiction of Texas as it probably really was in that place and time, and it is excellent.


I have not read all of Elmer Kelton's novels, but all I have read have been outstanding. I particularly recommend The Time It Never Rained, which takes place during the drought of the 1950s.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Louis L'Amour is the most successful Western writer ever, having published 100 novels, all of which are still in print. This is my first L'Amour, and I expected that I would be impressed. Instead, I am surprised. I don't think this is a very good book at all.

The plot is so formulaic as to be almost laughable: a tough army scout (who had once lived with the Apache for five years) arrives at a ranch in the middle of the Arizona desert and finds a beautiful young woman, who has been deserted by her husband, and her 6-year-old son. She refuses to leave her home to go to the fort, even though the scout tells her that the Apache are readying for war. Romantic sparks fly. He goes on to the fort to report. The Indians start attacking settlers. He returns to the ranch to rescue the woman and her son. Anyone who has ever seen a Western movie from the '50s can fill in most of the details.

Sometimes a hackneyed plot can be rescued by characters who are dimensional and interesting. Here is L'Amour's description of his hero: "He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous." Here is the damsel in distress: "She was a woman, all right. Scarcely more than a girl in years, but all woman. And mighty pretty." These two, and all the other characters in the story, are stereotypes and behave in entirely predictable ways.

L'Amour devotes a portion of the narrative to descriptions of the Arizona landscape, but even here he descends into cliche and repetitiveness. For example, within ten pages, L'Amour writes, "the vast night sky," "the vast and rolling plain," and "the vast distance." It would be interesting to count the total times "vast" is used in the novel.

I know that it is comforting to some readers to be able to anticipate the course of a novel, but I prefer to be surprised by the characters and events and to be impressed by the originality of the writing. This L'Amour novel does not fulfill those requirements.


The Hollywood movie Hondo starred John Wayne. No surprise there. Forty-five of L'Amour's novels and short stories were made into feature films and television movies.

Friday, December 16, 2016


The Big Sky does not quite fit the pattern which usually classifies a book as a "Western." Its setting is the high country of the Northwest in the early 1800s, before the western migration, before the ranchers and the cowboys, before civilization spoiled a wilderness Eden--a time that belonged to the Indians and the mountain men. It is both an epic adventure saga and an allegory about human nature and how we frequently destroy the very things that we love most.

Guthrie's hero, Boone Caudill, is 17 when he runs away from an abusive father and trouble with the law. "I don't hanker to live in no anthill," he tells Jim Deakins, a newfound friend. "I aim to go west into Injun country and trap me some beaver." The two set out together in a search for a place of adventure and freedom from civilization, and they find what they are looking for, only to see it disappearing bit by bit, sometimes due to their own actions.

This novel transcends what one expects from Western genre fiction and reads instead as literary fiction which happens to take place in the early West. Its characters are complex rather than one-dimensional. Its dialogue flows naturally, differentiating in vocabulary and cadence between speakers from varying backgrounds and regions. The descriptions of the wild landscapes are without peer, in my experience. Gutherie never tells the reader, using adjectives and metaphors and suchlike, but shows the reader, so that I actually felt present in the place. The prose is rhythmic and precise. It is so well written in every respect that it has that ineffable quality which takes a book from being just good to being great.

The Big Sky is an extraordinary book, in all senses of the word. I can't imagine why it is not taught in schools. I can't imagine why I never heard of it before.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Riders of the Purple Sage is one of the most popular Western novels ever, but I'll be willing to bet it's not well-loved in Salt Lake City. The reason? Unexpectedly, the villains are the Mormon leaders of a community in Utah and the other Mormon residents who cooperate with them out of fear of reprisal or religious devotion.

The central character is Jane Withersteen, the beautiful young heiress to a huge ranch in the high country of Utah in 1871. As she tries to maintain her independence, she is pressured by the leadership of her church to become one of the many wives of an Elder and to cease her friendships with the few Gentiles (non-Mormons) in the small village. The Mormon leaders are portrayed as also being hungry for power and wealth and unable to tolerate the existence of any female not under their control. When the Bishop and Elder order all of her range riders to leave her and rustlers drive off half her cattle, Jane is unexpectedly aided by the arrival of a stranger named Lassiter. Although he has the reputation of being a killer of Mormons as revenge for a mysterious wrong once done to him, she accepts his help in running her ranch, believing she can persuade him to abandon his murderous ways. It is easy for the reader to anticipate that romantic sparks will fly although the two have clashing belief systems.

Parallel to the events are Jane's struggles to continue to subscribe to the religious teachings of her upbringing while she is suffering blatant persecution by the leaders of that religion. When the inevitable showdown comes, she must for once and all choose where her allegiance lies.

Zane Grey purportedly carefully studied the plot and structure of Owen Wister's The Virginian before beginning to write his own novel, and the plots do have certain similarities. However, Grey's plot is much more complicated and even includes a secondary love story between Jane's Gentile friend and an outlaw's girl. The dramatic action is much more at the forefront here than in Wister's novel, with multiple lengthily described gun battles and chases on horseback. As does Wister, Grey provides much description of the wild landscape, but I would have to judge that Grey is often guilty of over-writing. And his dialogue is terrible.

I plan to sample more Zane Grey in the future. His literary skills may not be great, but this is a suspenseful and exciting story.

Friday, December 9, 2016


The Virginian includes these stock features of our Western mythology:
*a tall, slim, soft-spoken, brave hero who is kind to animals, women, and children but who has steel in his eye when confronted with injustice;
*a schoolmarm from Back East who struggles to understand the hero and the Code of the West:
*mostly good-natured cowboys who pull pranks and sing to cattle when they are not drinking whisky and playing poker;
*a villain (dressed in black, with a pencil mustache) who hates the hero and turns out to be a killer and thief;
*cattle rustling;
*a lynching;
*marauding Indians;
*a gun duel in the street.

All of these would seem to be cliches EXCEPT for the fact that Owen Wister was not copying anybody. He came up with it all first and put it all in this book, which is accounted to be the first Western novel ever. All the thousands of books, movies, and television shows that repeated these elements to the extent that they became cliches were following his pattern.

Since the book has all the ingredients for an action adventure, it is surprising to discover that it is primarily a love story in the style of a Jane Austin novel, with a heroine who is slow to recognize the true worth of the man who loves her. The violent events are handled briefly and serve more to highlight admirable aspects of the hero's character than to provide drama. Wister seems to be trying to convince his (mostly Eastern) readers of the innate dignity of the Western cowboy. He says, "In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature."

In my mind right now I'm seeing Gary Cooper walking all alone down a dusty street at high noon. How about you?

Owen Wister was a member of the Eastern elite who was educated abroad and at Harvard. After traveling to the West for visits as a young man, he was fascinated by the customs, lore, and landscapes of the region, a passion shared by his friend, Teddy Roosevelt. This novel reflects his attraction, particularly in his lyrical descriptions of the Wyoming landscape. The Virginian is a strange mixture of a novel of manners, a morality legend, and a travelogue. Its style is sometimes stilted and Wister disconcertingly switches without pause from first person narration to third person omniscience, but it captures the spirit that formed the legend of the West.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969)

Something strange happened to my sense of humor in the years between the 1970s and today. When I first read Flashman back then, I found it to be highly amusing. In fact, I liked it so much I read several of the sequels. Today, I don't perceive it as very humorous at all. In fact, I find it more than a bit distasteful. I know the book hasn't changed; obviously, it's me. I can't imagine why I found it so funny back then.

This book introduces George Flashman, beginning when he joins the military after being expelled at age 17 from school for drunkenness. He is supposedly writing about the adventures and misadventures of his long life from the vantage point of old age. He is self-professed as "a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward--and, oh yes, a toady," who has nevertheless been awarded "a knighthood, a Victoria Cross, high rank, and some popular fame." In this first installment of his saga, he survives ambushes, captivity, torture, and a catastrophic battle, mainly through running the other way when danger nears, emerging against the odds as a celebrated hero. The story centers on the First Anglo-Afghan War, which took place in Afghanistan from 1839 to 1842. The political and military history provided is purportedly quite accurate.

One of the back-cover blurbs compares Flashman to Henry Fielding's anti-hero Tom Jones. Yes, the two both behave badly at times and manage somehow to come out on top, but there their similarity ends. Tom is portrayed as basically honest and good-hearted, although his youthful lust gets him into all kinds of trouble. That kind of fault can be and is, in that case, very funny. In contrast, Flashman has all the faults listed above and also rapes women, beats servants for amusement, and wishes a fellow soldier dead because he had witnessed Flashman's cowardly actions, even though the man had previously saved his life. That's just not funny to me, even narrated in a cynical and sarcastic tone.

Fraser wrote eleven Flashman novels, each one covering some military conflict. All are considered to be faithful to the background history. As to whether they are "hilariously funny" (The New York Times Book Review) or not, it maybe depends on how old you are when you read them.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001)

This is a good example of the kind of historical fiction that plays fast and loose with generally accepted history, bending events to fit the plot. Before the internet, I would just have wondered how accurate the supposed history was, but now I can read from numerous sites to find out what most historians think actually happened. In the case of this book, historians disagree with many aspects of Gregory's account.

This is the story of Mary and Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, as narrated by Mary. Gregory portrays her as an innocent 14-year-old who is already married when she comes to Court and catches the eye of the king. Her parents and uncle push her into becoming his mistress while her husband obligingly turns a blind eye. This is the first of many historical inaccuracies. Mary was almost certainly older, probably about 21, when she came to Court, and she was apparently not an innocent, because she had been living at the court in France and King Francis himself had referred to her as "my English mare" and "my hackney" and "a great slag" ("slut"). I can only assume Gregory chose to make Mary a young innocent so that she could portray her throughout as the "good" sister, a helpless pawn just following the orders of her elders, in contrast to Anne, the "bad" sister, a self-centered, calculating, and ruthless opportunist. Gregory also casts Mary as the younger sister, although historians agree that Anne was the younger. This, also, was probably because the author wished to portray Mary in a sympathetic light as being naive and malleable. The list of other misrepresentations is lengthy.

Aside from the historical inaccuracies, The Other Boleyn Girl reads more like a bodice-ripper romance novel than historical fiction. Even the language used is romance-novel-appropriate. People frequently "tremble with desire." Female hair is always "lustrous" or "glossy" and always "tumbles in curls" around their shoulders. The several sex scenes would fit just right in a Harlequin Historical.

Philippa Gregory is a best-selling author with many books purported to be historical fiction. I would classify her instead as a popular fiction writer who adapts history to fit her plots. That might be OK for light reading, but she represents herself as a researcher and reporter of real history. I think not.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

L.A. Comfidential by James Elroy (1990)

I can think of many reasons why I should not have enjoyed this neo-noir crime novel.

First, the writing style is unpleasant and jerky; it would make even Hemingway, the champion of the choppy sentence, seem loquacious. Here is an example.

"A small room: Parker's desk, chairs facing it. No wall mementoes, a gray-tinted mirror--maybe a two-way. The chief behind his desk, in uniform, four gold stars on his shoulders. Dudley Smith in the middle chair; Green back in the chair nearest Parker." You see what Elroy has done here--he has left out words, mainly verbs. It's this way all through the book and at first it drove me crazy, but eventually I came to be so involved with the story that I forget to be annoyed. In fact, I came to feel that the style actually suited the tone of the book. Those readers old enough to have watched television back in the '50s will surely be reminded of Dragnat, as I was.

Second, not a single character is admirable, moral, or even law abiding, even though most of the large cast are cops. However, this is as much a story of police corruption as it is of outside crime, so the lack of principles in all concerned came to seem appropriate.

Third, the book is blood--soaked from start to finish, which I sometimes did find to be excessive and as much for shock value as for story progression. One of the most disturbing incidents -- prisoners almost beaten to death in their cell by drunken cops on Christmas day -- does mirror a real-life police scandal in Los Angeles in the 1950s which became known as Bloody Christmas, so perhaps the violence is not as exaggerated as it would first appear.

Elroy tells his story through the third-person limited viewpoints of three policemen. Ed Exley, whose father is a retired cop who has since grown rich from a construction business and whose older brother was a cop killed in the line of duty, is motivated by a drive to climb the ranks and impress his father. He is willing to do almost anything in his quest for success, even to snitch on his fellow officers. Bud White is a cop with a mission. Having been forced as a child to watch his mother beaten to death, he has made it his goal in life to protect women from abuse, often resorting to brutal tactics to punish those he perceives as guilty. Jack Vincennes is a glory hound who moonlights as technical advisor for a television detective series and who receive tips from a tabloid newspaper about celebrity narcotics users in return for exclusive coverage of the arrests. Their stories are told in revolving chapters.

The plot is incredibly intricate, with countless twists and turns, and a large cast of characters. Beginning with the murder of five people in an all-night cafe, it branches off in several seemingly unrelated directions, before the parts eventually fall into place. The fascination of this book comes from the reader's thirst to discover how all the pieces fit together. Elroy also exceeds expectations in character development, so that while his policemen are not admirable, they are understandable.

Crime novels are certainly not my preferred genre, but I have to admire Elroy for this excellent effort.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Raye's List of the Best Historical Fiction

After reading ten works of historical fiction which I chose from "Best of..." lists on the internet, I am ready to provide my own top--ten list. Only one of those just read is included here. The rest come from my reading history.

What, in my judgment, qualifies as historical fiction? I would say that the term should be reserved for books written at least 75 years or so after the events depicted; otherwise participants and witnesses to the events would still be alive, and the work would qualify more as remembrance. I would also specify that the important events and culture of the time being portrayed should be prominent and not just serve as an atmospheric backdrop for another type of story altogether.

What makes a work of historical fiction outstanding? In my judgment, it must above all tell a good story. I want suspense; I want drama. If I wanted just to read a history lesson I would read a history book. The characters should come alive as real people, with problems and conflicts brought about by the events of their time. If the protagonists are historic personages, I want their reported actions and thoughts to reflect as much as is recorded of their known facts, even though the author's imagination necessarily enters in.

That brings me to another of my requirements: I want the history to be accurate, because I am a dilettante reader who frequently does not have much knowledge of the era being depicted. I don't want to be fooled, to have events twisted around or falsified to fit the author's plot requirements. I feel that a considerable number of historical fiction writers indulge in this practice, trusting that their readers have little knowledge of the history and won't know the difference.

Finally, I want to be immersed in a different time and place, with all the sights and sounds and smells and customs. Science fiction/fantasy writers are often very good at this sort of world building, but they have the advantage of being able to use only their imaginations and not having to do any research. How much more difficult it must be for a writer to interpret and convey real life as it once was.

Here, then, is a list of the works of historical fiction that best fit my requirements:

The imagined "autobiography" of the lame, stuttering man who outwitted all his ambitious, bloodthirsty rivals to become Roman Emperor in 41 AD. Graves does such a good job of making the story convincing that one can readily believe it to be the emperor's actual writings.

A character-driven account of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the prospective of the officers of both the Union and Confederate armies. Shaara examines how men of good conscience who were often old friends could enter into deadly conflict with each other. I was surprised that this book affected me so deeply on an emotional level.

The well-known Gothic Romance about a deformed bell ringer, a lust-filled priest, and a beautiful gypsy girl, set in the Middle Ages in Paris. In addition to bringing to life the most exciting of stories, Hugo creates a "thick" world, immersing the reader in the time and place in all its splendor and squalor.

A grim look inside Andersonville Prison, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, with characters both historical and imagined. I read this book about 40 years ago, and I can still remember some of the details vividly. It's a very disturbing book to read, but then it should be.

A highly melodramatic story of love and sacrifice set in London and Paris during the French Revolution. Dickens is one of the greatest of storytellers, so this novel may be a bit long on plot and short on history, but it does provide an insight into why the common people were so revengeful against the aristocrats. As a plus, this novel has one of the best opening paragraphs ever and a last sentence that makes me cry, every time.

A look at World War I through the eyes of an Irish soldier fighting with the British army in Flanders and then, tragically, back in Ireland against his own countrymen during the Easter Uprising. An unflinching look at the horrors of war, and also one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read.

In this play about the Salem Witch Trials, the characters and events are historically accurate, but the motivations for the actions come from the author's imagination. Miller wrote it as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the government went on a hunt for Communists. History often repeats itself this way, because scapegoats come in handy when things aren't perfect.

A full-bodied account of Egypt in the 14th century B.C. through the eyes of a physician to the Pharaoh. This is the most immersive piece of historical fiction I have ever read, plus it raises philosophical questions that are pertinent today.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Aztec civilization, including graphic descriptions of human sacrifice and of a large variety of sexual practices. The fictional protagonist gives a tongue-in-cheek account, which is considered to be historically accurate as to events. This novel is great fun to read.

Everything you ever wanted to know about feudal Japan, through the fact-based story of an Englishman who witnessed and participated in the rise to power of a warlord (shogun), culminating in a famous battle. Fun story: When my daughter was a baby (in 1976) she had a months-long case of colic. The sound of my voice sometimes had a calming effect, so I read large chunks of this book aloud to her. It helped me stay sane during those middle-of-the-night crying spells.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (1996)

Although Every Man For Himself culminates in the sinking of the Titanic, it is not so much a fictionalized history of that event as it is a social history of the wealthy and privileged passengers and the personal history of the protagonist as he tries to find his place in life. The book is divided into five sections, the action in each one taking place during one day of the short-lived voyage. Thus, only the last chapter narrates the actual sinking.

As narrated by the fictional nephew of the real-life owner of the ship, J. Pierpont Morgan, the large cast of characters includes many who were actual famous upper-crust passengers --Guggenheims, Vanderbilts, Astors--and many who are products of the author's imagination. The young Morgan recounts the amusements of the rich and famous--the formal dinners, the concerts, the rounds of tennis, the flirtations, the clever and sarcastic conversations--all the while as he is feeling somewhat set apart because he cannot quite match their detachment and self-absorption. While he struggles with vague ideas about right and wrong and social injustices, he is influenced by a cynical fellow passenger, who tells him, "Have you not yet learnt that it's every man for himself?"

That statement, given in a different context, of course foreshadows the happenings of the last section, when passengers and crew react to the disaster. Through these events, narrated at breakneck speed reflecting the frantic pace of the action, young Morgan reveals his true character by his instinctive conduct.

All along, as the story progresses, Bainbridge cleverly slips into the narrative the many possible causes for the sinking, such as the disappearance of all the binoculars, the excessive speed demanded because the captain was ordered to make record time in the crossing, the ignoring of the warnings about icebergs, the fire in a coal bunker which was known about at the time the voyage began. Insinuated blame is cast on J. Pierpont Morgan, because he knew about the fire and cancelled his own ticket just prior to the departure.

I am totally impressed by this novel. Its tone is ironic without being cynical or sarcastic. It is often quite humorous. It is subtle, so that it becomes much more than just the action story of a tragedy or an indictment of the upper class. Its prose is precise, with never a word more or less than is needed. It is short, literally a one-day read, but it is just long enough.


This novel won England's Whitbread Award in 1996 and was nominated for the Booker. Bainbridge is a writer I am going to further investigate. Her The Bottle Factory Outing is also excellent.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

Speaking of long historical novels, this one is so thick I may use it as a step stool. Warning: This one is very hard to read in bed.

The setting is medieval England in the 12th century, when the country was often involved in civil war and the king and the church were vying for dominance. The plot centers around the people and strife involved in the decades-long building of a vast Gothic cathedral.

Although The Pillars of the Earth is marketed as a work of historical fiction, it reads more like a fantasy novel with a mock-medieval setting, in the style of Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin. It features an action-adventure plot with a set of stock characters, as is typical of the fantasy genre. While the background political strife is based on recorded history, the primary plot is entirely fictitious and so melodramatic and stereotypical as to be beyond belief as real history.

The plot is patterned so that every time things seem to be going well something very bad happens, over and over and over. Then, immediately after, the "good" people rise to the top again. For example, the construction project is finally going well when a nasty earl and his knights burn down the village and kill the master builder in charge. Then his son takes over and completes one section of the building, but while the first mass is underway the roof falls in. A bit later the master builder's stepson shows up to complete the cathedral. This pattern is also repeated in the many subplots. Eventually the story falters because the reader has come to know that no matter how dark the outlook seems, right will eventually prevail.

When Follett's characters are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid. Only a few of the supporting characters show any shades of grey, but they redeem themselves and turn to the white. We have a good monk and a bad monk (who is always dressed in black), two good builders (with women who love them) and one bad builder (who is impotent), and two good women (who are beautiful, with liquid eyes and lustrous hair) and a bad woman (who is hideously ugly, with boils all over her face).

Also following the formula of the more lurid branch of the fantasy genre, this novel is filled with graphic violence and graphic sex, both consensual and forced.

Unexpectedly, the most specific historic details in the book concern the cathedral itself -- the floor plans and challenges of a vast construction built of stone designed to last for hundreds of years. Although many of the technical aspects were hard to understand, it did make me long to see some of the grand cathedrals of Europe for myself.

Even though I don't consider this a historical novel, despite its backdrop, I still found it to be quite entertaining to read, maybe even because of its very predictability. It's often very comforting to know the good guys from the bad guys and to be able to anticipate that everything will come out all right in the end. That's probably why small children like to listen to the same books over and over again. That's probably why The Lord of the Rings is my most frequently re-read book. This was and continues to be a very popular novel.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)

Historical novels tend to be long, sometimes too long. In contrast, Year of Wonders is relatively short, too short, as it turns out.

This is the story of one small village in 1665-66, when the black plague spread across England. It is the first-person account of a young woman who is a servant for the most prominent family and for the vicar and his wife. Through her eyes we witness the coming of the plague, the subsequent decision of the village to quarantine itself to prevent the spread, the deaths of two-thirds of the population, and several incidents of attendant violence and mayhem as residents seek to avert danger and place blame. The many dramatic events which occur hold reader interest, yet they come with little back-story of the characters involved to indicate why they respond as they do. Many writers have used the plot device of a group of people cut off from the rest of civilization, and the best of these authors have developed their cast of characters to the extent that their actions seem logical, at times inevitable. If Brooks had given her story more room to develop, it could have been much more rewarding. Instead, she tends just to introduce one dramatic event after another. In fact, many of the character actions and reactions don't seem believable, even given the extraordinary circumstances.

Brooks' inspiration for the book was a village in England which did quarantine itself in 1666 during the last great surge of the plague. This foundation, the continuation of superstitious belief in some and religious belief in an angry God in others, and the random inclusion of a few period terms are the only obviously historical contributions. Even her heroine seems remarkably to think and act like a much more modern woman. I hesitate to class this as a historical novel, because the history if largely absent.

This novel has an eventful plot and an assured style, and is thus fast and entertaining reading. After I finished, though, I realized how much more it could have been, if more had been included.


FYI....Geraldine Brooks' 2005 novel March, a historical novel with a Civil War setting, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Egyptian by Mika Waltari (1949)

This review comes with a story from my youth. When I was in junior high I was already a confirmed bookworm, so I stopped by my little town's public library once or twice a week. By that time I had gone through their stock of children's books, and young adult books did not yet exist, so I read adult fiction. One day I brought home The Egyptian. My mother, who was also a dedicated reader, often read the books I brought home, and she picked this one up and read it. When I looked for the book later in the week, she told me she had taken it back to the library because it was "not appropriate" for a girl of my age. Of course I was then consumed with the desire to read it, but I knew I could not even check it out and read it in secret because the librarian might tell my mother. (This was the kind of town where everybody knew everybody, and people would actually tell your parents if they saw you misbehaving.) Imagine my excitement, then, when in my research for the best of historical fiction I found this book on several lists.

What a fine work of historical fiction this is! It is written as the autobiography of the fictional character Sinuhe, who rises from obscurity to become personal physician to the historical Pharaoh Akhnaton in the 14th century B.C. He witnesses the reigns and deaths of four Pharaohs and the near collapse of that world's greatest empire, when religious strife disrupts the country and enemies threaten the borders. He is more than just an observer of events, though, as his personal story is a journey of self-discovery, raising many philosophical questions that are pertinent today.

This is a full-bodied re-creation of a time and place--the sights, the weather, the sounds, the dress, the social habits, the customs, the religious practices, and particularly the smells. Waltari even re-recreates a battle with chariots and horses and swordsmen and archers so that it is understandable and immediate. According to all reports, professional Egyptologists have praised his efforts. Some historians have disagreed with his account as to who was related to whom, but then others agree with him and he is by-and-large considered to be historically accurate.

To my mind, Waltari sets the standard for historical fiction. This is a fascinating book, and I recommend it highly.


So why did my mother think it to be inappropriate for her 14-year-old daughter? It includes a fair number of sexual encounters, but they are all non-descriptive and relayed in euphemistic terms, not much different from what can be found in the Bible: Sinuhe "lies with" three women he loves. The back cover of my copy of the book informs that it was "widely condemned as obscene" when it was first published. How times have changed. This would not even raise an eyebrow today.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Romola by George Eliot (1863)

It's not often that I give up on a book. In fact, I think I could count on one hand the number of times I have not finished a book I started. But I give up on this historical novel about 15th Century Florence. It may have a stellar plot; I can't say because in the 135 pages I read all that happens is that a young Italian-Greek man arrives in Florence and meets Romola, the title character. It is judged by those who know such things to be historically accurate and immersive in the era, which I'm sure is true because it is thick with references to various scholars and politicians of the time and every page contains obscure allusions, unfamiliar phrases. and sentences in Latin, a language then familiar to educated people. The fact that the book needs 50 pages of notes in very small print to make it intelligible to a modern reader would give you a clue that Eliot knew more than most anybody about the time and place.

So after spending four days reading 135 pages (plus 17 pages of notes), I just could not face 541 more pages (plus notes).

Read this one at your own risk. Some say it is very good.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Pure by Andrew Miller (2011)

In my quest to read the best of historical novels I consulted several "Best of...." lists on the Internet, and this novel about Paris a few years before the Revolution was mentioned on several sites. Frankly, I am puzzled. Pure seems to me to be a very slight book, short on historical information and also short on plot interest. It would seem to have all the ingredients for a corker of a story, because (as the back cover of the book tells you) it includes a graveyard, mummified corpses, chanting priests, rape, suicide, accidental death, friendship, desire, and love. The back cover neglects to mention an attempted murder and a hint of necrophilia. One would think, with all that, it would be impossible to produce an even slightly boring novel, but Miller did it.

The protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer who is hired by the French government in 1785 to demolish the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris, unearthing all the bodies, including many mass graves, and moving the bones to another sanctified location. Being a provincial and a newcomer to Paris, he hires a former colleague and 30 former miners to help him carry out the work. He makes some new friends, who are involved in painting graffiti against the monarchy on walls around the city. He meets a girl. Over the course of a year, he observes or experiences all of the above, and yet the telling of it is as deadpan and unexciting as is this review.

The clearing of the cemetery did happen and dissidents did paint slogans on walls prior to the 1789 Revolution, but these are the only references to the history of the time. Anyone who reads will encounter hits and misses. This is one of my misses. It's not a terrible book, just a slight book.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992)

Sadly, I know only bits and pieces of the history of countries other than my own, and almost all I do know I picked up from reading novels. Undoubtedly, much of that information is wrong or incomplete. For example, take the French Revolution: From popular culture I had learned that when Queen Marie Antoinette was told that the people were hungry because they had no bread she said, "Then let them eat cake." As it turns out, that's apocryphal. From high school and college history lessons I previously knew that France had a revolution shortly after the American Revolution, that King Louis the Someteenth and Queen Marie Antoinette had their heads chopped off, that Robespierre was somehow involved, and that a mob stormed the Bastille. The rest of my prior knowledge of that important time in history came from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. From that most melodramatic of novels I learned something about why the general populace was so angry at the aristocrats and about how their anger turned into violence and the Reign of Terror. In this novel, Mantel further fills in my knowledge by providing everything I ever wanted to know (and more) about the political maneuverings before and during the Revolution, focusing on the lives of three of the most well known revolutionaries.

The three are Maximilien Robespierre, a thoughtful and self-righteous lawyer who becomes for a time the leader of the revolutionaries; Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre's childhood friend who as a writer of pamphlets and newsletters becomes the voice of the revolution to the populace; and Georges-Jacques Danton, a lawyer with an imposing physique and powerful oratory style who often uses the turmoil of the period as an opportunity to enrich his own wealth. Mantel's account reveals not only what they did (which by all accounts is historically very accurate), but also why they did what they did (which comes, obviously, from her imagination and interpretation of their known histories). All the other characters in this very long and detailed novel are also actual historical personages.

This historical novel would have seemed to me to be too long on information and too short on drama, EXCEPT for the fact that the characters were so well developed that they became real people in my mind and that I was so ignorant about the actual history that I was held in suspense about who would survive and who would fall victim to the Guillotine. I guess that is an example of why sometimes ignorance is bliss. The author examines only the actions and motivations of the leading revolutionaries, neglecting entirely any insight into the dissatisfaction of the people, picturing them instead as an uneducated and bloodthirsty mob highly susceptible to being swayed this way and that by their leaders.

Hilary Mantel is most well known for her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. Both Wolf Hall (reviewed in October, 2011) and its sequel Bringing Up the Bodies (reviewed in January, 2013) won England's prestigious Booker Prize. She is an extraordinarily talented writer and her research is said to be extensive. Judged strictly on an enjoyability scale, this novel falls short of the excitement of A Tale of Two Cities. Judged on historical accuracy and amount of information conveyed, this is at the top of the scale.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray (1852)

I am beginning my sampling of historical novels with this mid-19th century work by the author of the classic Vanity Fair, even though Thackeray was not the first English-speaking writer to popularize the genre. That distinction would belong to Sir Walter Scott. However, I have read Ivanhoe and Rob Roy and plan never to read another novel by Scott, ever.

Thackeray's story takes place in the early years of the 18th century in an England which is divided along religious and political lines. The Whigs support the ruling Protestant monarch and the Tories plot for the return of the Catholic Stuart heirs, here specifically James III. The plot centers around the titular Henry Esmond, who is both an observer of and a participant in pivotal events and who interacts with the well-known historical figures of the day, as well as with those prominent in literature. Thackeray obviously knew this era well, and he gives specific details and name-drops to the point of tedium, especially in his recounting of military campaigns. Henry Esmond's personal story line is thin and mostly involves his pining for ten years after an unworthy, though beautiful, girl. Then abruptly, in just a few pages at the end, he switches his affection in a most unbelievable manner.

If a potential reader of this novel is expecting the kind of delicious satire and humor that characterizes Vanity Fair, as I was, he will be sorely disappointed. This novel, for the most part, is deadly serious. And it is often deadly dull. In order to understand it, I did learn everything that Wikipedia knows about the War for the Spanish Succession and Jacobite Restoration. So that's good. And in view of the current divides in our country, it is encouraging to know that other countries have experienced the same, or even worse, and have survived and prospered. And it is amusing to read about historic political figures who struggled to hedge their bets so that they would be in positions of power no matter who won.

Yes, as some sage once said, history does tend to repeat itself.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

To complete my mini-unit of spy/espionage thrillers, I couldn't resist rereading this cynical dark satire by Graham Greene, one of the 20th century's greatest writers. His reluctant secret agent is Mr. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in 1950s Cuba, who is approached by the British Secret Service (MI6) to be "our man in Havana." Because he badly needs money to support the extravagance of his beautiful teenage daughter, he takes the job, submitting reports of information he has gleaned from newspapers. When that ceases to satisfy his far-away bosses, he resorts to just making things up, inventing many sub-agents who also need to be paid and even given bonuses for daring exploits. In an especially creative move, he provides drawings of the parts of a secret military weapon which is supposedly being assembled in the jungle, using as his model the parts of his company's Atomic Pile Vacuum Cleaner.

But then real people start getting killed.

The first time I read this, many years ago, I perceived it only as a very, very funny black comedy. The second time I read it, I was more appreciative of the clever satire of politics and government bureaucratic ineptness. Only with this reading did I understand how truly cynical Greene is, even going so far as to disparage nationalism. In an impassioned speech to the Chief of MI6, Wormold's secretary says, "And we don't believe you any more when you say you want peace and justice and freedom. What kind of freedom? You want your careers."

As with all really good books, this novel can be appreciated on many levels, with something new emerging with each rereading.


Interesting fact: Graham Greene was himself employed for a time by MI6.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

No mini-unit of espionage/spy novels would be complete without a reading (in this case a rereading) of Conrad's The Secret Agent. His protagonist is neither an adventurous hero, as in The Riddle of the Sands, or a clever hero, as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or even an ingenious anti-hero, as in The Day of the Jackal. The Englishman Mr. Verloc is an agent provocateur for an unnamed foreign embassy, a planted member of an anarchist group, a purveyor of soft-core pornography, and a sometimes police snitch. He is a man of few principles whose chief motivation seems to be a dislike of real work. When he is ordered by his handler at the embassy to persuade the anarchists to blow up Greenwich Observatory, he fears the loss of his primary source of easy income if he does not see that the task is done.
Having obtained explosives from The Professor, a fellow anarchist, Mr. Verloc enlists the help of his wife's mentally handicapped younger brother, who does not understand the import of his actions. The resulting explosion has unintended tragic repercussions for all concerned.

This is a very "dirty" book--the London surroundings and weather are pictured as squalid and ugly and unwholesome; almost all the main characters' actions are prompted by self-serving motivations rather than by idealism of any sort; even the police operate under an agenda of their own rather than in a quest for justice. Conrad is the best ever when it comes to creating an atmosphere of despair.

Only two characters are truly impassioned, rather than just casually corrupt. Mrs. Verloc is motivated to violence by the love she has for her brother. The Professor is motivated by his belief that the world must be remade by violence. "Exterminate, exterminate," he says. "That is the only way of progress." Surprisingly, they emerge as the only two even marginally admirable characters in the book because they alone think outside themselves.

The Secret Agent is so much more than a mere spy novel that it is perhaps unfair to compare it to others in the genre. It's like comparing Hamlet and The Lion King. They may contain many of the same elements, but.....


Interesting side information gleaned from background reading: The Professor in The Secret Agent served as a primary inspiration for Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. He reportedly read the book a dozen times and urged his family members to read it so that they could understand him.


I previously reviewed this book in May of 2011.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

It is surprising and a tribute to the author that this book is as exciting as it is. It concerns the planning and actions of an assassin who has been paid to kill French President Charles de Gaulle and the efforts of the police and several other government agencies to stop him. Since the reader already knows that de Gaulle was not in reality assassinated, one might assume that all suspense would be lost, but that is not the case.

Forsyth divides his book into three sections. The first, titled "Anatomy of a Plot," describes the political situation behind the hiring of the killer. It includes a description of a previous assassination attempt which failed, one which actually happened just as depicted here. This book's assassin is a foreigner whose true identity is known only to three men. His chosen code name is The Jackal. Almost by accident, French authorities learn of the existence of the plot, but they have no idea as to the identity of the killer or of the time of the attempt. This part moves a little slowly.

Things heat up in the next section, "Anatomy of a Manhunt," which focuses on the meticulous preparations of The Jackal for his mission and on the efforts of "the best detective in France," Claude Lebel, to find the culprit and prevent the murder. This part is fascinating, particularly since the reader has not learned the details of The Jackal's plan, and thus the reason behind most of his preparation is unclear. Suspense intensifies as time after time The Jackal is almost caught, always changing plans and identities at the last minute, as if he is being forewarned.

Suspense ramps to a high point in the third section, "Anatomy of a Kill." As Lebel continues to investigate, he is able to identify the source of the information leak that has allowed The Jackal to escape apprehension. Meanwhile, The Jackal makes his final preparations, including a highly ingenious disguise and method of transporting his high-powered rifle. It appears that he is bound to succeed in his mission. Of course, the reader knows that the assassination didn't happen, so the question of how The Jackal is to be stopped takes center stage.

Despite what one would expect, The Jackal is the most interesting character in the book. His various disguises and clever devices even invite admiration for his resourcefulness. His dispassionate dedication to a task he has undertaken purely for the monetary reward provides insight into the mind of an amoral killer for hire.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Unlike The Riddle of the Sands (the 1903 spy novel I reviewed earlier this month), the 1915 spy novel The 39 Steps reads like a modern book. Its language is direct and uncomplicated; the action is non-stop; it abounds in improbable coincidences and derring-do and narrow escapes which are often implausible; its hero is larger than life and clever beyond belief. It comes as no surprise to learn that Buchan was an influence for Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond spy thrillers. And like Fleming, Buchan is great fun to read.

The story begins when an American journalist-turned-spy confides in the Englishman Richard Hannay before being murdered by persons unknown in Hannay's apartment. Hannay goes on the run, both from the police who he assumes will blame him for the murder and from the foreign government agents who he believes committed the murder. The rest of the novel is a fast moving account of one narrow escape after another, ending as one would expect.

This is not a book to be taken seriously, unlike The Riddle of the Sands. It is light entertainment, pure and simple. I was surprised to find out that the highly regarded British newspaper The Guardian included it in their list of 100 Best English Language Novels. Perhaps they gave it a place because of the stylistic influence it has had on later espionage fiction.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1951)

Prolific author Alfred Bester wrote science fiction short stories, comic books (Green Lantern, Superman), travel essays, radio scripts, television scripts, mainstream novels, and two science fiction novels, which have become his main claim to fame. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (reviewed in September), are considered by many to be among the best ever written in that genre.

The Demolished Man is a police procedural story set in a future when a few people have developed varying levels of extrasensory perception. Known as Espers, and more colloquially as peepers, these individuals form an elite group who are pledged to act only for the public good and are particularly employed in the police force to stop a crime before it is committed, or to apprehend the rare exception who succeeds in criminal activity.

With the help of a peeper he has bribed to help him hide his intentions and actions, the head of a vast corporation plans and carries out the murder of his chief business rival. It is up to a peeper policeman to prove his guilt based on evidence alone, without the benefit of telepathy, to the satisfaction of the computer which serves as District Attorney.

This is a fast-moving and entertaining story, but it falls short of the excellence of The Stars My Destination. In particular, the ending is weak and more than a bit contrived. I would recommend it to die-hard Sci-Fi fans, but I do not consider it to be one of the best of the best.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)

This early spy novel is considered a classic of the genre. Written in 1903, it tells the story of two young English yachtsmen who stumble upon the fact that a fellow countryman has most likely allied himself with the Germans in planning for warfare against the British. In an effort to find actual proof that they can convey to authorities they undertake many risky escapades, both on land and sea.

The writing is typical of the period in which it was written, formal and not the easiest to read. Complicating the readability, Childers spends a great deal of the novel in detailed reporting of the men's maneuvers in their sailing yacht, complete with technical and nautical terms, which are essentially meaningless to a landlubber. But when Childers gets his characters on land, the tale becomes quite suspenseful and exciting.

The Riddle of the Sands was written more than a decade before the start of World War I and is credited with alerting the public to the possibility of German aggression and is reported to be partly responsible for the British strengthening of their sea defenses. It is also an interesting adventure yarn.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup (2008)

I initially assumed Six Suspects to be a conventional mystery, because of the title. The crime is the gunshot murder of a playboy businessman at a party celebrating his acquittal for a crime which he actually committed. When the police close off the house, they find six suspects who have guns--a crooked bureaucrat who sometimes thinks he is Mohatma Gandhi, a Bollywood actress (This takes place in India.) who has had her identity stolen, a tribesman from a remote island who is searching for a sacred artifact which has been stolen from his tribe, a mobile phone thief who has fallen in love with the dead man's sister, a corrupt politician who just happens to be the dead man's father, and a clueless American forklift driver from Waco, Texas, who is looking for the actress. It's like the board game Clue: Who did it at the party with a gun?

The majority of the book consists of the backstories of the suspects, the events leading each one to attend the party carrying a gun. Here's where a problem arises. A good mystery writer provides all the clues, those that are valid along with those that mislead. Swarup does not follow this formula. Not even Miss Marple could guess the killer from the clues given here.

Then I decided that maybe this is not meant to be a mystery at all, but a lampoon of a mystery. The tone is humorous and many of the events are so unlikely as to be ridiculous. The characters are obviously all exaggerated stereotypes. Swarup particularly has fun with his Texas character, giving his first-person narration a constant stream of backwoods sayings, such as "the wind was blowing like a tornado in a trailer park" and "if brains were gasoline, he wouldn't have enough to run a piss ant's go-cart around the inside of a donut." But here's where a problem arises as to viewing this as a comedy. It takes more than ridicule and exaggeration to be funny.

The review blurbs on the inside book flap let me know that some of the events and characters in the book are thinly veiled references to happenings and people in today's India, and that some reviewers consider this novel to be a satiric social commentary. I obviously cannot speak to the accuracy of the commentary about India, but I can attest that I have known some pretty dense and backwoodsy Texans, but I have never met anyone like Swarup's character. His portrayal is so inaccurate as to be beyond satire. This makes me wonder how accurate his comments are about India.

I can't decide exactly what Swarup intended; maybe a combination mystery/comedy/social commentary. I don't find him very successful at any of those.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre' (1974)

For the last few years I have been making a conscious effort to expand my reading to include various examples of genre fiction. I had already read and loved science fiction/fantasy, but I had little experience in other classifications. Thus I have recently sampled from the historical, Western, detective/mystery, Gothic, and humor categories. This is the first spy novel I have read since the 1960s when I read the James Bond books. As always when searching for good books, I consulted "best of..." lists, and this one emerged as likely the best of its kind. It is not what I expected.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not "action packed," does not feature a hero who is a magnet for sexy women, introduces no fancy spy gadgets. Its protagonist, George Smiley, is a dumpy, middle aged, nondescript man whose estranged wife is a serial philanderer. He does not operate through daring escapades but through a painstaking examination of evidence and a keen psychological insight.

Smiley is a former spy for British Intelligence who has been forced into retirement by a regime change. He is approached by a former colleague and the civil service officer charged with overseeing intelligence because they have reason to suspect that one of the top four at the Intelligence agency is a mole, or double agent, for the Russians. Smiley's meticulous investigation is fascinating, although unfamiliar terms and spy jargon sometimes make the happenings hard to understand. The author interestingly includes the human element, since Smiley has a personal history with all of the suspects.

I would actually not have characterized this as a spy novel, but instead as a detective novel about spies. Furthermore, I would also characterize it as a mainstream literary novel, because it is extremely well written and interesting on multiple levels. I plan to read more of John le Carre'.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Pyramid by William Golding (1967)

The Pyramid is in essence three short novellas all featuring the same protagonist. The first story introduces 18-tear-old Oliver in the summer before his going up to Oxford. The time is that of early automobiles and silent movies and the place in a small village in rural England. Young Oliver narrates his story of unrequited puppy love for one girl and the sexual pursuit of another. The second story takes place after his first term at university and concerns an amateur theatrical that his mother persuades him to participate in. The third story is narrated by Oliver as an older married man when he returns to his home village and remembers his childhood music teacher.

Golding's first and most famous novel, The Lord of the Flies, did not take long to plainly reveal that an island adventure tale was actually concerned with much darker matters. His "Beast" was obviously meant to symbolize the evil impulse in all of us. But in later novels, Golding became much more subtle, so that it takes a good while for a reader to realize that this seemingly whimsical, sometimes almost farcical, story is in reality an indictment of the unthinking hurtfulness inflicted because of class snobbery. The title gives a clue, because the only pyramid here is the social pyramid, with a few at the top, more in the middle, and a great many at the bottom. In Golding's view, each group considers the group below it as undeserving of respect or common consideration.

I love reading Golding because his writing is impeccable and he always gives me something to think about. I agree with him that all humans are flawed, but sometimes his outlook does become a bit depressing. My advice: Read all Golding's novels, not just Lord of the Flies. He didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 for only his most famous novel. Just don't read them one after another. You might sink into depression at the hopelessness of it all.


Side Note: I read up on Golding's life (as available on the internet) and found something interesting. British writer John Carey wrote a memoir about the author in 2009 in which he revealed that, according to Golding's journals, he attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl from his home village when he was 18. A similar incident is part of the first story in this novel. Also according to his journals, he felt he had something "monstrous" inside himself. Don't we all?

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1864)

Although I have never enjoyed reading Dostoyevsky, I decided to read this short novel because I recently read a novel with the same name by Jose Saramago (reviewed in April, 2016), and I wanted to compare the two.

The "hero," as Dostoyevsky calls him, is the very confused and paranoid Mr. Golyadkin. When he is tossed out of a party that he has crashed at his boss's house, his mental condition worsens dramatically. That's when he meets his exact double. From that time on he is tormented because he perceives that the double is trying to turn everyone against him.

This is a psychological look at a man going mad. It is extremely unsettling and depressing. It made me very anxious. While I recognize that my reaction is surely a tribute to Dostoyevsky's writing talent, I am sorry I read the book. I may feel crazy for days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

This mystery thriller is proof positive to me that I am out of touch with the mainstream of the reading public. It has reportedly sold more hardback copies than any other adult book ever. It has thousand of 5-star reviews on the Amazon and Goodreads websites. It is soon to be a Major Motion Picture. But I cannot share the enthusiasm. I would give this book a grade of C at the best. What is wrong with people?

Here are some of the reasons I am astounded that people like this book.

The story is told through the interior monologues of three first-person female narrators. Admittedly that is a tricky proposition for any writer, as it would be necessary that each narrator be given a distinctive voice for the format to be effective. Hawkins does not do that, not at all. All three narrators sound exactly the same. For me, this is the major flaw.

The solution as to the identity of the murderer is obvious early in the book because of the author's deliberate withholding of the name of the lover of the murdered woman in her stream-of-consciousness account of the events leading to her death.

Not one character is sympathetic; all are despicable. While it is true that some excellent novels feature unsympathetic characters, they substitute with characters who are interesting and complex. You will find none of that here.

The grammar is shaky and the sentence construction is awkward and amateurish.

Hawkins has shamelessly capitalized on the extreme popularity of the novel Gone Girl, including her use of an unreliable narrator and her inclusion of "girl" in the title. By the way, why call women in their mid-to-late twenties "girls"? Could it possibly be because of the immense popularity of writer Stieg Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tatoo and its sequels? In case you haven't read those, do so and see how much better they are than this effort.

So why did so many people love this book? I can't figure it out. I just don't know.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara (1935)

Whoa, was this depressing. O'Hara takes a naturalistic look at the Depression and Prohibition-era speakeasy culture of New York City. His protagonist, Gloria Wandrous, is an habitual drunk and sleep-around party girl with a history of childhood sexual abuse. The story begins when she wakes up in despair in the bedroom of a man she picked up in a bar the night before, and ends in her gruesome death when she falls or jumps from a pleasure boat and is mangled by the paddle wheels.

The above is really not a story spoiler, because both the introduction to the novel and the back cover blurb tell the reader that O'Hara based his main character on the known history of an actual woman named Starr Faithfull, who in 1931 was found washed up on Long Beach, Long Island. Even if this were not the case and a reader had no idea at the beginning how the book was going to end, it would soon become all too apparent that Gloria's story could only end unhappily. A cloud of doom and gloom hangs over all from beginning to end.

O'Hara's writing style is unattractive, yet powerful in its own way, with short, declarative sentences. Much of the story is carried by the dialogue, which is ultra-realistic, as if actual conversations were recorded verbatim. Unfortunately, real-life conversations are filled with non--sequitur and repetition and digression, which become tedious when read rather than heard.

John O'Hara was an extremely popular writer in the 1930s, but he is no longer read very much, unlike his more famous contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. His most lauded novel, Appointment in Samarra (reviewed March, 2011), also features a doomed character. I realize that his era was probably the most discouraging this country has ever faced and hope was hard to come by, but still....

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012)

If you read a hundred reviews of A Man Called Ove, I can almost guarantee that 90 percent will include the words "heartwarming" or "charming," often both. This is the story of a grumpy old man (Get off my lawn!) who proves to have a "heart of gold" (80 percent of reviews will include this phrase). It is entirely predictable and unabashedly manipulative. It will make you laugh (it is actually very, very funny) and it will make you cry, not because it is sad but because it is "touching" (many reviews will include this word).

If you are an adult who laughed and cried at the touching and charming and heartwarming animated movie Up, then you will like this book because it is basically the same scenario; only the details are different. I am one of those adults and I enjoyed this book--very much.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Swan Song by John Galsworthy (1928)

Hurrah! Galsworthy returns to his role as an extraordinary storyteller in this concluding volume of The Modern Comedy trilogy. As it turns out, the first two novels mainly served as a set-up for this one. (A quite lengthy setup, to be sure.) So before this novel begins, we already know that the upper classes in post-war England were selfishly consumed with satisfying their own whims of the moment, without a concern for those less fortunate or for the future. We know that Fleur, the main character, is a true daughter of the times. She is married to an admirable man who adores her, yet she has enticed his best friend to fall in love with her, not because she loves him but just for the excitement of the situation. She enters into a spiteful name-calling fight with a social rival which results in a lawsuit for defamation, and when things turn out badly, she leaves husband and son for a trip around the world with her indulgent father.

As this chapter of the story begins, Fleur's first love returns to England after living in America. He and Fleur had been forced to part years earlier by family pressures, but he has since fallen in love with and married an American girl. In contrast, Fleur has never stopped wanting what she could not have, so she sets out to stalk and seduce him. She has no intention, however, of leaving her husband and comfortable life to run away with him if she is successful. Instead she envisions a secret affair, and even sets up a scenario that would make that possible. In the true spirit of the times, she wants to have her cake and eat it, too.

After the low-key plots of the two previous novels, this one is engrossing and energetic. The climax is a shade melodramatic, but it rounds things off nicely.

I recommend this trilogy to those readers with time and patience. It is an interesting look at England between the wars, written by a contemporary. It has insightful implications about the influence of heredity and upbringing. And even though it takes its time, it is a good story.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy (1925)

In this second novel of The Modern Comedy trilogy, Galsworthy once again focuses on the state of England following The Great War. This time he provides a bit more substantial plot (although it is still secondary), and rather cleverly ties his political/sociological commentary and his story progression together thematically. He straightforwardly announces his theme in the title: The upper classes of England, personified by the central character Fleur, have been spoiled by a past of wealth and privilege and have devolved into living only for the moment, satisfying their sense of entitlement without regard for traditional values or the future or the welfare of others. Just in case a reader might miss his point, Galsworthy repeats "silver spoon" references many times.

The plot centers on a bitchy catfight between Fleur and one of her young society rivals, Marjorie Ferrar. The rival gossips about Fleur at a party, calling her a "snob." She is overheard by Soames Forsyte, Fleur's father, who publicly asks her to leave. When Fleur finds out, she responds by writing notes to several of her "friends," calling Marjorie "a snake of the first water" without "a moral about her." The "friends," of course, tell Marjorie, who decides to sue for defamation. The most lively part of the book comes when Fleur's clever lawyer cross examines Marjorie at the trial, leading her into gradually admitting that she is indeed without a moral about her, at least in the traditional sense. That Fleur shares this fashionably "modern" outlook is not mentioned, of course.

Fleur's husband Michael is a Member of Parliament and Galsworthy channels his substantial political commentary through him. He is the most sympathetic character in the novel, one of the few to evidence unselfish concern for the problems of others or an awareness that England might be headed for grave problems. As I am sure Galsworthy intended, Fleur is an entirely unsympathetic character.. In the end, she runs away from the mess she has made, leaving husband and child to take a trip around the world with her indulgent father, who had put the silver spoon in her mouth in the first place.

This second installment of the trilogy is more interesting than the first, The White Monkey, but it is not nearly on a par with Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga trilogy. It seems like nothing so much as the gloomy observations of a grumpy old man, who perceives that the younger generation is "going to the dogs."

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Foe by J.M. Coetzee (1986)

Nobel Prize laureate J.M. Coetzee has taken Daniel Dofoe's Robinson Crusoe as his starting point for this novel, adding a woman, Susan Barton, who finds herself stranded on the island where Cruso and Friday have been living for some years. After they are rescued by a passing ship a year later, Cruso dies during the voyage to England, leaving Susan to assume responsibility for the mute Friday. Arriving back in London, Susan contacts the writer Daniel Foe about taking the facts known to her about Cruso's island sojourn and writing a book that would appeal to the public and provide upkeep for herself and Friday. But Foe wants to add embellishments, turning the facts into something more exciting.

To tell the truth, nothing much happens in this novel, exciting or otherwise. A reader looking for entertainment would be looking in the wrong place. It is obviously meant to be read as an allegory/fable, but I could never decide what truths I was supposed to perceive. Coetzee is a native of South Africa and wrote this novel when apartheid was still in force, so (I think) the black man Friday's voicelessness and his white protector Susan's inability to make her voice heard would represent the political situation at that time. It seems, though, that there must be more to be learned. I just can't figure out what.

I believe that an effective allegorical novel should provide interest on two levels--the literal and the metaphorical. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians does that brilliantly. Foe may examine important ideas and issues, but as a story it is less than successful. This is one of the most boring novels I have ever read.

As it turns out, I am apparently not the only one a bit vague about Coetzee's intentions. After I wrote the above, I checked out several internet scholarly articles about the book from universities and journals and so on. None of the experts agreed. Everybody took away something different. It seems to me that if an author wants to impart big ideas, he should make them clear enough that most people would perceive them in a similar way. But I'm not an academic, so what do I know?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The White Monkey by John Galsworthy (1924)

Nobel laureate (1932) John Galsworthy wrote nine novels about the English upper-middle-class Forsyte family. The first three together, collectively called The Forsyte Saga, take place around the turn of the 19th Century and tell the story of the unhappy marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte and of the resulting family feud when they divorce and she marries his cousin. The White Monkey is the first of a second trilogy, collectively called A Modern Comedy, which focuses on Soames's daughter Fleur, the child of his second marriage.

While The Forsyte Saga brilliantly explores character and features an engrossing plot, this novel seems more concerned with portraying the sense of unease in England just following the First World War. Plot takes a back seat, with nothing much happening, really. Galsworthy peppers his dialogue with slang and jargon presumably current at the time, some of which is undecipherable for the modern reader. He includes many references to literary and artistic trends, with mentions of fictitious writers and artists that are apparently veiled references to actual people of the time. All of this probably made The White Monkey quite interesting to people in 1924, when it was published, but doesn't make it a very satisfying read for someone in 2016.

I will reserve further judgment until I have read the other books in the trilogy.

Monday, September 5, 2016

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (2006)

Growing up is hard to do, especially without the benefit of a stable home life. That is the theme running through the ten short stories in this excellent collection. Karen Russell portrays her protagonists at the brink of puberty and places them in surreal locations and situations, crafting the stories as allegories of a sort, representing the pains faced as childhood fantasies are abandoned and adult feelings and understanding enter in.

In the first selection, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a young girl encounters adult sexuality for the first time. Several others in the collection echo this theme, portraying the primary confusion encountered when one reaches puberty. In "Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration" a boy struggles to maintain his hero worship of his father. In "Haunting Olivia" two brothers try to come to terms with the death of their little sister. And in the title story, a girl sent away to boarding school finds when she returns home that it no longer feels like home to her.

If these sound like prosaic stories, it's because I have left out the ghosts and the Minotaur and the magic swim goggles and the werewolves and suchlike which also inhabit the tales.

This is Karen Russell's first book-length publication, and the comedic talent she displays in later publication is only fleeting visible here. Though some stories do have flashes of clever humor, they are always wistfully sad, because, after all, it is sad when a child can no longer believe in magic or see his father as a god.

I also recommend Russell's novel Swamplandia (reviewed in June, 2012), an expansion of the first story in this collection, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (reviewed last month), her latest short story collection.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)

Here's a hint for aspiring fiction writers: If you can't come up with a good plot on your own, try just stealing one from somebody else. After all, Shakespeare did it, and look how successful he was. For this novel that has become a classic from the golden age of science fiction, Bester stole the plot from Alexander Dumas. This is The Count of Monte Cristo in the 26th Century, in space.

To give Bester credit, he makes the story his own. His protagonist is stranded on a blasted spaceship and is left to die by a passing ship from his own planet. When he is finally rescued, he begins plotting his revenge, aided by the discovery that his derelict ship holds great riches. Obsessed as he is, he lifts himself from being a "Common Man" with unrealized abilities to the level of sophisticate, with specialized knowledge. Using his wealth, he even has his body modified, becoming a kind of Six Million Dollar Man, with super=human speed and strength.

Bester comes up with a staggering number of unexpected scenarios, surprising characters, and futuristic innovations in the telling of his tale. He is incredibly inventive, and one can easily spot some of his ideas in the writings of later generations of sci=fi authors. In his future world, evolution and practice enable most to "jaunt," that is to teleport up to a thousand miles using only their brain power and will. The inhabited worlds are controlled by mega-corporations and the ultra-rich live in barricaded fortresses. And, yes, they are still fighting wars, with the threat of a doomsday weapon hanging over them.

One of Bester's additions to the plot is particularly fascinating: His hero is tattooed Maori-style over his entire face in a tiger-like pattern by a space going cargo cult who capture him. When he later has the tattooing removed, he discovers that in moments of stress or passion the otherwise invisible markings glow red as the blood rushes and the adrenaline flows. Bester thus is able to link his theme to that of William Blake in his poem "The Tyger," the first verse of which Bester uses as his epigraph.

Anyone even slightly interested in science fiction will find this 1956 novel exciting. Bester moves it along at a breakneck pace and it surprises at every turn, even though the plot is lifted and the climax is thus foreseeable. It's the twists and turns of the getting there that make it fun.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington (1922)

Jane Austin fans will likely find themselves reminded of Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice when they read about Mrs. Adams from this 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Both are foolish social climbers, riding roughshod over their more principled but relatively weak=willed husbands. But Alice Adams, the one daughter in this novel, is no Elizabeth Bennett. Though Austin's Lizzie makes mistakes, from the very beginning of the novel it is obvious that she has a strong sense of self and has gained common sense and principles from her father. In contrast, at the beginning of this novel Alice is almost totally under the sway of her mother, and it takes the entire novel for her to break free to become her own person.

Bad things happen in Pride and Prejudice, but the overall tone is fondly satiric, with many bits that are laugh=out=loud funny. Tarkington writes in a more somber tone, although a few parts of this novel could be considered humorous in a different context. His account of a dinner party gone wrong==with sweltering weather, heavy and unappetizing food, and a surly maid==would be funny if it were not so pathetic. A reader feels Mrs. Bennett to be a subject for ridicule, but I guarantee that the same reader will end up despising Mrs. Adams. I often wished I could step into the book and tell her off and maybe even slap her selfish face.

This is a perceptive novel of middle=class America between the World Wars. It seems a bit dated, maybe because climbing from one social class to another is no longer as easy as it once was and most people cease trying.

Tarkington is one of only three writers who have twice won the Pulitzer. He first won in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons. The other two=time winners are William Faulkner and John Updike.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (2016)

WOW! This mystery thriller is a certified page turner. It starts with a bang, literally. A private jet crashes over the ocean leaving only two survivors: Scott, a middle-aged failed artist, and a four--year-old boy. Scott heroically swims for hours towing the boy to bring them to safety. The mystery then becomes who or what caused the crash.

As federal investigators from several agencies assemble, various theories emerge. Was it a simple matter of pilot error or aircraft malfunction? Was the right-wing media mogul on board targeted by extremist liberals? Was the financier aboard who was about to be arrested for money laundering targeted by a foreign government that wanted to be sure its secrets were kept? Was the Israeli bodyguard with a mysterious past the target of an assassination for former deeds?

Then in jumps the right-wing media, with its own conspiracy theories, including insinuations about Scott, the "hero" of the tragedy. This is my favorite part of the book, actually. The cable news channel portrayed is Fox News, clearly, though Hawley gives it another name, and the hate--mongering on-air personality is obviously patterned on Bill O'Reilly. This social commentary makes an interesting addition to an already intriguing mystery plot, although it will undoubtedly be a turn-off for right wing readers. As a certified lefty, I found it chillingly probable.

Hawley took a page from the pattern of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, spending a great portion of the book in brief background sketches of the characters, living and dead. He does it so skillfully that in only a few pages the reader understands them and can view them as real people. Not many writers accomplish so much with so few words.

The solution to the mystery, which comes at the very end of the book, is in a way anticlimactic, but it is very appropriate. Sometimes the simple answer is the right one.

For those who have already read this book: Did you notice on the sketches of the deceased that the birth and death dates were given and that the death date of the bodyguard was three days later than the rest? Interesting.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (2016)

Work Like Any Other has been long listed for the Booker Prize. Its back cover is filled with glowing reviews from fellow writers. (Two are graduates, along with Reeves, of the Michener Center for Writers at UT.) Either I am incredibly perceptive, discerning that the emperor has no clothes, or I an incredibly dense, failing to perceive genius when it is placed in front of me, because I didn't find this novel outstanding at all. In fact, I thought it had several major flaws. It's not terrible, but I would not recommend it.

I actually wrote a lengthy and specific review here before erasing it all and starting over. I realized that in detailing my criticisms of the plot, I had revealed the whole story, and that's not fair to someone who might want to read the book. Here, then, in my second effort.

This reads like two short stories or novellas cobbled together. The most lengthy part, the account of the protagonist's time in prison, is well done and sometimes even riveting. Framing this central portion is the story of the man's family life and crime (stealing electricity from a power company, discovered when a company employee is accidentally electrocuted) and the continuance of his life when he is released. This is the weak part. The events are unlikely. The characters behave irrationally and their motivations are never clearly explained. They are entirely unsympathetic. The sketchy subplot about the difference between how black and white prisoners are treated seems thrown in for politically correct relevance.

I really dislike it when my opinion seemingly differs so drastically from the majority. It makes me doubt my discernment. But what can I say? I really cannot see this as a prize winner.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016)

What strikes me most about this novel is that Strout tells her story not so much by what she says but by what she leaves out. The truth is in the spaces. I understand the book to be an example of sustained dramatic irony--the reader understands what the narrator never realizes or admits to knowing. I have read several reviews of the novel, and they don't mention this aspect. Perhaps I misunderstand, but this interpretation makes perfect sense to me.

On the surface nothing much happens. Lucy's mother comes to sit with her for a few days during her extended hospital stay. Although they have not seen each other for years, they talk only of trivial matters, gossip about the people Lucy had known in her youth, usually about marriages that have failed. Here's where the spaces come into play. As narrator, Lucy tells us that she never asks about her father, and that she and her mother never mention what Lucy thinks of as "the Thing," some traumatic event of her childhood, which is never explained.

Interspersed with Lucy's narration of her mother's visit are almost stream-of-consciousness accounts of her early and subsequent life. We hear of her attachments to her neighbor, her doctor, and even random strangers--to any who show her a speck of kindness. We learn--in the spaces--that she never feels worthy of love. We sense how broken she is, even though she never expresses it and perhaps does not even realize it.

This is a story about love, but it more a story of love withheld and the damage that can inflict. Unfortunately, a pattern of parental abuse and neglect can pass from generation to generation, as in this novel, although the adult child may not realize that she or he is repeating aspects of parental behavior.

This is subtle novel, beautiful in its depth of feeling. It has been longlisted for England's Booker Prize for this year's best novel written in English.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (1988)

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is Michael Chabon's first novel, written when he was just 24 years old, in fulfillment of the requirements for his master's degree at the University of California, Irvine. As is frequently the case of early efforts by young writers, it is a coming-of-age novel, telling of a young man's loves and misadventures as he attempts to "find himself."

Chabon's protagonist narrates the events of the summer following his graduation from college. He finds love, in more than one place and of both the male and female variety. He joins a friend in a criminal escapade. He attempts to deal with the love-hate relationship he has with his father. Just the normal things that one does before settling down to the adult world.

This very much reads like a first novel--a bit amateurish--but Chabon's writing style proves to be most engaging, even at this beginning of his career. He went on, of course, to write the Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and several other lauded novels in diverse genres. He started out good and has moved on to excellent.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue (2006)

William Butler Yeats wrote: "Come away O human child!/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand." He pictured a child saved from the sorrows of life by beneficent fey creatures. His poem, "The Stolen Child," inspired the writer Keith Donohue to write this tale of the lives of both the child who enters the wood to become one of the fairies and of the creature who assumes the likeness of the child and takes his place in the world of humanity. As it turns out, neither one escapes sorrows.

Donogue tells his twin stories in alternating chapters. We discover that fairies (they prefer the term "hobgoblins") live a hardscrabble life, hiding in the dwindling woodlands, scavenging for food and stealing from humans to supply their needs. They don't die, unless they are killed, but they don't age either, and so are perpetually trapped in children's bodies. Christened Aniday by his captors, the newest fairy recruit can't stop longing for his former life.

Meanwhile, the fairy who has become the boy Henry Day lives in fear that he will be found out as a changeling. His father, at least, instinctively feels that something is amiss. As Henry grows to adulthood, falls in love, and is married, he continues to be tormented by his feeling of inauthenticity.

Donohue has written an engaging and very readable story, but he has aimed at something more. This is also an allegory about accepting ourselves as we are. Henry Day's mother gives us a clue when she says, "You are who you are, for good or ill...." Interestingly, both protagonists help themselves achieve wholeness through the arts, Aniday through writing his life story and Henry Day through composing a symphony, which he titles "The Stolen Child."

This is not a novel destined to become a classic, but it is an enjoyable read.