Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rites of Passage by William Golding (1980)

What a delight it is to read a book that is perfectly executed. As critical as I often can be, finding fault with books that critics have deemed praiseworthy, I can find no fault with this one. I am totally impressed.

Golding presents his story through a journal about a sea voyage to Australia as written by a 19th Century British aristocrat for the benefit of his godfather. Having read a considerable number of novels actually written in the 19th Century, I can say with assurance that Golding never falters in duplicating the style and language of the period. The journal writer, young Mr. Talbot, soon reveals himself to be self-absorbed, arrogant, and extremely conscious of class distinctions. At the beginning, the book presents itself as a conventional sea story and almost as a social comedy. However, just as Golding's most well known offering, The Lord of the Flies, seems at the beginning to be a boy's adventure story before it turns into a tale of savagery, Rites of Passage soon turns in a darker direction.

Lord of the Flies is a mostly straightforward book, which makes it admirably suited for study by young people. Even relatively inexperienced readers can understand its implications. Rites of Passage is much more subtle, with the journal writer seeming to be only marginally aware of the meaning of what he has experienced. But then comes the ending sentence of the book, which is the best last sentence I can ever remember reading. Suddenly we know that the protagonist understands, even though he may not admit it fully, even to himself.

This novel won England's Booker Prize in 1980, and just three years later Golding received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014)

Rainbow Rowell is known primarily as an author of Young Adult books, particularly for her widely praised novel Eleanor and Park (which I reviewed in August, 2015). Landline, however, is designated for adults, with the protagonist being a woman in her late 30s. The problem here is that this book reads exactly like a second-tier YA novel and would not be as interesting to an adult as Rowell's YA books, mainly because of its unrealistic plot and conventionally cheery ending.

The unlikely story centers on Georgie McCool (adorable name, right?), who is the high powered writer of a network situation comedy. When the opportunity surfaces to create her own show, she decides to send her husband of fourteen years and their two daughters on a planned Christmas trip to his parents without her, so that she can stay back with her writing partner (a foxy guy who is perhaps in love with her) to write episodes for network review. Almost immediately after they leave, she begins to feel guilty that she has placed herself first once too often, particularly when her husband is never available to answer his cell phone and does not return her calls.

Now this stock situation of a couple who have drifted apart suddenly changes into a tale of magic. While visiting her mother, Georgie calls her husband on her old landline phone and she gets through, but soon realizes that she is talking to her husband when he was still just her boyfriend. That's right -- the landline calls back in time.

You can probably guess the way the rest of the story goes. Hint: have you seen the movie It's a Wonderful Life?

My granddaughter Rori gave me this book to read and when I asked her why she liked it, she said it made her feel good. I think it's natural for a teenager to be susceptible to "happily ever after," but I think an adult should expect more from a book.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

My 14-year-old granddaughter Rori wants to be Tina Fey when she grows up, and I believe she has chosen an admirable role model. Tina Fey is smart, funny, a talented actress, ambitious, hard working, and seemingly an all-around nice person. Come to think of it, all that also describes Rori as she is right now, so I think she is on the right path.

Rori wanted me to read this book. It is autobiographical, hitting the high points of Tina Fey's career as a performer. It is charmingly self deprecating and, of course, funny. Her humor is subtle, not depending on snappy one-liners and certainly not bitchy in the style of so many. This is a soft chuckle kind of book rather than a laugh uncontrollably out loud one.

I'm not usually a reader of memoirs, but this is a pleasant look at an admirable woman who has found success in a profession dominated by men.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig (1978)

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a unique novel in my experience, because it has virtually no conventional narration. Most of the book is dialogue, with a few stream-of-consciousness passages and a factual police report at the end. In that sense, the book reads more like a play than a novel, and it has indeed been turned into a play, a movie, and even a musical. I'm sure that all formats worked beautifully, because this is a very touching and instructive story on many levels.

The two protagonists are drastically different men sharing a cell in an Argentine prisoner -- Molina, a gay window dresser jailed for a moral offense, and Valentin, a revolutionary fighter jailed as an enemy of the government. To pass the time, the movie lover Molina tells the story of escapist movies to his cellmate, several of which are included. Despite their disparities, the two men come to understand and learn from each other, eventually finding themselves changed by their friendship. It is difficult to be more specific without spoiling the story.

I am totally impressed with Puig for being able to use dialogue to convey subtle emotional nuances. I recommend this book; it is very moving.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (1980)

All the time I was reading this novel I kept thinking of a line from the song "Ziggy Stardust" (as sung by David Bowie): "Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind." More than anything else, Earthly Powers seems to me to be an example of an author showing off, making love with his ego.

Yes, Mr. Burgess, I recognize that you are ultra-intelligent and learned. When you include many untranslated passages of conversation in a variety of languages, I know right away that you are more educated than I am. When you name drop scores of literary figures, I can see how well read you are. Even your condescending tone lets me know that you are superior. That you make some attempt to disguise your preening by putting it in the mouth of your first-person narrator does not fool me at all. I know that I am intended to admire you.

This is the story of Kenneth Toomey, a homosexual writer of popular novels, as he looks back on his life from an advanced age, in particular concerning his relationship with a man who would become Pope. Through this plot Burgess examines such weighty issues as the nature of good and evil, all in a tone which is sardonic and bitchy.

One thing I don't understand is what Burgess is intending to say through the various subplots about homosexual relationships. On the one hand, he seems to be criticizing Church and society for negative attitudes, yet on the other hand he often seems to equate homosexuality with pederasty, which is, of course, indefensible. (Anthony Burgess was himself heterosexual, to all appearances.)

This novel is considered by most critics to be Burgess's crowning achievement, although it is not nearly as well known as his novel A Clockwork Orange. It certainly does reveal him to be a man of great erudition, but that just doesn't make it all that interesting to a reader like me.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Amongst Woman by John McGahern (1990)

Have you ever known someone who seemed even tempered to the outside world, but who was a tyrant inside his own family circle? Someone who could be loving to the wife and children in one minute before turning surly and abusive in the blink of an eye, for the flimsiest of reasons? Someone who seemed to be always looking for a reason to be nasty? Did that person's family walk on eggshells around him, and even come to blame themselves for causing his anger? Did the family, in fact, enable him to terrorize them and even pathetically continue trying to gain his approval?

The protagonist of this short novel, Michael Moran, is just such a man. His family, the author writes, "...had learned to accept him in all his humours; they were grateful for anything short of his worst moods, inordinately grateful for the slightest goodwill....Everybody was watchful here. It was like moving about in a war area."

As in real life, some of the children in this fictional family try to escape the toxic situation. The oldest son leaves home and never returns. The youngest son also leaves but does return for visits, although he never again allows his father to intimidate him. The three daughters and the stepmother, however, continue to cater to the father, even allowing him to dictate the courses of their adult lives.

McGahern implies that one reason for the father's bullying behavior is his embitterment over the corruption of the country for which he fought as a member of the Irish Republican Army. Some literary critics, according to the book jacket blurbs, see this novel as a metaphor for the situation of the Irish people. It seems more likely to me that it is just what it seems, a sensitive and sympathetic look at the love-hate relationships in a dysfunctional family.

McGahern's writing style is straightforward and sparse, with a distinctive rhythm. He is highly regarded in Ireland, and this novel is considered his masterpiece.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (2009)

In 1831 the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured America and afterwards wrote the still-famous Democracy in America, a study of the young country and its experiment in a new form of government. According to the publisher of this novel, Carey used Tocqueville as the "inspiration" for the character Olivier. I had thus expected a fictionalized account centered on his experiences in the United States, but it soon became apparent that this is not the case -- Olivier doesn't even arrive in America until about a third of the way into the book, and the other character, Parrot, is entirely fictional. What emerges is more a character study of the two men, including how they are affected by their American travels.

Olivier is an aristocratic survivor of the French Revolution who still retains his attitudes about rank and privilege. When he travels to America, supposedly to prepare a report of the prison system, he is accompanied by a poor English man-of-many-trades, Parrot, who has been secretly hired by his mother to spy on him and keep him safe. The first third of the book is an account of the very different young years of the two men, so that when the two finally meet it comes as no surprise to the reader that each holds the other in disdain. As the narrative shifts between Olivier and Parrot and their adventures apart and together, a friendship begins to grow and attitudes begin to shift under the influence of American ideas.

Not very much information is actually included about specific American experiences. Instead, Carey lets the behaviors and dialogue of the American people reveal the character of the country. Supposedly, some of Olivier's comments are actually taken from Democracy in America, but I don't have the knowledge to say which ones or how many. I found Olivier's (Tocqueville's?) comments intriguing about "the awful tyranny of the majority" which he predicts will produce a mob so "confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theater gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class....The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare." That is uncomfortably too close to the truth.

This novel is well written, but it was only moderately interesting. Although it was long-listed for the Booker Prize and has favorable reviews, I would not personally recommend it.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (2015)

This collection of nine short stories which reads like a novel is incredible, just incredible. Anthony Marra displays some of the same literary mannerisms as his fellow MFA/Iowa Writers' Workshop contemporaries, but he does it better than the others I have read. I consider this the most well done 2015 book I have read as I have endeavored to read the best of last year.

The Tsar of Love and Techno feels like a novel because all the stories are connected by reappearing characters and objects. The central character is the first story, Roman Markin is a censor in 1937 in the USSR, charged with obliterating dissidents from photos and paintings. One of the paintings he alters, a landscape of a pastoral scene, reappears in stories 2, 3, 5, and 8. Roman Markin's nephew and grand-nephew reappear in stories 7 and 8. One of the photographs Markin alters features a famous ballerina, whose granddaughter Galina is included in stories 2, 3, and 5, with passing mentions in other stories. Galina's teenage sweetheart is included in stories 2, 4, and 6. And so it goes, with examples of connections too numerous to catalog. The time and place for the stories skips around from 1937 to the unnamed future in Siberia, Chechnya, and St. Petersburg, portraying the changing political climate and its effect on the many characters.

Marra also unifies the stories by a persistence of themes and motifs, particularly concerning the preservation of memory through pictorial evidence and the responses of individuals to a harsh and repressive environment. One of the characters says, "No one was innocent, no one was unconnected, no one was not complicit."

Marra is a master in his combining of pathos with a sardonic and bleak humor. He has ingeniously kept the stories from sounding too clever for their own good by assigning his many quotable one-liners to first-person narrators, so that they appear to be natural to the characters as they are portrayed rather than being show-off quips from the writer.

This was an ALA Notable Book and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. If I were a Pulitzer judge, this is the book I would pick for the fiction prize.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (2001)

I don't always read mysteries, but when I do I prefer them to be well written and suspenseful, with fully developed characters and a solution that is both logical and surprising, such as this one, for example.

The brutal murder of a 19-year-old girl brings together again three men who had been childhood friends. Sean, now a homicide detective, is assigned to investigate the case; Jimmy, an ex-con who has gone straight, is the father of the dead girl; Dave, a survivor of childhood abduction and abuse, is just trying to hold his life together. As the mystery unfolds, it becomes apparent that the past is never really dead, and that the inner demons of youth survive into adulthood, although they may be disguised.

Mystic River is a very fine mystery, with added dimensions not always present in this genre. I recommend it to those who love good mysteries and also to those who just value a well executed book.