Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear (2014)

What struck me first about this novel which is set in England and France during World War I is that the syntax and voice are strongly reminiscent of books actually written during that time period. I was particularly reminded of the books by Agatha Christie. While the writing may seem stilted and overly formal in comparison to most other modern novels, it serves admirably to convey the reader to a particular time and place. Score for this modern-day author, as she makes a historical novel more believable by presenting it in the forms of a specific period.

The plot follows, Kezia and Thea, two friends who have recently completed their education to become teachers, and Tom, Thea's farmer brother who has recently become Kezia's husband. All are forced to assume new roles and face difficult challenges with the advent of war: Thea flees possible arrest for her pacifist activities by becoming a battlefield ambulance driver; Tom feels honor-bound to enlist and is sent to fight in France; Kezia, who grew up as a clergyman's pampered daughter, is suddenly expected to run a farm. The main focus is not so much on the hardships they face, however, as it is on the love between Kezia and Tom, which she demonstrates through long letters to him wherein she describes in detail the elaborate meals she prepares with him in mind, neglecting to tell him that in reality she is facing shortages and actually cooks only basic food. Tom responds by neglecting to tell her of the horrors of trench warfare or of the persecution he endures from his bullying sergeant. Meanwhile, Thea has become more capable and brave than she would have believed possible.

This novel does not specifically picture the unique horrors inherent in trench warfare as some WW1 novels do, but it does convey a subtle anti-war message. One of the secondary characters remembers a quote from Aeschylus--"In war, truth is the first casualty"--and this statement reflects the theme of the book. Some lies are lies of love, such as those between Kezia and Tom; some lies are lies of expediency, such as those told by a government to uphold public morale and to justify its actions; some lies are lies of deceit, such as those told by the people who actually profit from war.

I highly recommend this book. It is a deceptively simple story of love under stress that is much more skillfully fashioned than would first appear.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (2015)

The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth (presumably the last) of the Neapolitan Novels, continues the story of the long friendship between Elena and Lina, which began in the first book, (My Brilliant Friend), when the two are eight years old and ends in this book when the two are in their 60s. The first volume of the series can be read as a stand-alone novel, but the next three depend so much on material from the previous that I don't believe they would be meaningful by themselves. In truth, the four books seem to be one continuous novel divided into parts.

The pivotal event in this installment is the mysterious disappearance of Lina's child and her reaction to the loss. Much attention is also given to her problems with her other child and to Elena's relationship to her three daughters. Elena has returned to live in Naples and she and Lina continue their love-hate relationship against a backdrop of turbulence and changing politics. Elena, as the narrator, chronicles her ongoing insecurity and jealousy of her friend, as she has in all the previous volumes.

I was very impressed with My Brilliant Friend, but, unfortunately, I became more and more weary of Elena and her problems, as she consistently judges all aspects of her personal and professional life in comparison to what she imagines her "friend" is thinking about her or could have accomplished if given the chance. Since the author of these books has chosen to remain completely unknown and unseen, and since her chosen alias has the same name as the narrator of the novels, it is impossible not to assume that this is largely a true story and that the insecurities of the author are the same as those of the character. This certainly reads like a personal confessional. I found it rather wearying to read repetitions of the same mindset for over 1.200 pages.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (2014)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book of the Neapolitan Novels, follows the two friends Elena and Lila in their 20s and early 30s during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As the story begins, Elena has graduated from university, has had a novel published, and is engaged to be married. Lila has left her husband for a short-lived affair, has borne a son, and is working in a factory. As the story ends, Elena has borne two little girls and has left her husband to be with her lover (who is the same man that Lila left her husband for). Lila has somewhat unbelievably become a computer wizard in the early days of the industry

This installment of the story has more overtly political content than the previous two, somewhat to the disadvantage of an American reader with little knowledge of Italian politics and social problems. Elena also becomes involved in the feminist movement as a writer and speaker, although in her private life she seems to define herself through her relationship to men.

I find myself being more and more annoyed with Elena, who narrates the books. In the first volume about her childhood and teenage years, her insecurities and jealousy of her friend seem normal for a girl of that age. However, as her age has progressed, she does not appear to have matured emotionally. She continues to judge herself a success only when she has surpassed her friend Lila. Because of this lack of growth, she does not seem as real a character any more, at least to me.

Only one more book to go to complete the Neapolitan Novels.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (2013)

This is the second installment in the four-volume Neapolitan Novels, the first of the series being My Brilliant Friend, which I reviewed last January. It continues the story of two friends, Elena and Lila, from their sixteenth year through their early twenties. In an effort to escape the violence and poverty of their neighborhood in Naples, the two girls take different paths. Elena constantly strives to excel in high school and later at university, trying to impress academically and to change her accent and her mannerisms to conform with those of her more wealthy and sophisticated new friends. Lila, in the meantime, has been forced by her father to discontinue schooling, despite her academic brilliance. She attempts to escape poverty at least by marrying the man who owns the neighborhood grocery store, but that does not bring her the satisfaction she had hoped for. In her attempt to find happiness, she takes a lover, unfortunately a man whom Elena has long wanted for herself.

Elena is the narrator of the story, so the reader shares her thoughts and feelings. The author uses the device of Lila's journals, which she gives to Elena for safekeeping, to enable the reader to know some of Lila's thoughts also. I found it disturbing that as their apparent successes in escaping their upbringing increase, they seem to continue to have feelings of inferiority and self doubt which they relieve to an extent by attempting to one-up each other. True, all relationships are complicated, perhaps female relationships in particular, but the level of jealousy and self-involvement of these two women make them less than sympathetic characters. I would not want them as friends. I found myself being very annoyed with both of them at times, but that very annoyance is also an indication of how well Ferrante has succeeded in creating characters who seem real in every respect. I react to Elena and Lila as if they were real people.

I don't believe that this novel could be appreciated as a stand-alone. It is definitely a continuation of the previous one. We will see what the next two installments bring.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2015)

I tend to write reviews that catalog a book's shortcomings, that point out what the author did wrong and how he or she could have done it better. But that won't be the case here; I can't think of a single way Ron Rash could have improved this novel. It may not be innovative or cutting edge or politically topical, but it seems to me that what Rash sets out to do he accomplishes perfectly. I am very impressed.

This is the story of Les, the longtime sheriff in an Appalachian town, and Becky, an introverted park ranger. The two share a love for their mountain home but mistrust themselves and their tentative relationship because of their past mistakes. Les imagines that a dating site listing for their relationship would read,"Man who encouraged clinically depressed wife to kill herself seeks women, traumatized by school shooting, who later lived with ecoterrorist bomber." When Becky's only other friend, an elderly local eccentric, is accused of poisoning the trout stream of a nearby resort, she and Les face a test of loyalties and have hard decisions to make.

These are a few of the reasons why I have only praise for this book.

*The character development is extraordinarily well done. These seem like real people. Even the dialogue for each character is distinctive, including the backwoods dialect of the uneducated mountain characters. Ron Rash has a fine ear.

*Few writers, to my knowledge, are so adept at communicating a sense of place, telling stories that convey the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape and making the environment immersive and part of the fabric of the story. Rash is also a poet, and here he cleverly allows Becky, as one of two alternating first-person narrators, to express the lyrical poetry of nature through her journal entries and thoughts, while giving Les, the other first-person narrator, the task of advancing the story.

*The mystery of who poisoned the stream and why is not the central consideration, but it does add further plot tension. However, it does not just seem tacked on, as I have experienced in other novels. The participants in the drama and the connections to the setting bring it into the realm of character development, which is the focus.

*The writing style is unobtrusive while being powerful and poetic.

I wish all novels were this good.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)

As most will be aware, this is a recently published second novel by the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the story of a grown-up Jean Louise (known as Scout), the central character in TKAM, and her return after several years in New York City to her home town in Alabama. She finds that things seemed to have changed regarding the relationships of the black and white residents and not for the better. Racial animosity seems to surface everywhere, and the "color-blind" Jean Louise is devastated to find that her beloved father Atticus reveals himself to be a racial bigot. A large portion of the novel is taken up with discussions and observations about Southern attitudes about the black population.

I put off reading this book for a long time because of all the negative pre-publication discussions as to whether or not Harper Lee is of sound mind enough for informed consent and did indeed want the novel to be published. It seems suspicious that her lawyer "found" it just a couple of months after the death of Lee's sister, who had watched over her affairs. As it turns out, this is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird as many first assumed but instead a first draft of that novel, which Lee was asked to rewrite completely, a task that took her two years. It seems suspicious that she would, after so many years, decide to publish an effort which had been deemed lacking by the astute editor who guided her to the completion of a novel which is widely regarded as a classic. I suspect, as do many others, that the lawyer who handles her affairs and the publisher who put the book out might be looking to make profit without regard for Miss Lee's wishes or literary reputation.

Finally my curiosity overcame my scruples, and I bought the book, although I waited until I could get it used. Here's my opinion: this is not a great novel; this is not even a good novel. It does include sparks of brilliance, when its flashbacks depict incidents from Scout's childhood. Thank goodness for a perceptive editor who saw the promise in a preachy and generally lackluster manuscript and was able to guide a writer to reach her potential.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Goodnight, Nebraska by Tom McNeal (1998)

Sometimes when I am writing my reviews, I realize that I sound like an arrogant, elitist literary snob. (I don't think I am, but I could be wrong.) Here is my excuse--I tend to point out negatives in the books I review because I mentally compare each book to the masterpieces. Of course, that is not really fair; not every novel can be a masterpiece. Still, I feel that every author should aim for that goal.

All of this brings me to a consideration of Goodnight, Nebraska. This is primarily the story of Randall Hunsacker, who at 17 is sent to the small town of Goodnight to try to reclaim his life after his tumble-down upbringing and impulsive actions land him in trouble with the law. The plot then follows him until he is in his 30s, as the town and its people shape his life.

Plus, the novel also tells the extensive story of the marriage of Dorothy and Lewis Lockhardt. And, it contains a bit of a murder mystery as a brief side plot. In addition, it attempts to depict the types of people common to small town life through brief sketches and set pieces.

Does that sound a bit of a jumble? It is, indeed. The main problem with this promising book is that it lacks focus. It tries to do too much. The Randall Hunsacker plot could have (and, I believe, should have) carried the whole novel, without the side stories, especially if the author had taken the reader into the young man's mind so that his motivations would have been clearer.

A secondary problem with this book is the too-frequent occurrence of melodramatic violent events, giving the novel a distinctly Young Adult flavor.

After all of that, I know it sounds like faint praise to say that Goodnight, Nebraska is enjoyable to read and that most would like it

Do you think it is true that those who can write do and those who can't write fancy themselves critics? Probably.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

At Midnight on the 31st of March by Josephine Young Case (1938)

Back in 1938, before scores of post-apocalyptic novels featuring groups of people trying to survive after various disasters, Josephine Young Case wrote this short novel about a community of 200 who wake up on April 1 to find that the rest of civilization seems to have disappeared. The roads all end at the edge of town. Electricity stops. Nothing but static comes over the short-wave radio. Exploring teams find no traces of anyone else. They are alone.

This is the story of how a group of people who all know each other react and interact when all the modern conveniences are taken away and they are thrown on their own devices. As their way of life changes they also change, some for the better, rising to the challenge, and some for the worse, seeing new opportunities for malevolence. Some even come to see a value in their return to earlier ways. The cycles of life continue--marriage, childbirth, death--and all but a few find that they have developed a will to survive.

What makes this book unique is that the entire story is written in blank verse. (Quick lesson: blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter, meaning that each line has ten syllables with five units, or feet, of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable.) This should not be intimidating to readers at all because, as Shakespeare proved, the English language is admirably suited to this rhythm. The poetic structure just makes a touching story sound even more beautiful.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

I was surprised when The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, because I had seldom seen it mentioned as a potential winner. I am even more surprised now that I have read it. While it is written from a unique viewpoint and is interesting and intriguing, at least most of the time, still it has some definite shortcomings that one would think would disqualify it for the prestigious prize as the best fiction of 2015. When I finished it, I did not think, "Wow." Instead I thought, "It's a good book, but...."

The first-person unnamed narrator is a half-Vietnamese, half-French Captain in the South Vietnamese army, according to his own testimony "a man of two minds," able to "see any issue from both sides." As Saigon is falling, he and his General and others of their fellow fighters are air lifted to the U.S. to avoid capture by the Communists. Unbeknownst to his fellow solders, he is a spook, a spy, a secret Communist informant, charged with reporting on any activities of his exiled countrymen which might prove threatening for the victorious regime.

Throughout the ensuing story of his years in the U.S. and his return to his native country, the narrator reveals his two minds in a variety of ways. He despises the Americans for their paternalistic takeover of the South Vietnamese cause only to abandon the country to its own devices. He admires Americans for the boundless optimism which their society promotes. His political loyalties clash with his loyalties to friends. He believes in the Communist cause, which proclaims independence and freedom for the masses. He sees that in practice those liberated from capitalistic imperialism have less independence and freedom than before.

Some parts of this novel are genius. The narrator's stint as a consultant on a big budget Hollywood movie about the Vietnamese War (obviously modeled on Apocalypse Now) is black comedy at its best. The narrator's "re-education" by his Communist comrades is a visceral and chilling depiction of modern torture methods.

This brings me to the shortcomings. Some parts are jarringly overwritten, with oh-so-clever metaphors which break the concentration on the narrative. But that is a minor annoyance. My main problem with the book is that the tone is off. As I have indicated, some portions are satiric black comedy; some are definitely not comedic in the least. It has been my observation that successful black comedy about essentially brutal and violent acts must be consistent and exuberant and over-the-top, as in Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five. This one changes in tone from one incident to another, and that is disconcerting, to say the least.

Perhaps the value of a look at history from a differing viewpoint and its lessons for today outweigh any strictly literary qualms. Perhaps this novel is the rightful Pulitzer winner. However, I would have voted for The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Old Man's War by John Scalzi (2005)

Off and on throughout my life, I have read a goodly amount in the science fiction genre and one of my favorites was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. After reading Stranger, I went on to read several others by Heinlein, including his military science fiction semi-classic, Starship Troopers. Thus, when I began Old Man's War and read the cover quote from Publisher's Weekly saying that Scalzi's novel follows the tradition of Heinlein and "reads like an original work by the late grand master," I anticipated a similarity between the two authors. I did not expect the statement to be literally true, but it is. This reads exactly like a Heinlein novel. It's not just that the plot here is very similar to that in Starship Troopers--human soldiers training and then fighting interplanetary wars with aliens. The voice, the tone, the dialogue--all are the same. Old Man's War could have been published as a "lost" Heinlein manuscript and nobody would have doubted it.

Scalzi does provide some twists of his own. Instead of the young soldiers who populate Starship Troopers, we have elderly soldiers who have had their consciousness transferred to young bodies (hence the title). Instead of space-age body armor and gear, we have space-age bodies enhanced almost to superhero status. Instead of one alien arch-enemy, we have several different alien adversaries. Otherwise, the two books are pretty much the same.

This book was fun to read, although I don't really agree with its avid pro-military stance. For a differing viewpoint, I would recommend The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, another military science fiction novel which takes a look at war in a light nearer to my beliefs.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Story of Killervo by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (2015)

Don't be misled -- one would assume that the whole of this 163-page book would be The Story, with maybe a few explanatory notes at the end from the editor. But no. the actual story takes only 41 pages. So what about the remaining 122 pages, you might ask. Two papers which Tolkien presented about the source material for the story, the Finnish poem cycle The Kalavela, are included. They are almost identical, one being taken from a handwritten draft and one being taken from a typed manuscript from when he read the presentation the second time. The rest of the book comes from the editor, concluding with a scholarly paper he wrote for a university publication. In other words, we have more of the editor's words than we have of Tolkien's words.

The Story of Kullervo was Tolkien's first known attempt at myth-making, and while the basic plot was not his, he amply illustrates his talent for the task. The essays give us background information about his source material, which is of interest. The introduction lets non-scholar Tolkien fans see how he used incidents from The Story in some of his later writings. As far as I am concerned, all the rest is repetitious and filler and a way for the editor to make money and pad his publication vita.

This book costs $25. The story by Tolkien and the two essays can be downloaded free from Project Muse. (Look for Tolkien Studies Volume 7.) Tolkien enthusiast, if you want to save money you may want to choose that option, unless (like me) you prefer to have the book in your hand or on your shelf for future reference.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch (1945)

If mental exercise is for the brain as physical exercise is for the body, then I have just completed the mental equivalent of a full marathon. This is the most challenging book I have ever read; it took every bit of my stamina and perseverance to finish it.

One reason for my difficulty is that I had not trained my brain properly for the task. I judge that for a full appreciation of the work I should have had complete familiarity with Virgil's works, particularly of The Aeneid; a grounding in philosophy, particularly in that of German philosophers; a knowledge of the musical structure of a symphony; and more knowledge about the life experiences of the author than can be gained from Wikipedia. Obviously this is a book designed for the well-prepared, not for the dilettante reader.

The plot, such as it is, covers the last 24 or so hours in the life of the poet Virgil. The book is divided into four sections, the first part being his arrival by boat to a seaside town in the entourage of Caesar Augustus and his journey by liter through a mob and horrific scenes to a palace. The second section, the longest by far, is his stream-of-consciousness interior monologue during his "dark night of the soul," as he thinks back on his life's work and about many philosophical issues. This culminates in his decision to destroy The Aeneid because he believes it is a perjury which only enchants, failing to tell life truths. (At least that is my understanding.) The third section recounts Virgil's conversations the next morning with two friends and with Augustus, as they try to persuade him to change his mind about destroying his masterwork. The last section is a stream-of-consciousness hallucinatory account of Virgil's journey into death.

Another reason for my difficulty with the book is that while I was struggling to understand the ideas and concepts I was also often struggling just to understand the sentences. The translator of the book from German to English says in her note at the end of the book that it contains sentences which are "probably among the longest in the world's literature." I can't even count the number of times I lost the thread of a sentence and had to search back for the start and begin again.

All the above is in no way an indication that I did not perceive that this is a book which should be much praised. Often it is hypnotically poetic; it is obviously the product of an impressive intellect; it invites introspection about the true value of one's life. It is important to me because I was able to finish it and even understand it in part, stumbling as I was.