Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Close Quarters by William Golding (1987)

Close Quarters is the second installment in Golding's To The Ends of the Earth trilogy. I reviewed the first volume of the trilogy, Rites of Passage, in March. This continues the story of an aristocratic young man's sea voyage from England to Australia in 1814-1815 in a decrepit sailing ship which, as it turns out, is barely seaworthy. Edmund Fitzhenry Talbot again records shipboard events in his journal, unconsciously revealing himself still to be naive, snobbishly class conscious, and self-centered. Although he has learned something about human nature and about himself from the events in the previous novel, he obviously has not learned enough.

This chapter of the trilogy does not focus on one specific event, but instead on a series of occurrences: a careless young sailor's error leads to the topmasts being broken; in becalmed waters the ship meets a British frigate and the two vessels cooperate to hold an unlikely ball; Edmund falls in love; the ship leaks more and more and makes scant progress; Edmund in his self-involvement again fails to recognize the despair of another; amidst general fears of shipwreck, one man makes a tragic decision. The ending is abrupt, obviously in mid-story.

The writing here is again superb, as in the first volume. Golding's first-person narration in the voice of a young 19th century aristocrat never falters or sounds out of character or anachronistic. He makes Edmund Talbot seem totally real. He also admirably evokes the feeling of extreme claustrophobia induced by large group of people in close quarters. The book is aptly named.

This is one of those middle books of a trilogy which cannot really stand by itself. I would strongly advise either reading only Rites of Passage, which can stand alone, or reading all three.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

them by Joyce Carol Oates (1969)

I can't remember the last time I was this annoyed with a book. The author, Joyce Carol Oates, has been on my radar for some time. She has written 40 novels, and I've even seen her mentioned as deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature. When I finally decided to read something of hers, I chose the one which had been awarded a major literary prize (the National Book Award) and which she once commented was her best book. If this is her best, I would hate to have to read her worst.

The first reason for my annoyance--In the Forward to the novel, Oates states that the book is based on facts imparted to her by a former student about her life and the lives of her family members. Oates says that the letters quoted in the text were written to her by the student and that the other information came from their frequent conversations. OK, so I should believe that the seemingly endless catalog of violent and tragic events depicted here could really all have happened. But then, I read on Wikipedia that in an Afterward to the novel, Oates admitted that all the events depicted were entirely fictional and that the letters supposedly from the student were written entirely by Oates. This Afterward was certainly not present in the hardback copy I bought, so I read reviews on Goodreads and Amazon and it was apparent that almost all reviewers believed that the story was based on truth. Evidently their reading copies did not have the Afterward either. I have tried to research when and in what editions the Afterward was published, to no avail. Anyway, I feel annoyed that Oates tried to trick me into believing the unbelievable.

The second reason for my annoyance--While this would present itself as a naturalistic/realistic novel, telling the dispassionate story of poor whites in Detroit, Oates stretches reader belief past the breaking point with her account of the mayhem all happening to the members of one family. Multiple murders and attempted murders, rape, vicious beatings, prostitution, thievery--it's all here. These are admittedly present in the Detroit of then and now but surely not all in one small family over the course of a few years. In addition, almost all the characters, both the family members and those with whom they come in contact, appear to be mentally unbalanced, as in full-on loony tunes. Nobody reacts to anything in what would generally be considered as a normal manner. Their thoughts as presented by the omniscient narrator are irrational. They seem to be in an incoherent daze most of the time. The novel reads more like surrealism than realism.

Still more reasons for my annoyance--them is damned depressing, too long, and has too many extraneous details, which are designed, no doubt, to lend verisimilitude to the story.

I really dislike this book. I'm not even going to summarize the plot points. I advise you not to read it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (2012)

I didn't purposely set out to read books about India this month, but this is third one I have read with that setting, following the novels Family Matters and The Lowlands. This one is fictionalized non-fiction, in other words a true account written in a novelistic style. It concentrates mainly on a few families who live in a shantytown within sight of luxury hotels and the elegant Mumbai airport. Abdul, the enterprising teenager who is the primary breadwinner of his large family, spends his days finding, sorting, and selling trash items to a recycling plant. He sees a glimmer of hope for a better life until a terrible tragedy causes him and his father and sister to be falsely accused and jailed. Another slum resident, Asha, strives to reach the middle class through shady dealings, bribery, and influence peddling. Others, when their futures seem too bleak, elect suicide, the favored method being the taking of rat poison.

Boo pictures a society rife with racial, religious, class, and caste tensions and with widespread corruption. The police and even the doctors in the hospitals expect bribes. The free schools are substandard and even sometimes just schools on paper and not in actuality. Philanthropic donations of supplies and money are diverted from their intended recipients and profit the bureaucrats charged with administering them. While the upper and upper-middle classes of India enjoy unprecedented prosperity, the lower classes sometimes see no honest way to raise themselves from abject poverty.

One thing I find particularly disturbing here is the picture of the discord and economic envy present between poor people who are all essentially in the same situation. Instead of blaming outside causes for their condition, they blame each other. Boo writes, " But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together....Instead they blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another." She goes on to comment, "What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too....Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional....The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached....The poor took down one another, and the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace."

Does any of that sound familiar? Here in our grand country do we not see many who are relatively poor blaming even poorer people for their misfortunes? Do we not see many becoming cynical and hateful about others of differing races and religions? Do we not see some of the poorest understandably viewing crime as their only way out?

A reader could read this fact-based story in a dispassionate manner as an account of the dire situation among the poor in modern-day India, or he could view it as a parable for all countries, such as ours, of the results of the disproportionate accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, aided by a government intent on maintaining the status quo.

End of sermon. This is a book well worth your time. It is written in an engaging manner and appears to be backed by extensive research and interviews with actual people. It won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2012.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (2016)

The High Mountains of Portugal is such a captivating book that I hardly put it down between start and finish. It tells three absorbing stories of novella length which are interlocking both in content and in message. The whole book is obviously an extended allegory, meant to impart important truth or truths. My problem is that I was never able to figure out just what specific truths the author meant for me to understand. Or maybe Martel included so many truths that it became too confusing a mix for my limited intellect to absorb. So while I did totally enjoy reading the book, I was left at the end saying,"What?"

The first novella takes place in Lisbon in 1904 and concerns a young man who has been plunged into numbing grief and rebellion against God by the the deaths of his lover, their child, and his father, all in a short period of time. He becomes obsessed with the journal of a priest that recounts the carving of an extraordinary artifact which would change the way Christians think about God, so he drives across Portugal in one of the earliest automobiles to find it. His adventures and misadventures along the way are narrated in a picaresque style and are amusing in a slap-stick way.

The second novella takes place 35 years later with a Portuguese pathologist as the protagonist. This one has a bit of a surprise ending, so I won't describe it in depth, except to say that it includes a surrealistic autopsy and a lengthy (and surprisingly interesting) discussion of the biblical four Gospels as an extended allegory with connections to the mysteries of Agatha Christie.

About 50 years later, in the mid 1980s, a Canadian politician mourning the death of his wife impulsively buys (adopts) a chimpanzee and returns with it to his native Portugal. Events come full circle here, with his journey across Portugal to the "high mountains" recalling the journey in the first novella, and with other connections of events and animals and images abounding.

Martel is certainly saying something here about grief and how we confront it, but I don't believe that to be his primary message. He is also addressing questions of religious faith. And, as in his Life of Pi, Martel includes an animal that has symbolic significance. Twice he includes the quote, "We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels"; the artifact being sought in the first novella turns out to be a crucifix with the crucified being an ape; the pathologist in the second novella finds an ape, among other things, inside a cadaver; the chimpanzee in the third story changes the way his owner lives his life. I can't quite put my finger on what this teaches the reader, however.

Here's something interesting that occurred to me. The name of the ape in the last novella is Odo. This is also the name of the changeling shapeshifter character in the television program Star Trek Deep Space Nine. If you look this Odo up on the internet you can see that the character looks very simian-like, especially around the eyes. TV's Odo is one the Founders, overlords of a galaxy. Coincidence? I think not.

I recommend this book. It will give you something to think about.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski (2015)

This is the sequel to Winner's Curse, a Young Adult novel which I reviewed a couple of days ago. I am sorry to say that this book fell victim to the curse of many such sequels in that it does not nearly match its predecessor. Not much happens, or rather the same things happen over and over again. Kestral prepares to wed the emperor's son to fulfill the bargain she made in order to protect her beloved Arin (and incidentally his fellow countrymen) from a battle that would have surely resulted in death. Arin wants to believe that Kestral loves him so he sneaks around to talk to her to find an explanation for her actions. Time after time she almost tells him her reasons and time after time she does not, for one reason or another. Meanwhile, her father has departed to spearhead a new war of conquest, but returns in time to discover her divided allegiance. The book ends in a cliffhanger. Clearly, a third novel is needed to complete the story.

A couple of plot devices make this sequel less than believable. Kestral, at 17, turns out to be a master military tactician. Arin, surely only a few years older (although I don't remember an age being given), is chosen by his countrymen to lead them. Then he absents himself for months, leaving his country's guidance in the hands of a young female cousin. Does that seem likely in real life?

I cynically feel that a great many authors stretch their storytelling thin so that they can reap the maximum profits from one idea. Some series have an engrossing story to tell in each installment (such as in the Harry Potter series), but for some the basic premise does not suffice to extend through multiple installments.

However, if my granddaughter who loaned me the book had the final book in the series, I would probably read it, just to find out what happens. I'm pretty sure it will end happily ever after.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski (2014)

When I run out of books to read, I am fortunate to live near a family with plenty of books that I can borrow--my daughter's family. My three young grandchildren, especially, are excited when I ask them to lend to me, and I certainly enjoy discussing the books with them afterwards. This is one my 15-year-old granddaughter loaned me. It is a Young Adult novel set in a created world which is similar to the world of the Roman Empire. In comments at the back of the book, the author even says that she patterned the two countries involved after the Romans and the Greeks, with the conquerors being militarily superior and the conquered and subsequently enslaved being culturally superior.

The plot concerns the conflicts surrounding two star-crossed lovers--Kestral, the daughter of the conquering general, and Arin, one of the conquered whom she impulsively buys at a slave auction. Despite their growing attraction, Arin keeps secret his large part in the looming slave revolt. Later, Kestral keeps secret her desperate ploy to protect Arin (and his countrymen), for which she must pay a high price. As the novel ends, it is obvious that a sequel must follow to complete the story.

Author Marie Rutkoski has added another dimension to her basic Romeo and Juliet plot by portraying Kestral's growing awareness that her country's policies of conquest and enslavement might be morally corrupt. Her conflict is intensified because she desperately seeks the approval of her father who successfully carries out the emperor's orders for conquest.

I feel that this is a notch above most YA entries. For one thing, it effectively portrays the ambiguity present when all choices may have bad consequences. These are matters all young people must face, because the differences between right and wrong are not always clearly evident. For another, it is well written in a style which does not compromise to fit itself for younger readers.

I would recommend this for young people 12 and up, and I surmise it could also be enjoyed by adults. The cover is misleading, because it looks like that of a pulp romance novel. Winner's Curse is much more than that.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

The Lowland was short listed for England's Booker Prize and long listed for America's National Book Award, but it just did not work for me. Like Family Matters, which I reviewed earlier this month, it concerns the members of an Indian family. Although I found Family Matters to be a bit depressing for my tastes, I did consider it to be very well written. In contrast, The Lowland did not have an emotional impact for me at all, and I thought it to be severely lacking in focus and character development.

The story begins with two young brothers in Calcutta who have dramatically different natures, Subhash being dutiful and retiring, Udayan being daring and impulsive. When the two reach adulthood, Subhash leaves to pursue a graduate degree in America at a quiet rural college while Udayan remains in Calcutta and continues his involvement with an underground revolutionary political movement. Subhash remains in America until he learns that his brother has been killed in the lowland near the family home by government forces, leaving behind his pregnant widow. This part is good, as far as it goes, portraying a loving relationship of brothers and providing interesting information about Indian political unrest during the 1960s,

The remainder of the book (more than half) takes place back in America, as Subhash returns, having married Gauri, his brother's widow, to save her from mistreatment by his parents and to serve as a father to the child when it is born. From this point on, it becomes the story of Gauri's gradually growing rejection of her child, Bela, and of the effect upon Subhash and Bela when Gauri eventually abandons them. The problem for the reader is that Gauri's motivations are not fully explored. She never becomes a fleshed-out character, even though her actions determine the course of the rest of the novel. This part of the book is seriously lacking.

Here's the long and short of it for me--this seems like two separate novels, one about brothers and another about abandonment. Neither story is fully developed. The book lacks a focus.

I do not recommend this book, even though it's obvious that others would disagree.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Black River by S.M. Hulse (2015)

Sometimes I become so emotionally involved in a book that I lose sight of my usual critical reading habits. The analytical side of my brain takes a vacation. That was the case with Black River by first-time novelist S.M. Hulse. It is the story of one man's struggle to find peace and to give and receive forgiveness, and it won my heart.

Retired prison corrections officer Wes Carver returns to his former home in Black River, Montana, to scatter the ashes of his wife who has recently died after a long fight against cancer. Another reason for his return is to be present at the parole hearing of the convict who years earlier had tortured him for 36 hours during a prison riot, breaking and crushing his fingers so that he could never again play the fiddle--an activity that had given him a transcendent joy. The visit also brings him back into uneasy contact with the estranged step-son from whom he had last parted following an incident filled with violence.

Wes's inherent nature and his job as a prison guard have rendered him a taciturn, stern, and judgmental man with strict ideas about justice and right and wrong. He is a life-long churchgoer who nevertheless has always struggled to wholly believe, feeling himself close to God only through his music, which is now lost to him. Thus he is filled with anger when he hears that his one-time torturer claims to have "found God" and to be a changed man. He rejects the idea that someone who has committed heinous acts could achieve complete faith while he has tried and failed to do the same.

A less sensitive author might have chosen to bring this book to either a happily-ever-after ending or a melodramatic violent one. Hulse does neither. As in real life, these characters strive to find their way but the going is seldom swift or dramatic or easy.

I was particularly attracted to this book by its depictions of the major role that music can have in a life. Although I can neither play an instrument or carry a tune, most of my life I have had a sound track running through my head which in many ways has shaped me; I can only imagine the greater influence music can have on someone who can actually create it.

Readers who are fans of the books of Kent Haruf will especially appreciate this novel. It feature the same kinds of ordinary people trying to live decent lives and is written in the same style of simple yet poetic prose. I highly recommend this one.

(The Amazon web site describes this as a Western. It's only a Western in that its setting is in the West. Don't be misled. No cowboys, no Indians.)

P.S. I frequently cried because it felt so true.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)

Families are always a complicated business, with hidden or not-so-hidden grievances even in the most well ordered and outwardly fortunate ones. When past wrongs and hurts are complicated by outside forces, such as an aging parent and financial difficulties, family ties can break apart. That the family portrayed here lives in India makes little difference; the cultural and political climate may be unique to that setting, but the family stresses are universal.

Nariman Vakeel, the patriarch of Family Matters, lives in Mumbai, India, in a spacious apartment with his two middle-aged unmarried stepchildren, Coomy and Jal. When Nariman, suffering from the shakiness of Parkinson's Disease, breaks his ankle, Coomy's barely concealed resentment of her stepfather's treatment of their mother comes to the fore and she bullies her mild mannered brother into joining her in foisting the care of the ailing man onto the shoulders of Roxana, their half sister, who lives in a two-room apartment with her husband and two young boys. Already struggling with financial worries and cramped quarters, Roxana and her family find their problems compounded as they care for Nariman's physical needs. Interspersed with the narrative are Nariman's memories about his thwarted love for the woman who did not become his wife because of his family's objections on religious grounds. The effects of religious fanaticism on family dynamics becomes a secondary theme.

In addition to the engrossing story, this book also provided me with an informative view of India, particularly regarding one religious group, the Parsi. Thanks to my best friend Wikipedia, I learned even more. For example: The Pari are followers of the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra), descendants of Persians (Iranians) who migrated to India between the 8th and 10th century AD to avoid religious persecution when the Muslims conquered their home country. Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions. Freddy Mercury of the legendary rock group Queen was a Parsi whose parents relocated to England. (That last bit is not really very important, but I found it surprising.)

I did not at first realize that the title of the book could be understood in two ways. I read it with "family" as an adjective and "matters" as a noun--the happenings pertaining to a family. As I finished the book I suddenly realized that the title could be understood with "family" as a noun and "matters" as a verb--family counts for more than political or religious differences or the hurts we inflict on each other.

I found Family Matters a bit depressing for my tastes, especially concerning the troubles caused by the elderly Nariman's illness. I think all older people dread the thought of becoming a burden on family. But it is very well done.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Maud's Line by Margaret Verble (2015)

It seems that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction jury has become fond of recognizing at least one relatively unknown book each year, although these are usually the runners-up rather than the winners, excepting 2010, when the obscure novel Tinkers won the big prize. This year Maud's Line is the dark-horse finalist, a choice that seemingly no one had anticipated. And I can see why.

Although the story is interesting and the background setting and milieu are extraordinarily well rendered, the writing seems amateurish and repetitive and full of questionable grammatical constructions. (More about this later.) The only reason I can think of for the Pulitzer jury to honor this book is that it encourages a promising writer who will surely go on to accomplish better things. I know for certain that other books under consideration were more accomplished.

Maud is a part-white Cherokee Indian living in Oklahoma in the late 1920s on the allotment given by the government to Trail of Tears survivors. Along with her often-absent father and her half-mad brother, she lives in a two room house without electricity or indoor plumbing, all the while longing for city life and modern conveniences such as she has read about in books. When a young man who is a teacher-turned-peddler for the summer comes along and they form a love connection, she believes she has found a path to her dreams. However, real life gets in the way, and tragic events, including murder, disrupt her hopeful plans.

According to the book jacket, author Margaret Verble is herself a member of the Cherokee Nation and the setting of the novel is her family's own allotment land, so the pictures she paints of the hardscrabble lives of largely impoverished Indians is undoubtedly accurate. I found it interesting that she differentiates between the attitudes of full blooded Cherokees and the attitudes of those with varying degrees of white blood, particularly as regards to sexual matters and retribution for wrongs done. She also admirably conveys the conflict between the comfort offered by an extended family and familiar customs versus the pull of the desire for something better in life.

Back to the shortcomings mentioned above. Consider this sentence: "She loitered some more, went into and out of Bard's Drugstore without buying anything, and wound toward the dance corner," and this one: "She stayed mostly on the planks in front of the stores, looked in windows for items that struck her fancy, and talked to girls she knew." Notice the identical construction? Within two pages, four more sentences occur with exactly this pattern. When Verble is not using simple subject-verb sentences, this is the construction she favors. The result is that the entire book reads as if it were written for a middle-school audience.

Here's something else I also found off-putting. The novel is written using a third person limited point of view. Usually when an author using this point of view creates characters who have a distinctive vernacular, he or she will write the narration in formal English and limit the language eccentricities of the particular region and social class to the dialogue. That was not the case here. The narration also uses the unique words and expressions of the characters portrayed. Maybe this was purposeful, an effort to convey that the narrator (author) herself comes from the same background. I don't know, but it did seem strange.

This is Verble's first novel, and I would classify it as a laudable effort. Its writing is just not what I would expect to read from a Pulitzer finalist.