Sunday, July 31, 2016

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash (2006)

It's a sad thing when you look forward to reading a book because you have admired others by the author, and then you find yourself disappointed. I would highly recommend Ron Rash's novels Serena, The Cove, and Above the Waterfall. I am, unfortunately, not nearly as impressed by this one.

The problem, for me, is mainly that this coming-of-age story seems hackneyed and predictable--a teenager rebels against his harsh authoritarian father and moves into a derelict trailer with a disillusioned ex-teacher turned drug dealer. Through their interactions, the two grow emotionally and achieve salvation, of a sort. That's it, except in the process the drug dealer's sometimes girlfriend is also saved from self-destruction and degradation.

I have really given away too much of the plot for a review, but then I really don't recommend that anyone should go out and find this book. It's not a bad book; it has its pluses, the most obvious being the language used in describing the Appalachian setting, but it is really not very good either.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Victory by Joseph Conrad (1915)

Some authors write closely plotted suspense thrillers which keep you on the edge of your seat and cause you to hold your breath with tension. Joseph Conrad did that. In fact, he did it better than anyone.

Some authors write psychological studies which analyze the causes of character behavior as it develops and changes. Joseph Conrad did that.

Some authors consider questions of good and evil and use imagery and symbolism to emphasize the theme. Joseph Conrad did that.

Some authors choose to leave their stories a bit open-ended and ambiguous so that the reader is left with something to ponder. Joseph Conrad did that.

And here's what's amazing, folks. Joseph Conrad did all of the above IN ONE BOOK, while writing some of the most precise and powerful sentences and paragraphs you will ever encounter. In fact, he did it more than once. He is among the best of the best, and this book, one of his less well known, is extraordinary, marvelous, exceptional, outstanding, great, superlative, etc. I absolutely loved it, needless to say.

Conrad's protagonist, Axel Heyst, is a 35-year-old bachelor who has become a wanderer, emotionally distancing himself from the rest of humanity to avoid being hurt. He has finally settled on an island in the Malay Archipelago as the sole white man. Then he travels to a populated island to conduct some business and meets Lena, a young girl who is part of a women's orchestra which is also passing through. Recognizing that she is being mistreated and is being pursued by the unscrupulous owner of the island's hotel, he feels pity for her plight, leading him to rescue her and take her with him to his island. Their idyllic existence there is destroyed, however, when evil arrives, three men who have been convinced by the jealous hotel owner that Heyst has a store of hidden money. The shattering conclusion to this perilous situation is a real "heart stopper." (Not a very scholarly sounding term, but entirely accurate.)

Most of the novel is written with an omniscient narrator, focusing mainly on Heyst, allowing Conrad to examine why this man feels and acts the way he does. Emotionally stunted because of the teachings and example of his father, Heyst nevertheless finds himself becoming less detached, but not enough, even in the face of Lena's love for him. To a lesser extent, Conrad also explores the psyches of Lena and the leader of the robbers. My description here does little justice to the subtle precision of Conrad's examination of the psychological lives of the novel's participants.

The novel's theme of good and evil is patterned very much on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Heyst and Lena are obviously emotional innocents before being confronted with the three violent would-be robbers, who are characterized as being "a specter, a cat, and an ape." I took this description to represent Satan and two familiars. Whether this is what Conrad intended or not, they certainly represent the arrival to the island paradise of evil in a most dangerous form.

By giving his novel the title "Victory," Conrad leaves the reader to consider exactly who has been victorious. Heyst? Lena? The evil represented by the robbers? All?

I hope I have not revealed too much of the plot, because a great deal of reader enjoyment depends on not knowing ahead of time how things will turn out. Victory can be enjoyed solely on the strength of its dynamite story. But it is so much more. It is a story so rich that I know it will be rewarding to read again, even knowing what will happen.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

End of Watch by Stephen King (2016)

In this third and last of a detective trilogy which began with Mr. Mercedes and continued with Finders Keepers, Stephen King has added a big dose of the supernatural. The monstrous villain who drove his car into a crowd with intent to kill and maim in Mr. Mercedes now lies in a hospital with supposedly irreparable brain damage. However, perhaps because of experimental drugs that he is secretly given by his doctor, he finds that he can control objects and people with his mind. After practice, he finds he can even insert his consciousness into other people, gradually replacing their own essences with his own. He still wants nothing more than the destruction of others, with his most desired target being the detective Bill Hodges, the man whom he blames for ending his previous murder spree. Soon, with the help of susceptible surrogates and a hypnotic video game with subliminal messages, he starts persuading people who had once escaped his villainy to commit suicide, all while lying in his hospital bed.

Pretty creepy, right? Except I wish that King had kept going with better-than-average detective novels, without adding the supernatural element. After all, psychopaths who spread destruction in the "ordinary" way are horror-inducing enough. Maybe he was catering to his "Faithful Readers" or maybe that's just the way his mind works and he could no longer restrain his natural impulses. Whatever.

King is a good storyteller, and this is a suspenseful and compulsive read. He has a talent for making his characters come alive as real people, even secondary characters whose stories are told in just a few pages. Unfortunately, in this novel the exception to that is one of the central characters, the assistant to Hodges, Holly. Her portrayed persona feels as if it belongs to a much younger woman and she is seemingly a copy of so many current fictional female detectives who are computer savvy but maladjusted and even borderline autistic. I appreciate that King has not made his male detective instantly sexually attractive to every random female, as so many authors in the detective genre do.

This was good entertainment, but I wrote this review directly after completing the book because I know I will forget most of its details after a few days. What I will remember is the premise that a video game can have the capability to hypnotize a viewer and make him susceptible to subliminal suggestion. I suspect that may actually be true. And that's really creepy.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Children by Edith Wharton (1928)

In 1925, in his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money...." This 1928 novel by Edith Wharton can be easily imagined as the story of the children of just such careless people.

The seven children of the title "belong" to Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, two wealthy Americans who flit around Europe, living in the best hotels and leaving their young charges at less fashionable hotels in the care of a governess and nannies. Four of the children are theirs together, three from their first marriage and one from their later remarriage. One is the child of Cliffe and his second wife (before his remarriage to Joyce). Two are the children of Joyce's second husband and a deceased circus performer, who have been left in Joyce's care following their divorce before her remarriage to Cliffe. (Some families do get complicated, don't they?)

The eldest of this motley group is 15-year-old Judith, who has become a mother figure for the rest. Without the benefit of present and stable parents, the seven have vowed to stay together, no matter what the future liaisons of the Wheaters might be. The story begins when they are befriended on board a ship by Martin Boyne, a bachelor in his forties who is on his way to meet a woman whom he has long silently loved. As he learns of their history, he finds himself moved by pity and outrage for their plight and increasingly drawn to Judith in a disturbing way, considering her age. He agrees to help the children stay together to the best of his ability.

As in all the other Wharton novels I have read, the tension is created by the contrast between the constraint of following the rules and doing the proper thing and the freedom of following the passions of the heart. Be warned--this contest includes only bittersweet endings.

This is a most remarkable book, and I can't imagine why I never heard of it before. The writing is elegant and the characterization is wonderful. I don't understand why Edith Wharton is not more lauded. She shares many of the same plot situations and themes with Henry James, but he seems to be much more highly regarded. Wharton is so much better, in my opinion.

I highly recommend this novel. It will break your heart. If nothing else, it will make you think about how the children might feel in families that combine theirs and his and hers, with parents too busy to look after their own.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (1722)

Daniel Defoe summarized this whole story in the subtitle he included on the title page, so I will quote him rather than trying to write my own synopsis: "The FORTUNES AND MISFORTUNES of the Famous Moll Flanders, Who was Born in NEWGATE, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent." (Random use of capitalization is Defoe's.) That's the plot, except that Defoe left out the fact that Moll was many times a mother. (I lost count of how many children she birthed and then left behind.)

I had never read this before because I so thoroughly disliked Defoe's more famous novel Robinson Crusoe. While I found its basic story of a castaway man's struggle for survival interesting, Defoe's incessant sanctimonious moralizing made me want to gag. Now that I have read this book, I find that I dislike it as well.

In his Preface, Defoe wrote that the reader should draw the "just and religious inference" from all the incidents that Moll's life are designed to teach. In the lengthy introduction to the Penguin Classics edition which I read, a learned Defoe scholar acknowledges, "It is not difficult for the modern reader to suppose that Defoe's protestations about the moral utility of his work are really only pious platitudes intended to disarm readers who might be offended by the salacious revelations to follow. Nothing could be further from the truth." The scholar then proceeds at great length to support his viewpoint. So sorry, but this modern reader is not convinced. Defoe spends about 350 pages describing Moll's misdeeds before about 75 pages describing her life as an "honest" woman, which, by the way, is only made possible because she is able to get a new start from the proceeds of prior thefts. I sincerely believe Defoe was being a hypocrite in presenting this work as one of moral instruction. It reads more like an instruction book on how to be a successful con artist and thief, with numerous detailed examples.

This is a very early novel, so I make allowances for it as to unfamiliar wording and grammar and even style. In comparison with other novels from the same general time period, however, I find this much inferior. Try reading some Henry Fielding instead, Tom Jones, for example.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally (1982)

At the end of World War II, the Jewish factory workers who had been saved from extermination camps by the German Oskar Schindler gave him a ring they had fashioned from the gold teeth donated by one of their number. The ring included an inscription from the Talmud which read, "He who saves a single life saves the world entire." This fictionalized history of Schindler's machinations that allowed him to save 1,200 Jews from the gas chamber was conceived when the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally was importuned by one of those survivors to tell the story. It is a fitting reply to anyone who has ever witnessed a wrong, yet has done nothing, asking, "But what can one person do?" This is what one person did.

Schindler's story is now widely known, thanks to this Booker Prize novel and even more so to the 1993 Academy Award winning movie directed by Steven Speilberg. Keneally resists the temptation to make this an emotional story or to cast a saint-like glow around its hero. His account reads like a conventional history, except that he uses his imagination to extrapolate the thoughts and reasonings of the characters. In his portrait, Schindler is an average industrialist who sees a way to make a profit from the war, one who enjoys the luxuries that money can buy and who is an unrepentant sexual philanderer. It is only when he sees the brutality of some of his fellow Nazis and realizes what the Nazi Final Solution is to the perceived Jewish problem that he changes his goals, and through bribery and the trading of favors connives to protect his factory workers from certain death.

This is not an easy book to read, both because of its matter-of-fact representation of almost unimaginable atrocities and of its history-like presentation of people and places with unfamiliar names and titles. But it does reward the reader with a very true account, I believe, of a man who saw a wrong being committed and did what he could to remedy it.

We could all take a lesson from Schindler.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick (1964)

WARNING: Do not read Philip K. Dick if you are at all in doubt about your own sanity, because by the end of the book you may very well feel schizophrenic, even though you previously thought you were in complete control of your mind. At least that has been my experience.

This novel starts out sounding like a conventional pulp fiction account of the hardships being experienced by the colonists from Earth on Mars. Ignore the fact that the kind of lives experienced by these settlers would be scientifically impossible on that planet. That's your first clue that Dick is not writing a conventional science fiction book. The events here could just as well have taken place in the Australian Outback (a setting this Mars strongly resembles, including the existence of mystical aboriginals).

As it turns out, Martian Time-Slip is not really about Mars at all, but about schizophrenia and the theory that those so afflicted are undergoing slips in time, experiencing the future or the past instead of the present. Dick cleverly (or instinctively) jumps back and forth in time in his narration of events to underscore this theme. He also includes many hallucinogenic visions from the viewpoints of those undergoing schizophrenic episodes. It's enough to drive you crazy, or discombobulate you, at the very least.

It is commonly accepted that Dick himself probably had schizophrenia. Whether that is true or not, he certainly had the ability to enter such a mind and convey it to a reader. This is for those who like their fiction skewed left of the so-called rational.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Constant Princess by Phillipa Gregory (2005)

The subject of this historical novel is Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, who became Queen of England as the first of Henry VIII's six wives. Betrothed to Henry VII's son Arthur when she is only three, she grows up preparing to be England's queen, following her mother's wish and, as she believes, the will of God. The book follows her arrival in England at age 15 for her royal wedding to Arthur, her brief marriage ending with Arthur's death, her maneuverings to marry Arthur's younger brother Henry, the first few years of their marriage, and her leadership as Queen Regent of the army that defeats Scottish invaders in 1513. A brief final chapter then skips to 1529 and her appearance before a Papal Legate sitting to hear the King's petition for the annulment of their marriage, with Henry accusing Katherine of lying when she had told him that she was still a virgin when they wed.

I don't often read historical fiction, but when I do I like to feel assured that it will stick to a framework of generally accepted facts. Thus, when I began reading Gregory's account of the sexually passionate marriage of Katherine and Arthur, I was taken aback, because I had always understood that Katherine's assertion that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated was historically accepted as truth. Thank goodness for the Internet; I did a bit of research and found that I was right, although a few scholars do believe that Katherine was lying. Nobody really knows for sure. (If you are ever really bored, look for comment threads debating this subject from people who claim to be experts about all things historical. Intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals can be just as snarky as ignorant folk.)

Once this alternate interpretation of history is accepted by the reader, the rest of the story follows logically. It could have happened this way, maybe. It would surely not have been the first or last time that a deeply religious person could maintain a lie for a period of many years and self-justify it as being in accordance with God's will.

But I digress.

This historical novel does not portray the details of setting and time, as some historical novels do, but instead focuses on the core story of the central character, Katherine. It is energetically and interestingly written, but I would have preferred a more immersive picture. A bit more of the background details would have created a more real world for me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fire Down Below by William Golding (1989)

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. You might not want to read it if you intend to read the trilogy.

This is the last volume of Golding's To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. The first volume, Rites of Passage reviewed in March), is outstanding, extraordinarily well written and meaningful, and can be read as a stand-alone novel. The second installment, Close Quarters (reviewed just previously), is still accomplished, but it is obviously a middle section. It narrates a series of events, some being tense and exciting and some being almost surreal, and then stops, with no climax. It cannot be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel. Fire Down Below, which brings the story of a young man's long sea journey to a close, would not be very understandable as a stand-alone either, and it ends in a seemingly happily-ever-after anti-climax that at first glance seems inappropriate and, indeed, improbable coming from the pen of the generally pessimistic Golding. But the Golding who wrote this near the end of his life is much more subtle than the Golding who wrote Lord of the Flies.

To the Ends of the Earth could perhaps be read and enjoyed as an exceedingly well written sea adventure in the style and voice of a typical 19th Century novel, complete with a seemingly doomed love match turning out well against all expectations. The accounts in this last volume of a catastrophic storm and a close encounter with an iceberg are riveting. The conversations between the narrator Edmund Talbot and an activist fellow passenger seem to inspire the young aristocrat, and yet.... At the end of the voyage, young Edmond appears to have learned nothing from the experiences of the long trip. He returns to his life of privilege and leaves the lessons behind.

Thus, upon further reflection, I believe that the entire story should be understood as a metaphor for man's seeming inability to learn from mistakes and to permanently change for the better. In that sense, the trilogy tells a much more cynical story than is first apparent. The double understanding of the novel is hinted at by the double meaning that can be attached to the titles of each of the three books. In this case, the "fire down below" refers to a literal fire caused by the heating of metal to attempt to repair the faltering ship. It is also a phrase used metaphorically by the crusading activist to name the divine spark from God in each man which would inspire him to serving others. Throughout, sea terms are used which have since transferred to metaphors for common life situations. For example, a common phrase for peace making, "pouring oil on troubled waters," is revealed to have an actual literal meaning, when sailors pour oil in the sea to calm the waves.

Throughout the history of literature, a long journey, particularly a voyage by sea, has been used by writers to symbolize the education of a young man through trials. That's what Golding has done here. Except that his hero seems to have learned nothing. And that's pessimistic, for sure.

As I said, this is a very subtle book. I hope I have not misunderstood it and attributed more to Golding than he intended. Has anyone else out there read this series? Comments?