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.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1931)

I chose to read this because I read somewhere on the Internet that it is a neglected science fiction classic, praised by Arthur C. Clark and other sci-fi luminaries. I was disappointed; I was bored; I slogged on through it because I very rarely give up on a book until the bitter end. I do not recommend it.

First, this is not really what is conventionally called a novel. It is an overview of history, with only broad events covered and no specific characters mentioned. It is even less specific than what you might find in a typical World History textbook in a middle school. But this is a different kind of history--it's the future history of the human species, from 1931 to 5 billion years in the future. Yes, it does mention a myriad of intriguing situations which could be appropriated by science fiction writers to create conventional novels. Perhaps that is why Clark and others appreciated it. No, it is not interesting or even believably predictive for the average reader. (His predictions for the years from 1931 to the present are totally inaccurate, to start with.)

What Stapledon does tell us that has been shown to be true is that history is cyclical and tends to repeat itself. But then we already knew that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Darkness Visible by William Golding (1979)

On the surface, Darkness Visible tells two stories: In the first story, a child miraculously emerges from a fire "that is melting lead and distorting iron" during the London blitz. He is hideously burned on one side of his head and face, the burned side glowing white in the glare of the inferno, the unharmed side darkened. Given the name Matty by his doctor, he is predictably shunned by other children, only receiving what he mistakenly perceives as kindness from one of his teachers. Progressively consumed by the questions, "Who am I?," "What am I?," and "What am I here for?," as an adult he becomes a wanderer on the earth, seeking answers and visited by visions. In the second story, two twin girls, one light and one dark, grow up as symbolic orphans, with an absent mother and a emotionally absent father. The dark-haired one, Sophy, perceives a dark tunnel at the back of her mind that leads her, as a child, to kill a baby bird; as an adult, to achieve her first orgasm after stabbing her lover during coitus; and finally, to originate a kidnapping plot, which might or might not result in the victim's death from torture. Toni, the light-haired twin, seems to function more rationally, moving from religion, to transcendentalism, and finally to political terrorism. Matty's story and the twins' story come together in the suspenseful conclusion.

What this book is really about, however, is good and evil, the light and darkness within humanity. Golding constructs his message by blanketing the story under a dense layer of symbolism and religious imagery. Matty becomes a Christ figure, at one point even being symbolically crucified and castrated. (Evidently Golding believed lust to be a prime component of the darkness.) He enters and leaves the story in a blaze of fire. Freudian symbolism also enters in, with the twins perhaps representing the ego and the id. The dark twin, Sophy, certainly exhibits the Electra complex.

At times during my reading, my understanding became completely muddled under the barrage of allegorical messages. I am quite sure that Milton's Paradise Lost contains many clues, since Golding took his title from there, but I read that masterpiece so many years ago that I can hardly remember it. A reader must also have a background of Biblical knowledge to understand many of the references.

However limited my complete understanding, I believe I get the basic message, and it is an important one that has often been repeated in print and even in film: our job, as human beings, is to resist going over to the dark side.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Maggie, A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane (1893)

This novella by the author of The Red Badge of Courage is, like Nana by Emile Zola, a naturalistic examination of prostitution. In contrast to Zola, however, Crane tells us almost nothing about his heroine's career as a prostitute, but instead examines the circumstances that lead her to sell herself.

Maggie is a teenage girl living in a dirty apartment in the Bowery in New York City. Her father has long been missing; her mother is a slovenly drunkard who is so familiar to the police and the courts that they call her by her first name; her older brother is a delivery driver who fancies himself a real tough guy. When she meets one of her brother's friends who has become a bartender, she is immediately charmed, not only by his more polished dress and manners, but also by his very cleanliness. Despite appearances, however, he proves to be as lacking in empathy and morality as her own family.

It takes no leap of imagination to know that this sad story probably will not end well.

Crane tells a good bit of his story through dialogue, all duplicating the vernacular and pronunciation of New York City slums at the time. His depictions of the shabby surroundings, particularly of the filth and the unpleasant odors, add to the atmosphere of hopelessness. Maggie's downfall is seen as inevitable, doomed as she is by her environment and her genetic inheritance.

This slice of the bad side of life is extremely well done, but I prefer my literature to be a bit more hopeful.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Nana by Emile Zola (1880)

Continuing with my mini-unit of books about prostitutes (following Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill), I chose as my next this 19th Century French novel. Zola approaches his account in a naturalistic manner, portraying his heroine as the amoral product of her heredity and environment. As the child of a family of alcoholics and criminals, she is almost bestial in nature. Through her animal sexuality, she seduces men of a higher social standing, bringing them down to her level and destroying them. The intention of the novelist does not seem to be so much a condemnation of prostitution as it is a condemnation of a society which tolerates and even celebrates degradation. The scholarly introduction to my copy indicated that Zola was writing in reaction to the excesses of the French Second Empire. I can't speak to that, but it seems to me that American tabloid readers and trash-TV watchers who relish accounts of sexual escapades display a similar behavior.

Nana begins her career as a celebrated demimondaine (courtesan) by appearing almost nude in a play on the Paris stage. Blond and voluptuous, she immediately captures the attentions of several upper class sensualists who vie with one another to gain her favors, showering her with expensive gifts and money. Moving from one to another, always betraying the man who is financing her at the moment, she ultimately sets out to entrap the one man whose religious beliefs prompt him to resist her charms. Once in her power, he allows Nana to humiliate and betray him time and time again. Nana delights in sucking the last remnants of dignity and fortune from her willing victims. A journalist writes of her as a "golden fly" who "sucked death from the carrion left by the roadside and now, buzzing, dancing, and flittering like a precious stone, was entering palaces through the windows and poisoning the men inside...."

Throughout the novel, Zola interestingly uses animal images to reference the behavior of his characters. Nana is the "Golden Beast," the "...Beast of the Scriptures, a lewd creature of the jungle." At a horse race, spectator comments about Nana the woman and a horse by the same name are interchangeable. She forces her most pathetic victim to crawl around the floor growling like a bear or barking like a dog, fetching her shoes in his mouth.

This novel is fascinating and very well done. It is not overtly moralistic like Defoe's Moll Flanders or pornographic like Cleland's Fanny Hill. Ultimately, however, it is so depressing that I will not ever read it again.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fanny Hill by John Cleland (1748)

The scholarly introduction to the novel Moll Flanders, which I reviewed last month, mentioned a couple of other early novels about prostitutes. I decided to read these, too, to compare them to Defoe's novel, which I considered to be hypocritically sanctimonious. The writer of the introduction even remarked that Fanny Hill was thought to have been written as a direct response to Defoe's treatment of the subject of prostitution.

The two are different, for sure.

Defoe only told the reader that his heroine engaged in prostitution, reserving his detailed descriptions for her various ingenious thefts and scams. Cleland shows the reader, in detail, scenes from his heroine's life as a prostitute. I was surprised to find myself reading, as it turns out, perhaps the first pornographic novel.

I can't speak for how readers in the 18th Century perceived the novel, but for a modern reader (at least this one), instead of being titillating it is delightfully funny. The humor, which might be somewhat intentional and might be from an effort to circumvent censorship, comes from Cleland's highly imaginative use of an extensive variety of euphemisms and metaphors to describe every aspect of the sexual act. He is particularly inventive in describing the male sexual equipment, never using either a scientific or a vulgar term. It is interesting to note that the author was 22 at the time and was writing while in jail.

The whole of the plot is just a filler to get from one amorous event to the next. At the end, Cleland allows Fanny to moralize a bit about how much better it is to live a virtuous life, but her comments are obviously tongue--in-cheek.

Fanny Hill was banned from publication in the United States until 1963. I can't imagine why. As pornography it is really not very effective. As literature, it is at least better than Moll Flanders, primarily because of its creative circumlocution.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (2013)

Karen Russell begins the first of this book's eight short stories with a seemingly prosaic account of an elderly man sitting on a bench in a lemon grove, watching the lemons fall. His wife "has no patience for this sort of meditation. 'Jesus Christ, Clyde,' she says. 'You need a hobby.'" Then at the end of the next paragraph, the old man says, "They never guess that I am a vampire."

This will give you some idea of Russell's magical mixture of the mundane with the fantastic. The results can be, by turns, wistfully touching or terror inducing or laugh-out-loud hilarious, sometimes all in the same story. In addition, her arresting prose abounds with original and startling images. For example, she writes, "The giant seagull had a sheriff's build--distended barrel chest, spindly legs splayed into star-shaped feet." She describes a children's playground that "looked like a madhouse. Padded swings, padded slides, padded gyms, padded seesaws and go-wheelies: all the once-fun equipment had gotten upholstered by the city in this red loony-bin foam."

In addition to aging vampires, this collection includes young women who have been transformed into human silkworms, dead presidents reincarnated as horses, a message therapist who can erase memories through the manipulation of a veteran's tattoos, a young pioneer boy who makes a desperate nightmare ride, and a scarecrow found by young bullies that resembles one of their favorite victims. No matter how far-fetched the scenario, however, the emotions portrayed are true-to-life.

Russell reminds me very much of one of my favorite authors, Angela Carter, who also used magic realism with a subtext agenda. While Carter's subtext almost always had a feminist basis, Russell's subtext has to do with what it means to be human.

I highly recommend this short story collection, as well as Russell's earlier novel, Swamplandia (reviewed June, 2012). I understand that her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is also very good.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (2015)

My granddaughter Rori suggested I read this Young Adult novel during a discussion we had about India and its culture, following my reading of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, another book she had loaned me. It concerns an American teenager who is the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan. Wishing to preserve their culture, the parents adhere to the values and many of the customs of their home country, so when they discover that their daughter Naile has a secret romantic relationship with a classmate whom they consider to be unsuitable, they take her to Pakistan, ostensibly to visit their large extended family and to teach her more about her heritage. In actuality, they are plotting to arrange a marriage for her to a suitable man.

The author is herself of Pakistani heritage, and, in a note at the end of the book, says that she wrote the book to spotlight the continuing practice of arranged marriages in many cultures and to provide encouragement to young women who find themselves in similar situations.

Rori's critical assessment of the book was that it had an interesting and suspenseful plot, but that its simplistic style made it seem amateurish. I agree with her.

Side note: I just love it that I have grandchildren who are also addicted to reading and who discuss books with me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

What Maisie Kniew by Henry James (1897)

I chose to read this novel, even though I usually don't enjoy reading Henry James, because it was referenced in the introduction to Edith Wharton's novel The Children, which I reviewed last month. It is true that both novels concern similar plot situations--couples who are self-centered and too busy with their own sexual escapades to be adequate parents--but they are entirely different in style and impact. That difference determines the reason I love Wharton and dislike James. While she writes in an elegant and flowing fashion and includes emotion as one of the motivations for human action, James writes in a jerky and unnecessarily complicated fashion and concentrates on the workings of the intellect. James is just too dispassionate, too cold, so to speak, for my tastes. He writes exclusively for the head, analyzing his characters' actions and thoughts to the point of tedium.

The plot itself is actually interesting, although more than a bit like a soap opera. Six-year-old Maisie's parents have gone through a rancorous divorce, fighting about money and the custody of their daughter. The novel's narrator says, "They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other. She should serve their anger and seal their revenge...." An agreement is reached whereby they will take 6-month turns of custody. The day comes, however, when the parents decide they can better annoy each other by delaying taking a turn. Poor Maisie.

The situation complicates when both parents remarry, the father to Maisie's beautiful one-time governess and the mother to a charming count. Neither marriage appears to be successful, but the new stepparents show the child more attention than do her natural parents. Then more complications arise when the stepparents meet and are instantly attracted to each other. And then.....

This has the sound of a very sad and emotional book, but the way James tells it the story becomes more an examination of how Maisie grows to an intellectual understanding of her true situation and learns to spot the weaknesses and hypocrisies of the adults around her.

Many have appreciated this book. I'm not one of them. At the back of the Penguin Classics I read, the editor included some early reviews of the novel, one of which says, "It is undoubtedly a work of art, but hardly one which we wish to hang on our walls." My thoughts, exactly.