Friday, September 30, 2016

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre' (1974)

For the last few years I have been making a conscious effort to expand my reading to include various examples of genre fiction. I had already read and loved science fiction/fantasy, but I had little experience in other classifications. Thus I have recently sampled from the historical, Western, detective/mystery, Gothic, and humor categories. This is the first spy novel I have read since the 1960s when I read the James Bond books. As always when searching for good books, I consulted "best of..." lists, and this one emerged as likely the best of its kind. It is not what I expected.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not "action packed," does not feature a hero who is a magnet for sexy women, introduces no fancy spy gadgets. Its protagonist, George Smiley, is a dumpy, middle aged, nondescript man whose estranged wife is a serial philanderer. He does not operate through daring escapades but through a painstaking examination of evidence and a keen psychological insight.

Smiley is a former spy for British Intelligence who has been forced into retirement by a regime change. He is approached by a former colleague and the civil service officer charged with overseeing intelligence because they have reason to suspect that one of the top four at the Intelligence agency is a mole, or double agent, for the Russians. Smiley's meticulous investigation is fascinating, although unfamiliar terms and spy jargon sometimes make the happenings hard to understand. The author interestingly includes the human element, since Smiley has a personal history with all of the suspects.

I would actually not have characterized this as a spy novel, but instead as a detective novel about spies. Furthermore, I would also characterize it as a mainstream literary novel, because it is extremely well written and interesting on multiple levels. I plan to read more of John le Carre'.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Pyramid by William Golding (1967)

The Pyramid is in essence three short novellas all featuring the same protagonist. The first story introduces 18-tear-old Oliver in the summer before his going up to Oxford. The time is that of early automobiles and silent movies and the place in a small village in rural England. Young Oliver narrates his story of unrequited puppy love for one girl and the sexual pursuit of another. The second story takes place after his first term at university and concerns an amateur theatrical that his mother persuades him to participate in. The third story is narrated by Oliver as an older married man when he returns to his home village and remembers his childhood music teacher.

Golding's first and most famous novel, The Lord of the Flies, did not take long to plainly reveal that an island adventure tale was actually concerned with much darker matters. His "Beast" was obviously meant to symbolize the evil impulse in all of us. But in later novels, Golding became much more subtle, so that it takes a good while for a reader to realize that this seemingly whimsical, sometimes almost farcical, story is in reality an indictment of the unthinking hurtfulness inflicted because of class snobbery. The title gives a clue, because the only pyramid here is the social pyramid, with a few at the top, more in the middle, and a great many at the bottom. In Golding's view, each group considers the group below it as undeserving of respect or common consideration.

I love reading Golding because his writing is impeccable and he always gives me something to think about. I agree with him that all humans are flawed, but sometimes his outlook does become a bit depressing. My advice: Read all Golding's novels, not just Lord of the Flies. He didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 for only his most famous novel. Just don't read them one after another. You might sink into depression at the hopelessness of it all.


Side Note: I read up on Golding's life (as available on the internet) and found something interesting. British writer John Carey wrote a memoir about the author in 2009 in which he revealed that, according to Golding's journals, he attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl from his home village when he was 18. A similar incident is part of the first story in this novel. Also according to his journals, he felt he had something "monstrous" inside himself. Don't we all?

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1864)

Although I have never enjoyed reading Dostoyevsky, I decided to read this short novel because I recently read a novel with the same name by Jose Saramago (reviewed in April, 2016), and I wanted to compare the two.

The "hero," as Dostoyevsky calls him, is the very confused and paranoid Mr. Golyadkin. When he is tossed out of a party that he has crashed at his boss's house, his mental condition worsens dramatically. That's when he meets his exact double. From that time on he is tormented because he perceives that the double is trying to turn everyone against him.

This is a psychological look at a man going mad. It is extremely unsettling and depressing. It made me very anxious. While I recognize that my reaction is surely a tribute to Dostoyevsky's writing talent, I am sorry I read the book. I may feel crazy for days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

This mystery thriller is proof positive to me that I am out of touch with the mainstream of the reading public. It has reportedly sold more hardback copies than any other adult book ever. It has thousand of 5-star reviews on the Amazon and Goodreads websites. It is soon to be a Major Motion Picture. But I cannot share the enthusiasm. I would give this book a grade of C at the best. What is wrong with people?

Here are some of the reasons I am astounded that people like this book.

The story is told through the interior monologues of three first-person female narrators. Admittedly that is a tricky proposition for any writer, as it would be necessary that each narrator be given a distinctive voice for the format to be effective. Hawkins does not do that, not at all. All three narrators sound exactly the same. For me, this is the major flaw.

The solution as to the identity of the murderer is obvious early in the book because of the author's deliberate withholding of the name of the lover of the murdered woman in her stream-of-consciousness account of the events leading to her death.

Not one character is sympathetic; all are despicable. While it is true that some excellent novels feature unsympathetic characters, they substitute with characters who are interesting and complex. You will find none of that here.

The grammar is shaky and the sentence construction is awkward and amateurish.

Hawkins has shamelessly capitalized on the extreme popularity of the novel Gone Girl, including her use of an unreliable narrator and her inclusion of "girl" in the title. By the way, why call women in their mid-to-late twenties "girls"? Could it possibly be because of the immense popularity of writer Stieg Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tatoo and its sequels? In case you haven't read those, do so and see how much better they are than this effort.

So why did so many people love this book? I can't figure it out. I just don't know.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara (1935)

Whoa, was this depressing. O'Hara takes a naturalistic look at the Depression and Prohibition-era speakeasy culture of New York City. His protagonist, Gloria Wandrous, is an habitual drunk and sleep-around party girl with a history of childhood sexual abuse. The story begins when she wakes up in despair in the bedroom of a man she picked up in a bar the night before, and ends in her gruesome death when she falls or jumps from a pleasure boat and is mangled by the paddle wheels.

The above is really not a story spoiler, because both the introduction to the novel and the back cover blurb tell the reader that O'Hara based his main character on the known history of an actual woman named Starr Faithfull, who in 1931 was found washed up on Long Beach, Long Island. Even if this were not the case and a reader had no idea at the beginning how the book was going to end, it would soon become all too apparent that Gloria's story could only end unhappily. A cloud of doom and gloom hangs over all from beginning to end.

O'Hara's writing style is unattractive, yet powerful in its own way, with short, declarative sentences. Much of the story is carried by the dialogue, which is ultra-realistic, as if actual conversations were recorded verbatim. Unfortunately, real-life conversations are filled with non--sequitur and repetition and digression, which become tedious when read rather than heard.

John O'Hara was an extremely popular writer in the 1930s, but he is no longer read very much, unlike his more famous contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. His most lauded novel, Appointment in Samarra (reviewed March, 2011), also features a doomed character. I realize that his era was probably the most discouraging this country has ever faced and hope was hard to come by, but still....

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012)

If you read a hundred reviews of A Man Called Ove, I can almost guarantee that 90 percent will include the words "heartwarming" or "charming," often both. This is the story of a grumpy old man (Get off my lawn!) who proves to have a "heart of gold" (80 percent of reviews will include this phrase). It is entirely predictable and unabashedly manipulative. It will make you laugh (it is actually very, very funny) and it will make you cry, not because it is sad but because it is "touching" (many reviews will include this word).

If you are an adult who laughed and cried at the touching and charming and heartwarming animated movie Up, then you will like this book because it is basically the same scenario; only the details are different. I am one of those adults and I enjoyed this book--very much.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Swan Song by John Galsworthy (1928)

Hurrah! Galsworthy returns to his role as an extraordinary storyteller in this concluding volume of The Modern Comedy trilogy. As it turns out, the first two novels mainly served as a set-up for this one. (A quite lengthy setup, to be sure.) So before this novel begins, we already know that the upper classes in post-war England were selfishly consumed with satisfying their own whims of the moment, without a concern for those less fortunate or for the future. We know that Fleur, the main character, is a true daughter of the times. She is married to an admirable man who adores her, yet she has enticed his best friend to fall in love with her, not because she loves him but just for the excitement of the situation. She enters into a spiteful name-calling fight with a social rival which results in a lawsuit for defamation, and when things turn out badly, she leaves husband and son for a trip around the world with her indulgent father.

As this chapter of the story begins, Fleur's first love returns to England after living in America. He and Fleur had been forced to part years earlier by family pressures, but he has since fallen in love with and married an American girl. In contrast, Fleur has never stopped wanting what she could not have, so she sets out to stalk and seduce him. She has no intention, however, of leaving her husband and comfortable life to run away with him if she is successful. Instead she envisions a secret affair, and even sets up a scenario that would make that possible. In the true spirit of the times, she wants to have her cake and eat it, too.

After the low-key plots of the two previous novels, this one is engrossing and energetic. The climax is a shade melodramatic, but it rounds things off nicely.

I recommend this trilogy to those readers with time and patience. It is an interesting look at England between the wars, written by a contemporary. It has insightful implications about the influence of heredity and upbringing. And even though it takes its time, it is a good story.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy (1925)

In this second novel of The Modern Comedy trilogy, Galsworthy once again focuses on the state of England following The Great War. This time he provides a bit more substantial plot (although it is still secondary), and rather cleverly ties his political/sociological commentary and his story progression together thematically. He straightforwardly announces his theme in the title: The upper classes of England, personified by the central character Fleur, have been spoiled by a past of wealth and privilege and have devolved into living only for the moment, satisfying their sense of entitlement without regard for traditional values or the future or the welfare of others. Just in case a reader might miss his point, Galsworthy repeats "silver spoon" references many times.

The plot centers on a bitchy catfight between Fleur and one of her young society rivals, Marjorie Ferrar. The rival gossips about Fleur at a party, calling her a "snob." She is overheard by Soames Forsyte, Fleur's father, who publicly asks her to leave. When Fleur finds out, she responds by writing notes to several of her "friends," calling Marjorie "a snake of the first water" without "a moral about her." The "friends," of course, tell Marjorie, who decides to sue for defamation. The most lively part of the book comes when Fleur's clever lawyer cross examines Marjorie at the trial, leading her into gradually admitting that she is indeed without a moral about her, at least in the traditional sense. That Fleur shares this fashionably "modern" outlook is not mentioned, of course.

Fleur's husband Michael is a Member of Parliament and Galsworthy channels his substantial political commentary through him. He is the most sympathetic character in the novel, one of the few to evidence unselfish concern for the problems of others or an awareness that England might be headed for grave problems. As I am sure Galsworthy intended, Fleur is an entirely unsympathetic character.. In the end, she runs away from the mess she has made, leaving husband and child to take a trip around the world with her indulgent father, who had put the silver spoon in her mouth in the first place.

This second installment of the trilogy is more interesting than the first, The White Monkey, but it is not nearly on a par with Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga trilogy. It seems like nothing so much as the gloomy observations of a grumpy old man, who perceives that the younger generation is "going to the dogs."

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Foe by J.M. Coetzee (1986)

Nobel Prize laureate J.M. Coetzee has taken Daniel Dofoe's Robinson Crusoe as his starting point for this novel, adding a woman, Susan Barton, who finds herself stranded on the island where Cruso and Friday have been living for some years. After they are rescued by a passing ship a year later, Cruso dies during the voyage to England, leaving Susan to assume responsibility for the mute Friday. Arriving back in London, Susan contacts the writer Daniel Foe about taking the facts known to her about Cruso's island sojourn and writing a book that would appeal to the public and provide upkeep for herself and Friday. But Foe wants to add embellishments, turning the facts into something more exciting.

To tell the truth, nothing much happens in this novel, exciting or otherwise. A reader looking for entertainment would be looking in the wrong place. It is obviously meant to be read as an allegory/fable, but I could never decide what truths I was supposed to perceive. Coetzee is a native of South Africa and wrote this novel when apartheid was still in force, so (I think) the black man Friday's voicelessness and his white protector Susan's inability to make her voice heard would represent the political situation at that time. It seems, though, that there must be more to be learned. I just can't figure out what.

I believe that an effective allegorical novel should provide interest on two levels--the literal and the metaphorical. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians does that brilliantly. Foe may examine important ideas and issues, but as a story it is less than successful. This is one of the most boring novels I have ever read.

As it turns out, I am apparently not the only one a bit vague about Coetzee's intentions. After I wrote the above, I checked out several internet scholarly articles about the book from universities and journals and so on. None of the experts agreed. Everybody took away something different. It seems to me that if an author wants to impart big ideas, he should make them clear enough that most people would perceive them in a similar way. But I'm not an academic, so what do I know?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The White Monkey by John Galsworthy (1924)

Nobel laureate (1932) John Galsworthy wrote nine novels about the English upper-middle-class Forsyte family. The first three together, collectively called The Forsyte Saga, take place around the turn of the 19th Century and tell the story of the unhappy marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte and of the resulting family feud when they divorce and she marries his cousin. The White Monkey is the first of a second trilogy, collectively called A Modern Comedy, which focuses on Soames's daughter Fleur, the child of his second marriage.

While The Forsyte Saga brilliantly explores character and features an engrossing plot, this novel seems more concerned with portraying the sense of unease in England just following the First World War. Plot takes a back seat, with nothing much happening, really. Galsworthy peppers his dialogue with slang and jargon presumably current at the time, some of which is undecipherable for the modern reader. He includes many references to literary and artistic trends, with mentions of fictitious writers and artists that are apparently veiled references to actual people of the time. All of this probably made The White Monkey quite interesting to people in 1924, when it was published, but doesn't make it a very satisfying read for someone in 2016.

I will reserve further judgment until I have read the other books in the trilogy.

Monday, September 5, 2016

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (2006)

Growing up is hard to do, especially without the benefit of a stable home life. That is the theme running through the ten short stories in this excellent collection. Karen Russell portrays her protagonists at the brink of puberty and places them in surreal locations and situations, crafting the stories as allegories of a sort, representing the pains faced as childhood fantasies are abandoned and adult feelings and understanding enter in.

In the first selection, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a young girl encounters adult sexuality for the first time. Several others in the collection echo this theme, portraying the primary confusion encountered when one reaches puberty. In "Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration" a boy struggles to maintain his hero worship of his father. In "Haunting Olivia" two brothers try to come to terms with the death of their little sister. And in the title story, a girl sent away to boarding school finds when she returns home that it no longer feels like home to her.

If these sound like prosaic stories, it's because I have left out the ghosts and the Minotaur and the magic swim goggles and the werewolves and suchlike which also inhabit the tales.

This is Karen Russell's first book-length publication, and the comedic talent she displays in later publication is only fleeting visible here. Though some stories do have flashes of clever humor, they are always wistfully sad, because, after all, it is sad when a child can no longer believe in magic or see his father as a god.

I also recommend Russell's novel Swamplandia (reviewed in June, 2012), an expansion of the first story in this collection, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (reviewed last month), her latest short story collection.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)

Here's a hint for aspiring fiction writers: If you can't come up with a good plot on your own, try just stealing one from somebody else. After all, Shakespeare did it, and look how successful he was. For this novel that has become a classic from the golden age of science fiction, Bester stole the plot from Alexander Dumas. This is The Count of Monte Cristo in the 26th Century, in space.

To give Bester credit, he makes the story his own. His protagonist is stranded on a blasted spaceship and is left to die by a passing ship from his own planet. When he is finally rescued, he begins plotting his revenge, aided by the discovery that his derelict ship holds great riches. Obsessed as he is, he lifts himself from being a "Common Man" with unrealized abilities to the level of sophisticate, with specialized knowledge. Using his wealth, he even has his body modified, becoming a kind of Six Million Dollar Man, with super=human speed and strength.

Bester comes up with a staggering number of unexpected scenarios, surprising characters, and futuristic innovations in the telling of his tale. He is incredibly inventive, and one can easily spot some of his ideas in the writings of later generations of sci=fi authors. In his future world, evolution and practice enable most to "jaunt," that is to teleport up to a thousand miles using only their brain power and will. The inhabited worlds are controlled by mega-corporations and the ultra-rich live in barricaded fortresses. And, yes, they are still fighting wars, with the threat of a doomsday weapon hanging over them.

One of Bester's additions to the plot is particularly fascinating: His hero is tattooed Maori-style over his entire face in a tiger-like pattern by a space going cargo cult who capture him. When he later has the tattooing removed, he discovers that in moments of stress or passion the otherwise invisible markings glow red as the blood rushes and the adrenaline flows. Bester thus is able to link his theme to that of William Blake in his poem "The Tyger," the first verse of which Bester uses as his epigraph.

Anyone even slightly interested in science fiction will find this 1956 novel exciting. Bester moves it along at a breakneck pace and it surprises at every turn, even though the plot is lifted and the climax is thus foreseeable. It's the twists and turns of the getting there that make it fun.