Thursday, August 23, 2018

Reef – Romesh Gunesekera
The novel begins with a boy of eleven coming to work for a wealthy Sri Lankan named Mister Salgado. Initially he does menial jobs; but later, when he’s a young man, he has taken charge of the entire house (at this point he’s given the name Triton). Cooking becomes his speciality, and the book is filled with descriptions of the preparing and eating of exotic dishes. Triton respects Mister Salgado greatly, and he makes an effort to be the perfect servant (he’s even intuitive to Mister Salgado’s moods). Though Triton is the first person narrator, he comes across only as an appendage of Mister Salgado. This man (who he refers to as “Sir”) is intelligent, refined, kind, remote. And mostly indolent. He’s an expert on coral reefs, and for a while he’s employed in a study of their disappearance, but he lacks the commitment to push for change. His quiet, bookish existence ends when he falls in love with Nili. (Triton, who’s still a virgin, seems to be in love with her too – is this another example of his subservient role?). During the affair Mister Salgado opens up socially, and his home is often filled with guests. I found these worldly friends to be jarring, especially their vulgar language; they didn’t seem the type of people that the reserved Mister Salgado would tolerate; even Nili is too flighty for him. Lurking in the background is the growing political unrest in Sri Lanka. When matters disintegrate into violence, and the relationship with Nili ends, Mister Salgado and Triton move to England (by this time they’re middle-aged, though Mister Salgado is still “Sir”). More uneventful years go by; then Mister Salgado learns that Nili has fallen onto hard times, and he returns to Sri Lanka. Before he leaves he sets Triton up in a small restaurant. How Triton fares on his own isn’t explored. But in the brief opening section (what follows, the entirety of the novel, is a flashback) Triton comes across as a melancholy man still holding onto memories of Mister Salgado. This story of a relationship is an intriguing read. Since no sexual feelings emerge, and the two never become friends (they’re always master and servant), I couldn’t understand what emotional ties bound Triton to Mister Salgado. I wasn’t bothered by my lack of comprehension; I only felt how unhealthy it was. I was left wishing that, at some point, Triton could have broken free to become his own man.

They Hanged My Saintly Billy – Robert Graves
The words of the title were spoken by William Palmer’s mother. The son she laments was certainly no saint. Rather, in Graves’ account, from his teens on he was involved in every sort of vice and criminal act – except, possibly, murder (though his entanglement in many questionable deaths – especially his brother’s – makes him suspect of that crime too). The book is based on a notorious case that took place in England in the mid 1800s. By assuming the voices of various people who knew Palmer, Graves gives us a contradictory picture of the man. Seen in the worst light, he was a monster; in the best, a charming scoundrel. He wanted to live the high life, but he was always short of money, always juggling debts; to get by he resorted to lies, forgery, theft. Trained as a physician, he abandoned that profession and turned his attention to owning and betting on race horses, a precarious activity in which shady dealings abound. In this story of a dissolute life there’s one issue about which Graves expresses a passionate opinion: he believed that Palmer’s trial was a miscarriage of justice. The accusation was that Palmer murdered John Cook by administering strychnine. But the credible medical community was united in the opinion that strychnine could be detected in a corpse, and no trace of it was found in the autopsy. Graves is convinced that the insurance companies, which would have to pay up if Cook had died of natural causes, rigged the trial (with the assistance of the Lord Chief Justice). And so, at age thirty-one, William Palmer went with silent dignity to the gallows (in front of a howling crowd of some thirty thousand people). In his Forward the author states that “In reconstructing Palmer’s story, I have invented little, and in no case distorted hard fact.” But the sources he cites are few, and most are confined to the trial. This is a highly fictionalized account, but it’s Graves’ skill at writing fiction that enabled him to make the many voices that give commentary vivid and real. That said, there are too many voices; the reader is overwhelmed by names. Adding to the confusion is the detail with which Graves goes into money matters. Still, the good outweighs the bad. Upon finishing the book I was left not knowing what to make of William Palmer. I don’t think Graves knew either. Yet he closes things by making an attempt to humanize the man. It comes in the form of a letter the mother receives after her son’s execution, and suggests how Billy Palmer, at age eighteen, was first compelled to embark on a disreputable path of life. I’m almost certain that this letter ever existed, but so what? As fiction it succeeds in making one think.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
This 2015 best seller is narrated by three women; they recount events that had recently taken place or are currently happening. So we’re in their minds, seeing things from their perspectives. One of the women will be murdered. By whom? In this mystery Hawkins’ major bit of deception involves an affair that the murdered woman is having; Megan never uses the man’s name when writing about their meetings, nor does she give us enough information to identify him (in fact, we’re misled as to who he is). Though I read all 400 pages to find out who-dun-it, the experience became burdensome. Things were too drawn out, and the accumulation of loose ends wore me down. As did the plethora of psychological problems the women display. Rachel is the worst of the lot (and, since she’s an alcoholic who has black-out periods, her account of events is unreliable). The lives of all three women are dominated by men they find both sexually attractive and threatening. I felt little empathy for Hawkins’ characters, and this is partly due to how she keeps the intensity level unrelentingly high; what is needed is a fresh breath of normalcy. Also, as I neared the end, I realized that I wasn’t reading about adults. All the characters think and act like emotionally unstable children. They cry a lot, they fall apart, they think in platitudes. Because their impulse control is nil, they have affairs and commit murder (“See what you made me do?”). And they can’t stay off their devices; the novel is full of texting and emailing and voice messages.

A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes
I had attempted to read this novel twice before, but never got far. Since people I respect consider it to be a masterpiece, and I recently (at a used book sale) picked up a pristine copy in a Time Reading Program edition (which usually published excellent stuff), I again embarked, with determination, on Hughes’ story of children captured by pirates. I made it all to the way to the end, so am now qualified to give my opinion: the book is an elaborate bore. It’s overly rich in language but shallow in character and plot. Only Emily is given much attention, and she’s a mishmash of neurotic odds and ends. All others – her brothers and sisters, the captain and mate – are merely sketched in. As for plot, I got the sense that Hughes was scouring his mind for what outlandish happening to toss next into his disorderly procession of events. Admirers of High Wind tout the realism of its portrayal of children; Hughes backs that viewpoint in his Introduction, in which he claims that he was trying to portray them “realistically” and “lovingly.” But realism and love are totally absent from these pages. Real children recognize their vulnerability; they’re easily frightened and emotionally dependent on adults; they need stability. Hughes’ “wild things” never experience such feelings. The parents they leave behind are quickly forgotten, and when John dies his brother and sisters immediately erase him from their thoughts, as if he never existed. Instead of love, Hughes indulges in scenes in which people and animals are callously victimized. I agree with detractors such as Andre Gide, who could see no reason why the book had ever been written.

Various Miracles – Carol Shields
I counted twenty-one titles in this 183 page collection, which means that Shields keeps it short – as short as three pages. These aren’t stories; they’re evocations, in which the author tries to capture an emotion. She begins with an odd premise; from there she gives us fragments of experiences, or jumps back and forth in time, or starts with one character and then moves to another. I read these pieces over a long period of time, and looking at them again, to write this review, I find that I can’t remember their content; there wasn’t enough substance to hold onto. What I do remember is that, when I was in the act of reading, occasionally a connection was made: I experienced (to varying degrees) the emotion that Shields was trying to evoke. In some, I also recall, no emotion registered. The last story, which I read recently, was longer and more traditional than most. It begins with a stranger asking a couple to cash a personal check (they’re all Americans on vacation in Europe); they do him the favor, not knowing if they would ever be repaid. But a check arrives at the address they gave the man, and from then on, for over twenty years, they receive Christmas cards from him and his wife; each card contains a note about their lives, which seem to be idyllic. Meanwhile we follow the marriage of Robert and Lila, which doesn’t go so smoothly. One is left with a somewhat resigned “What is love all about, anyway?” feeling. In working with evocations Shields is taking a risk as a writer – the terrain is fragile and largely untrodden – so her successes are a unique accomplishment. Try these. If nothing else, you can admire the immaculate prose.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The House on Clewe Street – Mary Lavin
To read 242 pages of a book and then abandon it because of a lack of interest can breed resentment (especially if, as in this case, the print is small and the line spacing tight). Why did I waste my time? Of course, to keep me going for so long I was experiencing some degree of pleasure. The writing was nice, the characters were well-drawn, scenes had life. The pace was leisurely, but I can accept that if things seem to be evolving. It was okay for Aunt Theresa to always be a tyrant, but the novel’s main character was Theodore, and as he grew up his development was occurring with glacial slowness. More and more Lavin’s choices as to how to expend words began to strike me as misguided. For a good deal of the beginning of the novel Theodore’s grandfather is the main character; it’s his mind we’re in. After the birth of Theodore he’s alive, he’s present in the house on Clewe Street, and I wanted to know how he was getting along, what he was thinking. But he’s totally absent from the pages; even his death occurs offstage. Yet his funeral (and a farcical race to get to the cemetery ahead of a competing burial) takes up thirty pages. There are many examples of Lavin inflating inconsequential events while letting vital issues idle away or die out completely. Theodore’s predicament should be paramount; when he’s in his mid-teens he gets interested in the maid, and big changes were in the offing. But by that time I had lost confidence in the author. The point at which I called it quits was when some lady visitors are standing in the doorway in a dither about how to dispose of their scarves and hats and gloves. Lavin apparently found this scene so funny she couldn’t stop writing about it.

The Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
In 1831 twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in Plymouth, England and set out on a journey that would circumnavigate the world. He later cited the five year trip as the most important event of his life, one that would determine his entire career. I had owned this book for many years but didn’t attempt to read it because I thought it would be about matters of concern to a naturalist. Of course, it is, but only to a certain extent; though I found the sections about animals on land and in the air and sea interesting, those devoted to insects and plants and land formations were less engaging (and sometimes incomprehensible). Still, I was impressed by Darwin’s knowledge; I felt I was in the presence of a great mind. That I read all 400+ pages of this journal can be attributed to two factors. One is the excellence of the writing, which, besides having an efficient clarity, succeeded in capturing the personality of a young man full of enthusiasm and curiosity. The other is that Darwin gives much attention to his fellow human beings and how they lived in various environments. He doesn’t just observe and report; he thinks about what he sees and experiences and gives his opinions (notable is his abhorrence for the slavery prevalent in Brazil). Almost all the journal entries are about his time on land (he meets the Beagle at appointed ports). Darwin had many adventures, and in no way was he coddled; he roughed it, mostly on foot or horseback, and only someone with a strong constitution and mental toughness could have endured the hardships and dangers he encountered. Though the book has elements of an adventure story, on a deeper level it presents the vastness of life in all its myriad and mysterious forms. Every creature strives to survive on this earth. A “lowly” insect needs food, and it’s equipped with the means to get it; it can kill, it can defend itself; it also needs to procreate. In these respects man shares a commonality with a dung beetle. Some people that Darwin encounters (such as the residents of Tierra del Fuego) live in such a brutal environment and in such a degraded condition that he’s moved to speculate about what pleasure they can derive out of life. As for his theory of evolution, it isn’t developed on these pages; yet, in giving advice to someone considering a trip such as the one he took, he writes, “No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.” This is the journal of a naturalist whose scientific side was combined with an enlivening humanness, and who just happened to have the artfulness to produce a classic of its kind. *

Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion – V. S. Naipaul
I tend to like odd characters and situations, but this novella is odd in a way that fostered incredulity and boredom. Mr. Stone came across as inhuman, and his plan for his company to aid retirees with a program called the Knights Companion was too quirky a basis to build a plot around. Add to that an inexplicable marriage and an overly-imaginative PR man named Whymper, and I felt I was in a murky alternate universe populated by people who act without believable motivations. I groped to the halfway point before putting this novel aside. You have to wonder about the vagaries of creativity when you consider that three years previously Naipaul had written the wonderful A House for Mr. Biswas. Also a cause for speculation is his choice of the name Whymper for the PR man. Surely he knew that the words “whimper” and “why” would immediately come to the reader’s mind. Since those words have no relation to the character (who’s emphatic and upbeat), what point is Naipaul trying to make (if any)?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Now In November – Josephine Johnson
Johnson wrote this novel when she was twenty-four, and it won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize. Its passion and sincerity probably contributed to its receiving the award. Yet that seriousness of intent is too often expressed in a stilted way. The first person narrator, Marget, is introspective and analyzes emotions – hers and others – and the meaning of their lives: “I like to pretend that the years alter and revalue, but begin to see that time does nothing but enlarge without mutation.” There’s a lot of this type of deep thinking (which I couldn’t fathom), and it encumbered my reading. But when Johnson deals with people and events, the novel moves along with assurance. She offers up yet another fictional lesson on the theme of Don’t Be a Farmer. It’s too difficult a life, especially if you’re working mortgaged land (which is the equivalent of being a sharecropper). Add to that a devastating drought, and you have the ingredients of a tragedy. Which is what this book is – Johnson is unrelenting in her depiction of the destruction of a family. The only bright spots are Marget’s appreciation of the beauty of nature (before all beauty shrivels up), and the coming of a man who helps with the farmwork in exchange for room and board. Grant is kind, intelligent, a lively yet stabilizing presence, and all three of the daughters fall in love with him. But Marget considers herself too homely to interest a man; as for her two sisters, Kerrin is deranged and Merle is unable to curb her sarcastic tongue. When Grant departs, and the drought drags on, the bleakness closes in. It’s not just Marget’s family that suffers, but others around them. Johnson’s achievement is to make us feel how, for some, it takes an act of courage to face another morning.

The Truce – Mario Benedetti (Spanish)
This novel takes the form of a diary kept by a forty-nine-year-old man nearing retirement from his job as an accountant. He’s a widower who lives with his three grown children, and his first entries deal with his rocky relationship with his two sons, worries about advancing age, and speculation on how he’ll spend his leisure time. Okay so far, though there were aspects of this scenario that bothered me: no reason is given for Martin to keep a diary, his prose is flawless, and he’s highly cerebral. When he falls in love with a woman in her twenties, and this comes to dominate his entries (and all other matters fall by the wayside), it became clear that this so-called diary was not the work of a fictional creation but that of a novelist who was out to philosophize, and Martin’s love for Avellaneda gives Benedetti the opportunity to do so. This love, though initially marred by doubts and fears, is presented as an idyllic merging of souls. Too idyllic for my tastes, and Avellaneda was too perfect to be credible. Then she abruptly dies of heart failure, which I felt was a convenient way for Benedetti to open the door for Martin to sink into despair (and to meditate on God, and His role in this crime). The last entry has Martin cleaning out his desk, with the rest of his empty life stretching before him. This ending lacked resonance because I had long ago decided that there was no Martin to care about. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Jackson uses a demented first person narrator to tell the story, so we see events from Mary Katherine’s warped perspective. This eighteen-year-old is filled with hatred toward everyone except her sister Constance (whom she adores) and her Uncle Julian (though I’m not sure about him). She also loves a cat named Jonas. She ardently wishes that she could kill off all the people in the village where she lives. She had, years ago, disposed of most of her own family (including mother, father, brother, and I’m not sure how many others). This mass murder occurred at a dinner table, and was caused by arsenic in the sugar that was sprinkled on the blackberries. Constance survived because she never ate blackberries, and Uncle Julian used just a small amount of sugar, so he was left a cripple. Mary wasn’t present because, as punishment for some unspecified misdeed, she had been sent to bed without her supper. Since Constance prepared the meal, she was tried for murder, and was found not guilty. But, if not her, who? The villagers believe that Constance was the poisoner, and they have a rich store of rhymes and sayings attesting to that belief. I knew from the outset, when Uncle Julian first relates the story of that deadly night (it seems to be his function in the novel), that Mary was the culprit. I thought that Constance knew too, and that it was out of concern for her fragile little sister that she took the rap. But near the end it becomes clear that she didn’t know; and when she finds out, she seems unperturbed (which put her sanity in doubt). At the midpoint a youthful Uncle Charles comes and stays with them, and it seems that Constance is being drawn back into the world, which frightens and angers malignant Mary; in an effort to undermine his presence, she causes a fire that burns down much of the house; when the flames are extinguished the jubilant townsfolk go inside to carry on an orgy of destruction. But, after all the mayhem subsides, we get a happy ending: Charles is gone and Mary and Constance (along with Jonas) are living contentedly in an enclave they fashion out of the ruins. Jackson is a good writer, but this is over-the-top. “The Lottery,” her famous story, was effective because of how understated her approach was. In Castle she lets all guns fire away. The intensity with which she relates this grim and virulent tale makes one wonder what lurked in her psyche.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse
The opening sentence: “Lying in bed, I abandoned the real world and was back in Ambrosia.” Ambrosia is a fantasy world where Billy Fisher possesses power and prestige; in the real world things are not going at all well. The novel covers one day in his life – “a day for big decisions.” His plan is to leave his Yorkshire town and go to London, where he’ll make a living writing jokes for the comedian Danny Boon. By doing so he can avoid a number of predicaments he’s gotten himself into (two fiancees, a huge stash of business calendars he neglected to mail and must dispose of). He can also escape a life that offers him nothing. He lives with his mother, father and grandmother, and all find him to be insufferable (in the case of his father, the disapproval has risen to the level of hatred). He works as a clerk at a funeral home, and his boss relishes the moment when he can nail Billy for pocketing the postage money for the unmailed calendars. Billy’s hyper-energetic observations of people and the town are often funny, but they have a dark side: he sees the real world as ugly. And he never rises above the muck around him. Those lies which he casually dispenses are mostly aimed at evading unpleasant situations or inflating his importance, but some show a disregard for the feelings of others. Billy cares for no one and no one cares for him – with a single exception: Liz. It’s interesting that the only person with whom he feels a sense of comradery is the book’s only unbelievable character. It turns out that Billy lacks the courage to get on the train for London (he was lying when he claimed that Danny Boon had promised him a job). At the end of the long day, as Billy trudges home with his suitcase, I contemplated his future, and I saw no hope for him. I was impressed by this novel’s freshness and originality – it was like an invigorating breeze. But behind the spirited fun was a character study of a flawed and thwarted man. As a result I felt conflicted about Billy – pulled one way, then another.

Paradise Postponed – John Mortimer
Mortimer’s first career was that of a barrister, a profession in which intelligence and precision are of primary importance. But he also possessed a gift for fiction. Though this novel is overpopulated, I was able to keep the six major characters straight because he imparts a distinct individuality to each one. In covering their lives from youth to middle age he jumps back and forth in time, no small feat. He kept my interest at a high level, and even his commentary on changing politics in England was palatable. But, though Mortimer has all the trappings of a traditional novel working nicely for him, he frames the story as a mystery. In the beginning Simeon Simcox, a clergyman, leaves a will in which his possessions go not to his wife and two sons, but to someone he seems to have no ties to and who is already wealthy. As six people fall in and out of love, as they rise or settle in the world, as their attitudes take shape and harden, the mystery of the will pops up at intervals. It’s handled as a teaser – though we get suggestions of something a bit murky going on, what motivated Simeon is kept in the shadows. When the end is near the mystery is suddenly promoted to center stage. With all this buildup, what was needed was a solution that would come as a revelatory surprise. But it’s a letdown, and so things close on a disappointing note. If Mortimer had handled this as a straight novel he might have provided a sense of closure for his main characters; as it is, he leaves them hanging. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he wrote a sequel to Paradise. It’s called Titmuss Regained, so it obviously concentrates on this book’s most compelling character, the implacably ambitious Leslie Titmuss, M.P. (Member of Parliament).

The Abbess of Crew – Muriel Spark
This odd little novel takes place in a convent, is about nuns, is saturated in the ceremonies and trappings of religious life, yet the plot deals with grubby worldly matters. At it center stands Alexandra, “a tower of ivory.” When the book opens she has been elected Abbess, a position she coveted with steely resolve. Her chief competition was a nun who was having sexual relations with a Jesuit priest; this act of rebellion attracted some followers to her side. When the wayward nun is defeated she leaves the convent, and in newspapers and other media outlets she presents a long list of moral transgressions committed by Alexandra (to which this unflappable lady comments, “A dazzling indictment, and, do you know, she has thought not only of the wrongdoings I have committed but those I have not done yet but am about to perform”). Alexandra’s underhanded maneuvering to get elected has repercussions, and when a nun dressed as man is caught in a men’s lavatory of the British Museum with a bag of payoff money the police get involved. A worldwide scandal ensues; reporters try to breach the convent walls (which are guarded by police with dogs). The novel ends with Alexandra being summoned to Rome; aboard the ship her serene self-confidence remains intact. What is one to make of all this? I felt traces of science fiction in the gleaming control room of electronic surveillance equipment which has been installed at Crew (even the trees are bugged). And no matter how demented – or vulgar or comic – things get, the prose never loses its lofty tone. I did a bit of post-reading research, and, to my surprise, the word “Watergate” came up (Sister Gertrude, the globe-trotting nun Alexandra calls to get advice, is Kissinger). This interpretation makes some sense, especially since the book was published at the time of the scandal (when it had a relevance that’s missing now). But why set a satire of Nixon-era shenanigans in a convent? And the parallels are weak (Nixon was no Alexandra). The book, which was obviously written with malicious intent, has an unsavory fascination, but little else.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Ring Is Closed – Knut Hamsun (Norwegian) 
Hamsun wrote this novel when he was seventy-seven, and it would be his final one. A subsequent book, On Overgrown Paths, was mainly a defense of his wartime actions (he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis). I don’t know if his life had begun to unravel when Ring was published in 1936, though from its tone of resignation I suspect it did. His main character is a strange man, disconnected from those things that others find important. Abel has a deeply ingrained “What does it matter?” attitude. On rare occasions he has strong feelings, but they soon fade. His relationships with people – even the three women who play a role in his life – lack depth. When his father dies he comes into a substantial inheritance, but there’s nothing he wants to spend the money on: his ragged old jacket is fine, he’s satisfied living in a squalid shack. He pays off debts and gives much of the rest away – he’s generous with something that has little value to him. Abel isn’t always on the fringes of life; at one point he’s made captain of a milkboat that carries passengers up and down the river. A respectable job, but he tires of it, and off he goes to a foreign country. When he’s away from his home village the narrative shifts to other characters. This loosely constructed novel is written in a prose stripped to the bare essentials, but Hamsun can still hold one’s interest and is still a master at depicting character. His title suggests that he saw Ring as his last work of fiction, and in it he imparts the somber conclusion that all striving – even for happiness – is futile.

Daughters of the Samurai – Janice Nimura
After Commodore Perry’s fleet forced its entry into Edo Bay in 1853, the Japanese government realized that they could no longer continue living in isolation, clinging to a backward technology. One offshoot of their determination to catch up was to send five girls to the United States, where they would live with American families and attend American schools; their purpose was to absorb Western culture (and, of course, the English language) and – after ten years – return to Japan prepared to impart what they had learned. We follow the lives of three of the girls sent on this odd mission: six year old Ume, eleven year old Shige and twelve year old Sutematsu. They grew up Americanized and thus lost contact with the world to which they returned (this would be especially true for Ume). To tell their story the author had to depend entirely on research; we get a patchwork of excerpts from letters, newspapers and the writings of people who had contact with the girls. But a book so dependent on secondhand sources is limited. The main problem with Daughters is that the girls (later women) don’t come to life. I never got more than an inkling of their feelings. They didn’t keep intimate diaries, and in their letters they were sparing as to what they revealed. In the case of two of the girls, on their return to Japan they married and had children; the demands of family life left them little time for letter writing. As a result Ume, who remained single (and kept up a vigorous correspondence), takes center stage, but her efforts to assert herself as an educator didn’t make for compelling reading. This book is no more than a dutiful, plodding effort, and the prose, both Nimura’s and her quoted sources, is too often either stilted or gushy.

A Permanent Member of the Family – Russell Banks
I read eight of the twelve stories in this collection before I called it quits. Banks has seventeen novels to his credit, and many have achieved acclaim. I read one, Continental Drift, and, though I didn’t care for it, it was a serious, ambitious work. Most of these stories are tired and tepid. The prose is competent – Banks writes in a straightforward, simple way – but if he makes a point (often he doesn’t, as in the piddling “Green Parrot”) it’s a flimsy one. My reaction to “Christmas Story” and “Lost and Found” was, basically, “Huh?” – because they wound up nowhere. “Transplant” does have a purpose; in it a man meets with the wife of the donor of his heart to let her listen to it beat; I should have found this touching, but instead it struck me as gimmicky. “Former Marine” is the best of the lot, but it suffers from a flawed premise: that an old guy could pull off bank robberies with such ease. I’ll close this review with one more observation. Banks is seventy-eight years old. This collection may be his last work of fiction, and he ends it with “The Green Door.” In it a poor soul (drunk and probably mentally ill) is stabbed to death. Though this could have been prevented by the first person narrator, he tells the homeless guys who will commit the murder and robbery, “He’s all yours.” Then, “for reasons I can’t know or name,” he watches the proceedings (which are described in graphic detail); then he drives home, goes to bed, and quickly falls to sleep. What we have is a scene of brutality made worse by the presence of an unfeeling observer. Does Banks want to end his career on such a note?

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Winds of Morning – H. L. Davis
This is the third novel I’ve read by Davis, and his strengths are consistent. When his characters talk (and do they talk!), their voices have an earthy vigor. His descriptions of the Northwest of the 1920s, and of the tools men use in their daily work, have an indisputable authenticity. One of those tools are horses, and this book can serve as a primer on equine psychology. Two men are moving a herd to a new location, and there’s a murder mystery hanging over the affair. Amos is the first person narrator, but we learn little of what makes this reticent man act and feel as he does. He’s an observer, and it’s his companion on the trip – an old man named Hendricks – that he observes most closely. Hendricks has made mistakes in his past (undisclosed ones), and as a result has adopted a strict code of conduct; he always sees a choice, even in minor matters, as to what’s the right thing to do. Both men sense that there’s something awry in the world – their personal worlds and the larger one – and they’re trying to find ways to deal with it. Nature, though largely conquered and defiled by man, can still inflict suffering, but a more formidable problem is presented by people. Amos and Hendricks instinctively respond to others with suspicion: most likely they’re deceptive and possibly dangerous. As for women, Amos is deeply cynical, and the love story involving a girl named Calanthe moves in fits and starts. The same can be said for the plot in general. Davis is at ease describing a river crossing, or an incidental conversation, or a landscape, but when it comes to the entanglements of human emotions he becomes grudgingly obscure. Regarding the murder, its never made clear who did what to whom, and why. And though Hendrick’s source of guilt is revealed, it’s handled in an offhand way. As for Amos and Calanthe, Davis can’t, at the end, bring himself to settle for us, in simple terms, if there’s just a possibility of happiness for them.

Under the Net – Iris Murdock
This was included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels written in the English language in the 20th Century. I struggled to the halfway point (page 127) just so I could ask, in this review, “Why?” Murdock tries for a lively lark (and the effort is evident) by having the main character run here and there in frantic pursuit of this and that, with a host of eccentric people crowding their way into the loose-ended plot. Even the prose strains for animation: “At that very moment the telephone rang. My heart sprang within me and fell like a bird striking a window pane. I started to my feet. I had not the slightest doubt that the caller was Hugo. I looked at the phone as if it had been a rattlesnake.” (Two animal similes?) Or Jake’s reactions while eavesdropping: “I must hear more, I thought, with my eyes popping out.” “I was seized forthwith by a convulsive desire to laugh, and had to prevent myself by covering my mouth violently.” This book was a mistake – rollicking comedy was not Murdock’s thing. But it’s an amateurish mistake. And can’t mistakes show talent? The main character is no more than a prop; I never for a minute believed in Jake, his actions, his feelings. This book doesn’t belong on any “best” list. So why is it there?

The Revolt of the Angels - Anatole France (French)
Guardian angels, each assigned to a human, abide on earth and are privy to modern (early 20th Century) learning. Through their reading of scientific texts, they conclude that the bible is a conglomeration of falsehoods, and that God is a tyrannical fraud. The author doesn’t seem to be troubled by the contradiction in his premise. He has his rebellious angels express atheistic views, but their very existence – and that of the God they want to overthrow – is confirmation that a spiritual world exists. When they begin plans to wage war on heaven (with the help of a mysterious arsenal of bombs), I felt I was reading a book for kids, and I quit. The points France makes – that the dominance of Christianity brought on much suffering, that it’s rampant with hypocrisy, etc. – were surely not groundbreaking even in 1914. He seems to believe that the pre-Christian pagan worshipers – the Greeks especially – were on the right track; if humans are to worship anything, why not Bacchus and Venus? The aspect of the novel that deals with humans has interesting moments, but the angels are duds, every one of them. Despite how misconceived this undertaking was, I got the impression that the seventy-year-old author was having a fine time expounding his views.

Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
Under the photo of the young woman on the back cover we’re informed that this debut novel won the Whiting Award, and that Lisa Halliday was born in Medfield, Massachusetts and currently lives in Milan, Italy. The book came to my attention when, in a radio interview, Ms. Halliday talked of her real-life affair with Philip Roth; it took place some sixteen years ago, when she was in her twenties and he was in his seventies. In the first part of Asymmetry, entitled “Folly,” a young woman (Alice) recounts her affair with a much older Famous Author (Ezra Blazer). In the interview Halliday denied that this section was autobiographical. Really? I read the book in order to get the inside scoop on Roth, and surely Halliday (and Simon and Schuster) were aware that others will do the same. The second section, “Madness,” veers off into an entirely different sphere: it deals with the problems in the Middle East and the first person narrator is a Muslim man. This novel (or, rather, two novellas) is a polished, intelligent work, but I constantly found myself questioning what was behind the author’s decisions. This led me to try to sort out, in simple terms, exactly what Halliday did and what she didn’t do. You can find my conclusions at “Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry” at my Tapping on the Wall blog.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Memories of a Catholic Childhood – Mary McCarthy
I first read “Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?” in Cast a Cold Eye, McCarthy’s 1950 short story collection. It reappears as the lead-off story in these memories (which came out seven years later). In it she dissects the mentality that allowed her paternal grandparents to be blithely indifferent to the miserable existence she and her brothers endured after their parents’ death. “Dissects” is the correct word: emotions are presented in a detached, analytical way, and sometimes with a wry humor. This is true even in the next piece, in which she describes the nature of their misery at the hands of the brutish uncle they were sent to live with. Uncle Myers is the only person in the book who comes across as evil. McCarthy isn’t a condemner; she sees people as too complex to be categorized as good or bad. The stories follow her life chronologically; when her well-to-do maternal grandfather takes her to live in Seattle she begins to live in privileged circumstances. She attends school at a Sacred Heart convent; though Catholicism is an influence, early on she becomes a non-believer. My favorite piece in the collection is the final one, “Ask Me No Questions,” in which McCarthy finally tackles (after the woman’s death) her supremely vain maternal grandmother. The smooth and precise prose never flags, but when we move into McCarthy’s mid-teens I got the sense that she was at a loss for material. Actually, these memories are meager; without the supplement of italicized addendum (which I skimmed) the book would come to less than two hundred pages. I can’t say that I grew fond of Mary, but I don’t believe she was asking that of me. Respect for her intelligence would mean more to her, and that I can grant her.

The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard – Anatole France (French)
This novel takes the form of a diary of a man in his seventies (and moves into his eighties). Sylvestre Bonnard is a bachelor whose house is filled with books – he lives in a “City of Books.” He has an elderly housekeeper and a cat named Hamilcar, to whom he talks. He is, actually, talking to the reader throughout the novel – a sense of intimacy is established on the first page and never wanes. My acquaintanceship with this unique individual was a most enjoyable one. The novel has a sentimental strain that may be old-fashioned, but it’s appropriate to the character of Bonnard; there are soft-hearted people like him. The first part of the book is devoted to a search for a precious manuscript, but that subject is dropped entirely. The story then concerns itself with the young daughter of a deceased woman whom Bonnard loved in his youth (a love that was unrequited; she married another). Paris is a big city, and how likely would it be for him to cross paths with someone he didn’t even know existed? But I found these “faults” to be irrelevant; the voice dominating the novel kept me out of a fault-finding mood. Jeanne is in need of  help; she’s staying at a school where she’s a charity case and has been relegated to the status and duties of a servant. Bonnard – who has led a sheltered a life among his books – sees for the first time a manifestation of evil in the person of the headmistress. She informs Bonnard that Jeanne must be trained in the struggle of life, and is to learn that she can’t just amuse herself and do what she pleases. His response: “One comes into this world to enjoy what is beautiful and what is good, and to do what one pleases, when the things one wants to do are noble, intelligent and generous.” He rescues Jeanne, and to provide for her dowry he decides to sell his book collection; the books gave him pleasure, but they have no real value. (His “crime” is robbing Jeanne by secreting some volumes aside from the sale.) As for his age and his solitary existence, it’s not in his nature to complain or to harbor regrets about what he doesn’t have. He accepts, and does so with benevolence and humor. The simple act of acceptance is shown to have its rightful place as one of the keys to contentment. Bonnard has reached the age when he has observations to make about Life (such as the one quoted above), and I found wisdom from a man who professes to have no wisdom. That Anatole France was thirty-eight when he created his “old-book man” is remarkable, as is the fact that this was his first novel. Years ago I read his Penguin Island and thought it a wonder, yet I didn’t pursue other works by him. I succumbed to the fact that France (even though he won the Nobel Prize) is out of vogue. Who even talks of this contemporary of Flaubert? Sylvestre Bonnard might say, with a shrug and a smile, thus are the vagaries of fame.

Transparent Things – Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s novels can be divided into three categories. Two of the categories are similar in that both have believable characters involved in an intelligible plot; what separates them is that some succeed in telling a good story and some don’t. Generally speaking, the simpler the plot, the more successful the story. The third category consists of works that are unintelligible. Though Lolita has its difficulties, it’s certainly not impenetrable. After that novel, Nabokov was finally freed of money worries and he no longer seemed to care about the reader (and so we get Ada). Transparent Things belongs in the third category; it delves into arcane matters in a prose that often seems like a verbal labyrinth. The characters that occasionally emerge from these encumbrances are unreal and act with a perverse randomness. For all his vast intelligence, why couldn’t Nabokov perceive how boring and foolish this is? At any rate, my long association with him ends here, on this down note: I’ve now read (or attempted to read) all of his novels. I wish I had taken his final two in chronological order. Look at the Harlequins! (the last to be published in his lifetime) would have been a much more fitting goodbye to an author who gave me so much pleasure.

Found, Lost, Found – J. B. Priestley
Priestley was a hugely productive writer – I counted thirty novels in the list of his works, and there were equally long numbers of plays, essays, autobiographies and criticism. This novella was published when he was in his eighties, but it has the feel of something done by a young man. I have a hunch it was a discarded manuscript that the elderly writer discovered in a drawer and found pleasing. Premise: Tom drinks a lot of gin (why he chooses to float through life in a perpetual state of inebriation is not made clear); he and Kate meet and soon (too soon) fall in love. She leaves London for an undisclosed location, challenging Tom to find her; she wants to test his commitment to their relationship. The episodes involved in his search make up the bulk of the novel. They’re played as comic set pieces; trouble is, they’re not funny. I became awfully annoyed with Tom the inventive wit (he likes to make up names for himself such as J. Carlton Mistletoe and Theodore A. Buscastle). So I skipped to the end: he finds her. But the larger question for me is why I’m having such a hard time finding a good book to read. I only review those that I get halfway through, so you don’t know about all the ones (sometimes six in a row) I can’t tolerate for that long. Even having to write about this bit of fluff has put me in a bad mood.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Glimpses of the Moon – Edith Wharton
When Wharton was guided by her steely intelligence, she was wonderful; but this contrived and foolish novel shows how precarious excellence is. The premise of Moon is interesting. When Nick and Susie get married they have an agreement: they’ll spend a year together, sponging off rich friends; but if one of them finds someone who can advance them socially/financially, they’ll be free to take the offer and dissolve the marriage. They first stay at a villa on Lake Como (they chose that over places in Versailles and Monte Carlo). Their idyllic honeymoon is marred by one problem: Nick has scruples that Susie doesn’t. While he’s a non-paying guest at the villa he has no problem smoking the expensive cigars of his absentee benefactor; yet when they leave and he finds Suzie packing four boxes of cigars, he sternly orders her to unpack them. At their next stop, a palace in Venice, Susie – who has a practical approach to “managing” the people she depends on – mails four letters at intervals in order to deceive a husband as to his wife’s whereabouts. When Nick finds out about this, he abruptly leaves Susie. For over six months they’re apart, not even writing to one another. Both continue to live in luxury, thanks to the generosity of friends. They also form relationships, but they’re superficial; they moon about each other. In a sort of comedy of errors, each believes that the other has found someone else, and that their agreement to let the other free is still in effect. This whole scenario is rife with problems. Wharton wants us to believe that a deep and everlasting love exists between Susie and Nick; why, then, couldn’t their initial differences be settled with a sensible conversation? She has Susie look to Nick as a moral compass, but he comes across as a stiff-necked hypocrite. And she wants to make the point that material goods aren’t of true value, yet she saturates the novel with the trapping of the ultra-wealthy. She winds things up with Susie living in a humble abode, taking care of a friend’s five children (and learning all about true values). There Nick finally seeks her out, and they declare their eternal love; they will, we’re to assume, live happily ever after. “ ‘Nick!’ Susie sighed, at peace, as if the one syllable were a magic seed that flung out great branches to envelope them.” Which brings me to the prose, which is exceedingly wordy, and the words are often purple.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Hurari
What makes this far-ranging study of man so unusual is Hurari’s perspective: he looks at our species as an analytical alien might. His lack of commitment to accepted norms allows him to move away from conventional ways of thinking. One of his major points is that much of what we hold onto as bulwarks of our lives is imagined. Christianity, democracy, capitalism, our homeland – all are concepts manufactured by the mind of man and thus can be categorized as delusions. And he gives full legitimacy to any other set of delusions that a different culture may believe in. Hurari goes into origins – mainly the Cognitive, Agriculture and Scientific Revolutions that allowed our species to become dominant – but it’s only to show the path that led us to where we are today. It is today (and the future) that concerns him. Hurari acknowledges how disturbing his undermining of the status quo can be. He writes, “Perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.” To him this is “quite a depressing conclusion.” His commitment is to the truth, as he sees it, and he’s equipped with persuasive arguments to back up his views.

I Thought of Daisy – Edmund Wilson
Wilson’s intellectuality undermined his strengths as a novelist. He encumbers Daisy with a schematic framework aimed at presenting different life views; the narrator goes on tangents about Sophocles, politics, metaphysics; the long descriptive passages are Proustian attempts at evoking moods. The plot consists mainly of a series of Greenwich Village parties in which eccentric types – poets, revolutionaries, hangers-on – drink and talk. Though aspects of this were fairly interesting, they obscured what should have been the book’s main focus – namely, the person the narrator is thinking of in the title: Daisy. She’s an emphatic creation, fresh, lively, sparkling. That sparkle is sometimes dulled (due mostly to her problematic relationships with men), and I felt the absence because I cared for her and wanted her to be happy. When the narrator is with Daisy he has an appeal that’s otherwise absent. The same can be said for the author; unlike his other characters Daisy is earthbound, and when she’s present Wilson is pleasingly earthbound too. At the end the narrator expounds on what Daisy offers him: “. . . if only I could hit off, in prose, her attitudes, her gestures, her expressions, the intonation of her voice – preserve them so they should not vanish, as Degas had done for his dancers . . .” In sections Wilson fully succeeds in doing this. But Daisy makes brief appearances in which she reflects the man she’s presently with (that schematic framework at work); only in the last section do we get her undistilled. In his Foreword, written in 1953 (the novel came out in 1929), Wilson says that he had an idea for a sequel, one which he abandoned when he couldn’t find his notes. He considers this “no great loss. By the time you have finished this book, if you do, you will no doubt have had enough of Daisy . . .” Though he’s wrong there, I should be grateful for what I got of her. And maybe his offhand words account for his meager output of fiction. Which is a shame, because in parts of Daisy and in the stories that make up Memoirs of Hecate County he could be remarkable in a unique way.

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope
In this flat second installment of the Orley Farm saga the characters I found invigorating are either absent or watered down. Early on Mrs. Mason confesses to two close friends that she forged the will. There’s much moralizing about her dastardly act, but the repentant woman is forgiven. The trial proceeds and she’s found not guilty. Trollope has sympathy for Mrs. Mason, but he also has a problem with a legal system that allows justice to be subverted by wily lawyers. The main dilemma involves her righteous son, who believes passionately in his mother’s innocence. It’s determined that he must be told of her guilt, and how will he take this blow? He agonizes, considering what she did to be “the foulest fraud that practiced villains can conceive!” – but he too winds up forgiving her (in his stern fashion). It has been decided that, after the trial, Orley Farm must be returned to its rightful owner. This is done, and there things end, leaving the fate of a handful of characters up in the air. Not that I cared much; the novel was too emotionally overwrought and high-minded for any but Victorian readers. In regard to that high-minded tone, there’s a matter that Trollope chooses to gloss over. It has to do with a side story: Felix, who is portrayed as exceedingly upright, is to marry Madeline, who is a paragon of virtue (and beautiful and wealthy to boot). But there’s an obstacle. Before he met her, Felix had been grooming a lower class young woman to be his wife. He had entered into a legal document with the neer-do-well father stipulating that a marriage is to take place; he has hired someone to teach Mary Snow the niceties of manners and to watch over her activities. This lady informs Felix that Mary exchanged letters with a young man and met him once under a lamp-post. Felix has a talk with a contrite Mary in which he gently proposes that they aren’t meant for one another and that they should call off their union. The angry father is appeased by a considerable sum of money (which he will drink away). Thus Felix is provided with a convenient “out” from his entanglement. Trollope the moralist expresses no misgivings about an episode that struck me as thoroughly unsavory.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope
This novel was published in two volumes, so I’m going to read (and review) the two separately. And I surely will read the next volume, as I’m interested in how things turn out. A trial is to take place determining whether Mrs. Mason forged the signatures of her husband and two witnesses on a codicil to a will, one which left her infant son the heir to Orley Farm. At the time, twenty years ago, her husband’s well-to-do adult son had taken the matter to court, contesting the validity of the codicil; the decision went against him, yet he remained convinced that he had been cheated out of property that was rightfully his. When new papers are discovered, giving credence to his belief, he revives the case; if a wrong has been done to him, however long ago, he’ll exact his full pound of flesh. For me, Mrs. Mason’s guilt or innocence is not in question: she forged the codicil. Still, how will she survive the retrial? Trollope is adept at putting characters in moral/emotional vises, and then tightening the screws. The crosscurrents that play over relationships are deviously constructed but entirely sound, given the characters’ psychology and temperament. Another Trollope strength is his portrayal of people who are unpleasant, deviant or evil. I’ll note two of many compelling creations: the lawyer Mr. Dockwrath, a coarse, wily brute force, and the elder son’s wife, a miser of psychotic proportions. But a Trollope weakness is also on display: some characters come across as simplistic and cloying (this is most evident in his depictions of womanly virtue). It all has to do with his attitude: when Trollope was hard he was as good as it gets, but when he was soft he turns mushy. Orley Farm also suffers in that it’s cluttered with too many characters and lines of plot (such as the love triangles involving a handful of young people). But readers in 1862 were desirous of a blockbuster, so Trollope, the human word machine, added the necessary padding. His readiness to produce on demand was an aspect of his work that critics would attack. Where’s the divine inspiration, they asked.

The Final Deduction – Rex Stout
Again I turn to Stout for a diversion. Archie gets a lot of play, which is good (when he glances into a wealthy client’s bedroom he decides it “would suit my wife fine if I ever had a wife, which I probably wouldn’t because she would probably want that type of room”). But this is a sloppily written and plotted novel; Stout wasn’t half trying. In fact, I think he was deliberately seeing how much nonsense he could foist off on his readers. The overly intricate maneuvering of the kidnapping is topped for preposterousness by the method of committing a murder. The Teddler library has a dozen life-sized bronze statues of figures from American history. A drugged man is dragged under the statue of Ben Franklin, which is then pushed over so that it falls on him. But how could someone be sure that a statue of that size and weight would land on the unconscious victim in a way that would cause death (and not just, say, crush his legs)? A little off to the side and the whole plan would be a fiasco. Of course, if the Ben Franklin had missed completely, the murderer could drag the body to the George Washington statue for another try. I often complain about how writers of detective fiction deliberately try to mislead the reader. So this time out, when the five suspects were identified, I chose the most unlikely person to be the murderer. It turns out that I was right. So now I can solve mysteries just like Nero Wolfe.

The Hat of My Mother – Max Steele
I admired Steele’s only novel so much that I got this collection of his short stories. But only “When She Brushed Her Hair” approached the excellence of Debbie. And even that story is marred by an awkward introduction and a postscript in which Steele muses about the project. There’s one other piece that’s very good — “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers” — but the rest range from interesting to mistakes. Since their publication dates begin when the author was thirty-one and end when he was sixty-six, which was his age when the collection came out, it’s a summing up of his work as a writer of short fiction. There’s simply not much of value in this slim volume (under two hundred pages), and I was left wondering how Steele could have written something as good – and ambitious – as Debbie. Maybe the novel was so heartfelt that it elicited the best in him, and his best was better than what he was normally capable of. And he wrote it when he was in his twenties; he would attend five universities, ending up as the longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; possibly academic affairs took up his time and energy. In most of the stories he uses personal experiences for subject matter; this works as long as he stays in the background. In the two successes I noted, one is about his mother and the other is about his kindergarten teacher; in the first he isn’t born yet, and in the second he’s just one of the anonymous boys in Miss Effie’s class. But too often I felt I was in a psychiatric session in which Steele reveals his inability to sustain romantic relationships (in “Color the Daydream,” which is about a love affair that turns out badly, there’s a paragraph that consists of two words: “Torture time”). This collection left me with a feeling of sadness. The stories weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, and Max Steele seemed to have had a struggle with life.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Getting of Wisdom – Henry Handel Richardson
Henry Handel was actually Ethel Florence, and she went to a girls’ school in Melbourne, Australia similar to the one Laura attends in this novel. But, according to Germaine Greer’s Introduction, the author’s career at school was one of multiple successes, whereas Laura blunders from one social disaster to another. Upon this intense, impetuous twelve-year-old newcomer the girls wield their double-barbed cruelties of ridicule and exclusion. Laura isn’t presented in the protective garb of a sympathetic character; she’s replete with flaws and weaknesses, among which self-centeredness and neediness stand out. Her efforts to conform and to impress lead her into her worst transgression. It occurs when she stays for a few days at a minister’s house and returns to tell the girls about her romantic involvement with the handsome, married Mr. Robertson (something that has absolutely no basis in fact). This is libel, but it makes her admired, so she feels impelled to embellish her story with additional “spicy happenings.” She is “as little able as a comic actor to resist pandering to the taste of the public . . .” When her lies are uncovered she becomes even more of a pariah (mainly because the other girls feel duped). Though Laura suffers during her years at the school, there’s a light, comic touch to the way Richardson depicts her experiences. But there’s empathy too – Laura is real and relatable, and I was relieved at the exuberant ending, which shows her with spirit intact. This is a very entertaining book, and an oddly instructive one. Young girls who find themselves in a situation in which they feel like square pegs should read The Getting of Wisdom. I think it would offer them some solace and some hope. *

Concluding – Henry Green
I’ll begin with a spoiler: the missing girl is never found, nor is she accounted for. In fact, none of the issues presented (e.g., will Mr. Rock get to remain in his cottage?) are settled in any way. Green creates people and scenes with a remarkable vibrancy; that was his thing, and there it ended for him. His two successes (Loving and Living) are amorphous mood pieces in which people talk; in those books his weakness at plotting was not a factor. But this novel is made up of multiple dilemmas involving at least a dozen characters. Near the end he continues to pile on new complexities, as if he were unable to curb his imagination. Long before the last page of Concluding I had concluded that nothing would be resolved. Though I felt a bit gypped about Mary (the missing girl), I should have known better than to expect Green to play by the conventional rules of narrative. Even his quirky style of prose is something the reader has to adapt to. He wrote for himself, not for the reader.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester
If you have an interest in how the Oxford English Dictionary came into existence, this is the book for you. If you have little or no interest you may still find Winchester’s account to be an engrossing read. He focuses on two men: one a scholar in charge of the project, the other a man who, for twenty years, contributed mightily from his cells at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who served in the Civil War (where, possibly, the horrendous events at the Battle of the Wilderness set off his mental decline), was undoubtedly insane. But he was also brilliant – extremely well-read, an accomplished flutist and painter – and when the call for contributions came from Oxford, he leapt to the task. No doubt it gave purpose to his days, a feeling of being a part of a grand enterprise. I felt, in a sense, that the scope of this enterprise (which took seventy years to complete) was driven by the obsessions of all parties involved. The book is short for such a vast topic – a little over two hundred pages – and moves along at a nice clip, mixing scholarship with the sometimes sad, sometimes lurid story of Dr. Minor. The Professor of the title, James Murray, gets much less attention than the Madman, for whom Winchester obviously has a great deal of sympathy. The last word in the OED, which was completed in 1927, was zyxt. In my American Heritage Dictionary (which I’ll stick to, thank you very much) the last entry is xyster. As for the meanings of these words, you can always look them up.

Small Town – Sloan Wilson
What does it say about me that I read all five hundred pages of what is, literary-wise, a mess? I was aware of the book’s many deficiencies, yet I kept going, and was entertained rather than displeased. Or, rather, my displeasure had entertainment value – often I’d think, You don’t mean Wilson is going to go there? Yes, indeed, whenever he moved into love and sex (which he did a lot), he was actually going straight into the flagrantly improbable. His awkward depiction of women – their words and actions – was cringe-worthy, but it was also amusing. So, like an afternoon soap opera addict, I kept reading, carried along on the smooth flow of the prose. As for plot, our hero (a famous photographer) returns to the small town where he grew up and instantaneously falls in love with thirty-year-old Rose. But their bliss of total commitment runs into a snag when, during their first sexual act, she has a heart attack; then, at their wedding reception, another heart attack kills her (I had never believed in her, and so was uninvolved). Her seventeen-year-old sister Ann comes to Ben’s rescue, making sexual advances which he nobly (though wavering at times) resists. Ben, by the way, is forty-five, and his son is the boyfriend of Ann, so there’s a sort of triangle going on. A bunch of other plot lines are introduced as major ones and then allowed to wither and die. They die because Wilson was interested only in Ben Winslow’s emotional travails. Ben is initially forceful and competent, but by the end he’s a hapless soul, clinging to a few hopes. I think this book was very personal to Wilson, and was written with great sincerity. Despite all the sappiness of Small Town, it still manages to impart a sense of loss and longing.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Street of No Return – David Goodis
I never heard of David Goodis, but the Library of America saw fit to publish a volume with five of his noir novels. Does he deserve to rub elbows with the greats? – that question is the main subject of this review. Street is competently written, and has some fairly good scenes, but structurally it’s all over the place. And it’s unconvincing. Things begin to tip toward the ridiculous when it’s revealed that the main character, a derelict named Whitey, was once a famous crooner. What caused his downfall? – a woman, of course. In his heyday (when Whitey was Gene Lindell), he attended a stag party; in the midst of exceedingly gross acts a woman performs a languid dance in which she doesn’t remove a bit of clothing (which the unruly audience accepts without objections). For Gene it’s no less than instantaneous attraction on a combustible scale. He intercepts her as she leaves her dressing room, and five minutes later, as they sit in a cab, we get lines like this: “She took a deep straining breath, as if fighting for air. ‘I’ve heard them tell about things like this, the way it happens so fast, but I never believed it.’ ” Well, nothing happened, and I didn’t believe any of it; and since I already wasn’t enjoying the book that much, when things got dumb I refused to go any further. Street was originally published as a Gold Medal paperback, and no doubt it had a lurid cover. It may have delivered what some readers wanted, but it’s not literature. The Library of America has a thing for crime writers (Chandler, Cain, Hammett are represented). Chandler was a nice prose stylist, but his plotting was a mess. In the case of Cain and Hammett, they both came out with one successful novel; the rest of their output was mostly hack work. I recently read a Continental Op story by Hammett. In the beginning it clearly states that the murdered man’s girlfriend was not in his will. Yet, at the end, a comment is made about the three-quarters of a million dollars that she will inherit. This is sloppy, careless writing, and it’s not worth bothering with. Yet, along with Hammett’s Complete Novels, the Library of America includes another volume devoted to his Crime Stories and Other Writings.

Death and the Good Life – Richard Hugo
Hugo was an acclaimed poet. He wrote his only novel two years before his death in 1982, and for his foray into fiction he chose to write a mystery. Which is a pity, for when the book isn’t deep into sleuthing it has a refreshing quality, mostly deriving from the first person narrator’s jaunty voice. But mysteries have a long tradition regarding how a crime is solved. It’s a bad tradition, dependent on convoluted plots, an overabundance of suspects, gunplay, an accumulation of corpses. And, worst of all, red herrings – the reader is deliberately misled. Hugo employs all these cliches, and the book becomes just another mediocre contribution to the genre. Actually, it’s worse than most in that Al Barnes confronts the murderer and for five pages he tells her why and how she killed five people. But later, in a Eureka moment, the truth is revealed to him, and he then confronts the real murderers and for eight pages he tells them why and how they committed six murders (it comes to six when you add the woman Al first accused). It was all far-fetched and labored. Two blurbs on the back cover are from writers, and both, while praising Death, comment on their feelings for Hugo. And a preface by James Welch is an ode to his friendship with the man. I guess affection trumps one’s critical faculties. Of this novel, Welch writes that Hugo was “tickled pink when it was accepted for publication back in 1980.” Yet it wasn’t until 1991 (nine years after his death) that a Livingston, Montana operation called Clark Street Press put out a paperback edition of Death. What publishing house made that first acceptance and why didn’t they follow through? That, it turns out, is the only mystery I care about.

A Very Good Hater – Reginald Hill
This was a random selection pulled from the shelves of a university library. I didn’t recognize the author’s name, and it was a hardcover edition without a dust jacket (and therefore no blurbs). The title was interesting, and so were the opening lines, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. Hater sort of falls in the same mystery category as the two previous novels I reviewed, but it’s the “sort of” that makes all the difference. What lifts this book above the others is that Hill respects the reader’s intelligence and avoids hackneyed formulas. The novel opens with a question: Is the man coming out of the lift of a London hotel a former Nazi SS officer named Hebbel? And, if so, does he deserve to die for what he did twenty years ago? In the intricate cat and mouse game that ensues everyone has hidden motives, and the author puts it to the reader to figure out what lies behind people’s actions. But he doesn’t lead us on wild goose chases. We know what the main character (who was one of Hebbel’s victims) knows. However, Goldsmith is both deceived and a deceiver, so even he can’t be relied on for the truth. The question of whether Housman is Hebbel begins to take a back seat. What we get are multiple character studies; mainly of Goldsmith, but also of his POW buddy Templewood. Who the hater is, and why he hates, is unveiled in the book’s closing pages, and we leave him as he embarks on a carefully-constructed path of revenge. I was beginning to lose faith in mysteries, but this book asserts how satisfying and engrossing they can be. So who is the talented Mr. Hill? A bit of research revealed that he was England’s grand master of the genre. I wonder if, in his enormous output, I happened upon one of his best. We’ll see, because I’ll be reading more of his work.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Hustler – Walter Tevis
In a lean, efficient prose Tevis takes us into a world that has elements of grime and grandeur. For Fast Eddie Felson the bright rectangle of a pool table is an arena where he can impose order by guiding the paths of ivory balls with amazing precision. When he goes against men nowhere near his level he pretends to be only a middling player – until the stakes are worth exploiting. Sometimes his opponent is as good – or nearly as good – as he is, and these encounters are prolonged battles of skill and will. The movie version, which I saw many years ago, stuck closely to the novel in plot and casting (Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats is Tevis’s creation brought to life). As in the film, Eddie meets Sarah in a bus station lunchroom where she’s killing time until a bar opens at 6AM. They come together largely because they’re both drinkers and lonely; though they begin to care for one another, they’re emotionally wary and thoroughly mismatched. At the novel’s end their relationship is left unresolved – as are many issues. Eddie has the determination and discipline needed to beat a player like Fats; but after victory he finds that he’s the property of his manager, and to go against this imposed arrangement is as dangerous as going against a mobster. This seems like a last minute – and unwarranted – complication. For an author whose endings are usually strong, to leave so much hanging is perplexing. The Hustler was Tevis’s first novel; I had previously read three other books by him (starting with his best of the lot, The Man Who Fell to Earth). I consider him to be a neglected author; he should be better known. He was always good, and at times he could be as exceptional as Fast Eddie on a run.

Signals – Tim Gautreaux
This collection has twenty-one stories, of which I read twelve. Gautreaux abides by the solid old virtues of storytelling – particularly the primacy of voice – and though the results are sometimes good, the slight nudge to very good isn’t there; often it’s sabotaged by a tendency to get sentimental or to send a message. In the title story, sixty-year-old Professor Talis lives an isolated existence; his radio – a venerable Pioneer SX-1250 – has been his “Mozart-seeping companion” for decades. It breaks down, and it turns out that the all-capable lawn lady is capable of fixing it. She’s a life force, his opposite, and in the course of the repairs he awakens to what he’s been missing. He asks her out, she refuses, saying “I don’t believe we’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.” With the radio once again producing beautiful sounds, he asks her to dinner, and she replies, “You stay home and be a good listener.” Talis responds by lugging the radio out of his house and throwing it on the sidewalk, where it breaks into pieces. He says, “And now?” She accepts. The Message was not only too overt and simplistic, but it came by means of a foolish act. Another aspect that kept recurring in the weaker stories was an over-reliance on outlandish characters (often old folks whose mind has given out) and the weird situations they get into. When this outlandishness goes rogue – when stories feature low-life types who are scraping bottom (such as the vicious, drunken cretin in “Sorry Blood”) – I felt I was being dragged through the mire for no good reason. But even in its milder manifestations, as in “The Adventures of Sue Pistola,” a character study is sacrificed for laughs based on someone’s freakish behavior. Bottom line: I have too many objections to what Gautreaux offers. He and I just aren’t cut from the same bolt of cloth.

My Antonia – Willa Cather
This novel is set in the Nebraska prairie in the 1880s. Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda arrive at Black Hawk at the same time, but they face drastically different circumstances. Jim is ten and has been recently orphaned; he’s going to live with his grandparents, who have forged a comfortable life on their farm. Antonia is a few years older; she and her family are immigrants from Bohemia. When Jim and his grandmother pay a visit to the Shimerdas they find that their home is a hole dug in a draw-bank. Antonia’s father is a cultured gentleman, totally unfit to farm the land; the mother is a shrewish study in negativity. Jim and Antonia form a closeness in the few years before she’s saddled with work (which she embraces, proud of her strength). Though they never lose the bond from their early years, she begins to live her hard life while his continues in an unruffled fashion. In the book’s second section, called “The Hired Girls,” Jim leaves the farm when his grandparents move to Black Hawk. Antonia is one of those hired girls, employed as a domestic; at the Saturday night dances life opens up for her, with mixed results. When Jim goes to the university, he and Antonia part ways (and the book loses some of its spark). As an adult Jim comes to think about Antonia in an almost worshipful way. In the closing scene he visits her, now a woman in her forties with a large brood of children, and he sees someone battered by life but still vital and able to “stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning of common things.” Maybe, through Jim’s outsized emotions, Cather is trying to express an appreciation for the pioneering spirit that can survive all obstacles. Not all survive – Antonia’s father commits suicide. Madness is not uncommon, and in some people the worst aspects of human nature take root. Others work and grow in generosity and understanding. Cather’s prairie is a testing ground for character. This is a rich and heartfelt book. And a tough one – when events or subject matter warrant it, Cather can be as unyielding as a Nebraska winter.

Friday, October 20, 2017

I Am Charlotte Simmons – Tom Wolfe
Seventy-three-year-old Tom Wolfe goes back to college. His fictional alma mater is prestigious Dupont, which ranks up there with Yale (which Wolfe attended in 1957). Things have changed drastically since he was a student, so Wolfe begins this novel with thanks to the many young insiders who helped him gather information about present-day conditions on campus. Though I wonder how reliable his sources were, they can’t take the blame for this smarmy novel: all blame falls on Wolfe’s shoulders. His trademark white suit, it turns out, hides a bad case of dandruff (probably the only kind of bodily discharge he doesn’t describe in detail). Charlotte Simmons’ first visit to her dorm’s coed bathroom is a grueling example of male vulgarity at its scatological worst. But are males, even college students, that bad? Are the women as sluttish as Wolfe portrays them to be? Do students speak in what is described as Fuck Patois, in which that word is used as every form of speech? Has sex at the collegiate level become an act indulged in randomly and indiscriminately? (“Sex! Sex! It was in the air along with the nitrogen and the oxygen! The whole campus was humid with it! tumid with it! lubricated with it! gorged with it! tingling with it! in a state of around-the-clock arousal with it! Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut – ”) A claim might be put forth that Wolfe is making a moral statement about the immorality on today’s campuses; but, if so, his depiction of life at Dupont would have to bear the stamp of authenticity. And authenticity is what this over-heated novel lacks. What we’re getting is an old man’s fantasy (which would account for the many lingering descriptions of “ripped” male anatomy). The prose is hammered out in a makeshift fashion, and the characters are stereotypes or gross exaggerations. Even the virginal Charlotte Simmons, dumped in the middle of this Sodom and Gomorrah, isn’t developed to the point where she garners sympathy; she serves a merely functional role, as a colorless counterpoint to the rest of the students. My rule is that I must read at least half of a book to review it. I quit a third of the way through this novel, but its so mammoth that I’m making an exception. As for why I got that far, I simply fell victim to the fascination that the repellent offers. And, to give Wolfe a crumb of praise, he still writes with a demented vigor.

The Far Country – Nevil Shute
This novel contains elements basic to a successful love story. First and foremost, the characters must be real, for why else would we care about them? Shute’s portrayal of Jennifer Morton is especially strong; she’s multi-dimensional and appealing. When she’s on a trip to Australia she meets Carl Zlinter, and it’s under dire circumstances. An accident had occurred at a mining camp, and she helps him perform two operations, one the severing of a leg, the other cranial surgery. Jennifer is no nurse; she’s pressed into duty because she’s the only person in the vicinity with clean hands. Carl is a lumberman, but in his native Czechoslovakia he had been a doctor; after WWII he migrated to Australia and had to serve two years as a laborer. The men in the camp call him Splinter, and turn to him for medical care (which, by law, he isn’t allowed to do). So Jennifer and Carl are thrown together, working for twelve hours in an intense situation; an intimacy arises. In the following months their feelings for one another deepen; Shute gives us reasons why they fall in love. And they deserve one another’s love: they’re good people with similar values. Beyond some kisses there are no sex scenes, but it’s clear that they’re made of flesh and blood. We’re left believing that these two will make a good life together. This isn’t a great novel, but it’s a satisfying one. Since there are no major complications, it can be said that Shute approaches the subject of love in simple terms. There are other ways to do it. But many attempts fail because the characters aren’t real and reasons for the depth of feeling which merits the word love are never convincingly developed.

Fortune Is a Woman – Winston Graham
I enjoyed a previous work by Graham, so, despite its silly title, I took a chance on this one. It starts out promisingly, but gradually the promise dissipates. The falling off in potential occurs because Graham wants this to be a mystery/suspense novel, along with a love story, and halfway through he begins to manipulate characters and situations to make the book serve those purposes. Things get very complicated, but I didn’t try to follow the twists and turns because the whole endeavor had become an empty fabrication. The love story was flat, the mystery was based on unlikely convolutions, the action scenes were clumsy. In that previous novel by Graham – The Walking Stick – its main character was authentic – painfully so. If, in Fortune, he had focused on Oliver Branwell’s obsession, this wouldn’t have been a love story, nor would it have been a mystery. It would have been a psychological study. But that’s a complex undertaking. Instead an author can take the easy route – and still be commercially successful – by writing something second-rate like Fortune Is a Woman.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Americana – Don Delillo
This was Delillo’s debut novel, and his prose crackles with intelligence and originality. Dave, the first person narrator, is a young executive at a television network. In a manic chapter (the Friday review meeting) he observes people like Weede Denney and Reeves Chubb engage in an absurdist charade of mendaciousness and ineptitude and toadying. When he’s not killing time in his office Dave navigates through New York as if he owned it – he seems to know everyone and has beautiful women at his beck and call. Yet he feels a profound desolation and solitude. And there’s the killer. This might have worked as a satire of corporate life, for it’s funny in parts and has a fast-moving surface sheen good for skating on. But with a protagonist suffering from angst that potential melted away. Especially when the angst comes across as a contrivance. In Part Two we take an excursion into Dave’s youth, but he’s no different from the adult version: one cool customer with hidden depths. After leaving a party rife with inanity (Dave gets off some of his trademark quips) he stands outside in the dark and quiet and thinks, “It was a Sunday night in early September, and my body beat with sorrow at the beauty and mockery of all bodies.” Shortly thereafter, as Dave was shagging fly balls at a deserted ballpark, I decided to part company with him. So I missed his cross-country trip, in which, according to the back cover, he makes a “mad and moving attempt to capture a sense of his own and his country’s past, present and future.”

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
The first person narrator in Morrison’s debut novel is ten-year-old Claudia; the book seems to be about her and her sister. Pecola appears as a secondary character, a poor soul who has everything going against her. But Pecola’s story begins to take up more space; we even get the life histories of her parents. At the close of the chapter devoted to her father he rapes Pecola. What follows next is a chapter featuring Soaphead Church, who has a thriving business as a Spiritualist and Psychic Reader. Pecola comes to him, asking for blue eyes (so that she can be beautiful, like white people). Soaphead rents an apartment from a lady whose mangy old dog revolts him; he gives Pecola some poisoned meat and tells her to feed it to the dog, and “if the animal behaves strangely, your wish will be granted on the day following this one.” The dog dies horribly and Soaphead goes to his desk and writes a long, instructive letter to God, much of it justifying his sexual desire for little girls. Pecola gets her wish; we learn this in a chapter in which she’s talking obsessively about her blue eyes to an imaginary friend; she’s gone over the edge. In an Afterword Morrison expands on the genesis of the novel and its broader theme (racial self-loathing). Though she wanted readers to interrogate themselves for the smashing of Pecola, many “remain touched but not moved.” Beyond my “poor soul” reaction, I was both unmoved and untouched. The fault lies primarily in the way Pecola is presented. She mostly appears in disconnected segments in which she’s observed by others; this placing her on the sidelines amounts to an avoidance of her. Other elements detracted from believability, foremost of which was the over-the-top garishness (the Soaphead chapter is an example). And the degree of ugliness was alienating. Some people get more than their rightful share of it, but to express it so graphically made me feel as if it were being shoved in my face (here’s the Truth, like it or not). Lastly, Morrison’s attempt to impose newness through typography stuck me as gimmicky. We get chapters in which the margins aren’t justified; we get sections in italics; chapters begin with excerpts from a white child’s reader: HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHERDICKANDJANE . . . Morrison ends her Afterword by writing that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread. And it has taken twenty-five years to gain for her the respectful publication this edition is.” Morrison’s Nobel Prize was surely the deciding factor in the republication. As for the belated respect, Morrison deserves credit for her intentions.

Seven Poor Men of Sydney – Christina Stead
In Stead’s debut novel (I’ve been using those last two words a lot lately) she lets her prodigious talent run unchecked. Her characters are speaking machines, going on and on in a manner so rarefied, so hyper-intelligent that it was difficult to follow. No discernible plot emerged – just a lot of socialism and unhappiness – and the emotions were pitched way too high. Finally, two thirds of the way through, the tidal wave of words began washing over me, and I quit reading. There were stretches in Poor Men when the weight of words and ideas was lifted, when people interacted, and these interludes were wonderful; they’re better than what most authors are capable of. Though Stead would always remain an undisciplined writer, she would learn some things about her craft. In The Man Who Loved Children we get an entire novel that is wonderful.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Summer - Edith Wharton
Charity Royall was born on the Mountain, a place so impoverished and primitive that it exists outside the realm of civilized society. Lawyer Royall had gone there and taken her from a mother all to willing to give up the infant; since then, for eighteen years, Charity had lived in his house in North Dormer. The first spoken words in this novel, which Charity repeats twice as she walks alone to her job at the library, are “How I hate everything!” She’s an outsider in a village that offers her nothing; as for Lawyer Royall, she maintains a defiant and wary distance from him. She sees herself as a person without a future, and her negativity is hardening into a shell. But she opens up when a young architect arrives to sketch the old houses. Her relationship with Lucius, which grows into a love affair, is daringly portrayed, considering when the book was written. Charity’s sexual passion is real and positive. Though obstacles arise and bring an end to their idyllic meetings, Charity isn’t a rejected lover; yet that’s the role she all too readily accepts. I wondered why she didn’t fight for what she wants – and for what Lucius wants too. Throughout the book looms the presence of Lawyer Royall. Charity’s conflicted attitude toward him makes it difficult for the reader to pin down an already complex character. His strong feelings for Charity seem to be a mix of carnal and parental love, and how can these coexist? The ending Wharton gives us is troubling. It seems to be a dead end, a submission to a dismal and barren existence. And, again, I wondered why Charity accepted winter and didn’t fight for summer.

The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love – Elizabeth Cox
Though Cox inundates the reader with feelings, throughout this short novel I felt as if I were standing on the sidelines watching a game I wasn’t much interested in. The prose is good, and Molly and her daughter Franci are, at a certain level, well-drawn. But when dire events occur their reactions seemed to be watered down versions of emotions. As I read on other flaws began to accumulate. The male characters are sketched in; William, the husband, comes across as an automaton, and Ben, Molly’s new love interest, is no more than a prop. The plot twists are makeshift (such as the dead son blithely returning from the dead). We occupy the minds of all the characters, but the book is evasive as to why somebody does something. Why don’t we learn one thing about the woman William leaves Molly for? The topper came near the end when a peripheral character – a disturbed young man – sets fire to himself. The whole town gets weepy over this. If you too get weepy, you’ve failed the test, because Zack has been inserted in the book merely to elicit your tears. It came as no surprise to learn that Cox has spent most of her life teaching in creative writing programs. She does everything right as far as technique goes. But it would serve a useful purpose if she were to assign this novel to her students, telling them that they need to identify the ways in which she fails to make her story real.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands – Joao Guimaraes Rosa (Portuguese)
The form this novel takes is an unbroken five hundred page monologue to an unidentified listener – the reader. In a disjointed way Riobaldo tells the story of his life, but two things predominate, and stand in stark contrast: warfare between lawless bands of heavily armed factions operating in the wilds of Brazil and the narrator’s love for another man. It’s not a comradely love but a physical desire. Though Riobaldo has sexual encounters with women, and none with Diadorim, the women are inconsequential while Diadorim is all-important. The bulk of this bulky novel is filled with descriptions of battles conducted by men who are the epitome of machismo. But Rosa also gives us noble acts and sentiments and a lot of philosophical asides (none of which made sense to me). The colloquial voice works, and the novel has a freewheeling drive. But that drive was going nowhere. No plot emerged, just more battles, more mooning over Diadorim. It all struck me as a pointless endeavor, and at the halfway point I bid goodbye forever to the backlands.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Possessed – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
When I was reading this as a comic novel, for more than half its 700 pages, I thought it was wonderful. Dostoyevsky assembles a cast of people who are twisted in some way – mad, delusional, malignantly manipulative, etcetera – and sets them to work on one another. The book is in the Victorian tradition, complete with set scenes on a grand scale; there’s a Gala held to raise funds for the Aid of Needy Governesses which turns into a fiasco, complete with pratfalls. The melodramatic pot-boiler of a plot (about an undercover attempt to overthrow the whole of society) is run by a ragtag handful of bunglers. Possibly Dostoyevsky was commenting, in a cynical fashion, on the errant tendencies in the Russian character. At any rate, it was vivid, vigorous and entertaining. My first stirring of unease came in a long dialogue Stavrogin has with a priest; it involves a confession and a discussion of faith and the soul and God’s forgiveness. Suddenly we’re in Crime and Punishment territory. This change in tone slowly takes precedence. Dostoyevsky tries to force elements that are comic into a serious mold. The result is still comic, but foolishly so; the book becomes a nonsensical jumble, and two hundred pages from the end I had enough. I truly believe that for much of the book Dostoyevsky was having fun; if I was, how could he not be? Maybe he couldn’t separate himself from his reputation as one who probes into profound matters. Who knows?

Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford is an English village which, Gaskell writes in the first sentence, “is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Yet these Amazons are not warriors; they’re spinsters or widows concerned solely with local matters, and the rare conflicts that take place are conducted with slights and snubs. Cranford began as stories that appeared in the mid-1800s in Household Works, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. Their quiet charm made them very popular and they were collected to make up this slim volume. Gaskell’s benevolent attitude toward her elderly ladies can become a bit saccharine, but that’s countered by the sly humor she directs at their preoccupation over matters of status and propriety. My enjoyment of the book was probably due in part to what readers long ago found pleasing: it offers escapism. Cranford is a safe retreat from worldly turmoil.

The Breaking Wave – Nevil Shute
This unusual war novel involves a Wren in the British navy who works behind the lines maintaining guns on ships that will take part in the D-Day invasion. Except for one flyover by a German plane, there are no battle scenes. For Janet Prentice war will have a lasting appeal. She’s young, involved in an event with a vital purpose; added to that, she falls in love for the first and only time in her life. But war’s dark side hits her hard. Though she’s unscathed physically, she deals with guilt (involving that flyover by the German plane); she comes to believe that she killed seven innocent men. Shortly afterwards she loses Bill, the man she loves, then her father. She sees their deaths as retribution for her actions, and she conceives the idea that she’s fated to lose five more things she loves. She’s not deranged; in the months before the invasion exhaustion and stress have eroded her emotional resources. When the dog Bill had entrusted to her is crushed by a tank she breaks down. It’s a case of PTSD before that term was in use. The war is over for Janet. She goes through years of caring for others as they die: first her mother, then a distant relative. She repeatedly tries to rejoin the Wrens, but is rejected. Though the bulk of the plot is devoted to her, the first person narrator is Alan, Bill’s brother. The book opens twenty years after the war, with Alan returning home to a sheep ranch in Australia; on the morning of his arrival he learns that his parent’s live-in maid had committed suicide. Her name – or the one she gave them – is Jessie Proctor. What follows, in flashbacks, is Janet Prentice’s story. To make Alan the narrator of this story (he only spent one day with her and Bill) seemed like a dubious contrivance, but it didn’t interfere with my reading because the Janet that emerges is strong and authentic. More so than Alan, who is the other central character. I was disappointed in how Shute wraps things up; I couldn’t accept the final entries in Janet’s diary. In this book you have to take the good with the not-so-good. And the good is not just engrossing, but it goes deep.

Kept in the Dark – Anthony Trollope
In an ideal marriage, by Victorian standards, a wife should be pure as the driven snow, a husband should be a stalwart and benevolent Master. Though these roles are antiquated, what gives this book relevancy today is the fact that jealousy and possessiveness are constants in human nature. Trollope creates a situation which is analogous to a tightening noose. A year before her marriage to George Cecilia was engaged to a charming reprobate; when she began to discern Sir Francis Geraldine’s true nature she broke things off. Then she meets and marries George and they live in conjugal bliss. But Cecilia never tells him of her previous engagement. Though she’s innocent of any wrongdoing, she never summons up the courage to divulge something that she finds distasteful. To further complicate matters, George knows and despises his wife’s former suitor. Sir Francis, with malicious intent, sends George a letter in which he reveals his relationship with Cecilia; he tells no lies, but he implies that he and Cecilia still have a sort of understanding. At first George believes the letter is a complete falsehood; when Cecilia admits that the facts in the letter are true, suspicions arise in George’s mind. How could she have been close to such a despicable man? Why has Cecilia kept him in the dark about Sir Francis? What secret has she been hiding? Distrust and a feeling of being duped consume George, and his response is to institute a complete separation. Though Trollope tries to give George a basis for his emotions, his harshness toward someone he purports to love puts him in a bad light. The two strongest characters are the villains; the book is most alive when Sir Francis and Francesca Altifiorla are in action. Interesting, isn’t it, how evil is more compelling than virtue? This slim volume may have been Trollope’s last work; it was serialized in Good Words magazine in 1882, the same year he died. I read it in a republication as it first appeared (in cliffhanger installments, and complete with typos). As always with Trollope, those readers long ago were rewarded. Not a masterpiece, but a good read in which one forms opinions about the situation and the protagonists.