Sunday, June 1, 2008

School for Love - Olivia Manning
Wonderful and unique. A little orphan boy, a cat, a spinster he goes to live with in Jerusalem. And other assorted personages, all drawn extremely well. But the triumph is Miss Bohun, who could have been merely the standard villain, but she’s more. She’s more because Olivia Manning cared enough about all her characters to draw them in depth, and that depth has a lot of heart. When done with this book I felt that I was looking ahead at the life journey the boy is about to take. What did he learn, during the time I spent with him? Good or ill? There’s an unsettling ambiguity. *

Boston Adventure - Jean Stafford
I read to the halfway mark of this book (just to get credit for it). I often thought, during those two hundred pages, that the story would break out and become satisfying; I felt it could do so. But enough is enough – it just wasn’t happening. The problems: everything was handled in a turgid way, from scenes to feelings; repetition abounded, not helped by a convoluted Henry James-like prose; the main character’s emotions had a melodramatic edge. Much later Stafford wrote a non-fiction book about Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother called A Mother in History. It’s done with perfect simplicity.

The Heat of the Day - Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen sure knows how to write. Meticulous care is given to scene, mood, texture. But, problem is, all this care translates to laborious going for the reader. Finally I looked at a paragraph and knew I’d have to plow through another inflated demonstration of Miss Bowen’s precious sensibilities. And I wasn’t up to it. I asked myself a question: Do you care about any of her characters? These wooden, lifeless, anemic props? In The Death of the Heart Bowen was also the meticulous craftsman, but that book was infused with the animating spirit of real people.

The Prison - Georges Simenon (French)
I read an interview in which Simenon said that when he sat down to write a novel he had no idea where the plot would go or how it would turn out. This one wound up nowhere. It had an interesting premise, but he did nothing with it. The main character, who’s searching for the answer to why his wife killed her sister, walks around, drinks a lot, agonizes a lot. We wait to find out the Why, but what we learn is a total copout. On the final page Simenon has the character kill himself by crashing his car into a tree. (Sorry for the spoiler, but it really doesn’t matter.)

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