Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Edge of Day - Laurie Lee
This is an autobiographical account of a boy growing up in a village in a west English countryside that was soon to become a victim of progress. Lee was a poet, which can translate into good or bad prose; his is the good kind. I liked the boy, I liked his mother, I liked his sisters – I just flat-out liked the book. It would be a mistake to call it life-affirming, though Lee does evoke sensual pleasures, including something so simple as the blundering movements of bees. But he also presents life’s dark side: callousness, cruelty, death. Lee doesn’t condemn these things; they’re part of the whole package that is man’s lot. It’s a philosophical outlook. It’s a wonderful book. *

Zeno’s Conscience - Italo Svevo (Italian)
This novel explores every thought of Zeno, ad infinitum, and it wore me down; I found myself constantly rereading sentences (due to wandering attention). A psychological novel, well-written, sometimes funny – it’s all those things, but it’s also self-indulgent and tedious.

Augustus Carp Esq. by Himself (Sir Henry Howard Bashford)
Unique, funny, grotesque. An attack on extreme religiosity. The author does well with the first person unreliable narrator, showing him to be what he really is in his own self-adoring words. One problem is the degree of grotesqueness – Carp and his father and friends seem almost unhuman; the author walks a thin line and is best when he stays on the human side. Another mistake is the long scene – by far the longest in the book – involving Mary Moonbeam’s revenge, in which Carp does things that are way out of character. Bashford is most deft with the small episode, and, thankfully, those episodes make up most of the novel.

Vladimir Nabokov - Jane Grayson
The Overlook Illustrated Lives are short biographies filled with photographs. This one covers the events in Nabokov’s life in a competent way, but I didn’t get a sense of what made the man tick or what his relationships were like – not even with his wife. Grayson tries to uncover something about the author’s sexual preferences (little girls?), but she comes up with nothing more than tabloid-variety gossip. This is a good idea for a series, but someone else should have done Nabokov. Someone who, at the very least, could write well.

Children and Others - James Gould Cozzens
These stories were written in the 1930s, so they’re early in Cozzen’s career. This was when he did his best work (Castaway, The Last Adam). He groups the stories into sections – Child’s Play, Away at School, etc. But there’s a common factor throughout – he focuses on the moment when his character learns something significant about life. The prose is beautifully constructed, with care and precision; though at times complex, it’s always reader-friendly. Cozzens was usually a cold writer, so I was surprised at how deep he went emotionally. An outstanding collection, ranking with the best. *

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