Friday, December 5, 2008

The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
The second of the Balkan Trilogy. As with the first (The Great Fortune) the setting is Bucharest. World War II has broken out and the city is in disarray as its residents face an imminent invasion. But unfortunately Harriet and Guy Pringle get most of the attention, and they’re not particularly interesting. Guy remains vague; this is an autobiographical work, and Manning seems to be walking on egg shells when dealing with her husband (probably because he’s an ass). Yaki is still the most alive, multi-dimensional character, and Bucharest is still a fascinating place, but they get second billing.

Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
This last novel in a trilogy has Harriet and Guy in Greece, with Guy’s difficulty getting a job the main focus. He’s still vague (sigh). There’s a suggestion of Harriet having a fling with a handsome young fellow, but we know she’s too proper to do it. The book takes on aspects of a romance novel, and Yaki is gone, so I stopped reading about the bland and tiresome Pringles.

A Man of the People - Chinua Achebe
The problem with this novel is that Achebe mixes politics with romance, and the romance part is weak. Nanga, the corrupt political boss, is a forceful, repellant character. The narrator is a good (and amusing) observer – until he falls in love. When the emphasis changes to the love affair, the book suffers.

The Collected Stories of John O’Hara
There are lessons to be learned from O’Hara: how to entertain (all the stories capture and hold one’s attention); how to use dialogue (it’s naturalistic and reveals character); and how to make an ending resonate. There’s a revelatory jolt at the close of the best of these stories, such as “Can I Stay Here?” What is revealed lingers with you. This isn’t a trick ending; it flows from under the surface of what has gone before. The problem is that O’Hara often doesn’t have that moment. All else is there – the entertainment, the good dialogue; but, without an ending of consequence the story is merely good; there aren’t enough very good ones in this collection. The longest (a full-fledged novella) is the worst piece of writing in the book. Surely the editor, Frank MacShane, could have made a better choice. On the flip side, “Over the River and Through the Woods” belongs in any anthology of the best American short stories. Young writers should read O’Hara and recognize his virtues. 

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