Saturday, January 31, 2009

Flowering Judas - Katherine Anne Porter
This, Porter’s first collection, is by far her weakest. Many of the stories have Mexico as their setting; she doesn’t belong there and doesn’t write about the people convincingly. “The Cracked Looking-Glass” (locale: the Connecticut countryside) shows the author at her best; it’s about a woman married to a much older man. What might be expected from this timeworn premise never materializes. Porter probes into the psychology of her two characters; the results are ambiguous and surprising. The next story, the long (so very long) “Hacienda,” takes place south of the border and is about nothing much; people come and go and talk, all to no purpose. Without a subject that she knew intimately, Porter was merely a writer with good technique.

The Jungle - Upton Sinclair
A social protest novel that had to be written, had to be read. Sinclair hammers home his points with power and drive. His anger is not directed solely at the unsanitary conditions in meat packing houses. He was angry about man’s inhumanity to man. Angry about greed being the motivating force in society. Not just those at the top are indicted; Sinclair shows how the inhumanity filters down so that the little man is gouging the man littler than he is. Unfortunately, at the end Sinclair turns to proselytizing. Previously he had embedded his message in real people and their situations; even when the writing was crude and strident, the novel had authenticity. I think the most effective ending would be to have Jarvis, once a decent, compassionate man, become a heartless brute (Sinclair goes there, but he backs away). Instead we get long speeches espousing Socialism, and Jarvis is reduced to a passive shell. Still, this is a novel that changed society. People who read it demanded government inspection of food; they were worried about what was on their plates. As for the inhumane, greed-driven capitalistic system – that was not an issue of concern.

Summer’s Lease - John Mortimer
This fails as a whodunit, yet there’s another side to Summer’s Lease: it’s an appealing story of a family who rent a villa in Italy. I found them to be entertaining (especially the irreverent grandfather). The happy ending (physical passion revived) seems tacked-on, and the author glosses over a solution to the mystery; it doesn’t matter to the narrator, because she’s now happy with her husband and children. It didn’t matter to me either. Nor, I think, to the author.

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