Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Odd Women - George Gissing
Gissing’s “odd women” are the unmarried ones. What’s their plight in Victorian England? And what’s the plight of women who marry only to escape spinsterhood? Written in 1893, by a man, this is a feminist novel. I don’t think any modern feminist can fault him – unless they want simplistic black and white scenarios. The cast of characters is large and varied; some people act badly, but even the deeply flawed are comprehensible. The prose has a straightforward clarity; it plods along at a comfortable pace. What matters when reading Gissing is the quality of his mind; he was a complex thinker who went deep into a subject. This quality is evident in how he was able to surprise me. On important occasions I expected something to happen, but it didn’t happen the way I had foreseen. This was no trick; what does happen is exactly what would happen; I was (shame on me) expecting the formulaic version. Gissing wrote at the close of the Victorian period, and he questions the still-prevailing values of that time; what’s remarkable is how his honesty and incisiveness make him relevant today. He doesn’t allow his plot or characters to wander far from the subject he’s tackling, so he’s an issue-oriented author. As for the issue of concern here – the relationship between the sexes – he sees it as inherently fraught with difficulties.

The Sea of Grass - Conrad Richter
This would be a long short story if you took away the repetition and the over-abundance of adjectives. What would the story be about? A cattle baron – the imperious Colonel – holding sway over his empire of grass (about to be invaded by hordes of nesters) and his marriage to the beautiful and fascinating Lutie. Both characters are depicted as larger than life; Richter is trying for a legendary, elegiac quality. He fails. To be true to its subject, this novel should have been lean and mean and much less adoring of the Colonel and Lutie. They don’t deserve adoration. Lutie abandons her husband and three small children (one fathered by a man other than her husband), but she’s still a “lady.” The Colonel is supposed to be tremendously imposing, but he’s unable to impose his will in any instance. These two are treated with hushed awe by Hal, the Colonel’s nephew. But Hal, for all his wordiness, doesn’t get into the gritty matters I wanted to know about: the relationship between the Colonel and Lutie, the dynamics of the infidelity, Lutie’s whereabouts for twenty years. One could say that Hal wasn’t privy to these intimate matters. True – but why use him as the narrator? Because the result is a novel about a cattle empire that has no beef in it.

The Red Box - Rex Stout
Entertaining, though not up to the level of the previous two Nero Wolfe mysteries I read. In this one Archie plays a minor role, and I missed his liveliness. Also, the plot was too complex for me to unravel its many intricacies. But I figured out some, and that made me feel good; when Wolfe connected the dots I didn’t feel cheated (I’m not as smart as he is and I know it). A point of interest: in all three books the murderers commit suicide; in two cases Wolfe provides him/her with the means to do so, and in the other he knows that the man intends to kill himself and does nothing to stop him. Dr. Kevorkian would approve.

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