Friday, March 4, 2011

The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas - Christina Stead
Honor is certainly puzzling. Her odd nature and actions (such as appearing at the doors of people she barely knows, asking for money or a place to stay for the night) engenders both a mystery (what makes her tick?) and sympathy for someone seemingly proud and self-sufficient yet obviously in dire need. However, in order to generate pathos Stead needed to provide insight into her character’s mind, but Honor remains inexplicable; her story covers many years and eventually she becomes a sort of jack-in-the-box, popping up in an increasingly disheveled state. Lydia, of The Dianas, is another oddball – hyper, bordering on the frantic; she hurtles from one man to another at a headlong pace. Inklings of what lies behind her behavior seem to emerge near the end (something intriguingly dark), but Stead veers away from the darkness and wraps things up with an improbable happy ending. The Righthanded Creek (“A sort of ghost story”) is a mishmash of heavy atmospherics. Stead abandons one family living in a haunted cottage (in the middle of a crisis) and introduces a new one (no explanation for the switch offered). In Girl from the Beach George (another frantic character) tries ineffectually to deal with problems involving women and money. It’s a romp through the chaos of a man’s life (I hope Stead knew that she was writing a comedy). None of these novellas can stand as a finished work. They have the feel of castoffs, ideas pursued but dropped. Still, I found each one entertaining. Stead’s idiosyncratic prose is engaging, and some scenes show her prodigious gifts. Creek contains a chilling monologue in which a man describes his addiction to alcohol; in his words I felt the real ghost in the tale emerge, the one that devours and destroys from within.

Salem Possessed - Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum
The authors don’t describe in detail what went on in Salem during the witchcraft craze. Instead they explore the underlying factors – moral, economic, psychological – that gave rise to the events. They support their conclusions with extensive research. A shift from traditional Puritan values to capitalistic entrepreneurship was occurring, and this change created turmoil and conflict. In Salem the clash resulted in tragedy. I found the authors’ analysis not only valid, but relevant to the pressures at work in our present-day society. We have much in common with Salem.

A Middle Class Education - Wilfrid Sheed
This is a long, substantial, complex novel. On a superficial level it’s about young men at Oxford’s Sturdley College. John Chote is the central character; when the novel opens he’s just received a scholarship to study in the United States. John is no model student; he and his friends spend their days and nights drinking, gambling, playing pranks and womanizing (or claiming to womanize). They value humor above sincerity; to them everything is fodder for a sarcastic remark. But this book is far from a campus frolic. As Sheed digs deeper into the inner workings of his evasive character (especially when John is marooned in America) I felt what was hidden behind his facade of jokes: a stultifying depression. Sheed refuses to end the book with any sort of resolution. After his college years are over John faces a world which offers him no hope for happiness. It’s not the world’s fault; John is his worst enemy. I think Sheed knew his character too well to provide easy answers.

The Admiral and the Nuns - Frank Tuohy.
I admire Tuohy’s writing style but not his sensibilities. Most stories in this collection were murky and oppressive and had no discernible point to make (except, possibly, that life is a grubby affair). Too many characters were either emotionless or borderline hysterics; I couldn’t understand or care about them. The joyless sex that the morally-challenged males have with prostitutes got tiresome. After reading a few short pieces that were nothing more than filler, I called it quits. Only one story was fully successful. The match being arranged in “The Matchmakers” is between cocker spaniels; a man and woman become acquainted for the purpose of mating their dogs. Tuohy handles this premise cleverly, and there’s a gentleness to the story that wasn’t evident anywhere else. Also, both characters were likable.


jimmy scoville said...

As always, it's a joy to see your latest installment of richly written reviews. If only someone big time with connections could realize what gems they are & demand to publish them. I would really enjoy receiving postcards from around the world as you did a book tour.

Phillip Routh said...

Fat chance, Jimmy. I can't even get a comment every once in a while (besides yours).
And me, on a worldwide book tour? Me, who stays within 20 miles of his house?
But I like to do the reviews, for some unfathomable reason.

Phillip Routh said...

This is a follow-up to my last comment.
I did some checking. My first post appeared in April, 2008 – almost three years ago. In that time I’ve received a grand total of two (2!) comments from strangers. All these hundreds of books reviewed, and only two comments.
Talk about an exercise in futility.
But, as I said, I get satisfaction from writing reviews. And it’s a good discipline for a writer – it demands rigorous attention to how you use words. The earlier reviews, which I wrote without an audience in mind, are weaker than the later ones.
I’d like to receive thoughtful, substantive comments, but we don’t always get what we want in life.