Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite - Anthony Trollope
Something unique from Trollope: a short novel. This is a strength, because he’s able to narrow his focus and concentrate on three people. A young woman falls in love with a ne’er-do-well; her father blocks her from marrying the man. Emily, George, and Sir Harry are engaged in a struggle so compelling that I was tempted to peek ahead to see what happened (I resisted). Actually, as we get to know George, he’s much worse than a ne’er-do-well. But Emily, though she becomes aware of his faults, has given herself to him forever. The characters are in vises, ones made up of moral choices and matters of the heart, and Trollope turns the screws tighter and tighter. At the end I reluctantly accepted Emily’s refusal to budge in her resolve – “reluctantly” because I doubted that a young, sensible woman would give up her life for love, especially when she becomes aware that her love has never been reciprocated. This was, for me, the only weak point in the novel; it shouldn’t have been a tragedy, but Emily makes it one. I wondered how Trollope felt about her. Did she, in his eyes, embody a Victorian virtue?

Continental Drift - Russell Banks
Banks set out to write a major novel, a commentary on American life. After 400 pages he closes with the words: “Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is” (italics the author’s). Banks tackles something important – the values and dreams that determine the course of our lives – and does it in a way that’s engrossing. The problem I had emerged gradually, and it involved the main character. Early on I began to dislike Bob Dubois; then I didn’t respect him; then I didn’t believe in him. His emotions – anger, discontent, confusion, longing, frustration, etc. – got to be overwhelming. I did like his wife and thought that she deserved a better man than conflicted Bob. Especially since he hasn’t grasped the concept of being faithful (I could have done without the icky sex scenes). One of Bob’s infidelities involves a black woman; the relationship is supposed to have depth but seems injected into the plot so that the author can pontificate on the subject of race relations. Banks belongs to the pile-it-on school of writing. Bob becomes a walking assemblage of problems and issues, and the predicament he’s in deteriorates drastically. The ending is improbable and overwrought; instead of eliciting sorrow, I merely thought Bob’ actions were incredibly dumb. So, sorry to say, this was a novel (and an author) that I became alienated from; those closing words – “Go, my book . . .” – struck me as mighty pretentious. Another major plot line involves Haitians trying to get to America. This, again, shows the scope and importance that Banks aims for (plus he’s out to impress with his knowledge of Haitians). The suffering of these people is conveyed in all its horror (more piling on, but I suppose it’s justified). However, the main character, Vanise, gradually becomes zombie-like, and I couldn’t relate to a zombie. Her teenage cousin, Claude, was the person I most admired, and his death – which occurs offstage – was the only one that moved me.

The Sheltered Life - Ellen Glasgow
In Part I Glasgow has a nine-year-old girl observe the adult world; the reader sees problems that the child has inklings of. Though emotions were exaggerated, this section was fairly successful. I went into Part II with good will, but all I got were the musings of the elderly grandfather. His thoughts – about Life, unfulfilled hopes, a lost love, etc. – are expressed in a hypersensitive (and obscure) way: “Was this second self of his mind, as variable as the wind, as nebulous as mist, merely the forgotten consciousness of the poet who might have been?” It didn’t take much of such rambling before I abandoned the book.

The Man Who Owned New York - John Jay Osborn, Jr.
This might have been a nice little diversion if the author hadn’t set up expectations that aren’t met. Take the title. The man who owns New York is Marsiglia, but the role he plays is so trifling that he could have been omitted from the novel. In the first paragraph it’s stated that the main character, Robert Fox, “is losing his mind.” It turns out that he has a few minor problems, but he’s just fine. The woman he loves is said to have inherited some “black part” to her emotional makeup, but it turns out that she’s eminently well-adjusted. The young associate lawyer-on-the-rise, initially depicted as eerily “perfect”and “robotic,” turns out to be a nice guy with problems. As for the plot, a dangerous nut case is handled stupidly by supposedly smart people. They want to keep matters out of the newspaper and away from the police, but their actions lead to a fatal shooting in a town house where an auction is being held; the repercussions that would surely follow are swept under the rug. In fact, by the end of this book Osborn has swept far too many false leads and loose ends under rugs. This would be sloppy housekeeping; it’s irresponsible writing.

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