Monday, February 11, 2019

To Know a Woman – Amos Oz (Hebrew)
Everything in this novel, though presented in a clear prose, is shrouded in inexplicability. In the opening chapter Yoel rents a house; it’s a step in his embarking on a new life. After the death of his wife he had retired from his long-time job as an Israeli spy. His strength in that career is purported to be an analytical mind that can penetrate facades. But, in regard to the three people he lives with, he’s pretty much clueless. His teenage daughter is perversely uncommunicative and his mother and his dead wife’s mother (the “grannies”) present problems he can only referee. He’s surrounded by odd types, foremost being his next door neighbors, a brother and sister. Yoel has sex with the sister while the brother watches approvingly; Yoel seems to be sleepwalking through these encounters (on one occasion the brother has to undress him). His former employers keep trying to get him to return to Helsinki, but he’s suspicious of their motives; even his dreams have an elusive quality. Yoel occupies himself by making minor repairs on the house, planting a garden. Then, in the last chapter, his life takes an abrupt turn: he volunteers in a hospital, doing menial jobs and treating the patients with compassion. Is this a solution for his irresolute state? Maybe, maybe not. When I read (and reread several times) the final paragraph, in which we get Yoel’s thoughts, he’s waiting for something: “Hoping for a recurrence of one of those rare, unexpected moments when the blackness is momentarily illuminated, and there comes a flicker, a furtive glimmer . . .” Of what? The entire novel (even the title) was stubbornly obscure. Though I value clarity and usually consider inexplicability to be pretentious, Oz did succeed in keeping me interested in a world of shifting shadows.

The Manor – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
I began my recent review of Shosha with this sentence: “Singer was no novelist.” Well, I was wrong. The Manor is a novel, and it’s very good. It’s a large scale work, heavily populated, and its many narrative strands embrace politics and religion. This makes it difficult to describe the plot, so I’ll crib from the Author’s Note to present a few background facts. The setting is Poland between 1863 and the end of the nineteenth century. The Russians, who are in control of the country, have just put down an insurrection. Poland is fast becoming industrialionalized; railroads and factories are being built, fortunes made. Jews are emerging from the shtetl and have begun to play an important role in this growth; some become wealthy and powerful. New ideas are sprouting: socialism and nationalism, Zionism and assimilation, free love, atheism, the beginnings of Fascism. Though some of Singer’s main characters are not Jewish, his main concern is with Jews. That said, there are Jews who find the religious beliefs that saturate the lives of the devout to be an absurd jumble of medieval superstitions. Yet the devout hold onto something meaningful to them and are the better off for it. But “better” is a relative term. There’s much unhappiness and even misery in the lives of these characters. It’s not imposed by state oppression – flawed people generate their own problems. Though sex plays a large role, no relationship or marriage (often arranged ones) results in contentment; the polar opposite is more common. I was caught up in these dramas. My only quibble has to do with the large cast; there were too many people to keep track of. Still, I suppose that’s what you get in a long, sprawling novel. Singer employs a narrative strategy that’s worth noting: he has a situation reach a crisis, and then he drops it; as we continue to read time passes, maybe years, and eventually we find out, in an offhand way, how that crisis was settled. This has the effect of making one fill in the gaps, to imagine the emotional blow that had been inflicted. For mostly it is a blow. The prose is smooth and engaging. I’ve always wondered how Singer’s original Yiddish was able to survive translation so well. Or did it lose something? I believe that the author, who had a full grasp of English, must have played a role in the process. The Manor is part of a trilogy that includes The Family Moskat and The Estate. More very good novels? We’ll see.

The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham
Though this novel features a UFO and alien children, it’s too intellectual to fit into the category of science fiction. What Wyndham offers up are ideas, not action. The premise is that a UFO lands in a small English village; during the one day it remains there all women of childbearing age are impregnated (how this is accomplished we never know, for everyone has been put into a deep sleep). The babies that are born are distinguished by glowing golden eyes. As they mature it becomes clear that they have a collective will, and are able to control humans whenever they wish. If they perceive a danger to one of their group, they retaliate. What’s to be done with this threat from Beyond? Are the Children to be granted human consideration? A handful of intellectually-minded characters talk and argue about issues of that ilk. But we don’t experience the events that occur in Midwich from the villager’s perspective. We never get the feelings of a woman who is carrying a child that she knows was not conceived in the normal way. When the villagers raid the Grange, where the Children are housed, we learn what happens through someone’s brief summary. That’s how most events are presented – by means of secondhand accounts. Wydham seldom takes his premise to where the affected humans are to be found. As a result the book lacks emotional immediacy, and this caused me to read it with a sense of detachment.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Jennie Gerhardt – Theodore Dreiser
Dreiser began Gerhardt in 1901; it wasn’t completed until 1911. During this time he led a tumultuous personal life and had health problems. The novel shows the adverse effects of its long gestation. Even the quality of the writing changes; the second half is more polished. But can one use the word “polished” in referring to Dreiser’s prose? He’s a plodder piling up the bricks for his massive edifices. A strength he had was a compassion for the downtrodden that comes across as sincere. And he had scope – in covering many decades in a life a weightiness is generated. Still, major flaws were present throughout this book. The plot is disjointed (probably due to his leaving and coming back to it over all those years). And Dreiser constantly tells us how Jennie feels, but he doesn’t show those feelings being developed. This is a love story, but we get no scenes of intimacy between Jennie and Lester. The same omission involves Jennie’s daughter. We’re told that she’s devoted to Vesta, but we don’t see them interact. Vesta is an offstage presence whose primary purpose is to die at age fourteen (and for poor, bereft Jennie to grieve). The core of the novel involves a conflict between two very different personalities. Jennie is simple in that she can love wholeheartedly; it’s her gift. It’s not in her nature to be angry, or demanding, or assertive. She gives herself fully to a man who is above her in the hierarchy of society. But Lester cannot respond by committing to her; his indecisiveness drags on and on while Jennie waits. I was involved enough in their dilemma to stick around to the maudlin ending. But I don’t see myself reading anything else by Dreiser. His best work was his first, Sister Carrie, which he spent one year writing. Not ten. In that book his strengths – his compassion and scope – prevailed over any flaws.

The Surrounded – D’Arcy McNickle
The author of this novel, which came out in 1936, was half Indian and half white, as is his main character. The book opens with Archilde Leon’s return to his home after living for years in Portland, Oregon, where he eked out a living from his talent as a violinist. He intends this to a be a brief last visit. When he left he had been on bad terms with his volatile Spanish father. Max Leon had married an Indian woman who, as a child, had fully accepted the white man’s god (she was known as “Faithful Catherine”). But in her old age she had returned to the Indian ways; now she and Max live apart. Max is also estranged from his seven sons; none fulfilled his hopes of taking over his ranch, and some turned wild and dangerous. Archilde is definitely not of that ilk; he’s mainly an observer who keeps a tight rein on his emotions. During his stay he reaches an understanding with both parents. They die, and Max leaves Archilde a considerable sum of money. With this inheritance Archilde could pursue his dreams of traveling and developing his musical skills. Yet he hangs around aimlessly (there’s a woman involved, but this is a weak aspect of the story). Ultimately he becomes a victim of the violent acts of others. This ending seems imposed. It’s as if the author was out to make a point: since the Indian culture was set upon and destroyed, Archilde must suffer the same fate. McNickle denies his character the future that he achieved; at the age of seventeen he left the Flathead Reservation and began an academic career. Perhaps he saw his life of accomplishment as an anomaly. Yet, though he made Archilde an anomaly, he still has him wind up in shackles. McNickle succeeds in showing the plight of the Indian in the 1930s, especially insight into their way of thinking. But this is a case of the sociologist taking precedence over the novelist. Interestingly enough, the most vital character in the book is a white man: Max Leon.

When I Whistle – Shusaku Endo (Japanese)
Finally, at long last, a novel that got to me emotionally. It begins with Ozu recalling the day – some fifty years ago – when a new student named Flatfish entered the study hall of Nada Middle School. The depth of the friendship which develops between the two teenage boys was believable, as was the romantic attachment Flatfish has for a girl with whom he has only a few bumbling encounters. Though he has no chance of winning her heart – Aiko is way above him in social class and has a naval academy suitor – Flatfish’s feelings for Aiko remain strong throughout his short life. When he’s a soldier stationed in China (WWII has broken out) Ozu becomes the bearer of a gift which Flatfish wants the now married and pregnant Aiko to have. This encounter with Aiko carries Flatfish’s love, and she responds by giving Ozu a pen to send to Flatfish. A few years later Ozu again seeks out Aiko, who has lost both her husband and child to the war; she’s now living in a mountain village. Ozu had been sent Flatfish’s possessions after his death; one item was the pen, and Ozu had come to return it to her. That pen, a gift which shuttles back and forth, takes on a symbolic aspect: it denotes Flatfish’s devotion and Aiko’s kindliness. These feelings from the past are revived in the present when Ozu discovers that Aiko is a patient in the hospital where his son is a doctor; she has cancer. This humane story has its dark counterpart in the person of Ozu’s son, Eiicho. Half the book is given over to the deceptions and manipulation of this heartless, ambitious man. The medical profession as a whole isn’t portrayed in a positive light. Drugs are dispensed not because they can help a patient but because the pharmaceutical firm that produces them has deep pockets (note: the novel was written in 1974). Also shown in a highly negative way is how Japan treated its soldiers: brutally, as if they were the captured enemy. Flatfish died from pneumonia, but malnutrition and constant beatings from his superiors were contributing factors. The novel isn’t a complete success; at the end Endo is unable to close with the emotional focus he was obviously searching for. Another problem involves something that was out of the author’s hands. There must be unique difficulties in translating Japanese into English. I don’t think the clumsiness of the prose is Endo’s, and at times it was distracting. But despite those minor issues Endo wrote a moving novel about the enduring power of friendship and love. *

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton – Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge
Wooldridge avoids a pitfall many biographers succumb to when writing about famous authors. It has to do with length. Do we need multiple volumes (three for Graham Greene, five for Henry James)? Do the single volume works need to be so lengthy (Updike 576 pages, Capote 632)? This is research gone wild; the biographers feel compelled to use every last thing they find, and as a result the subject gets buried under a deluge of facts. Wooldridge’s account of Wharton’s life is a mere 152 pages (and at least half of those pages have photographs, an invaluable asset in telling a story). Possibly the book has been relegated to the Young Adult category because it’s not a weighty tome and its approach is straightforward. But I didn’t at any time feel I was reading a book meant for a teenager. (Anyway, what fifteen-year-old would be interested in an author of the early 1900s who wrote novels for adults?) In the confines of this review I won’t go into the life of Edith Wharton. Suffice to say it was a remarkably active one; she had a unquenchable thirst for experience – for new sights and for the company of stimulating people – and she used her considerable wealth to satisfy her needs (her “brave escape” from convention was contingent on her inherited fortune). But she could also sacrifice comfort – in WWI she worked tirelessly to aid the suffering in France. Lastly, she was a writer, and in that profession she found immediate success (with the help of family connections). There was a marriage to the wrong man and a dearth of physical love. But all in all she led a good life, one which she appreciated. In her last year Wharton addressed a packet of papers “For my biographer.” Her request of the person who told her story was that they “find the gist of me.” I believe that Wooldridge has fulfilled that wish.

Plains Song – Wright Morris
Wright Morris and I have had a long relationship. This is the fourth of his novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, and previously I had read three or four others, two of which I liked very much – The Deep Sleep and Love Among the Cannibals. At least I liked them when I was in my twenties; since then I’ve been consistently disappointed in his work. I keep returning to Morris because I believe he possessed the ability to produce something wonderful, and in reading the opening chapters of Plains Song I thought he might fulfill that potential. The two characters (Cora and Harrison) and their situation are presented without adornment. A woman marries a man she hardly knows; she goes to live on his farm on the Great Plains. She finds their first (and possibly last) sexual act to be a horrific experience; they live together without emotional intimacy but also without strife. Her life consists of the many chores of a farmer’s wife, which she does diligently and which give her a sense of purpose. From that first sexual act she bears their only child, a daughter. Though these seem to be sparse ingredients for a novel, I found them fully sufficient to hold my interest. But Morris wasn’t content with a limited scope, and he abruptly shifts gears. As the decades start to speed by a host of new people crowd into the confines of this short novel; more daughters get born; daughters marry husbands and bear more daughters. A dispersal of focus sets in, and I reached the point where I felt no contact with anyone (including Cora and Harrison, who recede quietly into the background). In the last third of the book one of the random daughters named Sharon is given the most space, but she’s undeveloped as a person (what’s her job, what’s her sexual persuasion?). She’s merely a vehicle the author uses to go into an overtly profound mode – it was a Morris tendency to muse about Life, always a mistake. He started out with a grounded simplicity, which I found satisfying and meaningful, but by the end things had become ill-defined and inconsequential. So there it is: once again Wright Morris disappoints me. Maybe I’ll read his autobiography next.

Nine Women – Shirley Ann Grau
This collection came out when Grau was in her late fifties. Because of the extreme range of quality, it occurred to me that the four outright failures may have been discards found in a drawer. If this was the case, she surely worked on them, but they’re based on an idea that doesn’t hold water (a woman wants to rejoin her husband and daughter by dying in a plane crash) or they lack substance (post-wedding bickering among relatives and friends who drink too much). Their conceptual flaws make them unsalvageable. That said, four stories – most of which deal with old age – are good and may be of recent origin. In all the writing flows nicely, with pleasing clarity. But let’s cut to the one outstanding piece, which is the first and the shortest. In “The Beginning” a girl tells about her resourceful mother, who knew not only how to survive in a hostile world but how to flourish as a businesswoman. She always referred to her daughter in the highest terms: as a hidden princess, a lotus flower, a pearl without price. Their bond is made palpable. The closing lines in the story: “When the kingdom at last fell and the castle was conquered, and I lost my crown and my birthright, when I stood naked and revealed as a young black female of illegitimate birth, it hardly mattered. By then the castle and the kingdom were within me and I carried them away.”

Friday, November 2, 2018

Shosha – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
Singer was no novelist. As a short story writer he excelled, and that’s because he could work within a limited scope. In this novel the incidents are excellent; they just don’t connect up to form a coherent plot. Still, I was involved and often impressed by the flow of ideas from his characters: “. . . eternal life would be a calamity. Imagine some little shopkeeper dying and his soul flying around for millions of years still remembering that once it had sold chicory, yeast, and beans, and that a customer owed it eighteen groschen.” Or: “I don’t recall who said it, that a corpse is all-powerful, afraid of no one. All the living want and ever hope to achieve the dead already have – complete peace, total independence.” The book is set in Poland on the eve of Hitler’s invasion, and it seems like a recapturing by Singer of the life of Jews in that precarious time. His main character, Arele, is a passive (though sexually active) young man who finds it difficult to make decisions; he’s one of many Jews who could get out of harms way but doesn’t. A decision he does make and sticks to is to marry Shosha, a girl he had known when they were children. He describes her as “infantile – physically and mentally backward.” He seems like a protective father of a vulnerable child; I never believed (despite Singer’s half-hearted efforts to convince me) that their feelings for one another went deeper than that. It’s also clear that Singer reached a point where he wanted a way out of all the personal and political crises that had accumulated. So, on the brink of disaster, he simply abandons the narrative. He closes the book with an Epilogue which takes place thirteen years later. Arele has become a famous author; on a visit to Israel he meets a friend from the past, and we get a brief account of the fate of the characters. Concerning Shosha’s death, there’s not a scintilla of emotional impact. I accepted this ending because to go on was too momentous a task, and both Singer and I had grown weary.

Adam and Evelyn – Ingo Schulze (German)
Schulze writes in a cryptic way. Not the prose – that’s clear enough. But in his narrative the reader is constantly having to connect the dots. Characters will talk about an event that we weren’t privy to, and through their words we have to figure out what happened. Or a chapter will begin with a dialogue between two people, but it will be a while before the identity of one of them is revealed. That type of thing. An added difficulty was that the plot involved political problems in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (secret police, shootings by border guards, etc.). Though the novel was written in 2008, it seems like a Cold War is still going on; at any rate, I had no idea what the situation was. There’s a lot of traveling by car, a lot of boundaries crossed, and I was lost geographically. However, I stuck with the book because I liked Adam’s third person voice and found his predicament interesting. His wife Evelyn catches him having sex with a woman for whom he’s making a dress (dressmaking is his profession). Evelyn leaves him, he follows. He seems sincere in his remorse and his determination to convince her that they should stay together. Along the way he picks up a young hitchhiker (Katja), and they hit it off (though Adam keeps things platonic). When he occasionally meets up with Evelyn the signals she gives are mostly negative, though she also says that she needs time to make a decision about their marriage. Then, abruptly, Schulze switches to Evelyn’s POV and we find her in bed declaring her love to another guy (Michael). At this halfway point in the novel the complications had risen to an unacceptable level, and I decided that these people would have to work out their futures without me.

Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm
I like Max. I like his collection of stories, Seven Men (particularly “Enoch Soames”), and some of his essays are the best I’ve read. I also like him as a person, as portrayed in those essays and in a book about him entitled Portrait of Max by S. N. Behrman. But I didn’t like his only novel, Zuleika Dobson. Others do: the Modern Library selected it as one of the best novels written in the English language in the 20th Century and the Heritage Press deemed it worthy of a deluxe boxed edition, oversized and adorned with art work. The subtitle of Zuleika is “An Oxford Love Story,” and maybe if I went to Oxford (as did Max) and had a rollicking good time there (as did Max), the novel might hold some charm for me. But I doubt it. The plot hinges on a female so alluring that every man who sees her (even a glimpse is enough) immediately falls in love. But Zuleika’s problem (though it doesn’t much bother her; nothing does) is that she can only love someone who doesn’t give a hoot about her. When the self-absorbed Duke initially shows no interest, she becomes enamored; but when he ‘s suddenly stricken by her beauty, and he too becomes a devotee, she loses all interest. So he decides to commit suicide. Soon every young man at Oxford makes the same decision: they will die for love of Zuleika (something she blithely accepts). What follows from this fantastical premise is decidedly earthbound; besides some silly antics, we get a lot of tiresome talk from people I found unlikable and uninteresting. An artist by the name of George Him has crammed the pages with ninety-six drawings, both in monochrome and color; they’re atrociously garish cartoons. His depiction of the bewitching Zuleika shows her as a vapid painted doll (which may, actually, be fitting). I don’t know whether all the Oxford young men commit suicide because I didn’t read far enough to find out.

Vanish in an Instant – Margaret Millar
In this superior mystery the mystery element takes second place to a psychological study of a varied group of individuals. The third person narrator, an attorney by the name of Meecham, has the problem of loneliness; others are much worse off, and some are emotionally crippled. Lives are entangled, and the untangling makes up the plot. Meecham has an inkling that the motivation for a murder lies in the past, and that it hinges on the identity of a shadowy woman by the name of Birdie. But he’s no sleuth able to perceive what the reader cannot see. Nor does he dispense justice. At the end he lets the person who committed the murder go unpunished. Punishment would serve no purpose, and the guilty party has often treated those in need with kindness. As for Meecham, he finds love. Millar doesn’t establish much of a reason for the love to emerge, she just grants it. I didn’t object; in this grim melange some hope of happiness was welcome. Margaret Millar was married for over forty years to the crime novelist Ross MacDonald. Vanish is similar to his Lew Archer books in the psychological probing, the sharp characterizations, the dark vision of life. I can imagine the two of them typing away, working out the fates of lost souls, and the picture that emerges is somewhat unsettling. I’ve read all the Archer novels – I was, at one period in my life, addicted to them – and now I plan to read more of Millar.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

To an Early Grave – Wallace Markfield
There’s hardly any plot to this comic novel: someone dies and four of his friends assemble and try (successfully, though after many setbacks) to attend the funeral. The humor is based mostly on dialogue and wacky events, and it was working for me because of Markfield’s inventive prose and his ability to generate a rollicking energy. But gradually it turned sour. Part of the problem has to do with the word “friends.” Spite and resentment between these four men far outweigh affection; most of their conversing is abusive in nature, and even their feelings for the deceased are mixed with rancor. The negativity is wide-ranging. One character says, “You look at families, you don’t have to wonder why there’s war in the world.” Indeed, in these families, with these women (who play an off-stage role), life is an unruly combat zone. It was a relief when Markfield occasionally changes gears and takes on a gentler tone, as when Morroe, the main character, does a bit of self-evaluation: “I am no big intellect. I am no bargain. I watch too much television. I read, but I do not retain. I am not lost, exactly, but still I am nowhere. I am the servant of no great end.” But when Morroe parts with the last of the four, and is being told a sort of confession, he thinks, “Tough shit and tough titty.” So he could add mean-spirited to his flaws, as could everybody in the novel. A few last notes: all of Markfield’s characters are Jewish, and they talk in a Jewish cadence. Morroe remembers an argument (of course, an argument) he had with a Jewish tailor over a suit: “By me is the lining no lining. By me – you should pardon the expression – is a piece toilet paper.” There are also untranslated Yiddish words sprinkled throughout. (What does fahrblunged – and at least fifty other words – mean?) From the blurbs, it seems that Jewish reviewers – Heller, Shapiro, Levin – didn’t share my objections. They found the book to be spirited fun. Members of a culture tend to enjoy self-deprecating humor, at least when it comes from one of their own.

The Village – Ivan Bunin (Russian)
Bunin portrays Russia as a wretched place populated by malignant and degraded people. We see things from the perspective of two brothers. Both, though of different natures, are mired in unhappiness. What we get is a series of brutish events and sordid scenes and a procession of characters (men only) who contribute their bit of malice and then move on. The book was written in 1923, when Bunin was living in exile; he had fled Russia in 1918, during the revolution (in an Autobiographical Note he describes that upheaval as a time of unspeakable horrors). The czarist regime must take a large portion of blame for producing a wretched peasantry. As for its replacement, how can any government make good citizens out of men sunk into such cynicism and bestiality? And what can be accomplished in so severe an environment? But there’s another consideration: the misery is too much of a bad thing and leads to doubts as to the validity of Bunin’s depiction of Russia (a point that critics at the time took issue with). Judged on literary terms, reading this novel was like looking out a train window at a monochromatic landscape devoid of any trace of beauty, and two-thirds of the way through I pulled down the blind.

The Gourmet Club – Junichiro Tanizaki (Japanese)
Decades ago, when I set out on this ill-fated “Jack London” endeavor, I wanted the first book I reviewed to be a great one. Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters received that honor. It’s a realistic and sensitive portrayal of three sisters written in a clear, elegant style; in its stateliness it reminded me of Buddenbrooks. I don’t regret my choice, even though the collection of six short stories I’m now reviewing shows the same author at his worst. In the first story a ten year old boy is drawn into sadomasochistic sex games; in the last, “Manganese Dioxide Dreams,” the elderly protagonist (who seems to be Tanizaki himself) is studying his feces (throughout the book there’s an obsession with all manner of bodily discharges). Reading “Mr. Bluemound” (about weirdly realistic sex toys) one wonders that a human mind can contrive such depravity and that a self-respecting author would put it down on paper. But for all their shock value the stories are so silly that they’re boring. And they’re poorly written – the prose is amateurish and the construction slipshod (for no good reason “Dreams” includes a four page summary of the plot of the film Les Diaboliques). How can a writer capable of excellent work sink to such artlessness? And, if he’s compelled to indulge in gross fantasies, why not destroy the results? Another question arises: why, in 2017, did the University of Michigan Press deem these worthless pieces to be worthy of publication? In his introduction Paul McCarthy (one of the two translators) writes that he and Anthony Chambers “have been planning some sort of Tanizaki collaboration for many years; this collection of stories is the fruit of those plans.” They found their fruit rotting in the dumpster. Tanizaki must take responsibility for sullying his reputation, but all involved in the publication of The Gourmet Club have done no favor to an author they claim to respect.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Folks That Live on the Hill – Kingsley Amis
To devote the first chapter to a character who will make only a few brief appearances for the rest of the novel raises questions. To construct sentences in which some integral part is left out, so that you can’t follow the meaning, makes one wonder (example: “If there could ever have been truly said to be more of something where something came from, the two at present conversing had run across it”). Adding to my questioning and wondering was a disjointed plot and a cast of oddballs who are barely functioning (or, in the case of Fiona, aren’t functioning at all). Yet when the prose wasn’t making me feel dumb (which wasn’t that often) it was lively, and after I accepted the idiosyncratic characters I found their predicaments to be interesting and often funny. Harry Caldecote emerges as the linchpin of the novel. Harry is cynical about people, and he would deny that kindness motivates him in helping others. Those who come to him needing something – money, a place to stay, a bit of advice – annoy and sometimes anger him, but he gives aid out of a sense of responsibility (which he feels is misguided). Harry is elderly, retired, twice-divorced, presently living with his widowed sister, yet he’s not a sad figure. He and his sister share a quiet, unobtrusive love, and he still finds life enjoyable. One of his pleasures is alcohol – he’s seldom without a drink in his hand, though he’s never drunk – and another is a sharp mind which enables him to view (and navigate safely through) the shambles around him. Amis ends things on fairytale note. He grants all the major characters what they wish for – even pitiful, degraded Fiona has regained her senses – and people who had been depicted throughout in a negative way are treated with kindly insight. After presenting much of the dark side of life, the sixty-six year old author chose to let in the light.

The Lost City of the Monkey God – Douglas Preston
This true story of a search for a pre-Columbian “White City” in the midst of the Honduran rain forest didn’t provide the thrills its lurid title led me to expect. There’s too much background material; we’re past the hundred page mark before Preston sets foot on land. And when we’re at the site, it’s a letdown. The members of the expedition find evidence of what was once a large and flourishing civilization, but it’s been so over-run by vegetation that only experts can determine that anything had been there. In other words, it’s not exactly like breaking into King Tut’s tomb. Artifacts are found – pottery and statues – but the photographs provided show only three objects (why so few?). There had been a great deal of build-up about the dangers to be met in the rainforest, but Preston isn’t able to make the hardships he experiences have much impact. After he departs, he goes into theories as to what role this civilization played in the larger picture of Mesoamerican cultures, and I began skipping chapters. I resumed reading – this time with great interest – when I came to a chapter entitled “White Leprosy.” Back home the members of the expedition (including Preston) start coming down with disturbing symptoms. It turns out that they have leishmaniasis. Humans contract this disease when bitten by a blood-sucking insect that carries the leishmania parasite. Once the parasite is in the human body, the results can be horrific; also, it has developed methods of survival that make treatment very difficult. Preston’s life-or-death adventure doesn’t take place in the jungle, but at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That said, he doesn’t make his experience of having the disease come alive. As a writer he lacks the ability to create drama; he’s good at explaining factual material, and I think he should stick to writing essays of that sort. As for leishmaniasis, I was surprised that this disease, which I had never heard of, is both ancient and prevalent throughout the world. But it’s mostly the poor that contract it. Because of this, it hasn’t received much attention (or allocation of funds for study). Preston ends with a warning: he presents the factors that could result in leishmaniasis becoming a pandemic.

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot – Angus Wilson
I agree with what Dorothy Parker had to say of Wilson in an Esquire review (back when that magazine cared about literature): “His is a ruthless knowledge of this woman. Uncanny, you might call it.” When the story opens Meg Eliot is content with her life. After two decades of marriage she’s still in love with her husband and is loved by him; they have enough money to live a comfortable life; she has friends, she does social work. Besides contentment, she feels competent and purposeful. Then Bill is killed. In grief and despair she looks to “the dreadful, dead years ahead.” Though she recovers a shaky equilibrium, there will always be an emptiness. And there are jolts: her financial situation isn’t good; she’ll have to give up her house, she’ll have to get a job. As Meg tries to come up with practical solutions to her new circumstances – and to deal with bouts of loneliness and depression – I found her struggle to be moving. But it’s here that Wilson leaves Meg and switches to another point-of-view, that of her brother David. He will occupy half the book, and I just wasn’t interested in him and his problems. He’s very cerebral, and one has to follow his deep analyses of states of mind; I felt I was reading Henry James (something that was present in the Meg section, but not in so laborious a form). We return to the immediacy of being in Meg’s mind – and the vitality returns to the novel – but again we leave her, never to return. She remains a character, but only in her words and actions as filtered through the perspective of David (whose generosity provides her with too simple a way out of her troubles). On the last page all we get of Meg is a brief excerpt of a letter she writes to David. To abandon the woman he had a “ruthless knowledge of” is a major mistake by Wilson. I wonder if Dorothy Parker, in her full review, hit on this flaw.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Reef – Romesh Gunesekera
The novel begins with a boy of eleven coming to work for a wealthy Sri Lankan named Mister Salgado. Initially he does menial jobs; but later, when he’s a young man, he has taken charge of the entire house (at this point he’s given the name Triton). Cooking becomes his speciality, and the book is filled with descriptions of the preparing and eating of exotic dishes. Triton respects Mister Salgado greatly, and he makes an effort to be the perfect servant (he’s even intuitive to Mister Salgado’s moods). Though Triton is the first person narrator, he comes across only as an appendage of Mister Salgado. This man (who he refers to as “Sir”) is intelligent, refined, kind, remote. And mostly indolent. He’s an expert on coral reefs, and for a while he’s employed in a study of their disappearance, but he lacks the commitment to push for change. His quiet, bookish existence ends when he falls in love with Nili. (Triton, who’s still a virgin, seems to be in love with her too – is this another example of his subservient role?). During the affair Mister Salgado opens up socially, and his home is often filled with guests. I found these worldly friends to be jarring, especially their vulgar language; they didn’t seem the type of people that the reserved Mister Salgado would tolerate; even Nili is too flighty for him. Lurking in the background is the growing political unrest in Sri Lanka. When matters disintegrate into violence, and the relationship with Nili ends, Mister Salgado and Triton move to England (by this time they’re middle-aged, though Mister Salgado is still “Sir”). More uneventful years go by; then Mister Salgado learns that Nili has fallen onto hard times, and he returns to Sri Lanka. Before he leaves he sets Triton up in a small restaurant. How Triton fares on his own isn’t explored. But in the brief opening section (what follows, the entirety of the novel, is a flashback) Triton comes across as a melancholy man still holding onto memories of Mister Salgado. This story of a relationship is an intriguing read. Since no sexual feelings emerge, and the two never become friends (they’re always master and servant), I couldn’t understand what emotional ties bound Triton to Mister Salgado. I wasn’t bothered by my lack of comprehension; I only felt how unhealthy it was. I was left wishing that, at some point, Triton could have broken free to become his own man.

They Hanged My Saintly Billy – Robert Graves
The words of the title were spoken by William Palmer’s mother. The son she laments was certainly no saint. Rather, in Graves’ account, from his teens on he was involved in every sort of vice and criminal act – except, possibly, murder (though his entanglement in many questionable deaths – especially his brother’s – makes him suspect of that crime too). The book is based on a notorious case that took place in England in the mid 1800s. By assuming the voices of various people who knew Palmer, Graves gives us a contradictory picture of the man. Seen in the worst light, he was a monster; in the best, a charming scoundrel. He wanted to live the high life, but he was always short of money, always juggling debts; to get by he resorted to lies, forgery, theft. Trained as a physician, he abandoned that profession and turned his attention to owning and betting on race horses, a precarious activity in which shady dealings abound. In this story of a dissolute life there’s one issue about which Graves expresses a passionate opinion: he believed that Palmer’s trial was a miscarriage of justice. The accusation was that Palmer murdered John Cook by administering strychnine. But the credible medical community was united in the opinion that strychnine could be detected in a corpse, and no trace of it was found in the autopsy. Graves is convinced that the insurance companies, which would have to pay up if Cook had died of natural causes, rigged the trial (with the assistance of the Lord Chief Justice). And so, at age thirty-one, William Palmer went with silent dignity to the gallows (in front of a howling crowd of some thirty thousand people). In his Forward the author states that “In reconstructing Palmer’s story, I have invented little, and in no case distorted hard fact.” But the sources he cites are few, and most are confined to the trial. This is a highly fictionalized account, but it’s Graves’ skill at writing fiction that enabled him to make the many voices that give commentary vivid and real. That said, there are too many voices; the reader is overwhelmed by names. Adding to the confusion is the detail with which Graves goes into money matters. Still, the good outweighs the bad. Upon finishing the book I was left not knowing what to make of William Palmer. I don’t think Graves knew either. Yet he closes things by making an attempt to humanize the man. It comes in the form of a letter the mother receives after her son’s execution, and suggests how Billy Palmer, at age eighteen, was first compelled to embark on a disreputable path of life. I’m almost certain that this letter ever existed, but so what? As fiction it succeeds in making one think.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
This 2015 best seller is narrated by three women; they recount events that had recently taken place or are currently happening. So we’re in their minds, seeing things from their perspectives. One of the women will be murdered. By whom? In this mystery Hawkins’ major bit of deception involves an affair that the murdered woman is having; Megan never uses the man’s name when writing about their meetings, nor does she give us enough information to identify him (in fact, we’re misled as to who he is). Though I read all 400 pages to find out who-dun-it, the experience became burdensome. Things were too drawn out, and the accumulation of loose ends wore me down. As did the plethora of psychological problems the women display. Rachel is the worst of the lot (and, since she’s an alcoholic who has black-out periods, her account of events is unreliable). The lives of all three women are dominated by men they find both sexually attractive and threatening. I felt little empathy for Hawkins’ characters, and this is partly due to how she keeps the intensity level unrelentingly high; what is needed is a fresh breath of normalcy. Also, as I neared the end, I realized that I wasn’t reading about adults. All the characters think and act like emotionally unstable children. They cry a lot, they fall apart, they think in platitudes. Because their impulse control is nil, they have affairs and commit murder (“See what you made me do?”). And they can’t stay off their devices; the novel is full of texting and emailing and voice messages.

A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes
I had attempted to read this novel twice before, but never got far. Since people I respect consider it to be a masterpiece, and I recently (at a used book sale) picked up a pristine copy in a Time Reading Program edition (which usually published excellent stuff), I again embarked, with determination, on Hughes’ story of children captured by pirates. I made it all to the way to the end, so am now qualified to give my opinion: the book is an elaborate bore. It’s overly rich in language but shallow in character and plot. Only Emily is given much attention, and she’s a mishmash of neurotic odds and ends. All others – her brothers and sisters, the captain and mate – are merely sketched in. As for plot, I got the sense that Hughes was scouring his mind for what outlandish happening to toss next into his disorderly procession of events. Admirers of High Wind tout the realism of its portrayal of children; Hughes backs that viewpoint in his Introduction, in which he claims that he was trying to portray them “realistically” and “lovingly.” But realism and love are totally absent from these pages. Real children recognize their vulnerability; they’re easily frightened and emotionally dependent on adults; they need stability. Hughes’ “wild things” never experience such feelings. The parents they leave behind are quickly forgotten, and when John dies his brother and sisters immediately erase him from their thoughts, as if he never existed. Instead of love, Hughes indulges in scenes in which people and animals are callously victimized. I agree with detractors such as Andre Gide, who could see no reason why the book had ever been written.

Various Miracles – Carol Shields
I counted twenty-one titles in this 183 page collection, which means that Shields keeps it short – as short as three pages. These aren’t stories; they’re evocations, in which the author tries to capture an emotion. She begins with an odd premise; from there she gives us fragments of experiences, or jumps back and forth in time, or starts with one character and then moves to another. I read these pieces over a long period of time, and looking at them again, to write this review, I find that I can’t remember their content; there wasn’t enough substance to hold onto. What I do remember is that, when I was in the act of reading, occasionally a connection was made: I experienced (to varying degrees) the emotion that Shields was trying to evoke. In some, I also recall, no emotion registered. The last story, which I read recently, was longer and more traditional than most. It begins with a stranger asking a couple to cash a personal check (they’re all Americans on vacation in Europe); they do him the favor, not knowing if they would ever be repaid. But a check arrives at the address they gave the man, and from then on, for over twenty years, they receive Christmas cards from him and his wife; each card contains a note about their lives, which seem to be idyllic. Meanwhile we follow the marriage of Robert and Lila, which doesn’t go so smoothly. One is left with a somewhat resigned “What is love all about, anyway?” feeling. In working with evocations Shields is taking a risk as a writer – the terrain is fragile and largely untrodden – so her successes are a unique accomplishment. Try these. If nothing else, you can admire the immaculate prose.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The House on Clewe Street – Mary Lavin
To read 242 pages of a book and then abandon it because of a lack of interest can breed resentment (especially if, as in this case, the print is small and the line spacing tight). Why did I waste my time? Of course, to keep me going for so long I was experiencing some degree of pleasure. The writing was nice, the characters were well-drawn, scenes had life. The pace was leisurely, but I can accept that if things seem to be evolving. It was okay for Aunt Theresa to always be a tyrant, but the novel’s main character was Theodore, and as he grew up his development was occurring with glacial slowness. More and more Lavin’s choices as to how to expend words began to strike me as misguided. For a good deal of the beginning of the novel Theodore’s grandfather is the main character; it’s his mind we’re in. After the birth of Theodore he’s alive, he’s present in the house on Clewe Street, and I wanted to know how he was getting along, what he was thinking. But he’s totally absent from the pages; even his death occurs offstage. Yet his funeral (and a farcical race to get to the cemetery ahead of a competing burial) takes up thirty pages. There are many examples of Lavin inflating inconsequential events while letting vital issues idle away or die out completely. Theodore’s predicament should be paramount; when he’s in his mid-teens he gets interested in the maid, and big changes were in the offing. But by that time I had lost confidence in the author. The point at which I called it quits was when some lady visitors are standing in the doorway in a dither about how to dispose of their scarves and hats and gloves. Lavin apparently found this scene so funny she couldn’t stop writing about it.

The Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
In 1831 twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in Plymouth, England and set out on a journey that would circumnavigate the world. He later cited the five year trip as the most important event of his life, one that would determine his entire career. I had owned this book for many years but didn’t attempt to read it because I thought it would be about matters of concern to a naturalist. Of course, it is, but only to a certain extent; though I found the sections about animals on land and in the air and sea interesting, those devoted to insects and plants and land formations were less engaging (and sometimes incomprehensible). Still, I was impressed by Darwin’s knowledge; I felt I was in the presence of a great mind. That I read all 400+ pages of this journal can be attributed to two factors. One is the excellence of the writing, which, besides having an efficient clarity, succeeded in capturing the personality of a young man full of enthusiasm and curiosity. The other is that Darwin gives much attention to his fellow human beings and how they lived in various environments. He doesn’t just observe and report; he thinks about what he sees and experiences and gives his opinions (notable is his abhorrence for the slavery prevalent in Brazil). Almost all the journal entries are about his time on land (he meets the Beagle at appointed ports). Darwin had many adventures, and in no way was he coddled; he roughed it, mostly on foot or horseback, and only someone with a strong constitution and mental toughness could have endured the hardships and dangers he encountered. Though the book has elements of an adventure story, on a deeper level it presents the vastness of life in all its myriad and mysterious forms. Every creature strives to survive on this earth. A “lowly” insect needs food, and it’s equipped with the means to get it; it can kill, it can defend itself; it also needs to procreate. In these respects man shares a commonality with a dung beetle. Some people that Darwin encounters (such as the residents of Tierra del Fuego) live in such a brutal environment and in such a degraded condition that he’s moved to speculate about what pleasure they can derive out of life. As for his theory of evolution, it isn’t developed on these pages; yet, in giving advice to someone considering a trip such as the one he took, he writes, “No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.” This is the journal of a naturalist whose scientific side was combined with an enlivening humanness, and who just happened to have the artfulness to produce a classic of its kind. *

Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion – V. S. Naipaul
I tend to like odd characters and situations, but this novella is odd in a way that fostered incredulity and boredom. Mr. Stone came across as inhuman, and his plan for his company to aid retirees with a program called the Knights Companion was too quirky a basis to build a plot around. Add to that an inexplicable marriage and an overly-imaginative PR man named Whymper, and I felt I was in a murky alternate universe populated by people who act without believable motivations. I groped to the halfway point before putting this novel aside. You have to wonder about the vagaries of creativity when you consider that three years previously Naipaul had written the wonderful A House for Mr. Biswas. Also a cause for speculation is his choice of the name Whymper for the PR man. Surely he knew that the words “whimper” and “why” would immediately come to the reader’s mind. Since those words have no relation to the character (who’s emphatic and upbeat), what point is Naipaul trying to make (if any)?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Now In November – Josephine Johnson
Johnson wrote this novel when she was twenty-four, and it won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize. Its passion and sincerity probably contributed to its receiving the award. Yet that seriousness of intent is too often expressed in a stilted way. The first person narrator, Marget, is introspective and analyzes emotions – hers and others – and the meaning of their lives: “I like to pretend that the years alter and revalue, but begin to see that time does nothing but enlarge without mutation.” There’s a lot of this type of deep thinking (which I couldn’t fathom), and it encumbered my reading. But when Johnson deals with people and events, the novel moves along with assurance. She offers up yet another fictional lesson on the theme of Don’t Be a Farmer. It’s too difficult a life, especially if you’re working mortgaged land (which is the equivalent of being a sharecropper). Add to that a devastating drought, and you have the ingredients of a tragedy. Which is what this book is – Johnson is unrelenting in her depiction of the destruction of a family. The only bright spots are Marget’s appreciation of the beauty of nature (before all beauty shrivels up), and the coming of a man who helps with the farmwork in exchange for room and board. Grant is kind, intelligent, a lively yet stabilizing presence, and all three of the daughters fall in love with him. But Marget considers herself too homely to interest a man; as for her two sisters, Kerrin is deranged and Merle is unable to curb her sarcastic tongue. When Grant departs, and the drought drags on, the bleakness closes in. It’s not just Marget’s family that suffers, but others around them. Johnson’s achievement is to make us feel how, for some, it takes an act of courage to face another morning.

The Truce – Mario Benedetti (Spanish)
This novel takes the form of a diary kept by a forty-nine-year-old man nearing retirement from his job as an accountant. He’s a widower who lives with his three grown children, and his first entries deal with his rocky relationship with his two sons, worries about advancing age, and speculation on how he’ll spend his leisure time. Okay so far, though there were aspects of this scenario that bothered me: no reason is given for Martin to keep a diary, his prose is flawless, and he’s highly cerebral. When he falls in love with a woman in her twenties, and this comes to dominate his entries (and all other matters fall by the wayside), it became clear that this so-called diary was not the work of a fictional creation but that of a novelist who was out to philosophize, and Martin’s love for Avellaneda gives Benedetti the opportunity to do so. This love, though initially marred by doubts and fears, is presented as an idyllic merging of souls. Too idyllic for my tastes, and Avellaneda was too perfect to be credible. Then she abruptly dies of heart failure, which I felt was a convenient way for Benedetti to open the door for Martin to sink into despair (and to meditate on God, and His role in this crime). The last entry has Martin cleaning out his desk, with the rest of his empty life stretching before him. This ending lacked resonance because I had long ago decided that there was no Martin to care about. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Jackson uses a demented first person narrator to tell the story, so we see events from Mary Katherine’s warped perspective. This eighteen-year-old is filled with hatred toward everyone except her sister Constance (whom she adores) and her Uncle Julian (though I’m not sure about him). She also loves a cat named Jonas. She ardently wishes that she could kill off all the people in the village where she lives. She had, years ago, disposed of most of her own family (including mother, father, brother, and I’m not sure how many others). This mass murder occurred at a dinner table, and was caused by arsenic in the sugar that was sprinkled on the blackberries. Constance survived because she never ate blackberries, and Uncle Julian used just a small amount of sugar, so he was left a cripple. Mary wasn’t present because, as punishment for some unspecified misdeed, she had been sent to bed without her supper. Since Constance prepared the meal, she was tried for murder, and was found not guilty. But, if not her, who? The villagers believe that Constance was the poisoner, and they have a rich store of rhymes and sayings attesting to that belief. I knew from the outset, when Uncle Julian first relates the story of that deadly night (it seems to be his function in the novel), that Mary was the culprit. I thought that Constance knew too, and that it was out of concern for her fragile little sister that she took the rap. But near the end it becomes clear that she didn’t know; and when she finds out, she seems unperturbed (which put her sanity in doubt). At the midpoint a youthful Uncle Charles comes and stays with them, and it seems that Constance is being drawn back into the world, which frightens and angers malignant Mary; in an effort to undermine his presence, she causes a fire that burns down much of the house; when the flames are extinguished the jubilant townsfolk go inside to carry on an orgy of destruction. But, after all the mayhem subsides, we get a happy ending: Charles is gone and Mary and Constance (along with Jonas) are living contentedly in an enclave they fashion out of the ruins. Jackson is a good writer, but this is over-the-top. “The Lottery,” her famous story, was effective because of how understated her approach was. In Castle she lets all guns fire away. The intensity with which she relates this grim and virulent tale makes one wonder what lurked in her psyche.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse
The opening sentence: “Lying in bed, I abandoned the real world and was back in Ambrosia.” Ambrosia is a fantasy world where Billy Fisher possesses power and prestige; in the real world things are not going at all well. The novel covers one day in his life – “a day for big decisions.” His plan is to leave his Yorkshire town and go to London, where he’ll make a living writing jokes for the comedian Danny Boon. By doing so he can avoid a number of predicaments he’s gotten himself into (two fiancees, a huge stash of business calendars he neglected to mail and must dispose of). He can also escape a life that offers him nothing. He lives with his mother, father and grandmother, and all find him to be insufferable (in the case of his father, the disapproval has risen to the level of hatred). He works as a clerk at a funeral home, and his boss relishes the moment when he can nail Billy for pocketing the postage money for the unmailed calendars. Billy’s hyper-energetic observations of people and the town are often funny, but they have a dark side: he sees the real world as ugly. And he never rises above the muck around him. Those lies which he casually dispenses are mostly aimed at evading unpleasant situations or inflating his importance, but some show a disregard for the feelings of others. Billy cares for no one and no one cares for him – with a single exception: Liz. It’s interesting that the only person with whom he feels a sense of comradery is the book’s only unbelievable character. It turns out that Billy lacks the courage to get on the train for London (he was lying when he claimed that Danny Boon had promised him a job). At the end of the long day, as Billy trudges home with his suitcase, I contemplated his future, and I saw no hope for him. I was impressed by this novel’s freshness and originality – it was like an invigorating breeze. But behind the spirited fun was a character study of a flawed and thwarted man. As a result I felt conflicted about Billy – pulled one way, then another.

Paradise Postponed – John Mortimer
Mortimer’s first career was that of a barrister, a profession in which intelligence and precision are of primary importance. But he also possessed a gift for fiction. Though this novel is overpopulated, I was able to keep the six major characters straight because he imparts a distinct individuality to each one. In covering their lives from youth to middle age he jumps back and forth in time, no small feat. He kept my interest at a high level, and even his commentary on changing politics in England was palatable. But, though Mortimer has all the trappings of a traditional novel working nicely for him, he frames the story as a mystery. In the beginning Simeon Simcox, a clergyman, leaves a will in which his possessions go not to his wife and two sons, but to someone he seems to have no ties to and who is already wealthy. As six people fall in and out of love, as they rise or settle in the world, as their attitudes take shape and harden, the mystery of the will pops up at intervals. It’s handled as a teaser – though we get suggestions of something a bit murky going on, what motivated Simeon is kept in the shadows. When the end is near the mystery is suddenly promoted to center stage. With all this buildup, what was needed was a solution that would come as a revelatory surprise. But it’s a letdown, and so things close on a disappointing note. If Mortimer had handled this as a straight novel he might have provided a sense of closure for his main characters; as it is, he leaves them hanging. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he wrote a sequel to Paradise. It’s called Titmuss Regained, so it obviously concentrates on this book’s most compelling character, the implacably ambitious Leslie Titmuss, M.P. (Member of Parliament).

The Abbess of Crew – Muriel Spark
This odd little novel takes place in a convent, is about nuns, is saturated in the ceremonies and trappings of religious life, yet the plot deals with grubby worldly matters. At it center stands Alexandra, “a tower of ivory.” When the book opens she has been elected Abbess, a position she coveted with steely resolve. Her chief competition was a nun who was having sexual relations with a Jesuit priest; this act of rebellion attracted some followers to her side. When the wayward nun is defeated she leaves the convent, and in newspapers and other media outlets she presents a long list of moral transgressions committed by Alexandra (to which this unflappable lady comments, “A dazzling indictment, and, do you know, she has thought not only of the wrongdoings I have committed but those I have not done yet but am about to perform”). Alexandra’s underhanded maneuvering to get elected has repercussions, and when a nun dressed as man is caught in a men’s lavatory of the British Museum with a bag of payoff money the police get involved. A worldwide scandal ensues; reporters try to breach the convent walls (which are guarded by police with dogs). The novel ends with Alexandra being summoned to Rome; aboard the ship her serene self-confidence remains intact. What is one to make of all this? I felt traces of science fiction in the gleaming control room of electronic surveillance equipment which has been installed at Crew (even the trees are bugged). And no matter how demented – or vulgar or comic – things get, the prose never loses its lofty tone. I did a bit of post-reading research, and, to my surprise, the word “Watergate” came up (Sister Gertrude, the globe-trotting nun Alexandra calls to get advice, is Kissinger). This interpretation makes some sense, especially since the book was published at the time of the scandal (when it had a relevance that’s missing now). But why set a satire of Nixon-era shenanigans in a convent? And the parallels are weak (Nixon was no Alexandra). The book, which was obviously written with malicious intent, has an unsavory fascination, but little else.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Ring Is Closed – Knut Hamsun (Norwegian) 
Hamsun wrote this novel when he was seventy-seven, and it would be his final one. A subsequent book, On Overgrown Paths, was mainly a defense of his wartime actions (he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis). I don’t know if his life had begun to unravel when Ring was published in 1936, though from its tone of resignation I suspect it did. His main character is a strange man, disconnected from those things that others find important. Abel has a deeply ingrained “What does it matter?” attitude. On rare occasions he has strong feelings, but they soon fade. His relationships with people – even the three women who play a role in his life – lack depth. When his father dies he comes into a substantial inheritance, but there’s nothing he wants to spend the money on: his ragged old jacket is fine, he’s satisfied living in a squalid shack. He pays off debts and gives much of the rest away – he’s generous with something that has little value to him. Abel isn’t always on the fringes of life; at one point he’s made captain of a milkboat that carries passengers up and down the river. A respectable job, but he tires of it, and off he goes to a foreign country. When he’s away from his home village the narrative shifts to other characters. This loosely constructed novel is written in a prose stripped to the bare essentials, but Hamsun can still hold one’s interest and is still a master at depicting character. His title suggests that he saw Ring as his last work of fiction, and in it he imparts the somber conclusion that all striving – even for happiness – is futile.

Daughters of the Samurai – Janice Nimura
After Commodore Perry’s fleet forced its entry into Edo Bay in 1853, the Japanese government realized that they could no longer continue living in isolation, clinging to a backward technology. One offshoot of their determination to catch up was to send five girls to the United States, where they would live with American families and attend American schools; their purpose was to absorb Western culture (and, of course, the English language) and – after ten years – return to Japan prepared to impart what they had learned. We follow the lives of three of the girls sent on this odd mission: six year old Ume, eleven year old Shige and twelve year old Sutematsu. They grew up Americanized and thus lost contact with the world to which they returned (this would be especially true for Ume). To tell their story the author had to depend entirely on research; we get a patchwork of excerpts from letters, newspapers and the writings of people who had contact with the girls. But a book so dependent on secondhand sources is limited. The main problem with Daughters is that the girls (later women) don’t come to life. I never got more than an inkling of their feelings. They didn’t keep intimate diaries, and in their letters they were sparing as to what they revealed. In the case of two of the girls, on their return to Japan they married and had children; the demands of family life left them little time for letter writing. As a result Ume, who remained single (and kept up a vigorous correspondence), takes center stage, but her efforts to assert herself as an educator didn’t make for compelling reading. This book is no more than a dutiful, plodding effort, and the prose, both Nimura’s and her quoted sources, is too often either stilted or gushy.

A Permanent Member of the Family – Russell Banks
I read eight of the twelve stories in this collection before I called it quits. Banks has seventeen novels to his credit, and many have achieved acclaim. I read one, Continental Drift, and, though I didn’t care for it, it was a serious, ambitious work. Most of these stories are tired and tepid. The prose is competent – Banks writes in a straightforward, simple way – but if he makes a point (often he doesn’t, as in the piddling “Green Parrot”) it’s a flimsy one. My reaction to “Christmas Story” and “Lost and Found” was, basically, “Huh?” – because they wound up nowhere. “Transplant” does have a purpose; in it a man meets with the wife of the donor of his heart to let her listen to it beat; I should have found this touching, but instead it struck me as gimmicky. “Former Marine” is the best of the lot, but it suffers from a flawed premise: that an old guy could pull off bank robberies with such ease. I’ll close this review with one more observation. Banks is seventy-eight years old. This collection may be his last work of fiction, and he ends it with “The Green Door.” In it a poor soul (drunk and probably mentally ill) is stabbed to death. Though this could have been prevented by the first person narrator, he tells the homeless guys who will commit the murder and robbery, “He’s all yours.” Then, “for reasons I can’t know or name,” he watches the proceedings (which are described in graphic detail); then he drives home, goes to bed, and quickly falls to sleep. What we have is a scene of brutality made worse by the presence of an unfeeling observer. Does Banks want to end his career on such a note?

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Winds of Morning – H. L. Davis
This is the third novel I’ve read by Davis, and his strengths are consistent. When his characters talk (and do they talk!), their voices have an earthy vigor. His descriptions of the Northwest of the 1920s, and of the tools men use in their daily work, have an indisputable authenticity. One of those tools are horses, and this book can serve as a primer on equine psychology. Two men are moving a herd to a new location, and there’s a murder mystery hanging over the affair. Amos is the first person narrator, but we learn little of what makes this reticent man act and feel as he does. He’s an observer, and it’s his companion on the trip – an old man named Hendricks – that he observes most closely. Hendricks has made mistakes in his past (undisclosed ones), and as a result has adopted a strict code of conduct; he always sees a choice, even in minor matters, as to what’s the right thing to do. Both men sense that there’s something awry in the world – their personal worlds and the larger one – and they’re trying to find ways to deal with it. Nature, though largely conquered and defiled by man, can still inflict suffering, but a more formidable problem is presented by people. Amos and Hendricks instinctively respond to others with suspicion: most likely they’re deceptive and possibly dangerous. As for women, Amos is deeply cynical, and the love story involving a girl named Calanthe moves in fits and starts. The same can be said for the plot in general. Davis is at ease describing a river crossing, or an incidental conversation, or a landscape, but when it comes to the entanglements of human emotions he becomes grudgingly obscure. Regarding the murder, its never made clear who did what to whom, and why. And though Hendrick’s source of guilt is revealed, it’s handled in an offhand way. As for Amos and Calanthe, Davis can’t, at the end, bring himself to settle for us, in simple terms, if there’s just a possibility of happiness for them.

Under the Net – Iris Murdock
This was included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels written in the English language in the 20th Century. I struggled to the halfway point (page 127) just so I could ask, in this review, “Why?” Murdock tries for a lively lark (and the effort is evident) by having the main character run here and there in frantic pursuit of this and that, with a host of eccentric people crowding their way into the loose-ended plot. Even the prose strains for animation: “At that very moment the telephone rang. My heart sprang within me and fell like a bird striking a window pane. I started to my feet. I had not the slightest doubt that the caller was Hugo. I looked at the phone as if it had been a rattlesnake.” (Two animal similes?) Or Jake’s reactions while eavesdropping: “I must hear more, I thought, with my eyes popping out.” “I was seized forthwith by a convulsive desire to laugh, and had to prevent myself by covering my mouth violently.” This book was a mistake – rollicking comedy was not Murdock’s thing. But it’s an amateurish mistake. And can’t mistakes show talent? The main character is no more than a prop; I never for a minute believed in Jake, his actions, his feelings. This book doesn’t belong on any “best” list. So why is it there?

The Revolt of the Angels - Anatole France (French)
Guardian angels, each assigned to a human, abide on earth and are privy to modern (early 20th Century) learning. Through their reading of scientific texts, they conclude that the bible is a conglomeration of falsehoods, and that God is a tyrannical fraud. The author doesn’t seem to be troubled by the contradiction in his premise. He has his rebellious angels express atheistic views, but their very existence – and that of the God they want to overthrow – is confirmation that a spiritual world exists. When they begin plans to wage war on heaven (with the help of a mysterious arsenal of bombs), I felt I was reading a book for kids, and I quit. The points France makes – that the dominance of Christianity brought on much suffering, that it’s rampant with hypocrisy, etc. – were surely not groundbreaking even in 1914. He seems to believe that the pre-Christian pagan worshipers – the Greeks especially – were on the right track; if humans are to worship anything, why not Bacchus and Venus? The aspect of the novel that deals with humans has interesting moments, but the angels are duds, every one of them. Despite how misconceived this undertaking was, I got the impression that the seventy-year-old author was having a fine time expounding his views.

Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
Under the photo of the young woman on the back cover we’re informed that this debut novel won the Whiting Award, and that Lisa Halliday was born in Medfield, Massachusetts and currently lives in Milan, Italy. The book came to my attention when, in a radio interview, Ms. Halliday talked of her real-life affair with Philip Roth; it took place some sixteen years ago, when she was in her twenties and he was in his seventies. In the first part of Asymmetry, entitled “Folly,” a young woman (Alice) recounts her affair with a much older Famous Author (Ezra Blazer). In the interview Halliday denied that this section was autobiographical. Really? I read the book in order to get the inside scoop on Roth, and surely Halliday (and Simon and Schuster) were aware that others will do the same. The second section, “Madness,” veers off into an entirely different sphere: it deals with the problems in the Middle East and the first person narrator is a Muslim man. This novel (or, rather, two novellas) is a polished, intelligent work, but I constantly found myself questioning what was behind the author’s decisions. This led me to try to sort out, in simple terms, exactly what Halliday did and what she didn’t do. You can find my conclusions at “Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry” at my Tapping on the Wall blog.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Memories of a Catholic Childhood – Mary McCarthy
I first read “Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?” in Cast a Cold Eye, McCarthy’s 1950 short story collection. It reappears as the lead-off story in these memories (which came out seven years later). In it she dissects the mentality that allowed her paternal grandparents to be blithely indifferent to the miserable existence she and her brothers endured after their parents’ death. “Dissects” is the correct word: emotions are presented in a detached, analytical way, and sometimes with a wry humor. This is true even in the next piece, in which she describes the nature of their misery at the hands of the brutish uncle they were sent to live with. Uncle Myers is the only person in the book who comes across as evil. McCarthy isn’t a condemner; she sees people as too complex to be categorized as good or bad. The stories follow her life chronologically; when her well-to-do maternal grandfather takes her to live in Seattle she begins to live in privileged circumstances. She attends school at a Sacred Heart convent; though Catholicism is an influence, early on she becomes a non-believer. My favorite piece in the collection is the final one, “Ask Me No Questions,” in which McCarthy finally tackles (after the woman’s death) her supremely vain maternal grandmother. The smooth and precise prose never flags, but when we move into McCarthy’s mid-teens I got the sense that she was at a loss for material. Actually, these memories are meager; without the supplement of italicized addendum (which I skimmed) the book would come to less than two hundred pages. I can’t say that I grew fond of Mary, but I don’t believe she was asking that of me. Respect for her intelligence would mean more to her, and that I can grant her.

The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard – Anatole France (French)
This novel takes the form of a diary of a man in his seventies (and moves into his eighties). Sylvestre Bonnard is a bachelor whose house is filled with books – he lives in a “City of Books.” He has an elderly housekeeper and a cat named Hamilcar, to whom he talks. He is, actually, talking to the reader throughout the novel – a sense of intimacy is established on the first page and never wanes. My acquaintanceship with this unique individual was a most enjoyable one. The novel has a sentimental strain that may be old-fashioned, but it’s appropriate to the character of Bonnard; there are soft-hearted people like him. The first part of the book is devoted to a search for a precious manuscript, but that subject is dropped entirely. The story then concerns itself with the young daughter of a deceased woman whom Bonnard loved in his youth (a love that was unrequited; she married another). Paris is a big city, and how likely would it be for him to cross paths with someone he didn’t even know existed? But I found these “faults” to be irrelevant; the voice dominating the novel kept me out of a fault-finding mood. Jeanne is in need of  help; she’s staying at a school where she’s a charity case and has been relegated to the status and duties of a servant. Bonnard – who has led a sheltered a life among his books – sees for the first time a manifestation of evil in the person of the headmistress. She informs Bonnard that Jeanne must be trained in the struggle of life, and is to learn that she can’t just amuse herself and do what she pleases. His response: “One comes into this world to enjoy what is beautiful and what is good, and to do what one pleases, when the things one wants to do are noble, intelligent and generous.” He rescues Jeanne, and to provide for her dowry he decides to sell his book collection; the books gave him pleasure, but they have no real value. (His “crime” is robbing Jeanne by secreting some volumes aside from the sale.) As for his age and his solitary existence, it’s not in his nature to complain or to harbor regrets about what he doesn’t have. He accepts, and does so with benevolence and humor. The simple act of acceptance is shown to have its rightful place as one of the keys to contentment. Bonnard has reached the age when he has observations to make about Life (such as the one quoted above), and I found wisdom from a man who professes to have no wisdom. That Anatole France was thirty-eight when he created his “old-book man” is remarkable, as is the fact that this was his first novel. Years ago I read his Penguin Island and thought it a wonder, yet I didn’t pursue other works by him. I succumbed to the fact that France (even though he won the Nobel Prize) is out of vogue. Who even talks of this contemporary of Flaubert? Sylvestre Bonnard might say, with a shrug and a smile, thus are the vagaries of fame.

Transparent Things – Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s novels can be divided into three categories. Two of the categories are similar in that both have believable characters involved in an intelligible plot; what separates them is that some succeed in telling a good story and some don’t. Generally speaking, the simpler the plot, the more successful the story. The third category consists of works that are unintelligible. Though Lolita has its difficulties, it’s certainly not impenetrable. After that novel, Nabokov was finally freed of money worries and he no longer seemed to care about the reader (and so we get Ada). Transparent Things belongs in the third category; it delves into arcane matters in a prose that often seems like a verbal labyrinth. The characters that occasionally emerge from these encumbrances are unreal and act with a perverse randomness. For all his vast intelligence, why couldn’t Nabokov perceive how boring and foolish this is? At any rate, my long association with him ends here, on this down note: I’ve now read (or attempted to read) all of his novels. I wish I had taken his final two in chronological order. Look at the Harlequins! (the last to be published in his lifetime) would have been a much more fitting goodbye to an author who gave me so much pleasure.

Found, Lost, Found – J. B. Priestley
Priestley was a hugely productive writer – I counted thirty novels in the list of his works, and there were equally long numbers of plays, essays, autobiographies and criticism. This novella was published when he was in his eighties, but it has the feel of something done by a young man. I have a hunch it was a discarded manuscript that the elderly writer discovered in a drawer and found pleasing. Premise: Tom drinks a lot of gin (why he chooses to float through life in a perpetual state of inebriation is not made clear); he and Kate meet and soon (too soon) fall in love. She leaves London for an undisclosed location, challenging Tom to find her; she wants to test his commitment to their relationship. The episodes involved in his search make up the bulk of the novel. They’re played as comic set pieces; trouble is, they’re not funny. I became awfully annoyed with Tom the inventive wit (he likes to make up names for himself such as J. Carlton Mistletoe and Theodore A. Buscastle). So I skipped to the end: he finds her. But the larger question for me is why I’m having such a hard time finding a good book to read. I only review those that I get halfway through, so you don’t know about all the ones (sometimes six in a row) I can’t tolerate for that long. Even having to write about this bit of fluff has put me in a bad mood.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Glimpses of the Moon – Edith Wharton
When Wharton was guided by her steely intelligence, she was wonderful; but this contrived and foolish novel shows how precarious excellence is. The premise of Moon is interesting. When Nick and Susie get married they have an agreement: they’ll spend a year together, sponging off rich friends; but if one of them finds someone who can advance them socially/financially, they’ll be free to take the offer and dissolve the marriage. They first stay at a villa on Lake Como (they chose that over places in Versailles and Monte Carlo). Their idyllic honeymoon is marred by one problem: Nick has scruples that Susie doesn’t. While he’s a non-paying guest at the villa he has no problem smoking the expensive cigars of his absentee benefactor; yet when they leave and he finds Suzie packing four boxes of cigars, he sternly orders her to unpack them. At their next stop, a palace in Venice, Susie – who has a practical approach to “managing” the people she depends on – mails four letters at intervals in order to deceive a husband as to his wife’s whereabouts. When Nick finds out about this, he abruptly leaves Susie. For over six months they’re apart, not even writing to one another. Both continue to live in luxury, thanks to the generosity of friends. They also form relationships, but they’re superficial; they moon about each other. In a sort of comedy of errors, each believes that the other has found someone else, and that their agreement to let the other free is still in effect. This whole scenario is rife with problems. Wharton wants us to believe that a deep and everlasting love exists between Susie and Nick; why, then, couldn’t their initial differences be settled with a sensible conversation? She has Susie look to Nick as a moral compass, but he comes across as a stiff-necked hypocrite. And she wants to make the point that material goods aren’t of true value, yet she saturates the novel with the trapping of the ultra-wealthy. She winds things up with Susie living in a humble abode, taking care of a friend’s five children (and learning all about true values). There Nick finally seeks her out, and they declare their eternal love; they will, we’re to assume, live happily ever after. “ ‘Nick!’ Susie sighed, at peace, as if the one syllable were a magic seed that flung out great branches to envelope them.” Which brings me to the prose, which is exceedingly wordy, and the words are often purple.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Hurari
What makes this far-ranging study of man so unusual is Hurari’s perspective: he looks at our species as an analytical alien might. His lack of commitment to accepted norms allows him to move away from conventional ways of thinking. One of his major points is that much of what we hold onto as bulwarks of our lives is imagined. Christianity, democracy, capitalism, our homeland – all are concepts manufactured by the mind of man and thus can be categorized as delusions. And he gives full legitimacy to any other set of delusions that a different culture may believe in. Hurari goes into origins – mainly the Cognitive, Agriculture and Scientific Revolutions that allowed our species to become dominant – but it’s only to show the path that led us to where we are today. It is today (and the future) that concerns him. Hurari acknowledges how disturbing his undermining of the status quo can be. He writes, “Perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.” To him this is “quite a depressing conclusion.” His commitment is to the truth, as he sees it, and he’s equipped with persuasive arguments to back up his views.

I Thought of Daisy – Edmund Wilson
Wilson’s intellectuality undermined his strengths as a novelist. He encumbers Daisy with a schematic framework aimed at presenting different life views; the narrator goes on tangents about Sophocles, politics, metaphysics; the long descriptive passages are Proustian attempts at evoking moods. The plot consists mainly of a series of Greenwich Village parties in which eccentric types – poets, revolutionaries, hangers-on – drink and talk. Though aspects of this were fairly interesting, they obscured what should have been the book’s main focus – namely, the person the narrator is thinking of in the title: Daisy. She’s an emphatic creation, fresh, lively, sparkling. That sparkle is sometimes dulled (due mostly to her problematic relationships with men), and I felt the absence because I cared for her and wanted her to be happy. When the narrator is with Daisy he has an appeal that’s otherwise absent. The same can be said for the author; unlike his other characters Daisy is earthbound, and when she’s present Wilson is pleasingly earthbound too. At the end the narrator expounds on what Daisy offers him: “. . . if only I could hit off, in prose, her attitudes, her gestures, her expressions, the intonation of her voice – preserve them so they should not vanish, as Degas had done for his dancers . . .” In sections Wilson fully succeeds in doing this. But Daisy makes brief appearances in which she reflects the man she’s presently with (that schematic framework at work); only in the last section do we get her undistilled. In his Foreword, written in 1953 (the novel came out in 1929), Wilson says that he had an idea for a sequel, one which he abandoned when he couldn’t find his notes. He considers this “no great loss. By the time you have finished this book, if you do, you will no doubt have had enough of Daisy . . .” Though he’s wrong there, I should be grateful for what I got of her. And maybe his offhand words account for his meager output of fiction. Which is a shame, because in parts of Daisy and in the stories that make up Memoirs of Hecate County he could be remarkable in a unique way.

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope
In this flat second installment of the Orley Farm saga the characters I found invigorating are either absent or watered down. Early on Mrs. Mason confesses to two close friends that she forged the will. There’s much moralizing about her dastardly act, but the repentant woman is forgiven. The trial proceeds and she’s found not guilty. Trollope has sympathy for Mrs. Mason, but he also has a problem with a legal system that allows justice to be subverted by wily lawyers. The main dilemma involves her righteous son, who believes passionately in his mother’s innocence. It’s determined that he must be told of her guilt, and how will he take this blow? He agonizes, considering what she did to be “the foulest fraud that practiced villains can conceive!” – but he too winds up forgiving her (in his stern fashion). It has been decided that, after the trial, Orley Farm must be returned to its rightful owner. This is done, and there things end, leaving the fate of a handful of characters up in the air. Not that I cared much; the novel was too emotionally overwrought and high-minded for any but Victorian readers. In regard to that high-minded tone, there’s a matter that Trollope chooses to gloss over. It has to do with a side story: Felix, who is portrayed as exceedingly upright, is to marry Madeline, who is a paragon of virtue (and beautiful and wealthy to boot). But there’s an obstacle. Before he met her, Felix had been grooming a lower class young woman to be his wife. He had entered into a legal document with the neer-do-well father stipulating that a marriage is to take place; he has hired someone to teach Mary Snow the niceties of manners and to watch over her activities. This lady informs Felix that Mary exchanged letters with a young man and met him once under a lamp-post. Felix has a talk with a contrite Mary in which he gently proposes that they aren’t meant for one another and that they should call off their union. The angry father is appeased by a considerable sum of money (which he will drink away). Thus Felix is provided with a convenient “out” from his entanglement. Trollope the moralist expresses no misgivings about an episode that struck me as thoroughly unsavory.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope
This novel was published in two volumes, so I’m going to read (and review) the two separately. And I surely will read the next volume, as I’m interested in how things turn out. A trial is to take place determining whether Mrs. Mason forged the signatures of her husband and two witnesses on a codicil to a will, one which left her infant son the heir to Orley Farm. At the time, twenty years ago, her husband’s well-to-do adult son had taken the matter to court, contesting the validity of the codicil; the decision went against him, yet he remained convinced that he had been cheated out of property that was rightfully his. When new papers are discovered, giving credence to his belief, he revives the case; if a wrong has been done to him, however long ago, he’ll exact his full pound of flesh. For me, Mrs. Mason’s guilt or innocence is not in question: she forged the codicil. Still, how will she survive the retrial? Trollope is adept at putting characters in moral/emotional vises, and then tightening the screws. The crosscurrents that play over relationships are deviously constructed but entirely sound, given the characters’ psychology and temperament. Another Trollope strength is his portrayal of people who are unpleasant, deviant or evil. I’ll note two of many compelling creations: the lawyer Mr. Dockwrath, a coarse, wily brute force, and the elder son’s wife, a miser of psychotic proportions. But a Trollope weakness is also on display: some characters come across as simplistic and cloying (this is most evident in his depictions of womanly virtue). It all has to do with his attitude: when Trollope was hard he was as good as it gets, but when he was soft he turns mushy. Orley Farm also suffers in that it’s cluttered with too many characters and lines of plot (such as the love triangles involving a handful of young people). But readers in 1862 were desirous of a blockbuster, so Trollope, the human word machine, added the necessary padding. His readiness to produce on demand was an aspect of his work that critics would attack. Where’s the divine inspiration, they asked.

The Final Deduction – Rex Stout
Again I turn to Stout for a diversion. Archie gets a lot of play, which is good (when he glances into a wealthy client’s bedroom he decides it “would suit my wife fine if I ever had a wife, which I probably wouldn’t because she would probably want that type of room”). But this is a sloppily written and plotted novel; Stout wasn’t half trying. In fact, I think he was deliberately seeing how much nonsense he could foist off on his readers. The overly intricate maneuvering of the kidnapping is topped for preposterousness by the method of committing a murder. The Teddler library has a dozen life-sized bronze statues of figures from American history. A drugged man is dragged under the statue of Ben Franklin, which is then pushed over so that it falls on him. But how could someone be sure that a statue of that size and weight would land on the unconscious victim in a way that would cause death (and not just, say, crush his legs)? A little off to the side and the whole plan would be a fiasco. Of course, if the Ben Franklin had missed completely, the murderer could drag the body to the George Washington statue for another try. I often complain about how writers of detective fiction deliberately try to mislead the reader. So this time out, when the five suspects were identified, I chose the most unlikely person to be the murderer. It turns out that I was right. So now I can solve mysteries just like Nero Wolfe.

The Hat of My Mother – Max Steele
I admired Steele’s only novel so much that I got this collection of his short stories. But only “When She Brushed Her Hair” approached the excellence of Debbie. And even that story is marred by an awkward introduction and a postscript in which Steele muses about the project. There’s one other piece that’s very good — “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers” — but the rest range from interesting to mistakes. Since their publication dates begin when the author was thirty-one and end when he was sixty-six, which was his age when the collection came out, it’s a summing up of his work as a writer of short fiction. There’s simply not much of value in this slim volume (under two hundred pages), and I was left wondering how Steele could have written something as good – and ambitious – as Debbie. Maybe the novel was so heartfelt that it elicited the best in him, and his best was better than what he was normally capable of. And he wrote it when he was in his twenties; he would attend five universities, ending up as the longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; possibly academic affairs took up his time and energy. In most of the stories he uses personal experiences for subject matter; this works as long as he stays in the background. In the two successes I noted, one is about his mother and the other is about his kindergarten teacher; in the first he isn’t born yet, and in the second he’s just one of the anonymous boys in Miss Effie’s class. But too often I felt I was in a psychiatric session in which Steele reveals his inability to sustain romantic relationships (in “Color the Daydream,” which is about a love affair that turns out badly, there’s a paragraph that consists of two words: “Torture time”). This collection left me with a feeling of sadness. The stories weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, and Max Steele seemed to have had a struggle with life.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Getting of Wisdom – Henry Handel Richardson
Henry Handel was actually Ethel Florence, and she went to a girls’ school in Melbourne, Australia similar to the one Laura attends in this novel. But, according to Germaine Greer’s Introduction, the author’s career at school was one of multiple successes, whereas Laura blunders from one social disaster to another. Upon this intense, impetuous twelve-year-old newcomer the girls wield their double-barbed cruelties of ridicule and exclusion. Laura isn’t presented in the protective garb of a sympathetic character; she’s replete with flaws and weaknesses, among which self-centeredness and neediness stand out. Her efforts to conform and to impress lead her into her worst transgression. It occurs when she stays for a few days at a minister’s house and returns to tell the girls about her romantic involvement with the handsome, married Mr. Robertson (something that has absolutely no basis in fact). This is libel, but it makes her admired, so she feels impelled to embellish her story with additional “spicy happenings.” She is “as little able as a comic actor to resist pandering to the taste of the public . . .” When her lies are uncovered she becomes even more of a pariah (mainly because the other girls feel duped). Though Laura suffers during her years at the school, there’s a light, comic touch to the way Richardson depicts her experiences. But there’s empathy too – Laura is real and relatable, and I was relieved at the exuberant ending, which shows her with spirit intact. This is a very entertaining book, and an oddly instructive one. Young girls who find themselves in a situation in which they feel like square pegs should read The Getting of Wisdom. I think it would offer them some solace and some hope. *

Concluding – Henry Green
I’ll begin with a spoiler: the missing girl is never found, nor is she accounted for. In fact, none of the issues presented (e.g., will Mr. Rock get to remain in his cottage?) are settled in any way. Green creates people and scenes with a remarkable vibrancy; that was his thing, and there it ended for him. His two successes (Loving and Living) are amorphous mood pieces in which people talk; in those books his weakness at plotting was not a factor. But this novel is made up of multiple dilemmas involving at least a dozen characters. Near the end he continues to pile on new complexities, as if he were unable to curb his imagination. Long before the last page of Concluding I had concluded that nothing would be resolved. Though I felt a bit gypped about Mary (the missing girl), I should have known better than to expect Green to play by the conventional rules of narrative. Even his quirky style of prose is something the reader has to adapt to. He wrote for himself, not for the reader.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester
If you have an interest in how the Oxford English Dictionary came into existence, this is the book for you. If you have little or no interest you may still find Winchester’s account to be an engrossing read. He focuses on two men: one a scholar in charge of the project, the other a man who, for twenty years, contributed mightily from his cells at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who served in the Civil War (where, possibly, the horrendous events at the Battle of the Wilderness set off his mental decline), was undoubtedly insane. But he was also brilliant – extremely well-read, an accomplished flutist and painter – and when the call for contributions came from Oxford, he leapt to the task. No doubt it gave purpose to his days, a feeling of being a part of a grand enterprise. I felt, in a sense, that the scope of this enterprise (which took seventy years to complete) was driven by the obsessions of all parties involved. The book is short for such a vast topic – a little over two hundred pages – and moves along at a nice clip, mixing scholarship with the sometimes sad, sometimes lurid story of Dr. Minor. The Professor of the title, James Murray, gets much less attention than the Madman, for whom Winchester obviously has a great deal of sympathy. The last word in the OED, which was completed in 1927, was zyxt. In my American Heritage Dictionary (which I’ll stick to, thank you very much) the last entry is xyster. As for the meanings of these words, you can always look them up.

Small Town – Sloan Wilson
What does it say about me that I read all five hundred pages of what is, literary-wise, a mess? I was aware of the book’s many deficiencies, yet I kept going, and was entertained rather than displeased. Or, rather, my displeasure had entertainment value – often I’d think, You don’t mean Wilson is going to go there? Yes, indeed, whenever he moved into love and sex (which he did a lot), he was actually going straight into the flagrantly improbable. His awkward depiction of women – their words and actions – was cringe-worthy, but it was also amusing. So, like an afternoon soap opera addict, I kept reading, carried along on the smooth flow of the prose. As for plot, our hero (a famous photographer) returns to the small town where he grew up and instantaneously falls in love with thirty-year-old Rose. But their bliss of total commitment runs into a snag when, during their first sexual act, she has a heart attack; then, at their wedding reception, another heart attack kills her (I had never believed in her, and so was uninvolved). Her seventeen-year-old sister Ann comes to Ben’s rescue, making sexual advances which he nobly (though wavering at times) resists. Ben, by the way, is forty-five, and his son is the boyfriend of Ann, so there’s a sort of triangle going on. A bunch of other plot lines are introduced as major ones and then allowed to wither and die. They die because Wilson was interested only in Ben Winslow’s emotional travails. Ben is initially forceful and competent, but by the end he’s a hapless soul, clinging to a few hopes. I think this book was very personal to Wilson, and was written with great sincerity. Despite all the sappiness of Small Town, it still manages to impart a sense of loss and longing.