Monday, May 11, 2009

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower - C. S. Forester
Forester had a considerable gift for narrative. He could move a novel along, engross the reader. How is this done? By writing clearly and simply, being able to recognize what’s interesting and leaving out boring filler; and, most important, by having a story to tell and characters that are engaging. Easy? Hardly. What raises this novel above a mere page-turner is that it shows the development of a unique individual. In the beginning Horatio Hornblower comes aboard ship, an unsure boy of sixteen. But in the first chapter he makes a drastic decision that he’ll stick to with iron resolve. I found this a bit hard to accept until I realized that this boy is unlike others. At the end of the book he’s a strong, confident man who will go far in his naval career – I fully believed in him and his abilities. Forester also describes the tremendous demands made on men who go to sea, especially those in command; it’s a hard, often brutal life. However, I won’t be following Horatio from Midshipman to Admiral; despite the virtues of this first installment in the series, the subject matter (nautical matters, naval warfare) holds little interest for me. Which is an added tribute to Forester’s writing, because I thoroughly enjoyed this opening salvo.

The Blush - Elizabeth Taylor
These are “nothing” stories (except for “The Letter-Writers,” which confirms that Taylor is capable of excellent work). When you finish a “nothing” story you wonder why you spent time reading something so insubstantial and why the author spent time writing it. Taylor may have been trying to capture the small but significant moment. But the significance wasn’t there, so the story was merely small. However, I don’t want to seem dismissive of the author of Angel and Mrs. Palfrey of the Claremont. She’s just not at her best in this collection.

The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald has a sketchy style. She puts down on paper only the bare minimum needed to tell her story, and she moves from scene to scene without much fuss. A sketchy style can work if the author selects what’s meaningful; that which matters can then emerge. But little emerged for me, and not even the main character mattered. I only read half of this slim novella.

Penguin Island - Anatole France (French)
This isn’t a novel. It’s a unique and imaginatively conceived study of the progress of man, starting from his primitive beginnings. The word “progress” is meant ironically. Irony, cynicism, wit – all are used with remarkable skill. The author has assembled a miscellany that’s made whole by an insight into human weaknesses (and thus the weaknesses of society). France had no hope that things would change, man being what he is. Time has proved him to be right. He wrote Penguin Island in 1908; this date is striking because what he describes applies directly to our world today. There’s no point in trying to explain the book’s structure or content; it defies explanation. It is what it is: a monument to clear-sightedness. It should be read by all thinking people. *

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