Thursday, January 16, 2020

I happened to check the word count of these reviews. I’m over the 200,000 mark (very close to the length of Moby Dick). The history of this undertaking, and my opinions on reviews in general, can be found at Reviewing the Reviews.
I’m disappointed in the lack of readership. I wish a dialogue about books had developed, one stemming from comments that agree or disagree with my opinions. But I realize that readers of literary works are few (especially when those works are from the past and off the beaten track). And, since I’m not writing for a major newspaper or magazine, those few potential readers aren’t aware of the existence of “Jack London.” I persist because it’s become something I do: I read a book, I offer my take on it. In an odd way, this is my autobiography, though it’s a limited one. I began writing these reviews about 15 years ago, so they constitute less than a fourth of my reading life. The feelings of the twelve-year-old boy who was startled by the power of “To Build a Fire” are not represented.

The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead
Elwood is an upstanding high school student who wants a look at the local college where he’ll be taking classes; to get there he hitches a ride, and it turns out that the car he’s in is stolen. A judge sentences him to a reformatory called Nickel Academy. Elwood needs no reforming; but he’s a black boy in rural Florida in the 1960s, and the white judge is apparently not interested in extenuating circumstances. Elwood soon discovers Nickel’s dark secret: brutal beatings, sometimes amounting to intentional murder. Though he obeys the rules, hoping to earn merit points (which can lead to early release), he gets into trouble simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result he’s pulled out of his bed at night and taken to the “White House.” The prolonged whipping he receives is so severe that he loses consciousness and must spend weeks in the school’s infirmary; he has scars that he’ll carry for the rest of his life. Whitehead is able to create credible characters and situations, and he does so in a prose that’s clear and smooth. Still, as the main protagonist Elwood is one-dimensional. Another boy, Turner, is more complex and thus stronger. By the end of the novel I understood why Whitehead gave Turner such a prominent role. But I have mixed feelings about that ending. Though surprised by the twists and turns, I felt that I was being tricked. I think the novel should have taken a more direct (and less dramatic) line – should have stuck with Elwood and shown him harden into a man who never achieved his potential. In a note at the end Whitehead states that he based Nickel Academy on a real life place: the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Soon after finishing the novel, while TV channel surfing, I came to a station devoted to true crime stories; just as I was about to click the remote I heard the word “Dozier.” At the conclusion of the hour long documentary I was left feeling that Whitehead hadn’t subjected Elwood to the worst that Nickel/Dozier had to offer. After his beating Elwood isn’t left to fester in a tiny, crowded sweat house; he isn’t raped (there was another house devoted to that activity); he doesn’t become a slave laborer. And he isn’t an eight year old child. Dozier was a place of evil, run by evil men (men who never came to justice). And though the majority of inmates were black, there were many white boys at Dozier. The two were strictly segregated, and the whites had better facilities, but all suffered. The unmarked graves contain the remains of both races. What these boys, black and white, had in common was poverty. No middle class or wealthy boys were sent to Dozier. Only the poor.

A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
I’ve read six other novels by Shute, and this is the first one that I abandoned. Things were going quite well when the setting was Malaysia during WWII. Jean is part of a group of women captured by Japanese forces. They’re made to walk from one location to another, ostensibly to find a prison camp where they can stay. No camp is found, and half the women and children die on the trek. Though Jean is the youngest of the group and the only one unmarried, in her quiet way she becomes the link holding them all together. This person who, in daily life, seems to be ordinary, turns out to be extraordinary in a time of extreme hardship. She isn’t depicted as heroic; her qualities are resourcefulness, grit and compassion. The women happen to meet some Australian men who are also prisoners. Jean strikes up a friendship with Joe, and he helps them by pilfering food and medicine. He’s found out, and the Japanese commander has his hands nailed to a tree, and then he’s beaten to death. Jean survives the war, and the novel switches back to England, where she learns that she’s inherited a large amount of money. What follows are many plot twists, some of which were unlikely. After a shift in locale to Australia, the novel becomes a love story. Besides creating strong and appealing female characters, Shute was usually good at depicting love relationships. This one fell flat for me; I found the scenes of intimacy to be awkward. And the intimacy was limited – the Shute Rule against premarital sex was in effect. That this annoyed me may reflect today’s liberal moral climate, but I think that in the 1940s a twenty-seven-year-old woman wouldn’t be as withholding of her favors as Jean is. Overall, I felt the absence of the more down-to-earth character she had been in Malaysia. The side plot – about transforming desolate Willstown into a town like Alice – bored me, so it was time for me to part ways with my old friend Nevil.

Tania - Parmenia Miguel
This is an unlikely book for me to read. It’s a “biography and memoir” of Isak Dineson, a writer I’m not a fan of. But Dinesen was a colorful character, and Miguel is such a good writer that she pulled me into the story. In her short Preface she states that Dinesen feared being misrepresented, particularly by her fellow Danes. She also was afraid of being subjected to Freudian probing. So she asked Miguel to take on the job of writing her biography; and, out of friendship and loyalty, Miguel acquiesced. She states that her approach was to “present a portrait of a Romantic and magical personality, not at all of the twentieth century.” Rather than an effort at dissection, she “opted for a more lyrical interpretation in keeping with Tania’s spirit.” Though at times Miguel takes an adoring attitude to Dinesen, I found myself reading between the lines and seeing someone a good deal less than attractive. Was this Miguel’s intent? And it’s interesting that though the book is based on “many years of visits and interviews,” Miguel appears only once, as “the wife of an American diplomat in Paris.” Yet, though she plays no role in these pages, Miguel seems to have access to her subject’s innermost thoughts. Does this constitute the “memoir” aspect of the title? And in this revealing book much is left unrevealed. Foremost, for me, was Dinesen’s relationships with men. Though she very much wanted men to find her attractive, to fall under her spell (a desire that increased as she grew old and frail), I wondered if this childless woman ever had any sexual relationships. Deny’s was supposedly the love of her life, but what was the nature of their intimacy – was there any intimacy at all? It’s all a bit mysterious – which, oddly, adds to the success of the book. As for the woman who emerges – and Dinesen does emerge – I felt respect for her indomitable nature. And she has some interesting observations to make: “There are three kinds of complete joy in the world: 1) to feel an excess of strength within oneself; 2) to be convinced that one is fulfilling one’s destiny; 3) the cessation of pain.” I wasn’t aware of how famous Dinesen was in her lifetime. This was enormously important to her. And the question arose in my mind: what would have become of her if she had no fame – if she hadn’t fulfilled the destiny she desired? I think her life story would be very bleak indeed. She gave a talk at the Poetry Center in New York, and Miguel describes the scene as she was leaving: “Crowds gathered afterwards on the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of the diminutive teller of tales leaving the auditorium in a wheelchair, swathed in black, her eyes luminous with a sort of trancelike excitement, her arms filled with red roses.”

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