Friday, February 21, 2020

Two-Part Invention - Madeleine L’Engle
The first third of the book – which I found to be pleasant reading – deals with L’Engle’s life as a young woman. The section ends with her marriage to Hugh when she’s twenty-seven. I had expected what follows to be the story of their forty years together, but instead I got a grueling account of a seventy-year-old man being ground to an empty shell by cancer. Throughout the ordeal L’Engle often questions God, but her conclusion is always the same: “the purpose of a universe created by a loving Maker is to be trusted.” I wondered if Hugh, who was doing the suffering, would agree about a loving God. But he’s absent as a distinct personality. Even in their courting days L’Engle never makes him come alive. As a novelist she should be able to accomplish this, but we get more of what he does than what he is. For most of this book he’s just a body undergoing one medical procedure after another (including something called “platinum chemotherapy,” which uses a scorched earth policy but doesn’t do anything beneficial). I suppose we all must find ways to make it through ordeals. Besides the support of loving friends and family, L’Engle finds sustenance in her spiritual way of thinking. People who share her outlook may find the book uplifting. But I responded by asking “Where’s the anger, the cynicism? When does one give up on God and the gods of medical science and simply allow a merciful death?” I quit reading before I got to the inevitable ending.

Mutiny on the Bounty - Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Finally I got to this classic, and though I enjoyed it, I enjoyed some parts more than others. The episodes in Tahiti (in which the fictional narrator, Roger Byam, is the principal character) were too idyllic, and as a result superficial and simplistic. The authors were at their best when conveying the harsh and often brutal life of a sailor in the British navy in the late eighteenth century. It was the captain – the absolute ruler of the ship – who determined the degree of harshness and brutality. Captain Bligh comes across as a paranoid bully. He was competent and even worthy of respect as a seaman, but he alienated the men in ways that ranged from verbal abuse to an over-reliance on physical punishment. In a harrowing opening scene a man is flogged until the flesh of his back is hanging in tattered strips, revealing the bare bones. He dies before receiving the full punishment that naval law had decreed, so another two dozen strokes of the cat-o-nine-tails is applied to his corpse. This barbaric act had not been ordered by Bligh, but he watches it “as a man might watch a play indifferently performed.” Captains generally considered the unrelenting law of the sea to be a necessity. Voyages were long and arduous, and the common sailor was often of disreputable character; mutiny was always a possibility. Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh, who play major roles in the three movie adaptations of Mutiny, are peripheral characters in the book. They will be featured in subsequent novels by Nordhoff and Hall (who obviously saw that they had struck a gold mine). Men Against the Sea follows Bligh after he’s put in an open launch overloaded with men; he somehow makes a 3600 mile voyage to the island of Timor. Pitcairn’s Island deals with what happened to Fletcher Christian. All the books are based on fact, though in the case of the third the material is scanty and dubious. I’m not interested enough in naval adventures to read the spin-offs. But the author’s considerable achievement in Mutiny was to take the raw material of events that actually happened and transform them into highly readable historical fiction.

The Galton Case - Ross MacDonald
On the left column of this blog is a list of the “most meaningful” books I’ve read, and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels are included. But what’s meaningful at one stage of your life may not hold up in another. I almost never reread a book on that list. Why subject it to reappraisal? If it meant something to me once (even if for the wrong reasons), I should respect that response. The circumstances in which I devoured one after another of MacDonald’s books – I was in my twenties – were unique: I needed escapism, and he fulfilled that need. Now, five decades later, I got the Library of America edition of his “Crime Novels of the Fifties” because I wanted to read the Chronology section. After completing that I took a look at the first chapter of Galton and thought it was near perfect writing. Characters emerged with a quick efficiency, the dialogue was smart and sharp. So I continued. I knew at the outset that my younger self had found his plots too complex to unravel, but back then I just went with the flow, waiting for Archer to fit the puzzle pieces together. Today I’m not so generous toward intentional concealment. Why can’t writers of mysteries let the reader close the net? Often they arrange it so that a person one suspects the least in the beginning turns out to be the guilty party. As the revelations pile up at the conclusion of Galton, the result is a shambles. Some of the virtues of that wonderful first chapter (especially the delineation of character) are present throughout. And there was another aspect I had originally liked and still do: the crime committed in the beginning has its roots in a violent act that took place in the past. This amounts to a theme that must have reflected something in the author’s psyche. Of the eighteen novels featuring Archer, I don’t think I read more than seven during my spree. Maybe Galton wasn’t one of them (it struck no chord of recognition, and Archer seemed more of a tough guy than I recalled). Maybe I read the later novels, and maybe they were better. Or maybe Thomas Wolfe has the last word: “You can’t go home again.” Though “The Lew Archer novels” will remain on my list of most meaningful books, I won’t be revisiting any more of them.

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