Books, 2015 (2)

Accidentally deleted comments on several books, including Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Reconstructed from memory.

29, Hanif Kureishi, The Last Word. I expected much more from this. A young writer is hired to compose a biography of an aging and no longer popular novelist. He sees this as an opportunity to make his mark. The publisher wants the book to be a scandalous tell-all. The author's second wife wants the book to rekindle interest in her husband's books so that she can recoup her investment in him and to portray her as his saviour. The aging author wants to revise his life. Several peripheral characters want to revise their relationships with the author. Some inept writing. Overall a promising idea poorly executed.

30. T. C. Boyle, Talk, Talk. A deaf woman is the victim of identity theft, and she and her boyfriend track down the culprit. This was a re-read but I didn't realize that until I was about halfway through.

31;. Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker. This is the novelistic equivalent of a video game or a fantasy movie. Lots of improbable action and larger-than-life characters. It's not a bad read, but requires a lot of suspension of belief and a willingness to ignore probability. It tries to make some serious points about identity, but that's beside the point.

32. David Ulin, ed. Cape Cod Noir. A collection of thirteen short mystery stories in the noir genre. None of them particularly memorable. The odd thing is that the links to Cape Cod are tenuous in all the stories. With a few changes of placenames, they could equally well have been set in Torquay or any other seaside resort area.

33. Yan Lianke, The Four Books. Trans. Carlos Rojas. A novel of the Great Leap Forward years. Human resilience under pressure is not a new theme, but the pressures presented in this telling are grim.

34. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Why do Mercutio and Tybald have to die? Is Shakespeare commenting on the demise of this masculinist culture of honour?

35. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Several plays feature rustics entertaining their betters by badly mauling a play. The betters disparage the attempt. In this case, the play within the play concerns Pyramis and Thisbe, one of the sources of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare's parody of one of his own plays, a very successful play by all evidence, must have seemed like an in-joke at the time. Like many of the comedies, this has a dark side.

36. Aaron Elkins,  The Worst Thing. 4/18. A hostage negotiator is kidnapped and forced to undergo firsthand what he teaches others about. Elkins has done his homework, but manages to avoid info-dumps. His recitals of facts are worked into the story plausibly. The twist at the end was unnecessary, however.

37. Bill Cameron, County Line. 4/19. A thriller, decent enough read. A bit long in the middle.

38. Shakespeare, King John. 4/20. This is unhistorical even for Shakespeare. It contains several elements found in other history plays: usurpation, dramatic encounters in France, the murder of an innocent youth who by strict geneaological standards should be king of England (although in this case, the murderer relents and lets the prince go, but the prince kills himself in an accident; everyone believes the king ordered the murder anyway), rebellious nobles; perfidious Frenchmen, and a celebration of Englishness in terms we would call patriotic. The play is entirely in verse, verse that is more elliptical and metaphorical than in the later plays. More drama than substance here, I think.

39-45. Read seven books--thrillers and mysteries--while on vacation. Nothing memorable.

46. Jonathan Kellerman, Motive. 5/16. Better than many of his more recent works.

47. Shakespeare and Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsman. Arden ed., ed. Lois Potter. 5/16. This resurrects one of S's favourite themes--the close friendship of two young men roiled by a beautiful woman.  A melodrama with the parts thought to be by Fletcher often paying homage to S by imitating scenes from his plays--the village schoolmaster from Love's Labour's Lost, for example, reappears alongside the bumpkins from Midsummer Night's Dream to present an entertainment before Theseus and Hippolyta. Good introduction by Potter, but more an historical curiosity than a great piece of literature.

48.  Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. 5/19. I still find this an unpleasant play, mainly because of Portia. Reading the plays in the approximate order of composition, however, reveals a Shakespeare with greater powers over language.

49.  Conor Brady, A June of Ordinary Murders. 5/20. A murder mystery set in 1887 Dublin. The "ordinary" in the title refers to non-political murders, although the three murders investigated here have political links. The contemporary Dublin atmosphere in this is largely achieved by reciting the names of the buildings the detective-hero passes by, although Brady conveys the political tension between the English governors and their Irish subordinates well. Brady has done his research and it shows in some info-dumps early on--not as bare-faced as many such dumps tho. Like many police detectives, Brady's Sergeant Swallow chafes at his restraints, cuts corners, and steps on a lot of toes before solving the crime in the face of difficulties posed by his superiors. The current vogue for forensics shows up frequently. A plot as complicated as many found in Victorian novels, which is appropriate given the date of the action.

50. T. C. Boyle, The Harder They Come. 5/21. The epigraph by D. H. Lawrence reads: 'The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never melted.' Boyle illustrates this through three characters: Sten Stensen, a retired high school principal who, on a cruise with his wife to Central American and the Caribbean, kills a man who is attempting to rob the passengers on a tour bus and briefly becomes a hero in the United States; his son, Adam, who is psychotic and kills two people and then becomes the subject of a manhunt in the woods of northern California; and Sara, an adherent of the Sovereign Citizen brand of right-wing anarchism, who has a fitful relationship with Adam. Each of them is mad in a different way, and their delusions feed each other's anger. The story alternates between their points of view, and much of the novel is taken up with their interior monologues. Boyle quite effectively channels each of them and their interactions with one another and their environments. Adam is eventually shot by the police, Sara moves away, and Sten ends up aimlessly chasing a golf ball around. None of them 'melts'.

51.  Marcia Muller, Looking for Yesterday. 5/22. Readable. Much of the violence in Muller's books is directed against her heroine.

52.  Tana French, The Secret Place. 5/25. French's best to date. This again features the Dublin Murder Squad, and as in previous novels from French minor characters from the earlier novels in the series take center stage here--Stephen Moran and Holly Mackey in particular--and a new character, Antoinette Conway, a feisty and rebarbative female detective from the Liberties, is introduced.

Holly Mackey is attending a posh girls' school; one morning she skips school and brings Moran a note posted on a school bulletin board (the secret place of the title--it is a place where the students can post their innermost thoughts anonymously) that claims the writer knows who killed a student from a neighbouring boys' school several months earlier. Moran turns the note over to Conway, the lead detective on the unsolved case. Moran, who feels stuck in the Cold Cases Squad and wants to move over to Murder, sees this as his opportunity to advance himself. Conway and Moran spend the day solving the case. Interspersed with the chapters describing the investigation from Moran's point of view are chapters detailing the events that led up to the murder from the students' perspective.

As always in French's novel, the psychologies of the characters are the focus and the social landscape of Dublin plays a major role. Both Moran and Conway are hungry for advancement, the detection chapters play out their evolution from two cops grudgingly making use of each other for their own purposes into partners determined to overcome the obstacles and untangle the lies being thrown in their paths to find the murderer. Both detectives are from working-class backgrounds, and both are targets of the snobbery of the school's administrators and students. Both are also loners and outsiders in the police force, and in the person of Holly Mackey's father, the police lieutenant Frank Mackey of previous books in the series, bear the brunt of that organization's pressure to conform and not make trouble. They are misfits, but each has been molded by their misfittery socially and professionally in different ways. Moran wants to move up in society; Conway stills bears an enormous grudge against those above her.  To their surprise, they find they make a good team.

French develops the murder victim and the eight girls who are the chief informants and suspects in detail--each is a complete and distinctive character. If, after reading this book, you were to encounter any of these girls without knowing her name, you would be able to identify her quickly. At the same time, her portraits of teenage culture and its concerns as general, overriding forces in the girls' and boys' lives and the types of interests and psychological dependencies that bind the girls into close and closed social coteries are convincing.

As in most good murder mysteries, the Who-Dun-It aspect takes a back seat  to the characters.This is a much longer novel (450 pages, probably around 200,000 words) than most detective stories, but it is an engrossing one.

53.  Lynn Hightower, The Debt Collector. 5/26. The female detective at the heart of this resembles many female detectives--a single mom (husband dead in this case), cute and slightly rambunctious kids, trouble with her male colleagues and the code of police brotherhood, and a fractious love life. She and her partner trade snappy dialogue in inappropriate places. Sometimes Hightower presents psychological complexity; other times she settles for homiletic simplicities. A decent plot that ends with a twist and leaves questions unresolved. The book is divided into short chapters of about three pages each and runs to around 85,000 words, making some discussions rather perfunctory.

54. Barbara Nadel, The Ottoman Cage. 5/28. A police procedural set in Istanbul, featuring a Turkish detective. The Turkey in this seems real and is very much a part of the novel. The references to things Turkish in the character's dialogues and  in the descriptions are not explained. The characters know what they mean, and Nadel doesn't create a fake reason to sort them out for the reader. There are only a few info-dumps and those deal with facts of Turkish history. Nadel does tend to become entangled in her longer sentences, and at the climax she resorts to the villain explaining the plot to a literally captive audience. She also spends the last twenty pages tying up all the subplots in the novel and resolving the characters' problems.

55.  Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman, The Golem of Hollywood. 5/30. The language of this is more lyrical and the characters more nuanced than is usually true of Kellerman pere. So I'm guessing those qualities owe a lot to Kellerman fils. The serial rapist/murderers at the heart of the detection plot were probably devised by the elder Kellerman.

56.  Peter Robinson, Innocent Graves. 5/31. An Inspector Banks mystery, but rather of an outlier. Banks arrests the wrong man, who is acquitted but suffers from the taint of being accused of murdering a teenager. Nothing on the anguishes of Banks's personal life. Several recurring characters appear but play only perfunctory roles in the story. Susan Gay, for example, appears only as a deliverer of messages, a function that could have as well been performed by an anonymous PC.

57. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. Arden ed., ed. John Drakakis. 5/31. Interesting strategy in the introduction by Drakakis. He doesn't write an apologia for the anti-Semitism in the play. He acknowledges it head on, but then buries it beneath post-modern analyses of the excesses and containment strategies in the play. The excesses are  capital formation through usury and women; which he sees as parallel threats to be contained by ideology and the law of the father. His analysis does have the virtue of tying the various plots together and accounting for the lengthy part of the play that follows the trial scene. He also sees the threats as remaining at the end of the play.

58.  Peter Robinson, The First Cut. 6/2. Not an Inspector Banks novel. A young woman survives a savage attack. She is the first victim of a serial killer, who goes on to murder six other young women. With the help of her ear for dialects and her memories of a passage on Caedmon from the Venerable Bede that he recited as he slashed her, she tracks him to Whitby, where she kills him. Along the way she kills another man and bashes another man into a coma. A psychological thriller in which Robinson implicates the victim in the crime.

59.  Peter Robinson, Final Account. 6/4. An Inspector Banks novel. A chartered accountant is brutally murdered. Banks discovers the accountant had an alternative identity, which leads him to a dodgy lawyer, money laundering for a nasty Caribbean dictator, a sad family, murder-for-hire, and visits from Dirty Dick Burgess, that nasty doer of dirty government deeds. The mystery seems solved, and everyone tells Banks to let it go. But he's not satisfied and discovers that the accountant is still alive and living in Greece under a third identity, and that the accountant had the lawyer murdered in his stead. Banks and Sandra's marriage is coming apart, Banks is questioning his life. As in most Robinson novels, the mystery, though ingeniously plotted, isn't the real focus. Instead, his interests lie in the psychologies of the principals.

60. Peter Robinson, In a Dry Season. 6/6. DCI Banks investigates a murder from the late 1940s. The past is very much in the present for the principals in this case. Robinson quotes from an account written by a young woman many years earlier--it is a novice writer's account, and it's done in an entirely different voice and tone from his usual narration. It's very effective.

61. Peter Robinson, The Hanging Valley. 6/7. A DCI Banks mystery. On a flight to Toronto, Banks characterizes the movie, an American cop drama, as all car chases and shoot-outs. He gives up watching it after a few minutes. The movie on the flight back, another cop drama, focuses on the psychologies of the detective and the culprit, and Banks watches all of it--a comment on Robinson's own approach to fictional detection.

62.  Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1. 6/7. Fathers and sons, the sources of political authority and what we would call 'charisma', wives and their impact on their husbands, all revolving around an amoral hedonist and the prince's use of him. Hal is the enigma. His rationale for his roistering makes no sense, and he treats Falstaff as if he were no more than an amusement, yet he is both attracted to Falstaff and despises him. Hal has more dimensions than the other characters, which is not to say that  the other characters are one-dimensional. They are just more consistent than Hal. Does Hal have the only soliloquy in the play?

63. Peter Robinson, Strange Affair. 6/8. DCI Banks, on leave after narrowly escaping being murdered, answers a call for help from his brother, even as the Eastvale police discover a link between him and a murdered woman. The two cases are related, and the story gives Robinson a chance to flesh out Banks's relationships with his own family.

64. Peter Robinson, A Dedicated Man. 6/10. An early DCI Banks outing. This one features a killer with a watertight alibi. Not one of the best in the series.

65.  Peter Robinson, Playing with Fire. 6/14. Further development of DCI Banks--lots of trouble with women this time out.

66.  Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor. 6/16. I don't understand Auden's animosity towards this play. It is organized around our capacity, especially men's  capacity, to delude themselves. It presents women in a positive light as deflaters of male pretensions. Its Falstaff exhibits the same flaws as the character of the same name in the Henry IV and Henry V plays, although here the theme of the con man conned by his own hopes and desires is even clearer. The play is boisterous and fun, perhaps not one of the "great plays," but nonetheless enjoyable as theater.

67. Patricia Highsmith, Edith's Diary. 6/17. Found this on my shelves. I don't remember reading it before. According to a stamp on the inside cover, I bought it at Kate's Mystery Books, a place I do not recall. It's not a mystery, and I can only surmise that it was stocked at Kate's because Highsmith wrote the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train.

This literary story follows Edith from her mid-20s until her death at around age 50, from the early 1950 until the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s. It begins with Edith happily married to Brett; both are writers and journalists. Their son, Cliffie, is a handful. He grows up to be a layabout and a slacker. Brett's uncle George moves in and becomes the invalid upstairs and Edith's responsibility. Brett falls in love with his secretary, divorces Edith, and remarries, leaving Edith to care for the aging and increasingly senile Uncle George and for Cliffie, whose problems multiply as a non-functioning adult.

As a college student, Edith receives a large diary from an admirer (she had asked him for a Bible) as a Christmas present. One of her first entries reads: 'Isn't it safer, even wise, to believe that life has no meaning at all?' Another early entry quotes Thomas Paine's lines about the times that try men's souls. Edith makes only sporadic entries in the diary during the early years, but as her cares mount, she uses to create a better, fictional world in which Cliffie is happily married and successful and her life is much better. Eventually she retreats into the world of the diary. Her soul is certainly tried by her times and the lack of meaning in her life.

Highsmith relentlessly exposes Edith in the dual senses of exposing her to trying circumstances and of exposing her inner life and her lack of resources to cope with these circumstances. My only criticism is that Highsmith ends the novel by having Edith fall down a staircase carrying the symbolic burden of a bust of Cliffie, which she has sculpted in clay. It's rather a cop-out and convenient way to end an otherwise carefully written novel.

68. Graham Greene, Stamboul Train. 6/19. One of his entertainments, but full of moral ambiguity and the petty self-interest and personality quirks behind many moral decisions.

69. Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case. 6/21. The burnt-out case is M. Querry, a famous architect, especially of churches, and a womanizer, who becomes disillusioned with his life. One day, he flies to Africa on a whim and takes a boat up a river to the last stop (Greene notes the debt to Conrad), which is a leper hospital run by Belgian priests and nuns. There he is persuaded to help design a hospital. He is beginning to feel happy in his new life when a British journalist discovers him there and writes him up as a saint. Querry has lost his faith and wants only to be left alone, but the world and the Church intrude, and insist that he be other than what he is. He helps a woman and is falsely accused by the Church authorities and the woman's husband of seducing the woman. The husband kills him.

This is one of Green's serious works and deals with the nature of belief and grace. One of the fathers and the woman's husband initially want Querry to be much more than he is and  insist against Querry's disclaimers and all evidence that he is a saint. When Querry is accused of an affair with the woman, they are the first to turn against him. The journalist seems to be a stock figure in Greene's works to represent the mundane  world. This particular example is quite open (as was the journalist in Stamboul Train) about creating a false image of Querry to market to the public. Belief is a matter of faith and the willing suspension of reason and ignoring of the evidence here. Grace and that peculiar assertion of grace as God's gift of belief to those who want to believe are beginning to work on Querry before he is killed off. (Again, Greene seems to avoid confronting the unaswerable issues by disposing of his protagonist before he has to face up to the way his life is developing.)

70.  Peter Robinson, Close to Home. 6/25. The body of DCI Banks's childhood friend, Graham Marshall, whose disappearance during Banks's teenage years is often mentioned in previous stories in the series, is found. This prompts Banks to travel to his childhood home and help solve the mystery of Graham's death. Meanwhile in Eastvale, another lad has gone missing. He also turns up dead, a crime solved by Annie Cabbot with little help from Banks. The two crimes prompt thoughts on how much of their children's lives parents are not aware of. Banks is joined in usual tilting against authority by DI Michelle Hart, who is in charge of Graham's case and figures as one of Banks's brief love interests.

71. Graham Greene, The Third Man. 6/28. A short work but one I had trouble finishing. This starts as one of those works in which a leading character is dead and the other characters have to discover to us and for us what the character was like. Rollo Martins travels to postwar Vienna at the request of Harry Lime, who has been his friend since school days. He arrives in time to attend Lime's funeral. He refuses to believe the cop who narrates this story that Lime was a con man who sold adulterated penicillin on the black market and attempts to clear Lime's name only to find out that Lime is guilty as charged. Near the end, Martins and the policeman discover that Lime is still alive. Martins has lost his faith in Lime and cooperates with the police in an attempt to capture Lime, Martins ends up shooting Lime.

The first-person narration means that Martins periodically has to meet with the policeman and tell him what he has been doing. The policeman then narrates this to us.

For me, this is a missed opportunity for Greene--he could have written a longer novel about the loss of trust and faith.

72. Graham Greene, Loser Takes All. 6/30. A slight work. If this were not be Greene, it would have likely not been published. Because it is by Greene, one suspects it to be a religious fable. At best it's a romance novel called into doing service as allegory for a person's relationship with God, who is here the aloof head of a company (nicknamed the Gom, or Grand Old Man). Gom reaches down and plucks up a junior accountant and then leaves him to flounder with a new wife and large fortune won gambling. All comes right in the end. (The spate of Graham Greeme readings result from finding an anthology of seven novels by him. The anthology had four works I had not previously read or don't remember reading.)

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