Books, 2014 (2)

34. Jo Nesbo, The Leopard. 4/4. Another Harry Hole mystery. Hole is in decaying further. He returns to Norway to help solve a series of serial murders, which he does. Various subplots involving a dying father, bureaucratic infighting over which police group will investigate murders, friendship, romance,trips to the Congo and Hong Kong. A long (725 pp.), intricately plotted work.

35. Jo Nesbo, Phantom. 4/9. Another enjoyable procedural from Nesbo. He has apparently killed off Harry Hole in this one. An interesting technique of interspersing different narrators--the voice of a dead youth whose murder starts the plot; a rat; and the narrator telling the story from Harry's point of view. This follows The Leopard in the series.

36. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 2, Arden edition, ed. Ronald Knowles. Good introduction to this one. Actresses should be fighting to play the role of Queen Margaret in this. This deserves to be seen more often.

37. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3. I couldn't find an annotated edition of this--which says something about the demand for copies of this play. I read the version in the Rowse collected works edition. This is more devoted to a single topic than is true of many of the History plays. It focuses closely on the conflict between Henry VI and the Yorkist group around Richard, Duke of York, and his sons Edward IV and Richard Crookback. It features a large number of battle scenes, which gives the characters lots of space to bluster and boast, to crow over bested enemies, and to deliver noble death speeches. In its time it must have been considered a spectacle because of the battle scenes--lots of fighting and many supernumeraries running across the stage as fleeing or pursuing soldiers. Great roles for Queen Margaret and the weak King Henry--Margaret being a better developed character than Henry. She has some great speeches. Henry is presented and criticised more as a weak king than as someone to be dissected onstage and understood in the manner of Lear and Hamlet. On stage he is both a man who finds no joy in being king and one who yet clings to the throne, but there's no sense of why he is this way. The Richard of Richard III begins to emerge about halfway through and announces his plans to the audience in several soliloquies.

38. Margaret Atwood, Good Bones and Simple Murders. 4/15. A small collection of short essays and fantasies, some very short indeed. Written with Atwood's usual wit and verve. Many of them deal with the fictional stereotypes of women, both those encountered on the page and those found in life. I would be hard-pressed to remember any of these.

39. Shakespeare, Kichard III. 4/15. Norton Critical edition, ed. Thomas Cartelli. One of the great villains, and a great comedian at times. One reason this works so well on us is that Shakespeare involves in Richard's evil through the character's asides and soliloquies. We are complicit in Clarence's murder--we know it's going to happen, but no one in the audience ever warns Clarence (this isn't the panto) and secretly we cheer Richard on because Clarence is such a dupe. He's hardly an innocent man himself, and he's so stupid he deserves to die. Yet at the same time, we sit in judgement on Richard. We know he's evil and that he's doomed--that's the way the fictional world works. So we get the best of both worlds. We in the audience are like Anne--we are wooed and won, but we probably wake up after the flirtation with a headache and wonder in some corner of our minds if we have been duped as well.

Richard has in excess many of the qualities of the other kings and would-be kings in the Histories. His pursuit of power may be more openly ruthless than Bolingbrook or the Percys or Richmond or his father and brother, but they all want to use physical power to grasp a throne that is not theirs by right of descent. In fact, the kings who rule by right of succession don't fare awfully well in the Histories (with the exception of Henry V, and it could be argued that he aids his father in his usurpation). What Richard has that the others lack is some degree of naked honesty, although even that fails him in the end.

Even the minor characters don't escape the tendency to rationalise that infects the more powerful people in these plays. Like Clarence's gaoler in the Tower, they all refuse to see what they are seeing in the hope that blindness will keep them innocent. Margaret of Anjou may be the only character here without a disjunction between private and public person.

A good selection of critical essays in this, capped by one from Henry Berger.

40. Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2. 4/18. Folger Shakespeare Library edition, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. A much darker play than the first part. Falstaff isn't so much a loveable rogue (although he thinks of himself as that), as a con man hoping to cash in on his friendship with Prince Hal. Henry IV is weary. Hal is even more contemptuous of the lower classes. The scene in which he removes the crown from his father's deathbed could easily be played not as a final reconciliation but an uneasy truce between a dying man and his greed son who decide to pretend to be reconciled. Prince John is a deceiver, but then so are his opponents. The archbishop is as capable of rationalisation as any of the characters in the Histories. Doll Tearsheet expresses the truth that all but a few of us will be ignored by history and quickly forgotten. There is no glory or honour or reason for pride in this play. It's bleak, and history is not kind.

41.  Shakespeare, Henry V. 4/25. Arden edition, ed. T. W. Craik. I understand why modern versions reduce the Chorus, but I would rather have Shakespeare's word scenery and invitations to the imagination than real scenery. In both this and the two parts of Henry IV, the lower characters and Prince Hal/Henry V acting in a low manner dominate. Here we have Pistol and the crowd around the Eastcheap tavern commenting on the war and the death of Falstaff, Pistol and the other soldiers, Henry V pretending to be one of the lower orders, and the courtship scene between him and Katherine. Henry V seems to me to be less heroic and more conniving and calculating.

42. Jo Nesbo, Nemesis. 4/27. An early Harry Hole novel. The usual intricate plotting and strong characters.

43. Shakespeare and John Fletcher, King Henry VIII, or, All Is True. 5/13. Arden edition, ed. Gordon McMullan. Excellent introduction by McMullan on the history of the play's reception and the nature of authorship in Shakespeare's time. I remembered the play as being very celebratory, and the later scenes about Elizabeth's birth and James' accession are that, but the parts about the divorce and Wolsey's downfall deserve more attention. The scenes in which Queen Katherine and Wolsey appear would make a good play by themselves.

After reading all the Histories, it's difficult to see how anyone could read these as encomia to the late Plantagenet and Tudor rulers. The throne is a dangerous seat to occupy, and the high officers of state are often in peril. Treachery, duplicity, corruption, and Machiavellian politics abound. Shakespeare's kings rule not at all by divine right but by force. The throne belongs to the most powerful man. None of the rulers is admirable, not even Henry V.

44. James Grippando, Money to Burn. 5/14. I began reading this while we were on vacation. I stopped reading it on the plane back, over a week ago and didn't resume until I had nothing else to read. It's not bad for what it is, just not of compelling interest. It deals with murderous financiers and gives the "financial instruments for dummies" explanations, but I still don't understand them.

45-48.  Jo Nesbo, The Cockroach. ca. 5/2.  The Bat. 5/16. I finished the first one while on vacation and started the second one on the plane back but just finished it today. These are the first two Harry Hole novels. Complicated plots and exotic locales. I was reading The Bat in bed last night and put it down to read The Tempest again. I just felt no great need to finish it. While on vacation, I also read two thrillers--one about serial killers in Portland, OR; another about a female museum direction who solves a murder involved fake Greek antiquities and neo-Nazis. I can't remember either the titles or the authors.

49. Martin Cruz Smith, Tatiana. 5/17. An Arkady Renko novel. An honest cop adrift in a corrupt Russia, somehow managing to make things right for a time.

50.  John Case, The Syndrome. 5/18. A medical thriller involving memory manipulation. I may have read this before. The first two scenes were familiar, but the rest of the book was not. This was published in 2001, and only one character had a cell phone and computer still used floppy disks and had modems. Ancient history already. One interesting sentence: "Memory is a novelist, not a photographer."

51. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling. 5/21. Realized after I started this that I had already read it. Still a good read.

52.  Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier. 5/21. A perplexing, intriguing work. A first-person narrator who tells the story in a seemingly incoherent and contradictory manner, appears both blind and untrustworthy, and whose versions of events may be truthful while being at the same lies. Yet the narrative style is the character of the narrator, Dowell. He circles around what he gradually discovers to be the contradictions of "good" people, by which he means people of a good social background and wealth; on the one hand, his friends the Ashburnhams observe all the social proprieties of their class of good county people in England, but their marriage is a sham. The wife Leonora is cold and heartless; the husband Edward has several affairs. Yet Dowell initially finds both exemplars of their class. Dowell's wife Florence appears to be an invalid, but she fakes a heart condition in order to carry out affairs first with an old associate and then with Edward. Dowell is initially oblivious to all that is going on. His discovery of his wife's infidelities and the true state of the Ashburnhams' marriage is what prompts him to write. He is trying to understand. He begins and occasionally reverts to what he would like the story to have been--an idealised, romanticised version in which Edward is motivated by only the best reasons. But reality keeps intruding and he has to revise their history over and over until he ends up dismissing his wife and hating Leonora for what she did to Edward. Curiously he never condemns Edward and instead ends up asserting an identity with him. That assertion is as much a fiction as the romantic version. Need to reread this later.

53.  Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. 5/23. The Arden edition, ed. Keir Elam. Good introduction and notes by Elam. Everyone is deceived and/or a deceiver; most of the plot springs from self-delusions. It must be difficult to direct and cast, given the two main bits of business vying for attention--the Viola (Cesario)/Sebastian/Orsino/Olivia quadrangle and confusion vs. the Sir Toby/Maria/Sir Andrew/ Mavolio/Fabian imbroglios. And Feste tying it all together. Lots of good roles, though. Why does Olivia attract so many suitors (only for Sir Andrew does it appear to be a matter of her wealth)? It's chiefly through her effect on others that we perceive her as desirable. Only in the early exchange with Feste does she seem at all human; she is otherwise rather imperious. And poor Antonio--doomed by his love for Sebastian. He doesn't share in the general distribution of happiness at the end.

54.  Jonathan Kellerman, Killer. 5/25. An Alex Delaware mystery. Nicely done.

55.  Isabel Allende, Ripper. 5/26. Published in both Spanish and English in 2014. A detective story. It's like Nancy Drew updated for young adults who know about computers (but not smart phone apps, oddly enough) and are acquainted with sex. Allende has written other novels for young adults; so perhaps that is the intended audience for this. It was interesting enough to keep me reading, but not interesting enough for me to ignore its faults--the chief of which is a tendency to tell about her characters at great length rather than show. Other problems are a group of misfit teenagers who play an online role-playing game called Ripper, which never quite has an important role in the plot but pops up whenever the author needs someone to figure out one of the clues she's been dropping; the same group of young adults who never develop as characters; several ongoing love/sex stories involving the heroine (the mother of the bright young woman who runs the game); the teenage daughter and grandfather of the heroine who are privy to inside information supplied the girl's father, who conveniently is the head of the homicide division in San Francisco; a San Francisco built out of cliches; and a heroine, a new-age healer, who is so ditzy and unobservant that she doesn't realize that one of her female clients is a man (a lack of perception made even more ridiculous since she is a masseuse) and that the same person is also one of her male clients.

Allende wrote this in Spanish, and she's isn't ultimately responsible for the flaws in the English, but "Bob watched as she glided away across the garden and adjusted his pants." is only the most laughable of the problems.  Bob, not the gliding she, is the one adjusting his pants. Both the hero and his dog die at the end. The hero was a bit too homophobic for my liking, but he was a Navy SEAL and perhaps that's an accurate touch.

56-59. Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End. 6/5. A series of four novels published in the 1920s centred around the life of Christopher Tietjens, the youngest son in a Yorkshire gentry family. Tietjens is a self-proclaimed "seventeenth-century Tory," which seems to mean someone who upholds Victorian public-school notions of what it means to be a gentleman. He is compared to George Herbert, and several characters refer to him as a Christ figure (Ford must have known the origin of the name Christopher). His wife Sylvia married him thinking she was pregnant by another man. There is some ambiguity whether their son Mark is the legitimate heir, but Christopher is too noble to dispute this or to divorce his wife for her many infidelities. Sylvia is attracted to him but retaliates viciously when he show no interest in her. She spreads rumors and lies about him that cause him many problems. Christopher meanwhile meets the love of his life, Valentine. Eventually, after much agonising of the "is this the right thing to do?" sort, they live together, eking out a living as antique dealers. At the end, Sylvia reassesses her situation and decides she isn't getting any younger. When she finds out that Valentine is pregnant, she decides to get a divorce and marry a man destined to be viceroy of India.

All this takes place in the 1910s and 1920s. Christopher is an office in the British forces in France, but the war plays a major role only in the third book in the series. It's present in the background in the other books.

This features characters and situations like those in The Good Soldier, but without that book's ambiguities. Here Christopher is a representative of a breed of Englishman that is dying out in the modernising world--an elite whose claims of the right to rule are being undermined. Ford must have seen them as dying out. (The question is whether anyone like Christopher ever existed--did such a class of people exist, just waiting around to be done in by modernisation?)

Much of this is an interior monologue by one or other of the characters. The writing style captures the tendency of thought to wander from subject to subject. The details gradually accrete into a whole. The description of trench warfare in the third book reflects what must have been the chaos and fog of such fighting. The book's not at all patriotic--it has a jaundiced view of British policy during the war. In this series, the British government is as interested in stiffing its allies as it is in defeating the Germans. Worth a reread later.

60. Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea. 6/8. I was excited to find this in the library because Lee's first two novels were so good. In the future, the world has experienced environmental disaster. Practically everyone who manages to live long enough dies of cancer. In what used to be the United States, the rich and talented (the Chartered) live in walled communities, where they pursue lives of endless competition (to weed out incompetents}, acquisition and consumption. Outside these communities are the "counties," where the poor and untalented live badly. Between them are secure labor communities that grow food and produce goods for the Chartered. One such community is B'More, on the site of what used to be Baltimore. (B'More is also "be more.") The ancestors of the workers in B'More were brought in from China. They live highly regulated lives and find them satisfactory. Reg, a young man, is discovered to be cancer-free, and he is hauled off to a research institute. His girlfriend, Fan, goes in search of him, and her adventures in the counties and among the Chartered provide the plot of the novel.

The novel is narrated by a citizen of B'More. He (or she?) knows more than he should, and he admits that the tellers of Fan's stories tend to embroider it in the retelling. Fan and Reg soon attain mythic status in B'More, and their story leads to an outbreak of dissatisfaction and change. Eventually things return to a more even kilter. There are themes of change vs. the status quo, tradition vs. innovation, family vs. fictive kinship, loyalty vs. betrayal..

I didn't find this very satisfying and had to force myself to finish it. As dystopian futures go, this one isn't convincing. Nor were the characters. The narrator in particular just doesn't fit. Among literary novelists, Margaret Atwood does this better. Lee writes well, but here there just didn't seem to be a close connection between who the characters are and the setting in which they live.

61.Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream. 6/9. Arden edition, ed. Harold Brooks. Bad introduction by Brooks.

62. Niall Williams, History of the Rain. 6/16. A young woman, the narrator of the story, is ill with cancer. She lies in an attic bedroom in County Claire and writes the story of her family. For the first 150 pages or so, I thought this was going to be the romanticised sit-com version of rural Ireland. Each character has endearing traits and eccentricities, but somehow manages to bear up under hardship and survive with a wise quip to put trouble in its place. I almost gave up on it, but then the book metamorphosed into something else. It becomes a book about the power of stories to help us survive life and death. "Only through story can we tolerate death," says the young woman narrator, and the book is an illustration of that and the transforming power of storytelling.  Deserves a careful re-reading.

63.  Declan Hughes, All the Things You Are. 6/18. Another Irish mystery writer who sets his novels in the United States, in this case Wisconsin. Decent work.

64. Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale. 6/22. Arden edition, ed. John Pitcher. Nice job of editing. Pitcher regards the play as a romance, meaning a happy but unrealistic ending to what begins as a tragedy. It is one way of knitting together the two halves of the play, and Pitcher makes a convincing argument for it (as he does for the coasts of Bohemia being one of Shakespeare's jokes).

Leontes certainly is one of the most psychologically cruel people in Shakespeare. He makes Othello look almost sane. His instant "cure" upon hearing of Hermione's and Mamillius's deaths is not quite convincing, but he has to grow sane and remorseful at some point. Since his remorse is needed for the denouement but is not a focus of the action, it makes sense to get it over with quickly. I find the character of Autolycus a mystery. He does perform minor plots function, but those could have been handled by the other characters. He just seems there to provide some comedy and lots of song--perhaps it was among other things Shakespeare's way of utilizing one of the actors in the troupe and for lightening what is otherwise an intense drama. Polixenes's anger at his son's infatuation with a "shepherdess" now seems almost as insane as Leontes's jealousy, but it reflects contemporary notions of an improper marriage across class boundaries. I wonder what 17th-c. audiences made of Paulina's machinations in faking Hermione's death (the interpretation that seems right to me) and in bullying Leontes into regret and a pledge not to remarry.

Not a comfortable read. A husband's reactions to a wife's imagined adultery must have fascinated Shakespeare and his audiences.

63. Chang-rae Lee, The Surrendered. 6/24. A novel about the impact of war on the survivors. It isn't a bad novel, but it didn't excite me as much as Lee's first three books. I had to push myself through large swatches of it. In places it became a very long novel that wasn't moving forward but simply giving masses of information and details that didn't add anything to what we already knew of the characters or their situations.

64. Roddy Doyle, The Guts. 6/25. A new work in the annals of the Rabbitte family. Doyle returns to the Jimmy Rabbitte of The Commitments, who is now in his late forties, with four children of his own. He earns a living by resurrecting old and forgotten bands of the 1960s and 1970s and making their works available; so his life still revolves around music. He has cancer of the intestines and undergoes treatment through surgery and chemotherapy. The work deals with his and his family's and friends' reactions to the cancer. As usual with the Rabbittes, the problem is handled with a lot of love, humour, and profanity.

Jimmy comes up with the idea of resurrecting the music of 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, to celebrate the return of the congress to Dublin in 2012. He finds several good pieces but not one spectacular song. So he invents a singer/composer of that era and writes the song himself along with his two older sons. The oldest son's band records the song. The band members journey to Bulgaria after taking their Leaving Cert exams and play the song there. A mobile-phone video of their performance goes viral on YouTube, and Jimmy arranges for the "Bulgarian" band to perform at a music festival in Laois, where it is a great success. Jimmy camps out at the festival with Outback (the drummer of the Commitments, now dying of lung cancer); his estranged brother Les, whom he contacted with he found out about his own cancer; and Des, one of his resurrected punk band musicians. The book ends with an extended description of the four men and the other Rabbittes at the festival; it is one of the most exuberant passages in Doyle's works. Outback may be dying of cancer but he is leaving the world in style.

It marvelous to watch Jimmy and those around him deal with life and the implications of the cancer. In one scene, Jimmy is talking with his two older sons about the song they are writing and he suddenly realises how great an influence he has been in their lives and that he is not the absent and distracted father that he thought he was. In another, he and his wife give their youngest son a GPS for Christmas. Jimmy and the son go out for a walk, guided by the GPS. Jimmy is elated to discover the son cheerfully disobeying the instructions of the GPS--another son carrying on the Rabbitte tradition. He also has a bedroom chat with the same son to help him confront his fears that the cancer may kill Jimmy. And Jimmy's wife Aoife is an incredible character--the right mix of exasperated humour and loving support.

65. Ken Bruen, Cross. 6/30. An Irish version of the hard-boiled noir detective. Here the detection is almost incidental to the story, which is really about Jack Taylor and his problems. Bruen seems to conceive of the audience for his book as being non-Irish. He is at great pains to explain things Irish (the sorts of things an Irish would know). He also has an annoying habit of using Americanisms and then apologising for doing so. He's peddling an updated, darker, New Ireland version of leprechauns and lovable witty folk spouting eternal truths with every drink (in Taylor's case Pepsi, because he's a reformed boozer, yer see). The story takes place in Galway, and Bruen grounds in the city by name-dropping and regrets over change.

No comments:

Post a Comment