Books, 2013 (4)

 93. David Ellis, Line of Vision. 10/6. Another well-plotted and -crafted mystery by Ellis. Here, the first-person narrator confesses off the record to the police that he has killed the husband of his lover. Ellis is a lawyer, and much of this is presented as a court case. The narrator denies the confession and skillfully frames another man during his trial. Then he turns around and presents evidence during the second man's trial in such a way that the jury acquits the second man.  For all but the last few pages, Ellis lets the reader think that the narrator is guilty. The truth turns out to be quite different. It is a testament to Ellis's skills as a writer that the narrator is such a sympathetic character that you want him to be acquitted even when you think he is guilty.

94. David Ellis, Life Sentence. 10/8. A political-legal mystery. An aide to a man running for governor of Illinois is on trial for a murder he did not commit. The roots of the murder lie in a youthful indiscretion of the aide and the candidate. The ending is a totally unexpected twist.

95. Kathy Reichs, Bones of the Lost. 10/18. This is the first of Reich's novels I've read in years. Either she is much improved or my tastes have shifted.

96. John Ajvide Lindqvist,  Let the Old Dreams Die. 10/20. A collection of novellas and short stories translated from Swedish. Horror and supernatural stories. Lindqvist has a talent for this genre, especially stories that involve creepy things threatening to kill you.

97. Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel. 10/22. Bought this at the Boston airport at the way to Louise's. An excellent consideration of the attraction of books.

98. Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm. 10/26. A dying woman, attended by three nurses and her cook; her two children returned to Australia in hopes of claiming their inheritance; her lawyer and his wife. The woman was a famous beauty who damaged most people who came into her orbit, her children most of all. On her deathbed, she reviews her life and loves, as do those around her. A book about the varieties of love and the damage and the good that they do.

99-103. Four books from Louise's stash. Two police procedurals by J. A. Vance featuring her rather unrealistic male police detective, and a couple of thriller, none of them memorable.

104. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhoom of Christ. 11/4. A man, Simon, and a child, David, arrive in a city in a Spanish-speaking country. They are refugees from an unnamed place for unexplained reasons. On the boat to the refugee camp, David lost a letter with his mother's name, and Simon steps in as his protector. They are resettled in the city, Novilla (New City), and set about constructing a life. Simon finds works as a stevedore and a mother for David. Novilla is oddly welcoming to the refugees--all of its inhabitants seem to be refugees. No one has much memory of their former life, and everyone is accepting of their present situation, except for David, who continually asks why everything is the way it is and not the way he wants it to be. Simon and the other argue that that is the way things are, but fail to convince him. An allegory touching on many aspects of human life. It is told in the sparse language Coetzee favors; rather of an allegory of human life, but sometimes it reads as if Coetzee is checking off entries on a list of various aspects of life to make sure that he covers them all--love, sex, language, thought, history, economics, work, education, religion, god, evil, the state. David develops a desire to save the world (he is enamoured of Don Quixote) and begins to exhibit what may be either supernatural powers or delusions. In the end they flee Novilla, travel through Nova Esperanza on the way to Estrallita del Norte to start a new life.

105.Charles Dickens, Bleak House. 11/5. I've been reading this for several weeks. I find I can't take too much Dickens at one go. The individual segments and parts that make up this novel are sometimes flawed, but the whole is much better than the parts. An interesting double narration--divided between the anonymous all-knowing extra-diegetic narrator and the curiously calm, efficient, and sensible Esther, the intra-diegetic narrator.

106. Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz. 11/6. A dissection of love, relationships, and family. Gina Moynihan, who is married to Conor, and Sean, who is married to Aileen, have an affair. Gina, at least, falls intensely in love. This is a first-person narrative, and Sean's feelings are filtered through Gina's senses, but he has a history of philandering and, although the two are living together at the time of the narration, he seems less committed and the prospects for a lasting relationship are slim. Complicating matters is Sean's twelve-year-old daughter, Evie, who has a history of epilepsy and has odd spells.

Enright has an ability to see large things in small gestures. Following their separation, Gina runs into Conor on a street in central Dublin. He is with his sister. They chat for a few moments. As she walks away, she receives a text message from him asking if they are still married. She looks back and sees him texting her on his phone--an up-to-date way of showing a couple with communication problems.

107.  Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons. 11/12. Dostoevsky's take on the political madness of his times in which dabblers in liberal politics meet someone who could be a precursor of Lenin. The dabblers don't fare well. Without more knowledge of the period, it's difficult to determine how much of this is realism and how much satire. From the translators' comments, it's clear that Dostoevsky used the novel to skewer Turngenev and the central bad guy is based on a leading Nihilist. The climax of the novel reproduces a murder by a gang led by this Nihilist. So D did ground the novel in real events and people, but at least for me it is impossible to say when the realism shades into caricature. The psychology of the characters is convincing--there are similar works about the extreme groups that appeared after 1968, but they don't succeed as well for me. This may be because, lacking knowledge of this period of Russian history, I'm willing to suspend belief and accept D's account as accurate, whereas I lived through the 1960s and 1970s and can bring my own experience to question fiction about that era.

This was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They supplied a helpful introduction and provided copious notes--an example of how translations should be done.

108. David Mamet, The Village. 11/12. A desultory, rambling novel by the playwright and screenwriter and director David Mamet. It relies heavily on dialogue between characters as well as internal monologues to convey its ironies. The title village is a hamlet somewhere in rural New England. There isn't a plot--what little happens has to be pieced together from scattered conversations. A hardware store closes, a policeman talks to a battered wife, two men go hunting, a young woman turns to promiscuity because of her family life, people meet in the post office, stores, bars, and diners. If there is any link among these stories, it's the many problems caused by sex and love and the difficulties we face in handling those and discussing them. It's more an interesting failure than a convincing success. It pushes the boundaries of what a novel can be, but it's not always clear who is speaking and what they are talking about. Sometimes it reads like an author making notes for a novel and sketching in characters and situations and trying out bits of dialogue to develop the voice and tone of a particular speaker.  There are many small excellent bits. A man is sitting in church listening to a sermon. The minister ends the sermon by saying "Let us pray." The man notes the "small bustle" that occurs during the brief pause that follows this statement as the congregations settles itself in to pray--something heard many times but never before noted.

109. Kathy Reichs, Bones Are Forever. 11/13. A Temperance Brennan mystery. Reichs overuses infodumps in which one character explains the science behind forensic detection to another character. Since Brennan is supposedly supersmart, this gets especially annoying when a character explains something to Brennan that she should already know. Reichs also likes to anchor a scene in a locale by having a character step to a window and recite all the sites visible outside or to describe the appearance of a character by having her look in a mirror and reflect on what she sees.

110. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake. 11/15. I guess I'm done reading this, although 'read' is not the right word. Experiencing? Deciphering? I've been at this for years, working through it page by page. I alternate between disgust at myself for wasting so much time on it and delight in figuring what might be meant. Behind all this is the nagging suspicion that the appeal of this work for me lies in the opportunities it gives me to congratulate myself on my cleverness. Six-down: a deaft setter of crossweird clews (5,5). 

111. Patrick White, The Solid Mandala. 11/15. White's seventh novel. This is largely the story of twin brothers Waldo and Arthur. White exploits the common literary device of splitting a character into two complementary parts. Waldo is by far the more intelligent and educated of the two brothers; he is rational, emotionally repressed, literary (but never able to finish any of his works), cold, distant, unable to form relationships, filled with hatred, jealousy, and rancor. He works as a librarian. Arthur, who is labelled retarded, is emotional, caring, loving. He is an idiot savant in mathematics. He works as a clerk in a grocery store and delivers both food and emotional support to the store's customers. At home he bakes bread, milks the cow and makes butter; as the brothers age, bread and milk are about the only foods they eat.

Their parents are English immigrants to Australia living in Sasparilla, White's fiction suburb of Sydney. The mother is from an upper-class family who married beneath her. The father is a well-read but ineffectual man. The father has a house built for the family in Sasparilla. The house has many classical features, and one of the father's main interactions with his sons is to read them Greek myths. Both brothers are captivated by the story of Tiresias, particularly his life as both man and woman. The brothers live in the house all their lives; it gradually decays around them.

Arthur runs across a dictionary definition of mandala and incorporates the concept into his life, particularly the idea of a mandala as an object symbolising the totality of the universe. He collects marbles and sees in some of them his 'solid mandalas'. He shares one of these marbles with Dulcie, a young woman whose family has a summer home near the brothers. Both brothers love Dulcie. She values Arthur as a friend. Waldo proposes to her, but learns that Dulcie is already engaged. That is Waldo's sole attempt at a relationship, and he is so burnt by it that he never again allows anyone close to him. Arthur continues as a friend of Dulcie's husband; they even name a son after him. Another marble is given to Mrs Poulter, who lives across the street. She is more a mother figure than Dulcie, and she and Arthur share a passionate but nonsexual moment. Waldo puts a stop to their relationship because he fears that the neighbours will misinterpret his 'dill' brother as a sexual deviant. Arthur also tries to give Waldo one of his mandalas, but the exchange fails when Waldo angrily chases him away.

Arthur, despite his alleged mental problems, is well read, even though he struggles to understand. When Waldo is startled to learn that Arthur can quote Tennyson, he asks Arthur what else he likes to read. Arthur replies Shakespeare. Waldo dismisses this claim by saying that Arthur doesn't have the brains to understand Shakespeare. Arthur replies that he can still understand and appreciate the plots. Unbeknownst to Waldo, Arthur has for years been visiting a municipal library in Sydney and reading books there. Waldo later transfers to that library and discovers Arthur reading The Brothers Karamazov. Waldo is worried that his colleagues will think less of him if they discover that the 'idiot' Arthur is his brother. He confronts Arthur in the reading room of the library. Arthur launches into a wild discussion of the Grand Inquisitor and begins tearing pages out of the book. Waldo tells him to leave and calls Arthur 'sir'--a form of address that brings home to Arthur just how ashamed of him his brother is.

The two brothers grow old in the house along with their dogs (both of whom are far more devoted to Arthur than to Waldo). Waldo uses his time to edit his writings, which for him are his life's work. He is worried that Arthur may find them and question him about them. So he searches for a place to hide them. He finds a box containing a ball gown of his mother's and tries it on. When he hears Arthur returning from a walk with the dogs, he tears it off, largely destroying it in the process, and hides it. Some time later, he finds a piece of paper with Arthur's handwriting. on it. It contains a poem by Arthur, one that evinces far more understanding of life than any of Waldo's writings. He realises what a failure he has been as a writer. He burns his writings and then dies. regarding Arthur with great hatred.

In the end, it is Arthur who is the more successful human being. He incorporates the questing and questioning intelligence and the ability to love others that is missing in Waldo. For all his reading, Waldo's intellect is sterile and lacking in understanding. Waldo views himself as Arthur's caretaker, but it is Arthur who is the real caretaker in the family. Waldo writes about Tiresias (as a young man, not as a woman) and he rejects the feminine by tearing off his mother's dress; Arthur, as shown in his poem and his interactions with others, empathises with women. Arthur is also one of the solid mandalas of the novel and manages far better than Waldo to incorporate the totality of the human world in himself.

The references to the classical elements in the family's house and to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are also reflections of Arthur's and Waldo's characters. Arthur is the broad humanity of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. He cannot understand the cold, heartless, instrumental  rationality of the Grand Inquisitor. Waldo is the ruin of classical rationalism. Waldo sneers at one of his colleagues in the library because the man never got past p. 10 of Finnegans Wake. He never finishes his novel on Tiresias--like his aborted writings, Waldo is incomplete.

112. Joan London, Gilgamesh. 11/18. A debut novel by an Australian. In the late 1930s, Edith, a young woman lives on a hardscrabble plot in western Australia with her older sister and widowed mother. She works in a nearby hotel. Her English cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram arrive for a visit. Leopold is an archaeologist who has been working in Iraq; Aram was a driver and general worker on the dig. Aram and Edith make love. The two visitors leave and several months later Edith gives birth to Jim. She becomes obsessed with re-joining Aram, whom she believes has returned to Armenia (now part of the USSR). She steals odd bits of change and clothes from the hotel until she accumulates enough to take a freighter to England with Jim, where she stays with Leopold's mother. Leopold is working for the British secret service, and he is thought to be in the Middle East. He can be contacted only through a post office box. Edith journeys to Soviet Armenia, and, despite the general suspicion of foreigners, manages to live there until around 1943. She is spirited into Iran, where she meets Leopold. She learns that Leopold has been watching over her and that Aram is dead. During her stay in the Middle East, she believes that Leopold is killed. At the end of the war, she returns to Australia and the farm. Jim grows up. Edith takes up with another man. Finally a letter from Leopold arrives. Jim, a much troubled youth and rather at loose ends, travels to Baghdad to join Leopold.

During Leopold and Aram's visit to Australia, the two men introduce Edith to the story of Gilgamesh. The story of the bonds between two human beings and the quests that we undergo to find those bonds is behind much of this novel.

The novel is short (250 pages, maybe 80,000 words) and filled with events. But oddly it doesn't read as a short novel or as a rushed one. The prose is economical and sparse, but London creates a complete story of love and the role of stories in shaping our lives.

113. Patrick White, The Twyborn Affair. 11/23. To use the currently fashionable terms, this is a novel about identity and the multiple nature of identity in each individual. Foremost is sexual identity: the lead character here shuffles between man and woman in the novel's three parts: the first part is the story of Eudoxia, the wife of an elderly Greek man who fancies himself a Byzantine emperor; in the second part Eddie Twyborn, the cross-dressing Eudoxia of the first part, returns to his native Australia and arranges to work as a farmhand--he has an affair with the owner's wife and is raped by the ranch foreman; in the third part, Eddie resumes cross-dressing and becomes Eadith Trist, the madam of a high-class brothel in London. Other characters have similarly fluid approaches to sexual identity: Eddie's mum is a lesbian and has a lifelong affair with another rich Australian wife but whose principal relationship is with her dogs; the foreman on the ranch both rapes Eddie and offers himself to be sodomised. None of these transformations are either/or; as deployed here, the concept of sexual identity is more fluid than that. Other fluid dichotomies are foreign/native and colonial/ English. The novel has a lot to do with the nature of love and the difficulties of dealing with it.

"Twyborn" is, I suspect, two-born. (There are other significant names--a drunk is named Lushington.)

This hasn't aged well, in part because what was daring and bold in White's day has become more commonplace now. White also seems a bit bored with the theme in the end. He brings the novel to an abrupt end by killing Eddie/Eadith off in the Blitz, just as the character, dressed as Eddie, is about to meet the mother and begin life as her daughter. A fourth part with Eddie again Eadith and aging mum living in Australia would have rounded the work off in a more satisfying manner.

114. Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves. 11/28. Ellen Roxburgh is born a poor farmer's daughter in Cornwall. Her family takes as a summer lodger the invalid Austin Roxburgh, who marries Ellen and undertakes her education and training in the manners appropriate to the wife of a gentleman. They visit Arthur's brother Garnet in Australia in the 1830s. The brother own a farm there staffed by convict labourers. He is a neer-do-well who had to leave England to avoid arrest for forging a check and a ladies' man. He rapes/seduces Ellen during their visit. The Roxburghs return to England on a small merchant vessel, which flounders on the Great Barrier Reef north of Moreton Bay. Except for one man who eventually makes it to Moreton Bay, the rest of the crew dies or is killed by the aborigines (the fate of Arthur Roxburgh). Ellen is captured by the aborigines and turned into a slave. The fringe of leaves is the girdle of vines she drapes around her waist. The only possession she retains from her form life is her wedding ring, which she hides within the fringe of leaves. They are for a time her only links with the civilised person she once was. The ring becomes a talisman of what she no longer is and reappears in the narrative occasionally as a reminder. Hunger and degradation drive her to cannibalism, among other things. She meets Jack Chance, an escaped convict from Moreton Bay who is living with the aborigines. Together the two of them escape and undertake an arduous journey to Moreton Bay. Ellen and Jack share a bed and sometimes have sex. They eventually make it to the outskirts of the English settlement at Moreton Bay, at which point Jack fadies back into the bush. Ellen is found naked by a farm family (she has lost both the fringe of leaves and the wedding ring at the last moment) and begins her trek back into civilisation, eventually leaving for Sydney, for a return to England.

The novel focuses on Ellen's internal moral education. She learns bourgeois manners upon marriage, abandons all but a few shreds of her European self with the aborigines, and then gradually reintegrates herself into her former state by outwardly conforming to what is expected of her. Her experiences leave her detached from life. She does what is conventional without being more than superficially connected to it. She abandons belief. She is all too aware of herself as a morally fragile human being. Her closest relationships while with the aborigines and while in Moreton Bay are with children. Like them she is learning how to be in society. While with the commandant's family in Moreton Bay, she, like the children, is supervised by the children's nanny and tutor. Her reintegration into English society takes place on the boat to Sydney, where she and the nanny become friends and where she acquires a suitor.

Much of this is also a comment on both 'civilised' and 'uncivilised' society and their mores. There are choruses of English gentlewomen, a minatory husband who is both a sickly dependent and a prig, a mother-in-law anxious to mould Ellen, the convict Jake who is a deserving victim of justice. Part of Ellen's education is her discovery of sensuality and passion and the attraction and the guilt that she feels because of them. She is reduced to the elemental hungers and the fringe of leaves.

115.  Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass. 11/30. A skillful plot. One of Paretsky's longer works--about 180K words. The usual rich, powerful villain on Chicago's North Shore who is no match for the dogged Warshawski.

116. Joyce Carol Oates, Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong. 12/1. Oates had a talent for making the ordinary be gothic. Nothing supernatural or exaggerated happens in these tales, but they are so atmospheric and baleful that they feel as if an inexplicable disaster looms over all of them. In the last one, Flatbed, a grandfather molests a grandaughter, swearing her to silence: "this is our secret." Years later as a young woman, she cannot have a sexual relationship or even a doctor's examination. A man falls in love with her and patiently gets her to reveal her secret. The two then kill the grandfather (they are so careful that no one will connect them with the crime), and later the two have sex, a first for the young woman. She can have sex with this man because the two of them now have a secret.

117.  Benjamin Black, Holy Orders. 12/4. John Banville's latest excursion into the detective novel with his character Quirke. This time, Quirke confronts a crime that reminds him of his early days in a Catholic orphanage. The other characters in the series make an appearance, as do the Catholic church as villain and his ongoing nemesis Costigan. This reads more as a way station in the series that as a complete novel. Several strands of the narrative are based on the earlier works and at the end there is a cliffhanger to be resolved somewhere down the line. The crime itself -- the murder of a young journalist -- gets very short shrift. A solution is provided (very little detection is involved; a bystander names the culprits and explains the reasons for the murder), but it's almost an afterthought to Banville's interest in Quirke and the damage done to him and the damage he does to others.

118. Val McDermid, Cross and Burn. 12/8.  A Carol Jordan/Tony Hill mystery. The characters are re-ordering their lives after the disastrous encounters with Hill's mother and Jacko Vance. The serial killer plot is secondary to the problems of the various characters. As usual, well written and entertaining.

119. John Connolly, The Black Angel. 12/11. An earlier entry in the Charlie Parker series that I missed. The usual characters. The bad guys this time are fallen angels who have taken human form; they are convinced that Parker is the one of their number who has repented and is seeking God's forgiveness. The action spreads as far as a Cistercian monastery near Prague.

120.  William Faulkner, Light in August. 12/15. One of Faulkner's more accessible works--at least he still uses periods in this one. A novel about marginal people in a intolerant rural society and how they get disciplined and shunted aside. Joe Christmas passes for white, although he believes he is part black. The Rev. Mr Hightower is deprived of his church when his wife leaves him. Christmas lives on the estate of a middle-aged woman who is the granddaughter of Yankee carpetbaggers and has an affair with her. When the woman is killed, Christmas is blamed and the town suddenly discovers he is black and eventually kills him. In today's terms, much of this is about the constructedness of race and behavior. All the main characters are, as is common in Faulker, blighted--blighted by the shared past of the region, by their own past, by their own personalities.

121. Shakespeare, King Lear. 12/22. The Norton Critical edition, ed. Grace Ioppolo. These Norton editions are well made. Useful information on the background of the plays and what changes Shakespeare introduced or what aspects of the source materials he chose to emphasize. Also informative sections on historical reception and a selection of modern criticism.

122. Jonathan Kellerman, Bones. 12/25. Just what you expect of Kellerman.

123. Shakespeare, Macbeth, 12/30. The Norton Critical edition, ed., Robert S. Miola. In the eras in which an entire act in the contemporary theatre might take place within the same set, Shakespeare's rapid succession of short scenes must have struck theatregoers as fragmented and as too abrupt. But, after years of being exposed to film and tv, which use much the same technique, we would tend to think of it as a more natural way of telling the story of a drama. In contrast, the plays that depend on characters sitting in a room and talking for half an hour at a time are often seen as too restricted and static when filmed.

Unlike filmed dramas, however, Shakespeare had little or no scenery and had to invest words in describing the setting for his audience. He had to paint a word picture of what is so immediately there on film. It's one reason Shakespeare can seem so verbose on screen--the characters are at times describing the obvious. He also had to rely on messengers to report the big events, such as battles, which he couldn't show on stage and which modern film delights in showing.

This edition includes among the quotations from source materials and critical essays comments by Sarah Siddons on playing Lady Macbeth and by Derek Jacoby on playing Macbeth. Jacoby's are especially useful in showing the problems an actor faces and the choices that have to be made in staging Shakespeare.

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