Books, 2013 (2)

37. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase. 4/7. Another nicely done work, featuring the same nurse that appears in Invisible Murders. What sets these apart are the realistic depictions of the characters, most of them ordinary people who get swept up in events.

38. Sue Grafton, Kinsey and Me, 4/8. Half of this consists of short stories featuring Kinsey Millhone; the other half is a lightly fictionalised account of Grafton's early life, particularly her coping with an alcoholic mother. Both parts are good. Any of the Kinsey stories could easily become the plot for a book. The second half is told as a first-person narrative. It is almost all telling and very little showing. It reads like an essay written as part of psychoanalysis, but it tries very hard to suggest emotions rather than explore them and it verges into the sentimental.

39.  Iris Murdoch, The Green Knight. 4/12. The Green Knight refers to the knight in the Arthurian cycle who tests the mettle and morals of the other characters. Here the Green Knight is Peter Mir (as in Russian world/peace), who intercedes in the attempt of Lucas Graffe to kill his young stepbrother, Clement. Mir, a chance passerby and a stranger to the two brothers, receives the blow intended for Clement and dies but is resuscitated. Lucas stands trial for manslaughter (oddly no one in the trial seems to know that Mir is still alive) and is acquitted when he convinces everyone that he was defending himself against a would-be robber. The two brothers hide the fact that Lucas attempted to kill Clement. Lucas is one of the nastier men in Murdoch's works; he is also the character whose interior thoughts are never explored. He is instead a force impacting the other characters--false, deceitful, cruel, evil, vicious, arrogant, bullying.

Mir reappears in the the Graffe brothers' lives several months after the attack. He demands restitution and justice--namely, that Lucas and Clement tell the true story of what happened. He also demands that he be introduced into the circle of friends and acquaintances surrounding the Graffe brothers, since he lacks a family and wants one.

At the center of this circle are Louise Anderson, a widow, and her three daughters. Lucas and Clement were friends of the deceased husband. Clement is tacitly in love with Louise but does not speak of this. Lucas proposed to Louise after her husband's death. The youngest daughter, Moy, is thought to be in love with Clement. The other two daughters are bright and destined for Oxford.

Louise's schoolfriend Joan is like a few other mothers in the novels written in the years before this one. She appears feckless and dependent. She has a son, Harvey, whom she has more or less left to the care of others, particularly Louise and the Graffe brothers, but also Emil, a gay art dealer who is off-stage for most of the novel, and Bellamy, the seeker after salvation in this novel.

Shortly before the beginning of the novel, Bellamy has become a Catholic; he hopes to join a monastery. He is the type of convert that sets off warning bells among the clergy, and his principal contact in the church keeps trying to discourage him. He is also a homosexual (an inactive one).

Early in the novel, Aleph, the eldest daughter, quotes the Housman lines: 'But this unlucky love should last/When answered passions thin to air.' Much of the novel is the working out of the various requited and unrequited loves. Clement ends up with Louise, Lucas with Aleph, Harvey with the second daughter; Joan with a wealthy American; Bellamy with Emil. Moy, who has had a crush on Harvey (not Clement), grows up and heads off into life.

Lucas sticks to his version of the story and tries to convince Mir that he is mad and that the blow on his head has left him confused. He is, however, willing to force Clement to introduce Mir into the Anderson family circle. Mir tells his story, but no one believes him, except Clement, who knows the truth, which he continues to deny. Bellamy latches on to Mir as the latest wise man in his life. Mir gains the favour of the Anderson menage when he rescues Moy's dog, Anax (one of the Greek words for 'king'--the dog is the Arthur of the story). (Anax originally belonged to Bellamy and eventually is returned to him.)

Mir cannot remember all the details of his life due to the blow on the head. He persuades the Graffe brothers to re-enact the scene in the hope of recovering his memories. The tactic works, and he remembers where he lives (in a huge mansion--it turns out he is rich) and that he is a Buddhist. Everything seems to fall into place. There is a grand banquet at Mir's house, and everyone's problems appear on the way to solution. During the course of the evening, however, a doctor and his minions arrive to escort Mir back to the insane asylum, from which he had discharged himself.

Subsequently everyone is plunged into various kinds of misery, the chief one being the disappearance of Aleph. A few days later a letter is received revealing that she has run off to America with Lucas. Mir dies in the asylum. Things gradually being to right themselves after this.

Louise throughout is trying to read A Glastonbury Romance, which also uses the Green Knight legend. She gives over reading it about the same time that Peter Mir dies.  So, lots of re-enforcements of the Arthurian connexions.

Throughout the characters are challenged in various ways--by love and lust, by good and evil, by truth and deceit--but all ends relatively well and most of the characters grow and learn to be happy. There is much of the traditional quest romance here, with its testing of characters and various hardships along the path to the grail.

As a sidenote, there are a lot of loose ends in this novel--the status of Mir at Lucas's trial is simply the most glaring. There are many inconsistencies and too many convenient dei ex machinae.

40. Michael Redhill, Consolation. 4/14. A novel about how history, both public and private, shapes us and, through our capacity to rework both forms, consoles us. A decent novel but not outstanding.

41. Iris Murdoch, Jackson's Dilemma. 4/16. Murdoch's twenty-sixth and last novel. This one is noticeably shorter than all but her first books. It runs to about 100,000 words where previous ones in the series had around 300,000. As this was being published, it became clear that Murdoch had Alzheimer's; with the benefit of hindsight, those who knew her discerned signs of a mental decline in previous years. She herself is said to have complained of writer's block while writing this.

This has the usual Murdoch circle of friends endlessly tangled in wrong-headed love affairs before things sort themselves out in the end. It also gestures towards the mystery man in the person of Jackson, a man of all work attached rather precariously to one of the main characters. There are hints that Jackson is an angel with the power to set things aright. Certainly he is numinous and on a mission but unworldly, almost childlike and naive, in many ways. Several of the characters are seeking something--meaning, philosophy, mysticism--but making the usual muddle of their attempts. Uncharacteristically, most of the main characters are wealthy and of good country stock, with well-stocked houses in the country and in London.

The usual ingredient missing here is the detailed depiction of the characters' inner lives. There is still some of that, but never at the length or with the detail found in earlier works. It also has other frequent Murdoch ingredients--guilt, suffering, rocks, the sea, precocious children, gay men, Jews, revenants, empathetic animals, careful descriptions of dress and interiors, the difficulty of religious belief, the challenge of being and doing good--but not with the complexity or deftness found in other works. Of course, with hindsight, it's easy to find such things. One of the reviews quoted on the back cover calls the work 'fast-moving'--it certainly is that in comparison with her other works, chiefly, I think, because she fails to linger over the inner lives of the characters.

42. Lawrence Block, Hit Me. 4/21. Block writes very likeable rogues, in this case, Keller, who is a hit man, and Dot, the woman who brokers contract killings. Both of them have active lives outside their work--Keller, under the name of Nicholas Edwards, restores old houses and sells them, deals in stamps and has a much-loved wife and daughter; Dot, who is an older woman, has an active social and love life. Outside their primary means of earning money, both are moral. Both are insouciant and ready with a quip. The present work has four tales, ranging widely in length. All are entertaining reading for a wet afternoon.

I haven't read any works by Block in years. I shall have to find more. One reason that I like him is his urban landscapes are gritty, his characters have depth, and, because years ago, he was one of the first mass market novelists to include realistic gay characters and treat them as real people.

43. Lawrence Block, Hit Parade. 4/27. Another Keller the hitman work. Has the same qualities as the previous one, with Keller wondering a bit more about his work--not so much the morality of it as why he does it. He has decided to retire and is asking Dot for more work. He kills several people whom he likes and several whom he dislikes, not all of them for pay. Since this work precedes the previous one, his retirement plans obviously came to nought.

44. Elizabeth George, Believe the Lie. 5/10. Over 600 pages featuring George's standard set of characters. The book is more about the characters and their lives rather than a mystery to solve. The death that triggers the investigation turns out to have been an accident, which is what everyone believed it to be.

45. Collin Wilcox, Bernhardt's Edge. 5/12. A rainy day re-read of a book that I first read in 1988 when it was first published. Alan Bernhardt is an updated version of the smart male private eye with morals that features in much of American private-eye fiction of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. He's more sensitive and a bit of a feminist; he's a bit less sure of himself, but he still does what has to be done, even if it's not always in his best interest.

46. Adam Nevill, Last Days. 5/19. A horror story by a writer one critic quoted on the back cover labelled 'Britain's answer to Stephen King'. Long, involved, tortuous explanations.

47. John Connolly, The Wrath of Angels. 5/20. Another horror story. This one works better than the preceding item, mostly, I think, because the narrative is happening as it's being told. The Nevill book is cast as an historical reconstruction, pieced together by the testimony of now-dead or elderly witnesses and participants. That pushes the action back from the immediate foreground and into the past. In the process the horror gets sanitised and fails to be threatening. In the Connolly book, the horror is happening to the participants now. A useful distinction to remember.

48. Sue Grafton, V Is for Vengeance. 5/21. As she nears the end of the alphabet, Grafton is writing longer and more complex stories. The series was always fun to read, but the characters, even her usual crew, are becoming more complex and thus more interesting.

49. Jonathan Kellerman, Guilt. 5/22. This is my first Kellerman in a long time. His usual mix and characters, but more convincing than the last few I've read. Or maybe I'm just in a more receptive mood for this mix.

50. Graham Greene, The Quiet American. 5/22. Don't know why I had never read this before. Alden Pyle, the quiet American of the title, is an agent provocateur masquerading as an American aid officer during the last days of colonial Vietnam. The French are clearly losing, and he is there to find and put in power a pro-American group. He meets Thomas Fowler, a British reporter, and Fowler's Vietnamese mistress, Phoung. Fowler prides himself on being a disengaged reporter of the facts. He is weary and cynical. Pyle falls in love with Phoung and eventually she leaves Fowler for him. Meanwhile, Pyle's activities lead to disaster, and, with Fowler's help, he is murdered. Phoung returns to Fowler. The question that remains is to what degrees Fowler's complicity in Pyle's murder arises from his moral disgust at Pyle's actions or from his jealousy over Phoung.

Pyle is cast as a naive, ignorant, jejune American blundering about and causing havoc with the best of intentions. This was published in 1955, and the novel is remarkably prescient about the US involvement in Vietnam. The weakness of the novel is that both Pyle and Fowler are caricatures, Pyle more so than Fowler. Since this is a first-person narrative told by Fowler, he tends to see himself as more nuanced than Pyle, and Pyle becomes a rather easy target.

51. Charles Todd, Proof of Guilt. Charles Todd is the pseudonym of an American mother and son team who write traditional English murder mysteries. Wes would have loved this one; me, not so much. Tortured Scotland Yard detective suffering from PTSD after WWI solves a crime. The sources for this particular slice of England are literary rather than historical.

52. Joyce Carol Oates, Accursed. 5/31. A sprawling Gothic novel told in a prissy fashion by an amateur historian re-creating a horrific series of events that took place in 1905-6 in Princeton, NJ. Woodrow Wilson is the president of the university; Grover Cleveland is a resident; Upton Sinclair lives in a nearby village. Jack London, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, among others, also make appearances. The town of Princeton is filled with old money and privilege. Murder, abductions, insanity, racism, sexism, classism, snobbery, and capitalist oppression abound. Supernatural elements--devils, succubi and incubi, and vampires personify the various isms and allow the other characters to express the repressions that their society compels in them. About 150 pages too long. Oates keeps it all under control but keeps going long after she makes her point. The ending is a slog.

53. James Wood, The Fun Stuff and Other Essays. 6/1.  Reprints of twenty-three essays of literary criticism, bookended by a piece on the rock drummer Keith Moon and one on dismantling his father-in-law's library following his death. Wood is impressively well read, which allows him to site an individual writer within a genealogy of writers, and attentive to how a writer uses words and how that contributes (or fails to contribute) to a work. Most of the writers he discusses are familiar to me, and I can see his points about them. He mentions a few Eastern European writers I haven't read but nothing he says impels me to open their books.

54. Charles Dickens, Hard Times. 6/1. In the Norton Critical Edition, which is quite good. Will try to find others in this series. According to the editors, this novel is noticeably shorter than those Dickens wrote before and after it--it is 110,000 words--a result of its publication in serial form. Even so, there is the usual Dickens prolixity, as well as the usual Dickens plot elements and characters. This one contrasts the logic of the mind, which it conflates with rigorous and unsentimental capitalism, and the feelings of the heart, which are noticeably lacking in most of the main characters. Some of them grow and learn to temper logic with the heart; others do not. The villains end unhappily; the good propser.

I hadn't read any Dickens in years and this was an experiment to see if I still found him unsatisfactory. I do.

55. Patrick White, The Vivisector. 6/4. I started re-reading this a couple years back, but my forty-year-old copy (of the first paperback edition, purchased in the early 1970s) fell apart. I tried to buy a new copy only to find that the novel was out of print. Penguin has reissued the novel, as it has many other of White's works, because of the Lost Mann Booker Prize for 1970. Due to a change in the Booker prize rules at that time, there was no contest in 1970, and the Booker committee decided to remedy that in 2010. The Vivisector was among the works on the short list, and that renewed interest in the work.

The new Penguin edition has a foreword by Coetzee, who comes across as ambivalent about the work. He lives up to the convention that such introductory essays have to be favourable overall, but he is rather sharper about the novel's failings than he is about its achievements. One point that Coetzee raises is why White, a writer, chose to depict a painter as his Artist rather than a writer, especially since in a novel one can't show the paintings. He speculates that the reason is that White is a painter manque, a charge borne out by White's lush and lengthy physical descriptions of landscapes, objects, and people in the work. It is a characteristic of White's works (more so than of Coetzee's works). White is a novelist of surfaces that embody and present characters.

The novel is a ruthless dissection of a painter, Hurtle Duffield, from his childhood to his death in his 80s. Duffield is born to a poor Australian family. His mother is a washerwoman, who once a week works at the mansion of a rich family, the Courtneys. She takes young Hurtle with her one day, and the precocious lad attracts the attention of the mistress of the house, Mamam, and then her husband. The Courtneys buy Hurtle and raise him as their son. They have one daughter of their own, Rhoda, who is a hunchback and badly crippled, and Hurtle and she achieve a sort of alliance rather than friendship or love. Hurtle has already shown an appitude for painting, and the Courtneys buy his training in the technical aspects of the craft  (as they buy everything). As a young man, Hurtle gets involved in WWI and then bums around Europe, breaking with the Courtneys and resuming the name Duffied. He returns to Australia later and takes up painting full time, living for a time on the earnings of a prostitute, Nance, who is devoted to him. Many of his early paintings are bought by a society woman. Olivia Davenport, a former friend of his sister's. She, too, is in love with Hurtle. She introduces him to a Greek woman, Hero, who becomes his mistress for a short time. Meanwhile, Hurtle is achieving success as a painter. He becomes an irascible hermit living in a decaying house in a run-down area of Sydney. There he runs across Kathy Volkov, a young piano prodigy, and meets up with Rhoda again. Volkov goes on to be as famous as Duffield, and Rhoda moves in with him, and they resume the fractious relationship of their childhood.

Duffield draws inspiration from everything and everyone he runs across. Each of the major women in his life--Mamam, Rhoda, Olivia, Hero, and Kathy--is dissected in his paintings. He isn't kind to his subjects--Rhoda abbreviates his name to 'Hurt', which is appropriate. One of the questions posed by this novel is whether an artist can be humane, whether the search for artistic truth allows such a person to be kind. (White, as a novelist, is as unkind to Duffield and the other characters as Duffield is to his subjects. White was the scion of a rich Australian family, and his depiction of that society is merciless. Coetzee objects that this aspect of the novel becomes a bit tedious.)

Duffield is driven to paint as a means of searching for the truth, and one of the questions posed is whether the search for truth through 'art' is even possible and, if it is, whether it can be successful. 

On the walls of the privy in the decaying house in Sydney, Duffield scrawls the lines 'God the Artist, God the Vivisector, God . . .'. He is never able to complete the third line. Duffield sees the line as incomplete, but I think White is posing the question whether the line can be completed. What is the nature of the artist? Or is God the only artist who can be the vivisector/artist? Is that sort of achievement possible to human artists?

White doesn't answer these questions--they can't, after all, be answered. What he does do is show the impact of pursuing the answers to these questions on the artist and those around him.

56. John Connolly, The Killing Kind. 6/6. Another of Connolly's blends of detective story with supernatural elements. He does these well. I think they appeal to me because of his attention to his main character's psyche. While reading this, it occurred to me that this sort of masculinist fiction often features a detective who persists in a case because of the moral nature of his quest for a solution. He isn't so much driven to solve the crime because there is a mystery but because he needs to impose some sort of justice. Also he often has sidekicks who are criminals--but criminals with their own code of behaviour and a certain stylish approach to life. They are bad guys who aren't quite bad guys.

57. John Connolly, The Unquiet. 6/7. To what I wrote above, I would add--the detective also has troubled personal relationship with women. In the case of Connolly's Charlie Parker, the first wife and child are dead; he feels guilt for that because he essentially brought about their deaths through his actions. The second woman, a girlfriend, and child are living apart. Like most private detectives, he has problems with authority figures like the police and rich men. The two principal bad guys who aren't quite bad guys are a gay couple--a hit man and a burglar--they have Parker's back and seem willing to drop everything to help him out a moment's notice, even though they have to travel up from New York City to do so. There is one scene in this in which the two have to deal with gay bashing from a couple of drunk hunters in Maine--it's extraneous to the story, but it's about the most independent action the two have been given in the whole series. Gay seems to be the new non-white in the masculinist detective story, but even here the hit man is black. It's a technique for showing that the detective finds his friends and associates from among likeminded people--gender, race, etc., being irrelevant to that. The detective, however, listens to Fox News.

58. Lydia Davis, Almost No Memory. 6/10. A collection of Davis's short 'stories'. These are hard to classify. Most of them are quite short--a paragraph or two. Some read almost like an author's notes for a story--a jotting down of a character's main psychology. But they work. It's a reminder of easily the mind concocts a story to surround a core of data and make sense of it. Others work almost like poetry in conveying a mood with only a few words.
59. John Connolly, The Whisperers. 6/14. Another Charlie Parker work about odd doings in Maine. As usual, very readable, but more on the supernatural than on detection.

60. John Connolly, The Burning Soul. 6/16. Another Charlie Parker work. This was more interesting to me because there was less of the supernatural in it. I was also impressed by how Connolly describes places not only physically but also in terms of how people inhabit those spaces--a useful lesson that.

61. John Connolly, The Infernals. 6/17. This is written for young adults. It's in the style of Terry Prachett, but not as well done.

62. Philip Hensher, Scenes from Early Life. 6/18. Hensher is married to a man from Bangladesh. This novel recounts life in his husband's family when he was a child, particularly his maternal grandparents and their many children, children-in-law, grandchildren, servants, and friends. It is set around the years immediately before the civil war with Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh and the years afterward. It is told in the manner of many family narratives, circling around the main story with many interruptions and retellings of favourite episodes. There isn't a plot per se--just a sprawling family and its experiences.

63. Jim Crace, Harvest. 6/19. Another of Crace's historical reconstructions, this time of an isolated English village moving from the medieval period to the modern era. The new heir to the manor house, an outsider, decides to convert the village's fields to sheep rearing and to enclose the commons. At the same moment the village is invaded by three squatters (displaced because of the conversion to sheep elsewhere), who disrupt social relations in the village and serve as scapegoats for the villagers' uneasiness. There is also a mapmaker hired by the new heir to survey the village land. In the end, the village and manor house are burnt down, and the villagers and the landlord decamp. The mapmaker is murdered, and his body cremated when the manor house is destroyed. Fire clears away  the past in this book.

The story is told in the first-person present, but it is clear that the narrator is talking about the past. The narrator is the manservant of the former landlord, who came from outside the village and by choice became a farmer and one of the villagers. He is assigned to help the mapmaker, whom he ends up admiring and liking. His vocabulary, especially for colours, is beyond his station, and it is implied that he moved up in the world after leaving the village.

The village is not quite the idyllic pastoral setting beloved of medievalists. Its routines are familiar and comfortable for the inhabitants, but they have no problem leaving the village when faced with ruin. That part is rather unconvincing--people whose families have lived on this land for generations and who know of no other way of life and have little knowledge of life beyond their village suddenly abandon it for the uncertainty of life elsewhere. Crace also appears to have had a problem making his villagers and servants speak like villagers and servants of the premodern era. On several occasions, he has to explain how they know the meaning of a polysyllabic word. This isn't his most convincing reconstruction of the past.

64. Tania Carver, Cage of Bones. 6/20. A police procedural set in Colchester--a mix of leftover hippie cults from the 1960s-70s, rapacious businessmen, an angst-ridden copper and his psychologist/profiler almost-wife, a corrupt police inspector, a serial killer, some mild sex (men seem to spend a lot to time looking at women's breasts or trying not to look). Not bad, but definitely written to a formula with characters borrowed from many similar works.

65. Sara Paretsky, Break Down. 6/21. A V.I. Warshawski novel. The usual mix of murder and rich and powerful villains. The villains this time include a right-wing TV commentator, an extremely conservative candidate for senator in Illinois, and a Fox-like new television channel.

66. Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker. 7/2. This owes a lot to Terry Prachett. This has his lovable rogues, along with a mad scientist, a megalomaniac intent on becoming god by destroying everything. a hero who finds the resources within himself to become a hero, several stalwart women, and an intrepid heroine. It makes odd gestures towards such serious issues as the amount of truth we can handle, the nature of identity, and the nature of god.


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