Books, 2013 (3)

67. Ruth Rendell, 13 Steps Down. 7/3. Two stunted people living in a dilapidated house in Notting Hill. Mix Cellini is obsessed with the serial killer Reggie Christie and with a supermodel. He rents the third-floor flat in a house owned by an elderly spinster, Gwendolyn Chawcer, who scarcely inhabits the world, certainly not the present-day. At one point she leaves off reading The Origin of Species for something 'lighter', which turns out to be The Golden Bowl. Murder and death result. One of Rendell's intricate and skilful psychological thrillers.

68. Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. 7/13. Based on characters in the Oz stories, this is, as the title implies, centered about the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, who is neither particularly wicked nor a skilful witch. This owes a lot to Terry Pratchett. It aspires, rather tiresomely at times, to be a serious novel about evil and individual responsibility.

69. Thomas H. Cook, The Last Talk with Lola Faye. 7/13. Another middle-aged man haunted by his past who discovers that what he had thought was true wasn't. It has a more optimistic ending than most Cook tales.

70.  Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, The Supplicants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides; Sophocles, King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis, Philoctetes; Euripides, Hipploytus, Iphigenia in Tauris, Alcestis, Electra, Medea. 7/18.

 I enjoyed these much more than I did when I had to read them  in school. I was also less impressed by Euripides and more taken with Aeschylus that I was as a youth. I like the formality of the Greek theater and the way that pushing the action offstage leaves room for the characters and chorus to interrogate each other's feelings and attitudes.

The Greeks seem to have inhabited such a terrifying world, in which there was no safety or certainty. They didn't much admire their gods. They were more forces to be placated rather than sources of solace. They also seemed to reaching towards something more rational. There are also the odd moments of Athenian civic pride bursting out in these.

71. Ian McEwan, Sweet Dreams. 7/22. A comedy, almost a black comedy in parts. This takes place in the early 1970s, when nothing is going well in the UK. Serena is the daughter of an Anglican bishop and a well-organized, domineering mother. She likes to read and reads omnivorously and quickly. She does well in maths and because of that her mother pushes her to read Maths at Cambridge instead of the English Lit Serena would prefer. At Cambridge, Serena discovers that she is less skilled at maths than thought (she eventually scrapes by with a third). She also has a relationship with Jeremy, a skilled but unenthusiastic lover (after they leave Cambridge, he reveals that he is a homosexual) and then with Jeremy's tutor, an older man who dumps her unceremoniously but not before arranging for her to have an interview with MI5. While at Cambridge, she continues her reading of novels and because of that becomes involved with a short-lived literary magazine.

MI5 employs her as a well-educated but poorly paid secretary and file clerk. Serena continues to read, searching unsuccessfully for someone in a novel whose story resembles hers. She attracts the attention of Max, who is part of an attempt to influence opinion by secretly sponsoring writers. She falls briefly in love with Max; he does not respond enthusiastically and later reveals to Serena that he is engaged to marry. Meanwhile, Serena is enlisted to help with the project, which is code-named Sweet Dreams. She travels to Brighton, ostensibly as a talent scout for a cultural foundation, to offer a stipend to Tom Haley, a lecturer at Sussex and a budding writer. Up to this point, Serena is more a subject than an agent--subject to others' visions of herself--and searching for a narrative that will give her a life of her own.

Serena and Tom fall in love. Tom succeeds as a writer (his first novel wins the annual Jane Austin Prize), but the work is not to the taste of MI5. Max meanwhile decides that he loves Serena after all and abandons his plans to marry. When he discovers that Serena is in love with Tom, he reveals to Tom that she works for MI5 and not for the foundation that is funding his life. Tom is repulsed and thinks that everything that has happened between himself and Serena has been a lie. But he decides to write a novel about this and doesn't reveal to her that he knows who she is. When Max's revelations fail to lead to a break-up, he takes further revenge by revealing all to the papers and publicly outing Serena as an agent and Tom as either an agent of the secret services or their hapless dupe. She is, of course, dismissed. At this point she begins to take charge of her own life. She travels to Brighton and finds a letter from Tom as well as a manuscript about herself and her life. The letter explains how he came to write the novel and proposes marriage. In an aside at the end of the letter, Tom mentions that because of the Official Secrets Act, the novel can't be published until 2012, which coincidentally is the pub date of this novel. The novel ends there. So McEwan's novel is revealed to be Haley's novel.

Throughout, there is a lot of interaction between Tom's writings and his and Serena's lives.  Serena in particular tries to find in fiction a model for her own life and some explanation of it. She unwittingly gives Tom the plot for his second novel. As Serena reads Tom's works, she summarizes them for the readers of McEwan's book, and the stories within this story become her story as well. So this works as a meditation on the relationships between fiction and life--both in the sense that fiction derives from events in an author's life and in the sense that fictional narratives in turn influence readers. It also manages to be good fun in a way unusual for McEwan's books.

72. Jean Rhys, The Complete Novels: Voyage in the Dark: Quartet; After Leaving Mr Mackenzie; Good Morning, Midnight; Wide Sargasso Sea. 7/24. The first three were published in the later 1920s and 1930s; the last two in the 1960s after Rhys resurfaced. The early novels deal with a young woman in the demimonde. All of the main characters are rather passive and clueless and drift from place to place and man to man. None has much ambition other than enough money for a few clothes and food and drink. They are aimless and neither happy nor unhappy. Good Morning, Midnight is about one of these women now in her fifties who returns to Paris, where she spent a large part of her twenties, for a vacation. She is the older version of the earlier women, but not much wiser nor more responsible. Wide Sargasso Sea is an interesting experiment: it is the back story of the Madwoman in the Attic of Jane Eyre.

Rhys has an interesting style. It's almost colorless; she seems to have eschewed figures of speech. But it's effective for her characters. Despite their lives, they are almost colorless.

73.  Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys. 7/26. Anansi is the Spider God, the trickster and the storyteller. The boys are his two sons. A fantasy adventure revolving around the nature of story and song and their impact.

74.  Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. 7/27. Lionel Asbo is sometimes a likeable rogue and sometimes a terrifying monster. He keeps and tortures two pitbulls to help him in his work terrorising one of the East End communities. Lionel is in and out of gaol throughout the novel. Along the way he wins 149 million pounds in the lottery and becomes a rich man. He is astute enough to get even richer and, with the help of a Katy-Price-like figure, he manages to concoct a myth of himself as the 'lotto lout' and ends up a crowd favourite. He is also raising a nephew, Desmond Pepperdine. Des manages to escape the violence surrounding him, secure a decent job, and marry well and have a child. In the end he and his family escape the 'dogs', which represent the senseless, easy violence of this life.

75. John Connolly, Every Dead Thing. 8/1. This was the first novel in the Charlie Parker series and Connolly's first published novel. It covers the death of Parker's wife and child, introduces Louis and Angel and tells their back story, and pairs him up with Rachel. It borrows several tropes of American crime fiction: serial murderers (not one but three), the alienated but driven detective, the thuggish and brutal but principled gangster who aids the detective, redneck cops, hick cops, corrupt cops, confused cops, and overbearing, swaggering FBI men, and throws in the Bayou Country with an elderly black seer, the hill country of Virginia, New York City, and Maine. The black gangster, Louis, owes a lot to Hawk in the Spenser series by Robert Parker; Louis is gay, and Connolly dispenses with the macho posturing of Parker's novels. Rachel owes a lot to Spenser's girlfriend. The deranged villain resembles Hannibal Lecter in his way of butchering and displaying his victims. Lots of local colour replete with name dropping of restaurants and other notable habits of the locals. This is an enjoyable read but it lacks the discipline of Connolly's later works.

76. Allan Folsom, The Machiavelli Covenant. 8/3. A political thriller with a religious cult about to take over the world through highly placed politicians and bureaucrats and a plague created by a mad scientist, foiled by an outsider drawn into the scheme almost by accident through his love for a childhood sweetheart, who happens to be a victim of the cult. The outsider is in this case aided by the president of the US, who is on the run from the cult, a secret service agent, and a Spanish limousine driver and his teenage nephews. Somehow they manage to outwit the US army, the CIA, the Secret Service, and several foreign police and secret agencies. This is a very long work (550 pages). It's apparent that the good guys will win and how they do so in this case gets repetitious and strung out. I skimmed the last 50 pages. The author has characters speaking Italian, Spanish, French, and German along the way. He appears to have used Google Translator or some such service to produce the foreign-languages speeches of these characters. At one point, he wants the Spanish equivalent of 'fly over'; the word he uses for 'fly' is the insect, and the word for 'over' is 'over' as in 'over and done with'. His versions ignore the differences between singular and plural 'you' in all these languages, as well as the partitive in French. He claims to have done a lot of research, but he lives in California and apparently could not find someone to help him with Spanish.

77. Michael Connelly, The Drop. 8/3. Another Harry Bosch story, with him solving cold cases. A good read.

78.  Patrick White, The Aunt's Story. 8/7. White's third novel. I wasn't able to find his first novel. I couldn't finish the second one, The Living and the Dead. This was published in 1948; the second novel in 1941. I found the second novel unkind to its characters; White was not so much trying to understand them as prove himself superior to them and present them as objects to be scorned and laughed at. He also tortured language in an attempt to force it to be unique and memorable; instead his efforts come across as unnatural and silly. In The Aunt's Story, he created an unlikeable, difficult character but he conveyed why she was the way she was. The use of language is also much better. It isn't forced and as Theodora Goodman descends into madness, the language becomes mad as well.

Theodore Goodman is the aunt of the title. She is the ugly and awkward daughter. She intrigues the scion of a neighbouring ranch in Australia but loses him to her younger, prettier, more conventional sister when she won't conform to the stereotype of young Australian womanhood. She is left caring for her elderly widowed mother, who is demanding and critical. When the mother dies, Theodora uses her inheritance to travel and washes up at the Hotel du Midi somewhere on the French coast. The hotel's other guests are semi-permanent residents, and in her imagination, Theodora inserts herself into their lives and concocts for herself a series of important roles in their lives she would never achieve in reality. Towards the end of her stay, she discovers that the stories they have been telling about their own lives are as much fabrications as her concoctions. When she leaves to return to Australia, she takes a train across the United States headed for the West Coast and a ship back home. Along the way, she gets off the train at night and wanders through a spare, dusty American landscape until she finds a shack. She gives the neighbours a false name and is eventually removed by a doctor to be placed in an asylum.

While at the shack, she is visited by a(n imaginary) man named Holstius, who tells her, 'You cannot reconcile joy and sorrow, . . . or flesh and marble, or illusion and reality, or life and death. For this reason, Theodora Goodman, you must accept. And you have already found that one constantly deludes the other into taking fresh shapes, so that there is sometimes little to choose between the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality. Each of your several lives is evidence of this.'

79. Patrick White, The Tree of Man. 8/11. White's fourth novel. The title comes from the Hausman poem (Shropshire Lad, no. xxxi): The tree of man was never quiet:/Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

Stan and Amy Parker are dairy farmers near Sydney in Australia. They marry around 1900 and begin farming land that Stan inherited from his parents. They are the first settlers in the area. They are eventually joined by other smallholders. A village grows up. More people move into the area, and by the end of the story the area is a suburb of Sydney.

This is the story of their marriage. Neither of these people is articulate. They love each other, sometimes passionately, but they cannot verbalise their feelings to each other or to their children. They survive the usual hardships--hard-scrabble farming, a flood, a brush fire, Stan's service in WWI, sullen children, Amy's sudden dalliance with a commercial traveller. Their main problem, however, is the vast silence in their marriage. Both survive to old age. The novel ends with Stan's death. His grandson wanders away from the post-funeral eats and considers writing a poem about his grandparents' lives. That is mostly what the novel is--a poem about this hard life and the type of people it fosters.

White hits all the basis. In fact sometimes the events border on a soap opera of woe. It's saved by the depth of his characters and his understanding of them. White veers off into preaching and lecturing, especially towards the end. In form this is much like John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun. McGahern's work is better, I think, because he avoids drama and lets the work speak for itself with intruding himself into the narrative to comment on it.

80. Ben Bova, New Earth. 6/18. A new author to me, but according to the dj blurb, Bova has written a hundred books of fiction and non-fiction and won several awards. Earth is in a mess from global warming, etc. A group of 12 scientists travels to a strange planet orbiting Sirius, which turns out to be inhabited by people with the same DNA as earthlings. Turns out, they are manufactured beings created by a race of non-organic beings who have come to warn earth about an impending burst of gamma radiation that will kill everyone and to enlist earth's help in finding and warning other sentient species in this region of the galaxy. One-dimensional characters who run true to their type, a love affair, politics, paranoia, etc.

81. Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending. 8/21. A short work with a lot to ponder. Tony Webster receives an inheritance of 500 pounds and two documents from the mother of his first girlfriend, Veronica. He met the woman only once, over forty years earlier, when the girlfriend had invited for a weekend visit and the obligatory family inspection. He had had only one substantive interaction with the mother. He slept in, and the mother fixed him breakfast. She warned him not to take much guff from her daughter. The relationship soon comes to end, with indifference on Tony's part and resentment and nastiness from Veronica. Veronica soon takes up with Adrian, a school friend of Tony's and a brilliant, promising Cambridge student. They write Tony to tell him that they are together--a mixture of revenge by Veronica and sheepishness from Adrian. Tony writes Adrian a nasty, vindictive letter about Veronica and advises Adrian to talk with her mother. About a year later, Adrian commits suicide, leaving behind a well-argued position paper on suicide. The documents the mother leaves Tony are a letter from her saying that she thought Adrian had been happy in his last days, and Adrian's diary.

In the interim, Tony has got on with his life, marrying, having a daughter, pursuing a career, divorcing, and retiring. When Veronica refuses to surrender the diary, he contacts her. They have several meetings. She is abrasive and truculent. She tries to show him things, but he fails to understand what she is showing him. She sends him a copy of the letter he sent Adrian, which makes Tony experience great remorse. In trying to recall and make sense of their relationship and Adrian's suicide, he muses on memory and history. In the end Tony discovers that Adrian and Veronica's mother had had an affair, the mother got pregnant, and Adrian committed suicide because of that, not for the philosophical reasons offered in his farewell note. Because of the mother's age, the child is brain damaged and has to spend his life in care.

A sixth-form history teacher posed the question of what is history. Tony replied that it is the victor's lies. The teacher responds that that definition should also include the notion that history is equally the loser's self-delusions. Adrian responds that 'History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation'. The book is an attempt to show how those definitions work out in the thoughts of an elderly man attempting to reconstruct events from his youth.

This is very much an older person's work. I can't imagine a younger writer dealing with these themes successfully or even conceiving them. A younger writer's novel on memory, history, and remorse would look quite different, I think. This isn't usually a view I would have much sympathy for, but the work impresses me as having a history of its own.

82. John Connolly, The White Road. 8/22. The fourth in the Charlie Parker series. This finishes the story begun in The Killing Kind.  It fills in the backstories of Angel and Louis. More on race relations, especially in South Carolina.

83. Iain Banks, The Quarry. 8/23. Banks's last novel. Kit is an eighteen-year-old on the mild end of the austitic spectrum. He is good at numbers and games and likes order, but he has trouble with social interactions. He is being schooled in making the proper phatic responses in conversations but still has to deliberate about which option to use. His father is dying of cancer. They live in a house on the brink of a quarry, and arrangements have been made to sell the house to the quarry when the father dies. The house is collapsing around them, and their back garden is slowly falling into the quarry.

The father invites a group of his university chums for a final weekend. They eat, get high on drink and drugs and talk and argue about a wide range of subjects. The father is irascible; the son is lost and uncertain. The friends range from successful lawyer and computer mavens (a married couple constantly engaged in a tiff) to a left-wing film critic and a dope-head. In their uni days the group made a porno film and they ransack the house trying to find it, only to discover that the father has recorded a final rant over the recording.

Banks died shortly before this was published. It is a testament to his abilities that this is so readable and funny.

84. Frederic C. Rich, Christian Nation. 8/24. A what-if book--what if the Christianists came to power and began implementing their agenda. This is told as the reminiscences of one of those opposed to the Christianists, written in 2029 after their victory. It is highly readable but not much of a novel--large swatches of this are paraphrases of Christianist rhetoric and quotations of speeches. Much of the horror is replayed as history rather than current events. Still, Rich gets the rhetoric and personalities of the Christianists right, and that makes the book chilling.

 85. Robert Ellis, Murder Season. 8/24. A new author to me. A police procedural, with a female lead cop. Complex plotting and a high body count. Writers who base their stories in Los Angeles like the devices of discussing how one drives from A to B and where to find good Mexican fast food as ways of adding local colour.

86.  Patrick White, Voss. 8/27. White's fifth novel. Voss, a German explorer, decides to cross Australia from east to west, beginning from near Sydney. Laura, the ward of the principal sponsor of Voss's trip, is an intelligent young woman at a loss in Australia's male-dominated society. After some initial dislike, they become intrigued by each other and eventually agree to marry. Voss is accompanied on his trip by various character types, ranging from indifferently evil to a madman to a simple-minded boy, as well as two indigenes. His trip through the Australian desert is also a trip through the desert of his life, a quest to find something, anything, that will give meaning to his life. He and Laura are linked almost telepathically. When Voss's trek comes to grief, Laura becomes ill. She recovers only through sacrifice--at precisely the moment that the dying Voss is betrayed and killed by one of his native guides.

The novel is religious--Voss himself and others compare him to god. He not only controls the other men but also nutures them. After his death, he becomes an inspiration to others. Other parties venture into the desert to find him. The native who killed him becomes a wandering prophet among the tribes. Laura survives through sacrifice. The other survivor of the trek, who turned back with two others, about halfway, wanders in the desert for decades before being found. He is a convict transported to Australia, who was scourged and eventually pardoned of his crime. In the end, he too bears witness to Voss's quest to find himself.

87. David Ellis, In the Company of Liars. 9/1.  I've had good luck with authors named Ellis lately. A very accomplished political thriller with an unusual technique--it's written in reverse chronological order so that the outcome is presented first and only gradually are the events leading up to the outcome revealed.

88.  Herman Melville, Moby Dick. 9/10. The Norton Critical edition of this that I read contains several contemporary reviews, none of which is favourable. Most of them complain of the chaos of the novel. Understandably, its approach to the subject must have seemed wild and undisciplined. In many ways, the novel is undisciplined. It mixes several formal styles--a bombastic comedy characteristic of the tall tale; a high register of sublime language that appears in Ahab's monologues and soliloquies; serious and quasi serious disquisitions; history; myth.

It begins with the Ishmael narrator introducing himself as a restless seeker of something--he doesn't know what--and moves on to the queer relationship that develops between him and Queequeg and their quasi marriage. That narrative line disappears when the two men board the ship. The Ishmael narrator fades into the crew and becomes another nameless crewman. He resurfaces only in a flash-forward to a scene in a bar in Lima, Peru, where he is entertaining a group of hidalgos with a tall tale about whaling. The narration still proceeds under his name, but he becomes the omniscient narrator of traditional fiction rather than a character in the story. Little mention is made of his friendship with Queequeg in the last two-thirds of the novel. Once on the ship, the two characters cease to be individuals and become parts of the machine of whaling. This is only the most prominent of the narrative lines that surface and then disappear (rather like a whale).

For almost the first third of the novel (about 200 out of 650 pages in the Norton edition), Captain Ahab appears only in brief mentions as an offstage character. He then appears dramatically in the scene in which he swears the crew to the hunt for Moby Dick, only to disappear again into his cabin. He appears only sporadically in the next 350 pages. Only in the last 100 pages or so does he assume a central role in the narrative. Moby Dick is similarly elusive (more allusive than present).

Most of the intervals between Ahab's appearances are taken up by small essays on whales and whaling. The plot of the hunt for the white whale is almost ignored during these apparent asides.

Another factor that must have struck readers as odd is the impersonality of life about ship. As mentioned above, the Ishmael narrator and Queequeg start out as characters but become functions once they board the Pequod. Other than the Ishmael narrator, the only other characters given names are Captain Ahab, the three chief mates, the three harpooners, the mysterious Pharsee who serves as Ahab's harpooner and fortuneteller, and Pip, the young black cabin boy who becomes mad. The other sailors are known only by their professions on board--the steward, the blacksmith, the carpenter--or their place of origin--the old Manxman. Except for Starbuck and Pip, none of the other characters is well developed. Most of them are more types than characters. The nameless sailors, as well as many of the named characters, serve much the same function as the chorus in Greek drama. Ahab takes the stage and delivers a monologue; the other characters comment on it.

But behind this apparent chaos lies some organization. Life aboard ship doesn't allow for much personality or agency beyond that belonging to the captain. He is the only agent on board. The essays on whales and life aboard a whaling ship are frequently cited as analogies for life in a larger, social environment. There is a constant movement in the narrator's comments between life on the Pequod and social life. The Pequod is a United Nations in miniature--it contains all races and types (at least of men; there are no women aboard and few women in the novel). In their marriage, the Ishmael narrator and Queequeg combine the civilised and savage halves of a human being. Melville explicitly foregrounds the larger meaning of his narratives and discussions.

All things mortal in this novel may be metaphor, but not all is understandable. Queequeg's tattooed body was designed by a prophet and a seer of his nation and is said to represent the complete history of the heavens and the earth, but no one can read it. Queequeg carves this history on to the surfaces of his coffin, the same coffin that later serves as a life raft for the Ishmael narrator. Ahab refers to Moby Dick as a mask, behind which lies the meaning he wants to penetrate. It is the quest to possess that meaning that drives Ahab mad. The attempt to capture and dissect Moby Dick for the riches of meaning he holds leads to the death or destruction of everyone who makes the attempt. Even the narrator can't decide what the whale's whiteness represents, All he can do is catalogue the various associations of white with good and evil. That, I think, is the theme that ties everything together. There are knowable things, human things, and there are unknowable things--the sorts of things that religion and philosophy deal with. The search for the unknowable is destructive and drives us mad.

89. Harri Nykannen, Nights of Awe. 9/12. Trans. from Finnish. A police procedural featuring Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crimes Squad. Kafka is Jewish and investigates the deaths of several Arabs with a lot of interference from the local Jewish community, the Israeli embassy, and Mossad. An interesting twist at the end.

90.  Robert Ellis, City of Fire. 9/15. Ellis's debut novel. A police procedural with his female detective, a serial killer, and the unsolved murder of the detective's brother. In the acknowledgements in the front matter, Ellis thanks a friend for providing the twist at the end, which alerted me to the existence of the twist. With that in mind, it was easy to discount the apparent villain and spot the person responsible for the brother's murder--one reason, perhaps, for the practice of putting the acknowledgements at the end of a book.

91. Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Stories. An anthology of seven stories, including 'Billy Budd' and 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'. The other five stories probably would not survive in print or be little more than historical curiosities had Melville not become MELVILLE. Hawthorne and Melville were friends, and Hawthorne's influence is clear, especially in 'The Piazza', 'The Bell-Tower', and the maids part of 'The Paradise of Bachelors, The Tantalus of Maids'. The bachelors part of the last is Dickensian in tone. 'Bartleby' is intriguing because of its passive narrator and his acceptance of his three clerks' indolence and problems. It is tempting to regard it as an allegory of Melville's reaction to the recepti on of his works. 'Billy Budd' poses the eternal conflict between law and justice and guilt and innocence. Oddly, the villain Claggart is the person Melville associates with the  biblical language used for Jesus (a 'man of sorrows'); avant le nom, Melville describes him as a sociopath driven by envy and malice. Melville also took care to lay out the historical background behind Captain Vere's punishment of Billy. Both 'Bartleby' and 'Billy Budd' are open-ended works; there's no clear answer in them or to them. Billy's final utterance, 'God bless Captain Vere,' remains enigmatic.

92.  Paul Cornell, London Falling. 10/3. This starts as an ordinary police procedural with two undercover cops infiltrating an organised crime gang, but it soon lurches leftward into the supernatural. It's not a happy marriage.

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