Wednesday, September 15, 1999

The Laughing Sutra

by Mark Salzman

An orphan, aided by a mysterious, probably supernatural man who may be the Monkey King himself, sneaks out of China to find an ancient text for his ailing teacher.  This is a funny book, a deft blend of history, fable, philosophy and adventure.  Salzman uses his piercing observations on the East-West cultural gap to show the follies and strengths of both countries, creating a highly enjoyable and quite exciting modern folk tale.  There are a few weaknesses, a few hints at later potentialities that are never taken up, but as a whole, great stuff.

four stars

Sunday, August 15, 1999

A Prayer For Owen Meany

by John Irving

What is this 617-page slab o’ popular writing about? A tiny boy who shouts, who is God’s instrument. Faith, doubt, premeditation, the dumbing of America, television, Why Were We In Vietnam, sacrifice, righteousness, search for father, search for self, search for national identity. Owen is that tiny boy, become a tiny man, who sacrifices his life to save children, as he always knew he would. Johnny, the narrator, is his best friend, who learns to have faith in God even as he grows more cynical about America.

Just as everything Owen does is for a purpose, so everything written in the book has a purpose – Irving doesn’t mention a palm tree unless it matters, so it’s fairly easy to guess what will happen to Owen as each new clue is dropped. On the other hand, I never guessed who Johnny’s father was. I was slightly put off by Irving’s rich liberal critique of the less straight-laced left: Abbie Hoffman, rock & roll, even the naive single-mindedness of youth is condescendingly dismissed by Irving. On the whole, I admire the book’s power. The writing may not be so very rich or the symbolism subtle, but Irving fiddles with potent philosophical questions, the characters are powerfully drawn, and yes, it is sad when Owen dies. I fell under the book’s spell.

four stars

Monday, July 19, 1999

The Power And the Glory

by Graham Greene

A nameless priest is on the run in an intolerant Communist Mexican state where religion has been outlawed.  He is a bit of a drinker and has even fathered a child, yet he doesn’t think of renouncing his faith.  He’s not exactly a hero — he is aware the police shoot hostages from the villages where he hid, but doesn’t give himself up — yet he’s not a coward either.  He thinks it’s his duty to try to escape, but he doubts what good he’s doing by not fleeing the state entirely.  The book is written with beautiful style, intense descriptions and excellent pacing, and it presents a number of ethical problems without ever fully resolving them, though it’s obvious where the sympathy lies when the priest meets his obsessed pursuer, the lieutenant.  I must say I found the very end — a village boy gives refuge to another priest — a rather obvious moral: oppression doesn’t make the people embrace your cause.

three stars

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Acts Of Worship: Seven Stories

by Yukio Mishima

1. "Fountains In the Rain."  An arrogant youth dumps his girlfriend; when she won’t stop crying, he takes her to fountains in the rain, hoping her tears will find their match in them.  Instead, he himself becomes fascinated with the sight of the cascading waters.  Good descriptions, and a humorous account of youth coming to terms with its own unimportance.

2. "Raisin Bread."  Jack, an alienated young man, “made of some clear crystalline substance, had as his sole aim to become quite invisible.”  A failed suicide, he remains morbidly detached, even in his social and sexual relations.  Beautiful, powerful with quite subtle prose, but as a whole it lacks the drama that makes a story moving: there is no conflict or change in Jack.  It’s a slice of life scene, but an alien life.

3. "Sword."  53 pages. Jiro, an excessively upright aloof fencing student, the captain of the team, distances himself from what he sees as the shame of the world.  Eventually his disappointment with society, including a young student who hero-worships him, leads him to suicide.  It’s an interesting story as a demonstration of notions of Eastern honor and the pressures of interaction among social unequals, as well as the craft of fencing.  But like the other Mishima stories, there’s something detached about the whole, much as Jiro detaches himself from society.  I never really understood the characters’ actions.  This could also be a cultural or language barrier.

4. "Sea And Sunset."  An old man in Japan, Anri, climbs to the top of a mountain to watch the sunset and tell the story of how he saw a vision as a young boy in France, took part in the children’s crusade, and was sold into slavery.  Now settled in Japan, he has rejected his old Western life, “and never indulged in foolish fantasies of an afterlife or hankered after unseen lands.”  And yet sadness overshadows his view of the sunset and the waves.  It’s a subtle, deep psychological portrait, as well as a nice example of the emphasis on the immediate and acceptance of the East.

5. "Cigarette."  A very delicate tale of a delicate, bookish boy with homoerotic leanings, who shares a cigarette with some boys at school in hopes of being accepted as one of them.  The prose is very poetic, the descriptions of nature clear and elegant, the conflicts raging within the boy subtly understated.  It’s good writing, but I don’t identify with it much.

6. "Martyrdom."  An enigmatic tale of an overdeveloped 14-year-old who develops a homoerotic love-hate thing for another student.  Poetic and strange, ugly and childish, and yet sweet somehow.

7. "Act Of Worship."  60 pages.  A very proper, slightly eccentric bachelor professor of Japanese literature goes on a pilgrimage to the shrines of his birth district.  Unexpectedly, he asks his female living assistant to accompany him, and with an odd ritual, very subtly reveals something to her of himself, as well as what their relationship has become over ten years.  This is a delicate, poetic story, using lyrical descriptions as well as brief lessons in Japanese literature and history to outline the rather sad yet somehow hopeful tale of two alienated people, bound by dictates of society and place.  It’s a beautiful piece, powerful and rich.

three stars

Tuesday, May 25, 1999

The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon

by Colin Fletcher

Fletcher, supposedly the first man to walk the length of the Grand Canyon, below the Rim (seems unlikely), wrote a book about it.  I must say I’m sorely disappointed in the result.  It’s horribly repetitive and boring, to begin with.  But my main objection is that Fletcher was determined before he left to have some sort of “break” with his old self, to become a new man, to have new heights of understanding.  So every time he had some new impression of the Canyon, he would go on and on about how “now I had finally escaped the trivia of everyday life.  Now at last I no longer needed to scrutinize the wildlife; I had become part of it,” and so forth.  And each time he would then begin to scrutinize the Canyon and have another grand Moment, and repeat himself about escaping the trivia again.  All very tiresome; still there are some good scenes here, and his final chapter, consisting of his ruminations on Man, is pretty interesting.  I just wish we had more of a memoir of what it was like to walk and live in the Canyon, not a diary of forced mystical epiphanies. 

two stars

Sunday, May 23, 1999

The Inheritors

by William Golding

The story of the gentle, mostly vegetarian Neanderthal tribe that is all but obliterated in a meeting with wandering Homo sapiens.  Told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Lok, a slightly dim Neanderthal "with many words and no pictures," it’s an interesting story and a sad one.

But the power of the tale is softened considerably by Golding’s laborious, descriptive prose.  At times I found it very hard to understand what was going on, as the Homo sapiens’ activities – drinking wine, portaging boats, arguing – were described in Lok’s terms at length, with little clarity.  Discounting those passages, the novel was a good one, capped off quite amazingly with two more narrative voices.  First we see Lok as a hairy “creature,” an “it,” and then finally we hear the story from the view of one of the humans, who, it turns out, are as scared and confused as the Neanderthals, whom they consider fierce devils.  A skillful comment on how far humans have come from a natural state of innocence, acceptance and wonder.

four stars

Saturday, May 22, 1999

The Return Of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle

1. "The Adventure Of the Empty House."  In which Sherlock Holmes, supposedly having gone over Reichenbach Falls, reveals in melodramatic fashion that he is alive and sets a trap that catches one of Moriarty’s most ruthless henchmen, solving a puzzling recent murder at the same time. A ripping yarn, though the conceit of the noiseless air gun is really a deus ex machina.

2. "The Adventure Of the Norwood Builder." In which Holmes solves an apparent murder, saving an innocent man, who stood to inherit the supposed dead man’s wealth, from the gallows. Well written, with a firm sense of drama, although I have to say I suspected a faked death all along.

3. “The Adventure Of the Dancing Men." In which Holmes solves the mystery of a woman being stalked by a former admirer from America simply by breaking a code composed of stick figures. Of course the instant I saw the figures I supposed they were some sort of representative semaphoric cipher. It seemed fairly obvious, although it occurred to no one else in the story. As always, a fun tale to read, but Holmes needs more challenging mysteries, I feel. Interestingly, the ending is rather tragic.

4. "The Adventure Of the Solitary Cyclist." In which Holmes comes to the aid of a woman being stalked by apparently more than one too-tenacious “admirer.” The least interesting of these stories, this mystery really resolves itself in a bizarre scene of forced marriage, and then Holmes simply fills in the details of why it all happened with some broad (but of course correct) assumptions.

5. “The Adventure Of the Priory School." In which Holmes solves the kidnapping of the Duke of Holdernesse’s son from the Priory School. An excellent detective story, with a few questionable bits here and there (as when Holmes asserts it’s in the "interests" of a murderer to be silent about the Duke’s illegitimate son’s involvement, though the murderer is heading for the gallows) but on the whole highly enjoyable and intelligent.

6. "The Adventure Of Black Peter." In which Holmes solves the murder of a sea captain through reasonable deduction, saving the life of the police’s suspect. Since the captain was pinned to the wall with a harpoon, his murderer must be an old harpooner. Etc. It’s not a bad tale at all; there’s nothing outstanding about it, but it’s well done and enjoyable.

7. “The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton." A rather different Holmes story, in which he is hired by a woman to prevent her from being blackmailed. At the first meeting, Holmes acts like rather a fool, assuming that the blackmailer (the Milverton of the title) would have the papers on his person, and so forth. Then Holmes decides to burgle Milverton’s house. Then Milverton is killed by another woman while the dynamic duo are present. The detectives flee the scene, and the next day Holmes flat out refuses to investigate the murder. Juicy, entertaining stuff, and an excellent departure from the typical solving of cases.

8. "The Adventure Of the Six Napoleons." In which Holmes solves the case of a “madman” who is smashing busts of Napoleon. A bit of a bust, this story — heh heh — as the police would have to be colossal morons not to guess that the man was not a madman at all, but obviously looking for something buried in one of the identical busts. Nice try, Doyle, but we must do better than this.

9. "The Adventure Of the Three Students." An excellent, old fashioned detective story, in which Holmes solves the problem of Who Took An Advance Look At the Test Answers. The only flaw here is in the premise, which seems forced (why can’t the professor just issue a new test, claiming he lost the old one?). The rest is pure logical deduction, and it’s well done. Holmes gets in a good snide line here, when the professor is slow to grasp his reasoning: "Watson, I have always done you an injustice. There are others."

10. "The Adventure Of the Golden Pince-Nez." In which Holmes solves the murder of an invalid professor’s research assistant. The motives behind the actual crime are a little too contrived, impossible to guess at, but the reasoning leading to the culprit is good, as is Doyle’s usual, well-paced prose.

11. "The Adventure Of the Missing Three-Quarter." In which Holmes solves the mystery of where the star football player has gone to under suspicious circumstances just before the big match. Not that Holmes’ powers of deduction get all that much of an exercise in this tale; his intellectual opponent, Dr. Armstrong, merely eludes Holmes in a coach until Homes gets a bloodhound and tracks the coach to the player. Wow!

12. “The Adventure Of the Abbey Grange." In which Holmes discovers that the murder of a drunken wife-beater was not done by a gang of robbers, but by the lover of the wife. I suspected her from the start; the story is disappointing in that Inspector Hopkins is rendered a total buffoon for not suspecting it, despite all the clues that the burglary was faked. Not the best Holmes tale.

13. "The Adventure Of the Second Stain." In which Holmes recovers a lost letter between heads of state, so sensitive it could bring war if made public. A fun, well thought out story. I enjoyed the pace of the detection, as well as how the events of the story showed Holmes’ almost maniacal desire to know the details of every case.

four stars

Thursday, May 20, 1999

The Ginger Man

by J.P. Donleavy

A great big stream of consciousness slice of life book about the boozing, lazy, nasty, cruel, selfish Sebastian Dangerfield, an American in Dublin who is supposed to be studying law at Trinity but instead drinks all day, chases women and exchanges abuse with his wife.

To be sure, Sebastian is an unpleasant character, but that doesn’t bother me.  I was simply bored by the events of the novel.  I didn’t find it, as all the blurbs promised, an exuberant, witty, wildly comic escapade.  Donleavy’s writing style is good and his language is rich (and the book contains amazingly graphic sex scenes for its time), but I wasn’t interested in what he was writing about.  And, as with The Horse's Mouth, the same nothings seemed to happen again and again: Sebastian avoids creditors.  Sebastian beds women.  Sebastian gets drunk and waxes outrageous and lyrical.  Okay, but must there be so much of it?

two stars

Monday, May 10, 1999

The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.

by George Steiner

Adolf Hitler is found, very old but alive, by an Israeli search party in the hellish swamps of Brazil.  As various world governments plot and agents and mercenaries speed to the site, the five Israelis hold a crude trial for their prisoner.

A startlingly original novel, written in a confidently worldly style.  As a story, it’s compelling enough, but the message behind the story is unexpectedly powerful.  There are some fantastic passages, such as the Israeli mastermind’s litany of dead Jews to keep his party from humanizing Hitler; or the ruminations of the sous-secrétaire d’état on why the French really fought the war; even the cogent descriptions of the deadly swamp.  But the crowning passage of the novel is the end, Hitler’s impassioned, anti-Semitic, but perversely logical, defense speech.  He was no satanic mastermind, he claims, but an average man of his time who dared express what millions have before, notably the Jews: national supremacy, and destruction of those that oppose his people.  He even claims that he might be the Messiah that gave the Jews a national homeland and a sense of righteous militarism.  Disturbing, powerful, astonishing stuff.

four stars

Wednesday, May 5, 1999

The God Of Small Things

by Arundhati Roy

Winner of the Booker prize, this novel tells the story of a family torn apart by cruelty, divorce, class and caste difference, time, family jealousies and rivalries, and everything else that helps a dysfunctional family break apart.  At the center of the tragic tale are Estha and Rahel, twins, and their mother who dared divorce, and then dared love an Untouchable.  It’s told in a compelling fashion, with foreshadowing hints here and there, flashbacks and remembrances and the present melding together, with doom looming over the whole and never going away.

This novel really is an impressive debut.  However, I was hugely put off by the horrible cutesy writing: the strung together words that fail to add meaning to anything (“steelshrill police whistles,” “skyblue”), inane, useless capitalizations (“the Air was Alert and Bright and Hot,” “Hotweather”) that supposedly represent Important Concepts to the children of the story but really just evoke A.A. Milne, and worst of all the totally absurd invented use of adverbs (“her eyes were redly dead,” “it waved a cemently paw”) that serves no purpose except to disgust me.  Without this irritating cutesy prose, the novel’s dramatic web would truly be mesmerizing.

three stars

Tuesday, April 27, 1999

From Heaven Lake

by Vikram Seth

As a graduate student in Nanjing University, Seth used his vacation to hitchhike home to Delhi via Tibet.  The result is a wonderful book, full of witty observations, good, clear prose and profound meditations on India and China.  It’s a fresh and interesting perspective to this American reader: there is very little comment on the lack of cleanliness or crowded conditions, as travelers in the West often harp about.  Also, Seth is happy to give the Chinese political system the benefit of the doubt: where an American traveler assumes the flaws and reports the good, Seth assumes that China works and treats the flaws as unavoidable as with any system.  He is as angered by the bureaucracy as Western travelers are, but at least he made it to Tibet.  His descriptions of that region are revealing and hopeful: the people seem happy when he talk to them, but great evils are in the very recent past, and they have not forgotten.  A rich, fascinating book.

four stars

Sunday, April 25, 1999

Unreliable Memoirs

by Clive James

A fictionalized autobiography of a writer’s school days in Australia, or an autobiographical novel, according to him.  Anyway, the book is both appallingly funny — although the writing is staccato and not very ornate, he times a punchline with impeccable skill — and genuinely interesting as an account of 1940s and '50s Sydney from the eyes of a child and then an adolescent.  It also contains a few quite perspicacious insights into human, or at least a cynical human’s, nature, such as: "I rather liked the idea of being a shit — a common conceit among those who don’t realize just how shitty they really are."  Great stuff, exact and clever.

four stars

Friday, April 23, 1999

In the Skin Of a Lion

by Michael Ondaatje

A novel like a painting, not without plot but not exactly systematic either.  Nicholas, a daredevil immigrant bridge worker, saves a nun from falling off.  One Patrick Lewis, sometime explosive engineer, falls in love with the lover of a missing millionaire.  Then he falls in love with her friend, Alice, who might be the ex-nun.  Alice dies an unnatural death.  Caravaggio, the thief, befriends Patrick.  As the narrator says, “Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.”  It’s a beguiling, well thought out story of how various people become connected, and of a strong, righteous love.  The prose is masterful, poetic, dreamy and dark, the descriptions rich and the dialogue sparse, as befits the manly, tough characters.

four stars

Sunday, April 11, 1999

Still Life In Harlem

by Eddy L. Harris

Harris goes to Harlem to live for a year to write about the experience, and stays for at least two.  This memoir is unlike his others.  His other books concerned the reactions of others to him in odd surroundings (Blackamerican in Africa, black man in the South, black man paddling a canoe down the mighty Mississip’) as much as his reactions to their reactions and his own development.   This book, however, finds Harris in what could or should be his own "place," surrounded by people who on the surface are like him.  Thus, this book is mostly his meditations on the self: why does he or doesn’t he fit in Harlem?  Why did he come here?  What does it mean to fit in Harlem?

When he’s addressing these difficult questions, he is profound; when he describes other Harlemites’ takes on the problems, he is revealing.  But I have a big problem with this book’s writing style.  Harris repeats himself.  He repeats the story of the creation of Harlem as mecca several times.  He repeats minor observations (he didn't work while in Harlem; Harlemites can’t easily move away).  He repeats the metaphor of Harlem as weedy garden.  He repeats what others told him.  Etc.  In sum this is a fairly good book but could use some better organization and paring down.  And then too I would have liked a bit more description of the people and places.  Maybe Harris didn’t want to report Harlem like some exotic oddity, but I would have liked to hear more from the Harlemites. 

three stars

Sunday, April 4, 1999

Master And Commander

by Patrick O'Brian

A ripping yarn, this long book introduces the unlikely pair Stephen Maturin, learned ship’s surgeon and Captain Aubrey, bluff Epicurean fellow.  There’s a series of naval engagements, not much of a plot aside from some business with some Irish rebels which causes dismay with the Irish lieutenant.  Anyway, though there’s far too much naval jargon — lengthy paragraphs describing the ship’s movements which may as well be in Greek — the epic creates magic.  With its meticulously researched descriptions of all aspects of 19th century life and witty dialogue, the book makes fascinating, vivid reading.  I tore through it.

four stars

Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Gravity's Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon

I started this last year, got to page 400 or so, and quit.  Then started it again.  Slogged through to the end.  Dammit, if I was going to spend that much time on this 760-page, quarter-million word monster, I would see it through.  My best friend's favorite book, for what that’s worth.  Hmmm.  Let’s see.  It concerns one Tyrone Slothrop, an American stationed in London during WWII, who gets erections where German rockets fall.  His friend is killed, and he deserts to search for... something.  And one Tchitcherine, a Russian, searching for his Herero half-brother, Enzian.  And some other people.

It contains multitudes.  Poems and songs from witty to doggerel; foul descriptions of pornographic acts; some truly low scatological humor; extensive tinkering with language, German and English; puns; arcane references to physics, chemistry, the Tarot, Dillinger, Them, Masons; lost loves and refugees; several long, truly hilarious scenes (Slothrop eating some foul candy; Roger Mexico meeting Pointsman with his foot in a toilet); and clever, seemingly unrelated vignettes (Byron the immortal lightbulb).  This book cries out for an index.  There exists an Annotated Guide, which I may investigate one day.  But simply because the book is abstruse does not mean Pynchon’s a genius.  No more than it means he’s pulling our collective leg with complex nonsense.  My initial reaction is: like a mountain filled with veins of rich ore; mostly useless rock, but hiding some real gems of brilliance.

three stars

Thursday, March 18, 1999

E Is for Evidence

by Sue Grafton

The private detective, Kinsey Millhone, is framed for corruption while investigating a potential arson case.  But as she meets the family that owns the company, Wood/Warren, she finds that the crime goes deeper than that: a personal vendetta is being aimed at Lance Wood, and the bodies start to pile up.  It’s a brisk-paced thriller, and Millhone’s wry commentary from the cynical loner’s point of view propels it along.  Fun to read, taut, full of twists and turns, fleshed-out characters, a twist ending, and some good action sequences. 

three stars

Monday, March 15, 1999

Uncle Tom's Cabin

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

With an Afterword by John William Ward.  A once wealthy man is forced to sell his beloved slave, Uncle Tom, to get out of debt.  And a female slave escapes with her small child, joining her impetuous, proud husband George in flight.  And from there the two plot points continue and diverge in an episodic fashion, and we meet a whole host of characters, including the benevolent, effeminate St. Clare and the brutish Simon Legree.

There are some very stunning passages in the book, some powerful, impassioned arguments.  The characters are varied and interesting (cruel whites, cruel blacks, noble whites, noble blacks, capable women, cruel women, incapable women), except perhaps the appallingly mawkish little Eva, a Christ figure (Tom is also a Christ figure, but his behavior seems more likely).  But there is also a lot of tiresome preaching, which I suppose is to be expected, as is the dated race theories and chuckleheaded antics of some of the black characters.  I also think the story probably got a bit out of Stowe’s hands at 465 pages (!).  All in all, though the story is more often than not compelling, it’s a bit too preachy and awkward.  One detail --- odd that “Uncle Tom” should have come to mean a servile black man, when Tom is a strong-willed, noble man who simply refuses to do evil, even if it means he’s to be tortured to death.  He’s servile because he accepts his lot, but he certainly makes his own decisions in life.  The Afterword argues that the book should be read nowadays because its central argument is that people cannot be moral in an immoral world; all societies corrupt, and the only noble souls are those removed from society, like Quakers, Christian slaves, and children.

three stars

Tuesday, March 9, 1999

White People

by Allan Gurganus

Some top-notch, moving, finely introspective American fiction in this collection:

“Minor Heroism: Something About My Father."  Told from the point of view of the son as a child discussing his father the war hero; then the father as he looks with disgust and incomprehension on his grown son, a gay writer; then the child again, drawing a picture of his abusive father.  Moving and funny and sad, crafted thoughtfully with a fine attention to detail and the human touch.  Excellent.

"Condolences To Every One Of Us."  An elderly woman writes to the daughter of a couple killed during an African tour which stumbles into a riot, explaining what happened.  A brilliant story, more light-hearted than it sounds, rife with black humor and digs at the callousness of the human spirit.  What is the world coming to?  Ruin, probably.  Excellent stuff.

"Art History."  An art history teacher is dismissed for “misconduct” with his pupils, and later is arrested.  The point of view shuttles from the teacher, his daughter, and the arresting officer.  Another wonderful story by Gurganus.  It makes the reader feel sympathy for this pederast by presenting him as an affable man, somewhat confused by events that seem to have swept him up through no fault of his own.  He has been taught to see beauty in everything (his own teacher gave a final exam in which the class had to describe part of a toilet), and unfortunately for him the world isn’t as beautiful as he’d like.

"Nativity, Caucasian." The narrator describes his unexpected birth at a ladies’ bridge game, and how the women reacted: some sturdy and proper, some fainting with horror.  A testament to the strength of the Southern woman, stepped in gentility; but more importantly a truly funny scene.

"Breathing Room: Something About My Brother." The characters from “Minor Heroism” return.  Bryan recollects his childhood with his brother Bradley, watching in puzzlement as his younger brother turns from a sickly baby, capable of being killed by a single bee sting, whom he must protect and care for, into a rough, callous, athletic boy, while he remains bookish and sensitive.  In retaliation for being shown up by an ungrateful Bradley one day, Bryan burns the models Bradley works so painstakingly on.  A painfully real story, with human characters and voices, masterfully done. 

"America Competes."  A series of letters in a national competitions for ideas to decorate a mural in Washington; the letters are from the contestants and from the increasingly beleaguered, mild-mannered judge to the contest organizers.  A very cynical story, implying that the masses are on the whole talentless, rude, illiterate, and/or as crazy as nutcakes.  The judge breaks down under the combined weight of anti-government atheist militiamen, hillbillies who want their dead pappy’s sketches back, and a loony old lady who writes bad children’s stories.  Fun to read, but rather grim.

“Adult Art." A married father and Superintendent of Schools has a homosexual encounter with a young man he picks up in his office building.  The young man tells him a rather ugly story of a voyeuristic sexual awakening, and the older man fantasizes about what it might be like to learn to know, to care long term for this stranger, rather than having to fear “being really belted, blackmailed, worse” each time he craves his kind of intimacy.  “They could arrest me for everything I like about myself,” he says; but the urge to connect remains stronger than his fear.  It’s a beautiful, intelligent story.

"It Had Wings." An old woman who lives alone helps an angel who crashes in her yard, and her faith in herself is renewed.  “I’m right here, ready.  Ready for more,” she says defiantly, standing by herself in the kitchen.  Great descriptions, the woman’s life brilliantly sketched in a few knowing lines.  Then just enough to show the majesty and mystery of the angel, but not enough to make it a Hollywood computer-generated superhero.  “Silvery.  Raw.  Gleaming like a sunny monument, a clock.”  The angel tells her to notice things in this life, because in the next they all look alike, “just another army.”  An inventive, inspired vignette.

"A Hog Loves Its Life: Something About My Grandfather," fifty "pages.  Bryan, now a man of thirty-nine, reminisces about the tales his grandfather told him when he was young (the hilarious story of Lancaster’s mule, makes up the first part of the whole), the spectacle of his grandmother’s death and the slow sad decay of his grandfather into senility.  This is a wholly accurate description of a tight family: all the guilt and shame and love and regret are there, expressed as well as they can be. 

"Reassurance." A story composed of two letters – one genuine letter from Walt Whitman to the mother of a soldier who died of his wounds; and another imagined letter from the dead soldier to his mother, exhorting her to “forget me by remembering me” and get on with her life.  He tells her that something very holy stands before her: a brand new day.  It’s a moving story, and succeeds as drama, but it lacks that immediate power of Gurganus’ stories about modern Southern manners.

"Blessed Assurance," a novella.  An elderly man narrates how, as a teenager in the ‘forties, he sold funeral insurance to the poor blacks in “Baby Africa.”  Very poor himself, he works three jobs, takes care of his sick parents and goes to night school.  So when, out of sympathy, he begins carrying some of his clients in arrears, he finds himself in a bind.  One noble old lady in particular touches him, and he realizes that sooner or later despite himself he must cut her off.  The language is perfect; Gurganus switches from the young man’s abashed inner turmoil to the darkly cynical boss to the elderly black women’s patois seamlessly.  It’s a confessional tale: the now successful narrator weighed down with an atheist’s uncertain guilt and wonder over how small sums and minor events can change our world, or maybe even our fate in the next life?  But Gurganus also manages to be whip-smart funny as well.  A brilliant novella.

four stars

Monday, March 8, 1999

Decline And Fall

by Evelyn Waugh

The hapless Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford through no fault of his own, loses his fortune, becomes a school teacher, falls in love with a wealthy widow, is framed for heading a prostitution ring, and so forth.  A wildly funny rollercoaster ride of a story; its satire of English manners both upper and lower class is deadly.  It’s compulsively readable and laugh-out-loud funny on just about every page.  Pennyfeather is a ninny, but he’s wholly sympathetic, as are all the other characters, blackguards or fools though they may be.  A highly enjoyable novel.

four stars

Friday, March 5, 1999

Ending Up

by Kingsley Amis

Five elderly people – a brigadier sent down for homosexuality; his one-time lover and now drunken quasi-servant; his ugly sister who has never been loved; her insincere friend who is approaching senility; and a paralyzed professor emeritus, once the brigadier’s brother-in-law – live in boredom and decrepitude, detesting one another, in a crumbling cottage. Humor doesn’t come any darker than this slim volume that drips with venom. Bernard, the brigadier, told he is dying, decides to liven up his last months with petty acts of disruption, but his efforts are largely ineffectual. Marigold, afraid of her oncoming senility, stays in the cottage taking his abuse because only these four people can remember her husband for her.  The book drew me in effortlessly; it’s readable and meticulously constructed.  I remain disturbed by the simply harrowing ending. Especially for George, the long-suffering, patient, jolly professor who keeps writing even though no one is interested.  A dreadful end for him.

three stars

Thursday, March 4, 1999

The Horse's Mouth

by Joyce Cary

The third part of a trilogy I remain ignorant of.  It’s the story of Gulley Jimson, an artist whose first drawings – of his wife at her bath – are valuable masterworks, but who now at sixty-seven lives in poverty creating vast, fantastic Biblical visions on walls.  He narrates the story, and his prose is steeped in realistically evoked artistic vision as he catches sight of ideas in nature and throws himself almost involuntarily into his work.  The conversation is realistic: staccato and slang-packed.  There are some rich moments of dark comedy here, but on the whole, as a slice of life novel it grows rather boring over 370 pages: Jimson paints with an obsessive vigor.  Jimson avoids creditors.  Jimson steals money.  Jimson interacts with and ruminates endlessly about the women in his life.  Although skillfully written, this would have made a much better, slicker short novel.

three stars

Friday, February 26, 1999

Yvette And Ten Other Stories

by Guy de Maupassant
translated by Majorie Laurie

"Yvette," a novella.  A courtesan’s daughter, Yvette enraptures a handful of suitors, in particular Servigny; her flippancy masks true innocence, however, and she becomes horrified by the life her mother lives.  An engrossing psychological portrait; the gaps between classes, between generations, between the sexes are made all too clear, helped along by the characters’ unwillingness to acknowledge them overtly.  Even at the end when Servigny seems to have won Yvette’s love, he tells himself no woman is to be trusted; the reader knows it will end with someone hurt.

"Lost At Sea."  A woman’s horribly abusive husband is eventually lost at sea.  Then she buys a parrot that imitates his swearing and abuse.  She beats it to a pulp.  Uh, okay.

"The Olive Grove."  An old Abbé, living as a respected, vigorous man in a small village, is surprised by his lost, illegitimate son.  The gap between their worlds is made explicit: “Between him and this creature, who was his son, he began to realize there lay a trench brimming with moral filth, with a foulness, that is mortal poison to a healthy mind.”  It ends violently.  A stark tale of immorality and moral repercussions.

"The Hostelry."  Two men keep an inn going for the winter, alone with a dog; then one goes out hunting and never returns.  The remaining caretaker, whom the owner’s daughter loves, develops a severe case of cabin fever and goes mad.  A compelling story, though overly depressing.

"A Portrait," a very short story.  A man wonders what his friend’s attraction is to women, until he sees a portrait of his friend’s mother, who appears artless and aloof and beguiling.  Hmmm.

"The Apple Dumplings."  A farmer couple waits as her father wastes away on his deathbed.  They show callousness and selfishness, resenting his extended survival, hoping he’ll die so they can get on with their busy, scant lives.  A very good demonstration of the human tendency to be insensitive and to live for the moment.  “Every man has his turn," it is noted.  “It was their turn, they reflected, to be eating dumplings."

"Shali." A French Navy man goes to India, where he is given, among other gifts, an eight year old girl as a slave.  Disgusted by most of the Raja’s other entertainments, he grows overly fond of her; but she meets a bad end.  A rather horrifying and morbid story which suggests that there are just too many chasms of misunderstanding for people to find love.  If indeed love is the right word for a relation that smacks of pederasty.

"Idle Beauty." A Countess is made pregnant by her husband seven times in eleven years, because, she says, he wants to ruin her looks out of jealousy.  So she tells him one of the children is not his, subjecting him to tortures of worry and resentment.  A tale steeped in anti-Romanticism, claiming (with extended commentary by two observers) that humans deserve more refined aims than the base and natural urge to procreate.  But at the end, when the Count has come round to this view as well, he is gripped by a new “strange emotion” (understanding that his wife has her own dreams and desires independent of his own?) which riles him as much as his “primitive passion of earlier days."  One just can’t win, can one?

"The Murderer,” a five-page story.  It consists of a lawyer’s defense speech for his client, an upstanding man whose murder of his second, perfidious, wife is excused on grounds of righteous passion.  Like a lot of Maupassant’s stories, the putative jolt lies entirely in the event rather than the telling.

"An Encounter,” a brief story.  A Baron separates from his wife because of her treachery; he encounters her years later on a train, seemingly by chance.  Actually, she has planned it, but not to effect a reconciliation: she is having a baby and wishes to avoid scandal.  This is one of Maupassant’s more gratifying stories, although the last lines – "He never saw her again.  Was she lying?  Was she speaking the truth?  He never knew" – seem unlikely given the established fact that they live in a hotbed of Parisian gossip.  Would he really never hear word that his estranged wife, separated or not, had a child?

"The Horla."  A man finds himself under the influence of some supernatural, invisible, and malevolent force, which he calls the Horla.  Its presence is so disturbing that he resolves to kill it.  An early example of the horror genre; Maupassant felt the need to explain the flight of fantasy by pointing out how much of the natural world is invisible to the naked eye.  Quite chilling, especially at the beginning; a good idea well told in diary form.

three stars

Thursday, February 25, 1999

The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

by Hunter S. Thompson

The Gonzo Papers, Volume One, apparently.  Cazart!  Six hundred and eighty pages of articles by the man himself on a variety of subjects is enough to make anyone believe that bad craziness is our only inheritance.  A lot about Nixon.  Some sports writing: hilarious observations on the Super Bowl, practically reverent analysis of Ali.  A defense of Carter.  The hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury at its inception.  The McGovern "juggernaut."  The horror that was Hubert Humphrey.  Rough stuff in South America, and rougher stuff with the Hell’s Angels.  The sheer bulk of the weirdness attests to Thompson’s skill as a writer: of course he’s hilarious, painting a surreal picture of Vegas or the inanity of a fishing competition in Mexico, but he is also a consummate reporter who goes for truth, the story, the facts, and does whatever he can to get a feel for the thing.  He only makes it look easy. 

four stars

Monday, February 22, 1999

Dictionary Of the Khazars

by Milorad Pavić
translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric

I read the female version - though this differs from the male version in only one paragraph.  Anyway, an original "novel," told as three different dictionaries: the Christian, the Muslim, and the Jewish versions of entries roughly concerned with the Khazars.  Some entries are in all three versions, such as the Khazar polemic, in which representatives from the three religions visited the Khazar kaghan to convince him, by clever repartee and dream interpretation, to convert to that faith.  But there are independent stories as well: the egg that contained days, the Khazar jar without a bottom...

The book’s language is compelling and poetic, a otherworldly text-scape in which days are physical things and everything is a language and languages are alive and time goes backwards and forwards.  At times this drifts into tiring quasi-poetic babble, but for the most part it’s a fascinating construction, as the lives of the key players (the Khazar princess, the three polemic representative, the three chroniclers, the three 10th-century scholars studying the polemic) converge in reincarnations over space and time and especially dreams.  Probably bears another reading.

four stars

Friday, February 19, 1999

South Of Heaven

by Jim Thompson

In 1920s Texas, a smart kid named Tommy Burwell is living the hobo life, looking for work.  He gets a job laying a gas pipeline with his friend Four Trey and hundreds of other rough characters, when he falls for Carol, a girl who hangs around the camp.  When suspicious things happen, Tommy begins to realize a crime is about to go down and tries to get Carol out of it.

The novel sets up a gritty, suspenseful atmosphere; the reader never knows who to trust.  Thompson’s language is great, mixing slangy dialogue and descriptions of rough men and boozy fights with commentary on how the hoboes get exploited and mistreated by the company to save a few dollars.  He paints a lucid picture of the work, back-breaking and dangerous, as well as the fights and drinking and the chow.  His characters are so sympathetic and real that the Hollywood-style happy ending is easily forgiven.

four stars

Tuesday, February 16, 1999


by Paul Johnson

The purpose of this book is to question the moral right of intellectuals over the ages to counsel people on how to behave; to this end Johnson examines several so-called “intellectuals” from Rousseau to Normal Mailer: their private lives, their regard for truth, and their skill in public affairs.  It is a fascinating and at times irritating book, made all the more amazing by the fact (never mentioned here) that Johnson, although a profoundly conservative thinker, was a socialist for a part of his life.  Thus his attacks on intellectuals’ credulity in dealing with the Communist Party is somewhat ironic.  Leaving that aside, when he exposes the blatant hypocrisy and even cruelty of some supposed champions of the people and self-proclaimed moral paragons (Marx and Rousseau, especially), he is admirable.  It is also perfectly legitimate to expose the lying of a Hemingway or a Lillian Hellman.

But I have several objections to the book as well.  First, there is no separate intro or conclusion, no preparatory definition-setting.  So what is an intellectual, exactly?  It seems to be a thinker who believes that intellect alone can change the world, rather than time-honored traditions.  Well, maybe, but then it seems Edmund Wilson is a “man of letters,” then an intellectual, then a man of letters again.  An intellectual actually seems to be a bright left-winger.  Second, who ever said Hemingway or Shelley or Sartre, for example, were paragons of virtue?  They might well be exposed as awful people, but their excoriation does not make as much sense as Marx’s.  Johnson seems to simply hate creativity, bitterly resenting the fact that 50,000 mostly young people attended Sartre’s funeral (and dwelling rather unnecessarily on his ugliness).  Third, his attacks are inconsistent: he berates most of his victims for their adulterous affairs, but also attacks Ibsen for his platonic relations with girls, accusing him of using people as archetypes rather than individuals.  Would he rather Ibsen slept with them?  Or he will imply that an intellectual’s change of allegiance is a flaw, but also deplores Brecht for remaining loyal to the CP.  In any case, this is obviously an utterly absorbing series of essays, thought-provoking and lucid. 

three stars

Thursday, February 11, 1999

The Epic Of Gilgamesh

by anonymous
translated and edited by N.K. Sandars

The hero, Gilgamesh, befriends Enkidu, a man brought up by animals, and they seek immortality through great deeds.  After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh tries to acquire true immortality, but realizes the quest is futile.  It’s a rather pessimistic tale, emphasizing the inevitability of death and the unpredictability of this world.  The edition I read is not a translation, apparently, but a rendering from other translations.  The intro, giving the literary and historical background, is longer than the epic itself, which is a mere 60 well-spaced pages.  Since the intro was written in 1960, it may be out of date by now, and mentions some literary discoveries which were even then under way.  In any case, I found the epic less than thrilling, more interesting as historical document than literary work.  This is due to the fact that we don’t understand some of the symbolism the Mesopotamians used, and to the fragmentary or contradictory aspects of the epic, though Sandars does her best to present it as an unbroken narrative.

three stars

Tuesday, February 9, 1999

King Harald's Saga

by Snorri Sturluson

translated and annotated, with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson

This book is comprised of a brief excerpt from Snorri’s Heimskringla, his complete history of Norway.  It tells the story of Harald Sigurdsson, half-brother of St. Olaf, who through cunning and treachery became king of Norway, then in 1066 vied for the English throne with Harold of England, just before the latter was defeated by William the Bastard.  Although Snorri doesn’t preach the moral of the story, it becomes clear that Harald is not a noble man.  He breaks his word several times: for example he promises his enemies safe passage and then murders them; and he tests his co-king and nephew Magnus by insisting (unjustly) on his right to use the royal jetty.

It is a quite vivid picture of what men had to do in those conditions to gain and keep power, although other personages in the saga can be chivalrous, and are evidently disgusted with Harald’s duplicity.  My sympathies never lay with Harald, even given his context.  The editors note, interestingly, that Harold might have defeated William if he hadn’t been drawn into the mass slaughter with Harald at Stamford Bridge.

four stars

Saturday, February 6, 1999

Brighton Rock

by Graham Greene

A small time Brighton gang, led by Pinkie, a nasty youth with ageless eyes, kills a man.  But this man just befriended Ida, a breezy, confident woman, who determines to set things Right.  Pinkie must kill again, and marries a very young girl to prevent her being a witness.

The “detective” story gives way to an eerie condemnation of the modern world, with its automated machines and various perversions.  There’s an (unfought) battle for moral superiority between Pinkie’s twisted Catholic urge for damnation and Ida’s righteous, amoral sense of justice, living life for fun without hurting innocent people.  I liked the bleak tone of the book, but the pacing is plodding.  There are bits of dark genius, but I found the whole overlong and far from engrossing.

two stars

Monday, February 1, 1999

Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

by William Least Heat-Moon

The author, an English teacher of Sioux descent, loses his job and his wife, and decides to tour the small towns of America.  The blue highways, as he calls them, are the back roads, compared to the red highways on maps (that’s changed now, of course).  Taking along nothing much, he sleeps in his truck, talking with the people about their lives, the past, their local history, their philosophies, etc.

Quoting Whitman and American Indian creeds every few pages, he makes his own views pretty clear: progress brings loss as well, military buildup is tragic, burger chains are boring as well as bad, etc.  He reports at great length the conservationist tirades of old folks and local lore experts, but doesn’t stop to talk with people with whom he disagrees, letting their brief unbidden comments about those maniacs in Moscow represent their thoughts.  All of which would be off-putting enough, but the book is way overlong at 420 pages. I realize it was a long journey (the circumference of the continental USA), but about three quarters of the way through I’d quite gotten his point about treasuring the past and traveling in order to find oneself.

two stars

Friday, January 29, 1999

Iron And Silk

by Mark Salzman

The author, a graduate of Yale in Chinese language and literature, went to China for two years to teach English and study martial arts.  This account is presented as a series of episodes, each with its own life lesson.  The book gives a clear picture of the variety of experiences he had, from the unsympathetic, even vicious, foreign-hating bureaucracy, to the incredibly open hospitality of those who had the least time to give.

The culture gap (and gape) is made readily apparent, in the student who thinks Americans must be cruel just to think up something like the Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery;” in the family of fishermen who wash and brush their teeth in the same river they use as a toilet; in the intellectual who calls The World According To Garp the most “unsuitable” book he’d ever imagined, then asks to keep it; in the man whose greatest wish is to eat and sleep well, saying Salzman’s dreams, to be liked and to excel, are easily attainable, but to eat and sleep well are beyond one’s control...  A beautiful, clever, unassuming book. 

five stars

Monday, January 25, 1999

An Indian Summer

by James Cameron

Cameron, a journalist, returns to India after a lifetime as a foreign correspondent, now married to an Indian.  He recalls his past there as well as India’s past and present, and along the way muses about life and death and everything else.  Then he gets into a serious car collision and finds that he needs an artificial heart.

A rich book, filled with truly deep thoughts and stunningly honest self-assessments about fear and dying as well as the human condition: “I am not afraid of the dark, I am afraid of the night, and I am afraid of the night only because it does not complete the finished day but announces the new one, which would almost certainly be as inadequate as the one before.”  He has some very perspicacious remarks about Indian politics and culture, and offers some reasonable explanations of why India works the way it does.  As insightful as these comments are, they’re not the main point.  It’s not so much a book about coming to an understanding of India but how it is possible to both love and hate that maddening country without fully understanding. 

four stars

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

Not his full life, but an unfinished work, beginning with his decision to leave New York, and his father’s rather forced guidance to become a printer in Philadelphia, to his rise to fame as a statesman, inventor, and mediator, and ending abruptly as he settles a dispute between the people and wealthy estate owners over contributing to the King’s war fund.  It’s written in a plain, unadorned style, in rough chronological order but resembling a series of anecdotes, a bit like a personal remembrance.

Though Franklin’s pride in his intelligence and industry comes through in his writing, he passes over some of his accomplishments rather than building them up to the reader, which can be a bit disorienting, and doesn’t help give a sense of what kind of man he was thought of as in the community.  But Franklin’s personality does shine through: a cunning, brainy fellow, puritanically honorable, proud and steadfastly methodical.  I enjoyed reading it for that, and because it conveys how much the people of the 18th century were like that of the 20th: not particularly bound by personal morality, but also fussy and righteous.  I dislike the editorial practice of leaving all nouns capitalized, it being somewhat distracting.

four stars

Sunday, January 17, 1999

The Cement Garden

by Ian McEwan

When the parents of four children die, they bury their mother in cement in the cellar and fend for themselves, drifting apart yet having only each other.  McEwan’s first book is not as grand in scope, nor is it as finely realized in its characters as Black Dogs.  Still, it’s quite disturbing, a suburban Lord Of the Flies.  With its bland incest and its unfeeling, unwashed narrator, I suspect that McEwan intended this book more to shock than to analyze truly the problem of how easily amorality can set in with only a little prompting. 

three stars

Saturday, January 16, 1999

A Good Man In Africa

by William Boyd

Overweight, beleaguered Morgan Leafy, a minor official in the fictional African country of Kinjaja, muddles his way through a series of misadventures.  He faces scandal, blackmail, and venereal disease, as well as a righteous Scottish doctor, whom he must attempt to bribe.  A very funny novel, with solid, human characters and wonderfully bizarre situations that are nevertheless more believable than, say, Tom Sharpe’s.  The plot unfolds compellingly, in three parts, with the middle part a flashback, and the third a continuation of the first.  This is more than just a comic novel, it’s an almost poignant commentary on what it means to be human.  Leafy is an ass, and he brings most (but not all) of his troubles on himself, yet he has the reader’s sympathy throughout.  An extremely enjoyable book.

four stars

Wednesday, January 13, 1999

Black Dogs

by Ian McEwan

The story of a young couple whose estrangement begins almost the day they’re married, as told by the fascinated son-in-law, an orphan himself.  An amazing novel, as universal as the fall of Communism and the memory of genocide and as introspective as one young woman’s discovery of the mystical, of God, inside herself when she encounters some vicious dogs.  As cosmic as the problem of pure evil and as ordinary as a bickering couple.  Beautifully written, masterfully paced, and told with just the right amount of tension mixed with a soothing degree of acceptance.  Each character is fully realized, and the dialogue perfect in its realism as well as its restraint.  McEwan lets the characters reveal themselves, though their actions as well as actual descriptions of each other, and the subtleties, and potential misunderstandings, are complex and brilliant.

five stars

Tuesday, January 12, 1999

A Zoo In My Luggage

by Gerald Durrell

The true and amusing tale of how Durrell went to the Cameroons to acquire animals for his own zoo, which was then set up on Jersey in the Channel Islands.  It’s apparent how much Durrell loves wildlife, or at least collecting it; and he knows how to write with fluidity and humor.  I think the story was marred by Durrell’s authorial ego (he criticizes his wife for clucking over and anthropomorphizing the cute animals, but he does it all the time himself; he assumes that collecting animals from their native habitat is a worthwhile endeavor, no debate about it), and by his colonialist tone.  His conversations with the Africans (and between Africans themselves) are all reported in a babyish pidgin, which may be a droll device but gets old and smacks of European condescension.  The last part of the book describes Durrell’s escapades with the animals in suburban Bournemouth, which is very funny, and even informative, when he reports some simian behavior.  I would have liked for Durrell to give some details of his collisions with the local bureaucracy to set up a zoo in England, but then I suppose he’s not that kind of writer.  All in all a cute, lightweight book, with minor flaws rooted in the point of view of Durrell’s generation and class. 

three stars

Friday, January 8, 1999

The Finanacial Expert

by R.K. Narayan

Set in the mythical village of Malgudi, this subtle book tells the story of Margayya, a self-appointed financial wizard who helps peasants with their money matters.  One day, after being shamed by a peon at the big Co-Operative Bank, he decides to become very wealthy.  He goes to a priest, performs the rituals, and gets into a variety of money making schemes, offering high interest rates for the villagers’ savings.  But when Dr. Pal, the learned journalist, gets too friendly with Margayya’s spoiled son, things fall apart.

The story is told from Margayya’s point of view, so sometimes the reader loses track of what a self-occupied, greedy miser he must be, although he sincerely wishes a better life for his rather dim son.  The dialogue is quite sharp, and apt; having been to India, I think I understand the characters more than if I hadn’t.  The whole book, in fact, takes a rather detached, Indian approach, with little in the lines of plot and a rather desultory climax and denouement; and when Margayya loses all his wealth at the end, he merely stoically declares that he will begin again, without moralizing to his son or blaming himself.  The book is an appealing slice of Indian life, told in a light, comical way which I enjoyed.

four stars

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

Gone Whaling: A Search for Orcas in Northwest Waters

by Douglas Hand

An account of the author’s quest for the culture of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, and the root of our fascination with orcas.  He goes from a museum to an aquarium to a renegade scientist to Haida craftsmen who carve whales.  It’s quite a meticulously researched book: the histories of the museums, the histories of the native crafts, etc.  This erudition is a sideline, however, used to supplement the human side of the story, rather than overshadowing it.

It is a subtly written book, yet I don’t think it succeeds.  I didn’t see that Hand hit upon the essence of our fascination with orcas, if only because he eschews philosophy in favor of factual commentary.  A philosophy he does come near to espousing may be a Zen-like acceptance (he mentions Chuang Tzu), not analysis: the orca is mysterious and amazing, and this should be felt rather than said.  And yet he wrote a 200-page book about it.  I also did not care for what I saw as Hand’s ego, apparent in the writing: Hand did the sketches himself (they’re unremarkable), and he seems to feel the need to insult all his interlocutors’ appearances, citing their balding heads or discolored teeth.  What’s the deal with that? 

three stars

Monday, January 4, 1999

Wobegon Boy

by Garrison Keillor

The narrator, a man from Lake Wobegon, moves to New York to work at a public radio station, and meets the love of his life.  And meanwhile, life happens: his father dies, he is fired, his restaurant idea fails as the developer appropriates the land, etc.  In other words, there’s not much of a plot per se, but slice after slice of life.  I must say, I’m surprised at how much I like this book.  Sure, I rebel against what I perceive as Keillor’s good ol’ Middle America anti-periphery values, but I must say that this book is laugh-out-loud funny.  Keillor truly excels at telling the weird, fantastic life stories of everyday, normal characters.  Everyone has at least one story to tell in this book – and the best part is, they’re all funny.

four stars

Friday, January 1, 1999

The Fifth Child

by Doris Lessing

A middle-class English couple buck the disapproval of both their families and plan to have “at least six” children, buying a huge house and becoming the focus of all holiday gatherings.  The fifth child, however, Ben, after a difficult pregnancy, turns out to be some sort of evil throwback, horrifying and sending away the extended family.

This slim novel appears to be making a comment on social selfishness, as well as being a parable for our violent modern times – “the barbarous eighties,” as the novel says.  I would have liked the story to come to some sort of solid ending; instead, the book ends as the mother considers selling the giant, empty house, and as Ben and his gang of Clockwork Orange droogs venture gradually from riots and petty theft to more vicious crimes.  The mother assumes he will probably move forever to some even more depraved urban pit.  This device is no doubt meant to emphasize the universality of the problem, as if Ben were an Everythug.  A rather chilling tale, but not exceedingly deep, and in the end unsatisfying.

three stars