Fiction

Book Review – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Without doubt Mr. Ishiguro crafted the most creative work of literature I’ve ever read. The latest Nobel Laureate in Literature fused a fantastic story, superb plot twists along with elements of the Arthurian legend into a memorable tale regarding the power of memory. Ironically, it focused on the lack of ability to remember.

The Buried Giant contained an outstanding setting. The story took place in a medieval society just after the reign of King Arthur. A mysterious mist spread over the land causing denizens to lose their memories. With this backdrop, the author chose to make his novel a quest story. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, two married Britons, Axl and Beatrice, endured a strong marriage. The former, in fact, always addressed his wife as ‘princess.’ While they ostensibly left their village to visit their son, their journey turned into a voyage of discovery. That unearthing included not only the mist’s source, but attributes about themselves. It also made for an entertaining read as the plot developed.

While Axl and Beatrice endeavored on a metaphorical quest, Sir Gawain (of Arthurian legend renown) and Saxon warrior Wistan embarked on a more concrete quest. Both undertook to slay the evil dragon, Quereg. They along with the married couple joined together for a good portion of the journey. I mentioned the author showed extraordinary imagination while writing this, didn’t I?

The novel became philosophical regarding the concept of memory without becoming pedantic. Prior to discovering the mist’s source, Beatrice opined:

Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, or something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And as the stranger told Ivor, when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so. (Page 83)

The monk Father Jonus revealed the source of the mist to Beatrice. (So as not to reveal spoilers, I shall neglect to mention it.) The following dialog ensued.

“Mistress, you seem happy to know the truth about this thing you call the mist.”

“Happy indeed, father, for now there’s a way forward for us.”

“Take care, for it’s a secret jealously guarded by some, though maybe it’s best it remains so no longer.”

“It’s not for me to care if it’s a secret or not, father, but I’m glad Axl and I know it and can act on it.”

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” (Page 171)

Mr. Ishiguro used voice very well in this story. All the characters spoke in ways consistent with their personalities. Sir Gawain addressed others as a noble knight of the Round Table would talk. Even the Saxon, Wistan, also expressed his thoughts like a distinguished warrior. I liked his statement, “You’ve more to fear from your silence than my anger. Speak.” (Page 262)

At times, The Buried Giant read like a work of poetry. The author’s liberal inclusion of alliteration added to this effect. Some examples included:

“pleasant place to pass” (Page 15)

“pollute this precious place” (Page 40)

“soon see his head as smooth” (Page 42)

“tall fence of tethered timber” (Page 51)

“Ivor took a step back and smiled self-consciously.” (Page 77)

“warrior’s way of walking” (Page 104)

“beating back brambles and bushes” (Page 121)

“witness the ways of warriors” (Page 132)

“heads of hideous hags” (Page 190)

“slaughter a sea of Saxons” (Page 233)

“startling them as they sat silently in their semi-circle” (Page 238)

While not alliterative, I thought the expression “pressing in oppressively right” (page 36) exhibited a clever method of expression.

The author melded all these disparate aspects into the narrative brilliantly. While doing so, he thrilled with some well contemplated plot twists. Through all this he kept the story progressing forward. That showed exceptional skill at fiction writing.

At times I did find the dialog a bit repetitive. It made the reading drag at times. All of the exceptional aspects of this book more than compensated for this slight flaw.

I’m jealous of those with the opportunity to read The Buried Giant for the first time. Maybe that mysterious mist will meander into my home and I’ll have the chance to do so again.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Vintage International, 2015. EBook.

 

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Book Review – The Light between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light between Oceans contained the best overall story I’ve ever read in a debut novel. M. L. Stedman also introduced readers to very well-crafted characters. The book contained the most creative multi-layered conflict I’ve ever read. In addition to these achievements, Ms. Stedman wrote in lyrical language to tell this extraordinary tale.

The main action in the story occurred on the remote Australian island of Janus during the 1920s. After witnessing the carnage of the First World War, Tom accepted the job managing the lighthouse there. The carefree and naïve Isabel became his wife and joined him. The strain of isolation combined with three stillbirths placed an immense emotional strain on the marriage. Just weeks following Isabel’s last miscarriage a boat washed ashore. It contained a dead man and a living infant. Then the real drama commenced.

This author displayed exceptional skill in developing the characters. I admired the way she did so through conflict. As the lighthouse keeper, Tom emphasized his duty to report the incident to the authorities. Isabel argued otherwise. She surmised the man in the boat probably the child’s father. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume the mother dead under these circumstances? Wouldn’t the child get sent to an orphanage? Wasn’t it true that only they knew about the miscarriage a few weeks before? The opposing views and justifications behind them provided fantastic insight into the characters.

I won’t give away spoilers, but I will comment that the dynamic between the couple changed throughout the book. As the story progressed so did my perception of them. At times the author managed to transform them into villains. My astonishment and curiosity kept me reading to see how the novel would end. Along the journey, Ms. Stedman included a few superb plot twists and a red herring. They made the book a much more exciting read.

The author included many clever uses of language. I liked the alliteration in the expression, “seemed so solid she.” (Page 3) I enjoyed the simile, “the light stood guard, slicing the darkness like a sword.” (Page 34) The author even added a line that would’ve made Louis Zamperini proud: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” (Page 323)

My favorite lyrical passage described Tom’s thoughts on the island’s lighthouse:

But Janus light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. (Page 11)

I found one area where the novel could be improved. The author front-loaded The Light between Oceans with a lot of back-story. Since it occurred in the opening chapters, I had trouble understanding what the main story concept would be. Granted, the majority of the book took place on an isolated island inhabited by either two or three characters. It would’ve been challenging to describe both Tom’s and Isabelle’s backgrounds in that setting without it coming across as contrived.

Also, I thought some of the resolutions towards the end too abrupt; at least when compared to the pace the author established at the beginning. I thought the narrative could’ve been more balanced in that respect.

I would also like to credit the author for the creative title. It possessed both literal and symbolic meanings. It’s very challenging to condense a book’s content in a few words. It’s even harder to do so with a phrase containing multiple connotations. The Light between Oceans summarized the book brilliantly.

I have to give Ms. Stedman immense credit for a stellar debut. She crafted characters and managed the conflict between them like an expert storyteller. So far only one Australian has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is it premature to suspect another could be so honored in the future?

Book Review – The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

The last several years have seen remarkable changes to the American way of life. In a period of “unprecedented” economic uncertainty many long for the halcyon days following the Second World War. At the time America witnessed the largest economic expansion in world history. The US produced more than half of all manufactured goods on the planet. While I can sympathize with those who pine for these idyllic days of our nation’s past, I wondered what the people who lived through it felt about the time. Lucky for me, I discovered a “voice from the era” in the form of Harriette Arnow’s classic 1954 novel The Dollmaker.

The time period from the Second World War through its immediate aftermath was anything but idyllic in this fictionalized account of 1940s Detroit. The novel described capitalism run amok, the financial struggle to raise a family and a society riddled with a blatant hatred of foreigners. Sound familiar?

The novel traced the journey of Gertie Nevels from her Kentucky farm to wartime Detroit. Due to a labor shortage her husband got recruited to work in a Detroit factory. Gertie transitioned from a woman who helped support her family by raising and selling goods on their farm to a person struggling to survive in an environment totally alien to her.  While all of these elements made for a compelling story, I didn’t care for The Dollmaker. For me the clichés, melodrama and merciless assaults on capitalism made for an excruciating read.

This novel brought to mind the “myth of the yeoman farmer” elucidated so eloquently by Richard Hofstadter in The Age of Reform. He described how numerous politicians during the Progressive Era picked up on the idea of the “yeoman farmer” expressed by Thomas Jefferson. I’m paraphrasing, but Hofstadter wrote something to the effect that the poorest subsistence farmers in the country could take solace in the fact that America’s wealthiest continually talked about how people should envy them.

It’s ludicrous to describe farm life as Edenesque. It entails arduous labor from daybreak until sunset. One always has to fear poor weather and bad harvests. So for Ms. Arnow to portray an agrarian lifestyle as exponentially superior to working in industry is naïve. She correctly pointed out in the book that union politics, greedy business owners and “changeovers” in the economy can make manufacturing employment somewhat tenuous. Still, it does have advantages over farm life. For example: the promise of a paycheck for time worked. It also provides opportunities for more money in the form of overtime. Gertie’s husband, Clovis, took in a good deal of the latter during the course of the story. Because of this, I would’ve appreciated more balance in the narrative.

Gertie’s and her children’s culture shock with life in the city served as one of the themes of the book. Instances where the family struggled to hold on to its roots abounded. A touching one took place when her daughter, Clytie, instructed her brother to stop saying ‘hoped’ for ‘heped’. (Page 324) In other cases I found it silly. After one of her children’s teachers conferred with Gertie to discuss his inability to ‘adjust’ she reacted as follows:

Gertie cracked a knuckle joint. “You mean that when they’re through here they could—if they went to Germany—start gitten along with Hitler, er if they went to—Russia, they’d get along there, they’d act like th Russians an be”—Mr. Daly’s word was slow in coming—“communists…” (Page 335)

It’s a real stretch to compare living under totalitarianism to adjusting to life in Detroit.

The author also used the book as a platform to critique capitalism. Some were subtle, others not so much. Here’s a good example of the former:

She could raise bushels of sweet potatoes, fatten a pig, kill it, and make good sausage meat, but she didn’t know how to buy. (Page 350)

There’s no question that capitalism has flaws. With that acknowledgement it’s done more to raise the standard of living and lift more people out of poverty than any other economic system. While I defend the author’s right to disparage its deficiencies, most of her negative observations centered on corruption or unscrupulous business practices. (i.e. Kickbacks, selling bad fruit, and overcharging.) These things represent the abuse of capitalism; not a tenet of it. That’s a big difference. Ms. Arnow failed to make this distinction.

I’m sure some readers would enjoy The Dollmaker. The portrayal of a woman’s effort to hold her family together in uncomfortable surroundings during challenging times will, no doubt, resonate with many. The political views expressed lacked a full understanding of how they corresponded to the real world. Next I’m going to read an Ayn Rand novel to get the same experience from the other side of the political spectrum.

 

Book Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is the “tragedy porn” equivalent of Fifty Shades of Gray. Prior to reading, I thought no author could write a more disturbing portrayal of human sexuality as a tool of cruelty than Elfride Jelinek. With this book, that torch has been passed to Hanya Yanagihara.

There’s an old adage in writing that an author should make the protagonist endure the worst possible thing that could happen to him/her. A Little Life proved that there are limits to this theory. The author pushed the envelope again, again and again when inflicting misery on Jude St. Francis. She did this so prolifically that the story degenerated into a caricature of itself.

I found the story premise beyond all bounds of believability. Jude had the most original career path I’ve ever encountered. He started out in life as a child sex slave. After being liberated from that ordeal, he became a prostitute. Then he moved on to the role of adolescent sex slave. Following this, he graduated law school and earned a reputation as a brilliant attorney. To make this even more remarkable, while working as a lawyer he pursued a master’s degree in Mathematics; at MIT, no less. Shortly, after this he ended up in a committed relationship with the most popular actor in the world. All this took place as he spent his evenings cutting himself.

I AM NOT making light of child abuse or people who cut themselves. To be clear, I thought the author’s description of the abundance and nature of Jude’s travails very difficult to accept. He endured more inhumane treatment than the ones I’ve described, as well. I’m limiting my examples so as not to reveal spoilers.

While I’m not a psychologist, I thought the character’s traits inconsistent. I understand that childhood abuse leaves scars that never heal. My issue with Jude emanated from him being a brilliant man capable of attending prestigious schools, performing a very challenging job in the face of a physical disability (the result of yet more abuse), and, still, he struggled so much in letting his close friends get to know him. I could understand with Jude’s mental state why he would be leery of trusting people. I couldn’t understand how someone who had his professional life so together proved incapable of opening up to people who clearly cared about him. In addition to his friends, one of his former law professors liked him so much he adopted Jude after he turned 30.

I could fathom that a victim of serial abuse would blame himself. That sort of inhumane treatment would warp anyone’s mind. With such a great social support system around him, I just couldn’t understand why Jude couldn’t let them know the reasons why he developed into the person he became.

I also found the book poorly written. The modern writing mantra is: “show, don’t tell.” A Little Life contained nothing but telling. The author used the third person limited point of view for most of the book. On occasion the author wrote chapters that followed the activities of Jude’s friends. I didn’t understand why. The whole narrative revolved around Jude. The behavior of the sculptor, artist and actor seemed boring compared to the protagonist’s journey.

I had another issue with the point of view. In some chapters the author used the first person point of view. She chose to write from Jude’s adopted father’s POV, not Jude’s. Let me assure readers I take no satisfaction in writing this: I have to admit that had it not been for the pronoun “I”, the voice would’ve sounded the same as it did in all the other chapters.

While I didn’t like the book, I loathed the title. It referred to something I found despicable. I didn’t enjoy being reminded of it every time I read.

The book should’ve been edited better. It came in at 720 pages. As I wrote above, the chapters that focused on Jude’s friends should have been excised. I also believed that had Jude only endured one of the myriad abuse situations, it would’ve made the book more realistic.

The true tragedy of this book centered on its potential. It could’ve been a great story about one man’s struggle to overcome childhood trauma. With some editing this could’ve been an outstanding narrative of his successes and failures as he battled his past. Instead, it evolved into a tedious slog.

With that noted, this book was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. The Economist even ranked it one of the “Best Books of 2015.” I’m not looking forward to someone making a movie out of it.

 

Book Review: William Golding – The Spire

My writer friends are afraid to read William Golding. I take the blame for this. They tell me that they read Lord of the Flies and found it “too disturbing.” I respond that Golding used that book as practice. His pessimistic portrayal of human nature in some of his other words makes Lord of the Flies look like something out of Fantasy Island. If that doesn’t make them want to read more Golding I don’t know what would.

In all fairness Sir William Golding is my all-time favorite author. I’ve read work by every prose author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Golding is undoubtedly the best. One of the most difficult challenges an author confronts is staying in the voice of the character. No one could do this more proficiently than Golding. His deftness at characterization went into overdrive in The Spire.  

Golding revived one of his best literary techniques in this story: the unlikeable protagonist. It took a special kind of author to make this the focus of the novel and yet have readers hang in there to the end. He pulled it off brilliantly in The Spire. It described Dean Jocelyn’s (perhaps insane) vision of building a 400 foot tall tower above his church. To make this even more interesting the tower was constructed on a very unstable foundation. Golding could have stopped there, but he decided to make the story even more intriguing. Jocelyn repeatedly made references to miracles, an angel guiding him and God wanting this tower to be built. Through this exposition Golding made it pretty clear that this whole situation would not end well. His choice of Jocelyn’s voice to tell the story enabled readers to understand that this is more of a monument to him than anything else.

One memorable scene occurred when one of the workers fell to his death during the construction. Golding wrote:

In this dark and wet, it took even Jocelyn all his will to remember something important was being done; and when a workman fell through the hole above the crossways, and left a scream scored all the way down the air, which was so thick it seemed to keep the scream as something mercilessly engraved there, he did not wonder that no miracle interposed between the body and the logical slab of stone that received it. (Page 49)

In this one, admittedly very long, sentence, Golding truly defined the core essence of his protagonist. It was a fascinating about face from Jocelyn’s inner monologue where he thought, “Lord, I thank thee that Thou hast kept me humble!” (Page 18)

With writing like this, Golding humbled my faith in my own writing ability!

 Another major highlight to The Spire came through Golding’s beautiful use of language. He began his literary career as a poet, and it showed in this book. One phenomenal example:

What can I do on this day of days, when at last they have begun to fashion my vision in stone, but give thanks?

Therefore with angels and archangels-

Joy fell on the words like sunlight. They took fire. (Page 17)

Another outstanding simile: “Vanished like a raindrop in a river.” (Page 180)

The most original use of language by far occurred in the description of the “singing stones.” Throughout the book as the spire rose the stones made an “eeeeeee” sound that Golding eloquently described as “singing.” I could actually hear the noise as I read the book. I’ve never before had that happen to me. I’ve got to give major kudos to Mr. Golding on this one.

There were a lot of other great plot points and story sparks in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the surprise twist as to how Jocelyn got the job of leading the monastery. I won’t spoil the fun for readers here. I will report: Golding did an awesome job flexing his creative muscle on this one. If you’re troubled by the idea of using “miracles” as a substitute for sound engineering practices, I envy you the thrill of reading what made all this possible.

I think of William Golding as one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. In fact, I have a photo of him on my writing desk. It’s staring at me as I’m crafting this review. The Spire stood out as a great example of Golding’s superlative talents. I wrote earlier that he held a pessimistic view of human nature. To be perfectly fair to him, he always disagreed with that statement. He once said something to the effect, “If you hold up red and blue together the red will always stand out.” The red in this case meant the negative. With the greatest of respect I think he refuted his own argument in The Spire. In spite of reading a 200 plus page story regarding an unlikeable narrator pursuing an obsessive quest, what stood out from The Spire was Golding’s incomparable talent as a wordsmith and storyteller.