Literature

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?

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Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Bruce Willis once observed that “art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. It’s a weird combination of elements.” Ms. Nafisi took a much more unorthodox approach to that axiom in Reading Lolita in Tehran. The author lived in Tehran during the late 1970s. A professor of literature by trade, she applied its lessons to the vast cultural and political changes taking place in Iran during the time period. An innovative and engaging read resulted.

Disgusted by the repression and censorship of the country’s universities, Ms. Nafisi rebelled in the way she knew best. She started a book club with a group of her students. The book’s most interesting observations concerned Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Since the author taught this material for a living, she brought up a number of erudite insights. Her personal experiences during the revolution provided her with a unique way to apply those perceptions.  She observed:

The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. (Page 33)

And:

Humbert (the protagonist of Lolita), like most dictators, was only interested in his own vision of other people. (Page 48)

Ms. Nafisi also included anecdotes from before she resigned her position. I really enjoyed how she referenced examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. She wrote, “Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels—the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.” (Page 132)

Ms. Nafisi’s most incisive quote came when she compared the character of Jay Gatsby to the Iranian Revolution.

When I left class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream? (Page 144)

For a work of non-fiction the author added some outstanding lyrical flourishes.

We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. (Page 172)

This was a period of hope, true, but when we harbor the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. (Page 276)

First, none of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them. (Page 330)

The author added some fantastic interpretations of Henry James’ work.

The truth is that James, like many other great writers and artists, had chosen his own loyalties and nationality. His true country, his true home, was that of the imagination. (Page 216)

…So many of his protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that, for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within one’s self, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness—a word that is central in Austen’s novels, but is seldom used in James’ universe. What James’ characters gain is self-respect. (Page 225)

From a personal standpoint, I most enjoyed her commentary on various authors and their work. I should point out that the author also included condensed biographies of all the women who took part in the book discussions. It’s always refreshing to get a sense of true human drama in non-fiction.

Ms. Nafisi wrote, “Evil in (Jane) Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ‘see’ others, hence to empathize with them.” (Page 315) After reading this book, I developed more empathy for those who experienced the Iranian Revolution first hand. The author and her students risked arrest or worse to study some great works of literature. The fact that most of us in the West can do so without fear of punishment is not something we should ever take for granted.

Book Review – Me before You by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes crafted an exceptional tale of characters suffering from traumas both visible and invisible in Me before You. In the process she may have written the most unconventional love story every created. The tale also included some unexpected plot developments. A heart warming and heartrending read resulted.

I don’t typically read romantic dramedies so I didn’t know quite what to expect when I began this book. While I had some issues with it I thought both the story and main characters outstanding.

The author introduced readers to twenty six year old Louisa (aka Lou), “an ordinary girl, leading an ordinary life.” This suited her “fine.” (Location 346) Her boyfriend, Patrick, took her for granted. Her family favored her older sister. The story began as Lou lost her job working at a café. (It’s hard to imagine a more “ordinary life” than this in the modern era.) Through an employment service she managed to unexpectedly end up with a job caring for Will: a quadriplegic. This character lived the life of a playboy, extreme sport enthusiast and corporate raider. He experienced an ideal life until his motorcycle accident.

While people who haven’t read the book will no doubt wonder how someone with no medical training obtained a job caring for someone in Will’s condition, I won’t give away spoilers. I would point out that during the interview process Will’s mother, Mrs. Traynor, emphasized how Lou’s previous employer described her “warm, chatty and life-enhancing presence.” (Location 408) These characteristics served as an outstanding contrast to Will’s bitter, surly attitude in the novel.

I give Ms. Moyes great credit for developing the relationship between these oppositional characters as well as she did. Her prose made it seem natural and unforced. That’s a great accomplishment in such an unconventional love story.

In the course of reading Me before You, I hated putting it down. The author hooked me into wondering what would happen next. It’s a testament to the story’s strength that I recalled many of its details close to a month after reading it. It’s ironic that my main criticisms regard how poorly the author wrote it.

The book contained some clichés. The most egregious took place when Will’s former fiancé and his best friend decided to get married. I understand that the author needed to establish how miserable Will’s new life became for him, but this was just too formulaic for me. Some other clichés included when Lou described Mrs. Traynor’s “knuckles were white on the arm of the sofa.” (Location 1641) While the author presented every chapter but one from a character’s point-of-view, I thought the expression “spoiling for a fight” even too banal for a modern person to use in speech.

I also didn’t like the point-of-view changes. I’d estimate that 90% of the narration came from Lou’s perspective. I thought the ones from Mr. Traynor, Mrs. Traynor, Nathan (Will’s “professional” caregiver) and Treena (Lou’s sister) unnecessary. They broke the narrative flow, as well. I would also add that each of these characters only narrated one chapter each. I had trouble following the one from Treena’s point-of-view due to excessive use of pronouns. I couldn’t tell if she or Lou were the one speaking. It’s never good when a reader has to return and re-read the same passage several times.

I thought the author resorted to telling far too often. I couldn’t visualize how Lou “pulls a face.” (Location 100) Lou made a remark that, “It took almost forty minutes for Will’s temperature to return to an acceptable level.” (Location 1277) It made me curious as to what constituted an “acceptable level”. After a crucial conversation between Lou and Will’s mother, the former observed, “It was almost eleven minutes before I finally heard Mrs. Traynor’s car start up and drive away.” (Location 1943) I couldn’t believe Lou had counted them.

While I hate making this point, I found some of the writing just plain lousy. Following a rain storm, “The roads are slick with water.” (Location 127) What else would make them “slick” following a shower? The author began chapter 4 with the sentence “Two weeks passed.” (Location 735) A published author once termed expressions like that as “lazy writing” to me. Lou called Patrick’s description of the “Xtreme Viking Triathalon”: “The Viking was spoken about with reverence.” (Location 922) Not only did the author use passive voice, I doubt anyone would express herself like that in real life.

To be fair, the author did include some outstanding lyrical flourishes. I liked reading about the “pastel-colored wallpaper paste” (Location 742) and the alliteration of the “buds burst from brown branches.” (Location 1474) The chapter from Mrs. Trayor’s point-of-view contained an excellent use of a garden for symbolism.

It was only when we brought Will back home, once the annex was adopted and ready, that I could see a point in making it (the garden) beautiful again. I needed to give my son something to look at. I needed to tell him, silently, that things might change, grow, or fail, but life did go on. That we were all part of some great cycle, some pattern that it was only God’s purpose to understand. I couldn’t say that to him, of course—Will and I have never been able to say much to each other—but I wanted to show him. A silent promise, if you like, that there was a bigger picture, a brighter future. (Location 1724)

The strengths of Me before You far exceeded its shortcomings. For those, like me, who aren’t particularly interested in “love stories”: don’t let the “romance” element dissuade you from reading. I’d recommend to those interested in a moving tale with memorable characters. Just make sure you have some free time available before beginning. I found putting the book down before finishing the most challenging aspect of it.

Book Review – Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis

American literary fiction would’ve been much duller without Sinclair Lewis’s offerings. Because of works such as Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and It Can’t Happen Here I along with many others decided to try writing novels. I’ve always believed that Sinclair Lewis’ worst far exceeded the best novels I’ve read…until now. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration for me to write that reading Cass Timberlane ranked among the biggest disappointments of my adult life. I read this book because Cass and Jinny Timberlane crossed over into the follow-up novel Kingsblood Royal. Lewis would’ve been wiser to save them for that piece.

The word pedestrian best described the overall premise of this book. The tale centered around a middle-aged man infatuated with a much younger woman. Is anyone still reading this review? Really? Okay, I’ll continue. Without the two knowing each other very well, they decided to espouse. I’m serious: does this plot line hook anybody? Could the overall concept be more banal? I hate to write it, but the answer is: yes. Predictably, trouble ensued due to the age difference. Imagine that. As the story wore on Cass suspected his wife of, you’ll never believe this, infidelity! Judge Timberlane tried to do everything he could to please her, yada, yada, yada.

But Cass Timberlane got worse. Sinclair Lewis possessed a genius for crafting sentences. I loved the way he’d begin with a phrase that led the reader to come to one conclusion. He would then throw a twist in the next one to reverse the meaning. Most times he’d do this while satirizing the foibles in American society. I didn’t read many such passages in Cass Timberlane. In the interest of fairness, Mr. Lewis did include several memorable lines. I’ll provide them here.

Fortunately Hudbury did remember him, and fortunately he did not remember that he had hated Congressman Timberlane after a party caucus at which the fellow had suggested that even Republicans ought to know that there was a new invention called labor unions. (Location 2837)

Here’s another sample of vintage Lewis.

The Senator looked confused, but he was used to it. For years and years he had been confused over something or other, and he would continue to be confused until someone in his State discovered that he was their Senator, and had him defeated. (Location 2849)

The best flash of Lewis’ clever expression occurred in the following.

During his first five readings of the masterpiece, he twice decided that she liked him, once that she loved him furiously, once that this was merely a routine answer with all the romantic flavor of payment of a gas-bill, and once that she was bored by him and intended, on his evening of oratory, to go off dancing with some treacherous swine like Elno Roskinen. (Location 1556)

Textual flourishes like the above first interested me in Sinclair Lewis. Cass Timberlane dissatisfied for not including enough of them.

One critique that Lewis received over the years entailed his not qualifying as a “modern writer.” A critic, who’s name escaped me as I wrote this, called his works more similar to those of Anthony Trollope than someone like William Faulkner. Structurally, I thought Lewis tried to make 1945’s Cass Timberlane more contemporary. At the end of several chapters, Lewis inserted a section called “An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives.” In it, he described the travails of married folk in his fictitious setting of Grand Republic. None of these couples had any role in the overall story. It distracted from the narrative flow and did nothing to enhance the overall narrative. Lewis should’ve stayed with the methods he did best.

I can’t believe Sinclair Lewis wrote a boring book. It took me a week of long, ponderous reading to discover this unfortunate fact. There’s no reason for Sinclair Lewis fans to mope. If they want to read Lewis’ take on a troubled marriage: read Dodsworth. If they’d like to read a good example of plot development: read Elmer Gantry. If they read Kingsblood Royal and would like to learn more about Grand Republic or the Timberlanes, read Kingsblood Royal again. While the quality of Lewis’ other novels set my expectations quite high Cass Timberlane fell abysmally short of them.

Book Review – Pincher Martin by William Golding

Here’s life on an island in the sun as only William Golding could describe it. When I reviewed the plot summary of Pincher Martin, I knew I had to read it. It described the book as a seafaring tale about a British Naval Officer who found himself stranded on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the course of the narrative he experienced flashbacks and delusions that melded past, present and future. As if the challenge of writing a book that followed the adventures of one man alone in the most prosaic setting imaginable didn’t challenge the author enough, the protagonist Golding chose was unreliable and unlikable. Just about every element of the book encompassed something we writers are taught never, never to do. And yet, in Pincher Martin, it worked.

As with any Golding novel, his brilliant use of language enriched the narrative far beyond the story. Mr. Golding began his writing career as a poet; in his Nobel Lecture he emphasized his great passion for verse. In Pincher Martin, it showed. I read so many poetic lines that I struggled to provide just a few in this review.

How can she hold the center of my darkness when the only real feeling I have for her is hate? (Location 1634)

When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place-burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt. (Location 21)

The sun could illumine the mist but not pierce it. And darkly in the sun-mist loomed the shape of a not-ship where nothing but a ship could be. (Location 183)

I cite three examples in my reviews most times. The author inundated Pincher Martin with such a rich array of language, I need to add one more.

There is no center of sanity in madness. (Location 1982)

I’ve read all of Mr. Golding’s works currently in print. Phrasing like the above makes me wish that whoever has the rights to his 1935 work Poems would re-issue it.

As I’m sure readers inferred by now, Pincher Martin wasn’t one of the happier novels in the William Golding catalog. It almost made Lord of the Flies seem like an episode of Fantasy Island.

Golding showed exceptional skill at foreshadowing. The author inserted it sparingly and with great subtlety. The first time I read this book, I couldn’t believe the creativity of the ending. It met the classic definition of a proper conclusion: it surprised me, but at the same time, it hit me as inevitable. When I read Pincher Martin the second time, I picked-up on the clever hints Golding included along the way. As I strongly encourage readers to examine the book, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. In fact, a few weeks ago I recommended it to someone. She had a foreshadowing question with her work-in-progress. I encouraged her to read this book.

Another superb element of Pincher Martin entailed how the book left itself open to interpretation. That’s the difference between an art and a science. With a science, there’s a hypothesis, someone tests it and then we know every time we follow a certain procedure, we’ll get the same outcome. Literature is similar to the Kuleshov Effect in film: the mind of the person experiencing it contributes to the understanding. I read the afterword by Philipa Gregory. I also used Virginia Tiger’s William Golding: The Unmoved Target, to help me grasp the text. They presented differing evaluations regarding the significance of the rock among other elements of the tale. Once again, I don’t want to spoil the book for those planning on reading it. I’ll avoid providing details, but both critics presented lucid, well-reasoned analyses. The fact they differed showed me the true genius of William Golding’s art.

The next time readers find themselves day-dreaming about an island in the sun, check out Pincher Martin. It will provide a whole new perspective. While thoughts of hurricanes, loneliness and struggling to find water may not appeal, reading William Golding’s brilliant depiction of Pincher Martin’s struggles will make the journey well worth the time. Just bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

Book Review – The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Several writers recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction to me on the grounds that it’s a “classic”. My interest in agreeing with fellow authors leads me to concur with that observation. The iconoclast in me struggles to find reasons for encouraging prospective writers to read the book.

I cannot refute Mr. Gardner’s erudition. He cited works from a varied group of authors…and cited them…and cited them. After a while, the repeated name dropping became tiresome. Did I mention he referred to a variety of different writers? The author conveyed the impression that he’d read everything ever written from Homer to William Gass. To put a positive spin on this, as I perused The Art of Writing Mr. Gardner convinced me he earned the right to opine on the topic.

I thought many of Garner’s points intelligent and well-reasoned. I enjoyed his twist on the old adage about “writing what you know.” He suggested, “Write the kind of story you like best.” (Page 18) The author discussed how the temptation to explain should always be resisted. (Page 111) He author also pointed out that an ending should be both “inevitable and surprising.” (Page 172.) As the subtitle of the book read, “Notes on Craft for Young Writers” I liked these sound observations.

Which allows me to segue into my main issue with the book: a lot of the ideas I read seemed far advanced for someone just beginning to write. At one point Gardner used a concept from the field of physics to illustrate something involving writing.

But there remains one question, a central concern in all modern art, as in contemporary science; namely, the implications of the Heisenberg principle: To what extent does the instrument of discovery change the discovery, whether the instrument be “the process of fiction” or the particle bombardment of an atom. (Page 130)

Huh? I’m not a physicist, but I define the Heisenberg (Uncertainty) Principle as the understanding that it’s impossible to know both the speed and location of an object at the same time. What that has to do with literature exceeds my powers of comprehension. I can’t imagine how observations such as this benefit aspiring authors.

In addition to that, Gardner included other high minded concepts that could scare off beginners. One of his ideas terrified even me. The author included thoughts on how fiction has “the power to enslave”; Gardner used those exact words. Using a hypothetical protagonist as an example he explained:

The effect on the reader of this lonely, lofty hero could be very great indeed-but not necessarily healthy. If such heroes occur in very many plays and novels, if the appeal of such a character becomes widespread, then democracy, even common decency is undermined. We have been taught to admire, to submit to, or behave like the well-meaning Nazi officer, the business-world tyrant, or the moral fanatic. Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction.
(Page 87)

To my mind the greater danger entails authors possessing such a degree of pretention that they believe the entire universe reacts to every word he/she writes.

The Art of Fiction came out in 1983 shortly after the author’s passing. With the advent of the internet and flash fiction, the early 1980s seem like a lifetime ago. Because of that I thought some of the concepts rather dated. I liked Gardner’s view that authors should include a good amount of detail in his/her writing. I agreed with his assertion that this makes fiction better and more believable to the reader. I thought his idea of what constitutes sufficient detail much too excessive for the modern era. He cited a passage from Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” that took up three quarters of a page. The author wrote this piece in 1915. I think a more modern example would’ve buttressed Gardner’s point better.

I did find some useful guidelines for aspiring writers in The Art of Fiction. The book serves readers better as a “classic” treatise on writing, however. It provides an excellent snapshot of the state of the craft in the early 1980’s. A wealth of information about numerous authors appears in The Art of Fiction. (In case I didn’t emphasize it enough before: Gardner cited a lot of different writers.) It belongs in a similar category with Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature or Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism. It doesn’t work as a practical “how to” book for young writers, though.

Book Review – Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis

Rare authors have possessed the capability to portray American society with a unique combination of both wit and disdain. Even fewer have shown the requisite proficiency in the craft of writing to do so while utilizing a setting mostly outside of America’s borders. Sinclair Lewis managed to accomplish all three of these feats, not just in the course of a single career, but in the span on one novel. Dodsworth demonstrated the epitome of the artist’s craft while at the same time, presenting sarcasm on par with that of Johnathan Swift.

No Sinclair Lewis novel would be complete without his use of irony and sardonic humor. Dodsworth fulfilled this expectation. The attached description of a British aristocrat demonstrated how.

Lady Ouston was a beautiful woman and very commanding. She had a high, quick, passionate voice and many resolute opinions. She was firm and even a little belligerent about the preferability of Jay’s to Poiret in the matter of frocks, about the treachery of the Labor (sic) Party, about the desirability (entirely on behalf of the country) of Sir Francis becoming Prime Minister, about the heinousness of beer-drinking among the working classes, about the scoundrelism of roast chicken without a proper bread sauce, and particularly about the bad manners, illiteracy, and money-grubbing of the United States of America.

She had been born—and her father and mother before her—in Nashville, Tennessee. (Location 1556)

Lewis wrote Dodsworth, as he did most of his best novels, during Prohibition. Like his other work during the time frame, he colorfully worked his views on the subject into his tale.

Judge Turpin—an eye-glassed sparrow of a man who seemed to admire Sam, and showed his reverence for the law by taking illicit drink for drink with him. (Location 486)

In the event readers missed the point. Lewis included the following several sentences later.

Tub jabbed at Judge Turpin for sentencing bootleggers while he himself enjoyed his whiskey as thoroughly as anyone in Zenith. (Location 520)

While I enjoyed reading Lewis’ “zingers” on American mores, the disintegration of Dodworth’s marriage served as the central theme. Supposedly, Lewis based the novel on his own marital issues with Dorothy Thompson. Dodworth’s marital woes weren’t spared from the author’s acerbic pen. I supposed that’s why Dodsworth’s emotions and thoughts regarding his wife Fran seemed so genuine, as in the following passage.

…he had suddenly grasped something which he had never completely formulated in their twenty-three years of marriage: that she was not in the least a mature and responsible woman, mother and wife and administrator, but simply a clever child with a child’s confused self-dramatizations. (Location 3907)

This passage represented only one view of Dodsworth’s wife. Not all of Lewis’ prose described her so favorably.

Another element that made this novel so believable to me was the way Dodsworth perceived himself. The quotation below shows Dodsworth’s reaction to his wife’s suggestion they travel through Europe after his retirement.

I’ve learned that Life is real and Life is earnest and the presidency of a corporation is its goal. What would I be doing with anything so degenerate as enjoying myself? (Location 632)

I recall a story that Ms. Thompson once wrote a letter to Lewis stating to the effect, “Either you’re working, drinking or recovering from drinking.” The above quote seemed a roundabout reference to that sentiment.

Later in the story Lewis presented Sam Dodsworth as the poor, helpless victim of an unfaithful partner.

But between blurred drowsinesses, he saw with clarity that he was utterly a man alone, that his work, his children, his friends, his habitual routine of life, and at last his wife, all the props and crutches with which he had been enabled to hobble through life as a Good Fellow, were gone, and that he had nothing upon which to depend except such solaces as he might find in his own brain. No one really needed him, and he was a man who had never been able to depend on any one to whom he could not give. (Location 6091)

What a requiem for a selfless altruist. Then towards the conclusion of the story (I should point out to readers that I’m shaking my head as I’m writing this) Dodsworth attempted to reconcile with his wife. After deep, difficult reflection he chose to return to his new girlfriend. The novel ended with the following line.

He was, indeed, so confidently happy that he completely forgot Fran and he did not again yearn over her, for almost two days. (Location 7171)

Without any firsthand knowledge of Lewis’ marriage to Ms. Thompson, Dodsworth left me with the impression Lewis didn’t see himself as responsible in any way for the relationship’s decay.

I would call Dodsworth an absolute must-read for Sinclair Lewis fans. It possessed all the elements of a great novel by America’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature. Since it took place mainly in Europe, I’d recommend people unfamiliar with his work start out with books he set in the United States such as Elmer Gantry, Main Street or Babbitt. Dodsworth made a cameo appearance in the latter. The fact I read those books enabled me to appreciate the sharp jocularity of Dodsworth and its author even more.

Book Review – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

E. M. Forster once wrote, “One tends to praise a long book because one has gotten through it.” With the greatest of respect to Mr. Forster, I wonder if he’d have expressed that sentiment had he read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  What this book lacked in substance it made up for in volume coming in at a monumental 834 pages. I thought the overall premise dull and the amount of time it took to tie the whole story together ridiculously taxing. While awarded the 2013 Man-Booker Prize, this is not a book for everyone.

The novel began with a mystery involving a death in a cabin, an opium addicted prostitute and some missing gold. The story then developed through twelve different characters all of whom had some degree of involvement with at least one of the elements just mentioned. The signs of the zodiac served as the cohesive theme linking the whole narrative together, with each character and event having some relation to it. While this may appear interesting, I think the overall story itself fell short of the promise.

I didn’t enjoy the way the author presented the narrative. It took place in a New Zealand mining town in 1866. The writing style mimicked that of a nineteenth century author. It included the use of d—n as opposed to writing out the word damn. I found this to be annoying and a bit out of synch with the complete writing of words such as whore and prostitute. If the author intended to write a modern version of a Victorian novel, I would’ve appreciated more consistency.

As any modern writer knows, two things that good authors avoid are telling and back-story. Catton littered The Luminaries with an abundance of both. To make this even worse, she provided lots of back-story for all the characters. It distracted and took me away from the main story too often. I’m not going to cite examples. A reader can open to just about any page and see what I mean.

I thought some of the prose difficult to understand. Try unraveling this mind twisting paradox on page 502.

…if I am interested in those truths that are yet unknown, it is only so that they might, in time, be made known—or, to put it more plainly, so that in time, I might come to know them.

Did Eleanor Catton work as a speech writer for Donald Rumsfeld before becoming a novelist?

The book’s structure made it unnecessarily challenging to follow. I mentioned that events and characters in the book revolved around the signs of the zodiac. As if that didn’t make matters confusing enough, the author varied the last several chapters between the present and the past.  I read the entire book, but the last hundred pages tempted me to put it down. I thought they belabored a novel that cried out to be ended.

The overall concept required that the author utilize at least 12 characters. I really thought some of them could’ve been eliminated in favor of accelerating the plot. Specifically, I thought the roles played by Te Rau Tauwhare and Quee Long could’ve been assigned to other characters. It also would’ve shortened the book’s length. Unfortunately, the complexity forced the author to drag out a number of elements in order to include all these characters.

The Luminaries is not a book that would appeal to everyone. The author created a unique and sophisticated structure that sacrificed the quality of the story. I found the book unnecessarily long and dull. The pseudo-nineteenth century writing style didn’t help matters, either. But, maybe it’s me. After all, there’s a full moon tonight and Aries is in the descendant.   

Book Review: Barry Unsworth – Sacred Hunger

“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others.” (Page 613) I found it rather apt that this historical novel chronicled the voyage of a slave ship. For the author himself took readers on a journey. Not a voyage to some foreign locale, but a sojourn to define the very core of human nature itself.  

The title of the book derived from the following line delivered by Delblanc, a secondary character, of all things.

‘Money is sacred, as everyone knows,” he said. ‘So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.’ (Page 325)

This story reminded me of works such as William Golding’s sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth, and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I recognized their influences as I read the section where Captain Thurso threw ill slaves overboard so he could collect insurance money. I recalled the author’s description of the Captain as a man who “despised cruelty, as he did compassion, and all other redundant shoots of the human spirit.” (Page 114) Unsworth also portrayed the captain as, “a simple man, being an incarnation, really, of the profit motive, than which there can be few things simpler.” (Page 382) While doing a lot of cringing, I had a pretty good idea where Unsworth would take his narrative. But, like the truly great ones, the author sprung a magnificent plot twist that completely changed the tone of the whole story. I won’t ruin the pleasure for readers by spoiling it here.

My favorite plot twists are the ones I don’t see coming, but still don’t feel cheated as a reader.  That’s how I would describe the one Unsworth used in Sacred Hunger. The only real foreshadowing I noticed occurred in the section where Unsworth described, “the man who was to have been his father-in-law.” (Page 385) This brought to mind the writing of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I always enjoy reading well-read authors.

Sacred Hunger provided some vivid depictions of the better angels of human nature, to paraphrase James Madison. Unsworth’s deft skill as a writer shone in such sections. Many authors struggle to do this well in a book detailing happy event. Few could write such prose in a story involving a slave ship. One of the most moving passages read:

Love does not stand still, as everyone knows; it is always adding to its own shape whether by advance or retreat. Wounds can be absorbed, but only like elements embodied in a story; they are always there, part of the meaning. (Page 226)

Another memorable line read, “That a man engaged in this cruel trade still deserved not to be treated with cruelty seemed a mystery to Paris rather than a truth; but it was one that contained a strong imperative for him.” (Page 266)

I thought this book engrossing and difficult to put down. The author did an exceptional job stimulating my curiosity to find out what would happen next. I did have a few critiques. Above I cited some examples of how the author used language beautifully. I located some other parts that should have been much better. Here’s an example.

But Hughes, high up on the mainmast top setting the small sails, and Morgan, who was standing outside the galley to get some air, and Wilson and Sullivan smoking on the forecastle, and those of the slaves who happened to find themselves against the starboard rail…(Page 347)

Please. While reading this my mind was thinking, “And then this one time at band camp…” This blurb contained a lot of unnecessary detail that broke the narrative flow. In addition it came at a tense point in the story.  Unsworth won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in 1992. I’m hopeful that used some of the prize money to hire a better proofreader for his next book.

My main criticism involves the epistemiological paradigm Unsworth applied to the book. He thoroughly covered the issue of race relations between Europeans and Africans. He even explored European relations with Indians in the New World towards the end of the book. I thought his lack of attention to gender relations glaring. His described a utopian community in the Florida wilderness not just male dominated; no female voice spoke in this section. Due to the nature of the settlement I found this very bewildering. I really wanted to know what the female inhabitants thought of the living arrangements there. As Unsworth used the omniscient point-of-view I’m not sure why he didn’t explore this in more detail. It would’ve made the book much more interesting. (Read it and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.)

Sacred Hunger provided readers with a portal into the core of human nature itself. I came away with a deeper appreciation for dignity and a more positive outlook on human nature. As Unsworth wrote, “Grief works its own perversions and betrayals: the shape of what we have lost is as subject to corruption as the mortal body.” (Page 7) To anyone looking for a deeper insight into the human experience look no further than Sacred Hunger.             

              

Book Review: Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I keep telling my writing friends, “We need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin.” In spite of the tragic subject matter I’d declare this 2005 Orange Prize winner one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Shriver delivered an unforgettable account of Eva Khatchadourian’s effort to understand her son’s horrific metamorphosis into a mass murderer. At the same time Eva coped with her own guilt that her parenting may have led Kevin to execute several of his classmates. It shows just how well Ms. Shriver crafted this story that a book of this nature could be so terrifying and gratifying.

            Shriver structured her narrative very creatively.  Eva related her story through a series of letters to her husband Franklin from whom she was separated. The emotional impact began there and continued until Kevin told Eva “why” he resorted to mass murder at the end. Shriver chose to commence the epistolary narrative several years following Kevin’s rampage. The novel began as Eva had been fighting a civil suit brought by the mother of one of Kevin’s victims. Through her letters she related the story from when she and Franklin decided to have children through Kevin’s life and culminating in her visiting him in prison. The emotional intensity built up throughout the story, but without drifting into melodrama. It took a very gifted author to accomplish that feat.   

I’m not going to give away any major story sparks, but I encountered two major plot twists at the end of this book that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. After re-reading these passages several times I realized that Shriver foreshadowed these events earlier in the book. Due to my reaction, I’d have to call Shriver’s subtlety in doing so genius.

 A common criticism of fiction writers is that they present readers with more factual data and information than they would find in non-fiction works. Shriver avoided this trap. She presented her details sparingly in a way that enhanced my understanding of the novel. As I read on my e-reader I looked up a number of “school shooters” she mentioned. I had no idea that many adolescents committed such acts of violence. Having that information made the story’s impact much greater and the story more relevant.

 I also enjoyed the way Shriver mentioned various aspects of pop culture (i.e. television programs) to show when events took place. Once again, she did so prudently in a way that enriched the novel. It helped me to put events in perspective.

I wrote that Shriver did an outstanding job writing We Need to Talk About Kevin. The novel did have its share of shortcomings, however. I thought she portrayed many of the characters as one dimensional. Kevin’s father, Franklin, always took Kevin’s side over Eva’s. I started to think this may have been the result of a pathological obsession for agreeing with his son. And then there was Kevin. I couldn’t relate to him at all.  Shriver didn’t present him as a round character with complexities. I found his personality to be a banal version of Damian from The Omen. Shriver depicted him as a beast or the embodiment of evil. I thought Shriver could have done a better job of “humanizing” Kevin. If I’d been able to empathize with him in any way I would’ve enjoyed the book more.

In terms of the characters, I found Eva’s portrayal the hardest to understand. Granted, she ran her own business, but she was in essence a travel agent from Racine, Wisconsin. She possessed the vocabulary and syntax of an Ivy League Level English Professor. Here’s an example of her writing from page 24, “Worse, the deadly accuracy of filial faultfinding is facilitated by access, by trust, by willing disclosure, and so constitutes a double betrayal.” Do travel agents really express themselves in this high-minded way?

We Need to Talk About Kevin addressed a scourge that affects our society all too often. In one of her letters Eva wrote, “In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.” The presentation of the subject through a fictional insight from the mother of a killer engrossed me. This story truly held my attention the entire way through. Shriver kept coming back to Eva’s search for the answer to her question, “Why?” At the very end of the book Kevin answered. The conclusion affected me in a strange way. I didn’t think the answer surprising, yet I struggled to find a deeper meaning in it. I know I’m repeating myself, but we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin.