Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

I have to admit to a particular weakness when it comes to Graham Greene's work - even when the work might be considered one of his lesser endeavors.

Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a doctor in a fairly remote outpost of Argentina, becomes indirectly caught up in a bungled political kidnapping. His fundamentally cynical nature accommodates tender feelings for some of the flawed but genuine characters with whom he comes in contact. He is less forgiving to those who stand on irrational and hypocritical religious and political scruples who think their beliefs justify any means.

Greene finds ways to introduce critiques of colonialism, religion, and political "isms" that mesh neatly with the plot. These excursions do not make this an "intellectual" novel nor do they detract from the pace and suspense of the story. They do add a rich and complementary dimension to this excellent book. ( 4 1/2 stars )

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

This is an account of a man who, despite good intentions, can never master his emotions sufficiently to recompense his wife and daughter for the wrongs he did them.

The plot is entirely unpredictable. Twists occur periodically that set the story, as understood up to that point, on its head. Today's soap operas cannot begin to accommodate the tortuous relationships of the main characters and the way their secrets complicate their behavior in the moment as revealed in this book.

Thomas Hardy made this story work by the careful way he sets out each character's personality, temperament and motivation. In contrast to Dickens, he relies less on pathos and humor and more on detailed psychological description to illustrate the developing fates of his actors. ( 4 stars )

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water: A Novel by Michael Dorris

This novel covers the lives of three Native American women from one family. Each of the three sections of the book are narrated by one of these women. The sections do not exactly overlap the same period of time as the others. They are "braided" - this being a kind of running theme throughout the work.

The story (or stories) illustrates the challenge of life both on and off the reservation. The young girl's tale is a struggle to find identity and belonging - mostly on her own resources. Her life is refracted through the accounts of the other two in a way that expands the story to that of the larger family. The narrative exposes the family secrets and series of hardships of which each individual woman is only partially aware.

Although this is not the kind of novel I normally read, I thought it was well written. Some might consider that the author played up certain stereotypes of the Native American experience. But I thought he made a fair attempt at showing the challenges in the lives of people who have become displaced not only on a grandly historical scale but within the vicissitudes of family tragedy. ( 4 stars )

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald

This was John D. MacDonald's last Travis McGee novel (last novel of any kind, I believe). There is a wistful quality to it as Travis comes to terms with his past and his advancing years. But the story contains a suspenseful mix of unique characters, lonely women, drug-runners, memories of old Florida, and visions of the new ugly Florida. It was impossible to avoid reading and finishing this yarn over the weekend. ( 4 stars )

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sade : a Biography by Maurice Lever

I've not read any of de Sade's own writing, so this biography serves as my only introduction to his life and work.

The Marquis de Sade had the misfortune of becoming the archetype of the libertine just as the Age of the Libertine was coming to an ignominious end and the disruption of French society culminated in the Revolution. This book's account of how he found a way to survive, write, and maintain relationships through every sort of societal turmoil, legal problems, family rifts, and years of incarceration and institutionalization, is remarkable. While his hubris, manipulation of others, and chameleon character meant his life and well-being were constantly under threat; these self-same qualities frequently saved him from the worst consequences of his actions.

The term "libertine" covers a lot of territory the boundaries of which de Sade repeatedly crossed and violated to the extreme - even into old age. If the word is only taken to mean such things as court fop, free thinker, rake, sexual experimenter, one who is licentious, then a full and accurate picture of the marquis cannot be drawn. He was all of these things. However, he was also kidnapper, child molester, rapist, and torturer. He frequently used his position of nobility and wealth to practice his violent and degrading sexual predilections on domestics, children, and poor people. It is absurd to cast him in the role of free thinker or protector of sexual freedom when account is taken of the whole man.

Nonetheless he had some talent for writing and thinking on a variety of subjects such as the theater, politics, and religion. I look forward to the opportunity to read his own words on these topics as well as those works on which his notoriety rests.

This is an excellent biography that benefits from previously unpublished correspondence and other materials discovered by the author. The translation (from French) is also quite well done. ( 4 stars )

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This is a good example of early detective writing. Interest and suspense are sustained across several narrators who relate their direct experience and observations of the developing mystery - sometimes in a quite humorous way. In my opinion, the pace flags a bit in the penultimate phase when breathless Victorian cant of unrequited love and frustrated longing come to the fore. However, in the novel's culmination, the maudlin is supplanted by a return to the intriguing exposition of the story's final events. This book is an excellent example of it's type employing a variety of narrative styles and techniques in a masterful way.

It should also be noted that there is a streak of 19th century British racism throughout this novel. The Indians (never fleshed out as characters to any remarkable degree) are portrayed as mysterious, malevolent, dumb, and subject to a kind of magical idolatry. ( 4 stars )