Tag Archives: Literature

Book Review: Nightfall (1991) by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

First, I must confess my guilty pleasure:  I love pulp fiction!  There’s something about the writing of John D. MacDonald, Robert Bloch, and early Asimov that I find irresistible.  So, know that I’m not going to bash this book because of some dislike of Asimov.  I loved Nemesis (maybe I’ll review it here someday) and the Robot series is awesome!

But Nightfall was a tough one for me.  It is about a planet that has never known sunsets–it has six suns.  The major plot point is that all the suns will set at the same time for the first time in recorded history.  People who have never known darkness experience it and it drives individuals, and the society in which they live, mad.  While it sounds like an interesting premise, I feel there’s a huge hole in the plot.  Does no one on this planet have a basement?  They’ve never built a root cellar?  Or gone caving?  What happens when they close their eyes?  My wife says I’m being pedantic and that this is a novel of ideas and the idea of the primal darkness is what Asimov and Silverberg are going for here.  I just can’t see it.  Besides–the sunsets?  It’s only for twelve or so hours!  You mean we can’t wait this thing out?

I like the idea of people who have never known dark encountering it.  But this idea sounds a lot better than the complicated plot, the overly dramatic characters and stilted dialogue (never Asimov’s strong suit).  The darkness occurs midway through the novel; leaving the last third for wrapping up earlier plot points and it just draaaags.  Had they stopped the novel at the darkness–it could have been a cool thought experiment.  As it stands, there are a lot of characters who re-emerge on the far side of the dark catastrophe and, I’ve got to be honest, it’s hard to care about what happened.

What to listen to when reading this book:  You know, there is a surprising lot of rock written about outer space.  Mr. Roboto, Gary Numan, Sufjan Stevens, The Pixies.  But I’ve got to go with the classic here.  David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust.

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Book Review: Walker Percy “Love in the Ruins”

Read Walker Percy! A copy of “Love in the Ruins” costs about–what?–15 dollars which is way cheaper than a therapist appointment or reading the collected works of Freud. And it will help your soul much more.

“Lost in the Ruins” tells the story about Thomas More, a medical doctor in a futuristic and broken America. There is a race war about to erupt, the churches have fallen apart, both political parties are polarized, gated communities exist side-by-side with the communally homeless who have dropped out–hence the ruins of the the title. Yet, Thomas More seems to be the only one who notices that this world is going crazy. In the past, More has struggled with depression and been committed to a medical facility. It is then that he notes that the patients actually seem less neurotic or damaged than those outside who are wearing their ‘false faces’ or going through the motions.

There is a lot going on in this book. There’s an ‘A’ plot dealing with More’s determination to fall in love–or not; a ‘B’ plot regarding his invention which can diagnose as well as treat mental issues; and a ton of lesser plots. More (and the author) is a Christian, so there’s a great deal of Christian anthropology shot through this novel. More (and Percy, again!) is a physician–so he brings a clinical eye to the narration. On top of that, the novel, though portraying a broken society and broken people, is funny in a wicked kind of way. So, if you have struggled with depression or been close to anyone that has–this novel has been there and back. If you are tired by life and just have the blues, Percy’s prose provides an antidote. Stop reading the internet, turn off the tv, don’t answer the phone and curl up with “Love in the Ruins” as if you are spending time with an old friend.

What to listen to when reading this book: Talking Heads. “Once in a Lifetime”

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Book Review: Villages by John Updike

John Updike’s youthful ambition was to be a cartoonist.  He had an excellent eye for painting and the visual arts; his two books on art, Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), attest to his critical mastery of artistic interpretation.

As I understand it, Updike was also one of the few American authors who had ‘made it’ to the point that he could dictate to his publishers what art his book covers would display.  Often, his covers give a hint as to the themes that emerge within.

Villages, published in 2004, heralds one of its main themes right on the dust jacket: we’re being watched!  The cover image is of The Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (right.  Image in the Public Domain).  Ingres pulls the viewer in as a voyeur; gazing on a private moment of buxom young women in the nude.  The women mostly seem unaware of our trespass–one has a guitar, most are lazily lounging.  No one seems disturbed.

The (anti?)-hero of Villages is Owen Mackenzie.  Updike begins with Owen’s half-asleep, half-awake memories of his childhood.  Present day Owen is now seventy, looking back at his life, as as an observer.  He remembers villages where he grew up, had sex, got married, got divorced.  Sight, eyes, watchfulness, observation, and voyeurism all play a huge, if ambiguous, part in the novel.  Owen was formed by the comfort of his childhood village of Willow in Central Pennsylvania.  Yet, behind the supposed idyll of small town Americana, Owen was also a youthful witness to sin, secrets and gossip–he’s intrigued by playground graffiti of a naked woman as well as peeping into the high school girls’ locker room, which Owen remembered as having a ‘whiff of scandal’ (as well as lending the image for the cover.)

The ambiguity of sight as a theme is front and center.  In a brilliant early passage, Updike identifies Owen’s happiest childhood moment: near Christmas, playing by a miniature Christmas village, hearing the delivery of the mail: “That mailmen walked and trolley cars clanged through the storm seemed to confirm the Hollywood, comic-strip version of American reality; we were as safe, and as lovingly regarded from on high, as the tiny, unaging figures in a shaken snow globe.”  [43]  That same feeling of providence, of being watched from the heavens, interrupts a youthful dalliance with a woman in a car.  And if the previous hints weren’t enough, Owen is a co-inventor of computer technology named DigitEyes.

As Owen ages, we learn about his family, his career.    The novel is structured somewhat like a fugue–with themes overlapping and recurring.  Time shifts back and forth between Owen’s villages and marriages.  Updike clearly is dealing with the idea of nostalgia here–his verdict seems to be that the past was never as perfect as we remember it.  One could be forgiven for calling this one of his more pessimistic books–for Updike uncovers much of the pain and secrets of life that we’d wished had remained hidden.  However, I would prefer to call it realistic.  Updike lovingly crafts his prose, even the images of pain, sin and loss–and that’s how we’re to live, isn’t it?  Lovingly.

What to listen to when reading this:  Bach, The Art of the Fugue.

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Book Review: “A Small Town in Germany” by John Le Carre

I’ve found my mind returning again and again to spies this December.  It seemed like a spy-full year–from the raid on the bin Laden compound over the summer, to the Arab spring, to CIA drones and the list goes on and on.  So, I picked up a lesser known Le Carre called “A Small Town in Germany.”

It’s hard to imagine that this book would be the favorite of any Le Carre fan; and that’s not because it’s bad but rather that Le Carre wrestles with these same themes  in other, more familiar books.  In this regard, “A Small Town in Germany” is the dress rehearsal for his George Smiley series.  But where the Smiley novels are epic, globe-trotting and sweeping, this book, as the title suggests, is more parochial and insular.

“A Small Town in Germany” takes place in and around the British Embassy in early 1960’s Bonn.  Bonn is the captial of West Germany and the British Embassy serves as an island of colonialism and diplomacy, surrounded by political unrest.  A shadowy, populist politician, whose allegiance to the West is unclear, called Karfeld, is holding political rallies, courting the Soviet Bloc.  The embassy sits uneasily in the diplomatic section of the city–like a seafaring vessel surrounded by the storms of change.

A German, named Leo Harting, has gone missing from the embassy staff.  Is he a defector?  Has he stolen anything?  What’s his motive?  Le Carre uses an interesting device here–Harting never really appears on the scene.  The reader only gets others’ impressions of the man, his flaws, his character, his emotions.  In this regard, the book reminded me of a classic English cottage mystery, where the victim dies on the first page and the rest of the novel is the detective trying to piece together what kind of enemies the dead man had.  Harting functions as the victim in this schema; though he’s very much alive.  Enter, then, the detective.  Alan Turner is the spy catcher, called in from London to investigate Harting’s disappearance.

The title “A Small Town in Germany” might make you think this is a book focused on Bonn; a kind of travelogue.  It’s not.  Le Carre has little interest in portraying the sights and sounds of Bonn.  The relatively few occasions where he does so, though, sparkle.  Rather than focus on Bonn, what Le Carre has done is to successfully portray the British Embassy as a lonely island in midst of the Cold War.   The sense of isolation and tension is portrayed masterfully.  The prose often describes  closets, basements, cramped offices–re-enforcing the feeling of tightness and suspense.

In short, if you like Le Carre and your spy fiction, this is a good one.  And this is realistic spy fiction.  Unlike some other espionage authors whose stories veer off into the fantastic, Le Carre’s feet are on the ground.  The reader can well imagine that this story may have happened–and that this story is an essential part of understanding the Cold War.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Since it takes place in the early 60’s and is very Anglo-centric, I’ve got to suggest listening to Live at the BBC by the Beatles. 

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Book Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

In 1841, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach published a book entitled “The Essence of Christianity.”  This work, more often cited than read, critiqued the idea of Christianity from many sides.  Perhaps his most persistent criticism is this:  our doctrines of God are projections of our own human beliefs, virtues, impulses and characteristics onto a screen, which we call the divine.

Ninety-nine years later, Carson McCullers published a beautiful, epic debut novel, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”  The main protagonist, the deaf and mute John Singer, functions in the book as McCullers’ screen.  A young girl, a restaurateur, a black doctor and others all interact with Singer but see him as who they want him to be; not as he really is.  Crushingly, to me, Singer seems unaware and incapable of realizing this projection.

This main theme of the book seemed to me its strength but also got me to thinking very deeply about human relationships.  Do we mis-read people as badly as everyone misunderstands Singer?  I think we would all agree that we project virtues, vices and characteristics onto others that do not really represent who they are.  But McCullers’ tale is unrelenting.  There is no redemption of the main characters–in the sense that they learn from this folly.  Are we really that blind?

This book is pretty heavy, as the title gives its theme away.  No one in the novel gets what they want from life–they all struggle against loneliness and loss.  Even heroic moments and virtuous heroes don’t remain unscathed.  Mick Kelly, the character one most empathizes with, can be beautifully sensitive or ruthlessly petty.

In all this is an impressive novel, full of quiet, heart-breaking beauty.  It won’t make you smile or laugh.  But it is a book which will set the wheels to turning in your brain.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Definitely some blues.  Maybe Robert Johnson.

P.S.–The version that I got out of the library was one of those Perma-bound books we all remember from high school so well.  On the copyright page there was a recommendation for reading level of 14 and older.  Now, technically, that may be correct–I bet a 14 year old could read this book straight through without a lot of trouble.  However, what 14 year old wants to read in school a heavy novel of ideas about sexual frustration, career failure, and the like?  I’m sure there are some 14 year olds who would like it–but I’m glad I waited until I was almost 40.

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Book Review: Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

I read (and finished) Yellow Dog before I looked up any reviews of it online.  A few days ago, when I surfed the web, I found out how much I should have hated this book.  Well, I didn’t.

It seems that Yellow Dog, published in 2003, met with very negative reviews; chief among them Tibor Fischer’s excoriation of the novel in the Telegraph (entitled “Someone should have a word with Amis.”  The review goes downhill from there.)

Sure, this book has some flaws but none of them are fatal.  The book is overlong and could use a little bit of tightening up–particularly the passages on the pornography industry.  Amis’s  fondness for slang and jargon often forces the reader to parse sentences like a biblical scholar.  Some folk may find the subject matter distasteful.

The book is a series of inter-twined plots; some which have more to do with one another than others.  The first plot which unfolds, and the strongest one, deals with a London author and celebrity Xan  Meo.  Xan is hit on the head by assailants one night at the pub and Xan’s recovery from the brain injury has some interesting and realistic side effects.

A secondary plot deals with tabloid reporter Clint Smoker, who has no trouble trashing other people’s lives in print, while his own life is quite a mess.  The hypocrisy of someone who has the power to destroy you in the newspaper, while suffering similar human foibles raises the question of public verses private lives. Smoker’s section of the novel is perhaps the funniest–lots of puns, especially Clint’s texting with a mysterious ‘k8′ –Kate.

A third plot portrays a fictitious Royal Family who has encountered scandal. King Henry the Ninth is on the throne.  A voyeuristic video of his daughter, the underage Princess Victoria,  in the bath is being shuffled round various media outlets.  The person who filmed the video is unknown as is the reason for its potential release.

Other plots and sub-plots include:  a corpse riding in the baggage compartment of a commercial jet, a pornographic actress with family issues, an expatriate British gangster, and a comet that is about to hit earth.

Perhaps the critics didn’t like the multiplicity of plots but to me that seemed very much the point.  In our postmodern culture, where everything is at the speed of broadband– fast, dynamic, visual, Amis explodes the idea that we’re any less connected than we were 20 or 30 years ago.  The same issues of family dysfunction are with us as they were with our parents’ generation.  The Internet and ipods haven’t changed that.  Amis is reiterating the idea that we are of one human family, like it or not.  And we can’t excuse ourselves from our moral and cultural obligations.

Additionally, Amis writes with flair.  The sentences pop and sparkle.  Combine this with a realistically felt portrayal of the dynamics of the human condition–family betrayal, lust, aging, disappointment and you have Yellow Dog.

Music to listen to while reading Yellow Dog:  Suede, Coming Up.  (Recently re-issued, too!)

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Book Review: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s prose has an astringent, vinegary quality.  He’s not a florid stylist like Truman Capote, William Faulkner or Vladimir Nabokov.  Instead, his writing is pretty tight–few wasted words and peppery dialogue.  It is almost as if Brighton Rock is constructed only of the scaffolding–no window treatments, no finished flooring.  Yet, at the end of this book, I marvelled at how much Greene had achieved with his minimalist style– a generously formed description of 1930’s Brighton and the depths/distortions of the human spirit.

Brighton Rock tells the story of Pinkie Brown–a small town gangster, who by birth, if not by profession, is a Roman Catholic.  Pinkie is none too sure of heaven but he’s convinced of the reality of hell and damnation.  He’s particularly fixated on his own damnation.  Pinkie is involved in all sorts of gangster activity beginning with an atmospheric act of murderous violence in which Pinkie is the ringleader.

Not all went according to plan and Pinkie realizes that he has to cover his tracks if he wants to avoid the police and imprisonment.  He’s surrounded by gangster confederates, whom he only half-trusts, and a very damaging potential witness to the crime by the name of Rose.  It is Pinkie’s relationship with Rose and his craven attempts to woo, impress, wed, protect (?) and care for her that takes up the majority of the narrative. Along the way, the reader is exposed to the seaside culture of early 20th Century Brighton, vivid descriptions of poverty and lawlessness.

The book begins and ends very well.  Greene is a master at suspense.  And what made this book shine so much is that the suspense comes amidst the banal, the ordinary, the everyday, the psychological.  This is no James Bond adventure with flying jet packs and high-powered gunfights.  However, the last 60 or so pages read well and are so extraordinarily crafted, they rival Ian Fleming or even Stephen King for their impact. Greene takes the reader into Rose and Pinkie’s confidence–we’re witnesses to a marriage just begun and falling apart, human cruelty, and deep, profound questions of the Christian faith.  Highly recommended.

What to listen to when reading this:  What else but Queen’s Brighton Rock?

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