Tuesday, July 28, 2009

160. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

History: It was published in 1869, portions of an earlier version having been serialized between 1865 and 1867 in the magazine The Russian Messenger. War and Peace stretched the boundaries of literature. It has a huge cast and momentous themes: history and the role of the individual – mighty or insignificant – within its upheavals; love and marriage; the pros and cons of acting in accordance with convention; and youth versus age, and death. While he was writing it, Tolstoy called it an historical novel but he later said it was, "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.
Plot: WAR AND PEACE opens in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in 1805, as Napoleon's conquest of western Europe is just beginning to stir fears in Russia. Many of the novel's characters are introduced at a society hostess's party, among them Pierre Bezukhov, the socially awkward but likeable illegitimate son of a rich count, and Andrew Bolkonski, the intelligent and ambitious son of a retired military commander. We also meet the sneaky and shallow Kuragin family, including the wily father Vasili, the fortune-hunter son Anatole, and the ravishing daughter Helene. We are introduced to the Rostovs, a noble Moscow family, including the lively daughter Natasha, the quiet cousin Sonya, and the impetuous son Nicholas, who has just joined the army led by the old General Kutuzov.
The Russian troops are mobilized in alliance with the Austrian empire, which is currently resisting Napoleon's onslaught. Both Andrew and Nicholas go to the front. Andrew is wounded at the Battle of Austerlitz, and though he survives, he is long presumed dead. Pierre is made sole heir of his father's fortune and marries Helene Kuragina in a daze. Helene cheats on Pierre, and he challenges her seducer to a duel in which Pierre nearly kills the man.
Andrew's wife, Lise, gives birth to a son just as Andrew arrives home to his estate, much to the shock of his family. Lise dies in childbirth, leaving Andrew's devout sister Mary to raise the son. Meanwhile, Pierre, disillusioned by married life, leaves his wife and becomes involved with the spiritual practice of Freemasonry. He attempts to apply the practice's teachings to his estate management, and share these teachings with his skeptical friend Andrew, who is doing work to help reform the Russian government.
Meanwhile, the Rostov family's fortunes are failing, thanks in part to Nicholas's gambling debts. The Rostovs consider selling their beloved family estate, Otradnoe. Nicholas is encouraged to marry a rich heiress, despite his earlier promise to marry Sonya. Nicholas's army career continues, and he witnesses the great peace between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. Natasha grows up, attends her first ball, and falls in love with various men before becoming seriously attached to Andrew. Andrew's father objects to the marriage, and requires Andrew to wait a year before wedding Natasha. Natasha reluctantly submits to this demand, and Andrew goes off to travel.
After Andrew departs, his father becomes irritable and cruel toward Mary, who accepts the cruelty with Christian forgiveness. Natasha is attracted to Anatole Kuragin, who confesses his love. She eventually decides that she loves Anatole and plans to elope with him, but the plan fails. Andrew comes home and rejects Natasha for her involvement with Anatole. Pierre consoles Natasha and feels an attraction toward her. Natasha falls ill.
In 1812, Napoleon invades Russia, and Tsar Alexander reluctantly declares war. Andrew returns to active military service. Pierre observes Moscow's response to Napoleon's threat and develops a crazy sense that he has a mission to assassinate Napoleon. The French approach the Bolkonski estate, and Mary and the old Prince Bolkonski (Andrew's father) are advised to leave. The prince dies just as the French troops arrive. Mary, finally forced to leave her estate, finds the local peasants hostile. Nicholas happens to ride up and save Mary. Mary and Nicholas feel the stirrings of romance.
The Russians and French fight a decisive battle at Borodino, where the smaller Russian army inexplicably defeats the French forces, much to Napoleon's dismay. In St. Petersburg, life in the higher social circles continues almost unaffected by the occupation of Moscow. Helene seeks an annulment of her marriage with Anatole in order to marry a foreign prince. Distressed by this news, Pierre becomes deranged and flees his companions, wandering alone through Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Rostovs pack up their belongings, preparing to evacuate, but they abandon their possessions to convey wounded soldiers instead. Natasha's younger brother Petya enters the army. On the way out of the city, the Rostovs take along the wounded Andrew with them. Pierre, still wandering half-crazed in Moscow, sees widespread anarchy, looting, fire, and murder. Still obsessed with his mission of killing Napoleon, he saves a girl from a fire but is apprehended by the French authorities. Pierre witnesses the execution of several of his prison mates, and bonds with a wise peasant named Platon Karataev.
Nicholas's aunt tries to arrange a marriage between Nicholas and Mary, but Nicholas resists, remembering his commitment to Sonya. Mary visits the Rostovs to see the wounded Andrew, and Natasha and Mary grow closer. Andrew forgives Natasha, declaring his love for her before he dies. General Kutuzov leads the Russian troops back toward Moscow, which the French have finally abandoned after their defeat at Borodino. The French force the Russian prisoners of war, including Pierre, to march with them. On the way, Platon falls ill and is shot as a straggler. The Russians follow the retreating French, and small partisan fighting ensues. Petya is shot and killed.
Pierre, after being liberated from the French, falls ill for three months. Upon recovering, he realizes his love for Natasha, which she reciprocates. Pierre and Natasha are married in 1813 and eventually have four children. Natasha grows into a solid, frumpy Russian matron. Nicholas weds Mary, resolving his family's financial problems. He also rebuilds Mary's family's estate, which had been damaged in the war. Despite some tensions, Nicholas and Mary enjoy a happy family life.
Review: According to his own account, Tolstoy "spent five years of ceaseless and exclusive labor, under the best conditions of life" writing War and Peace, from about 1863 to 1869, when the book was published in its entirety in six volumes. The novel is famously, almost impossibly, enormous. It feels like a cosmos unto itself, a complete ecosystem.
Opening Line: "Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
Closing Line: “But why go to Petersburg?” Natasha suddenly asked, and hastily replied to her own question. “But no, no, he must… Yes, Mary. He must..”
Quotes: "She could not follow the opera, could not even listen to the music: she saw only painted cardboard and oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang strangely in a patch of blazing light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so grotesquely artificial and unnatural that she felt alternately ashamed and amused at the actors."
"Power is the relation of a given person to other persons, in which the more this person expresses opinions, theories and justifications of the collective action the less is his participation in that action".
Rating: Excellent.

159. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

History: It was published in July 1814 by Thomas Egerton, who published Jane Austen's two earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
Plot: The main character, Fanny Price, is a young girl from a poor family, raised by her rich uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, at Mansfield Park. She grows up with her four cousins, Tom Bertram, Edmund Bertram, Maria Bertram and Julia, but is always treated as inferior to them; only Edmund shows her real kindness. He is also the most virtuous of the siblings: Maria and Julia are vain and spoiled, while Tom is an irresponsible gambler. Over time, Fanny's gratitude for Edmund's kindness secretly grows into romantic love.
When the children have grown up, the stern patriarch Sir Thomas leaves for two years so he can deal with problems on his plantation in Antigua. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary Crawford arrive in the village, which begins a series of romantic entanglements. Mary and Edmund begin to form an attachment, though Edmund often worries that, although her manners are fashionable, they hide a lack of firm principle. However, she is engaging and charming, and goes out of her way to befriend Fanny. Fanny fears that Mary has enchanted Edmund, and love has blinded him to her flaws. Henry plays with the affections of Maria Bertram and Julia, despite Maria being already engaged to the dull, but very rich, Mr. Rushworth. Because Fanny is so little observed in the family circle, her presence is often overlooked and Fanny sees Maria and Henry in compromising situations several times.
Encouraged by Tom and his friend Mr. Yates, the young people decide to put on Elizabeth Inchbald's play Lovers' Vows; Edmund and Fanny oppose the plan, believing Sir Thomas will disapprove, but Edmund is eventually drawn into it, offering to play the part of Anhalt, who is the lover of the character played by Mary Crawford. In particular, the play provides a pretext for Henry and Maria to flirt in public. Sir Thomas arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a rehearsal, which ends the plan. Henry leaves, and Maria is crushed; she marries Mr. Rushworth and they leave for their honeymoon, taking Julia with them. Fanny's improved looks and pleasant temper endear her to Sir Thomas, who pays more attention to her care.
Henry returns to Mansfield Park and decides to amuse himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. However, her genuine gentleness and kindness cause him to fall in love with her instead. When he proposes marriage, Fanny's knowledge of his improper flirtations with her cousins, as well as her love for Edmund, cause her to reject him. The Bertrams are dismayed, since it is an extremely advantageous match for a poor girl like Fanny. Sir Thomas rebukes her for ingratitude. Thereafter she soon returns to her lower middle class family where she wishes to return to Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is hopeful that she will realize the usefulness of a rich husband. Henry goes to visit her there, to demonstrate that he has changed and is worthy of her affection. Fanny's attitude begins to soften but she still maintains that she will not marry him.
Shortly after Henry leaves, Fanny learns of a scandal involving Henry and Maria. The two have met again in London and begun an affair that, when discovered, ends in scandalous elopement and divorce. To make matters worse, the dissolute Tom has taken ill, and Julia has eloped with Mr. Yates. Fanny returns to Mansfield Park to comfort her aunt and uncle and to help take care of Tom. Although Edmund knows that marriage to Mary is now impossible because of the scandal between their relations, he goes to see her one last time. During the interview, it becomes clear that Mary doesn't condemn Henry and Maria's bad behavior, only that they got caught. Her main concern is covering it up and she angrily implies that if Fanny had accepted Henry, he would have been too busy and happy to flirt with other women. This reveals Mary Crawford's true nature to Edmund, who realizes he had idealized her as someone she is not. He tells her so and returns to. At exactly the time it should be so, and not a week sooner" Edmund realizes how important Fanny is to him, declares his love for her and they are married. Tom recovers from his illness, a steadier and better man for it, and Julia's elopement turns out to be not such a desperate business after all.
Review: Mansfield Park is the most controversial and perhaps the least popular of Austen's major novels. Regency critics praised the novel's wholesome morality, but many modern readers find Fanny's timidity and disapproval of the theatricals difficult to sympathise with and reject the idea (made explicit in the final chapter) that she is a better person for the relative privations of her childhood.
Opening Line: “About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntington, with only seventy thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to thereby be raised to the title of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and a large income.”
Closing Line: “On the event they moved to Mansfield: and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.”
Quotes: "It will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation."
Rating: Easier than the rest of Austen books.

158. Native Son – Richard Wright

History: This book was written in 1940. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. It also made Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time and established him as a spokesperson for African-American issues
Plot: Bigger Thomas wakes up in a dark, small room at the sound of the alarm clock. He lives in one room with his brother Buddy, his sister Vera, and their mother. Suddenly, a rat appears. The room turns into a maelstrom and after a violent chase, Bigger kills the animal with an iron skillet and terrorizes Vera with the dark body. Vera faints and the mother scolds Bigger who hates his family because they suffer and he cannot do anything about it.
That evening, Bigger has to see Mr. Dalton for a new job. Bigger's family depends on him. He would like to leave his responsibilities forever but when he thinks of what to do, he only sees a blank wall. He walks to the poolroom and meets his friend Gus. Bigger tells him that every time he thinks about whites, he feels something terrible will happen to him. They meet other friends, G. H. and Jack, and plan a robbery. They are all afraid of attacking and stealing from a white man, but none of them wants to admit their concerns. Before the robbery, Bigger and Jack go to the movies. They are attracted to the world of wealthy whites in the newsreel and feel strangely moved by the tom-toms and the primitive black people in the film, but they also feel that they do not belong to either of those worlds. In the movie theatre they jack off right there, apparently something that they do regularly. After the cinema, Bigger returns to the poolroom and attacks Gus violently. The fight ends any chance of the robbery occurring; Bigger is obscurely conscious that he has done this intentionally.
When he finally gets the job, Bigger does not know how to behave in the large and luxurious house. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife use strange words. They try to be kind to Bigger, but they actually make him very uncomfortable; Bigger does not know what they expect out of him. Then their daughter, Mary, enters the room, asks Bigger why he does not belong to a union, and calls her father a "capitalist." Bigger does not know that word and is even more confused and afraid to lose the job. After the conversation, Peggy, the Irish cook, takes Bigger to his room and tells him that the Daltons are a nice family but that he must avoid Mary's communist friends. Bigger has never had a room for himself before.
That night, he drives Mary around and meets her Communist boyfriend, Jan. Throughout the evening, Jan and Mary talk to Bigger, oblige him to take them to the diner where his friends are, invite him to sit at their table, and tell him to call them by their first names. Bigger does not know how to respond to their requests and becomes very frustrated, as he is simply their chauffeur for the night. At the diner they buy a bottle of rum. Bigger drives throughout the park, and Jan and Mary drink the rum and joke around in the back seat. Jan and Mary part, but Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her bedroom when they arrive home. He is terrified someone will see him with her in his arms; however, he cannot resist the temptation of the forbidden, and he kisses her.
Just then, the bedroom door opens, and Mrs. Dalton enters. Bigger knows she is blind but is terrified she will sense him there. He silences Mary by pressing a pillow into her face. Mrs. Dalton approaches the bed, smells whiskey in the air, scolds her daughter, and leaves. Mary claws at Bigger's hands while Mrs. Dalton is in the room, trying to alert Bigger that she cannot breathe. As Bigger removes the pillow, he realizes that she has suffocated. Bigger starts thinking frantically, and decides he will tell everyone that Jan, her Communist boyfriend, took Mary into the house that night. Thinking it will be better if Mary disappears and everyone thinks she has gone for a visit, he decides in desperation to burn her body in the house's furnace. Her body would not originally fit through the furnace opening, but, after decapitating her with a nearby hatchet, Bigger finally manages to put the body inside. He adds extra coal to the furnace, leaves the corpse there to burn, and goes home.
When Bigger talks with his family and meets his friends, he feels different now. The crime gives meaning to his life. When he goes back to the big house, Mrs. Dalton notices her daughter's disappearance and asks Bigger about the night before. Bigger tries to point suspicion toward Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends Bigger home for the day, and Bigger decides to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie complains, claiming that he did not love her, and he gives her some money to assure her of his affection. Bessie mentions a famous case in which the kidnappers of a child first killed him and then asked for ransom money. Bigger decides to do the same. He tells Bessie that he knows Mary has disappeared and will use that knowledge to get money from the Daltons, but in the conversation he realizes Bessie suspects him of having done something to Mary. Bigger goes back to work. Mr. Dalton has called a private detective, Mr. Britten, and this time, sensing Britten's racism, Bigger accuses Jan on the grounds of his race (he is Jewish), his political beliefs (Communist), and his friendly attitude towards black people. When Britten finds Jan, he puts the boy and Bigger in the same room and confronts them with their conflicting stories. Jan is surprised by Bigger's story but offers him help.
Bigger storms away from the Dalton's. He decides to write the false kidnap note when he discovers that the owner of the rat-infested flat his family rents is Mr. Dalton. Bigger slips the note under the Dalton's front door and then returns to his room. When the Daltons receive the note, they contact the police, who take over the investigation from Britten, and journalists soon arrive at the house. Bigger is afraid, but he does not want to leave. In the afternoon, he is ordered to take the ashes out of the furnace and make a new fire. He is terrified and starts poking the ashes with the shovel until the whole room is full of smoke. Furious, one of the journalists takes the shovel and pushes Bigger aside. He immediately finds the remains of Mary's bones and an earring in the furnace, and Bigger flees.
Bigger goes directly to Bessie and tells her the whole story. Bessie realizes that white people will think he raped the girl before killing her. They leave together, but Bigger has to drag Bessie around because she is paralyzed by fear. When they lie down together in an abandoned building, Bigger rapes Bessie, and decides that he will have to kill her. He hits Bessie's head with a brick several times before throwing her through a window and into an air shaft. He quickly realized that the only money he had was in her pocket.
Bigger runs through the city. He sees newspaper headlines concerning the crime and overhears different conversations about it. Whites call him "ape." Blacks hate him because he has given the whites an excuse for racism. But now he is someone; he feels he has an identity. He will not say the crime was an accident. After a wild chase over the rooftops of the city, the police catch him.
During his first few days in prison, Bigger does not eat, drink, or talk to anyone. Then Jan comes to see him. He says Bigger has taught him a lot about black-white relationships and offers him the help of a communist lawyer named Max. In the long hours Max and Bigger pass together, Max learns about the sufferings and feelings of black people and Bigger learns about himself. He starts understanding his relationships with his family and with the world. He acknowledges his fury, his need for a future, and his wish for a meaningful life. He reconsiders his attitudes about white people, whether they are prejudiced like Britten, or accepting like Jan.
At Bigger's trial, Max tells the judge that Bigger killed because he was cornered by society from the moment he was born. He tells them that a way to cut the evil sequence of abuse and murder is to sentence Bigger to life in prison and not to death. But the judge apparently does not sympathize and sentences Bigger to the electric chair. In the last scene, while he waits for death, Bigger tells Max, "I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em." Bigger then tells him to say "hello" to Jan. For the first time, he calls him "Jan", not "Mister", just as Jan had wanted. This signifies that he finally sees whites as individuals, rather than a looming force. During their final moments of discussion, while Bigger is on death row, Max tries to summarize how white society has conditioned great anger and effeteness into Bigger and other oppressed impoverished people, but Bigger somewhat misinterprets this and twists it into a different message in order to comfort himself. He claims that "What I killed for must've been good!" and thus exemplifies what Max has just tried to explain to him-- that white corporate society is keeping the poor people angry, and ignorant as to why they are angry. Bigger, however, does not comprehend this for exactly those same reasons, and Max becomes quite shaken and teary-eyed before the two shake hands and Max leaves, and Bigger is alone.
Review: While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright is sympathetic to the systemic inevitability behind them. The novel is a powerful statement about racial inequality and social injustices so deep that it becomes nearly impossible to determine where societal expectations/conditioning end and free will begins. As Bigger's lawyer points out, there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American, since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be. "No American Negro exists," Wright once wrote "who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull."
Opening Line: “Brrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiing!”
Closing Line: “He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.”
Quotes: “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the same and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair.” (
“There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him. It was the old feeling, hard and constant again now….”
Rating: Superb.

157. Jack Maggs – Peter Carey

History: Published in 1997.
Plot: The story centres around Jack Maggs (the equivalent of Magwitch) and his quest to meet his 'son' Henry Phipps (the equivalent of Pip). He is aided in this by the novelist Tobias Oates (a thinly disguised Charles Dickens), who associates with the mischievous Jack Maggs in order to draw inspiration for his forthcoming novel which he desperately needs to produce because of his lack of money.
Review: A character study taken from Charles Dickens character in Great Expectations, and the adventures he falls into when he tries to recover the relationship with his son. I thought it was weird and disjointed, but I did like the idea of continuing that character.
Peter Carey's Jack Maggs is cleverly plotted and ingeniously peopled but also a bit pointless. This book never quite grabbed my attention. It has colorful, complex, evolving characters in a vibrant setting. It's written well. It has a most definite plot (indeed, several of them). It even says plenty of interesting things, not only about Great Expectations--which it inverts in many particulars--but also about the corrupting influence of jealousy, the artist as a thief of others' lives, the nature of human decency, and love. I guess I never bought the central relationship of the novel, which is Maggs's bond (or imagined bond) with Phipps. That relationship was very affecting in Great Expectations, but Carey doesn't seem to have gone through the effort of reestablishing the basis for Maggs's obsession here. Indeed, this may be a more general objection: for all the color in Jack Maggs's characters, their relationships seem pretty pallid, so that when those relationships founder or break or succeed it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. The story, too, while full of action, seems half-hearted. People did stuff; stuff happened; I yawned.
Opening Line: “It was a Saturday night when the man with the red waistcoat arrived in London.”
Closing Line: “The Michell’s librarian has noted on each index card the “v. rough excision” of that page which reads: Afectionately Inscribed to PERCIVAL CLARENCE BUCKLE A Man of letters, a Patron of the Arts.”
Quotes: “His heavy limbs bled into the darkness and as the clock ticked loudly in the downstairs hallway, he seemed to flow from room to room as slow as a moon-made shadow.”
Rating: Okay.

156. Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

History: first published in 1954
Plot: Jim Dixon is not particularly dedicated to his job as a medieval history lecturer at a provincial university. Having made a bad first impression in the history department, he is concerned about being fired at the end of his first year, and seeks to hold his position by maintaining good relations with his superior, the tedious Professor Welch - an often absent-minded and unbearably pompous dilettante. He also attempts, without success, to get his article on the economic ramifications of medieval shipbuilding methods published in an academic journal, in order to enhance his meager professional standing.
Dixon is largely without the tact and prudence expected in provincial bourgeois society - character traits displayed by his difficulty in accepting the pretension of Welch and others. Dixon has contempt for just about everyone around him, including his unbearable on-again off-again "girlfriend" Margaret Peel (a fellow, but senior, lecturer), who is recovering from a botched suicide attempt, having apparently swallowed a potentially lethal dose of sleeping pills. Via a mixture of emotional blackmail and appeal to Dixon's sense of duty and pity, she manages to trap Dixon in a relationship he would rather not be in. Welch's "arty" endeavors present several opportunities for Dixon to advance his standing amongst his colleagues and superiors, but these go horribly astray. Along the way Dixon meets Christine Callaghan, a young Londoner who is dating Professor Welch's son Bertrand - an amateur painter whose pomposity particularly infuriates Dixon - and comes to find out she has just as little patience for the world of artists and connoisseurs. After initially not hitting it off particularly well, the two begin to fall in love; this becomes an undercurrent for Dixon's further contempt toward Bertrand. Bertrand, a social climber, is using his connection with Christine to reach her wealthy and well-connected Scottish uncle, who is reportedly seeking an assistant in London.
The novel reaches its climax in Dixon's lecture on "Merrie England," which goes horribly wrong as Dixon, attempting to calm his nerves with a little too much alcohol, uncontrollably begins to mock Welch and everything else that he hates; he finally goes into convulsions and passes out. Welch, of course, fires Dixon.
However, Christine's uncle, who reveals a tacit respect for Dixon's individuality and attitude towards pretension, offers Dixon the coveted assistant job in London that pays much better than his lecturing position. Dixon finally has the last laugh, as Christine finds out Bertrand was also pursuing an affair with the wife of one of Dixon's former colleagues; she decides to pursue her relationship with Dixon. At the end of the book, Dixon and Christine bump into the Welches on the street; Jim cannot help walking right up to them, with Christine on his arm, and exploding in laughter at how ridiculous they truly are.
Review: I laughed out loud many times at Jim's misadventures, from his public, very drunken lecture on "Merrie England" to his burning his host's bed sheets and side table with a cigarette and desperately trying to cover it up with a razorblade, of course making a huge mess. The ending was perfect - just the right amount of comeuppance for the some of the more horrible characters. Amis' writing seeths with irony and cynicism, it is so much fun to read.
Opening Line: “’They made a silly mistake, though,” the professor of history said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.”
Closing Line: “The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other moises of the town and by their own voices.”
Quotes: “The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad.”
Rating: Very Good.

155. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

October 2008
History: Published in 1998. The book, like the rest of Waters' novels, has a strong lesbian theme, though Tipping the Velvet in particular deals very candidly with the topic of lesbian sex and desire along with the role that economic class can play in oppression. According to Waters, the title is Victorian slang for cunnilingus. Waters was studying for her PhD, writing a dissertation on gay and lesbian literature in the Victorian era, when she decided she would rather invent stories than study them. "Two women rather isolated, probably living in the country, coming together against all odds and setting up life together in a small-scale sort of way. I just thought, God, there's so much more to lesbian history than that." Expounding on that inspiration, she added, "I wanted to write a story that had lesbians at the heart of urban life; that played with literary models; and, more importantly, showed that there was not just one way of being a lesbian, but many."
Plot: At 18 years old, Nancy, who later becomes known as Nan, lives with her family in Whitstable in the 1880s, working in the oyster house her father owns and sharing everything with her older sister. Nan joins her sister at the theatre one evening, and she is awestruck by a performer: Kitty Butler, a young woman who dresses in men's costumes and sings traditionally masculine songs. Nan gets Kitty's attention by attending all her performances, is asked backstage and to her delight eventually becomes Kitty's dresser.
Kitty is asked to perform in London by a man who becomes her manager, Walter Bliss. She asks Nan to accompany her, and Nan, completely smitten with Kitty, jumps at the chance. Kitty flounders in London at first and remains unknown. Nan supports her as her dresser and "as a sister" while Kitty travels from theatre to theatre and Walter tries different songs and performance changes to find what it is that will cause Kitty to be noticed.
At a party one evening, Kitty becomes jealous of the attention received by Nan from a young man, and although Nan brushes him off, Kitty's own feelings become known, and their relationship is consummated physically that evening. The very next day, Walter discovers by chance what has been missing from Kitty's act: a partner. Nan joins the act as Kitty's male impersonator sidekick and they become quite famous together. They engage in an affair that is kept strictly secret at Kitty's insistence. Homesick for her family after being gone more than a year, Nan travels back home for a visit and discusses the nature of her relationship with Kitty with her sister Alice. Alice rejects Nan's joy and pride in Kitty and their relationship chills. Feeling cast off from her family, Nan returns to London early to surprise Kitty, and finds her in bed with Walter.
Completely heartbroken, Nan takes her costumes and some of the money from her performances and wanders the streets of London before shutting herself away in a filthy boarding house for weeks. After learning by chance the fact that Kitty and Walter have been married, Nan wakes from her stupor and begins to assert her independence by walking the streets of London as a young man in her former theatrical costumes. Her money running out, she curiously begins to earn money as a rent boy, performing oral sex on particular men, but disguised as a man.
Boarding with another family after being tossed from the filthy Smithfield house (because the matron mistook her coming in the door as a man for her having men in her room), Nan meets Florence by chance. Florence is a charity worker who strikes up conversation. Feeling they have a connection, they make plans for a date. They go for tea and begin to get to know one another. When Florence begins to inquire of Nan what she did for a living, Nan could not bear to tell her the truth, nor could she bear lying to the girl. Instead, she excuses herself to use the ladies' room, slipping out the back door, abandoning Florence on their date. As Nan wandered London ashamed of herself, she was taken by a wealthy widow for an evening. The widow, Diana Lethaby, finds Nan on the street and has watched her for some time. Diana keeps Nan financially and physically, hidden away and almost imprisoned, for over a year. Nan is in the meantime introduced to Diana's peculiar wealthy circle of Sapphist friends, who take delight in their shared debauchery.
Being objectified by Diana and her friends, Nan feels little reason to stay, and after being found with Diana's maid in a compromising position, is struck by Diana and both are thrown out on the street in winter with nowhere to turn. Diana's maid leaves Nan at a charity house, and through will, pennies, and incredible good fortune, Nan soon finds herself on Florence's doorstep where she promptly faints.
Nan moves herself in, seemingly beyond Florence's will, to work as her maid in the house that Florence shares with her brother Ralph and an infant of unknown origin, named Cyril. Nan recovers from her life of luxurious objectification with Diana to become familiar with Florence and Ralph's connection to the Socialist movement in London. Known only as a homeless girl at first, Nan proves her worth by cooking and cleaning for the family. But the once cheery and laughing Florence is now known as moody and sad. It is discovered that Cyril is the son of a woman that also lived with Florence and Ralph - who was thrown out for being pregnant out of wedlock, died in childbirth, and who Florence loved passionately but secretly.
After a year of living with Nan, Florence invites her to a lesbian pub one evening, where much to Nan's chagrin, former fans of Kitty Butler and Nan King (her stage name) notice her and ask her if she is indeed who she is. Shocked at seeing her homeless maid in a new light, Nan tells Florence about her past and they slowly and hesitantly begin a relationship, both of them wounded and frightened.
The climax of the story surrounds a Socialist rally Ralph and Florence organize in a park in London, where Nan must teach Ralph how to speak in public. A surprisingly popular event, Nan meets Diana's maid Zena, where all is forgiven. Diana is also spotted with a new object. Ralph falters in his speech and is assisted by Nan, who completes it with him. But the biggest surprise is that Nan is approached after all these years by Kitty Butler again, who is in the crowd.
With Florence in sight, Kitty asks Nan to come back to her, to continue their affair while Kitty is married to Walter. Realizing how much shame Kitty lived in for their love, and how much of Nan was compromised during their love affair, Nan turns Kitty away and joins Florence.
Review: Tipping the Velvet is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story. The story is relentlessly plot-driven, and allows itself little time for its protagonist to reflect on the greater implications of her life and assorted lifestyles. At no point does she ponder for long the irony of her brief career as a male prostitute, or make much of the inherent conservatism of her consistently hausfrauish roles in her sexual relationships (she "dresses" her first love, the actor Kitty, and compulsively cleans her dressing room; later, she observes that she doesn't mind doing housework for Florence, her last partner, because, after all, she would do these things if she were Florence's wife)-- she's always too busy turning a trick or blacking a fireplace. Her lack of self-scrutiny makes her a more, not less, complex character; she's not a symbol of emergent lesbian identity, self-conscious or otherwise, but rather a woman looking for someone to accept and care for her.
It's a simple plot, but one which continues to compel, and by the end of the novel, as sappy as it sounds, the reader is cheering her on as she discovers that she is at last free of the spell of her first true love and able to love again. (And this is not a short book, let me note-- it takes Nancy well over 400 pages to find happiness.) Nancy's tone throughout the book, whether she is describing the bearding of an oyster (an image Waters slyly introduces and then wisely drops) or the stitching on her wealthy sadistic mistress' custom-designed leather strap-on, is simple and straightforward, unburdened on the whole by that slightly histrionic, mannered quality that characterizes the voice in so much historical fiction; her casual, frank discussion of her past (we do not know how old she is as she tells her story, but she hints at middle age) both naturalizes the sometimes freakish events (like all picaresques, the story is built on the improbable) and strips the narrative of irksome faux-Victorian fussiness
Opening Line: “Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?”
Closing Line: “From the speakers’ tent there came a muffled cheer, and a rising rippling of applause.”
Quotes “Soon her breaths became moans, then cries, soon my own voice joined hers, for the dildo that serviced her also pleasured me – her motions bring it with an ever faster, ever harder pressure against just that part of me that cared for pressure best.”
Rating: Good.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

154. Drop City – T. Coraghessan Boyle

History: Drop City was an artists' community that formed in southern Colorado in 1965. Abandoned by the early 1970s, it became known as the first rural "hippie commune". He also seemed to be influenced by the web site Home Sweet Home (http://www.diggers.org/home_free.htm). The book was published in 2003.
Plot: Set in 1970, this commune, also called Drop City, consists of seventy or so hippies headed by 40-something Norm Sender and his "chick," Premstar.
One of the primary protagonists in Drop City is Star, a young girl from New York state who has driven all the way out to California with her high-school boyfriend, Ronnie -- who calls himself Pan. Star gets increasingly disillusioned with Pan and latches on to the first somewhat sensible guy she meets--Marco. Meanwhile, the rest of the hippies have their ups and downs, usually on a various substance experiencing adventures of one type or another.
A few chapters later, the novel shifts focus to rural Boynton, Alaska, where a different kind of "living off the land" is in practice. Here, a little implausibly, Pamela is checking out a few bachelors because she has decided to go back to the land; After a brief romance, she hooks up with Sess Harder, a self-made man who seems to be just Pamela's type.
Back at Drop City, the paradise that might seem glamorous, but in reality is a lot harsher. Norm runs Drop City according to the principle LATWIDNO -- Land Access to Which is Denied Nobody. This principle predictably invites many freeloaders and troublemakers. What's worse, the California government officials want to close the commune down due to health hazards.
At such time, Norm Sender decides to move his commune to yes, Boynton, Alaska. His uncle, Roy Sender, has left him a cabin up there and the rest they can build. "We're going to take down some trees, because that's the way you do it," Norm explains to Drop City residents, "lumber is free up there, can you dig that, free -- and we're going to build four more cabins and a meeting house and we're going to build right on down to the river because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions…We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord."
Inevitably, as Drop City settles into Alaska, we get to watch the incredulous natives shift around and try to absorb them. As the cruelly harsh Alaskan winter gradually envelops Drop City life becomes a struggle, but not from the Alaskan wilderness. The hippies begin to turn on each other, and the loss o privacy and boredom turns the atmosphere sour. The commune then disintegrates.
Review: "Drop City" is partly a satire of '60s-era communitarian dreams. Boyle is a Dickensian genius at the portrayal of hypocrisy. He zeroes in mercilessly on the human tendencies that complicate this social experiment, even while portraying their simple yearnings with real tenderness and sensitivity. Still, no amount of preaching against the constraints of "bourgeois morality" can free these people from feelings of attachment or jealousy. The invitation to kick back and relax does nothing to encourage construction of a badly needed septic system. And Norm's open-door policy inevitably allows some truly frightening "cats" to wander up to the trough.
This book shows ultimately what sustains or unravels us usually comes from within. Jealousies, anger, fear--these are emotions that dog us down to the most remote places on earth and ultimately tear our carefully constructed worlds apart. You can run, but you can't hide.
Opening Line: “The morning was a fish in a net, glistening, and wriggling at the dead black border of her consciousness, but she’d never caught a fish in a net or on a hook either, so she couldn’t really say if or how or why.”
Closing Line: “He was heading home, riding the runners, breathing easy, a man clothed in fur at the head of a team of dogs in a hard wild place, going home to his wife.”
Quotes: “She drifted in and out of it then, because that was when the joint worked its way to her and she touched her lips to it and tasted her brothers’ and sisters’ communion in the wetness of it and filled her lungs with the dense sweet smoke that was going to knock her headache down and out for the count and fill her every cell and fiber with bliss, the bliss she needed and deserved and wanted because that was what this life was all about, wasn’t it?”
Rating: Excellent.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

153. Underworld – Don DeLillo

History: Written in 1997, DeLillo said that the novel’s title came to him as he thought about radioactive waste buried deep underground and about Pluto, god of death.
Plot: The novel opens on October 3, 1951, when a boy named Cotter Martin sneaks in to watch the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers. (The prologue, Pafko at the Wall, was written on its own before the novel.) In the ninth inning, Ralph Branca pitches to Bobby Thomson, who hits the ball into the stands for a three-run homer, beating the Dodgers 5-4 and capturing the National League pennant. Known to baseball fans as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World", the fate of that ball is unknown, but in DeLillo's novel, Cotter Martin wrests this valuable ball away from another fan who has just befriended him and runs home. Cotter's father, Manx, steals the ball and later sells it for thirty-two dollars and forty-five cents.
Branca and Thomson are never given much screen time, and Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra only put in cameos, but other historical figures become important parts of the story. J. Edgar Hoover muses on death, loyalty and leather masks while comedian Lenny Bruce faces the Cuban Missile Crisis by impersonating a hysterical housewife shrieking, "We're all gonna die!"
Early in the novel it is revealed that Nick Shay was in a juvenile detention center for murdering a man, but it is not until near the end of the book that we learn the details of his crime. After being released from the detention center, he is sent to a Jesuit reform school in northern Minnesota.
In the epilogue, we learn that Nick and Marian remain married despite infidelity on both sides. In fact, Nick indicates their relationship is much improved as he has opened up to her about his past – a subject that had always much-interested her and that he had been unwilling to discuss.
Review: It takes in a range of time, and a huge range of characters, that at times did not fit into each other. I felt it was extremely disjointed, difficult to follow on purpose. I may have missed some of it because it was a book on CD, because it was such a long and difficult book I got lost and then lost interest.
Opening Line: "He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful."
Closing Line: "Peace."
Quotes: “But what happens, he thought, if you die some day and it turns out everything you’ve ever done in private becomes general knowledge in the hereafter.”
Rating: okay

152. The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd

History: Published in 2004.
Plot: The plot is a lightly fictionalized story about real-life essayist Charles Lamb and his sister Mary, both passionate devotées of the Bard, and their fraught friendship with William Henry Ireland, a bookseller who unearths a trove of Shakespeare documents, including what seems to be an unknown play. The mystery of the play feels suffocated by the strictures of feminine domesticity; William chafes against his father's dominationbut they do so without craning their necks toward modernity as an escape route: Ackroyd knows that the past is another country; there his characters live, and there they stay.
Review: Peter Ackroyd's new novel, true to form, blends fiction and literary biography. I would have welcomed an afterword disentangling the fact from the fiction; but the lack of scholarly footnotes did nothing to detract from my enjoyment. The Lambs of London is a delicious entertainment, faithful to its period, but done with the lightest of touches.
Opening Line: “I loathe the stench of horses.”
Closing Line: “Charles Lamb grew old in the service of the East India Comp;any, together with Tom Coates and Benjamin Milton, and was buried in the same churchyard.”
Quotes: “What did he fear? He feared his own failure. He feared his own future.”
Rating: Okay

151. The Light of Day – Graham Swift

History: Published in 2003.
Plot: George Webb, middle-aged private detective and discharged police inspector, is taking the day off to visit a former client serving a prison sentence for murdering her husband and to place flowers on the victim’s grave on her behalf. Through Webb’s stream of consciousness we gradually learn that Sarah Nash hired him a few years earlier to shadow her husband, who was committing adultery with a beautiful Balkan refugee they had taken into their home.
Webb regarded it as just another ho-hum divorce case until he fell in love with his client and she surprised him by murdering her husband with a kitchen knife after the infatuated man had regretfully sent young Kristina back to her Croatian homeland from Heathrow Airport, sacrificing personal feelings to honor and duty. Now in the present, covered in Webb’s single November day, the detective is haunted by remorse and guilt while determined to wait out the eight remaining years until Sarah will be released and they may hopefully resume their brief but passionate love affair.
Review: In this novel, Graham Swift takes us inside Webb's mind. For one dazzling day, we see what Webb sees and know only what his thinking reveals. We learn about his childhood and the secret it forced him to carry; his changing relationship with his once-renegade daughter; the last moments with his ex-wife; his fall from grace as a cop; the unexpected ease with which he has turned his police-learned skills to the more delicate demands of his new profession. And we learn how those demands have put him in silent league with the fateful client, a woman he has come to love.
Opening Line: “Something’s come over you.”
Closing Line: “When I’m there, when I’m waiting, heart thudding, my breath billowing before my eyes, when she comes back, steps out at last into the clear light of day.”
Quotes: “There’s something just a bit pleasing about the disasters of the well-off.”
Rating: Okay.

150. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

History: This book was published in 1911. Wharton based her story on an accident that she had witnessed in Lenox, Massachusetts. The story of Ethan Frome had initially begun as a French-language composition that Wharton had to write while studying the language in Paris. It is among the few works by Wharton with a rural setting
Plot: Ethan Frome is described as “the most striking figure in Starkfield” with a “careless powerful look…in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain”. Frome's wife is the “sickly, cantankerous” Zenobia ("Zeena"). He is her sole caregiver until her young and beautiful cousin, Mattie Silver, arrives to help with housekeeping. Ethan is taken in by Mattie’s youthful beauty and good humor, but his interest in Mattie does not go unnoticed by Zeena. In fact, when she realizes Ethan and Mattie’s mutual attraction, she plans to hire someone less attractive and to have Mattie sent away.
The comfort Ethan seeks in Mattie's company is threatened when Zeena says that she will replace Mattie with a hired housemaid. During the time between this announcement and Mattie's leaving, Ethan considers leaving his wife numerous times to elope with Mattie, but every time he lacks the confidence to rebel against the morals of his being and community.
On the day of Mattie's departure, emotion overcomes Ethan, and he tells Mattie that he wants to live with her forever. A despondent Mattie pleads with Ethan to take a final sled ride down together into a bulky elm tree, so it will kill them instantly, rather than live the rest of their lives separated. Ethan, desperate to escape his loveless marriage and meaningless life, complies. The accident, however, fails to kill them because Ethan "sees" Zeena out of guilt and tries to turn away from her; instead Mattie is permanently paralyzed and Ethan is left barely able to walk.
After the story is told, the narrator is shown inside Ethan's home, where he finds two old women, one of whom complains in a whiny voice of the coldness. The whining woman turns out to be Mattie, and the other woman is a healthier Zeena who now looks after Ethan and Mattie much as they once looked after her.
Review: This tragic novel casts a weirdly mesmeric spell. Ethan is trapped by social limits and obligations to his wife. The only escape appears to be that of a Shakespearean tragedy. Wharton has a terse but certain flow to her writing, and evokes the New England winter and frustrated romance. This ineffably sad tale is filled with all the revulsion at convention that we associate with Wharton and it is also an insidious and subtle attack in the long American war between the advocates of urban and rural life. Wharton, the ultimate chronicler of urban society, marshals everything from the name of the town, Starkfield, to the portrait of the barren homestead, to the final image of the shattered family left on that farm, to paint the most dismal possible picture of rural life.
Opening Line: “The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners.”
Closing Line: “And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."
Quotes: "The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out - none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."
Rating: Okay.

149. The Plague – Albert Camus

History: published in 1947, the novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonization, but the novel is placed in the 1940s. Oran and its environs were struck by disease multiple times before Camus published this novel. According to a research report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but outbreaks after European colonization, in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.
The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial, where individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition.
Plot: In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially going unnoticed by the populace, began to die in the streets. A hysteria develops soon after, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.
The main character, Dr. Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building's concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Castel, about the illness until they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory, but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more and more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic.
Authorities are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A "special ward" is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined, corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is only enough to treat existing cases and the country's emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.
The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to "urgent" calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.
One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his lover in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God for the citizens' sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves and who would not have done so in normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal remorseful enough to attempt suicide yet fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Dr. Rieux, a vacationer Jean Tarrou, and a civil servant Joseph Grand exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.
Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, also have loved ones outside the city that they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and changes his mind. He then decides to join Tarrou and Dr. Rieux to help fight the epidemic.
At the peak of the plague's destruction, the townspeople eventually give up on their personal concerns and band together to help each other. When a child dies from the plague, Dr. Rieux criticizes Father Paneloux's first sermon about God's vengeance for sinful behaviour, citing the innocence of children. This inspires Father Paneloux to deliver a second sermon, however not to directly address the innocence, but to suggest that death was, in Paneloux's opinion, an expression of God's will. Therefore, the child's death is a "test" for Christians who have to choose between following God wholly or not at all. Paneloux also implies that all those who died from the plague were sinful. Eventually Paneloux too is stricken with illness.
When the plague ends, the townspeople return to their daily routine becoming self-absorbed and ignorant again. Rambert reunites with his wife; Cottard, not being able to make a living outside of the plague, is captured by the police; Tarrou dies just before the plague ends. Dr. Rieux learns that his wife died from illness though she was outside the city. In the final scene he stands watching the fireworks of celebration, leaving a reminder that the plague is not dead, merely subdued
Review: Although Camus's approach in the book is severe, his narrator emphasizes the ideas that we ultimately have no control, irrationality of life is inevitable, and he further illustrates the human reaction towards the ‘absurd’. The Plague represents how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd, a theory which Camus himself helped to define.
Opening Line: “The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”
Closing Line: “He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books; that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears or good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Quotes: "No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all."
Rating: Mediocre.

148. The Black Dahlia – James Elroy

September 2008
History: Published in 1987, The Black Dahlia is the first book in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, a cycle of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood, which is portrayed as a hotbed of corruption and depravity. The Quartet continues with The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.
Plot: Set during the inter-war and post World War II years in Los Angeles, Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert is a former boxer and a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. The prologue segment begins during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 where Bleichert comes to the rescue of Officer Lee Blanchard, who is caught up in the middle of the rampage between American servicemen and Mexican zoot suit gangs. They apprehend a wanted criminal and take refuge in an abandoned home while waiting out the riot. Here they size each other up as boxers and cops. Afterwards Bleichert reflects on how Blanchard is eventually promoted to Sergeant while he continues his mundane job as a radio car patrolman in the Bunker Hill section of L.A.
In November 1946 Bucky is offered a promotion if he agrees to an inter-departmental boxing match against Lee in hopes it will help raise support for a political bond issue increasing pay for the LAPD but with a slight tax increase. After realizing that his fathers' health is failing and in need of constant care he decides to take up the offer. Bucky also meets Kay Lake, a former artist who lives with Lee, and the two form a relationship. After the fight he is transferred to Warrants Officer as a reward and partnered with Lee Blanchard. Although Bucky shows interest in Kay he doesn't proceed further due to his friendship with Lee.
While Bucky and Lee are on a stakeout they see a commotion on the corner lot of 39th street and South Norton Avenue. There they witness the discovery of the mutilated body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short. Dubbed "The Black Dahlia" by the press the case shocks the public and overwhelms the LAPD, hitting Lee especially hard. Meanwhile, Bucky feels that the large number of detectives and policemen on the case are adequate, and requests reassignment back to Warrants but the request is denied by Ellis Lowe, Deputy Los Angeles D.A.
Acting on a hunch while canvassing for clues he meets the mysterious and alluring Madeleine Sprague, a wealthy and promiscuous socialite who resembles the Dahlia. Bucky soon makes a proposition to Madeleine who agrees to a relationship and in return Bucky suppresses a potential connection to the Dahlia. While the case rolls on, Lee, becoming more and more detached, begins to act erratically, and eventually disappears after a confrontation with their superiors and with Bucky.
While simultaneously juggling a relationship with Kay, Madeleine, and looking for Lee, Bucky works closely with Russell Millard, an immediate superior and an honest cop with a genuine heart to find the killer of Beth Short. Under pressure from Ellis Loew, Bucky is temporarily paired with veteran detective Fritz Vogel, a brutal and self-serving cop also on the case. However, Bucky intentionally blows his assignment with Vogel and is retaliated against by Loew. In an act of revenge Bucky uncovers a scandal involving Fritz and some evidence he was suppressing. This results in him being sent back to the grind of foot patrolman in a dangerous section of South Central L.A. He then breaks up with Madeleine.
After the incident with Vogel, Bucky sets out for Tijuana searching for Lee. Upon his return he only then marries Kay.
Two years pass, and with Bucky's detective career destroyed he transfers to S.I.D and becomes a lab technician. While working on the QT with Russ Millard he begins dwelling on the murder of Elizabeth Short after uncovering some overlooked clues and people associated with her. However, his marriage ends up in jeopardy after a suicide investigation of a wealthy businessman piques his curiosity about the Sprague family. He quickly reignites his relationship with Madeleine Sprague. He also develops a deeper obsession with Beth Short and her murder.
With his marriage to Kay in ruins, and the uncovering of more clues Bucky finally discovers who is responsible for the murder of Elizabeth Short, however this is not revealed to the reader, because in real life the murderer was never found. The novel ends with possible hope for Bucky's future with Kay.
Review: The mysteries of James Ellroy.. in which the evil has started to ooze out into public view, where the cops have been so desensitized by their contact with that evil that they are often as brutal as the criminals, and where crimes are not necessarily ever solved. Bucky's fascination with the murder is contagious, and as a reader I found myself wanting to know more about the true Elizabeth Short and the fictional version of her in the book. I had to read on to find out what would happen, but after I had finished the book, I was disappointed in the ending, as well as in the true life version. I had a difficult time coming back to the book, the story itself about Bucky didn’t interest me. Black Dahlia is a particularly personal work, with the famous unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947 standing in for the tragic murder of Ellroy's own mother in 1958. Similarly, the cop, Bucky Bleichert, who is consumed by the case and descends into madness, eerily parallels Ellroy himself (who has written about his own tortured fascination with his mother's slaying in My Dark Places). Where we tend to read mysteries because we like to solve puzzles ands want the reassurance that good triumphs over evil, Ellroy offers us instead unsolvable crime and the unsettling sensation that evil may well triumph and that the good guys may be as dangerous as the bad guys.
Opening Line: “I never knew her in her life.”
Closing Line: “I put Lee Blanchard’s house on the market and caught a flight to Boston.”
Quotes: “It was the nude, mutilated body of a young woman, cut in half at the waist. The bottom half lay in the weeds a few feet away from the top, legs wide open.”
Rating: Mediocre.

147. Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne

History: This novel was first published in 1873 in France.
Plot: The story starts in London on October 2, 1872. Phileas Fogg is a wealthy English gentleman who lives unmarried in solitude. Despite his wealth, which is of unknown origin, Mr. Fogg, whose countenance is described as "repose in action", lives a modest life with habits carried out with mathematical precision. As is noted in the first chapter, very little can be said about Mr. Fogg's social life other than that he is a member of the Reform Club. Having dismissed his former valet, James Foster, for bringing him shaving water at 84 degrees Fahrenheit rather than the regular 86, Mr. Fogg hires the Frenchman Passepartout, of around 30 years of age, as a replacement.
Later, on that day, in the Reform Club, Fogg gets involved in an argument over an article in The Daily Telegraph, stating that with the opening of a new railway section in India, it is now possible to travel around the world in 80 days.
He accepts a wager for £20,000 from his fellow club members, which he will receive if he makes it around the world in 80 days. Accompanied by his manservant Passepartout, he leaves London by train at 8.45 P.M. on October 2, 1872, and thus is due back at the Reform Club at the same time 80 days later, on December 21.
Fogg and Passepartout reach Suez in time. While disembarking in Egypt, they are watched by a Scotland Yard detective named Fix, who has been dispatched from London in search of a bank robber. Because Fogg matches the description of the bank robber, Fix mistakes Fogg for the criminal. Since he cannot secure a warrant in time, Fix goes on board the steamer conveying the travellers to Bombay. During the voyage, Fix becomes acquainted with Passepartout, without revealing his purpose. On the voyage, Fogg promises the engineer a large reward if he gets them to Bombay early. They dock two days ahead of schedule.
Now with two days extra, Fogg and Passepartout switch to the railway in Bombay, setting off for Calcutta, Fix now following them undercover. As it turns out that the construction of the railway is not totally finished, they are forced to get over the remaining gap between two stations by riding an elephant, which Phileas Fogg purchases at the prodigious price of 2,000 pounds.
During the ride, they come across a suttee procession, in which a young Parsi woman, Aouda, is led to a sanctuary to be sacrificed by the process of sati the next day by Brahmins. Since the young woman is drugged with the smoke of opium and hemp and obviously not going voluntarily, the travelers decide to rescue her. They follow the procession to the site, where Passepartout secretly takes the place of Aouda's deceased husband on the funeral pyre, on which she is to be burned the next morning. During the ceremony, he then rises from the pyre, scaring off the priests, and carries the young woman away. Due to this incident, the two days gained earlier are lost but Fogg does not show sign of regret.
The travelers then hasten on to catch the train at the next railway station, taking Aouda with them. At Calcutta, they can finally board a steamer going to Hong Kong. Fix, who had secretly been following them, has Fogg and Passepartout arrested in Calcutta. However, they jump bail and Fix is forced to follow them to Hong Kong. On board, he shows himself to Passepartout, who is delighted to meet again his traveling companion from the earlier voyage.
In Hong Kong, it turns out that Aouda's distant relative, in whose care they had been planning to leave her, has moved, likely to Holland, so they decide to take her with them to Europe. Meanwhile, still without a warrant, Fix sees Hong Kong as his last chance to arrest Fogg on British soil. He therefore confides in Passepartout, who does not believe a word and remains convinced that his master is not a bank robber. To prevent Passepartout from informing his master about the premature departure of their next vessel, Fix gets Passepartout drunk and drugs him in an opium den. In his dizziness, Passepartout yet manages to catch the steamer to Yokohama, but neglects to inform Fogg.
Fogg, on the next day, discovers that he has missed his connection. He goes in search of a vessel that will take him to Yokohama. He finds a pilot boat that takes him and his companion (Aouda) to Shanghai, where they catch a steamer to Yokohama. In Yokohama, they go on a search for Passepartout, believing that he may have arrived there with the original connection. They find him in a circus, trying to earn his homeward journey.
Reunited, the four board a steamer taking them across the Pacific to San Francisco. Fix promises Passepartout that now, having left British soil, he will no longer try to delay Fogg's journey, but rather support him in getting back to Britain as fast as possible (to have him arrested there).
In San Francisco, they get on the train to New York. On the next day, Fogg starts looking for an alternative for the crossing of the Atlantic. He finds a small steamboat, destined for Bordeaux. However, the captain of the boat refuses to take the company to Liverpool, whereupon Fogg consents to be taken to Bordeaux. On the voyage, he bribes the crew to mutiny and take course for Liverpool. Going on full steam all the time, the boat runs out of fuel after a few days. Fogg buys the boat at a very high price from the captain, soothing him thereby, and has the crew burn all the wooden parts to keep up the steam.
The companions arrive at Queenstown, Ireland, in time to reach London via Dublin and Liverpool before the deadline. However, once on British soil again, Fix produces a warrant and arrests Fogg. A short time later, the misunderstanding is cleared up—the actual bank robber had been caught three days earlier in Edinburgh.
In response to this, Fogg, in a rare moment of impulse, punches Fix, who immediately falls to the ground. However, Fogg has missed the train and returns to London five minutes late, assured that he has lost the wager.
In his London house the next day, he apologizes to Aouda for bringing her with him, since he now has to live in poverty and cannot financially support her. Aouda suddenly confesses that she loves him and asks him to marry her, which he gladly accepts. He calls for Passepartout to notify the reverend. At the reverend's, Passepartout learns that he is mistaken in the date, which he takes to be Sunday but which actually is Saturday due to the fact that the party traveled east, thereby gaining a full day on their journey around the globe, by crossing the International Date Line. He did not notice this in the USA, since there were daily trains, and because he hired his own ship across the Atlantic.
Passepartout hurries back to Fogg, who immediately sets off for the Reform Club, where he arrives just in time to win the wager. Fogg marries Aouda and the journey around the world is complete.
Review: This is a great classic and comes from a writer with a solid canon of pacey adventure stories. But what you miss in the film and cartoon versions is the sheer scale of the effort of Jules Verne’s vision. He must have sat there with maps, guide books and numerous steamer and train timetables to be able not only to map the journey round the world but also factor in the numerous diversions that Phileas Fogg and company have to take. Add to that the descriptions of the places they visit, which all sound as if Verne has had personal experience of them and you are left admiring not just the story but the ambition of it.
Opening Line: “In the year 1872, No. 7 Savile Row, Burlington Gardens2 - the house where Sheridan3 died in 1814 - was occupied by Phileas Fogg, Esq.”
Closing Line: “In truth, wouldn’t anyone go round the world for less?”
Quotes: "His master's idea charmed him; he perceived a heart, a soul, under that icy exterior. He began to love Phileas Fogg"
Rating: Good.

146. Tarzan of the Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs

History: It was first published in the pulp magazine All-Story Magazine in October, 1912; the first book edition was published in 1914.
Plot: The novel tells the story of John Clayton, born in the western coastal jungles of equatorial Africa to a marooned couple from England, John and Alice (Rutherford) Clayton, Lord and Lady Greystoke. Adopted as an infant by the she-ape Kala after his parents died (his father is killed by the savage king ape Kerchak), Clayton is named "Tarzan" ("White Skin" in the ape language) and raised in ignorance of his human heritage.
Feeling alienated from his peers due to their physical differences, he discovers his true parents' cabin, where he first learns of others like himself in their books, with which he eventually teaches himself to read.
On his return from one visit to the cabin, he is attacked by a huge gorilla which he manages to kill with his father's knife, although he is terribly wounded in the struggle. As he grows up, Tarzan becomes a skilled hunter, exciting the jealousy of Kerchak, the ape leader, who finally attacks him. Tarzan kills Kerchak and takes his place as "king" of the apes.
Later, a tribe of black Africans settles in the area, and Kala is killed by one of its hunters. Avenging himself on the killer, Tarzan begins an antagonistic relationship with the tribe, raiding its village for weapons and practicing cruel pranks on them. They, in turn, regard him as an evil spirit and attempt to placate him.
Subsequently, a new party of whites is marooned on the coast, including Jane Porter, the first white woman Tarzan has ever seen. Tarzan's cousin, William Cecil Clayton, unwitting usurper of the ape man's ancestral English estate, is also among the party. Tarzan spies on the newcomers, aids them, and saves Jane from the perils of the jungle. Absent when they are rescued, he is introduced further into the mysteries of civilization by French Naval Officer Paul D'Arnot, whom he saves from the natives. D'Arnot teaches Tarzan French and how to behave among white men, as well as serving as his guide to the nearest colonial outposts.
Ultimately, Tarzan travels to Jane's native Baltimore, Maryland only to find that she is now in the woods of Wisconsin. Tarzan finally meets Jane in Wisconsin where they renew their acquaintance and he learns the bitter news that she has become engaged to William Clayton. Meanwhile, clues from his parents' cabin have enabled D'Arnot to prove Tarzan's true identity. Instead of claiming his inheritance, Tarzan chooses rather to conceal and renounce his heritage for the sake of Jane's happiness.
Review: There are certain books and authors that have an inordinate impact on our lives. Often as not, their particular significance to us as individuals extends far beyond that which they would have to anyone else and sometimes, if we return to them at a different point in our own lives, it can be hard to recapture why they should have seemed so momentous in the first place. One of the authors who really turned me into a reader was Edgar Rice Burroughs and I am ecstatic to find that his books are just as terrific in real life as they are in memories. Tarzan is one of a small group of fictional characters--the others being Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes--created in the last 200 years who have acquired lives of their own, far outlasting their creators to be constantly reprised and reimagined. If we examine this quartet, they are united by one central theme; each represents man's desire to in some way control nature.
Opening Line: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.”
Closing Line: “I was born there,” Said Tarzan quietly. “My mother was an ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.”
Quotes: “A vivid and blinding light flashed from the whirling, inky clouds above. The deep cannonade of roaring thunder belched forth its fearsome challenge. The deluge came--all hell broke loose upon the jungle.”
Rating: Excellent.

145. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

History: first published in 1945. Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". This is achieved by an examination of the Catholic aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.
Plot: The story happens during wartime. Charles Ryder is stationed at Brideshead. He recalls his past experiences there as a guest of the Marchmains, a great Roman Catholic family. His acquaintance with them begins at Oxford, where he meets Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the Marquis of Marchmain. Sebastian, the brilliant, charming "half-heathen" second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, the author seems to suggest, parallels England's change from the old order to the new. After an unpleasant chance first encounter, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, a student at Oxford University, and Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic family and himself an undergraduate, become friends; getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility Sebastian takes Charles to his family's palatial home, Brideshead, where Charles eventually meets the rest of Sebastian's family, including his sister Julia, where there is an instant attraction.
Lord Marchmain has deserted his family to live in Venice with his mistress. He has two daughters, Julia and Cordelia. Sebastian holds himself aloof from his mother Lady Marchmain who is a devoted Catholic, along with his sisters. Sebastian spends much of his time drinking, sinking into alcoholism. During the holiday Charles returns home, where he lives with his widower father. Scenes between Charles and his father Ned (Edward) provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. He is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury. Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the summer together. They form something between a friendship and a romance. Waugh writes that Charles had been "in search of love in those days" when he first met Sebastian, finding "that low door in the wall... which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden", a metaphor that informs the work on a number of levels.
Sebastian's family is Catholic, which influences the Marchmain’s lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity to be "without substance or merit." Lord Marchmain had converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in order to marry his wife but soon escaped both his marriage and religion to Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focused even more on her faith, which is also very much espoused by her eldest son, Bridey, and her youngest daughter, Cordelia. Sebastian, a troubled young man, seems to find greater solace in alcohol than in religion, and descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where the disease ruins his health. After his mother dies, he eventually finds some solace as an under-porter/charity case at a Tunisian monastery.
Sebastian's drifting leads to Charles' own estrangement from the Marchmains, yet he is fated to re-encounter the family as the years pass. He marries and fathers two children, but his wife is unfaithful and he eventually forms a relationship with Sebastian's younger sister Julia, who by that time has married but separated from the wealthy but coarse Canadian entrepreneur, Rex Mottram.
Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses so that they can marry. On the eve of World War II, the aging Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die in his ancestral home. As he names Julia heiress to the estate, this would give Charles marital ownership of the house. Lord Marchmain's deathbed return to the faith changes the situation: Julia decides that she cannot enter a sinful marriage with Charles, who too has been moved by Lord Marchmain's reception of the sacraments.
The plot concludes in the early spring of 1943. Charles is "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless". He has become an army officer after establishing a career as an architectural artist, and finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead. Charles finds the house damaged by the military occupation but the private chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain's death in 1926, has been reopened for the soldiers' worship. It occurs to him that the chapel (and, by extension, the Church's) builders' efforts were not in vain, even when their purposes may appear, for a time, to be frustrated.
Review: Brideshead Revisited was a social commentary. It is a portrait of excess and wealth, but also of the decline of the aristocracy in Britain. Charles witnesses these changes in society and is affected by them through Julia and the rest of the Flyte clan, whom are very complex. It might take another close reading of the book to really get at the heart of each of them. Evelyn Waugh wrote such deep and intricate characters; this book is worth reading for them, if nothing else.
The heart of this book is really the discussion of faith and religion. Waugh focuses on the meaning of religion to a person, even if they have turned their back on it. There is a measure of Catholic guilt present in the novel as well, exemplified by Sebastian. All in all, it's a very interesting discussion.
Opening Line: “When I reached C Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of the morning.”
Closing Line: “You’re looking unusually cheerful to-day,” said the second-in-command.”
Quotes: “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”
“We possess nothing certainly except the past.”
Rating: Excellent.

144. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

History: The 1969 autobiography about the early years of African-American writer and poet Maya Angelou. The first in a six-volume series, it is a coming-of-age story that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. Angelou was challenged by her friend, author James Baldwin, and her editor, Robert Loomis, to write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature. Because Angelou uses thematic development and other techniques common to fiction, reviewers often categorize Caged Bird as autobiographical fiction, but the prevailing critical view characterizes it as an autobiography, a genre she attempts to critique, change, and expand. The book covers topics common to autobiographies written by black American women in the years following the civil rights movement: a celebration of black motherhood; a critique of racism; the importance of family; and the quest for independence, personal dignity, and self-definition.
Plot: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings follows Marguerite's (called "My" or "Maya" by her brother) life from the age of three to seventeen and the struggles she faces – particularly with racism – in the Southern United States. Abandoned by their parents, Maya and her older brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother (Momma) and crippled uncle (Uncle Willie) in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya and Bailey are haunted by their parents' abandonment throughout the book – they travel alone and are labeled like baggage.
Many of the problems Maya encounters in her childhood stem from the overt racism of her white neighbors. Although Momma is relatively wealthy because she owns the general store at the heart of Stamps' black community, the white children of their town hassle Maya's family relentlessly. One of these "powhitetrash" girls, for example, reveals her pubic hair to Momma in a humiliating incident. Early in the book, Momma hides Uncle Willie in a vegetable bin to protect him from Ku Klux Klan raiders. Maya has to endure the insult of her name being changed to Mary by a racist employer. A white speaker at her eighth grade graduation ceremony disparages the black audience by suggesting that they have limited job opportunities. A white dentist refuses to treat Maya's rotting tooth, even when Momma reminds him that she had loaned him money during the Depression. The black community of Stamps enjoys a moment of racial victory when they listen to the radio broadcast of Joe Louis's championship fight, but generally they feel the heavy weight of racist oppression.
A turning point in the book occurs when Maya and Bailey's father unexpectedly appears in Stamps. He takes the two children with him when he departs, but leaves them with their mother in St. Louis, Missouri. Eight-year-old Maya is sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. He is found guilty during the trial, but escapes jail time and is murdered, probably by Maya's uncles. Maya feels guilty and withdraws from everyone but her brother. Even after returning to Stamps, Maya remains reclusive and nearly mute until she meets Mrs. Bertha Flowers, "the aristocrat of Black Stamps",[19] who supplies her with books to encourage her love of reading. This coaxes Maya out of her shell.
Later, Momma decides to send her grandchildren to their mother in San Francisco, California, to protect them from the dangers of racism in Stamps. Maya attends George Washington High School and studies dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she becomes the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. While still in high school, Maya visits her father in southern California one summer, and has some experiences pivotal to her development. She drives a car for the first time when she must transport her intoxicated father home from an excursion to Mexico. She experiences homelessness for a short time after a fight with her father's girlfriend.
During Maya's final year of high school, she worries that she might be a lesbian, and initiates sexual intercourse with a teenage boy. She becomes pregnant, and on the advice of her brother, she hides from her family until her eighth month of pregnancy in order to graduate from high school. Maya gives birth at the end of the book and begins her journey to adulthood by accepting her role as mother to her newborn son.
Review: This story is rich with character as Maya is surrounded by those who live under the rules of the South. The feelings portrayed are raw, and the role of a child’s imagination is poignant—magnificently done. She manages to bring out aspects beyond those of a young girl’s private thoughts through real events like Joe Louis’s world championship boxing match. A clear victory for blacks in the eyes of the black community, but an example of the white man’s media failing to publicly recognized an African American as a hero. Louis’ victory also shows the desperate, lonely nature of the black community’s hope for vindication.
Maya begins to learn that she and her family are meant to be held back by a fearful public. Limited in what they can do to better themselves—demeaned for even trying. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a story about the pressures of living in a thoroughly racist society and how profoundly such a society shapes the character of an individual and the dynamics of a family. It is a story of how one girl strived to surmount such pressures.
Opening Line: “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to say…”
Closing Line: “She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.”
Quotes: "They don't really hate us. They don't know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared."
"At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice."
Rating: Good.

143. City Primeval – Elmore Leonard

August 2008
History: Published in 1980.
Plot: A story about a detective who is trying to arrest this white trash guy, and he is in love with his lawyer. The white trash has committed the murders, and he knows how to evade arrest, but he gets his in the end.
Review: I listened to this book, narrated by Frank Muller. The characters weren’t too believable. I’m not a big fan of these types of detective stories. Oh well.
Opening Line: ‘In the matter of Alvin B Guy, Judge of recorders court, city of Detroit: the investigation of the judicial tenure commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
Closing Line: “After a little while Raymond picked up the opener from the desk and began paring the nail of his right index finger with the sharply pointed hooked edge.”
Quotes: “I think you’re afraid of women, “ the girl from The News said. “I think that’s the root of the problem.”
Rating: Mediocre

142. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

History: Published in 1962, the title is taken from an old Cockney expression, "as queer as a clockwork orange", and alludes to the prevention of the main character's exercise of his free will through the use of a classical conditioning technique. With this technique, the subject’s emotional responses to violence are systematically paired with a negative stimulation in the form of nausea caused by an emetic medicine administered just before the presentation of films depicting "ultra-violent" situations. Written from the perspective of a seemingly biased and unapologetic protagonist, the novel also contains an experiment in language: Burgess creates a new speech that is the teenage slang of the not-too-distant future.
Plot: Alex, a young teenager living in a near-future England, leads his gang on nightly orgies of random, opportunistic violence. Alex's friends ("droogs" in the novel's Anglo-Russified slang) are Dim, a slow-witted bruiser who is the gang's muscle; Georgie; and Pete. Alex, quick-witted and possessing an often disconcerting sense of humour, is clearly the smartest of the group and even seemingly cultured.
The novel opens with the thugs hunkered down in their favourite Milkbar, drinking drugged milk to hype themselves for the night's mayhem. They beat up a scholar walking home from the library, stamp a panhandling derelict, scuffle with a rival gang led by Billyboy, rob a newsagent and leave its owners unconscious, then steal a car. Joyriding in the countryside, they break into an isolated cottage and maul the young couple living there, beating the husband and raping his wife. The droogs ditch the car, and Dim and Georgie make clear their dissatisfaction with Alex's domination of the gang. At home in his dreary flat, Alex plays classical music thunderously while bringing himself to climax with fantasies of even more orgiastic violence.
Alex skips school the next morning and is visited by P. R. Deltoid, a "post-corrective advisor" assigned to remediate his juvenile delinquency. Visiting his favourite music shop, Alex picks up a pair of pre-teen girls and takes them back to his parents' flat, where he forces them to indulge in sexual interaction after being provided with alcohol.
Later, Alex chats with his parents, who are skeptical of his claims about having a night job but too intimidated to press the issue. Arriving late to meet the droogs, who have already pumped themselves up with "the old knifey moloko" (i.e., drugged milk), Alex is at a disadvantage. Georgie challenges Alex for leadership of the gang, demanding that they pull a "mansized" job by robbing a wealthy old woman who lives alone with her cats. Alex quells the rebellion by slashing Dim and Georgie in a knife fight, then in a show of generosity takes them to a bar for some fortifying drinks. Georgie and Dim are ready to call it a night, but Alex bullies them into proceeding with the burglary. Alex enters through a second-floor window and, after a farcical struggle, knocks the old woman unconscious. When he tries to flee, Dim attacks him and the droogs leave Alex incapacitated in the doorway as they run off. Alex is roughed up by the police. The next day he finds out that the woman has died and he will be charged with murder.
Alex is sent to prison. After enduring prison life for two years, Alex gets a job as an assistant to the prison chaplain. He feigns an interest in religion and amuses himself by reading the Bible for its lurid descriptions of "the old yahoodies (Jews) tolchocking (beating) each other" and imagining himself taking part in "the nailing-in" (the Crucifixion of Jesus). Alex learns of his ex-droog Georgie's death by an intended victim during a botched robbery. After helping to kill (although accidentally) a fellow prisoner in his cell, Alex is selected to become the subject in the first full-scale trial of the Ludovico Technique. The technique itself is a form of aversion therapy, in which Alex is given a drug that induces extreme nausea while being forced to watch graphically violent films for two weeks. Strapped into a seat before a large screen, Alex is forced to watch an unrelenting series of violent acts. During the sessions, Alex begins to realise that not only the violent acts but the music on the soundtrack is triggering his nausea attacks. By the end of the treatment, Alex is unable to listen to Beethoven's 9th symphony without incapacitating nausea and distress.
A few weeks later, Alex is presented to an audience of prison and government officials as a successfully rehabilitated inmate and potential member of society. Alex's conditioning makes him unable to defend himself against a pummeling bully and cripples him with nausea when the sight of a scantily clad woman arouses his predatory sexual impulses. The prison chaplain rises to denounce the treatment and accuses the state of stripping Alex of the ability to choose good over evil. And so Alex is released into society.
After his release from prison, Alex's former victims seek revenge. The Ludovico treatment leaves him ill when he attempts violence, so he is powerless. Alex returns home, joyful at the thought of starting afresh but finds that his parents have rented out his room to a lodger named Joe, essentially "replacing" their son. Despondently wandering, Alex stops at the Korova Milk Bar and drinks synthemesc-laced milk, as opposed to his usual drencrom-laced milk. He visits the music store, but the technique made him incapable of listening to his beloved classical music. Alex decides to commit suicide, but is unable to because the technique prevents him from committing any act of violence, including against himself. In the public library, Alex is quickly recognised by the elderly librarian whom he had beaten up with his droogs in chapter one. With his friends, the librarian attacks and beats Alex. The police (called by the librarian) turn out to be Dim and Billyboy. Taking advantage of their positions, they take Alex to the town's edge, beat him, nearly drown him, and leave him for dead.
Alex wanders in a daze through the countryside until he collapses at the door of an isolated cottage. Too late he realises this is the home he and his droogs invaded at the start of the book. He is taken in by F. Alexander, the husband of the woman the droogs gang-raped; Mr. Alexander doesn't recognise Alex because the droogs were wearing masks during the assault. We learn that Mrs. Alexander died of the injuries inflicted during the gang-rape, and her husband has decided to continue "where her fragrant memory persists" despite the horrid memories. Mr. Alexander recognises Alex from newspaper publicity about the behaviour-mod treatment, and sees an opportunity to use him as a political weapon by turning him into a poster child for the victims of fascism. Alex has been careless with words during his time in Mr. Alexander's care, and the writer begins to suspect they have met before. One of his political activist friends takes Alex aside and puts the question to him bluntly: Alex, cornered, makes a non-denial denial by saying "Lord knows I've suffered". "We'll speak no more of it", the friend assures him, but later on Alex is taken to another house, locked into a high room and tormented with classical music, triggering the maddening effect of the Ludovico treatment. Driven to insanity by the music, Alex jumps from his bedroom window in an attempt to end his life.
Alex wakes up in a hospital, where he learns that the government, trying to reverse the bad publicity it incurred in the wake of Alex's suicide attempt, has reversed the effects of the Ludovico treatment. Mr. Alexander has been incarcerated in a mental institution, "for his own protection and for yours," Alex is told. In return for agreeing to "play ball" with the powers that be, Alex is promised a cushy job at high salary. His parents take him back in, and Alex happily ponders returning to his life of ultra-violence.
In the final chapter, Alex finds himself half-heartedly preparing for yet another night of crime with a new trio of droogs. After watching them beat an innocent stranger walking home with a newspaper, he begins to feel bored with his life of violence. He abandons the gang then has a chance encounter with Pete, who has reformed and married. Alex begins contemplating giving up crime himself to become a productive member of society and start a family of his own, while reflecting on the notion that his own children could be just as destructive as he was himself.
Review: Anthony Burgess’s own Nadsat — the slangy dialect comprised of Russian jargon, skewed syntax, and odd bits of Cockney rhyming slang in which the whole of A Clockwork Orange is narrated - after the first few pages, attentive readers should have no difficulty navigating the linguistic tangle of little Alex’s unique speech — its strange rhythms and playful usage having become a sheer pleasure by novel’s end. I used a glossary for most of the book, which was helpful.
Compelling too is the person of Alex, the bright, vicious, ignorant, selfish, and strangely endearing little monster at the heart of the story. And, despite his vileness, the reader cannot help but like him. His narrative voice is charming, his youthful enthusiasm almost relatable, and the light-hearted innocence with which he approaches his despicable acts has a way of distancing the reader from the real horror of the events depicted. So too does the Nadsat lingo form a barrier between the reality of what is transpiring and Alex’s filtered perception of it.
This kind of distancing is absolutely necessary for a reader if they are to sympathize with Alex enough to follow his character arc, and if this aspect of the novel had not worked, the entire story would have fallen flat. But work it does, and work brilliantly, and it pulls the reader along as Alex is arrested for killing, thrown into an overcrowded state jail and, finally, selected for a Pavlovian experimental rehabilitation technique that will transform him into something else completely.
Alex emerges back into the world, and is subjected to neglect, abuse, and manipulation by those that see in him a perfect tool to use against the government. It is clear that Alex has become something less than human, that he is a thing without choices, lacking even the ability to assert his humanity in the face of those that wish to take advantage of him.
Now, maybe that is a kind of justice, but Burgess is presenting a more complete argument than a mere who-deserves-what. In this future world, where the state wishes to smooth every square peg under its control — by knocking corners off if necessary —Alex’s plight is indicative of the lengths at which societies will go to suppress individuality. As Alex sees it, his ultraviolence is a form of self-expression, a spot of kroovy-red color in a gray, conformist world. He makes it quite clear that he is no victim of circumstance or neglect or cognitive deficiency — on the contrary, he chooses evil because he wishes to do evil. Not an attitude that is easy to embrace, but Burgess is concerned with elaborating on the fullness of the moral equation of choice in A Clockwork Orange; that goodness cannot exist without evil or the choice of evil, and that coerced goodness, goodness that is imposed and not chosen, is inhuman. Alex, a pitiful puppet by the book’s end, has been stripped of his humanity by the so-called therapy that was to turn him into a good little boy again. He has become a clockwork orange.
Which, if you were wondering, is an old bit of Cockney slang Burgess had always been fond of, “queer as a clockwork orange,” being about as queer a thing as could be. Alex, like all of us, is organic, imperfect, capable of sweetness and acidity, but he is reduced to a mechanism, a wind-up toy that behaves only as the state wishes him to behave. Even the best that was in him, such as his exuberance, initiative, and his love of music, has been taken away. But that is not the full story, for malenky Alex becomes a political pawn, first used by a radical opposition group, then by the government itself. He’s come full circle, in a way, and is given back his free will by the same people that took it away in the first place.
Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange with twenty-one chapters, three equal sections of seven adding up to twenty-one — a number that represents coming of age. What comes as a big surprise to those only familiar with the American version (cut with Burgess’s permission, but not endorsement) is that in the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange little Alex grows up.
He’s back out in the world, cured, viscous and nasty as ever, teaching a new generation of droogs the pleasures of the old dirty twenty-to-one. But Alex is changing, he’s uneasy and bored with the senselessness of his life. Burgess talks about this in his introduction to the complete 1986 edition of the novel, saying that the sort of mindless and unthinking destructiveness of Alex’s nighttime pursuits is really the purview of the young, and that with maturity youth outgrows such impulses. While that’s an optimistic view, and an accurate one in many senses, I don’t think Burgess means it to excuse away the nightmare reality of his world as somehow the natural state of things. Indeed, Burgess’s near future London shows many of the hallmarks of today’s society, in which parents are terrified to discipline their egomanical children and a shallow youth culture that prizes a lack of self-restraint as the ultimate form of self-expression has become one of the dominant social forces of our age. Burgess is saying that the same impulses that would lead a government to treat its citizens like rats in a Skinner-box, the same beliefs in determinism and therapy-over-responsibility that lead to the Ludovico Technique, are the same basic notions that have given rise to the nanny-state mentality today. A mentality that can create a world like Alex’s London, in which the night belongs to youthful predators that live completely separate lives from the adult world around them. But, as Burgess asserts, some of them at least will tire of the emptiness of destruction and search for a more meaningful life. Certainly Alex does, and he himself realizes that he is, shockingly enough, on his way to growing up when he encounters his ex-droog Pete at the end of the novel. Pete has a job, an apartment, a wife — in short, Pete has a future. Alex decides he wants one too, and he makes that decision all on his own.
And that, in the end, is the whole point of the book. Just as the unnatural goodness Alex was forced to endure was inhuman, so was the idea that he was a purely evil creature. It all comes down to freedom of choice, and Alex, finally, begins making the right choices. We don’t see what sort of regrets he will live with, or if he’ll ever be able to make the leap from leader-of-droogs to ordinary Joe — but he has at last chosen a new direction and that is what is important.
Opening Line: “What’s it going to be then, eh?”
Closing Line: “But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.”
Quotes: "Suddenly, I viddied what I had to do, and what I had wanted to do, and that was to do myself in; to snuff it, to blast off for ever out of this wicked, cruel world. One moment of pain perhaps and, then, sleep forever, and ever and ever."
Rating: Very Good