Thursday, October 29, 2009

273. Cranford - Elizabeth Haskill

History: The best-known novel of the 19th century English writer Elizabeth Gaskell. It was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words, which was edited by Charles Dickens.
Plot: The book has little in the way of plot and is more a series of episodes in the lives of Mary Smith and her friends, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, two spinster sisters. One of the "major" events in the story is the return to Cranford of their long-lost brother, Peter Jenkins, which in itself is only a minor portion of the work, leaving the rest of the novel at a low-key tone. More like a book of short stories about the town of Cranford, and the lack of male characters within it.
Review: I thought this was a very boring book, not only in the way it was written but the lack of substance. Some of it can be humourous, like the cat that swallowed the piece of treasured lace, or Peter that dressed up like a woman holding a baby, but not enough to hold my attention, because as soon as it introduced an interesting character, they were gone, tragically like dead, or enlisted in the army. I hate to do it, but I compare this writer with the dreaded Jane Austen.
Opening Line: "In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women."
Closing Line: "We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us."
Quotes: ". . . she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior."
Rating: Poor.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

272. Get Shorty - Elmore Leonard

History: Published in 1990.
Plot: The book's story centers around Chili Palmer, a small-time shylock (or loanshark) based in Miami, who is sent after Leo Devoe, who has scammed an airline out of $300,000 in life insurance by faking his own death. Leo had been aboard a plane whose flight was delayed, prompting Leo to leave the plane and go drinking in the airport bar. Leo misses the plane's actual take off,and when it crashes Leo's "widow" is given a check for 300,000 dollars, money which Leo takes to Las Vegas. Leo's trail takes Chili to Las Vegas, where he finds a more interesting assignment: the casino is looking to collect from Harry Zimm, a horror film producer based in Los Angeles. Palmer, himself very interested in the movie industry, takes the extra assignment and heads for Los Angeles.
Palmer lets his interest in the movie industry overshadow his collection job. He sneaks into the house of Karen Flores (Zimm's friend) in the middle of the night, startling both Zimm and Flores, and after he tell Zimm he has to pay his Las Vegas markers,and then explains that he has a idea for a movie. Zimm is immediately taken in by Palmer's charm and his movie idea, although Flores is still skeptical. Palmer recounts Leo Devoe's story in the third person, and recalls chasing Leo to Las Vegas as if it were an uncompleted work of fiction. Flores in smart, and soon points out that the story clearly isn't fictional, she saw the plane crash the news in the past week, and Palmer is the obviously the shylock mentioned in the story. Soon, Zimm asks for Chili's helpin dealing with a good script he wants to buy. Zimm tells Chili that this script, "Mr. Lovejoy" could be Academy Award worthy material. In an altercation with Catlett, Zimm and Palmer tell him that, while his investmentin Freaks is sound, they are making another movie first. Catlett tells them to move the money into this new picture; Zimm says he cannot, as the new movie deal is "structured".
Meanwhile, Catlett is involved in a Mexican drug deal which doesn't go through. He has left the payment in a locker at the L.A. airport, but the Colombian sent to receive the money, Yayo Portillo (Catlett keeps calling him Yahoo), doesn't feel safe unlocking the locker with so many DEA agents staked out nearby. Catlett later meets Yayo back at his home, and after Yayo threatens to tell the DEA who Bo is, Bo shoots him.
Catlett soon offers the locker money to Zimm as an investment, telling him to send Palmer to get the money. Palmer senses something amiss, signs out a nearby locker as a test, and surely enough is taken for questioning by drug officials when he tries to open it.
Palmer and Flores are meanwhile seeking the interests of Martin Weir (the title character), a top-tier Hollywood actor to whom Flores was once married, to play the lead in Zimm's film.
The loose ends are tied up when Barboni comes to Los Angeles looking for the money Palmer collected from Leo Devoe only to find the key to the locker from the failed drug deal in one of Palmer's pockets. Thinking Palmer has stashed his cash in a locker, he goes to the airport and is busted by drug officials. In a final showdown with Catlett, Catlett is double-crossed by his partner, Bear.
The novel ends with Zimm, Palmer and Flores having visited a few production studios and wondering why writing the ending of a story was always the hardest part.
Review: On one level the book is pure Leonard an exciting underworld story with great street talk and those edgy characters that he does so well. On another level the book is a social satire and, with its shift from Vegas to L.A., shows us a contemporary world lost in greed and seduced by show biz. Palmer's easy success as a producer (in essence doing his own life story) is a thinly veiled commentary on the shallowness of Hollywood and the lack of skill of many of its leaders.
Opening Line: "When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo or lunch at Vesuvios's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off."
Closing Line: "Goddamn endings, man, They weren't as easy as they looked."
Quotes: ''That's what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn't like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn't you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas . . . where they belong, if you aren't positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I've even seen scripts where I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don't think it's too important.''
Rating: mediocre

Sunday, October 25, 2009

271. The Third Man - Graham Greene

History: Greene's novella, or "entertainment," was written in 1950 as a sort of preliminary draft for a screenplay and was not actually intended to stand alone as a written work. The motion picture, stated Greene, is better than the story because it is the story in its finished state, and it is the film, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, that most people will remember.
Plot: The film is set in Austria's capital city Vienna, devastated and recovering from the Second World War. The city was at the time divided into four separate zones and one international zone, jointly controlled by the victorious Allied powers.
American pulp Western author Rollo Martins arrives seeking an old friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him the opportunity to work with him in Vienna.
Arriving at Lime's apartment, Martins discovers that Lime has been recently killed by a lorry while crossing the street. Shocked, he heads to the cemetery to attend Lime's funeral, where he meets two British Army Royal Military Policemen, Sergeant Paine, who is an enormous fan of Martins' books, and his superior, Major Calloway. After the services, Martins accepts an invitation to speak to the members of a local book club, delaying his departure to do so. He is contacted by a friend of Lime's, Baron Kurtz, who wants to talk about Lime's death. Kurtz relates that he and Popescu, another friend of Lime's, had picked Lime up after the accident and brought him over to the side of the street, where before dying he had asked them in a brief conversation, to take care of Martins and Anna, Lime's actress girlfriend. Kurtz mentions the theatre Anna works in, but advises that the case is pointless to pursue and best left.
Martins heads to Anna's workplace and arranges a meeting with her. During their conversation, he becomes suspicious and wonders if Lime's death had really been an accident. The porter at Lime's apartment house tells Martins that there was in fact
no possibility that Lime could have been alive after being hit by the lorry, due to a broken neck, and adds that he saw a third man helping to carry the body across the street, not two as Kurtz and Popescu had said. Martins pressures the porter to tell
his story to the police, but the man refuses, becoming agitated, and asks Martins to leave.
Martins walks Anna back to her apartment. To her surprise, the police are there searching her room. They find a forged passport used to escape the Russian quarter of the city, and take Anna with them. Martins then visits Doctor Winkel, a friend of Kurtz's, Popescu's and Lime's, and who was present when Lime was killed. On Martins' arrival, Winkel is preparing to eat a sumptuous meal of roast chicken and is obviously doing well, despite the rationing that is the norm in Vienna. Martins questions Winkel about the circumstances surrounding Lime's death, and Winkel reassures Martins that there were only two men present at Lime's accident. Martins is not convinced, due perhaps to Winkel's air of evasiveness.
The next day, the porter offers to give Martins more information about the death, but when he arrives to talk, the man has been murdered. Escaping from the hostile and suspicious crowd outside the porter's house, Martins is driven to the book club
meeting, but unable to collect his thoughts he makes a poor show. His sole coherent response is to an inquiry from the audience, a man (Popescu, one of Lime's friends) who asks what his next book will be, to which he pointedly replies that his upcoming novel is called The Third Man and will be inspired by actual facts. He flees when he notices two suspicious-looking men at the back of the hall.
The British policeman Calloway advises Martins to leave Vienna and, when Martins refuses and demands an investigation into Lime's suspicious death, finally reveals the truth about Lime's racket. Calloway shows him a dossier and photographs proving
that Lime stole penicillin from military hospitals (the first known antibiotic and at the time a new and scarce life-saver commanding a very high price on the black market), and sold it for a high price in highly diluted form, with devastating effects on his many victims. Martins, convinced, agrees to leave Vienna. As he departs the police station, a Russian officer comes in and asks Calloway for Anna's forged passport in order to take her back to the Russian quarter. Martins heads back to Anna's apartment to say goodbye and discovers that she too had been told by Calloway about Lime's activities. Leaving her apartment, Martins discerns across the darkened square, a man watching from a dark doorway. A lighted window illuminates the man's face briefly. It is Harry Lime, alive, well and smirking. Unable to catch up with Lime when he flees, Martins summons Calloway, who determines that Lime has escaped into the sewers via a kiosk. Calloway realizes that Lime has been using the sewer tunnels to move about the city undetected. Finally convinced that the wanted man is alive, the British police exhume Lime's coffin and find that another man, Joseph Harbin, has been buried in his place. Harbin, an orderly in a military hospital who had recently vanished, was thought to have stolen the penicillin.
The next day, Martins meets with Lime in the Soviet sector, on Vienna's famous Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, in the Wurstelprater amusement park. They talk and Lime is dismissive about any effects of his activities. He offers to bring Martins in on his racket and implies that Martins will be disposed of if he causes further problems, but Martins rejects the suggestion and hints that he will not be easy to dispose of. Lime compares the people moving on the ground far below to dots, and asks in a celebrated monologue (see below) whether Martins would really feel pity, if "one of those dots stopped moving, forever", and whether he would actually decline the monetary rewards of doing so.
Calloway asks Martins to help capture Lime by luring him to a rendezvous. Martins negotiates safe conduct for Anna out of Vienna in return; she leaves the train angrily rather than depart Vienna, accept his offer, or set aside her feelings for Lime. Martins reconsiders his involvement, but Calloway takes him to a hospital and shows him children crippled physically and mentally by meningitis after receiving Lime's under-strength penicillin, and Martins agrees to assist in drawing Lime out for them. When Lime arrives at the cafe, Anna calls a warning. He evades capture and reaches the sewers, but police reinforcements have arrived and begin a mass search of the underground tunnels. He is eventually cornered and fires at Sergeant Paine, killing him, being shot by Major Calloway in return. Lime, badly and perhaps fatally injured, drags himself up a staircase to a grating, but is unable to push it open. Martins, using Paine's gun, climbs the steps and shoots his old friend. In the aftermath, Martins attends Lime's second funeral. He waits by the roadside to speak with Anna, but she simply walks past him.
Review: I listened to this book, read by James Mason. I enjoyed it but didn't get the story, which is apparently unfinished. When Graham Greene was asked to come up with a script for Carol Reed to film, he saw an opportunity to flesh out the bare bones of an idea--suppose someone saw an old friend, supposedly dead, on the street one day. Of course, Greene & Reed & Orson Welles turned this idea into the great movie The Third Man (1949). For the novel, Greene returned to the scenario and rendered the whole story as he originally envisioned it. Most of the changes are fairly minor--freed of the presence of Joseph Cotten, Martins is English not American--but sadly missing is the famous line from the movie, which Welles apparently wrote himself, about Italy under the amoral Borgias producing magnificent culture while Switzerland's hundreds of years of democracy has produced only chocolates and the cuckoo clock. It does retain the great concluding chase through the sewers of the city, which seem to physically embody the moral cesspool that Cold War Europe was becoming. This is a work that presages LeCarre and much of the ambivalent spy fiction of the 60's & 70's. It is perhaps not quite up to the standards of the movie or of some of Greene's other books, but those are high standards indeed.
Opening Line: "One never knows when the comet but I get the impression that you would rather not be bothered."
Closing Line: "Poor all of us, when you come to think of it."
Quotes: “I'd make comic faces... and stand on my head and grin at you between my legs... and tell all sorts of jokes. I wouldn't stand a chance, would I?”
Rating: Okay.

270. A Home at the End of the World - Michael Cunningham

History: This book was written in 1990.
Plot: Bobby had grown up in a home in suburban Cleveland, Ohio during the 1960s and 1970s where partying and drugs were a recurring theme. He had already witnessed his beloved older brother's death in a home accident and his mother's death by the time he befriends Jonathan, who comes from a sheltered, but loving family. After Bobby finds his father dead, Jonathan's family takes him in. Bobby and Jonathan become best friends. Closer than brothers, they also experiment sexually. The two eventually lose touch, but meet up again in their twenties in 1980s New York, where Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his eccentric roommate Clare. Clare had planned to have a baby with Jonathan (now openly gay), but Bobby and Clare become lovers, while Jonathan still has feelings for Bobby.
Their romance occasionally is disrupted by sparks of jealousy between the two men until Jonathan, tired of being the third wheel, disappears without warning. He re-enters their lives when his father Ned dies and Bobby and Clare travel to Phoenix, Arizona for the services. The three take Ned's car back east with them, and impulsively decide to buy a house near Woodstock, New York, where Bobby and Jonathan open and operate a cafe while Clare raises the baby daughter she and Bobby have had together with Jonathan.
The trio form their own unusual family, questioning traditional definitions of family and love, while dealing with the complications of their love triangle.
Jonathan invites his former lover Erich to visit and is shocked by the state of his health, and it is determined that Erich is "sick". Jonathan is probably infected too.
In the end, Clare takes her daughter, now a toddler out for a visit to her brother and never comes back. The three men are left to themselves in the large empty house, one actively with AIDS, one infected, and one not infected.
Review: Cunningham's prose style, by turns evocative and reflective, has an unintentional comic side effect. He divides up the narration among the main characters, and they all sound the same. So Bobby, who barely gets beyond ''Uh, like, you know'' when given a line of dialogue, suddenly comes up with sentences on the order of ''Its outbuildings are anchored on a sea of swaying wheat, its white clapboard is molten in the late, hazy light.'' But the intricate, searching prose is all that keeps the novel from being as muddled as its characters. It does more to redeem them than anything they do. This is an unconventional story about the variety of ways one can fall in love and the difficulty of creating a life not bound by conventional roles.
Opening Line: "Once our father bought a convertible."
Closing Line: "Bobby announced that the minute was up, and we took Erich back to shore."
Quotes: ''We'd hoped vaguely to fall in love but hadn't worried much about it, because we'd thought we had all the time in the world. Love seemed so final, and so dull — love was what ruined our parents. Love had delivered them to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous jobs and the fluorescent aisles of supermarkets at two in the afternoon.''
Rating: Okay.

269. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - John Le Carre

History: This book was published in 1974. It is the first volume of a three-book series informally known as The Karla Trilogy. These three books are also the 5th, 6th, and 7th novel in the entire series of Smiley novels.
Plot: George Smiley, the old, estranged, overweight, taciturn and sharp-minded protagonist, is recalled from his uneasy retirement when there are signs that one of the top-ranking officers of the British Secret Intelligence Service (referred to throughout as "The Circus") is a Soviet mole. A little more than a year before the events of the first chapter, "Control," the elderly chief of the Circus, believes that one of the five highest-ranking officers in the Circus is a Soviet mole. When he receives an offer from a disgruntled Czech general to reveal the mole's identity, Control privately launches "Operation Testify": he recruits Circus veteran Jim Prideaux to meet the general near Brno, in Czechoslovakia. As soon as he gets to the rendezvous, Prideaux is ambushed, and wounded by two bullets in the shoulder blade.
The first chapter opens with Prideaux taking up a post as a languages master at a small private school for boys after being repatriated to England. He brings along his vintage Alvis roadster, and lives in a caravan on the school grounds.
In London, George Smiley returns to his apartment to find his former protégé, Peter Guillam, waiting for him. Their conversation sketches the aftermath of Testify: Control was disgraced, and died shortly thereafter. Smiley was dismissed shortly after Control left the Circus, having argued that Prideaux's ambush was a sign of treason in the Circus. Control was replaced by Percy Alleline, an ambitious and highly political officer. Alleline was also Control's arch-rival within the Circus.
Control's star was already fading, and Alleline's rising, thanks to a high failure rate of Circus operations and a mysterious new source of top-grade Soviet intelligence, code-named "Source Merlin." Merlin's intelligence was dubbed "Witchcraft," which Percy Alleline had been feeding to his allies in Whitehall and the armed services. The four case officers handling Source Merlin are now the Circus's top rank: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase — in fact, these four men, plus Smiley, were the five Control suspected of being the mole.
Peter Guillam was demoted to head of "scalp-hunters," a sort of throwback to the rougher, hired-thugs version of intelligence officers the Circus used in its older days. Now, one of his men, Ricki Tarr, has surfaced after having gone absent during an operation eight months earlier. Guillam drives Smiley to a meeting with Tarr and Sir Oliver Lacon, the Permanent Undersecretary to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Civil Service official with oversight authority over the intelligence services. Tarr says that on his last assignment, he had an affair with a Russian woman, Irina, the wife of a Moscow Centre operative, who told Tarr that one of her former lovers claimed to have worked as an assistant to the Soviet cultural attaché in London, Polyakov, who in reality is the case officer for a high-ranking "mole" in the Circus, code-named "Gerald" and recruited by "Karla", a shadowy Russian intelligence director.
What makes the story convincing is that no sooner had Tarr cabled London for further instructions when Irina and her husband were snatched from their hotel and put on the next plane to Moscow.
Lacon asks Smiley to "clean the stables" and find the mole, which can only be done using a secret investigation. Smiley is assisted by Guillam, and by his old friend, former Special Branch Superintendent Mendel.
Smiley gradually pieces together the story by analyzing files, interrogating witnesses and trawling through his own memory and those of other retired Circus personnel. His task is complicated because one of the suspects, Haydon, had had an affair with Smiley's wife Ann during the time period of Testify that had broken up their marriage, and he has to separate out his personal feelings.
Smiley first visits Connie Sachs, the Circus's former head of research, possessed of a phenomenal memory. During the interview, Smiley confirms the veracity of Irina's story. Irina knew that Polyakov's real name is Viktorov. Connie tells Smiley that she knew Viktorov was recruited by Karla as a special agent, but that "he simply disappeared off the face of the earth."
She confirms that there were several indications that Polyakov is a "six cylinder Karla-trained hood," but demonstrated no connection between Viktorov and Polyakov. There were also several suspicious signs that Polyakov was running an English mole, but her requests for further investigation were firmly refused by the Circus hierarchy and led to her forced retirement.
Based on a review of files stolen from the Circus by Guillam, Smiley discovers an interplay between Witchcraft and Polyakov's activities and realizes that Witchcraft and Gerald are part of the same conspiracy.
During a dinner with Peter, Smiley tells what he knows of Karla's history, including the fact that they'd met face-to-face once, after the War. Karla had been caught after setting up an illegal network in the United States, and was being held in Delhi.
Smiley interviewed him there, attempting to persuade him to defect, since he was almost certainly facing execution back home. During the interview, he loaned Karla his cigarette lighter, a gift from his wife, which Karla took away with him. Karla
returned to Moscow, outwitted his superiors, and survived. Smiley predicts that one day, Karla will be defeated because of his fanaticism.
Smiley then backtracks through the history of Operation Testify. Based on interviews with Sam Collins, the duty officer on the night of the ambush, and Jerry Westerby, a sports writer and Circus irregular, Smiley establishes that Prideaux was ambushed by Russian troops, not Czech, who were lying in wait for him.
Finally, Smiley tracks down Jim Prideaux, who gives the details of his capture and interrogation. Based on physical descriptions, Jim identifies two of his interrogators as Karla and Polyakov. The focus of the interrogation was entirely on how far Control had gotten in identifying the mole, and the interrogators were armed with amazingly detailed knowledge of his pre-mission briefing with Control ("They knew the brand of the bloody sherry, man.") After he was repatriated, Jim was given a generous severance payment and told in the strongest terms by Toby Esterhase to forget any suspicions he might have.
Smiley is now ready to go over to the attack: he gets Toby Esterhase alone, convinced that he is not the mole, and explains to Toby the shape of Karla's "very clever knot": that Source Merlin doesn't exist, he is a phantom introduced to the Circus hierarchy by "Gerald," whoever he is, as a means of allowing Alleline to supplant Control, and giving the mole a perfect cover for his activities. The Circus hierarchy believes that Polyakov is Source Merlin's London representative, and thus a perfect conduit for supplying the Witchcraft intelligence. But because Polyakov is a Moscow Centre agent, the Circus needs to pretend that he is running an English mole, by giving him "chickenfeed" - worthless intelligence tricked up to seem valuable.
This way, any indicators that the Russians have a mole inside the Circus are just part of the illusion, and the Circus hierarchy itself acts ruthlessly to suppress them, as witness Connie Sachs, Jerry Westerby, and Jim Prideaux. The problem is, in reality, Witchcraft is the chickenfeed, and one of the Circus top men really is a mole, under whose guidance the Circus has unwittingly been "handing Polyakov the crown jewels", i.e. information of great value to the Russians.
Toby tells Smiley enough about the procedures for meeting Polyakov to lay the trap: Ricki Tarr sends a message from Paris, claiming to have urgent information for Alleline, which Smiley knows will force the real mole to call an emergency meeting with Polyakov. Smiley and Guillam lie in wait at the safe house, where the mole is revealed to be Bill Haydon, whose guilt is established in person and on tape.
Alleline, Bland, and Esterhase, humiliated and defeated, bow to Smiley's suggestion that they negotiate with Karla to exchange Haydon for as many of the Circus's betrayed secret agents behind the Iron Curtain as can be saved — now that Haydon has been exposed, they will otherwise be arrested and executed.
Smiley is invited by Haydon to hear a partial and self-serving explanation of his conduct before his departure for Russia, in which Haydon discusses his reasons for becoming a mole, and also reveals that Operation Testify was a trap from the beginning, lain because both Karla and Haydon saw that Control was getting too close to exposing Haydon. Testify was to make sure that Control would have to leave the Circus and Witchcraft was to make sure that Percy Alleline replaced Control as chief of the Circus. Haydon also confesses, somewhat shamefully, that he knew the precise time of the operation because Prideaux came to him before he left for Czechoslovakia, to warn him. (Haydon and Prideaux were best friends, and possibly
lovers, when they were at university together.)
The deal with Karla is broken when Haydon is found dead on the grounds of the camp where he is being held, his neck broken. His killer is never explicitly named, but a series of verbal clues laid earlier in the novel make clear that his killer is Prideaux, taking revenge for being betrayed.
Smiley is appointed temporary head of the Circus, to contain the disaster. The novel leaves him as he is preparing to tell his wife about Haydon's treachery, since Bill was one of her many lovers.
Prideaux returns to his boys' school, and does his best to resume a normal life.
Review: I listened to this book and had difficulty getting things straight. There are so many sub-plots within sub-plots. When characters interact, he doesn’t just use it to provide the reader with information. The interaction itself is part of building the mood and making the characters more three-dimensional. In addition to understatement, he uses the English trait of nicknaming things, in a very consistent way to avoid what otherwise might seem melodramatic. In the course of elaborately and endlessly deceiving their opponents about their intentions and the kind of person they were, they were just as likely to wind up deceiving their friends and themselves. And meanwhile, the great machinery of the war used them and threw them away with a cold relentlessness.
Opening Line: "Jim Prideaux came to Thursgood School in late May."
Closing Line: "Everyone waited on Smiley's answer, but none came."
Quotes: "A committee is an animal with four back legs."
Rating: Mediocre.

Friday, October 23, 2009

268. King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard

History: Haggard wrote the novel as a result of a five shillings wager with his brother, namely whether he could write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883). He wrote it in a short time, somewhere
between six and sixteen weeks between January 1885 and 21 April. However, because the book was a complete novelty, it was rejected by one publisher after another. When, after six months, King Solomon's Mines finally was published, the book became the year's best seller; the only problem (much to the chagrin of those who had rejected the manuscript) was how to print copies fast enough.The book was first published in September 1885 amid considerable fanfare, with billboards and posters around London announcing "The Most Amazing Book Ever Written". It became an immediate best seller.
By the late 19th century, explorers were uncovering ancient civilizations around the world, such as Egypt's Valley of the Kings, and the empire of Assyria. Africa remained largely unexplored and King Solomon's Mines, the first novel of African adventure published in English, captured the public's imagination.
The "King Solomon" of the book's title is the Biblical king renowned both for his wisdom and for his wealth.
Haggard knew Africa well, having traveled deep within the continent as a 19-year-old during the Anglo-Zulu War and the First Boer War, where he had been impressed by South Africa's vast mineral wealth and the ruins of ancient lost cities being uncovered, such as Great Zimbabwe.
His original Allan Quatermain character was based in large part on Frederick Courtney Selous, the famous British big game hunter and explorer of Colonial Africa. Selous's real-life experiences provided Haggard with the background and inspiration for this and many later stories.
The book has scholarly value for the colonialist attitudes Haggard expresses, and for the way he portrays the relationships among the white and African characters. While Haggard does indeed portray some Africans (such as Twala and Gagool) in their traditional (for Victorian literature) literary posts as barbarians, he also presents the other side of the coin, showing some black Africans as heroes and heroines (such as Ignosi), and shows respect for their culture. Although the book is certainly not devoid of racism, it expresses much less prejudice than some of the later books in this genre. Indeed, Quatermain states that he refuses to use the word "nigger" and that many Africans are more worthy of the title of "gentleman" than the Europeans who settle or adventure in the country. Haggard even includes an interracial romance between a Kukuana woman, Foulata, and the white Englishman Captain Good. The narrator tries to discourage the relationship, dreading the uproar such a marriage would cause back home in England; however, he has no objection to the lady, whom he considers very beautiful and noble. Haggard soon "kills off" Foulata, but has her die in Good's arms.
Kukuanaland is said in the book to be forty leagues north of the Lukanga river in modern Zambia, which would place it in the extreme south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The culture of the Kukuanas shares many attributes with other
South African tribes, such as IsiZulu being spoken, and the kraal system.
Plot: Allan Quatermain, an English adventurer and hunter based in Durban, South Africa, is approached by English aristocrat Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain Good, seeking his help finding Sir Henry's brother, who was last seen traveling north into the unexplored interior on a quest for the fabled King Solomon's Mines. Quatermain has a mysterious map purporting to lead to the mines, but had never taken it seriously. However, he agrees to lead an expedition in return for a share of the treasure, or a stipend for his son if he is killed along the way. He has little hope they will return alive. They also take along a mysterious native, Umbopa, who seems more regal, handsome and well spoken than most porters of his class, but who is very anxious to join the party.
Traveling by oxcart, they reach the edge of a desert, but not before a hunt in which a wounded elephant claims the life of a servant. They continue on foot across the desert, almost dying of thirst before finding the oasis shown halfway across on the
map. Reaching a mountain range called Suliman Berg, they climb a peak (one of "Sheba's Breasts") and enter a cave where they find the frozen corpse of José Silvestre, the 16th century Portuguese explorer who drew the map in his own blood. That night, a second servant dies from the cold, so they leave his body next to Silvestre's, to "give him a companion."
They cross the mountains into a raised valley, lush and green, known as Kukuanaland. The inhabitants have a well-organized army and society and speak an ancient dialect of IsiZulu. Kukuanaland's capital is Loo, the destination of a magnificent road from
ancient times. The city is dominated by a central royal kraal.
They soon meet a party of Kukuana warriors who are about to kill them when Captain Good nervously fidgets with his false teeth, making the Kukuanas recoil in fear. Thereafter, to protect themselves, they style themselves "white men from the stars" - sorcerer-gods - and are required to give regular proof of their divinity, considerably straining both their nerves and their ingenuity.
They are brought before King Twala, who rules over his people with ruthless violence. He came to power years before when he murdered his brother, the previous king, and drove his brother's wife and infant son, Ignosi, out into the desert to die. Twala's rule is unchallenged. An evil, impossibly ancient hag named Gagool is his chief advisor. She roots out any potential opposition by ordering regular witch hunts and murdering without trial all those identified as traitors. When she singles out Umbopa for this fate, it takes all Quatermain's skill to save his life.
Gagool, it appears, has already sensed what Umbopa soon after reveals; he is Ignosi, the rightful king of the Kukuanas. A rebellion breaks out. The Englishmen join Ignosi's army in a furious battle. Although outnumbered, the rebels overthrow Twala,
and Sir Henry lops off his head in a duel.
The Englishmen also capture Gagool, who reluctantly leads them to King Solomon's Mines. She shows them a treasure room inside a mountain, carved deep within the living rock and full of gold, diamonds and ivory. She then treacherously
sneaks out while they are admiring the hoard and triggers a secret mechanism that closes the mine's vast stone door.
Unfortunately for Gagool, a brief scuffle with a beautiful native named Foulata causes her to be crushed under the stone door, though not before fatally stabbing Foulata. Their scant store of food and water rapidly dwindling, the trapped men prepare to die also. After a few despairing days sealed in the dark chamber, they find an escape route, bringing with them a few pocketfuls of diamonds from the immense trove, enough to make them rich.
The Englishmen bid farewell to a sorrowful Ignosi and return to the desert. Taking a different route, they find Sir Henry's brother stranded in an oasis by a broken leg, unable to go forward or back. They return to Durban and eventually to England, wealthy enough to live comfortable lives.
Review: Allan Quartermain's job is hunting elephants. Ugh. With all we know about these majestic animals today, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to kill them; reading about it in some detail was really depressing. I tried to remember that people thought differently in those days but it didn't help all that much.
Then we have the relationships between the white/European characters and the black/native African characters. Racism was part of life when this book was written but again, I'm looking back on it with "modern" eyes and it's pretty sad. Most of the black African characters were stereotypical, as were the white Europeans and white Africans.
However, that being said, it was when Quartermain and his companions get where they're going the story really got entertaining for me and I found it hard to put down. There's nothing in here that is completely surprising but it is still fascinating and exciting all the same. The author's use of language - although somewhat antiquated - was very entertaining.
The book is written as a letter from Quartermain in Africa to his son in England; it's full of side notes and PS-type items that Quartermain throws in from time to time to shed light on his story. Plus, Quartermain has that dry sense of humor that I appreciate.
On the whole I truly enjoyed it and am glad that I read it.
Opening Line: "It is a curious thing that at my age - fifty five last birthday - I should find myself taking up a pen to try and
write a history.
Closing Line: To-day is Tuesday. There is a steamer going on Friday, and I really think that I must take Quatermain at his word, and sail by her for England, if it is only to see you, Harry, my boy, and to look after the printing of this history, which is a task that I do not like to trust to anybody else. -- Allan Quatermain. "
Quotes: Yet man dies not whilst the world, at once his mother and his monument, remains. His name is lost, indeed, but the breath he breathed still stirs the pine-tops on the mountains, the sound of the words he spoke yet echoes on through space; the thoughts his brain gave birth to we have inherited to-day; his passions are our cause of life; the joys and sorrows that he knew are our familiar friends--the end from which he fled aghast will surely overtake us also!
Rating: Good.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

267. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

History: The last of Thomas Hardy's novels, begun as a magazine serial and first published in book form in 1895. The book was burned publicly by William Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield, in that same year. Jude the Obscure received a harsh reception from scandalized critics; it is thought largely for this reason that Hardy made the decision to produce only poetry and drama for his remaining 32 years. D. H. Lawrence, an admirer of Hardy, was puzzled by the character of Sue Bridehead, and attempted to analyze her sexual problem in his essay "A Study of Thomas Hardy" (1914). This book is considered to be the most angriest of all Hardy's novels.
Plot: The novel tells the story of Jude Fawley, a village stonemason in the southwest English region of Wessex who yearns to be a scholar at "Christminster", a city modelled on Oxford, England. In his spare time while working in his aunt's bakery, he teaches himself Greek and Latin. Before he can try to enter the university, the naïve Jude is manipulated, through a process he later calls erotolepsy, into marrying a rather coarse and superficial local girl, Arabella Donn, who deserts him within two years. By this time, he has abandoned the classics altogether.
After Arabella leaves him, Jude moves to Christminster and supports himself as a mason while studying alone, hoping to be able to enter the university later. There, he meets and falls in love with his free-spirited cousin, Sue Bridehead. Jude shortly introduces Sue to his former schoolteacher, Mr. Phillotson, whom she later marries. Sue is attracted to the normality of her married life, but quickly finds the relationship an unhappy one; besides being in love with Jude, she is physically disgusted by her husband, and, apparently, by sex in general.
Sue eventually leaves Phillotson for Jude. Sue and Jude spend some time living together without any sexual relationship; they are both afraid to get married because their family has a history of tragic unions, and think that being legally bound to one another might destroy their love. Jude eventually convinces Sue to sleep with him and, over the years, they have two children together. They are also bestowed with a child "of an intelligent age" from Jude's first marriage, whom Jude did not know about earlier. He is named Jude and nicknamed "Little Father Time".
Jude and Sue are socially ostracized for living together unmarried, especially after the children are born. Jude's employers always dismiss him when they find out, and landlords evict them.
The precocious Little Father Time, believing that he and his half-siblings are the source of the family's woes, murders Sue's two children and commits suicide by hanging himself. He leaves a note reading: "Done because we are too menny".
Beside herself with grief, Sue turns to the church that has ostracized her and comes to believe that the children's deaths were divine retribution for her relationship with Jude.
Although horrified at the thought of resuming her physical relationship with Phillotson, she nevertheless returns to him and becomes his wife again. Jude is devastated, and remarries Arabella in a drunken haze. After one final, desperate visit to Sue in freezing weather, Jude becomes seriously ill and dies within the year, while Arabella is out. His funeral is sorry, with only two people there.
Review: I usually love all Hardy's novels, but not this one. I admire the subject, nonmatrimony as being an alternative to marriage, which was evidently scandulous in Hardy's time, but I didn't find the characters or writing as eloquently descriptive as in his other novels.
The novel has an elaborately structured plot, in which subtle details and accidents lead to the characters' ruin. It also develops many different themes. These include how human loneliness and sexuality can stop a person from trying to fulfill his dreams, how, when free from the trap of marriage, one's dreams will not be fulfilled if one is of a lower status, how the educated classes are often more like sophists than intellectuals, how living a libertine life full of integrity and passion will be condemned as scandalous in traditional society, and how religion is nothing but a mistaken sense that the tragedies that wear down an individual are the result of having sinned against a higher being.
Opening Line: "The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
Closing Line: "She may swear that on her knees to the holy cross upon her necklace till she's hoarse, but it won't be true!" said Arabella. "shes never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again till she's as he is now!"
Quotes: "Their lives were ruined,he thought; ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling"
"Do not do an immoral thing for moral reasons!"
Rating: Mediocre.

266. The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett

History: Written in 1934, The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel.
Plot: The story is set in Prohibition-era New York City. The main characters are a former private detective, Nick Charles, and his clever young wife, Nora. Nick, son of a Greek immigrant, has given up his career since marrying Nora, a wealthy socialite, and he now spends most of his time cheerfully getting drunk in hotel rooms and speakeasies. Nick and Nora have no children, but they do own a schnauzer named Asta, changed to a wire haired fox terrier for the movies.
Charles is drawn, mostly against his will, into investigating a murder. The case brings them in contact with a rather grotesque family, the Wynants, and also with an assortment of policemen and lowlifers. As they attempt to solve the case, Nick and Nora share a great deal of banter and witty dialogue, along with copious amounts of alcohol. The characters of Nick and Nora are often thought to reflect the personalities of Hammett and his long-time lover, Lillian Hellman.
Because the "Thin Man" title was used for the subsequent movies, there is a widespread misapprehension that the term refers to Nick Charles himself; in fact it refers to Clyde Wynant, the mysterious and eccentric patriarch who is the main concern of the plot.
Review: As noted, Hammett modeled Nick and Nora on himself and his paramour, budding playwright Lillian Hellman, so it's interesting to see how he dealt in fiction with their relationship and his ultimate failure to cope with success.
In a way, 'The Thin Man' is a farewell. Here we have a once hard-boiled detective, Nick Charles, who has settled down with his wise-cracking wife, Nora, and doesn't want anything to do with his previous work. Instead, Nick drinks, and drinks, and drinks, and goes to parties, and hosts parties, and the like. Whenever anyone questions Nick over the case that he's rumored to be working, Nick simply claims that he doesn't want anything to do with being a detective and leaves it at that.
This being Hammett's final novel, I believe that it an all too valid assumption that
Hammett was using the character of Nick to symbolize himself and his own mentality. Even a cursory reading of the novel should demonstrate that Hammett was up to much more than a series of one-liners with detective interruptions. Why else would Hammett, one of the most economical of authors, bring the novel to a halt to include a case history of Alfred Packer, the only American convicted of the crime of cannibalism?
Some of these reviewers have made too much of the "alcoholism" in the book. Fact is, a certain, large segment of society in the `30s - products of Prohibition - did (or wanted to) drink the way the book's characters do and thought nothing of it. Basically, everybody drank in those days. Even the President of the United States had a bootlegger.
And what about the successive beatings the character Dorothy gets... no sympathy from Nick or apology from the mother for this. No resolving of this act of violence. This book is strongly representative of the times and culture that Hammett was living in.
Opening Line: "I was leaning against a bar in a speak-easy on 52nd Street waiting for Nora to finish her christmas shopping , when a girl got up from a table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me."
Closing Line: "That may be," Nora said, "But it's all very unsatisfactory."
Quotes: "How do you feel?"
"Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober."
Rating: Okay.

265. American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis

History: Published in 1991. The graphic violence and sexual content generated much commentary at the novel's release. The book was originally to have been published by Simon & Schuster in March 1991, but the company withdrew from the project because of the novel's content. Vintage Books purchased the rights to the novel and published an edited version of Ellis' original manuscript.
Ellis received numerous death threats and hate mail after the publication of American Psycho.
Feminist activist Gloria Steinem was among those opposed to the release of Ellis' book because of its portrayal of violence towards women. Steinem is also the stepmother of Christian Bale, who portrayed Bateman in the film adaptation of the novel. This coincidence is mentioned in Ellis's mock memoir Lunar Park.
It is generally sold shrink wrapped in bookstores.
Plot: Set in Manhattan and beginning on April Fools' Day 1989, American Psycho spans roughly three years in the life of wealthy young investment banker Patrick Bateman. Bateman, 26 years old when the story begins, narrates his everyday activities, from his daily life among the upper-class elite of New York to his forays into murder by nightfall. Bateman comes from a privileged background, having graduated from Philips Exeter Academy, Harvard (class of 1984), and then Harvard Business School (class of 1986). He works as a vice president at a Wall Street investment company and lives in an expensive Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side where he embodies the 1980s yuppie culture. Through present tense stream-of-consciousness narrative he describes his conversations with colleagues in bars and cafes, his office, and nightclubs, satirizing the shallow vanity of Manhattan yuppies.
The first third of the book contains no violence (except for subtle references apparent only in retrospect), and is simply an account of what seems to be a series of Friday nights, as Bateman documents traveling with his colleagues to a variety of nightclubs, where they snort cocaine, drink a variety of alcoholic beverages, critique fellow clubgoers' clothing, trade fashion advice, and question one another on proper etiquette. Beginning with the second third of the book, Bateman begins to describe his day-to-day activities, which range from such mundanities as renting videotapes and making dinner reservations to committing brutal violence. Bateman's stream of consciousness is occasionally broken up by chapters in which Bateman directly addresses the reader in order to critique the work of 1980s musicians, specifically Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston.
In addition to describing his daily life, Bateman also speaks about his "love" life. He is engaged to a fellow yuppie named Evelyn, though he possesses no deep feelings for anyone; additionally, he frequently solicits sex with attractive women ("hardbodies"), manipulates his secretary's feelings for him, and tries to avoid the attention of Luis Carruthers, a closeted homosexual colleague who confesses his love for Patrick. Bateman also documents his relationship with his estranged family, including his senile mother, whom he visits in a nursing home, and his younger brother, a hedonistic college dropout (Sean Bateman, one of the protagonists from Ellis's earlier novel The Rules Of Attraction; Patrick Bateman himself also briefly appears in said novel).
As the book progresses, Bateman's control over his violent urges deteriorates. His murders become increasingly sadistic and complex, progressing from stabbings to drawn out sequences of torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and necrophilia. His mask of normality appears to slip as he introduces stories about serial killers into casual conversations, and confesses his murderous activities to his co-workers. People react as if Bateman is joking with them, appear not to hear him, or otherwise completely misunderstand him ("murders and executions" is mistaken for "mergers and acquisitions").
As the book nears its conclusion, Bateman describes incidents such as seeing a Cheerio interviewed on a talk show, being stalked by an anthropomorphic park bench, and being ordered by an ATM to feed it a stray cat. Bateman's mental state appears increasingly questionable, and the events in the novel draw into question whether he has actually committed any of the murders he has described.
Towards the end of the novel, he visits Paul Owen's apartment, where he has been stockpiling mutilated bodies; to his amazement, Bateman enters a perfectly clean, refurbished apartment with no trace of decomposing bodies, but with many strong-smelling flowers, as though meant to hide a bad odor. He runs into a real-estate agent showing the apartment to prospective buyers. The estate agent asks him if he saw the advert in the Times. When Bateman pretends that he did, the estate agent says that there was none, and that he should leave and not cause any trouble.
Bateman confronts Harold Carnes, his lawyer, on whose answering machine he has previously confessed all his crimes; Carnes, who mistakes Bateman for someone else, is amused at what he considers to be a good joke. But Carnes reproaches Bateman for laying the list of crimes at his feet, and further says that Bateman is far too much of a coward to have committed such acts. Challenged by Bateman on the disappearance of Paul Owen – a colleague whom Bateman hacked to death out of professional jealousy – Carnes unexpectedly claims that he had dinner, in London, with Paul Owen a few days previously. The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that mistaken identity is a recurring theme throughout the book. Characters are consistently introduced as other people, or argue over the identities of people they can see in restaurants or at parties. Whether any of the crimes depicted in the novel actually happened, or were simply the fantasies of a delusional psychotic, is deliberately left open.
The opening lines of the book have Bateman staring at graffiti on a Chemical Bank building, reading "Abandon all hope ye who enter here", a reference to the gates of hell portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy; the book ends with a similar scene, as Bateman sits in a bar, staring at a sign that reads "This is not an exit," a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit.
Review: I hated reading this book. I skipped over much of it, especially toward the end. The torture and sex became more disturbing, I found that I actually hated myself for reading it.
But what a book! So well written in it's satire of this person, this culture that it was actually funny at times. It is an extraordinary graphic description of obscene violence, which is spliced with reviews of horrible 80's music (another example of satire, I hope), and with endless, repetitive descriptions of 80's fashion, dialogues between Bateman's friends about where to eat for the evening, descriptions of the food in various restaurants... backed up with episodes of such extreme sexual violence it literally makes one nauseous. He conducts business meetings, goes to upmarket restaurants, and commits rape and murder. The novel registers no difference between these acivities. Depravity, it suggests is so finely woven into inte fabric of contemporary life that it is no longer possible to see it or depect it, to know when capitatlism stops and brutalization begins.
Bateman's crimes and his indifference toward them is what abuses the reader and is the reason it caused such fury in so many readers. George Corsillo, the artist who designed the covers for Ellis' first two books, refused to do the cover for American Psycho, stating "I was disgusted with myself for reading it". This is a sign of great literature, that the book has such a profound effect on the reader.
American Psycho is a book that alienates its readers. It is an "ugly" book. Its
objectionable content discourages one from paying the close attention to details, which is needed for a better understanding of the book. Here are some examples of how the critics allowed their taste to prevent them from understanding a powerful work of art.
The first sentence of the book is: "ABANDON ALL HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering" (1, emphasis added). Then, the last sentence of the book is: "and above the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes' color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT." Notice: he doesn't say the letters on the sign are red; he says they match the color of the drapes, and the drapes are red. Why doesn't he just say they're red? Blood red? Because the flesh has been replaced by the picture of it. Reality only exists on the surface. The text has replaced its subject. Bateman finds that his insane world-view fits in perfectly with his environment.
He has not at all deviated from the American Dream. Patrick Bateman never faces any consequences for his actions, and they become unreal.
In American Psycho, Bateman's insane outlook replaces reality; the surface fully substitutes reality. Bateman never bothered feeling for his victims. In turn, Ellis never really defended the book, made no excuses for it, no apologies, and has since become so much more of a celebrity, his perception taking over his original identity.
Here's a rundown: Bateman is twenty-six, so was Ellis when American Psycho was published. Both Ellis and Bateman lived in New York and were rich. Less Than Zero made him famous at age twenty-one and "caused a strange and massive rift."
In American Psycho, Bateman's identity is a complete blank. He knows that people are replaceable and not very important, and he proves this to himself by deleting them throughout his life. Then at the end of the book, when he tries to bring his crimes into view of the public, he can't. No one believes him. He resorts to believing that it doesn't really matter whether they happened or not.
On the back cover of the book there is a picture of Ellis next to a description of Bateman. Ellis has also stated that American Psycho was his most autobiographical book so far.
It's when Bateman locates his prey, however, that American Psycho turns genuinely disturbing. The countless and obsessively detailed scenes of carnage roll on without purpose or emotion, leaving the reader numb to the narrative but appalled by its creator.
Picture the most explicitly degrading porno movie imaginable. Add Charles Manson with a shop full of torture instruments.
Opening Line: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank, near the corner of 11th and 1st, and is in print large enough to be seen from the back seat of the cab as it lurches forward in the trafic leaving Wall Street, and just as Timothy Price notices the words, a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view."
Closing Line: "And above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's, is a sign. And on the sign in letters that match the drapes color, are the words "This is not an exit".
Quotes: "I'm coming back from Central Park where, near the children's zoo, close to the spot I murdered the McCaffrey boy, I fed portions of Ursula's brain to passing dogs."
Rating: Excellent - I do not recommend this book to anyone, but it is an excellent work of art.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

264. The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

History: PUblished in 1966, it is the shortest of Pynchons novel and considered the most accessible. As in his earlier novel, V., Pynchon seems to be making a point about human beings' need for certainty, and their need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty. Critics have read the book as both an "exemplary postmodern text" and an outright parody of postmodernism.
The Crying of Lot 49 was published shortly after Beatlemania and the "British invasion" which took place in America and other Western countries. Pynchon, aptly, makes a wide variety of Beatles allusions. Most prominent are the Paranoids, a band composed of cheerful marijuana smokers whose lead singer, Miles, is a high-school dropout. The Paranoids all speak with American accents but sing in English ones; at one point, a guitar player is forced to relinquish control of a car to his girlfriend because he cannot see through his hair.
Pynchon refers to a rock song, "I Want to Kiss Your Feet", a self-abasing version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The artist, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, echoes such actual groups as the El Dorados, the Edsels, the Cadillacs and the Jaguars (as well as an early name the Beatles themselves were forced to use, "Long John and the Silver Beetles"). Sick Dick and the Volkswagens is also a play on words. Volkswagens most prominent car is the Beetle. The nickname for the Beetle is the Love Bug. Thus making the play on words "Sick Dick and the Love Bugs." "Sick Dick" may also echo Richard Wharfinger, author of "that ill, ill Jacobean revenge play" known as The Courier's Tragedy. On top of all this, the song's title also keeps up a recurring sequence of allusions to Saint Narcissus, a third-century bishop of Jerusalem.
Late in the novel, Oedipa's husband Mucho Maas, a disc jockey at Kinneret radio station KCUF, describes his experience of discovering the Beatles. Mucho refers to their early song "She Loves You", as well as hinting at the areas the Beatles were later to explore.
The significance of the number 49 within the novel cannot be placed for sure, but, as the book is preoccupied with the theme of communications, the year 1849 would seem to be a possible reason for the title's choice. In 1849, the second year of the California Gold Rush, vast quantities of telecommunications equipment, including a private mail system, were rolled out to support those rushing to California
Plot: "The Crying of Lot 49" is located between Berkeley and Los Angeles, and its events, historical as well as private, are filtered through the career of one person, Oedipa Maas.
Oedipa is introduced as a good suburban housewife in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, making "the twilight's whiskey sours" against the arrival of her husband Wendell ("Mucho") Maas.
At the outset her troubles are all manageable within the terms of ordinary daily living. She has a not always potent husband who suffers crises of conscience about his professions --formerly a used car salesman, he is now a disk jockey--and about his teen-age tastes and his taste for teen- agers. Also, she has a neurotic psychiatrist named Hilarius, who wants her to take LSD as an experiment, and a former lover, the tycoon Pierce Inverarity, who would sometimes call her, before his recent death, at one in the morning, using Slavic, comic Negro, or hostile Pachuco dialects.
As the novel opens, Oedipa learns, that she is an executor, along with a man named
Metzger, formerly the child movie star known as Baby Igor, of Inverarity's will. The will was discovered some months after his death, a period during which it was perhaps tampered with in order to hide from Oedipa the revelations which his network of holdings, her "inheritance," seem to communicate: an America coded in Inverarity's testament. Before the novel closes, Oedipa loses her husband to LSD, her psychiatrist to madness, her one extra-marital lover, Metzger, to a depraved 15-year-old, and her one guide through the mazes of her inheritance, a Ralph Driblette, to suicide. In the final scene, accompanied by the famed philatelist, Genghis Cohen, she enters the "crying” of Lot 49, a collection of Inverarity's stamps.
After being defeated by Thurn und Taxis in the 1700s, the Trystero organization goes
underground and continues to exist, with its mailboxes in the least suspected places, often appearing under their slogan W.A.S.T.E., an acronym for We Await Silent Tristero's Empire, and also a smart way of hiding their post-boxes disguised as regular waste-bins. In the plot of the novel, the existence and plans of the shadowy organization are revealed bit by bit, or, then again, it is possible that the Tristero does not exist at all. Oedipa Maas is buffeted back and forth between believing and not believing in them, without ever finding firm proof either way. The Tristero may be a conspiracy, it may be a practical joke, or it may simply be that Oedipa is hallucinating all the arcane references to the underground network, that she seems to be discovering on bus windows, toilet walls, et cetera.
The Trystero muted post hornProminent among these references is the "Trystero symbol", a muted post horn with one loop. Originally derived, supposedly, from the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms, Oedipa finds this symbol first in a bar bathroom, where it decorates a graffito advertising a group of polyamorists. It later appears among an engineer's doodles, as part of a children's sidewalk jump rope game, amidst Chinese ideograms in a shop window, and in many other places. The post horn (in either original or Trystero versions) appears on the cover art of many TCL49 editions, as well as within artwork created by the novel's fans.
Oedipa leaves her comfortable home in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, a northern California village, and travels south to the fictional town of San Narciso (Spanish for "Saint Narcissus"), near Los Angeles. Exploring puzzling coincidences she uncovers while parsing Inverarity's testament, Oedipa finds what might be evidence for the Trystero's existence. Sinking or ascending ever more deeply into paranoia, she finds herself torn between believing in the Trystero and believing that it is all a hoax established by Inverarity himself.
Along the way, Oedipa meets a wide range of eccentric characters. Her therapist in
Kinneret, a Dr. Hilarius, turns out to have done his internship in Buchenwald, working to induce insanity in captive Jews. "Liberal SS circles felt it would be more humane," he explains. In San Francisco, she meets a man who claims membership in the IA, Inamorati Anonymous—a group founded to help people avoid falling in love, "the worst addiction of all". (Ironically, the anonymous inamorato wears a lapel pin shaped as the Trystero post horn, which Oedipa first saw on an advertisement for group sex.) And, in Berkeley, she meets John Nefastis, an engineer who believes he has built a working version of Maxwell's Demon, a means for defeating entropy. The book ends with Oedipa attending an auction, waiting for bidding to begin on a set of a rare postage stamps, which she believes representatives of Tristero are trying to acquire. (Auction items are called "lots"; a lot is "cried" when the auctioneer is taking bids on it; the stamps in question are "Lot 49".)
Pynchon devotes a significant part of the book to a "play within a play", a detailed
description of a performance of an imaginary Jacobean revenge play, involving intrigues between Thurn and Taxis and Tristero. Like the Mousetrap which Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by "Richard Wharfinger") mirror those in the larger story around them.
Review: In this short, but fairly dense novel, Pynchon was able to create an entire world full of satire, conspiracy, and emotion This novel is a patriotic lamentation, an elaborate effort not to believe the worst about the Republic. Patriotism for an ideal of America explains the otherwise yawning gap in Pynchon's comic shaping of his material. The Tristero System--it began in 1577 in Holland in opposition to the Thurn and Taxis Postal System and is active now in America trying to subvert the American postal system through an organization called W.A.S.T.E.--is a masterpiece of comic invention. It involves, among other things, one of the best parodies ever written of Jacobean drama, "The Courier's Tragedy," and a perhaps final parody of California right-wing organizations, Peter Pequid
Society, named for the commanding officer of the Confederate man-of-war "Disgruntled" and opposed to industrial capitalism on the grounds that it has led inevitably to Marxism. Its leader, Mike Fallopian, speculates in California real estate. The exuberance of such comedy softens the portents of national calamity, but at the same time it makes it nearly impossible for Pynchon to persuade the reader, as he anxiously wants to do, that the whole System and the whole book have more meaning than a practical joke. The same difficulty was apparent in "V.", where the author's style at points of sincerity about love and youth was, by contrast to the vitality of his comic writing, platitudinously limp and sloganeering.
After all of the emotional and mental time invested into discovering the truth behind the novel, Pynchon gives the reader a nice slap in the face in the end by revealing nothing. You are left to ponder, along with the characters, how much of what you read was true and how much was just the product of paranoia.
Opening Line: "One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed excutrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost ten million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary."
Closing Line: "Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49."
Quotes: "The reality is in this head. Mine. I'm the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, and sometimes other orifices also."
"Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold, which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back."
Rating: Okay, I didn't get it. I am not seeing the greatness behind Pynchon, not yet.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

263. Henderson the Rain King - Saul Bellow

History: Published in 1959. It is said to be the most beloved of all Bellow's works.
Plot: Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged man. He is on his second marriage, his wife who he truly loves, his children he loves, but he is still not happy. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out I want, I want, I want. Hoping to discover what the voice wants, Henderson goes to Africa. There he travels, tells us the story of his life, wives, the time he tried to shoot a cat, and his daughter who brings a small black baby home, and hides her in the closet.
Upon reaching Africa, Henderson splits with his original group and hires a native guide, Romilayu. Romilayu leads Henderson to the village of the Arnewi, where Henderson befriends the leaders of the village. He learns that the cistern from which the Arnewi get their drinking water is plagued by frogs, thus rendering the water "unclean" according to local taboos. Henderson attempts to save the Arnewi by ridding them of the frogs, but his enthusiastic scheme ends in disaster. While bombing the cistern to kill the frogs, he also splits the cistern wall and the water supply is drained. In shame, he and Romilayu flee further inward.
Henderson and Romilayu travel on to the village of the Wariri. Here, Henderson impulsively performs a feat of strength - he lifts the goddess statue and moves it in a contest of strength, and unwittingly becomes Wariri Rain King. He quickly develops a friendship with the native-born but western-educated Chief, King Dahfu, with whom he engages in a series of far-reaching philosophical discussions.
The elders send Dahfu to find a lion, which is supposedly the reincarnation of the late king, Dahfu's father. The lion hunt fails and the lion mortally wounds the king. Henderson learns shortly before Dahfu's death that the Rain King is the next person in the line of succession for the throne. Fearing the elders would rather see him dead than lead the Wariri, Henderson flees the Wariri village, and makes his way home. With him, he takes the a lion cub, and an orphan boy he meets on the plane.
Although it is unclear whether Henderson has truly found spiritual contentment, the novel ends on an optimistic and uplifting note.
Review: The mixture of anthropology, philosophy and poetry in this book is truly bizarre, and Henderson is one of the great American heroes. This is the first Saul Bellow book I've read. I did love the writing, but I did lose interest in some of the long dialogues between Eugene and the natives. I mostly liked the character, and the descriptions. It was funny, and exciting. his prose is almost raw, though that rawness has a beauty about it, the rough beauty of the market, maybe, with jarring jumps in language that work even though they probably shouldn’t; and his sentences contain so much, with such little artifice, no trickery, and again, an almost brutal honesty. Henderson says: “We hate death, we fear it. But there’s nothing like it.”
Opening Line: "What made me take this trip to Africa?"
Closing Line: "I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running - leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence."
Quotes: "What a person to meet this distance from home. Yes, travel is advisable. And believe me, the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel. I had always suspected this. what we call reality is nothing but pedantry."
Rating: Very Good.

262. Sputnik Sweetheart - Haruki Murakami

History: This book was published in 1999.
Plot: The heroine of the novel is an aspiring author named Sumire. "K" the narrator, is in love with Sumire, but she sees him only as a very good friend. They are both writers, however K has become an elementary school teacher. Sumire falls in love with an older woman, Miu, who appears to like Sumire for certain qualities, though she has no time for Sumire's aspirations and ideals. Miu hires Sumire to work in her office, but she does not return Sumire's feelings.
While Sumire is an emotional and spontaneous individual who often appears to be a misfit in society, "K", the narrator, is a person who has through sheer force of will moulded himself into another person, one who integrates seamlessly into the wider society and culture around him, and the transition leaves him emotionally stunted and unable to express his feelings. He restrains himself, does not reveal his feelings to Sumire, and has affairs with other women. One is the mother of one of his students.
When Sumire is also, through her interaction with Miu, forcibly shaped into a person other than she is, the transformation is neither permanent nor successful. Sumire dresses differently, and slowly moves toward the conventional instead of the eccentric. She goes on business travels with Miu around Europe and to a Greek island, Sumire waiting for a chance to tell Miu how she feels. One night on the island, Sumire does make a pass at Miu, who cannot recipocate. Sumire is devastated, and then Sumire disappears. Miu calls "K" who travels to the island to investigate. He finds Sumire's writings in the laptop. He has a feeling that Sumire has fallen into a well (symbolic to Murakami) or fallen into the other side.
He returns to Japan, to another school term. His girlfriend, the mother of one of his students, calls him one day asking him to come to the department store where her son has been caught shoplifting. He intervenes, and befriends the student, called "Carrot". But he breaks it off with the mother.
Miu and K also break ties. He doesn't communicate with her again.
One night he receives a phone call from Sumire, asking him to come down to the phone booth, but it is probably a dream. And the book ends there.
Review: For all its strange and touching beauty, "Sputnik Sweetheart" is not the best of Murakami's novels. Its flaws have mostly to do with the protracted end, which offers a single instance of hope and communication. Against the novel's darker canvas of abandonment and loneliness, it seems too quick, too easily destroyed. But when the narrator philosophically returns to his meditations on loss, it becomes a testament to Murakami's great power: He compels us to examine an emptiness we would rather forget. The principal themes are still familiar ones to the Japanese author's faithful following: the effects of prolonged loneliness and alienation, growing up emotionally stunted in a densely populated and overwhelmingly conformist society, and the conflict between following one's dreams and clamping down on them in order to assimilate into society. The book's major themes include loneliness and people's inability to truly know themselves or the people they love. This is symbolized by the recurring metaphor of the Sputnik satellites orbiting at a distance from the earth.
Opening Line: "In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life."
Closing Line: "The blood must have already, in its own silent way, seeped inside."
Quotes: "The more I think about it, the more I'd like to take a rain check on the topic of me. what I'd like to know more about is the objective reality of things outside myself. How improtant the world outside is to me, how I maintain a sense of equilibrium by coming to terms with it. That's how I'd grasp a clearer sense of who I am."
Rating: Good.