Wednesday, February 29, 2012

481. Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey

History: This book was published in 1964. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) was arguably the more famous of the two novels, many critics consider Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey's magnum opus.
The novel uses the technique of having multiple characters speak sequentially in the first person, with no announcement that the first-person speaker has changed. A first reading can be confusing, but subsequent readings reveal that Kesey always provides a clue, quickly referring to the previously-presumed first character in the third person. This technique allows Kesey to weave an intricate braid of characters who reveal their motives in depth to the reader, but do not communicate well with each other.
Kesey took the title from the song “Goodnight, Irene”, popularized by Leadbelly:
Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I haves a great notion
To jump into the river an’ drown
Plot: The story centers on the Stamper family, a hard-headed logging clan in the fictional town of Wakonda, Oregon. The union loggers in the town of Wakonda go on strike in demand of the same pay for shorter hours in response to the decreasing need for labor due to the introduction of the chainsaw. The Stamper family, however, owns and operates a company without unions and decides to not only continue work, but to supply the regionally owned mill with all the lumber the laborers would have supplied had the strike not occurred.
This decision, and the surrounding details of the decision, are deeply explored in this multilayered historical background and relationship study—especially in its examination of the following characters: Henry Stamper, the old and half-crazed patriarch whose motto "Never Give A Inch!" has defined the nature of the family and its dynamic with the town; Hank, the oldest son of Henry whose strong will and personality make him a leader but his subtle insecurities and desires threaten the stability of his family; Leland, the younger son of Henry and half brother of Hank, whose constant weaknesses and the nature of his intellect led him away from the family to the East Coast, but whose eccentric behavior and desire for revenge against Hank lead him back to Oregon; and Viv, whose love for her husband Hank fades quickly when she begins to realize her true place in the Stamper household.
The family house itself manifests the physical stubbornness of the Stamper family; as the nearby river widens slowly and causes erosion, all the other houses on the river have either been consumed or wrecked by the waters or moved away from the current, except the Stamper house, which stands on a precarious peninsula struggling to maintain every inch of land with the help of an arsenal of boards, sand bags, cables, and other miscellaneous items brandished by Henry Stamper in his fight against the encroaching river.
Review: Often called the "quintessential Oregon novel," Sometimes a Great Notion bears remarkable similarity to our fabled Beaver State winters: seemingly sprawling and unending at first, characterized by incessant rain, somewhat disorienting until you become acclimated, yet ultimately compelling, fecund, and, dare I say, necessary. Ken Kesey is perhaps Oregon's most famous adopted son, known best, of course, for his debut novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the time he spent with the Merry Pranksters. Not only is Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey's masterwork (Bartleby : Moby-Dick :: Cuckoo's Nest : Notion), it very well may encapsulate the American ethic and landscape as well as any other novel of its era.
Concerned with the ongoing timber strike in the fictional coastal range town of Wakonda, Sometimes a Great Notion revolves around the very proud and unyielding Stamper family, who decide to continue logging despite the acrimony and pleading of their neighbors. Literally teeming with symbolic imagery, the novel engenders some conflicted loyalties in the reader, as even the most reprehensible behavior on the part of some of the characters manages to elicit our sympathies. Kesey's unique prose structure, rich in style and nuance, stands in stark contrast to the inability of most of the characters to openly express themselves, their desires, and their feelings. One could easily make the case that this book is mainly about the labor struggle or encroaching modernity or the timber industry or Oregon itself; but, at its roots, it seems to be about the underlying and driving motivations that characterize the complexity of interpersonal relationships. While propelled by some of the basest of human emotions — hubris, stubbornness, revenge, jealousy, envy — Sometimes a Great Notion is also marked by some of the noblest: love, loyalty, camaraderie, and kindness.
This is quite the rewarding work, and lovers of all types of fiction will undoubtedly find many things remarkable about this epic novel. Kesey's masterpiece deserves its place amidst the canon of great American novels, yet is rarely mentioned in the same breath as some of the more widely accepted classics.
Opening Line: “Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range… come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge in the Wakonda Auga River…”
Closing Line: “Hee! Jenny says triumphantly, lifting the mud hemmed garment on over her head.”
Quotes: “The past is funny ... it never seems to let things lie, finished. It never seems to stay in place as it should.”
“The raw materials of reality without the glue of time are materials adrift and reality is as meaningless as the balsa parts of a model airplane scattered to the wind.”
Rating: I could not get it. Did not finish.

480. A Sentimental Journey – Lawrence Sterne

History: This book was written and first published in 1768, In 1765, Sterne travelled through France and Italy as far south as Naples, and after returning determined to describe his travels from a sentimental point of view. 
The novel was extremely popular and influential and helped establish travel writing as the dominant genre of the second half of the 18th century. Unlike prior travel accounts which stressed classical learning and objective non-personal points of view, A Sentimental Journey emphasized the subjective discussions of personal taste and sentiments, of manners and morals over classical learning. Throughout the 1770s female travel writers began publishing significant numbers of sentimental travel accounts. Sentiment also became a favorite style among those expressing non-mainstream views including political radicalism.
Because Sterne died before he could finish the novel, his long time friend John Hall-Stevenson (who is also identified with the name Eugenius in the novel) wrote a continuation. It is titled Yorick's Sentimental Journey Continued: To Which Is Prefixed Some Account of the Life and Writings of Mr. Sterne.
Plot: Yorick's journey starts in Calais, where he meets a monk who begs for donations to his convent. Yorick initially refuses to give him anything, but later regrets his decision. He and the monk exchange their snuff-boxes. He buys a chaise to continue his journey. The next town he visits is Montreuil, where he hires a servant to accompany him on his journey, a young man named La Fleur.
During his stay in Paris, Yorick is informed that the police inquired for his passport at his hotel. Without a passport at a time when England is at war with France (Sterne traveled to Paris in January 1762, before the Seven Years' War ended), he risks imprisonment in the Bastille. Yorick decides to travel to Versailles where he visits the Count de B**** to acquire a passport. When Yorick notices the count reads Hamlet, he points with his finger at Yorick's name, mentioning that he is Yorick. The count mistakes him for the king's jester and quickly procures him a passport. Yorick fails in his attempt to correct the count, and remains satisfied with receiving his passport so quickly.
Yorick returns to Paris, and continues his voyage to Italy after staying in Paris for a few more days. Along the way he decides to visit Maria – who was introduced in Sterne's previous novel, Tristram Shandy – in Moulin. Maria's mother tells Yorick that Maria has been struck with grief since her husband died. Yorick consoles Maria, and then leaves.
After having passed Lyon during his journey, Yorick spends the night in a roadside inn. Because there is only one bedroom, he is forced to share the room with a lady and her chamber-maid ("fille de chambre"). When Yorick can't sleep and accidentally breaks his promise to remain silent during the night, an altercation with the lady ensues. During the confusion, Yorick accidentally grabs hold of something belonging to the chamber-maid. The last line is: "when I stretch'd out my hand I caught hold of the fille de chambre's...End of vol II". The sentence is open to interpretation. You can say the last word is omitted, or that he stretched out his hand, and caught hers (this would be grammatically correct). Another interpretation is to incorporate 'End of Vol. II' into the sentence, so that he grabs the Fille de Chambre's 'End
Review: Sterne is best known for his Rabelaisian tour-de-force Tristam Shandy, a novel which I had the "pleasure" to struggle through for the best part of a year back in 2008. Shandy is a sprawling, discursive comic masterpiece which has more in common with novels of the 20th century then those which followed it in the 19th. But Sterne also wrote another, minor, classic, A Sentimental Journey. First published in 1768, six months before the author's death, A Sentimental Journey was one of the first "novels of sentiment and sensibility" a genre which rose and fell by the turn of the 19th century, but one which would have a decisive impact on the Brontean/Austen wave of fiction which would define the 19th century.
Sterne's A Sentimental Journey was published three years before Henry MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling. Man of Feeling was in instant hit, selling out within two months and being reprinted six time in the following decade. Both novels echo the on-going debate in 18th century about the impact of modernity on the nature of man. As G.J. Barker-Benfield persuasively argued in his book, The Culture of Sensibility, "popular novels written by men in the 1760s and 1770s were preoccupied with the meanings of sensibility for manhood...and the ambiguity we now tend to read into the novels of Laurence Stern or Mackenzie reflects this contemporary ambivalence."
Regardless of how one interprets the underlying debate OR the role of the "novels of sentiment" in the 18th century, it's clear that these tales had an audience. Of course, in light of the rise of female novelists in the 19th century, I am left wondering who was buying all the copies of MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling. Was it men, interested in getting a fix on their identity in a rapidly changing world? Or was it largely women, interested in men who were depicted behaving in a traditionally "feminine" manner?
Sterne's Sentimental Journey is a clear way-station on the way to MacKenzie's mincing, sobbing Man of Feeling. Unlike MacKenzie, Sterne is a comic genius, and his book is filled with episodes of satire and wit that are sorely missing in Man of Feeling. There is also an element of bawdiness in A Sentimental Journey that is so clearly an element of Sterne's Rabelaisian style- something lacking in MacKenzie, let alone the oft humorless novels of sentiment that were published after the turn of the century. Blame the Victorians, or don't, it matters little.
However it's clear to me that the "Sentimental Man" was a cultural trend with all the complexity and force of later trends like Rock and roll, and it's interesting because it was one of the FIRST such modern trends whose influence was reflected in a contemporary art form that was ITSELF just rounding into form (the novel.) For that reason it's worth thinking about, because by learning about people then, we can learn about ourselves now.
Opening Line: “They order, said I, this matter better in France. - You have been in France? said my gentleman, turning quick upon me, with the most civil triumph in the world.”
Closing Line: “So that when I stretch’d out my hand I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s –“
Quotes: “I was interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy with a voice which I took to be that of a child, which complained: ‘it could not get out,’ …and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung up in a little cage. I stood looking at the bird, and to every person who came through the passage, it ran fluttering towards the side which they approached it, with the same lamentation of its captivity—‘I can’t get out,’ said the starling. God help thee!—said I—but I’ll let thee out, cost what it will; so I turned the cage about to get at the door; it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces… The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, pressed his breast against it…—I fear, poor creature, said I, I cannot set thee at liberty.—‘No,’ said the starling; ‘I can’t get out—I can’t get out.’ I vow I never had any affections more tenderly awaked…”
Rating: No Opinion.

Monday, February 27, 2012

479. The Woodlanders – Thomas Hardy

History: This book was published in 1887. The novel remained Hardy's personal favourite, and is widely acknowledged to be among his finest achievements. The Woodlanders marks the beginnings of controversy for Hardy's novels. At this point in his career he was established enough as a writer to take risks, especially in the areas of sex, sexual attraction, marriage, divorce, marital fidelity, unconventional plots and tones, and seemingly immoral conclusions.
The novel reflects common Hardyan themes: a rustic, evocative setting, poorly chosen marriage partners, unrequited love, social class mobility, and an unhappy ending to the plot. As with most all his other works, the reader is left feeling frustrated without a greater sense of finality to the romantic relationships, as opportunities for fulfillment and happiness are forsaken or delayed. None of the characters are left fulfilled by the end of the narrative.
Plot: The story takes place in a small woodland village called Little Hintock, and concerns the efforts of an honest woodsman, Giles Winterborne, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Melbury. Although they have been informally betrothed for some time, her father has made financial sacrifices to give his adored only child a superior education and no longer considers Giles good enough for her. When the new doctor – a well-born and handsome young man named Edred Fitzpiers – takes an interest in Grace, her father does all he can to make Grace forget Giles, and to encourage what he sees as a brilliant match. Grace has more awe than love for Fitzpiers, but marries him nonetheless. After the honeymoon, the couple take up residence in an unused wing of Melbury's house. Soon, however, Fitzpiers begins an affair with a rich widow named Mrs. Charmond, takes to treating Grace coldly, and finally deserts her one night after he accidentally reveals his true character to his father-in-law.
Melbury tries to procure a divorce for his daughter so she can marry Giles after all, but in vain. When Fitzpiers quarrels with Mrs. Charmond and returns to Little Hintock to try to reconcile with his wife, she flees the house and turns to Giles for help. He is still convalescing from a dangerous illness, but nobly allows her to sleep in his hut during stormy weather, whilst he insists on sleeping outside. As a result, he dies. Grace later allows herself to be won back to the at least temporarily repentant Fitzpiers, thus sealing her fate as the wife of an unworthy man. No one is left to mourn Giles except a courageous peasant girl named Marty South, who all along has been the overlooked but perfect mate for him, and who has always loved him.
Review: The Woodlanders is a masterpiece and absolute joy to read for two reasons. Not the characters, who rarely rise above their stock roles - the decent, honourable heroine impossibly torn between passion and propriety; the manly, back-to-nature hero, who could come straight from Cold Comfort Farm; the impoverished aristocratic cad; his wealthy lover, the promiscuous bored ex-actress golddigger; the bumbling middle-class trader of lowly origins. What astonishes first is Hardy's plot, related by a weirdly troubling narrator, awesomely intricate in itself, but full of an almost Nabokovian sadism. Situations, desires, hopes are set up and cruelly dashed as the beautiful narrative machinations begin cranking - the man-trap scene had me literally sweating. This irony, however, also has an emotional effect, as it reveals characters trapped by the social, gender and psychological limits the plot symbolises, and forces them into a humanity beyond their stereotype. Mostly, though, this is a novel written by a poet, and in its animation of the sexually charged woods, the lanes, glades, fields, sunsets, dawns, storms, drizzles, winds, breezes, nature is the book's true hero, full of almost supernatural agency. Hardy's gifts of description, his unearthing the unearthly, the uncanny, the inexplicable beneath the surface, are unsurpassed in Victorian fiction; while his non-didactic anger at social injustice is so much more compelling than the more literal Dickens'.
Hardy has an amazing knack for thoroughly placing his reader into the environment of his novel. Interesting to me too, is that each of Hardy's novels tends to focus on a different environment and ecology found within the fictional Wessex region of southwestern England.
In The Woodlanders the reader is introduced to the shaded and leafy world of the forest of Blackmoor Vale and the hamlet of Little Hintock. The novel's characters live in the midst of this forested world and make a living with and among the trees. They are involved in lumbering, forestry, and management of orchards. It is a beautiful environment, and lovingly described and re-described by Hardy as the course of the novel moves through the seasons of the year.
Hardy integrates the 'mood' of his environment into the plot of the novel. The sounds, sights, and smells of the forest and bridle paths are as much a part of The Woodlanders as are the dialog, thoughts and actions of the characters themselves. In fact, I have come to realize that Hardy intentionally develops the environment in each of his novels to become a fully empowered character in the same sense as his human players. Also, this novel seems to have been one of Hardy's favorites as it was based upon the area where his mother had grown up, a location that he was apparently quite fond of.
The novel revolves around Grace Melbury, a young woman who returns to her father's and stepmother's home in Little Hintock, after some years away becoming educated and more socially refined. Unlike Clym Yeobright, in The Return of the Native, Grace is not quite sure that she really wants to remain in the forest of Little Hintock surrounded by the peasant class of her childhood. Her father sent her off to school and has always encouraged her to aspire to a 'grander' lifestyle. She returns to find the young man that still loves her, Giles Winterborne, is still there, and working for her father's timber business, and operating a traveling apple cider press during the harvest season. At first blush it would seem that all looks well for the future of Grace and Giles.
As is typical in a Hardy novel, Fate and Irony have a curious way of inserting themselves, generally quite tragically, into the lives of the plot's characters. Quickly the reader is also introduced to the novel's other players: the steadfast and loyal young peasant woman, Marty South; the newly arrived gentlemanly young doctor, Edred Fitzpiers; and the local landowner, the widowed Mrs. Felice Charmond. While Giles and Marty are relatively contented and happy folk of the forest, Dr. Fitzpiers and Mrs. Charmond are clearly out of their element in the Blackmoor Vale, and Grace Melbury is betwixt and between as she endeavors to determine the course of her future.
The reader is enthralled with the pastoral scenes and life in the forest around Little Hintock, there is at the same time an incredibly epic and pathos-driven tragic drama that is unfolding and spiraling out of control that is of almost Shakespearean proportions.
Opening Line: “The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards.”
Closing Line: “If ever I forget your name, let me forget home and Heaven!--But no, no, my love, I never can forget 'ee; for you was a GOOD man, and did good things!"
Quotes: "In the hollow shades of the roof could be seen dangling and etiolated arms of ivy which had crept through the joints of the tiles and were groping in vain for some support, their leaves being dwarfed and sickly for want of sunlight"
Rating: Very Good.

478. Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg

History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: The novel is ostensibly a work of detection and a thriller, although beneath the surface of the novel, Høeg is concerned with rather deeper cultural issues, particularly Denmark's curious post-colonial history, and also the nature of relationships that exist between individuals and the societies in which they are obliged to operate. The protagonist Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is a sympathetic and useful vehicle in this respect, her deceased mother being Greenlandic Inuit and her father a rich Danish doctor.
Having been brought in childhood from the poverty and freedom of Greenland to the affluent and highly ordered society of Denmark, Smilla's relationship with Denmark and Danish society is strained and ambivalent. Smilla investigates the death of a neighbor’s child whom she had befriended—a fellow Greenlander, with an alcoholic, neglectful mother and a mysteriously deceased father. The story begins in Copenhagen, where the child has fallen to his death from their apartment building's snowy rooftop. The police refuse to consider it anything but an accident—there is only one set of footprints (the child's) in the snow leading to the edge of the roof—but Smilla believes there is something about the footprints that shows that the boy was chased off the roof. Her investigations lead her to decades-old conspiracies in Copenhagen, and then to a voyage on an icebreaker ship to a remote island off the Greenlandic coast, where the truth is finally discovered. But the book ends unresolved, with no firm conclusion.
Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, 37-year-old product of the stormy union of a female Inuit hunter and a rich urban Danish physician, is a loner who struggles to live with her fractured heritage. Living alone in a dreary apartment complex in Christianshavn, Copenhagen, she befriends Isaiah, the neglected son of her alcoholic neighbour, because he too is Greenlandic and not truly at home in Denmark. Smilla's friendship with Isaiah, recounted in the novel in flashback, gives some meaning to her otherwise lonely life. Isaiah’s sudden death is explained officially as a fall from the roof whilst playing, but Smilla’s understanding of the tracks the child left on the snowy roof convinces her that this is untrue. She complains to the police and quickly encounters obstruction and hostility from the authorities and other sources.
Working with Peter, a mechanic neighbour who had also known and liked Isaiah, and with whom she begins an affair despite her fear of dependency, Smilla discovers that there is a conspiracy centred on Gela Alta, an isolated glaciated island off Greenland. Previous expeditions have found something there (Isaiah’s father was a diver who died on one of them, allegedly in an accident) and now plans are afoot to return for it. Isaiah’s death is linked to this conspiracy in some way. After a long journey of discovery in Copenhagen, during which she learns that the mechanic is not who he says he is, Smilla braves intimidation and threats and eventually gets on board the ship chartered for the mysterious expedition to Gela Alta, ostensibly as a stewardess.
The final action takes place on the ship and the island. Smilla is held in deep suspicion by the ship's crew—who turn out to be all in some way compromised and in the pay of the mysterious Tørk Hviid, who is the expedition's real leader. Despite repeated attempts on her life by crew members, who assume she is from the authorities, Smilla doggedly pursues the truth, even when she discovers that Peter has deceived and betrayed her. The secret of the island is revealed to be a meteorite embedded in the glacier, certainly uniquely valuable—perhaps even alive in some way. However, the water surrounding it is infested with a lethal parasite related to the Guinea worm, which is what really killed Isaiah’s father. Isaiah was forced off the roof because he had accompanied his father on the previous expedition and had evidence of the meteorite’s location—and the parasite itself was actually dormant in his body. When Smilla learns that Tørk Hviid had chased Isaiah off the roof to his death, she pursues him out onto the frozen sea. He tries to reach the ship and force it to sail away, but Smilla chases him, using her intuitive ice-sense to head him off, out into isolation and danger. Here the novel ends unresolved.
Review: With "Smilla's Sense of Snow," his American debut following two previous books, the Danish novelist Peter Hoeg finds his own uncommon vein in narrative territory-- the suspense novel as exploration of the heart. Mr. Hoeg's heroine, Smilla Jaspersen, is the daughter of an Eskimo mother who was a nomadic native of Greenland and a wealthy Danish anesthesiologist father, parentage that endows her with the resilience of the frozen north and urban civilization's existential malaise. One day just before Christmas, Smilla arrives at her Copenhagen apartment building to find a neighbor boy, 6-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, sprawled face down in the snow, dead after a fall from the roof of a nearby warehouse.
But did Isaiah fall? Smilla suspects not, based on her accidental enchantment with this adorable and neglected child. Isaiah, also an Eskimo, lived with his alcoholic, welfare-addicted mother, Juliane, who could barely rouse herself to dress him sufficiently, let alone protect and nourish him. Though Smilla cheerfully hates children, she allowed herself to be adopted by Isaiah as his caretaker, giving him baths, sometimes letting him sleep in the same bed with her and reading to him from, of all things, Euclid's "Elements."
The choice of books is not arbitrary. Mathematics is the first of two reigning metaphors in Smilla's view of the world. "The number system is like human life," she says, with negative numbers "the formalization of the feeling that you are missing something." Perhaps as a result of both casual racism toward Eskimos and her own temperament, Smilla admits she finds numbers easier to cope with than people, a trait that could make her disagreeable. But whether rooted in mathematics or a preference for her own company, Smilla's capacity for observation never fails to charm or amuse. Playing a Danish Pascal, she tosses off inspired epigrams on any subject at hand -- friendship, self-centeredness, children, death.
Her second essential metaphor is the cold, not surprising given her history, and appropriate to a novel set emotionally and literally in winter. Told she courts danger by walking on the frozen Copenhagen harbor, she replies, "I have a good relationship with ice." When asked how, based solely on seeing Isaiah's footprints, she can be certain someone chased him from the warehouse roof, she replies, "I have a sense of snow." It is a tribute to Mr. Hoeg's skill that such lines do not seem laughable, not least because Smilla's upbringing, divided between Greenland and Denmark, is continuously fascinating and feels unquestionably authentic.
The truth is that aside from her sense of snow, Smilla has stronger reasons to doubt the official story. Honoring a "pact with Isaiah not to leave him in the lurch, never," she sets out to discover who killed him. The journey starts at the local medical examiner's office and ends, weeks later, on a ship navigating the ice floes of Greenland -- a long, potentially lethal road on behalf of a boy who once ingenuously asked, "When you die, Smilla, can I have your hide?" Along the way, Smilla sketches a shrewd and moving portrait of her parents' marriage, viciously dissects Denmark's near-colonial treatment of her mother's people and discovers, at the age of 37, how it feels to fall in love.
Any man who dares to write an entire novel from a woman's point of view should be wary. But Mr. Hoeg succeeds. The investigation on which he sends Smilla, however, never quite measures up to the brilliant tone of its telling. Far too often the story takes convoluted turns, some so ill motivated as to seem random. In the adventure's final chapters, a reader may wish Mr. Hoeg had supplied marginal notes to explain precisely what's going on.
This sort of haphazard plotting would sink an ordinary novel, but Smilla makes the trip worthwhile. Her voice, in an engaging translation by Tiina Nunnally, is the nervy, insistent voice of modernity -- cynical, angry, desperate for meaning, weary of the state and its intrusions. "I don't like being watched," Smilla says. "I hate punch cards and flex time. . . .I detest passport control and birth certificates . . . the whole rotten monstrosity of government controls and demands." Blithely sardonic, she is always ready with the clever quip. Of Bertrand Russell's dictum that pure mathematics is "the field in which we don't know what we're talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false," Smilla tells us, "That's the way I feel about cooking."
If "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is an indication of what Peter Hoeg has in store for us, he may yet be offered a provisional chair in the corner of literary heaven reserved for great suspense novelists, permanent residency being denied until he forsakes confusion as a plot device. In the meantime, he has created an irresistible heroine. Despite her professed misanthropy, Smilla Jaspersen has far more sympathy for human foibles, and for herself, than she can acknowledge.
Opening Line: “It’s freezing- an extraordinary 0 degree Fahrenheit- and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in clumps and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.”
Closing Line: “There will be no resolution.”
Quotes: “You can try to cover up depression in various ways. You can listen to Bach’s compositions for the organ in Our Savior’s Church. You can arrange a line of good cheer in powder form on a pocket mirror with a razor blade and ingest it with a straw. You can call for help. For instance, by telephone so that you know who’s listening.”
“He has a light, fumbling brutality, which several times makes me think that this time it’ll cost me my sanity. In our dawning, mutual intimacy, I induce him to open the little slit in the head of his penis so I can put my clitoris inside and fuck him.”
Rating: Good

477. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

History: This book was first published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir (New World).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience in the Soviet labor camps called the Gulag, having been imprisoned from 1945 to 1953 for writing a derogatory comment in letters to friends about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he referred to by epithets such as "the master" and "the boss". He used the epithet "old man whiskers" in his novel, where it is translated as "Old Whiskers" or "Old Man Whiskers". The name was considered offensive and derogatory; however, prisoners were free to call Stalin whatever they liked "Somebody in the room was bellowing: 'Old Man Whiskers won't ever let you go! He wouldn't trust his own brother, let alone a bunch of cretins like you!"
After being released from the exile that followed his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn began writing One Day in 1957. In 1962, he submitted his manuscript to Novy Mir, a Russian literary magazine. The editor,Aleksandr Tvardovsky, was so impressed with this detailed description of life in the labor camps, that he submitted the manuscript to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish it, because until then Soviet writers had only been allowed to refer to the camps. From there it was sent to the de-Stalinist Khrushchev, who, despite the objections of some top party members, ultimately authorized its publication with some censorship of the text. After the novel was sent to the editor, Aleksandr Tvardovsky of Novy Mir, it was subsequently published in November 1962.
The labour camp described in the book was home to Solzhenitsyn for a while as he served his term, located in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
Plot: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been sentenced to a camp in the Soviet gulag system, accused of becoming a spy after being captured by the Germans as a prisoner of warduring World War II. He is innocent but is nonetheless punished by the government for being a spy. The final paragraph suggests that Shukhov serves ten years.
The day begins with Shukhov waking up sick. For waking late, he is sent to the guardhouse and forced to clean it—a minor punishment compared to others mentioned in the book. When Shukhov is finally able to leave the guardhouse, he goes to the dispensary to report his illness. Since it is late in the morning by now, the orderly is unable to exempt any more workers, and Shukhov must work regardless.
The rest of the day mainly speaks of Shukhov's squad (the 104th, which has 24 members), their allegiance to the squad leader, and the work that the prisoners (zeks) do—for example, at a brutal construction site where the cold freezes the mortar used for bricklaying if not applied quickly enough. Solzhenitsyn also details the methods used by the prisoners for survival; the whole camp lives by the rule of survival of the fittest. Tiurin, the foreman of gang 104 is strict but kind, and the squad grows to like him more as the book goes on. Though a "morose" man, Tiurin is liked because he understands the prisoners and he tells them a lot and does a lot to help them. Shukhov is one of the hardest workers in the squad and is generally well respected. Rations at the camp are scant, but for Shukhov, they are one of the few things to live for. He conserves the food that he receives and is always watchful for any item that he can hide and trade for food at a later date.
At the end of the day, Shukhov is able to provide a few special services for Tsezar (Caesar), an intellectual who is able to get out of manual labor and do office work instead. Tsezar is most notable, however, for receiving packages of food from his family. Shukhov is able to get a small share of Tsezar's packages by standing in lines for him. Shukhov's day ends up being productive, even "almost happy": "Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day."
Those in the camps found everyday life extremely difficult. For example, one rule states that if the thermometer reaches −41 °C (−42 °F), then the prisoners are exempt from outdoor labor that day—anything above that was considered bearable. The reader is reminded in passing through Shukhov's matter-of-fact thoughts of the harshness of the conditions, worsened by the inadequate bedding and clothing. The boots assigned to the zeks rarely fit, in addition cloth had to be used or taken out, for example, and the thin mittens issued were easily ripped.
The prisoners were assigned numbers for easy identification and in an effort to dehumanize them; Ivan Denisovich's prisoner number was Щ-854. Each day, the squad leader would receive their assignment of the day, and the squad would then be fed according to how they performed. Prisoners in each squad were thus forced to work together and to pressure each other to get their work done. If any prisoner was slacking, the whole squad would be punished. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn shows that a surprising loyalty could exist among the work gang members, with Shukhov teaming up with other prisoners to steal felt and extra bowls of soup; even the squad leader defies the authorities by tar papering over the windows at their work site. Indeed, only through such solidarity can the prisoners do anything more than survive from day to day.
Review: Solzhenitsyn is a 44-year-old mathematics teacher in the old Russian town of Ryazan who spent eight years in Stalinís concentration camps. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is his first literary work, the simple story of one day in a Soviet concentration camp.
There is hardly a detail in Solzhenitsyn's story which, in itself is new. The cruelty, the falseness of the charges, the animal fight for survival, the debasement, the cynical grafting, the brutalizing, the sentences stretching into infinity (or death), the hunger, the suffering, the cold--all this is familiar.
 The themes of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich center on authoritative oppression and camp survival. Specifically discussed is the cruelty and spite towards the fellow man, namely from prison officials. Solzhenitsyn explains through Ivan Denisovich that everything is managed by the camp commandment up to the point where time feels unnoticed; the prisoners always have work to do and never any free time to discuss important issues. Survival is of the utmost importance to prisoners. Attitude is another crucial factor in survival. Since prisoners were each assigned a grade, it was considered good etiquette to obey. This is outlined through the character of Fetiukov, a ministry worker who let himself into prison and scarcely follows prison etiquette. Another such incident involves Buinovsky, a former naval captain, who is punished for defending himself and others during an early morning frisking.
Opening Line: “At five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters.”
Closing Line: “The three extra days were for leap years.”
Quotes: “The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow.”
Rating: Okay

Saturday, February 25, 2012

476. Walden – Henry David Thoreau

History: Published in 1854, it details Thoreau's experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.
Plot: By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. Simple living and self-sufficiencywere Thoreau's other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period. As Thoreau made clear in his book, his cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles (3 km) from his family home.
Economy: In this first and longest chapter, Thoreau outlines his project: a two-year, two-month, and two-day stay at a cozy, "tightly shingled and plastered," English-style 10' × 15' cottage in the woods near Walden Pond. He does this, he says, to illustrate the spiritual benefits of a simplified lifestyle. He easily supplies the four necessities of life (food, shelter, water, and warmth) with the help of family and friends, particularly his mother, his best friend, and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson. The latter provided Thoreau with a work exchange – he could build a small house and plant a garden if he cleared some land on the woodlot and did other chores while there. Thoreau meticulously records his expenditures and earnings, demonstrating his understanding of "economy," as he builds his house and buys and grows food. For a home and freedom, he spent a mere $28.12½, in 1845. At the end of this chapter, Thoreau inserts a poem, "The Pretensions of Poverty," by seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Carew. The poem criticizes those who think that their poverty gives them unearned moral and intellectual superiority.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For: After playing with the idea of buying a farm, Thoreau describes his house's location. Then he explains that he took up his abode at Walden Woods so as to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Although he criticizes the dedication of his neighbors to working, he himself is quite busy at Walden – building and maintaining his house, raising thousands of bean plants and other vegetables, making bread, clearing land, chopping wood, making repairs for the Emersons, going into town, and writing every day. His time at Walden was his most productive as a writer.
Reading: Thoreau discusses the benefits of classical literature (preferably in the original Greek or Latin), and bemoans the lack of sophistication in Concord, evident in the popularity of unsophisticated literature. He also loved to read books by world travelers.[5] He yearns for a utopian time when each New England village supports "wise men" to educate and thereby ennoble the population.
Sounds: Thoreau opens this chapter by warning against relying too much on literature as a means of transcendence. Instead, one should experience life for oneself. Thus, after describing his house's beautiful natural surroundings and his casual housekeeping habits, Thoreau goes on to criticize the train whistle that interrupts his reverie. To him, the railroad symbolizes the destruction of the pastoral way of life. Following is a description of the sounds audible from his cabin: the church bells ringing, carriages rattling and rumbling, cows lowing, whip-poor-wills singing, owls hooting, frogs croaking, and cockerels crowing.
Solitude: Thoreau rhapsodizes about the beneficial effects of living solitary and close to nature. He claims to love being alone, saying "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Visitors: Thoreau writes about the visitors to his house. Among the 25 or 30 visitors is a young French-Canadian woodchopper, Alec Therien, whom Thoreau idealizes as approaching the ideal man, and a runaway slave, whom Thoreau helps on his journey to freedom in Canada.
The Bean-Field: Thoreau relates his efforts to cultivate 2.5 acres (10,000 m2) of beans. He plants in June and spends his summer mornings weeding the field with a hoe. He sells most of the crop, and his small profit of $8.71 covers his needs that were not provided by friends and family.
The Village: Thoreau visits the small town of Concord every day or two to hear the news, which he finds "as refreshing in its way as the rustle of the leaves." Nevertheless, he fondly but rather contemptuously compares Concord to a gopher colony. In late summer, he is arrested for refusing to pay federal taxes, but is released the next day. He explains that he refuses to pay taxes to a government that supports slavery.
The Ponds: In autumn, Thoreau discusses the countryside and writes down his observations about the geography of Walden Pond and its neighbors: Flint's Pond (or Sandy Pond), White Pond, and Goose Pond. Although Flint's is the largest, Thoreau's favorites are Walden and White ponds, which he describes as lovelier than diamonds.
Baker Farm: While on an afternoon ramble in the woods, Thoreau gets caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in the dirty, dismal hut of John Field, a penniless but hard-working Irish farmhand, and his wife and children. Thoreau urges Field to live a simple but independent and fulfilling life in the woods, thereby freeing himself of employers and creditors. But the Irishman won't give up his aspirations of luxury and the quest for the American dream.
Higher Laws: Thoreau discusses whether hunting wild animals and eating meat is necessary. He concludes that the primitive, carnal sensuality of humans drives them to kill and eat animals, and that a person who transcends this propensity is superior to those who cannot. (Thoreau eats fish and occasionally salt pork and woodchuck.) He lauds chastity, work, and teetotalism. He also recognizes that Indians need to hunt and kill moose for survival in "The Maine Woods," and ate moose on a trip to Maine while he was living at Walden. Here is a list of the laws that he mentions:
§ One must love that of the wild just as much as one loves that of the good.
§ What men already know instinctively is true humanity.
§ The hunter is the greatest friend of the animal which is hunted.
§ No human older than an adolescent would wantonly murder any creature which reveres its own life as much as the killer.
§ If the day and the night make one joyful, one is successful.
§ The highest form of self-restraint is when one can subsist not on other animals, but of plants and crops cultivated from the earth.
Brute Neighbors: Thoreau briefly discusses the many wild animals that are his neighbors at Walden. A description of the nesting habits of partridges is followed by a fascinating account of a massive battle between red and black ants. Three of the combatants he takes into his cabin and examines under a microscope as the black ant kills the two smaller red ones. Later, Thoreau takes his boat and tries to follow a teasing loon about the pond. He also collects animal specimens and ships them to Harvard College for study.
House-Warming: After picking November berries in the woods, Thoreau adds a chimney, and finally plasters the walls of his sturdy house to stave off the cold of the oncoming winter. He also lays in a good supply of firewood, and expresses affection for wood and fire.
Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors: Thoreau relates the stories of people who formerly lived in the vicinity of Walden Pond. Then he talks about a few of the visitors he receives during the winter: a farmer, a woodchopper, and his best friend, the poet Ellery Channing.
Winter Animals: Thoreau amuses himself by watching wildlife during the winter. He relates his observations of owls, hares, red squirrels, mice, and various birds as they hunt, sing, and eat the scraps and corn he put out for them. He also describes a fox hunt that passes by.
The Pond in Winter: Thoreau describes Walden Pond as it appears during the winter. He claims to have sounded its depths and located an underground outlet. Then he recounts how 100 laborers came to cut great blocks of ice from the pond, the ice to be shipped to the Carolinas.
Spring: As spring arrives, Walden and the other ponds melt with thundering and rumbling. Thoreau enjoys watching the thaw, and grows ecstatic as he witnesses the green rebirth of nature. He watches the geese winging their way north, and a hawk playing by itself in the sky. As nature is reborn, the narrator implies, so is he. He departs Walden on September 6, 1847.
Conclusion: This final chapter is more passionate and urgent than its predecessors. In it, he criticizes conformity: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." By doing so, men may find happiness and self-fulfillment.
Review: In this book there are three distinct themes One is an attempt to provide a do it yourself guide. There are several lists of things purchased with prices and sources. Thoreau is thrifty and proud. He refers to how inexpensive his life is often, and there are long stretches where he describes, on a line item basis, how much it cost to build, supply and maintain his house. It seems he had some interest in providing a how to manual of sorts, but he gets lost in his ideas.
The second theme is transcendent prose. He was a student of Emerson and it shows, with page long riffs on the strange nature of man, the potential for greatness, the limits of our cities and times, and on they go.
But the third theme of the book is thick, meandering, writing. Thoreau seems like the kind of fellow who spent too much time on his own, and his wandering mind, unaware of the confusion he creates in the minds of others, rambles around on its own selfish whims. He was a true recluse. Thoreau writes like strings of thread, thrilling when they lead somewhere interesting, but often they just get tangled up so tightly you wish he’d take more frequent care to tie them up into neat, memorable bows.
Opening Line: When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord,
Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.
Closing Line: “The sun is but a morning star.”
Quotes: “This world is but a canvas for our imagination.”
Rating: I’m probably the only person in the world that hated this book.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

475. Martin Eden – Jack London

History: This book was published in 1909. This book is a favorite among writers, who relate to Martin Eden's speculation that when he mailed off a manuscript, 'there was no human editor at the other end, but merely a cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps,' returning it automatically with a rejection slip. The central theme of Martin Eden's developing artistic sensibilities puts the novel in tradition of the Künstlerroman genre, in which is narrated the formation and development of an artist.
While some readers believe there is some resemblance between them, an important difference between Jack London and Martin Eden is that Martin Eden rejects socialism(attacking it as 'slave morality'), and relies on a Nietzschean individualism.
When Jack London wrote Martin Eden at age 33, he had already achieved international acclaim with The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf and White Fang. However, London quickly became disillusioned with his fame and set sail through the South Pacific on a self-designed ketch called the Snark. On the grueling two-year voyage—as he struggled with tiredness and bowel diseases—he wrote Martin Eden, filling its pages with his frustrations, adolescent gangfights and struggles for artistic recognition. The character of Ruth Morse was modelled on Mabel Applegarth — the first love of London's life
Plot: Living in Oakland at the dawn of the 20th century, Martin Eden struggles to rise far above his destitute proletarian circumstances through an intense and passionate pursuit of self-education in order to achieve a coveted place among the literary elite. The main driving force behind Martin Eden's efforts is his love for Ruth Morse. Because Eden is a rough, uneducated sailor from a working class background, and the Morses are a bourgeois family, a union between them would be impossible until he reaches their level of wealth and perceived cultural, intellectual refinement.
Just before the literary establishment discovers Eden’s talents as a writer and lavishes him with the fame and fortune that he had incessantly promised Ruth (for the last two years) would come, she loses her patience and rejects him in a wistful letter: "if only you had settled down...and attempted to make something of yourself." When the publishers and the bourgeois—the very ones who shunned him—are finally at his feet, Martin has already begrudged them and become jaded by unrequited toil and love. Instead of enjoying his success, Eden retreats into a quiet indifference, only interrupted to mentally rail against the genteelness of bourgeois society or to donate his new wealth to working class friends and family.
The novel ends with Martin Eden committing suicide by drowning, a detail which undoubtedly contributed to the 'biographical myth' that Jack London's own death was a suicide.
Joan London noted that "ignoring its tragic ending," the book is often regarded as "a 'success' story...which inspired not only a whole generation of young writers but other different fields who, without aid or encouragement, attained their objectives through great struggle.
Review: Social class—and Eden's perceptions of it—is a very important theme in the novel. Eden is a sailor from a working class background, who feels uncomfortable but inspired when he first meets the bourgeois Morse family. Spurred on by his love for Ruth Morse, he embarks on a program of self-education, with the aim of becoming a renowned writer and winning Ruth's hand in marriage. As his education progresses, Eden finds himself increasingly distanced from his working class background and surroundings. Notably, he is repelled by the hands of Lizzie Connolly, who works in a cannery. Eventually, when Eden finds that his education has far surpassed that of the bourgeoisie he looked up to, he finds himself more isolated than ever. Paul Berman observes that Eden’s inability to reconcile his "past and present" versions—"a wealthy Martin of the present who is civilized and clean, and a proletarian Martin of the past who is a fistfighting barbarian"—causes his descent into a delirious ambivalence
Opening Line: “The one opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by a young fellow who awkwardly removed his cap.”
Closing Line: “And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.”
Quotes: “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
Rating: Good

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

474. The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson

History: This book was published in1952. The book is primarily a journey through a killer's mind trying to justify his actions.
Plot: The story is told through the eyes of its protagonist, Lou Ford, a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. Ford appears to be a regular, small-town cop leading an unremarkable existence; beneath this facade, however, he is a cunning, depraved sociopath with sadistic sexual tastes. Ford's main outlet for his dark urges is the relatively benign habit of deliberately needling people with cliches and platitudes despite their obvious boredom: "If there's anything worse than a bore," says Lou, "it's a corny bore."
Despite having a steady girlfriend, Ford falls into a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland. Ford describes their affair as unlocking "the sickness" that has plagued him since adolescence, when he sexually abused a little girl, a crime for which his elder foster brother Mike took the blame to spare Lou from prison. After serving a jail term, Mike died on a construction site. Lou blamed a local construction magnate for Mike's death, suspecting he was murdered.
To exact revenge, Lou and Joyce blackmail the construction magnate to avoid exposing his son's affair with Joyce. However, Lou double-crosses Joyce: He ferociously batters her, and shoots the construction magnate's son, hoping to make the crimes appear to be a lovers' spat gone wrong. Ford builds a solid alibi and frames other people for the double homicide. However, to successfully frame others when the evidence starts to go against him, he has to commit additional murders. One of them is Johnny Pappas, a close friend of his. He has to murder Johnny, making it seem as if he committed suicide in jail. He also kills his fiancé, Amy.
These only increase suspicion against him however, and his mask of sanity begins to crumble under the pressure. He is eventually jailed, and sent to a mental institution. It is revealed at the end of the book, that Joyce is still alive, and he is blamed for the murders.
Review: Jim Thompson may well have been one of the most filmic writers ever to work. His books have inspired quite a number of films including Grifters, The Getaway, The Getaway (yes, I said it twice. It's been filmed twice. Once wonderfully with Steve McQueen and Allie McGraw, once terribly with Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger), Coup de Torchon, After Dark, My Sweet and to some extent From Dusk Till Dawn. He also wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film Paths of Glory.
Thompson worked in a well worn genre. He walked the same fields as James M. Cain, Dashiel Hammet, and more recently, Elmore Leonard. Thompson wrote real tough guy fiction. In the pages of his books bad men do bad things, and are often undone by bad women (or sometimes unlucky women).
To clarify, Thompson wrote Noir. These are bedtime stories for the criminally insane. Thompson's work will appeal to people who enjoy Chinatown, The Big Sleep, American Psycho, and gritty stories that take place in dark alleys, and rain swept streets. His novels are best read by lamplight, with a glass of Jack Daniels close at hand.
The Killer Inside Me is no exception to this rule. It is the story of Lou Ford. Lou is a cop. He's not Dirty Harry. He doesn't carry a gun, or a club. But he's no Barney Fife, Either. He's a small town deputy with a problem. Lou has a dark secret. Something in his past hangs over him like a black cloud. Most people in town consider him good natured, but dull. He's the kind of person no one ever gives a second thought to. But, he has that secret. It has something to do with an unexplained death. I'd like to say more, but I don't want to give it away.
Lou has a girlfriend. She's a local girl next door type. She's a real good girl (and in this type of story, that spells trouble). He also has a little something on the side, in the parlance of our times. This second girl isn't so good. She's a rather stereotypical bad girl. This difference in Lou's two lovers creates an interesting dichotomy. It's as if these two women (who obviously satisfy different desires) represent two sides of Lou's personality. They each speak for half of him. Lou is, as it is easy to see, a man in conflict. He wants to be that dull, good natured fella, that treats everyone nicely. He has built this reputation, going so far as to treat with respect and kindness even those unfortunate criminals that he must arrest. Yet, there is a part of him that struggles for control. This is a dark part. The portion of his psyche that worries about that skeleton hidden in his closet. There is a battle going on within Lou. And considering the type of book this is, we can easily guess with side will win.
Yes. It does end in an orgy of destruction. Yes. Lou does suffer the final breakdown. The sickness, as it were, does get the better of him. Everyone around him pays in full.
That is the plot. Of course, plot isn't everything. We've all seen hundreds of stories that play out the same way. What is important here is style and substance. Thompson chooses to use a first person narrative. This places the reader squarely inside the mind of our anti-hero. We are privy to every thought, every bent intuition, every nuance of madness that streaks through Lou Ford's fevered brain. We cannot escape the twisted version of reality that Lou experiences. This fact lends an immediacy, a reality to the story that makes it hard to turn away from.
Thompson uses a tight, precise style of writing. This is characteristic of all of his novels. He does not mince words, or waste space. He keeps the reader firmly rooted within the story he needs to tell. And, there is a sense of need within the writing. It is as if Thompson is haunted by these characters, and must exorcize them by telling their story.
The quick pacing, and rapid development of the plot help to create a sense of tension that begins on the first page, and never lets up. This tension builds right up until the inevitable end. We can see the end coming. But, and this is a real strength, Thompson manages to make us wish for a different ending than the one we expect. That's right, he makes us feel empathy for Lou. We hope against hope that things can work out for him. Despite his vicious nature, despite the evil acts we have witnessed, we long for him to "get away with it". We long for the happily ever after. We should really shower, and watch a Disney movie. Dumbo, maybe. This could bring us back to the reality in which we're nice people who don't root for the villain.
The greatest strength of this book lies in the unexpected moments. Thompson is able to surprise, to elate, to transcend his genre. At one point, right in the middle, in the midst of sickness and madness, and abhorrent violence, we are treated to something different. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, Lou is musing about couples. He talks about those odd couples you see (Skinny Man/ Obese woman, Tall woman/ short man, Old man/ young woman, you get the idea). Lou thinks about how at some point these two mismatched people saw each other, and what they saw was everything they had ever wanted. This moment in the book moves beyond crime fiction. It elevates itself into the realm of literature. Not just literature, but great literature. Nobakov would have been proud of this moment. Martin Amis would kill for a moment like that. 
Opening Line: “I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.”
Closing Line: “All of us.”
Quotes: “A weed is a plant out of place.”
Rating: Very Good, but violent.

473. Honorary Consul – Graham Greene

History: This is a British thriller novel, published in 1973. 
  Plot: The story is set in Corrientes, a city in northern Argentina, near the border with Paraguay which can be assumed from the police cars that reads ¨Policía de Corrientes¨. 
Eduardo Plarr is a young doctor of English descent. As a boy, he left Paraguay with his mother, escaping to Buenos Aires while his English father remained in Paraguay as a political rebel. Aside from a single hand-delivered letter, they never hear from the father again. 
When Plarr moves to the quiet, subtropical backwater town, he strikes up acquaintance with the only two English inhabitants, a bitter old English teacher, Humphries, and the Honorary Consul of the title, Charles Fortnum, a divorced, self-pitying alcoholic who misuses his position. Plarr's other main acquaintance is Julio Saavedra, a forgotten but self-important Argentine writer of novels full of silent machismo. 
Visiting the local brothel with Saavedra, Plarr is attracted to a girl, but she is taken by another man. A couple of years later, he is called to treat Fortnum's new wife. Plarr sees that she's the same girl from the brothel, Clara. Plarr regards himself as a cool, self-controlled Englishman (although he has never been to England), he finds himself becoming obsessed by Clara. He later seduces her by buying her some sunglasses and they begin an affair, although he tries to remain emotionally distant from her. 
"Caring is the only dangerous thing," Plarr says in the novel. "`Love' was a claim which he wouldn't meet, a responsibility he would refuse to accept, a demand. So many times his mother had used the word when he was a child; it was like the threat of an armed robber. `Put up your hands or else ...' Something was always asked in return: obedience, an apology, a kiss which one had no desire to give." 
Clara becomes pregnant, and Fortnum believes the child is his and starts drinking less. 
Then some of Plarr's friends from school turn up at his surgery, one of them is a failed priest named Rivas. They have news of Plarr's father; he is alive in a jail in Paraguay. They have a plot, for which they need a doctor's assistance, to kidnap the US ambassador on his trip to Corrientes. They will demand the release of political prisoners in Paraguay, including Plarr's father, in return for the ambassador. 
But the band kidnaps the wrong man; Charley Fortnum, the Honorary Consul, whom they take to a squalid hut in a shanty town. 
The rest of the novel charts Plarr's efforts to get Fortnum released, either as a result of diplomatic action from the UK, whose ambassador in BA is a comedy figure, or as a result of his schoolfriends giving up. But no-one listens to him. Saavedra and Humphries fail to help Plarr in his efforts. The police suspect that Plarr is involved in the kidnapping, as they know about his affair with Clara, and his behaviour has been suspicious. And they tell him his father was shot dead in Paraguay while attempting escape. 
Plarr goes to the hut, where Fortnum has been shot in the leg while attempting escape. Fortnum spends much of his time as he faces up to his death in sentimentalizing about Clara and in remembering the fearsome figure of his father. Then he discovers that Plarr is having an affair with Clara, and that the child is Plarr's. Meanwhile, members of the motley band drift away, and the police close in and surround the hut, while the failed priest, Father Rivas, conducts a makeshift mass inside with the rain coming down and police waiting. The police deadline is about to expire. 
Plarr goes out to talk to the police, but he is killed by the paratroopers, along with the other kidnappers. The authorities blame Plarr's death on the kidnappers. Plarr's mother, once a beauty and now bloated, and some of his previous older mistresses attend his funeral. Saavedra reads a homily. The UK embassy then relieves Fortnum of his consulship. In the last scene, Fortnum and Clara attempt a reconciliation. Fortnum will name the child Eduardo. 
Review: This book is set in the northern Argentine town of Corrientes, on the border with Paraguay, and tells the story of Paraguayan revolutionaries conducting a botched kidnapping, intending to get the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina but ending up with the Honorary British Consul. 
For a Cold War novel it is noteworthy that Greene paints all the characters sympathetically. We are not inclined to dislike the police colonel, the former priest-turned-revolutionary, the alcoholic honorary consul, his prostitute wife, or the strikingly amoral Doctor Plarr, around whom the plot revolves. Further, they are all sympathetic to each other, as neither fear nor loathing is apparent. Greene is more interested in the relationships between the characters than the political context itself. 
It has a tight plot, which constantly left me wondering how it might end (i.e. we know some combination of people will likely die, but who?).Throughout, most of the characters reflect on the circumstances that brought them there, which increases the tension. Despite the political nature of the novel, it focuses quite a lot on love and commitment—not only in terms of personal relationships but also political causes--as important themes. 
Opening Line: “Doctor Eduardo Plarr stood in the small port on the Parana, among the rails and yellow cranes, watching where a horizontal plume of smoke stretched over the Chaco.” 
Closing Line: “He realized that never before had she been so close to him as she was now.” 
Quotes: “Simplicity belonged by right to those who were native-born, those who could take the conditions of life, however bizarre, for granted.” 
Rating: Good.

472. Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris – Paul Gallico

History: This book originally published in 1958. In the United Kingdom, it was published as Flowers for Mrs Harris. It was the first in a series of four books about the adventures of a London charwoman.
Plot: The plot revolves around Ada Harris, who is so enchanted by her employer's couture wardrobe that she becomes determined to go to the House of Dior in Paris to purchase an evening gown of her own. She achieves her goal with the assistance of a French marquis, who is instrumental in getting Mrs. Harris an invitation to the design house and becomes a long-term friend as do a series of other characters revealed to have hidden hearts. The comic tale takes on a final poignant overtone when the dress is loaned to an up-and-coming actress, with disastrous consequences to the dress. Initially devastated, Mrs. Harris reflects that the experiences she acquired in pursuit of the dress had their own worth.
Review: Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.
Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity. A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.
One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.
When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.
All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.
Opening Line: “The small slender woman with apple-red cheeks, graying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount morning flight from London to Paris.”
Closing Line: “She stood there rocking back and forth, holding and embracing her dress, and with it she was hugging them all, Mme. Colbert, Natasha, Andre Fauvel, down to the last anonymous worker, seamstress and cutter, as well as the city that had bestowed upon her such a priceless memory treasure of understanding, friendship and humanity.”
Quotes: “The love affair between herself and the Dior dress was private.”
Rating: Okay.

471. Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu

History: This is a Victorian Gothic mystery-thriller novel It was first serialized in the Dublin University Magazine in 1864, under the title Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas, and appeared in December of the same year as a triple-decker novel. 
Plot: The novel is a first person narrative told from the point of view of the teenaged Maud Ruthyn, an heiress living with her sombre, reclusive father Austyn Ruthyn in their mansion at Knowl. She gradually becomes aware of the existence of Silas Ruthyn, a black sheep uncle whom she has never met, who was once an infamous rake and gambler but is now apparently a reformed Christian. Silas's past holds a dark mystery, which she gradually learns from her father and from her worldly, cheerful cousin Lady Monica: the suspicious suicide of a man to whom Silas owed an enormous gambling debt, which took place within a locked, apparently impenetrable room in Silas's mansion at Bartram-Haugh. Austyn is firmly convinced of his brother's innocence; Maud's attitude to Uncle Silas (whom we do not meet for the first 200 pages of the book) wavers repeatedly between trusting in her father's judgment, and growing fear and uncertainty.
In the first part of the novel, Maud's father hires a French governess, Madame de la Rougierre, as a companion for her. Madame de la Rougierre, however, turns out to be a sinister figure who has designs on Maud. (In a cutaway scene that breaks the first-person narrative, we learn that she is in league with Uncle Silas's good-for-nothing son Dudley.) She is eventually discovered by Maud in the act of burgling her father's desk; this is enough to ensure that she is dismissed.
Austyn Ruthyn obscurely asks Maud if she is willing to undergo some kind of "ordeal" to clear Silas's name. She assents, and shortly thereafter her father dies. It turns out that he has added a codicil to his will: Maud is to stay with Uncle Silas until she comes of age. If she dies while in her minority, the estate will go to Silas. Despite the best efforts of Lady Monica and Austyn's executor and fellow Swedenborgian, Dr. Bryerly, Maud is forced to spend the next three and a half years of her life at Bartram-Haugh.
Life at Bartram-Haugh is initially strange but not unpleasant, despite ominous signs such as the uniformly unfriendly servants and a malevolent factotum of Silas's, the one-legged Dickon Hawkes. Silas himself is a sinister, soft-spoken man who is openly contemptuous of his two children, the loutish Dudley and the untutored but friendly Milly (her country ways initially amaze Maud, but they become best friends). Silas is subject to mysterious catatonic fits which are attributed by his doctor to his massive opium consumption. Gradually, however, the trap closes around Maud: it is clear that Silas is attempting to coax or force her to marry Dudley. When that plan fails, and as the time-limit of three-and-a-half years begins to shrink, it becomes clear that more violent methods may be used to ensure that Silas gains control of the Ruthyn estate.
Review: One of the other things Uncle Silas is is a very claustrophobic novel. Like in most sensation fiction, the plot is built around social cracks, contradictions and fears: mainly the fear of impeding social chaos, should certain lines be crossed or certain structures collapse. In this case, we first and foremost have class-based fears. Class boundaries are very much at the core of Uncle Silas’ unforgivable transgression. I can tell you this, as it’s not the secret that certain characters only allude to at first: one of the reasons why Silas and his brother Austin, Maud’s father, ceased to be in good terms was because Silas married a country girl, someone not of his class.
The novel sometimes seems to suggest that this explain certain things about Maud’s cousins, Dudley and Milly, though I’m not quite sure what to make of Le Fanu’s stance on this. When Maud meets Milly, she describes her lack of proper feminine demeanour as “grotesque”. But Milly changes considerably after spending time in Maud’s company, which implies that it’s her lack of education that is responsible for her eccentricity, rather than the lack of any innate class-based quality. Dudley, on the other hand, is as unpleasant a character as they come. There’s another working-class character in the novel, Meg Hawkes, who’s treated with kindness, but as I was saying earlier, Uncle Silas is still very much centred on the idea that crossing certain class boundaries has dreadful consequences.
Opening Line: “It was winter—that is, about the second week in November—and great gusts were rattling at the windows, and wailing and thundering among our tall trees and ivied chimneys—a very dark night, and a very cheerful fire blazing, a pleasant mixture of good round coal and spluttering dry wood, in a genuine old fireplace, in a sombre old room.”
Closing Line: “May the blessed second-sight be mine—to recognise under these beautiful forms of earth the ANGELS who wear them; for I am sure we may walk with them if we will, and hear them speak!”
Quotes: “There is no dealing with great sorrow as if it were under the control of our wills. It is a terrible phenomenon, whose laws we must study, and to whose conditions we must submit, if we would mitigate it.”
Rating: Boring, unsure of the ending.