A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

If you’re a reader but not an English major, or just anyone who’d like to fill in the holes in your knowledge of the subject, you could do worse than John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature.

 Divided into 40 short chapters, Mr. Sutherland’s book covers all the greatest hits from Beowulf to Borges and most of the main topics covered in graduate schools from What is Literature to Literature and Race. This is a book aiming to introduce readers to the topics covered, so you’ll get a solid grounding in each issue along with all the cannonical authors. If you’re looking for something more advanced, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Sutherland’s style is brief and breezy.  He never wades so far into any topic that he risks becoming lost in controversy or risks going over anyone’s head in analysis.  He’s like a very knowledgeable grandpa explaining carpentry to his grand children in terms they can understand.  He’s not talking down to his audience at all, he’s just showing us how to build a basic bird house, not how to construct a full set of dresser drawers.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Sutherland since graduate school when some professor recommended we all get a copy of his The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.  It’s a must have if you’re a fan or a student of the genre.  In the years I’ve had it, nearly two decades now, it has never failed me. No matter how obscure the reference I come across, it’s in Sutherland’s book be it obscure household magazine or novelist lost to time.  They’re all there.

So I was primed to enjoy A Little History of Literature and enjoy it I did.  I can’t say that I learned anything new, but I had good time none-the-less.  Mr. Sutherland loves his topic, reads everything, references everything from children’s literature, to Ray Bradbury, to Dan Brown, to Mrs. Gaskell, to Mrs. Dalloway.  Though it probably should be titled A Little History of Literature in English he does cover a wide swath of the non-English speaking world enough to satisfy most, though not all, readers.

The end paper biography refers to The Lives of Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives which sounds like something I simply must have.

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

This marks the end of my Tournament of Books 2017 reading.

It’s been fun. Really. I read a good-sized handful of books from the short list, enjoyed most of them, admired a few, didn’t finish one. I’ve even come away with a few titles sure to make my personal short list of favorite reads for this year.

But I’m moving on to other titles now.  There’s a big, too big to discuss, pile on my nightstand that I’d like to get around to.

I did not read The Mothers by Brit Bennet so I cannot comment on whether or not the best book won this round, but it does seem like I tend to pick slightly more winners than losers. Though even the “losers” I read were darn good. Actually, the losers include my favorite of the bunch The Vegetarian.

So, I should say something about Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive. 

While the book works more or less as a thriller, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense myself, what works best about the book is the relationship between middle-aged hotelier and former high dive champion Moose and his daughter Freya an acerbic teenager on the cusp of adulthood.  In what I found to be a much less interesting subplot an IRA fighter, does one still call them terrorists, is planning on bombing the hotel when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the rest of her party gather there for a conference.

Just past the halfway mark there is a brief scene between Moose and his sometimes love interest wherein the author explains just what he is up to in High Dive. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that I didn’t think I was supposed to spot, except in retrospect.  There should have been a “I should have seen it coming” moment but my moment was “Oh, I see what’s gong to happen” which is problematic with a thriller.

With no suspense for my reading, High Dive was an interesting and enjoyable character study of Moose and Freya. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, came to like them both, wanted them to find what they were looking for in life. And I was very sorry to see it all end the way it did.

Which is probably the point the author wanted to make when he gave away the ending anyway.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

As a reader, I’m kind of a sucker.

It’s easy to take me by surprise. I didn’t see any of it coming in Gone Girl. Life of Pi  came to me from far out in left field.  And I admit it, it never even occurred to me that he would sell his precious pocket watch to buy his wife a beautiful hair pin.

My jaw has hit the floor in shock so many times, I should grow a beard to cover up the bruises.

So the emotional twist at the end of Jennie Rooney’s novel Red Joan struck me to quick completely by surprise.  Neither I nor the novel’s heroine had any idea what was coming.

Red Joan is structured in a series of flashbacks, which is what gives the novel its tension.  Joan, an elderly English widow, is interrogated by agents of MI-5.  She is suspected of spying for the Soviets, passing them secrets about England’s work on the atomic bomb. As she is questioned the novel goes back to Joan’s youth.  She did work on the atom bomb, something she never told her son nor anyone else due to the Official Secrets Act.  She did travel with communist sympathizers back when Stalin was an ally.  She did fall in love with a man who became a Soviet agent and she did become an agent herself.

Red Joan worked for me as a spy thriller, as a character study, as something of a romance and as a portrait of a particular time in England when someone really could believe that giving the Soviets top-secret information was the right thing to do.

And then the ending broke our hearts, Joan’s and mine.

His Blody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

file_000-10Graeme Macrae Burnet brings multiple voices to life in his historical crime thriller His Bloody Project. Give credit where it is due.

I was very impressed by how well he evokes various types of writing and by how well they work together.

The novel opens with a first person account, written by the accused, a 17-year-old farmer, or crofter, accused of multiple homicide.  Just how did young Roderick Macrae come to commit such a horrible crime and why  did he immediately confess to the killings afterwards?  He tells his life story in a confession written at the bequest of his attorney while he spends his final days awaiting trial.

Though we know his account will end in murder, the tale is one of suspense none-the-less. It’s a pretty horrible tale, too.  Life working the land for an absentee landlord in 19th century Scotland was not pleasant, at least not in Roderick’s village.  Nor was life with Roderick’s abusive father, at least not after his mother’s death.  Roderick’s entire family live under a very dark cloud.  It’s little wonder he came to kill the local constable who has had it out for him for years.

The remaining ‘documents’ in the novel are the report of a famed psychologist hired by Roderick’s lawyer to establish a defense of temporary insanity and the trail “transcript” composed of trial records and newspaper accounts.  All of these documents struck me as historically true-to-life. I’m not an expert by any means but I felt, at times, like I was reading one of 19th century journalist William Roughead’s accounts of the many crimes-of-the-century he covered.

But, while I did admire the way Mr. Burnet evoked so many historical genres in his novel, I couldn’t help but ask what it all added up to. Is there anything more to His Bloody Project than an above average crime thriller?

At this point, my answer is no.

Once the book was done, not very much lingered afterwards.  I have read crime thrillers that left something with me once they were over.  In Cold Blood, Perfume, Red Harvest, Eileen,  to name a few.  Though His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, and though it is a good book by any measure, it did not linger with me the way other books have.

In fairness, had there been no Man Booker Prize statement listed on the cover, I probably would not be holding it to his higher standard.  It’s a good book, but if the cover is going to make a claim for it as good literature, one can’t up but hold it up to that standard.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

file_000-9A young man’s wife dies, killed in an accident, leaving him alone with two very young sons and their grief which takes the form of a giant black crow.

Max Porter’s new novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is hard to pin down.  I liked it.  I admired it. I found it has much to say about grief, judging from my own experience with it.

But I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

The narrative switches between three voices, the widowed father, the two boys who speak as one voice in their sections and the crow whom I read as the embodiment of grief though this may not be right.

There’s not really a story here, not in the classical sense.  It’s not about what happens, but about what it’s like to deal with loss. The story arc is emotional rather than dramatic.

I liked how the boys were portrayed. They forget to be sad, engage in games while others are grieving. They worry about their father, try to remember their mother, act just as small children would in this situation.  Confused at times, apparently knowing at others.  That they work as a unit instead of individuals helps the novel overall since it is really about their father.

The father loses not just the love of his life but the life the two of them expected to live.  His grief is not just for a person but for a future that has been lost.  I liked him.  He made me reconsider some people I have known and what happened to them.  To us.

Grief, the crow, works here somehow, though I can’t quite explain it. The crow thinks and acts like a bird sometimes, there are passages of random words and sounds just the things a real crow would say after spending time with people.  Other times it’s a bit wise, a bit of a metaphor for sometime more than it is a bird.

The novel is written like a series of prose poems, scenes and thoughts that struck home for me more than once.  This section from towards the end, for example, written from the boys point of view:

We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test.

We used to think she could see us through the mirrors.

We used to think she was an undercover agent, sending Dad money, asking for updates.

We were careful to age her, never trap her. Careful to name her Granny, when Dad became Grandpa.

We hope she likes us.

That last line, those five words, that little bit slays me.

Never to know for certain if your mother likes the man you have become.  That’s a powerful thing, an important aspect of grief that I don’t believe I’ve found in literature before.

It struck very close to home.

So this is strange little review of a strange little book.  I got this one from my local library and I really wish I had bought it.  I’d like to put it on my “To be re-read in retirement” shelf.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

imageThis was at least the third time I’ve read The Mayor of Casterbridge. Could be the fourth.  I was a big Thomas Hardy fan back in college.  For years I’ve been haunted by that final image of the dead songbird in the cage sitting on the back door steps of the newlywed’s home.  Forgotten and forsaken, like the bride’s father.

Not quite how it happened, it turns out.

I was not moved by Michael Henchard’s story this time around, nor by those of the other characters for that matter.

The Mayor of Casterbridge just doesn’t hold up all that well.

Except when it does.

For those of you who escaped Thomas Hardy through high school and college, The Mayor of Casterbridge is the story of one Michael Henchard, a man given to acting rashly during fits of anger, a mistake he regrets making again and again.

In the books famous opening scene he offers his wife and baby daughter for sale to the highest bidder at a rural country fair.  A visiting sailor takes him up on the offer, leaving town with both before the next morning when Henchard awakes, sober and horrified by what he has done.  Henchard tries to undo his actions, but it is too late.  Leaving in shame he vows not to drink another drop for 21 years during which time he moves to Casterbridge  where he becomes a big success, eventually earning the job as mayor.

Some 18 years later the woman he abandoned returns, daughter in tow, and Henchard’s life begins to unravel.

Let’s start with the women.  The wife, Susan, is ridiculous, even by late 19th century standards.  Too simple to realize that she is not obliged to abide by the terms of her husbands sale to the sailor, she goes with him, lives with him, eventually has a daughter with him after Henchard’s child dies.  When the sailor does not return from a voyage to America she decides to return to Henchard who insists she keep their history a secret though he will take care of her and the girl he thinks is his daughter.  He even marries her a second time.

Elizabeth-Jane, the daughter is not much better.  Devoted first to her mother and then to her “step-father” she is the apex of the Victorian virgin.  Though she falls in love with Mr. Farfrae she quietly steps aside as soon as she realizes he is interested in Lucetta, the third woman in the story.  Reading this I could not help but wonder how a literature that produced Elizabeth Bennet could produce such wet blankets as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard.

Lucetta had promised herself to Michael Henchard before she his wife reappeared.  Once his wife Susan dies, convenient yes, she says she will marry Henchard only to turn against him once his original sin is exposed.  She then marries Mr. Farfrae, Henchard’s former assistant who has risen higher in social circles than Henchard ever hoped to due to his business acumen.  While Lucetta is a fully realized character in my opinion, she is so unlikable for what she does to both surviving Henchards and even to Farfrae that her death generates no sympathy.  She actually dies from a miscarriage brought on by having her own scandal exposed.

Perhaps Mr. Farfrae is meant to be admirable as he rises while Henchard falls, but I found him insufferable.  Henchard finds Farfrae’s attempts to help patronizing as did I. He takes Henchard’s business, moves into his old home, marries the woman he wanted to marry, and finally marries his step-daughter who refuses to have anything further to do with him once she learns of her mother’s “sale.”

That Henchard keeps making the same mistake again and again, makes him annoying to say the least, but I have to admit it also makes him human.  Much closer to human than any of the other characters in the novel. His end, when it finally comes, still packs a punch in spite of it all.

The professor who brought about my devotion to 19th century English novels once said that “Thomas Hardy is a great writer, but he’s not a good writer.” Or something to that effect. So, I will admit that when Lucetta revealed she had married Mr. Farfrae I gasped aloud.  I was shocked.  I knew this meant financial ruin for Henchard who felt it as a true romantic betrayal as well.  That I still felt for Henchard, that I felt for him right up to the end, in spite of all that he does in spite of having read the book several times, speaks to how great a writer Hardy is.  That bit about the bird cage is ridiculous, true, but it’s also a very moving moment.

And there is his famed descriptions of the Wessex landscape.  Spending time in one of his novels is like spending time in the English countryside, at least Hardy’s version of it.

And I must admit, I am still thinking about this man Michael Henchard, who always tried to do the right thing immediately after he had done the wrong thing.  How often do we all do that? Often enough, I think, to feel some sympathy for this man who gained everything only to lose it all with no one to blame but himself.

 

 

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan and The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

file_000-2It’s just happenstance.  Pure random phenomena that led me to read Karan Mahajan’s highly praised novel The Association of Small Bombs right after reading Rudyard Kipling’s classic novella The Man Who Would Be King.  I didn’t mean to do it.  I didn’t even know Mr. Mahajan’s novel took place in India.

I did know about Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King from the very entertaining John Huston film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.  You cannot go wrong with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, both in the same movie.  I haven’t seen it since its first run back when I was a wee lad, but I have always remembered its story.

Two men, low ranked ne’er-do-wells in British India, set out into the mountains to take over a kingdom or start one of their own.  They pull it off, too.  Set themselves up as rulers in the wilds of Afghanistan where they are worshipped as gods in spite of their best intentions.  It all comes crashing down in the end, of course.  They have over reached and must be put back in their places.

It’s a wonderful tale, a true boy’s adventure in the old style. But it comes with all the baggage such tales of the Raj came with, all the white man’s burden sort of stuff in full bloom.

While it’s not exactly easy to defend Kipling these days, he does get the character of the everyday soldier, the “Tommy in the Trenches” right like no one else has. He knows what they were like and he knows how the talked. For example, there’s this little bit of throw-away description where the narrator describes the music the natives are playing before an attack begins “The drum were drumming and the horns were horning” that I intend to work into conversation as often as I can.

I bought Kafile_001ran Mahajan’s novel based on the intriguing title and its National Book Award nomination.  I had no idea it was set in contemporary India. To be honest, it never occured to me that a book getting America’s National Book Award could be thoroughly non-American.  Though the two share a similar geography Mahajan’s novel couldn’t be farther from Kipling’s. At first glance anyway.

Mr. Mahajan’s story concerns the people involved in a minor act of terrorism, a bomb explosion at a Delhi marketplace that kills only a few people.  In the larger scope of events, it won’t be remembered for long, not when attacks with much higher body counts occur so frequently.  The book addresses this issue, among many others–what is it like to lose someone in a terrible tragedy that’s so small most people forget it happened in less than a year’s time?

The narrative moves from character to character over the course of many years as we follow the story of one survivor, the parents of two victims and a handful of would be terrorists.  None of them are very important people, though they might like to see themselves that way.  It’s a fascinating book, one that will touch and disturb many readers.

What does it have to do with Kipling beyond being about South Asia?

Many people have written about the connection between the current situation in India and Pakistan as a long-term consequence of British colonization, so there’s that.  Someone who knows more about this subject than I do could better explain this connection. I do see a link between Kipling’ heroes (anti-heroes) and the terrorists in Mr. Mahajan’s novel.  Both are convinced that they can bring about their larger goals successfully, both are unconcerned with whether or not they are right or whether they may bring harm to others.  In the end, they all come to a bad end brought about at least in part by their own hubris.

What makes Mr. Mahajan’s story the stronger work is the pathos he brings to his characters. As much as I enjoyed The Man Who Would Be King it never really leaves the realm of boy’s adventure, literary as it may be. The Association of Small Bombs has a more expansive heart.  While we never really sympathize with the bombers, not in the way we do with the survivors and the families of the victims, we do come to see them as part of a larger problem. I can bring this down to numbers. Mr. Kipling really has only two characters in The Man Who Would Be King.  Two full characters and a large number of bit players. Ms. Mahajan has seven full characters and an equal number of supporting players.  I’d argue that this is because Kipling is not as interested in understanding  the “other side” as Mahajan is.

On the other hand, if I were teaching a course on literature about South Asia, while I would certainly include something by Rudyard Kipling, probably Kim, I’m not sure I would include Karan Mahajan.  He would be in the running, but I don’t know if He would make the final syllabus.

Yet.