Sunday Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.

 

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.

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

One of the many reasons for reading literature in translation is the window it can provide onto experiences other than our own, sometimes experiences we never knew existed.  The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez provides a window on life among German nationals living in Columbia during the second world war.  Because of diplomatic pressure from the United States, the government of Columbia published a list of German nationals deemed security risks.  Many of these men were arrested and confined for the duration of the war.  After their release, they were not allowed to work in certain areas for several years.  Many lost their livelihoods, their homes, the families; some lost their lives.

In the chaos of the early days of the war, many German nationals were added to the list whether or not they were fascists, supporters of fascists, even Jewish.  In the hotel that served as a prison, it was not uncommon to find Jewish men and Nazi party members sitting poolside waiting for a friend or family member to arrange their freedom.

This event provides the background for Mr. Gabriel Vasquez’s look at the nature of informing and its consequences.  Mr. Gabriel Vasquez is not really interested in the ins and outs of these arrests but in those who informed and what happened to them.  The novel’s narrator, Gabriel Santoro, is a Columbian author of German descent.  His own father was not imprisoned during the second world war but many of his peers were.  After Gabriel Santoro published a book based on interviews with a family friend about her family’s experience as German Jews living in Columbia during the war, his father refuses to speak with him for many years.  His father sees this act as a betrayal, a revelation of family secrets best kept quiet.  Why bring up the past?  No one is interested anymore.

In a sense the younger Santoro has informed against his father, though he does not know it yet.  Years later,  the two reconcile after the father suffers a near fatal heart attack only to die six months later in an automobile accident.  After his father’s death, Gabriel finds out that he once informed against an innocent family friend.  While Gabriel’s father survived the war unarrested, the family friend was unable to find a way off of the government’s list and consequently lost everything.  In the end, he killed himself.

While there are several thriller like elements in The Informers, what makes it an interesting novel is this look at the nature of informing and its consequences.   Gabriel’s father informs on a friend to escape prison.  Gabriel informs on a friend to publish a book.  Later, a television crew will inform on them both for a sensational story.  All three acts have complicated consequences, some generational.  In the end, the reader must ask himself just how much should have been kept quiet.  Are we really better off knowing?

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.  Before re-reading this review today, I had no memory of this book.  That’s one powerful thing I’ve come to understand while moving all my old reviews over to this newer site, just how fragile our memory of what we read is.  Somethings vanish from our minds moments after closing the book; some very good books go this way.  But the benefit of having a blog, and rereading it, is that most of those books come back to you once your re-read a well written review.  This review is pretty well written, I think.  Not the best, but decent.  It certainly does the job in-so-far that I kind of want to read this book now.  

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon was listed as one of the top ten best bad books of 1959 by Time Magazine.  That’s a good way to describe the novel–it’s a very good bad book. Today, the story is known primarily from the two movie adaptations: the ill-fated 1962 version starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Landsbury and the  2004 version starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep.  I can speak only for the Sinatra/Landsbury version which is terrific.  Angela Landsbury plays the meanest mother ever to appear on screen.  But, as mean as she is, she’s June Cleaver next to the mother as written in the novel.

She’s so mean, she cannot be named.  She’s simply Raymond’s mother throughout the book.  If she had a name, any reader who happened to have a mother with that name would soon need therapy.

Because this is a good bad book, Raymond’s mother’s meanness is part of the fun.  We are horrified by what she does but also a bit delighted, too.  Watching her manipulate both her husband and her son, one into the U.S. Senate, the other into marriage, all so she can get herself one step closer to the White House which she will rule as a pupper master, is a guilty pleasure.  Even guilty pleasures are still pleasures.  Think of her as a modern day Lady MacBeth.  If she has to force a few people into suicide to gain power, it’s just the price she has to pay.  If one of those people is her own son, it’s a heavy price, but one that must be paid none-the-less.

There’s a plot about communists brainwashing American soldiers that was once topical but seems silly now.  While we do feel for Raymond and want him to find a means of escape, when his mother is off-stage we’re impatient for her to return.  As the layers of her corruption are revealed,  the reader’s jaw drops a little more, and the pages keep turning.  Raymond’s mother is what makes The Manchurian Candidate a good book.

However, she’s also what makes it a bad book.  While she is fun to hate for a while, ultimately she’s too much a collection of symptoms without a motivation.  Why is she doing all she does?  Lust for power is understandable, but Raymond’s mother’s lust  includes blackmail, procuring, murder, treason, and one more sin that I won’t spoil.  Something too extreme for the 1962 movie adaptation.  A character this corrupt needs more depth.  What she does is not much more extreme that what Lady MacBeth does, but Lady MacBeth gets a mad scene which brings her back within the realm of sympathetic, believable humanity.  Raymond’s mother just gets meaner and meaner.   As she does, her character becomes harder and harder to believe, making The Manchurian Candidate a very good bad book.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.  Since then we have had a few “mean” women come along that may give the mother a run for her money.  Gone Girl, House of Cards, we could probably make a pretty good list if we put our minds to it over a latte or two.  I’ve never watched the American version of House of Cards but I would say that Gone Girl is a very good bad book in much the same way The Manchurian Candidate was.  There’s just something many of us enjoy about watching a manipulative woman at work.  Guilty pleasures are still pleasures after all.

The Kills by Richard House: Books One and Two.

The kills

Even though I’m only halfway through the novel, I’m going to post a review of The Kills by Richard House.

The Kills is one thousand and three pages long.

I know some of you are thinking with a little bit of editing it could have been a perfect 1000 pages long.  How cool would that have been.

The Kills is the kind of espionage/thriller that doesn’t really make sense until the last few pages so I’ll have to wait until I finish the book to really talk about it.  I’ll either understand it all at last or be so completely lost that being lost is the point of the book.  Think Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest.

There are two points I want to discuss about The Kills so far.

The first is how many of the characters are looking for people who don’t exist. In the first book, Sutler, the characters are looking for the title character who is really just a pseudonym.  In order for one character, Ford, to work on a massive city building project in Iraq, he has to take on a fake identity. The problem is he has already done some work for the company in charge and cannot double-dip as himself.  His boss, Paul Geezler, convinces him to become Sutler so he can go to Iraq and do the job.

After a job site explosion, Sutler disappears holding key documents and dog-tags with the codes to several bank accounts.  The people looking for Sutler don’t know that there is no Sutler.  Meanwhile Sutler is looking for an American college student he met along the way who may have stolen the dog-tags containing the codes to his bank accounts.  Neither Sutler nor the boy’s mother who is also looking for him know that the boy is most likely dead.

This idea of people searching for people who don’t exist extends into book two, The Massive, which takes place before book one and is about a small group of men running a burn pit used to destroy goods that cannot be taken home once the allies pull out of Iraq. The burn pit area is to become the location of Sutlers planned city. None of the men know what is really going on at the burn pit, even Sutler seems unaware of the real plans behind the city building project, which appears to be just plans with no real intent to actually build anything at all.

This all makes for a slow burn kind of tension.  It’s a little too easy to put down The Kills, not just because the thing weighs a couple of pounds, but once you’re reading again you can’t help but become involved in the story, even when you’re not sure what’s going on, probably because you’re not sure what’s going on.

The second thing I want to discuss is how The Kills  deals with the homefront. The wives and mothers, plus a couple of brothers and fathers, back home follow Iraq on the news of course, but what was a new reading experience for me at least is the way they find each other through social media and are able to keep themselves even more informed about Iraq than their family members who are in Iraq.

Once the families find each other, they begin sharing information including just about everything their sons and husbands tell them about what is going on in Iraq.  Since the men in Iraq don’t tell each other everything, the end result is they know less about each other than their families back home do.  They also know less about the company they are working for and what it is up to than their wives who have been researching, emailing people in charge, and sharing their findings in an on-line community.

This is a new aspect of warfare, the fact that those serving in-country are not cut off from their homes anymore.  They can participate in a fire-fight with the enemy in the afternoon and spend the evening dealing with minutia of daily life back home in England or America.  Our grandfathers and grandmother, in comparison, were completely cut off from home life except for occasional letter or cassette tape.  That one can get a phone call from back home while on the battlefield must make for a very disconcerting experience.

I’m taking a break from The Kills  because a few books I had on reserve came in at the library.  I’ll probably go back to it sometime next week and post a second review once I’ve finished it.  Turns out, there is an enhanced e-book version featuring recordings and short movies which I didn’t know about until reading it in The Guardian’s review.  If you’ve done the enhanced version, I’d love to hear about it.  I can say that I have not missed having additional bells and whistles so far.  The book is excellent even with just the printed word.

Good books are like that.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household begins where a more typical espionage thriller would end– after the assassination attempt has failed. When the novel opens, the unnamed narrator has already been captured by his enemies, he has already undergone intense interrogation and has already escaped. He is on the run, trying to flee one country for another, looking for a place to hide. We do not know who he is, who he tried to kill, who he is working for or even if he is someone we should be siding with. What he tells us is how he escaped from his captors, how he got back to England and how he built what should have been the perfect hiding place.

This makes Rogue Male a kind of procedural. But it’s not a police procedural clearly, we are following the how-to story of someone operating outside the law. How the narrator bluffs his way onto a ship heading for England, how he finds the place to dig his hide-out, and the hide-out itself are fascinating reading. Along a nearly abandoned road in Wales, the narrator finds a brush covered spot where he can tunnel out a large warren, large enough to stretch out when he lies down and to sit up straight when he sits up. He disguises the hideout so that it looks like a badger’s home and basically locks himself in, planning to hide there until it is safe enough to leave the country.

So we know he was not working for England when he made the assassination attempt, but who was he working for and who was he trying to kill and, of course, why. This makes for an uneasy sort of dramatic tension in the novel. The reader naturally wants a narrator to succeed, and this narrator is a likable one, sympathetic since he is the victim of a brutal interrogation and was left for dead. Will his pursuers find him? Should we want them to? This tension makes the novel’s 190 pages difficult to put down.

 

Household write a second book featuring the main character in Rogue Male, called Rogue Justice along with many other nvoels, but I’ve yet to read another one of them.  I did go out and buy a couple after reading Rogue Male back in 2008 when I wrote this review for my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  It’s been on my TBR shelf ever since.  It’s funny how things sometimes work out that way.   Have you ever run out to buy book two and then never read it?

Resistance by Owen Sheers

Resistance by Owen Sheers is much more than first meets the eye.

The story asks what might have happened had the Second World War turned out differently and ended with the successful German invasion of the United Kingdom. Resistance can be read and enjoyed on this level, that of a speculative adventure story much in the vein of Fatherland and various other books, but Owen Sheers is up to much more than that.

Resistance takes place in an isolated valley in Wales; it’s main characters are the women who live and work on valley’s rugged farms. As the novel opens, the women wake to find all of their husbands have left the valley without a trace and without a note. The women react in anger, sorrow and fear but they all know that their men, husbands, fathers and brothers, have left to join the resistance against the invading German army. This is the first level of resistance in the novel.

The second level addresses how the various women cope with their husbands’ absence. They must take over all of the farm work, they must find a way to keep the world outside the valley from discovering their husbands have left or risk being shot as aiding the insurgency, and they must cope with the emotional aspects of their husbands’ absence. They have to resist the temptation to leave the valley, to give up on the possibility of seeing their husbands again and the temptation to give in to the emotional trauma of their loss. Mr. Sheers portrays all of this with eloquence, simplicity and subtly. I found the writing in Resistance to be some of the best I’ve encountered in some time. He is able to make a man’s fading indentation in a double bed heartbreaking without making it sentimental.

The war goes on outside the valley and eventually enters it in the form of a German patrol of six soldiers. The patrol leader who speaks fluent English has seen enough of war. He decides to lay low and stay in the valley as long as possible, hopefully avoiding the ending days of the fighting. The soldiers become a third level of resistance for the women in the valley. They are basically, ordinary men, probably would have been good men had Hitler never come to power, but they are the enemy. The longer they remain in the valley, the more comfortable the women become with them and the temptation to stop resisting and begin collaborating by becoming friends grows. After all, the war is far away from the valley and the women could use some help with their farms.

Mr. Sheers reminds us that there is a war on through the fourth level in Resistance. He tells the story of a young man, too young to be a soldier as the war opens, who is recruited by the British army to maintain a watch on the valley and report any and all enemy action. He is told that he will probably only have two weeks to live once the Germans arrive, but because the German patrol leader is trying to hide out the rest of the war he survives long into the occupation. Long enough to begin wondering if he should continue with the resistance. Long enough to see the townspeople eagerly accept German customers in their shops.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the ending, but I will say that the book’s closing events were both shocking and dramatically satisfying and that they added yet another layer of meaning to Resistance.

 

In the years since I first posted this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have forgotten how the book ended.  I remember that I loved the book, ranked it as one of my top ten for that year, I think I may have forced it on my book club, too.  But I have no idea how it ends.  May be a good time to give it another read.