Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Paul Scott saga does not show its age.

I am continuing with my reading of The Raj Quartet. These novels are as compelling now as they were when they were first published.

The Day of the Scorpion

Paul Scott’s The Day of the Scorpion (292 pages, University of Chicago, $22.50), the second volume in The Raj Quartet, deepens and intensifies matters that were raised in the first volume.

Daphne Manners has died and her mixed-race daughter has been taken in by her mother, the elusive Lady Manners. Lady Manners, for this claiming of the child and for her other eccentricities, is labeled an outcast by the English culture of India. She seems unaffected by this judgment and seems to circulate in a world of which these other English women are unaware.

A new family that comes into our ken is the Layton family. The father of this family is in a German prisoner-of-war camp, and the mother is in India with her two daughters, both of whom have grown up on the subcontinent. Sarah, the elder of the two, is plainer and more intelligent, than her bright, pretty, and unstable sister Susan. When making her way to her family’s station, Sarah finds herself in a houseboat next to that of Lady Manners. She secretly makes an acquaintance of that lady and finds that there is a true sympathy between them.

We also meet Mohammed Ali Kasim, a senior Moslem political figure who has been working for Indian national unity. He is one of the figures who was arrested on the night of the violence in volume 1, and we now hear his story and begin to understand more of the political implications of those arrests and the status of Indian independence in the middle of World War II.

Also, we have occasion to meet up with Hari Kumar in prison. Lady Manners has arranged to witness an interview in order to help her determine whether he is the father of the child that Daphne has left behind. No one knows the truth of what happened that night—no one now except Hari Kumar himself—but he still protects those intimate details from the prodding of even these sympathetic questioners.

All these threads are woven together as Susan Layton marries Teddi Bingham, and Gordon Merrick emerges as her husband’s off-hand choice of a best man. Merrick's motivations are reviewed once more—he is his own worst enemy for in defending his own actions, he digs himself into a deeper hole of ignominy. It only gets worse when, shortly after the marriage, he and Susan’s husband Teddie go off together on a military exploit at the Burmese border and Teddie is killed. Merrick himself is maimed—he is burned badly and loses an arm—but when Sarah visits him to convey her sister’s thanks for helping her wounded husband, she is upset to recognize the degree to which he gives her the creeps.

For me, Merrick is a weak link in the novel. He is so bad to be almost unbelievable. And he is “bad” first of all because we recognize his suppressed homosexuality and secondly because he is so clearly marked by class. I think it is far too easy for Scott to make the lower class queer the source of everything that is wrong about the British Indian empire. But he knows it is not that simple and the novel makes it clear that he sees further complications.

This volume ends powerfully and provocatively. Susan barely survives giving birth to a boy, and Sarah feels that her own life has changed almost as profoundly. Prisoners are being released and there seems some chance that England is being pushed toward an end-game in India. How that is worked out will be the subject of the next two volumes.

Paul Scott

The Day of the Scorpion
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Iris Murdoch writes a grim but engaging urban tragedy.

I said I would read a few more Murdochs, and this one is as great and even more chilling than the others I have read.

The Black Prince

Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince (408 pages, Penguin, $16) was first published in 1973. It tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a well-respected but little-published writer who has resigned his position on the Tax Board in order to write full-time.

Bradley is in a sort of competition with his friend Arnold Boffin, a much more prolific writer who has dozens of titles in print and a great deal of public accolades. Arnold is married to Rachel, and early in the story Bradley is called in when Rachel has been injured. But it turns out that Arnold had belted her with the fireplace poker, and Bradley is deeply concerned for her safety.

Soon after the novel opens, another woman appears on the scene. This is Bradley’s ex-wife Christian, who has returned from a sojourn in America, where she lived with her second husband and managed to amass a great deal of wealth. Bradley hates her, but she seems determined to get back into his good books, and she does everything she can to get him to admit that he would like to be friends again.

Other characters include Francis, Christian’s feckless brother, who also seems committed to bring the formerly married couple together; Priscilla, Bradley’s sister, who leaves her husband Roger just as the story begins and moves back and forth between Bradley and Christian, who likes her and wants to help her. There is also Julian, an androgynous teenager, the daughter of Arnold and Rachel, who is fascinated with Bradley and asks him to give her lessons to help her become a writer.
All these characters stir a rather rich and wonderful brew. Bradley is narrating, and his ability to capture his emotional responses to people is deeply impressive.

As he is busy fighting off Christian’s well-heeled assault and Rachel’s tears—Rachel has made her love for Bradley clear almost from the first—and Priscilla’s whining about the things she left at her husband’s home, Bradley falls deeply in love. This state of being in love is simply sublime, but the implications are horrific because he is in love with the only sixteen-year-old Julian. Bradley is fifty-eight.

At first Bradley isn’t going to tell Julian anything about the love he feels for her. It is something precious and all his own, and she need never know. But of course he is about to explode with his feelings, and when he finally does talk to her about his love, after an aborted attempt to listen to Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera, she does not seem as immediately put off as he expects her to be. In fact, she seems willing to return his love.

When she does, and when she announces this love affair to her parents, well, needless to say, all hell breaks loose.
The last section of the novel is an extended battle between Bradley and Julian’s parents, and to say it ends badly is a ridiculous understatement. What is clear is that everything is culturally conditioned to forbid a relationship like the one Bradley and Julian are trying to establish and they fail. In fact they fail miserably, and Bradley pays the price for being willing to try to establish such a relationship in the first place.

The story ends unhappily, but there are various post-mortems that try to make more sense of it. Even they fail, and at the end the reader has to wonder what it has all been about.

Iris Murdoch

The Black Prince is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet after twenty-five years

I am teaching a class on E. M. Forster this term, and after reading his wonderful A Passage to India, I decided to look at these novels from the 1960’s that were inspired by Forster’s masterpiece.

The Jewel in the Crown

The Jewel in the Crown (462 pages, University of Chicago, $20) is the first book in Paul Scott’s majisterial Raj Quartet. First published in 1966, the novel looks back to the twilight years of the British colonial presence in India. Set in 1942, although it moves earlier and quite a bit later than this year, it tells the story of the incarceration of Indian political figures encouraging resistance to the British colonial rule, which results in several disturbing events that are told in intimate detail.

The first shocking tale is that of Miss Crane, a single English woman who settled in India as a teacher after being taken there as a governess in the employ of upper-class English civil servants. Miss Crane has been a wonderful pro-Indian teacher and worker, but even she feels the strong divisions of colonial rule. On the day when politicians are put in jail, rioting in the countryside catches Miss Crane off guard, and she and her Indian assistant are attacked by a mob. She survives, but the assistant is killed and Miss Crane sits with him in the rain until help arrives.

Miss Crane has a complete breakdown after this attack, feeling primarily that she let her assistant down. She loses her mind imagining that she could have done more to make the connection to the native population.

Miss Crane is a fitting character with which to begin this complex novel. She stands for all that is wrong with even the most well-meaning of the colonial power.

More riveting, in part because told from so many different angles, is the love affair between Daphne Manners, an orphaned English girl staying with a Brahman lady in the fictional Mayapore, and Hari Kumar, or Harry Coomer, the young Indian man who has been brought up in England and come through the public school system. This love affair is a tragedy by definition because of the racial and cultural differences that the two characters would have to overcome. Even their friends can hardly trust these two characters together. It simply isn’t done.

Far worse, though, is the mad and simmeringly homoerotic jealousy of Gordon Merrick, a local policeman, who himself proposes to Daphne and looks at his competition with a form of loathing desire. Needless to say this makes him sadistic in his prosecution of Hari when Daphne has been raped and it seems that Hari might well have been involved.

Scott tells this story with exhilarating narrative technique, which involves transcripts and interviews with almost all the central characters, some of whom are wonderfully colorful in their own right. And while he tells this story of sex and victimization, he also analyzes the presence of the British in India at the end of the Raj as few other writers have been able to do.

The Raj Quartet is a masterpiece, and The Jewel in the Crown is its wonderful beginning. I will reread all four novels in time, but I cannot promise to review then all at the same time.

Paul Scott

The Jewel in the Crown is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Alexander Maksik tells a depressing tale in an exciting way.

Alexander Maksik writes about high school, but his school is an international high school in Paris, and that changes everything, or does it?

You Deserve Nothing

The story of You Deserve Nothing (320 pages, Europa Editions, $15) centers on a charismatic high school instructor who teaches the choice senior seminar at the international high school in Paris. All the students are in Paris for various reasons, and they are more or less unhappy with their lot; but when they find themselves in Will Silver’s classroom, their lives change. They are exhilarated and they find that they are able to think in ways that they never realized that they could.

Will is great at bringing them out of themselves and giving them new voices by forcing them to articulate their own ideas. Maksik’s depictions of the classroom itself are really wonderful because it is possible to feel the productive tension that Will creates with these students.

We also get to know the different students and care about them: Gilad, the smart but reserved American who never feels quite at home; Colin, the Irish brat who is sometimes willing to challenge Will to his face; Ariel, a fashionable girl who has to be cured of her tendency to say “whatever”; and Abdul, an Arab student who has a hard time with the other students’ carelessness about God and the meaning of life.

Will manages to keep all these competing interests afloat and even to fight off the administration’s pressure to conform to the standard syllabus of high school literature classes. But instead Will wants to challenge his students, and they love him for it.

But in the end Will screws up, and he is dishonest both to himself and his students. He has an affair with a girl at the school. Admittedly she is not in his class, but she is underage, and she is also friends with Ariel and a former girlfriend of Colin’s; so there is little chance that this “secret” affair does not actually spill into his classroom.

Will is distraught about the affair, but he has it anyway, and Maksik is good at portraying the misery that attends such misguided sexual license. We also hear a lot from the young girl’s perspective. Marie has her own motivation and her deep feelings for Will, but she does not know anymore than he does what the consequences of their behavior will be.

Maksik is great at bringing out the disillusionment that all the students feel when Will Silver is exposed. He is also great at portraying Silver’s own misery. Sad, too, is the demise of the wonderful class where students were actually challenging their own limitations. But that starts to lose significance when their teacher turns out to be a louse.

Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Michael Ondaatje’s WWII masterpiece can prepare us for his new novel.

When I heard that Michael Ondaatje had written a new novel, I thought it high time to go back and read his 1992 masterpiece.

The English Patient

The English Patient (302 pages, Vintage, $15.95) is a beautifully written and provocative account of a few lost characters surviving at the end of World War II in a former convent, near Florence, that has been a hospital but is really noting more than a shell.

Among the chief inhabitants of this building are the English Patient himself, a burn victim, whose story gradually emerges as the novel unfolds. There is also a nurse, Hana, who has devoted herself to the care of this patient; Caravaggio, a maimed thief who has a thing for Hana but also keeps a respectful distance; and Kip, an Indian sapper, who is there to defuse the hundreds of bombs and booby traps left behind by the Germans.

Ondaatje turns this only mildly promising material into a beautiful story of love and loss that gives poetic seriousness to the cost of war, a feat so few war novels are able to achieve.

The English patient’s need for constant care has meant that Hana has stayed behind when others have been moved to “safer” locations. Her devotion to the patient, and her careful cleansing of his hideous wounds, gives them an almost lyrical bond. She reads to him and feeds him fruit that she has sliced or sometimes even chewed for him, and he takes his care and nourishment not at all for granted. Instead he seems to know that he is lucky to have this attention.

Caravaggio does not like the patient—he resents Hana’s devotion to him—but he does not trust him either. And he starts on a campaign to discover who this mysterious man really is. While he starts laying traps in conversation and using other ploys to trick the patient’s memory, Hana draws back and unites with Kip, who brings a different ethos to this theater of war.

Kip’s deeply learned character and his commitment to defusing bombs make his a charmed figure in this no-man’s land. He gives it a kind of life that Hana clings to, and before long she and Kip are sharing intimate moments and interleaving their two lives.

As the novel draws to a powerful conclusion, the English patient’s secrets are revealed. While we hear of espionage and a destroyed marriage, on the one hand, Kip learns about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosive ending nearly destroys all those involved in this momentary idyll.

Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Iris Murdoch creates a hero who is his own worst enemy, and that of a few others too.

After reading one Iris Murdoch, I had to read another. I found this one that I hadn’t read before, and I devoured it when I should have been doing other things.

A Word Child

In Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, first published in 1975, Hilary Burde, an orphan who survived a brutal childhood to become an Oxford don and someone with a promising future, finds himself working for the Civil Service in a lowly position and looking back on all he has lost. At first we hear that something happened that made him leave Oxford, and before long we are wallowing in the hideous tale he has to tell.

Before we get there, though, we meet the people with whom he has filled his life. There is Christopher, his willowy and druggy young boarder, Tommy (or Thomasina) his erstwhile girlfriend, Clifford, a middle-aged homosexual who is in love with him, the Impiatts, Laura and Freddie, a senior colleague and his wife, Arthur, a junior colleague, and Hilary’s sister Crystal, an uneducated seamstress who lives in a single room and spends her days hoping to see her brother.

In typical Murdoch fashion, all these characters are rich and fascinating in their own way; but only when Gunnar and his wife Lady Kitty appear, as they do when Gunnar is to take over the Directorship of the office where Hilary works, do we get the full depth and desperation of the tale.

It seems that when they were both students at Oxford, where Hilary was a whiz in languages and linguistics, Gunnar, an older student and the first to win a fellowship to teach in the College, gave Hilary support in his attempts to move ahead in the college. As Hilary is being entertained by Gunnar and his wife, Anne, however, he finds that he is falling in love with the kind and supportive (and beautiful) young wife. The have an intense and very short-lived affair, and when he is trying to whisk her away, and she is begging to return to Gunnar, he smashes the car on the motorway, and she is killed.

To say that this has obsessed Hilary since it happened would be an understatement. It has completely destroyed his life—he resigned his fellowship and left Oxford immediately—but the way he sees it, it also destroyed his sister’s life. He had hoped to carry her along to higher things, and now he has just dragged her down into the dirt with him.

Now that Gunnar has arrived, what can he do. Is there any chance of forgiveness? Can someone who is not religious really repent? What does it mean to talk about the past, and does it continue to haunt you even after you have dredged it up to dissect it?

These are all questions that Murdoch addresses as she tells an amusing and tragic story about what happens to these people who are tangled up in love for one another. It is too shocking to say what happens to Hilary when he gets involved with Gunnar and Kitty, but suffice it to say that history almost repeats itself. But whether or not it does, Murdoch seems to insist, life still goes on and redemption can come where you least expect it. This is classic Murdoch.

Iris Murdoch

A World Child is available at Powell's and Amazon.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Evelyn Waugh’s mid-century masterpiece stands the test of time.

I picked up Waugh’s WWII novel because I tried to watch the English TV version but decided I should read it instead.

Brideshead Revisited

The story of Brideshead Revisited (351 pages, Back Bay Books, $14.99) is all the more remarkable for having been published in 1944. Charles Ryder, an officer in the British Army, is posted at a country house that turns out to be one with which he has been familiar from the time of his undergraduate years at Cambridge.

The novel takes us back to those years and recreates Charles’s friendship with the naughty and effete Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic divorcee, Lady Marchmain, whose husband has deserted her and the pleasures of his grand home, Brideshead, for the soothing escape of Italy. Lady Marchmain is a staunch Roman Catholic, and all her children - Brideshead, the oldest and heir, Julia, the middle child, and Sebastian - have been brought up as Catholics.

At first Charles’s obsession with Sebastian makes the young man’s Catholicism only a passing interest. But as Charles gets more and more involved with this complicated family, the more central he sees the religion that the younger generation, with the exception of Bridey, have moved away from.

Sebastian introduces Charles to a lewd collection of undergraduate friends, who entertain him and distract him from his studies. But Charles wants to be distracted, and he is never happier than when Sebastian whisks him off for weekends, or even longer, at Brideshead. During these long and languorous visits, Charles recognizes Sebastian’s unhappiness and his inordinate
dependence on alcohol. Because Lord Marchmain was addicted to drink, Lady Marchmain cannot tolerate Sebastian’s drinking, and before long, he is avoiding her and the family or else embarrassing them all in an inebriated stupor.

As Sebastian slips off into southern Europe and even Africa, Charles loses sight of him. Charles had dropped out of Cambridge, after Sebastian was sent down for his excessive behavior, and he has studied art in France. He returns as a talented artist who specializes in painting portraits of country houses, and he becomes prosperous and married all the while that Sebastian is slipping further and further away.

After some years pass, Charles and Julia meet again on an ocean liner from New York to London. While most of the passengers are sea-sick, including Charles’s wife, he and Julia conduct an affair that at first is based solely on their shared concern with Sebastian.

When, after arriving in London, their affair continues, and the novel reaches a climax when Charles seeks a divorce and hopes to marry Julia, who is herself about to divorce. In the end, though, for various reasons, she cannot defy her religion so directly, and she pulls back and leaves Charles to his memories.

Charles loses both Sebastian and Julia, then, before the war begins, and when he returns to Brideshead as a soldier, the memories are almost too much to bear.

Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Chad Harbach writes an astonishing novel on baseball, college, and love.

I read a review of this novel, or was it a short notice of some kind? In any case, I decided that I might like it, even though it was about a topic that wasn’t particularly interesting to me: baseball.

The Art of Fielding

The title of the wonderful debut novel of Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (512 pages, Little Brown, $25.99), refers to a classic set of maxims for the baseball shortstop. I didn’t know enough about the sport to know whether this text, to which the novel’s hero is deeply devoted, was something from the annals of baseball or something from Harbach’s imagination.

Before one has turned too many pages of Harbach’s novel, the oddly inarticulate Henry Shrimshander has taken his place as one of the great heroes of American fiction. Henry is a dedicated baseball player and little else. But when he is noticed by the huge, powerful, and overpowering Mike Schwartz, one of the major athletes at a tiny Wisconsin college, Henry’s future seems to be decided for him.

Mike puts Henry through grueling training and turns him from a good, indeed gifted, infielder into a powerful force in his own right. Every run up the stadium steps, every weight training session, every protein shake that Mike throws at Henry, Henry takes without thinking. And as he builds muscle and practices endless exercises with his glove and throwing arm, Henry becomes an astonishing baseball phenomenon. This kid from a poor family with little prospects seems headed to a team in the majors.
Mike has his own future hopes, of course, and he works on Law School applications while he hectors Henry into shape. Indeed he becomes the driving force behind all the other members of the team, many of whom we come to know as the tale of Henry Shrimshander takes its harrowing shape.

The pitcher, the big hitter, other fielders all come into clear focus as the novel proceeds. To say that Harbach makes the team a microcosm of American masculinity would be an understatement. The range of personality and character that emerges from the few details that Harbach offers is breathtakingly precise. We are in a strikingly imagined private world that can tell us a lot about the larger contours of human experience.

Chief among these other characters is Owen Dunne, a gay athlete of mixed race who is so secure in his knowledge of himself that his teammates call him the Buddha. Henry and Owen have a great relationship, and Owen supports Henry’s growing stardom wholeheartedly. But when a wild throw of Henry’s smashes Owen in the face, all bets are off about who can achieve what in this intricate little world. Henry seems to lose his nerve and then his skill, and before long he is wondering what he is doing on the ball field.

Owen finds that he is being nursed by the impressive and well-regarded president of the college. When it turns out that this much older man is in love with Owen, the young scholar ball-player is flattered and intrigued.

Guert Affenlight, the president, also has a daughter of slightly older than college age. She had run away from her single-parent father much earlier, but now she returns home to confront him and create a new life for herself. While she is doing this, of course, she doesn’t realize that he is contemplating a whole new life as well.

Harbach constructs a world in which all these different needs are met in different ways. Not everyone survives the rigorous demands of baseball, college, and life; but those that do have a beautiful tale to tell.

Horbach has written one of the great novels of the twenty-first century. People will be talking about it for a long, long time.

Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Adam Haslett writes a chilling diagnosis of our moment in history.

I am not sure how this book appeared on my shelf, but I only imagine that I read a rave review, which indeed it deserves, and then picked it up to see for myself. Glad I did.

Union Atlantic

Adam Haslett’s first full-length novel, Union Atlantic (354 pages, Anchor, $15) concerns several different characters in early twenty-first century New York and New England.

Henry Graves, a senior director of the Federal Reserve in New York, seems to live at cross purposes with his sister Charlotte, who lives in northern Massachusetts in a house that she and Henry grew up in. Their strict Presbyterian father instilled strong convictions in them both, but while Charlotte seems ready to shout hers from the rooftop—and is more than ready to take on a wealthy neighbor who builds a hideous McMansion on land that her family used to own—Henry seems more concerned with settling for the kind of public service that works quietly at the highest levels.

They are brought together, for better and worse, through the actions of several different characters. First, there is Doug Fanning. We first see Doug when he pulls the trigger on a destroyer off the coast of Bahrain and brings down an Iranian passenger jet with hundreds aboard. That experience shakes him; but he ran off to the navy when he couldn’t stand his mother’s drinking, and now he seems ready for anything. When we next meet him, he is high up in Union Atlantic, a banking conglomerate that has gotten caught up in wheeling and dealing in a way that he enjoys and seems more than capable of handling.

Doug also happens to be the wealthy banker who is building the mansion next to Charlotte. She has nothing but contempt for the man, but her contempt takes the form of suing the town, who she says had no right to sell that land that her grandfather had left to the town. While she fights this battle, she deals with two enormous dogs, who she imagines speak to her in the distinctive tongues of an early New England preacher and a black activist of the sixties. Their voices are enormously entertaining, but it does become worrying when it turns out that she is listening to them.

Meanwhile, Charlotte--a former high school History teacher who was forced into early retirement because she was such a rabble-rouser, or, as she puts it, she told her students the truth—takes up a feckless local boy called Nate and tries to prepare him for AP exams in History. Nate is taken with Charlotte, and he enjoys his sessions with her, even if he has a bit of ironic distance about some of her craziness.

Nate also meets Doug, Charlotte’s neighbor, and he cannot help falling for the handsome guy and the amazingly wealthy trappings that he seems to offer. Doug does not really know what to do with Nate when he meets him, but it isn’t long before he is taking advantage of him. And in sex scenes that are as sad as they are ruthless, he takes his pleasure and let’s the younger boy fill in the scene with fantasies that he will later hold up with contempt.

There are two huge climaxes in the tale. The first is the courtroom drama in which Charlotte Graves tries to take on the establishment and claim rights of ownership over the land on which Doug’s mansion sits. The second concerns the exposure of Doug’s firm's loosey-goosey investments that threaten to bring down an entire financial system.

Haslett writes about both these events compellingly, and it's remarkable to say that in spite of the depressing material he is writing about, the novel almost seems hopeful in various ways. I cannot spell these out without ruining the plot, and I have no compunction in telling you to stick with the novel. It is worth it in the end. I hardly need to say that, though. This book is nearly impossible to put down.

Adam Haslett

Union Atlantic is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Benjamin Black writes a riveting Dublin thriller.

Benjamin Black is the pen name of the Booker Award winning novelist John Banville. In mysteries like this one, he lets his hair down with great results.

A Death in Summer

A Death in Summer (320 pages, Henry Holt, $25) is another installment of Benjamin Black’s Quirk novels. Quirk is Doctor Quirk, a Dublin pathologist, who works sometimes in conjunction with Hackett, the Detective Inspector.

In this novel, a wealthy newspaper tycoon is executed in his office at his country house. When Hackett and Quirk arrive to investigate the grisly scene, they discover the wife (an elegant French woman) and sister (a slim and young-looking blond) of the deceased and question them. Neither was on the premises at the time of the shooting, but on the other hand, neither seems particularly distraught by this violent death.

As the narrative proceeds, Quirk gets involved with the widow, Francoise, even as he dismisses his sense that she might have been involved in the crime. This love affair is tense from the beginning, but it also brings each of these characters something that he or she needs.

Meanwhile, Quirk's assistant, David Sinclair, a handsome and ambitious younger man, begins to become involved with Quirk’s daughter Phoebe. But David is also involved with Danny, Danielle, the sister of the dead tycoon. Because Danny has some other older and wealthier friends, it seems that David is warned to keep away.

As the plot develops, each of these relationship pairs deepens, and each of the characters shows a depth of feeling that places him outside the role of minor character that he might otherwise occupy. In other words, Benjamin Black makes them all interesting in their own right. David, Phoebe, and Danny, to say nothing of Francoise, together hold the keys to the case, and only until we pay closer attention to them can we begin to understand the workings of the plot.

The plot takes us deeper into the mud of Dublin life—one of the characters calls it the ooze underneath the surface--and before the story reaches its conclusion, some horrifying social details have been uncovered. But even as the murderer is revealed and the loose ends of the plot are tied up, much of what is revealed will remain more or less the way it is. As a result there is deep frustration as well as satisfaction at the end of the novel.

Benjamin Black has written a wonderful work. I look forward to the next volume in this series.

Benjamin Black

A Death in Summer is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Iris Murdoch writes a valedictory tale.

I am not sure why Iris Murdoch popped up somewhere on a list of books to read; but having always enjoyed her novels when they were published, my immediate response was “why not?” Now that I have read this one, I will probably read a few more. I like her perspective and some of the things she does with her characters, especially her reliance on Platonic philosophy.

Bruno’s Dream

In Bruno’s Dream, first published in 1969 and now available in Kindle and other e-book versions, Iris Murdoch writes a wonderful tale that highlights themes that return again and again in her fiction.

Bruno, who is suffering an incurable disease that is easing him toward death, sits in an upper chamber and contemplates the unfairness of his life. He feels that he acted badly to his wife, whom he hurt by having an affair, and to his son, whom he hurt by not accepting the son’s choice of a South Asian wife.

Thinking himself almost inhuman in his cruelties, Bruno also feels that there may be one last chance to be understood. Hope rests on his son Miles, to whom he has not spoken in decades, and for whom he still has residual resentments. While he tries to get those around him to arrange this meeting, he flutters with uncertainty about whether he wants to meet Miles, or not.

Bruno is in the hands of Danby, the former husband of Bruno’s daughter Dawn and director of the printing business that Bruno has left to his charge. Danby was kind enough to offer Bruno a place to stay during his illness, and although he is a bit of a drunk and foolish in lots to ways, he does seem to be a kind man.

Also in the house are Adelaide, a housekeeper who has been carrying on an affair with Danby for some time, and Nigel, the nurse who comes to spend time with Bruno in the evenings.

Miles, a civil servant and struggling poet, is married to Diana, who is as positive and open as he is negative and closed. With them lives Diana’s sister Lisa, who has been in and out of religious institutions and is making her way as a teacher.

One last character to mention is Will, who is Nigel’s twin and the cousin, as Nigel is too, of Adelaide. They have a complicated relationship from childhood, and to the degree that Nigel is otherworldly and mystical, Will is physical and aggressive. He has nursed an affection for Adelaide since childhood, and although she is attached to him too, she doesn’t feel that he is reliable. Of course she hasn’t told him anything about Danby.

As the meeting between Bruno and Miles begins to happen, all the other characters are thrown into turmoils of various kinds, mostly emotional. Danby begins a romantic friendship with Diana, whom he meets when he has gone to discuss Miles’s meeting with Bruno. This has no sooner started than he falls madly in love with Lisa, who reminds him of his lost wife, Dawn.
When Miles sees Lisa and Danby chatting in a park—she is actually trying to put him off—he realizes that he has always really loved her rather than his wife. And so the confusions abound.

Although it sounds rushed and crazy when summarized, Murdoch makes it seem not only sensible, but inevitable. Luckily, Nigel is there to flutter and help in various ways before confessing his own unrequited love, and some characters are ready to forgive and others to reimagine the future, and it all works out in the end.

Murdoch had been writing novels for fifteen years when she published this one. I think it shows her at the height of her powers.

Iris Murdoch

Bruno's Dream is available at Powell's and Amazon.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Leslie Daniels writes a romance about Nabokov.

This novel was recommended to me probably because of the Nabokov connection. I enjoyed its playful approach to sacrosanct topics.

Cleaning Nabokov’s House

Leslie Daniels' debut novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House (336 pages, Touchstone, $24), is an odd mixture of a work of literary fiction and an unadulterated romance. The heroine Barb, newly divorced, seems barely able to keep herself fed and dressed before she finds herself able to buy a house in an upstate New York college town, where she soon discovers an odd manuscript that might have been written by Vladimir Nabokov, who lived in the house while he taught at the College for a short time.

The manuscript, which is a kind of fantasy about Babe Ruth, fascinates Barb and starts to pull her out of her desperate funk.

She does not feel bad about choosing to leave her husband, but his well-connected local charisma allows him to keep her two children, and this drives her crazy. She is hoping that the money from the Nabokov might give her the money she needs to get her children back.

Of course, she also needs a stable home, and as she starts to come out of her depression, the home starts to feel anything by stable. For one thing, she decides, after a trip to New York where she sees the door of a notorious “cathouse,” to open a male brothel in her town. She poses as a sex-researcher, and gets local strapping college boys to function as her staff. Then she spreads the word for desperate housewives who would like a break in their daily grind. This male “cathouse” becomes so popular that she almost gets in trouble. Her few friends spend all their time urging her to be careful.

Meanwhile, she has fallen, romance-style, for a handsome and well-built local carpenter, Greg. Barb dates Greg gingerly, as if all men are poisonous; but at the same time she does want him to know about her brothel. This creates a bit of narrative amusement, and Daniels is good at playing these two plots against each other.

When the Nabokov connection falls through, Barb’s agent Maggie, the wife of another friend, urges her to try writing romance. She resists at first but gradually she gets the bug and starts to make a success of romance novel writing.

All this time, she is fighting to get her kids. Whether or not that works, when she is involved in running a brothel, is part of the delight of the book. The court-room battle between her and her ex-husband is one of the high points of the narrative.

Leslie Daniels has written an amusing first novel.

Leslie Daniels

Cleaning Nabokov's House is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Alan Hollinghurst captures the twentieth century in a masterpiece of literary recollection.

I have had an early look at this novel that has just been published in England, and I am going to write a longer review than usual.

The Stranger’s Child

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (448 pages, Knopf, $27.95) is a staggering accomplishment. It follows the fortunes of a couple of aristocratic families over the course of the twentieth century; and in doing so it raises issues about love and sexuality, memory, family, literary recollection, truth and falsity, bibliography, biography, English culture, war memoirs, and most important, perhaps, poetry and its relation to experience.

The story is told in several set-pieces, ranging from 1913 to 2008. Many of the same characters circulate in each of these pieces, but each features a new character and a new narrative perspective best suited to the historical moment being examined.

Each section of the novel is so riveting and so beautifully told that one could be forgiven for wishing that Hollinghurst had allowed himself to make an entire novel out of this setting or that historical moment. But in the end, it is perfectly clear that all these sections are necessary to tell the story that Hollinghurst is trying to tell. It is nothing less than a kind of cultural analysis of the twentieth century from a number of different perspectives.

At first the story might seem over-familiar. Two Cambridge undergraduates appear at one of their family homes during a vacation time. They are intellectually exuberant, each being a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret group that met regularly to discuss ideas and (it seems) to grope each other meaningfully. Cecil and George are in love with each other, and during their visit to George’s home “Two Acres,” they practically scandalize George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne, who always has a way of peeking through the hedge just when they are at their most intimate. Cecil Valence is handsome and muscular, and he is domineering as well. George, blond and handsome himself, is utterly smitten; and the two men can hardly keep their hands off each other at dinner or while lying in a hammock.

Meanwhile, Daphne is intrigued with Cecil too. She knows him because of the poetry he has published. He seems a close second to Rupert Brooke at the time—Hollinghurst publishes enough of Cecil’s poetry to allow us to judge for ourselves—and he has astonishing self-assurance. George and Daphne Sawle are caught up in this phenomenon, and both feel that the poetry he writes in Daphne’s autograph book—a poem called “Two Acres”—is meant for them. We have seen enough to know that the love for George was deep and meaningful to the poet but that his dalliance with Daphne—he kissed her in the entryway to the house—was vivid as well. It is fair to say that only George and Cecil know the depth of their shared love, and only they can read between the lines of Cecil’s most famous poem—which “Two Acres” quickly becomes—to understand how richly and fully it represents their love affair.

History, however, sees it differently. Cecil is killed in the First World War, and Daphne claims the role of the woman who was engaged to and now mourns him. It does seem that after the visit to the Sawle house, Daphne went to Cecil’s family house at Corley—a Victorian pile that fascinates her deeply—and that during those visits, apart from the constant carrying on of George and Cecil, she and the poet become attached. She has some love letters from France to prove her attachment. After Cecil’s death, however, she marries his dreadful brother Dudley. The second section of the novel is set in the 1920s, just before the General Strike in England. This is another moment when these upper classes are teetering on collapse. We see Daphne and Dudley at home. They are having a big weekend in celebration of Cecil, and we find other new characters and some of the old ones in new configurations. George is very much in the background here, and so is his mother. But she is carrying around with her a sheaf of letters that Cecil wrote George from France, the male love letters to contrast to those he wrote to Daphne, and she cannot decide whether or not to confront George with them. She is appalled at what they suggest and is clearly torn about what to do with them. We never discover exactly what happens to them, but we get the clear sense that they are lost.

We also hear at this time about some poems that Cecil may or may not have sent from France before his death. Some friends, and especially an early biographer, have seen these poems, but no one is sure what has happened to them.

These two threads—the letters that will tell a fuller truth about Cecil and George and the lost poems of Cecil—come to sustain the narrative, and in a sense we become like literary detectives ourselves, always hoping to get closer to these crucial details.

Throughout several later sections, as these central characters grow older and we meet their children and grandchildren, a young lower class guy, gay himself, gets to know that family and the house at Corley and becomes fascinated with the saga of Cecil Valence, a poet whose work he had to memorize at school. Paul Bryant, a bank teller in the 1960s, is a working biographer by 1980, and we see him trying to piece together the truths of George and Cecil and Daphne back in the teens. He meets the two survivors, the brother and sister who were both in love with Cecil, and talking to them he starts to make sense of the past. Both people are indirect and absolutely confusing when he talks to them, but he still starts to get something of the picture. He is a timid young man, and the sections of the novel in which he is central are among the most fascinating, both because he is an outsider to this upper-class world and because his own sense of himself and what he is trying to achieve is the most tentative.
In the last section of the novel, Paul’s biography has been long-since published, and we hear from various accounts how absurd the family considered it. Cecil was in love with George—what could be more ridiculous—and that Daphne has children outside of her (various) marriages, too. Paul is considered a rank intruder, but we know from our perspective that he has come close to the truth just through his amazing instincts and good guessing.

E. M. Forster is quoted here and seems to be the inspiration for some of the threads of the narrative, especially the early ones concerning the Cambridge Apostles, of which he wrote as well. Later sections, especially those with Paul as the narrative center, remind one most vividly of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, which also concerned a young man trying to get to the heart of a writers identity. The Stranger’s Child pulls those traditions together, and also makes it clear how faulty memories of the past can be. The eighty-three year-old Daphne may think she is remembering the past, but as she even admits, she can hardly call to mind anything that ever happened after the cocktail hour—some sixty years all blend together in her memory—and who, she tells herself, even remembers anything they read.

This novel is about literature and memory, about attempts to make sense of the past, and how time itself obliterates much of what might in the past have been considered true. As the gay writer tries to get close to what happened in the past, he can only approximate what we ourselves have seen was immensely significant. Hollinghurst has told this story in order to make that fact of literary recollection vivid and meaningful to his readers. In this he has been preeminently successful. This is surely his own literary masterpiece.

Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Philip Kerr tells a very German version of World War II.

Philip Kerr has been compared to John Le Carre and Alan Furst. This is the first of his novels that I have read.

Field Gray

Field Gray (448 pages, Putnam, $26.95) is the seventh Bernie Gunther novel. Bernie is a non-Nazi German who is trapped and re-trapped in various mishaps before, during, and after the Second World War. Kerr uses him to offer a unique perspective on the conflict, and Bernie’s struggles tell us a lot that we might not have known about Germany, France, and Russia during the 1940s and 1950s.

As the novel opens, Bernie is picked up in 1954 when he is trying to help a young prostitute get out of Cuba. He is picked up by Americans and questioned about his connections to a much wanted East German, who was the head of the East German secret service, known as the Stasi.

In order to answer the demands of his peremptory interrogators, Bernie has to to reflect back on things that happened in Berlin in the early thirties, when he was a private investigator. At that time he came in contact with this figure, Erich Mielke, who is a committed communist in Wiemar Germany. As the Nazis start to come to power, Mielke becomes a hunted figure, and Bernie more than once finds himself in a position to help Mielke escape. Why he does this is only partly difficult to understand. Bernie sees Mielke as a kind of alter ego, and in a sense he envies him his deep belief in the communist ideal. Bernie doesn't really believe in anything.

Telling this story, in a rather disjointed and at times confusing way, takes us first through this thirties Berlin, and then, during the war, to France, where Bernie is sent to find Mielke, who is supposed to be a prisoner of war there. After a short time in occupied Paris, this is 1940, Bernie goes to the south to visit two prison camps there. The state of these camps and the cruelty of the French guards seems to be one of the points of Kerr’s narrative. More anti-Semitic than the Germans, Kerr seems to argue, these French functionaries were blood-thirsty and vindictive. When he spots Mielke in the crowds of impoverished prisoners, he refuses to point him out, in part because he does not want to play into the hands of the French.

Much later, Bernie finds himself in one horrifying Soviet labor camp after another. Now the question becomes one of mere survival, and the cruelty of the Russians now seems to be the main point of the narrative. Bernie escapes this horror, ironically, by means of Mielke, who is also trying to double-cross him. But that almost doesn’t faze Bernie, who is almost in awe of the power that Mielke wields.

Later in the novel, after more bad situations and personal struggles, Bernie is being pressured by the Americans to lead them to Mielke. It seems that Bernie has decided to help them, but when he is about to hand over the wanted man, he turns the tables on the Americans.

The ending is very satisfying if one can persevere through all the prison camps and interrogations. Kerr writes compellingly about this kind of conflict, but I cannot claim to enjoy thrillers of this kind. Kerr has done a lot just to keep my attention. But for readers who like this sort of thing, this is a great example. And, as I say, the ending is rewarding and well-worth the struggle to get there.

Philip Kerr

Field Gray is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Josh Lanyon offers two Adrien English mysteries on Kindle.

I have been enough amused by Josh Lanyon that I thought I might try this pair of early thrillers. They are all right, but they don’t have the flair of the academic mysteries I have enjoyed.

Adrien English Mysteries 1 & 2

These mysteries are actually called Fatal Shadows and A Dangerous Thing (Kindle ebook $5.99). Adrien English, the hero of both, owns a bookstore in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles, and he lives in South Pasadena. A handsome gay man in his early thirties, Adrien is trying to put his life together after breaking up with a long-time boyfriend. With money from inheritance, he runs a mystery bookstore, and when he isn’t solving murder cases, he is opening trunks of books and figuring where to shelve them.

In Fatal Shadows Adrien finds that friends are dying suspiciously in various parts of the country, and he traces them all back to a Chess Club in high school. Jake, the hyper-masculine policeman who is handling one of the local murders, thinks Adrien is imagining things. And when Adrien starts getting threatening messages of various kinds, Jake dismisses them out of hand.

The murders get closer and closer to Adrien, and he almost plays with the prospect of his own death, but in the end, Jake saves the day, and Adrien lives to confront another mystery.

In A Dangerous Thing, Jake and Adrien are now dating. It had become apparent in the earlier novel that Jake could amuse himself with men at times, and Adrien is trying to stop himself from falling too seriously for this bisexual cop.

In order to get away for a while, Adrien goes up to a ranch in Sonora that he inherited from his grandmother. There are all sorts of odd traditions about the place and its being haunted, but Adrien thinks this will be a good place to relax and work on the novel he has been planning.

No sooner does he arrive, however, than he stumbles over a dead body in front of the house; and from that moment, he is himself under suspicion—the body disappears before the police arrive the next morning. And he wonders whether he hasn’t stepped into a hornet’s nest.

Jake sweeps up from LA to help Adrien deal with the local cops, and he hangs around long enough to begin to express his feelings for Adrien and to show that he is involved with him as something more than a sexual experiment. In fact, he is falling in love.

Lanyon does a good job with local characters in both novels. In the first there are bookstore types and gay friends of various descriptions; and in the later one there is a whole cast of local characters, including Native Americans who believe in the aged spirit of the place.

Lanyon portrays his gay characters in tasteful scenes of gay lovemaking. There is always enough to remind you that you are reading a gay novel, but never so much that you feel the sex is out of proportion with the character or action.

Lanyon may be more entertaining in some of his later and more complex novels. But these Adrien English stories have a certain charm of their own.

Adrien English Mysteries 1 & 2 for Kindle are available at Amazon.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Eleanor Brown writes about academic life with a Shakespearean cast.

Any reader might recognize the title “weird sisters” as the three mysterious witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Elizabeth Brown uses it to describe three sisters, all with Shakespearean names, who find they can hardly outlive the force of paternal desire for them.

The Weird Sisters

Eleanor Brown’s astonishing debut novel, The Weird Sisters (336 pages; Putnam; $24.95) concerns three sisters with the names Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia. Literary types will recognize these as the heroines of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and King Lear respectively.

Rose, the oldest, is also the most organized and the most obvious achiever. With a doctorate in mathematics, when the story opens, she has come back to their Midwestern town to teach math in the same college where her father is the beloved Shakespeare scholar in the English Department.

She likes living with her parents for the time being. Her own fiancé, a chemistry professor whom she met when on a gig at the huge state university nearby, is spending the term in England; and she is fully persuaded that her parents need her housekeeping and nursing skills, if only to keep them from tripping over books lying in the hallways or from forgetting to take any of their several pills.

While she is there, her mother has some serious medical complications; and either because of her ill health or for other reasons of their own, the other sisters return home at the same time. Bean (Bianca’s nickname) is fleeing something of a near-felonious disaster at the firm where she was working. A clothes horse and fashion maven, she could not make do on her considerable New York salary, so she was tapping into funds to which she had no right, and she was lucky that her boss only fired her and sent her home without pressing charges. She is responsible for paying back what she embezzled, however, and that is one of her chief worries when she returns home.

Cordelia, on the other hand, seems just to have swept in from living in some commune or other or on the road with groups of young people who live on fast food and drugs of various kinds. Everyone in the family is happy to see her alive, but when she starts eating like there is no tomorrow, they become worried. She needs to gain weight, but this is ridiculous. Very gradually we come to realize that she is pregnant. Her issue—what has brought her home—is her struggle with the decision whether or not to have the baby.

So this assortment of struggles and concerns, played against the father’s posturing and the mother’s ill-health, makes for a fascinating family analysis. The sisters act as a collective narrator, a “we” that comments on each of the sister’s behavior as both typical and (at times) alarming.

In the course of their time together, the sisters relive a great deal of their childhood antics; but they also, for various reasons, each try to grow and change; and the big question that the novel poses is whether such changes, of the purpose of career, companion, or even priorities in taste or opinion can be changed?

The novel would like to posit that they can, and the novelist makes a great case in her presentation of these three sisters. You have to read the novel, though, to decide whether or not you agree with her.

Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Barbara Freethy writes about family secrets in the northwest.

Every once in a while, I like to read a novel like this one. Sometimes romances surprise with a plot or some characters that I want to pay attention to.

Summer Secrets

Barbara Freethy is well-known as a writer of romance novels. Summer Secrets (400 pages, Onyx-New America Library, $14) was published some time ago, but it has just appeared for the Kindle. It came with the kind of fanfare that intrigued me.

It has some of the hallmarks of the romance genre. The women, in this case a family of twenty-something sisters, are all stunningly beautiful. These sisters turn out to be athletic as well—they sailed around the world with their father, and with him they came in first in a race that for some reason haunts them all even eight years later. The father, a compulsive competitor who also has a drinking problem, is a concern to all the daughters, but each of them has a love interest too, one more handsome and rugged looking than the next. Sex scenes are fantasies of complementarity, and even if some of these women resist their suitors, the reader knows that those muscular arms will be holding one of the women in fulfillment of all her dreams.

Well, it’s summer, and fantasies like this are no worse than the gay fantasies of Josh Lanyon’s novels, to be sure. In Kate, the oldest of the sisters, and the one who seems to be harboring the secrets, Freethy has an interesting heroine. Kate is struggling to keep the family together. She comes close enough to failing that the novel generates interest simply on the level of the plot, and that is not always easy.

Tyler has come to town—the novel is set on one of the San Juan Islands in the state of Washington—to discover which of the sisters is the mother of the child his brother has adopted. He has clear evidence that one of the sisters gave birth while on the sailing race, and he is determined to find out which one.

As he deceives the sisters and attempts to work himself into their good graces, he finds he is falling in love with Kate. Kate finds this muscular reporter attractive, but she is afraid that he is after their secrets, so she tries, unsuccessfully, to keep him at a distance.

All three girls have a complicated relation with their father and with the history of sailing with him all those years ago. Two of them are attracted to the water and imagine sailing again, and one, just as powerfully, wants nothing to do with the water ever again. When it turns out that the dad is hoping to get them out and racing once again, each daughter reacts in a different way.
In the end of course, all the secrets are revealed and the conflicted couples come together almost seamlessly. Even the father stops drinking for a while. But if the ending isn’t fully believable, some of the energy that went into telling the story surely is.

This novel will not be to everybody’s taste, but it can certainly suffice for a few distracted hours at the beach or at poolside.

Barbara Freethy

Summer Secrets is available at Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ann Packer’s stories are novelistic in their probing depth.

I loved Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, and I was persuaded by a friend to try her stories. They are wonderful.

Swim Back to Me

Each of the stories in Swim Back to Me (225 pages, Knopf, $24.95) has a power all its own. Together they tell a lot about the exigencies of family life and the terror of living in intimate relation to other people.

Some of the characters in these stories reappear. In an almost magical coupling, in an early story we see a young family who has moved from Yale to Stanford, after the father was denied tenure at Yale, all hopeful that this new location will bring greater rewards. The struggling professor is seen as a spectacular father, perhaps a little too overbearing at times, but wonderful in more ways than his neighbor, a tenured History professor. The History professor's son Richard goes to school with Sasha, the English professor’s daughter. Richard loves Sasha's father and feels that his own father is withdrawn and distant, working all the time; and they both—father and son—regret the departure of the wife and mother, who simply couldn’t take the academic life—or non-life—anymore.

In the first story we witness a kind of coming of age of Sasha and Richard. There is an intensity between them, but Sasha gets caught up in another crowd, and Richard has to watch from the sidelines. As he does, Sasha’s parents, the ebullient English professor and his thoughtful wife, pull him into their orbit, partly in hopes of prying loose some secrets. But they never do. Richard and Sasha experiment with marijuana, necking, and even a little more; while her parents are none the wiser.

Some of these characters return in a later story, older but not terribly wiser, and it is fascinating to see what Packer has done with them. With a few deft strokes, she makes us understand implicitly what these lives have been like. It’s uncanny, almost spooky, and it reminds me of the some of the best stories in the long American tradition of the short story.

Between these masterpieces are other stunningly moving stories. In one, a woman’s husband doesn’t return home one night. This is her older, wiser, dependable second husband, and at first she is frantic. But then she learns, from his children and his ex-wife, that he does this all the time. He takes a powder for a considerable time and talks about having to get his head together. Needless to say, this is not happy news to the woman who has been married to him for a year, and her process of working out a response to this behavior is what makes the story wonderful.

In another story, a young couple approach the birth of their first child together when they know that the wife has lost an earlier child in an earlier marriage to sudden crib death. Packer takes this simple premise and weaves a powerfully moving story that makes readers think of the powerful feelings associated with childbirth.

There are several other stories too, all as good as these few, and I think anyone who likes reading novels will enjoy the craft with which Ann Packer has constructed these stories.

Ann Packer

Swim Back To Me is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ruth Rendell creates a deeply disturbing mystery in suburban London.

I have not read many of Ruth Rendell’s probing mysteries, but this one sounded irresistible. It has made great summer reading!

Tigerlily’s Orchids

Set in the northern London suburb—or outer urban area—of Kenilworth, Tigerlily’s Orchidss (272 pages, Scribner, $26) first and foremost offers a staggering social commentary on the place and the people living there. The story centers on a block of flats—an apartment building in American parlance—where there are six apartments and six very strange stories. In addition to the six sets of tenants, there is a couple in a care-taking flat below the ground floor, and there are folks living in a couple of buildings across the street, two of which are single family homes. At the corner is a shop run by a Pakistani, and not too far away, there is a Tesco, the parent company of our “Fresh and Easy.”

Rendell may be writing a murder mystery, but no one is murdered until two-thirds of the way through. That results in a funny version of who-done-it: that question now shifts to who will be the murder victim.

There are several characters among which to choose. The drunk Olwen, the divorcee living in one of the top flats, wanders on unsteady feet back and forth to Mr. Ali’s shop whenever her supply of gin or vodka—she hardly cares which—runs out, in hopes of being allowed, finally, to drink herself to death.

The caretaker’s wife has an eagle eye and she loves gossip, with the result that none of Olwen’s bottles are lost on her. But she might look closer to home: her pasty and overweight husband spends his time gazing at child pornography when he isn’t leering at schoolchildren from a nearby graveyard.

There are also three young university girls—Naar, Sophie, and Molly—who are doing anything but their schoolwork, at least as far as we can tell. They have trouble understanding anything about their seniors around the building, but that doesn’t stop them getting deeply involved in their affairs.

Across the street, the middle-aged widower Duncan watches all this activity avidly, but he never really understands what he sees. Still he can take pleasure in the warmth of his house—all three floors of it—which his powerful central heating and superb insulation have made toasty all through the winter.

Next to Duncan there is a mysterious house of strangers. No one knows the family of Asians who lives there, and no one, Duncan especially, understands their relation to one another or what they are doing there. Duncan posits a complicated set of relations, but he singles out the gorgeous younger girl as Tigerlily. He thinks it suits her eastern inscrutability.

Stuart Font, the dashing young buck who lives in Flat #1, is also taken with the young Asian. He is having an affair with the seductive Claudia, a married woman, who seems to take the lead on their meetings and insists on his attachment to her. As that affair becomes more complicated, Stuart would like to extricate himself. He is slightly put off by Claudia, and he has lost interest in her once he encountered Tigerlily in a local shop. And besides, Claudia’s thuggish lawyer husband has gotten wind of her affair with Stuart, and he wants to teach them both a lesson.

Phew! There are even more characters then this, and Rendell interweaves their lives in astonishing ways. In a sense, it hardly matters who is killed because the social commentary is so rich and wonderful.

But of course it does matter, and this side of things is handled as impeccably as you might expect from someone of Ruth Rendell’s stunning record.

Ruth Rendell

Tigerlily's Orchids is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Richard Liebmann-Smith mixes Jameses to make a great story.

A friend recommended this novel or I might not otherwise have picked it up. The premise is so bizarre that it needs an encouraging word to be taken seriously.

The James Boys

In The James Boys (261 pages, Random House, $25) Richard Liebmann-Smith reimagines William and Henry James’s younger brothers Wilky and Rob, both of whom fought in the Civil War, as Jesse and Frank James, the notorious outlaws. This gives Liebmann-Smith one family in which to run the gamut of nineteenth-century American masculinity, from the hyper-intellectual philosopher William and refined novelist Henry to the handsome, sexually aggressive and contemptuous Jesse James, and, according to Liebmann-Smith at least, his better read and more introverted brother Frank.

Given this premise, the novel proceeds from incident to incident with aplomb. Early in the action, the younger James brothers hold-up a train in which Henry is returning from an ill-conceived attempt to do a little journalism for American friends. On this trip, he meets the precocious Elena Hite, the daughter of a Harvard businessman, who has taken to the road to espouse the woman’s cause.

Just as Elena has started to embarrass the fastidious Henry with her directness of speech, Jesses James comes in to demand their money, but the recognition scene between the “bothers” leads the outlaws to drag the novelist and his companion off the train and onto their hideout.

While Henry and Elena pose as husband and wife, for the sake of the couple who run this retreat, Elena in fact becomes involved with Jesse, and Henry is scandalized when he sees them fooling around together behind the barn. Henry’s ailments, which threaten to get the best of him even in good times, flare up to the point that he is barely sociable.

While Henry struggles in the wild west, William is busy trying to set up the first psychology laboratory at Harvard. He has friends in high places, and he is sanguine of success; but at the same time he is trying to decide whether he should marry the woman he has been seeing. As he talks himself in and out of marriage, Henry and Elena appear in Cambridge after a botched bank robbery, and she finds him attractive as well.

In the course of telling this story, Liebmann-Smith weaves fact and fiction so seamlessly that a reader has no recourse but to give into it entirely. What he surely hopes—that the two sides of this narrative will illuminate each other in imaginative ways—is surely what happens here. But still some readers will want to go and read more about the outlaws; and others will want to reacquaint himself or herself with the details of the intellectual Jameses once again. Both results speak to the effectiveness of the novel, for only a deeply engaging novel could get readers to think about what “really happened” in this way.

I recommend this novel for anyone interested in nineteenth-century American culture. Once you open it, it is hard to put it down.

The James Boys is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.