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Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography
Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!, 30 Aug. 2008
GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT is the autobiography of the 34 year old Robert Graves, who, at this book's 1929 publication, was a former army captain who served with distinction in The Great War, an emerging poet, and a father, separated from his wife, with four young children. As a Yank, I'm not quite sure where Graves fit in the English class system of his day. But his family was distinguished and comfortable and Graves endured the bullying at Charterhouse, a prominent English public school.

Certainly, the two great themes of GBTAT are life in the British army in World War I and the friendships of Graves, the poet. For anyone with special interests in the war, I recommend Chapter 15, where he describes his participation in the disastrous Battle of Loos, a poorly planned and executed debacle where many senior officers showed haughty indifference to the plight of the common soldier. Those interested in the lives of poets might read Chapter 28, where Graves describes the many poets living in his midst at Oxford in 1919. Meanwhile, Chapter 29 offers profiles of T.E. Lawrence, his friend, and Thomas Hardy, who Graves visits while biking with his wife.

Graves's style in GBTAT is fabulous. This style is very efficient--he never lingers--yet also slightly discursive. This has the effect of building a rich texture around the distinctive theme of each chapter. In Chapter 9, for example, Graves describes his experiences as a rock climber. Here, his subject is the techniques and dangers of this sport, as well as its sometimes eccentric practitioners. But, he also works in a story about George Mallory, a mountaineer who died on Mount Everest, who was a friend and teacher at Charterhouse. This allows Graves to comment on the grim culture of the public schools of his day, where the beneficent Mallory was wasted. At the end of this chapter, my marginalia reads: fluid and very interesting.

Likewise, Graves's voice is also fabulous. Basically, he is an honest observer, always near a center of interest, who is never seriously political. As he writes, he both sketches the traditions of his era while he personifies the aspirations and experiences of his rising generation. Once in a while, there is a dated remark. But even this adds to GBTAT, since it helps Graves summon and explore a vanished world. A great work!


Under the Volcano (Penguin Modern Classics)
Under the Volcano (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Malcolm Lowry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece!, 15 Aug. 2008
Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, is suffering with end-stage alcoholism. He drinks in order to function. He has morning trembles, blackouts, and DTs. He stores bottles everywhere. Meanwhile, Yvonne, his wife, has a vision of a lovely alcohol-free life with Geoffrey in pristine British Columbia. Finally, Hugh, Geoffrey's bold yet ineffectual brother and competitor, accepts and even encourages his drinking.

While this hardly sounds like exceptional material, Malcolm Lowry turns the troubled actions and interaction of these characters into an amazing book. It's no exaggeration to say that UNDER THE VOLCANO is a masterpiece.

Certainly one reason for the excellence of UtV is Lowry's fantastic writing, which is so deft at exploring the perceptions and motivation of his characters. Here, for example, is what the consul sees after a few morning whiskeys.

"The broad leaves of the plantains themselves drooping gently seemed menacingly savage as the stretched wings of pelicans, shaking before they fold. The movements of some little birds in the garden, like animated rosebuds, appeared unbearably jittery and thievish. It was a though the creatures were attached by sensitive wires to his nerves."

And, here's what Geoffrey feels later in the day, after switching to sunny tequila.

"... he was drifting slowly through the sunlight back toward the bungalow... floating in an amber glow. Beyond the house, where now the problems awaiting him seemed already on the point of energetic solution, the day before him stretched out like an illimitable rolling wonderful desert, in which one was going, though in a delightful way, to be lost."

Finally, this is a description of Geoffrey, after he switches to empowering yet disorienting mescal.

"The Consul was talking... of Archimedes, Moses, Achilles, Methuselah, Charles V and Pontius Pilate. The Consul was talking furthermore of Jesus Christ, or rather of Yus Asaf, who, according to Kashmiri legend...But there was a slight mistake. The Consul was not talking. Apparently not. The Consul had not uttered a single word. It was all an illusion, a whirling cerebral chaos..."

At the same time, Lowry is able place his trio of characters on a grid of multiple, simultaneous, and overlapping narratives, sort of like the three dimensional game board described by Julian Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened of, where life has the horizontal plane and death the vertical.

When a chapter features Geoffrey, for example, Lowry describes what is actually happening, Geoffrey's inebriated perception of the experience, and the emotional, psychological, and cultural baggage he brings to the experience. Then, he throws in the reactions of Yvonne, Hugh, and his friends, who also have great depth and complexity, as well as the reactions of numerous Mexicans, who range from consoling to vicious. Finally, the backdrop for Geoffrey's adventures is the ghoulish Day of the Dead and the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl, which carry heavy symbolism of love, death, and grief in Aztec culture. Altogether, this confluence of multiple themes and masterful writing makes for an amazingly rich, broad, and stimulating narrative. There's so much in UtV that, when I finished, I was tempted immediately to reread.

One quick final observation: I think Chapter 4, which follows Yvonne and Hugh on a morning horseback ride, is among the most beautiful short stories I have ever read.


Hunger
Hunger
by Knut Hamsun
Edition: Paperback

6 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Glad I read HUNGER but..., 16 July 2008
This review is from: Hunger (Paperback)
The unnamed narrator in HUNGER is isolated, impulsive, self-destructive, excessively self-critical, and nearly homeless. While his plight is surely pitiful and unnerving, this novel certainly offers special rewards to readers who believe that mighty books present compulsive narrators, viewing the world from their hidey-holes in garbage cans or the equivalent. No wonder the introduction to my edition was written by Paul Auster!

Fortunately, Hamsun guides his narrator into society. Here, we thank the women, who flirt with the narrator and accept him as a boarder despite his penury and borderline mental illness. Their influence and timely charity help him break his syndrome of perfectionism, self-mortification, arrogance, and remorse, placing him on the docks in Christiania where "... all the workaday life around me, the loading chants, the noise of the winches, the constant rattling of the iron chains, was incompatible with the moody, self absorbed..." As the Silhouettes sang in 1957, "GET A JOB shanna nah nahh shanna nanna nahh (bah-doop)...

For the record, I'd say other writers have presented the marginal and desperate lives of aspiring young writers with much greater complexity and reward than Hamsun. Charles Bukowski for example, allows his Henry Chinaski to risk just as much as this unnamed narrator. But in Factotum: A Novel, Chinaski is funny while living a life with just as much sad integrity.

The afterword in my edition (Robert Bly) says the story of HUNGER is highly autobiographical. Surely, he knows. But this novel also strikes me as a brilliantly intuitive assemblage of weirdness, especially when you consider Hamsun wrote HUNGER in 1890. But this cluster of self-destructiveness has also become very familiar in our world, in part due to Psychology 101 classes. So, I ask: Is this a case where the clinician has actually surpassed the novelist?


Netherland
Netherland
by Joseph O'Neill
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hans and Rachel, 22 Jun. 2008
This review is from: Netherland (Hardcover)
Rachel, a lawyer, is unhappy in her marriage with Hans, an analyst at an investment bank. And so, the couple separates, with Rachel returning to London with Jake, their young son. While Hans visits his wife and son twice monthly, he spends most of his time alone in New York. He is depressed. He has no real friends.

In this life of isolation, Hans makes a serendipitous connection to the cricket community in New York, where he meets Chuck R., a naturalized citizen from the Caribbean. In this shabby new world of immigrant cricketers, Hans slowly develops a sense of community, where his new peers are the Pakistani guy who works at a gas station or the Hindu who drives a cab. Meanwhile, Chuck presents to Hans an image of entrepreneurial striving, which has qualities that are both inspiring and sleazy. Slowly, the world that grows from this cricket connection begins to exert its power on Hans. Then, he has a moment-of-truth and decides to return to London, resolving to win back his family.

In telling this story, O'Neill offers patches of writing that are wonderfully poetic. Perhaps, the best examples were presented in THE NEW YORKER review of NETHERLAND, which was written by the overpraising James Wood (author of HOW FICTION WORKS). At the same time, O'Neill is far from a flawless writer. He can, for example, be melodramatic:

"A hooting sob rose up from my chest. I began to gulp and pant. A deep and useless shame filled me--shame that I had failed my wife and son, shame that I lacked the means to fight on, to tell her that I refused to accept that our marriage had suddenly collapsed..."

And his prose occasionally verges on clunky.

"Rain spotted my window as we pulled away into the tunnels and gorges through which the Penn Station trains secretively dribble up the West Side."

Readers that find the greatest pleasure in NETHERLAND will be those interested in the marriage of Hans and Rachel. Those looking for a book about 9/11 will be disappointed, since the problems in this marriage preceded 9/11 and evolved without real connection to this horrible event. This, in fact, is something that O'Neill himself wryly acknowledges, with Hans identifying early in this novel the level where NETHERLAND truly operates. "All lives, I remember thinking, eventually funnel into the advice columns of women's magazines."

One final point: There are minor mistakes in this book that drove me crazy. Hans, for example, wouldn't work in a cubicle. (He's the fourth rated analyst in his specialty, according to INSTITUTIONAL INVESTORS. This means his recommendations bring in big bucks and he gets an office.) Hans and Rachel taxi to Riverdale from the West Side using Broadway? Nope, they'd use the Henry Hudson. An investment banker and lawyer move into the Chelsea Hotel with their wee child after 9/11? NO WAY! (Go to Wikipedia and you'll see what I mean. This is not the place Yuppies go to recover from trauma.) And in Central Park, you'll never find Sheep's Meadow. But the Sheep Meadow is near Tavern on the Green.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2008 6:01 PM BST


The Sheltering Sky (Penguin Classics)
The Sheltering Sky (Penguin Classics)
by Paul Bowles
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Character is Destiny, 15 Jun. 2008
Initially, Kit and Port, the preppy primary characters in THE SHELTERING SKY, seem more like attitudes than people. The character Kit, for example, observes: "Other people rule my life." Early in his narration, Bowles adds: "The terror was already there inside her ready to take command."

Meanwhile, Port, despite his charms, is a sadly isolated person. Bowles says: "Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being; he had built the being around it."

Early in TSS, these concept-driven characters have experiences of slightly bogus theatricality, with the insightful Bowles explaining the interaction between characters but not really bringing them to life. Kit and Port, in other words, have experiences that just don't ring true.

But then Bowles takes his characters and puts them on a bus on a heedless journey into the Sahara. And, their adventure, a truly riveting tale, is the perfect vehicle to explore the wacko personalities that Bowles has defined. "Book Two, The Earth's Sharp Edge," starts in Bou Noura, a desolate outpost where the European influence is negligible. Thereafter, everything that happens to Kit and Port is frighteningly real. And the writing becomes first-rate.

"The sun poured down on the bare earth; there was not a square inch of shadow, save at their feet. Her mind went back to the many times when, as a child, she had held a reading glass over some hapless insect, following it along the ground in its frenzied attempts to escape the increasingly accurate focusing of the lens, until finally she touched it with the blinding pinpoint of light, when as if by magic it ceased running, and she watched it slowly wither and begin to smoke. She felt that if she looked up she would find the sun grown to monstrous proportions.

My daughter told me this book was great and she was right! Highly recommended.


Arthur & George
Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elegant Writing, Bold Structure, Deliberately Diffuse, 27 May 2008
This review is from: Arthur & George (Paperback)
Julian Barnes is an elegant writer with an interesting mind. From paragraph to paragraph, these qualities are fully apparent in ARTHUR & GEORGE, especially as Barnes examines the issues his characters face. Here is George Edalji at 54, roughly 25 years after he was wrongly incarcerated and a cause célèbre.

"...But most nowadays had never heard of him. At times he resented this, and felt ashamed of his resentment. He knew that in all his years of suffering, there had been nothing he longed for more than anonymity. The Chaplain at Lewes had asked him what he missed, and he had replied that he missed his life. Now, he had it back; he had work, enough money, people to nod to in the street. But he was occasionally nudged by the thought that he deserved more; that his ordeal should have led to more reward. From villain to martyr to nobody very much--was not this unfair...."

Barnes has divided A&G into four sections. These are BEGINNINGS, BEGINNING WITH AN ENDING, ENDING WITH A BEGINNING, AND ENDINGS. Within each, Barnes has tucked appropriate narrative material.

For example, BEGINNINGS, shows the young Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji establishing themselves in life. It also shows the start of an ugly and threatening letter writing campaign against the Edalji family and the first glimmer of hostility toward the Edaljis from the police.

Meanwhile, BEGINNING WITH AN ENDING, provides, among other things, a disturbing picture of the police, who begin an investigation of animal mutiliations with the ending--that is George Edalji is the perp--and then create evidence to fit their theory. What I'm saying, in other words, is that Barnes has created a narrative that fits, on reflection, into four buckets.

This description makes ARTHUR & GEORGE sound like a tightly organized book. But for this reader, the structure suggested by these section titles doesn't really capture the reading experience. Indeed, this novel actually seems to progress from a slightly stiff examination of young male lives in an imperfect Victorian world, to a long police procedural and courtroom drama, to a biographical tale of a manic gentleman as he fights injustice and his tendency to depression, to a slightly sad summing up. While always elegant and interesting, A&G reads like a hodgepodge with Barnes unwilling to settle on a single narrative perspective to tell his story.

Here, I say "unwilling" because this hodgepodge-like quality struck me as a deliberate narrative strategy. Proof for me exists in Barnes's frequent mention of the disappearance and then unsolved murder of Dr. Sophie Hickman, a crime concurrent with the mutilations. It's just a small story point. But through this loose end, Barnes seems to be saying that facts in life don't really fit into an easy narrative structure.

So, in the final analysis, I'd call this a bold novel, organized in concept but deliberately messy in the execution. In a way, A&G is the opposite of an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, where every messy fact narrows the case and leads the ingenious Holmes to a neat and inevitable solution.


Nothing to be Frightened of
Nothing to be Frightened of
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Style Battles Content, 21 April 2008
In NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF, Julian Barnes uses the history of his immediate family and the comments of many writers--who he considers his "true bloodline"--to examine death, as well as its connection to God. Rest assured that this book, like A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10Ĺ CHAPTERS, is a primarily an essayist's intellectual journey. The book is never morbid or creepy.

For me, NtbFo was best when Barnes was writing about his biological family. When writing about the death of his parents, for example, he conveyed the weakness and humiliation and rage of the dying, as well as the complex feelings of anger, pity, and responsibility in survivors. Likewise, the book was strong when Barnes wrote about his grandfather. Then, he pondered how little a person leaves after death, with mystery and a few random artifacts all that's left after, say, 50 years pass. These family-based musings are thoughtful and tender. And Barnes's brother, a philosopher who does not allow slack thinking, adds rigor to Julian's thoughts.

On the other hand, the results are mixed when Barnes uses the comments of numerous writers to explore his subjects. Here, the ideas and anecdotes he presents are always interesting, ranging from consoling to depressed, from accepting death to dread. And, his work with this material is a pleasure to read when an essay--few are longer than five pages--starts with the adroit presentation of a concept, moves to a supporting or contrasting idea, and then finishes with revelation or connection.

But occasionally, his short essays develop in an inscrutable and arbitrary fashion, with this reviewer finishing an essay in confusion, not insight. (How the heck did I get here?, was my not infrequent reaction.) Even after rereading, these particular essays struck me as brilliant babbling, not the achievement of sparkling or new connections. This has unfortunate consequences for NtbFo, since Barnes frequently circles back to ideas he has already explored, returning to them to layer or enrich meaning. But, this strategy doesn't work when an idea's original presentation, or new context, lacks clarity.

Nonetheless, Barnes has a very interesting mind. He writes fine prose and this book renewed my interest in his work. Next: ARTHUR & GEORGE.


The Soul Thief
The Soul Thief
by Charles Baxter
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Recommended, 8 Mar. 2008
This review is from: The Soul Thief (Hardcover)
Charles Baxter does have a flair for creating characters. In fact, there were paragraphs, early in THE SOUL THIEF, that were almost Bellow-like in their use of detail to build a character. For example:

"He performed intellectual surgery using hairsplitting distinctions. At the age of nineteen, during spring break, he took up strolling through Prospect Park with a walking stick and a fedora. Even the pigeons stared at him. Not for him the beaches of Florida, or nudity in its physical form, or the vulgarity of job. He did not often change clothes, preferring to war the same shirt until it had become ostentatiously threadbare. He carried around the old-fashioned odor of bohemia. He was homely. His teachers feared him. Sometimes, while thinking, he appeared to daven like an Orthodox Jew. He was adept at both classical and popular cultures..."

So, THE SOUL THIEF does have some finely drawn characters. This quality will offer great pleasure to any reader, but especially to those who read Nathaniel's description of his two sons. With this subject, Baxter really brings his characters to life, almost the way Fitzgerald poeticizes the wealthy in THE GREAT GATSBY. But in this novel, Baxter is the poet of the humdrum and the ordinary relationship, not Jazz Age fortunes.

Nonetheless, a reader does have to ask: Can characters alone carry a novel? In this case, I'd say the answer is "almost", since THE SOUL THIEF holds together better on analysis than it does as a reading experience. Here, it's hard to explain this "almost" verdict without spoilers. So let me just say that the protagonist, Nathaniel, sometimes reacts to the events of this novel as if not a fully real character. In the end, Baxter explains why this is so. Still, this quality makes THE SOUL THIEF read like a flawed novel, where the protagonist's behavior doesn't always seem emotionally true.

I'd like to make a few more observations. Nathaniel's dislike of LA seemed to go on for its own sake. The stuff about the sister reading Nathaniel out of his crisis and Coolberg creating a narrative for his characters--this seemed like Professor Baxter speaking, not Nathaniel. I'd reformat Part Two. And hasn't the passage of time made the emotional force of the ending a bit stale?

Regardless, this is a good book, beautifully written in spots, and dead-on accurate in its portrayal of grad student life in the early seventies, as well as the crises and satisfactions of a loving and ordinary suburban family. Yes, Baxter is a pleasure to read. But in THE SOUL THIEF, the ending is, well, too clever.


The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007
The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007
by Martin Amis
Edition: Hardcover

36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Provocative and Rewarding, 7 Mar. 2008
THE SECOND PLANE is made up of 12 essays and two short stories, all exploring the issue of Islamism. To paraphrase Wikipedia, this is the belief that "...Islam is not only a religion but a political system. Its proponents believe that western military, economic, political, social, and cultural influences in the Muslim world are un-Islamic and should be replaced by purely Islamic influences." For Amis, Islamism has these features. But its primary characteristic is violent extremism.

The subtitle for this book, September 11: 2001-2007, explains what Amis is up to. In his own words, he is presenting a "narrative of misery, and also of desperate fascination" on the currents flowing into and out of 9/11. What was surprising to me is that his essays don't read like yesterday's news. Instead, his pieces, many appearing first in The Times or The Guardian, are built on fundamentals that, in America, are often obscured as our politicians and their hacks justify or attack policy for short-term political gain. Here's a sample of Mart's thoughts:

o "We are arriving at an axiom in long-term thinking about international terrorism: the real danger lies, not in what it inflicts, but in what it provokes. Thus by far the gravest consequence of September 11, to date, is Iraq."

o "Why, in our current delirium of faith and fear, would Bush want things to become more theological rather than less theological? The answer is clear enough in human terms: to put it crudely, it makes him feel easier about being intellectually null. He wants geopolitics to be less about the intellect, and more about gut-instincts and beliefs--because he knows he's got them."

o "We may compare radical Islam with ... Bolshevism and Nazism (to each of which Islamism is indebted). Of the many affinities that emerge, we may list, to begin, some secondary characteristics. The exaltation of a godlike leader; the demand, not just for submission to the cause, but for utter transformation in its name; a self-pitying romanticism; a hatred of liberal society, individualism, and affluent inertia; an obsession with sacrifice and martyrdom; a morbid adolescent rebelliousness combined with a childish love of destruction...But these are incidentals. Thanatism derives its real energy, its fever and its magic, from something far more radical.... I mean the rejection of reason."

As a Yank living in New York, I don't see Amis much on TV in his role of wise man and commentator. Instead, Mart, for me, largely remains a novelist. As a result, I was also happy to see Amis make a few literary asides in THE SECOND PLANE. Here's one:

o "Commentators respond, not to the novel, but to its personnel, whom they want to `care about', in whom they want to `believe'. Such remarks as `I didn't like the characters' are now thought capable of settling the hash of a work of fiction. This critical approach will eventually elicit what it fully deserves--a literature of ingratiation."

This is very high-level and interesting work and recommended.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 18, 2014 12:28 PM GMT


His Illegal Self
His Illegal Self
by Peter Carey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fool For Love, 1 Mar. 2008
This review is from: His Illegal Self (Hardcover)
HIS ILLEGAL SELF (HIS) is my fifth Peter Carey novel. (The others were JACK MAGGS: A NOVEL, TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, MY LIFE AS A FAKE, and THEFT. They're all terrific.) While the stories in these five novels are very different, the narratives are alike in one respect: Carey establishes his stories quickly; then, his narratives become totally engrossing sprints. While the novels are spotted with wonderful metaphors and lyricism, they mostly have great pace. They are riveting rushes--like the beautiful Australian bird in HIS that Carey captures jetting over a remote stream. There is little navel gazing in these novels.

Another element in some of Carey's books is the offbeat, somewhat quirky, dynamic of his narratives. To make my point, think of Philip Roth, sort of Carey's narrative opposite, who brings the awesome power of his analysis to the subjects of aging in EVERYMAN or the relation of the ill and elderly to youth in EXIT GHOST. In those books, Roth takes common experiences head on. But Carey? Well, he finds a twist so that the situation he explores does not require power so much as narrative talent. Carey's approach to the familiar is subtle.

In HIS, Carey's starting point is SDS in New York in the early 1970s. Basically, a young woman and associate professor, Dial, without any malice aforethought, goes underground with a boy, Che, whose mother is SDS and whose grandmother lives on Park Avenue. Gradually, Carey unfolds this story so that what appears like a capricious disaster--the abduction of the boy--makes perfect sense. Then, the climax of the novel turns on an element in Dial's character, which emerges with angry clarity in a final conversation with Che's grandmother. It's a fascinating story, told like a mystery, that comes together with logic and power in the final few pages. Bravo Peter!

Of course, the dynamic driving some of Peter Carey's novels is not quirky at all. For example, it's easy to get the story of Ned Kelly, growing up poor and despised Irish in Australia. It's easy to get the story of the Boone brothers in THEFT, since the action is driven by love and ambition. But HIS is one of Carey's subtler books and this reader had to mull its issues when finished. Then, I got it. HIS is Carey's take on something we all understand: Fool for Love.


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