Books Read and Reviewed 2008.5 (Sept.-Oct.)
Submitted by JohnnyW on Thu, 10/02/2008 - 06:10
- 9/6/08: Michael Chabon/The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007): Chabon, an accomplished and respected novelist, has made no secret of his love for "genre fiction," especially detective novels and comic books. Like Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, Chabon attempts to approach the detective novel in an intelligent way, elevating a ghettoized genre to respectability, a goal I applaud. Unfortunately, The Yiddish Policeman's Union falls short of Chabon's lofty goals. The set-up is fascinating: after WWII, the new state of Israel never got off the ground and the U. S. government offers a section of the Alaskan panhandle to Jews for a temporary homeland. Several decades later, their territory has a population of over four million Jews, but the U. S. takes formal repossession in less than two months, and uncertainty hangs over everybody's heads. Meyer Landsman, a disillusioned homicide cop, decides to take on one last case, the murder of a transient murdered in a flophouse hotel. Pushed by his superiors, American federal agents, and the Jewish mob to simply drop the investigation due to the impending transition, Landsman simply can't, and with his half-native, half-Jewish partner, uncovers a cataclysmic plot that could lead to either a new homeland for the Jews or a new world war. I may have pulled you in with the plot summary (it certainly grabbed me), but the novel just falls flat in certain ways. I like the characters, the imagining of the city of Sitka is a frigid updating of film noir, and Chabon explores relations between natives and Jews in a non-preachy way, but, hmmm, there's just something that doesn't work. Maybe my expectations were too high due to Chabon's goals with his novel, so I would recommend reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union if you like either Chabon or detective fiction--just don't expect to be bowled over...
- 9/12/08: Charles Warren Stoddard/South Sea Idyls (1872): Stoddard was one of the early followers of Melville, heading out for the Pacific and bumming around until he had enough material to start basing fiction on his experiences. Unfortunately, he wasn't nearly the writer Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jack London was, so this collection of short stories leaves something to be desired. That doesn't mean it isn't worth flipping through, however; Stoddard clearly took note of the people and landscapes of the South Seas, and he's a solid recreator of atmosphere.
- Even more interesting, when I began reading these stories, I noticed that many followed a similar pattern: an unnamed male American narrator, probably thirty-something or so, basically backpacks his way through the Pacific and makes a brief stop to live with a young Polynesian male (a new "friend"). Certain passages that lingered on nude Tahitian boys and being fed burstingly ripe fruit by the same left no doubt in my mind that Stoddard was gay. After doing a little research, it turns out he was, and even had a correspondence with Walt Whitman. My question is, gay or straight, how did such obviously sexual elements get published in the 1870s?
- 9/26/08: Washington Irving/A Tour on the Prairies (1835): Washington Irving spent many years in Europe, mainly England and Spain, after he became famous with his Sketch Book; when he eventually returned, he was stung by criticism that he had turned his back on his American identity. So he took off to travel the frontier, encountering Indians, buffalo hunts, roaming cavalry troops, and isolated farmers, a trip that would result in three books, including this charming travelogue. For the most part, Irving is content to observe as the cavalry he is "embedded" with take a wide arc through what is now Oklahoma, but a couple of times, he throws himself into frontier life--his chasing down and killing of a buffalo bull is thrilling, and he eloquently communicates his remorse as he sees the great beast writhing in in its death throes.
- Particularly fascinating are Irving's descriptions of the "half-breeds" and outcasts who populate the frontier. He buys into certain stereotypes ("half-breeds" are untrustworthy), but he also hires two to work as guides, and he clearly sympathizes with them, hoping that they will prove themselves superior guides, buffalo hunters, and wild-horse tamers, all of which they eventually do. Give this book a chance--Irving is more than a writer of folktales.
- 10/2/08: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child/The Book of the Dead (2006): I've always liked Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's novels, intelligent adventure books that draw on modern aspects of genres such as detective, horror, serial killer, and techno-thrillers, while also preserving the spirit of early writers of adventures and detection like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker. In some cases they acknowledge their debts more directly, clearly patterning FBI agent Pendergast on Sherlock Holmes and giving him his own grotesque Moriarty, his brother Diogenes. All this said, The Book of the Dead isn't quite up to the level of some of the previous books, particularly Reliquary and Cabinet of Curiosities, and won't make much sense if you haven't read the previous two books of the "Diogenes" trilogy--characters like Constance, Eli Glinn, and Capt. Hayward need a lot more back story, and Pendergast himself runs the risk of looking a bit ridiculous without a previous understanding of who this complicated and exceptional man is. Go back and read some of the earlier Douglas-Child novels and work your way up, and I'm confident you'll agree that they prove, just like Doyle and Stevenson, that "escapist" doesn't have to be a dirty word, a signal to turn off your mind.
- 10/8/08: John Buchan/The Island of Sheep (1936): The first book in Buchan's Richard Hannay series, The 39 Steps, is by far the best known because of the Hitchcock film, but The Island of Sheep, the last of the five novels, is actually quite a bit better, especially in terms of characterization and evocative landscape--so much of the novel takes place in the lush, hilly "Borderlands" area of Scotland and on a rocky, windswept island in the Faroes, north of Scotland. Interestingly, Buchan uses these locales to muse on the long-buried savagery that still lurks in the Scots and Scandinavians, dwelling on Norse mythology, the sagas, Viking raids, blood feuds that span generations, and berserker states. When Hannay, by this point no longer the youngish man of the earlier novels, learns that the son and granddaughter of an old friend are threatened by a dangerous group from Hannay's younger days ranging Africa and Asia, he determines to help, only to find that the son and granddaughter, seemingly weak, can draw on their northern heritage to ferociously defend themselves. These plot twists, while unusual, are in line with Buchan's continuing preocupations with race and racial characteristics, while his emphasis on pre-civilized Europe echoes Conrad's thoughts on the subject in Heart of Darkness.
- 10/12/08: John Buchan/Greenmantle (1916): Buchan's follow-up to The 39 Steps is his take on the "Great Game," the struggle for influence and control in central Asia, played for decades by the Russians, British, French, and Turkish. Richard Hannay is pulled from the trenches in WWI and given the assignment of tracking down the German plot to forment jihad in the Islamic world in order to send the British reeling in many of their colonies, including their crown jewel, India. Buchan's racial fixation (racism?) rears its head, as the Germans are bullet-headed and cruel, the Turks luxurious, greedy, and corrupt, and the British noble and steadfast (of course!). The scenes in Istanbul are fascinating, as the city becomes a multicultural cesspool, with people of every ethnicity using and being used, all in pursuit of wealth and power. The anti-Western jihad threatening to burst into uncontrollable violence at any time is prescient, and Buchan's cultural conservatism, almost a holdover from Victorianism, is displayed in the character of Von Einem, a powerful, cruel woman whose independence and curious asexuality frighten Hannay more than any man or army he's ever had to face.
- 10/20/08: John Buchan/Mr. Standfast (1919): The third of the Richard Hannay novels beginning with The 39 Steps, Mr. Standfast may be the weakest of the series. Like the second book, Greenmantle, it is set during WWI, and once again Hannay is pulled off the front lines with orders to infiltrate a German espionage ring. Although Mr. Standfast has some exciting set pieces, like Hannay's tramp over the Isle of Skye, off Scotland's coast, and his breakneck drive and later glacier climb through the Alps, the novel suffers from too many of these sorts of adventures--in short, the book sprawls in a way the more tightly focused Hannay novels don't. Buchan takes us from the English countryside to Glasgow to Skye to London to Switzerland to Italy and, finally, back to the trenches of northern France. All of this traipsing through Europe never succeeds in giving the reader a good grasp of how exactly Ivery's spy ring works, or even what his ultimate plan is--it all seems to be a bare-bones framework to hang the admittedly enthralling adventures on. Also troubling is the tone of the first fourth or third of the book; Buchan's books are always jingoistic and xenophobic, but Mr. Standfast strikes a meaner, uglier tone with Hannay's infiltration of a pacifist sect. I understand that England was in the middle of WWI when this novel was written, but Buchan rages against anybody who would object to war or even question if it was being fought intelligently or morally--the pacifists and conscientious objectors Hannay runs across are all ripped and described insultingly, with the implication they are all cowards, mentally unstable, or most likely traitors. Fortunately, Buchan mitigates these early insults with the character of Lancelot Wake, who maintains his pacifist principles but dies delivering messages through the most dangerous parts of the trenches.
- One other note: as I read through the Hannay novels, I can't help but compare Hannay to James Bond, as Fleming was clearly influenced by Buchan's novels. Where Bond would have a cynical, pragmatic edge, Hannay, in the dawn of modern spycraft, feels that espionage is degrading, diverting soldiers from the front lines--an activity necessary only because the corrupt Germans started the whole game. Hannay also does not possess the hardness we see in Bond--when he lies, bluffs, or infiltrates, he carries a deep sense of shame at what he is doing, firmly believeing it is less than manly.
- 10/24/08: Jane Austen/Mansfield Park (1814): It seems that readers of Mansfield Park fall into two camps: those who don't like Fanny and those that sort of, well, don't mind her so much. Hard to find someone who loves poor Fanny. I'm not saying I love her character, but I had read a little bit about the novel before I started reading and was prepared to simply tolerate her and enjoy everything else about Mansfield Park; surprisingly, I didn't find her dislikable or annoying at all. Sure, she's priggish, and no, she's not witty, but above all, she is a sympathetic figure. She's in a tough situation, the object of charity--which she's never allowed to forget, especially by the odious Mrs. Norris--and singled out as an unequal for years. Could any other personality have persevered through that? The other character I find most interesting is Henry Crawford--I followed his progression from irresponsible flirt to serious suitor and landlord, and I thought it believable. His regression as the seducer (or at least "mutually seduced") didn't feel right somehow. I almost felt that Austen wrote this plot twist to finally, completely confirm Fanny as right all along--why not have him truly change, and Fanny change along with him? I like Edmund and all, but Henry and Fanny seemed to me a dynamic couple--one where the two personalities would have challenged and hopefully complemented each other.
- Mansfield Park is also notable for Edward Said's criticism; he points out that the Bertram family fortune is based on Sir Thomas's sugar plantations in Antigua, almost certainly worked by slave labor, a complicating context for a novel so concerned with virtue and right behavior. Contrast the scope and beauty of the sculpted gardens and "wild" at the Rushworth estate, a place of strolls and romantic intrigues, with the presumably sprawling cane fields half a world away, site of misery and brutality. Said criticizes Austen for not acknowledging this problem, but I wonder: did Austen never consider the complication of having the Bertrams so reliant on slavery? Was Antigua simply a convenient piece of background, or did she deliberately choose this source of income at a time when abolition was in full force in England? I have no evidence, but I have to give Austen the benefit of the doubt on this, and further admire her for not forcing the issue to the foreground, but instead having it always shadowing every speech and observation on conduct and virtue.
For awhile I've been frustrated by the idea that after I read a book, it begins to fade from memory. This is an attempt to keep a sort of reading log, but with impressions as well as titles.