James Ellroy: Perfidia
The good thing about James Ellroy is that his prose has style, or to be more precise, his prose is other than the approved plain style. The bad thing about Ellroy is that—and this is something that threatens any writer who attempts something other than that safe plain style—his style had become mannered. In the last Ellroy I read, and this was some years ago, it seemed to me that his prose style had become a parody of itself: taut and austere had become all one sentence paragraphs, one word sentences, and I tired of it. Further, since his characters walk the same mean streets as Philip Marlowe, it was hard not to draw comparisons. Ellroy came up short in those comparisons, but to be fair, so does pretty much any other writer of this kind of fiction.
But . . . I decided to give him another try. With Perfidia he's launched a new series of novels set in and around Los Angeles. This one takes place during the days just before and after Pearl Harbor, and if the novel has one great strength it his his demystification of the "greatest generation," those sometimes heroic alcoholic racists and bigots about whom, for our sins, we hear so much. Such demystification is more than welcome, and I was so sucked into the labyrinthine scheming of his characters, some of whom, like Bette Davis and Fletcher Bowron, existed off the page, that the style became a non-issue. When I purposely slowed my pace to have a close look at what Ellroy was doing with words I found that he had drifted toward the safe plain style and away from machine gun bluntness, and this did not seem to me to be a bad thing. His prose will never be literary—thank the GSM for that—but it now seems appropriate for the stories he wants to tell.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems (Phoenix Poetry)
It was nice to sit down and not just read the odd Coleridge poem here and there, but to read several together. One sees, at least in this collection, his Christianity drop away and his gloom increase, and can only speculate on the role opium played in all this. I'm eager now to sit down with the Coleridge biography that's been sitting on my shelf for a decade or so.
Tim Powers: Medusa's Web: A Novel
An artful mix of science fiction and Hollywood fiction that will ring true to those of us who have lived in Hollywood, but were not in "the business." Tim Powers gets the landscape right, and that provides a good grounding for the truly other aliens he creates and those aliens' meddling in human affairs, particular the affairs of an odd family in a gothic estate—such places exist—just a few blocks north of Sunset. Unfortunately, and since I read this novel right after Jeanette Winterson's The Passion this was thrown into stark relief, Powers's sentences get the job done, but that is all.
Jeanette Winterson: The Passion
I remember when books like Oranges are Not the Only Fruit were appearing and readers around me, readers I respected, were excited. Somehow, though I never picked up a Jeanette Winterson novel until now. My loss. The Passion is a superb historical novel, that is superb precisely because it does not foreground the fustian and tedious detail that weigh down much of that genre, but rather is a book that can be read for its beautiful sentences. Set during the Napoleonic wars it weaves together the story of a cook in Napoleon's army and that of a gambler from Venice. One moves eagerly between the two tales, and the delight is only doubled when the story lines come together. Now, to start getting caught up with the rest of Winterson's work.
- Zoran Živković: The Compendium of the Dead
The trilogy concludes in a way that reaffirms the obvious: Zoran Živković is more interested in books and how they are made than in hard-boiled detectives and how they detect. The writer, not Živković, maybe, refers to the books that comprise this trilogy as "vegetarian mysteries," because no one is killed, or if they are they don't stay dead. And yes, this is the kind of book in which in which the author of which appears in the book to comment on it. Not for everyone perhaps, but good fun for those who like that sort of thing.
- Zoran Živković: The Grand Manuscript
The plot thickens as detective Dejan Lukić is called in to investigate the disappearance of a novelist from an apartment that, empty, is locked from the inside and which has no other means of egress. The much anticipated manuscript on which that novelist was at work has also disappeared, and as it may or may not have the power to endow those who read it with immortality, we see that once again Živković's bookish world is fantastic. But then books can endow their characters with immortality, so maybe it's not as fantastic as all that. Like the first book in the trilogy, this book can stand on its own, but it is inextricably connected to the first, and some of the philosophical fun will only be apparent to those who've read both.
- Zoran Živković: The Last Book
This is the first book in an as yet unpublished trilogy of detective novels by Zoran Živković. Because it is Živković, and tipped off by the title, readers won't be surprised to find that it is bookish and includes elements of fantasy.
In this, the first volume, customers of a book store begin to die, though there is no discernible cause of death. The investigations of detective Dejan Lukić reveal that--the fantasy and the bookishness collide--the cause of death may well be a book, the last book, or the book of which the last book is a part. The book reads well on its own, but becomes more interesting after one has read the second in the trilogy and sees how threads begun in the first volume are developed.
Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard
A self-aware Sicilian prince, the Leopard of the title, in the time of Garibaldi observes the world he has known crumble. Occasionally sad, occasionally furious, he watches for the most part with detachment; his creator, the author, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, views the Prince with humor and affection as he ambles through his life. There is no great action in the book, but Di Lampedusa makes the characters who surround the prince--Sicilians and Northerners, new men and old--human. His compassion for his characters, however flawed they are, reminds one, though the milieu couldn't be more different, of the greatest of all humanist artists, Yasujiro Ozu.
Edmund Crispin: Holy Disorders: Gervase Fen #2
I guess a novel published in the mid-1940s still qualifies as a Golden Age mystery, and thus legitimately partakes of the cleverness and silliness that characterize that category. One unusual aspect of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen books is that the title character, though typically eccentric and erudite, is also entirely unappealing. Indeed one becomes much more interested in characters who appear in this novel, Holy Disorders, but will not return in the rest of the series, because, well, they can't.
I'd better stop here before giving anything away, because solving the puzzle is a big part of the attraction of novels of this sort, and advance knowledge would spoil the fun.
George Steiner: Errata: An Examined Life
I've always admired polymaths, and George Steiner definitely falls into that category. He berates himself, near the end of his memoir, Errata, for having spread himself too thin, for not having devoted his career to one or two of the big ideas he has written books about before moving on to other things. For me, though, it's precisely his breadth that fascinates, and it is no surprise that the thing he appears least interested in is himself. He devotes very little of this memoir to what he did when and why, but a lot to what he has thought about, studied, and learned. True, there are one or two chapters that begin with sentences like, "During the war years the French Lycée in Manhattan was a cauldron," but most chapters open with propositions such as: "It is plausible to suppose that the period since August 1914 has been, notably in Europe and Russia, from Madrid to Moscow, from Sicily to the Arctic Circle, the most bestial in recorded history," and proceed from those beginnings in essayistic fashion. Because Steiner is a great mind it is a pleasure to follow his thinking about music, war, place, God, and other topics. I hope that there is still a place in intellectual life for scholars who, like Steiner, decline to devote themselves to a narrow specialty.