I am a pessimist but believe the world has much solace to offer: love, food, music, the immense variety of race and language, literature and the pleasure of artistic creation.
-- Anthony Burgess, The New York Times obituary, Nov. 26, 1993
Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One
This is a realist novel focusing on the friendship of two girls growing up poor in Naples in the 1950s and 60s. It is dense in detail, and gives a compelling picture of how difficult it is for ambitious young women to escape from such a place, and also how it is necessary for them to do so. One looks forward to seeing how the two girls we have watched grow in this inaugural novel move through the remaining three books in the series
Ron Rosenbaum: The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
The Shakespeare Wars is a good introduction to some of the various controversies around the works of William Shakespeare with which scholars, actors, directors, and fans of the bard are concerned. Wisely, author Ron Rosenbaum wastes no time on the conspiracy theories related to who wrote the plays (because it couldn't have been that upstart crow William Shakespeare!). Instead he spends his time, for the most part, examining the discussions, arguments, and debates that arise from the simple fact that we possess no manuscript of any of the plays or poems in Shakespeare's hand. Rather we have versions, and the big question is which version should be given precedence, or how, in a principled fashion, are the various versions, to be used to create a text true to what Shakespeare might have intended. (Reading that sentence you see, of course, the problem: how can we know what Shakespeare intended?) All of that is fascinating, but the book is marred by three things. First, the various swipes that Rosenbaum feels obliged to take at "theory" date the book badly. Second, the humor that Rosenbaum injects into the book is almost always leaden and predictable, and third, he seems to believe that sentence fragments are somehow more effective than complete sentences. I say he seems to believe this, because it's clear that he can write good English when he wants to, but for some reason often feels compelled to attempt something else. Still, this is a good primer on what we talk about when we talk about Shakespeare.
Ross Macdonald: The Instant Enemy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
I am sad that I have almost finished my traversal of all Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels. The quality never slackens, and there are always treacherous and fascinating Freudian undercurrents coursing through the Southern California badlands.
Lars Martinson: Tonoharu: Part Three
We were once told that Lars Martinson's saga of an American English teacher in the Japanese outback would run for four volumes, but it now appears that this, volume three of Tonoharu, is to be the conclusion. I've expressed elsewhere my frustration with the abrupt manner in which the previous volumes ended, and the long waits between them (volume one was published in 2008), but given that the delay was clearly occasioned by the high quality of the artwork in this comic, one certainly forgives Martinson for that (though one is grateful, too, that one can now sit down and read the whole story without years-long intermissions between parts). An example of that quality is seen in the first pages, an account of a trip the protagonist, Daniel, takes in Japan which is a tour de force. These twenty wordless frames are deft in depicting both the pleasure and the boredom of solitary travel. Martinson has also succeeded in volume three in bringing together Daniel's alienation and low-grade depression with the much more dramatically acted out response of the exotic Europeans to expat life. The threads are drawn together. Finishing volume three, one wants to go back and read the whole story again.
Eric Haggman: The Apology
Eric Haggman's first novel, a thriller, does one very important thing right: he keeps things moving along. Thrillers are not intended to be read slowly. If one doesn't feel compelled to fly through the pages, then there's a problem. The headlong rush that Haggman largely succeeds in providing, though, is slightly undermined by the implausibilities of the plot (the Vietnamese police investigating the apparent kidnapping at the novel's center include our advertising man protagonist in every aspect of the investigation, including, at one point, handing him an AK47 for his personal use) and the Sax Rohmer-like exaggerations of the evil that, at least for the purposes of the novel Haggman seems to believe, lies at the heart of Asian societies. The Japanese police for example, can't be merely corrupt, but must be one of the most corrupt police forces in the world. The novel ends with the protagonist and his love interest, having moved through Vietnam and Tokyo, in Capetown, and things are left wide-open for a sequel, so this won't be the last we hear of this crime-fighting ad-man.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
A British butler looks back on his life. A tour-de-force of voice--that was what impressed me. It's also an eye-opener to its time. I liked it more than The Buried Giant which I gave 3 stars to, but less than books I give 4 stars to. 3.5 stars. (***)
Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge
A set of short stories of extreme verisimilitude about the inhabitants of a US small town, each story centered on, or including, or at least mentioning the title character. It’s about doing the best we can, of putting up a front, of trying to relate successfully to others, of trying to survive our circumstances… and the insecurities, frailties, and anxieties that lie beneath all that. I feel I know more about and have more compassion for myself and others for having the curtain ripped back like this. For me the book was at its most effective when it examined ageing and loss. Now I can’t wait to read more by Strout. (*****)
Michael Crummey: Sweetland
I usually confine my fiction reading to Booker and Pulitzer blockbusters, but this recommendation by a friend is more a Sundance indie. The vividly described setting—remote islands off Newfoundland—stays with you, but it was sunk for me by a main character—stubborn, ornery, self-centered--I could care less about. (They say other people upset you if they display traits you don’t like in yourself… if so… busted!) (*)
Alexandra Harris: Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies
A beautifully written account, scholarly and approachable, of how English weather is reflected in 2,000 years of art and literature. We find that different times have had different views of the seasons; how cold, damp, and grey English weather has been and still is; and how until recently there was little escape from the rain and mud. My take away is a renewed enjoyment in looking at clouds. Thank you to Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately blog for the recommendation. (***)
John Williams: Butcher's Crossing
This western novel by John Williams of “Stoner” fame is about dreams and human frailty, and the squalor and rigor of frontier life when hunters followed the buffalo. In classic style, it opens with the arrival of a city boy in a dusty prairie town, and ends with a departure, not long afterward in terms of time, but a lifetime of experience later. The location, characters and story are described in movie-like detail. It’s a solid, muscular depiction of a mythical reality that’s part of America’s rural roots. (****)
Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See
The lives of a small cast of disparate characters, charted in short, impeccably written sections, gradually intersect and swirl together through the rise of Nazism in Germany, and during the occupation of France. It’s a vivid picture of the painful devastation of war, and of human endurance and courage, written for maximum empathy, and told with page-turning suspense. (****)
In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This collection of letters between two good friends, a down-to-earth aristocrat (youngest of the Mitford sisters) and an urbane, cosmopolitan writer and war hero, spans most of their lifetimes. They write to entertain and support each other, and in the process we get glimpses of aristocratic pursuits, the Mitfords, and the restless life of an adventurer missing publisher’s deadlines. All in all, a correspondence sparkling with fun and gossip. (**)