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.