Last Update 11/27/10

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Scholastic, 1874  

This is the only one of Hardy’s major novels that I hadn’t previously read.  First, a comment on this edition.  Scholastic should be ashamed of themselves.  Not only is there a grammatical error in their description -  they used “between” when they mean “among” – but the introduction insists that Hardy only wrote seven novels, when he actually wrote fourteen, not counting the one that was lost.  Anyway, the story involves Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman who takes over her uncle’s farm after his death.  She is admired by Gabriel Fox, a sheep farmer who falls on hard times and ends up working for her as a shepherd. A thoughtless flirtation attracts the attention of a gentleman farmer, Boldwood, whom she also rejects.  Then she falls in love with Sergeant Troy, a charming cad, whom she subsequently marries to the dismay of her other two admirers and to the detriment of her business dealings because of his mismanagement.  Eventually Bathsheba recognizes the truth and contemplates suicide, while the death of Troy’s former lover causes him to become depressed and irrational. He is also mistakenly believed to have drowned for a time.  The ending is slightly contrived but she ends up with Oak, which is what the reader expected all along. 11/27/10

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, Oxford, 1873 

Thomas Hardy’s second published novel concerns a romantic triangle.  Young, inexperienced country girl Elfride Swancourt, only child of a widowed rector, falls in love – or so she thinks – with a young architect who, unfortunately, is the son of commoners and therefore forbidden her by her status conscious father.  Still the couple plan to get married after he returns from India where he will make his fortune.  In the interim, she meets another man, a writer, and falls in love with him as well.  The two suitors are close friends, although neither of them knows about the other’s relationship to Elfride.  But sooner or later the revelation will force her to make a decision.  Victorian prose is not to everyone’s taste, but I found this one – which I hadn’t read previously – surprisingly accessible.  It’s partly a satire on Victorian prejudices and there is some gentle but barbed humor.  Given the barriers society placed between lovers, I’m sometimes surprised the Victorians managed to reproduce themselves. Possibly interesting historical note.  This was serialized when first published and one episode ended with one of the characters literally hanging off the edge of a cliff, hence the term “cliffhanger.” 11/16/10

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, Dover, 1872 

This was Thomas Hardy’s first and shortest novel, or at least the first to appear in print, and he hadn’t developed the skills that would be more obvious in his better known works.  The story is about a small English town set in a bit of turmoil when a vivacious young schoolmistress turns the eyes of some of the local males and causes further upset by her disregard for long standing tradition.  The story focuses on the local all male choir and their upset when the parish’s young women begin singing aloud in church.  The son of the choir leader is also one of the major candidates for the young woman’s affection. I first read this in 7th grade or thereabouts. It’s the kind of novel that no one writes any more, or at least no one publishes, and despite some occasional clunkiness it’s still quite readable. 11/4/10

Roadside Bodhisattva by Paul Di Filippo, PS, 2010, £15, ISBN 978-1-906301-75-0

Kid A is the nom de plume of a runaway teenaged boy who falls into the orbit of Sid, a seasoned wanderer with very different tastes but considerably more knowledge of the world.  The twosome take temporary jobs as handymen at a rundown roadside diner run by a cast of nicely delineated and actually interesting characters, each of whom is experiencing some sort of internal personality crisis.  In his quiet way, Sid accelerates the healing process in all of them and even finds a way to improve business for the diner.  Kid A is sometimes uncomfortable with the situation, particularly his relationship with the niece of the owner, and although he seems to be basically kind hearted, there is a selfishness there that only expresses itself clearly in the closing pages.  It's a combination coming of age and road trip novel, although a lot of the developments that you'll probably expect from those forms evolve in very different ways than the traditional ones.  Despite its relaxed style, this is one you'll probably want to read in a single sitting.  10/23/10

The Double Tongue by William Golding, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995 

The final novel by William Golding, only a second draft although the story is complete.  It’s another historical, this time following the childhood and maturity of a young woman who becomes a prophetess at the Oracle of Delphi.  Golding presents her as a kind of naïve girl next door who becomes more sophisticated and serious as time passes.  There are no rough spots in the text although it is believed that Golding planned to make it longer.  I found the early chapters fascinating but as the story grew more complex I actually became less interested.  This probably has to do with my skepticism about the subject matter rather than any failing on Golding’s part.  8/7/10

Fire Down Below by Willliam Golding, Faber, 1989 

Concluding volume of the Sea trilogy which chronicles a long voyage to Australia during the Napoleonic era.  Our hero is finally beginning to show signs of maturity, although he still longs for a young woman he met only briefly and has an exaggerated idea of his own worth.  He becomes an informal crew member for a while when the ship is in evident peril because of its age, poor design, and the consequences of a major error on the part of one of its officers.  The whole thing is, of course, a voyage of discovery on both the physical and metaphysical levels, but it’s so beautifully written that you don’t need to be aware of its subtleties to find it completely enjoyable.  8/5/10

Close Quarters by William Golding, Faber, 1987 

The second volume in the trilogy that began with Rites of Passage.  Our hero has survived the suicide of one of the passengers, but now he has new troubles.  One of the officers, a paranoid drunk, is inattentive and the ship nearly founders.  The damage is such that they are at the mercy of the winds and might drift right past Australia.  He also fancies himself in love with a young woman from a passing ship, whom he is unlikely ever to see again.  Add to this a head wound, the reappearance of his servant believed drowned, and other troubles and you have a surprisingly complex story that doesn’t feel complex when you’re reading it.  One of my favorite Golding novels, and I’m looking forward to the final volume in the trilogy. 7/28/10

The Paper Men by William Golding, Faber, 1984   

This short novel from late in Golding’s career is a battle between a successful author who has trouble with his personal relationships, and an ambitious graduate student who wants to be his biographer, and becomes obsessed with him.  They have several encounters of increasing animosity, and blackmail, offers of sex, bribery, and other elements enter into the acrimonious series of exchanges.  The ultimate “surprise” ending really wasn’t; I’d been expecting it from about half way through the book.  The battle is an engrossing one and Golding’s prose is at the top of his form. This is a kind of academic version of Stephen King's Misery, a writer dealing with an obviously mentally disturbed fan. 7/24/10

Rites of Passage by William Golding, Playboy, 1980

Golding set this dark novel in the waning days of the Napoleonic Wars.  Talbot, the protagonist narrator whose journal we are reading, is a puffed up young man with little experience of the world en route by sea to Australia. The ship is an aging warship converted to passenger conveyance and its irritable captain apparently despises his circumstances as well as his passengers. He is forced to tolerate Talbot because of the latter's political connections, but he takes out his frustrations on a rather inept parson, who is eventually driven to self humiliation, illness, and death.  Talbot comes to feel responsible in some portion, although his immaturity and snobbery don't seem to be seriously impaired. The remaining characters are largely inconsequential.  I've always enjoyed epistolary novels and this is one of my favorites of Golding's work, although a times I wanted to shake one character or another and tell them to get a clue.  7/3/10

Darkness Visible by William Golding, Bantam, 1979 

After several years of silence, Golding published this new novel, his longest, about a boy who emerges from a firestorm during the Blitz.  We follow Matty’s life as he grows up, horribly scarred and always an outcast, obsessed with religion and sex, almost incapable of interacting with other people until eventually he becomes involved with twin sisters.  The story is parable of good and evil – no surprise with Golding – and the first half is excellent.  About midway things become murky and it’s not always clear what’s going on or why.  The second half has its moments but doesn’t measure up to the beginning.  Mr. Pedigree is a particularly well drawn, if repulsive, character. 6/9/10

The Scorpion God by William Golding, Harcourt Brace, 1971 

Three novelettes, of which the best is easily “Envoy Extraordinary”, which is also technically science fiction.  An inventor in ancient Rome creates the pressure cooker, a steam driven galley, and other anachronisms, which nevertheless arouse only limited interest and more spectacular outright opposition.  Some wry humor as well.  The title story is set in, more or less, ancient Egypt and examines the role of a mortal god faced with his own mortality.  “Clonk Clonk” is interesting at times, set in a prehistoric matriarchal society, but is uneven.  The one good story is worth your time; the others only if you’re a Golding fan. 6/1/10

The Pyramid by William Golding, Harcourt, 1966 

I recalled this being one of my favorites of Golding’s early novels, and re-reading it confirmed my memory.  It’s one of his rare diversions into humor, although of a decidedly dark variety.  The novel describes three episodes in the life of its protagonist, Oliver, who is only eighteen years old in the first.  He becomes involved in a rivalry with another boy over a girl’s sexual favors, even though he is “in love” with another young woman, who is about to be married.  Their comic interactions are tempered by her bitterness and his frustrations and uneasiness. Episode two is even funnier as Oliver gets drawn involuntarily into participating in an amateur opera presentation, which goes predictably awry.  The third installment is more serious as he returns home as an adult and has an epiphany while visiting the grave of a woman he once knew.  Very entertaining. 5/11/10

The Spire by William Golding, Harvest, 1964 

Golding’s fifth novel was quite different from its predecessors.  In some indeterminate time but probably the Middle Ages, an obsessive priest insists that a towering spire be added to his cathedral even though everyone warns him that the foundations are not strong enough to support such a structure. He counters that God will not let them fail.  The priest is delusional, believing an angel visits him, and an egomaniac who judges his companions only in terms of their usefulness to him and who commits most of the sins he claims to condemn.  Characterization is oddly done.  We only get sketches of the other players because our attention is pinned so tightly to the priest, but we don’t see much of him outside of his obsession.  The metaphor is obvious – no belief system can stand for long without a strong foundation and, predictably, the priest discovers that his judgment and beliefs fall short of his expectations. 4/20/10

The Specific Gravity of Grief by Jay Lake, Darkwood, 2010, $25, ISBN 978-0-9820730-7-0

Apparently Jay Lake recently went through cancer treatment, which inspired this novella drawing heavily on his experiences and emotions.  One of the viewpoint characters is in fact "Jay Lake" although he's not identical with the author.  The story, which doesn't have a traditional plot, involves the reactions to diagnoses of cancer in both an adult and a child and examines the turmoil and sometimes contradictory feelings experienced by the patient in one case, and the parents of the stricken child in the other.  There is some reference to cancer as a kind of entity in itself, but much of it borders on the surreal and although the book is labeled a dark fantasy, it seems to me much more of a mainstream story.  Whatever the category, the feel of the story is genuine and moving and it's one of the more impressive pieces I've read by the author.  4/19/10

Pincher Martin by William Golding, Berkley, 1956 

The title character of this early Golding novel is the only survivor of a torpedoed destroyer who struggles to survive on a rocky islet in the middle of the Atlantic.  During his struggles, and by means of flashbacks, we learn about his personality and discover that he is rather ordinary if a bit materialistic. The author obviously means him to symbolize humanity at large with all its foibles, some exaggerated for effect. Emulating Ambrose Bierce, Golding tells us at the end that this has all been an extended hallucination, that Martin actually died very quickly after the disaster and imagined that he had survived.  The prose is intelligent and impressively smooth but since we don’t really like the protagonist, it lacks some of the appeal of most books about survival.   I’d say this was the weakest of Golding’s early efforts, though still worth reading. The novel has also appeared as The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin. 4/9/10

Free Fall by William Golding, Pocket, 1960 

This early William Golding novel is cast in the form of the memoirs of a successful artist whose childhood was characterized by poverty, conflict, despair, and ugliness, although there were elements of beauty scattered through as well.  Simon is eventually orphaned and watched over by a church deacon.  He falls in love with a girl who is incapable of returning his affection, flirts with communism without understanding it, gets involved in a lovers’ triangle, gets married, joins the army during the second world war, and becomes a prisoner of war, during which period he experiences psychological torture. Ultimately he has to face years of pent up guilt, a theme that recurs in Golding’s later work.  Not exactly uplifting but fascinating reading. 3/20/10

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Picador, 2000  

I hadn’t read any of Michael Chabon’s novels until relatively recently, and plan to catch up in due course.  This one is very different than the last I read, set during World War II.  The title refers to two young men who combine to create a number of comic strip characters, evoking the golden era of comic books and the world in which it happened.  It is also, of course, about Kavalier’s attempts to get his family out of Nazi occupied territory, Clay’s coming of age, and a number of other subjects.  There are elements of fantasy, but that’s really not what the book is about except in the sense that the comic strips are used in a kind of battle against the forces of evil in the world.  The prose is superb and even though there’s not a lot of physical action in the story, or even a particularly strong plot, you probably won’t notice the absence as the author brings his setting and his characters to vivid life.  Of course I should have read this years ago, but better late than never. 2/27/10

Prince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1885  

I recently re-read the better known books by Stevenson and was so impressed that I’ve been picking up his lesser work.  This was his third novel, a romantic adventure set in an imaginary German principality.  Prince Otto goes incognito and discovers that he is considered a wastrel, a cuckold, and a fop.  He returns to his home and decides to mend his ways, but finds a villainous adventurer effectively in control of the company, with Otto’s own wife as his unofficial consort. Otto discovers that a war of aggression is being prepared and demands that it cease, which prompts the conspirators to consider secretly imprisoning him. What might have been a rousing adventure becomes a quieter story of court intrigues, however.  Otto refuses to resist, and a countess with connections to both sides finally intercedes and reveals the doublecrosses and treacheries involved.  Not up to the quality of his better known work, and occasionally bogged down in detail, but not at all bad. 2/11/10

The Atlantis Fragments by D. Sidney-Fryer, Hippocampus, 2009, $25, ISBN 978-0-9824296-5-5

The Outer Gate by Nora May French, Hippocampus, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-9824296-6-2

Collected Poems by H.L. Mencken, Hippocampus, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-9824296-3-1 

I confess that I dipped into these rather unevenly.  Although I have several favorite poets, I have to be in the right mood to read them – and this mood is not a common one.  I tried the Mencken first because his name was obviously familiar to me, and probably also because it’s the slimmest of the three. The humorous ones worked the best for me, even though some of the satires were obviously dated and I wasn’t familiar with some of the references.  These are, I believe, all from very early in Mencken’s career and it’s probably a good thing that they’ve finally been brought together.  I had never heard of French, whose complete poetry is here.  She committed suicide while still quite young. There are extensive notes for this one.  The editors assert that she had much in common with Clark Ashton Smith, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me.  Most of the poems are quite short and several of them were quite pleasant, but I didn’t encounter any that were particularly memorable.  The Sidney-Fryer collection is by far the largest – over five hundred pages – and I actually read a good portion of the book.  I found the shorter poems generally more interesting than the longer ones and the subject matter was of more interest to me.  More devoted fans of verse will undoubtedly have more reason to get excited about these three, all of which are handsomely produced. 1/30/10

King of Paris by Guy Endore, Simon & Schuster, 1956  

This was one of Endore’s two noteworthy novels, the other being The Werewolf of Paris.  This one is a fictionalized biography of Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and other classics.  Since this is fictionalized, I have no idea of Dumas actually led the kind of swashbuckling life portrayed here, although I imagine the basic facts are correct.  That he was an egotist, there is little doubt, although Endore avoids the many charges that he plagiarized or hired people to ghost write his books.  He comes across as a larger than life figure.  The relationship between him and his family is probably the high point of the novel, much more complex than his ordinary interactions.  I was plodding a bit after the half way point because I really didn’t find him to be that interesting a character, but other readers may feel otherwise. 1/24/10

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton, Harper, 2009, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-06-192937-3  

This posthumous novel reminded me at times of Rafael Sabatini.  Charles Hunter is a British privateer who leads a crew on a clandestine mission to disable the guns of a Spanish fortress and steal a treasure ship out of the now unprotected harbor. They run into considerable bad luck, including being captured by the Spanish even before they reach the island, but they escape, complete their mission, avoid being captured by a ship that pursues them, and then survive a hurricane at sea.  On the trip back, they have to rescue a woman from cannibals and fight off a giant squid with a taste for human flesh.  And when they finally get home, they discover a new governor who wants to hang them all as pirates.  Hunter is not a particularly deeply drawn character, and many of those he encounters are less than savory, although a few members of his crew are admirable enough.  I thought a few of the scenes were a bit rushed but overall it was quite a nice adventure story. 1/1/10

 

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