Last Update 12/18/11

Phineas by John Knowles, Bantam, 1968

Spreading Fires by John Knowles, Ballantine, 1974 

The first of these is a thin little collection of stories by the author of A Separate Peace.  The opening story returns to the imaginary boys’ school of his first novel and provides an interesting character study of a boy who doesn’t quite fit in, but Knowles apparently had no idea where to go from there because he kills him in an accident at the end.  The second story involves a younger boy who feels displaced by the imminent arrival of a baby in the family. Although it’s quite well done and touching, once again Knowles fails to come up with a satisfying ending.  There’s a window peeper loose in the third story, which starts off quite well with the vigilante group falling over itself, but then loses focus and wanders off. The fourth is a pointless vignette and the title story was apparently the first pass at A Separate Peace. The final story is otherwise the strongest, about a mysterious letter left by a family patriarch, but it too falters at the end.  A pretty weak book by any standards. The second title is a single novella, and it is frankly awful, and bears considerable similarities to Morning in Antibes.  Set on the French Riviera it involves love and lust gone wrong, an oddball cook from Canada, and various complications, none of which are even remotely interesting. 12/18/11

Indian Summer by John Knowles, Bantam, 1966 

Cleet, one quarter Native American, is back from the war in the Pacific and trying to find a civilian life for himself, as a pilot if possible. He finds a simple job and enjoys himself immensely until his best friend, whom he hasn’t spoken to in four years, appears and offers him a job as his personal assistant. Cleet reluctantly accepts, knowing that he would be happier staying where he is. The friend, Neil, has recently married and his wife, Georgia, is pregnant. As in The Paragon and A Separate Peace the novel explores the relationships between two young men, one of whom is organized and ambitious, the other confused if not outright scatterbrained.  The first third of the novel is quite good but then it starts to lose its way among the intricacies of Neil Reardon’s family and friends. The focus on Cleet slips away to examine far less interesting people. Cleet thinks Neil is something of a phony, and Neil finds Cleet tiresome and narrow, although he begins to feel envy for his friend’s simple satisfactions. Predictably there evolves an uncomfortable relationship with the new wife as well. 12/13/11

The Paragon by John Knowles, Bantam, 1971 

Although there are some good scenes in this novel of life at Yale, they are scattered, disconnected, and fail to combine into a pleasant whole. The chief protagonist is a brilliant but unorthodox student whose tempestuous relationship with his snobbish roommate is the basis for most of the humor in the first half of the novel, although the humor is so tentative and erratic that it’s not always obvious when we are supposed to be amused. Knowles also makes the mistake of thinking he understands science when he doesn’t. The student is working on a perpetual motion machine, which would have been ludicrous in itself, but a brilliant student would have at least understood what a perpetual motion machine is. His concept is fueled by an external source, which means it isn’t perpetual motion at all. The story struggles along as our hero tries to make sense of his life, but he ultimately doesn’t, and neither we readers are left just as much in the dark.  12/7/11

The Doll by Daphne Du Maurier, CD Publications, 2011, $25, ISBN 978-1=58767-273-6 

Daphne Du Maurier is best known for her short story, “The Birds”, and her novel, Rebecca – although I’ve always preferred Jamaica Inn. This is a collection of early short stories which have been unavailable for many years. Although not supernatural, they generally have a very dark side. The opening story involves murder in a jealous rage and the title story tells of a man obsessed with a woman who is in turn obsessed with a hideous looking caricature of a person. This one is really twisted even though everything is by implication. Two character studies follow. One involves a charming but mercenary vicar and is quite good, the other a tense relationship between man and wife, not nearly as interesting. Then there’s a mildly humorous piece about two lovers who can’t quite get things right. The next few stories are slight, although they have some wry comments to make about love and how people interact. “The Happy Valley” is in the same pattern but is somewhat more interesting. There are now lost classics here, but the stories range from okay to very good and that’s more than you can expect from most new collections. 11/28/11

Morning in Antibes by John Knowles, Dell, 1960

There are hints of the author of A Separate Peace in this second novel, but just barely. The story involves a man in the process of divorcing his unfaithful wife who follows him to southern France where he is involved with a number of other dissolute characters, against a backdrop of the Algerian rebellion.  Nothing much happens and everyone wanders around being corrupt, self indulgent, and boring.  If the author had anything to say in this one, he never got around to doing it, or did it so obscurely that his intent is well hidden.  Watching a lot of uninteresting people do uninteresting things is neither art nor entertainment. 11/25/11

A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Bantam, 1966 (originally published in 1959)  

A classic anti-war novel which I read in college and loved and had almost completely forgotten, although parts of it were familiar as I read it again.  The story is about the relationship between two boys at a private school in New Hampshire in 1944, as they live in the shadow of the world war. Gene is academically gifted, Finny athletic, and they are the best of friends, though not always. Gene begins to suspect that Finny is sabotaging his studies because of jealousy and on an impulse precipitates an accident which cripples his friend. He is consumed by guilt and confesses, but it is not certain that Finny actually believes him and the friendship becomes, if anything, even stronger in the days that follow. The lie at the core of their relationship is eventually the cause of another tragedy.  Beautifully written and with a cast of wonderfully realized characters. I shouldn’t have waited to long to reread this one. 11/16/11

A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood, Lancer, 1967

This short novel starts with the correspondence between two brothers, one of whom has converted to Hinduism and announces his plans to become a monk while the other works in publishing but has recently ventured into the world of film making. Although ostensibly on good terms, we see through other documents that they mistrust each other. The married brother has also recently discovered that he is gay, a fact he has concealed from his wife and children. We quickly discover that the older, more conventional brother is an egotistic, self deluded monster who interprets everything as indicating he must save his younger brother from the trap into which he has fallen. But both are changed by the encounter.  A very fine novel. 11/4/11

The World in the Evening by Christopher Isherwood, Ballantine, 1972 (originally published in 1952) 

Isherwood’s prose is a joy to read and this comparatively long novel is no exception. The protagonist is a rich middle aged man who discovers that his second wife is cheating on him. Without a word he retreats to the home of his honorary “aunt” Sarah, a Quaker, in the midst of a mental crisis that almost gets him killed.  He is still in some sense in love with Jane, wife number two, although in lust is probably closer to the truth, and he has never gotten over wife number one, Elizabeth, a famous writer who died a few years earlier. He is in fact editing her letters for eventual publication and through them discovering a good deal about himself, particularly since he is confined to a bed with a broken hip for three months.  While there he interacts with a refugee from Nazi Germany, Gerda, who acts as his nurse and disturbs his vision of Elizabeth, and with his doctor and the doctor’s gay lover.  The political arguments about gay rights – in the 1950s they could have been imprisoned – is interesting compared to current events. 10/30/11

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, New Directions 

This consists of two short novels, of which I’d already read The Last of Mr. Norris.  The second is Goodbye to Berlin, which is largely autobiographical and deals with Isherwood’s stay there during the rise of the Nazis to power.  The best and most famous sequence involves his friendship with a young English girl who claims to want to be an actress but who really just drifts from one bad situation to the next.  The complex and unconventional relationships among the characters provide, as usual with Isherwood, much of the entertainment although I didn’t enjoy the Sally Bowles story nearly as much as the saga of Mr. Norris. 10/25/11

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, Lancer, 1964 

Isherwood was gay and this was arguably his best novel told from that viewpoint. His protagonist – an ageing college professor – has just lost his long time lover and is having trouble adjusting to the change. Although he is generally accepted in his community, he distrusts everyone because of the way gays are treated in general – remember this was the 1960s.   Although technically not much happens in the novel, which takes place within about 24 hours, we are provided with considerable insight into the character and the prose is so beautifully written that it carries one along even without a strong plot. 10/10/11

Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood, Ballantine, 1967 (originally published 1945) 

I was not a particular fan of this novella when I first read it and didn’t find any reason to change my opinion this time around. Isherwood is himself the central character/narrator in this fictional account of how he gets involved in attempting to rewrite a movie script to make a disaster into a success. Most of it consists of conversations between himself and the refugee director who spends a lot of time talking about the horrors of the Nazi regime and what it promises for the future of Europe – which Isherwood obviously knew already since it was written after the war – and despite a few effective sections it goes on too long. 9/22/11

The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood, Avon, 1945 (originally published 1935) 

I read several of Isherwood’s novels back in the 1970s and recently decided to revisit them. This was his third and his first noteworthy one.  The narrator meets Mr. Arthur Norris on a train bringing them both to Berlin. Norris is a charming but quirky con man whose many obvious failings don’t seem to bother his new friend. The story is essentially a chronicle of their relationship and Norris’ erratic financial situation. It’s a bit hard to believe that there wouldn’t have been a confrontation with the facts earlier, but otherwise the story is charming and Norris is one of the most well realized cads in literature. 9/17/11

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, Airmont, 1895 

Thomas Hardy’s last novel. It was so controversial that he turned to poetry for the rest of his life even though it’s tame by contemporary standards. It was publicly burned for its criticisms of Christianity, among other things. It’s also very depressing. Jude is a would-be scholar whose first love deserts him. Then he lives with his cousin, who left her husband, and they are ostracized and persecuted for years. Then Jude’s son by his first marriage murders the two children from his new relationship, apparently because of some form of mental illness. The boy then commits suicide.  They split up, she goes back to her former husband and is miserable, Jude goes back to his former wife and is miserable and finally kills himself. It takes a good writer to keep me interested through this series of tragedies and Hardy is one of the few who was up to the task. 5/26/11

The Well Beloved by Thomas Hardy, 1892 

This is a relatively minor book and Hardy wrote only one afterward. It has a sculptor hero who searches for the ideal woman. It takes place at intervals of twenty years, covering the man’s entire life. I found the coincidences and motivations in this one too much to swallow. He falls in love with one woman, then her daughter, and then her granddaughter. There are references to Aphrodite, a statue of whom he is sculpting, and a few amusing double entendres.  By current standards this one seems much ado about nothing but the late Victorians found these issues much more fascinating. I confess that it was a struggle for me to finish this one.  For Hardy enthusiasts, but few others. 5/1/11

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, 1891 

Getting near the end of Thomas Hardy with this one. My sharpest memory of this was the almost ludicrous sleepwalking scene, unfortunately, although it is otherwise one of his best novels.  A poor man learns that he may be related to nobility and his daughter, the heroine of the piece, has various adventures including being raped by a young member of the official family – although in fact they bought the title and have no blood relationship. Some time lady she seeks a new life for herself. She eventually marries but doesn’t tell herself about the incident from her past. Eventually she kills the man who raped her but is arrested and executed for the murder.  This one’s definitely a downer, although it probably has the most complex plot of all of Hardy’s novels.  He only had one major book after this and that one was even more controversial, so much so that Hardy stopped writing prose from that point on. 4/23/11

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, St Martins, 1887 

Another of Hardy’s novels about dysfunctional marriages.  The protagonist is induced by her father to marry a doctor instead of her childhood sweetheart, but the doctor is a philanderer and treats her badly before finally abandoning her.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t divorce her and the law at the time would not allow her to initiate proceedings. With Hardy’s usual penchant for tragedy, she seeks assistance from the man she really loves as a consequence of which he inadvertently dies.  Reportedly this was Hardy’s favorite of his works and while certainly readable, it is definitely not one to leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling.  The criticism of divorce and property rights at the time the novel was written is particularly bitter and literally no one in the story has a happy life.  I’d place it among his better novels, but not his best. 3/23/11

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, Washington Square, 1886  

Back in the 1960s when I first read Hardy, I thought this was far and away his best book, and returning to them after almost half a century, I find my early opinion confirmed.  The story opens with a young man succumbing to a drunken depression and half jokingly auctioning his wife and child to a sailor.  The woman believes the contract is binding and the man, Michael Henchard, cannot find her when he sobers up the following morning.  Distraught, he swears off drink.  Almost twenty years later, the wife and now grown daughter return following the death of the sailor to find that Michael has become mayor of Casterbridge and a wealthy merchant. He welcomes them back but because of propriety and the fact that the daughter has never been told the truth, he and his wife pretend to have just met and set about a courtship to legitimize publicly what is already true legally.  There are complications, of course.  Michael is peripherally involved with another woman, and the arrival of a young man in town has piqued the interest of daughter Elizabeth. More surprise revelations and complications ensue as Henchard makes one bad decision after another, eventually dying penniless and shamed.  Not a lively story to brighten your day but still Hardy’s most impressive work. 3/6/11

Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy, Harper, 1888 

This is a collection of five short stories set in the fictional Wessex that Hardy created for his fiction. All involve themes similar to those in the novels, romances, interactions among different classes, traditionalism vs progress.  They are all well constructed but at times a bit slow paced for short fiction.  The best are “The Three Strangers”, a clever bit about mistaken identities, and “The Distracted Preacher.”  Not as memorable as the novels though. 2/9/11

Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy, Penguin, 1882  

I believe this was Hardy’s shortest novel, and also one of the most accessible for modern readers.  Lady Constantine leads a cloistered life while her husband is away for years hunting in Africa.  She meets and falls in love with a young man obsessed with astronomy, a love that would be doomed except that it turns out that her husband died of malaria, and left her nearly destitute, which removes any income disparity that might have made their relationship improper. The astronomer is not immediately aware of his companion’s feelings and doesn’t quite know how to react when he realizes the truth. The romance blossoms but, as is often the case in Hardy novels, it was never meant to be.  The first half of this is very good but I thought the story wandered too far astray after that. 2/5/11

A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy, Penguin, 1881 

One of Hardy’s lesser known novels, and understandably so. A woman hires two architects to renovate a castle, but the men have radically different ideas.  One is a traditionalist and one wants to use modern methods.  Hardy was himself an architect before becoming a successful novelist. The woman is also involved in two romantic situations and is unduly influenced by the machinations of a third party. There’s a catastrophic fire near the climax and, for a change, Hardy chose a relatively upbeat ending.  Although more modern in plot structure, Hardy’s prose seems to me more ponderous than usual and his story considerably less interesting than that of most of his other novels.  I confess I read this one in fits and starts. 1/29/11

The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy, St Martins, 1880  

This is another of Hardy’s lesser known novels and undeservedly so.  Like most of his others, it involves a young woman having to deal with multiple suitors, but otherwise it’s atypical of his work.  For one thing, it’s an historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars and features the military preparations to repel a cross-Channel invasion.  For another, it’s quite funny, sprinkled with wry characters and situations.  I particularly enjoyed the section dealing with efforts to train recruits without any equipment.  The false alarm scene is quite realistic and in general I thought the characters were much better drawn than in his earlier novels.  Why don’t high schools read this one instead of the heavier going Return of the Native? 1/24/11

Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures by Robert E. Howard, Del Rey, 2011, $18, ISBN 978-0-345-50546-0

A couple of years ago I re-read most of Howard’s non-fantasy stories, most of which are now collected in this large collection.  Most of them are set in Europe and the Mideast, what was then called the Orient, and involve incidents during the Crusades and other eras of history.  Some of the stories are fairly minor, but there are some genuine classics here as well including “Hawks Over Egypt,” “The Road of Azrael,” “Hawks of Outremer,” and “Red Blades of Black Cathay.”  Although Howard sometimes reworked themes, his powerful imagination and excellent story telling skills make each of them a separate treat.  This selection also includes story fragments and alternate versions.   An excellent return for your money. 1/14/11

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Airmont, 1878 

I read this back in high school because it was required and at the time I liked it enough that I read two other Hardy novels at the time, but re-reading it now, I’m surprised at my reaction back then.  The novel is interminably talky and involves two failed marriages and the various interplays among the characters, all sort of drawn together by Diggory Venn, an itinerant worker who seems much more mature than any of the others.  There’s infidelity, an accidental death, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, flawed moralities, ambition, sudden luck both good and bad, and a major tragedy at the end.  The final chapter which ameliorates some of the tragic elements was apparently added at the urging of Hardy’s publisher despite his preference for the darker mood, obvious in much of his other work.  This strikes me now as a very odd choice for a high school assignment – there are other Hardy novels much more accessible and relevant. 1/1/11