Wednesday, January 28, 2009

House of the Seven Gables, Herodotus

When I was in high school, in common with probably 90% of high schoolers in this country, we read Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. I hated it then, but lately I've been thinking that maybe I misjudged it -- maybe high school was just too young for Hawthorne. So when audible started offering a hugely discounted edition of The House of the Seven Gables with a wonderful reader, it seemed like a great chance to give Hawthorne another shot.

Unfortunately, I'm still not a Hawthorne fan. On a scene-by-scene basis, Seven Gables is fantastic, and the narrator did the scenes full justice. But the whole hangs together very badly -- as wonderful as the individual scenes are, the actual story is not told in any of them; instead, all the important narrative happens off-stage. We know that there's some bad blood between Cliford and Judge Pyncheon -- but the actual cause is thrown away in an aside at the end. Cliford and Hepzibah flee the scene of the crime, making themselves look guilty -- and then turn around and come back before anyone notices (and even that decision is made off-stage). And so on -- every time there's a dramatic moment to be had, Hawthorne can't let us see it; instead, we hear about it later, usually in some off-hand comment.

I've also begun reading The Landmark Herodotus, a very nice edition of the Histories, full of maps, which are so useful in understanding the flow of events, as well as 22 (!) appendices to round out the narrative. I'm finding it fascinating reading, but I've got a long slog ahead of me. I'll have to write more as I get through more of the book.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Heartwood, A Pinch of Stuff, Skin and Bones, Six Bad Things

I was in CA this weekend for a wonderful bar mitzvah. Travelling's great, because you get to see new places, meet great people, and, of course, the plane is a great time to read :-).

On the way down, I read A Pinch of Snuff by Reginald Hill and Skin and Bones by Paul Levine. Well, I say I read them, but I could only get through about 80 pages of the latter (I confess, I left the book in the airport). It was just very underwhelming -- not funny (though it tried), not suspenseful (though it tried), and not engaging.

Pinch of Snuff, though, was a different story. Hill writes mysteries the way that only the British authors seem to pull off -- that dry satirical inflection to everything, shining a spotlight on everyone's foibles, in a very aloof way (reminds me of P.D. James). It also seems that Hill decided that he made Dalziel, the older, more conservative policeman, too sympathetic in the previous book in the series (this one is the fourth), and pushed him back into being boorish and as often wrong as right. He makes a great foil for Pascoe, which is why he's there, of course, but in this novel they're more evenly matched than before. All in all, very enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

On the way back, I finished Heartwood, the second book about Billy Bob Holland by James Lee Burke. The polar opposite of the aloof Reginald Hill, Burke wants to get you up close to each of his characters. Even though this is marketed as a mystery novel, it isn't really -- Burke is more interested in showing how the divides of wealth and poverty can drive the people in a town to desperation. In the end, the novel unfolds with all the seeming inevitability (and body count) of an Elizabethan tragedy.

Lastly, I read Six Bad Things, Charlie Huston's follow-up to Caught Stealing, which I wrote about here. I loved Six Bad Things, but for pretty much all the reasons that I loved Caught Stealing. Huston doesn't break any new ground with this novel, but he does the same-old-same-old so well that I know I'll be reading the final book in the trilogy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Byatt's "Little Black Book of Stories"

A. S. Byatt has published a few small collections of short stories, and I've quite enjoyed them. In general, she's much freer in these stories, sometimes writing realistic fiction, sometimes venturing into the realms of fairy tale or horror. This collection was also a wonderful mix, although harder to read than her others.

I don't have the energy right now to talk about the stories individually (maybe I'll come back to that at some future date), but as a whole they were disquieting. Each one seemed to leave a lot unsaid, and to hinge on small details. For instance, there's a story about a man whose wife is senile, and her ghost comes to him and asks him to euthanize her. At some point, the ghost mentions that she hates pink, and we remember that at the beginning of the story, he had put a pink ribbon on her. Does this suggest that he's taking some sort of small revenge on his wife now? For what?

Each story in the book feels like it suggests these sorts of questions about events outside of the frame of the story itself. There's a story about two girls who return to a place where they saw a monster in their childhood. One ventures back to see the monster again (and die, it's implied), the other returns home. But Byatt never tells us why each one made this decision. Normally, that would drive me crazy, but I felt that the explanation is in the story, but I just missed it, and if I were to re-read it, I'd see it. All of the stories had that same feeling, that there's much more going on than meets the eye.

Monday, January 5, 2009


I read Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy a while back, and was very impressed. And I bought a couple of other of her books, but I never got around to reading them, I think because I somehow felt like they'd be a rehash -- by the end, it felt like she'd mined the particular vein she was working dry.

It turns out I was only half-right. Deception is written in such a different voice from Garnethill that there's no worries about repetition. The main character, Lachlan Harriott comes across as vain, arrogant, but at the same time downtrodden -- very much the opposite of Maureen, the heroine of Garnethill, who was a much more empathetic character. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, even if Lachlan himself is an insufferable prick.

But what to make of the frame story? The very end of the main story suddenly veers off into wild coincidence, and then Mina implies that possibly none of this happened -- Lachlan is a completely unreliable narrator. Did she feel that the story was weak, but it needed some sort of closure? The ending is clearly weak, and maybe the framing story is there to make up for that.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Third Policeman, The Hungry Mouth, The Hard Life, The Dalkey Archive

I read the other four Flann O'Brien novels (see my posting on At Swim-two-birds). The Third Policeman is his other well-known surreal novel (well-known now, at any rate -- it was unplublished during the author's lifetime). The novel is a reworking of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." For whatever reason, I twigged to that about halfway through the story, and it seemed to lose a lot of steam at that point.

The problem is that it feels like the author didn't really have a larger structure in mind -- the thing is just a mass of silly surreal events, one after another, without any sort of direction, making it hard to care about the jokes. Swim-two-birds has all the "autobiographical" sections to anchor you, which is why I think it works better. On the other hand, I'm still not sure what all the de Selby footnotes in Policeman were for -- it could be that they have a deeper purpose, and I may end up revising my opinion of Policeman as I think on it.

The Hungry Mouth is a very short parody of Gaelic literature during the Gaelic revival. Very funny, and I'm glad I read it, but there's not much more to say than that. I think it helps to have some familiarity with the tropes he's parodying, but I think some of it is just familiar ground for any oppressed people (some of it rang true to me from Jewish literature)

There's not much to say about the last two novels. The Hard Life is pretty naturalistic, and show's O'Brien's short-comings more than the others -- he's definitely more of a concept writer. This novel has too much bantering about religious topics that have no interest to the general reader (I imagine -- certainly very little to me). The Dalkey Archive revisits some ground from The Third Policeman, but without the heights of lunacy attained by the earlier work. Some bits are lifted verbatim from Policeman, and it's not an uninteresting novel, but it's definitely a step down from that novel.