Tuesday, August 30, 2011

36 Yalta Boulevard, Beat the Reaper

Olen Steinhauer's 36 Yalta Boulevard is the third book in his series chronicling an unnamed Soviet buffer state.  Each one is set almost a decade later than the one before; in this way, Steinhauer will bring us close to the present in the fifth book.

The first two books were murder mysteries tinged with the politics of living in a statist regime, but this one is a flat-out espionage novel taking place in 1967.  The protagonist is Brano Sev, who was a state security officer in the earlier novels.  As the security officer watching over the men in his office, Sev was not a sympathetic character, and Steinhauer makes the bold decision not to make Sev more appealing, even as he stars in his own book.  Instead, we see Sev as a believer in the promise of socialism, even as he knows about the awful things done in its name.  He has been alienated from his family since driving his father out of the country 20 years ago.

The plot is as slow and byzantine as anything from the pen of John LeCarre, but it's better than anything LeCarre's written in the last 15 years.   Steinhauer deals in the same moral ambiguities, the same questions about ends and means, but manages the further trick of writing it from the perspective of the "wrong" side.

Beat the Reaper, by contrast, is a breezy, showy novel, with no real depth at all.  Maybe the contrast with 36 Yalta Boulevard made me more willing to go with it than I might otherwise, but whatever the reason, I loved this book.  Author Josh Bazell has a very funny authorial voice with an edge to it.  The climax is a real show-stopper, and it'll be interesting to see how Bazell tops it in his next book, or if he even tries.  It's probably the most over-the-top macho thing I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones, sixth installment of The Dance to the Music of Times takes its name from the polite name the Greeks gave to the Furies.  Although not strictly accurately, they here represent War, and Powell book-ends the novel with the beginnings of WWI and WWII.

We start with Nick Jenkins as a boy, during the time immediately before the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand.  War permeates the atmosphere of this section, even if it's not much openly discussed.  Powell has General Conyers visit, Nick's Uncle Giles (a former soldier) makes an appearance, and so on.  At the beginning of the novel, there's a humorous bit where Albert the butler is closing up the house in case "they" make a raid, but it turns out that "they" in this case are the suffragettes.  This section ends with the assassination of the Arch-Duke, and Nick gives us a list of acquaintances who will die during the War.

We then jump forward to just before WWII, where the next two sections take place.  War is again in the atmosphere, and again, not necessarily directly.  The interesting thing about these books has always been how Powell gives us a view of every-day life in which people aren't always particularly affected by the great goings-on in the world around them.  However, we can see the build-up in side references to Magnus Donner's planning to make a fortune off armaments, as well as constant references to Munich.

In the last section, war has actually broken out.  I think that the first section works as a sort of "past as prologue."  Just as Nick ended the first part with a list of those who would get hurt by WWI, I think we're supposed to imagine a list like that coming for WWII, which will actually be covered in later volumes.  To relieve the general grimness, Widmerpool is here at his most humorous, a touch I certainly appreciated.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Iliad, end of book 22

Hector's duel with Achilles happens at the end of Book 22.  Hector's sudden realization that he's alone outside the walls is particularly dramatic, I thought.  Priam's mourning speech is also very dramatic.  Part of that is the flexibility of the Greek sentence; Homer has enjambed many of the lines in Priam's speech, putting words like Hector and Peleus in the front of the line.

It's notable that when Andromache, Hector's wife, sees his dead body, night covers her eyes -- this is the same wording as when warriors die in battle.  The parallel is further driven home by her soul leaving her body.  Of course, this is poetic language to say that she fainted, but I think it also marks a link between herself and Hector.  Her lament at the very end of the book is very moving.  People often talk about how brutal the Iliad is, but passages like this show its more tender side, and show Homer to be an incredibly versatile poet.

On to book 23...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Agents of Light and Darkness, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

Not much to say about Agents of Light and Darkness.  It was short but fun; Green is good at juggling a humorous tone with some darker undertones.

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant is the fifth book in A Dance to the Music of Time.  Although you can read the whole work as one massive volume, this novel shows that Powell paid close attention to the structure of each individual book.  The novel opens with Jenkins reminiscing about the titular restaurant, reflecting that there's now a crater where the restaurant used to be.  The crater is the result of bomb dropped during the Blitz, and is a sign that events leading up to WWII are going to become more prominent now.  Indeed, this is the first novel where the outside world really intrudes, however lightly.  One character goes off to help out in the Spanish Civil War, there's more talk about the Nazis, and so on.

Casanova's also underpins the structure by book-ending the novel.  We're introduced to a couple of major figures in this novel at a meal there near the beginning, and there's a reflection back to that meal near the end.  In addition, the restaurant serves as a bit of pivot point between past and present.  We have Jenkins's current present, in which the restaurant is now a crater.  We have the "present" that most of the novel is set in.  But we also have a past before that, in which Deacon (who passed in away in vol. 2, if I recall correctly) shares a meal with Jenkins and others at the restaurant.

There are also a few pairings which undergird the structure of the novel.  Most obvious are the two musicians, Morland and McClintock.  But we also have two miscarriages at the start of the novel, linking Morland's and Jenkins's marriages.  McQuiggen and Members are still paired, as in previous volumes.

The one complaint I have is that there's a huge hole in the novel where Isabelle should be.  Powell tries to get around this by having Nick tell us that no-one can write objectively about his own marriage, but that feels sloppy to me.  Nobody can really write objectively about any marriage (as Nick also tells us), but other peoples' marriages fill the pages of these books.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Three Men in a Boat, At Lady Molly's

Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat is one of the classics of British humor.  So it was odd to me how much the humor resembled Mark Twain's.  Twain once wrote an essay about American humor vs British humor, in which he says that British humor is about the witty line, while American humor tends to be more about the anecdote, where there aren't really any funny lines, per se, but the whole story just sort of adds up to being funny.  Not only that, but a summary makes the story not even seem funny at all (he then goes on to use "The Jumping Frog" as an example)  Three Men in a Boat is very much in that vein of humor.  It's very funny, but you have to take several paragraphs at a time.

I can't imagine a humorist more different to Wodehouse, for that matter.  Wodehouse is all about the funny line and the tight plot.  Jerome wanders all over the place -- one could easily take any 5 pages from the book and not know whether they're from the beginning, the middle, or the end.  But, for all that, it's a very funny book, and I'm glad I got around the reading it.

I'm almost done with At Lady Molly's, the fourth book in A Dance to the Music of Time.  Jenkins gets engaged, and, characteristically doesn't write about it at all (literally -- he meets his fiancee-to-be, then picks up again months later when they're already engaged).  In general, he's much more interested in telling us about what happens to others than to himself.  (I am, of course, aware that Jenkins =/= Powell).  The series is an odd one for me.  It's pretty much exactly the sort of fiction I tend to avoid; nothing happens, and the little that does happen occurs off-screen.  The series is essentially an endless round of dinner-party conversations.  And yet...  Powell is an incredibly gifted writer.  It's a pleasure to read (or listen to) his sentences.  His characters are great, and even the conversations are enjoyable to read.

Striking Back, Raw Shark Texts, White Night

From simplest to more complex...

Mark Nykanen's Striking Back is a pretty straightforward thriller/mystery.  Nykanen does a good job keeping you guessing at the identity of the killer, and his heroine's backstory is well-handled.  On the other hand, there's nothing really outstanding about it either.

White Night is the ninth Harry Dresden novel.  For a change, Butcher closes off more story lines than he opens.  I thought his handling of the Lashiel story-line was surprisingly good.  In retrospect, it should've been obvious what was coming; she's a character that's hard to work with.  She's immensely powerful, but is trying to corrupt Dresden at every turn.  The problem is that he's resisted her for so long, one begins to suspect that she's not actually very good at corrupting him.

Still, it was nice to see Butcher rounding out her character; he does the same with "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone, who had disappeared for a while.  Butcher's writing has improved in the meantime, and Marcone shows more humanity in his few scenes than in the earlier books in which he's a major player.

Highest on the complexity scale this time around is definitely Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts, one of those complex, game-playing post-modern novels, in the same vein as Danielewski's House of Leaves.  I liked this one more than many such books, because there's an emotional core to the novel; it's not just an endless round of navel-gazing.  Although one can spend time trying to puzzle out the negatives in the novel, or the relationship between Clio and Scout, at its heart this is a novel about the painful loss of a loved one, and the after-effects of a tragic accident.

I notice that opinion on-line is very divided about the meaning of the novel -- is our protagonist dead, insane, or something else?  I tend to go with the something else, because (a) I hate stories like "Ocurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and (b) the postcard at the end seems to say that Eric ended up OK.

For (a), it's not so much that I hated the original "Ocurrence," but, to the extent it succeeds, it works because it's less than 10 pages long.  I find the conceit too light to bear a whole novel (or movie, which is why I hated Jacob's Ladder).  If the whole damn plot is supposed to be a dream, why should I care about any of it?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Music of Razors

Cameron Rogers' Music of Razors is an interesting first novel.  The writing in any individual section is great, and his central concepts are interesting, like an angel who God punishes by removing any recollection of his existence from creation.

Unfortunately, I didn't think the whole thing held up so well.  The ending is confusing, partly because it felt like Rogers piled up too many concepts, and in the end he just couldn't balance them all out successfully.  I'd read his next book, though -- this one showed a lot of promise.