Tuesday, January 24, 2012

North and South concluded

Continuing my thoughts from here...
I finished North and South yesterday, and it doesn't conclude as well as I had hoped.

I think part of the problem is that the structure of the novel is a bit intractable for moving toward a conclusion.  Given how relations between unions and managers played out in real life, there's no realistic way to resolve Thornton's union issues within the relatively short span of the novel (a few years).  So we end up with Thornton's advocating a kind of quasi-socialism (or possibly an enlightened feudalism), in which laborers and capitalists each realize that both sides have things to offer, and that without the hard work of both sides the income stream would dry up.

Against this utopianism, though, Gaskell sets a clear-eyed vision of the present.  Thornton's uprightness leads him into bankruptcy; Frederick's situation is never resolved successfully; in contrast with, say, Dickens, major characters sometimes simply keel over and die, with no dramatic fanfare.

Certainly, I feel this work deserves to better-known.  It may not be as good as the best of Dickens, but I think it is easily as good as the Trollope I've read.

Friday, January 20, 2012

North and South

As an American, it's hard to look at the title of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and not think of the American Civil War.  But the North and South of her title refer respectively to England's North (with its mill towns) and South (London and its environs).

In addition, the title tells us that this novel is a study in contrasts and in the conflicts that stem from them.  So we get an opposition of
  • town and country
  • unions and manufacturers
  • nobility and nouveau riche
  • rich and poor (different from the above)
  • violence and civil disobedience
Gaskell sets up characters who exemplify their different classes, with their legitimate grievances, and then lets us watch them in action.  I don't mean that her characters are simple cardboard cut-outs representing workers or manufacturers, but, rather, that she gives makes them all people acting with good motives.  So she has, in Thornton, a principled capitalist who believes that if he pays his workers too much, he will be undercut by his competitors; in many ways, he reminds me of a modern libertarian.  She has, in Higgins, a union man who believes that, if men are not coerced to join the union, it will lose all its strength.

I'm not done with the novel yet, but it will be interesting to see how (if) she resolves the various conflicts that she's set up.

One side note: I think it's an unfortunate sign of Austen-mania that a lot of the reviews on amazon say something like "this is Pride and Prejudice with social awareness" or "like Jane Austen with a conscience."  Really, I think Gaskell has no more in common with Austen than does, say George Elliot.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shadow of the Torturer, Cool Breeze on the Underground

I've read Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer more than once, and, in addition, there's a huge lit-crit crowd that has discussed it to hell and gone.  So, this is just a few things that struck me this time around...

  • Severian actually foreshadows the end of the tetralogy more than I remembered, telling you that he's writing a memoir of his ascension to the throne as early as the end of chapter 1.
  • I think that the writing is not as high-flown as it's made out to be by other readers.  Most of the odd words are used to describe things that would be filled in by made-up words anyway.  (Mostly odd creatures or alien races).  The few exceptions (armiger, exultant, optimate) are fairly easy to work out from context.
  • Although obviously intelligent, Severian doesn't question very much of what happens.  (Prime example, where did Dorcas come from?)  Of course, this gives Wolfe an opportunity to tease us with puzzles, but I think it's also an important part of Severian's character.  Is Wolfe trying to say that Severian's time in the guild has made him less questioning, more obedient to authority? 
    • Maybe it shows that Severian is ultimately very practical -- he can't know where Dorcas came from, so he doesn't spend time worrying about it at the moment.  I don't really buy this, though, because he shows himself to be introspective.
I think further thoughts will have to wait until I've re-read more of the tetralogy.

Don Winslow's Cool Breeze on the Underground is obviously an early work.  It doesn't have the same relentless energy that characterizes The Winter of Frankie Machine.  Here, there are places which get bogged down in the backstory or the technical details of detective work.  But even at this early stage, Winslow has a great breezy style that carries you through the dull moments; I'm looking forward to reading more of Neal Carey's adventures.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wrong Kind of Blood

There are a lot of good things to say about Declan Hughes's The Wrong Kind of Blood.  Ed Loy, the PI protagonist, is an appealing but flawed narrator; the Dublin setting is nicely realized; the denouement is effective.  Not only that, but Hughes has added symbolic weight to the "wrong kind of blood" in the story, showing a nice literary awareness.  In this book, the wrong kind of blood can refer to class differences, physical incompatibilities, the blood-typing of a paternity test, and more.

But it just didn't work for me.  Part of the problem is the heavy over-loading of coincidence that Hughes needs for his story to work.  In order to tie two generations of crimes together, a body of a man killed 20 years ago must be discovered at the same time as the case Ed Loy is investigate, even though there's no other connection between the discovery of the body and the disappearance.  Three days earlier or later on the body, and there's no novel.  That's just one coincidence of many in the novel, but the whole book hinges on it, and it was a real problem for me.

In general, the problem the book has is that there are something like 5 barely connected cases going on, and there's some real reaching to get Ed Loy involved in all of them, especially since he's not a professional cop.  (I think that this is the advantage stories with professional police officers have -- you can conceive of a bunch of unconnected cases crossing one guy's docket).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Past Caring

Robert Goddard's Past Caring is a bit hard to categorize.  It's a suspense novel without much suspense.  It's a literary novel with too much of the deadwood that goes with suspense novels.  It's a historical novel with huge stretches set in the present.

Throwing out all the categories, Past Caring is a mostly absorbing read that managed to keep me interested in the life & times of one of the protagonists, a former cabinet minister in England in 1908, a period I have no particular affinity for.  It's a pretty leisurely, slow-paced novel until the climax, when one paragraph suddenly made me feel like I was dropped off a cliff.

Goddard writes well about flawed people trying to overcome their pasts, and I liked that aspect of this novel.  Although Goddard drops the ball a bit, in that Martin talks about an expiation that he never quite makes.  But I think that's a minor structural flaw; probably the biggest problem I had with the book was a tendency to tell the same story from 3 different viewpoints.  Although the differences between accounts are important, I kept wanting the characters to get on with it already; it felt like a lot of padding in an already long book.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bayou Trilogy

Over the weekend, I read Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy.

It felt like Woodrell was aiming higher than just writing a set of crime novels, particularly in the third novel, but they didn't do anything for me.