Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Green Ripper (Travis McGee #18)The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"While in the big bed in the master stateroom her narrowed eyes glinted in faint reflected light, my hands found the well-known slopes and lifts and hollows of her warmth and agility. [...] With neither of us knowing or guessing that it was the very last night. With neither of us able to endure that knowledge had we been told."

The Green Ripper (1979) is the eighteenth novel in John D. MacDonald's renowned series featuring Travis McGee. I had read several installments about 30 years ago and quite liked them as competently written thrillers that offered two or three hours of mindless entertainment. I was curious what my reaction will be now that I have grown up a bit. Well, this McGee novel surprised me a little in the beginning with higher than expected quality of prose but in the end it confirmed the classification of just a readable yet unremarkable thriller.

Travis McGee is a "salvage consultant" and part-time beach bum living on his 52-foot houseboat The Busted Flush in a Fort Lauderdale marina. His current girlfriend, Gretel, works in a health club where she witnesses a meeting between the club owner and a sinister guy she once knew. The man was connected with a mysterious religious cult in California: her ex-husband's sister had joined the cult and has not been heard from since. Gretel suspects that there is something quite wrong with the health club business. And unfortunately she is right: not only does one of the club owners die in an unexplained accident but also she herself succumbs to a sudden, grave illness. I really like the beginning of the story that provides the setup: well written, serious, and moving - it reads almost as "real" literature.

But then Mr. MacDonald remembers he is writing a thriller and he delivers. A completely implausible, ridiculous plot that involves the Church of the Apocrypha based near Ukiah in California. McGee infiltrates the cult under the guise of looking for Gretel's ex-sister-in-law. The connections reach even as far as the U.S. government. Without giving any spoilers I will just say that the second half of the novel offers a really thrilling ride of events, totally preposterous of course, yet engrossing.

An OK, readable thriller that makes me want to try a few other installments in the McGee series. One can't survive on a very-high-quality diet of Nabokov, Coetzee, or White alone.

Two and three quarter stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speak, MemorySpeak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for [...]"

So begins Speak, Memory (1967), quite likely the most extraordinary autobiography I have ever read. The author, Vladimir Nabokov, of the Lolita fame calls it an "assemblage of personal recollections." As the author points out in Foreword, many of these recollections had been published before, mainly in English, and this final edition offers many revisions including ones introduced when the author was translating the text into Russian. He writes, using literary recursion, that the current version represents:
"[...] re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories [...]"
Mr. Nabokov had a privileged and unusual childhood and youth at his family estate about fifty miles south of St. Petersburg and in various great cities and vacation resorts of Europe. His family had aristocratic roots and included very high-level government officials and diplomats. It also had "a traditional leaning toward the [...] products of Anglo-Saxon civilization." The "Westernization" of his childhood went to the extent that he learned to read English before he could read Russian.

The richness of detail from the author's past is overwhelming. Even distant members of the author's family are vividly portrayed. Each one of the gallery of nurses and governesses from his childhood is depicted in minute detail. So is every tutor from his teenage years. The three "first loves" of his childhood and youth are described in beautiful, evocative prose: Colette on the beach in Biarritz and their attempt at elopement, Polenka on his estate near St. Petersburg - probably the most poignant of the stories as it is colored by a touch of class difference - and finally Tamara, whom he was showing various secret spots in the woods near the estate. (By the way, the story of Tamara gave Mr. Nabokov an opportunity to make a tremendous pun: he mentions the gardener, named Apostolski; yet after the narrator and Tamara's walk in the woods the gardener's name changes to Priapostolski.)

The reader will find several fascinating themes in the autobiography. For instance, Mr. Nabokov writes about his synesthesia, "colored hearing:"
"[...] I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl."
Nabokov had been interested in butterflies since childhood; in his adult age he even worked as a butterfly museum curator and published research papers on Lepidoptera. And let's not forget chess: the author was a passionate composer of high quality chess problems and studies.

This being Vladimir Nabokov's work, it is beautifully written: I am quoting one stunning passage after the rating. The autobiography is also viciously funny. I particularly love Nabokov's ridiculing the "medieval world" of theories of one Sigmund Freud (the "Viennese Quack.") And how can one not love Nabokov's praise of writings of Vladimir Sirin, particularly if one knows that Nabokov used Sirin as his pseudonym.

I will finish with a pure speculation on my part. The author mentions that "to avoid hurting the living or distressing the dead, certain proper names have been changed." In another place he admits that he has used in his novels various real people whom he met in his early years. This make me ponder a possibility that maybe - just maybe! - Mr. Nabokov allowed himself to borrow in the other direction: from his literary world to his autobiography. That maybe not just names have been changed but also the characterizations of people he supposedly knew have been constructed rather than rendered from memory. This sacrilegious idea occurred to me as I have recently read J.M. Coetzee's The Good Story with its strong argument how people create fictions about themselves all their lives.

Four and a half stars.

"Tamara would be waiting, perched on the broad parapet with her back to a pillar. I would put my lamp and grope my way toward her. One is moved to speak more eloquently about these things, about many other things that one always hopes might survive captivity in the zoo of words - but the ancient limes crowding close to the house drown Mnemosyne's monologue with their creaking and heaving in the restless night."

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Charitable Body (Charlie Peace, #10)A Charitable Body by Robert Barnard

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"'Everything in the garden is lovely,' said Charlie.
But of course that was before the discovery of the body.

Robert Barnard's A Charitable Body (2012) is quite a minor literary effort, and that's putting it quite charitably. To borrow a clichéd phrase, it has a lot to be modest about. This 'novel of suspense' - as promised on the cover - does not deliver much excitement. The characterizations are far from convincing, and even the Barnard's trademark feat - his plots usually have more interesting endings than beginnings - is missing. All in all, the novel feels like having been written solely to fulfill a contractual obligation to the publisher.

The Walbrook Manor in West Yorkshire, "one of England's minor heritage buildings" which had been sort of jointly owned by the Quarles and Fiennes families, was handed over - for financial reasons - to Walbrook Trust. The Manor is now a tourist attraction and the Walbrook Trust Board is running the project. The Board politics, animosities between its members, and Sir Stafford Quarles' (who chairs the Board) thirst for power dominate much of the early stages of the plot. A public concert is held at Walbrook: it includes a song cycle composed in the times of the First World War. This music item plays an important role in the mystery. (A question, though: why did the author consider it necessary to list every single piece performed at the concert? Space filler, I guess.)

We meet Felicity - the wife of Detective Inspector Charlie Peace - as she is invited to serve on the Walbrook Manor Board. This unsophisticated literary device allows the good inspector to get a lot of background information without having to resort to official means. It also allows the reader to see the plot from both sides: the "in" side, as from the Board's members perspective, and from the "out" side, the police procedural.

Perhaps the only really interesting aspect of the plot is Walbrook Manor's role in the 1920s and 1930s when it housed a sort of psychiatric asylum and also served as a venue for seminars held under the guise of peacemaking to prevent the outbreak of war with Germany. The participants in these seminars have been suspected of Nazi sympathies at worst and of trying to appease Hitler at best. The story goes on various tangents, some of them overly sensational and "colorful" such as a wartime brothel in London, and it does not hold the reader's attention.

This is quite likely the weakest of the eighteen novels by Mr. Barnard that I have reviewed on Goodreads.

One and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Child in TimeThe Child in Time by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Time is variable. [...] There's no absolute, generally recognized 'now' [...] [T]ime as liquid, time as a complex envelope with points of contact between all moments."

It is rather obvious that a literary work of art - any work of art, for that matter - exists only as long as it is understood by the readers. It may be less obvious that the interpretation (the understanding) of said literary work of art is created dynamically in the act of reading. Different readers will interpret a book differently. Whenever in a review I use a phrase like "the central message of the novel is..." I mean "for me the central message of the novel is..." And it is perfectly natural that other readers interpret the novel's message differently. Moreover, to me it is obvious that books which can be interpreted in many different, divergent ways tend to be better than books whose message is understood in the same way by most readers; the latter just being propaganda. And what really matters the most is - of course - how well the book is written.

By these criteria The Child in Time (1987) is an excellent novel. It is indeed very well written and it offers a reader an extensive buffet of reasonable interpretations to pick from. That the novel is about the meaning of time is obvious. From the plethora of possible readings I select the one interpretation that I like the most: the human time is the never-ending circle of birth and death in which the beginning and the ending are distinguishable only for particular people - who then begin or cease to exist - but they are just two arbitrary points on the immutable cycle.

Stephen Lewis, a popular author of children's books, lost his three-year old daughter two years ago: she disappeared, kidnapped, from a grocery store. The grief moves Stephen and his wife Julie apart. He is still on the watch for a five-year old girl and Julie has moved out and lives alone. This personal story is set in a somewhat dystopian frame of post-Thatcher England toward the end of the 20th century, which is in the future from the author's perspective. Stephen is a member of the Reading and Writing Subcommittee of the Official Commission on Child Care and, unwillingly, participates in bureaucratic attempts at social engineering performed by the government. His best friend, Charles, once a government minister, suddenly resigns and - as we learn later - dramatically changes his lifestyle, thus violating the usual linearity of time.

Stephen is in occasional contact with Julie and finally decides to visit her. On the way to her place he has an earth-shattering experience, a vision during which time does not behave as expected: it is not "marching from left to right, from the past through the present to the future." These are extremely captivating passages written in stunning prose: I read the three pages several times. Months later, after having to deal with Charles' problems with time, Stephen has yet another epiphany masterfully described by Mr. McEwan:
"He had a premonition, followed instantly by a certainty, [...] that all the sorrow, all the empty waiting, had been enclosed within meaningful time, within the richest unfolding conceivable."
The end point meets the beginning point - there is a contact between two moments - and the time closes one cycle to begin another one.

This is one of the most thought-provoking novels I have ever read and my rating would certainly be higher if not for the redundant dystopian thread, the excesses of heavy symbolism, and way too explicit nudging the readers' attention to various aspects of time.

Four and a quarter stars.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Stranger in the FamilyA Stranger in the Family by Robert Barnard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] what is the connection between a Leeds solicitor's family and a literary-academic family in Glasgow headed by a Jewish refugee?"

I have been recently dealing with heavy stuff at work so here is yet another "leisure read" (almost no thinking required when reading) from Robert Barnard. A Stranger in the Family (2010) promises "A novel of suspense" on the cover, and sort of delivers, particularly in the latter part of the novel. Mr. Barnard again displays a skill unusual for authors of mystery/suspense/crime novels: the endings of his books are usually better than the beginnings. In fact, the beginning of this novel is barely readable and I had to grind my teeth to plough through.

Suppose you are abducted from your birth parents and siblings as a three-year old child and raised by an adoptive family. Suppose you are twenty-two when you learn about the abduction and you finally meet your birth family. This is pure soap-opera territory yet eventually all the trappings of TV-caliber idiocy disappear and the story almost begins to work: the 70-year-old past provides keys to the mystery.

The novel begins with scenes of late August 1939. Children are on a train passing through the Netherlands and set out for the United Kingdom. This is one of the last transports in the Kindertransport, a large-scale rescue effort aiming to save mostly Jewish children from countries that were (or were soon to be) under German rule.

Kit Philipson was born as Peter Novello in a Leeds solicitor's family. At the age of three, during the family's stay in Sicily, he had been abducted, and ended up as an adopted child in Philipson family in Glasgow. His adoptive father, Jürgen, was one of the children rescued in the Kindertransport action in 1939. Now that his adopted parents are dead Kit wants to meet his birth family. Things are not that easy, though. His birth father does not seem to know him. Links to Glasgow gang world and connection with Sicilian Mafia emerge.

The author serves some gang-style silly theatrics late in the novel, but the actual ending is in fact quite far from silly bestseller stuff. Mr. Barnard offers a quiet, serene, and wise ending, which I like a lot and which sort of balances the soap opera and gang aspects of the plot. The "Barnard mystery" will never cease to fascinate me: how come most of his books are poor reads at the beginning and then, as the plot develops, get better and better? I will definitely read a few more Barnards.

Two and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Flaubert's ParrotFlaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat."

"Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people's lives, never your own."

My fifth book by Julian Barnes and it is back to the greatness of The Sense of an Ending . Flaubert's Parrot (1984), one of Barnes' earliest books, was - in my layman's view - quite deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize: it flirts with greatness. Of course some bias may be showing as the book deals with one of my literary obsessions: human inability to know the past. Past is like a "greased piglet" says Mr. Barnes:
"People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process."
Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of the story, a "60+ widowed doctor [...] cheerful if inclined to melancholy", is an "amateur Flaubert scholar." He travels to France to follow the steps of Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary and other influential novels of the 19th century. The narrator wants to understand Flaubert, learn the writer's life story, and find the "truth" about his relationships with other people. But as his research uncovers various inconsistent accounts of events and interpretations of motives from Flaubert's life, Mr. Braithwaite begins to ask pointedly "[H]ow can we know anybody?" Does seeking truth about the past make sense? Past is elusive and truth even more so. Perhaps the most memorable device used by Mr. Barnes is the so-called Chronology of Flaubert's life, the itemized list of important events that happened to the writer. But there are three chronologies, each very different than the other two, and each of them true.

I think it is a little misleading to call Flaubert's Parrot a novel: true, a narrative thread can be discerned, yet it is marginal in comparison to the real essence of the book. Mr. Barnes offers a set of essays on various topics related to Flaubert and literature in general. Some of them are brilliant, for instance, the essay on so-called "errors" committed by authors and exemplified by Flaubert supposedly being inconsistent about the color of Emma Bovary's eyes. Mr. Barnes devastatingly ridicules writings of one Dr. Enid Starkie, a real-life British biographer of Flaubert. Very funny! Another wonderful essay, in the chapter titled Flaubert's Apocrypha, deals with books that Flaubert did not write. A fascinating read!

I love the passage that begins with Mr. Barnes mentioning how Flaubert had been observing sun go down one day in 1853 and commenting that "it resembled a large disc of redcurrant jam." Then - on a tantalizing tangent - Mr. Barnes asks whether the colors of the past are the same as colors of today and ends with
"We look at the sun through smoked glass; we must look at the past through coloured glass."
Yet I think the chapter where Mr. Braithwaite's writes about his wife who had died some years ago is the most stunning. Through beautiful prose the wife - a fictitious character, like Mr. Braithwaite himself - feels like the most real person in the entire book, in fact more real than Flaubert. The chapter is a wonderful coda to this enchanting set of ruminations about elusiveness of the past.

And what about the parrot? Well, while in a museum Mr. Braithwaite looks at a stuffed parrot that might have been the one Flaubert looked at when writing Un cœur simple. Was it really? Read this great book to find out.

Four and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 30, 2018

Last PostLast Post by Robert Barnard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"She picked up an envelope [...] When she read the inscription she realized with a shock that the writer was not one of those who wanted to pay tribute to a dead woman."

Last Post (2004) is the seventeenth Robert Barnard's novel that I am reviewing here. I am not exactly sure what draws me to this author. True, I have rated two of his novels with four stars yet most others are in the two-to-three star territory. I think it might be the simplicity of the plot, the good-natured Britishness of the prose, and - perhaps most of all - the author's tendency to offer somewhat perverse endings (as in 'strange' rather than 'surprising').

The story begins in a funeral house where Eve McNabb looks at her mother's face for the last time. At home she begins reading condolence letters; among them she finds a letter from a woman who appears to have been her mother's former lover. Gasp! From now on the "L-word" casts its shadow over the plot. Eve never had any inklings as to her mother preferences and - being a modern woman employed in PR - she does not care one way or the other but the letter gets her thinking about potential reasons of her father's early disappearance from her life. She was told that he had died but maybe he was driven away by his wife's non-traditional affair? Maybe he is still alive?

Eve begins a private investigation into her mother's past. Since she was a dedicated and successful teacher, and served as the head of a primary school, the connections in the school community seem important for understanding her past. Connections to an amateur theatre group also emerge. Everybody Eve talks to seems to lie, pretend, and hide some if not all facts. She enlists help of a Hindu policeman, who - having marital troubles due to an arranged, loveless marriage - reciprocates Eve's interest in him. Alas, the romantic thread is particularly weak and implausible, and reeks of TV soaps.

One of the characters central to the plot is murdered and Eve, conveniently on a different continent during the murder, is allowed to help the investigation. The guilty party is found, everything seems to be ending well with the characters bound to live happily ever after, but then the author drops a nasty twist at the end. That ugly twist is the only thing that I really like about the novel. Otherwise - even though the novel is moderately interesting and readable - it is quite clearly a below-the-average effort from Mr. Barnard.

Two stars.

View all my reviews