Wednesday, April 30, 2014

No More Heroes (Cal Innes, #3)No More Heroes by Ray Banks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This month I have been reading works by some of the greatest names in literature (Joyce, Mann, Tolstoy, Coetzee, Barth), so it is time to read, for a change, some "lower-level stuff" - mysteries, thrillers, procedurals, etc. I have just finished my fourth Ray Banks' novel, "No More Heroes". (My reviews of previous three books are here, here, and here). Alas, I find "No More Heroes" the weakest of the bunch.

The plot takes place in Manchester, UK. Callum (Cal) Innes, an ex-convict and an ex-PI, is now working for a powerful and nasty landlord who specializes in renting slummy lodgings to students and immigrants. Cal and Daft Frank, who is a slow thinker but a good fighter, work as enforcers for the landlord, specializing in evictions. Paolo, a decent fellow and Cal's previous boss, wants to hire him back, but Cal agrees to do one more job for the landlord. This time the job involves detecting.

There is a lot of violence, blood, and pain in the novel. Some critics claim that Mr. Banks' other novels belong to the "noir" genre. Well, this one certainly does not. The book is almost comically inept in its message. It may be well-intentioned, but it fails to deliver. The bad guys are formulaic caricatures: greedy landlords, neo-Nazis, racists of various forms. It feels so good, so righteous to fight against them (on the positive side, I applaud the author for not putting a single pedophile in the plot). It reminds me a little of John Shannon's "creative trajectory". Mr. Shannon, a talented author of very good California detective stories, full of astute social observations, magical moments, and whimsy, has recently churned horrid books, based on populist themes, and full of politically correct slime.

Cal Innes constantly drinks, smokes, and pops codeine and other prescription drugs (he greatly suffers because of a past back injury), but swallowing several handfuls of pills daily while heavily drinking does stretch my limits of believability. Mr. Banks' writing is on a bit lower level than in his previous works; for instance, Cal's long conversation with Karyn does not sound realistic. Despite quite an interesting ending, "No More Heroes" is at best a mediocre thriller, and I am not comparing the novel with works of Joyce, Tolstoy or Coetzee, but with other thrillers I have read.

One and three-quarter stars.

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

The DeadThe Dead by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although James Joyce's "The Dead" is a short story from the "Dubliners" collection, it was published as a separate book in the Penguin 60s series. Its 59 pages contain only 15,672 words, which is about 37 times fewer that Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and about 84 times fewer than Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". Still, because of its stunning psychological depth, this short story can properly be called a novella.

The story takes place at a New Year's party in Dublin over a period of few hours. Two elderly sisters are having their annual sing and dance party. Among various colorful characters attending the event is the protagonist, the sisters' nephew, Gabriel, who is accompanied by his wife, Gretta. He is the one to carve the goose and to make the main speech of the night. One of the songs reminds Gretta of a dramatic event from the past.

This is an impressive work of literary art, on many levels. First of all, it is absolutely amazing that the story is not dated at all. The collection was published in 1914, exactly 100 years ago, even before commercial radio was available. Despite all the mindboggling progress in technology, people have not changed. Some topics of conversations at a party held today may be different, although most would be similar to those that Mr. Joyce describes, and, of course, people today would be constantly checking Facebook or e-mail, yet their psychology, reactions, and moods remain the same as hundred years ago.

This is the first book that I have read that focuses on people's moods and here Joyce is a phenomenally skilled observer. Over the few hours, Gabriel's mood constantly changes, either subtly or in a dramatic way, and the intense feeling that the story is real, that the reader participates in the party, is palpable.

While many authors are able to capture sharp psychological observations, very few are so masterful in their writing. The novella is a tour de force of short prose, and the last two pages take your breath away.

I loved Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". I read many fragments of "Ulisses" and was very impressed. This novella provides a strong argument for my pet thesis that books should, in general, be shorter. Joyce shows that one can construct a lively, complex, wise, and utterly believable depiction of human behavior on 59 pages.

Five stars.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Age of IronAge of Iron by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been torn while reading J.M. Coetzee's "Age of Iron" (it is the ninth book by this author that I have read) - my reactions oscillated from extreme awe to slight irritation. The novel contains so many passages of unparalleled wisdom, depth, and beauty, yet it is marred by a few instances of sermonizing preachiness.

Elizabeth Curren, a professor of classics in Cape Town, South Africa, is in the last stage of terminal cancer. She finds a homeless man, Mr. Vercueil, in the alley next to her garage. With her tacit approval, he kind of takes residence on her property. This is 1986, a dramatic time for South Africa, the time of burning townships and violent clashes between anti-apartheid fighters and the police aided by conservative activists. Mrs. Curren finds her domestic's son shot dead and a friend of his takes refuge in her house. Isolated from the harsh realities throughout her life, she discovers the true horrors of apartheid in her last weeks.

The novel, framed as a long letter to Mrs. Curren's daughter who escaped South Africa in 1976 and settled comfortably in the United States, has four central themes: the psychology of dying, the relationship between Mrs. Curren and the homeless man, the savagery caused by the apartheid system, and the juxtaposition of the wise reason of the old and the mindless fervor of the young.

The first two themes, the personal ones, are dealt with in an absolutely masterful way, typical for Mr. Coetzee. If the novel stopped there, I would need a six-star rating to give it justice. The two latter themes are different. The author vividly portrays the extreme drama of South Africa, yet I have some problems with the "paint-by-numbers" plot. The fourth theme, the young versus the old, emotion versus reason, feeling versus knowing, is largely conveyed through Mrs. Curren's monologues (since her conversation partner does not talk back), which makes the deep truths stated sound a little preachy. Still, Mrs. Curren is a classics professor, and speaking in perfectly complete paragraphs is what classics professors do best.

"Age of Iron" is an extremely dark book, even darker than Mr. Coetzee's other works. The heavy darkness is needed here, though. How else could one deal with impending death and with massive degradation of one's fellow human beings? Yet it is in no way a depressing novel. Mrs. Curren's involvement with anti-apartheid movement moves her thoughts away from the terrifying prospect of soon not existing any more. Helping others adds meaning to her ending life. Also, there is a beautifully captured fleeting moment of hope late in the novel and the last passages, despite death being near, are wonderfully uplifting.

Even with its weaknesses "Age of Iron" is a great book. The average of six stars for the first two themes and three-and-a-half stars for the latter two is

Four-and-three-quarter stars.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

The End of the RoadThe End of the Road by John Barth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the translation of John Barth's "The End of the Road" in my mid-twenties, over thirty five years ago, and I loved the book. I have now reread it and it is a split verdict. The first two thirds or maybe three fourths of the novel are absolutely brilliant. I have been stunned by the number of sharp observations of and deep insights into human psychology and behavior. But then, there is also the last part, plot-heavy, pedestrian, and quite implausible. It seems it comes from an altogether different book. The chasm between the two parts is so deep that maybe I am just too obtuse to understand Mr. Barth's grand design.

Jacob Horner, advised by his doctor (who treats him for depression) to seek full-time employment, is hired to teach prescriptive grammar and composition at a state teachers college in Maryland. The unforgettable first sentence of the novel, "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner", tells us something about Jake. We soon find out that this self-characterization is pretty sharp. Jacob, in his own words, is "a placid-depressive", with low lows of moods and middle-register highs ("a woofer without a tweeter was Jake Horner"). He has days without moods, without personality. He assumes various roles for himself and other people tell him that he does not exist at all ("There's too many of you.")

Jacob befriends (it is hardly the right word) another professor, Joe Morgan, and his wife, Rennie. Joe is quite a strange fellow. He systematically analyzes his own and other people's behavior and is highly intolerant of stupidity in people he cares about, particularly his wife. In her words, he "thinks as straight as an arrow about everything". To sum up, Joe displays the ugly self-righteousness of the intellectually superior. Rennie is probably the most enigmatic character. Even dismissing the altogether different last part of the novel, one cannot quite figure out who she is.

I think that the reader's inability to figure out Jake and Rennie is an important part of Mr. Barth's design. He wants the reader to understand the randomness of life and the fact that there are no reasons for many, if not most decisions we make. To me, the strongest theme in the novel is about the roles people play in their lives, and the relationship between the role and the actual person. Ultimately, maybe there is no person as such, maybe only the roles exist? The "Mythotherapy" theme, based on assigning roles to other people is fascinating. Also, both Jake and Mr. Barth are hell-bent on exposing social conventions, which produces many hilarious dialogues.

The novel is extremely readable yet full of wisdom. It is deep while being funny. If not for the last part, it would be one of the best books I have ever read.

Four stars.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Death in VeniceDeath in Venice by Thomas Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have no doubt that Thomas Mann's "A Death in Venice" (1912) is a great work of literature. Spending six hours with this 68-page novella has been richly rewarding. Alas, it is just not my style of literature. As a simple-minded math person I am intimidated by the over-intellectualized text, full of metaphors, symbolism, and references to Greek mythology and philosophy. The critics say the novella is "intertextual", which might be true, yet I prefer literary works that stand on their own.

Most readers know what the novella is about. Briefly, an aging distinguished German writer, Gustav Aschenbach, travels recreationally to Venice, where he encounters a stunningly beautiful 14-year-old Polish boy, Tadzio. Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio. The love is purely platonic as they never even talk to each other, but it becomes a deep obsession for Aschenbach. Let me quote: "In rising ecstasy he felt he was gazing on Beauty itself, on Form as a thought of God, on the one and pure perfection which dwells in the spirit and of which a human image and likeness had here been lightly and graciously set up for him to worship."

So much has been written about the "meaning" of the novella: the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian elements and the intellectual and restrained vs. the sensual and obsessive aspects. I lack qualifications to discuss these. To me the novella is more about an old man sensing the impending death and trying to recapture the atmosphere of his beautiful youth. The text is full of extremely sharp psychological observations. My favorite is "Nothing is stranger, more delicate, than the relationship between people who know each other only by sight [...] Between them is uneasiness and overstimulated curiosity, the nervous excitement of an unsatisfied, unnaturally suppressed need to know and to communicate; and above all, too, a kind of strained respect."

I wish I knew German better and could read the book in original. David Luke's translation is fantastic. My bet is that the original does not read any better than the English version.

Four stars.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

The Death of Ivan IlychThe Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1880s) is one of the most horrifying works of world fiction. It is a brutal, clinically precise, explicit book about the process of dying. I read it as a teenager and it shook me hard. Today, after almost 50 years, it has affected me even more, because I am now so much closer to the end. Tolstoy does a better job in describing the progression of Ivan Ilyich's mental states as the illness ravages his body than Ms. Kubler-Ross in her "On Death and Dying" (the "five-stage model of grief"). While we know that all other people die, Tolstoy shows his mastery in making the novella not about someone else's death but about me dying. And you.

The terror of dying has many facets. The first, obviously, is that with death we cease to exist. Today we are, and tomorrow we are not any more. It is perhaps the easiest aspect to bear. After all, we did not exist before our birth and somehow it was OK. All our plans, dreams, knowledge, feelings, and secrets are suddenly gone, but luckily we are not there to miss them.

Then, there is physical pain. Ivan Ilyich's illness causes him horrible pain. He screams for days on end, even on opium and morphine. But then not everybody draws the short straw; we can hope for an instantaneous death, through heart attack or being run over by a car.

Next, there is the deception. Ivan Ilyich, few weeks before his death, "saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful deception that shut out both life and death". The doctors deceive him. His wife and children deceive him, pretending they believe he will be cured. His work colleagues pretend he is just sick and not dying.

But the most horrifying aspect of dying is how inconsequential our existence or non-existence is to other people, how irrelevant every one of us is in the big picture, and how replaceable we are. Ivan Ilyich has died, so we need to find someone else for our weekly bridge game that will proceed as if nothing has happened. While Ivan's wife talks to his friend, Pyotr Ivanovich, about her husband's agony and screams of pain, he thinks about the nasty spring in the sofa on which he sits.

Tolstoy is an extremely sharp observer of human psychology and behavior. Just one example: Ivan sees that "the awesome, terrifying act of his dying had been degraded by those about him to the level of a chance unpleasantness, a bit of unseemly behavior (they reacted to him as they would to a man who emitted a foul odor on entering a drawing room)".

This 19th century masterpiece is totally up-to-date in the 21st century. We are still in the business of dying.

Five stars.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange", published in 1962, is a dark, dystopian morality tale, set in England, in unspecified future. Most everybody remembers Stanley Kubrick's movie adaptation of the novella, and I have always been curious how the original will compare to the great film that I saw about 40 years ago.

Then there is the famous last chapter controversy. Prior to 1986, in the United States, the book was published without its last, twenty-first chapter. The publishers claimed that the ending was not acceptable for U.S. audiences (presumably meaning that it will not sell well). I cannot understand why Mr. Burgess agreed to have his text butchered, but he did, and as the result, before 1986, the book had had quite a different message than the writer's original intent.

Fifteen year-old Alex is a boss of a gang of teenagers. The four "droogs" assault people, burglarize their houses, rape women and little girls. Some of their victims die. The boys do it just for fun and to escape the boredom. They are high on "milk plus" (milk enhanced with hallucinogens) served in the Korova Milkbar. Alex is set up by his droogs and the militiamen capture him. He is sentenced to serve a long time in prison. But then Alex is chosen for the "Lodovico's treatment", and the doctors condition him to abhor violence and sex. The authorities "reclaim" a criminal for the society's benefit.

Without the last chapter, the novella would just be about how losing the power of choice makes a human being a clockwork, an automaton that does what it is programmed to do. Pretty trivial, isn't it? The final chapter provides a richer and deeper conclusion that involves the natural phases of life - how we change without wanting to change and without doing anything about it. When young, we try to stay "far far far away from this wicked and real world", and then, suddenly, we become a part of it.

Mr. Burgess' writing is fabulously accomplished. Most of the dialogues are in "nadsat", a dialect supposedly used by the English teenagers, which is phonetically based on Russian words. For instance "life" is "jeezni", "good" is "horrorshow", and "word" is "slovo". This is absolutely fascinating for people like myself who have some knowledge of both English and Russian. I wonder, though, how hard the novella is to read for people who do not know Russian.

Yet, despite outstanding writing, despite the unforgettable phrase "What's it going to be then, eh?" that opens each of the three parts of the novella, and despite Korova Milkbar, I am unable to claim "A Clockwork Orange" is a masterpiece.

Four stars.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The File on HThe File on H by Ismail Kadaré
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ismail Kadare's "The File on H." is the first book by an Albanian author that I have ever read. The events of this very unusual novel (first published in 1981) take place in mid-1930's in northern Albania, close to the forbidding Bjeshket e Namuna mountains.

Two Irish, Harvard-based Homeric scholars come to Albania to study the evolution mechanisms of oral epic poetry. The epics they study focus on historical tradition and are propagated by rhapsodes (epic poetry singers), who perform them with the lahuta (gusle) accompaniment. They assume that the propagation mechanisms of contemporary epics are the same as in the times of Homer, and they believe that through the study of these mechanisms they can answer questions like "Was Homer a poet of genius or a skillful editor?" They deconstruct the epics attempting to discover the "foundations of a common Greco-Illyrian-Albanian protouniverse".

I find the "research thread" of the novel absolutely fascinating. Being an applied mathematician I am enormously excited when I read about history/culture scholars devising a neat method of measuring the rate of change in the epics' contents over time. This is really cool stuff.

Alas, "The File on H." has other threads that are not quite to my taste. There is a broad satire thread that lampoons the provincial mores of residents of a small Albanian town, whose excitement about the foreigners' arrival is combined with a little dose of xenophobia. This immediately brings Gogol's famous "The Government Inspector" to mind. There is an "informer thread" - the foreigners are spied on around the clock and the "informers" report on their behavior to the Governor. Finally, there is a thread about Daisy, the Governor's wife. It culminates with some hilarious events at the end of the novel, yet I find it incompatible in tone and theme with the rest of the novel. It feels as if the author is trying to artificially lighten the mood, but - to me - it just spoils the book.

References to complicated Albanian-Serbian relations provide an interesting background that reinforces the serious tone of the novel. The story based on the folk belief that if a stonemason walls in another person's shadow, then that person will soon die, provides a neat setup for the ending of the book. The writing is uniformly good (the English version is based on the French translation). I may change my rating in the future, when I further digest the themes of the novel, and for the time being I will assign it a rather neutral rating.

Three stars.

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Saturday's Child (Cal Innes, #1)Saturday's Child by Ray Banks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ray Banks' "Saturday's Child" is the first novel in the Cal Innes series. I read the third novel in the series, "Donkey Punch", (reviewed here) earlier and liked it more. For one thing, in "Saturday's Child", Cal's character is still in pupal stage, quite under construction; likely the author himself does not yet know how his protagonist will develop. This alcoholic ex-convict is deeply moral, yet able to viciously beat an opponent almost to death. Is it plausible? Maybe, but Mr. Banks has not managed to convince me.

Cal, quite fresh out of prison, works as an unofficial P.I., finding missing people or evidence. Morris Tiernan, a powerful Manchester crime lord, hires Cal to find a card dealer who absconded with a large sum of money. In the other thread, Mo Tiernan, Morris' psychopathic son, wants the case for himself and is determined to humiliate Cal. The novel's two threads continue in parallel. Of course, we soon find out there is more to the case than just the dealer's disappearance, and we witness numerous heavy beatings.

Mr. Banks is hailed as a standard bearer for "Manchester noir." However, in this novel Cal often agonizes over the moral decisions that he makes; this overthinking is not a very noir treat.

There are some problems with dialogues, for instance Cal's conversation with Alison sounds artificial. Mo's thread is written in a regional dialect, e.g., "They was...", "he were...", etc., and the whole text is full of profanities (for instance, 22 "f-words" and 6 "c-words" in the space of about two pages). Of course, I have nothing against profane speech; people do talk like that all the time (especially head cases like Mo), yet eventually it gets pretty boring.

This is the third best book by Mr. Banks of the three that I have read (the other review is here).

Two and one quarter stars.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Big BlindThe Big Blind by Ray Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ray Banks' first novel, "The Big Blind", is mildly entertaining. It may be classified as a thriller, although the first criminal act does not occur until after the midpoint of the book.

Alan Slater works as a window salesman and while he is really good at his job, he prefers to drink in pubs and to assist his officemate and friend, Les Beale, a hopeless gambling addict, in his various misfortunes in casinos. Eventually, Beale gets into really serious trouble, and calls Alan for help. The well-constructed plot is interesting, and does not have too many idiotic twists and turns, so typical for thrillers.

The author, who used to work as a double-glazing salesman and as a croupier, has skillfully incorporated his job experiences into the novel. I love the passages that show how a salesman cons people into signing contracts. Having myself been a victim multiple times, I can now better understand the manipulation techniques. There are also pages and pages of observations of the whole casino gambling business, but being about as interested in gambling as in having my teeth drilled, I am unable to appreciate the depth of the study of poker players' behavior.

The implausibility of relationship between Alan and his beautiful, young girlfriend Lucy is, to me, the main flaw of "The Big Blind". It is beyond belief that she would stick with him despite all that is happening.

It is a minor novel, a trifle, but quite well written and occasionally funny. It is better than recent books of, say, Simon Kernick, because it stops after 170 pages. Kernick also runs out of ideas by page 170, but inexplicably keeps going for 200 more pages.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dog SoldiersDog Soldiers by Robert Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the cover of Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers" a blurb from Washington Post Book World screams "The Most Important Novel of the Year". Had this been indeed true, then 1973 would have been a terrible year for books. "Dog Soldiers" is just a complex and competent thriller, with some nuggets of social observation thrown in to make it appear wise and deep.

1973, Saigon. Vietnam war is winding down. The main characters are John Converse, a low-level journalist and an aspiring writer, his wife, Marge, and an American soldier, Ray Hicks, who is a sort of Converse's friend. Converse has Hicks smuggle a large package of heroin from Vietnam into California. The bulk of the plot describes attempts of numerous bad characters to get that package in various California locations. The action-filled plot is interesting, yet, especially towards the end, totally implausible.

I have serious reservations as to Mr. Stone's writing. The dialogues in the first part of the novel are jarringly unnatural. One can eventually get accustomed to less than stellar dialogues and towards the end they read almost fine. Only Marge and Ray feel like real people, Converse is close but does not quite make it, and the bad guys and some women characters are just caricatures. There are some nicely drawn minor players, though. It has taken me such a long time to get through the book as I had to force myself to continue reading.

Most characters, while being drunk to the gills, are constantly high on heroin, dilaudid, and other drugs, including hallucinogenic mushrooms. They talk in a rather highbrow language ("Let smiles cease, let laughter flee") and conduct bombastic philosophical discussions on the deeper issues of the nature of being, even while being tortured or while dying. All this is rather silly. Maybe it was considered innovative in 1973, but I read deeper books that involved addiction, which had been written much earlier (as an example, Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano", published in 1947).

The greatest sin of the novel is its pretentiousness. Mr. Stone uses Big Words to write about Big Issues. More talented writers can write about big issues using small words.

What saves "Dog Soldiers" from a two-star rating is an adept portrayal of the insanity and horrors of war and of the societal breakdown caused by the war. The slow death of the hippie era is shown well. Also, while the bulk of the plot in the last third of the book is preposterous, the very last four of five pages provide a wonderfully nasty closing to the plot.

Two and three quarter stars.

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