Thursday, May 31, 2012

My MAY 2012 Reads

– 1954 – Hamilton Basso.
     Interesting, the ways we find our ways to books.  I've encountered this title many times over the years in used bookstores, and though I had no interest in it, the title and the author's name have always stuck with me.  I recently came across a mention of it during some internet-surfing about something else, and was intrigued by a mention of its main plot:  "Manhattan attorney Anson Page returns to his Southern roots after 15 years, arriving in Pompey's Head, South Carolina, to investigate the mystery surrounding missing royalties due famous author Garvin Wales."
     I discovered that copies of the book are still in my county's public library system, and put in a request for it (my request for now-obscure titles such as this one, and FENGRIFFEN, THE STORY OF ESTHER COSTELLO, THE ORACLE and LOVERS ALL UNTRUE must have librarians - especially younger ones - scratching their heads as they head into the stacks.
     Although this got off to a slow start, by about a quarter of the way through it became quite engrossing.  Anson Page's return to his roots causes him to reflect back on his life in Pompey's Head and the people he knew there.  The result is an entertaining novel about growing up in the South during the 1920s/1930s, and its ingredients are pretty much everything we've inevitably come to expect of such novels set in the South: economical (economic changes have come to several residents), social (resulting from those economic changes, and everyone worries a great deal over what will be thought or said about whatever they do), and racial (there is an account of a trial to obtain financial damages for an injured black man who works for Anson’s father).
     At 409 pages the novel is a bit flabby - excising a few unnecessary repetitions would have tightened it up a bit.  Looking back from 2012, the big secret regarding the missing royalties doesn’t really carry the impact it would have in 1954, but that’s to be expected; all in all I think this falls comfortably into the "They Don't Write 'em Like This Anymore" category.  

THE BALANCE WHEEL1951 – Taylor Caldwell
      Another Taylor Caldwell novel that I’ve never gotten around to until now.  It  begins on the eve of World War I, and explores a theme which fascinated Caldwell, one which she had already addressed in previous novels and would continue to point toward in later novels, especially CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS: the continuing industrialization of America, and the ruthless men behind the scenes who plan wars and profit from them. As is usual with Caldwell, sometimes the melodramatics are a bit heavy-handed, the descriptions overly-detailed, and the emotions surging with all kinds of passions.  There’s the usual assortment of Caldwell characters, most of them crafty, avaricious, and untrustworthy.  But it is an engrossing tale.
   The novel ends about nine months after the close of the first World War, with characters feeling a sense of optimism that "The 'plotters' hadn’t succeeded after all. Germany was apparently settling down in the slow process of accepting a truly democratic government. She would never tolerate tyranny again....the Russians had had their little taste of freedom, and the Bolsheviks would pass as the Czar had passed. Once give a national a sharp vision of liberty, and she would never be content with anything else again. Bolshevism was a temporary nightmare in medieval Russia."
    The novel's last paragraph:
"But Charles did not hear his brother.  He was again watching the children.  There would be no terror by night for them, no death by day.  They had been ransomed.  Life and liberty and peace --- these were theirs.  For there would be no more war.  AD INFINITUM"
     Of course, sadly, the reader knows differently.

MELISSA – 1948 – Taylor Caldwell
     Another of those 1940s Taylor Caldwell novels I've had a copy of for years but never gotten around to reading.
     This one starts out exceedingly slow (even for Caldwell) and is exceedingly gloomy (even for Caldwell). But since nothing else is calling to me at this time, I'm soldiering on with it. At 390 pages (in the original edition published by Scribners, which is the one I read) it's one of Caldwell's shorter novels, but her prose is as verbose as in any of her longer books. And as is often true in Caldwell's novels, a family is often not a happy thing to be a part of.    From her first novel, DYNASTY OF DEATH, Caldwell seemed to delight in pitting parent against child, sibling against sibling.  Relatives in Caldwell novels often make a strong point of absolutely loathing each other.
     The character of Melissa reminds me of later Caldwell characters such as Caroline Ames in A PROLOGUE TO LOVE, Jenny Heger in TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN, and Ellen Watson in CEREMONY OF THE INNOCENT - all are women whom life - and people - treat harshly at some point in their lives. Not surprising, as this was Caldwell's own experience as well.
     Ultimately, MELISSA proved something of a disappointment - nothing really happens during the 390 pages of the novel, though it's an interesting portrait of an emotionally crippled woman and how she suffers through the selfish manipulations of other people, particular her father. Caldwell was obviously an intelligent and well-read woman, yet despite her fame and success, she evidently regarded women as inferior to men and dependent on them for their image of themselves.  At some point she wrote the following, which is quoted in Wikipedia's entry on Caldwell:
    "There is no solid satisfaction in any career for a woman like myself. There is no home, no true freedom, no hope, no joy, no expectation for tomorrow, no contentment. I would rather cook a meal for a man and bring him his slippers and feel myself in the protection of his arms than have all the citations and awards and honors I have received worldwide, including the Ribbon of Legion of Honor and my property and my bank accounts. They mean nothing to me. And I am only one among the millions of sad women like myself."

MAURICE - 1971 – E.M. Forster
     I’m classifying this as a Re-Read because I’m 99% sure I read it some years ago; the problem with the Merchant Ivory film adaptations of E.M. Forster  is that they are so faithful that it’s possibly to confuse the film with the book – they seem to merge in the mind, as should be the case with any fine film adaptation (and certainly is the case with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, for example)– this was certainly the case for me a couple of years ago when I thought I was re-reading HOWARD’S END – somewhere around halfway through I realized that, although I’d seen the film many times, I’d never actually read the novel!
     E.M. Forster's novel of homosexual emergence and love in the Edwardian era was written just prior to World War One, but because the novel's subject was very controversial (homosexual acts were still illegal in England at the time) and because Forster himself was extremely closeted, he chose not to publish it during his lifetime, although he apparently did share the manuscript with friends in the decades after it was written, during which he made occasional changes to the novel. He wrote in his "Terminal Notes" to the novel:
     "A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood. I dedicated it “To a Happier Year” and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote---which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish. Unless the Wolfenden Report becomes law, it will probably have to remain in manuscript. If in ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime. Mr. Borenius is too incompetent to catch them, and the only other penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace."
     As in most Forster works, class figures significantly here – both Maurice and Clive are snobs, and at the end, when Maurice tells Clive that “I’m in love with your gamekeeper” [Alec Scudder], Clive refers to it as a ‘grotesque announcement’ – he is as horrified at Maurice’s choice of a partner as he is at Maurice’s unabashed admission of homosexuality.
     Although Forster did indeed live to see homosexuality decriminalized in England, MAURICE remained unpublished until 1971, the year after Forster's death.

I REMEMBER MAMA - 1945 – John Van Druten
     Having enjoyed a recent re-watch of the 1948 George Stevens film based on this successful 1944 play, I decided I wanted to read it to see how it compared to the film.  The film sticks pretty closely to the stage version, opening up several scenes.  It is, of course, the classic story of a Norwegian family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.  One interesting scene was omitted from the film, although the narration and scene leading up to it were kept: Katrin recalls a time when her mother first spoke to her as an adult, mother-to-daughter, and over ice-cream sodas Mama tells her daughter that she had an older brother, Mama’s first child, who died when he was two.  This really was a mother-daughter conversation and would, I felt, have added a little something extra to their relationship in the film.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My April 2012 Reads

My April, 2012 Reads - (re-reads are indicated with an asterisk).

THE EDGE OF SADNESS* - 1961 - Edwin O’Connor.  When I finished Edwin O'Connor's final novel, ALL IN THE FAMILY (1966), which I enjoyed very much, I went on to the next book I'd planned to read, which was as far from the O'Connor novel as possible.  But I found myself only partly-focused on the book I was reading, because part of me was still with Edwin O'Connor, wanted to be back in Edwin O'Connor's un-named northeastern city (which is widely acknowledged to be Boston) amongst his colorful Irish-American characters.
     I first read THE EDGE OF SADNESS a number of years ago, perhaps as many as ten, perhaps more, perhaps less - I really can't recall.  And while I recall enjoying the book, I don't actually recall very much about it other than that it is about a priest who suffered an alcohol-related breakdown and is rebuilding his life.  So I decided that a re-read is in order!
     I really love the title of this book, by the way - I find it quite poignant.
     I'd forgotten almost all the details of the story and characters, so it was pretty much all new to me.  Like ALL IN THE FAMILY, the only drawback I can find to comment on is the book's lack of action - it's very much a carefully-assembled and -connected series of conversations, some of great length, and perhaps, in the last third or so, the conversations become a trifle repetitious.  But it was very readable nevertheless.  It won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1962.

LOVERS ALL UNTRUE – 1970 – Norah Lofts.  A historical novelist’s take on the famous Madeleine Smith murder case, transplanted to England and set several decades later – the set-up leading to the death of the lover pretty much follows what’s known, but there’s no trial, because Lofts goes in her own direction for the outcome (and a rather surprising one at that).

THE ORACLE – 1951 - Edwin O’Connor.  This was O'Connor's first novel, published in 1951. Five years later his second novel, THE LAST HURRAH, would be a huge success, and the novel following that, THE EDGE OF SADNESS, would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1962.
     A rather slight, serio-comic novel set between WWII and Korea - Christopher Usher is a former sportswriter (a fact he loathes being reminded of)-turned-radio commentator, with an audience of five million listeners; he has a rather grandiose idea of his own importance, an idea not quite shared by his wife or co-workers - his contract is up for renewal and he has demanded a bigger slice of the pie commensurate with his status and renown, and this is upsetting the careful balance between his career, his marriage, and his mistress (a failed actress with a taste for sapphires).
     Within a few years of THE ORACLE's publication the important celebrity-creating medium would become television (O'Connor was a TV columnist) and a new generation of puffed-up egos would gain even wider exposure, a situation which, of course, continues unabated today.
     THE ORACLE is quite unlike O'Connor's subsequent fiction, as it in no way focuses on the Irish-American/Catholic experience and is, despite the seriousness of some of the topics it touches on (such as the use of the bomb, as well as the impending crisis in Asia) much lighter in tone. But the author's sure touch with slightly-eccentric characterizations is well-evident here.

THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY – 2012 - Ruth Rendell.  The new novel by my favorite writer.  In a remarkable career now in its fifth decade, Rendell manages to remain at the top of the heap of mystery/crime/psychological suspense writers – one of her greatest gifts as a novelist is her ability to mix familiar ingredients together and still come up with a fresh and enjoyable mixture.  She does this again in this new novel, although it’s not quite up to the standards she established in the 1980s and 1990s; however, there are echoes of some of her best books from that time period such as THE KILLING DOLL and THE LAKE OF DARKNESS.  And this makes a very nice companion to Rendell's other recent "London Novels" such as PORTOBELLO and TIGERLILY'S ORCHIDS.

THE INHERITORS* - 1969 - Harold Robbins.  Around the time when THE INHERITORS was published in the fall of 1969, Robbins’s publishers began touting him as the world’s bestselling novelist.  Unfortunately this coincided with the beginning of a continuing decline in the quality of his books – only once more, with MEMORIES OF ANOTHER DAY in 1979, would he even approach the storytelling power of his early books.  THE INHERITORS was about the ‘new’ Hollywood that began taking shape in the 1950s as the worlds of film and television began their at-first uncomfortable merger.  Robbins wasn’t putting much effort anymore into creating characters, preferring thinly-disguised versions of public figures.  So there’s a hot-shot TV producer who’s a lot like James Aubrey, an independent film producer who’s a lot like Joseph E. Levine ( who had produced film versions of Robbins’s novels THE CARPETBAGGERS and WHERE LOVE HAS GONE), and an Italian actress who seems a lot like Sophia Loren.  Robbins’s novel also had the misfortune to be in the shadow of another novel published that year about the TV industry, Jacqueline Susann’s THE LOVE MACHINE, her highly-anticipated follow-up to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.

DREAMS DIE FIRST* - 1977 - Harold Robbins.  Gareth Brendan takes on the world of magazine publishing, specifically the market for mens’ magazines.  If he weren’t so busy having sex, snorting cocaine, drinking booze and smoking pot, he’d see what the reader sees halfway through, that his huge empire of magazines, nightclubs, and hotel resorts is a front for another, even more lucrative business.  There was some buzz around the time of publication because for the first time Robbins featured a bisexual male protagonist, but Gareth Brendan makes it clear that his preference is for women, and Robbins’s gay characters are strictly the stereotypical kind (and are either very butch and aggressive or very meek and submissive); when he finally does get around to a male/male scene near the end of the book, it’s basically a typical male/female Robbins scene with two males.