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.

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