Archive for the ‘Modern’ Category

Maarten ‘t Hart – A Flight Of Curlews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

I have to admit I don’t read many novels in my native language, Dutch, but of course I used to do so mainly before I had depleted my local library and moved on to works that were not translated yet. I do still have some Dutch books on my shelves that have been lying there for me to pick them up one day. One of those is A Flight Of Curlews (1978) by Maarten ‘t Hart, one of the few of his novels that have been translated into English.

It is not a long or overly complex novel except for psychological nature of the plot. An accidental encounter causes turmoil to the stabile internal life of a man, bringing back many memories during the days that follow. The memories at first look seemingly random. Gradually they start to paint a deep profile of the main protagonist from his early childhood to more recent events.

The main protagonist is not an ordinary man. Though highly intelligent he copes with many sociological failures and a number of tics. He is a typical autistic nerd that have become very familiar today but as this novel was written in the seventies such a stereotype did not exist yet. Perhaps at the time it came out it might have looked to be about a rather disturbing person.

The author writes a very easy prose and his writing is fairly simple but very vivid, which makes it enjoyable and accessible. The story is very focused as it is narrated from only one viewpoint. The great problem however is the lack of a good plot. A large part, perhaps at least a third of the novel consists of flashbacks. These do not last very long and the story returns to the main plot but this does not last longer than the flashback until another one follows. This overload of flashbacks, while interesting, does hamper the main plot a lot which sees very little progress until about halfway the story. To me it was a relief that the flashbacks stopped and the actual story continued. Peculiarly enough the majority of the plot revolves about a different series of events than much of the first half seems to develop towards. It leads to a somewhat disappointed ending although with regard to the flashbacks the reader understands the main protagonist well enough that it was not unlikely to have turned out this way. One could say it is a realistic result. Things like this happen in real life as well.

There is much to like about A Flight Of Curlews. It is well written and the main protagonist can be seen as interesting as we explore his being and how he interacts with other people. The overload of flashbacks and the lack of a good plot damage it enough for it not to be a entirely satisfactory read. The novel is considered to be one of his most popular and best works but I don’t regret that I have not picked it up earlier.

Michael Chabon – Telegraph Avenue

Monday, December 1st, 2014

In literature there a different ways to approach the presentation of your novel. One can choose content over style. A message is to be conveyed to the reader and the style has to support this as effectively as possible. An other option is to let style be the driving force. The content is thus set up in such a way that it supports and strengthens the style and allows it to be used to its strongest effect. In the latter case the difficulty lies in finding the right balance. The style should not dominate the story but take it to a higher level.

In Telegraph Avenue (2012) by Michael Chabon goes all the way with the second approach. It takes place about 10 years ago but its content covers more than 50 years of popular culture. And not just a bit. The novel is a continuous barrage of cultural references. Almost every sentence counts. It is impossible to avoid. It is almost overwhelming and most impressive is that Chabon never goes over the top. All he puts in every sentence matters to the atmosphere and the scenes within the story, describing them within the reference frame of the narrator’s point of view. They live by these. They have grown up with these cultural phenomena and Chabon makes them very much part of it.

It is indeed style over content. It is so powerful that while reading your brain is hit with so many impressions and associations that I had trouble keeping up. I simply had to take many breaks and eventually I decided to read the novel more slowly by taking it along on my daily commute back and forth from work so that I could not read it for more than 10 to 15 minutes at once. It was the only way I could read it in a good way.

So effectively Chabon did not keep the balance as mentioned before. The style was too dominating. With so many extensive references every scene got expanded to large clouds of refined prose. Eventually this started to hamper the story. Chabon normally manages to create strong plots in which you can connect well with the characters. He has always had an excellent style that supported the story without it being to much there. That is not the case with Telegraph Avenue. Once you take away the style the plot lacks sufficient substance. It drives on several storylines which only have a limited extent. Chabon does not go as deep as usually and this affected the impact of the story, which in my opinion is the core of any novel. You can do much with style but without balance it will not reach its mark.

Telegraph Avenue is not just about style and popular culture references. Chabon creates several wonderful pairings with his characters. There are six main points of view although only two of them from the more dominant main protagonists. Each of these six are connected to several of the others in different ways. Chabon uses this to great effect and develops their relationships in a powerful way. The novels contains a large cast and many of the side characters are fleshed out in their own unique ways. Chabon creates a wide palet of the diversity of American society. While others prefer to use more average characters, Chabon goes for the slightly odd ones. They feel very familiar and none feel out of place.

Chabon also hits on many different themes. Different from his usual fare is that the Jewish element is pretty much absent. Telegraph Avenue is mostly about African American culture and he shows there is much variety to be found there as well. There are so many smaller and greater themes that it almost seems hard to give them sufficient attention but Chabon manages it all well.

Telegraph Avenue is an incredibly rich novel, a tour de force by an author who has already made his mark and who continuous to write in an easy going way, providing humorous and dramatic moments within the same scene although it never goes dark or overboard. The only point where it failed for me that the style dominated over the story. I did not connect much with it and unlike previous novels it took me longer to finish the novel. With the others it was harder to put them down. The story, while deeply layered and rich with details, could not make as much impact on me as other novels that were driven by the story and in which style stayed in the shadows. Because of this I rate Telegraph Avenue among my least favorite Chabon novels. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union outshine it easily. I have to admit here that I like his work a lot so being low on the list is still quite above the average contemporary novel. I still recommend this novel because in many ways it is an impressive work of literature.

A travel kit

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Whenever I go on a trip one of the first things that are put on my things-to-not-forget list are books. I don’t have a car so all long-distance traveling I do is by public transport. This means I have plenty of time on my hands to do something. In most cases I read. If the trip takes some time longer I need more books, although that depends on the activities I might be doing. I don’t know beforehand, but my motto is that carrying more is always better than carrying less as this might result in the risk having nothing to do or being forced to buy something rubbish instead to read.

Finding some good books for travel is not easy. Usually they are not the books on top of my wanted list and often leftovers. Books by authors I have read before I considered readable enough without me getting absorbed too much that I spent more time reading than planned. This year I obtained a pretty nice stash, all by authors of which I have a positive opinion. The first is a contemporary novel, for a change, by Michael Chabon. He is one of the few contemporary authors whose work I have always enjoyed, so I am quite content to read Telegraph Avenue (2012). The other author is Richard Morgan. The books that I have read were both fantasy novels. The pair of novels I have picked up now are both science fiction. That is pretty different fare and it is guesswork if it will be to my liking and possibly it has a very different style and approach.  The first is Altered Carbon (2002) and the second Broken Angels (2003). At least I have a full travel kit now and should not have to worry lacking having something to spend my travel time on.

 

Jane Austen – Mansfield Park

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Mansfield Park (1814) forms a change from Jane Austen‘s first two novels Sense And Sensibility and Pride And Prejudice. Of course it is still a “contemporary” romantic novel, the contemporary element being only recognizable by the social structures and behaviors in which the romance takes place. Characterwise and in the development of the plot and the situations the plot can be transferred to almost any time and place, which is, I think, one of the major reasons why these novels have such great popularity, at least among female readers, even today.

What is a great change in this novel are two things. The first, and most important one, is the main protagonist. As always it is a female one, but gone is the strongheaded, free-speaking and rather liberal-minded one. Austen this time took the challenge to center the story around a demure, passive, overly sensitive and very timid young woman who prefers not to speak and stay on the background.

The second change is the style. The first two novels had and extend of comedy to them. Austen created plenty of amusing situations where the males and females in the story got caught up in what one could say were minor conspiracies from different sides which led to misunderstandings and unexpected consequences.

The latter is not completely gone in Mansfield Park. The difference however is that the situations are not happy ones. Mansfield Park has more drama in the tragic sense. There is no happy undertone when something does not go right. One feels it can only get worse and the characters are not as friendly between each other.

Overall thus this novel had quite a different atmosphere. Austen’s strengthens this effect by keeping a lower pace and spending more time evaluation the thoughts and events of her characters, which as said have a more negative tendency.

When the novel was nearing the end I was almost expecting some very different ending as the unwinding of events were heading for a perhaps bad ending. Austen did not let it go that far. Later than in here previous novels she threw in a major twist near the end. It was not coming out of nothing but I had not expected it to happen. Austen had followed a different course, and perhaps she would handle this story differently. Of course reader satisfaction in those days was of greater importance so I did expect she would provide some positive turn, although I did not foresee she would shake things up so much.

Mansfield Park shows Austen’s progression as an author and her writing skills. It was not not as entertaining as Pride And Prejudice but it did show more of different parts of the society of that days than the previous two novels, which I consider to be rather positive as the whole romance developments are of less interest to me, being a male reader. I look for other things in the novel to enjoy myself. Although the main protagonist is weak Austen manages to develop her more strongly than any of her previous characters and provides great insights in her thoughts and behavior.

Personally I enjoyed Pride And Prejudice more, for as far as I’ve read Austen’s novels, but Mansfield Park holds more literary quality, although the plotting and the romantic developments keep it on a more moderate level.

 

Words in pieces

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

In older times there were no standards set for the length of a story or a book. Because of that there exist some massive works spreading many volumes and it is only the loss of material due to lack of copying (everything) over time that many are reduced to more manageable sizes.

Recently I had a lengthy vacation in China and this roused by interest in the classics of Chinese literature. China invented bookprint some centuries before the West did so there must be some stuff around. I selected two works, partially because they were quite extensive as mentioned above. Luckily these were complete stories. However their length also meant that the work had been cut into separate volumes. Of course this happens all the time these days but with such old works there is always the question if the place where the work is cut into pieces is not random and does allow for a break. I have no idea so I will have to wait and see.

The first work is a historical novel called The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (ca. 1400) by Guangzhong Luo. It is an abridged version, although this was done in the 1660s, in which non-relevant material (for the story) was removed and some passages were improved. So technically the story is still complete. It’s total length is about 1300 pages so the novel is cut into two parts. The novel is an adaptation of a set of oral tales about a period in history from 184 to 280, telling about the events that lead to the fall of the Han dynasty and the breakup of China into three rival kingdoms which warred with each other. The story has been adapted into modern versions a lot so it is nice to read the original tale.

The second work is one of the first modern Chinese novels, written in 1760, although the work was still incomplete by that time as the author, named Xueqin Cao, died in that year. It took until 1791 before the work was actually published and the publisher, named Gao E, used the working manuscript of the author to complete the story. The work I am talking about is published under two titles. Its most common name is The Dream Of The Red Chamber, although my edition carries the alternative name, The Story Of The Stone. Its total length runs to about 2500 pages. I have obtained the complete version of the novel and this edition has been cut into five pieces: 3 books of 600 pages, compromising the original works by Xueqin Cao, and 2 books of over 300 pages which have been completed by Gao E. Unlike The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms the five volumes each carry a title of their own: The Golden Days, The Crab-Flower Club, The Debt Of Tears, The Warning Voice, and The Dreamer Awakes. As the last two versions were not completely written by the author I intend to review each novel separately, although that may give me some headaches on giving each something new to say about.

So far about the background of this work. As I’ve mentioned it is a modern novel, which means it has a story that takes place in about the same time and reflects events that take place. So when it was published it was a contemporary novel: It told about people, society and culture that were fairly familiar to the readers and as such the work reflects and depicts mid seventeenth century life and just for that it makes a very interesting work as very few of such works can be found from the past and this one belongs to the earliest in which authors began to write about their own society and life (not counting autobiographies) in a story they made up themselves.

I don’t know when I will pick up these works but they will be attracting my eye on my bookshelves for the time to come.

 

Jane Austen – Pride And Prejudice

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

In my review of Sense And Sensibility, the first published novel by Jane Austen, I criticized the fact that Austen seemed to avoid dialogue and when she used it it was of mediocre quality. In her second novel, Pride And Prejudice (1813), she takes down the flaws of her first novel in a powerful way. It is still a romance in which relationships and possible engagements form the core of the story, in which women have the center stage and the men play important but secondary roles. Austen had made some considerable changes of which many are for the better.

Most compelling and enjoyable about Pride And Prejudice, at least for the first half, are the dialogues. They are sharp and witty and Austen dares to go a long way. Many constraints that were put in the behavior of the characters of Sense And Sensibility are gone. In fact, both of these vices are rather gone. Like the title it are pride and prejudice which determine the course of the first part of the story and several character speak with great subtlety to express their true feelings.

Another strong point of Pride And Prejudice are the characters, foremost the main character with her four sisters and her parents. They are all a little bit unusual. One could say they have extreme characteristics and it is almost a pity that Austen doesn’t give them all a sufficient greater part. The main character however is the best of them, so Austen’s choice for her is the best. She is a real heroine: she is headstrong, independent and smart. Most of all she dares, which is somewhat unusual in the constrained society she lives in. Besides the central family most of the side characters remain somewhat shallow. Of those only two male characters are well developed and again they have the most extreme characteristics that make them most worthwhile to use. So Austen makes the best choices although she loses a bit on the less important characters.

The story itself starts somewhat dull but quickly develops into an entertaining piece with many twists which reaches it peak halfway. It is at that point that the story turns inward. A dramatic development takes the energy out of the main character who becomes more of a onlooker as she has no central part anymore in the events. She has no position anymore to act like she did before and becomes rather timid. With that the strong dialogue is also gone and Austen simply plays out the intended conclusion of the different story threads. It is rather the opposite of Sense And Sensibility which had most of it surprises and sparks in the final part, while there is little of that in Pride And Prejudice.

Austen shows vast improvement with Pride And Prejudice. Not only in her storytelling but also in her dialogue. She does not manage to maintain that level however  and the second part of the novel is rather average. All in all it is a good read as it avoids too overly romantic mesmerizing, making it more accessible and entertaining novel, with many interesting characters.

 

Jane Austen – Sense And Sensibility

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I usually don’t venture into the realm of women’s literature except by accident if the backcover of a book does not give away the usual stereotypical elements of the story. There are of course exceptions. Some works of women’s literature have survived the test of time and they are of an age they also represent and depict the times they are written in as they are contemporary novels of that period. I am not speaking in a negative way about these novels. Just like there are books that mainly men like, there are also books that only have female fans. Usually one sex does not cross over to the territory of the other sex. That’s just how things are.

Among those works are the novels of Jane Austen. I have a collected works edition which I purchased for a cheap price six and a half years ago. It thus took some time before I was in the right mood to give it a go. I have started with Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense And Sensibility (1811). It was different than I expected. First off was Austen’s prose which is easy to read. She does have a tendency to use certain words and phrases frequently but not too often. It’s not like other authors don’t do so, but the words Austen uses are rather different from the typical. Secondly the settings and events were much more mundane and not as dramatic as is more common these days. Yes there were some dramatic scenes but they were limited and Austen wrapped them in a proper wrapping in which the characters behave in a bit more constrained way.

Austen narrates the story from an all-knowing third person viewpoint. With this she also constrains the dialogue she uses. Much dialogue is unsaid and mainly summarized while these would often lead to an interesting interaction between characters. On a few occasions the dialogue became more extensive as a character started holding a long monologue which was more of a long rambling than making sense or a point.

Although the story is told by an all-knowing narrator most of the focus is on one female character. Secondary are her younger sister and a old matron with whom they spend much time. It are these three which we get to know best. There is a range of side-characters, most of which get very few lines of dialogue and of whom we learn little background. Opposite those three female characters are three male characters who take center stage and of whom we learn more. They are however not that often around but can be seen as the main side-characters.

The story itself is somewhat peculiar. We mainly get a view of the lives of English upper class women. They do not work and if they have children they don’t need to spend all their time on them. Much time is spent on gossiping, reading, handicraft or play cards. They also take many walks in the countryside if they reside there, or shopping when they are in a city. It depicts a rather leisurely life in which not much happens. One typical element is lengthy stays at other people as everyone tries to seek variation in companionship so they can introduce their guests to their own circle in society. Of the men we get to know very little as they are mostly out of sight.

The plot is very much about gossiping and possible engagements between men and women. Austen throws in some twists to provide some dramatic developments but she keeps these constrained so that the events are not deepened more than necessary.

Overall Sense And Sensibility was a much better read than expected. The main character was well chosen due to her great sense and composure and was very likable. The settings and many side characters however remained rather shallow. As relationships form the core of the story, anything that is not related to it is mostly ignored. There was thus a lack of detail which made the story not that contemporary. Many events are relatively timeless, despite the lack of quick communications and ways to travel.

I made quite some remarks but these do not make this a poor novel. I won’t really say it is a good novel. It is a decent one and the peculiarities depicted through the times it is set in allow for a different atmosphere. Together with the fine prose these make this novel a fine read.

 

Doris Lessing – The Grass Is Singing

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

In her debut novel The Grass Is Singing (1950), Doris Lessing takes the reader to southern Africa, the area in which she grew up herself, and provides a view on the lives of the people there, those who have been there for some time and those who are looking for new chances. It is a time of colonization, albeit a slow one, that is defined by a clear separation between the native Africans and the white population. It is a peculiar society with many unwritten rules. Lessing does not put these up front but shows it by describing the daily lives and behavior of the characters.

There are not many characters in the story. It is centered around an odd couple leading an isolated life on their farm. There are three notable side characters although even they get relatively little attention. All other characters get hardly any attention. I have pretty much forgotten them already.  With so few characters it is obvious that Lessing delves deep into them and pretty much takes everything she can make of it. The downside, even though the novel is not long, is that the reader will get the gist of it at a certain point and the rest is simply sitting it out.

Although there is plenty of story there is not really that much plot development. Lessing actually takes the most dramatic event to the front of the novel. This device worked well as it immediately got me intrigued. It spurred me on on the next chapters to see what had been going on. As I mentioned earlier, Lessing then starts taking her time. It is not that the pace is too slow, but one starts to realize that the most interesting part has already been read and one is reading a thorough study of how things came to be, which is not that exciting. I still hoped for the story to take a different turn but at a certain point you realize it is not going to happen.

The novel is well written. As said Lessing starts with a strong opening. Her description of the different types of life in southern Africa is clear and easily understandable. One can see the many layers without them really being touched. As Lessing was probably very familiar with these she did not need to go into detail as she was simply describing what was natural to her. It is for the reader to actually recognize it. It is here that you see the quality of the novel.

The story itself is a drama or tragedy. There is no real happiness and life for the characters is quite bleak. It did not yet become depressing, but this kind of novel is not something I enjoy to read. I read on to see it to the end, partially in the hope it would have some twist in store or some development that would make a difference. This did not happen and because of that this book does not get a positive review from me. It is not that I require a happy ending but I have a positive attitude. If a story does not hold a bigger message of some meaning it will simply not touch me. This is the case for The Grass Is Singing. It is the study of a tragedy and it holds nothing more than a fine picture of the time and place the story is set in.