Reading List — May

May 22nd, 2008

Phnom Penh — Still reading out of the city’s used bookshops, but this was a great month. Not a stinker in the bunch, and no fewer than two to which I’m happy to give five stars. Every time I doubt the appropriateness of the stars (How would I like it if some clown gave one star to something I worked eighteen months to write?), along comes a book like The Bride of Science or Woman on the Opposite Shore, both of which are described below, and that fifth star suddenly twinkles at me as a hyperbole-free way of saying THIS IS A GREAT BOOK.

So anyway:

The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, Adam Williams, 3.5 stars: A jumbo barrel of a novel, this is sort of a throwback to the James Clavell School, a 500-page saga about the Boxer Rebellion – or, more specifically, about the impact of the Boxer Rebellion on the Caucasians who were living in China at the time. Williams’ family has lived in China since the middle of the 19th century (he currently lives in Beijing), so he knows the country and its history in a way few Westerners can. And he tells an enormous, compelling story that held me pretty much spellbound for the three days I was dragging my nose across the pages. He also kills his main characters with a lighthearted abandon I haven’t seen since Hitchcock punctured Janet Leigh in that shower. This is an interesting creative decision because it forces the reader to abandon the conventional assumption that this character or that character (or any character, for that matter) will live through the book. They drop like flies. The novel is also a throwback to Clavell in a less salutary sense: the perspective is so resolutely European that there’s no real attempt to explain why the boxers (a) came into existence in the first place, or (b) decided to kill every foreigner in China. And, in fact, virtually all the fully fleshed characters are European. The Chinese are pretty much wily, inscrutable Mandarins, bandit thugs, faithful servants, cloud-cuckoo mystics, and prostitutes. If Williams had invested the Chinese characters with half as much humanity as he did the Westerners, this would be a very different (and, to my mind, much better) book.

Alec Guinness, Piers Paul Reid, 4 stars: A doorstop-size biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest and most impenetrable actors. I’ve been fascinated for years by the great generation of mid-20th-century British classical actors that emerged from Lillian Baylis’s Old Vic, especially the towering quartet of Olivier, Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Guinness. On public display as performers for decades and decades, they nevertheless remained elusive as human beings. (As Olivier famously said, “Scratch an actor, and you’ll find another actor underneath.”) Guinness was perhaps the most private of all of them, although Reid is inexhaustible in exploring every remaining shred of evidence about the actor’s life. As seems to be required of all modern biographers, he looks past Guinness’s lifelong marriage to question the actor’s sexua1orientation. (Actually, it’s required only for biographers of heterosexuals – the last few biographies I’ve read of homosexuals never raised the faintest suggestion that there might have been the occasional errant heterosexual impulse. Maybe there’s a doctoral dissertation there.) I don’t really care whether Guinness was straight, gay, or enjoyed the company of small fluffy animals – what I want to know is how, if at all, his sexuality affected his craft, and that’s not here. On the other hand, Read is very persuasive about the impact on Guinness’s work of his lifelong shame about his mother, whom he referred to as “a whore,” and his miserable childhood as a bastard who was named “Guinness” because his mother vaguely hoped his father might be a member of the wealthy brewing family. His anger at women blazed up at times in his work; In rehearsal for “Hamlet” he apparently terrified his Ophelia so badly in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene that she was afraid to return the following day. The book follows Guinness through a long and intermittently triumphant career, and in a major plus for those of us who never saw him on stage, the biographer pays a lot of attention to Guinness’s film work. The actor was brilliant on film but never enjoyed it. He quarreled endlessly with David Lean over the interpretation of his character in “The Bridge over the River Kwai.” He called stage acting “the profession” but film acting was “the industry.” The book also offers some great insights into the lives and work of Gielgud, who gave Guinness his start, and Olivier, whom Guinness never really liked.

The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter, Benjamin Woolley, 5 stars: Book of the month. This revelatory biography was loaned to me by the same person who loaned me Fermat’s Theorum last month, and I’m not giving it back. It’s a dazzler. Lord Byron’s wife, Anabella, married the almost uniquely dissolute poet in the hope that she could reform him, which was a little like trying to dam a river with a toothpick. Byron not only cheated on her, he cheated on her with his own half-sister, with whom he may even have had a child. Anabella did something women simply did not do in that age: she took her very young daughter, Ada, and left her husband, causing one of the great British scandals of the 19th century. Anabella was certainly wronged (and was later much defended by feminists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe), but she was also completely, certifiably, nuts. She created a curriculum for her daughter that was designed to crush the child’s imagination – which Anabella feared Ada had inherited from Byron – and emphasize only the factual, such as mathematics and memorization. She also abandoned the child for months on end, leaving her in the care of a procession of extremely peculiar nannies. Under such eccentric tutelage, Ada grew up willful and brilliant, becoming a mathematician of some note and working with Charles Babbage, the creator of “The Difference Engine,” which was probably the world’s first computer, and its even more complicated successor, “The Analytical Engine.” (Babbage believed that everything could be seen in terms of probabilities. He calculated the probability of death being followed by resurrection, and also the odds against a miracle.) Babbage turned to Ada to write the book explaining The Analytical Engine, in the hope that the book would help him raise funding. It didn’t; in fact, one politician suggested that the Engine’s only practical use was calculating the odds against its ever having any actual scientific value. However, in writing her book Ada came up with some applications that have been called the first software programs. (The U.S. Department of Defense in the early 1980s named the language they created for their own computers “Ada” in her honor.) And in spite of everything Annabella could do to quash Ada’s imaginative powers, she was one of the very first to understand that science and mathematics are imaginative activities, coming up with as good a description of the imagination as any I’ve ever read: it allows us to create new groupings of, and see new connections among, ideas and experiences, and it allows us to see the unseeable. Ada’s life ended in tragedy – a descent into unsuitable male companions, compulsive gambling, illness, and an inability to free herself from her appalling mother – but in a way, all that just increases my admiration for her. (She wanted to use Babbage’s Analytical Engine to identify more precisely the odds in a horse race.) This is a rich and wonderful book.

Woman on the Other Shore, Mitsuyo Kakuta, 5 stars: The Japanese apparently give an annual award called the Naoki, for “Best Popular Fiction,” which is the kind of inverse snobbery that really makes me sneeze. This book won it, although it deserves a much less condescending honor. On the deceptively simple surface, this is the story of an unlikely friendship between two women in their thirties. The first, Aoi, is the unmarried owner of a struggling little business, and the other, Sayoko, is locked in a perfunctory marriage to an undemonstrative salary-man. The only thing that keeps Sayoko going is her love for her young daughter, Akari. We don’t learn until quite late in the book what it is that keeps Aoi going, but it’s well worth the wait. This is a book about friendship and love and faith, the casual brutality of high school, and the difficulty – sometimes, the impossibility – of establishing one’s identity. And it’s about volition and strength, especially the strength to prevail against a world of small cruelties and disappointments that can lead us, in our most defenseless moments, to believe that life may not be worth the trouble. I’ve never read Kakuta before, but she joins Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami on my list of Japanese writers whose work I love. Of all the books I’ve blogged about this year, this is the one I most wish I were capable of writing.

World Without End, Ken Follett, 4 stars: Aptly named, at 1010 pages, this novel of the Middle Ages is Follett’s follow-up to the sensationally successful The Pillars of the Earth. The sequel is set some two centuries after the first book, in the same fictional town of Kingsbridge, and with the same rich mixture of characters one learns very quickly to love or loathe. Follett has a genuine talent for bringing to life the vicious, mendacious, and treacherous, and the villains in World Without End alone are sufficient reason to plow through this backbreaker. (Not a book to take on a plane, by the way, unless you hire someone to carry it for you.) Fortunately, the villains aren’t the only reasons. All the storytelling skill and narrative energy that made The Pillars of the Earth so compulsively readable are on display here, as is Follett’s inexhaustible talent for event: Time and again, the reader is brought up against yet another situation in which the triumph of evil seems certain, and time and again the reader falls for it, hook, line, and sinker. Follett is just extraordinary at engineering those moments when the outcomes of entire lives are in the balance. The sense of day-to-day life in the period is vivid and probably accurate. If I have a problem with the book, it’s with Follett’s determination to demonstrate that women of the period were as empowered as men, when that simply was not the case. Obviously, women played a determining role in daily life, and occasionally exercised influence in the realms of business and politics, but when Follett creates a character with more career choices available to her than Hillary Clinton, he strains the book’s credibility. This is rattling good melodrama, though, and I pretty much swallowed it whole.

JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone, and Me, Eric Hamburg, 3 stars: It’s always a good sign when an author writes an introduction primarily to make it clear that he hasn’t created a “get even” book. The jacket might as well have a POISON label on it. This one has a fascinating premise: the author worked on Capitol Hill for Representative Lee Hamilton and Senator John Kerry, majoring, so to speak, in practical politics, and minoring in the field of JFK assassination conspiracy theory. So it was a natural segue for him to abandon Washington for the Hollywood of Oliver Stone, whose “JFK” is certainly the greatest film ever made on the topic. Hamburg helped Stone develop and produce “Nixon” and another film, “On Any Sunday.” All this is fresh and interesting. The rest of the book will also be fresh and interesting to anyone, if there is anyone, who doesn’t already know or assume that Oliver Stone is a vicious, impossible, multiply-addicted rageaholic and egomaniac who treats other people like tissue that someone has already wiped himself or herself on. What we don’t see is what actually drives Stone or, more important, how he gets his results; for example, we learn that he demands draft after draft of scripts, but we get no sense of what he’s looking for, or how he whips a writer into becoming a conduit for his (Stone’s) vision. That might have been interesting from a creative standpoint, more interesting at any rate than learning that he routinely yells at limo drivers and dresses exclusively in black. For me the most fascinating part of the book is the portrait of a mid-level executive named Danny (the Weasel) Halsted, who is everything Sammy Glick ever wanted to be, and more. But the problem with this book –with all books in this genre – is that, at the end of the day, Oliver Stone (or any other subject about whom a book like this is written) is Oliver Stone, and the person who wrote the book very decisively isn’t. Oh, and talk about having it both ways: the author photo on the jacket shows Hamburg standing next to none other than (who, class?) that’s right — Oliver Stone.

The Quick Red Fox, John D. McDonald, 3.5 stars: Some writers hold up over time and some don’t, as I found out when I revisited Adam Hall’s “Quiller” series a few months back and found it almost embarrassingly testicular. If there were a Masculinity Index to measure the sheer Guyness of writers and/or their protagonists, Quiller would be awarded six balls, which places him securely on the far side of parody, intentional or not. John D. McDonald is more difficult. For one thing, he can write circles around most everyone in the mystery series business. Here’s the opening paragraph of The Quick Red Fox: “A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of a February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly. It picked up gray slabs of the Atlantic and smacked them down on the public beach across the highway from Bahia Mar.” Elmore Leonard says never to open with weather, but this opening had me at “gray slabs.” And then there’s his plotting, which is tight and always tidy, character-driven and full of surprises. And his villains. And damn near everything except Travis McGee’s relationship to women, which is based largely on the assumption that there’s nothing wrong with any female that can’t be cured by a week of schtupping old Trav on a sailboat. Travis really loves women. He sees them as individuals, he respects them in the morning, but he regards them almost exclusively in terms of men. Men are what make things go wrong with them, and men are what can fix it. Truly independent women are sort of aberrational — there’s a violent physical confrontation in this book with a pair of butch lesbians that’s funny in a way McDonald certainly never thought it would be. (And as if there weren’t already enough rumors about the Dinah Shore golf tournament, one of them attacks Trav with a putter.) Women in these books fall into two categories — either beddable by Trav (with respect and affection, of course) or not, and if they’re not, chances are good that the problem isn’t Trav’s. But this book was written in 1964 — 44 years ago, unbelievably enough — and I’ll forgive McDonald all of this because he’s a master, one of the real heroes of the genre. This is not one of his stronger books, though. As you might expect from a guy who wrote more than seventy (!) novels, he coasted occasionally, and he appears to be coasting here, with a villain who, when the mystery is solved, proves to be someone who barely makes an appearance in the earlier parts of the book. But I’ll still take so-so McDonald over the best of a lot of other writers. In fact, I’d give my right arm to be able to do some of what he made look so easy.

11 Responses to “Reading List — May”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    “If there were a Masculinity Index to measure the sheer Guyness of writers and/or their protagonists, Quiller would be awarded six balls, which places him securely on the far side of parody, intentional or not.”

    This is wonderful. You have to add the Masculinity Index to your star system.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I am SO IMPRESSED that anyone managed to read to the bottom of this thing. These get longer and longer.

    Thanks, fairyhedgehog, for appreciating the MI (Mascularity Index). I might continue to use it. The funny thing is that the two books I loved best this month have the lowest MI. And I’ve been a guy for years.

  3. Dana King Says:

    A friend turned me on to John D. Macdonald when I first sterted to pay attention to my writing. I read several Travis McGees, THE GIRL, THE GOLD WATCH, AND EVERYTHING, and what I think might be the best mystery short story ever written, I ALWAYS GET THE CUTIES. I stopped reading after a while, I don’t really remember why. I’m going to have to give him another try.

    Thanks for doing these. It’s a good way to keep tabs on authors I’ve either missed, or have fallen off my personal radar.

  4. Sphinx Ink Says:

    Your reviews are as entertaining as the books themselves may be.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Dana — I went right from “The Quick Red Fox” to another Travis McGee, “Pale Gray for Guilt,” and it’s class A. And “The Girl, The Gold Watch, And Everything” is something I should read again. McDonald was a real master and I’ve gone online to find the short story.

    Hi, Sphinxy, and thanks for being so nice. I don’t know about the reviews being as entertaining as the books, but they’re beginning to seem longer than the books. Just for the hell of it I clicked on the READING button and looked at the earlier ones, and they were a short paragraph per book. These are more fun to write, though.

  6. Bill Clark Says:

    But I’ll still take so-so McDonald over the best of a lot of other writers. In fact, I’d give my right arm to be able to do some of what he made look so easy.

    Yeah, who wouldn’t? Prolific as he was, I wish he written two or three times the number of books he did; his turns of phrase and character insights are still fresh and vital even decades later. To take issue with Samuel Johnson’s rather snotty dismissal of Paradise Lost – “No one ever wished it longer” – I wish the Travis McGee series had survived into the 21st century; I would love to hear Trav’s take on global warming, and to see how his views on the fair sex might have evolved.

  7. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I’m with Sphinx. I love reading your reviews. I wish the “real” reviewers could be half as entertaining.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    You’re right, of course: nothing is easier than to take slaps at the sexual attitudes of writers who wrote too early to benefit from the miraculous and all-encompassing enlightenment of political correctness. Since the book in which I read THE QUICK RED FOX also included PALE GRAY FOR GUILT and DRESS HER IN INDIGO, I kept right on reading, and both the other titles are stronger (and less wince-inducing) than FOX. McDonald was one of the greats, no matter how you slice it.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Lisa — from a writer as good as you are, that means a whole lot. Now if I could only make them shorter.

  10. Larissa Says:

    I am going to run out and get The Bride of Science. Sounds like my sort of book. How’s the writing going with the problematic Poke? I’ve been trying to keep up with everyone lately but I’ve been focused on getting settled and getting used to not living out of a backpack anymore. Scampering off to go do practical things like banking now. Great reviews as always (c:

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Larissa —

    I think you’ll love “The Bride of Science.”

    The book suddenly snapped into life, and not only have I actually known where I was going for the past couple of weeks, but the writing itself is coming easily and well, even the narrative. I’m REALLY liking how much of it reads and the way I’m visualizing the scenes in the narrative.

    And last night I went to bed at ten and woke up at two and over the next two hours of turning over and trying to get comfortable, I realized I was answering virtually every question I had about what’s REALLY going on behind the scenes — and it’s better and more devious than anything I’d anticipated. So about 4:30 I got up and wrote it all down.

    We’ll see.

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