Well crafted middle-of-the-road thriller with a nice Rashoman thing going on, past events remembered and understood differently by different characte Well crafted middle-of-the-road thriller with a nice Rashoman thing going on, past events remembered and understood differently by different characters. Interesting for being set in the "satanic child abuse" madness of the 1980s, an aberration which everyone was far too quick to forget about once it was over. The "solution" is not 100% satisfying, but they so rarely are. I prefer this one to the super-popular one -- much better pacing....more
OK. OK. First, the concept of the Alexandria Quartet sounds like something I would just love. Second, my wife loves these books, and we don't often diOK. OK. First, the concept of the Alexandria Quartet sounds like something I would just love. Second, my wife loves these books, and we don't often diverge too far from one another on questions of literature. Third, it appears on all the lists where you find the kinds of books that I always either love or at least find great merit in. So, it seems like Justine and I were made for each other.
Here is my history with this book: Shortly after we were married, I set out excitedly and made it to page three or so. Several years later, I figured I must have grown as a reader by now, and set out to -- well, I made it to page three or so again. Now, several years later again, I figured I would try listening to it. I seldom meet an audiobook I don't like! Plus, I've doubtless grown as a reader.
Now, the reputation of this book is such that I feel like in giving it my one malicious star, I am really just damning my own paltry intellect. But, here's what I see in Justine:
Twaddle. Endless dithering over a cut-rate soap opera scenario. The much vaunted style is quite something, all right, in that it manages to be at once maddeningly ethereal and doggedly pompous. It is shot through with portentous assertions that, on an moment's reflection, are simply inane. Passages pulled out as examples of the lovely prose, when you really look at them, dissolve into strings of words that mean next to nothing. The only stylistic merit I can see here is that, in a first-person narrative, Durrell successfully recreated the sensation of reading in someone else's personal diary, something that always sounds rather racy but is almost always stultifying in actual practice.
I will continue with the Quartet, and I look forward to looking at my shamefully philistine attack on this great literary masterpiece in future days, once I've grown as a reader, with the mortification I no doubt deserve....more
Sometimes I think I oughta go back and dock every Nero Wolfe a star. They're generally entertaining, but there's no denying that they have more than aSometimes I think I oughta go back and dock every Nero Wolfe a star. They're generally entertaining, but there's no denying that they have more than a whiff of hackwork about them, and that they are in a lot of ways the same damn story fifty times. Like most of 'em, this one is emphatically pretty good....more
Hard Times is, like most of Charles Dickens’ work, driven by a profoundly humane impulse. Here as ever, Dickens wants to tell stories that are emotionHard Times is, like most of Charles Dickens’ work, driven by a profoundly humane impulse. Here as ever, Dickens wants to tell stories that are emotionally and intellectually involving, but also to demonstrate that decency can prevail over apathy and villainy. He wants to show his middle-class Victorian readers something of the conditions of the working classes, to cast light on the intricate social, political, educational, medical, geographical, legal, and architectural systems by which the cards were thoroughly stacked against the urban poor, and against himself in his own tough childhood. He is one of the founders of the modern social conscience, bless his heart.
The broadest target in Hard Times is an educational system based solely on the rote learning of facts. Early on we meet Mr. Gradgrind, who demands that his students, including his own children, commit a random treasury of technical esoterica to memory. He strives to save them from the distractions of emotion, self-expression, and entertainment, and comes off as a Victorian Mr. Spock without the madcap sense of whimsy. The second broadest target is the Victorian industrialist; our real villain will prove to be Mr. Bounderby, a gasbag who prides himself on his humble origins and holds his labor force in contempt for not having pulled themselves up to be factory owners like himself. To be exploited to the hilt, he might bluster, is no more than they deserve for their lack of initiative.
Now to a modern eye, the caricatures that Dickens offers seem pretty darn broad, but as the editor of my 1969 edition (a charmingly Marxist professor of the old school) is at pains to point out, the satire is not nearly as over-the-top as it seems in retrospect. Mid-Victorian regimentation of factory labor and education did such a fine job of parodying itself that the social critic had to strain to take things one step further. (The editor is disappointed only that Dickens does not call for the reader to rise up and cast off the chains of capitalism, but reasonably concedes that for him to do so would have really cut into his sales.)
But it is not the setting and situation that makes Hard Times a bad novel; it is the paper-thin characters that inhabit its mechanical contrivance of a plot. Most people know the principle of fiction writing that an author should “show, not tell.” In Hard Times, Dickens gets it backwards. He tells and does not show.
Let me show you what I mean. (See what I did there?) Here are three examples on facing pages 60 and 61, where I opened the book at random:
“Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me. They were right; they had no business to do anything else. I was a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest. I know that very well.”
His pride in having at any time of his life achieved such a great social distinction as to be a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest, was only to be satisfied by three sonorous repetitions of the boast.
In the first paragraph, we hear Mr. Bounderby blustering about his childhood. This is fine and good. In the second paragraph, Dickens essentially inserts a footnote explaining what the dialog was meant to convey about his character. This is tedious, and just a little insulting.
Mr. Gradgrind did not seem favourably impressed by these cogent remarks. He frowned impatiently.
Here, Dickens somewhat pompously tells us about how his character reacted, or “seemed” to react, before grudgingly giving us three words that show us what actually happened. The sad thing is that those three words, if left to their work, could have carried the weight of the passage very effectively on their own. They needed no introduction.
‘Go and be somethingological directly,’ [said Mrs. Gradgrind]. Mrs. Gradgrind was not a scientific character, and usually dismissed her children to their studies with this general injunction to choose their pursuit.
Here we go again: Mrs. Gradgrind makes an amusing malapropism that shows she isn’t well-educated. This is good character writing – and it is immediately ruined by a long, dull sentence that explains, and therefore ruins, the joke.
This constant barrage of explanation is, I assure you, not limited to pages 60 and 61. Throughout Hard Times, Dickens relentlessly explains his own jokes, heckles his own villains, and swoons over the virtues of his own heroes. The effect, as you would expect, is painfully tedious – “like having the intended message(s) hammered into you by a journeyman carpenter” as Maddy, who was book-clubbing the reading with me, put it.
When you are required to read a bad book, even if only by your own stubbornness, there is an unfortunate kind of literary relativity in which – because it is so untempting to pick up and so easy to put back down – the time required to plow through it can stretch out for weeks. Hard Times is actually one of Dickens’ shortest novels, but it took me an age to read. Well, 16 days. But it felt like an age.
In reviewing Barnaby Rudge, I said that “in reviewing Martin Chuzzlewit, I said that ‘Second-rank Dickens is better than the first rank of most authors.’ I'll stand by that. Third-rank Dickens might however be given a miss.”
In Hard Times, we have arrived at Fourth-rank Dickens. ...more
I usually assume that audio gives a detective novel a bump of a half-star to a star. And, I had little patience for the Dalgleish novels when I was liI usually assume that audio gives a detective novel a bump of a half-star to a star. And, I had little patience for the Dalgleish novels when I was listening to them. But after I nicked this paperback from a B&B last weekend, I found it pretty compulsive reading. Maybe P.D. James is better read than heard. Or, maybe any light fiction seems fantastic when you read it right after "Moby Dick."
An excellent guide to writing well about movies, in which all the advice is good and nothing is left out. If you know how to write pretty well, you caAn excellent guide to writing well about movies, in which all the advice is good and nothing is left out. If you know how to write pretty well, you can read this book and feel happy that you know the robes. If you don't know how to write pretty well -- and here's the problem -- it's really hard for me to believe that you would understand much of the advice on offer here....more
My memory did not deceive me: there is a distinct dropping-off in the fourth book of Martin's saga. For all of the volume of the text, there is a feelMy memory did not deceive me: there is a distinct dropping-off in the fourth book of Martin's saga. For all of the volume of the text, there is a feeling of marching in place; Brienne, for instance, tramps around for chapter after chapter, with nothing of much consequence coming of it. Book Four is also a really late date to start into entire new plots, such as the business in Dorne. Also, how many times are people going to use the phrase "mummer's farce"? But slightly off George R.R. is better than the very best of legions of fantasy writers....more
A Nero Wolfe novel most interesting, and rather charming, for its picture of Montana life as imagined from New York in the late 1950s. If, like me, yoA Nero Wolfe novel most interesting, and rather charming, for its picture of Montana life as imagined from New York in the late 1950s. If, like me, you prefer Archie to Nero, it is also nice in that you get quite a ways in before the big guy makes his first appearance....more
I read "Moby Dick" 23 years ago, and was left with the impression that the dull technical chapters ruined what was otherwise a fine novel of the sea.I read "Moby Dick" 23 years ago, and was left with the impression that the dull technical chapters ruined what was otherwise a fine novel of the sea. I was wrong about that. It's not that the technical chapters are dull; they aren't, especially. It's rather that the whole sprawling massive length of the thing is dull. This is a shame, because it is also a quirky and epic piece of writing that often shines. Melville threw everything but the kitchen sink into this novel -- as with "War and Peace," you kind of wonder if it is really a "novel" -- and much of it sticks. There are many passages of brilliance and many snarky passages of biting wit. The tale as a whole is simple but sound, and you can reasonably approach the thing as a treasure-house of odd facts, opinions, incidents, and bluster.
But if there were ever a book that needed a firm editorial hand, man, this is it. If it were just to weed out the ceaseless apostrophizing that passes for dialog, that would tighten things up beautifully. Or if the secondary characters, Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb, could not just be cartoonishly different from each other, but could be actual characters with something of the breath of life in them, that would be great too. Or if Melville could keep the grandstanding of his intimacy with Shakespeare, scripture, and mythology under control -- catch up to the 1850s, grandpa! -- then I might be able to get through more than five pages at a stretch without nodding off.
"Moby Dick" was a flop at first publication, and that was partially bad luck -- the final chapter was left out of the original edition, and you can see where that could be hard on a book. But it must also have struck its original readers as awfully old-fashioned, and perplexing in its anything-goes structure. Seventy or eighty years later, it began its rise as a critical darling. It has a lot to recommend itself as such. Since it's old, we are required to forgive it for being archaic; because we are interested in form, we are intrigued by its one-of-a-kind narrative architecture; since we are smart and catch the references, we end up being flattered by Melville's overattachment to his influences.
The truth, as we say, is somewhere in between. "Moby Dick" is a quirky, individual piece of literature that didn't deserve to be a flop. Conversely, it is a deeply flawed book that doesn't really earn its household-name status in the literary landscape. It is bloated. To make a painfully obvious metaphor -- and why not, Melville's characters can barely speak without doing the same -- the lean musculature is there, but it's buried under tiresome layers of blubber.
Which is to say: three stars. "I liked it."...more
Small town scandal and fables of the reconstruction, as told by elders to doomed Quentin Compson and by him to his college roommate.
It is, I think itSmall town scandal and fables of the reconstruction, as told by elders to doomed Quentin Compson and by him to his college roommate.
It is, I think it is fair to say, a ~dense~ novel, and not one to be taken in effortlessly on the first pass on an audiobook. A couple of eye-readings, one with an open notebook on hand, would probably be more effective. On the other hand, the stories and language have a lot of charm when read out loud.
Much of the effect of the book seems to depend on figuring out who knew what when, which is made all the more tricky as much of the action is reported third or fourth hand, or is simply speculative -- one character thinking about what another character probably thought or did. Keeping track of all that would be where that notebook would come in handy. In the meantime, I'm so far from being able to really understand this book that I haven't completely figured out why it's called Absolom, Absolom!, despite being reasonably up on the Book of Samuel....more
When I discovered I enjoyed Nero Wolfe a few years back, I was delighted that I had such a huge number of books available ahead of me. I probably shouWhen I discovered I enjoyed Nero Wolfe a few years back, I was delighted that I had such a huge number of books available ahead of me. I probably should have anticipated that there would also be a hell of a lot of repetition. This is especially acute in the books that slap together three or four short stories, where you can end up getting introduced to all of the secondary characters three times in an afternoon. I also like the short format less for compressing the cases beyond the chance for much real detecting. But, they are what they are, right?...more
If Nero Wolfe is going to solve a crime by comparing the writing style of different authors, it's only fair that we get to see some examples of theirIf Nero Wolfe is going to solve a crime by comparing the writing style of different authors, it's only fair that we get to see some examples of their writing. Since Stout couldn't pull that off, or at any event didn't, he seems to solve this case by arbitrary magic. That's always the case, really, but this one kind of rubs our noses in it....more