One of the few novels directly addressing gay male life in the early 60s, A Single Man mixes up bits of comedy of Southern California manners, academiOne of the few novels directly addressing gay male life in the early 60s, A Single Man mixes up bits of comedy of Southern California manners, academic fiction, "A Day in the Life," and Ulysses (we track a man who seems more ordinary through he is through a very long day). From London and Berlin to SoCal, Isherwood viewed gay experience from a variety of angles; he's very clearly critical of the heterosexual mating rituals--the picture of suburban life in the shadow of the Cuban Missle crisis is spot on--but he's not really celebrating gay life. Rather, he gives us a realistic picture of man who's conflicted, self-accepting, uncertain, unhappy, smart in an acerbic, nearly nihilistic way. There are points where it's hard to tell whether Isherwood has any critical distance from his protagonist, and there are definitely points where I got a bit bugged with his (Isherwood's? the protagonist's?) sense of superiority. Some of the humor is misogynistic; not an unusual piece of gay life in the closeted era (though, to be clear, neither Isherwood nor his protagonist are closeted, which is part of the interest of the book)....more
Small gem of a book, more novella than novel. Fitzgerald, who didn't begin writing until her 60s, has a wonderful eye for character and detail. ThrougSmall gem of a book, more novella than novel. Fitzgerald, who didn't begin writing until her 60s, has a wonderful eye for character and detail. Through most of the book I was wondering whether there was going to be anything more than local color and character study. The answer's yes. The final chapters unfold into something deeply unsettling about the way evil plays out in quiet circumstances. Fitzgerald has a reputation as a writer's writer; she deserves it....more
Classic realism,with a contemporary multicultural twist. Donald Pizer, probably the premier critic of American realism and naturalism, describes realiClassic realism,with a contemporary multicultural twist. Donald Pizer, probably the premier critic of American realism and naturalism, describes realism as focusing on unexceptional characters (ordinary people) written in a style that's based on verismilitude. Focusing on the experience of a quartet of characters living in a lower middle class/working class area of London, Smith does a nice job portraying their aspirations and frustrations. Ultimately, felt a tad formulaic, but I didn't regret the time I spent with it....more
Archetypal Dickens, filled English land and cityscapes, powerful meditative passages, memorable characters--Uriah Heep, Mr. and Mrs. Micawbur, PeggotyArchetypal Dickens, filled English land and cityscapes, powerful meditative passages, memorable characters--Uriah Heep, Mr. and Mrs. Micawbur, Peggoty, Barkis, various saintly women and evil stepfathers and aunts. Dickens acknowledged that of all his children, David Copperfield was his favorite and it's not hard to see why. Anyone with any affection for Dickens will love the book to some degree.
As one of those Dickens-lovers, I find myself placing it just outside the first rank of his novels: Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorritt, and maybe Bleak House. The differences for me are pretty simple: David Copperfield (and here it's closest relative is Great Expectations) is tightly tied to the perspective and experience of the title character; the Dickens I like best is a bit more expansive, putting more emphasis on social milieu than the character's sensibility. What I remember from Little Dorritt is the sense of London as a series of interlocking prisons; from Bleak House (which managed to transcend the worst choice of narrative voice imaginable for half the chapters), the crushing inhumanity of the institutions; from Our Mutual Friend the endless moral abyss. Copperfield has a good deal of that, especially in its picture of children abandoned, mistreated, and somehow managing to survive.
Reading this alongside Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch--see my GR review for a more extended reflection on what she does with Dickens--heightened my sense of the Mannichean morality underlying most of Dickens' novels (though receding in Our Mutual Friend and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, which might well have been my favorite if Dickens had lived to finish it). The good characters are good, the bad characters are bad. They don't change and for the most part they get what's coming to them. Sometimes that can lead to silly scenes like the chapter near the end in the prison. I get a bit impatient with the saintly women and the neat endings, but if that really bothers you, Dickens isn't your guy anyway. I won't remember the details of the endings nearly as long as I remember the characters and the world they live in.
Personal note: this is the last Dickens novel I hadn't read. I'd been saving it for "later" and turning sixty seemed a sign that later had arrived. Fortunately, it's been so long since I read Oliver Twist or Dombey and Son that I can go back to them like they're new....more
A small novel I'd describe as "Jamesian" (as in the Henry of What Maisie Knew and The Aspern Papers). It's strengths are the subtlety of the portraitA small novel I'd describe as "Jamesian" (as in the Henry of What Maisie Knew and The Aspern Papers). It's strengths are the subtlety of the portrait of the narrator, a 60-ish man looking back over his life and obsessing about events of his college days. (I'm not going to say much specific for fear of spoilers, but I found the plot resolution unsatisfying and a bit contrived.) There are some nice meditative passages focusing on the relationship between history and memory, emphasizing the difficulty of attaining anything resembling certainty about the events which have shaped one's life.
Somehow I'd never gotten around to reading any Barnes, despite the dozens of positive reviews I've read of his work. All of those emphasize his stylistic mastery and I can see why. I'll probably check out at least one more of his books--probably Flaubert's Parrot. For the moment, though, he's not challenging for a place on my A list of contemporary fiction writers....more
The situation this novel deals with is fascinating: the death of a black Scottish jazz trumpet player who, after is death, is revealed to be biologicaThe situation this novel deals with is fascinating: the death of a black Scottish jazz trumpet player who, after is death, is revealed to be biologically female. The story is told from a variety of perspectives: the trumpeter's "wife"; his adopted son (also a black Scot); a writer researching a sensationalistic book; his mother; former bandmates; doctors and undertakers. It's a serious questioning of the meanings of identity and the limits of self-redefinition. Ultimately, though, something doesn't quite work for me, probably because the jazz dimension feels nailed on. Anyone into the theoretical/queer theory interrogation of gender should read it. Beyond that, it depends on whether the material appeals to you. If so, go ahead. If not, there are better jazz books....more
Orwell spent six months fighting with an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War, an experience which contributed greatly to his hatred for CommuniOrwell spent six months fighting with an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War, an experience which contributed greatly to his hatred for Communism, which he saw as a right wing, essentially fascist, political ideology. His chapters on life in the militia give a clear picture of the deadly boring experience on the front lines, effective but not as powerful as numerous other war novels and memoirs. His chapter on the internal political conflicts that doomed the Spanish Republican government is first-rate, as good an introduction to the tangled politics on the left between the two World Wars as any. Good Orwell, not great Orwell....more
The quintessential spy novel and, along with The Manchurian Candidate (and in a slightly different way, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels) a defining piThe quintessential spy novel and, along with The Manchurian Candidate (and in a slightly different way, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels) a defining piece of Cold War literature. Reading early le Carre's a bit like listening to 1920s Duke Ellington: the conventions he was more or less inventing have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to realize they were absolutely fresh at the time. No way to talk about the plot or characters without spoilers, so I'll just leave it there. Liked it better than I'd remembered from when I first read it in the early 70s....more