Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review - Thrillers - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith


The following review contains very minor plot spoilers that some readers might rather avoid.

While I do like mysteries, I’m not much of a fan of thrillers, and especially not political thrillers, however several friends suggested I give English screenwriter, Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44 a read, and when I recently found myself with some hours to kill while on a fairly long flight to Hawaii (my husband, who was seated beside me isn’t much for “plane conversation”), I decided to give it a try.

The book did a wonderful job of pulling me in.

Child 44 is set in Stalin’s Soviet Union of the 1950s and revolves around WWII hero and MGB member, Leo Stepanovich Demidov. The book begins, though with three males whose first names all begin with the letter “A” – Andrei, Arkady, and Anatoly. Andrei appears during the book’s 1933 Prologue, which revolves around a young boy who disappears during a terrible famine. Then there is Arkady, a young boy who’s found dead on a suburban Moscow railway line. And finally there’s Anatoly, who’s been accused of spying and is on the run from the MGB and more specifically, Leo. These three boys/men set the stage wonderfully for the story that follows, and better yet, they set the tone of the book – bleak, haunting, and creepy. But back to Leo Demidov.

Leo’s troubles begin when the body of a young boy – Arkady, to be exact – is found on a Moscow railway line and subsequent examinations show the boy was no doubt murdered. This is Stalin’s Soviet Union, a worker’s paradise, and murders, of course, are not supposed to take place. Since the boy’s father, Fyodor, is a friend of Leo’s, it’s Leo who’s sent to the parents’ home to “quash any unfounded speculation, to guide them (the parents) back from the brink.”

Now, Leo is a “good” member of the Communist Party; his dedication to the MGB is unquestioned. He “understood its necessity, the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic, from those who sought to undermine it and those determined to see it fail. To this end Leo would lay down his life. To this end he’d lay down the lives of others.” Leo, it would seem, is the perfect person to defuse the public’s growing interest in the “murder” of an unfortunate young boy in a Moscow suburb. But Leo’s dedication and loyalty are not set in stone.

When the bodies of more children are found, their mouths stuffed with tree bark like Arkady’s had been, their stomachs excised, Leo knows his suspicions are true, and that the children were most definitely murdered, and moreover, that their deaths were the work of one brutal serial killer. These were no random killings, committed by men who’ve already been charged, convicted, and sent to prison as the Party asserts. And the families, Leo thinks, should not be “forced” to accept the official verdict of a “terrible accident.” But Soviet Russia has been too good to Leo for him to start making waves now. Or has it?

It’s only when Leo realizes that a man he hunted down and cruelly tortured was innocent that he begins to question himself and his Party. And then he’s ordered to spy on Raisa, his own wife. Of course, Leo, himself gave the Party its ammunition for that one. He suspects his schoolteacher wife of doing a little more than comparing notes with one of her fellow teachers.

Initially, Leo does as he’s told, spying on Raisa and trying not to over think his situation. In Stalinist Russia, however, Raisa Demidova’s guilt was decided before she was even accused. Leo and Raisa are exiled to the distant Urals, where Leo takes up his post as a small town policeman, lucky just to be alive. And there, in the bleak Siberian countryside, Leo (too conveniently) finds two more murdered children, mutilated in the same way the bodies of the Moscow children were mutilated. Now he understands: someone is “riding the rails,” killing children all across Russia. He and Raisa, who admits she had only married him out of fear, begin to draw closer together, both determined to find the killer and stop him.

It’s obvious that Smith has used the real life story of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, better known as the “Rostov Ripper,” as a base from which to fashion his plot, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact, I found the first one-half to two-thirds of this novel gripping. I loved its bleakness and its creepiness. And it is bleak. Smith uses just the right details in the first part of his book to hook readers and keep them turning pages – hospitals, farms, and orphanages that aren’t named, but numbered, instead, the local factory replacing the local church, men who die of “hopelessness, uninterested in surviving if this is all there [is] to survive for.”

It isn’t until page 275 of Child 44 that Tom Rob Smith lets his readers know what that cryptic title means. Some readers have called the revelation shocking. I call it ho-hum. And here is where the book starts to come unhinged.

Smith, who conceived his story in screenplay format, is, strangely enough, best when he’s creating atmosphere, when he’s evoking the little details that make this book bleak, haunting, and creepy. His skills in plotting, characterization, and, for a screenwriter, surprisingly, in dialog, leave much to be desired.

It isn’t that Leo is a bad character; it’s just that he’s too much of what we were expecting. There’s no freshness or originality about either Leo or Raisa. Leo isn’t particularly handsome. He’s got a bad meth habit he picked up during the war. He loves his parents, who were forced to vacate their spacious Moscow apartment for one considerably smaller when Leo was exiled to the Urals. His marriage is in trouble. He carries with him long-buried family secrets. He’s dedicated to his job, but he also has a conscience that keeps him from becoming “one of the bad guys.”

To make matters even worse, it seems as though Smith, himself can’t decide whether he wants Leo to be a dedicated member of the Party or a cynic. Raisa – and others – mention Leo’s “blind faith in the State” more than once, but I have to wonder if they were talking about the same Leo I was reading about. Because if they are, that Leo has been pretty cynical from the very start of things. A scene or two showing us Leo’s “blind faith to the State” would have made Raisa’s, etc. comments a whole lot more convincing.

And what about that “strained” marriage of Leo’s and Raisa’s? Raisa goes so far as to tell Leo that she never loved him, that she only married him out of fear of his position in the MGB. Yet by the middle of the book, Leo and Raisa are a veritable Russian “Tommy and Tuppence,” and by the book’s end they couldn’t be more in love.
I found the Leo/Raisa subplot forced and detracting from the overall story rather than adding to it and making it richer as good subplots should do. In fact, I found the “getting back together and making our marriage stronger” subplot, as well as Raisa, herself, to be mind-numbingly boring. And in one long sequence, during which the husband and wife duo find tools and weapons in the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of persons, Leo and Raisa turn into James Bond and Lara Croft. This was slightly believable from Leo, but Raisa was a schoolteacher, not a trained spy.

The book’s “bad guy,” Vasili, who is not the murderer, doesn’t fare any better. He’s such a stock character that he’s downright cartoonish. I could almost see him twirling a long, thin mustache as he spoke and sneered.

And why, for heaven’s sake did Smith think it best to dispense with standard quotation marks around his dialogue and italicize it, instead, and set it off with hyphens? This odd choice (in a debut novel and in a thriller) made the dialogue a chore to read. It caused the dialogue to call attention to itself, and dialogue really shouldn’t do that. At times, it’s difficult to know who’s speaking, and the reader has to go back and figure it out. I appreciate the lack of unnecessary “he saids” and “she saids” but readers do need to be able to follow a conversation without working so hard to do so.

The plot is messy. It meanders all over the place, and the book would be better off if it ignored some of the places the plot meanders to.

Smith’s writing style is ponderous and weighty, and his grammatical errors are, on occasion, hilarious, and hilarity is not something one should find in this particular book. Smith seems fond of dangling participles, e.g., “Excited, the blade went in further and faster,” misused words, e.g., “He no longer believed that they would be designated a better residence,” and vague pronouns, e.g., “To Leo’s surprise the prisoner reached up and, with his wrists still bound, felt his brow.” There’s just no excuse for mistakes such as those. If Smith is a sloppy writer, then his editor should have made the corrections.

Without going into detail about the plot, while the first one-half to two-thirds of the book is fairly good, the final half dissolves into a jumble of clichés and coincidences that kind of made me forget all the good stuff that went before. And the worst part is that it needn’t have done so.

Hoping for redemption at the book’s end, I persevered and read on only to find that the final twist was truly contrived. No other serial killer in the history of literature has given his or her readers such a truly nutty explanation as to “why he did it.” And the worst part, the most annoying part of this whole reading experience was confirmation of the fact that I had known the identity of the killer since the end of the first chapter, and I'm not even very good at figuring things like that out. Yes, Mr. Smith, I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter (a vastly superior book), too, and I suspect many of your other readers will have read that book as well. That book was so fresh and original that I really can’t blame Smith for borrowing a little something from it. Just be aware that if you’re a “Dexter” fan, the identity of Child 44’s killer, as well and Leo’s dark secret, won’t be any mystery to you, either.

Not surprisingly, since Smith is a screenwriter, and since Child 44 is such a cinematic book, Ridley Scott is scheduled to direct the film adaptation. Thankfully, Smith won’t be writing the screenplay. With Scott at the helm, I think this definitely will be a movie that’s better than the book.

Child 44 was nominated for seventeen International Awards, and it actually won seven, which was very surprising to me. The most surprising was that it was longlisted for the Booker. My goodness, come on, this book might be an okay way to pass a day or two at the beach, but it’s certainly not Booker material. I don’t mind the fact that a thriller/political thriller was nominated; I think it’s high time the really well written thrillers were recognized by the community of highly literary writers, but Child 44 doesn’t belong in the lofty company of books like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, A.S. Byatt’s Possession or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Child 44 isn’t serious literature that challenges the reader and makes him think. Its good guys are too good and its bad guys are too bad for that as is its pat and contrived ending. It doesn’t illuminate some dark aspect of life. It just whiles away the hours and that’s about it. It’s not nuanced in lovely shades of gray; it's stark black and white. And backing up to that pat ending one last time, I wonder if Smith realizes that he did leave one thread untied? After Stalin has died, after Vasili, too, is dead, after the murders have been solved, the orphans taken care of, the good guys rewarded and the bad guys punished, after Leo and Raisa return to Moscow, Leo’s poor parents are still languishing in that tiny, frigid apartment. It just doesn’t seem fair.

1.5/5

Recommended: No. Read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, instead or Robert Harris’s Fatherland, and if you’ve read them, move on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Child 44 really isn’t worth the time spent with it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

These nine words open one of the most extraordinary, and extraordinarily perfect, novels ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with its pinpoint focus, crystal clarity, and vividness of characterization, chronicles one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway on a sunny day in June 1923, a day on which she is giving a party.

Giving a party is nothing out of the ordinary for Clarissa Dalloway; giving parties is the thing she does best and perhaps, loves most.

Mrs. Dalloway is a Modernist novel, and like most Modernist novels, its plot is a simple, almost skeletal, one. Written without chapter breaks, in Woolf’s pure stream-of-consciousness style, we learn, not only Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts about herself, but also how the other characters, e.g., her ex-lover Peter Walsh, her daughter, Elizabeth, her long time friend, Sally Seton, and her husband, Richard, perceive her. Clarissa Dalloway, Westminster resident, member of Britain’s upper crust, wife of an MP, is vain, shallow, superficial, and self-centered, though, surprisingly, not wholly unlikable.

Not in the least introspective, Clarissa Dalloway lives in and for “the moment,” something Woolf lets us know on the very first page:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

Clarissa Dalloway has a need to plunge into life, head first, despite the consequences to herself or to those around her.

Rich in both symbolic and thematic content, Mrs. Dalloway is, above all else, a study of life in Britain after the Great War, and the book shows us that even though the war has ended, those who lived through it cannot shake its effects. For the war had necessitated “living in the moment,” and some people, Clarissa Dalloway being one, still can’t seem to see anything beyond the present.

The theme of the inexorable passage of time, as well as the theme of timelessness, is woven through the tapestry of this incomparable novel like threads of shimmering silver woven through gold. Woolf’s incandescent prose constantly blurs past and present, fantasy and reality, memories and hopes, as it transports the reader into the world of 1923 London.

In this uncertain time of fragile peace, hope for the future is difficult to find. It is especially difficult for Clarissa Dalloway’s former lover, Peter Walsh, newly arrived in London from India on the day of Clarissa’s party. Upon seeing Clarissa, Peter thinks how she’s grown older, and at one point in the narrative, Peter reflects on Clarissa’s recent health problems as he dozes on a park bench. He even imagines that she’s died, a brilliant use of foreshadowing of a death still to come.

Peter has returned to London to arrange the divorce of his lover, Daisy, who has remained in India with her husband. However, rather than look forward to his future with Daisy, Peter chooses, instead, to dwell on his past with Clarissa. And because of his lingering bitterness over the fact that she chose Richard Dalloway rather than him, he can’t help but criticize her:

She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she doesn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her determination.

Richard Dalloway, when seen through the eyes of Peter Walsh, appears to be every bit as shallow and superficial as is his wife. However, after a luncheon, during which Richard feels jealous of Peter’s long-ago romance with Clarissa, he rushes out to buy flowers, red and white roses, intending to present them to Clarissa with words he hasn’t uttered in years: “I love you.” Things, however, don’t go exactly as planned.

One person who doesn’t have to try to “blunt the edge of his mind,” at least as far as the present is concerned, is a young war veteran named Septimus Warren Smith. Just as Clarissa must live in the moment, the fragile and damaged Septimus is trapped in the past. Although Septimus and Clarissa never meet, their lives become forever entwined, emphasizing once again Woolf’s juxtaposition of timelessness against the passing of time.

Many critics and Woolf scholars have described Septimus as Clarissa Dalloway’s doppelganger. I agree, but only in part. When Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway, she was happy about her return to London from the English countryside (which she despised), and she was enjoying a period of relative health and emotional stability. Although Septimus (and his doctors, who function in the novel as harbingers of death) was certainly created from the memories of Woolf’s despair, as well as from her own battle with mental and emotional illness, to simply cast Septimus in the role of Clarissa Dalloway’s double would be selling Septimus, Clarissa, and Woolf, herself, short. Septimus has his own part to play in Mrs. Dalloway, his own way of showcasing both time and timelessness and the ravages of war.

If Clarissa Dalloway is wrapped so blissfully and needfully in the moment, it is the moment that Septimus Warren Smith has so irretrievably lost. If Clarissa has lost the ability to empathize with others and feel their pain, if she externalizes everything, young Septimus has empathized too much, internalized too much. The ravages of war, and most especially, the death of his close friend and comrade, Evans, a death Septimus witnessed, have caused Septimus’ emotional life to shut down. He’s felt such a surfeit of pain that he can feel no more. Septimus enlisted in the army to protect his countrymen, his way of life, even his excessive love for the work of William Shakespeare. He enlisted because of his connections with others, but sadly, the war killed those cherished connections just as surely as it killed Evans. But it isn’t only pain that Septimus has lost the ability to feel; he can no longer feel love for his young, caring wife, Rezia, or even the simple joy one feels at the dawn of a new day. Ironically, it’s life that’s killed Septimus’ ability to live.

Although it may be gradual, the astute reader of Mrs. Dalloway eventually comes to realize that Septimus and Clarissa, though seemingly polar opposites, at least at first glance, are really quite similar in their approach to life. Through her parties, shallow though they may be, Clarissa Dalloway gives of herself to the world and partakes of life. Septimus, though he longs to, cannot share in the lives of others nor can he give of himself, for he has nothing left to give. For me, one of the strongest images in the book is Septimus, sitting in the open window, pausing to enjoy the sunshine.

Woolf’s extremely sophisticated prose is pure stream-of-consciousness, purposely lacking transitions from the thoughts of one character to the next, something many readers may find difficult or off-putting, while others, though not finding it difficult, may find it not to their taste. There are no chapter breaks and memories of the past suffuse and overlap the tragedy and exuberance of the present. I love this style of writing; for me, it glitters like the diamond of Clarissa Dalloway’s polished and perfect life. I loved this book. I think it is, by far, the best book about life in post-war Britain ever written.

This is a book that’s filled with many unforgettable images: images of anger, of pain, of beauty and humanity so heartbreakingly realized they bring tears to the eyes. And of course, the above mentioned image of Septimus sitting in the sunshine. Mrs. Dalloway is a structurally perfect book and quite formal in its symmetry. Its recurring themes of life and death, old and new, time and timelessness; its symbols of bells, clocks chiming, and flowers, and perhaps, most of all, the sea, are perfectly developed. It’s a sad, tragic book, yet ironically, in Woolf’s entire oeuvre, Mrs. Dalloway is the book offering the most hope.

Clarissa Dalloway’s party is this novel’s concluding set piece, and once again, Woolf touches on the intertwining themes of time and timelessness. Clarissa and Richard’s daughter, Elizabeth, makes her appearance at the party and Richard, though not even recognizing her at first, comes to the realization that she is not only grown, but that she is grown genuinely lovely as well:

For her father had been looking at her, as he stood talking to the Bradshaws, and he had thought to himself, Who is that lovely girl? And suddenly he realised that it was his Elizabeth, and he had not recognised her, she looked so lovely in her pink frock! Elizabeth had felt him looking at her as she talked to Willie Titcomb. So she went to him and they stood together, now that the party was almost over, looking at the people going, and the rooms getting emptier and emptier, with things scattered on the floor. Even Ellie Henderson was going, nearly last of all, though no one had spoken to her, but she had wanted to see everything, to tell Edith. And Richard and Elizabeth were rather glad it was over, but Richard was proud of his daughter. And he had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her. He had looked at her, he said, and he had wondered, Who is that lovely girl? And it was his daughter! That did make her happy.

So many are gone; the war has seen to that, while others, like Peter, Sally, Richard, and Clarissa are past full bloom. But Elizabeth is just beginning to blossom. The “old customs” are passing away, but in the lovely character of Elizabeth Dalloway one can at least glean a bit of hope.

5/5

Recommended: This is a perfect, beautiful novel, one of the most structurally perfect in the English language. It’s a beautifully detailed, vividly painted portrait of life in Britain after the Great War. Its pure stream-of-consciousness prose is gorgeous but may be difficult for some readers to follow, while other readers might simply dislike it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review - The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates


When I pick up a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, I want to feel I’m in the hands of a writer who really knows what she’s doing. Oates has published so many books, I’ve lost count of just how many, though I’m pretty certain this is her thirty-sixth novel. But even though I want to trust this author to take me on an interesting and unforgettable literary journey, there’s always been something about Oates’ work that won’t let me get truly involved. Some of her books, like Solstice, just leave me cold, while others, like American Appetites and Blonde are books I enjoyed, to an extent, but still couldn’t find any connection with the characters. Still others, like Bellefleur, are books I thought I might love, but books I gave up on and didn’t even finish. So, when I decided to read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea if I was going to love the book, hate it, or something in between, but enough time had gone by since my previous attempt at reading Oates to give one of her books another try.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is the story of Rebecca Schwart, whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936 for a small town a little south of Niagara Falls. Rebecca, herself, was born on the ship while it was in New York Harbor. Although her father, Jacob Schwart, was a well-liked math teacher at a Munich boys’ school, as well as a skilled pressman, in America, the only job Jacob can get is that of a gravedigger in semi-rural Milburn, New York. By this time, Jacob is “...a broken man...a man whose guts had been eaten out by rats.” He and his family, which includes his half-mad wife, Anna, take up residence in a small stone cottage near the cemetery gate. In a nice bit of symbolism, the very water the Schwart family drinks is polluted with the spirits of the dead.

Rebecca’s eldest brother Herschel, a ne’er-do-well who forgets his German without ever gaining a mastery of English, flees town after committing a crime. The younger son, August, also walks away from Jacob after enduring one too many cruelties. Both brothers leave without so much as a “goodbye” for their little sister, Rebecca. It isn’t that they didn’t like her. They’ve just learned what their father has always taught them: “Never say it.” Let the past be the past; let it, like the family’s Jewishness, remain dead and buried.

For Jacob and Anna, however, the past can never truly be left in the past; it can never really die. Jacob grows more and more haunted by the Nazi demons he wanted to leave behind, and more specifically by an act of betrayal he committed in order to get his family out of Germany. His past, in combination with his prejudiced and humiliated present, finally drives Jacob to an incredible act of violence and cruelty that both traumatizes Rebecca and yet frees her to go into the world alone and reshape her life.

Male violence is a theme Oates has revisited time and time again, and I have no doubt she’ll revisit it in future books as well. At least three times in this book, Rebecca Schwart flees male violence. Despite the fact that Jacob Schwart used to tell his daughter, “You are born here, they will not hurt you,” Rebecca learns that yes, indeed, people will hurt her, and they do. In one of the novel’s creepiest set pieces, Rebecca encounters a man on the path she takes home from work, only to discover later that he’s a serial killer with many victims, and that she, herself, almost joined their ranks. And, in another nice bit of symbolism, Rebecca recalls how the only game she ever played with her father was one in the cemetery, in which Jacob pretended not to see her. Rebecca knows that “Rebecca Schwart” needs to disappear. For good.

And so, after one violent episode, Rebecca renames herself “Hazel Jones,” not knowing that Hazel Jones is the name of a woman who died at the hands of a violent man; her young son, Niley becomes Zacharias. Still, Rebecca will learn, as did her parents, that our past is always with us, no matter how hard we try to deny and outrun it.

For Rebecca Schwart’s past comes to haunt even Hazel Jones. She remembers how, as a young child, when she was still Rebecca, she was told the Morgensterns were coming to live with her own family, and she would have a big sister in her cousin, Freyda Morgenstern. The ship the Morgensterns were traveling on was turned away from the US and sent back to Germany, however, and the entire Morgenstern family was thought to have died. All the Schwarts have left of the Morgenstern family is an old photograph, and Rebecca spends much time gazing at the little girl who looks out at her from the photo. Freyda Morgenstern finally becomes an imaginary friend, and one that Rebecca will encounter much later in her life, after she’s left at least the financial poverty of the past behind for a life of wealth and privilege.

I thought Rebecca/Hazel was a fully realized and complex character, and though Oates certainly wants us to sympathize/empathize with her, she isn’t afraid to let us see the real Rebecca/Hazel, warts and all. And Rebecca/Hazel certainly has faults. She’s far from perfect, and I greatly preferred her that way. The secondary characters – Jacob, Anna, Herschel, and August – weren’t given such complexity. They have their identities, assigned to them by Oates, and they act in accordance with these assigned identities. They aren’t caricatures, by any means, but neither do they thrive.

The writing, of course, is Joyce Carol Oates, and Oates does have a unique style, though I would never term her a “prose stylist” in the sense of say, Edna O’Brien. Oates’ writing, to me, always seems a little heavy and turbulent and at odds with itself, and even, at times, rushed. In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates had a maddening habit of using “that” instead of “which” in a nonrestrictive clause, e.g., “...most of the papers continued to run Chet Gallagher’s column, that had won national awards.” At first, I thought it might be an attempt at a new stylistic device, but later, I decided no, it was far too awkward and ugly for that. It was carelessness, and I’m very surprised at such carelessness in a writer with as many books under her belt as Oates.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is at its most engaging when Rebecca/Hazel is narrating, and especially when she’s describing her growing love for Chet Gallagher, son of a wealthy family, who plays jazz piano and wants Rebecca to let him give both her and Niley/Zach a new chance at life. The book loses power when Oates switches to the very angry Niley/Zach’s point of view or to Chet’s, even when they are talking about Rebecca/Hazel. Unfortunately, Niley/Zach and Chet simply aren’t as complex or as interesting as Rebecca.

I’ve already mentioned the rich symbolism to be found in this book. There are many vivid descriptions as well. For example, Jacob is described as a “...troll man...like a creature who has emerged from the earth, slightly bent, broken-backed and with his head carried at an awkward angle so that he seemed always to be peering at the world suspiciously.” Now that is really first rate writing.

For those readers who are putting off reading the book lest it be too depressing, never fear. Though it tackles weighty themes – male violence, the Holocaust, the guilt of survivors – this is not a depressing book. On the other hand, it’s not exactly life affirming, either. And there’s no lightness or joy in this book. I guess I would call it “interesting” and “gritty.” At times the narrative was possessed of such grittiness that I felt I had to take a long, hot shower, and that might not be a bad thing as far as this book goes. (I shower or bathe every night, regardless.) At other times, the book felt very courageous.

Anyone who’s read much of Oates’ work will know that she has a penchant for melodrama, and she likes to pin her novels to some “big event” that happened in the past. And so it is in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Any book that contains as much violence and anger as this one is going to slip into melodrama at times, though for the most part, Oates does manage to keep it under control. Of course, the “big event” in this book is the Holocaust, though this is not, in any way, a “Holocaust book,” at least it’s not to my way of thinking.

I like ambiguous endings in books. I don’t need everything tied up in a nice, neat little package like it’s waiting for Christmas morning. Some authors try so hard to come up with the “perfect” ending that the result is an ending that just doesn’t work, that’s not organic, that doesn’t flow from the events that took place in the book. Better, I think, to leave some things open-ended. That said, the ending Oates wrote for The Gravedigger’s Daughter was just beyond the pale. I thought there were pages missing from my book. Really. I’m still not totally convinced there aren’t. I stayed up last night to finish this book, and the ending left me dazed and confused. I have no idea what I was supposed to take from that. If anyone does, please let me in on the secret.

And of course, there’s the epilogue. The epilogue takes place twenty-five years after the events in the novel proper, and it consists of an exchange of letters between a sixty-two year old Hazel, who is now Rebecca again, and her long lost cousin, Freyda Morgenstern, who apparently did not perish at sea. At first, I loved this epilogue. It brings the novel full circle and plunges Rebecca back into the midst of her family again, even if the person pulling her in is a long lost cousin she’s never even met. Rebecca and Freyda never seem to be on the same page, however. One seems to want the relationship, while the other does not, then the tide turns, and the pursuer becomes the pursued. I thought the point of these letters was to show us that one can change his or her name over and over again, but one really can’t cut family ties. The family Rebecca ran away from as a young woman is the family she needs in middle age. Now, however, I’m not so sure of the point. For me, that’s typical with Joyce Carol Oates. She often raises more questions than she answers.

Most of Oates’ books do end with a question, but it’s a question that has some relevance to all that has gone before. I’ve never seen an Oates’ ending quite like this one before. The final words of the book – “Yet I think I should come to Lake Worth, to see you. Should I?” – just sort of leave the reader with a sense of disbelief more than anything else, I think. I could feel my thoughts reverberating through the silence. Maybe that’s the point. Once again, I don’t know. For a while last night, I thought that after thirty-six novels and sixty odd books, Joyce Carol Oates just didn’t care, and if readers didn’t like the way she ended her books, well, they could just go write their own and end them any darn way they pleased.

So, did I like the book, or did I dislike the book? I’m not sure. I know I didn’t love it. I don’t think many/any readers are going to love this book. This isn’t Possession or Great Expectations or Jane Eyre or The Woman in White where readers turn the last page, close the book, sigh, and say, “Wow! What a book!” I did, however, greatly admire the book. I felt I learned something, but I’m not sure what. I think every reader is going to react very differently to this book, much more so than with most books from other authors.

All in all, I’m glad I read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and I’m glad I revisited Oates. Now, I wonder how long it’ll be before I’m tempted to pick up another one of this very polarizing author’s books. Honestly, I have no idea.

4.5/5

Recommended: This is Joyce Carol Oates. Read at your own peril.

Note: Oates has said she based this novel, in part, on her maternal great-grandmother, who, she learned, was Jewish. For those of you who aren't familiar with Joyce Carol Oates, many of her books take place in upper New York state, the place where Oates, herself, is from.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys


I loved Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but the character in that book I was most interested in wasn’t Jane, it was Mr. Rochester’s “mad wife in the attic,” Bertha. I felt sorry for Bertha. I didn’t feel she was treated right. I also wanted to know more about her. I was fascinated by Bertha. I wanted to know where she came from and what it was that drove her mad. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a raving lunatic, almost inhuman. But something had to drive this poor woman insane. Surely Rochester didn’t marry her in that state. But what could it have been? I always wondered. Of course, in Jane Eyre, Bertha functions more as a plot device, something to get Jane to run away from Thornfield Hall and Rochester, and later, to bring closure to the story. But I think any character deserves a little more humanity than that. If you felt the way I do, then Jean Rhys’ classic, Wide Sargasso Sea, is the book for you.

Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the colorful and exotic Jamaica of the 1830s and revolves around the early life of Creole heiress, Antoinette Cosway, the woman destined to become Rochester’s mad wife, Bertha. The story is told in three parts, though Part Three is very, very short.

In Part One of Wide Sargasso Sea, we follow Antoinette in the exotic, but oppressive, colonialist society of Jamaica as she flees the decaying plantation that was her home for Aunt Cora’s house, then, when Aunt Cora goes to England, to a convent school.

While Part One was told exclusively from Antoinette’s point of view, Part Two, which is a much longer section, is told primarily from the point of view of a very young Mr. Rochester, though he is never named, adding to his mystery. (In this book, Mr. Rochester is the mysterious character, and we get to know his beautiful wife.) Mr. Rochester is clearly in love with the young, beautiful Antoinette, but when disturbing rumors reach him regarding Antoinette’s past, Rochester begins to believe those rumors might carry more than a bit of truth, especially when some of them are confirmed by Antoinette, herself, and she begins to display some of the madness that we first saw in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (This isn’t a spoiler, if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you know Rochester’s wife is mad.)

Jean Rhys, herself, was more like Antoinette than Jane. Rhys was Creole, sexually promiscuous (by her own admission), and not given to Jane Eyre’s rigid self-discipline. In Antoinette, Rhys created a character she, herself could identify with, a character who was driven almost totally by emotion, a character who would be subject to bouts of irrationality, spontaneity, and mental breakdown, and who would, despite all this, always be immensely sympathetic because, after all, we understand why Antoinette is the way she is. To bring about this sympathy, Rhys makes us privy to Antoinette’s tumultuous childhood and a time when she was rejected by those she loved over and over again.

While Rochester is definitely a hero in Jane Eyre, he’s more villain than not in Wide Sargasso Sea. He clings to his rigid Victorian upbringing even as he fears it, an upbringing that forces him to separate love and sex. When he’s “in love” with his young bride, he can’t feel desire for her, and when he feels desire for her, he can’t feel love. (We have to wonder how Jane fared as his wife.) And in the end, for Antoinette, at least, it’s desire that wins out.

Wide Sargasso Sea is filled with lush imagery, exotic imagery to a man like Rochester who has come to expect the misty skies and the heath of Yorkshire, which are dull by comparison. In the Caribbean of Jean Rhys, everything seems to be constantly in bloom, constantly changing, fluid, alive, and colorful. While Antoinette glories in the heat and the color, Rochester is disturbed by it. “Everything is too much,” he says, “too much blue, too much purple, too much green.” And if the vivid colors aren’t enough, there are the strange people – Christophine and Amélie – and their strange rituals and practices. It’s all so heady and disorienting that we can almost forgive Rochester his faults. Almost, but not quite.

The book is filled with symbolism. Every major occurrence, and many minor ones as well, are echoes of another incident that took place in either Jane Eyre or earlier in Wide Sargasso Sea. And it is often through this symbolism, rather than through the narrative, itself, that the book’s true meaning emerges. The prose is hypnotic, almost like a drumbeat in a hot, tropical night. Joyce Carol Oates has suggested that Wide Sargasso Sea, with its dense and elliptical language, is more “hallucinatory prose poem” than it is novel.

As we read, we come to believe that Antoinette’s fate – to be driven mad – might just be inevitable. Indeed, Antoinette, herself seems to think so. “I would make no effort to save myself,” she says, “if anyone were to try and save me, I would refuse. This must happen.” And Rhys seems to agree with her. Her mother, after all, was driven mad by the death of her son, Antoinette’s younger brother. Antoinette’s name is so similar to her mother’s name of Annette; physically, the two are so much alike, and Jane Eyre has already been written, seemingly sealing Antoinette’s fate.

Yet in Wide Sargasso Sea, we learn that Antoinette’s tragic fate need not have been. As she’s waiting with her new husband to leave the honeymoon house that was anything but happy, Rochester thinks, “If she...weeps, I’ll take her in my arms.” And Antoinette wants to weep, but she’s been warned that tears will have no effect, so she holds them back. Rochester, Victorian to the core, cannot tell his wife what it is he wants and needs. We turn pages, hoping against hope that these two will run into each other’s arms and make their true feelings known.

Readers must look to Jane Eyre to find Antoinette’s ultimate fate, though Jean Rhys has said that she imagined it as “triumphant.” I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as tragedy heaped upon tragedy, for even in death, Antoinette doesn’t exact revenge on her cruel husband, but drives him into the arms of another, instead. Antoinette might dream a triumphant and glorious jump from the towers of Thornfield Hall, but Bertha smashes to the ground, with no one to mourn her.

Jane Eyre doesn’t dictate everything, however. With Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys has changed the way readers look at Jane Eyre. Readers of Wide Sargasso Sea will not be able to easily dismiss Antoinette/Bertha even as they root for Jane. Rhys has freed Antoinette to live in ways she has never been free to live before.

There are those who have dismissed Wide Sargasso Sea as a feminist attempt to “fill in the gaps” in Jane Eyre. It’s not. It’s the well-researched and courageous story of a character who has been far too little known, and far too much forgotten. “There’s always another side,” Antoinette tells her husband, and so, we learn, there is. It behooves us not to make a judgment until we’ve heard both of them.

5/5

Recommended: Yes, especially if you liked Jane Eyre or want to know more about Bertha, the “madwoman in the attic.” Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea is a wonderful book about the clash of the wild and the exotic with the more mundane. It’s a wonderful character study of a willful woman’s descent into madness.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review - Serena by Ron Rash


Ron Rash’s novel, Serena takes place in 1929 in western North Carolina. Serena is the beautiful orphaned daughter of a wealthy Colorado timber man and the new wife of George Pemberton, who hopes to make his fortune by stripping, as quickly as possible, 34,000 acres of trees in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, then moving on to the mahogany forests of Brazil.

We meet Serena for the first time when she and Pemberton – who are part of The Boston Lumber Company – arrive at a North Carolina train station and are intercepted by the father of Rachel Harmon, a sixteen-year-old girl who just happens to be carrying Pemberton’s child. Pemberton, however, can’t even remember the girl’s name, though he doesn’t doubt for one second that he’s the unborn child’s father. In this opening scene, we see that Serena is no ordinary wife. “You’re a lucky man,” Serena tells Rachel’s father, who is seething with drunken anger. “You’ll not find a better sire to breed her with.” Serena then turns to Rachel, “But that’s the only one you’ll have of his. I’m here now.” And so she is.

Serena, who attended a New England finishing school and prefers leather jodhpurs and black boots to ball gowns and the Spartan accommodations of the lumber camps to any well furnished mansion, initially impresses Pemberton’s lumberjacks with her shrewd business knowledge. This is a woman who can calculate board feet – correctly – just by glancing at a tree still in the ground. As Serena surveys her husband’s empire – and barks orders to his men – she rides about on the white Arabian stallion that was a wedding gift from her husband. “The world is ripe, and we’ll pluck it like an apple from a tree,” Serena tells her husband, and in the early pages of this novel, it seems they will.

Serena and Pemberton are, it would seem, the perfect couple. And Serena even agrees to let Rachel stay as the logging camp dishwasher. After all, she needs money to raise Pemberton’s child because Pemberton, as ordered by Serena, isn’t going to be supplying any. “Just don't let her near our food,” Serena tells George, in a conjugal “moment of recognition” of the Pembertons’ mortality.

Serena is an expansion of a short story found in Rash’s 2007 collection, Chemistry. I’m one who’s very glad he made the decision to expand the story into a full-length novel. Expanding the story, of course, allowed Rash to include some very interesting subplots that a short story, by reason of its length and purpose, couldn’t accommodate. One of the most interesting, for me, at least, was the subplot revolving around the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee side of which is possibly my favorite place in the entire United States.

While Pemberton and Serena dream of denuding the forests of Appalachia and making a fortune in the process, the Secretary of the Interior, with backing from John D. Rockefeller, no less, is quickly buying up property in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee for the creation of the park. Of course, we know who won that one, but that doesn’t stop the book from being intense and suspenseful. Even though I knew “how it all turned out,” I was still a little heartsick when I read how this avaricious husband and wife were raping the beautiful Appalachian hills:

As the crews moved forward, they left behind an ever-widening wasteland of stumps and slash, brown clogged creeks awash with dead trout.... The valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some huge animal.

Horrible.

Trees aren’t the only things that are expendable in the world the Pembertons inhabit. The loggers and lumberjacks who work for the Pembertons are, the newlyweds decide, easily replaced with other loggers and lumberjacks. In fact, the Pembertons' employees are so replaceable that Cheney, the cruel and indifferent doctor they employ, asks them if an injured logger is really worth saving before treating the man. And Serena, we learn, actually enjoys finding new ways of ridding herself of those for whom she no longer has any use, and choosing the applicable suffering to be inflicted on him or her. One of those with whom Serena disagrees is her new husband’s business partner, Buchanan, who makes the mistake of deciding to offer the workers a dime a day raise and who isn’t averse to being bought out by the government. Once we learn Buchanan’s thoughts on these matters, we know the poor man won’t be long for this world.

It isn’t until Serena learns that she’ll never be able to give George a child, however, that we see the full force of her “Lady Macbeth” madness. This bit of unfortunate news causes the Pembertons’ intense marriage and passionate rape of the land to unravel, and this Gothic and rather operatic book is headed for a shocking, but somewhat predictable conclusion.

Serena is a hypnotically terrifying novel, but it isn’t graphic. Thankfully, Rash has kept most of the murders “off stage,” and many of the novel’s scenes suggest more than they actually show, leaving the worst of things up to the reader’s imagination. This is due, I think, to Rash’s abilities as a first rate poet. He knows how to condense his material; he knows how to suggest, rather than spell everything out for his reader. That, however, doesn’t lessen the book’s chilling power, and that’s an enormously big point in Rash’s favor. One of the challenges of the Gothic novel, a challenge many writers fail, is keeping the atmosphere chillingly creepy, while piling on one excess after the other. Rash succeeds, in part due to his Greek chorus of Carolinian loggers, led by Snipes, who supply some much needed dark humor in this dark and melodramatic book.

Rash is wonderful at describing these rough-hewn laborers, who work six days a week, eleven hours a day, for the driven Pembertons. The men are pursued by snakebite in the summer, frostbite in the winter, and in every season they face falling trees, logjams, axes and saws, and if that isn’t enough, it’s rumored that a panther is stalking the mountains. The loggers deal with things as best they can:

Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert," Rash writes, "because once the cutting began a man had to watch for axe blades glancing off trees and saw teeth grabbing a knee and the tongs on the cable swinging free or the cable snapping... If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together, you'd gain an extra worker every month.

The lyrically written narrative alternates between the cold and calculating Serena and the very human Rachel Harmon, the mother of George Pemberton’s infant son. While both women are initially complex and masterfully drawn, when Serena’s ambitions begin to become a bit too much, even for her greedy husband, I thought Rash was flirting with caricature rather than character. Luckily, this doesn’t happen until near the novel’s end, and Rash manages to rescue his story. Still, I think Serena might have been a more powerful novel had Rash given his main character (I can’t force myself to write “heroine”) some measure of humanity, some little weakness. Still, Serena is a powerful indictment of the logging industry and of unbridled greed in general.

Serena, despite its tendency toward excess, is a genuinely haunting, creepy, and hypnotic book, and that’s exactly why I loved reading it. The final pages are truly fascinating – in a sinister sort of way – and I found myself reading late into the night in order to finish. And once I turned the final page, I found myself thinking of that ending – over and over and over again.

4.5/5

Recommended: If you like dark and creepy novels and can tolerate a book in which almost nothing good happens, yes. The only criticism I have of the book is that Serena, herself is so evil she almost veers into caricature. Almost, but not quite. I know several readers who did not like the Coda and thought the book would have been better had Rash left it out. I disagree. For me, the Coda is what made this book truly haunting and truly memorable.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak


Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a big book, not so much in length as it is in scope and theme. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising in 1905, and continuing through the Civil War of 1918-1923 and the foundation of the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago is, primarily, a character driven novel, one whose subjects live intense, interweaving lives, often lives of great difficulty, as the events of the early twentieth century play out. At the heart of the book, of course, is its eponymous hero, Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his quest to simply live life and to love.

Women play a huge role in Yuri Zhivago’s life, beginning with his own mother, but it seems Yuri Zhivago was a man destined to live life with no one woman being the constant for which he yearned. If you’ve seen the movie, and I think most readers of the book will have, then you know Zhivago the man is torn between his love for his wife, Tonya and his love for his lover, Lara, who just happens to be married to, and love, the radical left-wing leader, Pasha Antipov. This rich book isn’t a book “about” the Russian Revolution, nor is it a book “about” a love triangle, or quadrangle. It’s a book about the quest for a meaningful life during times when one’s every action was controlled by the government, a government that was anything by sympathetic to the individual.

While Doctor Zhivago isn’t “about” the Russian Revolution (the major battles aren’t even mentioned), Russia and the revolution both act as characters in the book and their presence is always felt. Pasternak seemed to be exploring what it meant to be a Russian during this period in history. How it felt to try to carve out a life when one really wasn’t free to do so. Individualism, of course, was frowned upon, but Yuri Zhivago is one person who’s determined to retain his individuality at any cost.

While many readers are going to love this book, I think others will find themselves bogged down by its many details. Certainly those readers who enjoy primarily plot driven novels are going to be frustrated by the dreamy Doctor Zhivago. For the most part, I loved the book, but then I am attracted more to character driven novels than plot driven ones.

I ‘m sure I missed quite a lot of the symbolism in the book, though I had read about it prior to reading the novel, and I was even on the lookout for it. I’ve read that Pasternak looked to Symbolism, the dominant literary mode in Russia at the time of the writing of this novel, to express Yuri Zhivago’s complex thoughts and ideals, which are, at almost all times, quite lofty. British scholar, Angela Livingstone, writes about the symbolism of a seemingly minor scene depicting the coming of spring. In this scene, the branches of budding apple trees “miraculously” reach “over the fences into the streets” and are symbolic of the “bridging and linking” of places and communities in society. I have to admit, that escaped me. I thought it was simply a beautiful depiction of the arrival of spring. I am sure I missed many more symbolic references, although the major ones were clear. I wish, though, that I would have been able to catch all the allusions and all the symbolism.

I should point out that I most recently read the “new” Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago. Previously, I had read the older Hayward and Harari translation. I especially love the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina, so I really looked forward to their translation of Doctor Zhivago. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have both said that this book has been their most challenging translation to date, more challenging even than Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And Pasternak, himself, said that Hayward and Harari didn’t get it quite right.

I don’t read Russian, so I can’t really express an opinion on that except to say that I loved this book and was thoroughly caught up in the lives of its characters. Pevear and Volokhonsky aim to help today’s readers “read the novel in a new way, to see more clearly the universality of the image that Pasternak held up against the deadly fiction of his time.” But can the image of the immensely talented and poetic Yuri Zhivago ever be universal? I’m not sure. He was very different from most men.

I think, rather than seeing Zhivago as representative of “all men,” it’s easier to see him as representative of the “Silver Age of Russia.” The “Silver Age” refers to the artistic movements of the tumultuous years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Russia, and yes, one of the movements embraced by poets was Symbolism.

And there are clearly autobiographical elements in Doctor Zhivago as well, though the book is not at all an autobiography of Pasternak.

So if Doctor Zhivago isn’t “about” the Russian Revolution, and it isn’t autobiographical, what is it?. The root for Zhivago’s name is the word zhiv, which means “life” or “living.” One scene that clearly points out Zhivago’s individuality is the one in which he’s explaining to Lara why he (Zhivago) does not follow Marxist ideology:

The revolution broke out involuntarily, like breath held for too long. Everyone revived, was reborn, in everyone there are transformations, upheavals. You might say that everyone went through two revolutions, one his own, personal, the other general. It seems to me that socialism is a sea into which all these personal, separate revolutions should flow, the sea of life, the sea of originality. The sea of life, I said, the life that can be seen in paintings, life touched by genius, life creatively enriched. But now people have decided to test it, not in books, but in themselves, not in abstraction, but in practice.

Zhivago’s individualism stands out in sharp contrast to the conformity of the Bolsheviks. Zhivago questions his smallest acts from the perspective of conscience, while left-wing leaders like Pasha Antipov, who recasts himself as “Strelnikov,” or “Shooter,” kill, even women and children, without a second thought.

While the Bolsheviks justify their actions with the promise of a classless future in which all will be treated as equals, Yuri Zhivago is consumed with the passion of living in the here and now. He revels in physical toil, but he gives no thought to what Communism might bring. Instead, says Yuri Zhivago, he seeks “a new form of communion, conceived in the heart and known as the Kingdom of God,” where “there are no peoples, there are persons.” Individuality. That’s what Doctor Yuri Zhivago is all about.

The bottom line is the fact that Doctor Zhivago, in whichever translation you choose to read, has stood the test of time. In fact, this timeless masterpiece only grows better with the passing years. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have shown us that Doctor Zhivago is a living work of art, not a dated text from some bygone era. These two dedicated and immensely talented translators have exposed the deep, inner truths Pasternak sought to convey. They’ve made it possible for all readers to know that Pasternak is speaking to them, too, when Yuri Zhivago says to Lara: “Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. And life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so thrillingly serious!”

5/5

Recommended: Of course. This is a timeless masterpiece, and the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation brings new riches to the English speaking reader. Not to be missed.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Today in Literary History - Henry David Thoreau Dies at the Age of Forty-Four


On May 6, 1862, Henry David Thoreau died at the age of forty-four from bronchial and respiratory problems. Thoreau, who was born David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, was the son of John Thoreau, a pencil maker, and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. His paternal grandfather was of French origin and was born on the Isle of Jersey. His maternal grandfather, Asa Dunbar, led Harvard’s 1766 student “Butter Rebellion,” the first known student protest in what was then the Colonies.

Thoreau was named after his recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. It wasn’t until after he left Harvard that he decided to become “Henry David” and he never petitioned the court for a legal name change. Thoreau had two older siblings, Helen and John, Jr. and a younger sister, Sophia. The house where Thoreau was born still exists on Virginia Road in Concord, and is currently the focus of preservation efforts.

Thoreau’s writings total more than twenty volumes. His lasting contributions, of course, were on the subjects of natural history and philosophy. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolism, and history, while displaying much poeticism and the characteristic “Yankee” love of practical detail.

Thoreau was a lifelong abolitionist and he delivered lectures attacking the Fugitive Slave Law. He praised the writings of Wendell Phillips and defended abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience influenced the political thoughts and actions of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau studied at Harvard University between 1833 and 1837. He lived in Hollis Hall and took courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. It was said that Thoreau refused to pay the five-dollar fee for a Harvard diploma. The master’s degree had no academic value at any rate. Harvard offered them to graduates “who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college.” Legend has it that rather than purchase a worthless diploma, Thoreau said, “Let every sheep keep its own skin,” a reference, of course, to the tradition of diplomas being written on sheepskin vellum.

After graduation, diploma or not, Thoreau returned to Concord, where he was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years, he followed the form of Transcendentalism advocated by Emerson, Fuller, and Alcott, who held that an ideal spiritual state transcends the physical and empirical, and that one achieves insight through personal intuition rather than through religious doctrine. In the Transcendentalist view, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expression the “radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts.” (Emerson, Nature, 1836)

On April 18, 1841, Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home. There, from 1841-1844, he served as tutor for Emerson’s children, as well as Emerson’s editorial assistant, and the family repairman/gardener.

In 1844, Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his father’s pencil factory, something he continued to do for most of his adult life. He rediscovered the process of making a good pencil out of inferior graphite by using clay as the binder.

Thoreau was restless in Concord, however. In April 1844, he and his friend, Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that destroyed 300 acres of Walden Woods. During this time, Thoreau spoke often of finding a farm to buy or lease, something that he felt would give him an income and also allow him enough solitude to write his first book.

In March 1845, Ellery Channing said to Thoreau, speaking of Walden Woods, “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Thus, on July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved into a small, self-built house on land owned by Emerson in a forest near the shores of Walden Pond.

Thoreau left Walden on September 6, 1847. At Emerson’s request, he moved back into the Emerson house to help Mrs. Emerson manage the household while her husband was on an extended trip to Europe. During this time, he also continuously revised a manuscript that was to become his most famous. It was published in 1854 as Walden, or Life in the Woods, which recounted the two years, two months, and two days he spent on the shores of Walden Pond. In the book, however, Thoreau compresses the time into one year, using the passage of the four seasons to symbolize human development. Walden won few admirers when first published, but over the years it has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature.

In July 1848, Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s home, and in 1850 he and his family moved into a home at 255 Main Street, Concord, where Thoreau remained until his death.

Thoreau had contracted tuberculosis in 1835, and he suffered from it sporadically afterwards. In 1859, following a late night trip to count the rings of tree stumps during a rainstorm, he became ill with bronchitis. His health then declined over a three-year period, with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Thoreau recognized the terminal nature of his illness, and he spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished writings, writings that would go on to be published as The Maine Woods and Excursions, among others. He also wrote many letters and journal entries. His friends were alarmed at his appearance and fascinated with his tranquil acceptance of death. When, in his final weeks of life, his aunt, Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded by saying, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862 at the age of forty-four. Bronson Alcott planned his funeral service and read selections from Thoreau’s works. Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral. Originally buried in the Dunbar family plot, Thoreau was eventually moved to Authors’ Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, where he lies alongside Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review - Innocent by Scott Turow


I read Scott Turow’s debut novel, Presumed Innocent about ten or twelve years ago, after watching the movie on DVD. I was impressed with Turow’s writing. I found him both intelligent and stylish. At times, I wasn’t too fond of the book’s protagonist, Rozak K. “Rusty” Sabich, and I was thoroughly disgusted by his wife, Barbara, but I did find Rusty a fascinating character. In Presumed Innocent, Rusty seemed a little too passive for a man whose career and freedom are on the line. Rusty, who was an amazing trial attorney in the first book and is an amazing appellate judge in this one, apparently lacks self-discipline when it comes to indulging his desires, and that lack gets him in big trouble. In Presumed Innocent, as a young prosecuting attorney, Rusty is charged with the murder of his lover and colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, a murder he didn’t commit. Most of the book deals with finding out who really did kill Carolyn and how to get the charges against Rusty dismissed. In Innocent, Rusty is once again charged with murder, but this time, it’s not a lover whose been found dead.

The Barbara and Rusty Sabich we meet in Innocent are, in many ways, the same Barbara and Rusty Sabich we met in Turow’s debut novel, and in other ways, they are very different. They’re older. Rusty is now sixty, and Barbara, still attractive, due in part to a fanatic exercise regimen (two hours a day, five days a week), is in her late fifties. Rusty is now the Chief Judge of the Third District Court of Appeals in Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which is much like Illinois’ Cook County, and he hopes to win a seat on the State Supreme Court in the upcoming November election. Both parents still adore their son, Nat, who is now nearly thirty, however both Barbara and Rusty still haven’t managed to overcome some very difficult situations in life and flaws in his/her character.

Barbara is severely bipolar, agoraphobic, and though she takes medication (she’ll try anything), she is, more often than not, an unhappy, screaming harridan. Rusty, though highly respected in his capacity as a judge, still has trouble looking the other way when young, beautiful women are around. This is a little surprising, at least initially. It’s been twenty-two years since charges that he murdered Carolyn were dismissed, and he says those charges and their subsequent dismissal taught him to “show some gratitude to whatever force allowed me to skate across the thinnest ice and make it.”

Maybe that “gratitude” is why Rusty chose to remain married to a person as purely evil as Barbara. I don’t know, and Turow doesn’t give us much of a reason other than the fact that Rusty was concerned about the emotionally fragile and impressionable Nat, the Sabichs only child, and the effect on Nat should his mother not be in his day-to-day life.

Those of us who’ve read Presumed Innocent and know what kind of woman Barbara Sabich is and what she’s capable of, will have to strain our suspension of disbelief a little in order to accept the fact that any man, any man at all, would just pick up life with Barbara where it left off after Carolyn Polhemus’ murder, thinking Barbara, mother though she be, would be good for a highly impressionable four-year-old child, a delicate child in need of extensive psychotherapy. Even more shocking is the fact that Rusty resumes a “two to three times a week” intimate relationship with his wife. Readers who’ve read Presumed Innocent want to hit Rusty over the head with both that book and this one and say something like, “Dude! Look what she did! Wake up!” However, if you want to enjoy Innocent, and it is highly enjoyable, then you just have to accept Rusty’s decision to remain married to and intimate with Barbara, improbable though it be.

Innocent begins with an attention grabbing scene, and a bit of dialogue that show us what a master writer Turow is:

“A man is sitting on a bed. He is my father.

“The body of a woman is beneath the covers. She was my mother.”

Turow is sensitive to verb tenses. I greatly appreciated that because many of today’s writers are not. I appreciate the care with which this author wrote his story.

Since the above dialogue occurs on page one, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that it’s Barbara who is dead, and it’s Rusty who is sitting on the bed. The chapter is narrated by Nat, of course. Right away, the central mystery of the book is set up: Did Barbara die a natural death, or did someone kill her? If someone killed her, who? Rusty? Nat? Someone else? And why, for goodness sake, did Rusty wait twenty-four hours to phone the police? Why did he rearrange the bedroom? He is, after all, a judge, a legal professional, and he knows the implications of sitting with a corpse for a day rather than calling for help.

When the coroner’s initial report shows that Barbara likely died of hypertensive heart failure, Rusty’s old nemesis, attorney, Tommy Molto, now Kindle County’s prosecuting attorney, is satisfied. “I can’t go near this,” Tommy says of allegations that Rusty might be responsible for Barbara’s death. “Too much history.” Tommy remembers all too well the perils of indicting on flimsy evidence, since it had been Tommy Molto who was certain Rusty had been responsible for Carolyn Polhemus’ murder. In fact, even though he was sanctioned for deliberately mishandling evidence at Rusty’s trial, Tommy remains convinced of Rusty’s guilt where Carolyn is concerned. He has, however, learned to be cautious, and he bears Rusty no grudge for what happened nearly twenty-five years ago. “A grudge,” Tommy says, “was a badge of the dishonest, who could not face the truth, including a truth that was unflattering to them.”

Tommy’s young chief deputy, Jim Brand, however, is a different story. Brand is convinced that Rusty did kill Barbara, and when events finally persuade Tommy of Rusty’s guilt yet a second time, Rusty is arrested and charged.

If you read Presumed Innocent (you really don’t have to in order to enjoy this book, though I recommend it highly), you’ll know when Rusty Sabich is in trouble, he calls on stellar criminal defense attorney, Sandy Stern. It was a young and elegant Sandy Stern who defended Rusty when he was on trial two decades ago, and it’s an aged and cancer stricken, but still elegant, Sandy Stern, along with daughter Marta, who defends Rusty yet again. Sandy Stern was one of my favorite characters in Presumed Innocent, and I was glad to see him again in this book.

A prominent character in Innocent, who we didn’t meet in the earlier book, is Anna Vostic, Rusty’s thirty-four year old former law clerk. Curvaceous and intelligent, on the surface Anna seems a lot like Carolyn, and both Rusty and Nat take an interest in her.

I found Anna’s characterization to be complex. Though she seems, at first glance, to be so wild and free, when we look more closely, the reader finds she’s a very dark and troubled young woman. Maybe not wholly likable, but still, understandable. I did think she was totally wrong for both Rusty and Nat. These are both men who really can’t deal properly with a troubled partner.

I really didn’t like Nat in Presumed Innocent, because he seemed pampered and spoiled, and I didn’t care for him in Innocent, either. The problem for me was that Nat cried and broke down far too much. Yes, I know he was an emotionally fragile young man, and I know he’d been through a lot, having a mother like Barbara. And I know men really should get in touch with their feminine side. But breaking into tears ten or fifteen times during the course of the book was just a bit too much for me. The fact that Nat was a man had no effect on my dislike. A female character who broke down that many times would have irked me as well. Readers are attracted to strong and competent characters. Sure, they can be terribly flawed, they just can’t be weak, and Nat, I’m afraid, is weak.

While Rusty and Barbara are, for the most part, unchanged from the earlier novel, Tommy Molto, on the other hand, is greatly changed. A firebrand in Presumed Innocent, Tommy Molto has mellowed with the years and with the love he feels for his young son, the only child of his late-in-life marriage. While Rusty might believe he remained with Barbara out of love for Nat, it’s Tommy Molto who, surprisingly, proves to be the dedicated family man as well as the novel’s moral center.

Innocent is told from the points of view of Rusty, Nat, and Anna, while omniscient narration functions to tell Tommy Molto’s side of things. There are many shifts back and forth in time, which several readers I know did not like. I, myself, found the structure of Innocent very sophisticated, and I felt oriented at all times. Turow masterfully sets up two story threads – in the first, he recounts, little by little, the events that led up to Barbara’s death, while the second encompasses Rusty’s second murder trial, with Sandy Stern at the helm. I love multiple points of view, but those readers who really dislike them probably won’t like Innocent, even though Turow handled viewpoint wonderfully.

Rusty, of course, is a deeply flawed human being. We can understand him, we can feel sympathy for him, but we don’t always like him or agree with his choices. I think the key to understanding Rusty is to realize that he’s terribly masochistic. While I couldn’t help but absolutely despise Barbara, any man who would remain married to her knowing what Rusty knows has to be masochistic. And once a reader grasps the full extent of that masochism, he or she will no longer say that Rusty’s actions do not ring true. They do. Given Nat’s ability for self-deception, readers have to wonder if Rusty passed this negative trait to his only child, and if we’ll encounter Nat is a future book.

There are readers who criticized this book for not being a “legal thriller,” and yes, Turow did invent the genre with Presumed Innocent, paving the way for more prolific, but less careful and deliberate writers like John Grisham. But expecting Innocent to be a “thriller” is, I think, to miss the book’s point. This book is a more reflective character study than a plot driven thriller. It’s a melancholic and elegiac book that explores serious issues like aging, marriage, and death. And yes, innocence.

The writing in Innocent, like all the writing in all of Turow’s books, is sophisticated and mature. Turow is at his best, I think, when describing the courtroom scenes (Rusty’s trial encompasses the second half of the book) and the meanderings of the legal system he knows so well.

While there are no “I can’t believe it!” moments in Innocent, the book does, I think, capture so well the darkness and failings to which most human beings at time succumb. And that, I think, is this novel’s whole raison d’etre.

4.5/5

Recommended: If you like character studies of deeply flawed human beings and are not expecting a “legal thriller” you’ll probably enjoy this book. Rusty’s trial for murder does encompass almost the entire second half of the book, so be prepared to learn quite a bit about the US legal system. The book is rather slow paced and melancholic, and at times, you have to dig deep to understand the characters and their motivations, however it’s all worth it.