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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Thoughts on re-reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Reading through Carson McCullers's great The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in prep for book-group meet tomorrow, and a few observations: It's not a novel to skim! Skimming it on 2nd recent reading does remind me of the characters and of some plot elements I'd forgotten so there's some value in a quick read, but it's also clear that HLH is not a novel about plot. So much of its power comes from CMcC's ability to create a sense of place, the wit and precision of her dialogue, and the interior life of the characters - not what they do but how they feel. (The title is a giveaway re that strength, I think.) Often when I have to skim a novel I can get by literally by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. This method does not work w/ CMcC; she doesn't build from "topic sentences"; as in life, the initial statements are often misleading or indirect. Second observation, it's not only mind-blowingly impressive that she could have written such a profound and complex novel about her home town and her youth and her family at age 22 or so - millions of first novels are accounts of family, youth, hometown - but almost universally these novels are strictly confined to the sensibilities of the young-author protagonist. What's even more impressive, though, is how carefully she anticipates the characters and interlaces their actions and appearances. Again, most young authors writing about their youth, family, home town devote chapter by chapter to unique characters - Winesburg, Ohio, is the prototype, followed by about a million "linked stories" from grad-school writing programs. Re-reading HLH I notice the early appearances of and references to each of the characters in the earlier stories - we hear, for example, of the alcoholic activist agitator as a patron of Biff's diner well before we get to know him as a character in his own right; we meet Biff's cook, Willie, long before we get the connection between Willie and the Kelly family (Portia's brother, later victimized by racist brutality). In other words, McCullers is in complete control of her narrative, writing with an assurance that's rare in a writer of any aging and astonishing in one so young and promising.

25 posts from Elliot's reading is available on Amazon:

and as an e-book from Kindle:

Friday, April 28, 2017

25 Posts from Elliot's Reading - Available from Amazon, Kindle

My new booklet, "25 Posts from Elliot's Reading: Selections from the first 2,500 blog entries," is available from Amazon. See the icon on the top right on the home page of this blog, or click here:

This booklet is also available as an e-book from Kindle:

Here are the titles of the first five entries:

Each Great Novel is Great in its Own Way
Catching Holden Caulfield 
A Strange Tale of Two Poets: Ginsberg, Wieners 
Miss Jean Brodie as an Allegory About Fascism 
What’s the Strangest Line in the World’s Most Famous Soliloquy? 

Check it out! 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Guessing as to the plot direction of Six Four

By the mid-point in Hideo Yokoyama's Six Four we learn why the police (in unnamed Japanese city, 2002) are pushing, 14 years after theevent, to resolve the case of the kidnap and murder of a 7-year-old girl. The protagonist, a police officer and former detective now assigned to the lowly (ha!) area of media relations, Mikami, has been ordered to get the father of the kidnapped girl to agree to a visit from the highest-ranking police official. The father resists, at least at first, and Mikami finds that he's been shut out from all info on the case - which makes it almost impossible for him to work to get the father's trust and compliance. Through Mikami's many inquiries of present and former police officers, we learn that the police seriously screwed up the crime investigation, specifically, the device they'd set up to record any calls from the kidnapper failed and they missed the only chance to record his voice. Worse, they covered up this failure - and are concerned that now it will come to light, as HQ wants to close out this case. The failure of the device ruined the careers of at least 2 men. For many crime novels, this would be enough and we would now be moving toward a conclusion - but we have 300 dense pages to go! So what will happen? My guess is that the issue goes well beyond the failure of the recording device. Why would it fail? I'm guessing someone on the police force was involved in the kidnap plot and sabotaged the recorder - not suspecting that the plot would go awry and the girl would be murdered. HY holds my interest, but as noted in previous posts, and still very much true, it's almost impossible for an American reader to make sense of all the internal squabbles within this police department: It's never clear what office various people are working in, what the lines of authority are, where they various players stand in the PD hierarchy, what's the relation between this PD and Tokyo, and so forth. HY does not do much to differentiate the characters - he's strong on dialog but not on physical description, not does he make use of the crime-novel trope of giving the various characters quirks of behavior and interest or even notable "handles" or nicknames. Six Four remains an ambitious and for the most part engaging novel, but you have to read through a number of nearly opaque chapters. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The ambitious but sometimes impenetrable plot of Yokoyama's Six Four

Still moving along with Hideo Yokoyama's Six Four, a rcime-mystery-police novel set in 2002 Japan - extremely long for the mystery genre, at nearly 600 dense pages, but HY's aspirations are higher, as this is a novel with the scope of literary fiction - not simply a who dunnit, so to speak, but an examination of the complex relations of the police and the media, internal politics w/in the PD, family psychodrama, political corruption and police protection thereof, and of course a crime - kidnap, murder, of a 7-year-old girl - unsolved over 14 years and now a priority for the PD as the statute of limitations looms. I find a lot of the drama difficult, even impenetrable - I really think most American readers will throw up their hands in frustration as we try to follow the complex internal politics in the PD, as there's not a lot of background and the inter-relations of various departments and officials is extremely hard to keep straight, even w/ a cast of characters at the opening (as in many Russian novels). So I find myself skimming these sections and focusing on the more immediate and apparent elements. There are several "mysteries" unfolding here: Who killed the young girl 14 years back? Why did the police fail to find the killer? Why did the girl's family break off all relations with the PD? Why is the central office suddenly focused on a reviving this case? The main character in the novel, and the only one so far (1/3 of the way through) with any even partially developed back story, is the police officer Mikami - recently bumped from detectives to "media relations." In his new role he finds himself completely shut off from info about developing cases - a familiar, and completely wrong, way for an agency to deal w/ media relations and communications. He receives the low-level assignment of speaking w/ the kidnapped girl's father and asking if he is will to allow the top police chief based in Tokyo (I imagine his role is comparable to the head of the FBI) to visit - in an attempt to build media interest in the case and unearth some clues.When the man unexpectedly refuses, this ignites Mikami's suspicions and he embarks on a quest to find out what caused this split and why the police may have screwed up the case. In a subplot that I think will eventually be tied to the main plot, Mikami's daughter, who suffers from BMD (hatred of her own body and appearance), vanishes, and police nationwide are in a search for her, or for her corpse. Novel opens w/ Mikami called to a station to ID a corpse that turns out not to be his daughter's; I expect that the novel may end w/ a similar scene?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When crime-fiction approaches literary fiction: Six Four

I was drawn to the 2012 Japanese crime novel Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama, by the glowing front-page NYTBR review a few weeks back; I don't usually read crime fiction, but this one seemed to be a big step above the standard police procedural, the investigation led by an eccentric cop/detective/investigative journalist with quirks, failings, flaws, and enough personality to drive a series of novels. This novel has grander aspirations - reminded me a little from the outset of Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, a novel not about a crime per se but about the nature of criminality and justice and the effect of a crime on individuals and on a whole community. (These are elements you'll see in the great currently running series, American Crime, btw). So how does it hold up to expectations? Well, it's long, as advertised, about 600 large pages w/ dense type! In the time it will take me to read this I could be reading Crime and Punishment. And it got off to a slow start. The novel centers on a police officer, Mikami, who has served most of his career as a detective but has recently been transferred to "media relations" (a position I know well). This transfer seems to him a demotion, but he's trying hard to improve relations w/ the press. Here we see one of the differences between Japanese and U.S. culture; the 13 reporters that cover the police in this unnamed city outside of Tokyo are pushing the police to release the name of someone in an accident report. The police refuse, and the reporters threaten to send an official protest to the police captain. To everyone involved, this is a huge deal - whereas in the U.S. it would be a waste of everyone's time, to put it mildly. For a while, I thought I wouldn't read this novel for more than a day, as much of the early going concerns internal politics in the PD, about which I cared not at all. But there are two other plot strands: first, Mikami's adult daughter has disappeared, and there's a nationwide search for info about her. Second, a major unsolved kidnap-murder case is nearing its statute of limitations, and the police are pushing for more info before the case is dead; Mikami was a detective involved in the original investigation. I have to say this novel has grown on me and I'll continue w/ it as long as it holds my interest. It doesn't seem like great literature - the writing is smooth and efficient but hardly probes the interior life of the character and leaves the settings bland and abstract, the City of D as it's called could be anywhere in Japan - but the complex web of the plot is drawing me in.

Monday, April 24, 2017

An alienated man and a great anti-war novel: The Land at the End of the Earth

Right to the end, Antonio Lobo Antunes's The Land at the End of the Earth stands as one of the great war, or I should say anti-war, novels of the 20th century. By the end, we see how service in the colonial war in Angola destroyed the narrator for life, making him isolated, cynical, unable to connect with his family, his ex-wife and their daughters, his profession, his home town, his native land - or with anyone in any sort of normal, healthy relationship. The novel is structured as the narrator's account of his life, particularly his wartime service, to a woman he meets in a bar; he chats her up through the night - almost every chapter includes some moments of his addressing this woman - in a clumsy seduction attempt, one of many evidently - this one ultimately leading to "success," as they go back to his apartment and have sex and continue the dialog, or monologue, until dawn when she leaves for work and the narrator reflects that he seems to like her (perhaps because she's an undemanding listener; he seems to be the one doing all the talking) but no doubt will never see her again. He is a completely alienated 20th-century man - although he does retain one faculty, and that's his extraordinary ability to convey the horrors of his wartime experience. As a narrator, he is engaged - and obsessed, like the Ancient Mariner (does translator Margaret Jull Costa make this comparison in her helpful intro?). Yes, war is hell - but his narrative goes beyond that, in eviscerating the hypocrisy and corruption of this particular war of colonial aggression, believed to be in the best interest of the conquered African nations but actually just propping up the wealth of the Portuguese aristocrats and the generals safe in their offices in the capital. Final note: in an earlier post I said there were 26 chapters arranged alphabetically (A thru Z); in fact, there are only 23 chapters, as the Portuguese language doesn't use three letters of the Roman alphabet (k,w, and y).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Possible meanings of "deaf and blind" in Vapnyar's NYer story

Lara Vapnyar's story in current New Yorker, Deaf and Blind, brings us to her familiar territory, Moscow in the late Soviet era, and she accounts in first person a friendship between narrator's mother and a very beautiful Russian intellectual, a philosophy prof of some sort (the mother is also an intellectual and holds a doctorate, but is decidedly less glamorous, to the chagrin of the daughter, as the narrator relates, looking back from her own adulthood). Both women are in bad and doomed relationships: the mother's because she just plain does not love her husband enough, she's kind of indifferent to him; the friend's because her husband dotes on her too extensively. Strangely, the friend announces that she is having an affair and has fallen in love with a famous philosopher who, as the title indicates, is both blind and deaf. It's hard for the narrator and her family to fathom how this love began and how it could endure - and it's hard for us, too. What draws this beautiful woman to such a difficult and charged relationship? We have to think, first, that something in her likes being so needed, the only source of communication between this man and the world, the one who literally communicates all of his brilliant ideas (he is a philosopher of perception, interestingly); second, perhaps she is drawn to someone who does not fall in love w/ her because of her beauty? The story builds to the scene where the woman comes to dinner at narrator's mother's Moscow apartment; the visit is less fraught and awkward than we might expect - the couple seem to be very much in love and, as communicated by mother's friend, the man sense true love and feeling in this family. So maybe the translator is lying; how would we know? In any event his misses that the family - grandma, mother, narrator - is being wrenched apart by narrator's father's indifference to his daughter: constantly trying to arrange get-togethers almost all of which fail to materialize. It's obvious that there are more important things, to him, in his life - and another climactic moment, in this sub-plot, is when the narrator tells the father that she can't make one of his proposed dates. I'm wondering if there is some metaphorical significance to this domestic tale; perhaps being deaf and blind is characteristic of so many relationships among those who can see and can hear. Perhaps being deaf and blind is also characteristic of the late days of the Soviet Union - the government oblivious to its imminent collapse.