Books and Book Reviews: March 2009 Archives

Book Group Read


This week the book group decided to tackle at least "Daisy Miller" and possibly even Washington Square. Having read "Daisy Miller" before, at least once, possibly twice, I recalled that there are actually 2 different Daisy Millers--one the child of the original 1878 version. The 1909 version was touched heavily, as were many of the books prepared for that New York Edition of the Author's works.

So I thought, perhaps I should read them both. And while I may do that, I found something that may serve even better. For those who are interested in the mind and work of a writer, you might try checking out tha variorum edition you can find here. It presents both versions in a way in which you can see the differences. Perhaps a bit much for some, but given the lightness of the read and the swiftness with which it may be accomplished, certainly something worthwhile.

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Toros and Torsos--Craig McDonald


Take surrealism. Mix in Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, The Lady from Shanghai, the "Big Blow" of 1935, the Spanish Civil War, the Black Dahlia, and Castro's conquest of Cuba and you have the sweep of this book.

Now, mix in noir prose (a hard-bitten style that seems to thrive on language not often spoke by any of my acquaintances), a murderer who arranges victims to look like scenes from surrealist paintings, murder by grenade, a debauched and dissolute Hollywood cabal, and three or four switchbacks in plot, and you have the contours of the novel.

After I finished reading it, I looked at others' reviews and discovered, to my surprise, that they liked it far more than I did. I must admit to having found it compelling reading, but I was often put off by the poor editing job done on it. There were places where the prose sank into near incoherence because of this factor. Additionally, there was a tendency toward repetition in some places that was tiring. These are things than any good, even many great authors arrive at. As I've said before, it is the work of a good editor to assure that they do not come to light--or at least do not do so excessively.

And there was something else I found unsatisfactory about it--something that is hard to put a finger on and may be associated more with the genre that with this particular work. Somehow the ending just wasn't in tune with the rest of the book. Perhaps there were too many switchbacks, or too much slight of hand. It's difficult to say. Or perhaps it was that I just couldn't believe the main character. I was never convinced that this person associated with all the other famous people that he mentions in the book, There was something unconvincing about his interactions with the other characters. Or, again, it could be the conventions of the noir. I often find set pieces in noir fiction to be at least slightly unbelievable.

So, to tell you the truth, the jury is still out on this one. I'll probably think about it for a while. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who want to know more about the dark side of surrealism (pardon the redundancy). And as with many books these days, I learned a wonderful little tidbit about surrealist prison cells in repbulican Spain--so it was worth it for that alone. So my recommendation is limited but enthusiastic (because I'd like to talk to someone about this one)--to those who really enjoy and appreciate a good film noir novel.

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Drood--Dan Simmons

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In his review posted on Amazon (derived from the Washington Post), Louis Bayard, author of several novels that play off of Dickensian Characters, took Dan Simmons to task on his newest book:

Louis Bayard on Drood

Drood, as one might expect, bears a nominal relation to Dickens's unfinished final volume, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," but it plays out more as a cross between "Amadeus" and "The Usual Suspects." As hybrids go, that has the potential for some horsepower, especially because Simmons, in earlier days, was a much-lauded sci-fi writer, and the pictorial imagination he brought to that earlier genre pays handsome dividends here. In one hallucinatory moment, Collins sees the audience at Dickens's public reading tied by "hundreds of slender, white, barely perceptible cords." Books are "dalmatianed with spattered ink," a nasty black scarab burrows into a human belly "as if flesh were sand" and a man looks down at himself and sees "the hands of a corpse disappearing into chalk." The most successful of the book's set pieces is in the very first chapter, when the train carrying Dickens and his mistress plunges from the Staplehurst viaduct. . . . It's when Simmons takes his book aboveground that he loses his way -- in a forest of factoids. For long stretches, "Drood" is little more than warmed-over biography, larded with the minutiae of London sewage systems and Dickens's Italian travels and his fistula surgery and the names of the dogs who visited his estate and the titles of every last reference work consulted by Collins during the writing of "The Moonstone" . . . and then more of same. "Perhaps I have already mentioned . . . ," Simmons's narrator murmurs. "Perhaps you also know . . . . Perhaps I have told you, Dear Reader . . . . I may have mentioned earlier . . . ." You have. You have.

That said, Drood is fascinating for those of us not familiar with the life of Charles Dickens nor with the working relationship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It may be "warmed over biography," but it is good and interesting warmed-over biography. It is also of interest that neither Collins nor Dickens come out of the book as particularly likeable or admirable characters.

My problem with the book is that I came away unclear about what Simmons wanted to accomplish with it. It is the story of the last five years of Dickens life, during which he did relatively little writing and a great deal of touring and reading. The lead incicent of the book is a horrendous train crash in a place called Staplehurst--a train crash that really did occur and in which Dickens really was involved. From that incident Dickens becomes involved with the man or creature named Drood. While helping the victims of the crash, Dickens encounters Drood and eventually infers that rather than helping, Drood is dispatching the victims of train wreck.

From there we are launched into 700+ pages of a victorian phantasmagoria involving the sewers of London,opium dens, macabre readings during which Dickens "murders" Nancy (from Oliver Twist) over and over and over again. Drood pulls the strings and Collins and Dickens dance. Just before the end of the book Dickens reveals something to Collins that is to cast the whole narrative into some doubt and the reader is left to decipher the rest.

There are all sorts of things unexplained--the nature of the thing in the stairway toward the middle/end of the book, who is the Other Wilkie, and who or what is Drood and why? The explanation offered for this most successful and hideous of serial killers is insufficient to make clear what Drood is or why.

The book is great reading, highly enjoyable, a real roller coaster ride of a narrative. But the ride is over and we leave the car disoriented, and perhaps a little dissatisfied that we waited an hour in line for the end result.

Nevertheless, I would recommend the book to people who like to read very long, very detailed, very macabre, well-researched and well-written books.

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from Acedia and Me
Kathleen Norris

One of the first symptoms of both acedia and depression is the inability to address the body's basic daily needs. It is also a refusal of repetition. Showering, shampooing, brushing the teeth, taking a multi-vitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance the ability to take pleasure in oneself, and in the world. But the notion of pleasure is alien to acedia, and one becomes weary thinking about doing anything at all. It is too much to ask, one decides, sinking back on the sofa. This indolence extracts a high price. Esther's [from The Bell Jar] desire to "do everything once and for all and be through with it" has all the distorted reasoning of insanity. It is a call to suicide.

The refusal of repetition--the refusal to the small details that make life livable. The refusal, for example, to practice the discipline of the Liturgy of the Hours can, for some, lead to acedia--particularly those who are bound by rules of an Order. But the refusal of the mundane--cleaning house, ironing clothes, being present to friends for conversation, all of these are like items on a checklist that show how far we have sunk into either depression or acedia. The difficulty, of course, is in the distinction between the two.

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A Sobering, Realistic Thought


"For I had become aware that it was possible to reject time, as well as embrace it. If I wanted to I could live just barely, refusing the gift of each day."

Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from March 2009.

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