Archive for September, 2010

Short Takes – How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

The Road Home

Jacqueline, who runs the literary book group I’m in, had recommended Rose Tremain’s The Road Home—about a Russian man who (legally, much is made of the fact) emigrates from a small city in Russia to the U.K. in order to earn money and send it back to his family.  Eventually, he comes up with a plan that he believes will enable him to rejoin his family and friends.  He will establish a business in his home town that will support them all adequately.  I won’t tell you what he decides to do and whether he succeeds.  I enjoyed the book.  I wasn’t transported, but I didn’t feel the time I took to read it was wasted.  I thought the protagonist was a bit obtuse.  He seemed to be canny and practical in some ways and totally out of touch in other ways.  I was willing to suspend disbelief, but just barely.

While I was at it–actually, before I read The Road Home, I read another of Tremain’s books: Music & Silence.  The long review is my previous blog entry here..  The short review is: Interesting, but not compelling.

Gertrude and Claudius

I also finally got around to reading John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, which I have had sitting on my bookshelf since shortly after it was published.  It is what is called in the film industry, a “high concept” piece, which means, I think, that it has pretensions and thus sounds like a sure thing.  In this case, the concept is: Let’s imagine what went on with Gertrude and Claudius (Hamlet’s mother and uncle) before Hamlet (Shakespeare’s play) begins?  I was hooked by the concept, so I bought the book back in 2000, and that was as far as I got.  In the meantime, my wife, Micalyn, had read it and her review was, paraphrasing slightly, “Ho-hum.” 

Well, that was pretty much my reaction, too.There are some rhetorical flights of fancy that are pleasant to read, but the imagining of Gertrude and Claudius having a clandestine affair under Poppa Hamlet’s nose is, ultimately, pedestrian and, what to say, obvious.  I don’t know that the movie would have had much of an audience, either.  What’s delicious about the play is that Shakespeare leaves the prequel unspecified and we the audience and Hamlet have to draw our own conclusions.   It was interesting to read Gertrude and Claudius soon after reading Music & Silence, because they are both set in olden Denmark.  I had much more of a sense of time and place in the former than in the latter, which is a tad odd because the latter is based on real events in the years 1629 and 1630.

Lulu in Marrakech

A friend had recommended Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech, whose thesis is that being a CIA operative is dull, puzzling, and prosaic.  Again, it kept me going, but at the end I felt a bit let down.  The protagonist, Lulu, is no Lisbeth Salander, which is to say that one does not feel the kind of intense connection and concern one feels for Lisbeth in the three Stieg Larsson books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

I enjoyed the Larsson books.  I couldn’t put them down.  I liked the first book.  I wanted to find out more about Lisbeth, so I hastened to read the second, which put me off, somehow, from the start, but I still couldn’t put it down.  My favorite was the third book.  That is where all the characterization of Lisbeth pays off when Larsson has her seriously grow as a person and take the risk (and discover the reward) of trusting people who really care for her and are on her side.  It is an impressive literary achievement that Larsson makes us care so strongly about Lisbeth even when she herself has been most hell-bent on not seeming to care about anyone.

Bangkok 8

Bangkok Tattoo

Bangkok Haunts

I know one of my friends recommended John Burdett’s three mystery detective novels featuring a mixed race Thai-American policeman (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts).  I can’t remember who recommended them–all of the usual suspects deny having heard of the books.  These are “police procedurals” dealing with the details of tracking down and bringing to justice (however oddly conceived) the malefactors.  The sub-genre is “noir” (as in film noir).  They deal with the dark side of human nature: drug dealing, prostitution, sex change operations, police corruption, etc.  The stories are not for the squeamish, but the protagonist is a person who tries (and manages) to do the right thing from the standpoint of a Buddhist world view.  His philosophical musings are engaging, the situations are engrossing (and often, just plain gross), the characters feel real, the villains are villainous, the opportunists (especially the protagonist’s boss) are clever and likeable in an immoral way.  All three novels have satisfyingly unexpected twists in their denouements.   The rhetorical style is also satisfying: both quirky and thought provoking.  I would say these are in the same literary class with the Larsson books.  They transcend their genre and transport the reader to a higher plane.

The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling

Literature is, of course, in the final analysis stuff people like to read and keep reading.  The longer people keep reading something, the more confident we are that it is really literature.  Shakespeare still resonates.  The language is difficult for us, to be sure, but the experience is worth the candle (presumably the candle one burns into the night while reading).  Some of the works that we consider to be Serious Literature are works that aren’t as popular now as they used to be.  Maybe they aren’t literature any more.  Chaucer comes to mind.  If one reads Chaucer today (and by the way there’s a new translation of The Canterbury Tales —characterized as a “retelling” by Peter Ackroyd), it is mostly to gain insight into the minds of people of the mid-1300’s and afterwards, who kept (re)reading it.  To a contemporary reader, the bawdy stories aside (The Miller’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale), most of the stories are not very interesting, but in that distant time before photography, radio, motion pictures, television, and the Internet, the written word (possibly read aloud) was the primary conduit for the delivery of everything from travelogues to reality shows to world news to political and religious commentary.  Chaucer managed to create a kind of equivalent to the movie “Fantasia” or maybe a local TV station—a collection of experiences with something for everyone.  People liked it.  Bottom line: there may be some value in revisiting writings that were popular in the past in order to learn who we were, but it’s what is popular now that is defining what literature is and will be in the future.

With that rather long-winded prologue, I announce that the literary merit prize—the “I liked it” prize”—for my summer readings goes to the popular novelists Stieg Larsson and John Burdett.