Sunday, May 27, 2012

On The Road

I forgot how much I loved Jack Kerouac! What a great  book On the Road is. Such sweet poetry in his descriptions of people and places. The trip into Mexico (in the last part of the book) sings.

It's funny, I read this book years ago and did not care for it - even as I was reading and loving his other works. I had get past Dean Moriarity and his many, many sins. What a guy he was. Turns out he (in real life, Neal Cassady) was muse for two authors of two other Time 100 books, as well: Robert Stone modeled Hicks (the psychopath) after Cassady in Dog soldiers and Ken Kesey based the character, Randall Patrick McMurphy on him.
And I probably needed to forgive Kerouac his sins too. It's hard to watch him (as the narrator in On the Road) drinking so hard, knowing that that habit will be the cause of his death. I gravitated instead to other his other more sober books -- like Big Sur, but On the Road has all of the same great writing as those other books, and the same positive (and positively) manic energy that is hard to beat. Five stars in my book!

Sunday, April 8, 2012


I found 1984 almost as frightening as my initial reading of it at age 17. It certainly came more alive for me this time around as I was reminded of Iran and in particular of Marina Nemat's description of life there in Prisoner of Tehran.  Her experience of being watched, trying to have a lover and most of all her time in prison was similar in many ways to Winston's. That said, nothing comes close to the sheer horror of living with Big Brother watching. Oh my.

I'm glad I dusted this one off and had another "go" at it as part of reading through the Time 100 list.

Next books: I'll try to finish two books I put aside: Gone With the Wind (just 125 pages of Scarlett remaining, I will get through this book, yet) and Rabbit, Run - I just couldn't watch his foolishness and had to put it down. I may have to throw in some lighter reading to get through them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

Just finished reading Julian Barnes, Booker Award winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. Awesome! Young Adrian Finn questions the accuracy of historical accounts written years after events have occurred. How good of a detective does the historian need to be? How well should we expect that  witnesses to events remember what happened? Can one trust the accounts of journals, letter and articles written at the time? 

The story is narrated by Tony, a retiree in his sixties who tells his own tale as well as the tale of an old friend who dies young. Tony has lived a comfy life only to allow it - and his memories of the past - to be disrupted when he accepts an inheritance from the mother of an old lover named Veronica. It could be simple - take the money and run. But there is a diary involved.

The diary was left to Tony, and he wants to read it but Veronica has it and will not give it to him. However, she gives him one entry and an old letter. Veronica goadsTony on to do some detective work to sort out what took place after she and Tony broke up. He tries to figure it out from the clues she gives, but he can't get it. She says he never will.

As he begins to piece clues together, his memories and the story shape-shift. A clever reader is going to figure it all out long before Tony does, but the underlying theme of uncovering history keeps the book interesting. The Sense of an Ending leaves as many questions unanswered as it does those solved.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Possession

I finished Possession by A. S. Byatt while on a trip to Boston last week. It is a 530 page book with a great amount of detail, numerous Gothic and epic poems and 19th century letters ... it is no quick read. And as for reviewing it, it's the sort of book that dissertations are made of, so I'll keep this short and sweet.

Byatt used every part of her brain to create this one. It is dense, intricate, intellectual and deep. The prose is stunning.

Two modern-day literary researchers find clues about the possible relationship of two 19th century poets. What ensues is a chase through the English countryside as well as a poring over dusty archives to trace the poets' movements. As they do this, they are just steps ahead of their colleagues and adversaries -- who are also trying to claim the prize of discovery. The story of the two poets unfolds bit by bit, with a delicious Agatha Christie style wrap-up that neatly concludes the tale. Quite delightful.

I was not up for the slow-paced work of piecing together clues when I began reading this book and instead tried to blaze through it. That was a big mistake. The book deserves a careful reading, and eventually I was able to find the time to give it its due. That involved rereading the first 200 pages I had raced through. It was worth it. I rank this one highly -- not quite as high as Atwood's excellent The Blind Assassin, but The Possession is a very good book. (****)


You would have thought I'd had enough of English Humor of the 30s after Powell's Dance and try something completely different next. But instead I picked up Lucky Jim by Powell's friend, Kingsley Amis.

No dry humor here, this is slapstick. The story is about an agreeable and easily victimized new PhD of history trying to make his start in a back-water college in England. He is mentored by an old professor who prefers putting on plays to teaching history classes and who invites him to preposterous parties where he drinks too much and gets into hilarious fixes. He is befriended by and nearly betrothed to a neurotic colleague who plays suicide games to get what she wants. He is nearly done in by an exercise to create and give an "important" lecture on the topic of Merrie England. However, there is hope in the form of a lovely lady, the fiance of his mentor's son, who conspires with him in various ways. This, of course, causes more problems, but by the end, he pops out of the tangled mess, lands on his feet and  thumbs his nose at the bunch of them. This is a very silly book. Not sure why it is on the Time 100 except to fill out the humor genre. Pleasant enough. **

A Dance to the Music of Time

I can't believe that I finished this series. 2500 pages! What started out as an immensely pleasurable experience got very, very old in the end when the prose - always at the edge of tediousness became awash with $10 words and 40-word sentences. But I must admit, I was addicted to this series, tedious passages and all and am glad to have read it.

The books cover 50-60 years in the life of narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, an upper middle class literary reviewer/writer with friends in the arts and family with titles. He knows everyone and so is invited to interesting soirees where he meets and becomes friends with a number of outrageous characters. The cast of hundreds has society mavens, alcoholics, hostesses, artists, musicians, millionaires, normal business people, a nymphomaniac, a necrophiliac, cult leaders, seers, and on and on.

The most outrageous character is Kenneth Widmerpoole who first shows up in book 1, an overly-serious lad, running down a lane on his way to a life as a successful businessman, colonel and peer. He is a man without a conscience and without a heart. He marries a sulky nymphomaniac who steals the show (the plot) in several of the later books with her many moods and antics. Widmerpoole makes his final curtain call, again running down a lane, in book 12, an old and very changed man.

The books are full of dry humor. Kingsly Amis, who wrote upper middle class slapstick, called Powell "the most subtle writer now performing in English". Subtle, indeed. If you aren't paying attention, you miss all sorts of jests. Which gets back to the issue of tediousness. It's not always easy to pay such close attention at that level to prose that feels foreign and dated.

The highlights? Books 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7-9. I enjoyed  book 3, a romance, quite a bit. It was both sexy and graceful (in a 1950ish sort of way). Books 7-9 - the war years - were second best. Although Jenkins did not go off to war, the war most definitely came to him in many ways. He spent 5 years in the army ending up as a liaison to other countries. These books provide a solid look at London in blackout conditions with buildings and people disappearing nightly. I found books 4 and 5 boring, but I was addicted to the prose and so got through them quickly. Book 11, set in 1958 is all about sex - and book 12, set in 1968 extends that and wraps up the series with both solemn endings and just desserts.

My Take:  The strength of the books is that they chronicle a certain culture in time with wit and insight. The subject matter, with its serious moments, is generally not deep. This series will either enthrall you or bore you to tears. I stand with the former group. (****)


Falconer, by John Cheever details the slimier aspects of prison life, moving between the over-the-top, sadistic behavior of prison guards to the boring (for me) details of how prisoners manage their sexual lives. The protagonist, Farragut, did not come alive for me and so I did not care about his outcome. Details in the surprise ending seemed contrived. All that said, the beauty of the prose kept me going. (***)