Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson – The Battle of Britain and the Blitz

 

‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson (2020) – 503 pages

 

I generally don’t read a work of non-fiction like I do a novel. For non-fiction, I usually skip around looking for interesting parts. However, for the non-fiction works of Erik Larson, I read them straight through from beginning to end.

Erik Larson is a popularizer of history, not an original source. His works are not original or rigorous or deep. Larson writes for enthusiastic novices like me.

It helps that in ‘The Splendid and the Vile’, he is writing about one of my own personal heroes, Winston Churchill, during the time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz when England was under severe attack by Nazi Germany’s air force. Larson does write about all the major players, but the emphasis always returns to Winston Churchill.

Here, as in other speeches , Churchill demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all more courageous.”

Besides the war coverage, the book covers many personal scenes of Churchill and his family and his friends such as Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, and Frederick Lindemann, Churchill’s scientific advisor. Larson captures the vivid personalities of the major players.

Embarrassed officials would often encounter Winston, robed like a Roman emperor in his bath towel, proceeding dripping from his bathroom across the main highway to his bedroom…Churchill strutting about in his gold-dragon nightclothes and jabbing the air with a dead cigar, savoring the sound and feel of words. ”

We have the horrific results of the German bombing raids in London and other places in England juxtaposed with idyllic garden scenes of “sunny loveliness and perfect peace”.

Midst the havoc, life goes on. We get party scenes, one where Churchill’s daughter Mary dances with a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Montaigne.

I felt incredibly gay – I waltzed with Jean Pierre incovertly, wildly and very fast – great fun. I missed only a few dances.”

It helps to capture the spirit that quite a few individuals kept personal diaries during that time.

So much for the splendid; Larson also captures the vile, the Nazi leaders such as Herman Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, and Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer.

But we always come back to Winston Churchill, “his vast knowledge of history, his power of expression, and his huge energy”.

Somehow, through it all, Churchill had taught them the art of being fearless.”

 

Grade:    A

 

The Yellow Sofa’ by Jose Maria Eca de Queirós – “No Digressions, No Rhetoric – Everything is Interesting and Dramatic and Quickly Narrated”.

 

The Yellow Sofa’ by Jose Maria Eca de Queirós     (Sometime during the 1880s) – 112 pages                                                         Translated from the Portuguese by John Vetch

As ironic as it might seem, there are still new developments occurring in 19th century literature. There are almost-forgotten writers finally being rediscovered for the virtuosos that they really were. Perhaps the biggest recent development is the ascendancy of the Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eca de Queirós to the upper echelons of the literary world.

José Saramago, no slouch of a writer himself, called Eca de Queirós ‘ novel ‘The Maias’ “the greatest book by Portugal’s greatest novelist.”

Eca ought to be up there with Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy as one of the talismanic names of the nineteenth century.” – The London Observer

I am going to quote a long paragraph from V. S. Pritchett, because I believe it captures the essence of Eca de Queirós :

The making of this novel and indeed all the others, is the restless mingling of poetry, sharp realism and wit. Queirós is untouched by the drastic hatred of life that underlies Naturalism; he is sad rather than indignant that every human being is compromised; Indeed that enables him to present his characters from several points of view, and explore the unexpectedness of human nature.”

‘The Yellow Sofa’ was not published during Queirós lifetime. In 1925 his son found it in a desk among other miscellaneous writings, and his son had it published then. We almost lost a short masterpiece.

‘The Yellow Sofa’ is a novella that is a vivid thoughtful thorough argument against rash action. In Eca de Queirós’ own words, he wrote ‘The Yellow Sofa’ with “no digressions, no rhetoric – everything is interesting and dramatic and quickly narrated”. I won’t go into any of the details of the plot of ‘The Yellow Sofa’ because it is full of surprises, and I don’t want to spoil any of them for you.

One of the reasons I always enjoy reading Eca de Queirós is because I find his novels always upbeat. His main characters are strongly etched and always fascinating in their approach to their own situations.

In 2009, ‘The Yellow Sofa’ was turned into an opera by British composer Julian Philips and attracted wide critical notice.

‘The Yellow Sofa, being a novella, would be a great place to start to get to know this important yet delightful author.

Now with the epidemic lock down upon us, I may take the time to read Eca de Queiros’ 628-page masterpiece ‘The Maias’.

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

‘Writers and Lovers’ by Lily King – Torn Between Two Lovers

 

‘Writers and Lovers’ by Lily King  (2020) – 324 pages

I was quite interested in what Lily King would do next after her novel ‘Euphoria’ which was spectacularly well done. Now King’s follow-up novel, ‘Writers and Lovers’, has arrived.

Whereas ‘Euphoria’ takes place in the wilds of the island of New Guinea in the early 1930s, ‘Writers and Lovers’ has a much more conventional setting in Boston in 1997. The two novels are much different from each other, and about the only characteristic that they share is a love triangle.

I almost hesitate to tell you the plot of ‘Writers and Lovers’ for fear of putting you off the book entirely. It is about a young woman in her late twenties who is having difficulty completing her novel which she has been working on for six years. She works in an upscale fashionable restaurant as a waitress and lives in a former potting shed in order to support herself and her writing.

She has just broken up with her last boyfriend.

I’m usually better at protecting myself from this kind of thing.”

From heartbreak?”

Yeah.” My throat is closing. “I can usually get out of the way before it hits me straight on.”

That’s not really heartbreak then, is it?”

Early on, she meets two new men. One is a somewhat famous writer in his forties whose wife has recently died leaving him with two preschool children. The other man is closer in age to her and is also a writer but so far not remotely successful.

As you can see, this novel is all about the struggles and triumphs of characters writing their fiction and poetry, a theme which is usually a death warrant for a novel. Here is yet another novel by a female writer about a female writer and the problems she encounters. We have an author searching for an adequate subject but not finding it so she writes about her former life. Yes, writing fiction is a struggle, but who wants to read about it?

In ‘Writers and Lovers’ favor, it does have the formidable writing talents of Lily King. She captures exactly what it must be like working in a fashionable expensive restaurant, the painstaking efforts to present the exotic menu items to the customers perfectly and the camaraderie of the restaurant workers. In the dating scenes, King captures the small nuances and the intensity or lack of intensity in her feelings about these two men. King is especially adept in relating female desire.

My whole body responds to his hand in mine.”

The desire to press up against him is on a short loop in my head.”

However after the wild and adventurous ‘Euphoria’, ‘Writers and Lovers’ was a bit of a letdown. Like its title, this novel is rather amorphous and prosaic. I did like quite a number of the scenes and attitudes of ‘Writers and Lovers’, but for me it did not quite reach the perfection of ‘Euphoria’.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Liber Amoris or The New Pygmalion’ by William Hazlitt – More a Rant Than a Novel

 

Liber Amoris or The New Pygmalion’ by William Hazlitt (1823) – 112 pages

William Hazlitt was the great essayist and critic of the Romantic era in the early 19th century. He was an adept prose stylist and is regarded as the finest arts critic of his age.

However his one foray into fiction is a one-note rant of a novel dealing with his real-life obsession with Sarah Walker, the daughter of his landlord at one point. The story of William Hazlitt and Sarah Walker has been well documented, and there is little in the novel that has not been registered as fact.

H: “Tell me why you have deceived me, and singled me out as your victim?”

S: “I never have, Sir. I always said I could not love.”

H: “There is a difference between love and making me a laughing-stock.”

Hazlitt does not even disguise the first letters of their real names.

It all started when Hazlitt moved out of his family’s house, leaving behind his wife and son. He moved into this rooming house, and the landlord’s 19 year-old daughter Sarah would serve him breakfast. Hazlitt was 41 at the time. Soon this turned into something more than breakfast and Sarah would be “sitting and fondling a man sometimes for half a day together”.

…that you come up here, and stay as long as you like, that you sit on my knee and put your arms round my neck, and feed me with kisses, and let me take other liberties with you, and that for a year together; and you do all this not out of love, or liking, or regard, but go through your regular task like some young witch, without one natural feeling…”

Hazlitt went off the deep end over Sarah Walker.

Am I mad or a fool?” The correct answer would be “Yes”.

Hazlitt began making all these plans about marrying Sarah. Then Hazlitt finds out that Sarah is doing the same fooling around with one of the other guys who is staying at the rooming house. This unfortunate circumstance does not change Hazlitt’s intention to marry Sarah.

I gave way to all the fury of disappointed hope and jealous passion.”

‘Liber Amoris’ is a chronicle of Hazlitt’s “self-tormenting folly”. Most of the novel is in epistolary form consisting of letters to his friend regarding the Sarah Walker episode. At one point he actually has his friend rent a room at the same rooming house and try to seduce Sarah.

There is nothing in the world that can afford me a drop of comfort – this I feel more and more. Everything is to me a mockery of pleasure, like her love. The breeze does not cool me: the blue sky does not cheer me.”

I suppose William Hazlitt should get points for being honest, for letting it all hang out. However ‘Liber Amoris’ is a sad obsessive spectacle of “a half-disordered mind”.

S: “I have always told you I have no affection for you.”

H: “She was my life – it is gone from me, and I have gone spectral.”

 

Grade:    C-

Some More Fiction Writers Who Were Too Good to be Forgotten

 

Here are some more fiction writers whom I consider just too good for us to forget about them.

 

Henry Handel Richardson (Real Name: Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) (1870 – 1946) She chose a male nom de plume, because woman fiction writers weren’t accepted in her time. The trilogy ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ (comprising the novels: Australia Felix, The Way Home and Ultima Thule), which is based on her traumatic but colorful early years and her childhood family in Australia, is up there as one of the finest works of fiction in English ever written.

Her Must-Read Fiction: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, The Getting of Wisdom

José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845 – 1900) He was the first of Portugal’s great triumvirate of literary virtuosos: Eca de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, and Jose Saramago. He had a wicked sense of humor. Himself a Portuguese diplomat, he wrote the following: “The number of dolts, dullards and nincompoops who represent us overseas is enough to make one weep. This really is a most unfortunate country.” But you can tell by his writing that he loves Portugal and especially its women.

His Must Read Fiction: The Maias, The Relic, The Sin of Father Amaro

Nella Larsen (1891 – 1964) She worked as a nurse and a librarian in New York, but Nella Larsen got caught up in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and she wrote and published two short novels and a few short stories. Then she went back to being a nurse. She died in obscurity, but her work has now achieved the status of classic and is taught in many literature courses. I have read all of her fiction and consider it wonderful. ‘Passing’ was probably the first novel ever to deal with being of mixed race in the United States. I was moved by the efforts of Heidi Durrow to get a proper gravestone for Nella Larsen which you can read about here.

Her Must-Read Fiction:  Passing, Quicksand, The Short Fiction of Nella Larsen

Theodore Dreiser (1871 – 1945) If you have ever watched the great classic movie ‘A Place in The Sun’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, you are familiar with Theodore Dreiser’s work. That movie is based on Dreiser’s novel, ‘An American Tragedy’. Who can ever forget the scene in the movie where he rows his fiancée out to the middle of the lake and then pushes her out of the boat into the water, knowing she cannot swim? All because he had found a beautiful new love from a rich family. Some critics found Dreiser’s work crude and rude, but I have found his fiction to be vivid and powerful.

His Must-Read Fiction:  Sister Carrie, The Financier, An American Tragedy

Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931) – He wrote the best novel ever about a second-hand bookstore, ‘Riceyman Steps’. To the Bloomsbury Group including Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett was considered one of the Old Guard whose work was so prosaic that they were rebelling against it. However from my later vantage point I recommend Bennett’s work for its fine eye for detail and his strong empathy for the lower classes.

His Must-Read Fiction: Riceyman Steps, Anna of the Five Towns, The Card, An Old Wives Tale

Jean Stafford (1915 – 1979) – She was seriously injured and facially disfigured when she was 23 in a car accident in 1938. The reckless, angry, and intoxicated driver was the mentally unstable poet Robert Lowell whom she would soon marry and 8 years later divorce. She suffered from alcoholism and depression for much of her life. After publishing only three novels, all of which won critical acclaim, she wrote only short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker. Of her work, ‘The Mountain Lion’ is my favorite.

Her Must-Read Fiction: The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel, The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford

Francois Mauriac (1885 – 1970) – In early Mauriac, Evil is so attractive and Good is so smug that a winner is by no means assured. After those early novels, in 1928 Mauriac turned to Christianity and Catholicism with a vengeance, and the critical consensus was that he then stacked the deck in his fiction in favor of Good, and that his work weakened due to his new-found religious fervor. However one of his novels that I most admire, ‘The Vipers’ Tangle’, was written in 1933 after his conversion. One of the qualities that make Mauriac’s earlier fiction so appealing is how he depicts the life of Evil as quite delightful, just like it is in real life.

His Must-Read Fiction: The Desert of Love, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Flesh and Blood, Vipers’ Tangle

 

Here and here are two earlier lists of writers who wrote some mighty fine fiction.

‘Divide Me by Zero’ by Lara Vapnyar – Of Mathematics and Lovers

 

‘Divide Me by Zero’ by Lara Vapnyar (2019) – 354 pages

‘Divide Me by Zero’ starts out strong. I thought I was going to love this novel.

And then wasn’t life itself a perfect dark comedy too, with its journey to an inevitable tragic ending interspersed with absurd events providing comic relief?”

Each chapter of ‘Divide Me by Zero’ starts with a handwritten note from an in-progress mathematics text book. That was fine with me because long ago in 1970, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in Mathematics. In my younger days, I was considered somewhat of a math prodigy. However my downfall came when for my sophomore year in college I signed up for a Contemporary Literature course to fulfill my Humanities requirements. We read James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. Unfortumately I had to drop the course when I couldn’t make it through ‘Absalom, Absalom’ which is probably the densest of all William Faulkner novels. However by that time I was so enamored of literature that I took the course over again. This time we were assigned ‘Light in August’ by Faulkner, and I was able to complete it successfully and actually enjoyed it. I did stick to completing my math major figuring that was the better way to ensure my financial future, but my main passion had become literature.

So ‘Divide Me by Zero’ should have been a good fit for me, combining as it does both mathematics and fiction.

The first third of ‘Divide Me by Zero’, the part that takes place while our narrator Katya still lives in Russia during the late 1980s and 1990s, could be entitled ‘Perestroika and the Sexual Revolution Come to Russia’. Throughout the entire novel Katya expresses an enthusiasm and openness for sex reminiscent of the early stages of the sexual revolution here in the States during the 1960s and 1970s.

After going through a couple of boyfriends in Russia, Katya and her new husband Len emigrate to the United States.

In seventeen years of my marriage, I have spent 330 happy days with Len and 6,240 days ranging from desperartely unhappy to simply uncomfortable. I wonder if this math is terribly sad or if this is how most marriages work.”

One of the nice features in the novel is when the author injects notes to the reader interrupting the narrative such as the following:

Note to a cynical reader, I was twenty then, I didn’t know a whole lot about how life works!”

I found these occasional notes meaningful and fun.

However the novel is mostly the story of Katya’s long history of relationships with various men, with the only novelty being her upbringing in Russia. I felt that there was little that was original or noteworthy in these encounters that hasn’t already been done in countless divorce novels.

In the last 60 pages, Lara Vapnyar switches gears, shortens the chapters, and devotes these pages to Katya’s mother’s last days with cancer. These pages are poignant and sad but not particularly original either.

 

Grade:    C+

 

Get To Know William Hazlitt

Although little remembered today, William Hazlitt is considered one of the finest arts critics and essayists in the history of the English language. In his published writings, he reviewed drama, literature, and art. He lived from 1778 to 1830 and was friends with such literary figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Stendhal. All of the quotes which I use in this article are from William Hazlitt.

Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.”

If I have not read a book before, it is, for all intents and purposes, new to me whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago.”

Sometimes the talent of recognizing genius in other writers is as important as being a genius oneself.  Hazlitt is probably the most reliable critic of William Shakespeare ever.

Among Hazlitt’s works are ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’, ‘A View of the English Stage’, ‘On the English Poets’, and ‘On the English Comic Writers’. Two of his most famous books of essays are ‘Table Talk’ and ‘The Plain Speaker’.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”

There was a major scandal in the life of William Hazlitt. In 1819 Hazlitt was unable to pay the rent for his family, so his wife left him taking their son. On his own at age 42, Hazlitt rented a couple of rooms in London from a tailor named Micaiah Walker. Walker’s 19 year old daughter Sarah would serve Hazlitt his breakfasts, and soon Hazlitt became infatuated with her. Then Hazlitt’s infatuation turned into an obsession. Hazlitt, wanting to marry Sarah, asked his wife for a divorce which was no easy matter at that time, but his wife finally agreed to a Scottish divorce which would allow him to remarry.

Meanwhile another lodger named Tomkins came along, and Sarah also became romantically involved with him. When Hazlitt found out, he became intensely jealous and suspicious of Sarah. Hazlitt alternated between passion, rage and despair.

Love turns, with little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.”

In order to determine Sarah’s real character, Hazlitt persuaded an acquaintance to take lodgings in the Walkers’ building and attempt to seduce Sarah. The seduction appeared to be succeeding although ultimately did not.

Hazlitt told his tale of romantic woe to his friends and anyone else who would listen. He even wrote a novella, ‘Liber Amoris’, which was a thinly disguised fictional account of his personal romantic woes. This novella was panned more for moral reasons than on aesthetic grounds. I plan to read and review it here soon.

Let me end with a few additional quotes from William Hazlitt:

Any one may mouth out a passage with theatrical cadence or get upon stilts to tell his thoughts. But to write or speak with propriety and simplicity is a more difficult task.”

We are never so much disposed to quarrel with others as when we are dissatisfied with ourselves.”

The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.”

He will never have true friends who is afraid of making enemies.”

Prejudice is the child of ignorance.”

The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”

Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the color in your cheek and the fire in your eye, adorn your person, maintain your health, your beauty, and your animal spirits.”

 

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