Wednesday, February 24, 2010

ARTHUR & GEORGE by Julian Barnes

I knew before reading this book that the Arthur in the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I assumed that he and George were friends, something like Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Wrong. Arthur's underwhelming ophthalmology practice affords him plenty of time to concoct detective novels, but elsewhere in England George Edalji is being prosecuted for a series of brutal crimes that he did not commit. George's father is a vicar from India, and George, an attorney himself, becomes the prime suspect, partly because of bigotry and partly because the police are just plain incompetent and need someone to blame. Did I mention that this is based on a true story? The first part of the book is a little slow, as the author sets the scene with background info on the two main characters, but then the pace starts to pick up. Arthur falls in love with a much younger woman, while his wife is slowly succumbing to tuberculosis. George's story is really the backbone of the book—his Kafkaesque trial, his time in prison, and the year after his release, in which Sir Arthur revitalizes his own life by helping clear George's name. In the background lies another important character—the English justice system. Apparently George's case helped bring about some significant improvements, including introduction of the Court of Appeals. Another side topic is the rise of spiritualism and Sir Arthur's involvement. I have mixed feelings about the séance at the end of the book, where a crowd of 10,000 is expected to rejoice at Arthur's having passed to the other side. However, the author's two sentences describing George's contemplation of joy are my favorite lines in the book, which beautifully sum up George's "stolid" life:

"In his childhood there was something called pleasure, usually accompanied by the adjectives guilty, furtive or illicit. The only pleasures allowed were those modified by the word simple."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

MUDBOUND by Hillary Jordan

I tried very hard to like this book, but it was just too predictable and tragically familiar. It's about bigotry in Mississippi right after WWII, and it's relentlessly depressing. There are six narrators, three white and three black. Laura and Henry McAllan are a white Memphis couple who move to a house without indoor plumbing on a Mississippi farm, and Laura is remarkably complacent about her new circumstances. The third white narrator is Jamie, Henry's much younger charismatic brother, scarred on the inside from his war experiences. Pappy, father to Henry and Jamie, joins the family in Mississippi, and he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The black narrators are the Jackson family, Hap and Florence, employed by the McAllans, and their son Ronsel who served in a black battalion in Germany. It's no surprise when Ronsel and Jamie become friends, despite constant admonishment from both families. The Jacksons are concerned for Ronsel's safety, and the McAllans feel that it's just plain wrong for whites to associate with blacks as peers. One could excuse the McAllans as products of their times, but that's letting them off the hook way too easily. Florence Jackson is my favorite character, a midwife to the black families, fiercely protective of her own, but compassionate enough to help Laura's daughters recover from whooping cough. Late in the novel, she decides to take matters into her own hands—finally someone with some gumption—but finds that someone else has beaten her to the punch.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

This fictional opus opens with a boy being beaten up by his sneaky father. Fast forward to adulthood. The boy, Thomas Cromwell, is now a lawyer and friend to Cardinal Wolsey, who is rapidly losing favor with Henry VIII, due to his inability to secure the annulment of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon. After Wolsey's demise, Cromwell becomes Henry's chief adviser, managing just about everything, including the annulment or the marriage and the execution of the stubborn Sir Thomas More. The plague seizes Cromwell's wife and daughters, leaving him to launch a number of promising young men, including his son Gregory and nephew Richard. Cromwell comes off as a hero—reasonable, witty, and clear-headed among a huge cast of lustful, misguided, and manipulative 16th century characters. Cromwell, of course, leads the pack in the manipulation category but does so with understated flair and aboveboard tactics. The author never lets us forget that Cromwell has succeeded in spite of the fact that he is a commoner, making his accomplishments all the more impressive. My biggest beef with this book is the plethora of pronouns with an ambiguous antecedent. I finally figured out that in most cases, "he" refers to Cromwell, even if I had no idea that "he" was even on the scene. I found this apparently intentional device on the author's part to be extremely aggravating and time-consuming, as I found myself continually rereading dialog in an already overly long book.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

LATE NIGHTS ON AIR by Elizabeth Hay

Dido Paris has just been hired by a radio station in the town of Yellowknife, somewhere in northern Canada. Her striking good looks and silky on-air persona have captured the attention of everyone else at the station, both male and female. Harry, the interim manager, can't take his eyes off of her and makes no secret of his attraction. Meanwhile, he hires Gwen, a 20-something who has fled her Toronto family home and lacks Dido's confidence and ease at the microphone. Dido becomes involved with Eddy, the station's technician, who seems hard and unfriendly and is generally a suspicious character, especially when an elderly woman with a cruel husband goes missing. Dido, Harry, Gwen, and Eddy drive the narrative for the majority of the novel, and their characters are well-formed and distinctive. The big player, though, is the landscape, with its summer flora and dark, unforgiving winters. The main event is a canoe/camping trip that Harry and Gwen take, along with two others, Eleanor and Ralph, to visit the site where the arctic explorer John Hornby and his two cohorts perished from starvation decades earlier. The prose is as smooth and lovely as Dido's voice, and the metaphors describing the sounds and hazards of the barren tundra surely come from someone who's been there. My main complaint about this book is that the author constantly hints at a tragedy to come. This foreboding that pervades the story is wearying and depressing, as if the cold and ice were not bleak enough. I wonder if this was her attempt at softening the blow when disaster finally strikes.