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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Last Summer

The Last Summer (1934)
by Boris Pasternak, translated by George Reavey
93 pages
Penguin Modern Classics

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This short book by the author of Doctor Zhivago is more of a prose-poem than a novel. It’s about a man who is on leave from the military who goes to visit his sister, and after his arrival he drifts into a tired half-sleep where he travels back to scattered thoughts of last summer, before the outbreak of the first World War.

This was an odd read because I’m sure it’s a better read in the original language. It just has to be, because frankly what’s there now comes across as just a pretentious mess. But it’s hard to know how much can be faulted on the translation. What is there in english just seems very scattered and self-absorbed. At the very least the translator could have tried to inject some rhythm into the prose, which comes off as very clunky.

I do like the cover art though, it’s a drawing of the author by his father, Leonid Pasternak.

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Maigret at the Coroner’s (1949)
by Georges Simenon, translated by Frances Keene
173 pages
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

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Maigret finds himself on a tour of the USA, a guest of honour mostly meeting with other police officials and observing the way Americans conduct their police and justice work.  While he is in Tuscon, Arizona, he gets dumped off at a coroner’s inquest, and finds that the case captures his attention. Several men from the army base spend the night with one young woman, and in the morning she ends up being killed by a train, lying prone on the railroad tracks beside a highway.

There’s a big focus in this novel on the way things in the US are different from France, specifically in the American South-West.  Reading it more than fifty years after it was written, I found it more interesting not for what it says about that part of the US, but for how much I know it’s changed since then, even as an outside observer.  For example, it’s stated that in the US almost everyone is a member of a social club; obviously not true anymore. And the ubiquitous presence of Bromo Seltzer is odd, since that was apparently taken off the market sometime after this novel was written.  The Asian and black characters are also treated by the narrative in an odd way, sort of like exotic birds.

Unfortunately, the novel itself isn’t that strong. I found its main weakness to be that Maigret walks into the case partway through, and the book is half over before we find out if there is a body, and what might have happened to it.  There are also about five characters who are among the suspects who are all introduced together, and as they are all in the military and have similar generic names and few defining characteristics, they all blended together for me.  Information revealed in the last chapter didn’t have much impact, since I found the suspects were pretty much interchangeable. One of the weaker Simenon novels I’ve read.

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I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990)
by Joyce Carol Oates
98 pages
Plume

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This novella tells the story, through the eyes of her granddaughter, of a woman of the early 20th century who didn’t fit into the rural upstate New York world she was born into. Edith, or “Calla” as she likes to call herself, is an odd child, red-haired and half-wild, and her family decides she needs to be married off as soon as possible. They find an older bachelor they hope will be a good fit, but there is little connection between the two, and Calla prefers to spend her days roaming the countryside rather than taking care of her children or socializing with her husband’s family. She finally makes a strong connection with someone when she gets to know a travelling black man who does work on their farm as a water dowser, but the affair is doomed.

This story has a very strong gothic-romantic-poetic feel to it, to the point where it was a bit too much for me personally. Though it would probably depend on the reader. The story is mostly ‘told’ rather than actually ‘shown’ through events, so you don’t feel that close to any of the characters. It reminded me a bit of Oates’s novella Black Water, which was also short, somewhat repetitive in narration, and which also didn’t really work for me.  I think I prefer Oates when her work has more of a spirit of realism.

The title of the novella is the main reason why I wanted to read this, since I just found the sound of it intriguing. It’s the title of the painting by Fernand Khnopff that appears on the cover:

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The Purple Cloud (1901, revised 1921)
by M.P. Shiel
311 pages
Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press

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Adam Jeffson is living his life in the later years of Victorian London when his fiance schemes to give him an opportunity to be part of a voyage attempting to reach the pole for the first time.  She is more concerned about the immense reward money, but the series of misfortunes that follows Jeffson to the pole is only the beginning as, after he is the only surviving member of the party to reach the pole, once he starts venturing southward again he finds the world immeasurably changed. He pieces together that a poisonous purple cloud swept across all populated areas, killing off all the large animals on the land, to the point that he finds himself the last living man on earth, and spends twenty years wandering about and going mad.

The style this novel is written in was probably already dated during its original publication; ornate and somewhat obtuse, with the narrator often becoming hysterical in an attempt to heighten the drama. There is certainly a decadent and gothic feel to the book, especially after the disaster as the author seems to revel in the dead bodies of all kinds scattered everywhere.

The book is known as a sort of minor classic of science fiction, but mostly it left me disappointed. The large middle portion where the narrator is by himself is probably the low point, where he indulges in all sorts of pointless activity without much of the inner reflection you might expect when you are given so much time alone. I found myself glazing over pages at a time without really picking up on anything that might have happened, and ended up finishing the book just to say that I did.

There are a few versions of this novel, the longest original serialized version, the shorter version afterward published in novel form, then a revised version from 1929 which is in between the previous two in terms of length. This is the final, 1929 version.

Header for the serialized version

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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009)
by David Grann
325 pages
Doubleday

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Percy Fawcett was one of the most well-known and respected explorers of his generation when, in 1925, he headed a widely publicized expedition in the Amazon to find a rumoured city which some equated with El Dorado, accompanied by his son and his son’s best friend – and was never heard from again.

“Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have some streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men.” (pg.56)

This book tells of the life of Fawcett, of the expeditions he led where he displayed remarkable survival skills, and the way that the legend of a magnificent city in the Amazon grew in his mind as he suffered through constant financial problems and the horrors of the first World War. The book also paints a vivid picture of the world Fawcett lived in, and the history of exploration of the Amazon jungles.  A portion of the book details the author’s own effort to get to the point near which Fawcett’s party disappeared for good – it’s much easier these days, with planes and aluminum boats and outboard motors and satellite phones. It’s estimated that over the years at least a hundred people have died trying to find out what happened to Fawcett’s party of three.

The whole thing has the atmosphere of a Werner Herzog movie, whether it be the conquistadors of Aguirre, The Wrath of God or the 19th century industrialists of Fitzcarraldo – since I quite enjoyed those, I enjoyed this book too. The author is a magazine writer, and I think one of the things that keeps the book from being great is that it relies a bit too much on cliffhangers and crucial information obviously being held back until a later point in the book – it goes past the point of engagement to making the reader feel somewhat manipulated.

One of the most interesting points made in the book is that, following the initial gold-fever of European explorers which ended in disappointment, many scholars dismissed the Amazon as a place which was too poor in resources to support an advanced civilization.  However, this was mostly based on scholars observing the remains of native tribes several hundred years after contact with the first Europeans – long after diseases new to the Americas had taken their toll. I don’t think I”m giving too much of the ending away to say that explorers have indeed discovered traces of large cities and broad highways through the jungle that matched up with the stories of a rich and advanced civilization, and the reports of early European explorers of vast populations, and these cities likely existed up until the point when they were decimated by newly arrived disease.

Additionally, this is the first book I read borrowed as an electronic book from the library.  It was a pretty good experience, and I wouldn’t mind reading something this way again.

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In Patagonia (1977)
by Bruce Chatwin
260 pages
Vintage Classics

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Englishman Bruce Chatwin spends months travelling, mostly on foot, through Patagonia, the sparsely populated and half-wild southern peninsula of South America which is divided between Argentina and Chile.  One of the products of that journey is this book, which is very episodic, and details the people Chatwin meets, the things he sees, and also contains portions of history, such as stories of the conflicts between native Indians and settlers, or speculations about the eventual fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Maybe one of the most notable parts of this book is that, after it sold well and became widely known, many people in it disputed its contents. Chatwin never denied that he changed things up to sound better, so as long as you don’t expect it to be full of absolute truth, it’s a pretty interesting read. The last third of the book concerns Chatwin’s stories about one of his relatives who did a lot of seafaring and settled in Patagonia – I think this part holds less interest for to the general reader.

Overall I’d say it was an okay read.  You don’t need to have any particular interest in the region in order to enjoy the book, but I wouldn’t say that reading it made me especially more motivated to visit this corner of the world.

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Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1935)
by James M. Cain
115 pages
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

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The narrator of this short and direct crime novel is Walter Huff, who begins by doing his job as an insurance salesman, checking in on a client whose policies need to be renewed.  He instead meets the man’s wife, and from the moment she suggests that her husband needs to get some accident insurance – preferably without her husband actually knowing about it – he realizes that she means to kill her husband and collect the money. She romances Huff into joining her scheme, and pretty soon the insurance agent is not only using his knowledge of the industry to try and construct a perfect scheme, but also planning on collecting a double indemnity via an accidental death occurring during train travel. Of course, it wouldn’t be a hardboiled crime novel without things going wrong, and more things going wrong on top of that, and near the end Huff needs to decide if he will let an innocent person suffer for his crimes.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the 1944 film

The story comes at you very briskly, and the whole thing is over in a little over a hundred pages. It’s a gripping story, and the back cover has a pretty accurate quote from the Saturday Review of Literature: “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.” I think in the end I do place this book slightly below the other one I’ve read by Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, if only because the characters do not feel quite as fleshed-out here, and except for the scheming wife, you sort of need to read in your own motivations for the actions of the characters. But it’s still a pretty great hardboiled read.

The novel was turned into a notable 1944 film noir, though from what I remember, I think the end plays out much differently in the film than in this book.

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