Revisiting Amsterdam

Amsterdam book cover

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The beginning of Amsterdam feels much like a Graham Greene book. The bitterness of Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday as they meet at the funeral of their mutual lover calls to mind the heaviness of The End of the Affair. But as well written as this book is–and Ian McEwan seems to be able to make just about anything come to life, at least for a time–this is ultimately a grim, heartless book with no redemption for just about any of the characters.

This novel is reminiscent of Greene in several ways, touching on many of the themes his books do–artistic struggle, personal integrity, intrigue, and ordinary people reacting to extraordinary situations. But unlike Greene, who takes you inside fully formed, three-dimensional characters to reveal insights into human nature, McEwan here simply uses these elements to tell a twisted story, moving around the characters like chess pieces to serve the plot and give you a shocking result. I found Clive and Vernon to become increasingly unbelievable as the plot hurdled toward to its unlikely and, really, absurd conclusion. It was unconvincing and unsatisfying.

I actually read this Booker prize winner several years ago, but revisited it in light of my love for Atonement and Saturday. My impression hasn’t changed with time. I give it three stars because you just can’t dismiss the quality of McEwan’s writing. If you’re into nihilistic tales, you’ll love this, but I’m more interested in the kinds of deeper questions that Greene would tackle. For example, why are these people like they are, and why does the world so often seem this way? There’s really nothing about that here, just depictions of selfish, narcissistic people.

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A dying Texas town

The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Last Picture Show is a bleak novel about people struggling to navigate through their difficult lives in a dying Texas town during the Korean War. A sense of decay and hopelessness pervade everything in this book, with the town seemingly following the moral decay of its people–or is it the other way around? It’s never really clear.

I picked this up after seeing Peter Bogdanovich’s magnificent movie, which he and Larry McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay for. The book follows the movie closely, with dialog that’s very similar, but the novel is richer, filling out background details that the movie doesn’t touch on and also depicting extra scenes that, even today, would cross the line of what you could show on the screen. A couple of them just made me squirm. What the book lacks, though, is the movie’s brilliantly sparse economy, and given that McMurtry dips in and out of his character’s minds, the characters’ actions don’t surprise you and puzzle you in the novel like they sometimes do in the movie. As a consequence, they don’t get you to think about them as much.

I know this is a book review, and the novel has many fine points, but this really is one of just a handful of books I’ve read where I thought the movie was actually better. McMurtry’s writing style here is somewhat stiff and matter-of-fact throughout, and strangely, the movie seems to tease more emotion and meaning out of the material than the novel manages to.

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Another excellent Graham Greene novel

A Burnt-Out Case book cover

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve never read a Graham Greene book I didn’t like, and this was no exception. Like most of Greene’s novels, A Burnt-Out Case is partly a meditation on faith, but it’s also about finding meaning in your art and your life. Querry, a famous architect who’s lost his sense of direction and seems to find no pleasure in anything anymore, seeks peace in a leper colony deep in the Congo. His work there begins to heal him, but whether he can be cured of this malaise and ever fully escape his former life are open questions. This isn’t quite as artfully done as some of his strongest work, but there are wonderful characters and some beautiful writing in this atmospheric, thought-provoking novel.

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A golden effort to finish

The Golden Bowl

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Golden Bowl is an obtuse, difficult work that has its rewards if you’re willing to let go and allow yourself to drift along its dense, foggy prose. It is fascinating to watch the subtle shifts in the characters as they marry and then, without revealing anything of the extremely sparse plot because there’s little enough of it to carry you, complications ensue between the two couples. I found Henry James to be too imprecise and confusing for my tastes in this particular novel. He employs very poetic prose, vaguely characterizing feelings and thoughts in long, convoluted sentences and paragraphs that you can easily get lost in. It was a challenging read, but I eventually got used to the prose after a while and let it take me away. I thought I’d gained some insight into human nature by the end, but it was still an awful lot of effort considering the reward.

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A bleak novel

Bleak House

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was the ninth novel by Dickens, Charles that I’ve completed, and I have to admit I’m completely baffled about why I’ve read so many things good about this one. Note that I haven’t seen the production with Gillian Anderson; I’ve only read the book. Maybe the series is amazing–I could see someone piecing together something interesting out of this. But as it stands, this is a long, dry, depressing book that is pretty much devoid of any pleasures. It seems that Dickens decided that the way to convince people that the legal system was an interminable torture was to interminably torture his readers. I just felt so dispirited when I finished it–and like I’d gotten nothing else out of it.

I’ve not loved all of Dickens’ books I’ve read all the way through–Little Dorrit and Martin Chuzzlewit come to mind–but I’ve felt happy I stuck with them through the end. Not in this case. This one includes an omniscient narrator who won’t say anything in a couple of words that could be said in five lines, a first person narrator who we’re supposed to believe sees herself as some kind of angel but who Dickens uses to convey his scornful judgements in circuitous and disingenuous ways, various random deaths of no apparent cause except to serve the story, and one death that is explained–by a gratuitous case of spontaneous combustion. I could go on and on.

There are so many Dickens books out there, and they really do fundamentally differ in so many ways. I would definitely recommend David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and several others before this one.

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A messy tribute to the power of story

Everville (Book of the Art #2)

Everville by Clive Barker

This is the second of Clive Barker’s planned “Books of the Art” trilogy. At heart, this expansive dark fantasy is a tribute to the power of story. Storytelling itself is part of the story. It’s very clever, but the execution is messy and unfocused. As usual, Clive Barker has inventive flashes of genius throughout that make you wonder how he ever thinks of these things. But while it’s an improvement over The Great and Secret Show, it’s still a far cry from his best work. It’s likable, though, and I enjoyed reading it for the most part.

I’m not sure if I’ll read the third one if there ever is one. The first came out in 1989, and this one in 1994. I don’t know what the long delay is, but I’m sadly not holding my breath for the continuation of this story. If you’re not already a Clive Barker fan, I’d recommend starting with Weaveworld, Imajica, and The Thief of Always instead of this series.

Another crazy horror world from Clive Barker

The Great and Secret Show (Book of the Art #1)The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Great and Secret Show is an expansive, unpredictable, and unsettling work of horror fantasy involving a dream world and its relationship to our own. Like much of Clive Barker‘s work, it’s wildly imaginative, gets you thinking differently about the world we live in, and is generally a good read.

But while it’s worth spending the time with this long, meandering book if you know you like Clive Barker’s work, I wouldn’t recommend this for the uninitiated. Weaveworld and Imajica are similarly expansive works, but both are tighter and better written than this, with more compelling stories with more interesting characters.

There’s also a general, well, goofiness to this book. The bad guys are more whiny and annoying than scary. And some things are just so over the top it almost seems to become a parody. Clive Barker always tries to push the boundaries, which I love, but in this book he just crosses into silliness sometimes.

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“Lust, murder, incest, and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature”

The Monk

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this post is from a review of The Monk in the British Critic. This book was scandalous in its day, and Lewis was forced to put out a censored version. He actually created four different versions over the years, according to the introduction. This is really one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. That’s an amazing thing to say about something that came out in 1796.

It’s best not to know too much about the plot before coming into this. It’s a classic Gothic novel, with crazy atmospherics and convoluted stories within stories. The central plot is about the corruption of a celibate monk by evil forces. Along the way, there are ghosts, a cross-dressing monk, seriously evil nuns, and more. I found myself laughing at how outrageous it all was and thoroughly enjoying every minute.

I think devout Christians would likely find this book pretty offensive. The characters are also not exactly fully fleshed out. But it’s a fun, quick, and easy read. If you’re looking for a classic that pushes the boundaries, you can’t beat it.

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Tom Jones is fun, but one of the greatest?

The History of Tom Jones, a FoundlingThe History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I try to read at least one major classic novel a year. They take more work than a contemporary book, but these are the greats, and there’s a reason they’ve lasted for so many years. I’ve long looked forward to reading The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. It’s on so many greatest-ever lists. It was also published around the time of Lawrence Sterne’s hilarious, creative The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I absolutely loved.

I was disappointed to find that Tom Jones isn’t in the same creative vein as Stern’s masterpiece or Don Quixote: Translated by Edith Grossman, which preceded it by more than a century. Henry Fielding’s classic is a well-structured picaresque novel about the roguish but essentially good-hearted Tom Jones and his comical pursuit of his beloved Sophia. I found it somewhat difficult to get into, but really enjoyed it by the end. Once you get to around page 500, the last 300 pages fly by. But that’s still 500 pages. It has a very intricately plotted story and, when things finally start clicking together, it moves forward at a relentless pace. The characters are thinly sketched, but you come to like many of them.

One warning is that each of the 18 books that make up the novel begins with an introductory chapter best used to cure insomnia. These self-indulgent, rambling discourses about writing and such have nothing to do with the story and just aren’t particularly interesting. Overall, though, this book is definitely worth the effort. It’s a bawdy, funny, and generally great book to spend some time with.

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A masterpiece of American literature

Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Song of Solomon is a masterpiece of American literature by Toni Morrison. Morrison has won all sorts of awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. If you haven’t read her work before, this is a great one to start with. It is one of those rare books that’s about people, politics, and American history all at the same time. The personal, political, and historical all resonate to create a powerful tapestry of human experience. It’s complex, beautiful, and marvelous. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Don’t read anything more about it; just read it.

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