A nuclear fantasy

Alas Babylon book cover

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank was one of the landmark novels about nuclear conflict in the late 1950s, along with On the Beach and A Canticle for Leibowitz. These helped to raise awareness and fear of nuclear warfare among the general public. I read the others long ago, and both had a profound effect on me.

Frank’s novel charts how the residents of a small town cope with an all-out nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that leaves the civilization around them crippled. It follows the aimless Randy Braggs as he finds meaning in his life by coming to lead a small group working to maintain a civil society.

The book reads much like an action novel, moving quickly through crises, with characters that possess just the right tools at the right time to ensure survival. As much as the book aims to scare, it’s largely a fantasy. Given the number, size, and proximity of thermonuclear explosions described, it seems unlikely that everyone would be essentially unaffected by the levels of radiation in the area. The doctor gives some nonsensical explanation at one point about organisms adapting to radiation, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of biology and evolution.

Taken as a yarn, though, this is an entertaining read, and it certainly has its place in literary history. A word of warning to the modern reader: there are decidedly outdated notions of race and gender. Some of Randy’s thoughts about “Negroes” are patronizing, although clearly meant to be progressive and generous as everyone heroically bands together to survive. And his thoughts about women made me cringe, they were so 50s macho ridiculous. My favorite: “The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that he had learned this: they needed a man around.” Okey dokey. If you can get past such things, it’s not a bad read, although not a great work of literature.

Like a very strange dream

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by Haruki Murakami. I tend to like surrealism and magical realism, and was looking forward to reading Murakami’s work. My first impression of Kafka on the Shore was, as expected, how strange it was. Murakami has a very creative mind, and I had no idea where things were going. Somewhere around two-thirds through, I was really loving the journey. But by the end, it was all a bit fatiguing and didn’t really amount to much: a creative coming-of-age story with some standard rumination on memory and regret that touches superficially on what much of Japanese and German post-war literature deals with more thoughtfully.

The writing, at least in translation, hewed closer to genre writing than I expected: crisp, straightforward prose with characters that are clearly voicing what the author is trying to get across rather than what this person, if real, would say. Just as a quick example that won’t give away any plot: musings about classical music by both a 15-year old runaway and a truck driver with no experience or education in music are clearly the author’s and not their own. But then, I’m not sure that Murakami means any aspect of this story to be realistic. It’s very explicitly the creation of a single mind. It all seems like a dream, but what undercuts this reading of the book is that there are, particularly toward the end, metaphysical explanations for just about everything that happens, which unfortunately mostly come across as silly. I would have enjoyed this novel more if all the questions it raised simply weren’t answered and were just left unexplained. It’s as if the author sat down to figure out a scheme to explain everything that happened in a crazy dream he’d just woken up from.

Still, the book was memorable and enjoyable, as long as you have a tolerance for fantasy and surrealism. It reminded me a bit of Theodore Sturgeon‘s better books, with some of Clive Barker‘s horrific fantasy creations thrown in. Would I try another book by Murakami after this? No question. Kafka on the Shore is thoughtful and ambitious, but I found it a bit disappointing in the end.

Those darned scientists!

Frankenstein 1818 edition title page

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the summer of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Switzerland and became the neighbors of Lord Byron. As she tells it, after reading some German ghost stories, Byron suggested they write their own, but while the others quickly offered theirs, Shelley struggled to come up with anything. One night, Byron and Shelley were talking about the theories of Charles Darwin, speculating about the principle of life and whether it could be given. That night in bed, Shelley found herself terrified by the idea, and thus came up with her story idea.

I hadn’t ever read Frankenstein before, although I’ve loved the movie ever since childhood. My first surprise upon reading the novel was how little the movie actually took from it beyond the idea of creating a living monster from parts. The theme of scientific hubris in making something unnatural is here, and Shelley spends an awful lot of time describing scenery to emphasize the point that Nature is beautiful. But for me, the stronger theme is that of the inventor neglecting to think through the consequences of his invention and not taking responsibility for it. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t just create a living creature; he forces it, through his negligence and self-absorption, to become a monster.

As a reading experience, the book can be plodding. The structure, which at one time presents a story within a story within a story, gets clumsy. The part told from the monster’s point of view, while somewhat touching, is apt to make the modern reader laugh at points. Overall, though, the novel is very imaginative, reminding me of the work of the great German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, although Shelley is a more restrained and careful writer.

For perspective, this novel was written decades before Carmilla or Dracula. Although it’s Gothic horror in tone, it’s a purely original work and probably the first science fiction novel. Fun and very influential, Frankenstein is definitely worth a read.

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A boy’s awakening

Book cover for Go Tell It On The Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a beautifully written novel about a boy’s spiritual and intellectual awakening. The story takes place on one day in Harlem, John’s fourteenth birthday, on a Saturday in March of 1935. After introducing John’s situation (this isn’t a spoiler, as the novel includes a table of contents laying this out) it focuses in turns on his aunt, his stepfather, and his mother. As we learn more about their pasts, we come to understand all the forces that have focused on this transformational day in his life.

The story is expertly constructed and the characters vividly drawn. While it begins somewhat slowly, it builds gradually and, in the end, becomes an emotionally powerful and thought provoking novel. Very highly recommended.

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An unusual spy novel

The Human Factor book cover by Penguin

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is probably the most unusual spy novel I’ve ever read. There’s no glamour and little action. Instead, it depicts the workings of a slow, inefficient and frustratingly incompetent bureaucracy. There is a lot of tension because of the character development, and it certainly reveals the personal consequences, large and small, of doing espionage work.

But while The Human Factor kept me turning the pages, Graham Greene has covered similar territory more effectively before. I’m thinking of The Quiet American, The Third Man, and The Ministry of Fear, which were all excruciatingly tense, excellent works. In contrast, this is almost a novel of manners set in the British Secret Service.

Greene is a great writer, easily one of my favorite novelists, and I liked many of the characters he created here, but the book doesn’t really explore them in the way that his best work does. He took the approach more of skimming the surface to tell a story. This is a good read, no question, but it doesn’t come close to his best novels, like The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, or The Heart of the Matter. Still, I appreciated it and didn’t regret reading it for a second.

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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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