Tuesday, May 26, 2020

38. Titus Groane by Mervyn Peake

The Gormenghast series has been on my radar for a long time, but I have always hesitated because it looks so daunting.  It is one of meezly's favourites and I took advantage of her having a reading copy when my books that I ordered a month ago still haven't arrived and nothing interests me on my on-deck shelf.

My trepidation was accurate.  This book was a bit of work for me.  As the vast multitude of my readers knows, I am lazy-minded and driven forward by the narrative of a book.  Titus Groane is almost 400 dense paragraphed, narrow-margined pages and what actually happens in the book could probably be condensed down to maybe 100 pages and that would be pushing it.  As Anthony Burgess says in his introduction, Titus Groane is "architectural".  Gormenghast castle and the surrounding bleak landscape take up the bulk rest of the pages. It is incredibly rich and evocative world-building, a fantastic evocation of an epically decadent aristocracy, manifested in the few remaining members of the House of Groane and their servants, but mostly in the place itself.  It is good and I would say it deserves the title of a modern classic.  It's just for me, this kind of reading can be a bit of a grind.  I just get distracted too easily.

The story too is compelling, though perhaps ultimately lacks some weight as the characters are so crazed and almost entirely unlikable.  It begins with the unexpected birth of Titus Groane, next in line to become the Early of Gormenghast.  We meet the cast of characters around him: his check-out, book-obsessed father, his lonely older sister, his mother who lives for her cats and birds only, the self-obsessed and victimized nanny, the class-jumping doctor and the sort-of protagonist, Steerpike the young kitchen aid with a machiavellian drive for power that risks to bring change to Gormenghast.  There are others and though each is quite unique, they are all almost entirely self-centered and utterly disconnected from any reality other than their role in the castle.  There is also Keda, a woman from the mud towns that live at the foot of the castle walls, who seems to have a larger role in the later books. She is actually decent, so far.

The geography of the castle is amazing. It would be literally possible to get lost on the rooves and die of starvation.  The twin sisters of the Early, total freaks, live in a room with the roots of a giant dead tree whose network is so complex that you can get stuck and not be able to leave the room without them guiding you out.  It looks like I will have to read the entire trilogy, but not right away.  Need something with some pace to it next.

Monday, May 18, 2020

37. In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L. Sayers

This book makes me feel slightly sad. It is the last book I found in the free shelf outside of Latina supermarket on St-Viateur which is currently chained closed, I guess by some stupid overreaction in the time of the Coronavirus. I think the way we freaked out here about surface cleanliness instead of wearing masks will prove to be a big mistake, driven by cultural assumptions in the face of incomplete information. We defaulted to our North American obsession with sterility and physical purity and the result is unecessarily locked free shelves. The other thing I liked about this book is that it was already in such bad condition, I did not have to worry about damaging it further and could throw it in my bag or jacket pocked without any care.  Because it was a book of short stories, it has mostly been read while waiting in line, which has been pretty rare, so it took me almost two months to complete.

It begins with a few Lord Peter Wimsey short stories (the first one involving a dentist, thus the title), then several Montague Egg and finally by random little mystery vignettes.  It is kind of amazing to me how not only could she come up with multiple mystery scenarios for novels, she had so many extra they could also be used in short stories.  Many of these are enjoyable but not super satisfying.  I did like the Monatague Egg ones, not so much for the mystery but for the cultural context. He is a travelling salesman of fine alcohols and each story starts with him in a different location, usually at a pub, meeting up with other salesman and reminiscing about past sales.  His life philosophy and detection techniques are based on Salesman's Handbook and it is quite clever and funny how he applies some quotation from it to each mystery.  I could definitely read a few more Montague Egg stories and perhaps even a novel. 
I told you it was beat up.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

36. The Long November by James Benson Nablo

Despite myself, I ended up quite enjoying this book.  I say that because it is written rather poetically and has a lot of philosophizing (though always in small bites), elements that tend to get in the way of the story for me.  Fortunately, there is a story here and I agreed with much of the philosophy and found the stream of consciousness not too distracting.  Reading the forward (which started out as a blog post that attracted the attention of Nablo's daughter and eventually led to the book being reprinted) by the crucial Brian Busby made me appreciate it much more. He argues strongly that this was a much-read book that has since been passively or actively rejected by the Canadian literati and public, most likely because he left to work in Hollywood.

The story is framed by the narrator Joe Mack who is lying on the floor in a ruined house in Italy, just shot in the shoulder by a Nazi sniper.  As he lies there, different smells come to him and each smell recalls a memory from his past. It is basically a picaresque journey of a young working class boy in Ontario in the depression and his path to life and love that led him to become a soldier in WWII.  The through line is his love for upper class Steffie Gibson.  He starts out in high school, going to the dance with her and getting in a fight with the farmboy who was picking on her gay cousin.  We then follow him through interesting episodes as a rum-runner, hobo in Chicago, miner and eventually succesful businessman before he goes off to war. This quick summary does not do justice to how well each of these vignettes captures a period in history.  Even better, the whole thing is infused with a truly Canadian idealistic political perspective: a belief in giving a hand up to the little man, a suspicion of excess wealth, an appreciation of a state that doesn't let that wealth get too excessive.  Ultimately, the theme here is that despite the rough edges, in the end one has to try and do the right thing, no matter the cost.  It's a neat, touching book and I am glad Ricochet press brought it back. 

Saturday, May 09, 2020

35. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

I really am in the mood for epic escapist fantasy but must continue to wait because the books I ordered from Thrift Books have been sitting somewhere in the Canada Post void since April 20th, most likely with those extortionist scumbags at Canada Customs.  Fortunately, I found this book in a box by the side of the road and though I have read too much British WWII fiction in recent months, the subject appealled to me and the first few paragraphs totally sucked me in.  Pied Piper is a quiet, touching at times tense story about a 70-year old British man, Mr. Howard, who naively takes a fishing trip in Switzerland just before the Nazis invade France.  He is less naive than sort of stunned, finding himself unable to contribute in England due to his age and also just learning that his son, a bomber pilot, was shot down over Heligoland Bight.
The book is framed in a neat way.  It starts out with the narrator collecting his mail at the club and noticing the old man stumble over a rise in the carpet.  He and the porter discuss how the carpet needs to be fixed and the narrator ends up in the quiet reading room with the old man.  They get to talking and continue to talk even when the air raid signal is sounded and the placed blackened.  They both agree that they are as safe on the top floor as in the basement. The old man then reluctantly and diffidently starts to tell his tale.  The introductory stumble and the way the old man tells the tale, suggesting that he really did nothing and just sort of made his way back from a vacation suggest the real theme of this book: British humble stoicism and heroism.  With Howard in the mountain resort in Switzerland is the wife and two children of a British attorney at the League of Nations. The parents feel that they must stay on in Geneva and do their jobs at the League but ask Howard if he could take the children back to England with him to stay at their aunt's.  What at first appears to be a simple train ride across France and a ferry trip across the channel soon falls apart as the Nazis advance right into Paris.  Howard finds himself on foot in a parade of refugees with two children in tow.  As they make their way via various means trying to get to the coast, he slowly accumulates more and more children, victims of war. 
The journey is more tense and worrisome than outright thrilling.  The man must constantly make ethical decisions weighed against his and the childrens' survival.  His age, though physically a disadvantage, gives him the patience and wisdom to always benefit the children.  It's really sweet.  Furthermore, we the readers get an informative and rich perspective on France in the first days of the invasion and takeover.  Fascinating and scary as hell.  This was a great read.  Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

34. A Time To Be Born by Dawn Powell

My on-deck shelf is not inspiring me these days, so I asked meezly if she had anything interesting on hers.  She passed me this one, which I first was quite interested in, then slightly turned off by the prose on the first page.  However, I decided to commit and was happy to find that the style in the beginning was deliberately flourid, representing the state of mind of an introductory but secondary character.  The rest of the prose is certainly not sparse, but much more digestible.  Actually, it's extremely well-written, with funny, scathing metaphors and vivid physical descriptions capturing New York City in the 40s and briefly the environs upstate.  The main stuff though is about the people, their personalities and their relationships.  And wow, what people!  The sympathetic characters are weak and insecure and the rest are absolutely loathsome.  Yet it is all portrayed in such a rich and enjoyable way that you love to loathe them.  Powell portrays upper-class New York (and striving upper middle class) as utterly devoid of any principles in their constant quest for status.  They are almost inhuman.  I mean just really awful people.  I mean I have a strong contempt for the American class elite, especially in  New York City but even I found this portrayal pretty extreme.  She is just scathing.  Perhaps she is not wrong in portraying powerful people as being completely without any empathy, given what we are seeing from the nouveau dotcom billionaire class of today.

The story revolves around two main female characters, the unterfrau of Amanda Keeler, now a celebrity author and married to a media tycoon and her old "friend" Victoria Haven, who comes to NYC to get away from heartbreak in their shared hometown in the midwest.  Keeler is ruthless and only accepts Vicky into her world because it gives her a justification to set up a love nest where she can have an affair. The narrative is really about poor, wounded and so insecure Vicky as she navigates the sophisticates around her and Amanda's power over her.  There are several other threads as well and it is all quite enjoyable, though one has to suspend some disbelief at the extremity of the characterizations.  In Powell's depiction, there is only class striving.  It is not until the end that we get a glimpse of an actual counterpoint, of a character being a little bit normal and real and not making every decision based on how it will be perceived by those of higher status.  It's like adult Heathers.  I did find the ending slightly jarring and simple, as once you pierce the ridiculousness of status (especially with America joining WWII), it pops like a balloon, putting all the previous behaviour in question. 

Since she lent me the book, I will share a link to a review by meezly of another Dawn Powell book, with a nice summary of Powell's career.