Monday, July 14, 2014

Confessions of a Literary Snob in Recovery

Prior to my exposure to crime fiction novels or (if you prefer) suspense, thrillers, murder mysteries, burglar books (I love alliteration), my choice of reading material might've conformed to what Jeeves referred to as 'improving books'. Independent of the college curriculum, I gravitated toward the staples of higher learning. My literary nourishment focused on the published ideas of the great philosophers, the verse of the famous poets, and the prose of the classic novelists. If I wasn't scrambling to read everything from Socrates to Sartre, I was immersed in the epic tales of Homer, the tragedies and sonnets of Shakespeare, even sprinklings of William Blake and James Joyce when no one was looking. And if those masters weren't keeping me up nights, it was the 19th to early 20th century fiction (and diction) of Dickens, Stevenson, Wells, and Twain.

Of course even the most prudish palate occasionally indulges in a hot dog and a bag of chips. I read a number of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories in my 20s, a random Agatha Christie novel (Ten Little Indians) in my 30s, and, don't ask when (my notes don't say), Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon in a dayI recognize this is nothing compared to the murder mystery aficionados who were still teething when they read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. But when you begin your reading career with Kafka's rich metaphors, Tennyson's lofty verse, and Nabokov's linguistic flourishes, a good deal of murder mystery, in contrast, reads like glorified telegrams.

What's more, and I suppose it's the outlier in me, when I think of Mystery, my mind doesn't swing toward the boot print on the herringbone parquet or the hair fiber on the escritoire. Instead, I think of the wonders of the universe, lost civilizations, the supernatural, that curious, sometimes sublime, body of knowledge that appeals to the more esoteric among us – existentialism, God, whether the light in my refrigerator truly goes out when I close the door. 

No, the term Mystery doesn't work for me. I prefer the moniker Crime Fiction, but I won't press the point. Most find the controversy pointless. In fact, I'm reminded of a similar frustration I suffered a quarter century ago. My crusade to delineate fairy tale, folk tale, fantasy fiction, legend, and escapism from that broad, seemingly all-encompassing category known as science fiction fizzled in the first gust. Today I no longer care whether people pair Peter Pan and pixie dust with the brutal accounts in Beowulf. Still, I empathize with the devotee's objective. As a lover of words, I, too, recognize the importance of proper classification. Just remember, most can't be bothered.

It took me many years to learn that not all books can be about cultivating the mind or edifying the soul. To paraphrase Mark Twain, while the books of the great geniuses are like wine, Twain regarded his own work as water, and, he added, everybody drinks water. For too many reasons to list here, much of what I balked at nearly 20 years ago I gladly indulge in today approaching 50. In short, my interests have changed. For the past month, I've been devouring murder mysteries, or what the literary world would probably refer to as transient trash. Light reading. Fluff. Which is fine, since even Harlequin romance novels kick television's ass. Or so I'm told. As a rule, I don't watch TV. And I've read only a few romance novels. Pinkie swears.

So for my next few posts I'll compare the plots and styles of murder mystery novelists (or whatever moniker the connoisseurs prefer) and decide what to recommend and what to renounce. After all, who says writing isn't a contest?


Our local library has an entire shelf devoted to James Patterson. So last month I grabbed 7th Heaven, which, according to the title list following the flyleaf, is book one in a series of seven. Only it isn't. The list is inverted: the last title on the list (the book at the bottom) is both the first novel chronologically and the first published in the series. Likewise, the title at the top is actually the last novel in the series and the most recent release. Since I couldn't have been expected to know the publishers were buffoons, I didn't bother to verify the release date of each novel. As a result, I came in late, as they say. That aside, this was a good read if not a good book. Neither the protagonist nor the prose is deplorable, and the pace never slows. Three out of five stars.

The second book in my crime fiction spree was The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. Turns out this is the second book in the Hercule Poirot series, which, incidentally, marks my first exposure to this endearing Belgian sleuth. As in the Sherlock Holmes stories narrated by Dr. Watson, Hercule Poirot's sidekick Arthur Hastings provides a first person perspective. It may be too early to compare, but so far Hastings and Watson, though both ex-military men, differ in many respects. Hastings, easily distracted by a woman's charms and somewhat absent minded, seems more human to me. I was sorry to later learn Hastings is featured in only seven of Christie's 22 Poirot novels from 1920 to 1937. Shame, that. I really enjoy their chemistry. I can't imagine Hercule going it alone. As in the case of Patterson, the prose is prosaic. But Christie has turned the matter-of-fact into an art form. And the misdirects are non-stop. Five out of five stars.

A friend recommended Tony Hillerman. At the local library, I grabbed the title that caught my fancy: The Wailing Wind. I might've cared more about the budding romance between Chee and Bernadette (Bernie) had I started with the first novel in the series. In a few scenes, Chee and Leaphorn occasionally laugh though neither says anything remotely funny. Literary characters should never have more fun than the reader, i.e. me. In contrast, the banter between Hastings and Poirot is quite amusing at times, yet neither of Christie's characters laughed for my benefit. I plan to give Hillerman another try since his setting is the Navajo Reservation circa 1970. The superstitions and religious rites of shaman juxtaposed with modern day amenities was fascinating. Three out of five stars.

Last but not the least bit least, and quite possibly my favorite author of the hour, Lilian Jackson Braun and her first book in The Cat Who series The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. If you enjoy fine writing and Wodehousian humor, check this out. The quirky characters, spot on narrative, clever dialogue, and imaginative scenes, all conveyed in a fantastic style, brought me to the last page before I realized the fun was over. And this is coming from someone who can't abide cats. I've already grabbed book two in the series. Five out of five stars.

One Patterson, Christie, Hillerman, and Braun concurrently to follow, as time allows. Meanwhile, murder mystery mavens, provide your recommendations. I'll read them if I can find them. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Problem of Pain, How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems, by C. S. Lewis (published 1940)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, many years ago I was a self-professed atheist. Yet I considered myself open to opposing views. It was in this spirit of open mindedness I accepted a short work a friend and mentor loaned me called Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Directed to skeptics who seek intellectual reasons for faith, it forced me to question my disbelief. It would be another decade before I squashed my pride, confronted its truth, and converted. (Guess I wasn't so open minded after all.) But that's another story that deals more with the heart than with the head.

I'm convinced that Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity contributed to his insight and argumentative powers. Such converts, whether it's the great economist Thomas Sowell (having first been a Marxist before embracing capitalism), tend to speak and write with more authority than those who carry the same political or religious views from cradle to coffin.

I'm not suggesting converts ipso facto make for persuasive writers. Nor does doing an ideological about-face necessarily mean one is more objective or sincere than the next guy or gal. But a lot can be said for having not only examined and lived opposing doctrines but articulating what precisely changed one's mind.

Lewis begins The Problem of Pain with the strongest case for atheism I've ever read. In fact, ironically, I haven’t come across a more compelling argument than the one this former atheist poses. Lewis then goes on to show how such an argument is not only too simple but self contradictory.

The Problem of Pain isn't a self-help or how-to-grieve type work. Nor is it for everyone. Those who lack faith in God or a fundamental knowledge of theology will be as lost as the student who skips basic math and jumps straight into physics. This is for people of faith who want rational answers to perhaps the most challenging question facing believers – why we suffer.

It's no wonder fifty years after his death, Lewis is still widely regarded as the preeminent standard-bearer for apologetics. He's a thoughtful, articulate, persuasive writer, and reading this book made me want to be a better Christian. That alone should recommend it to fellow believers.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

We've all known our share of walking rain clouds. Happily for me, those relations never lasted. Sure, I'll be the first to acknowledge the world is full of cruelty and corruption, but I'd rather celebrate the good than bemoan the bad. To fixate on the tragic, or worse, to claim only the brutal and the vulgar constitute all there is to life, is not only shortsighted but makes for a grim personality, not to mention a depressing read.

First published in Paris in 1934 and subsequently banned in the U.S. until 1961, Tropic of Cancer charts Miller's experiences among the French bohemians during the early '30s. Full disclosure, I served in the U.S. NAVY. I've seen it all. Hell, I've done more than I'd confess to in mixed company. Still, Miller's attitudes and indulgences easily exceed my humble excesses. Such lapses in judgment were the stage dressings of my experience, not the main attraction. For Miller, it's the other way round. His chronicling of coitus, fellatio, cunnilingus, menstruation, flatulence, and defecation makes for the sort of work an exhibitionist or performance artist might compose on a dare. Termed 'autobiographical novel' (which I'm told is a genre), this book, rather than simply pushing the envelope for obscenity, laces the envelope with Ricin and sets it on fire.

In fairness, the average vocabulary is small enough without us banning words or censoring writers. So I'd never call for a moratorium on terms or demand someone's silence for uttering inflammatory language. Indeed, one of the bonuses to free speech is giving fools a forum to unwittingly identify themselves. How else will the rest of us know to avoid them? I'll defend this writer's liberty to voice his drivel until the angry birds come home.

Besides, I don't object to the obscenity so much as the hatred. Miller uses the Inn word to refer to knee grows, calls nearly all women cunts, has nothing but contempt for The Jews, and in one passage, writes, “... because every now and then I meet little yellow men from Cochin-China – squirmy, opium-faced runts peeping out of their baggy uniforms like dyed skeletons packed in excelsior.”

A third of the way into the book the curtain falls utterly.

Hello! Are you Henry Miller?” It's a woman's voice. It's Irene. She's saying hello to me … For a moment I'm in a perfect panic.

As a reader, so am I. Henry Miller the writer and Henry Miller the protagonist are one. This struck me as problematic since Miller, or at least the Miller Miller represents, never fails to ridicule his bohemian friends, pointing out how depraved, lost, hopeless, and foolish they are – all the while both demonstrating the same depravity and relying on their sporadic charity for his livelihood.

The madness doesn't end there. In an interview, Miller said he dabbled with the title Crazy Cock. As to why he settled on the published title:

...to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”

If civilization is diseased as Miller tells us, if we must start over as he says, I assume these pronouncements are an indictment on human behavior, hypocrisy, and the like. So what remedy can we expect from cataloging characters with lice? Throughout the book, not an insect escapes Miller's eye. Every louse and cockroach is commented on. Rats make frequent cameos too. And what precisely accounts for his hostility toward birds?

Every time I pass the concierge's window and catch the full icy impact of her glance I have an insane desire to throttle all the birds of creation.

When toward the end of the book Miller has an opportunity to do a good turn, he takes the low road, betrays a friend's trust, and, perhaps worst of all, has no moral qualms whatsoever about doing so.

If you don't mind reading what could essentially pass for alcohol-induced exchanges between sexually frustrated college frat boys or dictation taken at a cocaine laced swinger's club, or, better yet, if you're encouraged (as one Amazon reviewer promised) reading the rants of a foul, self-absorbed, male chauvinist, racist leech who resents those whose help he needs most while simultaneously depicting them as degenerates, you might have a more favorable impression of this depressing read. For me, the line between constructive criticism and wanting to burn the whole world to the ground is not so fine or gray. It's the difference between the sage and the serpent.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I tried to immerse myself in this tome of pseudo lore after reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time nearly thirty years ago. Fantasy fiction was my genre of choice back then. Still, I couldn't do it. Middle-earth's creation story, which kicks off the book, felt as dry as a Texas summer drought, and by chapter two my thoughts had wandered off to swimming holes and cold beers. I set the book aside for stories featuring plots and protagonists, intending to one day return to this unfinished, posthumous, literary geekfest when my constitution could endure the myriad cameos and daunting pronunciations of foreign place names.

Years elapsed. In the interim, I was exposed to the likes of Twain, Nabokov, Steinbeck, Greene, and Davies. Over time, my concerns shifted; I developed an appreciation for style. Craft superseded genre. Plot was reduced to its essential ingredient, like flour or stock, but no longer the dish's draw. In short, what happened in a story became secondary to how what happened was conveyed.

A film major once directed my attention to select camera angles and lighting effects and how these shots were used to induce attitudes in the audience. We were exploring the mechanics of movie making, occasionally to the detriment of the dialogue. How the clock worked became more engaging than what time it was.

Whether this shift in concern is a good thing is debatable. Learning the mechanics of story – how to create memorable characters, evoke emotions, and sustain tension – can certainly benefit the aspiring writer. But it can spoil the reader, just as I suspect a flower's bloom to a botanist isn't quite as pronounced as to a mom on Mother's Day.

This clinical approach to reading has in many ways hardened me. I'm more demanding, more selective, than I once was. As a result, I rarely read fantasy fiction anymore. Most of it is elevated comics, of little or no redeeming value.

However, two hundred thousand words into my own magnum opus involving knights and knavery drew me back to the more contemporary authors of the genre if only to appraise the market. And since most of it (without naming names) ranges from mediocre to poor, I decided to return to the master.

Revisiting The Silmarillion while focusing on style alone dramatically improved my experience. The book's lack of structure – its numerous, sometimes disjointed, accounts of elves and oaths and betrayals and battles – was no longer a distraction. Instead, the words, though a vehicle for such things, became the primary character, much like Middle-earth itself is arguably the primary character of The Lord of the Rings.

Few contemporary fantasy fiction writers have Tolkien's ear for that diction we associate with a bygone era. Stephen R. Donaldson is the only other writer I know who has achieved a similar authenticity. A philologist as well as a lover of epic poems and ancient lore, Tolkien convincingly reproduces the archaic speech patterns we associate with the nobility of yesteryear.

“And among these I hold trees dear. Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon bough little mourned in their passing. So I see in my thought. Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!”

A grandeur abounds in the narrative as well, often inspired, and reminiscent of Homer's Iliad.

But at the last the might of Valinor came up out of the West, and the challenge of the trumpets of Eönwë filled the sky; and Beleriand was ablaze with the glory of their arms, for the host of the Valar were arrayed in forms young and fair and terrible, and the mountains rang beneath their feet.

With the help of J.R.R.'s son Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion summarizes the creation and the early history of Middle-earth, namely the First and Second Ages, which are, for those keeping score at home, the events prior to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This isn't a novel. Nor is it a book of short stories. Though a book of short stories comes closer to the mark. Historic events and the key figures involved are given chapters. A few figures reappear in later chapters. Most don't. 

Still, the book has several superb passages. After establishing Melian as a Maia (a sort of demigoddess) whose singing draws the nightingales to flock and follow her, we're introduced to Elwë, later known as Thingol, one of the three chieftains of the original elves, who stumbles upon Melian singing in her garden.

… being filled with love Elwë came to her and took her hand, and straightway a spell was laid on him, so that they stood thus while long years were measured by the wheeling stars above them; and the trees of Nan Elmoth grew tall and dark before they spoke any word.

For those who rejoice in good style and find themselves disappointed by many of the more contemporary fantasy fiction writers, this work won't fail to delight, despite its hodgepodge construction. Recommended for the connoisseur of good prose; not for the gourmand of plot. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Books written in the elevated prose of 19th century English literature have a certain charm. If you can get past the tuberculosis, syphilis, dysentery, kissing (and marrying) cousins, the writing, with its somewhat stilted syntax, has a certain seductive quality. Its graceful grammar, even the vocabulary, appeals to me in ways I can't really define or defend.

Partially due to my age, partially due to my love of language, I have a tendency to sound like a stuffed shirt when I should don the prose equivalent of the casual pullover. I'm inclined to receive when I should get, speak instead of talk. In casual conversation, I still distinguish can (what is possible) from may (what is allowed). And don't get me started on will and shall. Incidentally, this might explain, in part anyway, why I love reading Wodehouse and watching British comedies. Or maybe it's the other way round; spoiled on the stirring elocution of poets, I dread the brute with the bullhorn.

For whatever reason, the snob in me balks at the attitudinal contrast from yes to yeah; pardon? to huh?; perhaps to pfft; maybe to meh. And it's this difference, this speaking with authority versus sleepwalking, that stirs something within me to reject the limp tongue for the limpid. Call it indigestion. Blame my mother for blaring vinyls of Mozart and Beethoven to a babe confined to his crib, but this literary fetish, for good or ill, is real, and I'm happiest when well fed.

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, so it's steeped in the prim prose of that era. Planted in the Yorkshire moors, northern England, the story recounts the stark and tragic lives of two generations of families, related by way of a literary gimmick. You've probably seen it before. A protagonist walks into an inn and is treated to a fireside chat; or a wounded, bedridden soldier or sailor recuperates in either a private or military hospital and spins a yarn for his physical therapist; or an officer with too much free time tells a tale the patient patiently dictates. Whatever the relationship, whether Donaldon's “Ser Visal's Tale” or Conrad's Lord Jim, such stories depend upon both the impeccable memory of the narrator and the formidable stamina of the author who must inevitably postpone trips to the loo and often fast for the duration.

I celebrate artistic license. I'm a great practitioner of suspending disbelief. But in Heights, we see this gimmick in almost exaggerated form. Detailed exposition, as well as reams of dialogue no one could possibly recount with such precision decades after the events have unfolded, are conveyed by the housekeeper as if she were reading directly from her diary. This tests both the patience and the credulity of the reader.

For those who consider this novel a love story, I would ask them to disavow this notion and remember love's lesser, though more seductive, siblings: infatuation, lust, and obsession. A critic expressed a similar sentiment about Lolita, claiming it was perhaps the most convincing love story ever written. Lest we forget, love isn't abusive or callous. Those are corruptions of love. At its heart, love is a virtue, not a vice. The feelings or emotions that accompany love are not love itself but rather reflections of it, like the sun's light illuminating the moon or the flavor of food rather than the nourishment itself. Love is commitment, devotion. It inspires oaths. We sacrifice what we want for the needs of those we love. Neither Lolita nor Wuthering Heights would recognize love in its pure form. Instead, those books describe relationships depraved and detrimental to the parties involved.

Despite my praise of the prose, this is (spoiler alert) a tragedy. If you enjoy soaps – stories in which the villains suffer no more than their victims throughout – then you might enjoy this drama. If, on the other hand, you lament the absence of goodness or justice in fiction, you should give this classic a pass. Recommended but with reservations.