Sunday, October 27, 2013

constant gardener

You may remember The Constant Gardener as a film from 2005 with Ralph Fiennes. I don't, I never saw it. The movie did pretty well I guess, and I would bet that its because a 2 hour film can eliminate a lot of the slowness in this story and ratchet up the tension. That would have helped this story immensely. I also can imagine some reorganization of the timeline to give us some idea of what is actually going on. After 100 pages I had no idea what kind of story I was reading, after 200 pages I had a good idea what kind of story this is, but I don't understand what's going on, that really happens in the last hundred pages.*

I've read a few of John le Carré's books over the years, but I ending reading the ones I find at book sales and yard sales, so I guess I'm not getting to the great ones, the ones that people keep on the bookshelves to re-read. That, unfortunately, may be a problem with most of the books I read, and most (but not all) of them come from sources like that. I enjoyed the last le Carré book I read though.

The Constant Gardener follows the story of Justin Quayle and his beautiful, young wife Tessa in their temporary home in Nairobi, Kenya. Justin is with the British Foreign Service and his wife keeps herself busy doing what she can to help the local people, which means getting down in the trenches and looking into places that most foreign visitors don't bother to see. Husband Justin however, keeps his nose dutifully out of his wife's affairs, his head in the clouds, and his hands busy in his garden.

That is, until Justin is rudely awakened to just how serious some of the problems in Africa are, and has to set out against his very nature, to follow the same evidence his wife has. I don't think this is a spoiler, but it may help you to understand what you're reading in the beginning, is that spoilerish? Is it moot to ask about spoilerisms post spoilage?

le Carré has woven a pretty intricate web in this story, and many of the subjects and discoveries are pretty powerful, I think the problem in this one is the web was woven to loosely. I wonder again how the movie is.

* the hardcover is 492 pages.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

the hit

David Baldacci writes a pretty good novel. My wife typically buys them action novels and I read them when she's done, and this was the case here. She thought the first chapter had a great hook and it kept up from there on in. I'd have to agree.

I've seen his name around on books in the house, but I can't remember the last time I read one by him, or if I ever have. that's one of the reasons I have this blog This one is about a hit man, Will Robie, who feels like he has to do the right thing, even though he kills people for a living. Seems like an interesting premise, and the hints in the story make me think this guy is a recurring character. As it turns out, he does care.

Will Robie is a CIA hit man (altho I'm sure there's no such animal in reality, right?) and he's minding his own business until the office calls, asking him to do something he typically doesn't; track down another agent who's gone rogue and is killing people. Robie shrugs, digs in and soon discovers all kinds of crazy stuff going on, and then he needs to decide whether to do the right thing. Then he has to figure out what the right thing is.

The Hit is tight, exciting and well paced. The writing stays out of the way and the characters develop pretty thoroughly by the end. There are some canned characters and sub-plots populating the story as walk-ons, supporting cast, and off-the-shelf, built-in backstory, but its not too disruptive.

I'd be interested in the story that led up to this one, but I wouldn't knock over a nun to get to it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

sons and lovers

I read D.H. Lawrence's (probably) most famous book, Lady Chatterley's Lover, a number of years ago, but I don't remember a lot about it. I found this copy of Sons and Lovers in the book sale at my library. Its a beautifully bound edition from 1929 by Martin Secker Ltd of London, in what they call a thin paper edition. The cover boards are also thin and flexible, and covered with red linen. The book was purchased by a man from Schenectady, NY while in Paris, in 1930, according to a hand written note on the plain, white endpaper.

I wonder if the book was purchased in Paris because it wasn't available or if the purchaser didn't want anyone to know he'd purchased it. I may be projecting here, but I did chose to read this book last week in recognition of banned book week. Sons and Lovers has been banned at various times as pornographic. Both Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley's Lover appear on the list assembled by the ALA of the 46 books out of the Century's Top 100 Novels according to Radcliffe Publishing Course. That's almost half of the best novel in the last century that were banned or challenged, including the top 9.


That being said, Lawrence writes--if I can generalize, based on my vague recollections of Chatterley--of the quiet, thoughtful and heartfelt agony of everyday life, with an occasional burst of passionate glory, which then smolders back down to anguish and angst. Sons and Lovers follows the life story of the Morel family who live near the coal mining pits north of Nottingham in central England. After reading I know what Pink Floyd was talking about when they sang:

"Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say."*

The story does give a glimpse at the forces society still had on the personal decisions people made for themselves but were just beginning to be pushed back at--Sons and Lovers was first published in 1913. It was also interesting to see how it was beginning to be possible for the lower classes to make their way into the middle class in a single generation. I wonder if it was Lawrence's intention to point out that upwardly mobile people continued to have their lower caste problems; that they brought their problems with them in other words, or if he was simply saying that even if you do improve your lot, the cares of the world don't necessarily get any lighter.

At its core however, Sons and Lovers is a study of a dysfunctional family. I was also interested to read how we use the words rage and hatred seem to have changed over time. Lawrence uses these terms to portray feelings that are much more subtle and transient, making the love-hate relationship almost the norm as his trouble character waffle and sway in their internal emotional currents.

Why the ban? There are lots of emotions, and some of them very strong, throughout the book. Love and lust, not least. There are some scenes of sex and lovemaking that are very emotionally charged, without being very explicit, but one gets the feeling that some of the techniques Lawrence used to be subtle, pushed the very boundaries of what was acceptable. Still more are the longing glances and the notice of such things as how a woman's breasts move inside her clothing as she stoops to pick a flower. And one great moment when the main protagonist, considering whether to speak frankly of sex decides against such intercourse. Oh yeah, I can imagine the folks up in arms about such terms.

A final note: when I finished this I started right in on David Baldacci's book and it took a few pages for me to change gears enough to even understand the language, the writing is so different.

* Pink Floyd. "Time." Dark Side of the Moon. 1973. Mason, Waters, Wright, Gilmour.