Sting, the Master, and Margarita

The New York Times Book Review’s feature “By the Book” (where they ask writers questions about what they’re reading, their favorite writers, and other book-related questions) featured Sting in the September 19 issue. Here’s one exchange that surprised me:

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

Probably Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita,” a delicious and disruptive satire of Soviet Russia. I hear a dead man was put on trial in Moscow only this past summer; Woland would have loved it!

Reading that, I thought, well, if Sting can read Bulgakov, so can I (particularly since the book was one of those in my “retirement reading” list).

Did I like it? Not really. I just can’t get into farcical fantasies and found most of it pointless (which perhaps shows how little I know about Russian literature).

Anyway, there were two features that did interest me. One was the references to migraines. The first appears in the retelling of Pontius Pilate’s story, where Bulgakov has Pilate say the following:

“O gods, gods, why are you punishing me?… Yes, there’s no doubt about it, it’s back again, that horrible, relentless affliction… the hemicrania that shoots pain through half my head… there’s no remedy for it, no relief… I’ll try not to move my head…” (p. 13 in the Viking International translation)

Migraneurs will recognize that one-sided pain (and those who know the Italian for migraine—emicrania—will appreciate the translation). Even Woland (Satan) talks about nearly getting a migraine from the noise in a bar (p. 237).

The other feature I enjoyed were the descriptions of Pilate’s faithful dog Banga. Take a look at chapter 26, in particular, with a long paragraph describing the relationship between a dog and a man who love each other (p. 265). Nicely done! But unfortunately a bit too long to quote.

Oh, and one funny line? How’s this?

Man is mortal and, as was said so fittingly, sometimes suddenly so.

Humorous conclusion there.

To the Lighthouse with a Tyrannical Father

As a break from suspense fiction, I’ve recently been reading a few items on my “retirement reading list,” in particular three novels of Virginia Woolf. The latest? To the Lighthouse (1927). As in her earlier novels, Woolf does a tremendous job of entering (and making believable) the thoughts and feelings of her characters–and she is also adept at viewing people from the outside.

I found several passages worth quoting but will stick to just one.

The mother of a 6-year-old boy, Mrs. Ramsey, has promised James a trip out to a lighthouse (which has to be made by boat). In response, her husband, often lost in the clouds and difficult to deal with, says:

There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.

Woolf tells us that the husband is enraged by womens’ “irrationality” and the “folly” of their mind.

And this what Mrs. Ramsey thinks about his behavior:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jaggged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.

Well, nothing to be said if you have Virginia Woolf to write down your thoughts! But what a great description of Mr. Ramsey’s words–a “pelt of jagged hail” and a “drench of dirty water.” Beautiful adjective for hail (“jagged”), one probably not often used in the literary tradition behind her. And an excellent way to capture Mr. Ramsey’s tyranny. And we all hate tyrannical fathers, right?

Virginia Woolf (The Voyage Out) and Louis L’Amour (Hondo)

Well, that’s an uneasy juxtaposition–Woolf and L’Amour–a literary writer of high skill on one hand, and a writer of popular fiction on the other. What do they have in common? Not much, other than that I happened to read one after the other.

I enjoyed Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. What a brilliant mind she had, capable of such finely tuned observations regarding human character and social interactions. At times witty, always attentive to human foibles, she uses dialogue for characterization, masterfully so, penetrating to the core of her characters and delineating their often wacky beliefs and self-serving attitudes. Here are a couple of passages that are close to being laugh-out-loud funny:

[After her husband has just spoken out against women’s rights, Clarissa has this to say]

   ‘It’s unthinkable,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?’ she turned to Ridley.
    ‘I don’t care a fig one way or t’other,’ said Ambrose [Ridley]. ‘If any creature is so deluded as to think that a vote does him or her any good, let him have it. He’ll soon learn better.’

Clarissa has another exchange with Helen Ridley in a discussion dealing with the arts:

  [Clarissa] ‘The people who really care about an art are always the least affected [i.e., given to affectation]. D’you know Henry Philips, the painter?’ she asked.
    ‘I have seen him,’ said Helen.
    ‘To look at, one might think he was a successful stockbroker, and not one of the greatest painters of the age. That’s what I like.’
    ‘There are a great many successful stockbrokers, if you like looking at them,’ said Helen.
    Rachel wished vehemently that her aunt [Helen] would not be so perverse.

And what can one say about Louis L’Amour’s hero Hondo Lane? Well, I happen to own a horse named Hondo (a Gypsy Vanner who came to me with that name). Not very original, although when I had to name the retired-from-racing thoroughbred I owned before Hondo, I called him Shane. Hey, they’re both fine names for horses and cowboys.

Hondo Lane is one of those characters who has a quiet mastery of what’s needed to survive in the desert Southwest at a time when the Apaches were less than sympathetic to whites. Along with the instruction in survival (Hondo at one point teaches a 6-year-old boy some of the finer details of life out West), L’Amour occasionally preaches a lesson or two on values, which, judging from the last book of his I read (The Lonesome Gods) is a trait that must be common in all his works. A little bit overly obvious at times, but, hey, maybe a lot of his readers were teenage boys, in need of a little instruction.

Two Westerns: G. Clifton Wisler / Louis L’Amour

I happened to read two Westerns this last week, very different from each other in length, quality, and subject matter. The first was Spirit Warrior, by the Spur Award-Winning author G. Clifton Wisler. Not bad, although some may tire of the continual references to the “spirits” and “praying to the spirits.” The front cover of the mass market paperback (Zebra Books, 1986) has an interesting tag line that places the book (copyright 1986) in the pre-PC days of the 80s: “He was the tribe’s greatest warrior—except he was white!” I have to say that Wisler chose a great name for his protagonist—Metaha.

By coincidence, I happened the same week to catch just a few minutes of a 1962 movie—Geronimo, starring the very white Chuck Connors, yes, the man better known as The Rifleman, one of the Westerns I enjoyed as a kid because Lucas McCain (Connors) was such a loving dad to his son. The Wikipedia entry on Chuck Connors notes that The Rifleman was “the first show ever to feature a widowed father raising a young child.” That series in black-and-white lasted for five years (from 1958-63). I loved the way Connors handled his customized Winchester rifle. None better!

The other book was The Lonesome Gods  by Louis L’Amour, a novel that surpasses Wisler’s in quality as well as length. Coming in at 452 pages in the mass market paperback (compared to Wisler’s 223) The Lonesome Gods is actually four or so novels in one, though most of the action relates in one way or the other to Johannes (“Hannes”) Verne, a six-year-old kid who has lost his mother a year before the action begins and who will lose his father near the end of a perilous trip to Southern California, this in the days when Los Angeles was just beginning to be a small town and when the Apache and Yuma tribes along the way were hostile.

As in the Wisler book, the spirits play a part in The Lonesome Gods, as one can see from the title itself, but in a much less repetitive, much better integrated fashion. The one person most in touch with the ancients will be the young Hannes, whose coming-of-age story dominates much of the book. Hannes soon demonstrates unusual abilities as he makes friends with the Cahuilla, a more peaceful tribe, and faces numerous enemies, including his Spanish grandfather who wants him dead.

L’Amour creates suspense by suggesting but not revealing the mysterious pasts of other important characters, most notably Miss Nesselrode, a woman whose success in business threatens the Californios (as the early settlers were called) and whose secrets endanger her life.

For me, the weakest aspect of this lengthy novel is the romance between Hannes and Meghan Laurel, which leaves much to be desired! Apart from that, there’s a well-developed chase sequence, where Hannes tries to elude his merciless pursuers through some of the roughest terrain in the West. Throughout the book, no matter what is taking place, Hannes goes through an extended learning process, embodying his father’s message that “he who ceases to learn is already a half-dead man” (pp. 32-33 in the Bantam Books mass market paperback).

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Just finished Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Olive Kitteridge on the recommendation of my wife. Wow! What a spectacular writer, so observant, so able to create astounding characters. The novel, as the author admits in a conversation at the end of the Random House trade paperback, is a collection of connected short stories with no driving plot, it seems, until you realize that what ties everything together is not only Olive Kitteridge but life itself. The book offers a fantastic fullness of life captured in all its nuances by a masterful hand. For anyone interested in how great writers develop engrossing and believable characters this book is a beautiful primer.

Wharton and Winter

For a break from what I normally read, I picked up Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome, only 77 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition, selling new at an incredible price of a buck fifty (yes, $1.50, today!) and, in reality, a sort of suspense novel in the gentler ways of the past where the reader is “suspended” but not with the driving intensity of many contemporary thrillers.The novel has an interesting structure, a contemporary frame  with a major middle segment—an old-fashioned romance—set roughly twenty years earlier.

What I particularly enjoyed about the novel were the descriptions of winter in Massachusetts. Nice to read those when baking under an Arizona sun. Wharton was very attentive to the nuances of a wintry landscape. Opening the book at random, this is one example of many:

They drove slowly [this is in a horse-drawn cart] up the road between fields glistening under the pale sun, and then bent to the right down a lane edged with spruce and larch. Ahead of them, a long way off, a range of hills stained by mottlings of black forest flowed away in round white curves against the sky. The lane passed into a pine-wood with boles reddening in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows on the snow. As they entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness seemed to drop from the branches with the dropping needles. Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.

The author’s style is typical of serious writers in the early 20th century–heavy use of semi-colons and an ornate, elaborate style that flows (despite those heavy adjectives) with great ease. Here’s a selection where the author describes Ethan Frome, a twisted wreck of a man in the present, hale and vigorous in the past:

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guess that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.

The only part that made me a bit uneasy was the melodramatic conclusion of the past story. That had to be difficult to write—frustrated passion slowly breaking out amid despair over a situation with no easy exit. The results of the chosen way out are dishearteningly portrayed in the novel’s concluding contemporary scenes.

Saul Bellow and Mr. Sammler’s Planet

I’ve enjoyed a few of Saul Bellow’s novels over the years, most of all Herzog, followed by Henderson the Rain King, though there are others, attempted long ago as a student, that I haven’t been able to finish (e.g., The Adventures of Augie March and Dangling Man). But recently I’ve gone back to try Humboldt’s Gift and this last week Mr. Sammler’s Planet. A real effort to get through the latter! Often I found myself rereading paragraphs three or four times, or reading for a while and suddenly realizing I wasn’t paying attention or not comprehending, just letting words slip by. Not good! In fact, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, though I suppose the intellectual elite might enjoy its philosophical meanderings.

Three quotes:

Life! Everyone who had it was bound to lose it.

Where liberty had been promised most, they had the biggest, worst prisons.

And finally, a section where old Sammler is talking to his wacky, libidinous daughter Shula, asking her how much she’s read of H.G. Wells, a writer she idolizes and about whom she’d like her father to write a memoir:

“Truthfully, my child, have you ever read a book of Wells?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Tell me—but the truth, just between you and me.”

“I read one book, Father.”

“One? One book by Wells is like trying to bathe in a single wave.”

Funny!

Cloud Cover (eBook and hardcover edition)

Now out as an eBook (hardcover available August 15)!

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“Incredibly entertaining and thrilling!”Suspense Magazine (Sept/Oct issue)

 “A strong addition to spy thriller collections, much recommended.”The Midwest Book Review

 “A fabulous writer” – Brad Thor, #1 National Bestselling Author of Hidden Order

 “A writer to watch” – Barbara Conaty, Library Journal

Find it here
Amazon.com Kindle Store
Apple iStore / iTunes
Baker & Taylor (library wholesaler)
Barnes & Noble (Nook Books)
Gardner’s (UK) (Britain’s largest book wholesaler)
Ingram (bookstore distributor/selected bookstores)
Kobo
OverDrive (library wholesaler)
Waterstones (UK)–(their flagship shop on Piccadilly in London is the biggest bookshop in Europe)
and coming soon Google Play and Sony.

• Featured title for the month on every page of the August issue of the International Thriller Writers “The Big Thrill” newsletter (http://www.thebigthrill.org/the-big-thrill/current-issue/)
• Full page color ad in the Fall issue (Sept/Oct) of SuspenseMagazine.com
• Color print ad in ForeWord Reviews (Fall issue)

Dean Koontz and Frederick Pohl: The Old and the New

Years ago when I first started writing fiction I read Dean Koontz’s guide How to Write Best Selling Fiction. The last chapter was titled “Read, Read, Read” and there he noted:

Regardless of the type of fiction you write (or wish to write), you should read every kind of popular fiction you can get your hands on, both mainstream and genre. The more you broaden your interests as a reader, the more you will simultaneously broaden your perspective and your talent as a writer.

After which he provided an annotated list of recommended authors.

Since then, I have sought out other lists of the 10 best books in various literary genres and have tried to add those books to my library. One genre in which I do not read frequently—Science Fiction—did provide some great reads, e.g., Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth. So the other day I picked up an old tattered copy of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway (in my personal library) and read it with interest. I especially enjoyed his reference to a holopic of Lake Garda and Sirmione.

Several years ago I toured the Lake Region in Italy–Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Lugano, all in Lombardy, and then Lake Garda, which lies to the east and is shared by both Lombardy and the Veneto. Sirmione lies on a peninsula that justs 7 kilometers into Lake Garda. At a certain point, cars have to stop and the rest of the peninsula is accessible only on foot. At the far end, lie the ruins of a villa that belong to the Latin poet Catullus. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Well, when I went to add Gateway to my list of “books read” what do I find but that I first read it back in 1983, along with several Heinlein and Silverberg novels. So I took what Koontz had to say to heart. In June and July of that year I read the following books:

Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best Selling Fiction
James Cain, Double Indemnity
Harry Kemelman, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
Alistair MacLean, Where Eagles Dare
Robert B. Parker, Ceremony
Alistair MacLean, The Guns of Navarone
Helen MacInnes, Agent in Place
Jack Higgins, Solo
Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Russell Hoban, Ridley Walker
Helen MacInnes, The Snare of the Hunter
Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth
Frederik Pohl, Gateway
Robert Ludlum, The Parsifal Mosaic
Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity
William Goldman, Control
Harry Kemelman, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry
Alistair MacLean, Force 10 From Navarone
Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17
Joseph Wambaugh, The Black Marble
Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang
Alistair MacLean, Circus
Robert Ludlum, The Holcroft Covenant

Yep, there’s Pohl’s Gateway, so now I’ve read it twice, the second time just as “new” to the book as the first time. That’s discouraging in a way! I guess it means that I should find the world’s best 25 books and read them over and over for the rest of my life, each time finding them “new.”

Recent Readings

Lee Child, Persuader (which I read in sequence with The Hard Way, Gone Tomorrow, and Nothing to Lose)

A perfect one-sentence characterization of Jack Reacher (who’s talking about 20-year-old Richard Beck):

He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.
(p. 19 in the Dell Mass Market edition)

Hilarious!That use of “thing” and then “finger painting.” Can’t get much more disdainful (of the fine arts) than that!

Yep. Jack Reacher is no Lee Child (who presumably cares about his craft/art since he does such a good job at characterization).

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of Pointed Firs and Other Stories

Excellent descriptions of the landscape in Maine and vivid characterizations of its inhabitants at the end of the 19th century.
A slow, leisurely pace (no bother in the days before TV, though some readers today might find that it occasionally drags). I liked the elegance of her prose, as seen here (p. 65 in the Penguin Classics paperback):
[The author/narrator is visiting the island where poor Joanna, a recluse, dead now for 22 years, lived isolated by the loneliness of sorrow]

Poor Joanna’s house was gone except the stones of its foundations, and there was little trace of her flower garden except a single faded sprig of much-enduring French pinks, which a great bee and a yellow butterfly were befriending together. I drank at the spring, and thought that now and then someone would follow me from the busy, hard-worked, and simple-thoughted countryside of the mainland, which lay dim and dreamlike in the August haze, as Joanna must have watched it many a day. There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

Nice touches of humor, as in these two passages:

‘Yes, Mari was one o’ them pretty little lambs that make dreadful homely old sheep,’ replied Mrs Todd with energy.’ (p. 81)

‘There was good singers there; yes, there was excellent singers,’ she agreed heartily, putting down her teacup, ‘but I chanced to drift alongside Mis’ Peter Bowden o’ Great Bay, an’ I couldn’t help thinking if she was as far out o’ town as she was out o’ tune, she wouldn’t get back in a day.’ (p. 88)

And, finally, when the narrator is reluctant to accept a gift:

‘When it rains porridge hold up your dish,’ said Mrs Flagg. (p. 183)

Owen Wister, The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains (Dover Thrift Editions)

First published in 1902, this Western—as the editor Suzanne E. Johnson notes, “the first modern Western ever written and the benchmark for all subsequent North American frontier literature”—sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year. One might also call it a Western romance.
Funny line addressed to the reader: [after a discussion of lynching cattle rustlers]

Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader. (p. 252)

A good read, although I think the issue of hanging rustlers is handled with greater depth by Walter Van Tilburg Clark in The Ox-Bow Incident.(1940).

And, if you want to read another romance of early America, this one of the 17th century in Virginia, you might track down Mary Johnston’s bestselling To Have and To Hold (1900). Very good! I read the Pocket Book edition of 1946 (No. 149,592,378, according to the top of the front cover) in July 2008. There’s one travesty of a misprint on page 289 (ch. 38):

Mounting the breastwork that we had thrown up to shelter the women who were to load the muskets, he coolly looked over the pales at the oncoming sausages.

Yikes! Sausages for savages. (Oh well, they’re already being disparaged anyway.)
I happen to also own the 1900 Houghton, Mifflin and Company illustrated hardcover with a beautifully designed front board. Fortunately, that particular misprint does not appear in the earlier hardcover.
Great concluding paragraph to the novel, a bit too long to cite here.

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