Book review: The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It had been years since I had last read a work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, The Great Gatsby was the first and last thing I had attempted from this great American writer, and that only because it had been required of me to read it back in college. I don’t think I was overall particularly impressed while reading The Great Gatsby, largely because I lacked the maturity and experience to understand what Fitzgerald was saying. Yet, at our instructor’s urging, I came away from it with enduring images of a beacon flashing in the distance symbolizing … something. And the conviction that the author had highlighted how wasteful and irresponsible some people can be. I know—a rather shallow reading.

When scanning my shelves recently, looking for something to read, I noticed The Beautiful and Damned, and I thought, maybe now, years later, I am ready to try Fitzgerald again. Some impressions? Well, throughout the novel I kept mumbling to myself, “My God, how did this man come up with such brilliant descriptions?”  I have come to envy Fitzgerald for his keen and vibrant use of language. The Beautiful and Damned is indeed beautifully written. From my perspective.

If anything disappointed me in this novel, it was that I found no one—not a single character—whom I could like. That may seem superficial, but many readers do tend to enjoy literary journeys more when accompanied by a fictitious character they can believe in, cheer for, cry for. I found all the characters in The Beautiful and Damned to be at best annoying and at worst despicable. I read a review once of this novel that referred to the “fall” of the lead couple, Anthony Patch and Gloria, and I thought, “What fall? They were awful to begin with and awful at the end!”

Having admitted that rather personal response to the novel, I should acknowledge that this is indeed a story about decline—both moral and physical decline, encouraged by the financial decline of Anthony and Gloria. Anthony was to be heir to the fortune of a relentless, cold tycoon. And while Gloria strikes one initially as a woman who could care only for that eventual wealth of the man she chooses to wed, her commitment to Anthony seems founded on a greater affection or love than would have thought possible, considering the repeated descriptions of her as little more than a player, a woman seeking nothing but her own pleasure in life.

Beyond the failings and failure of these two people, the novel paints a portrait of American society with harsh class divisions and a constraining expectation that a man defines himself professionally more than anything else. At various points in the story, we read of political opinions, religious beliefs, personal aspirations, but Anthony’s woes, brought on by his own faulty character, are often expressed in his inability to define himself professionally. The only resilient definition that Anthony and Gloria adhere to is that life must be fun, a notion they cling to even when the money runs out and they are no longer welcome to the loudest of parties yet, the Roaring Twenties.

Book Review: The Light and the Dark, by C.P. Snow

The Light and the Dark is a novel in the Strangers and Brothers series by C.P. Snow. The narrator throughout the series is Lewis Eliot, in part a fictional representation of the author himself. But the real antagonist of this episode in the series is Roy Calvert.

Calvert is viewed by some as a brilliant young scholar, an Orientalist whose area of expertise—the ancient Sogdian language—is about as esoteric as one can get in Middle Eastern studies. To others, especially several of the older scholars of Cambridge, Calvert represents something inappropriate in youth and potentially scandalous for the college, particularly considering the many rumors that have spread about concerning his affairs with various women.

Is there any truth to these rumors? Most certainly. Which is not presented by Snow as damning evidence of what is wrong with Roy Calvert. Rather, Calvert’s youthful enthusiasm and irrepressible individuality appeal to many, even members of the crusty upper class. Calvert touches people, inspiring in them perhaps a desire to embrace that which he seems to represent—a brilliant life.

Yet the narrator knows him better than this, knows Calvert better than any, and understands that Calvert’s life is far from blissful. And at the core of The Light and the Dark is not only this vibrant figure, Roy Calvert, but the deep, enduring compassion that he has engendered in Lewis Eliot. Many periods pass during which they are separated from one another, and even then, we read nearly nothing of what is happening in Eliot’s life, including his desperate relationship with his unstable, suicidal wife (which is at the center of another of the Strangers and Brothers novels).

Instead, through every development of the novel, whether ponderous, even pretentious in the world of Cambridge academia, or startling and sinister, particularly as World War II approaches and Calvert seems drawn to the Nazi movement, Eliot’s thoughts return ever and again to Roy Calvert. His hopes are for Calvert, and his sorrow seems ever near the surface whenever Calvert faces the depression that plagues him in his darkest hours.

In all, what often appeared to me to be a fairly mechanical view of the goings-on of a major institution of learning and its faculty and staff proved only barely to conceal a surprisingly passionate story. There is, in often condensed and even repressed form, a great deal of emotion in this tale. And all centered on a man whose star seems destined to rise, if only because Calvert appears so capable of unintentionally winning the hearts of others. Yet he is a man who in the end is much more drawn to a tragic fall, incapable as he is of finding what he truly needs—not the love that so many others are eager to grant him, but an enduring truth or faith or belief that he can embrace.

Roy Calvert is a man who is loved more than he wishes to be, promoted by those he endures if not detests, desired by women who mean nothing to him or, in the case of one woman, whom he suffers the guilt of having harmed—people, in other words, who are more than willing to commit themselves to him, even while he fails to find anything eternal to commit himself to. His life fluctuates between passion, pleasure, and pain, a pain that Lewis Eliot understands better than any, but a pain from which Eliot is unable to save his dear friend. Snow’s The Light and the Dark is, then, a fairly compelling story of friendship and love, desire and loss.

Book Review: Travma, by Osman Aysu

Like his father, Murat works in the construction trade. Quite successfully. In fact, life couldn’t be better. Business is thriving, and his personal life even more so with the clever, vibrant Derya beside him, perhaps soon to be his wife. Of course, such perfection cannot last, and in Murat’s case, the idyllic image of his life is shattered one night when his mind is assaulted by a most disturbing nightmare. Racing into a house atop a hill and climbing the steps to the top floor, he finds his beloved naked and bound to a table. And before his very eyes, Murat witnesses Derya’s murder at the hands of a cruel, sinister, and faceless man.

So opens Osman Aysu’s haunting tale entitled Trauma. It is not the first time Murat has suffered from these visions in his sleep. Nor will it be the last. The reader accompanies Murat through various manifestations of his nightmares, apparently coming closer and closer to a dark, disturbing truth that underlies them all, memories of a traumatic event from his childhood that his mind simply could not bear. Can he manage to uncover the truth before the visions drive him insane?

Trauma is an engaging story, fairly well written, of course by an author who has penned numerous novels of crime fiction and suspense. I quite enjoyed the twists of this story, the sense of mystery enveloping the nightmares—could they be supernatural in origin? Is Murat being haunted by the spirit of a man who has been dead for years, yet who apparently just recently visited Murat’s father? As often happens with Osman Aysu’s tales, I rather quickly became irritated by the narrator’s persistently repetitious details, unnecessary observations made by the protagonist again and again. I would prefer watching the action unfold before me than be repeatedly told what is happening and what has already happened and what might happen next. Still, the story kept me reading until the end, eager at least to see the mystery unravel.

Book Review: Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver

In Animal Dreams, Codi Noline has parted from her beloved sister, Hallie, who has decided to journey to Nicaragua to lend her assistance to local farmers. An act that Codi comes to believe is heroic, in contrast to her own life and her own journey back to the place of her birth – Grace, Arizona. Struggling with memories she can no longer recall, feeling utterly adrift wherever she may be, Codi sees nothing heroic in herself, nothing worthwhile. And bereft of a sense of belonging, she arrives back home already preparing to leave yet again. Unless she can somehow find meaning, not only in where she resides and the people around her, but in herself. This is now the second novel that I have read from Barbara Kingsolver, and I am enchanted. Kingsolver is a wonderful writer. I am stunned at how well she can imbue seemingly simple characters and places and events with such unnerving, yet compelling complexity. Her prose is smooth, her language so real, yet so inspiring. A beautiful work indeed.
 

Book Review: Bir Ses Böler Geceyi, by Ahmet Ümit

On a lonely country road at night, Süha loses control of his jeep and crashes just outside the cemetery of an Alevi village in Turkey. Confused and frightened, he runs from the startling image of the open grave he finds there. Death seems ever present in this haunting tale from Ahmet Ümit, a short novel that borders on an ethnographic study, so keenly aware is the narrator of the ins and outs of Alevi customs and the rituals of the cemevi, the Alevi house of worship and communal gathering. Süha is a man who has lost his way, yet has somehow managed, inadvertently, to make his way back to his own Alevi past (a past he rejected in favor of armed leftist struggle), much as the narrator guides us back and forth through Süha’s past, while deftly intertwining Süha’s tale with that of the dead young man whose fate is being debated within the cemevi of the village. A very well written tale from a masterful writer.

Book Review: Casus, by Osman Aysu

Retired intelligence agent Samim Vardar has long since left his former profession far behind him. Although the scars he bares have never fully healed. Particularly from the gruesome wounds he sustained while being tortured by a sadistic Russian agent named Igor Kariagin. Yet Samim’s experiences may yet prove useful to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization as they try to identify a suspicious Russian doctor now living in İstanbul. One look into the Russian’s eyes is enough to convince Samim of the sadist’s return. The problem lies in convincing the younger intelligence agents of this when, as far as they know, Kariagin died some years ago in Russia.

There is certainly a pleasure in reading how a supposedly over-the-hill “agent” (“casus” in Turkish) is not quite as useless as some of the younger generation might suspect. You have to admire his determination and his keen eye for the art of shadowing a suspect. What comes off a bit too repetitive, however, is how others, even the younger agent who deeply admires him, dismiss his suspicions and suggestions as bordering on senility, find out Samim was right, praise him to high heaven, and then discount his next suspicions. I could also do without Samim’s smug grins every time he seems to know something the younger agents couldn’t seem to figure out on their own. Then again, I guess he earned his conceit.

Book Review: A Month of Sundays, by John Updike

Reverend Tom Marshfield has gone astray. Far astray. Or he has discovered his true self. Either way, his life has become inextricably bound to his barely restrainable sexual desires. Limited not be his own nearly nonexistent faith, but instead by the piety of the woman he pursues. I can’t believe I am actually using such a word to describe a novel, but John Updike’s A Month of Sundays is quite juicy. By which I am not referring to banal descriptions of carnality. What is most enticing about this tale is the exploration of a very carnal man’s journey between the faith of others and his own desires. Reminiscent of Philip Roth, I thought, from whose works I derive great, sometimes guilty, pleasures.

Book Review: Lethal Legacy, by Linda Fairstein

Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper is called away from an eight-year-old case to help respond to what may have been a sexual assault. The victim was Tina Barr, a former conservator for the New York Public Library. Barr proves very reluctant to cooperate with Cooper in any way, but her subsequent disappearance and the discovery of a dead body in Barr’s apartment direct Cooper’s investigation squarely at the grand library itself.
 
Lethal Legacy is very well written, fast-paced, and of particular interest to bibliophiles. This is a tale concerned not only with a world of crime, but even more so with the deep ambitions and compelling greed of wealthy families involved in the world of antique books and maps.
 

Book Review: The BFG, by Roald Dahl

Drawn by the perfect stillness of the dead of night, little Sophie breaks the rules of the miserable orphanage where she resides, rises from her bed, and peers out the window. What she sees will change her life forever, a hulking shadow drawing nearer and nearer until she can clearly see a giant in a cape with tremendous ears. And he sees her!
  
Once again Dahl has brought a terrifying world to life, the most vicious danger imaginable to a tiny child – a land of man-eating giants, each more ferocious than the last, mercilously gobbling up humans left and right. And somehow little Sophie, with the help of the one-and-only Big Friendly Giant, must stop them all before they can attack again. Beautifully done, this story.

Book Review: Hannibal, by Thomas Harris

Seven years have passed since Dr. Hannibal Lecter escaped from his prison for the criminally insane, the site of his conversations with FBI Agent Clarice Starling. He has never forgotten her. Nor has Mason Verger forgotten Hannibal Lecter. How could he, left utterly crippled, terribly disfigured from his much earlier confrontation with the doctor. Now Verger sees an opportunity to get to Lecter through Starling. If she can find him. Or if he can find her.

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal was a fantastic read. As the title suggests, this really isn’t a story about Agent Starling, but about Lecter himself – his life, his early years, his incredible talents, and his enduring obsessions. The story is very engaging, in quite the same way that Red Dragon was – as a brilliant insight into a criminal mind. Yet even better written than Red Dragon with a literary style that does not inhibit the tension rising in the story, leading to the final great confrontation.