What Simon is Reading

Maurice

mauriceIf I were back in college instead of being retired, I might just be tempted to put aside my love of Dickens and take up the world of E. M. Forster. Within the last two weeks I have read A Passage to India (which started with my love of Kim, by Kipling—and maybe I’ll write about that another time) followed by a re-read of Maurice, the “homosexual” novel that Forster withheld from publication until after his death.

Forster is a peculiar writer, that’s for sure—his sensibilities are so fine and his symbolism so rampant that he occasionally makes me think Henry James obvious and Hawthorne subtle. If Melville is all dilation, Forster is all contraction and ellipsis, and in these contrasts I find his fascination. He is also a pretty good storyteller, even if his stories have delicate arcs.

Maurice was written after Howards End and before A Passage to India. It is a delicate confection that treats of the young man Maurice Hall, as he moves through his young adulthood, first enamored of another Cambridge student, Clive Durham (from the upper classes) until he finds love and permanent happiness (at least the hope of it) with Clive’s gamekeeper, Alec Scudder, and comes to terms–and peace–with his homosexuality. But because this is Forster, it’s also about class, the collapse of innocence as England prepares for the Great War, and Forster moving his characters around toward the ends they all most richly deserve.

Forster is not embarrassed to have an agenda in Maurice or elsewhere in his fiction. The world he presents is not quite realistic; if it were, you would be unable to survive in it for long, since the intensity of even the slightest feeling or emotion would send you to bed prostrate with exhaustion at the mere act of living. This is how Forster makes James look gawky. And when you realize that the flowers, the bushes, and even the buildings (dorm rooms and boathouses both) are all symbolic of some economic or social phenomenon, you long for Hawthorne’s angry A-shaped clouds.

Maurice will seem precious to today’s gay and lesbian men and women, maybe even unnecessary, but when it was published in the early 1970s it could easily have been the salvation for any young man who thought his fate was only to be another bitter Boy in the Band. Forster knew at the time of writing that, if his story did not end happily, there would be no point it writing it; he required hope.

And hope is what the book still projects in these days of struggling marriage equality. Maurice reminds us of the consequences of life in the closet. There is NO going back. Read Maurice and be convinced. And see the beautiful movie staring James Wilby as Maurice and the impossibly young and beautiful Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves (now playing Lestrade in “Sherlock”).

Let Me Go

by Chelsea Cainlet me go

I met Chelsea Cain when she was only semi-famous, writing a humor column for the Oregonian, just after she had published Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, her hilarious parody of an aging Nancy Drew yearning for the detective days of her youth. Chelsea had just signed a contract for the first in her Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, now in its sixth volume, Let Me Go.  Like the others in the series, it’s a page-turner but not for the faint-of-heart or for the squeamish. Cain’s books feature extreme acts of violence and sexual situations; be warned.

Chelsea’s protagonists are a Vicodin-addicted cop, Archie Sheridan, and the female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, who is every bit as twisted as Hannibal Lecter, the fictional serial killer to whom Gretchen is often compared. Gretchen and Archie have the same kind of complex relationship that Lecter and Clarice Starling have, but Cain’s intertwined characters are more dependent on one another, creating additional layers of interest that add depth and interest to these thrillers.

Let Me Go is as good as any of the books in the series (my favorite being The Night Season, even though Gretchen’s role there is reduced to a walk-on, because of Cain’s top-notch writing about a devastating Portland flood). My advice is to start with the first book in the series, Heartsick, and read forward. Cain writes pulse-pounding short chapters, with a cliffhanger (just like the Nancy Drew mysteries she loves so much) at the end of nearly every one. Another of Cain’s strengths is her use of Portland locations to give a vivid sense of place to her books, even though Ms. Cain clearly frequents parts of Portland I have never visited.

The Birthday Present/The Child’s Child

by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

I freely admit that I would read Ruth Rendell’s musings on a cocktail napkin if she published them. When she’s good (some of the later “social problem” Wexfords; The Bridesmaid; all of the early Barbara Vines, particularly The House of Stairs) there’s no one better; when she misses (An Unkindness of Ravens, Live Flesh, and The Blood Doctor come to mind) she’s still interesting and, most intriguing, louche and distasteful.

Never for Dame Rendell the locked room and overturned tea cozy; for her it must be radical lesbians, genital mutilations, jilted lovers, sex-charged kidnapping games, and always—absolutely always—someone with delusions that make your little paranoid feelings feel pitiable and small by comparison.

I’ve just finished two Barbara Vines back to back (The Birthday Present and The Child’s Child). They don’t rank among my favorites, although each gives pause and contains elements worthy of top-notch literary writers. What they aren’t is top-notch Rendell.

The Birthday Present features a BDSM “kidnapping” gone terribly wrong, with downstream consequences that move far and wide from whatever trajectory you as a reader might imagine. That may be one of the book’s most interesting features—it ends up about as far away from where it started as any book could. It has a typical Vine beginning—confusing, a jumble of names and elliptical references that will only really make sense if you reread the opening five pages after you’ve finished half the book—but a really exciting middle. My pulse raced as I flipped pages toward what I hoped would be one of the great shocking endings (like that at the end of A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion, or the eye-crossing complexity of Anna’s Book), but the ending, while interesting and ironic, is not up to Rendell’s best.

Neither, that matter, is the end of The Child’s Child, the kind of double-decker story that Vine/Rendell has often told well (The Brimstone Wedding comes to mind) where past and present interlocking stories yield spooky parallels and irony drips from every scene. But illegitimate children and gay hate crimes (the story in the present) and a gay brother/sister feigning marriage to hide his homosexuality and her unwed mother status (the story in the past) don’t blend well, and possibly because this time she has shoehorned the past story in the form of a novel between underdeveloped frames in the present at the beginning and end of the book. Even when the present-day story veers way off course to a somewhat ironic ending, I sensed that Rendell was not in full control of her material, at least not the control I wanted her to have.

I still have several Rendells unread on my shelf that I will read when I get the chance; these two recent reads have not put me off on her as they have some (according to Amazon reviews). I say this to those considering Dame Rendell: she really is the best there is, and a recent interview with her makes me fear that The Child’s Child may well be the last time we’ll see a Barbara Vine mystery, which is a sad thing indeed.

Pick up any of the books I’ve praised above or something like Simisola (where the mystery is revealed in the final shocking sentence), Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (certainly one of her most ghoulish), or simply start at the beginning of her career and read forward.

Inferno

I admit it; every now and then I enjoy an airplane read. And, since I was caught up in the Dan Brown frenzy years ago with The DaVinci Code, I have read all of his books (except Deception Point).

Brown hit the motherlode with The DaVinci Code—how can you miss, with an albino assassin, evil priests, and a doozy of a conspiracy theory?  Well, for one, “a shot rang out” not once in that book, but TWICE—where was the editor? Probably turning the pages as fast as I did to find out what would happen next. After DaVinci I went back and read Angels and Demons. More evil Catholics. The anti-matter bomb was a bit much, but a priest was burned at the stake in the Piazza Navona, where my friend Candace and I had enjoyed cocktails years earlier. How can you not love that? I loved visiting places that I had seen, even if my experiences were nothing like those of series protagonist Robert Langdon.

Brown failed with DaVinci’s followup, the tepid and derivative The Lost Symbol. I wanted Masons to be as evil as Catholics, but the conspiracy at the bottom of that book just wasn’t, well, BAD enough to warrant a thriller. The US president has a secret? Sorry, I’m just not surprised about that, but whatever secret he has can’t be as silly as the one Brown gives the president in that book.

So I hoped for an albino, or an evil priest, or a terrible conspiracy, when I found that Brown was going to do for Dante what he did for DaVinci in his latest thriller, Inferno. Sad to say, however, this one is another miss.inferno1

True, it’s a page turner, and the secret at the bottom is truly awful—awful in the sense of world-changing tragedy—but it lacked heart. Robert Langdon is back, claustrophobic as ever, and with another forgettable young woman sidekick, spends about twenty-four hours being chased, shot at, and threatened by all sorts of bad people in Florence, Venice, and Istanbul. Just who the bad people are is part of the suspense, but I didn’t care enough about them to pay very close attention—I finished the book the morning after I started it.

Again, Brown is on solid turf in Florence—the Palazzo Vecchio, Vasari Corridor, the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens all figure prominently. He does something very, very bad to a Vasari painting for which he should be pilloried by art historians everywhere. St. Mark’s in Venice gets the Brown treatment also (especially the famous horses), and the book ends in an underground chamber beneath the landmarks of Istanbul, with an ending that would, if true, change the world as we know it. Oh, and Dante gets quoted a lot, but it’s all very silly, because if such a villain existed in the real world, he would never leave such cryptic breadcrumbs behind. He’d just do his evil deed and be done with it.

But by now the formula is tired, and Brown needs to move on. What once was an albino is now a spike-haired leather-clad lesbian (?), but she fails to threaten either the reader or the characters. She does, however, exit the story in a moment I found both dreadful and hilarious at the same time. One of the characters uses a special private jet credit card; I must have one of those. And this time, “a single shot rang out,” but it only rang out once.

Read Inferno if you must, but when the next Dan Brown comes out, wait for the reviews. If it’s the same formula, pass it by.

 

The Virtue of Selfishness

Last Christmas I saw a copy of this book on the desk of one of my Dickens Square colleagues, and the audacity of its title reminded me that, while I had read all of Ayn Rand’s novels (at age sixteen or seventeen), I had never read any of her non-fiction. So I read this (at least the essays by Ms. Rand herself). Oddly enough, there is no essay that deals exclusively with Rand’s unusual concept of selfishness, but selfishness is laced throughout the collection. Anyone interested in our current politics could save a lot of time by not reading Atlas Shrugged but dipping into this book for an hour or two.  Here’s just one quote about Medicare that struck me:
“The fog [of collectivized thinking about Medicare] hides such facts as the enslavement and, therefore, the destruction of medical science, the regimentation and disintegration of all medical practice, and the sacrifice of the professional integrity, the freedom, the careers, the ambitions, the achievements, the happiness, the lives of the very men who are to provide that ‘desirable’ goal–the doctors.” [the “goal” being Medicare]
Rand puts individual freedom above all things and calls “collectivist” those concepts that place limits on total freedom in favor of those things that benefit the greater good. Of course, she didn’t believe in Social Security, either, but that didn’t stop her from signing up for it, an action she would have called hypocritical if anyone else but herself had done it.

I love doctors, but I guess I don’t love them as much as I desire the greatest good for the greatest number, a concept that Dickens would more likely have endorsed than those ideas of Ms. Rand’s. The doctors I know don’t seem too crushed in their ambitions or lacking in personal integrity.

Not all of her ideas are kooky, at least up front. She deplored racism and racial discrimination, but a few pages later declares the civil rights bills of the sixties as “the worst breach of property rights in the sorry record of American history in respect to that subject.” Just when you think she has a good idea, she pulls the rug out from under herself and her arguments crumble.

I once said that Rand was a bad novelist and a worse philosopher, and I stand by that assessment.

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