War and Peace.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace appears on most lists or rankings of the greatest novels ever written; Daniel Burt had it second in his all-time rankings in The Novel 100, and it appears on the Bloomsbury top 100 Classic Novels list as well. Ernest Hemingway considered its passages on war the archetype of writing about combat, and Tolstoy’s contemporaries – Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Levsky – all heaped praise on the novel. Its girth (well over 500,000 words) put me off for years, especially because I found Anna Karenina overlong due to Tolstoy’s lengthy philosophical diversions, but War and Peace sticks to the plot far more faithfully, reserving the Big Thinking stuff for the book’s tiresome Second Epilogue instead.

The war in question is the Napoleonic war, with most of the book’s action taking place in the early 1810s, with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia taking up much of the second half of the novel. Tolstoy presents us with four families – the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, and the Kuragins – and puts them through the wringers of war while running them through the usual who’s-marrying-whom plot lines that drove almost every major novel written before the late 1800s. What appears to begin as a trite story of an unexpected inheritance and women chasing the suddenly eligible bachelor becomes a densely woven story of families coping with losses both personal and financial while dealing with upheaval in their aristocratic world. One of the central male characters becomes a tragic hero in the great romantic tradition, while another undergoes multiple spiritual transformations that foreshadow the rise of the Bildungsroman in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russian, German, and British literature. While Tolstoy’s female characters aren’t as well-developed as the male characters, they’re a little more than just props waiting around for their men to come back from the war or battling to win the affections of the latest heir apparent.

The apparently happy endings of the book’s First Epilogue seem illusory, as the old way of life for the upper classes of Russia is winding down, with Tsar Alexander I moving away from the liberal policies of his early rule to a postbellum period of decreasing political freedoms, presaging the disastrous reign of his younger brother, Tsar Nicholas I. This contrast may also have been Tolstoy’s way of emphasizing the importance of personal and spiritual satisfaction, especially that of the family, rather than the pursuit of power or of material gain, goals he depicts as empty throughout the novel. It’s an awkward conclusion to a grim novel, however, one that relies heavily on historical records – it’s among the earliest historical novels to attempt to accurately capture events of the time period covered, with Napoleon, Alexander I, and many of their leading military commanders appearing in the book as characters, even interacting with Tolstoy’s fictional ones.

Reading a book of this length, even one as plot-driven as War and Peace is (as opposed to the tangent-laden Les Miserables), is a significant commitment of time and attention; it took me 22 days to get through, reading pretty consistently every day, including most of the footnotes and occasional references to other resources so I could keep all the characters straight. (Really, Leo, you had to name two of the characters Nikolai?) I was blown away by Tolstoy’s ability to draft a novel with such a broad scope without letting the story spiral beyond a reader’s ability to follow it. A lot happens to the dozen or so key characters, but nothing so improbable that I felt cheated by the story; if anything, Tolstoy’s adherence to realistic depictions of the battles seemed slow given my experience as a modern reader, where I’m still recovering from an education in books where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger and stuff explodes every few pages. I never found myself forced to continue reading through a tedious section until the second epilogue (a waste of time, largely), but also never got lost in the story or found myself pulling for particular characters. I doubt I’ll ever tell anyone they just have to read War and Peace, but I’d never discourage anyone from trying it.

That completes my run through the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels, a list of 99 novels all published before 1950, plus the short stories of Chekhov. I could quibble with many titles on the list – the omission of The Master and Margarita and the inclusion of News from Nowhere stands out – but as a primer of great works of western literature, particularly British (42 titles), it’s solid and informative, pushing me to read a number of books I might not have otherwise tackled, and introducing me to some less-known works and authors. War and Peace was also the 89th book I’ve read from the Novel 100, although I don’t plan to finish that list, with the Finnegan’s Wake, the Molloy trilogy, and The Man Without Qualities all among the remaining eleven titles.

Next up: Something a little more recent, Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods, named by author and critic Lev Grossman as one of the ten best novels of the first decade of the 2000s.

The Magic Mountain.

I have a new post for Insiders up on ten breakout players from 2014 whose performances look sustainable to me.

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was, until this month, one of the only novels to ever defeat me – after reading the first few pages on a vacation (bad idea) in 2008, I set the book aside and couldn’t fathom tackling its heavy, leaden prose again. Its presence on both the Novel 100 and the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels lists was enough encouragement to get me to try the novel again, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did at least finish the book thanks to a lot of time logged on trains in New York City last weekend. (I read the original translation, because I’ve had the copy for ages, but the link above goes to the newer translation by John Woods that earned high marks from people who actually look into such things.)

The Magic Mountain is a “novel of ideas,” which is a euphemism for a book without a plot. Hans Castorp, the everyman protagonist, heads to a mountaintop sanatorium for tuberculosis patients around 1907, ostensibly to visit his cousin Joachim for a few weeks before embarking on a career as an engineer. A chest cold convinces Hans to extend his stay, which turns into seven years – mirroring the seven years of tribulation in Revelations – that see Castorp exposed to all manner of philosophies of life, death, religion, politics, and meaning, not to mention the rather frequent expirations of his various comrades-in-phthisis. He spends much of his time listening to arguments between the patient Hans Settembrini and Settembrini’s friend Naphta, a dialectic that becomes increasingly rancorous as the book progresses, with Settembrini the humanist speaking in circles around Naphta the Catholic extremist’s outdated, reductive arguments. Neither man has any monopoly on truth, or even a fractional share of it, and their debate ends in the only realistic fashion, speaking to the futility of arguing over such philosophical questions to such an extent that one never does anything concrete about them.

Hans is a truly enigmatic central character, bland like Nick Jenkins of A Dance to the Music of Time, but more involved than Jenkins’ largely neutral observer-narrator, essentially committing himself to the sanatorium on the flimsiest of grounds – the whole institution is more a money-making enterprise than an institution boosting convalescence – partly because he develops a crush on the Central Asian-looking Frau Chauchat. (The Chauchat was a machine gun used by the French Army during World War I, which had just ended as Mann was writing his book but takes place after the novel’s conclusion.) Hans’ participation in the various philosophical debates he encounters, mostly between Settembrini and Naphta but occasionally involving Joachim or other consumptives, is abortive and often uncomfortable. He is a metaphorical man-child, but while his naivete allows his elders to engage in lengthy exhortations on their beliefs, his childishness becomes absurd when he abases himself in front of Frau Chauchat.

Mann intended his novel both as a grand book of ideas and as a subtle satire of other works of the time, much of which is lost on the modern reader because the targets of his parody haven’t held up as well as his own work has. There are passages where he shifts gears into comedy-of-manners territory, and dreamlike sequences – including the long, gripping passage where Castorp takes a walk on his own but is caught in a snowstorm that nearly kills him – that show tremendous imagination and Mann’s ability to create narrative greed that quickens the novel’s pace. But I’ve read most of the major philosophical novels of that era, and while they consistently rank highly on every list of the greatest novels ever written, they always fall short in the aspect of fiction I enjoy most: the story. Castorp grows, sort of, although at the end he’s more educated without being much wiser, and there’s no central plot that gets or even requires some sort of resolution at the end. He marches off to war, with a ten-page epilogue that shows him on the battlefield (and in the trenches), but is he any better off? Perhaps shaking off the illusions of childhood and of a life still permanent arm him better for what would be four years of a very ugly war, assuming he were even to survive it, but the experiences he had on that mountain seemed far from magic to me.

This leaves me with just one title left on the Bloomsbury list, War and Peace, and twelve left on the Novel 100, although I don’t intend to finish that list because some of those books look like they’ll cause me too much pain.

Next up: J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm, the second Cormoran Strike novel, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

The Heart of Midlothian and other recent reads.

I hosted the Baseball Tonight podcast today, and will do so three more times in the next week – Thursday, Friday, and Monday the 18th.

Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian was the last of his Waverly novels, a series of books set in the Scottish highlands that drew on local culture and tradition (distinct from that of England), including use of the local dialect, an aspect of his books that does nothing so much as make them harder to read. Scott also liked to mine true historical events to form the backdrops for his novels, and here chose the Porteus Riot, a major event in Scottish nationalism where a vicious English military commander who was pardoned after receiving a death sentence for firing on protesters was himself kidnapped and lynched by another protest mob. That story opens the novel – of course, it’s the most satisfying passage in the entire book – so that Scott can lay the historical groundwork while also borrowing one of the perpetrators of the lynching, George Staunton, for a central character in his story.

Jeanie and Effie Deans are half-sisters, living as tenant smallholders on a larger estate with their twice-widowed father David. Jeanie is relentlessly good: honest, pious, meek, in love with her neighbor the local minister but afraid to marry him due to her father’s disapproval. Effie is the wild child, and ends up disappearing from home briefly, only to return and be arrested on suspicion of infanticide under a new, cruel English law that allowed for the conviction of a mother even if no proof of the murder (like a body) could be established. Jeanie is given the chance to exonerate her sister with a tiny lie at trial, but refuses to do so after swearing before God to tell the truth, a step that sends her daughter to death row and forces her to make the long journey to London, some of it on foot, to seek the Queen’s pardon.

Scott worked in the era of the gothic novel and the romance, before the rise of realism in the 1800s, so all of his works are blatantly melodramatic. Every character is just so good or just so bad; every conversation, especially those between fathers and daughters or sons, is wrought with emotion. It’s too easy for the modern reader to tune this out because of the unrealistic nature of the dialogue, and Scott’s overreliance on heavy, coincidental plot twists probably doubled the length of the book. It also reads much slower than a typical novel of that era, as he uses muckle Scottish words the modern reader won’t likely ken.

This leaves me with two books remaining on the Bloomsbury 100 – Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I’ll tackle later this month, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which seems like a fitting way to (try to) finish the list.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, which is probably why I picked it up at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe back in March; for the life of me I can’t find a better reason for me to have done so, as the book was absolutely dismal and relied on some now-hackneyed plot twists to get to where we always knew it was going.

The gathering of the book’s title refers to the many siblings of the narrator, Veronica, coming together for the funeral of their brother Liam, a cheerful, promiscuous, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who took his own life by drowning himself off the shore of Brighton. Veronica unpeels the layers of her family’s history, with unsparing candor and graphic language, to determine the cause of Liam’s depression and decision to take his own life, but also to examine her dissatisfaction with her own. She goes back to her grandparents, over her family’s comically fertile history, and eventually to the incident she witnessed as a child – the sexual abuse of Liam by a close family friend – that she blames for his lack of anchoring, his sexual rapacity and carelessness, and the inner void with which he apparently lived his entire life.

The book is absolutely dreadful. Veronica’s grief doesn’t play out as emotion beyond self-pity; she looks back at her family history and forward at her own life with incredible dispassion. Not only is she unsympathetic – she seems unreal. If she’s as broken as Liam, she never explains why. Her only moments of grief that ring true are those where she thinks Liam is there, or expects him to be so; coming to terms with the permanent loss of a family member or friend who’s “always been there” means facing the grief anew every time you think that Liam is going to call or might be standing in the room, only to have you realize he’s gone.

As for the Man Booker Prize … well, I’ve read a handful of them, and there’s a clear affinity for this type of novel, which is why I have never decided to work through that list of books as I have with several others.

Caroline Blackwood’s novella Great Granny Webster is creepy, weird, and compelling for its depiction of one of the strangest villains I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. The great-grandmother of the title is a woman decidedly stuck in the past, refusing any sort of adjustment to modern life or conveniences, waiting out her own demise in a decaying manse, neither spending nor sharing her immense fortune, mostly cut off from her relatives – not least her daughter, in an insane asylum due to what would today be recognized as schizophrenia. Based on episodes from Blackwood’s own childhood, Great Granny Webster has no overtly sinister elements; there’s no murder or intrigue, no suspense, no hammer to eventually drop. The macabre feel comes from the shocking behavior of the main character, who appears not as evil but as the complete absence of empathy, and the environment in which she lives, which is so austere as to make an ascetic hermit worry his life is too opulent. At just 100 pages it’s a quick read, not comparable to anything I’ve read before, although it might not even be as fascinating as Blackwood’s own life, which included a marriage to the American poet Robert Lowell.

My wife bought Christine Trent’s Stolen Remains for me as a birthday gift, knowing my penchant for mysteries with an English twist. The second in a series revolving around a British female undertaker in the 19th century who solves murders thanks to an impossible series of coincidences that put her in position to do so, in this case because Queen Victoria liked her work when burying the Prince Consort and now wants her to handle the burial of a Viscount who died mysteriously after returning from an official trip to Egypt with good ol’ Prince Bertie.

Forcing the lead character here to be female, a historically unlikely situation to be kind, requires a suspension of disbelief that I had a hard time mustering – and that suspension was further challenged by some incredibly silly behavior, too-modern dialogue, and those numerous coincidences that kept the plot going. Trent also goes too far in the direction of historical fiction by weaving in more real people than the novel can support, and she makes what I’d consider a rookie mistake with an obvious variation on Chekhov’s gun: Any time a mystery novelist tells you early in a book that someone disappeared and is presumed dead, you know the character will appear at some point and be involved in some significant fashion in the murder or its denouement.

Next up: I just finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked, which merits its own full review, and am about to start Charles Finch’s mystery novel A Beautiful Blue Death, both also birthday gifts from my wife (as was Great Granny Webster … I tend to read books in the order in which I got them).

Les Misérables (book).

My breakdown of the Jeff Samardzija trade is up for Insiders now.

Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables) is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, over 1300 pages and well over half a million words, and if you’re considering tackling it too, I strongly suggest you just watch the musical instead. Cameron Mackintosh changed very little of the novel’s plot for the stage version and omitted nothing of significance; Hugo padded his novel with lengthy expositions on topics from Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo to the structure of the Parisian sewer network, none of which is remotely worth your time.

If you’ve avoided the musical in both its stage and film versions, the plot of the book is quite simple and linear given the tome’s thickness. Jean Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and ended up spending nineteen years in prison after multiple failed escape attempts. He gains his freedom but finds himself rejected by everyone in society, unable even to find a place to stay, only finding shelter with a bishop possessed of impeccable compassion, a night that leads Valjean to a religious awakening and gives his life new purpose – but also makes him (in modern terms) a parole violator, doomed to a life of fleeing the robotic law-and-order Inspector Javert. Valjean takes on responsibility for Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a fallen seamstress named Fantine, after a handful of coincidences – something that Hugo uses repeatedly to put his small universe of characters into incessant contact with each other. When Cosette reaches her late teens, she falls for the student Marius, who’s tangentially involved with a group of would-be rebels who set up a barricade in the streets during the uprising of 1832, after which everyone dies but Marius, who’s saved by Valjean … and I haven’t even mentioned Thénadier, who hangs around this book like a bad penny.

There aren’t any proper subplots and most of the characters get minimal development other than Valjean, leaving the book somewhere between a character study and a vehicle for Hugo to discuss his views on religion, politics, and French history, as well as the sewers. Valjean’s status as an iconic character of literature may result from his own impossible goodness, his willingness to subvert himself to help others, notably Cosette, but he’s far more interesting for his verbose internal debates over the proper course of action when faced with difficult moral decisions. Fantine’s story is sad and probably well-founded in reality, but it’s a straight-line descent, and Hugo makes them almost comically good – sweet, dainty, ladylike. Javert lacks any sort of nuance, rigid in his adherence to order and authority, devoid not just of compassion but of emotion. Marius is the standard romantic-heroic doofus, and he and Cosette deserve each other if only for their mutual insipidness – each of them has the personality of a root vegetable. Gavroche, the imp who dies helping the insurgents at the barricade, might get more character development than most of the adults, as well as some details that are left out of the musical, such as the fact that he’s Éponine’s younger brother – and that they have three other siblings. Éponine is a very different character in the book, less overtly tragic than in the musical. Her love for Marius isn’t lifelong, but fleeting, and he’s barely aware of her existence, but “On My Own” wouldn’t quite pack the same punch if Mackintosh had left it as a mere crush than unrequited love.

Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was social criticism, particularly the French systems of economics and justice, which resulted in huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, while creating (in Hugo’s view) a very high risk of recidivism for released convicts. He paints dismal pictures of the lives of the poor in France and the plight of women born or left outside the narrow upper echelon of society, especially those who, like Fantine, are left as unwed mothers, with no recourse to make the fathers of their children take responsibility. But to craft these polemics, he relies on endless coincidences and forces his characters to make choices or decisions that beggar belief, right down to Valjean’s final, ridiculous choice to remove himself from Cosette’s life after her marriage to Marius without explaining to her why he’s done so – or to Marius why his revelation of his criminal past should be irrelevant. (Marius is such a doofus that he goes along with Valjean’s self-imposed exile anyway.) Heck, even Fantine’s decision to house her child with the Th&ecaute;nardiers, a critical plot point several times over, makes no sense – yet without it, nothing that comes afterwards would hold together. She happens to work in Valjean’s factory, he happens to come upon her as she’s about to be arrested by Javert, and so on. Hugo writes as if there were only a half a dozen people in France and it was perfectly normal for Valjean to bump into Javert or Thénardier while walking down the street – or that all of these nitwits should end up at some point in the same ramshackle tenement.

Had Hugo published Les Misérables as a 300-page romantic/adventure novel, it would have been a much better read but might not have endured as a work of populist fiction. Yet despite a mediocre contemporary reception and the presence of those tedious harangues on social or political subjects, it ended up at #90 on The Novel 100 and made the Bloomsbury 100 too, which I have to assume is as much about the book’s renown as its quality. There’s a decent story in here, but it’s just not a very good book.

Next up: I knocked off the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, in a day – and feared, incorrectly as it turned out, that it marked the end of the series – and am now halfway through John Scalzi’s Hugo Award winner Redshirts, which is hilarious.

Bleak House.

My second “mock” draft for 2014 is up for Insiders today.

I’ve had mixed views on Charles Dickens over the years, loathing his work when forced to read Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities in high school, only to enjoy The Pickwick Papers tremendously when I read it at age 34, picking up more of the wordplay and sarcasm but also benefiting from a more free-wheeling storyline. I even read abridged (Moby books) versions of at least two other Dickens novels when I was about my daughter’s age, and still remember hating Fagin – probably a reason I’ve never read the unabridged Oliver Twist to this day. My goal of completing the full list of titles on the Bloomsbury 100 forced me to decide on Dickens’ longest and most highly-regarded work, the 350,000-word Bleak House, a legal drama, soap opera, romance, and mystery all wrapped up in an overarching work of stinging social criticism.

The central plot device in Bleak House is a never-ending lawsuit in England’s Chancery Court, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a case that originated as a dispute over a will that has since devolved into a nightmarish sequence of legal maneuvers designed only to rack up billable hours, with no evident progress toward a conclusion. The suit has already driven one claimant, the dotty Miss Flite, to madness, and its promise of lucre if it ever reaches a conclusion will lead other characters down that path over the course of the book. Dickens uses the lawsuit as a method of introducing a panoply of main and secondary characters, and splits the narration between his omniscient voice and the orphan Esther Summerson, who becomes a ward of John Jarndyce and companion to another of his wards, Ada Clare. Ada’s romance with her cousin Richard Carstone, and his subsequent search for an actual career, form the basis for one major plot thread, while the unknown history of Lady Dedlock, another claimant to part of the Jarndyce fortune, forms another. The latter story eventually leads to murder, a mystery that gives the novel some much-needed narrative greed just as Dickens seemed to be passing his pitch count and losing his fastball.

Dickens published the novel in monthly installments, something he did for many of his novels, which is the common explanation for his verbose prose, mostly comprising overly detailed descriptions of anything worth describing in the text. But the style also likely encouraged Dickens to craft chapters as individual episodes, moving the stories along and creating cliffhangers and twists to conclude them, so that even the modern reader won’t get too bogged down in lengthy descriptions of a stand of trees or the furniture in a sitting room. I also got the impression while reading Bleak House that the serial nature of the initial publication may have helped blunt the impact of the numerous deaths, mostly tragic (and one, Mr. Krook’s, rather comic), that occur over the course of the novel, ranging from deaths due to poverty and disease to those due to drug abuse, mania, or a broken heart.

The social criticism within Bleak House remains the book’s main selling point in modern reviews and rankings, with Daniel Burt naming it the 12th-best novel of all time in The Novel 100, tops among the Dickens novels on his list. The theme of a chasm between the haves and have-nots still resonates today, especially in the United States where the safety net is tattered and worn, but it’s somewhat obscured by the soap opera that dominates the novel’s plot. To make the story appeal to a large audience, Dickens included no end of romantic entanglements, loony side characters (some enjoyable, some just too ridiculous), and deaths and illnesses, all of which serve both to stretch the book out and to provide entertainment value. The absurd Mr. Smallweed (whose physical state seems a dead ringer for J.K. Rowling’s depictions of Lord Voldemort at the beginning of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire), the rakish Mr. Skimpole, and the doomed Mr. Krook all have their moments of humor, often dark, but Dickens overplayed many of his other jokes, such as Mrs. Jellyby, a woman obsessed with Africa to the point of ignoring her own children – a metaphor for England and for missionaries more worried about converting African natives than feeding the local poor. (I’ve already slipped one reference to Mr. Krook into an ESPN column, and there will be more when Oregon pitcher Matt Krook is draft-eligible again in 2016.) That’s the main reason why the third quarter or so of the book began to drag, along with Dickens’ too-prolix prose, before he inserts a murder and the ensuing mystery to ratchet the tension back up in a race to the finish. Without that, finishing Bleak House would have been quite a chore.

I haven’t seen the award-winning 2005 mini-series (free for Amazon Prime members) which adapted the book into an 8½-hour serial and included in its large cast a young Carrie Mulligan (as Ada Clare), Gillian Anderson (as Lady Dedlock), and Patrick Kennedy (as Richard Carstone), but would welcome any feedback on whether it’s worth tackling.

Next up: I’m behind on reviews, having already finished Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka’s memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood, and just started Attila Bartis’ Tranquility.

The Yard & Adam Bede.

The Yard, Alex Grecian’s first prose novel – he’s previously co-authored the graphic novel series Proof – is a hopelessly formulaic, lurid crime story that feels far more like an attempt to create a franchise than a desire to tell an actual story. Set in London just after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror has ended, The Yard wants so badly to tell us how awful Victorian society was for those outside the privileged classes that it pelts the reader with a series of hoary details that beat that horse until it’s glue and steak frites.

The Yard opens with a cheap attention-grabber – a dead cop is found stuffed in a steamer trunk at a London railway station with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. This introduces us to Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, a group of a dozen (now eleven) detectives assigned to look solely at homicides, of which there are far too many in London for this unit to handle. We also encounter Dr. Kingsley, the amateur forensic pathologist and assigned Voice of Reason whose mere presence makes this feel like the pilot for CSI: London. The detectives, led by the just-promoted Inspector Walter Day, work to solve the murder of their colleague, eventually splitting into factions to investigate potentially related crimes, including the murders of several bearded men, which eventually put several of the detectives in jeopardy (of course) and lead to two resolutions.

Grecian’s characters are his saving grace, and if I had any desire to continue with the sequel The Black Country, it would be to follow them. He’s crafted four strong police characters in Day, Inspector Blacker, their boss Sir Edward Bradford, and the constable Hammersmith, each of whom has a well-defined personality and admixture of positive and negative traits. (There are no worthwhile female characters, so the book flunks the Bechdel test entirely.) We get too much of Day’s home life without any real payoff, but Hammersmith’s back story turns out to be critical in defining the character and explaining some of his subversive actions.

Unfortunately, Grecian panders to the audience from the start by keeping his crimes graphic and offering repeated “shocks” to end maybe half of the book’s hundred-odd four-page chapters. We have the initial police murder, and then the murders of the bearded men who were shaved and then had their throats slit. We have a dead child, left to die in gruesome fashion, and the kidnapping of another by a man who may be a pedophile (Grecian implies this but, in a welcome bit of self-restraint, spares us any such details) but is certainly a psychopath. We have prostitutes, one a surviving victim of Saucy Jack himself. We get lots of time in Kingsley’s lab, with murder victims and others like the child laborer whose jaw was eaten away by phosphorus due to her work in a match factory. None of this was essential to the central plot, just extraneous details to titillate the reader and satisfy the same cravings that make lowbrow shows like Criminal Minds so successful.

The two central crimes also failed to grab my interest, and their resolutions revolved too much on coincidence and too little on actual policework for a novel ostensibly about police work. We learn the identity of the cop-killer before the quarter mark, and we get interludes from his perspective that add nothing beyond making it clear he’s a dangerous loony. He keeps showing his hand to the detectives, and he’s eventually found out through dumb luck. The so-called “Bearded Killer” is revealed a little later in the book, but it’s a crime without intrigue and only comes into play because Hammersmith ends up the target here before another idiot gets in the way and takes the razor intended for the constable. The Yard doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes, solving cases in a few hours through the powers of deduction, but I can’t say London would be any safer through these bobbies blundering through their cases and waiting for the killer to all but turn himself in.

* I’m dispensing with a full writeup for George Eliot’s Adam Bede, which appears on the Bloomsbury 100, as it was dull and a tough slog, a real disappointment after I enjoyed Middlemarch. Adam Bede is preachy, with its too-perfect characters and over-the-top depiction of a girl in trouble treated unfairly due to Victorian attitudes. (I’m sure it’s all quite accurate, but I don’t imagine this story would have changed many Victorian minds through its telling.) Adam is a simple, kind laborer who wants to work for a better life, falls for the wrong girl, then eventually falls for the right one, the end. It reads like a first novel, which it was, and takes so long to even get into the main plot that I would have given up after 100 pages had I not been so hellbent on finishing the entire Bloomsbury list.

* Next up: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which was a finalist for both the the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the year when the board declined to give the award to any title) and the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal (losing to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz).

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The titles listed in Bloomsbury’s 100 Must-read Classic Novels (actually 99 novels plus Chekhov’s short stories, which is totally cheating) were largely familiar to me before I’d even started working my way through the list, skewing strongly toward classics of British literature (42 of the 100 titles were by British authors, plus five by Irish authors). The list’s creator, Nick Rennison, did show one clear and regrettable bias in his selections, however, with several titles that advocate political change toward socialism, generally to the detriment of their value as works of literature. News from Nowhere was one such title, a dreadful utopian novel that, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is the prose equivalent of an actuarial table. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published three years after the author’s death, resembles an actual novel more than News did, with real characters and proper plots, but there is so much sermonizing and so little character development that the book amounts to little more than 600 pages of didactic sludge.

Tressell, the nom de plume of the Irish-born writer Robert Croker (later Robert Noonan), based The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in large part on his own experience as a house-painter, working for subsistence wages while the merchant class and politicians grew rich off his and his colleagues’ labors. The title refers to these workers, who give so freely of their efforts to enrich others and seem, in Tressell’s view, to acquiesce to a system that is designed to exploit them and perpetuate that exploitation for generations. In that, Tressell was partially right – England’s labor laws were heavily stacked against the working class until the Labour Party took power in the 1906 election, before which a trade union could be held liable for losses resulting from collective actions such as strikes. Even as Tressell was writing his manuscript, completing it in 1910, the situation was only beginning to improve for the “philanthropists” of Great Britain.

Labor protection proved the solution to many (but not all) of the ills Tressell attacks in his novel, but his extreme naivete about human nature led him to advocate strong socialism, with little or no ownership of private property and penalties on savings or investment, rather than fair labor practices. Tressell has the two socialist characters, Owen and Barrington, deliver tiresome lectures to their fellow painters about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, all founded on now-discredited beliefs that people would still continue to expend maximum efforts when all incentives for good work or for ingenuity have been removed. By removing the possibility of large gains for the large sacrifices involved in inventing or developing new goods or processes, innovation will slow, and funding for high-risk projects (like most startups) will flow to countries where the potential for high returns still exists. Socialism as Tressell describes it has been tried and failed in countless economies, so reading his prescription for a command economy like those that collapsed across Eastern Europe and that have only enriched those in power in Africa is sadly comical.

Tressell’s awkward satire is actually more effective when he attacks the hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians, mouthing the words of their Messiah while doing quite the opposite. Tressell limits his attacks on the religion itself – although I’d infer from his text that he was a nonbeliever – and instead focuses on those who preach the Gospel while doing nothing to help the less fortunate, and often would use their working hours to keep the lower classes in need of basic assistance like food, lodging, or medical care. Tressel’s primary antagonist, the painting-firm owner (and thief) Rushton, is found in the streets spreading the Good News – and making sure he uses these words to keep the poor and unemployed from banding together to try to improve their situation. It’s easy to see a parallel in the sliver of the U.S. electorate that professes ardent belief in the same religion and yet votes against programs that might help the very people Christ implores His followers to help.

Tressell also falls into one of the worst traps for the would-be satirist, violating what is now Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names: Funny names aren’t funny. Tressell populates his novel with obvious and unclever puns, like rival painting outfits Pushem and Sloggem, two-faced philanthropists Crass and Slyme, the ineffectual city councilor Dr. Weakling, and the venal landowner and MP Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Satire need not be hilarious to be effective, but the failed attempts at humor here only serve to further insult the intelligence of the reader who might not have already given up in disgust at the author’s ignorance of basic microeconomics.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of the Indian-born mathematician Ramanujan, whose brief life was marked by enormous insights into number theory despite his lack of any formal education in the field.

The Count of Monte Cristo.

I’ve been lax in book blogging lately, between year-end lists and a run of longer reads (a few of which were duds) and the mystery/detective novels I don’t review unless it’s by an author I haven’t discussed before. The one loooong read that’s worth a mention here is Alexandre Dumas’ (père, which I won’t mention again because it’s not like anyone remembers anything his son wrote) The Count of Monte Cristo, which surpassed Gone with the Wind as the longest novel I’ve ever read. It’s on the Bloomsbury and Guardian top 100 lists, and while it didn’t have the same chewy center as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, it was still a fun and surprisingly rapid read.

Edmond Dantes is the Count of the title, although as the story opens he’s just an amiable young sailor, about to marry the girl of his dreams and earn a big promotion on the boat where he works, all of which pisses off his two main rivals in love and at sea. Those two conspire with a third man to ruin Dantes by a letter falsely accusing him of treason, which, thanks to a corrupt prosecutor looking to save his own hide, lands Dantes in a notorious prison, jailed without trial or even knowing the charge, with no hope of release or leniency.

After fourteen years in captivity, Dantes manages an escape (one of the book’s highlights), finds great wealth via his only friend in prison, and resurrects himself as The Count of Monte Cristo. This mysterious saint-like figure has infinite wealth and uses it to spare people in need, many of whom fail to recognize their former friend or rival after his long absence and changed appearance. Now 33, the Count plays the longest con of all, plotting to ruin the lives of the men who tried to ruin his and mostly succeeded. Over the course of maybe 300,000 words, about the length of three typical novels, Dantes lays elaborate traps for the three men most responsible for his plight, but, as you’d expect, runs into a few unforeseen complications that provoke introspection and self-doubt to let Dumas pad the ol’ word count a little further.

A superficial read of The Count of Monte Cristo as the mother of all revenge stories (which, by the way, is based on the true story of a Frenchman who did a lot of what Dantes did, just without all the cash) would still be time well spent. Dumas had the knack for building tension without seeming false, then providing huge, satisfying resolutions that are plausible within the confines of the story. If you accept the premise of Dantes obtaining an endless supply of money, then much of what comes afterwards is surprisingly realistic for a novel of the romantic/traditional period. Dumas paints the three targets as awful people, and you’ll find yourself rooting for him to give them what for. Even when there’s collateral damage, Dantes endeavors to make things right – money allows a vengeful man to be more precise – to keep the reader happy that no women or children will be unduly harmed in the reading of this novel.

Of course, you could also wring enough symbolism out of this book to send the Seine spilling over its banks, staring with Dantes himself coming back from the dead – or a stone crypt of sorts – at age 33, just like Jesus Christ. Dantes even believes himself to be sent by God, or an instrument of God to spread good fortune to those who deserve it and to crush those who would do or have done evil in the past (to him, that is). He’s not Jesus, but he’s Jesus-like, in the literary sense, which I imagine has been fodder for countless term papers and college theses.

Dantes is not perturbed by the thought of being used by a benevolent Deity to bring ill fortune or even death on those who have done others harm until after he’s nearly completed his scorched-earth campaign from Provence to Paris. He even acquires a coterie of servants and acolytes and helps them obtain revenge they were unaware they could achieve, again with little thought to whether these acts were, in themselves, evil, or at least un-Christian. The twisted theology of the Count, coupled with his monomaniacal pursuit of vengeance, might have rendered him more insane than saintly; there is no potential for forgiveness or a commutation of the sentences Dantes plans to deliver. Even though the men who wronged him don’t deserve clemency and continue to act without regard for the well-being of others, Dantes goes way too long – years, at least – before experiencing anything like remorse for his own ruthlessness in smiting his enemies.

I wouldn’t say I’m likely to reread the book, but it might be a more fruitful read to consider it as Dantes’ search for meaning, the development of his own philosophy of life. He enters the prison believing he knows all that matters, and leaves it full of practical knowledge but emotionally void other than his wish for vengeance. Through years of wealth, of making others’ dreams come true, of ruining lives that were probably worth ruining but also ruining a few others in the process, the Count arrives at a very different mental state than the one he held at the start of the book. He never monologues but does offer hints at his newfound philosophical leaning, such as:

“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more.”

There’s some ambiguity in the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with hints that Dantes intends to retire from public life, in a somewhat monastic sense, which would provide a clever parallel to his time in prison, where he was deprived of almost everything except for the companionship of the abbe in the next cell. Dumas recognizes that you can’t bring a life full circle because Dantes can’t undo all the damage done. Instead, he gives Dantes satisfaction enough to sail off into the novel’s sunset, unfulfilled emotionally but at least bearing the pride of a twenty-year-old task completed.

* Two wonderful quotes about food from this book, the first describing what we know recognize as umami, the “fifth taste” found in foods high in glutamates:

“Tell me, the first time you tasted oysters, tea, porter, truffles, and sundry other dainties which you now adore, did you like them?”

And the second, a serious line that reads as a joke now, one that could only have been penned by a Frenchman:

“condemned to partake of Italian cookery—that is, the worst in the world.”

* Euphemisms for death abound in every language, and, along with euphemisms for sex, show tremendous creativity. Dumas offers one I hadn’t seen before, with one character asking if anther has “paid the last debt of nature?”

* I mentioned reading a few duds that didn’t merit writeups. Two were from the Bloomsbury list – Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a fable about two men who choose widely divergent paths in search of enlightenment, and Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, a romantic (in the traditional sense) novel about two sisters with widely divergent personalities who live separate, different lives but end up in the same place. I also read Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, which is just a bad Richard Russo book. Next up: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, a 1991 book by Jostein Gaarder.

Little Women.

I’ve been busy this weekend, with Insider posts reacting to the Jhonny Peralta signing with St. Louis and the Brian McCann signing with the Yankees. I’ll continue posting reaction pieces as needed this week. I’ll also post an updated “gift guide for cooks” piece here on Monday.

I actually read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in third grade or so, as it was one of a series of abridged, illustrated classics I’d been tearing through as fast as my parents could buy them. I remembered the basics of most of the plots, including Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror (“The Telltale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Junebug,” and, surprisingly for a book aimed at kids, “The Cask of Amontillado”), as well as bits and pieces of Alcott’s book – enough to understand that episode of Friends when it aired.

I didn’t think that version of Little Women counted for the purposes of reading the entire Bloomsbury 100, so I tackled the adult version last week. (The book also appears on the Guardian top 100 list.) I knew the book would be sentimental and more geared toward female readers, but I was surprised by many elements of it. There’s a latent feminist streak in it, one that at least treats its female characters as independent-minded individuals, equal to the men in spirit if not in the eyes of society, although in the end the women do settle in one way or another for marriage and motherhood. That feminist bent was quickly overshadowed by the rising tide of feminist novels where gender inequality led to tragedy, like The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest, so Alcott’s feminism feels very dated today.

However, the novel also represents a different twist on the utopian novels of the time period; rather than describing a future, technical utopia, Alcott instead presents a version of her contemporary world only tangentially affected by the ills of the age. The four little women of the title are the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, leaving them in tight circumstances but not poverty, which is something they see but don’t experience. Their father is wounded, but returns home and survives, another example of tragedy coming close but not hitting home. Across the two parts of the book – it was published in two volumes, the second coming after the first had proven a resounding commercial success – only one significant tragedy visits the March household, that in the second book and with enough advance warning to the reader that by the time it happens it’s almost cathartic. Rather than depict life as it should or might be, the type of fantastic scenario you’d find in News from Nowhere or Looking Backward, Alcott gives us life as we’d like it to be: Full of love and happiness, without serious setbacks or disasters, where most of our worries end up for nothing at all.

There’s also a coming-of-age element to Little Women that I don’t recall seeing in any earlier novel, at least not in English or American literature, where the subject was female. Boys in literature came of age; girls got married to those boys as needed. Alcott gives her girls life, with distinct personalities and differing aims. Each has some rite of passage in the first book, all of which influences their fates in the second. The one character who stuck with me most when I read the book as a child still stood out today, as Jo was Alcott’s stand-in for herself, a wilful, clever girl, forebear to Dorothea of Middlemarch (who had Jo’s intellectual bent but ruined herself in a bad marriage), and by the end of Little Women its most essential character. I wondered as a kid if the presence of a character named Jo on the series The Facts of Life, which (after Jo’s arrival) focused on four teenaged girls living together at a boarding school, was an homage to Alcott’s book, especially as both girls shared tomboyish looks and attitudes and had the same dislike of societal rules and authority.

Next up: I knocked off H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds last week, having heard the Orson Welles broadcast but never read the book, and am now a third of the way through another Bloomsbury 100 title, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

The Portrait of a Lady.

New Insider content from Monday – reactions to the Carlos Ruiz re-signing and the Tim Hudson contract.

My only previous experience with the American writer Henry James was a failed attempt to read The Ambassadors back in 2005, and successful reads of two of his short stories, “Daisy Miller” and “Turn of the Screw,” back in high school. While he earns near-universal praise for the emotional depth of his writing and the quality of his prose, I always thought his prose was too prolix, and avoided him for years as a result.

The Portrait of a Lady appears on the Bloomsbury 100, which meant I either had to end my boycott or give up on my goal of reading all 100 titles, and since this also appears on the Novel 100 (at #29) I figured I’d stop being a stubborn ass about it and give it a read. James’ prose is, still, too prolix, and the novel moves about as quickly as a Yankees-Red Sox game on national television, but I could see that it’s also the work of a brilliant writer, and his central character is among the most memorable I’ve encountered.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, starts the novel as a young American woman who travels to visit her aunt and wealthy English uncle at their estate outside of London, where her aunt rarely spends time but her uncle and her cousin Ralph are often in residence, as both suffer from health issues. Isabel’s high-spirited, independent nature faces an unexpected test when she inherits a fortune and no longer has to even consider marrying for money, which leads her into a mésalliance that wrecks her innocence and threatens to destroy her individuality.

James invests nearly all of his time, including some multi-page paragraphs, in building and exploring the character of Isabel; rather than allowing her words and actions to define her, he crafts her with costive prose that I found difficult and unengaging. It is one thing to tell us that Isabel couldn’t feel shame for her mistakes for long because “she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself;” it is another to talk about this for over two pages without a paragraph break. James’ fustian dialogue still illuminates her character and those of her suitors, the American expatriate Madame Merle, and her friend from Albany Henrietta, so why bury them in mountains of Dickensian descriptions?

Portrait‘s climax was by far its best and most clever part, as James gives us an ambiguous ending where we can easily imagine Isabel choosing either of the two paths ahead of her. By that point, she’s made her bad marriage and realized she’s effectively trapped in it, until an escape route appears before her – but one that would require her to sacrifice image and propriety in the eyes of the aristocratic world in which she travels. Her tie to her stepdaughter, who is growing up under the oppressive thumb of Isabel’s husband, may be a stronger disincentive to flee than her vows to her husband. Has her independence atrophied so far that she would choose a lifetime of unhappiness to save face? I’d like to imagine James writing both endings and opting to forgo one entirely because neither option satisfied him. Or maybe he just got lazy.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which is also on the Bloomsbury list. Beth’s not doing so well right now, though, so I put the iPad in the freezer.