The African Queen by CS Forester

the african queen book

See, I told you I would still write reviews. I’m just eliminating the stress that I had built into them.

The fact that it took me over 2 months to read the mere 136 pages that make up CS Forester’s The African Queen tells a great deal about the quality of the writing. Classic film buffs will note that this is no fault of the story, for it made a brilliant motion picture starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. The problem, then, lies in the telling.

In Creative Writing 101 writers learn the importance of showing and not telling. Forester must have been sick that day for he spends his entire novel telling the reader exactly how the characters feel, think, and are. He never allows his character’s actions or words to give the reader an emotional response, he spends his pages telling us how to feel.

There is no chance to gain insight into a character through what they do, for Forester is much too busy telling all the pertinent details. There is no subtlety in the text. If we don’t get something the first time, rest assured, he will repeat himself two or three times.

What will keep the reader reading is the power of the story itself. For many years Rose has been assisting her missionary brother in the heart of the African Jungle. When he dies suddenly she enlists Charlie, a gin-swigging rough and tumble riverboat captain, to ship her back to civilization. Along the way they must traverse deadly rapids, disease-infected hoards of mosquitoes, German soldiers, and a river that is not meant for the sturdiest of boats, never mind the old, rickety African Queen.

Forester fills his tale with plenty of chills and spills. There is enough action to keep the pages turning, and an old-fashioned romance to keep the lovers interested. Truth be told, there is almost too much action. In nearly every paragraph, some new obstacle presents itself that must be overcome. Each obstacle is overcome, of course, and that a bit too quickly. Though the obstacles are fretted over and stressed about, Charlie and Rose seem to overcome them within a few sentences; only to find another one waiting around the corner. It would have served the novel better to have had fewer problems, and more struggle to overcome them.

Forester has a keen eye for mechanical detail. He gives good exposition over the mechanics of making an old steamer like the African Queen keep going. He paints a detailed picture of the African landscape, as seen from a riverboat. The physical details of the boat and its surroundings are all apt, and true. It is the abilities of humans that bring an air of falseness.

Rose, though having never piloted a boat before, in a very short time somehow manages to master the intricacies of sailing a difficult steamer through dangerous rapids. Likewise, she sheds her moral inhibitions like a heavy coat in the sultry African climate. We are led to believe that an innocent, sheltered missionary can suddenly give up all of her beliefs and morals to a dirty, foul-mouthed, drunk all in a matter of days.

Ultimately I would have been better off having just watched the movie again and left the novel on the bookshelf. The movie retains all of the excitement and grandeur of the story and elevates the storytelling to the level of a classic. The book seems flat in comparison.

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

american tabloid cover

Like the supermarket rags in the title, this James Elroy novel is loaded with grandiose stories, half-truths, and more conspiracy theories than an Oliver Stone wet dream. It rewrites history in a manner akin to the Lone Gunmen in the X-Files and is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It is filled with wall-to-wall celebrities. There are politicians (John F.and Robert Kenney, J Edgar Hoover), flashy millionaires (Howard Hughes), and mobsters galore (Santo Traficante, Jack Ruby, etc). It retells the rise to power of JFK through a myriad of conspiracies, ending with the ultimate conspiracy, the assassination of JFK.

It is filled with bits of history and fact, but also unproven conspiracies and outright fabrications. I am not a historian, so my knowledge of the time period, while pretty good, is by no means complete. I suspect this is true for the majority of Americans. None of us know exactly what happened the day JFK was assassinated. There are a lot of theories floating around, and they all sort of blend together after a while. Elroy uses this to his advantage.

For example, it is generally accepted that John F Kennedy had affairs. During the Clinton scandals, numerous journalists touted this as absolute truth, though I’ve never once seen any hard data confirming the information. Before anyone sends in the hard data, understand that whether or not JFK did have affairs is beyond the point. As a culture we believe it, it is accepted as fact. There are many more rumors and flat-out lies, that as a culture we know, that we have heard for the umpteenth time, that it feels like the truth. Elroy writes all of these things as hard truths and then kicks them up several notches. Here, JFK not only has a few casual affairs but is an oversexed hound dog. He employs multiple persons to set him up with one-night stands at every campaign stop, for every night of the week.

Likewise, such fascinating conspiracies of the American group mind such as the CIA/Mob collaboration to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the CIA sanctioning of heroin sales to support this collaboration,. Or Joe Kennedy’s mob ties, and Jack Ruby’s collaboration with the JFK conspiracy, are all made concrete facts and punctuated with exclamation marks, ad infinitum.

There aren’t any good guys in this novel. Anybody who starts out with anything close to a normal set of morals has completely lost them by the story’s end. Though filled with real people, it centers around three completely fictional characters. Kemper Boyd carries out a tangled web of undercover work for the FBI, CIA, the Kennedy clan, and the mob. Pete Bondurant is an ex-cop who plays bodyguard for Howard Hughes and then Jimmy Hoffa and has a penchant for bloody violence. Ward Little is an FBI agent hungry for anti-mob activity, who through a series of mistakes eventually begins working directly for them.

Each character is destroyed, destroyed again, and sometimes built up a little before they are yet again destroyed. Nobody walks away clean, or undamaged. The plot gets a little thick and there were moments where I wish it had been supplied with a map and a compass. The subplots are so plentiful and intertwined it’s sometimes difficult to tell where you are at within the myriad of webs. Elroy’s style doesn’t help in this matter, for it is about as hard-boiled as a writer can be. I don’t think there is a paragraph longer than five sentences, and there are a great many consisting of only one line. Many critics have found this immensely annoying and find the novel difficult to read because of it. I had no problem with it. It made the novel faster to read, and made it seem much lighter than it actually is. Although I must say that at the halfway point through the sequel, it has grown quite tiresome.

To supply some of the details left out in the brevity of his prose, Elroy supplies any number of fake documents including tabloid cutouts, top secret documents, and verbatim transcripts of phone conversations.

It is a fast-paced, exciting, often violent book. It is pulp fiction with literary sensibilities. It doesn’t work particularly well as revisionist history, but for fans of hard-boiled crime stories, or those who can’t get enough conspiracy it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard

maximum bob

Reading an Elmore Leonard novel is a lot like watching a good, not great movie. There is a lot of style, dialogue that demands to be spoken out loud, and interesting and twisting plots, with great ease in being read. Maybe that’s why so many of his books are made into movies. They read like screenplays.

Maximum Bob was actually made into a television show starring Beau Bridges, but it didn’t last past a season.

What we get here is a breezy, fun novel about Bob Gibbs, a conservative, hard-nosed judge nick-named “Maximum Bob” for his tendency to deal out the full force of the law. Bob begins to fancy a no-nonsense probation officer, Nancy Baker, who is busy tangling with a couple of low-life losers. Things get complicated when a giant alligator shows up on Bob’s front porch scaring his former mermaid-turned-new-age-psychic wife into leaving him for good. Add into the mix Dale Crowe Junior, one of the aforementioned losers, who is plotting to flee from an oncoming prison sentence, and Owen, Dale’s uncle, and recently released ex-convict. The outcome is a wild ride, which is enjoyable to read, but without a lot of depth or staying power.

Leonard is a good craftsman. He has a real knack for creating interesting plots. He is often praised for his dialogue, but I can’t say that I was too impressed with it here. It has that screenplay feel to it, and would probably sound a lot better coming out of an actor’s mouth, than lying flat on the written page. Actually, that’s a good idea. Next time I read a Leonard novel I’ll act out all the parts.

I read the novel in a couple of days while basking in the sun at the local park. It was a good novel for that purpose. It was easy to pick back up after being distracted by the Frisbee players, and the ball-chasing dog, without having to think about what I had just read. It was entertaining enough to get me occupied while loafing for several hours as well. It is also forgettable enough that once I’ve written this review I’ll pretty much never think about it again. Well, at least until I browse the L-N shelf at the library.

The Phantom of the Opera By Gaston Leroux

phantom of the opera book cover

I’ve never seen a movie version of Phantom (not the classic, silent Lon Chaney version, and certainly not the new Joel “I should repent of my cinematic sins” Schumacher version). Nor have I seen any stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, or listened to music from that particular show. What I knew about the material is what everyone knows, what pop culture understands from the spoofs and the chattering fans in the back. I’ve never really been that interested either. What made me pick up the book then? I’m not really sure. Maybe it was the heavy amount of publicity it was getting from the new movie. Maybe it was my wife’s love of the musical, and a faint remembrance of her sending me a homemade card with a lyric from it. Or maybe it was the only halfway interesting book in English the library had.

Either way, I’m glad I picked it up. In a peculiar way, it is a continuation of my fascination with detective fiction. No, this is not Phillip Marlowe or Hercule Poirot chasing down some notorious killer. Gaston Leroux has created a mystery involving a ghost and murderer without the help of private detectives or Scotland Yard. Much of the words included in the book are determined to unmask this phantom, through a series of clues and hints. It is here we find kinship with the likes of Agatha Christie.

I’ll not explain much of the plot, for everyone knows it for the most part (and if you don’t just who are you?) It is a story set in the Paris Opera, a gigantic, intricate building with layer upon layer of subterranean levels masked in noirish, dark shadows. It involves a ghost, or phantom if you will, that lives in the bowels of the opera and makes frequent, and peculiar requests (such as a monthly salary and nightly tickets to the Opera in one of the best seats)to the new management. The old management, it seems, was all too happy to give in to the requests, but the new management is not so sure. Thus begins a series of punishments. There is also a love triangle involving the ghost, an accomplished singer of the opera, Christine Daae, and her childhood friend, Raoul.

Though I am learning the French language, my skill level is nowhere near the point where I have tried to tackle reading a novel in that language. So it is an English translation that I read. What I am learning in my French courses, though, is that translation is often a very difficult thing to do. Though many words literally translate well, often subtler meanings behind the words do not come through in a translation. Also, often words have no exact translation so approximations must be made. The story may come out the same, but the poetry is left behind. Maybe someday I’ll be able to read The Phantom of the Opera in its original language, but for now, I must be satisfied with this translation.

The first half of the novel acts exclusively like a mystery. There are rumors floating around the Opera of a ghost that haunts the lower levels of the building. Random notes appear to the new managers, threatening horror if the ghost’s demands are not met. There are ones who claim to have seen the ghost, others who claim to know him well, or as well as one can know a ghost. It is written from an outsider’s perspective. Our point of view is that of an investigator, someone interested in finding the truth about the ghost and events that happened during this time period. Leroux does a marvelous job making this piece of fiction look like history. After reading I even spent some time researching the events described to see if there was any truth to the story.

It is in the second half of the story that things change. We are introduced properly to the ghost and his madness. From this point, the story shifts from a mystery to a thriller. We know who the phantom is, but we are unsure of what he is going to do. Raoul and Christine are mad to leave the opera and be wed, but the ghost intercedes to create a great deal of suspense. As separate halves I found them both to be exhilarating, and a great read. But considered as a whole they leave a lot of questions. As with any good mystery, Phantom of the Opera begins with a lot of questions. The narrative spends a great deal of time trying to determine what the ghost is, whether it is flesh and blood or a spirit. Whether the events happening are caused by the supernatural, or are just tricks and games. As mentioned, the ghost makes many requests for service, it acts in peculiar ways to add to the mystery. Yet, when the nature of the ghost is revealed, these things go unanswered. The great mystery is revealed, but much of what was mysterious is never explained. This is a small quibble because the story moves along with such gusto it leaves little time to be perplexed.

Overall, Phantom of the Opera is a fast, entertaining read. There is much to enjoy and think over. It is a well-written, well-plotted, and well-done piece of fiction. It is not a great piece of literature, but this should not keep any fan of the written word from picking up and enjoying this novel.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby

how to be good nick hornsby

How to Be Good is the third book by Nick Hornby that I have read. The other two, High Fidelity and 31 Songs were insightful, well written, and hilarious. Both, happen to also be about music. 31 Songs is a collection of essays about, well, 31 songs. High Fidelity uses the protagonist’s obsession with pop music to discuss his relationships with women. I have not read the book, but the movie version of About a Boy also contains a similar musical theme. Music, is obviously, something very dear to the heart of the writer. With How to Be Good, Hornby seems to be making a real attempt to steer clear of this area. In fact, the narrator/main character, Katie Carr, mentions that her life is completely devoid of music, books, and movies. Unfortunately, her life and this book are almost completely devoid of what makes Nick Hornby’s novels so good.

In choosing to leave his normal type of fiction, Hornby chose to write this novel in the first person from the perspective of a middle-aged, middle-class, female doctor. Whereas he can write articulately, with great perspective, about a middle-aged male obsessed with music, Hornby has no true understanding of how a woman doctor might feel. This character comes off sounding whiny, self-important, rattlebrained, and false. The plot comes off so implausible I spent most of the novel groaning for help.

Katie Carr tries to live a good life. She became a doctor to help people, she tries to love her husband, and raise her two children right. Yet by the books beginning her life is thoroughly messed up. Problems with her husband David, the self-professed “Angriest man in Holloway” have been going on for years, and her she is no longer sure of how she feels about her own children. In fact, she is ready for a divorce and a new life. However, before she is granted this, her husband, healed by some mystical healer changes things around. Instead of the sarcastic, angry man he has always been, suddenly he is a kind, generous, make the world better kind of guy. The crux of the story is Katie trying to come to terms with this change. Having a hateful husband was horrible, but she is not sure having a super husband is much better. What follows is a series of mildly amusing, if highly suspect, adventures, and a great deal of preaching.

There are few scatterings of great writing. My favorite moments are when we get small snippets of the old David. His anger is in the form of sarcasm and we get summaries of articles he wrote for a paper, which are quite hilarious. When Hornby is on, he is able to bring out humor and poignancy in any scene. Here, we gleam a few moments of this brilliance before he bogs us back down into his sermon.

Knowing a little biography of the author, and his own tumultuous marriage, I can’t help but think this is his way of sorting things out. Perhaps he is even trying to see things from his wife’s perspective. There is a lot of cutthroat bickering between spouses here, and one wonders if some of it isn’t autobiographical.

Elsewhere, Hornby has been able to give us a glimpse of how to be good, without overtly showing us. In other novels, he gives us characters who have flaws but are able to sort something out for themselves while remaining true to their character. Here the story seems sacrificed in order to tell the audience how to live. Let’s hope he returns to his earlier form by showing us, and not preaching.

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Amazong Adventures of Kavlier and Clay

I finally tried my hat at doing a full book review with Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer prize-winning book. I’ve never reviewed a book before, so let me know how I do.

I started reading this book in February or March of 2003. For one reason or another, I was only a couple of hundred pages into it when it was due back to the library. As is usual with me, I decided to give up reading it and turn it in, rather than recheck it. This is not a comment on the quality of the read, but rather a quirk in my own existence. I was fairly busy at the time and I figured that if I only made it through 200 pages in the first three weeks, another three weeks wouldn’t get me to the end of this 636 paged tome. Finding it in the library here, I decided to pick it back up. I’m glad I did and grateful I managed to finish it this time.

Chabon has created a magical book. It is slightly based on the history of comic books, and is partly a fictional account of a small group of Jews during the atrocities of Hitler. Though, as Chabon admits, he chooses to ignore facts and history as it suits his story. It is the story of the friendship between Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. The story begins with Joe having fled Nazi-run Prague for the comforts of his cousin Sam’s comfortable apartment in Brooklyn. They quickly become great friends and enter the burgeoning comic book world.

Chabon writes beautifully crafted sentences.  The plot courses forwards and backward through time to tell a multi-faceted story. His pen pauses in moments of time during the present and pulls the reader into a back story of Prague, the Kavaliers, and comic books. Joe Kavalier’s story is beautifully told, encompassing a stint as a magician and escape artist before traveling from Prague to New York by way of Asia and California. The story of how Joe traveled to New York by way of a golem-filled box is hilarious, frightening, and poignant. For the first 2/3s of the book, Chabon’s pen doesn’t let the reader down from its magnificent beginning.

Yet it is about 2/3s of the way in, that the story begins to falter. In an effort to tell a grand, epic story, Chabon treads beyond the beautifully told past, and magnificent present, into a less than glorious future. Seeing his characters rise from humble, troubled beginnings to a stellar, triumphant present, only to have them fall again was a mistake. It’s not so much the fall that hurts the story but the rushed way it is told. The novel moves at a slow pace, giving many sumptuous details and never minding to slip into the past for a revealing story. Yet, when it moves to the future it seems to force things along. You can feel the writer telling his story to point towards his final concluding point, rather than just allowing the story to unfold. To really flesh out the future section he would have needed another few hundred pages. I would have preferred him to wrap up the story by leaving out the future scenes. He does manage to salvage the conclusion and bring his characters into fully realized beings.