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Chip’s book reviews

When Americans go to Europe, anything can happen. I know because I'm an American and I've been living in Europe for years now.

But if I didn't know, I could learn from Henry James' "The American."

A rich American heads to France and finds a countess he wants to marry. We see the French being French (including but not limited to drinking champagne and enjoying bons mots), and the American being American (including throwing his money around, making people uncomfortable by being blunt, etc.).

The characters are generally speaking -- with perhaps one example -- interesting and well-constructed, and James was obviously a good observer of colonials on the continent. I liked it a lot, even though I wanted it to end differently.
I came to this because Christopher Morley -- who is awesome -- mentions it in "The Haunted Bookshop." I was a bit apprehensive, what with "The Way of All Flesh" praised to great heights and all.

Let me tell you, I enjoyed this book like no other.

On the one hand, it's a Bildungroman, with all that entails: changes, mistakes, rosy retrospection. And there are some formulaic or at least unsurprising elements of the story.

But what is most impressive is the sheer rebellion of the author. Samuel Butler was a man who one by one tore down and took apart the received truths of his time, in a way that still rings true today. He was more truly rebellious than just about any author I've read.

Add to this a fine prose style and story that never grows dull, you have a great novel. Excellent.
This is a very readable mystery novel.

The protagonist's father is murdered and over the course of the novel, he and his uncle hunt down the killer and unravel the reason for the murder. All the pieces fall into place, and there's an attractive woman who can't resist the narrator, so there's no lack of, uh, joie de vivre, either.

Not only is this nicely written, it's such a perfect example of the straight-ahead novel it could serve as a case study for James Frey's "How to Write a Damn Good Novel." Frey's best advice is probably that one must make characters the audience can care about and be interested in. Brown has created such characters.
Conrad is one of the great geniuses of modern English literature, and “The Secret Sharer” is my favorite among his works I’ve read.

The story is sort of a non-story, in the modern fashion: A newly appointed ship’s captain rescues and hides a fugitive from another ship. The fugitive eventually leaves. That’s about it as far as narrative goes.

Instead of a linear story progressing from A to B, “The Secret Sharer” spins in upon itself as an exploration of character and situation, especially that of the captain. The hows and whys of rescuing and protecting the fugitive—the causes and effects of the captain’s guilt—are the questions at the core of the novella. The metaphorical referent of the Sharer is something I don’t think can be determined definitively, any more than the many other questions raised. Above all, “The Secret Sharer” leaves much room for thinking and drawing conclusions. It is a “writerly text."

Of course Conrad’s distinctive prose and the strength of all the characterizations in this book make it enjoyable for those things, no matter what one makes of its other aspects.
This book is a hoot. It is well-written, and its characters feel quite real, as do the situations they get themselves into -- and out of. And a lot of the latter goes on.

Allen has taken the form heroic epic and turned it around, twice. First by making it modern, second by making the hero a heroine, and a mighty feisty one at that. But he retains the geographic wandering, episodic structure, clearly-defined good and bad, and an invincible and nearly infallible protagonist.

The heroine is worthy of note, and respect. Rarely at a loss for what to do or say, Miss Cayley is perhaps at her best turning aside potential suitors and taming tough old ladies. Everything that happens is more or less realistic. That is, until she comes home to save her beloved from the clutches of evil-doers, making for a happily ever after.

I had to laugh at Allen's rendering of colloquial American speech, which he seems to concocted out of 50% Mark Twain (Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer) and 50% "How to Make Money." It's all good fun, though, in the end, just like this book.
Well this is quite a snoozer. I don't know if anyone used to reading 19th century lit will find the style too overpowering, although it sure ain't Hemingway.

The story is basically boy loves girl, girl disses boy for city slicker, city slicker uses the girl and throws her away. She is really sad. And so on. Not that great.

Despite all this, I think the story's not entirely without interest.

Bellamy does two good things.

First, he involves an interesting technical process (for easing the pangs of conscience, presumably a larger issue then than now).

Bellamy also uses that technical process to pose some "what if"-type moral questions. One might argue that he blathers on at length while doing so, but still. This reminds me of someone like Phillip K. Dick, who did the same thing. Of course Dick did it much more interestingly, but hey: we may have an early precursor of a certain kind of sci fi here, which gives the story a potential lit-hist interest.
This is a wonderful book. Not only for the story, which is amusing, or the writing, which is brilliant (amazing what they used to write for children!). But because in this single book Grahame has captured some many aspects of the human spirit.

Mr. Mole, alternately timid and bold -- his battle cry: "A Mole! A Mole!" -- meets the Water Rat, who is sometimes peevish, sometimes not, but always ready for a bit of messing about on the water. Together they go traveling with the delightful braggart Toad, who is led astray -- as so many have been -- by motor cars. His conscience, such as it is, can wink at car theft, horse theft, and many a jolly lie, but his loyalty to friends is firm.

And of course one can't forget the solitary and serious Mr. Badger, who is writing a dissertation on the Creation of Man off in his subterranean forest abode. It is he who leads the party through the secret tunnel to attack to the Weasels and Stoats and retake Toad's home, which they have occupied.

Sound exciting? It is.

"A Mole! A Mole!"
This novel was a delight.

Not for the story, or at least not only for that. The novel tells the story of how Helen Vardon, a young woman, is manipulated into an unwelcome marriage, then implicated as having apparently caused the suicide of her husband. You can probably guess whether she did it or not. And things resolve, of course, with a bit of help from Dr. Thorndyke, Freeman's scientific hero. It's pretty straightforward mystery, and Freeman handles it well.

But what made this novel so enjoyable for me were the varied and highly independent women characters. Helen herself is of course the prime example. All too often, women in detective stories are passive -- victims to be rescued. And there is a titch of that at work still.

Yet Helen is anything but passive. At every stage in the story, she actively chooses how she will live: she not only refuses to stay in an unhappy marriage, but is determined to make her own living. And she does so by joining a group of independent and talented women who have a sort of artists' collective.

I found it very refreshing to find all this portrayed and portrayed very favorably in an early 20th century mystery story.

I'm not sure that the characters are necessarily fully rounded and believable, exactly. But they are rounded and believable to the same degree that male characters are in Freeman's work. So the book essentially argues for equality.

I don't mean to say that there are no patriarchal notions at work. But in comparison with many other mysteries from the time, this one is downright enlightened.
This is a straightforward detective story, complete with a murder or two, a couple good-looking women, and apparently unrelated events that turn out to be tied together by the thread of criminal deception.

I recommend this book as entertainment. It certainly has a few of the tics of its time and its genre. But it's still a good read.

I also found its climax to be very interesting, because it really focuses on a technical process more than events.

That the criminal is caught -- I don't mean this as a spoiler. Indeed, I think anyone at all familiar with detective stories knows that the criminal is always caught. Unless of course we're talking about a master like Raymond Chandler, who can play with the expectations of the genre and succeed --

That the criminal is caught is in "A Silent Witness" less important for the book than how he is caught. This focus on a technical process as part of a book, as the core of the climax, and as a literary end in itself, reminds me very much of novels like Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon," and other SF stuff, especially cyberpunk. You also have your genius viewed close yet from afar, a possessor of unique talents and insight combined with technical ability -- which is another trope of the Sterling/Gibson/Stephenson set.

Anyway, if you're looking for entertainment and you like detective novels, this could be a good choice for whiling away a couple of evening hours.
I had read a number of Conrad's works before this. "The Secret Sharer" is one of my favorites, and of course "Heart of Darkness" is famous for a reason.

But, like another reviewer (below), I came to "The Shadow Line" specifically because Philip Roth mentions it in "Exit Ghost." However, my estimate of the book is quite different from the preceding reviewer's.

On the surface, the story is simple: a young man quits one ship and ends up, unexpectedly, with command of another ship. Things proceed from there.

I read "The Shadow Line" at one sitting. Conrad's characters are brilliant -- there are characters in the book with the barest walk-on parts and despite that have a fully real feel to them. Brilliant ain't the half of it.

I did trade "The Shadow Line" once or twice, for a few minutes, with another book (R. Austin Freeman's "A Silent Witness," to be exact), when the mood got too heavy.

For "The Shadow Line" is a heavy book. Not only its themes -- illness and death, and especially the workings of chance on human life. It is also heavy because of the mood, which starts light and becomes progressively darker, until the climax, which is much more a climax of Stygian atmosphere than it is of action in any usual sense of the word.

It's easy to see why Roth mentions this book. Its themes are similar to his own, of course. But more important, I think, is that "The Shadow Line" is a very "modern" book, in which the concern with plot is replaced by character and situation.

In fact, even more than Roth's work, "The Shadow Line" made me think of J.M. Coetzee's books, particularly "Disgrace." I haven't had time yet to fully think about how and why, but at the very least, "Disgrace" is another book written in exquisite prose, filled with characters having real depth, and in which conventional climax has been replaced by one internal to the characters.

So if you're looking for action and plot in the more usual sense, this is probably not the book for you.

But if you're interested in reading (and maybe thinking) about other approaches to literature and thus to life, I highly recommend "The Shadow Line."

I would, however, also recommend having something lighter at hand, should the mood prove too dark. It did for me.