Saturday, 2 March 2013

Books read in February

The Mystery Of The Hasty Arrow – Anna Katharine Green
It is instructive to see how tastes have changed editorially. This is an interesting mystery. A young girl is murdered in a museum in front of witnesses with the subsequent investigation setting the pattern for many later works. Reconstruction of the crime, expert testimony, dogged investigation. It reads more like a modern spy novel in that respect. Slow, philosophical, yet never losing interest or focus. Yet once the mystery is resolved and justice served, we are given chapter after chapter of back story which feels like an enormous anticlimax as much of it can be inferred from the main narrative. I suspect an editor would want it re-written today so that all that information was revealed as the story progressed. In a way, it would spoil the mystery as there is just too much information that would give the game away.

All that aside, this is, as I mentioned, an interesting mystery (although the version I read was missing the diagrams that would have made it easier to follow). And what seems to be horribly coincidental and accidental is neatly tied up during the long tail. Editions of these books illustrated with photographs of the period would be wonderful.

The Sword Of Damocles – Anna Katharine Green
A Detective Gryce novel by the skin of its teeth. He makes a very brief appearance in one chapter. The rest of the story is grand melodrama, the sort of thing that you can imagine as a silent movie with grand physical gestures and lots of exaggerated facial expressions. Apart from one or two passages that teeter on the edge of mawkish sentimentality and moralising, it rattles along with its tale of wrongdoing, blackmail, and the ghosts of the past coming back to haunt the characters in ways that stretch the notion of coincidence to the limit.

Hopeless, Maine: Personal Demons – Tom & Nimue Brown
It isn't often you pick up a book that combines excellent writing and excellent illustration within an excellent piece of production. Even before you open the covers, you know you have something of quality in your hands. The book is weighty (a solid cover and no skimping on the weight of paper inside). Front and rear covers are beautifully illustrated and the embossing adds that extra level that shows someone went the extra mile when it came to production.

And then you open the book. Sumptuous. The overall palate of colours is suggestive of the mood of the story and for me brought to mind a whole mix of references (Dark City where it is always night; Mythago Wood where the sun finds difficulty penetrating the depths of the forest; those dreams where one can never quite see clearly). This tone is enhanced by having the panels framed in black, like an endless succession of funeral notices. And the illustrations... I cannot praise enough. Here is an artist who draws with enormous skill and clarity and who knows exactly the right level of detail to include so that each picture is a work of art in its own right, each picture moves the story forward, each picture contains sufficient detail to make it interesting and worth exploring and revisiting without cluttering the page.

The story is wonderfully developed. Simple enough to follow yet filled with layers of meaning that build as the story progresses. Very often this aspect of graphic novels is overlooked, especially where the book is for younger readers. It is often assumed that this is the easy bit; it's just a few speeches. But that is why it is so difficult. Writers are rarely self-effacing enough to stand back and let the combination of text and illustration make the point. Here the two combine perfectly and this partnership has produced something truly wonderful.

What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy – James Paul Gee
Books where a specialist in one field strays into another and puts the world (or that other field) to rights often fail because it is clear from the first page that the author hasn’t grasped the basics of the field he has strayed into, let alone the subtleties. Sometimes, though, there are people who take the time to understand something they have seen and explore it fully before expounding their ideas. This book is of the latter variety. Gee clearly knows about education and has taken the time to understand how video games work.

Noticing how easily youngsters become absorbed in such games and devote a huge amount of time to learning how to play them and noticing that games are designed to make learning easy (because they don’t sell otherwise), Gee began to investigate just how games managed the trick. Except it isn’t a trick. Good game writers and designers have worked out how to involve players and teach them the rules of the game without the need for huge manuals. Most good games can be played from scratch, all the skills required to progress being taught in the early levels, success rewarded and the game set up in such a way that failure means you try again and learn from the mistakes you made.

Wondering if and why schools do not do the same, Gee isolates the principles that seem to apply and examines whether they would work in schools. And as they are such universal principles, ones that are more relevant to real life than learning models in education, he has a point. He isn’t always correct, but this is an exploratory work, one that sets out to propose a possible alternative. By the very principles he sets out, the work is a success, whereas under old models it is looked at askance as it does not conform to the principles currently in use in education.

More books like this are needed, even if the ideas are not adopted. They make people think, go back to basics, and that is always a good thing. When I was training to be a teacher I was (and still am) fascinated by the likes of Neill, Illich, Goodman, and Russell who had ideas about alternative models of education and in many cases put them into successful practice. I like to think they made my teaching better even though I was never in a position to work in a school dedicated to their ideas. In a period (in the UK and elsewhere) where politicians are trying to push education backwards and revive all the arguments they lost half a century ago, such books are essential.

Hand And Ring – Anna Katharine Green
Although I worked out fairly early on who had really committed the murder, this is (apart from Green’s propensity to throw in the hand of God now and then) an intriguing courtroom thriller. It was difficult at times to remember that this was one of the earliest of its kind as it seems to come fully formed. There is drama in the courtroom. Investigations on behalf of various of the accused, a detailed examination of people’s movements, lies and cover-ups that are, for the most part, done with the best of intentions.

The book doesn’t quite have the sense of peril you would expect from the story had it been written today, and the emotional scenes tend to the melodramatic, but it is a fine mystery and well worth a read for anyone who is interested in the history of crime novels.

That Affair Next Door – Anna Katharine Green
Amelia Butterworth has to be one of the most self-satisfied, priggish, bigoted, and annoying central characters I have ever come across, and at the same time one that carries the reader and undergoes a mellowing of her less pleasant side as the story progresses.

Witnessing an event that is not in keeping with the area in which she lives (a youngish couple she does not recognise enter a house she knows to be empty at midnight), Amelia Butterworth becomes intrigued. The man leaves shortly afterwards and she is unsettled at the idea of a young woman alone in the empty house. When the place is still shuttered at midday the next day she finds a policeman and encourages him to enter (with the help of a cleaning woman who turns up with a key). They find a body, just as Amelia Butterworth feared.

Being the sort of woman who pushes her way into a situation simply because she believes she has a right to be there, she finds herself investigating the murder in parallel with Detective Gryce. It is an intriguing mystery. You cannot say all the clues were there, but there were certainly enough to make you realise that suspects brought forward by the author in succession were not a perfect fit. And as the novel progresses, you realise that someone in the background has a more prominent role than at first suspected.

The means by which Miss Butterworth follows leads and develops her ideas would not be out of place in a modern mystery and the ending is sufficiently melodramatic to satisfy her original audience. Yet the reliance on melodrama and coincidence is much muted in this book and that makes it all the better. My only regret is that Miss Butterworth’s maid Lena was not given a stronger part to play as there seemed to be a genuine character there ripe for development.

Julia And The Bazooka – Anna Kavan
Published shortly after her death, these short stories show a remarkable insight into her own condition, one that is bare of any false sentiment or self-pity, but which shows the unsettling reality in which she lived. Whilst some of the pieces are highly autobiographical in that they relate real events in the outside world, they are all accurate portrayals of her inner life.

Her writing is intense whilst also being relaxed as if the mind was wildly alive in a body that lay back and was powerless to stop it happening. The landscapes are sharply drawn, hard and echoing, cold, floodlit. It is her world, but she does not feel at ease there. Like her novels, there is always movement with nowhere to settle.

Haunting and painful, these are writings that touch the soul without once asking you to feel sorry for the author. And such honesty is at times painful. Not that cringing pain one feels for people who are making fools of themselves, not the pain that is tinged with annoyance at someone who you wish would snap out of it. You know there can be no snapping out of it. Addiction doesn’t work like that. Depression doesn’t work like that. The pain comes from seeing the tragedy and from recognising that we all stand on the crumbling edge over which she has slipped and we know that in her case there is no way to reach down to her. She knows it as well and wastes no time in screaming, but calmly records everything she sees so that we may have a chance of stepping back.

The final, title story, is the most poignant of all. Seven sides in which her whole life is summed up and fades into nothing. Except, of course, we have her exquisite writing.

Lost Man’s Lane – Anna Katharine Green
The tale of people disappearing from a road through the woods along which just a few people live gets lost in the author’s delight in writing gothic tale. It’s quite a good gothic tale and if it had concentrated on that it would have been much better. Or if it had concentrated on being a detective mystery it would have been better. This is not to say you cannot have good gothic detective mysteries, it is just that in this case the one swamps the other. There are detectives at work, but precious little detecting.

Presumably at this stage in her writing career, Green was playing with a form that she had more or less invented, and that is to be commended. That it doesn’t quite work doesn’t mean it is not a good novel of its kind. I certainly enjoyed it.

Post Office – Charles Bukowski
‘Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.’ And this is it. Post Office. The machine that sucks you in, grinds you up, and then spits you out. And Bukowski conveys the dull horror of this so beautifully in every single word. Poverty, pain, pleasure, living under the heel of petty bureaucrats who pass their own agonies and inadequacies down the chain.

This portrait of urban American existence is raw and uncompromising. Chinaski (the author’s alter ego) lives hand-to-mouth and yet survives the brutalisation of his work in the Post Office – a metaphor for life in the US (and any other society for that matter). He’s no angel, but he’s no devil either. Just an ordinary man getting by.

And along with the portrait of life and the jokes and the weirdness of life, there is also an underlying sadness. One gets the sense of that question: we are human beings and this is all there is? Yet a combination of upbringing and the sheer weight of everything stops the question being properly formulated, let alone answered or the answer acted on.

One thing I would take issue with and that is the constant description of Bukowski as being a chronicler of low life America. These people are not low life. That is the vocabulary if division. You call your enemy ‘gooks’ so you don’t have to think of them as people. You call one section of society ‘low life’ so you can feel superior to those people and start blaming them for their troubles. If there is one thing that Bukowski does, it is to show that people kicked down the ladder and trodden on are just that: people.

The Circular Study – Anna Katharine Green
A shorter outing for Amelia Butterworth and Detective Gryce. Not so much a whodunit as whydunit involving the end result of a long running family feud. As such, it lacks the tension of her longer, more involved works, but contains enough of the gothic and of the well thought out plot to hold the reader.

Maigret’s Rival – Georges Simenon
When a young man’s body is found on the railways track just outside a rural town, rumours start to fly. A concerned relative of the object of the rumours asks Maigret to take a look. Reluctantly, he leaves Paris and finds himself dropped into the heart of the sort of community that depresses him to the core. Upper middle classes whose days are spent rehearsing family pedigrees and peasants who dare not speak out of turn because their livelihoods depend on those same bourgeoisies. And if that wasn’t enough, there is an ex policeman clearly hired to make sure all evidence of the crime is destroyed.

Maigret is off form, depressed by the place (fenland and perpetually misty), and wishing he had never agreed to investigate. But investigate he does, uncovering untrammelled immorality, but too late to find any evidence to bring a case.

It is a dark story, written in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. It never once alludes to this period, yet can be taken as a snapshot of the type of society at the time of the German invasion, with all the implications. In the novel, it is the peasants who move about under cover of darkness and take risks to try to expose wrongdoing and fight against the bourgeoisie who they see as occupiers. It is the bourgeoisie who behave as if they are above the law. They have taken what they want by force. Anyone who gets in their way is eliminated. Others are used to further their ends.

Although Maigret is too late to bring the law down on those involved, he does mete out a form of justice and rids the town of the perpetrators and it is clear where Maigret’s sympathies lie. The question still asked is if that is a clear reflection of where Simenon’s sympathies lay as well.