Monday, May 2, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, April 2011

For a few reasons, April turned out to be bit of a lean reading month.
Quite by chance, all four of the novels I did manage to read were the
first novels for each author.  My pick, if you're up to something
challenging, is "The Solitude of Prime Numbers", the debut novel by
Paolo Giordano.  For something a little easier, try Chekhov's "The
Shooting Party".

1. "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

The novel is set in the late 19th Century in Umuofia, a fictional
village in what is now Nigeria.  Okonkwo is a proud, tradition-bound
warrior and prominent clansmen of his tribe.  Early in life he sought
to make amends for lazy, debt-ridden and "unmanly" father.  After
gaining prestige in battle, and working hard on his farm, he achieved
an important rank in the community.  However, his hot-temper causes an
incident that would bring dishonour and exile.

Greater challenges await for Okonkwo after his return from exile, with
the arrival of white colonists and their new ways.  Okonkwo fears tribal
culture is unravelling, and wants to prevent this.  In the face of
change, he is an immovable object about to be met by an irresistible

This was an interesting and thought-provoking story.  The author doesn't
try to glorify pre-colonial life in West Africa, but rather he describes
it as it was.  The novel was well-received when it was published in
1958, and is apparently widely read in schools.

2. "The Shooting Party" by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is mostly renowned for his short stories and plays.  This story,
while not very long, is his only "full-length" novel.  It's a murder
mystery, told in the form of a story within a story.

Zinovyev, a former investigating magistrate, visits an editor with a
novel he has written about one of his old cases.  In that novel, a young
woman, Olga, has been found murdered, and Zinovyev is entrusted with the
investigation.  The actual murder doesn't take place until well into the
novel.  The plot leading up to the murder and the subsequent "investi-
gation" portrays most of the characters in an unflattering light.  In
fact, several of the main male characters have had their eye on the
beautiful, but sadly now dead "girl in red".  First, there's the jilted
husband, Urbenin, estate manager for Count Karneyev.  The Count was
Olga's latest beau and she had recently moved in with him.  We also
learn that Zinovyev (i.e. the author) had had an affair with Olga.
Drunkards, gypsies and uncouth peasants also round out the cast.

It's obvious to the reader (and this includes the editor) that the
magistrate has a conflict of interest, which influences both the
investigation and the telling of the story.  After the "inner" story
ends, the editor confronts Zinovyev with his theories about the murder.

I enjoyed this novel.  It's nowhere near as long as novels by Chekhov's
Russian contemporaries, so that's not an excuse.  My only real complaint
is that the translation of Russian peasant speech as Cockney English did
grate a bit.  This seems to be common for British translations of
Russian novels set in the 19th Century.  Fortunately it doesn't detract
too much from this entertaining novel.

3. "The Solitude of Prime Numbers" by Paolo Giordano

This is the story of two damaged individuals, both haunted by events in
their childhood.  Alice, left with a permanent limp after a skiing
accident, develops an eating disorder.  Mattia, who feels responsible
for the disappearance of his twin sister, inflicts pain on himself.  The
pair meet up in high school, and an unlikely friendship begins.

Mattia has managed to take advantage of his solitude, developing an
interest in numbers into a promising career as a mathematician.  After
completing his degree, he accepts a research post at a foreign
university.  This is an opportunity to escape his parents and his past
Alice doesn't do quite as well scholastically, but manages to use her
passion for photography to get a job as an assistant for a commercial

The relationship between Alice and Mattia is close but they're not a
typical girlfriend/boyfriend.  At various times they individually
consider taking things further, but circumstances always intervene.  At
one point Alice reflects: "she and Mattia were united by an elastic and
invisible thread that could exist only between two people like
themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude, each
within the other."  Mattia sees themselves as two prime numbers, close
but always separated by at least one other number.  As the book's title
suggests, Mattia's meditations on prime numbers get right to the core
of the novel's theme.

This is a challenging book.  In addition to the two main characters,
many of those around them have their own flaws and issues with
intimacy.  The story is told through a series of key episodes in the
lives of Alice and Mattia, rather than as a single, flowing narrative.
Overall, it's an unforgettable and poignant story about flawed and
enigmatic individuals.

In 2008 Giordano received the Premio Strega, awarded to the best work
of prose fiction by an Italian author.

4. "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler

Philip Marlowe is the original private eye.  For $25 a day plus
expenses, he'll go about his work discreetly.  Poor old General
Sternwood has a couple of tearaway daughters, Vivian and Carmen, who
look for trouble and never fail to find it.  One of his daughters is
the subject of a blackmail attempt, so the General hires Marlowe to
get to the bottom of it.

Set in Los Angeles' underworld of the late 1930s, the brash characters
and snappy dialog keep the story moving at a fast clip.  Maybe a bit
too fast, since it does get a little confusing at times.  Marlowe seems
to stumble across guns-out action wherever he goes.  Yet luck always
seems to be on his side.

In its day it was hailed as a new, distinctive type of crime novel.
While it mostly still holds up, the long trail of imitators and its
ongoing influence in film and television have diminished its impact
these days.  For example, growing up I've watched a lot of PIs on TV:
The Rockford Files, Charlie's Angels, Magnum P.I., Moonlighting,
Remington Steele, etc.  While set in different eras, they do share
the plot twists, wisecracks and underworld intrigue.

A movie was made in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
I don't remember having watched it, but with those stars, one can
imagine the fireworks.