Archive for the ‘100 Word Reviews’ Category

Modernists can have a high strike-out to home-run ratio – but Woolf knocks it clean out of the park with To the Lighthouse.

The novel is organized into three sections. The first and third describe two vacations, separated by ten years, the Ramsay family takes to their house in the Hebrides. The second describes that house during their ten-year absence, slowly decaying under the influence of weather and time, while out in the world, members of the Ramsay family die.

To the Lighthouse is conflict rich but plot poor. Woolf gives us vivid, fragmented portraits of her characters during two brief moments in their lives, then asks us to assemble the pieces to understand who they were, what they’ve become, and what has changed them.

Her writing throughout the novel is masterful — Virginia Woolf does with words what Vermeer does with paint — but the second section is simply astounding. There is no way the description of an empty house should be moving. And yet often enough I read it through tears.

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In The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg during its three most consequential days: July 1 -3, 1863.

Although the novel features a large cast of Union and Confederate officers, The Killer Angels belongs to Robert E. Lee, who is about to make a fatal blunder by ordering Pickett’s Charge, and James Longstreet, Lee’s second in command, who sees the blunder coming but cannot persuade the Old Man to stop it.

Shaara is critical of the romanticism of the South’s gentleman warriors, yet engages in romanticism himself. He takes us into the minds of the commanders who act decisively, but ignores those who hesitate or stumble. Officers die quickly and neatly, or discretely off-stage, while the enlisted soldiers just die in masses, except for the occasional unnamed man who screams as blood and entrails pour from his wound.

Still, Shaara recreates the Battle of Gettysburg with clarity and economy, and with insight into the thoughts and emotions of successful fighting commanders. The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975.

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Anne Tyler meets Michael Crichton in Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder. Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old pharmaceutical research scientist, is sent by her boss and sometimes lover deep into the Amazon to discover the circumstances of a colleague’s death and, much more importantly, measure the progress of the brilliant but difficult Dr. Annick Swenson’s work on a fertility drug with block-buster sales potential.

Patchett’s prose style is fluid, she draws her characters and settings in detail, and she keeps the wheels of the story turning nicely – but those wheels spin mostly in place. There is no mystery in the novel aside from its pleasing plot twists; and after all her adventures, Marina Singh is the same person she was at the beginning of State of Wonder. Which leaves the reader the same person, too.

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The one true moral responsibility of literature is to strengthen our imaginative sympathy for other people. Nabokov’s exploration of the deep humanity within the seemingly comic figure of Professor Timofrey Pnin is the most perfect example in English. The story is episodic, but the writing is flawless.

Nabokov’s books are full of arrogant misanthropes. So look here for Victor’s glass bowl and “the shining road” on which Pnin escapes into Pale Fire, where Nabokov makes him the head of a thriving Russian department.

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Memorable characters in the persons of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin; mastery of a sprawling 2,000 page narrative that is, by turns, sea-faring adventure, espionage thriller, tale of political intrigue, and novel of social manners; stuffed with historical, nautical, and scientific detail; and considering at least two great themes – how power corrupts and the problematic relations between men and women – Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-one novel series gives Trollope and Balzac a run for their money. A superb example of the pure pleasure reading can offer.

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