I decided to start the year off by reading some first novels by several writers. Here's a list of those completed so far and some brief comments. (NOTE: Final Update -- Sunday, January 25)
Orient Express: An Entertainment by Graham Greene (1932) -- Not a murder mystery such as Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express but the story of the relationships that develop among a group of passengers traveling on the Orient Express, including a young successful Jewish businessman, a dancer, a doctor with a secret, a woman reporter, and a murderer, among others. It's not a profound work by any means, but Greene wrote a series of consciously popular works he labeled "entertainments," and it is an interesting work worth reading.
Bright Center of Heaven by William Maxwell (1934) -- This amusing and at times touching novel is set on a midwestern farm in the early 1930s and deals with the rather eccentric West family who, in order to survive the hard times of the Depression, have rented out rooms to an equally eccentric collection of creative individuals; the action of the story takes place on a single day during which everyone is anticipating in various ways the arrival of another guest, an African American lawyer known for his political and legal activism. It's a delightful work I recommend. (NOTE: I owe my reading of Maxwell to Patrick Kurp's repeated references to Maxwell on his marvelous Anecdotal Evidence blog.)
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin (1952) -- This novel traces the history of a black family over two generations from the South to Harlem. The main action of the novel occurs during a tarry service at the Temple of the Fire Baptized and focuses on the 14 year old John who is trying to decide whether to accept a life of religious commitment (as his family wants) or a life rejecting religion (towards which he is inclined). As each prays, we are shown in flashbacks the lives of his aunt, his father, and his mother and what has led each to this point as well as each's aspirations for John; these in turn lead to the climax, John's own pentacostal experience. A fine and important novel I cannot recommend too highly.
Grimus by Salman Rushdie (1975) -- This novel is best described as a kind of phantasmagoria and certainly will not be to everyone's taste. The protagonist (named variously Born-from-Dead, Joe-Sue, and -- the name by which he is most commonly known -- Flapping Eagle) drinks a potion granting immortality, lives for over 700 years and finally wishes to end his life (having lost the potion which grants death), and travels through a hole in the world to Calf Island where those tired of immortality come eventually. He encounters a number of unusual individuals, becomes involved in a series of strange conflicts, climbs Calf Mountain, and finally confronts Grimus who holds the key to all that's happened to him, to his own self-knowledge, and to his escape if escape is possible. I gather from Wikipedia that the novel was chosen as "Science Fiction Novel of the Year" by a committee of science fiction authors, but the publisher rejected the award, not wanting the novel to be labeled as science fiction. It's definitely an odd novel, by turns amusing, interesting, and boring. As I said, it will definitely not be to everyone's taste.
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe (1958, translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama) -- This novel, by the 1994 Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author, is set during World War II and follows a group of teenaged boys from a reformatory who have been sent into a remote mountain area both as protection from air raids and as workers. They are treated by the inhabitants of the small village with suspicion and outright cruelty and are given the task of burying the corpses of animals -- both wild and domestic -- which are dying from an unknown disease. When several humans contract disease, the villagers evacuate the area but block the only exit from the valley, leaving the boys trapped and isolated. Their struggles to survive and the eventual return of the villagers lead to tragic consequences. It's a bleak novel, but one I recommend highly.
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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (2005) -- This novel (nominated for both the Mann Booker and Orange Prizes) tells the story of 84 year old Nikolai Mayeskevj, who emigrated from the Ukraine after World War II, and his two daughters who are opposed to his plan to remarry after his wife's death, to a 36 year old Ukrainian fortunehunter. This comic, at times farcical, plot, however, is developed against the far more serious background of the history of the Ukraine under Soviet and Nazi control, particularly seen through the story of 3 generations of the family and what they have endured. The result is a complex, multilayered work that gives us insight into both the nature of families and the effects of history on those who are unwilling participants in it. This novel is my favorite of those I've read so far. Read it.
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Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie (1995) -- This novel, which won the American Book Award and the Murray Morgan Prize, tells the story of a group of young Native Americans who form a band and their experiences which take them from the Spokane Indian Reservation ultimately to New York and back again, along the way experiencing hope, fear, love, success, and failure. Presenting a portrait of the life of modern Native Americans, it constantly modulates from humor to sadness; it also considers such questions as what it means to live a life of faith as well as a life without faith. Alexie makes use of the techniques of "magic realism" which has emerged from Latin American literature to explore the lives and minds of modern Native Americans. I had some doubts about this novel based on some of what I'd head about it, but it far exceeded my expectations, and it's another that I highly recommend.
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I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (1947) -- This novel is the one in which we meet Mike Hammer for the first time and learn very, very quickly exactly what kind of person he is. He's been called by the police to the apartment of his close friend Jack Williams who had lost his arm saving Hammer from a Japanese bayonet in WWII and who has just been found cruelly murdered. Hammer immediately swears that he will find the killer before the police and will kill the murderer in the same horribly painful way. The first-generation hard-boiled detectives like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe were men who wrestled with questions of morality and justice. Mike Hammer doesn't; he says that he is, as the title indicates, the one who passes judgment without hesitation or qualm and tells us that society needs such men as he is to go beyond what the law can do when the law fails to bring about suitable justice. The plot twists and turns interestingly and carries the reader along to the final ironic moment when Hammer keeps his promise despite the personal cost to himself. He is very much the transition figure between the original hard-boiled detectives and some of the more contemporary ones (such as Travis McGee) who are willing to work outside the law. The sex and violence, controversial at the time, are certainly tame by today's standards, but the novel remains interesting both for the character of Hammer and Spillane's skillful handling of complex plotting. While probably not to everyone's taste, even some of those who are mystery fans, I was entertained by the work and recommend it.
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The End of January Firsts.