Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dark Love

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I was not prepared for how bleak this book was. I had seen movie versions of Wuthering Heights, but this was my first time reading the novel, and it was much darker than I expected.

So many of the characters are utterly unlikable! Cathy is selfish and foolish and obstinate; Heathcliff is brutal and vengeful and psychotic; Hindley is spiteful and venomous and a drunkard. And when Edgar and Isabella Linton enter the story, everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

Why, oh why, did Cathy marry Edgar when she admitted she loved Heathcliff? As a reader, I wanted to shake her and scream at her that she was making a disastrous choice. Let's hear it from Cathy herself: "I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn't have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heatchliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire."

Yes, I know Cathy felt she couldn't marry Heathcliff because of his low birth and lack of education, but considering how isolated they were in Yorkshire, did it really matter that much? Was that Bronte's point -- that disobeying one's heart by following the courtship rules of one's social class caused suicidal and homicidal ravings?

I agreed with Heathcliff when he later scolded Cathy for her decision: "You teach me now how cruel you've been -- cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you -- they'll damn you. You loved me -- then what right had you to leave me? What right -- answer me -- for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart -- you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine."

There was such violence in this book! Women are beaten and locked up; children are bullied and abused; punches are thrown, shots are fired, and even dogs are kicked and hung. Egad. I can imagine how shocking it must have been to the good folks of England when it was published in 1847, learning that not only did a woman write it (gasp!), but that she was a clergyman's daughter (double gasp!), and the story involved a married woman having a tryst with another man. The horror!

Despite not liking the darkness of the novel, I thought the writing was good and the structure was interesting: the servant Nelly Dean relates the history of the doomed love affair to an outsider. The servant was an interloper and kept informed on events in both houses. I can't imagine a more effective way to tell the story of the love triangle. I wouldn't trust either Heathcliff or Cathy or one of the children as a narrator, they might only tell their parent's side of things. Of course, it's also interesting that Nelly Dean may not be a reliable narrator either. She often edits and omits what she tells the master; why should we believe she'd tell an outsider the whole truth?

It took me twice as long to get through this novel as it should have -- it was so bleak that I was hesitant to pick it up. The only other Bronte sister book I've read was Jane Eyre, which I liked very much, but that love story at least has some warmth in it. In contrast, Wuthering Heights left me feeling cold and bitter. I'm glad I've read it, but I won't be rereading it anytime soon.

Missouri Boy Makes Good

Truman by David McCullough
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I was shocked that a presidential biography could be so good. Many readers had praised the Truman book, but I thought they were exaggerating. I was happy to be proven wrong.

I think there are several reasons why "Truman" was so compelling. First and most importantly was the man himself. So epic was his odyssey that Truman seemed like a character in a novel. Harry S. Truman was born in a small town in Missouri and he grew up on a farm. He was bookish, played the piano and wore glasses, which prevented him from playing sports. He enlisted in the National Guard and fought during World War I. Then he returned home to run a clothing store, and was asked to run for county judge. Later, he became a U.S. Senator, and then he was picked to be Franklin Roosevelt's vice president in 1944. He became president when FDR died in April 1945.

Epic and astounding, yes? Truman comes across as a decent, hardworking, loyal, honest and down-to-earth guy. It's hard not to root for him -- he was so genuine.

Another reason the book was so good was the brilliance of the writing. McCullough is a skilled historian and he wove a beautiful narrative. Truman was a prolific writer of letters, and many details and quotes in the book came from those epistles. I loved the stories of Truman's courtship of his wife, Bess, of his dream to be a concert pianist, of his battle experiences during the Great War, of his senator campaign, of his unlikely path to become vice president, of his whistle stop tour. Marvelous, just marvelous stories.

Finally, there is the knowledge that Truman was such a key figure in American and world history. He had to take command at the close of World War II, he chose to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he decided to send American troops to Korea, and he ushered in a new kind of foreign policy for the United States. Each of those events was incredibly significant and had lasting consequences.

One aspect that I found especially interesting was how Truman handled the atomic bombs. After he became president, he was briefed on the Manhattan Project -- which had started way back in 1939 -- and was told the nuclear weapon would be ready within a few months. I had assumed there would have been some serious debate over whether to use such a bomb, but it sounded like the project was so far advanced that Truman didn't consider turning back. The goal of dropping it was to shock the Japanese into surrendering and quickly ending the war, but it was still jarring and disturbing to hear about the casualties inflicted. (Having read John Hersey's book "Hiroshima," I was picturing the devastation on the ground, and I had to pause in silence for several minutes.)

Speaking of controversial decisions, apparently some historians have criticized McCullough for not being tough enough on Truman. It was clear that the author held the former president in high esteem, but as a reader, McCullough's narrative made it a more enjoyable book. If I wanted to read a harsh polemic on Truman's wartime and foreign policies, I wouldn't have chosen an 1,100-page biography. That's what newspaper columnists are for.

I listened to "Truman" on audio that was narrated by McCullough, and he had a fantastic reading voice. The recording included various sound bites from Truman's speeches, which were wonderful to hear. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves history.

Some Love for the Hard Case Crime series

The Vengeful Virgin (Hard Case Crime #30)The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, she was a virgin at some point...

The story is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook. Jack Ruxton, a broke TV repairman, hooks up with a teenage temptress, Shirley Angela. Shirley and Jack plot to rid Shirley of her invalid stepfather and get her vast inheritance. Almost immediately, things get shot to hell...

The Vengeful Virgin is a thrill ride of conspiracy, murder, sex, and insanity. Gil Brewer's prose is similar to Lawrence Block's and the suspense and desperation is very well done. Things start off wrong and just keep getting worse.

The characters are pretty reallistic. Even though officially I'm appalled by the idea of a thirty-ish guy and a teenage vixen, as a red-blooded male... I can see how things went the way they did. In the beginning, Shirley's a sympathetic character. You feel for her, having her teenage years spent cooped up and caring for her dying stepfather.

The Vengeful Virgin is a gripping tale with a lot of twists and turns. If I wanted to get someone started on the Hard Case series, this is one of the ones I'd point them at first.

House Dick (Hard Case Crime #54)House Dick by Howard Hunt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pete Novak is a hotel detective (or house dick) working for a Washington DC hotel. Novak takes a shine to a gorgeous guest, only to find the murdered body of her former sugar daddy in her room and the jewels he gave her missing. Can Novak find the jewels and keep the woman out of jail?

First off, I almost dismissed this one as one of Hard Case's more dubious picks, like the Robert Parker book that wasn't by the Parker everyone was thinkng of. E. Howard Hunt was involved in the Watergate break-in, after all. Well, I was wrong.

Hunt's writing is top notch and Novak is a great noir protagonist. He's a lonely hotel detective with a budding drinking problem. The web of sex, lies, and murder is very easy to get caught up in and hard to get to the center of without being devoured by it. I should know. I read the whole thing in one sitting. It's a little lighter on violence than some Hard Cases but heavy on twists. It took me forever to catch on to what actually happened regarding the jewels and Chalmer's murder. On the surface, the plot looks simple but once all the players are introduced, it becomes much more complicated.

If I could only recommend one Hard Case to someone, it would probably be this one. Who knows? It might become someone's favorite book with the word dick in the title*

*Yeah, it was an easy joke but I had to do it...

Still on Goodreads