Last Update 3/25/19

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, 1955  

Donleavy’s first novel was banned when it first appeared and created a feud with Olympia Press that lasted for many years. It is a bawdy novel about a law student who is more interested in sex and alcohol than in completing his studies. Set in Ireland, it follows his various adventures, which are frequently very funny. Sebastian is both deplorable and likeable at the same time, which is less of a paradox than it might seem. I first read this in college and later bought all of his later books, only one of which I have ever read, a situation which I will presently be remedying. The eroticism is fairly tame by contemporary standards. 3/25/19

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940  

The author’s first and most memorable novel is set in a small Southern town. Four people, each with his or her own personal crisis, are drawn to a gentle deaf mute who lives there. Each of them uses him as a sounding board for their dreams, fears, and hatreds, and each assumes that the man understands what they are saying and sympathizes. That’s only partially true, however, because he has a crisis of his own to deal with, the institutionalization and eventually the death of his only real friend. The characterizations are expert and touchingly effective and the progression of the plot, which is largely episodic, carries us into their world and makes the reader truly care about what happens. This has long been one of my favorite novels. 3/21/19

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers, 1961 

The author’s final novel is more restrained than her earlier work but still worthwhile. The chief protagonist is dying of leukemia and this proves to be a central factor within a small group of people who are dealing with a mysterious suicide, racial prejudice against a young black man, and other tensions. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the adaptation to the knowledge that one is dying is particularly well handled.  Alas, the author died young and left us no more work. I suspect, however, that she will prove to have an enduring appeal.  3/15/19

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, 1946 

This is a story about loneliness and growing up. A young girl with no friends feels utterly alone because her mother is dead, her father distant, and her brother is about to marry and go away. The girl decides that she wants to go with them and the bulk of the book consists of glimpses of her thoughts as well as those of the bride and groom. She doesn’t get to go, of course. Not much happens on a physical level. There are touching moments and one unsettling scene, but otherwise I found this rather too restrained to be entirely successful. 3/10/19

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, 1941  

This rather strange novella is set in a peacetime military base. It deals with five characters – two married couples and a very strange unattached soldier. There is insanity, adultery, strange attractions, self mutilation, a vengeful horse, and ultimately a murder. Only one of the characters is remotely likeable and she is the one whose sanity is fragile. The adulterous affair has some interesting and enigmatic consequences. A bit atypical of the author's other fiction but compelling reading. 3/8/19

Collected Short Stories by Carson McCullers

McCullers was a Southern writer who wrote only three novels, a novella, and one volume of short stories before her early death, the most famous of these last being "A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud", although they are almost all quite good. The stories are almost always about the cruelty we expend on others and its consequences. Given her background, it is not surprising that racism is a major theme, but she also points at misogyny and general cussedness. A lot of the stories do not have "happy" endings. She was particularly adept at creating unusual characters who idiosyncrasies stick in our memory. This was a very emotional read. 2/28/19

 The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck, 1957 

A very atypical Steinbeck novel, a humorous satire mostly about French politics, and marginally science fiction. Unable to form a new government, the quarreling French political parties compromise on restoring the monarchy, but this means that an amateur astronomer with no experience becomes king. Eventually he decides to actually perform his duties, and that leads to his downfall. Very short and holds up surprisingly well after more than sixty years. 1/12/`9

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, 1961

Another bitingly critical novel and the author’s last significant work. The protagonist comes from a formerly rich family fallen on bad times. He decides to rectify the situation and although he does in fact work hard, he also makes use of treachery, extortion and other unsavory methods to advance his situation. Eventually he marries and has a son and thinks of himself as moral and honest, having abandoned his earlier methods. By then he discovers that his son is a cheat and a plagiarist and when confronted, the younger man insists that it’s not a big deal. Our hero therefore sees himself through his son and realizes, far too late, that he has lost his moral compass. 2/21/19

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 1952

Adam Trask was the son of a self styled military expert who bluffed his way into the President’s confidence. Trask serves in the military, then becomes a hobo for a while. When he finally returns to the family farm, managed by his brother, he discovers that his father has died and left them both very rich men, although the source of his money is suspicious. The story is, alas, quite depressing. Adam marries a woman – one of the most vivid female villains ever conceived – and has two sons, although she runs away to murder a brothel owner and take over the business. The characters are what kept me reading because they are wonderfully realized, but the story itself seems designed to drive the reader to suicide. 2/11/19

Island Night’s Entertainment by Robert Louis Stevenson, Scribner, 1903 

Three stories from the South Pacific. One is minor, but “The Beach of Falesa” is a gripping story of the battle between two traders on an unnamed Pacific Island, one of whom uses fake supernatural effects to awe the inhabitants. “The Bottle Imp” is a great story I hadn’t read in decades. An imp imprisoned in a bottle grants wishes, but if you still own the bottle when you die, you go to Hell. The trick is that the bottle must always be sold at a loss, and when it sells for a penny, the owner fears that there is no escape. Stevenson is one of my favorite writers. 2/7/19

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck, 1961 

This is the sequel to Cannery Row, showing what happened to the various characters after the war years. It has some great moments but is generally not up to its predecessor. The characters are less idiosyncratic and distinct, and there is a feeling of weariness and depression which is probably true to its time, but which is rather depressing now. The characters do not seem as vivid as in the first book. Steinbeck could still write like a wizard, though, and his other work began to explore other areas late in his career. 2/3/19

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck, 1947    

Steinbeck brings a collection of very disparate and well drawn characters together in this story of the gathering of people at a rural bus depot for a trip to San Ysidro. There’s a star struck woman, another whose beauty is her largest handicap, a happy go lucky salesman, a married couple with a grown daughter who dislikes them and their lifestyle, a nervous man who sees danger everywhere, a young mechanic who is socially inept, and several others, including the bus driver, a man of unusual contradictions.  1/27/19

Burning Bright by John Steinbeck, 1950

This novella - the only Steinbeck I had not previously read -  really never caught my interest. It’s a portrait of four people. The first man wants a son but unbeknownst to himself, he is sterile. His wife, who suspects that, seduces another man in order to get pregnant. But the other man has his own view of their encounter and there is a fourth character who acts as a catalyst for the climax. 1/22/19

The Pearl by John Steinbeck, 1945   

This classic novella is about a poor couple and their baby. The father dives for pearls off the coast of Bolivia and finds what is perhaps the most valuable pearl in the world. Alas, it is not a blessing. People attempt to swindle the couple and the father is forced to kill a thief who attacks him. For this they are outlawed and pursued by three men, all of whom are also killed, but the baby dies as well. The couple decide the pearl is cursed and throw it back into the ocean. 1/17/19

The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck, 1942 

This short novel was actually controversial when it first appeared because of its relatively sympathetic portrayal of a German colonel. A mythical village that is presumably in France although it does not feel that way is occupied by a small German force. The invaders attempt to be fair and untroublesome, but naturally things don’t stay that way. The traitor who betrayed the town is stunned to discover that neither the townspeople or the Germans like him very much.  Inevitably tensions escalate toward violence. Very nicely done and well balanced. 1/13/19

Ten Unique Stories by Will F. Jenkins, ML Press, 2018 

Two of these are science fiction and most of the rest are more or less adventure stories, none of which have been previously collected. They involve pirates, a downed pilot on a hostile island, a man unhappy with his life, civil war in a Latin American country, and other settings and themes. Jenkins, better known as Murray Leinster, wrote literally hundreds of non-SF stories, most of which are well worth the time to read, if you can track them down. I hope this is just the first of several new volumes of his otherwise inaccessible work. 1/10/19

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, 1945  

This novella is primarily about a group of unambitious men and their efforts to do something nice for a friend who runs a small business. Everything they plan invariably goes wrong. There’s a good deal of comedy, but it is also quite tragic at times. Steinbeck was great at creating quirky characters with unusual lives and this one includes a couple that lives inside a discarded boiler, a store owner whose soft heart undercuts his profits, a man who sells frogs and octopi for a living, and many others. This is a one sitting read, but it will feel as though you’ve read a much longer and more detailed novel. 1/8/19

Black Gold on the Double Diamond by Hammond Innes (as Ralph Hammond, Collins, 1953   

Innes borrowed bits and pieces from his adult novels for this story of a young man who visits Canada on the chance that an amnesiac might be his father, presumed dead during the war. He had inherited a supposedly worthless mine which suddenly seems to interest people and while living on his uncle’s ranch, he discovers more puzzles. Someone stampedes the uncle’s cattle and a crucial bridge is dynamited, following by a brush fire. The identity of the chief villain is rather telegraphed – there is actually no other plausible candidate – and the reason is clearly evidence that there is oil nearby. This was the author’s final YA novel. 1/6/19

The Saracen’s Tower by Hammond Innes (as Ralph Hammond), Armada, 1952 

An orphan sneaks off on a cruise to the Mediterranean to help recover an experimental radio set invented by his father just before his death. He and an adult companion get caught up with storms, smugglers, and an international conspiracy to steal the technology before eventually recovering the missing equipment and escaping from the villains. A bit confusing for a while but basically a sound and exciting story. 1/3/19

MORE REVIEWS