Homage? or Parody?

The QuincunxMay I introduce you to the book that took me three weeks to read?

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is a hefty doorstop of a book, weighing in at 787 pages in the 1989 edition. It’s big book, almost 3 pounds of paper.

It’s not just big in a physical sense. It’s an ambitious work that was a first novel for Palliser, a bestseller and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (source: Wikipedia). The plot is intricate, the settings are naturalistic, and the characters entertaining. This novel is frequently compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and it’s easy to see why.

The main character, who tells most of the story, is John Huffam, a plucky boy who is the hidden heir to a rich estate in the English countryside. A complicated estate entail, a missing will, and a strange codicil to this will have led John’s mother to hide him away in the countryside, living under an assumed name. One day, their home is burgled, disrupting this quiet anonymous life, and setting into motion a series of events that change their lives forever.

John and his mother escape to London after their small fortune is swindled away by their enemies, and they spiral into a life of poverty and ruin in the London slums. After John’s mother passes away, tragically, John must fend for himself. John is frequently an unwitting pawn of his enemies, but sometimes the instigator of plots and plans himself.

The missing will is a central plot point, and John goes undercover at the home of the current estate holder, the Mompessons, working as a scullery boy in order to discover the will’s hiding place. John solves a puzzle – in the shape of a quincunx –  and recovers the will. Which is then lost again, through deception.

Another key plot piece is the murder of John’s grandfather. Who actually killed the old man? Was there a plot, or was it just madness?

The novel is wonderfully complex, and can be difficult to follow. About halfway through the novel, I realized that my complete understanding of the plot and what John believes about the plot were not necessary to enjoy the novel. After all, every time I (or John) had the family relationships figured out, or realized who it was that wanted John dead, new information was revealed that made my understanding false. After this happened a few times, I set aside my strong “need to know” and just enjoyed the plot turnings.

Palliser divided this novel into five parts (like a quincunx), each named for a different branch of the intertwined families. With each section, there is a genealogical chart. As the novel progresses, the chart becomes more detailed in each section. It’s a wonderful piece of detail that I really enjoyed, and used to help my developing understanding of the relationships. The maps of London, also included at the beginning of each section, were also interesting and a great reference while reading.

Like Dickens’ novels, The Quincunx features a plucky orphan finding his way, shady London villains, and many happy – or unfortunate – coincidences. And like Dickens’ novel Bleak House, The Quincunx features a will destined for Chancery Court. In my opinion, Palliser has out-Dickens old Boz in this novel. The plot is complicated to the point of absurdity. The villain Barney Digweed makes Bill Sykes look tame, and the put upon and ruined Miss Quilliam, is more desperately used than any Nancy.

So while Palliser has taken these elements so familiar to the novels of Dickens – the orphan, the inheritance, the villains – and taken them to the next level, I don’t think he is fully parodying Dickens. Palliser’s tone is always sincere, even in the pompous omnisciently narrated sections of the novel. Palliser has created a gentle parody, that is more of an homage to Dickens than any kind of satire.

Reading a novel like The Quincunx was a commitment. I am the kind of reader that usually has a few books going at the same time, but to fully appreciate this book I had to suspend that practice for a while and just focus on this novel. I would recommend this very highly to fans of Dickens – and recommend it less so if you are not a fan.

 

 

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Ah, Atlantic City.

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Sometimes, a good setting can make a good book great, or a not-so-good book just plain fun.  I just finished Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, a thriller set in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Atlantic City is within a couple of hours driving distance from where I live, and trips to the Jersey shore have long been a part of my life. Escape weekends with girlfriends, road tripping in college, and family vacations are all part of my history with this location.

Atlantic City’s dark side is in full view in Ghostman, a hard boiled, procedural tale of a robbery gone wrong. Hobbs flips the usual procedural tale here, and tells the story from the viewpoint of a bad guy, a “ghostman” – which is apparently, in heist terminology, is the guy whose role it is fix things, quietly, off the grid.

This is a dark, bloody book. Hobbs creates a terrifically vivid sense of the underside of Atlantic City, complete with abandoned strip clubs, falling down houses, and cheap motels. Hobbs’ imagery is particularly good when it comes to odors – his protagonist uses his sense of smell to describe just about every location he visits. The strong odors of naphtha, blood, and damp permeate this book.

Hobbs has a tendency to list things, which can get a bit dry. The protagonist, Jack  – whose real name we never really discover – details the contents of his bag, car, and requests lists of items from his local AC procurer. Jack lists, rather than describes, his method of changing his appearance. There’s also a bit of the cyber punk style here with all the name dropping of gun types, ammunition, drugs, and designer clothing.

The plot is quick paced, and very exciting. And as bad as our protagonist Jack is, there’s always someone more evil than he is. Hobbs alternates the present day plot in Atlantic City with a flashback of another heist gone wrong. This secondary plot is also quick paced and exciting.

This book was released last year, and is Hobbs’ debut novel. There’s an interview with Hobbs that I found interesting, mainly for his description of his writerly life – ramen noodles and staking out a power outlet in the library for his laptop.

For me, the main appeal of this fun novel was the setting. Somehow, reading about characters that are walking down the same streets you have walked down, and visiting the same places you’ve visited, creates a full sense of immediacy. And Hobbs’ descriptions of the approach to and the outskirts of Atlantic City capture the dichotomy of this place. The wealth and flash of the casinos and boardwalk contrast in a disturbing way with the tired looking neighborhoods just outside.

I’m not sure how accurate Hobbs’ geography is, but I picture him at that library with maps and googling street views of Atlantic City.

If you don’t mind violence and gore combined with drug use and cruelty, Ghostman is an entertaining book with a strong and compelling setting.

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Book Selfie #3

Listening to Ghostman by Roger Hobbs….
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Hunger and Responsibility: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Quite possibly the most gross-out scenes I’ve ever read happened within the pages of this novel, Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver. Disgusting and horrifying, funny yet excruciating, Shriver doesn’t shy away from showing the reader the consequences of morbid obesity. Shriver wrote this novel as a response to events in her own life. Her older brother, whom Shriver has described as being a “genius,” was morbidly obese, and died of a heart attack at age 55. Big Brother is dedicated to him. But calling Big Brother a novel about obesity doesn’t begin to describe this book.

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Shriver uses obesity as a pathway to explore familial relationships and responsibility. How far would you go to “save” a sibling who has “buried himself in himself?’ Would you sacrifice your marriage, relationships with your children and friends to devote yourself to a sibling’s overwhelming needs? Are we truly our brother’s keeper?

That’s the decision the main character of Pandora confronts. Her brother Edison, whom she idolized, visits Pandora and her family. He’s down on his luck, couch surfing in New York City. He also has gained more than 200 pounds since the last time Pandora saw him. A jazz pianist, Edison punctuates his conversation with annoying, jarring “hep” talk – heavy cats, ya dig, man? He’s overbearing, obnoxious, and eating them out of the house. Plus, Pandora’s husband Fletcher, cycling nut and food Nazi, can’t stand him. It doesn’t help that Edison breaks one of Fletcher’s fanciful furniture creations. The visit is a trial for the whole family – Pandora, Fletcher, and Fletcher’s two teenage kids from a previous marriage.

Pandora faces her responsibilities to her brother when the visit comes to an end. Does she put him on a plane, knowing he has nowhere to live, no gigs lined up, and few friends left? Pandora proposes a private weight loss clinic to Edison. She’ll be his coach, plan his weight loss and stick with him until he’s down to his normal weight. This project will require living apart from her family – Fletcher will not have Edison in the house any longer than his planned visit – and this threatens Pandora and Fletcher’s marriage, and Pandora’s relationship with her stepchildren.

The characters in this novel are not especially likable. Fletcher and Edison are both obnoxious and self-righteous, convinced of their superiority and their claim on Pandora. I found Pandora fascinating. While claiming to avoid the spotlight, she has managed to run two successful businesses, the most recent a novelty toy company featured in national publications. Her musings on her relationships and how much is owed to family members was fascinating. Pandora neglects her younger sister, yet feels a strong duty to her step children. And Edison’s obesity throws her sense of responsibility into overdrive, jeopardizing her marriage.

Shriver seems to be pulling the novel into a tidy happy package, and then upends it all. I won’t reveal the ending here…

Shriver sums up so many themes in this quote from near the end of the novel:

However gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse… We are meant to be hungry.

Indulging that hunger to the point of obesity is dangerous. Indulging a sense of responsibility to the point of sacrificing other relationships is also dangerous.

Shriver, while using obesity to explore familial relationship, also explores contemporary thoughts and perceptions of obesity. Pandora mulls over society’s stereotypes of the obese and the slim. Are thin people joyless self deniers? Are the obese lacking in character strength? Shriver can be heavy handed, but I’ll forgive her “hunger” to impart her hard earned lessons about family and obesity.

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Book Selfie #2

Snow day book –
Photo on 1-21-14 at 8.18 PM

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On Lists. And How Very French.

I confess to a list obsession. I make lists, I read lists, I check things off lists. The list I try very much to NOT get too obsessed with is Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First published in 2006, the list – and book – was compiled by Peter Boxall, a professor of English at Sussex University. The original list was extremely Anglocentric, and has been revised twice, with adjustments to the list to include more world literature. This list is very easy to find – there’s a listology list,  a goodreads lists via listology where goodreads users can vote for their favorites, and even an app you can purchase from the iTunes store. And of course, there are blog posts to read, spreadsheets to download, and pinterest boards to follow.

I confess to another thing: I purchased the 1001 books app. And according to the app, if I really, truly, want to finish the list before I die (at a projected age of 81), I need to get cracking. In order to finish the list by my anticipated death, I need to read 3 of the 1001 books per month. No pressure.

2967752This month, I can check one book off the list: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This French novel was first published in 2006, and the first English edition was released in 2008. The novel received a number of awards in France, and was well received internationally. The New York Times reviewed it very favorably in 2008. (read the review here.) I found a copy at my favorite used book sale, and it has been sitting on my shelf of “to read” books for almost a year. When it came my turn to choose a book for my Awesome book group, I seized the opportunity to check this one off the list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog first struck me as being very, very French. Firstly, the main characters live rich internal lives without a lot of drama. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, is a closet intellectual that hides her true self. Renee camouflages herself by blaring television programs and wafting the scent of boiled cabbage into the lobby of the building, while she enjoys tea and Tolstoy behind the door of her loge.

Paloma, the other main character, is a twelve year old genius, also hides her true self from her family and schoolmates. Paloma tells her story through her journal of Profound thoughts, and in the reader’s first encounter with Paloma, she reveals that she intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.

The novel is told in alternating voices, Renee and Paloma taking turns with the story. The two characters make observations on class and culture, art and beauty, and skewer most of the world around them for their hypocrisy and stupidity. Their essays continue in this vein to the point where I started to get a bit bored, frankly. There’s only so much free standing philosophy I can read without becoming impatient.

Finally, Renee and Paloma meet. On page 244. Again, how French to have a lengthy narrative on parallel paths, finally connecting the two characters well into the action.  Finally, the reader starts to see the glimmerings of a plot. Connecting Paloma and Renee is the character of Ozu, an older Japanese gentleman who moves into the apartment building.

I loved the mutual admiration of French and Japanese culture in this novel. Renee enjoys Japanese film, Ozu obviously is enmeshed in French culture. Ozu is able to see past Renee’s self imposed peasant facade, and befriends her. He introduces Renee to Japanese cuisine, and more importantly, gives her permission to be herself, which is a lovely message.

I won’t reveal the ending here. I will just say that it was a surprise, and while disappointing in terms of character development, it resolved the plot.

I was very satisfied,  checking this novel off  the list in my 1001 Books app. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read all 1001 before I die, but I’ll enjoy trying!

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01/10/2014 · 8:26 am