Friday, September 29, 2006

Book Roundup -- Abundance, Raven's Gate and The Gallery

Plowed through some books in the last few weeks.

Abundance: A Novel Of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund -- Naslund made waves with her bestseller "Ahab's Wife," which cheekily told a backstory from "Moby Dick." After a contemporary novel that came and went, Naslund has returned to a historical setting, this time to tell the story of Marie Antoinette. She owes a great debt to Antonia Fraser's bio "Marie Antoinette: The Journey." (It's mentioned first in the acknowledgments.) Both are very sympathetic to Antoinette, with Naslund deftly working in some awareness of Marie's blindness to her actions. The chapters are short and brief, much like Marie's nimble but easily distracted mind. It does deepen a bit towards the end as the French Revolution takes over, but not so much as one might want. The book is ultimately a bit superficial, but pretty and distracting.

Raven's Gate by Anthony Horowitz -- Horowitz is the creator of my favorite TV mystery show, "Foyle's War" and the best-selling kids books "Alex Rider" (think a teenage James Bond.) "Raven's Gate" starts a new five book series about another 14 year old boy with huge responsibilities: this time, to save the world from the Old Ones, the evil that has been lurking behind closed Gates for millennia. Not much character development to sink your teeth into, though the series picks up quite a bit in book two (which I've just started). Still, there's a nice horror movie feel to the setting, with our hero in an odd little British village where everyone is naturally up to their necks in witchcraft. It's like an episode of "The Avengers" or one of those Seventies British horror films where menace can be found in placid country life.

The Gallery by John Horne Burns -- this is a keeper. It's a novel about life in Naples in 1944, published just a few years after WW II was over. I don't know what prompted me to pick it up (maybe the reference to a gay subplot - unusual in a book this old). It's a very odd duck -- chapters that serve as travelogue/essay/ memoir for Burns and what he saw alternate with nine sketches of different people in Naples, everyone from a Red Cross volunteer who can't be bothered to associate with common soldiers to the owner of a wildly popular bar who doesn't seem to realize all her clients are gay to a soldier looking for a little companionship. Sometimes Burns gets high-falutin' in his observations, but the sketches give a great feel for life during wartime. Especially memorable was the depiction of an outdoor hospital ward for soldiers with VD and other sexually transmitted diseases. The new drug penicillin meant everyone had to get shots every three hours for days and days until they'd had 60 shots in all. The setting is so fascinating you can't believe it's never been shown in movies or other books. The book certainly isn't bleak -- the characters are far too specific and alive and often self-aware for that. But there is something...pitiless in the way Burns nails these people, from that tiresome Red Cross volunteer to an incompetent major in intelligence who oversees the censoring of letters headed home. Burns is unsparing in his depictions, but just when you might start to get gloomy he allows a little possibility for joy. Just a little. And for a novel from 1947, the casual depiction of soldiers sometimes interested in other soldiers or the local men rather than the local women is eye-opening. You'll find a similar blase attitude in the books by James Jones (like "The Thin Red Line"), but since Burns was gay it's more interwoven throughout the book. There's one brief battle scene towards the end but few books paint a clearer picture of what it was actually like to be there. A lost gem.

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