Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book 12: Paris Without End

Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife by Gioia Diliberto

Historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres for a long time but in the past year, I have been becoming rather frustrated with it. I don't know if I keep getting the wrong novels, but a few novels in particular have all felt like they were narrated by the same slightly passive female with the occasional modern idea about equality. I understand it can be tough to appease a reader - if you make your character too passive, modern readers will have a hard time relating or symphatizing (see Katherine by Anya Seton) but make the character too modern, and she won't make sense in her historical context. I think the problem might be that I've been picking up historical fiction written from the perspective of real women rather than historical fiction about fake people that happen to hang out with important historical figures (and yet, one of my favorite novels is The Memoirs of Cleopatra which is a first person narrative as told by Cleopatra so it can be done well). All of this is basically to explain that last summer I read The Paris Wife which is a historical fiction novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, and while I thought the last half was intriguing, other parts left me rather cold. When I saw a non-fiction account of her story, I decided I wanted to get the reality.

I went through a Hemingway phase in high school. We read a few his short stories that I really enjoyed, and I read a few of his novels. To be honest, I'm not even sure at this point anymore if I liked them or if I was trying to better myself by reading the classics and just kept pushing myself through. However, I think I was a bit bored with For Whom the Bells Tolls, liked A Farewell to Arms more (but I think I was ready for it to end) and actually really, really liked The Sun Also Rises. I didn't see the point of To Have and Have Not at all, didn't know what he was trying to say, and other than a chapter of A Moveable Feast which I couldn't get into, I haven't read anything else by Hemingway since. Basically, I'm not sure why I would be interested in reading about Hemingway or his wives because he isn't one of my favorite authors except that his name does hold such prominence in literature even now.

Overall, I would say The Paris Wife got the story right. Diliberto had access to tape recorded interviews with Hadley and the many letters she wrote to Hemingway. Diliberto argues that Hemingway wrote his best creative works while with Hadley, and that she influenced him to develop the simple style he became so famous for. She uses many of Hadley's letters and remarks to support this idea, and refers to ideas/concepts that Hadley wrote that later echo in Hemingway's novels (of course I was feeling contradictory, so I couldn't help but wonder if maybe Hadley was quoting Hemingway to himself in those letters since we don't know what conversations they had and Diliberto even said that Hadley burned many of Hemingway's letters to her after their divorce). While I think it is an interesting and valid argument, I didn't really find myself that interested in Hemingway or Hadley. Some of the backstory is definitely of interest, but Hemingway was also narcissistic and egotistical. In fact, I was more interested in Hadley's life prior to her relationship with Ernest Hemingway.  Her mother was a leading feminist in St. Louis but Hadley had very different views from her.  Oddly enough, while her mother was a feminist, she also treated Hadley like an invalid so there are definitely some conflicting ideas regarding gender going on in that household.  However, once the book started focusing on Hadley and Ernest as a couple, it became less interesting.  Their love letters to each other are too mushy for my tastes. Diliberto mentions that many of Hemingways' lovers in his stories and novels express a desire to be the same person, two sides of the same coin, sometimes cutting or growing their hair out to be more similar. Personally, if I met a couple like that, I would be incredibly annoyed. So while perhaps this was supposed to show how close they were, instead it made me dislike the two - also, way too many nicknames. That may have been a '20s thing though.

It is only after Hemingway has his affair, and Diliberto shows the messiness of the affair and the divorce that the book became more interesting to me (which is actually the same time frame during which The Paris Wife picked up for me). As far as Diliberto's argument regarding Hemingway as an author, I am not familiar enough with Hemingway's body of work to say whether it was valid or not though The Sun Also Rises and his short stories are the pieces that impressed me the most so that falls right in line with her idea. Given that Hemingway's last work was A Moveable Feast, I also think it is a valid argument that Hemingway ended up idealizing his memory of Hadley and their relationship. Overall, this probably would be a good book for someone that is a Hemingway fan, but I don't fit in that category and didn't really enjoy reading about their various fishing and hiking trips.  I was also amazed by many times Hadley and Ernest would appear to just leave their son for a month or two and go on vacation - and they were considered the family oriented and stable ones among the expatriates in Paris.

Book 11: A Curtain Falls

A Curtain Falls by Stefanie Pintoff

In her sequel to In the Shadow of Gotham, Pintoff once again follows the detective Simon Ziele as he faces another intricate case. Ziele still lives in the sleepy town of Dobson, but finds himself called back to New York City when his old partner Declan Mulvaney calls him in for assistance on a case involving minor actresses in New York's theater district. What at first appears to be a suicide is actually an elaborately staged murder that is the second of its kind and threatens to be the beginning of a spree.

Despite some initial reservations, Ziele involves Alistair Sinclair, a criminologist. While criminology is still a developing science, Ziele's previous interactions with Sinclair have made him more open to its use than some of the more traditional-minded police men such as his partner Mulvaney. While today's readers raised on CSI and crime novels looks at Mulvaney's suspicions as simplistic (one note left at the scene makes reference to Pygmalion, a character an actors had happened to play earlier in the season so that actor becomes a suspect), Pintoff does a good job of setting her novel in a historical context and explaining how people viewed criminals in those times. Additionally, Mulvaney has quite a bit of political pressure on him to find a suspect. Besides, Ziele is also rather single-minded in his focus, and while it eventually leads him in the right direction, he was definitely approaching it from the wrong angle.

Due to the time period and the fact that Pintoff deals with the development of criminology, the covers of her novels keep comparing her to Caleb Carr and The Alienist. While I can see the comparison, I actually prefer Pintoff's novels - since they are a series, she keeps her novels shorter, and keeps the story moving a bit faster. The Alienist may have more literary merit, but I'd rather read more about Ziele and his relationship with Sinclair and Sinclair's widowed daughter in law.

Book 10: Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

I liked the novel World War Z a lot, and loved the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles so it is no surprise that I would pick up a novel about robots taking over the world narrated via a series of vignettes.

The novel begins with the final victory over the robot mastermind Archos after which human squads are left with the task of taking out unorganized, mindless robotic tools. Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace and his team stumble upon one device that ends up containing the history of the New War, bringing together various footage of the men and women that fought against the robot takeover. While Cormac resists at first, he realizes that maybe these stories are worth saving, and begins to transcribe some of them. He notes that he couldn't possibly transcribe everything and that these are only a few of thousands of more stories contained in the black box record they discovered.

This of course helps explain why the narrative focuses on the people it does (the narrator ends up playing a prominent role in the novel). While World War Z gives snap shots from many different viewpoints, Robopocalypse doesn't quite follow through on this premise. Instead, it focuses on a smaller group of characters that will all end up related in some shape or form, and charts their progress. Many people in fact have several chapters devoted to them throughout the novel and its different parts.

It was definitely an enjoyable read, but I also think the beginning was more interesting - watching the development and spread of the "virus," the signs that the robots could be turning against the humans and how agencies reacted. The initial build-up to the New War, and its immediate aftermath were better developed than the follow on portions about the human resistance at which point it became the usual shoot 'em up narrative.

Also, since robots are sentient beings rather than mindless zombie hordes, I would have enjoyed a bit more about their possible motivations. In the very first vignette, Archos decides he wants to destroy humans, but I'm not entirely sure what the motivation was behind the human work camps established after the onset of the war, or even healing people's injuries at these camps (I didn't really get the impression that Archos was trying to create a human/robot super-being) unless it was simply to use them as bait for resistance fighters. While one character makes this point in passing, it seemed like this was one of the results of the labor camps, not the reasons for its existence.

Overall, definitely a fun read, but given the choice between World War Z and Robopocalypse, I would go with World War Z because I liked that novel's global approach to the zombie epidemic, and it also had a few stories that dealt specifically with the aftermath of the zombie wars, showing how society had to rebuild and pick up the pieces afterwards. Given some of the things brought up in Robopocalypse, it definitely would have been interesting to see how humans would rebuild and act in this post-apocalyptic world and how they would deal with some of the reprecussions of this technological revolution.