Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Combination Plate 13

Warning: I will be discussing significant plot
elements and endings.

Edith Wharton
The Reef, a novel

The Reef is one of Edith Wharton's shorter novels and also now one of my favorite works by Wharton. I have enjoyed a number of her novels and short stories, but this one and 'Ethan Frome" are the ones that I would choose to read again if asked. I wouldn't mind rereading others, but these two are special.

The basic story of The Reef is quite simple, but the interactions of the four major characters are among the most complex that I've seen in Wharton's works. George Darrow is a member of the British diplomatic corp who, after many years of separation, has just encountered Anna Leath at a party. She is now a widow, with a daughter, Effie, and a stepson, Owen, with whom she is quite close. The fourth is Sophie Viner, formerly a social secretary to one of the women in George Darrow's circle.

In the beginning of the novel, Anna invites George to stay at her place while they decide their future together, but she puts it off for awhile and then delays it once again. Darrow is understandably upset by this. He is uncertain about what to do but decides to go to Paris (her home is in France) anyway. On the trip across the Channel, he meets Sophie Viner whom he vaguely remembers as part of the background at various house parties. She is no longer employed and is traveling to France to visit some friends and hopes to be able to stay with them while she figures out what she is to do next.

Darrow decides to show her what Paris has to offer: plays, opera, museums, restaurants. She puts off contacting her friends, and he remains in Paris for about ten days as he plays tourist guide. His leave is up and he returns to London while she plans to get in touch with her friends.

Months later, Anna Leath again writes him, finally issuing him an invitation.

Upon arrival at Anna's home, he is shocked to discover that Anna has hired Sophie Viner to be the governess for her daughter Effie. Just as he's recovering from this shock, he learns that Owen Leath, Anna's step-son, is planning to marry Sophie, against the wishes of the family matriarch, his grandmother. Anna has decided to support Owen in this family struggle and attempts to enlist George's aid.

Life becomes a series of crises and resolutions. One problem arises, and it is resolved, only to have another appear, which is soon solved, supposedly.
This results in an extremely high level of tension throughout much of the work, especially after Darrow finally is allowed to visit Anna. This is something I usually don't find in her novels.

Eventually George and Sophie's prior encounter comes out, and this has an effect on Owen's feelings towards Sophie. Moreover, Anna finds she can no longer trust George, even though she loves him. She realizes that she can't tell when he is lying and when he is telling the truth.

One can see some interesting parallels in the work. The POV character in the first part is George while Anna is given that role in the second part. In the first part, both George and Anna are closely involved with young and attractive people--George with Sophie and Anna with Owen. In fact she decided to put off George's visit because she wanted to spend some more time with Owen. And, ironically, it was this brought George and Sophie together, just as her decision to hire Sophie as governess brought Owen and Sophie together. Also during the first part, George needs to meet with Sophie several times to clarify some ambiguities in their relationship, while in the second part, it's Anna who finds it necessary to meet with Sophie for clarification.

The Reef is the perfect title for this work because a reef is a hidden barrier, rock or coral, that would sink a ship that runs across it. And, so it is with this novel. Anna's letter that put off George's visit has tragic consequences for all four people.

There is a film version of this, but unfortunately it is not yet available on Netflix. Guess I'll just have to wait awhile.

Overall Rating: one of my favorite works by Edith Wharton.


The Guns of Navarone, a film
Based on the novel of the same name by Alastair MacLean

This is a World War II adventure film. The British fleet must rescue several thousand British troops from an island in the Aegean Sea. Unfortunately the only approach to the island is controlled by two huge radar-controlled German guns. To attempt a rescue with those guns operable would be suicidal. Bombardment by sea and from the air has proved ineffectual. Somebody is going to have to go there and destroy them--a j0b for the Mission Impossible Team. And as in all good caper films, a team is made up, each member having a special talent.

It's a good solid war action film, which lacks the usual superhuman stunts frequently found in such films. The problems are realistic and they survive because the Germans are human also, and not Teutonic supermen nor, and the other hand, are they the mindless dolts often found in war films. The team just barely survives a storm which destroys their boat, and they lose much of their equipment. It also becomes evident that the Germans are aware of their plans because every place they go, the Germans are there, waiting for them. The question is whether there was a spy at the British HQ where the plans were made or there is a traitor among them.

Racking up the tension level a few steps higher is the relationship between the Peck character and the Quinn character. They have a history and at the beginning of the mission, when Peck and Quinn meet, Quinn says that after the mission is completed, he will kill Peck.

What makes this film stand out is its cast:
Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Irene Pappas, David Niven, Richard Harris, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, and Gia Scala.

Overall Rating: good solid action film, with a sufficiently satisfying and explosive ending, and a great cast, who could read the telephone book and make it worth the price of admission.


Malla Nunn
A Beautiful Place to Die
Mystery Novel, police procedural
South Africa

A Beautiful Place to Die is Malla Nunn's first novel and is a very good first novel. I'm looking forward to the second in the series.

The place is Jacob's Falls, a small village outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the time is the early 1950's, shortly after the apartheid laws were passed by the parliament. Detective inspector Emanuel Cooper has been sent from Johannesburg to Jacob's Rest, for the white captain of the local police force has died, and Cooper's job was simply to make a report to his superiors. Upon arrival though, he finds that Captain Pretorius has obviously been murdered.
Cooper is now in a difficult situation; he must investigate the murder of a police officer in a small town which, like all small towns, views outsiders with suspicion.

Cooper's job is made more difficult by the separation of the races by the newly passed laws. Fortunately Shabalala, the black constable (and probably destined, because of his color, to remain a constable forever) was a close friend of the captain, having grown up together, and proves to be an invaluable aid to Cooper whenever he had to deal with the black Africans.

Another obstacle is the presence of members of the Special Branch Section, who are little better than thugs with badges. They believe the murder was committed by communist black agitators as part of their plan to instigate a revolt against the rule of the white Afrikaners. Consequently they ignore any evidence that points elsewhere. Fortunately Cooper is ignored by them and is able to conduct his own clandestine investigation under the cover of a search for a peeping tom who has been active for several months. Constable Shabalala, since he is assisting the Special Branch investigators, manages to work with Cooper and provides information about the "official investigation" of the SB officers.

As could be predicted, Coooper's investigation reveals the many dark secrets that lurk in the closets of most of the people in Jacob's Falls, and some of those secrets are relevant, while others, of course, are embarrassing but have little to do with the ongoing investigation. Even Cooper himself, we find, has his own problems that while quiescent now could mean the end of his career.

One of the most perplexing secrets isn't revealed in this volume; all we get are a few clues about the puzzle that is Zweigman, the Jewish storekeeper. Cooper discovers that Zweigman has some medical training. As his investigation proceeds, Cooper realizes that Zweigman, in fact, is a trained surgeon. This is not simply a case of an immigrant with medical training that is not acceptable in his new home. Zweigman has been licensed to practice medicine; therefore it is his choice to run a small store in a very small town. We never do find out his story, but at the end, he has decided to take up a medical practice and is preparing to leave for Johannesburg. Since Cooper also lives and works in Johannesburg, I hope he will play a role in the next novel.

Nunn skillfully interweaves the apartheid setting into the plot, so that it isn't just something included for atmosphere but an integral part of the investigation. The apartheid laws were intended to maintain a separation among the whites and the black Africans and the Asians in South Africa, but it was too late. Cooper's investigation demonstrates just how closely the races are intertwined. While the laws were designed to keep the black Africans in their place, the laws also handicapped the whites, for they also had lost a certain freedom because of the laws.

The second book in the series, Let the Dead Lie, is due out in hardbound and trade paperback editions on April 20, 2010.

Overall Rating: The novel has a sufficiently, but not overly, complex plot and several interesting characters whom I hope will be in the second book, and I'm definitely going to read the second book.


Bruce Sterling
Involution Ocean, an SF novel

Moby Dick meets Dune.

This is a slender novel, barely 180 pages in length. It lacks the depth and complexity of many of Sterling's other works, Schismatrix for example, but it is a satisfying read.

The story takes place on the planet Nullaqua, which perfectly describes the planet--no water. The ocean is actually dust. With strong winds and sails, ships sail across the dust as ships on earth do on water.

John Newhouse, the POV character, is persuaded by those living in his boarding house to sign aboard a dustwhaler in order to get a supply of syncophrine. Syncophrine is a mind altering drug, highly prized for its highs, even though long usage leads inevitably to death. Syncophrine is the product of the dustwhales, who live only in the great sea of dust on Nullaquam, as spice is produced only by the great sandworms in Herbert's Dune.

Captain Desperandum of the good ship Lunglance, though no Captain Ahab, still has his obsession, which like Captain Ahab's, is bound to result in a tragedy. Deperandum's obsession is science. On board he conducts various scientific experiments that take them away from the dustwhale habitats. Moreover, his experiments frequently are dangerous and often put various members of the crew, as well as himself, at risk. Desperandum, like Ahab, is doomed by his obsession.

And, as on so many planets, things aren't what they appear to be. Humans, Newhouse discovers, aren't the only sapient creatures on the planet. Something, unknown so far to the humans, lives beneath the surface of the dust.

Newhouse also finds love aboard ship. Dalusa, an alien birdwoman, is the lookout for the ship. Their romance is mostly platonic for she is highly allergic to enzymes produced by human bodies and will break into a painful rash if touched by humans. At the end, Newhouse, like Ishmael, decides it's time to leave and goes his way the same way he arrived on Nullaqua, alone, but changed.

Overall Rating: This is Sterling's first novel, according to the Wikipedia entry, and while it isn't a complex or as well-developed as Schismatrix or some of his other works, it is an interesting and intriguing read--what appears to be a skillful blend of an 19th century classic and a 20th century SF novel.

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