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A.J. (Maryland)

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The Octopus: A Story of California
The Octopus: A Story of California
by Frank Norris
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 19.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wheat barons vs. railroad barons, July 8 2002
Based on an actual incident, "The Octopus" is set in the San Joaquin Valley of central California towards the end of the 19th century -- not long before it was written. It concerns a dispute between the Pacific & Southwestern Railroad (in historical reality, the Southern Pacific) which owns the land it runs through and the tenant wheat ranchers who farm it. For one thing, the ranchers would like to own the land by buying it off the railroad, but the railroad raises the price per acre to exorbitant levels in violation of a previous contract; also, the ranchers are protesting the railroad's monopolistic policy of charging high freight rates for shipping wheat, which cuts into their profits.
The characterization of the novel is rather straightforward. The "heroes" are the ranchers, which include "Governor" Magnus Derrick, an ostensibly upstanding politician; Broderson, an ineffectual old man; Osterman, a loudmouthed joker; Annixter, an irascible and obstinate misogynist; and an engineer named Dyke who starts his own hops business after being laid off by the railroad. The author himself is presumably represented by a third-party observer named Presley, a poet who lives on the Derrick ranch and is using the scenery and the conflict as inspiration. The "villain" is, of course, the railroad, which is personified by a porcine banker named S. Behrman who acts as the railroad's agent and mouthpiece and whose frequent insensitivity and cruelty reduces him to a simplistic caricature.
The ranchers decide that the best way to keep the railroad's freight rates under control is to elect their own officials to the state Railroad Commission, which would entail bribery; after all, the railroad practically owns the Commission as it is. Despite their getting the Governor's son, Lyman Derrick, to represent them on the Commission, the ranchers' scheme proves ineffective. The railroad ultimately offers the wheat land for sale at the raised prices and sends "dummy" buyers out to dispossess the ranchers, who arm themselves to defend their homes. The result is a shockingly violent confrontation that shakes Presley's sentiments to the core.
"The Octopus" has some elements that I found distracting, puzzling, or faulty. First, there is not just one but *two* romantic subplots: Annixter's difficult courtship with a girl whose family works on his ranch (but at least we see how his marriage transforms his character positively and plausibly); and the shepherd/spiritualist Vanamee's incomprehensible nightly summonings of the ghost of his long-lost love Angele. Some of the dialogue is rendered flaccid by the use of euphemisms -- it's unbelievable that Annixter would refrain from calling Behrman anything worse than a "pip." The unctuous tone it applies to its oppressed-worker-vs.-corporate-monster theme is similar to the approach Steinbeck would use almost forty years later in "The Grapes of Wrath."
Despite its obvious flaws, however, "The Octopus" manages to be an exemplary work of American literature. The subject matter is unique and necessary for its time, and the commercial and legal aspects of the conflict are treated with maturity and confidence. It uses the perpetual production of wheat as a metaphor for the continuous cycle of the good of the earth prevailing over the evil of men. But most importantly, it achieves the highest purpose of a novel about business: It examines the integrity and resolve of men faced with financial ruin.

by Mary Shelley
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars A prototype of Romantic horror, June 27 2002
It's surprising how little this grim, melodramatic novel has in common with many of the horror movies it inspired. The theory that it's a warning of science and technology going awry is, I think, an overstatement of its prophetic capacity. Mary Shelley's novel does not appear to have much of an interest in science per se, and is less about creation than it is about the relationship between the creator and the created.
The novel's structure is indirect for reasons that become apparent at its end. An English sea captain named Walton is writing letters to his sister, telling her about a man his ship has rescued from an abandoned ice floe on a polar expedition. The man's name is Victor Frankenstein, and he commences to tell Walton his Long Story...
Intensely interested in science as a boy growing up in Geneva, Victor fulfilled his studies at a university and hoped to make some earth-shattering scientific breakthrough. He decides that a fascinating project would be to find a way to re-animate the dead. Collecting body parts from charnel houses and assembling them into a gigantic golem, he manages to bring this thing to life (refusing to disclose the scientific method). Fearful and regretful of the powerful outcome of his experiment, he is relieved when the monster walks mutely and mindlessly out of his apartment, never to return. Oddly enough, over the next two years, he is not concerned with where the monster has gone or what it is doing.
When his youngest brother, William, is murdered, Victor suspects his monster; vacationing in the Alps a few months later, he comes across the monster, who not only has learned to talk but has become quite eloquent. The monster tells Victor that his many efforts to befriend people and enter into society have been spurned due to his frightening appearance, and his resulting loneliness and anger incited him to kill. He insists that Victor, as his creator, has an obligation to provide him with a female companion, and demands that he make one for him. However, Victor is unwilling to add to the population of violent creatures, and the monster takes his revenge out on even more of Victor's loved ones. Distraught to the point of insanity, Victor turns vigilante and pursues the monster all over the world, swearing to destroy it once and for all.

"Frankenstein" is an allegorical tale of creation and examines a creator's responsibility and accountability for his creation's deeds or misdeeds. In this regard, Victor is essentially an irresponsible creator. He is not concerned with his monster's whereabouts until after one of his siblings is murdered; he could have taken responsibility for his creature immediately upon creation, but shortsightedly chose not to. The monster, on the other hand, was essentially a good creature until human society made him miserable and vengeful; in terms of his emotions, his intelligence, and his vindictiveness, he's ironically the most "human" character in the novel. Both man and monster are culpable, but the former is less excusable.

by Vladimir Nabokov
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.52
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5.0 out of 5 stars The greatest American love story, June 24 2002
This review is from: Lolita (Paperback)
"You chump," she said, sweetly smiling at me. "You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you've done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man."
-- Thus the relationship between Dolores "Lolita" Haze, 12-year-old American vixen, and her stepfather/guardian/seducer/lover Humbert Humbert, writer, teacher, Parisian immigrant who embarks with her on a journey into the heartland of America and the sexual unknown. An intriguing premise for a novel, to say the least, and one that has the potential for almost Oedipal levels of Greek tragedy; but "Lolita" is woven from completely original cloth -- provocative, funny, suspenseful, playful; a Russian novelist's celebration of the expanse of the English languague.
The novel is narrated in the first person by Humbert in a tone that deftly alternates between pedantic conceit and heartbreaking wistfulness. It appears that he either has been or will be convicted of a capital crime and is addressing both the interested reader and his lost Lolita, who he knows will never read it. He traces his attraction to "nymphets," pre-teen girls with the uncommon libido to enchant older men, back to his first puppy love, Annabel, who died tragically young. Since then, girls of Annabel's age have become his ideal of femininity and sexuality.
After an unsuccessful marriage, Humbert moves to New York to work for his uncle's business and remains on the prowl for nymphets. A sojourn in New England brings him luck: The house he is staying in, owned by a harpy-like widow named Charlotte Haze, contains the nymphet of his dreams, Charlotte's daughter Dolores (Lolita). The attraction is mutual, unbeknownst to Mrs. Haze, who has her own eye on Humbert and a jealous, contentious attitude towards her daughter. Mrs. Haze sends Lolita to summer camp and proposes marriage to Humbert, who accepts because it will keep him close to Lolita.
Mrs. Haze soon dies -- never mind how for now -- leaving Humbert free to take his "hot downy darling" Lolita with him all over the country in Mrs. Haze's car, "Melmoth" (as in the Wanderer). Their road trips are a tour through kitschy postwar Americana, while Humbert and Lolita consummate their love in various motel rooms. They rent a house in a (different) New England town so Lolita can attend a private school, but eventually they hit the road again, this time pursued by a mysterious fellow in a red convertible -- a detective, or someone with a more sinister motive regarding Lolita? Humbert's passion for her is so strong, so possessive, that any interference in their relationship could drive him to criminal acts of desperation.
Nabokov understands, better than most writers, what makes fiction fun, and he employs the right devices to secure the reader's interest. For example, Nabokov is arguably the master of the art of foreshadowing; attentive readers will be able to connect current events to previous clues as the story continues to unfold. A perverse but strangely personable narrator, a love story that raises eyebrows and avoids nauseating cliches, and imaginatively florid prose make "Lolita" an essential reading experience.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel
by Milan Kundera
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.64
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5.0 out of 5 stars The fragility of existence, June 21 2002
"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is a novel enormously heavy in ideas, intelligence, and intensity, yet it doesn't weigh itself down with verbosity or obscure philosophy; it is unusual in the way it successfully balances erudition with narrative levity. It is a very erotic novel, not in a tawdry or cheap way, but in a way that genuinely understands how important sex is in a relationship and why it is not always an act of love. Part of the novel's tone is political; the setting is Czechoslovakia in the 1960's and 1970's, and as such, Communist oppressiveness drives much of the plot.
The principal character is a Prague surgeon named Tomas, who is divorced and isolated from his ex-wife and son. He is a notorious womanizer, a man who believes that love and sexuality have nothing in common. He continues his habit even after he marries a small-town waitress, named Tereza, with whom he fell in love. One of his mistresses is an artist named Sabina, who in turn has an affair with a married Swiss professor named Franz.
The novel tells the stories of these four people: how they relate, how their lives developed, how they arrived at their attitudes about life, love, and sex. Tereza used to take prudish offense at her mother's lewdness and sought escape through literature; Sabina's strongest link to her past is her grandfather's bowler hat. Franz, as a diffident and studious youth, always longed to be an active member of society, which he accomplishes by joining the "Grand March," a metaphorical parade of ideology, an expression of some form of political or social struggle.
By 1968, democratic reforms were being gradually introduced into the Communist Czech government, prompting the Soviets, who perceived a security threat, to invade. As a result, Tomas and Tereza flee to Zurich but eventually return to Prague, only to face the devastating effects of censorship: Refusing to write a retraction for an anti-Communist letter he had sent to a local newspaper, Tomas is forced to resign his hospital position and is reduced to taking a job as a window washer.
Referring to the title, the novel's main theme is that fate is so fragile and tenuous that existence becomes insubstantial. Much of our "being" -- our physical, mental, social, and emotional states -- depends on our and others' decisions, impulses, and caprices; Tomas ponders that his meeting Tereza depended on six chance happenings, or accidents. (It could be argued that his meeting Tereza depended, theoretically, on an infinite number of accidents. This is what is commonly called "being in the right place at the right time.") Therefore, does existence really mean anything when anything that exists, or any event that happens, could just as easily, through a different set of circumstances, not exist or not have happened?
Kundera fashions the novel with a unique style and even a special lexicon. Words like "weight," "lightness," "unbearable," and "kitsch" are repeated in various contexts like motifs, as is Beethoven and his fatalistic "Es muss sein" ("It must be"). It could take many rereadings to absorb all the ideas in this novel, but that's what makes it the highest kind of literature -- a book that encourages questions, thoughts, and analysis.

Tropic of Cancer
Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.77
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4.0 out of 5 stars Burroughs's Interzone is Miller's Paris., June 18 2002
This review is from: Tropic of Cancer (Paperback)
"Tropic of Cancer" is a book that needs to be read quickly, not to make an end of the task, but to get the full exuberant effect of the narration. Its pacing is restless and energetic, which is all the more amazing considering that it has no plot. I don't know how much of it is fiction, but it is obviously autobiographical and reads like a memoir, detailing its author's experiences living as an American expatriate in Paris in the 1920's.
Henry Miller is a bum (it must be admitted) living among the idle intellectuals in the seedier neighborhoods of Paris (might he have bumped into Hemingway?). He's not always unemployed; he takes temporary jobs like a proofreader at a newspaper and an English instructor at a Lycee in Dijon, and he always has a place to live, albeit filthy. Most of the time he's cavorting with friends, making new ephemeral acquaintances, visiting brothels, and engaging in the kind of promiscuity of which such a life avails itself, despite the fact that he has a wife back in America. He doesn't shy away from any of the disgusting details of living and loving -- in the novel's opening scene, he is shaving his roommate's armpit hair for lice, and believe me, it only gets worse -- but Miller thrives in the squalor and wouldn't have it any other way. Compared to his native New York, which he considers impersonal, cold, and hollow, Paris is warm and intimate, brimming with life and beauty.
"Tropic of Cancer" is very similar to two popular books that followed it by a quarter of a century: Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" in content (run-on anecdotes about outrageous activities with his friends, pulsating with waves of existentialist rambling, the main difference being that Miller is a much better writer than Kerouac), and William S. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" in style (stream-of-consciousness narration using striking imagery in random juxtaposition). Miller possessed the spirit, if not the seed, of the Beat Generation -- his existence can be summarized in his self-description as "spiritually dead, physically alive, morally free."
This is also perhaps the book's greatest fault -- its influence outstrips its literary quality. It may not be a great novel, but it at least it's worthy of its reputation, which is more than can be said for a lot of popular books.

20th Century Man Who Was Thursday
20th Century Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars A nightmare?, June 17 2002
"The Man Who was Thursday" is a fantastic, bizarre puzzle that defies attempts at explanation or description. On the surface, it is a spy story about anarchistic terrorists with elements of suspense and paranoia; as you dig a little deeper, a black comedy emerges; peeling back a few more layers reveals a philosophical underbelly; and it all ends in an uproariously enigmatic denouement worthy of Lewis Carroll. If the book is, as its subtitle indicates, a nightmare, we all should hope to have dreams as sweet as this.
The hero, Gabriel Syme, is a poet-detective (yes, seriously) who works for a special branch of Scotland Yard dedicated to apprehending "intellectual" criminals, particularly anarchists, because they tend to be the most subversive and therefore the most dangerous. By operating undercover as a poet-anarchist, Syme manages to infiltrate the seven-member Central Anarchist Council, who alias themselves using the names of the days of the week, and fills the vacant slot of "Thursday." The Council's main directive is to cast the world into chaos by assassinating heads of state, and their current plan, as masterminded by their president, "Sunday," is to bomb the upcoming meeting of the Russian Czar and the French president in Paris.
It is, of course, up to Syme/Thursday, who is always at risk of being exposed as a policeman, to put a stop to this nefarious scheme, to which there is naturally more than meets the eye. As the plot unfolds, it breaks down (or builds up) into an indescribably wild farce; Syme's mission turns into a picaresque adventure of disguises, a swordfight, and several chases -- involving horses, cars, an elephant, and a hot-air balloon. At the end of the book, a surprise is waiting; a strange detachment from everything that has preceded it, which slyly lets the reader in on its symbolic joke. If not for its relentlessly silly tone and idiosyncratic resolution, "The Man Who was Thursday" could be a perfect sister novel to Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent."
Like fellow British wits Dickens, Wodehouse, and Waugh, Chesterton is that rare sort of writer who is skilled in combining breathtaking narrative with irreverent and intelligent comedy and whose prose is as poetical as it is humorous. The fact that Kingsley Amis called this novel the "most thrilling" book he'd ever read speaks volumes.

Main Street
Main Street
by Sinclair Lewis
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars The evolution of Everytown, U.S.A., June 7 2002
"Main Street": The title alone invokes placid images of the most tranquil pockets of middle America. And Sinclair Lewis could hardly have picked a name more suggestive of rustic simplicity and provinciality than Gopher Prairie for the Minnesota town that is the setting of his novel. Gopher Prairie is supposed to be a prototype of thousands of American small towns in the early decades of the twentieth century, paradise for those who like to cling comfortably to convention, unbearable for those who seek cultural refinement and artistic freedom.
Lewis's protagonist is a bright, pretty, and progressive college-educated girl named Carol Milford who has great dreams of widespread social reform: educating children, aiding the poor, rebuilding and beautifying small towns. Working as a librarian in St. Paul, she meets and falls in love with a visiting country physician named Will Kennicott, who convinces her to marry him and return with him to his native Gopher Prairie, fresh clay to be molded to her heart's delight.
Gopher Prairie turns out to be not much advanced from its days as a frontier settlement. Populated primarily by farmers of Scandinavian descent and a gossipy, judgmental group of white collar townspeople, it is staunchly set in its conservative ways and not very receptive to ideas of change. The town's cultural outlook is dictated by the whitebread tastes of the more outspoken and influential religious leaders, and Carol's efforts to instill a sense of higher culture and broaden people's horizons by starting a theatrical club and getting better books for the library are viewed with suspicion and ridicule. Even Carol's own husband tends to have a nonchalant, dismissive attitude towards her plans. The town's sole rebel is the handyman Miles Bjornstam, a self-described lone wolf and pariah, who likes to taunt the stuffed shirts in town with his defiant disregard for their money, his independence, and his atheistic and socialistic ideas.
Rather than let Carol conquer the town through perseverance, Lewis opts for realism by restraining his heroine's success. After having a baby, she naturally becomes more domesticated and reluctantly gives herself up to the way of life in Gopher Prairie. She has chances to rebel with potential extramarital affairs and a separation from her husband to move to (the less friendly and intimate) Washington, D.C., and get a job, but ultimately she returns to Gopher Prairie, realizing that life is about compromises, and changes and reforms take more time and organization than she has to offer. While her dreams may not be completely fulfilled in her lifetime, there is hope in the future generations.
"Main Street" is ambitious and bold but perhaps does not have quite the impact that Lewis intended. He makes his point relatively early in the novel and spends the remainder of it spinning out variations on his theme of Carol vs. Gopher Prairie, relying on scenes connected episodically rather than on an arching plotline. What Lewis lacks in narrative acumen, he more than makes up for in drawing distinctive characters and scripting sharp dialogue with a good ear for dialect. When he coalesces this skill with a focused story and a strong social statement, as he does in his later, better novel "Elmer Gantry," he proves himself to be a worthy rabble-rouser in American literature.

by Aristotle
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.98
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5.0 out of 5 stars The earliest textbook for dramatists, May 31 2002
This review is from: Poetics (Paperback)
The "Poetics" contains Aristotle's observations on what elements and characteristics comprised the best tragedies based on the ones he'd presumably seen or read. He divides "poetry," which could be defined as imitations of human experience, into tragedy, comedy, and epic, and explains the differences between these forms, although comedy is not covered in detail and tragedy gets the most treatment. For one thing, tragedy, he states, seeks to imitate the matters of superior people, while comedy seeks to imitate the matters of inferior people.
To Aristotle, the most important constituent of tragedy is plot, and successful plots require that the sequence of events be necessary (required to happen to advance the story logically and rationally) and probable (likely to happen given the circumstances). Any plot that does not feature such a necessary and probable sequence of events is deemed faulty. Reversals and recognitions are plot devices by which tragedy sways emotions, particularly those that induce "pity and fear," as is astonishment, which is the effect produced when the unexpected happens. He discusses the best kinds of tragic plots, the kinds of characters that are required, and how their fortunes should change over the course of the plot for optimum tragic effect.
With regard to poetic language or "diction," he emphasizes the importance of figurative language (metaphor, analogy) in poetry and the importance of balancing figurative with literal language. It is his opinion that metaphoric invention is a natural ability and not something that can be taught. Of all the poets Aristotle mentions who exemplify the ideals proposed in the "Poetics," Homer draws the most praise.
Malcolm Heath's introduction in the Penguin Classics edition offers some helpful and amusing clarification and commentary on the "Poetics," including a demonstration of the Aristotelian method of constructing a tragedy using the story of Oedipus as an example. A work that is scant in volume but rich in ideas, the "Poetics" demands to be read by all those interested in ancient thought on literature.

by Henry James
Edition: School & Library Binding
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4.0 out of 5 stars New England provinciality meets Parisian charm, May 29 2002
Was there any American more European than Henry James? "The Ambassadors" begins in England and takes place mostly in Paris, and even though most of its characters are American, it is only referentially concerned with its author's native country. At the same time, the novel is not about Americans frivolously sowing their wild oats in exotic ancestral lands, but rather how they use their new settings to break away from restrictive American traditions and conventions and redefine their values and standards of living.
The main character is a late-middle-aged widower named Lambert Strether who edits a local periodical in the town of Woollett, Massachussetts, and is a sort of factotum for a wealthy industrialist's widow named Mrs. Newsome, a woman he may possibly marry. Strether's latest assignment from Mrs. Newsome is to go to Paris to convince her son, Chad, to give up what she assumes is a hedonistic lifestyle and return to Woollett to marry a proper, respectable young lady, his brother-in-law's sister to be specific. There is a greater ulterior motive, too -- the prosperity of the family business relies on Chad's presence.
In Paris, Strether finds that Chad has surrounded himself with a more stimulating group of friends, including a mousy aspiring painter named John Little Bilham, and that he is in love with an older, married woman named Madame de Vionnet. Providing companionship and counsel to Strether in Paris are his old friend, a retired businessman named Waymarsh, and a woman he met in England, named Maria Gostrey, who happens to be an old schoolmate of the Madame's. When it appears that Strether is failing in his mission to influence Chad, Mrs. Newsome dispatches her daughter and son-in-law, Jim and Sarah (Newsome) Pocock, and Jim's marriageable sister Mamie, to Paris to apply pressure. Ultimately, Strether, realizing that he's blown his chances with Mrs. Newsome and that Chad has the right idea anyway, finds himself enjoying the carefree life in Paris, which has liberated him from his lonely, stifling existence in Woollett.
Not having cared much for James's previous work "The Wings of the Dove," I felt something click with "The Ambassadors." Maybe it's because I found the story a little more absorbing and could empathize with Strether; maybe it's because my reading skills are maturing and I'm learning to appreciate James's dense, oblique prose style. I realize now that, for all the inherent difficulty in his writing, literature took a giant step forward with Henry James; if the Novel is, as he claimed, "the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms," it takes a writer like James to show us how.

Deep River
Deep River
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3.0 out of 5 stars Deep river, shallow story, May 28 2002
This review is from: Deep River (Paperback)
Shusaku Endo's "Deep River" is the story of several Japanese tourists on a sightseeing trip to visit various Hindu and Buddhist holy sites in the region of the Ganges River in India. For four of these tourists, however, this trip is more like a pilgrimage; each is at a point of spiritual or moral uncertainty in his or her life and is seeking some sort of redemption, closure, or significance.
First we meet Isobe, an elderly man who recently has lost his wife to cancer. Although skeptical at first, he now has hope that his wife has been reincarnated, and he has evidence he might find her in India. Then there is Mitsuko, a woman who, when in college, seduced a pious Christian student named Otsu just for fun, to see if she could lure him away from his God; after an unhappy marriage she devoted her time to charitable hospital work and is now searching for Otsu, who she has heard is now a Catholic priest living in India. Numada is a children's story writer who gets his inspiration from imagined communications with animals; recovering from tuberculosis, he comes to believe that a bird his wife bought for him as a pet died in place of him. He has come to India to see the bird and animal sanctuaries. Kiguchi is an ex-soldier who suffered horrible near-death experiences in World War II Burma; he has come to India to memorialize his fallen war comrades.
My feelings about this novel are divided. On one hand, Endo's descriptions of Indian scenery and customs from the Japanese vantage point and the culture clash are excellent; he writes poignantly, if a little too sentimentally; and his hope for peace between the religions of the world is certainly noble. (Repudiating Christianity's Eurocentrism, Otsu believes God can be found among all nations and religions.)
On the other hand, the simplicity with which Endo presents his protagonists and their situations implies that the author is more interested in conveying his personal religious convictions than in pure narrative invention. His symbols of the divine (Otsu as a Christ-like savior, Gaston the hospital volunteer as an angel) are so transparent, they seem less like literary devices than arbitrary miraculous avatars, especially towards the end, where the novel's tone becomes increasingly didactic. Case in point: The tour group includes a young married couple named the Sanjos, whose selfish, insensitive, and materialistic attitudes seem to represent the modern affluent Japan and what Endo feels is an arrogant, godless society. Their speech and actions are too unrealistically annoying, too unconvincing, as though Endo were manipulatively trying to make his readers hate them and see his point. This is some of the most contrived characterization I've seen in any novel meant to be read by adults.
"Deep River" is a nicely written novel of good intentions, but it is more craft than art, and it ultimately reads more like a laundry list of conventional religious platitudes than an enduring piece of literature.

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