Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Reading this "novel" is like wading through molasses. It's unbelievably slow and turgid -- and all about how the protagonist is a genius, but unrecognized in the world (and yet, what has Haller actually ever done? He's only special because Hesse tells us so). It's hard to believe that this is great literature when we have the likes of Joyce, who can draw us a character going through existential despair in a few pages, and leave you aching.

Any story in "Dubliners" has more depth and feeling than the whole "Treatise of the Steppenwolf", and in fewer pages by far.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

At Swim-two-birds

I just finished reading At Swim-two-birds, and what a phantasmagorical book it was. It's hard to avoid a comparison with Ulysses, particularly the "Oxen of the Sun" and "Cyclops" sections, but O'Brian is taking his own path. Joyce is using the language of epic to describe a quotidian day, and somewhat to obscure what's really going on. It's easy to read those episodes and miss important entrances and exits, or to miss important dialogue. But in At Swim-two-birds, it's never unclear who's talking or what's going on.

Instead, O'Brian is playing around with the whole concept of authorship. Are the self-consciously labelled autobiographical sections really autobiographical? And does it matter? Do they tie into the fictional part? And, if so, which fictional part?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

It seemed a bit odd to me to have the fifth Thursday Next book be called First Among Sequels, but, in the end, the important thing is to have a fifth TN book, whatever the title. (I do understand that we could consider the first 4 volumes one big story, but I think that Fforde just thought of the title too late to use for the second book)

And what a wonderful book it is. I wasn't super-thrilled with the previous TN book, and I felt like they'd been going a bit downhill, but here Fforde is in prime form. The plot isn't confused, the way the previous one had been, and he finds time to give Thursday some emotionally resonant bits, like her relationship with her imaginary daughter Jenny. It's hard to say if this book is better than The Eyre Affair, which had the advantage of being first, and such a cool idea, but it's certainly the best since then.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


I just finished reading Joyce's Dubliners. I'm not really sure why I've waited this long to read it -- I love Ulysses, and I enjoyed Portrait. Maybe I was worried about being let down -- after all, Joyce matured considerably as a writer between Dubliners and Ulysses.

But I needn't have worried -- Dubliners was fantastic. Joyce is very different here from in Ulysses. In Ulysses, Joyce is largely inward-focused, even, I think, in the most impersonal chapters (the catechism chapter and the Circe section). In most of Dubliners, though, what we get is mostly impersonal. In "Clay", for example, Tom is moved almost to tears at the end of the story, but Joyce doesn't tell us why. Even the first-person narrative stories don't tell us much about what the protagonists are actually feeling.

The exceptions are "Eveline", "The Little Cloud", and "The Dead." I think "Eveline" was one of the weaker stories precisely because it is so inward-focused. It's just so obvious where it's going, and so the epiphany doesn't feel like a true sudden awakening. "The Little Cloud", I think, is starting to move in a different direction from "Eveline". It's true that we see most of the story through the main character's eyes, and we get to see some of his thinking, but it's clear that a lot of what he's seeing isn't necessarily true (for example, he's envious of his friend Gallaher's life, whereas I think the audience is supposed to see Gallaher's lifestyle as meretricious.)

This is a move toward the Joyce of "Portrait", and "The Dead" moves even closer toward the style of that book. "The Dead" is relatively inward-focused -- we largely see things through the protagonist Gabriel's eyes, and get his opinions of people. As in "The Little Cloud," we readers may draw different conclusions from Gabriel's, but "The Dead" is more tight-fisted in giving away non-Gabriel information. Overall, I found "The Dead" exhilirating to read, and the most hopeful story in the book. We see that Gabriel may have the self-awareness and ability to change. Most of the characters attain the self-awareness that they're stuck in a bad place by the end of their stories, but they lack the ability or desire to actually change. Gabriel shows that he's willing to think about his life and others outside of himself. Can he actually make the jump to changing his life?

I've spent most of this post talking about three stories, but what about the others?

It seems to me that in the other stories, Joyce was working with a very flat style of story-telling. He gives us the facts, almost as an impartial observer, and lets us readers decide our relationship to the story. He stacks the deck a bit in his word choice, though. For instance, in one story he uses the word "artistes" several times, till it sticks out like a sort thumb, but he never uses the word elsewhere. Clearly, he's setting up the protagonist as a bit of a poseur, without actually telling us in so many words.

Even though Joyce moved on to other things in Portrait and Ulysses, I think the stories in Dubliners are really wonderful examples of how great a writer Joyce could be, even when not playing with the pyrotechics of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gorky Park

The first book I read on the trip was Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, which aims very high, even if it doesn't quite hit its mark. The book is about a Russian detective, Arkady Renko, who gets drawn into a plot to smuggle sables out of Russia and create a new sable industry in the US.

It seems that Smith is aiming for the lofty territory of le Carre, drawing equivalences between Americans and Russians (everyone's after money, loyalties shift very freely, and so on), with a world-weary hero. But Gorky Park doesn't have the moral bite le Carre often has. In le Carre's books, people have principles, and the drama is in how much they'll compromise them, or even undermine them while ostensibly promoting them. For example, the way that a democratic government will try to prop up dictators, or even undermine fledgling democratic movements, if it seems to be in the national interest.

In Gorky Park, so many of the characters are venal, that there's no real tragedy; it becomes a game of watching how the pieces move. As it happens, Smith has put together a fascinating game to watch, and it's an excellent novel, but I kept hoping for just a little bit more.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New York Trilogy

Just got back from our honeymoon to Belize. Great trip! Also great for my reading -- I got through 6 books on the trip. Too many to write about right now, so I'm just going to talk about the most interesting one, maybe with a line or two about the others some other time.

Most thought-provoking was definitely Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. The trilogy consists of three odd short stories, City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.

City of Glass
sets the tone by its combination of literary story and detective story. Writer Quinn gets a phone call by someone looking for the famous detective Paul Auster, and gets sucked into the middle of a dysfunctional family relationship. He's hired to tail a man who tortured his son to test his theories of language development, but loses track of the man, and goes into this weird fugue state as he tries to find the man again.

Ghosts is the story of a detective, Blue, who's hired to watch a man, Black, who sits in his room all day writing. Blue eventually decides to take a more active role, and confronts Black directly, only to find that Black is actually the man who hired him, and that Black is writing the story of Blue's surveillance.

In The Locked Room, Fanshawe, a long-distant friend of the narrator's, suddenly disappears, naming the narrator his literary executor. The narrator then sets out to find Fanshawe.

It's been commonly noticed that all three novels share a detective-novel theme. I think that it's not so commonly noticed that all of them dwell on one aspect of the detective novel, namely shadowing a suspect. This is notable, I think, because following someone is the most passive common activity in what is generally thought of as an action-oriented genre. In the outer two books, the heroes are writers, which makes them natural observers. Blue, in Ghosts, is an actual detective, and he takes the most active steps in breaking out of the mold that someone else has set for him.

I found all three novellas somewhat disturbing, particularly The Locked Room, which rings so true to life in so many ways. They all deal to some extent with a breakdown in sanity -- when can you really tell that you've gone over the edge? For Quinn the fall is sudden and obvious -- but does Blue ever fall over the line? What about the narrator of The Locked Room?

Friday, November 7, 2008

History of Love, the Resurrectionist, the Limits of Enchantment

Three fairly literary books this time.

The History of Love is about a book called The History of Love and its author, although we don't actually learn that till near the end. Along the way, we meet Leo and Alma, the former a Jew who escaped the Nazis, the latter a young girl looking for a father figure. The actual story is very complex, maybe needlessly so -- Kraus does a lot of maneuvering to get everyone into the right places at the right times. I also felt that it was a book aiming to be uplifting -- Leo dies in the arms of someone who knows who he is, instead of anonymously, which was his great fear.

But I felt more depressed than uplifted at the end. To get to this blessed state, Leo has spend the last 20? 30? years friendless and alone, to the point where he had to make up an imaginary friend just to get by. Alma never really finds what she's looking for, and her brother is clearly autistic, and presumably undiagnosed -- he's seeing a therapist by the end, but it's not clear that that's going to help.

I'll probably have to read The Resurrectionist at least once more to understand what Jack O'Connell, the author, is saying. The novel starts with a clear delineation between reality and fantasy, but by the end, it's not really clear to what extent the protagonist is hallucinating. Overall, it was a really great mind-bending read, but I felt it was seriously marred by the noir elements. Unlike Will Baer, who uses the noir elements of his work as a background against which the more literary elements can work, O'Connell keeps foregrounding them, and it feels like the rest of the story is fighting against the more stock pieces.

Why is Sweeny the pharmacist not dismissed for beating up a co-worker on the first day of the job? How does Nadia the nurse get a job at a research hospital with no credentials? How can Buzz Cote be taken seriously as a father figure?

I'd read other books by O'Connell, because the good stuf was really great, but I feel like he just missed hitting the heights of, say, the Phineas Poe trilogy.

Lastly, I just finished Graham Joyce's Limits of Enchantment. Joyce is revisiting the same ground he visited in The Facts of Life, but I liked this one better. Mammy feels more real, less idealized. Some of her wacky ideas turn out to have sense, but she's not infallible. In Facts, Cassie just sort of floats through life, with no real consequences for her detachment. Here, we see that no-one can really get away with that -- the real world will reach in, regardless of how little you care for it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brothers Karamazov

At long last, I finished The Brothers Karamazov last night. It's been a looooong read, with a lot of ups and downs. It's a sprawling novel, with lots of characters, and covering something like 30 years, if you include the opening chapters about the birth and early lives of the brothers.

So, in any book of this scope, there's going to be some less-effective parts, and I think they're very different for different people. For instance, I looked at the SparkNotes when I was done, and they look at the court scene as a long anti-climax, with the real climax coming in the chapter before, where we find that Smerdyakov is the criminal. But I found that the most infelicitous part of the book -- it's obvious from long before that Dmitri is innocent, which really leaves Smerdyakov as the criminal. More importantly, Smerdyakov's dialogue with Ivan is just painful to read.

Smerdyakov accuses Ivan of engineering his father's death by encouraging Smerdyakov to kill him. And Ivan sees this as a blow to his self-image. Thematically, of course, this is important -- Ivan has to feel somewhat responsible for his father's death. But, as a realistic character study, it makes no sense at all -- more likely that Ivan would just say, "Smerdyakov, you're a madman, I see no reason to blame myself for anything you might choose to do."

Whereas I find the courtroom drama fascinating. Fetukovich, the defense lawyer, mounts a decent defense of Dmitri, until all of a sudden he ends up endorsing parricide if the father was as evil as Pavlov Karamazov. Fetukovich is correct about so much of what happens, and yet he's morally off-course -- Dostoevsky puts the reader in a tough position to try to sort out which side to take.

And what do we make of the two primary female characters in the novel? Both contain extremes of nobility and baseness -- both have a great capacity for forgiveness in the right circumstance, but in both it quickly turns into a thirst for vengeance. And, yet, don't we see the same in Dmitri Karamazov? Do the two women appear more contradictory because we don't see them directly, we don't follow them through their thoughts the way we get to see Dmitri.

I definitely plan to re-read this novel; it's just too big to get a handle on in one reading. But it's always going to be hard to set aside the kind of time it takes to read it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jane Eyre, Kill the Lawyers, Caught Stealing

I finally finished Jane Eyre, which I've been listening to on the iPod for weeks.

It's always tricky trying to figure out what to say about a classic. On the one hand, to say it's fantastic (which I thought it was) ends up sounding facile. But it's hard to pick apart the different elements, especially with such a sprawling novel.

In some ways, I think, the novel is built around the different characters' religious viewpoints. I don't think that Bronte was trying to write an exploration of religious values, but it's striking how many characters have important religious views through the novel. In the early part of the novel, we see the hypocrisy of Rev. Brocklehurst contrasted against Helen Burns' Christ-like attitude (although, notably, Jane looks up to Helen, but can't emulate her). Rochester is, of course, almost anti-religious, willing to live in sin with Jane. St. John personifies the type who is as rough with himself in service to his religion as he is with others -- but, unlike Helen, he finds no repose in his belief system.

Helen Burns, I think, is a key character in this schema. If not, why is she in the book at all? She plays no plot role whatever. But she represents the religious ideal -- someone who finds comfort in her religion and uses it to comfort others. But it's also presented as something of an unattainable ideal; Helen dies within months of Jane's meeting her -- is this supposed to show that her ideas can't survive long in the earthly realm? And is that meant to be a critique of them? After all, Jane's morality tends more to the practical, although she still sets a high standard for herself.

Well, after all that lofty thinking, I wanted something nice and easy to read, so I read Kill the Lawyers, which was a fairly goofy entry in Paul Levine's Solomon vs. Lord series. I wasn't so blown away by this one -- Steve Solomon plays a huge part, and he's just not that interesting without Victoria Lord as a foil. I'm interested in the next one, though, because reviews say that she plays a much larger part.

Then I read Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing. It starts out a little arty, playing with perception and chronology, a bit like Baer's Kiss Me, Judas, but it soon settles down into a straight-forward noir story. But what a rush! The book doesn't even slow down for one second, from the opening line to the last paragraph. And there's nothing to jolt you out of the plot. Even though in retrospect there are some holes, Huston manages to move everything fast enough that you don't really notice. Maybe I'll pick up the next for beach reading in Belize...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

soldier of sidon, Storm Front

Gene Wolfe finally got around to writing the third book after Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, and I've finally gotten around to reading it. I think it's tough to read a book that you've been waiting for so long -- almost 20 years, if memory serves. And then to have it not even resolve anything by the end is even worse.

So it's very hard to know what to think about this book. Soldier of Sidon is much less dense than its predecessors -- Latro doesn't make up names for every area they pass through, there aren't major leaders or major events going on around the periphery, and the lacunae aren't so glaring (with one major exception, where the party are taken prisoner). But that clarity comes at a price -- in the first two books, one felt that there was a lot to learn on a second or third re-reading. I'm not so sure that's true of Sidon -- it feels more like a WYSIWYG novel.

It definitely didn't help that everything seems to have been put on hold here -- what of Io? What of the triple goddess? What happened to Latro's memory palace? And so on. There are tantalizing hints that he can remember more than he used to, but what does that mean? Is he naturally healing? I think Wolfe really needs to get the fourth book out soon, not wait another 20 years...

I also read Storm Front, first of the Harry Dresden books. It was good enough to make me want to read more of them, but I think I want to withhold judgment until then.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Demon Princes

I'm re-reading the old Jack Vance series "The Demon Princes". I remember taking years to hunt all 5 books down, and also that, in the end, I felt like it hadn't quite been worth it. But with that kind of build-up, it's not clear that any book would have felt worth it.

So, I took advantage of the fact that Orb has recently packaged them into two volumes, and I picked them up. They're definitely better than I remembered, which is always a pleasant surprise. Although the story is a straight our revenge tale -- our hero must find and kill the five men who destroyed his town when he was young -- it's worth reading for all the extra fillips Vance throws in. There's the mysterious Institute, which wants to restrict the development of science, so that people will be forced to fend for themselves more. There's the trans-planetary police force, the IPCC. There's a planet where kidnap victims are kept until ransomed, very business-like. And Vance tosses all these into his story, often just on the periphery, just as a mimetic story might happen to mention the UN or the Fed -- we feel that there's a lot going on in this universe, and that the story we're following is a very small piece of it.

In the end, even though he's chasing down 5 crime lords, Gersen isn't going to change the universe much -- other criminals will replace them, and, in the end, they don't affect most people's lives that much. I think that we're so used to dealing with epics in sci-fi that this is a refreshing change.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Find Me

Just finished Carol O'Connell's latest (last?) Mallory book. She's finally gone where she should've gone three books ago -- it seemed like Mallory was slowly moving toward some sort of redemption, but then in the last few books all of her character development slowed to a stop. I was about ready to stop reading the novels (or at least wait for a non-series novel), but I'm very glad I persisted.

Find Me is a fantastic entry to the series. I almost hope it's the last one, since I think that Mallory will be a lot less interesting once she regains some stability in her psyche. On the other hand, for O'Connell to continue writing about the old Mallory would be a complete betrayal of this book. As a side note, I love the way O'Connell hides characters motivations from the reader in a very natural way -- you're not really sure why a character is acting as they do until sometimes long afterward, but it never really feels forced, or like a gotcha.

From amazon I see that O'Connel's next book is a non-series book, so maybe she really is done with Mallory. In any case, I thought Judas Child, her last non-series novel was fantastic, so I'm very optimistic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


John Gardner's novel Grendel is presented as the story of Beowulf from the monster's point of view, but that's a really reductionist view of the story. In fact, if that had been Gardner's goal, this would be a terrible book, since it's incredibly anachronistic (Grendel talks of toruses, the Dragon quotes Bertrand Russel, and so on).

Instead, Gardner is looking at various approaches to putting a meaning into life -- the Dragon's approach, in which everything is a product of chance, and in which life is ultimately pointless; or the bard's view, in which we struggle toward an ideal, even though that ideal is based on a fantasy of life as we'd like it to be, not life as it is.

But I think that Gardner is ambivalent about the two approaches, even though he seems to lean toward the poetic. On the one hand, the shaper's poetry is set up in opposition to the Dragon -- the Dragon believes that everything is chance, but the bard says that people can give meaning to their lives through the inspiration of art. On the other hand, Gardner undercuts that message by showing us that the bard is really self-interested, taking money for his services. Also, Beowulf isn't really presented as a role model either -- he's a thug, his eyes are cold, he's sarcastic, and so on.

Ultimately, both points of view are problematic -- is Gardner hinting at some third way?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Brothers Karamazov, Frankenstein, Soldier of Arete

It's been a while since I last posted, but, for a change, not because I haven't had much time to read, but because most of what I read wasn't worth discussing. Not good, but not terrible.

In the meantime, I've slowly been making my way through The Brothers Karamazov in chunks. It strike me as a very Christian novel. Dostoevsky is concerned not just with questions of faith and forgiveness, but also of the role of the Church (see the story of the Grand Inquisitor, which wouldn't really make sense for Zen Buddhism or Hinduism, I think). I think the book is at its least convincing when talking about a character's delirium, particularly Dimitri's long passage through torment. He comes across as an idiot, rather than being in the throes of passion, which is a pity. I'm certainly enjoying the rest, and looking forward to finishing later.

On audiobook, I listened to Frankenstein. It's a cliche to say that the book is very different from the popular conception (about 3/4 of reviews say exactly that). To talk more about what this book is not, I don't think the book was really intended as a horror novel. Instead, it's really a story about man's inhumanity to his fellow creatures. The monster starts as the most humane character in the novel, although he later declares himself more akin to Milton's Satan. Shelley also throws in digs at society seen through the eyes of the monster (he learns why some people work their whole lives for nothing, while others are born to privilege). The ending, in which the monster confronts a sea captain who has just heard Frankenstein's story, is very ambiguous. The monster claims to regret killing his creator, but does he really? Given the very explicit parallels between Frankenstein and God, what does this say about humanity's relationship to God?

Lastly, I'm in the middle of Soldier of Arete. Not much to say about it, other than it's not as good as Soldier of the Mist. Still entertaining, but it seems as if Wolfe has a lot of dilly-dallying to make his timeline work with real history.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Haunting of Hill House, False Dawn, Metamorphoses

I finished listening to Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House a couple of days ago. Aside from all the interesting things you can say about her character development and style, the ending is very exciting -- I couldn't wait to have some commuting time to myself, and ended up listening to the last 20 minutes at home. This was a nice bonus from a ghost story is mostly cerebral.

The novel, about four people who decide to research a haunted house for the summer, focuses on Eleanor, the most obviously-troubled of the 4. Pushed around by her mother and sister, Eleanor doesn't like where she is in life, but is too insecure to strike out on her own. The camaraderie of the four Hill House sojourners seduces her into thinking she has found a new family, but, at the same time, she's constantly afraid that they're talking about her behind her back. The house plays on these twin issues, until she has a complete breakdown -- but is the house itself a malevolent force, or is it just Eleanor's belief that drives her. It's certainly easy to read the novel as implying that the house is a force on its own (and we know that Jackson believed in haunted houses), but there are a number of clues that things aren't so simple.

When the 5th and 6th characters show up, they are completely unaffected by any of the goings-on in the house. Not only that, but when they investigate the house's most physical manifestation, (the writing on the wall in Theodora's room), it's not there -- is this an implication that the group suffered from a mass hysteria? I'm not one who likes to find the rational reason behind every event in a fantasy story, but here I think the more interesting reading is that Eleanor drives herself to madness, and that the house is a non-actor.

I also read False Dawn, but James Levine, and I wish I hadn't. His worst book; 'nuff said.

I've started on book 3 of the Metamorphoses, dealing in the founding of Thebes (and no actual metamorphoses yet). I'm really loving Ovid's use of the meter, switching between dactyls and spondees to wonderful effect. In this respect at least, I much prefer him to Vergil.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Great Gatsby, American Gods

It's been too long since I last blogged. Not because books piled up, sadly, but because it's a sign that I've read almost nothing. Luckily, audio books came to my rescue; they're an agonizingly slow way to read, but I'm guaranteed my commuting time every day.

I "read" both American Gods and The Great Gatsby in this format. The former was pretty good, but there really isn't much to say about it. Gaiman proposes that the gods exist inasmuch as people believe in them, and the gods are struggling to remain "alive" in this day and age of non-belief. I kept thinking, though, about the difficulties with the premise -- different groups of people can have radically different ideas of the same deity (look at modern monotheism -- is God vengeful or merciful? Depends on whom you ask). But, having said that, Gaiman works it into an exciting story by the end, although it felt like some plot threads were very tacked-on.

On the other hand, there's too much to say about Gatsby. I somehow never read the whole thing in high school (long story), and I'd forgotten that; I actually just wanted to go back and read the book again, see I liked it better now. I think that it's a novel that's wasted on high schoolers; one of the major themes is the desire to turn back the clock, to go back to the old days when the future was bright. And, of course, high schoolers don't really have this desire, so it doesn't speak to them as strongly. Gatsby himself embodies this desire -- he wants to go back to when he first met Daisy Buchanan, but as a wealthy man, and has devoted 5 years to the project.

Every analysis of the book will talk about that. But I haven't seen any that talk about how Nick Carraway does the same thing. At the end of the novel, he returns to the mid-West, and there's a long flashback to his prep school days, when everyone used to come in on the train. But now he's 30, and he can't go back there. Tom never wants to go back, but he's so loutish that I think it's supposed to be a defect in him -- he hit his high point in college, but he doesn't even really know it. Daisy is torn between Gatsby (her past) and Tom (her present), but ends up choosing the present. But it's clear that neither alternative would be very good for her -- neither past nor present has the answers.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hidden World, Windup Bird, Maltese Falcon

I finally finished Paul Park's Roumania quartet, and it was veeery slow going. (See two of the other books here and here.) There's never really a feeling of tension in these novels, even though there's enough going on to make a Robert Ludlum book (revolution, nuclear weapons, biological warfare, spies, etc). It's a pity, because the setting and ideas are amazing, but, in the end, it's very hard to care about any of the characters.

I'm enjoying Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicles, but it's still in the early going yet (I'm about 2/3 through vol. 1). It's the usual mix of weird characters and a very laid-back protagonist, but more hints of darkness than in his earlier books -- one of the characters was raped, for example. Still, he manages to create these long shaggy-dog stories that are just hilarious. Then he'll suddenly switch the context on you, and you feel awful for laughing.

Lastly, I finally got around to reading the famous The Maltese Falcon. Hammett, of course, was one of the founders of the hard-boiled detective school, and I really like the other one (Raymond Chandler), so I wanted to give this a try. I ended up with very mixed feelings. Hammett had a great ear for dialogue, and he could even get of the tough-guy slang that we associate with his writing. And the story is very morally ambiguous, in a way we mostly associate with more sophisticated fiction. On the other hand, the non-dialogue writing is just atrocious. Poor word choice, cliche-ridden, ear-jangling prose. Bleah. I guess I'm glad I read it, but I doubt I'll be reading any more Hammett -- if I need to scratch that particular itch, I'll go back to Chandler.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Hunting Wind

This weekend I finished the third Alex McKnight book, The Hunting Wind (See my comments on the second one here.) Hamilton has been breaking the "rules" through the series (climax in the middle of the novel, climactic moments off-screen, etc), and keeps it up here. The book starts without much a mystery (an old friend of Alex's wants to track down an old girlfriend), and the stakes don't really go up toward near the end. And, at the end, we're left with no resolution of one of the central pieces of the book -- why does Alex's friend want to track her down?

In some novels, this would be a weakness -- after all, we're talking about the motivations of a central character. But here, Hamilton has made the friend both very appealing (we want to think he's a good guy), and at the same time seemingly amoral. I think that the answer to the motivation question depends on the reader's view of human nature -- how cynically we view these characters. And, to me, that's a real achievement that mysteries don't often have -- making central characters so ambiguous, but strongly drawn at the same time.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The White Tyger

The 3rd novel in Park's Roumania tetralogy is The White Tyger, a bit of an odd name, actually. We've known that Miranda Popescu is Roumania's white tyger since the first book, even though we don't really know exactly what that means, and neither does she. This novel doesn't answer that question, which is too bad. Instead, it meanders around, not really pushing the plot forward in any meaningful way.

To be sure, a lot happens, but it doesn't feel like the story is moving toward a resolution. I'll finish the tetralogy, having coming this far, but it feels rather more like duty than pleasure. Which is a pity, because Park's writing is gorgeous, when it's in the service of a good story.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Private Wars, Lord Vishnu's Love Handles, Clubbable Woman, Windu-up Bird Chronicle, Fleshmarket Alley

A lot of books again! This time because we visited Israel and Jordan recently, and I always get in a lot of reading while the rest of the family sleeps.

I started vol. 1 of Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and so far I'm enjoying it immensely, much more than Out. Murakami deals with serious themes (and, from what I've read, Wind-up Bird is one of the most serious), but always in a playful way. His protagonists sort of wander through the world, letting others take the lead -- in this case, his cat has disappeared, and his wife is asking him to look for it. The search takes him to two psychic sisters, a girl who seems to have dropped out of school, and so on.

I also started The Brothers Karamazov on the plane, but the down side of these trips is that I'm so jet-lagged that serious reading gets difficult, so I'll have to try it again some other time.

Instead, I jumped in Greg Rucka's second Queen and Country novel. I wasn't so thrilled with the first one (see this post), feeling that he over-stretched the narrative to make it into a novel, instead of the shorter comic books. In Private Wars, though, he really pulls things together more solidly. He starts off in a very LeCarre-type key, where our government is supporting an evil dictator in the interest of realpolitik. However, in some ways he simplifies things in a way LeCarre wouldn't do -- the dictator herself is evil, but a lot of the worst torture is carried out by a sidekick, which gives Tara someone to beat up on, giving the audience a feeling that at least some justice was done. But then he pulls a big twist out of his sleeve at the end, and we realize that Tara's world is just as nihilistic as any of LeCarre's stories.

Lord Vishnu's Love Handles is a bit of an odd-ball book, though not as much as it could have been. The hero of the story is a psychic who is kinda-sorta recruited by the CIA, and taught how to hone his skills through meditation and giving up meat. This bare-bones description doesn't really do the premise justice, though. Travis, the reluctant hero, is teetering on the edge of financial ruin and insanity; his psychic gifts tell him that his wife is cheating on him, that his son is about to be eaten by an alligator during swimming lessons, that his wife's genes can talk to him, and all sorts of other crazy things, only half of which are true. While Travis attempts to make sense of all this craziness, he realizes that he's an alcoholic on top of it all. This early part of the novel is the best, where we're never sure which of Travis's visions are real (it's clear that some of them are just his over-active paranoia). At some point, though, Travis starts to straighten out his life, and the novel just settles down, and loses a lot of its fun.

I also read A Clubbable Woman, the first Dalziel and Pascoe novel. It turns out that Reginald Hill wasn't actually planning to write a series with them, and so there's no attempt to introduce them as long-running characters; indeed, the novel doesn't focus on them very much at all. Still, I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Lastly for tonight, I finished Rankin's Fleshmarket Alley over the weekend. This was, sadly, the weakest Inspector Rebus book in a long time (probably in the last 6 novels). The novel really focuses on Scotland's immigration issues, but there's no nuance at all. Rankin obviously feels the current way Scotland handles its immigrants is unjust, and I suppose I'd agree, but if I'd wanted to read a pamphlet by amnesty international, I would've bought one. In the past, Rankin has dealt with some very complex issues in a far more novelistic way, not such a didactic one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iliad, Tourmaline, Chaotic Dynamical Systems, How to Read the Bible

Wow! I was thinking that it's been a while since I wrote something in this blog, but had no idea it had been more than a month... Time flies when you're engaged, I suppose. You'd think that in a month, I'd have a fair amount to write about, but, sadly, no. Engagement also eats up a lot of reading time.

So... in the last month, I decided, for about the 10th time to try read Devaney's "Chaotic Dynamical Systems." And, for the 10th time, failed miserably for lack of real analysis skills. So, I looked on Amazon, and, lo & behold, he's written a book aimed more at undergrads ("A First Course in Chaotic Dynamical Systems"), with a lot more details filled in. I must say, I'm having a blast, stretching my mind with mathematics in a way that I just haven't done in the past several years. The book is engaging (for a math book), and relatively friendly to the non-math-major, at least so far (about halfway in).

I also read Park's follow-up to A Princess in Roumania, titled the Tourmaline. It's an interesting world that he's created, in which Roumania is a medium-size power, and Germany and Turkey are the major powers. Park does a great job filling in the details just fast enough so that you stay oriented, but slowly enough that you feel like you're learning it with the characters, and you always feel that there's a lot you don't know yet.

I read more of the Iliad, but nothing deep to say there.

I'm in the middle of Kugel's How to Read the Bible. I'm finding it fascinating, but I'm not sure how well it hangs together as a book, rather than a disparate collection of chapters. Each chapter (other than the first) follows a similar schema: recount a bible story, then talk about the view of the ancient interpreters, then how modern scholars view the same story. (E.g. the old view of the Babel story is that it's about mankind over-reaching, trying to get disobey God's will, and being punished. The more modern view is that it's an etiological tale, to explain the origin of Babylonian ziggurats, why Jews don't build them, and the origin of the many different languages in the world.) Great stuff. But every so often, he throws in a comment that implies that he's building a structure around the questions of faith in the Bible, given modern knowledge of its development, and I think he's not really getting there -- the book wouldn't be significantly different if you read the chapters in random order. However, I'm only halfway through, so we'll see how it progresses.

I've given up on the Three Kingdoms. Maybe someday I'll give it a try again, but the repetitiveness just got to me in the end.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wake up Sir, A Princess in Roumania

Jenna got Wake Up, Sir out of the library for me, knowing I'm a big Wodehouse fan. Ames is not really channeling Wodehouse in this story, so much as he's using Wodehouse as a jumping-off point to do his own thing. His main character, Allan, is a Jewish author, who's published one book, but is having trouble on his second. When he comes into some money from a lawsuit, he hires a valet named Jeeves, and proceeds to get into trouble.

The Jeeves in Wake Up is actually pretty clearly imaginary, which is a pointer to Ames's literary goals -- he's not just Bertie Wooster to America. Allan is an unreliable narrator, a drunk with frequent blackouts and psychotic episodes, and Jeeves, being imaginary, can't really help him out of his problems. (Allan's also an intellectual -- his favorite books are Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, where Bertie can barely make his way through cheap mystery fiction).

But this was also the crux of why I couldn't finish the novel. It's a comic novel, and I feel uncomfortable laughing at a guy who clearly belongs in a mental institution. The humor is often cruel (Allan gets into a fight and gets his nose broken), which Wodehouse always avoids. Bertie is sometimes threatened by, e.g. Spode, but the threats are never carried through, and that's why they remain funny.

Paul Park's A Princess in Roumania is a YA-ish novel. It's not really marketed at YA, but that seems to be its focus, as a coming-of-age story of a girl suddenly transported to a magical Europe. As such, it's a much easier read than Park's previous novels, like the Starbridge Chronicles, which were incredibly dense. This is a much simpler novel than those, which is a pity, but it's still very satisfying. Park's use of magic is very elusive -- there's a sense that it's very mysterious, which I really liked. Unfortunately, it's book 1 of a tetralogy, so it's difficult to say much about the overall shape of the series at this early point.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Iliad, Metamorphoses, God of Small Things

Lots of serious reading this week, which is always a nice feeling.

I got through the end of book 13 of the Iliad, which was just great. It's the kind of section that makes me glad to read it in Greek, a feeling that's all too rare in most of book 13. Most of the book is a lot of random fighting, without much memorable going on -- it's really there to set the Greeks up for the failures that will bring Achilles back into the fight. At the same time, Homer doesn't really want to show the Greeks being beaten by the Trojans (I guess his audience wouldn't have been very happy with sections like that; plus, he has to work within the mythological framework, in which none of the major Greek heroes perished in this part of the Trojan War).

But here, we have some magnificent similes, like the one which compares the Trojans to the surf -- gleaming white, and coming in wave after wave, and making noise, and all in two quick lines. We get some great speeches by Hector, and the speeches always sound good in the original; the swift dactylic line pushes the listener forward in a way you just can't get in English.

In Ovid, we get the epilog to the Phaethon story, in which his sisters mourn until they turn to trees, his lover Cygnus turns into a swan, then Sun (his father) returns to the sky, and everything returns to normal. It really does feel like an afterthought, after the long main story.

God of Small Things is a gorgeous novel by Arundhati Roy. It's very intricate, with a plot that literally revolves around a central event that's not revealed until the end. The chapters swirl around, some from before the event, some from after, but getting closer and closer until the final revelation. Roy puts in enough foreshadowing that the ending is not really a surprise, but little enough so that it's still shattering when it happens.

I was also blown away by her language. She's one of the few authors in my experience who writes from a child's perspective and makes it feel real. The only other example that I can think of is the opening parts of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Metamorphoses, Silence, Three Kingdoms, Queen and Country

I'm having a tough time mustering the interest to push through Three Kingdoms. A lot of the warring is very repetitive, and there isn't that much else there. It's not really fair to bring Aristotelian aesthetics to a discussion of a Chinese novel, but it's hard not to think of his discussion of the Greek poets who think that all you need to do to write an epic is to take the whole life story of some hero and throw it onto the page. No, says Aristotle, you need to trim it down, and focus on the story you want to tell. Three Kingdoms just wanders all over the place, which would make more sense if it were historically accurate, but apparently the author took liberties on that front as well.

I also read Thomas Perry's Silence this weekend. I think he's really jumped the shark -- the early Jane Whitefield novels are brilliant, but here he's just going through the motions. He's got a thing for a person who goes into hiding and completely changes his/her identity. But he's really struggling to come up with a motivation for it by now. Why would a woman go into hiding for 6 years, throwing away her whole life, instead of going to the police? Perry never really answers that question. The ending of the book suggests that he thought of it, but it was too late to change the novel, and so he gives a totally throw-away answer.

Saving the best for last, I also read more of the Metamorphoses this weekend, finishing up the story of Phaethon. There's not much to say about it, except that Ovid's word-play dazzles. I think he's my favorite Latin poet -- Catullus probably has my favorite individual lines, but I enjoy reading Ovid more on the whole.

I almost forgot Red Panda, the last (for a while) of the Queen and Country comics. Compared to the first Q & C book (which is reviewed somewhere in this blog), it was wonderful to see Tara's return to comics. The comic form really suits Rucka's talents, where you can have long stretches with no dialogue. Sometimes, three panels of two protagonists sitting near each other, saying nothing, can be incredibly eloquent. I'm still hoping that Patriot Games, the 2nd Q & C book is as good as the comics. Hope springs eternal, as they say...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Winter of the Wolf Moon, Iliad, Invincible

I've read a few books in the loooong while since I last wrote in this blog. A whole bunch of Three Kingdoms, but I don't have much to say about it. I'll probably post more after I read the next 10 chapters.

After some posts on, I decided to give Invincible a try. Essentially, it's working very similar territory to Astro City, playing with the concept of of superheroes, and a world in which there are many superheroes all flying around. There's a huge twist around issue 10, and, even knowing it was coming, I had no idea what it was going to be. But, after that, the book sort of lost its momentum. Our hero has just had his entire world collapse around him, and the next couple of issues present that really well. But then, life goes on, and it's not quite so good -- I guess I kept hoping for something with the impact of that "twist" issue, and there wasn't anything.

I'm reading more of book 13 of the Iliad, where there's some inconclusive back-and-forth between the Trojans and the Greeks. I'm actually quite enjoying it -- some nice Homeric similes, like one likening an arrow to beans been blown by a winnowing fan. In addition, we get some nice alliteration, and the way Homer switches back and forth between the combatants is really beautiful.

I read the second Alex McKnight book this weekend. Just like the first, the big climax is anti-climactic, though in a different way. Alex gets involved in a mob drug operation, and the mob boss kidnaps him to get some info. In a Robert Crais book, for example, this would lead to a huge showdown, lots of bullets flying. Instead, though, the mob boss just leaves him to freeze -- Alex is just too small-fry -- and that's the end of the confrontation. They go their separate ways, the mafia guy presumably goes on dealing, and that's it. Somehow, the book still feels satisfying, and certainly makes more sense than if Alex had been able to take down this top-level mafia guy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Finished up through 2.260 today, which is most of the story of Phaethon. Lots of lists. Mountains that get burned, rivers that get burned, blah blah. I get that it's cute and clever that he could fit all those names into the meter, but it didn't really do anything for me.

Luckily, the other bits, with the constellations moving out the way, and the dactyls representing the horses' speed, etc, were really good and a lot of fun.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Fourth Bear

I was feeling a bit sick this weekend, so I decided to go for something light. Fortunately, I had Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear on my bookshelf. I had liked The Big Overeasy, but it wasn't up to the standard of the Thursday Next books, so I was a bit hesitant on starting this book -- would it be even worse, starting a slide into dullness? It just seemed that nursery rhymes aren't enough to carry the weight of a full story.

Well, it seems that Mr. Fforde agrees -- he's started playing the game of throwing in literary references all over the place, from Dorian Gray as an evil car salesman to David Copperfield as a police lieutenant. The best praise I can give the book is the I completely forgot my stomach ailment as soon as I got two pages in. There's a real art to writing light, funny fiction, and Fforde has definitely nailed it.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Three Kingdoms

Almost done with Chapter 20. I really appreciated the footnote around p. 295 that said "at this point the main narrative starts." Not that I think the Iliad is the be-all and end-all of literature, but I think Three Kingdoms could've used a bit of that directness -- by the 6th line of the Iliad you know that it's all about the wrath of Achilles and how it brought doom upon the Greek troops.

And, speaking of cultural differences, there's an incredibly disturbing piece in chapter 18. Xuande, the putative moral center of the novel, spends the night with a hunter. The hunter, sadly, has no food, so he kills his wife and butchers her and serves her up to Xuande. Xuande doesn't recognize the flavor, but his host assures him it's wolf. Then Xuande gets up in the middle of the night to go the bathroom and run across the corpse, and realizes what he's eating. So at this point I'm waiting for some kind of reaction where he threatens the hunter, or maybe even kills him.

Instead, Xuande is incredibly moved because of the hunter's sacrifice. (Seems to me the wife made an even bigger sacrifice). He wishes he could ask the hunter to join his retinue, but he can't, so he settles on giving him 100 taels of silver. The footnote to this mentions another story, in which Lord Guan and Fang Zhei want to pledge their lives to Xuande. But he worries that they have families, who might prevent them from giving their all. So Zhang Fei, ever impulsive, says "That's okay, I'll kill my family." Lord Guan then steps in to say "no! it's a crime to kill one's family. So how about I kill your family and you kill mine?" This sounds good to Zhang Fei, so that's what they do.

And these are the good guys! There are children's songs lauding these actions. I have never felt Chinese culture to be as foreign as when I read this little bit. Oh, well, enough ranting, on with the main story.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Captain Bluebear, 3 Kingdoms, Metamorphoses

I (finally) finished Captain Bluebear. Episodic right to the end, although the author tried to tie everything together by bringing just about every character who'd ever appeared up till that point back for the ending. But it didn't really feel organic -- if any of the previous characters hadn't appeared, it wouldn't have changed the plot one iota. That's probably a failing of the book, but one that doesn't really bother me.

For me, the charm of this book has always been the inventiveness, as Moers throws in one bizarre idea after another. (A professor with 7 brains, a continent that becomes a spaceship, a lying contest, etc). Anything else would be pure gravy, if there were anything else, but there isn't -- this is not a book with a deep plot, or characters, or social message.

I've decided to split up the 3 Kingdoms into 10-chapter chunks. All the characters are hard to keep apart after a while, but I find that after a little break, it's fun again. Maybe it just takes my brain a while to digest everything.

Moving along in the Phaethon story in Ovid. I'm definitely getting more attuned to the rhythm of Ovid's Latin, and it's fun when I can anticipate the commentary. Just today, I came to the end of the Sun's warning to Phaethon, "quodcumque optaris sed tu sapientius opta." And I knew that the string of spondees is there to give solemnity to the warning, in contrast to Ovid's usual more-sprightly dactyls. Made me feel smart :-).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Looks like today's a day for finishing books. I've also finished vol. 1 of Out.

I'm really not sure if I want to bother moving on to vol. 2. But I've finally figure out why I'm so hot-and-cold on this novel. I think Kirino writes absolutely electric dialog; when characters are talking, the tension immediately ratchets up, even when nothing actually happens. Whereas the narrative is very flat, and long sections of narrative always make me want to put the book away.

The end of the book has a great bit of dialog between Satake and Anna, which made me want to continue. Then he goes home at the end of the section, and all of a sudden I didn't care any more. Guess I'll decide in a few days.

Lousia the Poisoner

I just finished Louisa the Poisoner, by Tanith Lee. It's a really slight book, only 75 pages including illustrations, but she's always excelled at the short story, so that's not really such a bad thing.

It's the story of Louisa, who, armed with a phial of undetectable poison, worms her way into a rich family, proceeding to kill all of its members, and leaving herself the rich heiress. The amoral protagonist working her way on corrupt others has been a theme that Lee has mined deeply over the years. In, say, the Flat Earth tales, her protagonist grows out of his early selfishness, although he doesn't really change. Louisa, though, is much more one-dimensional, aiming for with rather than depth.

As a rather perverse comedy of manners, though, Louisa succeeds perfectly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bluebear, 3 Kingdoms, Out

In the middle of too many books!

I'm about halfway through Captain Bluebear. The book is so episodic that it almost necessitates reading in smallish chunks. Read too much at one sitting, and the lists which seemed hilariously inventive half an hour ago seem very thin. Take a break for a couple of days, and all of a sudden the book feels very fresh. Moers does tie his episodes together somewhat -- characters in one episode will make a cameo in another, but it's not very organic. To some extent, you could jumble the chapters of the book into some other random order without really changing the impact of the story as a whole. (That may, of course, change as I get further along)

I've re-started The Three Kingdoms with a new translation, this one by Robert Moss. It's much clearer than the Brewitt translation (although less poetic). For one thing, Moss picks one name out of the 3 or 4 that each major character has, and sticks with it. The old translation switches back and forth all the time -- as a result, I suddenly realize that characters whom I thought showed up in chapter 4 or 5 have been in from the beginning. What a revelation. Moss also has footnotes, some of which are just annoying, but some are very helpful to understanding the motivations of characters.

Lastly, I'm struggling along with Out. Kirino just can't seem to maintain the tension that she builds up. Part of this comes from knowing how much of the novel is left -- I'm not even halfway through, so when she implies that the detective is on the trail of the 4 women, we know he's not actually about to catch them, because there's still a whole volume to go.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kugel, Night Vision

I finished Jacob's Ladder yesterday. Unfortunately, the book closed with a whimper, not a bang.

For me, the most interesting chapter is somewhere near the middle of the book, on how Levi became a priest. There are a tangle of midrashim around this, although I'm unclear how many made it into the Jewish tradition. (Clearly a couple did, since they're mentioned in Pirkei d'R. Eliezer). Kugel argues that there was a tradition that Levi himself was a priest, rather than just the Levite tribe, which became the priestly tribe at Sinai.

He recounts a tradition in which Jacob promises a tithe to God at Bethel, which he never explicitly fulfills in the course of Genesis. The midrashists solve this problem by having Jacob tithe one of his sons to God, and he chooses Levi (I'm jumping past the obvious "why Levi" question here). There are then a tangle of midrashim about when that happened, and Kugel uses them to date a couple of documents which are concerned with the Levite status, the book of Jubilees and the Aramaic Levite Document.

I think that, in the process, he brings up an interesting question about the polemical use of midrash. Clearly, the authors of these documents have a point of view about the Levites, and this shows in the midrashim they use. On the other hand, it's not so clear that they picked the midrashim cynically. If these stories were floating around in the zeitgeist, so to speak, the authors may well have picked them up, feeling that this story or that is correct, because it agrees with what they think is true. The author might then put a bit more of a gloss on the particular midrash to bring it line with his preconceived notions of truth, but more in the sense of "I know that this is hidden in the text, and I'm just bringing it out."

This discussion was also interesting to me, because I finally got around to doing a bit of reading on the Book of Jubilees, and fascinating it was. The author of the book (which is non-canonical) has a solar calendar system that he believes in, rather than the lunar one of the rabbis. Clearly, there was enough currency for this idea that the book was somewhat widespread. But it's so fundamentally at odds with current Jewish practice that it made me realize how much the rabbis winnowed out from then-current practice in creating modern Judaism (if the lunar calendar is up for grabs, then there must've been other large differences).

Unfortunately, the book then ends on a discussion of the Qumran scrolls, where Kugel does a lot of question-begging. There are so many blanks in the scrolls, and there's a lot of "I think the Qumran sect believed x, so the gap is best filled with y," then drawing conclusions about the sect from y.

I also finished Night Vision, but there isn't much to say about it, other than that it was very unsatisfying. I was going to post an analysis of how Levine badly mangles his idea of two serial killers, but the book's just not worth it.