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.