Friday, July 31, 2009

Dracula, The Lake

Thanks to an amazon recommendation, I decided to read one of the original vampire novels, Dracula. It was with a bit of trepidation that I started the book -- after all, who doesn't already know the story? Who doesn't know about the vampire mythology? Would it still be interesting? Would it end up feeling overwrought and disappointing, the way Frankenstein did for me, or would it retain some freshness?

In the end, though, I found it to more than hold its own against more modern interpretations of the vampire legend.

The first thing anyone notes about Dracula is that it's an epistolary novel. This gives the novel an immediacy, and gives Stoker the chance to write from a first-person POV for some characters who will end up perishing. However, this style also has an obvious weakness. At first, Jonathan Harker's journal entries make sense in the context of a man stuck in a castle with nothing to do except write down his thoughts. By the end, though, we have Van Helsing scribbling down full conversations with Mina Harker in the hours while waiting for Dracula to show up -- and you have to ask, "Doesn't the man have anything better to do with his time?"

The other problem, though, is a bit more subtle -- there's a huge gap where Jonathan Harker travels back to England, but he's in no shape to write about it. How did he get there? Why does the Count let him leave? We never find out. (Oddly enough, I did a quick search on-line and didn't find anyone commenting on this).

I've also been reading Kawabata's Mizuumi, or The Lake. It's a story about Ginpei, a man who's haunted by some misdeed in the past, but really it's more about shifting perceptions. The novel slips between the present and the past with a fluidity that I haven't seen outside of Joyce, and that's particularly hard to follow in Japanese, where the tense system is less precise than that of English. But I think the challenge is intentional -- I've read other Kawabata stories, and this one is uniquely difficult to follow; his writing is usually brilliantly clear. Maybe it's supposed to reflect the confused mind of Ginpei. I'll write more after I've read more of the novel.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

City of Saints and Madmen

Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen is sui generis -- I've never read anything like it. About half of the novel consists of five novellas about the fictional town of Ambergris (and one of those already stretches the term "novella" to the breaking point.) Then add in a glossary, a monograph on king squid, stories by characters from oter stories, and you end up with an unclassifiable novel.

This isn't just a collection of short stories -- the stories wind around each other, connecting to each other in strange ways, sometimes contradicting each other with unreliable narrators. There's also a post-modern veneer, with locations like the Borges Bookstore, and a character from Chicago, but a Chicago in which Ambergris is so successful that Disney has made a movie about it. I'm classifying this book as fantasy below, but really that's just because I don't have a category for unclassifiable.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beautiful and the Damned, The Man Who Would Be King

On the flight home, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned. It's hard to know what to think about it. On the plus side, some of the writing is really beautiful or mordantly funny. But the main characters are so unpleasant, and their problems so much of their own making, that it's hard to sympathize with their downfall.

But there's also the additional nuance that (to some extent), their marriage is a fictionalization of F. Scott and Zelda's own marriage. I think it's hard not to feel a sense that the author lived some of what he's writing. (I actually had no idea before I started reading the book that some of it was based on reality, but after I got this feeling, I looked up some biographical details, and it turned out my intuition was right). I think that sense of authenticity is really part of what makes the novel work.

Overall, I think it's a lesser work compared to The Great Gatsby. Because the Patches are so unpleasant, unredeemed by any self-awareness or wish to improve their situation, they don't have the tragic depth that Gatsby has in his chase after Daisy Buchanan.

I also read Kipling's The Man who Would be King on the flight. It was a bit of a surprise to me; I've always associated Kipling with the whole Britishers-bringing-civilization-to-the-natives thing, but this story was more nuanced than that. The three men who cross over the border carrying weapons into Afghanistan are not bringing civilization, they're bringing a more efficient way to make war. I'd write more, but I'm still jet-lagged from the trip -- maybe I'll continue when I tackle some of the other books I read recently

Heaven's Prisoners, Amir Hamza, Apprentice Assassin

I was on vacation during the last two weeks, so I managed to cram in a lot of books -- always one of the side benefits of going on a trip.

The first book I polished off was Heaven's Prisoners, the second Dave Robicheaux book. I hadn't been really impressed with the first one, because it felt like there was a lot of politics about American involvement in South America shoehorned in where it didn't really fit, but I'd decided to go on to the next one, because in general Burke is a very solid writer (I've really enjoyed the Billy Bob Holland novels). This one was a tremendous improvement -- there's still a connection to politics (US immigration and drug policy), but it felt more integral to the story, and at the same time took up much less space.

I then began The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which is something between a long story and a collection of stories about Muhammad's uncle, who seems to have become this epic figure in Islamic folk stories, with a whole cycle of stories about his exploits. As a collection of folk stories, it's obviously going to be pretty episodic (though there is an over-arching story-line), but I'm not finding it to be too repetitive over-all, and I'm enjoying it much more than the Monkey King stories. I think it harms the experience of a book like this to read it straight through -- the repetition becomes more glaringly obvious -- so I'm reading a couple of chapters a day.

The New York Times Book Review had called Hamza a combination of Iliad and Odyssey (which is what intrigued me into reading it), and I think that does a disservice to both traditions. The two Greek poems are noted for their unity, their very composed nature. Hamza is much more digressive, and it lacks the Greek poems' tragic awareness. But if we look at it on its own terms, it's often very funny, with surprisingly poetic turns of phrase (a character wipes away tears with "the handkerchief of gentle words", for example).

Amar, the trickster friend of Hamza's, constantly upstages the nominal hero, and quickly became the kids' favorite character (I've been telling them bits of the story).

Amazon gives away some kindle books for free on a semi-regular basis, and one of the first was Robin Hobbs's Apprentice Assassin. I've been hearing good things about Robin Hobb for years, but her fantasies always looked a bit generic to me, so I was hesitant to give them a try. The free book proved irresistible, so I dived in. Ultimately, I think she is a good writer, and the fantasy setting isn't completely generic, but it never really grabbed me either. I think she can write some good solid characters, but I could never quite get myself to care about them (the most interesting character, I felt, was the court fool, and he remains an enigma throughout).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Elirc, stealer of Souls

Elric: The Stealer of Souls is a collection of early Elric stories by Michael Moorcock.

This is a hard volume to write about. If you have already read some Elric stories, this is an enjoyable way to see the evolution of the character. The historical material that's collected here is really great, including a fanzine story from early on, some musings by Moorcock that he wrote at the time, and so on. It's a great way to see Moorcock's evolution as a writer -- the early stories are very much more purple than the later ones, Elric soliloquizes more about an unfair fate, the symbolism is more transparent, and so on.

Sadly, those exact things make this a hard book to recommend to non-fans. The unfortunate fact is that the early Elric stories aren't nearly as good as the later ones, and the book only starts to come together in the second half. If you're new to Elric, it may be better to read the novels first, or maybe start with the second volume of this series. Although I've rated this book 4 stars, if you're not already a fan (or aren't interested in the background of the stories), I'd have to say 2 1/2 stars is more correct.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Nicholas Nickleby, A Most Wanted Man

I recently finished listening to Nicholas Nickleby and finished reading le Carre's A Most Wanted Man.

I decided to give Nicholas Nickleby a try because I didn't like Dickens back in high school, and I thought it was worth giving him another shot. I chose Nicholas Nickleby more-or-less at random, but it turned out to be a fantastic choice. It displayed all of Dickens's great strengths, as well as his typical faults, and I finally got over my dislike of Dickens.

Dickens's faults, I think, fall into two categories -- those that come about because he's writing in an episodic manner and those that are inherent to all his writing. In the former category you have things like the incredible coincidences he sometimes resorts to in order to get his plot back on course -- it's amazing how often the same group of 10 people keep randomly falling over each other in London. On a related note, he needs to sometimes pull props out of his hat (like the secret letter that reveals that heroine of the story is actually a rich heiress), because he wants to end the story now and doesn't have another way for her to end up with money. Finally, there are episodes that go nowhere, like when he has all the characters sit around the fire swapping old legends for two chapters -- I think he just didn't know what to do with them yet, and was sort of vamping until inspiration could strike.

In the latter category, faults that are inherent to his writing, I'd have to say that he paints his characters with a very broad brush. You instantly know who's good and bad, and people almost never switch from one side to the other. I know some people would put the sentimentality in here, but Nicholas Nickleby doesn't really display that side of Dickens's writing very much, so I'll have to reserve judgment.

Although these faults should be pretty damning, I found myself tremendously enjoying the book anwyay. For one thing, Dickens's wit carried me through a lot of spots where the plot was running thin. For instance, when Nicholas tries to get a job as a politician's secretary, the job's duties were very funny. The long sequence where Nicholas joins an acting troupe was very funny, even as though it ended up having a negligible effect on the plot.

And that brings me to Dickens's other great strength -- the interaction between the characters. Although the characters themselves are painted with a broad brush (the simple farmer, the nasty schoolmaster, the simpleton, etc), Dickens puts them through endlessly entertaining combinations, playing them off against each other. So even though, say, Nicholas and John the farmer are not very interesting in themselves, their scenes together are great. Throw the schoolmaster and his daughter into the scene and you end up with a great set-piece.

All in all, I think I'll be reading more Dickens in the near future.

Unfortunately, I can't be saying the same about John Le Carre. After my disappointment with a couple of his books several years ago, I relunctantly took him off my reading list. Then a recent review in The New York Times Book Review said that A Most Wanted Man was le Carre's return to his writing style in the good old days, so I decided to give it a try.

Normally, le Carre's strengths are the inverse of Dickens's weaknesses I talked about above. His best novels have intricate plots (but never overwhelming) with well-wrought characters acting in them. (Aside from the obvious George Smiley, think of the main characters in The Looking Glass War or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). Sadly, A Most Wanted Man had neither.

The set-up is promising enough -- a young Chechnyan man sneaks into Germany, claiming to be the heir to a fortune in money stashed in a bank. The secret services clash, undecided over whether to arrest him immediately or use him to track down Muslim extremists. And is this young man what he seems to be?

Unfortunately, the whole work ends up being driven by le Carre's ideological cause du jour. In this case, he wants to tackle anti-immigrant feeling, and so he loses sight of the two sides of the question. Even though I agree with le Carre's viewpoint, he used to be better at acknowledging that there are two sides to every important policy debate, and the knaves and fools aren't all on one side with the angels on the other. His earlier novels derive their power from characters being forced to sacrifice one principle to uphold another, and from le Carre's implicitly asking whether the game is worth the candle.

Secondly, his anti-Americanism completely ruins the ending. He introduces a CIA officer late in the game who makes Dick Cheney look like a moderate and who ends up driving all the action. His anti-Americanism has always been there -- the "Cousins" in the earlier novels are depicted as gadet-happy, without the subtley that MI5 prides itself on. But this worked better when the Americans were off-stage, affecting the story by their presence but never entering directly.