Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Exercises in Style, Lirael, Magic for Beginners

Exercises in Style is an interesting idea.  Queneau has taken a short anecdote about an altercation on a bus and re-written it in 99 different styles, from operatic to mathematical.  Some of them are funny, or make a good point about how the style influences what we're reading, but I felt like there were just too many of them.  Aside from the completely pointless ones (like a couple where he just scrambles the letters), there were a few where the style so far obscures the anecdote that one can't really draw anything useful from it.  (For instance, one style replaces everything with a reference from flowers, but what results is just confusing, not funny).

The other problem, though, is that I felt that it's a re-hash of Ulysses's "Oxen of the Sun" or "Cyclops" episodes, with their multiplicity of styles.  Joyce shows us how the style of narration can enhance or confuse our sense of what's going on, just as Queneau did, but the Ulysses episodes also feel like they're part of a greater whole, not just exercises in style.  In the end, Exercises is more of a curiosity than a book to learn from.

Lirael is Garth Nix's followup to Sabriel, which I enjoyed very much.  Unfortunately, I thought Lirael was much weaker (though still good).  I think that both novels are approaches to coming-of-age novels, but Sabriel is much less explicit.  Sabriel is thrown into a world where all of the rules that she's used to have changed, but everyone expects her to know them anyway, and I think this is an interesting metaphor for becoming a teenager, although Nix never makes it explicit.  In Lirael, we get the story of two people in their early teens, and there's a fair amount of "nobody understands me/I have unique problems" moaning.

By the end of the novel, the two protagonists have just gotten past this stage, and I'm hoping that Lirael returns to being as strong as Abhorsen.

I read most of Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners a while ago, and enjoyed it a lot.  Link has a unique voice, where most of the fantasy happens off-screen, or sometimes not even within the confines of the story itself.  But the e-book version (which is what I read) was missing two stories, the title story "Magic for Beginners" and "The Faery Handbag."  Both of these illustrate what I'm talking about; in the first story, whatever magic there is happens before the story starts, and to the protagonist's boyfriend, not to the protagonist herself.  In the second one, it's not at all clear what's going on with the fantasy element, even by the end of the story (I don't want to be more explicit, because I think that one of the joys of reading Link's stories is how each one goes off in unexpected directions).

I ended up buying the book in hardcover just to get those two stories, and all I can say is that it was completely worth it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Farewell to Arms, Finch

I enjoyed Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms in high school, and decided to see how well it would hold up 20+ years later.  (Time flies...)  One of the main things that wasn't apparent to my younger self was Hemmingway's beautiful style; now that I've had more exposure to older novels, his changes are more apparent to me.  The short, objective sentences were so absorbed into the mainstream that it's easy to lose sight of how different they are from what came before.  In addition, they're really masterful; a few short sentences can quickly establish a scene.

Hemmingway, of course, had a really distinctive style, but the other book I just finished is by an author on the other end of the scale, a complete stylistic chameleon.  I've written about the first two Ambergris novels here and here, and Finch rounds out the cycle.  The first was a very post-modern sort of mish-mash of styles, mixing drawings, texts, secret codes, and so on.  The second owed something to Pale Fire, where the real story can be seen in footnotes on the ostensible text of the book.  In Finch, Vandermeer has taken his inspiration from noir novels, as well as stories about cities under occupation.

In his earlier novels, had a "literary" style (for lack of a better word).  The style in Finch is almost self-consciously an anti-style.  Very choppy, short sentences and fragments predominate.  It most reminds me of James Ellroy's White Jazz, a noir classic.

I do think it's possible to get too wrapped up in the noir aspects of the novel, but Vandermeer's real achievement is not doing a noir knock-off set in Ambergris.  Instead, he's using the associations we have with the noir style to set a mood, which he can then use as a backdrop to looking at various forms of betrayal and friendship, and how they interact in a city under occupation.

And he does all this while providing a reasonably satisfactory ending to the story of the graycaps.  In a way, I think I'd have preferred something less straightforward -- the graycaps have always been so mysterious that it's a bit of a letdown to have them finally explained.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Likeness

One other thing about The Likeness, which I'm not really sure what I think about it.  There's a fairly low-key strain of the supernatural running through it.  Cassie tells us many (many, many, many) times that Lexie or her spirit are pushing her on, that Lexie drew her in, that she's somehow doing Lexie's will.  It's pretty low-key, mostly worth noticing because there's a similar low-key supernatural element in In the Woods.

But it might account for a lot of the hokier plot elements if we see it as a ghost story -- the unlikely coincidences become instead the workings of fate or the supernatural.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Likeness, Every Dead Thing

The Likeness, by Tana French, is a good book with some great flaws.  I've felt for a long time that the true strength of the mystery genre is that it places characters in emotionally heightened situations, allowing the author to bring out psychological portraits that might otherwise be too diffuse to make a compelling story.  The Likeness is the kind of book that shows off the strengths and limitations of the genre to psychological studies.

It's pretty clear that French is most interested in drawing a picture of five disparate housemates uniting against a hostile world; she's not really that interested in writing a whodunit.  The mystery part of the novel serves two functions: it allows her to bring the lives of the housemates into focus, as they try to cope with the increased stress of an investigation, and it keeps the narrative focused, rather than letting it wander off into the minutiae of the housemates' lives.

The price she pays, though, is that the set-up is incredibly contrived.  Detective Cassie Maddox, from The Woods, was an undercover agent before that novel started.  She's been out of undercover work for some time, when a double of her shows up dead, with a driver's license in the name of one of her undercover personae.  To investigate the murder, she infiltrates the house, disguised as her double.  Although French pays lip service to the difficulties involved, it's never really convincing.  It's one thing to have a close double (I've met two completely unrelated people who could be brothers), but it's a whole other thing to move in with people who've seen the original every day.  More importantly, the whole set-up just seems like a very backward way to do an investigation.  It's hard to imagine the police going for the kind of manpower and undercover investigation takes instead of a brute force interrogation.

If you can accept the premise, though, the novel is very successful.  French's portraits of the students and their effect on Cassie felt very real; no two-dimensional characters here.  French is also exploring a theme which she mentions explicitly a couple of times, that you can have what you want, but you must pay for it somehow.  I know that some reviewers have questioned Cassie's engagement at the end of the novel, but it seemed to me that she'd finally learned this lesson -- you can't have everything, and, for the things you choose to have, you have to realize what the price will be and decide whether to take them.

I also enjoyed John Connolly's Every Dead Thing, but it's a much simpler novel.  It's two serial-killer procedurals in one novel, with a bit of the supernatural thrown in for spice.  He's obviously not reaching as much as French was, but on the other hand, he's accomplished what he wanted to do and ended up with an enjoyable novel that doesn't have the kind of glaring flaws that The Likeness had.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Justice, Butcher Bird

Two books that are hard to write about, but for opposite reasons.  Butcher Bird is a fun fantasy, and I liked the way author Kadrey worked with the Christian myths, but other than that there isn't much to say about.

Michael Sandel's Justice, on the other hand, has enough food for thought for more essays than I'm prepared to write, especially because I don't want this to be a blog about my political opinions.  I thought Sandel's exposition of Aristotelian ideas of telos was really clear, as was his discussion of Kant (but I'm not as familiar with Kant, so I can't say if it was correct, just that it was lucid).  I've never been a fan of utilitarianism, so I suppose I can't blame Sandel if he fails to make it seem an appealing philosophy, especially since he doesn't seem to be a big fan either.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Dead Zone

I just finished The Dead Zone and Hollywood Crows.  I don't have so much more to say about the latter; you could see the ending coming from a mile away, and, as I said before, the point isn't really in the plot anyway.

The Dead Zone is more interesting.  In some ways it's the most downbeat King book I've read.  Johnny Smith faces a horrendous moral choice at the end of the book, and the tension is palpable.  But King also has a fundamental optimism that most people will eventually do the right thing.  When Stillson is finally exposed, all the voters turn against him.  In today's political climate, that really seems like a simplistic ending; I can just imagine Stillson going on the talk-show circuit and resuscitating his career.

It's also a very religious book.  King pretty explicitly links Johnny to Jonah, who flees the word of God.  Fate seems to play a role in a few of King's books, but here we see it almost bare.  Johnny has been carrying around a time bomb in his head since he was nine, and what's kept him alive is fate/God's role for him to play in the last section of the novel.  I think it's hard to give Fate/God such a large role and maintain a sense of conflict (if all is pre-ordained, why bother struggling?), and yet this novel is very powerful for all that.

The Dead Zone, Hollywood Crows

Two books that I'm almost done with, though not quite...

I feel pretty confident writing about Hollywood Crows, by Joseph Wambaugh, even though I'm not done listening to it, because it feels like the Dilbert of police stories.  Wambaugh collects incidents from cops, then spices them up a bit and strings them together around something resembling a plot, but the main attraction is the anecdotes, not the plot surrounding them.  Most of the incidents are pretty funny, but I think I'd have preferred to read them individually -- with no real drive to the plot, they don't feel so funny piled on top of each other.

Stephen King's The Dead Zone is a different kettle of fish.  King takes his time developing the story (the major conflict doesn't even begin until about 2/3 of the way through), but it's very focused, more than usual for him.  We follow Johnny Smith as he develops the power to see people's present and future by touching them or objects that they've touched.  It turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing, and King does a great job of developing Johnny believably.  As I mentioned above, the actual plot moves at a glacial pace, but it all feels compelling in any case.

It's got a few touches that make clear that this is an early novel, particularly the incredibly overt symbolism.  (Just for example, the first time we see the adult Johnny, he's wearing a Jekyll and Hyde mask).  On the other hand, there's a direct line between Greg Stillson, the villain of the book, and Daniels, the villain of Rose Madder, but Stillson is the much better-drawn character.  Daniels is almost completely insane from the first time we see him (certainly a sadist with no other character traits than his sadism), whereas Stillson is more believable.  Yes, he's a sadist, but one can also see why he's so appealing and how he can rise up in politics.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rose Madder, Anvil of the World

Consider this a placeholder for Anvil of the World by Kage Baker.  A pretty unremarkable book, not good or bad.  If I ever feel like I have something to say about it, I'll put it here...

Rose Madder, by Stephen King, on the other hand, is both very good and very bad.  It really comes to down to the characterization; Rose, the central character, is very well drawn indeed.  I like the way that different parts of her character can be both a strength and a weakness, depending on the situation (the practical, sensible part, for example, who doesn't like new situations, wants her to stay in an abusive relationship, because at least it's the devil she knows.  But the practical sensible part also protects Rose from some disastrous decisions once she's actually run away.  Her impulsive side is similarly good and bad).

All the other characters, though, are cardboard cut-outs.  This is mostly OK, since we spend 90% of the time in Rose's head, and few of the other characters show up for more than a dozen pages; but it's a terrible problem for Rose's antagonist, her husband.  He's a collection of tics ("I wanna talk to you... up close"), not a character.  The problem is, we spend a fair amount of time in his head as well, and he's just not very interesting.  He's much scarier as an external force, almost a malign force of nature, than when we're listening to his monologues.  He goes off the deep end too early for his fall to be compelling (unlike, say, Jack in The Shining), and his verbal tics ("I'm going to kill you twice") get dull with repetition.

Overall, I liked the book because Rose is such a strong character, but it's probably the weakest King book I've read (and I've been trying to avoid the ones most people consider less successful).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Children's Book, David Copperfield

I finished both The Children's Book and David Copperfield this weekend.

I don't have very much to add to what I wrote about David Copperfield earlier.  I still hate the Emily/Steerforth subplot, and still thought the rest was very good.  Since everyone talks about Dickensian coincidence, I was glad to see that there wasn't so much of it in this novel (and what there was is mostly confined to the Emily plot, which I don't like anyway)

I think I need to really rethink my conception of The Children's Book.  A lot of Byatt's themes start to come together when the novel reaches 1913, and WWI provides an important coda.  Some themes that emerge are:
  • Fairy tales have a dark side that is aimed at adults (this is a theme across much of Byatt's oeuvre).
  • The different British/German views on fairy tales and society
  • British vs. German anarchism and how each society approached socialism/Marxism
  • Of course, the British/German dichotomy comes to a head with WWI.
  • Parent/child relationships are very important, from abusive parents like Fludd, through parents who seem attentive (but are actually self-absorbed) like Olive, or parents like the London Wellwoods who can't understand their children but really want to do their best anyway, and so on.  The interplay between their parenting styles and their children's different personalities drives a lot of the book forward.
  • This is a coming-of-age story for most of the characters.  Even the adult characters are often child-like in some way at the start of the novel, trying to live in a fairy-tale world.  By the end, they have to come to terms with the consequences of their actions, and some of them are too weak to bear it. (It's interesting that the two characters who commit suicide choose the same method -- a clear thematic link).
  • Inner life vs outward appearance.  This theme is especially obvious in Charles/Karl, who also represents the British/German dichotomy, but we also see the way nobody wants to confront Fludd's inner corruption because of his outward genius.
 In the end, I think it was a really thought-provoking book, if a little too long -- I could imagine it being about 20% shorter without too much damage, especially if the history lessons were taken out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lost Books of the Odyssey, David Copperfield, The Jewish Dog, The Children's Book, Music and Sentiment

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason, is subtitled "A Novel."  I know it's become pretty common to subtitle novels with "a novel," it's rather strange in this case.  The book is a collection of out-takes, so to speak, from the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Although Mason is clearly intimately familiar with both, he fortunately did not choose to write a pastiche in the Homeric style -- I imagine that the result would have been risible.  Instead, he has written a series of episodes that are inspired by the events and characters of the two epics (as well as one that is really about Theseus), as well as some non-Greek stories (one episode owes something to The Tempest, for example).

The results vary from thoughtful to surprising to contrived.  In one story, Odysseus returns home to find Penelope married, in another he finds her in the Underworld, in yet another she's a werewolf.  As you'd expect with a book like this, it occasionally gets too meta-textual for its own good.  There are several stories in which the Iliad or Odyssey themselves show up, and they're usually more cutesy than thought-provoking, with one notable exception.  But that's my only issue with thought-provoking collection.

I"m also in the middle of a few books, and thought I'd mention my intermediary reactions.

David Copperfield is interesting in a few ways.  It's one of only two books that Dickens wrote in first person, the other being Great Expectations.  It's also his most autobiographical work.  These influences combine to create a work that is, in some places, stylistically very different from the others of his that I've read.  The first few chapters, for example, are surprisingly impressionistic.  We get a couple of paragraphs remembering, say, a local church, then a couple about what dinners were like, then a bit about the house, and so on.  David's wedding day is also depicted in this way -- a few sentences suffice to sketch a moment here, then a moment there.

I"m not so impressed with the more standard Dickensian sub-plot about Steerforth and Emily.  If you've read any Victorian-era melodrama it's really clear where this one is going from the beginning, and it feels like a paint-by-the-numbers exercise to stretch out the book.  On the other hand, the Uriah Heep plot is really good; Heep is one of the best Dickens villains I've run across.

In addition to listening to an actual Victorian novel in David Copperfield, I've been reading about the Victorian era in The Children's Book, by A. S. Byatt.  She follows a few families from the end of the Victorian era through to the beginning of WWI (I don't know how far into the war she goes, since I'm still in 1908).  I'm still not sure if I like this book or not, despite being several hundred pages in (it's a very long novel).  On the one hand, Byatt takes a lot of pains to give us a faithful representation of what one part of England might have been like, while also giving us really rounded characters who are not just types chosen to represent their era.  On the other hand, it's such a faithful representation that (at least for now) it feels like the novel has no narrative structure (just like real life).  There's no build-up of tension across the novel; individual characters have their ups and downs, but they don't happen to coincide with anyone else's.

Byatt writes beautifully, and it's always a pleasure to read her.  But I'm not sure how much I could recommend this novel to someone who isn't already interested in the late Victorian/early Edwardian eras.

I want to make a quick caveat to the above comments.  She divides the book up into "The Golden Age," "The Silver Age," and "The Lead Age" (the last of which I assume is WWI, though I haven't gotten there yet), so Byatt clearly has some sort of structure in mind, and it may become more apparent to me as I make my way through the book.

I'm reading The Jewish Dog in Hebrew, about a dog's view of the Holocaust.  It's funny and depressing by turns.  The dog is abnormally intelligent, and has learned human speech, but his view of things is off-kilter, leading to some odd ironic humor.  (For example, he's happy when the local coffee shop puts up a sign banning Jews and dogs, because now he doesn't have to wait outside while his master drinks coffee.  This sign makes him optimistic that his life will continue to improve under the new rules).

I'm a huge fan of Charles Rosen's music writing.  I think he is very clear about a topic which is both abstract and subjective.  In Music and Sentiment, he tackles the representation of sentiment in music, starting with the baroque era and going through the moderns.  I'm in what seems to be his favorite era, the classical, and I'm enjoying his lucid examination of the move from the baroque conception of one sentiment per piece to the classical idea of an opposition of sentiments which lead to a new synthesis.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Couch, The Devil You Know

Still catching up a huge backlog of books...

Benjamin Parzybok's Couch starts out very strongly.  It's a novel about three roommates who, for various reasons, end up trying to carry a couch from Portland, OR to the Amazon jungle, and the novel starts out funny and surreal.  But it all ends up a bit too much of a shaggy dog story, and by the end of the novel the "funny" has dropped out of the running, and the surreality isn't quite enough to carry the story forward.

This was a book I really wanted to like -- Parzybok has aimed high with this novel, and noble failures can be more interesting to read than staid successes -- but just felt like it dragged on too long by the end.  As a side note, I felt that the final revelation of the couch's secret was not so interesting.  I think those kinds of dramatic reveal are hard to pull off successfully, though, so I don't hold it against the novel particularly, but I suppose a particularly strong ending might have revived my affection for it.l

Mike Carey's The Devil You Know is working in a similar space to the early books of Jim Butcher's "Harry Dresden" series -- a supernatural hard-boiled detective/wizard (wise-cracking of course) set in some approximation of the real world (as opposed to books like the "Lord Darcy" ones, in which the detective is in some fantasy world).  Butcher pretty quickly moved away from the sub-genre, which is probably just as well; Carey shows us here how it should be done.

Felix Castor is an exorcist, a professional ghost-dispeller, not a detective at all.  But when he's hired to dispel a ghost from a museum, he ends up getting sucked into the mystery of how the original person died.  Carey integrates the ghost story into the hard-boiled detective novel absolutely seamlessly.  Castor never seems to switch personas between sleuth and exorcist -- often the one activity leads straight into the other.  The detective bits are very solid, and some of the supernatural parts are as spooky as anything I've read in a while.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Arms and the Women,The Disposable Man

Between one thing and another, it's been hard to catch up to the reading I've been doing, but hopefully this post brings me up to date...

Reginald Hill invokes both the classics and feminism in both the title of Arms and the Women and its subtitle, "An Elliad," letting us know that Ellie Pascoe is going to be a focus of this novel.  Inside, he alludes St. Uncumber, apparently a patron saint of women in parts of rural England, and includes Liberata, a political protest group focused on the rights of unfairly jailed women.  So I think it's safe to say that the novel is Hill's attempt to work a female point of view into what has until now been an almost exclusively male series.

At the same time, Hill is trying to round out Ellie Pascoe's character and give her view of the Peter Pascoe/Dalziel relationship, in a short story that she's been writing.  We already know that she views Peter as pius Aeneas, and here she writes Dalziel as Odysseus, matching wits with the more straight-arrow Aeneas.  I think that her story is supposed to show that her anti-Dalziel stance is softening, which she would never admit to in public.

Having said all that, I wasn't so blown away by the book; I appreciated Hill's aims more than the result.  In general, I don't like it when local law enforcement crosses swords with the CIA/MI5.  It usually feels very forced to me -- I have a hard time believing that these things happen all that often.  Usually, there is some stretching required to get the international bad guys into the local picture, and Arms and the Women very much suffers from this problem.  The connections required to bring all the characters together are positively Dickensian, with too many disparate characters turning out to be related.

I think the same problem afflicts Archer Mayor's The Disposable Man, although not as badly.  Joe Gunther gets wrapped up in a wrangle between the CIA, the FBI, and the Russian Mafia, all taking place in Northern Vermont.  Once you accept the basic premise, Mayor does a much better job than Hill of tying the characters into the plot, but it just felt like a lot to swallow.  On the other hand, his goals are so much less ambitious that I fund I don't have much to say about the novel.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Primitive, Orlando Furioso, Caveman's Valentine

Primitive was an amazon kindle freebie, and Mark Nykanen has a bit of a name as a psychological suspense writer, so I picked it up.  It was fine, with the tension ratcheting up well toward the end, but that's as far as it goes.

On the trip to Israel, I finally finished Orlando Furioso (I posted about part 1 here).  My first, philistine, reaction was "Wow, that was a long poem..."  I noted in my earlier post that Orlando doesn't play much of a role.  He doesn't play much of role here, either; Ruggiero and Bradamante really steal the show.  I wonder if the first version of the poem gives Orlando more prominence, which would be swallowed up in the expansions.  Certainly, the late expansions aren't all particularly relevant to the plot -- Reynolds's notes point out in a few places where sections are late additions, some of them running over 500 lines, and a lot of them are "prophecies" of the future or digressive stories told by one character to entertain others.  But the poem's length also lets some sections assume a proper proportion.  The long funeral service at the end, for example, would feel garish in a much shorter poem.

In general, I liked the exuberant way that Ariosto's imagination moves all over the place.  He has a character fly to the moon, where all lost things are kept (including Orlando's wits, which is a funny conceit).  He has no qualms diverting into a funny story about two cuckolded husbands.  He can do heart-tugging imagery (the above-mentioned funeral), bawdy humor, and so on.  Sadly, he also does some brown-nosing about the greatness of his patron, Ippolito, which is dreadfully dull stuff, but I suppose that's the price of reading a work from that period.

On the flight back, I read George Dawes Green's The Caveman's Valentine, which is a thriller from an interesting viewpoint.  Green's protagonist is a paranoid schizophrenic, convinced that a man who controls all the electricity and TV rays in the world is out to get him.  When he finds the body of a frozen bum, he's convinced that it's part of the plot against him, and tries to convince the police to investigate.

Green needs a bit of reality-stretching to make the whole thing work; there's just no way for Romulus to get anywhere without a few helping hands that probably wouldn't be there in real life.  But they're not too outrageous, and you just accept them as part of the wild ride into Romulus's warped view of the world.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Exit Music, Clicking of Cuthbert

Exit Music is the last of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels.  Rankin has always paid rigorous attention to passing time, and the last few books have had a real sense of Rebus's impending retirement.  In Exit Music, Rebus wants to finally put Big Ger Cafferty behind bars, after sparring with him for so much of the series.  But, in the event, Cafferty is put into a coma by someone else who hopes to pin it on Rebus.

Rankin spends a fair amount of time on the equivalence (or lack thereof) between Cafferty and Rebus -- the old question of whether hunter and hunted are doubles of each other.  In the end, he shows literally how Rebus can't live without Cafferty, as the novel closes on Rebus giving Cafferty the kiss of life.  The ending is a good one for the series, though I thought the novel as a whole wasn't Rankin's best.  There's a lot of floundering around, and it feels like Cafferty is more of a bit player than he should be.

I'd never read any of Wodehouse's "golf" stories, although I'd heard they're quite funny, since I'm not a golf fan.  Other than knowing that the lowest score wins, I know nothing about golf.  But on of my first purchases for my kindle was a collection of all Wodehouse's public domain works, and The Clicking of Cuthbert is in the set, so I decided to give it a shot.  These stories are really funny!  I still don't know what a niblick is, but I was chortling through most of the book.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ulysses -- Penelope

I've been in Israel for the past week, so lots of books to post about, but I wanted to round off the postings of Ulysses first.  "Penelope" is Molly Bloom's chapter, and it's the first time we get to see her properly, instead of second-hand, through other characters' viewpoints.

On the one hand, Molly provides us with a lot of details about Bloom.  The one that most stuck out for me this time is that Bloom in fact can't seem to hold down a job.  We've heard about his problems with convincing Wisdom Healy to use more interesting advertising methods, but I'd been assuming that this disagreement stemmed from Bloom's role as a canvasser for the Freeman's Journal, but it's the other way around -- Healy threw him out when Bloom persisted in arguing with Healy about his advertising methods, and that's why Bloom is now canvassing for the Journal.

It's interesting, because of course through the whole novel, the impression we have of Bloom is the hard-working relatively successful man, but through Molly's eyes we see a man who is occasionally too smart for his own good, who would just as soon hang out around the house all day instead of getting out and working.

It also turns out that Bloom's neuroses that are exposed in "Circe" are not entirely buried in his psyche, but come out in his relationship with Molly.  This isn't really a surprise, though.

Lastly, this chapter tells us that Molly has only been unfaithful once, today, even though we know from "Ithaca" that Bloom suspects it has been pretty frequent.  On the other hand, Molly suspects Bloom of infidelity, and we know that, at least today, she's also incorrect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ulysses -- Ithaca

One sentence that jumped out at me was when Joyce parallels each event in the day to a religious event (the service of St. John, simchat torah, etc).  I think this is so interesting, because it shows that the Odyssey parallels are far from the only lens through which to view Ulysses, and Joyce is here lending his imprimatur to those other lenses.  I think that some analyses focus too much on the parallels to the Odyssey, and those are really only a framework on which Joyce was building this novel.  (He also had an organ, a color, and an art form for each section, but we rarely find in-depth discussions of those).

I would argue that, although those parallels are interesting, there's so much more going on that you can miss the forest for the trees by focusing on this one aspect of the novel's scaffolding.

As to the actual substance of the episode; it's probably the densest episode in the book.  We can deduce Stephen and Bloom's ages, the size of Bloom's muscles, the books in his bookshelf, and so on.  It's almost a case study in throwing so much information at readers that relevant details are subsumed.  For example, Molly has not even tried to hide her dalliance with Boylan, leaving his cigarette stubs out in plain view for Bloom.  This is tremendously important (does she despise Bloom?  is she hoping to get a rise out of him?), but it's given as much emphasis as how old Bloom would be in the year 1933.

And Kenner points out that even in all these details, the items left out are important.  When Bloom tallies up his budget for the day, he leaves out Bella Cohen.

This section also shows Stephen at his worst, I think.  When he and Bloom trade songs, Bloom sings "Hatikva," while Stephen sings an anti-semitic song.  At best Stephen is deliberately obtuse, not realizing that the song would hurt Bloom's feelings.  At worst, Stephen wants to upset Bloom.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ulysses -- Circe and Eumaeus

I'm going to skip over the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, because I find I don't have so much to say about it, except that it's really great, and is probably tied with "Cyclops" for favorite.

With that bit of fanboy gushing out of the way...
This time through Ulysses, I found "Circe" and "Eumaeus" to be the most painful to read/listen to.  "Circe" of course is well-known to be very difficult, but "Eumaeus" is typically considered an easy read.  At the end of Circe, we and Bloom emerge with a sense of triumph.  We readers have conquered a very difficult section of prose, and Bloom has (for now) come to terms with his dead son, his feelings of inadequacy, and so on, and is prepared to move on and extend a helping hand to Stephen.

We readers know that Stephen has been searching for a father-figure, and also that he needs a bit of prodding to put his life on the right path.  Bloom, on the other hand, wants a son and is searching for a connection to someone he can talk to.  Both are outcasts.  Bloom is an intellectual in his way (mostly on the scientific side), while Stephen is an intellectual in a more ivory-tower way, but it seems like they could find some common ground.

Instead, though, we find in "Eumaeus" mis-step after mis-step.  Bloom hears the sailors' Italian and says it's a beautiful language; Stephen tells him they're just haggling over money.  Bloom calls Stephen an orthodox catholic, when he's anything but.  Bloom, trying to find something to talk about, says that Stephen's father is proud of him -- he could hardly pick a worse conversation-starter.  Stephen for his part is drunk, but on top of that is a bit of jerk.

Also, it may just be the narrator of the version I'm listening to, but this time around I really agree with Kenner's suggestion that the voice in "Eumaeus" is Bloom's.  All of his circumlocutions, his infelicities that pop up from time to time in the narrative are brought to the forefront, and we feel a bit embarrassed for him.  Bloom really isn't much of a raconteur, and he tends to wander off the subject, and it's easy to see why others aren't very friendly to him, aside from their anti-semitic tendencies.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ulysses -- Nausicaa

Most of the analysis of this section that I've read works from the assumption that the point of view of the first half is Gertie McDowell's, but I don't think so, for a couple of reasons.  Instead, I think the POV is Leopold Bloom's, as he imagines what Gertie might be thinking.  There are a couple of giveaways, I think.

First, Gertie gives us a couple of times reasons why she won't run down the strand with the others.  It's only when she stands up that we realize the real reason is because she's lame.  We come to this realization at the same time as Bloom does, because he's watching her.  Second, she reflects that Bloom looks a bit like a movie star.  Since nobody else in the book seems to find him particularly movie-star-like, I submit that he's projecting that thought onto her; he doesn't just want her to think that he's Jewish-looking, rather, he's dark, handsome, and mysterious.

This is important because Bloom makes Gertie complicit in his own "release," and many commentators talk about the way Joyce combines opposites, with the connection of Gertie to Mary, and at the same time her connection to Bloom's issues.  But I think that the opposition is inside Bloom -- we see how conflicted Bloom is in the "Circe" chapter, after all.

Ulysses -- Cyclops

I finished the "Cyclops" chapter, which, as I mentioned earlier is one of my favorites.

It's almost a perfect balance between Joyce's tomfoolery with language and obscurity.  The parody in "Nausicaa" gets old after a while, while the "Sirens" is hard to understand.  But here, Joyce seemingly effortlessly jumps from Dublin dialect to mock-heroic narration to newspaper reportage, each one as funny as the next.

At the same time, the actual events are simpler to follow than "Oxen of the Sun" (at least for me).  Bloom confronts an anti-semite, utters a stinging blow (verbally, of course), and then retreats with the citizen throwing a can at his retreating cab.  Aside from the humor of the mock-heroism, I think Joyce uses it to show that it can take a measure of heroism to confront evil in our own daily lives.  At first, Bloom endures meekly the taunts of the others, but at the end he comes back in to say "Your God was a Jew like me."

Bloom has been spending some time trying to get money for Paddy Dignam's widow and children, for which he is also roundly mocked and criticized.  I think that his continuing in this thankless task is also a heroic action.

Joyce then elevates Bloom to Elijah-like status (some say Christ-figure, but I think it's worth noting that he's riding on a "chariot", which is a thing associated with Elijah).  We could see this as a mockery of Bloom, but I think that Joyce is ennobling him; Bloom is a hero, even if his foes are not obvious bad guys like the cyclops.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I finished one of my least favorite episodes today, "The Sirens", which sits right after one that I've really come to like a lot, "The Wandering Rocks."

In the siren episode, Joyce tries to imitate a piece of music, starting with the warmup, which pre-figures themes to come:

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips. Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the

Gold pinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.

Trilling, trilling: I dolores.

For me, this is just obscure for the sake of obscurity.  Unlike the other obscurities in the novel, I think that this is one that gives no enjoyment if you're not already in on the joke.  By contrast, the changing literary styles in, say, the "Golden Oxen" episode are fun to read even if you don't get the pregnancy symbolism.  Since starting to write this entry, I've begun the "Cyclops" episode, and the same thing is true -- the mix of literary styles is very funny, even if you don't understand quite why they're there.

By contrast, the "Wandering Rocks" episode seems like an exercise in lucidity.  I understand that that's one of the traps Joyce has laid -- the chapter is not quite as straightforward as it seems, with its tricks like referring to the wrong Bloom -- but it's still a section that's very rewarding even on the most surface reading.  Joyce's portrait of Father Conmee is satirical and affectionate at once; he manages to throw a lot of pathos into the short bit with Stephen's family; and so on.  I can imagine excerpting just this chapter to hand to someone as an independent short story, called "An Hour in the Life of Dublin" or something.

As I mentioned above, I've just started on the "Cyclops", one of my other favorites, and a huge contrast to the clarity of "Wandering Rocks."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ulysses, The Magician's Accomplice

The Magician's Accomplice was one of those conspiracy books that just spirals out of control.  We have something like 30 people murdered in the space of a few weeks, and yet we're supposed to believe it's a secret conspiracy.

More interestingly, I'm listening to the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of UlyssesUlysses is probably one of the most-commented-on novels of the 20th century, and this episode in particular draws a lot of commentary because of what it says about Stephen Dedalus's relationship with his father, other poets, Shakespeare, and so on.  But all the commentary that I've seen on-line talks about the external world, so to speak -- what actually happens in the episode, what the conversations say about the characters, etc.

But I think it's important that in the episode the narrator's voice starts to break down.  (The narrator intrudes in "Aeolus" by putting in headlines, but not into the actual flow of the text).  At first, the narrator confines himself to making puns or doublets (the Quaker librarian speaks "quakingly"), but then starts mixing up character's names with each other, sometimes to the point of ludicrousness.  Although Stephen is the controlling point-of-view for this episode, the narrator's games are not the sort of intellectual tricks that Stephen indulges in.

I do think that any description of the section that leaves out this feature of the narration is missing an essential piece; it's as striking as Joyce's use of play format for the "Circe" section.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ulysses, Matisse Stories, Stalking the Unicorn

I finished Stalking the Unicorn, but it wasn't worth it.  Too many forced jokes, and Resnick doesn't know how a detective story should be structured -- you can't have the big plot revelation 75% of the way into the novel; the rest is waay to anticlimactic at that point.

A.S. Byatt's Matisse Stories was also incredibly disappointing.  In general, I'm a big fan of her writing; I loved Possession, loved her short fiction, and even liked The Biographer's Tale, which was relatively weak.  But the Matisse Stories just didn't have a spark to them.  Part of it was the way things sometimes felt contrived (Gerda Himmelblau's name means "heaven blue", a phrase that is repeated through the story to indicate terror of open spaces).

And I've begun listening to Joyce's Ulysses again.  It's one of those books where new things jump out every time.  In the Telemachus section, we move from the solid outside world, starting with a sentence about Buck Mulligan, rather than Stephen Dedalus.  We gradually move into Stephen's interior world until we get to the solid interiority of the third episode.  Then we go back to the exterior world for the first Bloom episode (although this time we start immediately with Bloom himself).

What I love about Ulysses is the way that it's a sort of showcase for a lot of ways of writing.  The newspaper section is wonderfully impressionistic, as conversations overlap and we read them overlapping, yet it's always clear who's responding to whom.  I must admit that I don't get the point of Stephen's story about the two women, but someday I will...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More on If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

This book is at once very oriented toward literary theory, exploring different conceptions of the relationship between writer and reader, and at the same time dismissive of theorizing.  He presents us constantly with theories, shows us a silly reductio ad absurdum, but then shows us that the theory has an underlying truth anyway.

For example, Lotaria proposes a new method of analyzing literature, in which a computer tallies up lists of words, and thus we can decide what an author has decided to focus on without ever having to waste time reading the book.  (amusingly enough, I saw a real-life example of this sort of criticism, where the disputants were trying to decide if an author focused on rape in his work, and were reduced to counting the number of times "rape," "raped", etc showed up in the work, using the kindle's ability to count words in a text).  It's a silly approach, and yet she in fact manages to capture the flavor of some texts, even as she can't be bothered to engage them on a reading level.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ludmilla, the "Other Reader," for whom the author doesn't exist.  Although it seems that she eschews theory, in fact she represents Foucault, for whom the author is not an authoratative source of information about his text.  Ludmilla's approach is also silly when taken to its extreme, but she's the one character (other than the Reader) who is willing to completely engage with a text on its own terms.

In addition to his considerations about the relationship of reader/author, Calvino is interested in where the meaning of a text lies.  We have characters who invent fake works by real authors, real works by fake authors, and so on, to spread confusion about which texts are real.  So what does it mean when the Reader reads two books by Silas Flannery, who may not have written either one?  When he feels exposed to some deeper truth, does is matter if the book was actually generated by a computer programmed to ape Flannery's style?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

London Match, Hardly Knew Her, Stalking the Unicorn, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

The only book mentioned in the title that I've actually finished is Len Deighton's London Match, the third volume in his "Game, Set, Match" trilogy.  (I talked about the first two here and here).  In some ways, Deighton is covering similar ground to Berlin Game -- is there a mole high up in British intelligence? -- but he's much more self-assured here.  As in Mexico Set, Deighton spends a lot of time on Bernard Samson's private life, but here his personal and professional lives are more intertwined than ever.  In Match, Bernie's main opponent is Fiona, his wife who defected to the USSR in book 1.

In addition to clashing in a game of wits, Fiona wants to their children.  Bernie is worried that a judge might actually give her custody if push came to shove, and Deighton works to give this aspect equal importance.  My biggest problem here is that we never really feel that Bernie actually cares about the children.  I can't decide if that's supposed to be deliberate or if Deighton just doesn't write child interactions very well.  (Bernie's reaction when he thinks that his son has been captured seem to indicate the latter, though).

Since starting on this post, I've actually finished Hardly Knew Her and If on a Winter's Night a TravellerHardly Knew Her is a collection of stories by Laura Lippman.  Individually good, they suffer from proximity to each other.  There are about 14 stories in the collection, and about 10 of them are from that subgenre where someone commits a murder and gets away with it.  Even worse, the 4 that aren't are all put together at the end, so for most of the book, you already know the punchline to the story you're reading.  It's unfortunate, because each story is very good on its own merits; I've decided to try one of her novels, and see if I like it.

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is a book that left a huge impression on me when I read it a long time ago, and I've been meaning to revisit it for some time.  It's a bravura performance, especially the opening "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought."  Calvino dances through genres and literary theories through this book, which is deep but also occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.  It's such a brilliant work that it's easy to miss the subtleties the first time through, and so it was interesting to re-read the novel.

Although the book seems very fragmentary the first time, with its ten opening chapters, each in a different genre, as well as a plot that moves from a sublime love story to a ridiculous story of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, apocryphal computer-generated novels and spies.  But when we look past those things, we can see a fundamental unity; Calvino is interested in the roles of the reader and the author.  There's also a clear progression in his central characters, "you" and "I".  "You", the Reader, is at first a generic person who has bought Calvino's new book.  He starts adding in details that could apply to many readers of this sort of book -- you're a bit jaded with the world, but hoping to find at least a little excitement in a new book -- and gradually draws the actual reader in, even as he distinguishes the Reader from the reader, adding in more and more specific details.  "I" in the first chapters goes through a similar process -- it's not for a while that he even gets a name.

Stalking the Unicorn has a lot of lame jokes, and I'm not sure I will finish it...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Life of Pi, Fragile Things

I decided to try Life of Pi pretty randomly.  I remembered hearing good things about it, though I couldn't remember what they were any more, and it was a Booker award winner.  So how bad could it be?

The answer is pretty bad, unfortunately.  I take that back a bit -- the book wasn't terrible, the way, say, Absolute Power was terrible (that one was so bad I couldn't be bothered to write about it).  But it's hard to see how it won the Booker.  I thought that its religious philosophy was jejune (all religions are just different lenses to see God with) and its message about stories pretty thin as well (when you're given two explanations for something, choose the one with the better story).

On top of that, Martel wants the story to fit into exactly 100 chapters, and there's a lot of forcing that goes into that, including several one-sentence chapters.  Even worse, not only does Pi tell us that the story has 100 chapters, just so we know how clever Martel is, but it doesn't make any sense that Pi should tell us that, since he didn't divide out some of the chapters.

Which brings me to another point -- Martel hammers home his messages in such a sophomoric way that it's almost insulting.  At one point, he goes so far as to have one listener say to another "do you see how these two stories map to each other?  The orangutan is the mother, the cook is the hyena, and so on."  OK, we get it.

Neil Gaiman is another writer who is sometimes too clever by half.  He knows a lot of stuff, and isn't afraid of showing it.  But, as the stories in Fragile Things show, he's willing to give you a glimpse of a story, then get out of the way while you savor it.  His stories can have a haunting quality, because he gives you just enough information for you to get the rest on your own.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

20th Century Ghosts, Ghosts of Belfast, Aeneid

I had a whole list of reasons why I didn't like Ghosts of Belfast, even though the writing is great on a technical level.  But life's just too short.  I'd rather write about books that I like, or at least made me think more.  (Maybe I'd like Ghosts more I were Irish)

Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, for instance, was a book that I liked and that made me think.  Hill's known mostly as a horror writer, and this collection made me wonder how he came by that reputation.  No more than half of these stories fall into the straight-forward horror genre, and they're not all the best ones.  I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow of the stories, but a few that really stood out were
  • "Pop Art" is about an inflatable balloon boy.  Very straightforward for such an outre premise, this was a great exploration of friendship and alienation
  • "My Father's Mask" was the most surreal story in the collection.  Very disquieting, even as it's hard to say precisely what it was about.  The outline isn't hard to understand, but the details seem just out of reach, as if we could understand them with just a little more insight...
  • "Voluntary Commital" is a kind of horror story I usually find annoying, where you never find out what the scary thing is or whether there even is one.  But it was very effective here
In other news, I've run across a great explanation of how Vergil plays with the rhythms of Latin stresses  against the longs and shorts of the Greek dactylic hexameter, and I've been inspired to start reading the Aeneid again.  It's a great experience, showing how important the auditory aspect is to Roman poetry.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Revelation Space, Hidden River

I finally finished Revelation Space, which I previously wrote about here.  It was a fun read, mostly because it gave me that mind-blowing feel that only science fiction can give, of a universe where all sorts of crazy things are possible.  As science becomes more and more esoteric, I think it becomes ever-harder to write this sort of sf correctly but still keep it comprehensible for the lay reader.  (Reynolds is already on pretty thin ice by the end, where he talks about space-like particles switching places with time-like particles inside the Schwarzchild radius; I've read enough physics books to know what he's talking about, but I'm sure most readers haven't.  The thing that saves him there, I think, is that it's a couple of not-so-important pages in a 580-page tome).

Reynolds also has all the problems of "classic" sf, particularly in his characterization, which is pretty flat. Looking at the amazon reviews, it seems that this aspect of his writing doesn't improve, while his imagination gets more decoupled from real science, which seems like a lose-lose situation to me, so I guess the search for great sf continues.

I don't know if Adrian McKinty originally planned for his Dead trilogy to be a trilogy, but in any case, he interrupted it after the first book to write Hidden River, and Hidden River offers an interesting comparison to Dead I Well May Be.  Before I start on that, I should make clear that Hidden River  is an impressive novel in its own right, and doesn't need to be coupled with Dead.

Both novels are about an intersection of Ireland and the US.  Hidden River spends much more time in Ireland than Dead (as well as a crucial bit of time in India), but its center of gravity is Denver. Alex, the hero of Hidden River seems to know a lot about US politics for a recent immigrant, down to the difference between Senators and Representatives, which bothered me a bit, but it does give McKinty space to poke fun at US politics from an outsider's perspective, and it's handled well.

Both books are very heavy on the foreshadowing, Hidden River even more than Dead. I must say that I found it annoying after a while; it's as if McKinty doesn't trust the reader to remember that John is going to die, that everything will go to hell in a hand-basket.  It seems McKinty may have decided the same thing, since the other two Dead books have this aspect much more under control.

I loved the ending of Hidden River, more than any of the Dead books.  It doesn't have the visceral satisfaction that they have with the violent denouements in each case, but its made up for in believability.  When characters get into a shooting-match against incredible odds, there's always a feeling of unreality when they emerge unscathed, no matter how skillfully the author orchestrates things.  By opting for a quieter ending, with much of the Mulhollands' downfall off-screen, McKinty leaves the focus on Alex's character arc, as well as closing on a more realistic note.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Venus in Copper, Academ's Fury

It's been a busy couple of weeks, so not much time for reading.

Following up The Catiline Conspiracy, I decided to try a Roman mystery by a different author, Lindsey David.  Her novels are set a little bit later, in the time of Vespasian, but it's still the time of the high Roman Empire.  Overall, the book didn't do anything for me.  Davis has obviously done her research; there are a lot of details about Roman food, housing, and so on.  But the characters felt like modern Britons playing in a meticulously detailed set -- they never felt to me like people from another, somewhat alien, culture.

I haven't finished Jim Butcher's Academ's Fury yet, but it's another fun popcorn novel.  Lots of excitement and heart-stopping moments, and Butcher is just good enough to keep his plot under control.  He'll never win any writing prizes, but he achieves his goal, and that's more than can be said of many books.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Fall of Rome, In the Woods, The Catiline Conspiracy

Tana French breaks one of the mystery genre's prime conventions in In the Woods, which is that murders must be solved, even cold cases from twenty years ago.  Her central character, Adam Ryan, was playing in the woods with two friends who disappeared, leaving him behind.  He was traumatized by the experience, and, when he was found two days later, had lost all memory of the event.

Flash forward twenty years, and Adam is an investigator in the murder squad.  When a child is murdered near the same woods that Adam's friends disappeared from, he and his partner dive into the investigation and he becomes quickly convinced that there's a connection to the old case.  In the end, though, there isn't actually a connection, and Adam descends into a breakdown; in fact, the old case is never resolved, and Adam is left in disgrace.

French has left us some ambiguous clues to the first case, and I saw some threads where readers had some ingenious solutions to the case, but I think that they're missing the point.  The novel is more of an existential statement -- some mysteries are truly insoluble, particularly to the people most tied up in them.  Adam is in a sort of limbo; he consciously wants to never think about the old events (he tells us so many, many times), but his subconscious drives him to solve the mystery.  In the end, the contradiction is too great, and he runs away from every attempt to actually resolve his issues.

Jenna bought me R. A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome, just about the only one of his books I don't own.  It's an interesting read from a number of perspectives.  The subject matter itself is moderately interesting, and Lafferty is a lively writer, making it easier to keep track of the many personages who wander through the history.  But it's also interesting as a lens through which to view Lafferty's fiction.  He has the same themes; the forces of disorder are constantly nibbling at the edges of established order, and will eventually bring it down.  He's got the same ideas of archetypes recurring again and again (in Fall, one of the Goths is Cain, waiting to swoop in and destroy his brother and the Roman empire).

His other typical touches work well with a history from this period.  One of the oddities of Lafferty's style is a third-person seemingly-omniscient narrator who will nevertheless flat-out tell you that things couldn't have happened the way he just told you they did.  Here, he does something similar -- he'll quote a source, then tell you it makes no sense, but after all the source was there and we weren't.

From the fall of the Empire, I jumped back to just before its start, in John Maddox Roberts's Catiline Conspiracy, a historical mystery set at the time of the Catiline Conspiracy (who'da thunk it?).  Roberts's protagonist, a low-level noble named Decius Metellus, is an engaging narrator, and the minor characters are enjoyable.  But he has a fundamental problem with fictionalizing the conspiracy -- in the end, the conspirators weren't that competent (which is why Cicero was able to stop them so easily).  So he adds in a sort of super-conspiracy, of which Catiline was just the most visible part, and I found it to be not so convincing.  I enjoy the narration, but Roberts is a little too tied-down by the real history, so I may just jump ahead a couple of books -- the next one goes from a real case that Cicero tried, but after that he has Decius working on cases too minor to be part of the historical record.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Never Let Me Go, The Office of the Dead

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go works on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.  It's a coming-of-age novel, a consideration of bioethics, a novel of alienation, a subtle science fiction novel, and more.

A lot of what makes this book work is the slow pace at which Ishiguro reveals details about the world of the Haylsham students.  As they learn about themselves, they also learn about their place in the world around them; I think this is why so many reviews talk about this as a coming-of-age novel.  But that's too reductive a view of the novel; the coming-of-age part is only the first two-thirds of the story, and the final third gives the story its resonance.

We follow Cathy, Tommy, and Ruth through their childhoods, but it's when they reach adulthood that their story reaches its full level of pathos.  More than that, though, I think that the pathos runs through the novel, in Cathy's off-handed comments about other characters who've "completed," or in the way she just accepts things that we readers recoil at.

This also isn't really a book about cloning or medical research.  As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, if you have want to send a message, send a telegram.  Ishiguro is using the bioethics theme to give context to his deeper story about alienation, not to posit some realistic "this is where things are going" warning.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

I liked Andrew Taylor's Office of the Dead, as well, the third volume in his Roth trilogy (The first two were The Four Last Things  and The Judgment of Strangers)  I liked the first one a lot, but, in retrospect it was the most traditional of the three.  A serial killer kidnaps a little girl, and the hunt is on to find her before she can kill the girl.  It stuck out for me because of the sympathetic portraits of the people involved, and the way it didn't spend too much time on the mechanic of the police investigation, preferring to spend time on the girl's parents.  The second one was, I thought, less successful, partly because nothing really happens till right near the end, and Taylor wasn't able to drive the book forward without a suspense angle.

It seems he figured out the trick for Office of the Dead, though.  There's no real suspense here, either -- the suspicious killing shows up 270 pages into the novel, and is disposed of a few pages later.  Instead, Taylor has written a novel about the way that our past binds us into our present.  It's a theme of the whole trilogy as well; Francis Youlgreave becomes a major influence on events in the three novels, even though he died decades before the first one starts.  This third novel, though, charts a course of redemption for its protagonist.  She's the only one of the major characters in the three novels who can accept her past but still move on, forgiving wrongs done to her by others.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dead Beat, Red Mars, Revelation Space

The only book of the above that I've actually finished is Dead Beat, so I'll start with that...

Dead Beat is the the 7th book in the Harry Dresden series, and it feels the most polished by far -- nice to see that Butcher hasn't rested on his laurels.  The surprises are nicely set up; they rarely feel like they come out of nowhere, which used to be a problem.  Even better, there were elements that I could tell were going to be used from the beginning, but I still didn't quite put them together until the end (for example, once Harry mentions the Field Museum, it's almost inevitable that Sue the dinosaur will play a part in the proceedings).  In previous books, Harry ended up relying on dumb luck, mostly to make up for deficiencies in Butcher's plotting -- here, the plot flows quite smoothly.

Lastly, Butcher has toned down Harry's constant interjections of "Hell's Bells!" which were really getting irritating.  Harry is now a much smoother narrator.  Butcher's style doesn't really stand out for me in a positive way, but it's not the negative it used be.  (As I recall, for one of the previous novels, I said that the plot overcomes the negatives of the style; now, the plot can stand without interference from the style).

Red Mars and Revelation Space are part of the trend to ridiculously large science fiction books, shared by books like Pandora's Star.  Although all three are very different in most respects, they each could use an editor with a heavier hand.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, seems the worse offender so far, but maybe that's because I'm further into the book.  Robinson has chosen to write about the settlement of Mars in fairly realistic terms, including a lot of the political infighting among the early settlers.  When it works, it's fantastic -- it's easy to imagine the debates about how far we should go to terraform Mars vs. leaving it in a pristine state.  But his characters aren't rounded enough to carry the places where it's not so interesting.  In trying to write a realistic treatment of settlement, Robinson has ended up with lots of time when nothing much is happening.  When that happens, the shallowness of the characters is thrown into sharp relief, and it makes it that much harder to continue with the novel.

Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds, is a huge novel, and at 120 pages, I'm just a fifth of the way in.  Reynolds has some great ideas in there, and it hasn't felt tedious yet, but not a whole lot's happened, either.  In days of yore (say, the 60s), a Heinlein or a Clarke would be halfway through the story by this point, not just introducing characters and concepts.  And, again, the problem here is that the characters aren't strong enough to carry the weight of the novel.  A 600-page novel needs characters who are intriguing, not slightly filled-out stereotypes of the hard-working scientist, the driven spaceship captain, etc.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Catch 22, Open Season

After the first few hours of reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22, I wasn't sure I would make it all the way through to the end.  In some ways, Heller puts his worst foot forwards.  Most of the humor in the first part of the book is pretty jejune, thin stuff, the sort of thing you might see on a sitcom.  As Heller tightens his focus, though, the humor becomes much more incisive and bleak.  Milo Minderbinder best demonstrates the book's arc through his own character arc.

At first, he's a kind of goofy mess sergeant who buys eggs for 7 cents and sells them for 5 cents.  However, as he grows into a wheeler-dealer, he develops a sleazy edge, removing the tubes that inflate the soldiers' life jackets so that he can use them to make something else that he can sell in the mess hall.  Eventually, he mutates into a sort of one-man KBR, reminding everyone that "what's good for [his business] is good for the country."  By the end of the novel, he'd rather spend time chasing after some profit in cigarettes than look for a missing 12-year-old girl.

In the same way, the novel moves from the goofy humor at the beginning, where Yossarian signs his name as "Washington Irving," triggering an investigation into whether Washington Irving is a code word, through the bleaker humor where the men in his squadron get shot down one at a time, culminating in the nightmare evening in Rome, which is not funny at all.

C. J. Box's Open Season is entertaining enough in its own way, but was too predictable for my tastes.  In addition, Box can't leave well enough alone with his villains.  Bad enough one is a murderer, but he's a child molestor and sadist (for no plot reason whatsoever).  It's too bad -- I like Joe, the main character, but not enough to read any more of the series.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Cosi Fan Tutti, Orlando Furioso

My last outing with the Aurelio Zen series was to Venice, in Dead Lagoon.  This time, I followed him to Naples in Cosi Fan TuttiDead Lagoon is, I recall, the darkest piece in the series; Cosi Fan Tutti, in a bit of chiaruscuro, is by far the lightest.  Dibdin weaves in wit, slapstick, mistaken identity, and other tools of the farce-writer's trade in a masterful comedy.  It's a pity that, although he delved in humor in other novels, he never wrote another full-on humorous mystery.

In general, I think it's hard to write a humorous mystery -- either the humor or the mystery tend to get short shrift.  Here, it's definitely the mystery.  In the end, Zen "solves" a crime he wasn't even investigating by the criminals' mistaking him for someone else.  But I can forgive Dibdin this, for a few reasons.  First and foremost, it fits the tone of the novel; the novel's light tone would be undermined with a lot of actual investigating.  In a way, the best way to think of the book is as a comedy which uses the trappings of the detective novel. 

Second, the whole thing feels legitimate.  Often, when a mystery focuses on the humor, the actual crimes end up being completely implausible.  (E.g. Amanda Cross, who's very funny, but ends up with solutions involving filling a swimming pool with salt water, then draining it and refilling it with regular water.)  Here, although the plot is over the top, as befits a farce, the actual motivating events (a simple gang war) make sense.  Although Zen stumbles through the novel, the underlying events are well-motivated.

From modern Italy, I then retreated a few hundred years, into the world of Orlando Furioso.  Ariosto, the poet who composed the epic Orlando has been considered second only to Dante among Renaissance Italian poets.  Sadly for him, since most people only know one Italian Renaissance poet, his work is not as widely read as it used to be.

Penguin splits Barbara Reynolds's translation into two parts, and each part is very long -- part I is 700 pages, without the introduction, endnotes, etc.  It's a sprawling epic -- in Part I, Orlando himself barely shows up.  Instead, Ariosto concentrates on a number of his compatriots, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Ferrau, Astolfo, et al.  He somehow manages to keep them all straight; although the poem jumps around among them very frequently, whenever it returns to someone, it only took a line or two for me to remember who he was.

I think in some ways the jumping around is one of the defining characteristics of this work.  Ariosto will jump away from his current thread several times in any canto, saying something to the effect of "this is exciting stuff, but now I want to draw your attention somewhere else; we'll return here later."  It's a very different feel from the classical epics I'm used to.  On the other hand, his use of simile is clearly influenced by Homer.  Many of the subjects could have come straight out of the Iliad, and Ariosto develops them at a length (half a stanza) that feels Homeric as well.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bloomsday Dead, On Beulah Height

I just finished a couple of books that made me think about the intersection of the readership for detective novels and "high art" books.  Adrian McKinty's Bloomsday Dead is a violent thriller that is riddled with references to Joyce's Ulysses, from the title and first line ("Stately plump Buck Mulligan") through the chapter titles, all the way to the closing line ("yes").

And these aren't just clever references; the theme of homecoming and wandering is woven through the novel.  Michael Forsyth finally comes back to Belfast, his Ithaca, after 10 years of wandering, to be reunited with Bridget Callahan and her daughter Siobhan, respectively his Penelope and Telemachus.  And the action takes place over a single day, just as Ulysses does.  Of course, the novel is not as schematic as that, just as Ulysses is not a copy of the Odyssey.  Rather, these thematic undertones add resonance to the sense of closure at the end of the book.  But I wonder, how many devotees of both hard-core modernism and hard-boiled noir are out there -- it seems like McKinty's is deliberately aiming at a very small audience.

On Beulah Height is another in the Dalziel/Pascoe series.  It was excellent, with Reginald Hill at the top of his form.  But, reading it at the same time as I was listening to Bloomsday Dead made me wonder again about that intersection of high and low art.  Hill throws in a number of references to the Aeneid (and, with the benefit of reading the novel 10 years after its original publication, I already know that the next novel is called Arms and the Woman).  Now, it's true that the Aeneid is not as obscure as Ulysses, but I can't help feeling that "Of arms and the man I sing" is not exactly a widely-known line, nor will references to Pascoe as "pious Aeneas" ring a lot of bells.  So, is the expectation that those who get it will be happy, and everyone else just ignore it, or what?

And, of course, while I get to revel in my smarts, I can't help wondering what references I'm missing elsewhere.  For example, anything that references, say, Tolstoy is going to go right over my head.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mexico Set, Bone by Bone

Mexico Set is the sequel to Len Deighton's Berlin Game, which I liked but wasn't crazy about.  I wrote that Deighton spent too much time focused on office politics, and that it put me off.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed Mexico Set a great deal, even though it also focuses heavily on Bernard Samson's daily life.  I think that the stakes felt higher here -- Bernie is coping with the loss of his wife, and her father is trying to take custody of Bernie's children, claiming that Bernie is not a good father.  Bernie is as wonderfully dyspeptic as ever, and his jaundiced view is probably the biggest attraction of the book.

I enjoyed Carol McConnell's Bone by Bone; she gets away from some of the schtick of the Mallory books, which was starting to wear thin.  I thought the climax was a bit overwrought, but other than that it was a solid book.  I was also interested to see that she could write a book without a maladjusted genius as a central character.  But it also didn't blow me away the way her best books do -- I'm looking forward to see what she does outside of the mallory milieu, and I'm hoping this book is just a hopeful sign along the way.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Faithful Spy, Black Cherry Blues, Nemesis

Three books that I wanted to like, but each one fell short in some way...
First was Alex Berenson's The Faithful Spy.  The premise seems really promising: John Wells, a CIA agent, penetrates the taliban in Afghanistan, then returns to the US, but his superiors no longer trust him, since he's been gone so long and has converted to Islam while in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, Wells's beliefs are just window-dressing to allow Berenson to give Wells CIA training but prevent him from using his CIA connections.  By the end of the novel, Wells is barely religious at all, and, having saved the day, doesn't seem to have any effect on his life for choosing Islam.

I'm not really sure if I liked James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues.  On the one hand, Burke is a good writer on a sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph level.  He has some great descriptions of Louisiana and Montana, his dialog is believable, he has some great characters, and I liked the way he works with his theme of redemption. But I had two problems with it.  One is that Dave Robicheaux, who just runs a bait shop, keeps stumbling into fairly large-scale crimes, involving governments or huge companies.  I realize that this is a convention of the amateur detective sub-genre, but I think that an author needs to work on the suspension of disbelief.  More critically, there's a level of macho posturing that made it hard to sympathize with Dave.  The whole plot really gets going when he goes into a hotel room where the antagonists are staying and tries to intimidate them by whipping a chain around.  It's a stupid move, and it doesn't really square with the picture of Dave as a smart guy.

Jo Nesbo's Redbreast was an exciting novel in the tradition of The Day of the Jackal, with a race to stop an assassin from killing a public official.  There was a big hole left open, though, and I was hoping to see Nesbo tackle it in Nemesis, the follow-up.  Unfortunately, instead I ended up with two Agatha Christie-like plots.  The thing that I never like about Christie is that the plots so byzantine that they seem ready to topple over at a moment's notice.  In this case, we have a bank robber implicating a different one by throwing a soda can with fingerprints on it into a garbage can, knowing that the police would see him throwing it away in the surveillance cameras of the 7-11 across the street.  The whole thing goes completely awry if (1) the police don't get the tape from the 7-11 (2) they don't notice that the criminal is in the video (he's not in the same clothes and mask as he was wearing during the robbery) (3) the garbage is collected before they make the connection.  The other plot is just as bad.  It's too bad, because until the denoument, I was enjoying the novel.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jurgen, Dead Lagoon

I recently re-read two books, The Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, and Jurgen: a Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell.

There's always a bit of trepidation in re-reading a book that I enjoyed.  Was the book actually as good as I remember?  Sometimes it's better just to keep the old memories...

In this case, though, both books were great, so no worries...  In Dead Lagoon, Aurelio Zen learns that you can't go home again.  He gets himself posted to Venice, his birthplace, to engage in a bit of private enterprise.  He gets involved with an old neighbor, tries to help a persecuted old lady, and ends up finding his father's whereabouts, and reconnects with old friends.  And every one of those things ends badly -- Aurelio ends up manipulated on all sides, and leaves Venice with nothing to show for the trip.  Overall, Dead Lagoon is the bleakest of all the Zen stories.

Jurgen, on the other hand, is a very light novel, although Cabell certainly puts in some thematic depth.  I first read Jurgen back in college; a number of a my favorite fantasy authors mentioned Cabell's prose as an influence, and Penn had a large collection of his works, including a number of rare first editions, so I decided to check him out for myself.  I still remember the feeling of reading those books; Cabell was witty, a top-notch stylist, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient mythology.  But would the book still seem amazing twenty years later, with a lot more fantasy under my belt?

The short answer is yes.  In part, I think this is because Cabell, who was writing before there was a fantasy genre as such, is part of a road-not-travelled.  Modern fantasy, largely influenced by Tolkien, has focused on world-building.  Books succeed in part by how well they make you feel that the fantasy world is "real."  Cabell, though, isn't interested sucking the reader into a magical world.  Cabell is more interested in using fantasy to talk about love, romanticism, and the like.  So Jurgen travels to the Garden Between Dusk and Dawn, where all the made-up creatures live, and there he finds his first love -- because, of course, the first love we think we love isn't the actual person.  Jurgen travels around from one land to another, trying to recapture his lost youth, but finding that even with the body of a 20-year old, his 40-year old mind keeps him from seeing the world the way he did when he was 20.

In the end he chooses to stay with his very ordinary wife rather than the mythical beauties he could choose, like Nimue or Helen of Troy, essentially because she's put up with him for 20 years, and that's more than he can expect of most women.  A decidedly unromantic reason, and Cabell seems unsure whether that's a good resolution or not.  He loves the idea of romanticism, of heroic actions, but he's also realistic enough to realize that eventually we all come back down to earth.  Many of his other books deal with the conflict between the workaday world and the romantic ideals we might have.  He is suspicious of traveling too far down the path of romanticism, but at the same time, he thinks that we're inspired by our ideals only because we hide the nature of the world from ourselves.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Satanic Verses

Some final thoughts about The Satanic Verses (for now):

  • The title also refers to Chamcha's verses that he uses to drive Gibreel crazy.  What's the thematic connection to Mahound's "Satanic Verses"?  I think that in both cases, Gibreel merely acts as a receptacle for the verses.  He's a pretty passive character over-all.
  • It's annoying that the narrator is never really identified, especially when Rushdie plays a lot of games with his identity ("I know what happened; I was there."  "I appeared to Gibreel"). I'm still going with Satan, but I'd be willing to accept some other name (the angel Gibreel?  almost definitely not God -- I'd have a tough time buying that one).
  •  There's a huge thread left hanging -- it's implied that Gibreel started turning England into a tropical climate.  But that whole idea is dropped on the floor.
  • Chamcha's flexibility is really what saves him in the end.  He can accept two sides for himself -- the Indian and the English, or good & bad, or several other antinomies.  Gibreel, though, is too rigid to let himself be challenged.  That purity that makes him "good" for the narrator is his downfall; he's so self-accepting that he is judgmental of others, and ends up acting like Othello -- manipulated into believing the worst of Allie and killing her.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Satanic Verses, Gun Monkeys

I read Gun Monkeys by Victor Gishler.  I think that about covers everything worth saying about that book.

I'm still making my way through The Satanic Verses, and it continues to be an intriguing book, although it also continues to feel to me like a somewhat disconnected one.  Some more random thoughts:

  • There's a policeman named Stephen Kinch, and obvious reference to Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses.  But, other than a shout-out to Joyce fans, I'm not sure what the reference means.
  • Rushdie's narrator asserts that Gibreel is good because he's "authentic" and that Chamcha is bad because he's faking Englishness.  But if the narrator is Satan (as I still believe), what do his assertions mean?  Certainly Chamcha does some bad things (though, notably, after he sheds hoof and horn), but so does Gibreel.  Indeed, Gibreel is vulnerable because of his incredible jealous streak.
  • I'm not sure I like the magical realism.  I find the realistic parts of the book to be the most affecting, and the magical parts to be a bit pointless.  Chamcha comes to realize how cruel English society can be when he metamorphoses, but that seems like a really clumsy approach to prince/pauper scenario.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Satanic Verses

I'm about halfway through Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, but it's never too early to post some preliminary thoughts that will seem foolish once I've finished the book.  So here are some random thoughts...

  • In some ways, the book strikes me as being Joycean.  Like Ulysses, it's self-conscious, discursive, with wildly differing sections.  Also like Ulysses, it's quite funny, and yet people don't often seem to discuss that aspect of it.  On the other hand, Ulysses has a fairly obvious underlying continuity. Aside from the hidden schemata, it's easy to see that this is the story of a day in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Satanic Verses, on the other hand, has huge sections in which his major characters barely show up, like the famous chapter about Mahound the prophet, or the chapter mocking Khomeini.
  •  The book seems to scream for a symbolic reading -- Gibreel becomes an angel, Saladin becomes a devil.  But looking at it through a symbolic lens feels reductive.  Gibreel is not particularly angelic, not is Saladin particularly devilish.  But it doesn't feel like one can simply play the irony card either.  In a way, it's almost like they're part of two different stories.  Saladin's transformation literalizes his separation from British society, no matter how "British" he tries to be.
  • Gibreel's story feels comparatively underdeveloped (keeping in mind that I'm only halfway through the book).  There are some sections where he only appears as the angel Gibreel to dictate to Mahound or Khomeini or the girl with white hair whose name I can't remember.  Even there, he's not in control of what he says.  (Although I suppose that could literalize his role as an actor, but that doesn't really make sense either, because Saladin is also an actor).  It's almost as if Rushdie wanted to write those sections, and then looked for a way to tie them into the book he was writing, however tenuously.
  • I think that the narrator's supposed to be Satan.
  • Although I wrote above that the novel doesn't feel unified, there are clear thematic links between most of the parts.  Both Mahound and Khomeini's sections deal with being an immigrant to a foreign country, not fitting in.  And, of course, most of the main story is about being an immigrant as well.  But it's still a pretty weak link, I think -- more the sort of thing you might find in a book of related short stories.
  • Question:  Why is the book called The Satanic Verses, when they're only the subject of one section?  Probably worth puzzling through that.

Friday, April 16, 2010

SPQR I: The King's Gambit, Metamorphoses

SPQR is a fun series (or at least the first book is fun) about a detective-equivalent in ancient Rome.  John Maddox Roberts seems to know his history pretty well, even to the extent that one could probably place the exact year in which this book is set (13 years before Caesar's assassination, a couple of years before the Catiline conspiracy).  It's also subject to the usual problems in these novels -- Decius Septimus, the protagonist, manages to run into most of the major historical figures of the period, as well as a few minor ones (so Julius Caesar appears in a walk-on, as do Cicero, Catiline, and Pompey.  Claudis Pulcher and his sister have bigger roles, and so on).  Also, Roberts occasionally likes to show off his research in pointless asides, like the one where he tells us about Cicero's secretary inventing shorthand.  Moderately cool if you didn't already know, I suppose, but there's no reason to think that Decius the character would care about it.

Having made those complaints, I must say it was a fun novel, and I'd probably read another in the series.

I also finished Metamorphoses book 5.  I think I'll take a break from that and switch over to the Aeneid for a while.

Outer Dark again

Some random ramblings about Outer Dark:

It feels to me like Culla's real sins in the book are more of omission than commission.  I'll leave out the incest for now, since it happens before the start of the novel.  Probably the worst thing he does in the course of the novel is to leave the baby alone in the woods, probably to die.  However, we can also look at this as a case of malign neglect -- rather than his actually killing the chap, he leaves it there for, as it happens, the tinker to find.

After that, we have the case where he doesn't put out his hand to help the swineherd as he's swept away in the stampede.  And, of course, the scene at the end of the novel (which is what actually led me down this chain of thought in the first place), where he doesn't bother telling a blind man that there's a swamp ahead of him.

I'm not sure how to put this into a context of crime/punishment, which really seems critical to the novel's underlying moral sense.  It feels like there's some sort of malign fate at work -- you may not get rewarded for your good deeds, but you'll certainly be punished for the bad ones.  Even Rinthy, who's spared much of Culla's worst fate is still unable to be redeemed, as the chap dies before she can ever find him.  I think that the milk she expresses through most of the novel is a sort of stigmata -- a representation of the crime that she can't find absolution for -- but it also functions as a goad to drive her to find her son.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wuthering Heights, Outer Dark

Two dark literary books at once, almost enough to drive a man to drink...

Wuthering Heights is the Gothic novel par excellence, with saturnine householders, surly servants, repressed passions, everything one could want in a Gothic.  Which leads me to think that ultimately the Gothic novel genre is not for me.  Rather than focusing on the book's warts, though, I want to think about its interesting narrative structure.  There's a frame story, where Mr. Lockwood (?) comes to the Heights and meets Heathcliff, Catherine, et al.  Then we're introduced to the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, who tells most of the story, and she occasionally gives us long sections in someone else's first person.

Mr. Lockwood's frame is longer than most, and also more involved.  He interrupts Ellen's story every so often, and gives us his impressions of the characters, sometimes differing from hers.  When she breaks into someone else's account, she also will then sometimes disagree with that person's interpretations.  I think that this is to put us in a frame of mind to question everyone's impressions.  It's not really a standard unreliable narrator, since everyone agrees on the events that have taken place; it's more a matter of interpretation.  Ellen, for example, seems to several times mistake Heathcliff's sarcasm for his actual opinions.  So, while there's no question that he's a villain, I think there's room to debate his motivations.  She's also harsher on Linton than may be warranted.

I loved all the post-Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy books that I read (the Westerns), but I never really got into Suttree, which many seem to consider his best Southern novel.  So I never tried the earlier Southern novels, and, based on Outer Dark, that was a mistake.  Outer Dark has the same strengths as the later novels -- a wonderful ear for the rhythms of dialog and a distinctive narrative style.  He also draws heavily on biblical allusions (the title itself comes out of the New Testament).  I think that one key to understanding this novel is the biblical aspect.  Culla seems to bear a mark of Cain; he can't settle anywhere, and wherever he goes, people's hands are turned against him.  At the same time, nobody actually has the authority to kill him, not even the three wild men who kill almost everyone they come across.

But these men also lead us into non-biblical territory.  At first, they seem to be a personification of the Furies, and, looked at through that lens, it's impossible not to see the Greek Tragedy aspects of the novel.  Culla and Rinthy can't escape from the misdeed that they've done before the story starts.  In the end, there's no redemption for either of them.  Although the three men don't attack Culla physically, by the end of the novel they've cut off any chance that he and Rinthy could find redemption in raising their son.

Against all this crushing darkness, I do think McCarthy leaves us with one glimmer of hope.  Throughout their travels, both Rinthy and Culla find people willing to share what little they have, and especially in Rinthy's case to offer food and drink with no recompense.  I think that these sparks of decency are supposed to illuminate the darkness that is otherwise always threatening to come in and smother us all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Beyond the Wood, Cabal

A couple of series books this time and a classic.

I'm catching up to the present in my Dalziel/Pascoe reading; Beyond the Wood was written just over a decade ago.  But its heart is set in WWI, specifically at Passchendaele, where British forces fell in huge numbers to conquer a very small area of land.  Pascoe finds out that one of his grandfathers was court-martialled and executed for cowardice in the battle, and he investigates further.  The WWI story doesn't really impinge on the modern story, which I actually thought was a good thing; very often mystery authors try to tie two crimes together -- one from the distant past and one in the present -- and it's pretty unconvincing.

The other notable event in this book was that Dalziel falls for a suspect again.  It's reminiscent of An April Shroud, the fourth book in the series (and Hill even has one of the characters mention the earlier case), but Hill handles it more maturely and subtly this time around.  On the one hand, it's not fun to see an author turn to recycling earlier plot ideas, but in cases like this, where he returns to a theme that he wasn't as adroit at earlier, I think it's nice to see the improvement.

The theme of Cabal is illusion and reality and their interaction.  The book centers around a mysterious conspiracy within the Knights of Malta that conducts assassinations and controls finances.  The punch line, of course, is that the conspiracy doesn't exist, but, even so, there are concrete results from the belief that they exist.  Crimes are committed to get more information about them, Aurelio's life is placed in jeopardy because others think he knows about them, and so on.  This theme carries through into the subplots as well -- there's a humorous side story about Aurelio and his girlfriend each suspecting the other of infidelity because they've created an illusion around the work they do, hiding the details from the other.

We also have Zen trying to actively be a corrupt cop, trying to take a bribe from a suspect to drop the case, and failing miserably by shooting the suspect instead.  In the end, fate seems to destine Aurelio for the side of the angels, even against his own wishes.