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.