Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers

The Soldier's Art and The Military Philosophers are books 8 and 9 of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.  Together with book 7, The Valley of Bones, they make up the third movement.  For the first two movements, I felt like the movement division was pretty arbitrary, but here it makes sense.  Books 7-9 feel like something of a whole, with a largely new cast of characters, and with the previous characters barely showing up.  (Kenneth Widmerpool is the big exception here).

The writing is great, as always, but the limitations of Jenkins as narrator are more apparent.  For whatever reason, Powell has chosen to make Jenkins an observer who is rarely (or never) introspective.  In these three books, something like half the cast of the previous novels gets written out in air raid attacks or are otherwise casualties of war.  But Jenkins never reacts to these events, and it feels like there's a big emotional hole in the novels.  I've remarked on this problem before, as well --  Nick sees Isobel, his wife, but tells us nothing about the visit; Nick becomes a father, but only in a throw-away aside.  It's almost as if Powell would have been better served by a third person narrator.

On the other hand, I felt like the characters and events are more incisively written than ever.  Jenkins's army companions are very distinctive, and get away from the round of bohemians and upper-class dinner parties that made up the first 6 novels in the cycle.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Valley of the Bones

The  Valley of the Bones is book 7 of A Dance to the Music of Time.  Pretty much everything I've said about the previous ones is still true.  Gorgeous writing, meandering plot, and all.  This novel chronicles the beginning of WWII.  Jenkins is assigned to an army unit, but doesn't see any fighting.  Unlike previous novels, this one has almost an entirely new cast of characters.  There's one extended scene where Nick goes on leave and meets with family and friends, but that's it.

Damsel in Distress

P. G. Wodehouse's Damsel in Distress sometimes feels like a prototype for the Blandings Castle stories.  A similar set of characters, but not as well-defined as their Blandings equivalents.  So in place of Lord Emsworth, the forgetful Earl and fanatical pig-raiser, we have Lord Marshmoreton, forgetful Lord (but not as absentminded as Emsworth) and fanatical gardener (but not as single-minded as Emsworth).  In place of Constance, sister and worrier over the family dignity, we have Marshmoreton's sister, but she's also not quite as funny.  Instead of genial fathead Freddie Threepwood, we have amiable fathead Reggie Byng.

On the other hand, taken on its own merits, Damsel in Distress is very funny.  If one hasn't already read the Blandings stories, I would send him there first; but this story is a great alternative for someone looking for a lesser-know Wodehouse.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction

P.D. James' Talking about Detective Fiction is pretty much what its title implies, James writing some informal essays on detective fiction.  Overall, it was a pretty lightweight bit of criticism.  James has some astute observations, such as her discussion of the importance of setting.  But, in general, it's a bit idiosyncratic -- there's a bit of history (but only through the Golden Age, and even there skipping around quite a bit), a bit of theory (like the importance of setting), a bit of talking about how things have changed since 1930.  And, in each case, just as things are getting interesting, James is onto the next thing.

I was also a bit disappointed that she didn't talk much about her own work.  I think that James is one of the authors most instrumental in moving detective fiction towards a literary status, and I'd be interested in hearing more about what led her down that path.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Warded Man

Too damn long.  When the eponymous Warded Man doesn't show up till 2/3 of the way through that should be a sign to an author that the first 2/3 need some serious trimming.

Holmes on the Range, SPQR III: The Sacrilege

A couple of historical mysteries this time round. 

Holmes on the Range is set in 1890s Montana; one of the drovers at a ranch is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes', and applies Holmes' methods to a murder on the ranch.  I wanted this to be funnier; Hockensmith's humor tends to the slapstick, and there isn't that much of it.  Unfortunately, there isn't much of anything else -- the characters are too thin to carry the novel when the conceit wears thin.

SQPR III is the third story of Decius Caecilius Metellus the younger, as he falls into yet another case based on one of Cicero's orations.  Unlike the previous entry, The Catiline Conspiracy, Decius isn't directly involved in the case that historically went to trial.  Instead, author Roberts uses the case as a jumping-off point for a conspiracy among what would become the first Triumvirate.  That part is a bit dull if you know the actual history, because it's telegraphed miles away.  But the rest is a fun light romp through an interesting period of Roman history.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

One of our Thursdays is Missing

I loved One of our Thursdays is Missing, the sixth Thursday Next book; Fforde manages to keep the humor at a high level, something I think that very few humorous series authors manage to do.  (I found Pratchett's discworld books to get a bit wearying after a while, and, of course, the Hitchhiker's Guide books are infamous for their humor falling off over time).

He's also not afraid to change the rules midstream, which may annoy other readers, but doesn't bother me in such a free-form series.  In this novel, the whole story is built on the idea that the "actors" who play the characters are completely separate entities from the characters themselves, something that would make no sense in the earlier novels.

Overall, not a deep novel, but I haven't read an author so consistently funny whose name isn't P.G. Wodehouse.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Occam's Razor, Walking a Perfect Square, Heart of Darkness

Occam's Razor is another book in Archer Mayor's "Joe Gunther" series.  I generally like them when I read them, and then don't feel a huge desire to get on to the next one.  Kind of strange.  No question that Mayor has serious writing chops; some of the descriptions of Vermont are just gorgeous, his characters are solid, and he's finally managed to write himself into a good ending.

On a whim, I tried out Reed Farrell Coleman's debut novel Walking a Perfect Square, the first novel in his "Moe Praeger" series.  I really enjoyed it -- the non-mystery parts dovetail beautifully with the missing-person plot; the frame story is woven nicely into the main narrative; and Coleman balances humor with grit very cleverly (there aren't that many hard-boiled detective stories featuring anybody with a nice family life, the way we see Praeger's extended family here).

I first read Heart of Darkness in high school, and have read it once or twice since, but I've been meaning to get back to it for a long time now.  It's just as good as I remembered.  For me, what really stands out about the book is the absolutely nightmarish feel from the time Marlow starts the boat up the river till just about the end.  Conrad evokes a feeling of unreality that has always stayed with me more than any other impression I have of the book -- this feeling that, as grounded as the novel is in reality, it feels like we're just floating in a mist while random flashes come into view.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Carrion Death, odds & ends

Michael Stanley have created a good main character in A Carrion Death.  Detective Kubu is funny, engaging, and feels rounded.  Unfortunately, I didn't like anything else about the novel.  The other characters are flat, the thriller plot isn't interesting, and the Botswana setting didn't do anything for me.  The best thing I got from the book was that it triggered me to check if James McClure's books are on the kindle, and they are.

Finally finished The Faerie Queene!  Yay!  That was quite a project...  No more long books like that for a little while...

Couple more thoughts on Savages...  Don Winslow is a bit of a chameleon; in three different books, he's had three pretty different narrative styles.  Savages was the flashiest; wonder where he'll go from there?

The more I think about Wood's How Fiction Works, the more I feel like it's a great book and a terrible one, with very little in-between.  Dismissing it because Wood has no understanding of the importance of plot misses his insight into narrative styles.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rogue Male

Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male is, according to the jacket copy, a minor classic of sorts; it was the first cat-and-mouse suspense novel, published in 1939.

Approaching it as a modern reader, there's definitely a quaintness to the novel, even aside from the classism.  The protagonist is remarkably upset when he kills one of his pursuers, early in the novel.  That squeamishness is important for stretching out the novel, as the narrator is so upset that he resolves a path of non-violence, even as the forces of a secret police are set on his trail.  But it's hard to imagine a modern protagonist being so squeamish, with his own life at stake (I think, for example, of Point of Impact or The Winter of Frankie Machine, both cat-and-mouse novels written in the last couple of decades).

Another old-fashioned bit is the relative psychological subtlety.  It takes most of the novel for the protagonist's motivations to become clear, even to himself.  Again, one can't imagine a modern thriller taking a detour through the protagonist's psyche, and I think the field is poorer for the lack.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How Fiction Works

It's hard to believe that a critic can be so perceptive and yet have as many blind spots as James Wood does in How Fiction Works.  When he's doing a close reading of a passage from Austen, his insights into her uses of different registers of English usage for humorous effect is eye-opening.  He shows how she slips into a slightly more pompous mode for a few words, just to give a fillip of humor to a minor character, how she slips into a more colloquial English (again, just for a few words) for someone else, and so on.

On the other hand, he has no use for plot.  (It's a relic that literature outgrew in the 19th century, Wood declares in one of his most bizarre dicta).  He fails to see how plot can drive thematic concerns, for example.  As a high art example, the plot is essential even to as character-driven a novel as The God of Small Things; the whole novel rotates around the crime at its center.  On the whole, the lack of attention to large-scale structure very much mars How Fiction Works; it's hard to imagine a book on the craft of fiction that doesn't talk about climax, denouement, etc.

In the end, I think, Wood is a reliable guide on fiction he likes (Flaubert, Austen, Bellow), but doesn't even understand writers outside of a fairly narrow modernist tradition.  (Yes, he like Austen, who of course in not Modernist, but, even here, she receives criticism for not describing people and places sufficiently, in a more Modernist sort of way.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Don Winslow's Savages is a short

choppy book.

Effective in its way.

The style certainly

Stands out.  But all the depth of

A puddle of water.  Still, it's a short


way to pass the time.

Faerie Queene

Halfway through book V, some thoughts on the Faerie Queene.

This is an incredibly long work (clocking in at more than 1000 pages in my edition, before the footnotes).  That's kind of a trite, fatuous thing to say, but I think it's important for a few reasons.

Spenser has an unusual vocabulary; he uses Northern dialect and archaisms to give a sense that the Faerie Queene is an epic work, not of his own time and place.  The length of the work allows us readers to become used to the ways he uses a word like "algates" or "eath."  At first, I needed to check the glossary in the back frequently (and I rarely need to look up words when I read, say, Shakespeare), but by now I'm used to his diction.

Secondly, his plot is spacious in the same way that Orlando Furioso's is.  Spenser will leave a heroine in the grasp of, say, Proteus for 100 pages while he manipulates events around her.  Even Homer nods occasionally, and it sometimes feels like Spenser loses track of a character, but mostly he keeps them moving.  It's occasionally disconcerting when a character that I thought was done is brought back again, but it also gives a nice frisson of surprise.  (In this respect, by the way, I think people who read only book I short-change themselves.  It's nicely self-contained, which makes it an easy choice to get a feeling for Spenser's poetry, but in doing so one misses the huge character arcs).

Thirdly, the spaciousness allows Spenser to indulge himself in sections that might overwhelm a smaller book.  (Ariosto does the same in Orlando).  His 15 pages or so on the rivers of England are barely a blip here, but in a poem the length of the Aeneid would seem a huge intrusion.  I'm not sure this is an entirely good thing; sometimes he's too self-indulgent.  But mostly these side-trips are pleasurable.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Jewish Dog, Captain's Fury, Faerie Queene

I haven't written much about Asher Kravitz's The Jewish Dog, but I've been reading it steadily.  The dog, having been through a number of names, is now a guard dog in a concentration camp.  I have a feeling Kravitz is heading toward a moderately optimistic ending, where the dog helps his former owner to escape the camp, but this book has surprised me a few times already.

By now, Kravitz has abandoned the dog's naivete, which is probably just as well; it was getting to be more grating than funny.  Instead, the dog has become a much more straightforward narrator.

Jim Butcher's novels drive me crazy.  On the one hand, he is very good at constructing an over-arching plot-line, constructing interesting dilemmas for his characters (and giving them interesting ways to solve them), and general world-building.  On the other hand, on a sentence by sentence level, he's about the most leaden author I continue to read.  So every time I start one of his books, until it gets into the flow, I ask myself why I'm bothering.  Then things get into a groove, and his plot starts building steam, and he gets into great set pieces, and everything's great.  Then we get into a lull in the action, and the writing or dialog has me cringing again.  And just as I'm ready to throw in the towel, the plot picks up again, and I can't wait to see what will happen.

Captain's Fury is no exception to the general rule.  And that's probably about all that needs to be said about it.  (Well, almost.  I found the stage machinery to be more obvious this time than most; Butcher needs First Lord out of the way where he can't deus ex machina the whole main plot-line away, so he creates a whole side mission for him.  Although his mission may have dramatic consequences for the future of the series, in this novel it's pretty clearly just there to keep the most powerful characters out of the main plot).

In Book IV of The Faerie Queene.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bend Sinister, Crisscross, Room, Faerie Queene

It's been a long time since I posted; lots piled up since then...

I finished Bend Sinister.  I should've guessed the identity of the narrator.  (I actually did, but then decided it was too meta, which was silly of me).  Overall, I think it wasn't as successful as some of Nabokov's other work.  The games felt separate from the core of the novel, somehow, unlike, say Pale Fire, where the game is the novel.  Also, I thought the authorial hand was too heavy-handed (no pun intended).

Speaking of heavy-handed authors, F. Paul Wilson has given his plots an interesting excuse in his "Repairman Jack" series.  Jack's actions are now being watched by a higher power of sorts, so there are no more coincidences in his life.  This gives Wilson the option to throw in a lot of coincidences into his plotting.  How does Jack happen to be in the right place at the right time?  The higher power.  How does every case he's involved in end up connected to the dark power?  The higher power.  And so on.

Fortunately, other than using this card in setting up Crisscross, Wilson doesn't otherwise invoke it.  Instead, he sets Jack up in his most non-fantastic plot yet.  (I don't exactly want to call it realistic, but it doesn't really have many overtly supernatural elements).  His plotting is actually pretty standard fare for thrillers, maybe even a cut above many, since he doesn't rely on crazy convoluted stories.  Overall, Crisscross is a decent entry in the series, even if it's not going to set the genre on fire.

Room is a sort of half-thriller, I think.  Donoghue has put together the elements of a thriller (a woman kidnapped, locked into an 11 x 11 room for 6 years with a baby, trying to get out), but her emphasis isn't on plot.  Instead, we look at the world through the eyes of the woman's now-5-year-old son Jack, as he tries to make sense of the world he finds himself in.  I think that Jack's viewpoint is the only possible one if this story is not to be a horror novel.  He's too innocent to really think about his life, and, by putting us in his place, Donoghue lets us dodge the implications of the back-story somewhat.

At the same time, I think a little bit of thriller pacing would have helped this book.  After Donoghue sets up Jack's viewpoint, there's a bit of a feeling of longeurs as we sort of get used to how things are, while we wait for his mother to act.  Then, again, after the escape, things are interesting for a time as we see Jack learning to cope with the much wider world. But, again, as he starts to heal, and things get to be more normal, a sense of longeurs sets in.  When Jack sees the beach, he's amazed, because he's never experienced anything quite like it.  But I'd imagine the same would be true if you took a 5-year-old from Ohio to the beach for the first time.  By the end of the novel, seeing Jack react to stuff is really losing steam, because he feels more like an every-child.  (I understand that this is by design, to show that he's becoming more normal, but I think that Donoghue should've had a better solution than just letting the book peter out).

On Book III of The Faerie Queene.  I don't really have much to say about it, except that I'm really enjoying it.  It's got a reputation as being the longest English poem, but I think that, even on a micro level, it's a very fine poem.  There are some standout alliterations, cool chiasmus, and all the good stuff that a classical poem should have.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Barchester Towers, Bend Sinister, Faerie Queene

I finished Barchester Towers, not really much to add to what I wrote before.  Except that, of all the Victorian novelists I've read, Trollope's sexism is by far the hardest to overlook.  I think it's because he has such a strong authorial voice, and his narrator constantly tells us what's ladylike and what's not.

Anyways, having finished that, I started listening to Nabokov's Bend Sinister.  In retrospect, it's not really a natural choice for listening to.  The narration is very slippery, jumping between 1st and 3rd person without notice, with one long foray into 2nd.  I must admit that I'm still not sure of the identity of the 1st person narrator (not finished the novel yet), although I suspect it is Adam Krug himself.

This novel has obvious political overtones, but they're almost not worth discussing, they're so blatant.  Instead, I think that a major theme of this novel is reflections.  They're a subject we'll see Nabokov return to later, in Pale Fire and (AFAIK) Ada.  Nabokov's title already tells us as much, as the introduction tells us.  In addition, we find police arresting people in pairs; there are two boys who get mixed up; and so on.  I think that some otherwise pointless digressions make sense in this light. 

The Padukgraph, which makes copies of a person's handwriting, takes up an inordinate amount of space in this trim novel.  The otherwise puzzling Hamlet discussion can also be seen in this light -- Fortinbras is seen as a sort of double for Hamlet, but Fortinbras, in this reading, is the real hero of the novel.  Even small oddities make some sense here.  For example, the narrator constantly inserts words and phrases in French, German, Russian (I think that's all of them), immediately followed by a translation into English.  In other novels, Nabokov is certainly not averse to non-English phrases, but he almost never translates them.  I think that the constant translation gives you a feel that you're seeing a refracted reflection -- it's like the original, but not the same.

Is there an ultimate deeper meaning to all the twinning?  I'm not sure yet; I'll have to write more as I finish listening.

Lastly, I'm reading Spenser's Faerie Queene.  Not so much to say about it, except that I love the poetry of it.  It's inventive like Orlando Furioso, but I think it's more poetic (although of course, I've only read Orlando  in translation).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dead Men's Boots, Barchester Towers

Dead Men's Boots is the third novel about exorcist Felix Castor, a series which I think is far and away the best of the urban noir subgenre (although I think Child of Fire gives it a run for the money).  Here Felix is embroiled in an investigation into the ghost of an American serial killer who somehow ended up possessing a man in London.

It's hard to overstate how well Carey has caught the cadences of the hard-boiled detective novel here.  Castor is not a detective, but he ends up playing that role.  Carey also throws a bit of a curve ball by making this a more optimistic novel than the previous two, which was a nice change.

I see that I read the previous Castor book at the same time as I read The Warden, Trollope's first novel about the town of Barchester.  So it's an odd coincidence that I read the second Barchester novel, Barchester Towers at the same time as the third Castor novel.  Here, Trollope moves into a more broadly comic vein, particularly once he hits his stride in volume II.  At first, I would have put Trollope as a distant third behind Dickens and George Elliot -- his humor isn't as broad as Dickens's, and his realism is not as well-observed as Elliot's.  But once he hit his stride, I could see why he's rated so highly

He shifts into high comic mode at some point, invoking the muse ("Tell me o muse of the wrath of Mr. Slope"), apostrophizing his heroes, and so on.  His extended similes also make his subjects ridiculous, whether by magnifying them (comparing marital discord to war between massive armies) or comparing them to insignificant things (that same marital discord is compared more than once to cocks fighting over a dunghill).  His deus ex machina (Dr Gwinn) is kept off-stage for most of the story with a broken ankle and arrives too late to do anything.

All this is a kind of humor we don't really find in Dickens, even though I found them superficially similar at first -- both writers write broad characters without a lot of depth.  They're mostly types rather than actual characters.  Trollope occasionally tries to give his people more depth, by explaining that their innermost motivations are not as villainous (or virtuous) as they appear, but the end result is much the same.  Mr. Slope may not be a complete hypocrite, for example, but his actions are nonetheless odious, and his better qualities never lead him to do anything actually good.  But Dickens's humor lies more in what his characters say & do, while much of Trollope's humor is in his narrative voice, like the above-mentioned epic prose.

I'm still finishing Barchester Towers as I write this, so I may have more to say later, but I don't think so, somehow.

On a side note, I've started The Faerie Queene.  At 1000 pages, I guess I'll be at it for a while...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Death of Dalziel

I've been slowly catching up to the present on the Dalziel/Pascoe books.  Every time I think that author Reginald Hill has worn out his bag of tricks, he changes up the game somehow.

Here, he takes out Andy Dalziel, who most would have said is the mainstay of the series.  Dalziel is caught in a bomb blast and laid up in a coma for most of the novel, leaving everything in his understudy Pascoe's hands.  Pascoe begins to take on some aspects of Dalziel's character over the course of the novel -- he's always been the good cop to Dalziel's bad cop, and now he finds that the bad cop persona has its uses.

Overall, a solid entry in the series, Hill is at the top of his craft here.  He knows how to spin an artful sentence as well as anyone in the genre and better than most, he knows how to weave an interesting plot, and he writes dialog very well.  But I feel like the heart got left behind a few books ago; the middle novels often left me moved in a way this one didn't.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I've liked most everything I've read by Catherine Valente, but not so much with Palimpset.  In general, I like her poetic language and willingness to play with the boundaries of fiction, whether with the story-in-a-story concept of Orphan's Tales or the thicket of confusion that was Yume no Hon.  But Palimpset is relatively straightforward as a novel, and that's its downfall.

Valente wants to wander around her city of Palimpsest more than she wants to tell a story.  The shortness of the individual stories in Orphan's Tales or Yume no Hon restrained her, or, in any case it just didn't matter so much, because we moved on to the next thing quickly.   (I think the same is true of Calvino's Invisible Cities -- there's no plot, and so it doesn't matter so much that he meanders around).  But here, the plot exists uneasily with the sight-seeing.

Child of Fire, "The Dead"

I was pleasantly surprised by Harry Connolly's Child of Fire.  It's a first novel that a few people had told me was worth taking a look at, and amazon had a sale on it, so I picked it up, despite my misgivings.

I think the publisher does the book a disservice by making it seem more generic than it really is.  For one thing, the cover screams "generic urban fantasy."  The jacket copy reads like another tough-guy urban fantasy.  But the actual book is not so typical.  Ray Lilly, the protagonist, is pretty  is squeamish and vomits when confronted with violence.  In addition, in a genre filled with powerful heroes (Harry Dresden, John Taylor), Ray is just a sidekick, and an expendable one at that.

My major beef with the book is that it constantly alludes to a back story between the two major characters, but leaves it completely opaque.  This is clearly just sequel fodder, which is just annoying.

I was listening to a lecture on literary analysis, and the best thing about reading literary analysis is that it can inspire you to re-read a book, or in this case a short story.  The lecturer was talking about Joyce's use of symbolism in "The Dead," a story that I've talked about before.  My feelings about the story haven't changed particularly, so I won't rehash them (I'm a little less sanguine about Gabriel's chances of changing than I was, but I still think "The Dead" is the most optimistic story in the collection).  But it's interesting to see the craft in Joyce's use of light & dark, snow, and open spaces.  Joyce uses light and darkness to separate Gabriel from his wife, as well as to show Gabriel's isolation from others.

The snow, of course, links everyone together -- Ireland is a metonomy for the world, I think.  This goes without saying, except it gives me a chance to quote the beautiful ending:
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I have changed my idea that the story is told from Gabriel's viewpoint.  The beginning is told from the maid's perspective: "LILY, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."  Gabriel would never make such a solecism as "literally run off her feet."  In the first half of the story we whirl in and out of Gabriel's consciousness.  We have to see from outside sometimes, so that we can have a foretaste of his epiphany when he sees himself in the mirror.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Nightingale's Lament, Hex and the City, Burn

Audible had a 3 for 2 on series books, and I used two of them on the next two Nightside books.

Nightingale's Lament was interesting, but more for the odd powers that Green gives some of his characters than for any particular plot reasons.

In Hex and the City, though, he moves the story in a new direction.  Green has dropped hints in the first three books about the origin of the nightside and about protagonist John Taylor's mother.  I'm used to getting these sorts of dribs and drabs of backstory in other series (Butcher does it a lot in the Dresden Files), and it can be a bit irritating; it feels like a way to stretch out a minor mystery that may never be resolved.  But in Hex and the City, Green moves the backstory into center stage, which I think is a bold move.

Unfortunately, the boldness is offset by somewhat shaky execution.  The Nightside series in general is patterned like a hard-boiled mystery series.  One thing that Green should've absorbed from other books in the genre is that, while there may be many false leads for the detective, each one usually brings him a bit closer to his quarry.  But, here, Taylor has a series of confrontations with putative witnesses, and each one ends up saying a variation of "I don't know the answer and I can't even guess.  Maybe you should try someone else."  Although those confrontations are interesting in their own right, any one could have been left out without changing the flow of the story at all.

Overall, though, Green's resolution of so many issues in one swoop sets the novel above the previous two in the series, and is enough to keep me going through the next one.

Speaking of noir mysteries, Burn is a throw-back to older crime fiction.  Unfortunately, author Sean Doolittle doesn't really do anything new or innovative.  I wanted to like this, because I kind of liked Rain Dogs.  But, just like that book had a by-the-numbers quality to it, so did this one, except that nothing really stood out at all.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Amazon betterizer

Not really a book, but connected to books, and it really annoyed me.  The amazon betterizer is as stupid as its name (what did they do, have a contest for stupidest name?).

It's got to be the worst book recommendation thing I've seen in 5 years.

1. Its only levels are "like" and nothing. You can mark a book as not interested, but that doesn't stop 10 other books like it from coming up. (I tried this -- after I marked "Going Rogue," some book by Mark Levin, and "The Patriot's Guide to History" as not interested, I gave up).

2. Related to 1 -- I actually have ratings on something over 500 books that I've put in over the years. The "Betterizer" ignores them. Instead, it wants to know if I "like" the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the Julia Child guide to cooking, and the aforementioned "Going Rogue."

 3.  The way it works is, it shows you some items, and if you don't want to "like" of them, you hit refresh, so it gives you different items. I went back to the page to try again, and it started over from the beginning. I hit "refresh", and it gave me the same books as the last time I hit refresh (it changes the books, but it gives you the same choices as before). Since I'd hit refresh 3 times before, I had to refresh 4 times to see new books.

Netflix already showed everyone how to do this right. Instead of recommending 10 cookbooks, ask me if I like cookbooks. Instead of recommending me 10 books by conservative luminaries, ask me if I read political books.

It feels like something a few interns cooked up, but its hard to imagine this thing went through even one day of usability testing.

Since I'm complaining, anyway, I'll mention that amazon's categorization needs major work.  When I go to recommendation for "fiction and literature," why is Learning Greek Through Plato the second recommendation?  For that matter, why does Plato's Republic top foreign language fiction?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

36 Yalta Boulevard, Beat the Reaper

Olen Steinhauer's 36 Yalta Boulevard is the third book in his series chronicling an unnamed Soviet buffer state.  Each one is set almost a decade later than the one before; in this way, Steinhauer will bring us close to the present in the fifth book.

The first two books were murder mysteries tinged with the politics of living in a statist regime, but this one is a flat-out espionage novel taking place in 1967.  The protagonist is Brano Sev, who was a state security officer in the earlier novels.  As the security officer watching over the men in his office, Sev was not a sympathetic character, and Steinhauer makes the bold decision not to make Sev more appealing, even as he stars in his own book.  Instead, we see Sev as a believer in the promise of socialism, even as he knows about the awful things done in its name.  He has been alienated from his family since driving his father out of the country 20 years ago.

The plot is as slow and byzantine as anything from the pen of John LeCarre, but it's better than anything LeCarre's written in the last 15 years.   Steinhauer deals in the same moral ambiguities, the same questions about ends and means, but manages the further trick of writing it from the perspective of the "wrong" side.

Beat the Reaper, by contrast, is a breezy, showy novel, with no real depth at all.  Maybe the contrast with 36 Yalta Boulevard made me more willing to go with it than I might otherwise, but whatever the reason, I loved this book.  Author Josh Bazell has a very funny authorial voice with an edge to it.  The climax is a real show-stopper, and it'll be interesting to see how Bazell tops it in his next book, or if he even tries.  It's probably the most over-the-top macho thing I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones, sixth installment of The Dance to the Music of Times takes its name from the polite name the Greeks gave to the Furies.  Although not strictly accurately, they here represent War, and Powell book-ends the novel with the beginnings of WWI and WWII.

We start with Nick Jenkins as a boy, during the time immediately before the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand.  War permeates the atmosphere of this section, even if it's not much openly discussed.  Powell has General Conyers visit, Nick's Uncle Giles (a former soldier) makes an appearance, and so on.  At the beginning of the novel, there's a humorous bit where Albert the butler is closing up the house in case "they" make a raid, but it turns out that "they" in this case are the suffragettes.  This section ends with the assassination of the Arch-Duke, and Nick gives us a list of acquaintances who will die during the War.

We then jump forward to just before WWII, where the next two sections take place.  War is again in the atmosphere, and again, not necessarily directly.  The interesting thing about these books has always been how Powell gives us a view of every-day life in which people aren't always particularly affected by the great goings-on in the world around them.  However, we can see the build-up in side references to Magnus Donner's planning to make a fortune off armaments, as well as constant references to Munich.

In the last section, war has actually broken out.  I think that the first section works as a sort of "past as prologue."  Just as Nick ended the first part with a list of those who would get hurt by WWI, I think we're supposed to imagine a list like that coming for WWII, which will actually be covered in later volumes.  To relieve the general grimness, Widmerpool is here at his most humorous, a touch I certainly appreciated.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Iliad, end of book 22

Hector's duel with Achilles happens at the end of Book 22.  Hector's sudden realization that he's alone outside the walls is particularly dramatic, I thought.  Priam's mourning speech is also very dramatic.  Part of that is the flexibility of the Greek sentence; Homer has enjambed many of the lines in Priam's speech, putting words like Hector and Peleus in the front of the line.

It's notable that when Andromache, Hector's wife, sees his dead body, night covers her eyes -- this is the same wording as when warriors die in battle.  The parallel is further driven home by her soul leaving her body.  Of course, this is poetic language to say that she fainted, but I think it also marks a link between herself and Hector.  Her lament at the very end of the book is very moving.  People often talk about how brutal the Iliad is, but passages like this show its more tender side, and show Homer to be an incredibly versatile poet.

On to book 23...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Agents of Light and Darkness, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

Not much to say about Agents of Light and Darkness.  It was short but fun; Green is good at juggling a humorous tone with some darker undertones.

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant is the fifth book in A Dance to the Music of Time.  Although you can read the whole work as one massive volume, this novel shows that Powell paid close attention to the structure of each individual book.  The novel opens with Jenkins reminiscing about the titular restaurant, reflecting that there's now a crater where the restaurant used to be.  The crater is the result of bomb dropped during the Blitz, and is a sign that events leading up to WWII are going to become more prominent now.  Indeed, this is the first novel where the outside world really intrudes, however lightly.  One character goes off to help out in the Spanish Civil War, there's more talk about the Nazis, and so on.

Casanova's also underpins the structure by book-ending the novel.  We're introduced to a couple of major figures in this novel at a meal there near the beginning, and there's a reflection back to that meal near the end.  In addition, the restaurant serves as a bit of pivot point between past and present.  We have Jenkins's current present, in which the restaurant is now a crater.  We have the "present" that most of the novel is set in.  But we also have a past before that, in which Deacon (who passed in away in vol. 2, if I recall correctly) shares a meal with Jenkins and others at the restaurant.

There are also a few pairings which undergird the structure of the novel.  Most obvious are the two musicians, Morland and McClintock.  But we also have two miscarriages at the start of the novel, linking Morland's and Jenkins's marriages.  McQuiggen and Members are still paired, as in previous volumes.

The one complaint I have is that there's a huge hole in the novel where Isabelle should be.  Powell tries to get around this by having Nick tell us that no-one can write objectively about his own marriage, but that feels sloppy to me.  Nobody can really write objectively about any marriage (as Nick also tells us), but other peoples' marriages fill the pages of these books.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Three Men in a Boat, At Lady Molly's

Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat is one of the classics of British humor.  So it was odd to me how much the humor resembled Mark Twain's.  Twain once wrote an essay about American humor vs British humor, in which he says that British humor is about the witty line, while American humor tends to be more about the anecdote, where there aren't really any funny lines, per se, but the whole story just sort of adds up to being funny.  Not only that, but a summary makes the story not even seem funny at all (he then goes on to use "The Jumping Frog" as an example)  Three Men in a Boat is very much in that vein of humor.  It's very funny, but you have to take several paragraphs at a time.

I can't imagine a humorist more different to Wodehouse, for that matter.  Wodehouse is all about the funny line and the tight plot.  Jerome wanders all over the place -- one could easily take any 5 pages from the book and not know whether they're from the beginning, the middle, or the end.  But, for all that, it's a very funny book, and I'm glad I got around the reading it.

I'm almost done with At Lady Molly's, the fourth book in A Dance to the Music of Time.  Jenkins gets engaged, and, characteristically doesn't write about it at all (literally -- he meets his fiancee-to-be, then picks up again months later when they're already engaged).  In general, he's much more interested in telling us about what happens to others than to himself.  (I am, of course, aware that Jenkins =/= Powell).  The series is an odd one for me.  It's pretty much exactly the sort of fiction I tend to avoid; nothing happens, and the little that does happen occurs off-screen.  The series is essentially an endless round of dinner-party conversations.  And yet...  Powell is an incredibly gifted writer.  It's a pleasure to read (or listen to) his sentences.  His characters are great, and even the conversations are enjoyable to read.

Striking Back, Raw Shark Texts, White Night

From simplest to more complex...

Mark Nykanen's Striking Back is a pretty straightforward thriller/mystery.  Nykanen does a good job keeping you guessing at the identity of the killer, and his heroine's backstory is well-handled.  On the other hand, there's nothing really outstanding about it either.

White Night is the ninth Harry Dresden novel.  For a change, Butcher closes off more story lines than he opens.  I thought his handling of the Lashiel story-line was surprisingly good.  In retrospect, it should've been obvious what was coming; she's a character that's hard to work with.  She's immensely powerful, but is trying to corrupt Dresden at every turn.  The problem is that he's resisted her for so long, one begins to suspect that she's not actually very good at corrupting him.

Still, it was nice to see Butcher rounding out her character; he does the same with "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone, who had disappeared for a while.  Butcher's writing has improved in the meantime, and Marcone shows more humanity in his few scenes than in the earlier books in which he's a major player.

Highest on the complexity scale this time around is definitely Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts, one of those complex, game-playing post-modern novels, in the same vein as Danielewski's House of Leaves.  I liked this one more than many such books, because there's an emotional core to the novel; it's not just an endless round of navel-gazing.  Although one can spend time trying to puzzle out the negatives in the novel, or the relationship between Clio and Scout, at its heart this is a novel about the painful loss of a loved one, and the after-effects of a tragic accident.

I notice that opinion on-line is very divided about the meaning of the novel -- is our protagonist dead, insane, or something else?  I tend to go with the something else, because (a) I hate stories like "Ocurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and (b) the postcard at the end seems to say that Eric ended up OK.

For (a), it's not so much that I hated the original "Ocurrence," but, to the extent it succeeds, it works because it's less than 10 pages long.  I find the conceit too light to bear a whole novel (or movie, which is why I hated Jacob's Ladder).  If the whole damn plot is supposed to be a dream, why should I care about any of it?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Music of Razors

Cameron Rogers' Music of Razors is an interesting first novel.  The writing in any individual section is great, and his central concepts are interesting, like an angel who God punishes by removing any recollection of his existence from creation.

Unfortunately, I didn't think the whole thing held up so well.  The ending is confusing, partly because it felt like Rogers piled up too many concepts, and in the end he just couldn't balance them all out successfully.  I'd read his next book, though -- this one showed a lot of promise.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Full Moon

Full Moon is P. G. Wodehouse at the top of his form. Which means it's one of the funniest books in the English language. I was laughing from beginning to end, and there's really no point examining it mOre closely than that.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Voice of the Violin, Good Morning Midnight

I finished off two very good, very different books, one from Italy (Andrea Camilleri's Voice of the Violin) and one from England (Reginald Hill's Good Morning Midnight).  In a flight of fancy, it seems to me that comparing them is a bit like comparing two cars from the respective countries, a Ferrari and Rolls.

Voice of the Violin is a no-frills, very fast ride.  In the time it takes Hill to introduce his major characters, Camilleri has his inspector solve a murder, clear an innocent victim, and take care of some personal matters on the side.  But it's also a very smooth ride; you never feel like Camilleri is riding roughshod, skipping too many details.  Partly, he achieves this with minimal scene setting -- he'll switch locations with no indication, give a conversation, then switch over to somewhere else.  Again, though, it's done very smoothly -- I never felt a sense of dislocation.  And, by the same token, the conversations are minimal -- Camilleri just gives you the relevant bits, cutting away before the parties say good-bye.

Good Morning, Midnight, on the other hand, is a very ornate and stately ride.  Hill happily throws in sesquipedalian words on a whim, luxuriating in Dalziel's turns of phrase, and giving us two locked-room mysteries for the price of one.  The book moves at a very deliberate pace; it's not so much that it's slow as that Hill wants to present all of his characters, even the minor ones, fully.  This is important here, because their different testimonies about what happened are the backbone of the novel.  In the end, this is actually a modernist take on the idea of the locked room mystery -- most of the minor mysteries are not only left unsolved, but Hill takes pains to show that it's deliberate; in the novel, truth is unknowable.  All we have are different testimonies, and we can decide how much we trust each one's reliability.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Case of the Missing Servant

Tarquin Hall's Case of the Missing Servant is pretty much light as air, despite a few darker grace notes about corruption in India.  But overall a lot of fun.  His main character Vish Puri is entertaining to watch, and the minor characters were interesting enough to carry the narrative when it was their turn.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Death Without Company, Master of the Delta, Heartsick

I finished a couple of books that weren't really bad, were even pretty good, but didn't really do anything for me.

Craig Johnson's Death Without Company is a mystery set in a small town in Wyoming.  The problem with small-town mystery series is that it's pretty hard to justify more than one case in a row.  In the first book, there was a spree of 3 murders, more, we're told, than happened in the last decade.  Now, just a month later, there's another spree...  That aside, the folksy jokey tone just doesn't work for me.  It felt a bit like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Wyoming, where everyone's a smart-aleck.

Having said all that, Johnson is a perceptive writer.  His nature descriptions are beautiful.  Although the interpersonal relationships he describes don't interest me, they're definitely well-written.  I can see why the amazon reviews are in general so positive.

Heartsick pulls off the neat trick of starting out like a Red Dragon-wannabe, but ending up in a completely different place.  If nothing else, Chelsea McCain deserves kudos for not treading down the well-worn Hannibal Lector path of a brilliant psycho in jail teaching our detective how to find the bad guy.  Sadly, in every other respect I found it pretty unmemorable.  Again, I can see how it's good for the right audience, but not my thing.

Lastly, I wrote about Master of the Delta in my previous post.  It ended up as good as I'd hoped, a totally gut-wrenching conclusion.  As you approach the ending, it starts to take on more and more of an air of tragedy, where the narrator's willful obstinacy leads to an inevitable conclusion.  And the final couple of paragraphs were just perfect.  Wrenching, inevitable in retrospect, but still surprising the first time you read them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Master of the Delta

Thomas Cook's Master of the Delta is a suspense novel built around foreshadowing.  At about 2/3 of the way through, nothing actually suspenseful has happened, and yet the tension is incredible, because Cook's narrator tells us in many ways that things will end up badly, though he hasn't told us how.

Cook's foreshadowing is sometimes so deft and yet at others so heavy-handed that it's hard to believe one author wrote the book.  His narrator, Jack Branch, is looking back to events from 1954, when he encouraged one of his students to write a paper about the student's father, he was arrested for killing a girl, then killed in prison without a trial.  Branch interweaves reflections on what ended up happening to the characters in later life, as well as transcripts from a trial (the trial seems to have sprung from what the student learned while writing his paper).  These are really well handled, giving a sense of depth to characters who might otherwise be ciphers, as well as feeling like an actual part of the story as Jack Branch sees it.  He's known these people for 40 years (or whatever the number is), and so when he looks back he also sees what they've done in between 1954 and his present.

And then there are all the sentences that add nothing but a "had I but known..."  ("But I was young, and didn't know the havoc this could cause."  That sort of thing)  At this point, there are so many that they're more of a speed bump than a serious literary device.  Had Cook removed 2/3 of them, the remaining ones would probably be stronger.

Light in August

I think I have to give up on Light in August.  Too many variations on "He knew x but didn't know that he knew it."  It felt sharp the first time, even the second time, but by the tenth/twentieth (before I'm 1/3 of the way through the novel) it feels like a verbal tic.  I may yet try Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom, which are usually considered his best work.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Prestige (concluded)

I finished The Prestige yesterday. Great book, but the ending was a real let-down. In the end, Priest goes for a cheap scare with a conclusion that doesn't hold up logically. But getting there was a great ride. Yet another example of Lafferty's dictum that stories are better off without their final pages.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Prestige

I'm most of the way through Christopher Priest's The Prestige, and it's turning out to be an incredible book, pulling off a number of feats.

The main story is about two rival magicians in late 19th century London.  Priest chose to tell the story from each man's perspective, first one then the other, in a sort of he-said-she-said model.  That kind of story is tricky to pull off, because the second version can often feel repetitive and anti-climactic.  Priest avoids that in a couple of ways; for one, the first account is a memoir written in 1900-3, while the second is a diary, so there are many events that are prominent in one but missing in the other.  More importantly, as we start seeing the truth behind the facade of the second magician's life, the tension is increased by knowing some of what's going to happen.

The major theme of this story is the truth behind a facade.  Priest's narrators remind us several times that the truth is a small thing compared to the illusion, and yet each fails to apply that lesson to the way they he sees his rival.

On a side note, I'm a bit of an enthusiast about stage magic, and it feels to me like Priest has really done his homework.  His taxonomy of the 6 types of trick is one that I've seen elsewhere, his magicians talk properly about misdirection, and so on.  He also uses his time period very effectively -- this is a novel that couldn't work if transported more than a few years in either direction.

The Master and Margarita

Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is, at least according to a few sources I've looked at, considered one of the highlights on 20th century Russian literature.  Even granting the truth of that statement, I'm not sure how interesting it is to, say, an American in the 21st century.

Master and Margarita is, most obviously, a satire on Stalinist Russia.  Satan comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc; his mischief ends up getting some higher-ups picked up by the secret police or taken to psychiatric institutions.  This section of the novel is mildly amusing (although I felt like it dragged a bit by the end), but I can imagine it being much funnier to people living under the regime.

In a second strand, Bulgakov tells the story of Jesus and Pilate, but in a version with a number of variations from the Gospel account.  There are only 4 chapters of this, but they're spread out through the novel, and they're clearly important to the theme, with Jerusalem as a Moscow-analog.

Lastly, the eponymous master and Margarita take center stage for a while (but less than half the book).  The master has written a book about Jesus which has gotten him placed in a psychiatric institution.  Margarita uses Satan's power to help free him, as well as taking revenge on a few folks (this seems to be a bit of vicarious vengeance on Bulgakov's part -- some of Margarita's targets are people who tormented him in real life).

I liked the end of this third strand a lot, and I liked the Pilate sections -- they're interestingly ambivalent.  On the other hand, Satan's antics in Moscow largely left me cold.  The humor is sort of like reading, say, Art Buckwald columns from 1950; every so often, some of it will be trenchant because he happens to have hit on something that's still true today (like the way some people try to take up the same hobby as their boss), but a lot of it is only funny in its historical context.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Story of Philosophy

Almost done with Durant's Story of Philosophy.  It's a lucid, if idiosyncratic, take on the history of philosophy from Plato to ~1920.  He covered some philosophers whom I know pretty well, which gives me confidence in his views on the others.  On the whole, it's a good intro to the philosophers he covers, and Durant is pretty forthright about what's his own opinion.

I think that he spends a lot of time on epistemic issues, considering how much he claims to dislike epistemology.  But my biggest complaint is probably with the structure of the book.  Durant dives deeply into 9 philosophers, while leaving the others at the edges, and some of them seem pretty important.  I'd quibble with his choice of, say, Spenser over Mill or Bentham, for example.  He also assumes, to some extent, that we know something of the philosophers whom he skimps on -- he contrasts a few of them to Hobbes, but never really covers Hobbes at all.

On the plus side, his discussions of Kant and Spinoza are incredibly good, and I can now see some of the attractions of Nietzsche's philosophy, though I still consider it pretty repellant.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Short takes: Oto x Maho, Light in August, The Coming of Bill, The Story of Philosophy, Dogs of Riga

In the middle of a bunch of books, don't know how many I'm going to bother finishing...  Good thing I'm not a professional reviewer, so I don't have to.

Oto x Maho is a fun magical girl story.  I can't imagine how it was stretched out to 13 books and counting, but I'm only 1/3 of the way through.

I'm very disappointed with Faulkner's A Light in August.  I love Cormac McCarthy's writing, and he supposedly has a large Faulkner influence, so I thought I would love Faulkner as well, but Light in August does nothing for me.  It feels too obviously symbolic right from the get-go, not like a living story.  (The problem may be in the narration; Faulkner may be a writer who should be read, not listened to, so I may give a different book a try some time).

Also disappointed in The Coming of Bill.  Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors, but I can't imagine giving this one to friends.  I think the problem is that the main characters are very bland, and so the situations are boring.

Dogs of Riga is not grabbing my interest, but I'm not sure why.  I'll give it another shot this weekend.

Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy is OK, and I'll probably finish it.  It's strengths are definitely the flip side of its weaknesses.  Durant is very good at contextualizing the philosophers and picking out salient points, but we also end up with a lot of Durant's opinions.  He feels, for example, that no-one gets excited by logic, and so gives Aristotle's logic short shrift; he skips from Aristotle to Bacon because he considers stoicism a bloodless philosophy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I recently finished George Elliot's Middlemarch, and it completely blew me away.  So I find myself in the occasional position of loving something that's already been written about to death -- I would imagine that there isn't anything new to be said about Middlemarch at this point.  So a random scattering of random thoughts:

  • In a way, Elliot pulls an anti-Dickens.  Ladislaw has, not one, but two claims for vast wealth show up suddenly and coincidentally.  This, of course, is the sort of thing Dickens is infamously fond of pulling out of a hat to resolve things at the last minute.  But Elliot has Ladislaw end up ineligible for one source of money and he refuses to take the second, defying the easy resolution.
  • She (Elliot) also defied my expectation when Rosamund's brief epiphany doesn't end up leading her to become a better person.
  • It's a very middle class novel, espousing the values of hard work at every turn; the most admirable characters are clearly Caleb, with his love of "business", and Dorothea, who wants to give away all of her inherited money.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Winter of Frankie Machine,

Unlike When Will There be Good News? , Don Winslow's The Winter of Frankie Machine has no literary pretensions.  It's a straight thriller, and a pitch-perfect one.

It starts very slowly, as we spend 30 pages following the eponymous Frankie around his day; he starts in his bait shop, then checks in on the two other businesses he runs, has lunch with his daughter, and so on with a quotidian day. These pages are important because they introduce us to Frank; he's persnickety, it's easy to push his buttons by referring to past obligations, and he's obsessive about preparedness.

In the next 10 pages, Frank is contacted by old mafia associates and then nearly assassinated. From there, the tension stays at that high point while frank tries to determine who might want him dead. Now those first 30 pages bear fruit, as Frank's actions all grow organically out of the personality we were introduced to at the beginning.

The result is not great literature, surely, but it's a thriller with no false steps along the way, and that's not an easy achievement.  The most similar book I've read recently was Point of Impact, also a novel about a man being pursued by a large conspiracy, needing all his wits to escape.  I liked Point of Impact a lot, but Frankie Machine really points up the weaknesses of the former book and makes me downgrade a bit in retrospect; it makes me realize that Point of Impact hits its target, but Frankie Machine is a dead center bulls-eye.  Although it turns out that Frank is not the well-oiled machine that his name suggests (and the book would be less interesting if he were), this book certainly is.

Friday, June 17, 2011

When Will There be Good News?

Kate Atkinson is a Whitebread award winner who decided to branch into suspense fiction with Case Histories.  Although I normally like to start a series at the beginning, I jumped into When Will There be Good News because I happened to hear good things about it and amazon had a 99 cent sale on it.  It then sat on my kindle for such a long time that by the time I got round to it, I had totally forgotten everything about it, so I started reading with a totally blank slate, which was an interesting experience.

Somehow I forgot about the suspense part, but remembered she was a Whitbread winner.  The novel starts out on a high pitch, with a brutal slaying, but then immediately moves to thirty years later and much lower tempo, so for a long while I thought it was actually not a suspense novel at all. Atkinson raises the tempo at a steady rate through the book, until she reaches a high point about 4/5 of the way in.

I think I preferred the first half of the novel over the second half.  Atkinson has a good eye for character interactions, as well as a nice turn of phrase.  Once she gets into the heavy suspense part, she also gets into heavy coincidence territory, and the climax really pushed into unbelievable territory for me.  I think I'd enjoy her literary work, and am looking to read more by her.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Woman in the Dunes

I finally finished Abe's Woman in the Dunes.  I cheated a bit by reading the ending in an English translation, which leads me to my first thought...  this isn't a novel that loses much in translation.  Japanese has a bunch of features that can make it difficult to translate, especially those that show social stratification or dialect, but none of them have much place in this novel.  It's certainly the most direct translation of any major Japanese novel I've read, and more than some of the light novels as well.

Ultimately, I think the novel really dragged.  As I've mentioned before, I don't think the book is a simple dramatization of a philosophical concept; it should be looked at as a novel as well.  Unfortunately, I don't think that it totally works.  Part of the problem is that we know pretty much from the beginning that the man's never going to escape, and so the various attempts he makes don't really drive anything forward.  On the one hand, I understand that you have to have that feeling, because the whole point of the novel is about the struggle in the face of implacable fate, but it feels like it drags on two attempts too many.

The closest analog to the book that I can think of is Kafka's The Trial (I believe that The Castle may be closer, but I haven't read it yet).  But The Trial works better, I think, because Kafka keeps things fresh by throwing in more characters and changing up.  Oddly enough, I was about to write that The Trial is shorter, but I just looked on amazon, and it's at least comparable, if not longer.  But it felt shorter, because of the humor, the way Kafka changes things up, and so on.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, Middlemarch

Over the Memorial Day weekend, the place we were staying at had a copy of Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.  I didn't have the time to read the whole thing, but I read his takes on Mansfield Park and Ulysses, as well as the more general introduction.

Nabokov is a very perceptive reader, as you'd expect, and it's a pleasure to read his lecture notes.  But this collection is also indirectly a guide to reading Nabokov.  We learn that he thinks social concerns are irrelevant to great literature, that all great novels create an imaginary world rather than being purely mimetic, that form is inseparable from content, and so on.

One big surprise for me is that he feels that Joyce's stylistic choices in the second half of Ulysses aren't relevant to an analysis.  That is, he spends all his time analyzing the events, with the occasional note about verbal effects, without addressing the fact that one chapter is catechistic, while another is in the form of a play, and so on.  I think that form and content here are intimately related, and it seems that Nabokov, who's so caught up in stylistic choices, would dismiss these choices with one sentence.

I've started listening to Middlemarch, which is in a way an inverse of War and Peace.  Whereas the latter is a long kaleidoscopic novel covering a number of Russian areas over 10 years, Middlemarch is a minutely observed view of the small town of Middlemarch.  Not much else to say about it, yet.

Faithful Place

In my comments on Tana French's novel The Likeness, I said that the core psychological exploration in the novel were sound, but the mystery itself was very contrived, and French didn't seem that interested in the actual plot of the novel; Faithful Place is much more successful at integrating the psychological themes with the plot.

Detective Frank Mackie left home 20+ years ago, and hasn't spoken to anyone in his family except one sister in all that time.  But he returns when a suitcase belonging to his girlfriend, who disappeared 20 years ago, is discovered.  Frank is torn between wanting to find out what happened to her and trying to stay away from his abusive parents.  As one expects in this sort of novel, there are family secrets long buried which come to the surface.

I think French does a great job of working her theme of family secrets through the various threads of the novel.  Frank has been hiding his background from his ex-wife, she has been hiding the fact that she's introduced their daughter to Frank's family, and so on.

Since French's theme is the exposure of these secrets and the effect they have, it makes sense that she solves the mystery of what happened to Frank's girlfriend long before the end of the book.  The point of the novel is about the aftermath when the secrets are exposed; by getting there "early", she gives herself time to explore the results in the detail they need.  (This is another improvement over The Likeness, where the resolution is placed more traditionally close to the end, and so the ending feels rushed).

As a side note, this seemed to me to be French's most optimistic book, and I enjoyed that as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

War and Peace Concluded

I finished War and Peace yesterday.  I don't actually have anything to say about it, except that I highly recommend any readers to skip the last epilog section; it's just a restatement of an earlier essay, and at 40 pages long it's a doozy.  It's the sort of thing that we make fun of in The Fountainhead, and what's sauce for the goose...  I actually didn't like the first epilog so much either -- it felt very tacked-on.

I guess the big question with any long book like this is whether it's worth investing the time & effort to read it.  I'd give a qualified yes.  You need to be at least marginally interested in the period but also willing to accept Tolstoy's (admittedly obvious) bias.  You also need to be able to wade through long essays on historiography (though those only start in the second half of the book).  But the actual story really sucked me in; I found Andrei and Pierre to be pretty compelling characters.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Janissary Tree, a small note on War & Peace

Jason Goodwin's Janissary Tree is a mystery/thriller set in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire. It feels like the thriller plot is constructed to get us into a bunch of "interesting" places, as a sort of tour.  So we spend some time in the Sultan's quarters in Topkapi Palace, some time in a slum, some time in a Turkish bath, and so on.  Goodwin's very good at scene-building, and I think that if I were looking for a panoramic view of Istanbul in that period, I could do worse.

Unfortunately, he's not so good at the thriller-writing parts.  The underlying plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense as soon as you step back and think about it.  It makes a James Bond plot seem down-to-earth.  On top of that, there are scenes that feel taken straight out of a Bond movie.  Yashim, a functionary in the sultan's court fights a trained assassin hand-to-hand; there's no way he should survive for one minute, never mind winning.  Elsewhere he's locked in a Turkish Bath and left to die -- why not just kill him and leave?  That's almost Dan Brown-level stupidity.

On another note, War & Peace has too many damn essays.  It's a great book, and I'm really enjoying it, but I'm getting tired of hearing how much Napoleon is not a military genius and how much Kutuzov connected with the soul of the Russian people.  The essays make a good case for an edited version, but they'd probably on shave 30 pages off the text, probably not even worth doing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Acceptance World, War and Peace yet again

I read The Acceptance World, the third volume of A Dance to the Music of Time.  There probably isn't much I can say about it that I didn't talk about before.  The writing is beautiful, not much happens, Jenkins slips around in time, yadda yadda.  Jenkins has an affair with Jean DuPorte, but it doesn't carry much emotional weight.  Jenkins himself is pretty detached; one senses that he rarely gets emotionally involved with the people around him.

I think that his detachment paradoxically gives more of a punch to the spots where characters are in trouble.  When we see Stringham as a wreck, for example, it's a real shock, and Jenkins's cool reporting of the episode makes it seem worse.  I've seen people call this a comedy (Evelyn Waugh said that Powell is almost as funny as Wodehouse), and I can't agree.  There are very funny parts, but also some very painful parts, as well as a lot of parts that are neither.  Certainly I wouldn't recommend this to someone looking for another Wodehouse...

Closing in on the end of War and Peace.  Pierre finds his redemption in suffering while a prisoner of the French.  Reminds me of Raskolnikov or Dimitry Karamazov.  Maybe just a Russian thing...  The big problem for me, though, is that Pierre is so changeable through the novel.  He's pro-Napoleon, then an ardent Mason, then he decides to assassinate Napoleon, and so on.  I have trouble accepting that he's finally found the good road.  I liked Andrei Bolkonsky's character arc much better.  (I've come to think of them as the main characters, but there's no good reason for that -- certainly the various Rostovs are just as important, but it may be that I just can't connect with them in the same way.  Though Natasha is a great character).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dirty White Boys, A Buyer's Market

Listened to Stephen Hunter's Dirty White Boys.  Kept expecting it to get better, ended up listening to the second half at 2x speed and even so skipping bits.  Meh.  Hard to believe it's by the same guy who wrote Point of Impact.  Even harder to believe that it was well-received, but it apparently was.

Now listening to A Buyer's Market, second part of his "Dance to the Music of Time."  It's amazing how enthralling Powell makes this story where really nothing happens.  (At least, not in the first quarter).  Beautiful writing, and he slips nicely through time, as one thing reminds him of another.


Read the beginning of Book 22.  Among other things, Hector, finding himself outside the walls of Troy, debates with himself whether to stand up to Achilles or to flee.  It seems pretty clear that he already knows he's likely to lose a fight, but he doesn't want to live on branded a coward.

He also now realizes that he should've withdrawn into Troy much earlier.  Although this story isn't Hector's tragedy, I think that he has some tragic elements as well, and this fatal overconfidence is his biggest flaw.  He hadn't realized that, just as the scales suddenly tipped in his favor, they could as quickly be reversed.

I think that the whole sequence is one of the great soliloquies in the Iliad.  In general, heroes aren't given to self-doubt, and the epic idiom doesn't really lend itself to complex monologs, so this struck me as a real tour de force.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

War and Peace again

I'm almost through Part III, which includes a massive section on the Battle Of Borodino, one of the pivotal battles in Napoleon's Russian Campaign.  Tolstoy uses the Battle to make some points about warfare, history, and social forces.

For one thing, Tolstoy is adamantly opposed to the Great Man theory of history.  As he puts it, Napoleon could not have invaded Russia if 100,000 Frenchman had not signed up for his army and agreed to invade Russia.  Further, having arrived in Russia, if Napoleon had just disappeared, they would have continued to fight, because that's what they came for.  He also depicts Napoleon as a bumbler who happened to have things go his way most of the time.  He mocks those who credit Napoleon with great genius, pointing out that most of the time, Napoleon couldn't have given orders on the battlefield, because, with the fog of war, by the time his orders were given and received, the situation had usually changed drastically.

I think that Tolstoy overplays his hand a bit with this argument.  Although it's true that Napoleon couldn't have marched without an army, and he didn't personally round up 100,000 men to serve in his army, it's equally true that 100,000 Frenchmen didn't spontaneously decide to make war on Russia.  Similarly, you can acknowledge the fog of war, but also credit Napoleon with the strategic ability to set up battles ahead of time, knowing that his orders during the battle might not always make it through.

I'm not a military (or any kind of) historian, though, so I think it's more interesting to see how these view fall into the context of the novel.  For one thing, they explain Tolstoy's panoramic approach to the years 1805-13.  Since he doesn't believe that one person is a prime mover, but instead that everyone is responding to general historical forces, he needs to show us the period from multiple points of view.  We see reactions to the sparring of the Tsar and Napoleon from the point of view of diplomats, soldiers, country land-holders, minor nobility, peasants (not so often, but occasionally), and so on.

This also helps Tolstoy illustrate another of his theses, that it's impossible to get an unbiased view of an historical event/personage.  Is General Kutuzov a hero, a bumbler, a man who gets credit for others' deeds, or what?  Each character would give a different answer, I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Black Tide

I just finished listening to Peter Temple's Black Tide.  Temple has since gone on to win a major Australian literary prize, but Black Tide is still square in the hard-boiled camp.  It's very solid, though, and would jump to the top of my list of recommended hard-boiled novels, except that it's over-complicated.  Granted, Temple is telling a story in which financial shell companies play a major role, but it's hard to keep the cast straight, especially at first.

On the plus, side, though:
  • The violent show-down scenes are very well-done.  Temple's hero, Jack Irish, is a lawyer, but he makes it seem believable that he makes a Molotov cocktail during a firefight.  But, even better is that, in fact, Irish screws it up, and ends up with something that won't even ignite.  We see time & again that Irish is just not very good in a gun battle, which adds tremendously to the realism.
  • I loved the ending.  We get a nice sense of closure where it's needed, not some added angst thrown in at the end just to be unsettling.
  • Irish is also an amateur cabinet-maker, and Temple is very good at showing us this part of Irish's life.  The same goes for his football club.  These glimpses of Irish's life all humanize him and get away from the driven-guy-who's-an-alcoholic-to-get-away-from-it-all stereotype.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Woman in the Dunes

Nearly done with Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes.  One thing that I think is striking about the novel is how realistic Abe makes the surreal situation.  When Junpei escapes, we feel the sand in his shoes, we see the dim lights in the distance.  When he returns to the hole, Abe even mentions a couple of spiders in the corner, along with the fuzzy darkness, the feel of the rope on his hands, and so on.

Although the novel is obviously an intellectual exercise, this grounding in reality also forces us to consider it as a novel, not just as a philosophical essay disguised as a story.  But I'm not really sure it succeeds as a novel; I've found that the middle section really drags a bit (although it could be my Japanese slowing me down too much). 

Junpei is mostly an annoying character, which makes it hard to see him as an avatar of the reader.  I think this is a big lack, because it becomes tempting to say, "well, that's not what I would do," and cutting short the whole introspective process.  I think that Abe's Box Man is more successful in this respect.  The box man is so outre, but at the same time so blank, that it becomes easier to project into him at the beginning.  The eponymous woman is so passive that we feel sorry for her, but it becomes hard to empathize with her.  When I talk to Jenna about the book, she keeps asking if the woman escapes, and it's a natural question; it's much harder to read about a character who's not even interested in talking about escape.  (She's not exactly opposed, she cooperates with the man in his attempts to win freedom, but she's not herself actively interested in pursuing it)

I'll move on to the final section in a couple of weeks, and think about the book as a whole then.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Don't Look Back, Gene Wolfe short stories

I actually started Karin Fossum's Don't Look Back more than a month ago, but library returns intervened, so I finally finished it over Pesach.  Scandinavian thrillers are the new big thing in the publishing world, but so far I haven't been super impressed.  Jar City was OK, but not enough to interest me further in that series, and I thought the two Jo Nesbo books were more lightweight than they pretended.

Don't Look Back, on the other hand, doesn't try to be a social commentary; instead it's a simple procedural, and it succeeds very well.  Fossum does a great job at keeping the story focused on her detectives' probing into the life of the murdered girl at the heart of the story.  There's an air of despair around the edges of the novel (one minor character commits suicide, it seems another may be chased out of town), and, in their own way, these small pieces end up contributing more to the atmosphere of the novel than the more heavy-handed attempts of Fossum's peers.

I finished the Gene Wolfe retrospective over Pesach as well.  Toward the end, his stories get more elliptical, though not necessarily less successful.  "The Tree is my Hat," for example, is horrifying, even though I'd be surprised if I understood even a fraction of Wolfe's references.  I think the secret to enjoying some of these stories is to just accept that there's a lot there to pick up, and not worry about getting all the references.

Still continuing with War and Peace, might hit the halfway mark soon...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Falling Glass, War and Peace, Gene Wolfe short stories

I'm just going to quote my own amazon review here...
I came to Adrian McKinty's Falling Glass after listening to the Michael Forsyth trilogy (but not having read Fifty Grand). The first thing that struck me is how much the pyrotechnics (both plotwise and stylistically) are cooled down.

In the Forsyth books, there are multiple shootouts that can end up stretching credulity; here, we have a more cat-and-mouse plot, with a lot of energy going into characters hiding out from other characters. It's a nice refreshing change, as much as I loved the Forsyth books. Killian, the hero of the novel, is no superman, and so there's a constant knife-edge of tension, since odds are, if he gets in a fight he'll lose. I also liked that not every confrontation is resolved in a gun battle; it keeps things unpredictable.

Stylistically, McKinty has cooled down as well. The earlier books have longer poetic flights of fancy, which are notably absent here, except as the occasional special effect. One major improvement is that McKinty has moved away from his too-heavy foreshadowing of the earlier novels, which keeps the tension at a higher pitch.

I'm also chugging along through War and Peace and The Best Gene Wolfe Short Stories.  Now that I'm about a third of the way through War and Peace, I'm finding it to be just a very long novel.  That sounds kind of stupid, but what I mean is that, other than being very long, it's not structurally different from other novels, the way that, say Ulysses and Infinite Jest are.  The length isn't there because Tolstoy is trying to be innovative; instead it's there to give him space to devote to the many characters he's juggling.

And it's really an incredible juggling act.  Even though I don't think I could list all the major characters without a cheat sheet, every time one comes back on stage, it feels like they're fresh in my memory; Tolstoy never lets too long a time pass between mentions of each one.  Also, each character is so vivid that I can picture them clearly, so when they re-appear, it's not hard to remember who they are.

War and Peace also has a fair bit of satire (though I wouldn't call it a satirical novel).  There's a funny bit where one commander in the Russian army is chasing another division, so that he can take command, and they keep running away.  Pierre's attempts to remedy the lot of the poor also ends up being the stuff of satire.

The Gene Wolfe stories are, as I mentioned before, a really varied lot.  Since I posted, I've read two of the more enigmatic ones, "Forlesen" and "Seven American Nights."  I'm not sure that there is a hidden layer to be discovered in "Forlesen;" it feels more like a satire on business practices, with just enough clues to keep you guessing if there's not more.  "Seven American Nights," on the other hand, is pointedly elusive.  There's a lot going on behind the scenes, with at least one night missing from the journal, references to Easter week, possible hallucinations, and so on.  I'm not sure I have a solution for the puzzle, but it's an entertaining story, even on the surface, which is always the most important thing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Soulless, War and Peace, Gene Wolfe short stories

I was very disappointed by Gail Carriger's Soulless, probably my fault for not reading the reviews thoroughly enough.  Billed as an Austenian comedy of manners with werewolves and vampires, it's actually a romance.  Which would be okay, but the romance angles takes over in the dumbest places; one time, even in a jail cell, while the two main characters are waiting to be experimented on.

In a more serious vein, I've started on War and Peace, and am also dipping into a massive retrospective of Gene Wolfe's short fiction.  War and Peace is, of course, famous for being very long and having a huge cast of characters.  It was certainly daunting at first, because the opening takes place at a party where it's hard to even know which people will turn out to be important and which ones are just window dressing.  But after that, it settles down, and I'm finding it very readable.  Tolstoy takes us from Russian high society to the battlefield to an isolated farm estate, and it's all enthralling.  (Although the size of the novel is certainly off-putting -- my kindle tells me I'm 18% of the way through, and I've already read a normal novel's worth of text).

The Gene Wolfe retrospective is a great way to become (re)acquainted with Wolfe's short fiction.  Although I usually think of him as a novelist, because his themes tend to be so complicated, his short fiction is usually top-notch, whether at the three-page length or the fifty-page length.  In some cases, I'm revisiting stories I've already read and loved, like "The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories," which is an amazing story; it's even more amazing to see that it came so early in his career.  In other cases, there are stories which I've heard of, but had never gotten around to reading, like "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," which absolutely deserves its classic status.  And then there are a few which I'd never heard of, and which provide a very different glimpse of Wolfe's writing, like "The Recording," which is not even science fiction.  Of course, there are a few duds, but this is a fine collection (and I'm only 1/3 of the way through)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tevye Stories, Cursor's Fury, Pretty Monsters, Aeneid

I recently read all of Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye the Milkman" stories, and I gotta admit that I didn't think they were so fantastic.  I liked them well enough, I suppose, but that was as far as it went.  One always hears that Yiddish is hard to translate, so maybe that's the problem...

I just finished listening to Jim Butcher's Cursor's Fury, third in his Codex Alera.  Just like in his Harry Dresden books, he managed to pull me in, despite a repetitive style (characters are constantly arching eyebrows, something I don't see a real-life person do once in a year.  Characters call each other by names like "Aleran" or "Calderan" after knowing them for more than 5 years -- this would be like my calling my friends "Kansas-guy" or "Chicagoan").  He knows how to keep the pot boiling enough that it distracts from his stylistic infelicities.

Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters, on the other hand, is all about style.  She's incredibly adroit, writing in a high fantasy mode in one story, horror in another, and so on.  I've written before about how she writes about characters who are on the periphery of the story.  Here, most of the stories are like that as well -- one that I particularly liked was an alien contact story that stops just before the aliens actually make contact.  She also has a more traditional story about wizards that didn't really impress me the same way.  Overall, it's a top-notch collection, even though two of the stories were also in Magic for Beginners.

I've begun book II of the Aeneid, which talks about the Trojan horse being brought into Troy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sandman Slim, St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim starts out as if it's going to be a Count of Monte Cristo take-off.  Our hero has escaped from Hell, where he was unjustly imprisoned for 11 years, to seek vengeance on the circle of mages who trapped him there.  But Kadrey switches gears several times, and the result was a novel that surprised me a few times, even if it never rises above total pulp.

I expected to like St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves very much, since the short stories are very much in the vein of Kelly Link's -- fantasy stories which leave you wondering what happened, and seem to stop before the actual end of the story.  Instead, these stories showed me how much art is in Link's choice of where to stop -- they often feel like they're stopping at an arbitrary place, but feel complete anyway.  Karen Russell, on the other hand, often seems to just peter out, like the story just ran out of gas.  This isn't so true of the last three stories, and the last one in particular feels absolutely complete, so if the stories are in chronological order of writing, I guess it's something she worked on.

Other than the endings, the stories are great.  Moody, beautiful writing, well-realized characters in a very short space, everything you could ask for.  If only she had better endings...

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Question of Upbringing

A Question of Upbringing is the first volume in Anthony Powell's massive 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time.  The series as a whole has been on my "books to think about reading" list for a long time, but it seemed daunting to even begin.  Amazon solved that problem for me by selling the volumes individually for the kindle and making the first a freebie.

So I dove in and was surprised at what the book wasn't, as much as by what it was.  First off, it's not really a novel in the normal sense.  There are four semi-connected sections, each of which takes up a few a days in the life of the narrator, Jenkins.  Also, although the series covers a large span of time and a large cast of characters, it's not really panoramic; instead, each section could almost be an individual short story (it reminded me a little of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in this).

Powell's style is gorgeous; I think this is the best-written of all the kindle freebies so far.  Different parts are funny or wistful or lyrical.  You get the sense of a narrator looking back over a long time, sorting through his memories to find ones that present people at some moment that epitomizes them, or finding particular turning points that solidified his attitudes toward them.  In each section, the characters jump out; even ones who are only introduced for a few pages feel vivid.

At this point, I guess I'm in for the long haul, looking forward to reading the next 11 volumes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Abhorsen is the second half of the story begun in Lirael.  I didn't like Lirael as much as I liked Sabriel, feeling that Nix spends too much time on his two protagonists' doing that teenager thing of "nobody understands me; I'm different to everyone else; etc".  In Abhorsen, Nix is back in fine form.

One thing I loved about Lirael was the lyrical writing.  In Abhorsen, Nix has Lirael go on a long journey through the lands of death, and I felt that his description of the journey was very effective; the nine areas that Lirael travels through feel disparate, yet unified.  Her showdown with Hedge in the last of these didn't come down to a test of strength, which would have felt silly, but instead grew out of the way Death has been presented to us over the course of the books.

As a side note, I thought it was pretty clear that the Destroyer, the main bad guy of the series, is actually a personification of an atomic bomb.  It's housed in two metal hemispheres that set off a chain reaction when brought together, starting with a pillar of fire.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sharpe's Trafalgar

In Sharpe's Trafalgar, Sharpe ends up at the Battle of Trafalgar, where (as Cornwell himself admits) he has no business.  So, on the one hand, the book is a great look at the famous battle, letting the reader really feel like he might have been there.  On the other hand, it's not a really good Sharpe book, because Sharpe himself has almost no role to play; his expertise is on the ground, not ship battles.

There's a romance between Sharpe and noble-born lady which was OK, but also seemed to be out of character for Sharpe; he hasn't up till now seemed like the kind to fall distractedly head-over-heels for someone the way he seems to here, to the point where he doesn't notice the plotting of the antagonists.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Road, Pirates in an Adventure with Napoleon

Gideon Defoe's Pirates series is uniformly hilarious; I think he's one of the consistently funniest writers since Wodehouse (Jasper Fforde is very funny, too, but more hit-and-miss).  Pirates in an Adventure with Napoleon is no exception.  Unfortunately, talking about humor tends to kill the joke, so I'll just move on.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road, on the other hand, begs for analysis, to its detriment.  Most of his oeuvre works on a symbolic as well as a literal level, but The Road falls on the far side of the allegorical spectrum.  The characters don't have names (the only character to use a name also tells us that it's not his real name), the situation is allegorical, and the characters are types.  Unfortunately, as short as the novel is (240 pages in my edition), it's still too big for the limited area it encompasses.

The story is about a man and his son traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape, the man trying to protect the boy.  It's a dog-eat-dog world, and so the two avoid any contact with other people, even the most run-down specimens.  The boy wants to reach out and help the run-down folks, while the man (understandably) wants to protect what little food they've got. Much of the book consists of conversations, especially between man and boy.

There are two running conversations that I think provide the key to the novel.  First, the man tells the boy that they're the "good guys," and the boy increasingly questions him.  The man also tells the boy that he (the boy) is carrying "the fire."  In the end, when the man dies (of TB or something like it), the boy is picked up by another family who seem to have been shadowing them for a long time, but were afraid to make contact.  It's pretty clear that the fire the boy carries is his goodness.  Although the man says over & over again that they are the "good guys," in fact the path he's chosen leads to destruction -- he would never join with other people to create a new community.  He's not an actively bad person, but his actions lead to a bad result.  He has to die (his physical disease mirrors his spiritual sickness) so that the boy can carry the fire forward.

I felt that the novel lacked the moral complexity of McCarthy's earlier work.  His prose is still beautiful, and the book isn't bad by any means.  But if someone had never read any McCarthy before, this isn't the book I'd point them at.