Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Memory of the Wind

I just finished The Memory of the Wind, one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time.  It's not so much that it wasn't good, as that it started out extremely well, and then deteriorated badly in the last third.

I think that Zafon, the author, shares a lot with Dickens, good and bad, but with a few deficiencies that Dickens didn't have which drag down this novel.

First, the good:  The opening is very evocative.  Young Daniel is taken by his father to the cemetery of lost books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates.  (Or so Daniel tells us -- later, his girlfriend will find Tess of the D'Urbervilles there, which is not exactly a forgotten title).  Zafon brings forth Barcelona from the mist beautifully, and the cemetery is enticing and foreboding at one and the same time.  In some ways, this reminded me of the opening of Great Expectations, set in an actual graveyard -- there's the same Gothic atmosphere.

Like Dickens, Zafon creates memorable characters who jump off the page.  Fermin, the ebullient, funny sidekick will remain in memory much longer than the creaky plot that surrounds him.  Carax, the mysterious author at the heart of the story, is a wonderfully enigmatic character, feeling fully-formed even in the very few pages in which he actually appears.

Unfortunately, like Dickens, Zafon enjoys a lot of the Gothic hugger-mugger, except even more so, and it becomes a detriment.  We have not one but three cruel fathers locking up children or wives, we have incest, we a cruelly disfigured vengeful figure, and so on and on.  The Economist suggests that it's all parodical, but I think that either way it's a huge mistake; if Zafon intends a parody, he can't expect readers to become emotionally attached to the characters, and without that attachment the end loses all its resonance.

Speaking of resonance, my other big problem with the novel is that it's over-structured, a problem Dickens certainly never had.  There are large-scale echoes, like the one-too-many ways that fathers have a difficult time relating to their children.  Even worse is the way that Daniel's story echoes Carax's, underlined by the way several characters tell us that Daniel looks like a young Carax, even though they're not related.  It's just too much, and feels too schematic, so that the ending scenes are telegraphed from miles away, and it's not even particularly fun to see them worked out.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Finished book I.  Phew!  Easier than Homer, mostly because the grammar's more regular, but still difficult...

Woman in the Dunes, The Interrogation

I'm in the middle of two books that create tension through a tight sense of boundaries.

The more literary (and more claustrophobic) is Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes. For all intents and purposes there are only two characters, the man and the woman (Abe doesn't even give us names).  In the early pages of the novel, villagers throw the man into a pit where the woman lives, constantly clearing the sand from her house.  There's no escape from the pit, so the novel (at least so far) pretty much takes place in the confines of the small house.

The whole thing feels somewhat Beckettian to me, except that the man struggles against his fate.  He tries to wheedle his way out, then force his way out, then he ties up the woman so that the villagers will free him in order to free her.  To me, Beckett's characters always feel more passive -- they know the universe is against them, and they've already given up the struggle.  There's an element of that in this novel, too; the woman has already accepted her fate before the novel begins.  It's the struggle between the two approaches that gives the novel tension and moves it forward, rather than being a static tableau.

Thomas Cook's The Interrogation seems like it's going to follow a similar pattern at first.  The police have a suspect for a murder, but only twelve hours to get a confession or otherwise the suspect must be let go.    Much of the actual time in the novel passes in the interrogation room, but Cook spends most of the novel in flashbacks, so the novel's not as claustrophobic as the summary might make one think.  However, Cook has a number of threads come together around that 12 hour mark, and the tension there is really palpable, unfolding almost like a Greek tragedy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Almost done with Jay Lake's Green, and I feel pretty comfortable passing judgment on it.

Green is a bog-standard fantasy with pretensions to be more.  The protagonist is taken from her home village and raised to be a sort of super-courtier and assassin.  We're already treading in fan territory here.  Throw in the BDSM over-tones, the cat-people, and the portentous overtones, and we're in full-blown fan-author territory.

Lake tries to have his cake and eat it too.  For example, Green ends up setting up a new god for people to worship in a non-violent manner, but the whole climax of the book involves people killing each other.  Similarly, he has a couple of people talk to Green about the fact that if she hadn't been sold into slavery, all of her choices would've been pre-determined anyway, and she would have grown up in a much worse environment.  But then he never actually has her confront the issue; Green insists that she would have been better off without even thinking about the issue at all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Proven Guilty, Dialogues of the Dead

Not much to say about Proven Guilty, Jim Butcher's 8th Harry Dresden novel, since I'm only about halfway through, except to say that it's proof that even the pulpiest authors can improve.  One of my pet peeves with the series has been Butcher's tendency to throw out pet phrases until they become irritating -- "Hell's Bells" is probably the chief offender.  So imagine my surprise to be more than halfway through the book and only had one "Hell's Bells" and none of the other annoying phrases.

The stuff that Butcher is actually good at -- the plotting -- has fortunately not changed.

Reginald Hill has been an author who I've lauded in the past for his willingness to change, and Dialogues of the Dead shows that willingness in spades.  Although it's part of the Dalziel/Pascoe series, Hill spends most of the novel with a new recruit to the force, "Hat" Bowler.  Although Dalziel and Pascoe are important to the book, Bowler is really the central player.  In a way, Hill is revisiting themes from early on, with Bowler playing a similar role to the early Pascoe, as a college graduate trying to cope with Dalziel.  But Bowler is more than a Pascoe stand-in.  He is not an intellectual they way Pascoe is, and is more aggressive about going around Dalziel.

At the same time, he provides some of the sparks that the Pascoe/Dalziel relationship used to have, before Pascoe matured, and before Hill began to wear away some of Dalziel's rough edges.  Hill has also matured, and the struggle is rendered more subtly than the early Pascoe/Dalziel books.

In addition to confounding our expectations about the series characters, Hill has completely up-ended the typical closure of a whodunnit.  I'm not sure if I approve -- he's still never really dealt with the thread left over from Dead Heads, the closest equivalent in his previous work.  But it's a bold move, and it'll be interesting to see where he takes relationships in the next book or two.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Bridge of Sighs, Blood of the Innocent

I read Olen Steinhauer's Confession a while back, which was his second book about a fictional Soviet buffer state.  It was very good, gripping in its depiction of a totalitarian state.  The Bridge of Sighs is the first book, set a few years earlier.  Steinhauer apparently wants to give us a view of the state over a few decades, and the first one starts not that long after WWII, while the Russians are still cementing their control.  Already the Stalinist system is in place, with files on everybody, but there isn't the paranoid feeling of the later novel.

I'm not sure if the difference is really supposed to be there, though.  The second novel shows Steinhauer as a much better novelist than this first one, much more in control of his material.  This novel starts with Emil Brod, the protagonist, at his first day on the job; his colleagues are suspicious of him, because they suspect he's a spy from the state.  Fortunately for Emil, it's resolved relatively quickly, but not so fortunately for us readers.  It's a pretty clear case of the author setting the stage to have Emil being sent to investigate an extremely dangerous case by himself; his superior doesn't trust him, so he assigns Emil to the case hoping he'll fail, even though Emil is too junior to be handed such a case under normal circumstances.

It all feels very arbitrary, and the arbitrariness continues.  The main love interest never really gels, except that Emil needs someone to care about who can be held hostage.  The resolution doesn't quite make sense either, although I enjoyed its irony.

It's not that The Bridge of Sighs is a bad novel; it's just not as good as the later novel.  If Steinhauer gets better, then I should be in for a treat in the next few books.

E. O. Wilson (I think) called the mystery genre a travelogue.  He was being disparaging, and I disagree with the general thrust of his argument, but there's a germ of truth there.  In addition to Steinhauer's exploration of life in a Soviet buffer state, I read Leighton  Gage's Blood of the Wicked, set in Brazil.  Gage uses the conventions of the mystery novel to show up the vast divide between rich and poor in Brazil, as well as the corruption left over from the days of military rule.  Unfortunately, one convention he doesn't use is that the detective should be an important factor in the plot.  Instead, he creates an interesting detective in Mario Silva, establishes that said detective will bend the rules if necessary, and then drops him into a situation where his hands are completely tied and he does nothing.  By the end of the novel, it's clear that events would have played out exactly the same even if Mario had never showed up on the scene.

It occurs to me that I had the same issue with The Shape of Water, which is one reason I write this blog -- it lets me keep track of my thoughts so that I can revisit them.  I'm more willing to give Camilleri a second chance, though, because his secondary characters really jumped out at me.  Gage's characters are really there just to dramatize his concern about the wealth divide in Brazil; they never gelled as actual characters for me.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Book Thief

Things have been more than a bit busy lately, and I've read a few books in the meantime.

Moshe's been on my case for a while to read The Book Thief, and I finally got around to it.  My feelings on the book are surprisingly mixed.  On the one hand, Zusak is a really good writer, and his tale of Liesel the book thief has a lot of emotional punch to it.  On the other hand, it almost feels like he doesn't trust himself to deliver on the punch, and so he brings in Death has a narrator.  Death allows him to distance us from the story in a few ways.

Most obviously, Death loves lists, and Zusak sometimes sticks in a list to jump out of an emotional situation, like "4 things that were going through his head at that moment" or whatever.  It struck me as very Vonnegut-like, but Vonnegut manages to make these asides gut-wrenching, while Zusak makes them alienating.  I suspect that this is on purpose; Zusak strikes me as too much in control of his material not to notice the distancing effect he's having.  It feels like he wants to dodge any charges of sentimentality by adding in a post-modern tinge.

And this brings me to the second way Death acts as a distancing effect.  Because he already knows how it's all going to turn out, Zusak can use Death to tell you a few times exactly what's going to happen.  In particular, he deflates the whole scene where Hans leaves for the army, because Death has already told us twice that Hans will not be killed while he's a soldier.  Rudy's death is still devastating, even though Death tells us way in advance that it's going to happen, but I can't think of any way in which the spoiler improves the novel.

So, in the end, I was impressed by the novel (more than Jenna, I think), but I wish that Zusak had taken the paradoxical risk of telling the story more straight-forwardly.