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.