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.