Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt was an odd little book (as well as seeming an odd nominee for the Mann Booker prize).  A western with touches of magic realism (and maybe science fiction), the novel also has a stylized narrative style that would stand out in any book, let alone an amalgamation like this one.

The title already tells us that we're in for something a bit different -- the oxymoronic mixing of Sisters Brothers promises strange alchemies in the course of the novel.  And so we have the brothers themselves, one pretty clearly a psychopath, the other gentler (but when it comes right down to it, is he any better?  He certainly aids and abets his crazier brother).  We have the genius scientist who finds a better way to find gold, but poisons the landscape and himself in the process (I think the beavers that are destroyed as the result of his process help humanize a metaphor that's otherwise too stark).  We have the weird witch who lays a curse on the brothers.

DeWitt has a flair for set pieces.  Some are funny (the bit where Eli tries to order vegetables in a restaurant was hilarious), some are frightening (the witch), some are sad (the beavers).  Eli's narrative style, deadpan and serious, makes the funny moments funnier.  At the same time, the funny episodes and the more serious ones get the same narrative style, and so DeWitt can switch back & forth rapidly, which is great -- you never quite know how any of the events will play out.  Events which start out ludicrously can turn out to be quite moving.

My one issue with the novel is that it feels a bit schematic in the long ending section.  The two brothers ascend to the top of the world, so to speak, and then tumble down through each location they visited earlier in the novel in reverse order.  I know that there's a venerable tradition for this sort of journey in literature (the obvious one that comes to mind is A Clockwork Orange), but I don't think there's a way for it to avoid feeling mechanical, and that's a pity for a novel that had mostly felt very fresh until that point.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Mill on the Floss

I just finished George Elliots The Mill on the Floss, which I liked, but not as much as Middlemarch, which I really loved.  Like MiddleMarch, Mill on the Floss doesn't really have a unified plot.  But in Middlemarch, the major plot arcs happen simultaneously, one to each of the three families, in Mill, the arcs are successive, and they feel badly tacked together.

In a sense, Mill could be looked at as three books -- "The childhood of Tom & Maggie Tulliver", "Tom pays off the family debts," and "Maggie Tulliver's disgrace."  Taken together, these stories provide an engrossing portrait of the rural English life of Elliot's childhood, but they're also somewhat static in themselves, particularly the first of them.  But even the story of Tom's coming of age is rather static, though it shouldn't be.  But Elliot elides the period of time from when he first starts making money till the point when he has enough to pay the family debts.  So instead, we see Tom only in his before and after states.  Finally, Maggie's story at the end is sort of a portrait of what it's like to be in such disgrace -- at the point when she gets ready to move on, the flood comes and conveniently wipes everything out.

Of course, all this carping does not mean I didn't enjoy the book.  I enjoyed it, but reading it so soon after Middlemarch, which I thought was superlative, it's hard to avoid the comparison.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


212 was pretty average.  Not bad, really, and I ended up skimming the last half instead of giving up outright, but nothing about it stood out for me either.  One thing I didn't like was the role of coincidence -- it's a common-place in police procedurals for two unrelated crimes to end up related (although I sometimes find those contrived as well), but in this case, we have 3 cases that are related, and our protagonist ends up on each one completely by accident (rather than, say, talking to someone working on one of them, which bothers me less).

The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is one of the classic noir books.  It gives us a picture of psychopath from the inside; as the novel starts, he's managed to restrain himself for 15-20 years (at a guess), but he's about to start killing.

For a book written in 1952, The Killer Inside Me feels very modern.  There's a bit of psycho-analysis to explain why Lou went off the rails, and at first I felt like "oh, no, he's taking it out on the women because they remind him of an experience when he was 14," but then Lou asks himself the question "why all the men?" and realizes that, in the end, he can only guess but his own thought processes are not really open to himself.

One other thing I liked was that, although this is a violent book, the violence is clearly not intended to be titillating.  Overall, Killer deserves its reputation as one of the great noir novels.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Turncoat, Princeps' Fury

Two books by Jim Butcher, about whom I've written a lot over the years.

As always, his plot-lines are great; he writes a good climax.  His writing has also steadily improved -- Turncoat never really made me cringe, and it had a couple of similes I quite liked.  His dialog is solid enough, even if there's still too much reliance on stock phrases.  (This tendency is worse in the Codex Alera series -- it's kind of ridiculous that, 10 years in, Kitai still calls Tavi "Aleran," or Max still calls him "Calderan."  This would be like my calling my wife "Bostonian," or my colleagues at work "Russian" and "Indian.")

One nice thing in Princeps' Fury is that Tavi makes a huge mistake; it's nice to see that he's as fallible as the others characters for once.  Although Issana and Bernard are still never wrong.