Friday, December 28, 2012

Winter's Tale

Winter's Tale is an epic, exuberant work.  Epic in length, but also in theme (the recreation of the world), in characters (a huge cast, all of them feeling larger-than-life), and in time (the novel spans a century).

Helprin's writing feels exuberant.  There's beautiful writing on ever page:
He moved like a dancer, which is not surprising: a horse is a beautiful animal, but it is perhaps most remarkable because it moves as if it always hears music.
His teeth were like the signposts that appear in the remoter camps of expeditionary armies to point the way to the world's brighter and more congenial locations. They thrust in all directions 
He throws out cool ideas with reckless abandon -- a flying horse, a bridge-builder whose workers are the souls of the dead, a consumptive woman whose fever burns so hot she has to sleep in the snow, and on and on.  His minor characters would be major characters in a smaller book.

Of course, the book has its flaws.  His characters are a bit flat (although I think that suits the epic scale, so maybe not a huge flaw).  It can feel a bit disjointed at times -- major characters get dropped for hundreds of pages.  But I'd forgive a lot in a book this amazing, and this one has relatively little to forgive.

First Lord's Fury

The last of the Codex Alera, First Lord's Fury is a lot like the others.  By this point, one just accepts that Tavi is super-human, that nobody we care about will die (I'm not quite done with the book, but I feel safe making that assumption), and so on.

I think that it's good that Butcher finished the series here -- I certainly would've stopped reading, even if he hadn't.  For all their flaws, I think the "Dresden" novels are more interesting than the last 3 "Alera" books.  I guess my problem isn't any one thing that Tavi does; it's that he's a brilliant tactician, inventor, diplomat, and, in the last two books, incredibly powerful to book; Tavi's role should ideally be split among three people, each of whom could also be wrong sometimes.  I think Tavi only ends up being wrong on a significant scale once in the whole series.

I'm labeling this one disappointing not because I hated it, but because I was hoping that Butcher would somehow surprise me in the final installment.  Instead, it's pretty competent, average work.

The Folded World

The Folded World is the second part of Catherynne Valente's Dirge for Prester John; I briefly touched on the first one here.

She says there will be a third, although I think that if there is never a third volume, the story will still feel complete.  As I said about the first one, Valente's usual beautiful prose is evident on every page.  There is also an attempt at satire in places, which I felt mostly fell flat.  Valente pulls the old trick of having an outsider comment on the absurdities within society; in this case, her mythological beings who can't tell the difference between, say, prayers and magic spells, or the difference between Islam and Christianity.

The problem is, she's mostly satirizing a medieval kind of Christianity which no longer exists, and, even if we widen the target to include all intolerant religions, she's satirizing beliefs which her readers probably don't hold.  The result feels a bit stale; satire is more biting when it picks on the vices we actually possess, as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair.

But, that aside, I really enjoyed the structural inventiveness of the novel.  Valente interweaves stories that are completely out of order, and her frame story about a monk trying to copy a decaying manuscript allows her to even do things like claim parts of the stories are illegible.  It's also got an emotional kick at the end, something that I think Valente's novels have lacked in the past.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is a sprawling monstrosity of a book.  It clocks in at something around 750 pages, has a large cast of characters, and goes from London to the countryside and all the way to Waterloo.  In that space, Thackeray takes consistent aim at the various sins and hypocrisies of his society, which admittedly haven't changed so much between his time and ours.

Nobody is spared, and the novel's subtitle "A novel without a hero" is borne out.  I've seen arguments that Dobbin, the good guy of the novel, is actually the hero, but I don't think so.  Dobbin is mostly ineffectual, and is also largely absent for a lot of the novel.  Amelia is sometimes called a "heroine", but, then again, so is Becky, so I don't think we can take that appellation at face value.  Dobbin and Amelia, although good, are too ineffectual to do all the good they can; in the end, it takes Becky's scheming and willingness to blacken George Osborne's character to resolve Amelia's remaining issues with Dobbin.

For the record, this was my second attempt at Vanity Fair; I had tried reading it about 8 years ago, and got stalled out in the long section on how to live on nothing a year.  In these few chapters Thackeray does his best to show us how the Becky Sharps of this world are not merely lovable rogues who don't do any actual harm, but instead how their unpaid bills and defaults drive a lot of the little people into bankruptcy.  It feels to me more angry than the rest of the book, in which Thackeray mostly adopts a sort of amused contempt, as if to say, "Yes, this Vanity Fair of ours is a sordid place, and there's nothing we can do about it."  I found it a difficult read this time as well, and came close to stopping again.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Skin Palace continued

As I mentioned in a previous post, there's a lot going on in The Skin Palace.  Not all of it is profound (the theme that people will do anything to get a part in a movie is an old one), but it makes for a potent mixture, particularly toward the end of the novel.

Unfortunately, it's very slow to start.  Reel 1, the first 100 pages or so, which takes time to set up the characters, feels very static, and O'Connell either doesn't have the chops or doesn't care enough to really make the humdrum feel interesting.  I suspect it's the latter, because later in the novel, he becomes much better at picking out the salient detail that makes a scene come alive, even in the more quotidian settings like a basement darkroom.

For its strangeness, The Skin Palace is probably the most mimetic of all of the O'Connell's books that I've read, which is a pity.  When the novel is in high gear, the strangeness takes over, and it feels like we're in a world that's a sort of cracked reflection of this one.  There's nothing specific that one can call out as being impossible in our world, but the whole has a sort of phantasmagorical feel.  At those times, O'Connell can then deliver an emotional punch that jumps over normal logic but feels right in this novel.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Skin Palace

Jack O'Connell's novels don't fit into any easy categories; although marketed as a "novel of suspense," The Flesh Palace is almost anything but.  O'Connell uses the props of crime fiction -- gangs, life in a ghetto, and so on -- but this isn't crime fiction either.

Instead, we step into a world that feels a little bit off-kilter, where a whole diner can be buried under-ground, where one of the city's gangs wears Jewish garb from talmud schools in Eastern Europe, and in which a film collector has the unexpurgated Wizard of Oz that never had a theatrical release.  (Yes, I know there's no such thing).  As in the previous Quinsigamond novels, O'Connell is writing about how images transform our thinking; in this case, movies affect the way we look at the world.

Unfortunately, I felt that this novel lost its way a little bit.  There's some weird meta-text that I admit I can't quite get my head around.  There's a German porn director (and the link to fascism is made explicit at the end) whose chief star is named Leni (as in Riefenstahl, hope I spelled that right), who produces (I think) inauthentic art.  That's made pretty explicit toward the end, when it's revealed that he made some fake photos in the style of great photographer Terrence Propp, but his photo doesn't give you a sense of underlying depth.

At the same time, his protege, Jakob, is a Jewish boy who fled from Eastern Europe.  Jakob needs to break free from his own gangster heritage as well as from his mentor's pornographic movie-making.

And that's all fine as far as it goes, but it's only one plot strand (and, in the end a relatively minor one).  I'm having trouble relating it to the major thread.   Too tired to do it now, in any case.