Dec 31, 2010

The Sea Runners, by Ivan Doig

Once again, I am blown away by what an amazing writer Doig is. In this novel about four Swedes escaping indentured employment by the Russians on Sitka, Alaska in the mid-19th century, the main character is really the landscape, and it is described with the same love and awe as a man would describe a lover with whom is he infatuated, and not a little afraid. The sea and coastline are palpable and changeable as people are themselves. The four men we are traveling with, as well, are solid and tangible; their personalities are constant and clear. This is my third Ivan Doig book, and I remain duly impressed, and look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

Dec 23, 2010

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It's amazing how some people seem to be able to create entire universes out of thin air. Frank Herbert clearly had this ability, and as a huge science fiction reader, Dune does not disappoint. His world is obviously well thought out and planned, and the imagination it probably took to both think of it and then describe it so well is astounding.

What is fascinating about Dune is that it could really be a story from anywhere: oppressed peoples, political infighting, religious fervor; all these things exist on our own planet, in our own time. Good science fiction does not necessarily involve that which is weirdest to us, but instead, often describes a world not so different from ours in all the most important ways.

It is easy to see how Herbert's books have gained such a huge following, and I know that I will join in to see how the world of Dune continues to unfold.

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

So of course I managed to pick up an abridged copy, which was unfortunate, but it was also free, so it's hard to complain. Even so, I was able to get a sense of just how epic and complex Dumas' novel is. He had an amazing sense of the intricacies of aristocratic life, as well as the emotional desire for vengeance. The story is brilliantly conceived and incredibly well-told, but I feel like I can't give a true review without having read the original. So I will do so, and write another review on that.

Dec 9, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

I knew I would like this book if only because of its author, Oscar Wilde, and he did not disappoint. In what is truly a commentary on the moral bankruptcy of the aristocracy of the Britain in which Wilde lived, we have a little gem of literature. It is difficult, these days, to find a book in which philosophizing plays as large a role as plot, and in which neither outweighs the other. No one is likable; Basil is sycophantic, Harry is contemptible and corrupting, Dorian is narcissistic in the extreme. There are no heroes here, only fallen angels. Self-love seeps like opium smoke into the nooks and crannies of aristocratic life, covering all with a superficial sheen. Wilde truly was a master of the English language, and it is a joy to read his words.

Nov 12, 2010

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

What a wonderful book! Rarely does an author come along who can both describe and encapsulate popular culture as well as Zadie Smith does, and in her first novel, no less. Throughout the book, we follow two families, the Bengali Iqbals and the half-English/half-Jamaican Joneses. Their lives entwine together after Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal "fight" in WWII together, and even more so after they both take much younger wives who become pregnant within months of each other. The narrative description is interesting and moves along, the dialogue is realistic, funny, and heartbreaking, and the story is impressive. One can only imagine how much research Smith had to do to make her Jamaican, Bengali, British, Jehovah's Witness, Muslim, etc. characters so believable.

My only complaint with the book is the alacrity with which the climax is reached. We read through 400 pages of backstory and build-up, and then the denouement takes a little less than 30 pages to achieve. It's like Smith was given a page limit, spent a lot of time writing the book, and then realized that she had to end it soon and couldn't bear to cut out anything that had come before. She could have taken a little more time to craft a satisfying ending, but other than that, this is absolutely a book I would recommend.

Nov 5, 2010

The Prince of Mist, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Having very much enjoyed Zafon's literary mystery, "The Shadow of the Wind," I had high hopes for this slender novel. I was extremely disappointed. The story is interesting, quite original and well thought out, with an interesting ending, but the writing is just awful. The characters are incredibly simplistic. Their relationships to each other are obvious in the extreme. Their dialogue is practically tortured. Zafon apparently chose to write their speaking in the same way he writes; stories are told in perfect, dramatic detail, in ways that no person actually talks. This took me somewhat aback, and I tried to make excuses for it, such as that Zafon had chosen to write the book this way on purpose. But then why would the narrative be so dull? It was like he switched narrative description with bland dialogue. My best guess is that this was Zafon's first attempt at young adult fiction. Where he failed is in striking a balance between easy readability and challenging the young reader. He ended up, instead, with flat characters and an unbelievable story. Which is a shame, really, because the kernel of the story is really quite good.

Oct 24, 2010

The Immortals series by Tamora Pierce

This is the second series that Tamora Pierce wrote about the world of Tortall, the first being The Song of the Lioness. Once again, we are introduced to a female protagonist who is exceptional, this time because of her wild magic, which allows her to communicate with animals. Daine is 13, an orphan with a past she is extremely unwilling to speak of, but with amazing abilities even she is unaware she has. In true Pierce fashion, Daine is stubborn, intelligent, and competent, but also untrusting and vulnerable. Soon after her arrival in Tortall, she is noticed by Numair, a mage of incredible power, who takes her under his wing as his student. As we go through the series, Daine's powers grow, as does her relationship with the extraordinary people who become her friends. Once again, high literature though it may not be, the books are extremely enjoyable, quick reads. I read each book in the series in about two days, and though it was my third or fourth time reading them, I loved them all the same.

Oct 2, 2010

Rainbow Mars, by Larry Niven

Rainbow Mars is a novelization of a series of short stories by Niven about time travel. The main character, Svetz, is charged by the government to go back in time to retrieve long-extinct animals for the infantile Secretary-General. But when Waldemar Ten is replaced by Waldemar Eleven, who wants planets and stars, Svetz must team up with Miya, a cosmonaut, to bring back Martians. What they find when they land on Mars is a world whose water is slowly being sucked up by the Hangtree, a tree so large its end lays in geosynchronous orbit with the planet. War has broken out, and the Martians are trying to survive. Svetz's and Miya's actions lead to the tree's implantation on Earth, and it is up to them to save their planet's future from the depths of its past.

Niven is my favorite science fiction writer, easily. A math professor, all his writing is based in science and is all physically possible, grounding the stories. Additionally, Niven has a great sense of humor, and it is manifested in each of his main characters. Beowulf Shaeffer is another great example, a man who, like Svetz, is unwillingly made into an explorer due to his inherent virtues. In Rainbow Mars, character development is a little thin, possibly due to the previously written short stories. All in all, though, another great read from Larry Niven.

Sep 30, 2010

Across the Wall: a Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories, by Garth Nix

I hadn't known that Nix had published a book of short stories, and I was a little hesitant lest they dampen my enthusiasm for the Abhorsen trilogy. Luckily, I was proven wrong. The first of the stories does take place in that same world, though it focuses on Nick, the young Ancelstierran man who features in the last of the Abhorsen books. The tale is engrossing and creative, and does not disappoint.

I was most intrigued by Nix's other stories in the collection. While each one holds at least a kernel of fantasy, they are all very different. The thread that runs through them is pure empathy: Nix has an incredible ability to elicit emotional responses through his writing. I am thinking, for example, of his story written to benefit children affected by war. By the end, my eyes were filled with tears and I had to take a moment to gather myself. It's a shame that short stories aren't a more lauded medium, for when they are done well, they can be so much more powerful than full-length novels.

The Darkangel, by Meredith Ann Pierce

I'm on a bit of a nostalgic trip at the moment, and bought myself used copies of books I read as a young girl and loved. One of these is The Darkangel, which I discovered by accident because I thought it was by my favorite author, Tamora Pierce. The two series are, in fact, similar, what with the young, female protagonists and fantastical lands of magic. But The Darkangel is altogether more mystical and lyrical. There is poetry in Pierce's words, not just a story, and the imagination is captivated by her unique take on young adult fantasy. The next two books in the trilogy are even more ethereal, while such writing does nothing to dampen the importance and excitement of the plot. This is truly a gorgeous example of how young adult fantasy is just as much literature as "adult" fiction is.

Sep 10, 2010

The Alchemaster's Apprentice, by Walter Moers

I do have a soft spot for darkly humorous fantasy, and this book definitely fits that bill. Translated from German, the novel is about a little Crat (identical to a cat in every way except for a brain that can hold enormous amounts of information and the ability to speak in every language without having to learn any) who makes a deal with the Alchemist-in-Chief of a singularly unhealthy town. The deal stipulates that the Alchemaster will feed and entertain Echo the Crat until the next full moon, at which time he will kill Echo and boil him down for his fat. Echo agrees because he is starving to death, but immediately betakes himself to finagle a way out of the contract.

We meet Cooked Ghosts, owls with speech impediments, vampire flying mice, and Cogitating Eggs. The book is incredibly imaginative and inventive, and the description is fantastic. I wish more authors were as creative as Moers is. I will definitely be seeking out more of his books to read.

Sep 7, 2010

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Once again, another Neal Stephenson book that just blows me away. How this man is capable of doing so much research, synthesizing it, then putting it into an incredibly well-written format is beyond me. Though his interest in math and science is evident in this book as well as The Baroque Cycle, there are no other similarities between the two.

Anathem is firmly science fiction, though it takes a while to work up to it. As all good science fiction does, it deals very much in philosophy, though much more obviously than many other books. Stephenson's world, Arbre, is similar enough to our own to understand, but different enough to be fascinating as we discover it along with the protagonist, Erasmus. Much of the action takes place in what are essentially monasteries, but instead of worshiping God, the monks devote their time to the mathematical and scientific mysteries of the universe. Much of the first half of the book takes place behind the walls of just one math (as the monasteries are called), and then the action slowly spirals outward. The characters are very well developed, and it is a true pleasure to read their interactions.

Again, Stephenson's writing is some of the best I've ever seen. The glibness and humor are less apparent in this book than in the Baroque Cycle, but they still run through the entire novel like an undercurrent. I once again find myself sad that the story has ended, and cannot wait to pick up another one of his books and devour it.

Aug 13, 2010

Hellstrom's Hive, by Frank Herbert

Herbert has certainly achieved one of the goals of science fiction in this award-winning book: the reader's profound discomfort. In this book, we are faced with a society whose participants look exactly like us, but act completely differently, and we cannot help but be repelled by such utter differences as we are faced with when reading about the Hive.

Hellstrom is the leader of this society, a descendant of the elders who began it. The Hive is, rather obviously, the attempt of a group of humans to ensure human survival by mimicking insect behavior and chemistry. Hive workers are fed chemicals to increase their productivity and decrease individuality. All protein matter (including dead Hive members and intrusive Outsiders) goes into the vats, to become recycled as the Hive's food source. Yum.

The action in the book results from a government (?) Agency's growing interest in Hellstrom's farm and movie production business, which it feels is a front for something a little more nefarious. Obviously, their worst fears do not even come close to the reality. Part of what makes the reader so uncomfortable about the Hive is its seeming disregard for life. They have no qualms about killing a person, because that person then helps provide the life force for the entire Hive by being put into the vats. In this way, they actually show quite a bit of respect for human life; it is that which keeps them alive. Hence the reader's uncertainty: we can understand their view of life, but cannot comprehend it. They are similar enough to be recognizably human, but too different to feel real affinity with them. This is what good science fiction is made of.

That said, I was not overly fond of the writing style. I haven't yet read Dune (a personal failing, to be sure), so I am unaware of whether this book's style differs at all from Dune's, though I would be quite interested to find out. Dune is an entirely different world, whereas Hellstrom's Hive works within the parameters of our own universe.

Aug 12, 2010

The Medieval World, by Friedrich Heer

Though published in 1961, this survey of medieval European history is really quite a good little book. Again, I find that non-fiction written before, say, the 1980s, has a wonderful writing style that makes it much easier to read than non-fiction written today. This is not merely a chronological listing of facts, but an emotive description of a world brought to life.

Heer's argument is that the earlier Middle Ages - from about the late tenth century to the twelfth century - was an "open" society: intellectualism flourished, religion was explored and sometimes even questioned, dialogue and disputation occurred frequently and respectfully between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish worlds. As time went on, however, the Catholic Church sought to aggrandize its own power, and used censorship, fear, and intolerance as its weapons.

Heer's book is filled with wonderment at the richness of life during this time period. Religious mysticism, courtly love, political machinations, all are discussed both with a depth and brevity befitting of his goal and the length of the book. There is, however, little discussion of the "average" people's existence, beyond their experience of a distinctly rural, half-pagan Christianity. As a general survey of a time period, though, Heer is really quite thorough, and his writing is exciting and easy to read. If only modern non-fiction writers could evoke such feeling as those from the past were able to.



For my own use, documents Heer mentions that I want to check out: Bel Inconnu by Renaut de Beaujeu, Collection of Histories by Rashid al-Din, the Havamal.

Aug 8, 2010

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

I finally got around to reading this Civil War novel that everybody read about five years ago. As a first novel, it falls in the same category as The Kite Runner, in that it is quite remarkably good for a first attempt at fiction. There were some awkward parts to it, however.

The author makes no secret that his book is partly a love elegy to a geographical area, but towards the end of the novel, the descriptions start to overpower the narrative, and I wish there were a little more about the characters and a little less about the locations.

That being said, this book is imaginative and unique, extremely well researched, and a thoroughly enjoyable read (though rather depressing). It is, in the end, a book about war, and about how war makes monsters out of men. Inman is an extremely rare trustworthy soul in a country where brothers were killing brothers. I found his story rather difficult and brutish, but this was made up for by the story of Ada and Ruby. Two women making the land work for them, eking out an existence, growing into a friendship despite their many differences - this was the most interesting part of the book for me. I feel that is one of this book's strong suits; it has three different stories: the land, Inman, and Ada, and there is enough of each one to satisfy the reader who prefers one of these over the other two. All in all, this is quite a good novel, and worth the read.

Jul 23, 2010

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

This isn't a very good book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a bad book. Contrived, graphic, and filled with unlikable and irredeemable characters, if you like books that are at all satisfying, I suggest you avoid this one.

Most distasteful is the graphic violence and sex scenes. Reading the description of the main character's mangled body (particularly her hands) after being assaulted and thrown off a mountain made me nauseous. Perhaps this could be taken as an example of Abercrombie's vast descriptive powers; but really, who wants to read that? The secondary character, one Caul Shivers, leads us to hope there here is someone who wants to find himself, and who desperately wants to be a good person. Turn out, Caul does find himself - he just finds that he is a terrible person who is good at only one thing, killing people. Lovely, that.

The fight scenes are exciting and well written, yes, but the one person/fighter who actually causes the reader to sit up and take notice (the man hired to track Monza, the main character, down), is in the book only briefly, and his character and circumstances are never explained. A book about him would have been work the read, but Monza is disgusting, incestuous, depraved, monstrous. There is nothing good or interesting about her. She hardly ever feels badly about what she's done, and then on the few occasions that she does, she simply shrugs it off and seems to say, "oh well, that's done, can't undo it, might as well embrace it." From my experience, readers want characters who change, evolve, be it for better or worse. Monza at the end of this exhausting book is just as terrible and distasteful as Monza at the beginning. This is not a book I would recommend to anyone hoping for well-written fantasy literature.

Jun 2, 2010

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

In this book, Carroll seeks to do nothing less than completely revolutionize the religion of Catholicism. Carroll is a former Catholic priest and current dissident Catholic. He starts with the erection of a large cross in front of Auschwitz, and the controversy that quickly followed. How did the Holocaust occur? What role/responsibility did the Catholic Church play/hold, and why has it not taken its responsibility seriously?

To explore these questions, Carroll sets off on a journey through history, starting with the nature of Judaism before the birth of Jesus Christ, and ending with Vatican II. He quickly comes to the conclusion that the root of all the terrible happenings between the Church and the Jews is caused by supersessionism, the ideology by with Catholicism believes itself to exit both over and against Judaism, to have succeeded to its place as God's chosen people, to have won when Judaism has failed. As such, the Church developed its own relationship toward Jews, whereas Jews quickly decided against maintaining any such relationship with Christians. Each event that Carroll describes shows the Church acting on/to/against Jews, yet the Jews fail to be even active participants in their own fates. They do not fight, they do not argue (government-ordered "debates" not withstanding), they do not - for the most part - rail against the Christians as the Christians do against them. They are acted upon, set up as the Other/Opposite, as a means by which Christianity can define itself. The Church's current claim that there have been faults on both sides is, according to Carroll, rubbish. The Catholic Church has consistently promoted an ideology of "Jew-hate" in order to both define itself and consolidate papal power (Carroll's example: every time a pope wanted to strengthen his role, he would reinstitutionalize the Roman ghetto).

The most important act in all this was the very first one to occur. Carroll claims that, shortly after the horrible death of Jesus, his Jewish followers took comfort in scripture - obviously, this meant Jewish scripture. As the first generation, the people who actually knew Jesus, passed on, later generations began to take the stories the former had told as truth. The "prophecies" from Jewish scripture were taken as clear evidence of Jesus' messianic nature. As Carroll repeatedly states (and notes that it was another scholar who came to this particular conclusion), this was a case of "prophecy historicized," rather than "history prophesied." This laid the groundwork for supersessionism.

The next nail in the coffin was Paul, who lived and wrote his canonical letters from the perspective of the imminent Second Coming. With Paul, the focus was trained on salvation, the cessation of physical suffering. This is when the cross first started to creep into the Christian conscious as something more than a weapon of murder. When the Hellenic dichotomy of material vs. spiritual was adopted by Christian theologians after Constantine's dramatic (but oh so political) converstion to Christianity, there was no turning back.

Carroll, in his epilogue, argues that the message of Jesus was, and therefore that the message of Christianity should be, in the way he lived his life, NOT in his death. The focus on Jesus' death lead to an obsession with salvation, even though Jesus had clearly said that the Kingdom of Heaven was here, right now, on Earth. In effect, the Catholic Church has it all wrong. Carroll does not want the Church to simply return to where it once was; he wants it to utterly, radically change itself to fit with what we know of the actual teachings of Jesus. This is a task, needless to say, with practically insurmountable obstacles. To ask a proudly conservative institution to essentially hippy-ize itself is incredible. It is difficult, however, to argue with Carroll's reasoning.

In terms of the organization and writing, the book is mostly quite good. Carroll is a fiction writer, so the book is quite readable and interesting, if at times rather melodramatic, which makes its 616 page length not nearly as daunting as it would seem. I must, however, take issue with the numerous references to Carroll's own past and emotions. Yes, it is entirely necessary for him to explain exactly why he took on this enormous challenge, and to elaborate on his past as a means of getting his biases out in the open, as an scholar should; but 100 pages on his adolescence in Germany and his love affair with the Catholic Church are a tad unnecessary. Also, every so often, Carroll will insert a comment bound to make at least some people uncomfortable. These comments usually hold the implication that Carroll, very deep down, knows Catholicism is the right way to go, but this is not allowed to suppress his desire for common respect between all faiths. Or he writes a little note that the separation of church and state is a very recent, somewhat odd idea. As a Jew reading this book, I was constantly amazed that Carroll didn't up and convert to Judaism once he'd finished! He is clearly horrified by the actions of his Church, disgusted with most of its leaders, and consistently writes with tones of utter admiration at Jewish thinkers and beliefs. If Judaism is so amazing, why isn't he Jewish? Though I was a little annoyed at all of the personal parts of this book (which is subtitled, "A History"), I would have liked an explanation of just why it is Carroll sticks with Catholicism.

That being said, this was an extremely well researched, well written book, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone.

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews -- A History

May 31, 2010

The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood

I still don't quite know what I think of Margaret Atwood. From what I have heard, she is apparently viewed as a science fiction writer, though the two books I've read of hers - The Blind Assassin and this one - seem to be just normal fiction. Either way, she is quite a talented writer and I look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

The Robber Bride follows three women who have all lost men to a predatory woman, Zenia. Zenia has some sort of power over men, and she uses them to get what she wants or simply to have fun with and then discards them, leaving them empty and desolate. These three women whose lives have been either ruined or utterly rearranged by Zenia's machinations are completely spineless. It's hard for me to empathize with a person who simply lets another person walk all over her. Yes, Zenia is described as having some sort of ability to make people like her and blind them to her manipulations, but she's downright bitchy. Why would anyone put up with that? The only answer would be that each of the three women are lacking in self confidence. They allow Zenia to steal their men because for some reason, they believe they don't deserve them. I find such women distasteful and weak.

That being said, I do like the organization of this book, and how, despite the fact that the novel is written entirely in the third person, each character's sections is written differently, as if they were writing them themselves. I especially like Charis' parts, despite their being the most disturbing. Atwood describes a person whose reality does not equate to our own, whose borders between the physical and the spiritual are fuzzy at best, and non-existent at moments.

So despite not being overly fond of the characters themselves, I did enjoy the writing, and will certainly be picking up more of Atwood's books.

Embers, by Sandor Marai

This short novel is a little gem of psychological fiction. Nothing much ever happens, and even though we hear the story of what has happened in the past, not much actually happened there either. The action, instead, lies in the mind of the main character, a man who has been waiting alone in his home for over forty years to hold a conversation with the man who once had been his best friend. He wants to discuss the past, but slowly realizes that what's done is done, and no forgiveness, or compassion, or apologies can change that. The truth of what occurred is no longer important, only the fact that on a single day, he lost a wife and a best friend, his wife lost a husband and a lover, his friend lost a lover and a friend. The woman is long dead, and her silence is the third main character. She cannot speak for herself, and even when she could, she did not. And now she's dead. So what can it matter, what happened so long ago, when the person because of whom it happened is no longer there, can no longer tell her story? The silence has consumed them, and now there is nothing left to say.

Mar 28, 2010

The Holy Roman Empire, by Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce's seminal history of the Holy Roman Empire was written first in 1866 and went through numerous editions. The particular edition I just read was published in the early 1900s, and reprinted in the 1960s. Despite its old age, Bryce's work has proven its worth by remaining, while not the epitome of modern scholarship on the subject, certainly still quite relevant. The only thing the book lacks is breadth. As noted in the prologue, Bryce set out to write a purely political history of the Empire, with much attention to religion, and absolutely no attention paid to anything else. Cultural historians need not look here, unless they are lacking political background. Therefore, as a modern work of history, Bryce's book is inadequate, but it succeeded quite well at what it aimed to do.

Bryce takes us chronologically from the original Roman Empire up to the (contemporary) present day, 1866. He is adept at tracing common threads as well as developments and evolutions from the former to the latter. This makes sense, as his main historiographical goal is to point out that what wasn't important was whether the Holy Roman Empire was in fact holy, roman, or an empire, but that it can be defined by a certain sentiment and desire that remained true to itself throughout the Empire's thousand-year history. In his work, we see the beginning of the realm of the history of ideas, and the beginning of the understanding that ideas are quite palpable, tangible things that can affect the course of history.

The greatest pleasure in reading this book is Bryce's writing. Historians, and other academicians, simply do not write like they used to. The writing is fluid, strong, visual, powerful. Though it tends to suffer from a bit too strictly enforced chronological organization, the book still reads almost as easily as a novel. If scholars only started to write like Bryce again, we would perhaps not see such a lack of interest in reading and history that exists today.


Mar 1, 2010

The Blue Roan Child, by Jamieson Findlay

This is a lovely little gem of a book in the category of young adult fantasy. It's a little bit like a really really short version of Lord of the Rings: epic journey far beyond known realms, creatures known only from legends, the magic and power of one young person with the courage of someone three times his/her age. But I suppose expecting originality in young adult fantasy is somewhat of a pipe dream.

Either way, the book is really quite well written. A bit on the simplistic side, it still flows well and moves forward with its own rhythm. And despite what I said about the lack of originality in the plot, there are aspects that are incredibly unique. Most of these are clustered at the end of the book, and it would be a shame to reveal them, but the part about dreams and the talking bird blew me away. That one section had enough beauty in it to make up for whatever the rest of the book lacked.

Certainly, this would be a good book for any person who loves horses, as it does have an extremely romantic view of that animal. Not knowing a thing about horses doesn't take much away from it, though, which is good, and a difficult effect to achieve. Particularly considering that this was a first attempt at fiction by a science writer, I would have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised, and would recommend the book.

The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

I initially read this book because it was the chosen book for my library's new book club that I joined, but was unfortunately unable to attend the session. It's a shame, really, because I would have liked to hear what others thought of this unique novel.

The book follows, essentially, the life (birth through death) of Daisy. But it does so much more than that, as it also intimately details the lives of her various ancestors, both blood related and related by marriage, and of her children and other relatives. The narration is mostly in the third person, with short splatterings of the first person to highlight certain momentous occasions in Daisy's life. What is so remarkable about this book is the omniscience of the narrator. Yes, it is Daisy, and yes, most third person novels have omniscient narrators, but not quite like this one. Every single person is dissected, but not dispassionately at all. Their true inner desires are laid bare, aspects of their souls even they themselves know little about.

In contrast, oddly, Daisy is almost an empty shell, up until her imminent death. Defined largely by the relationships she holds to other people, it is not until she has no one left to take care of nor is even able to care for herself that she allows herself to become an individual. Even then, she maintains her outwardly, polite demeanor. Even when she is hit by months of severe depression, for which we get her numerous loved ones' theories, her own reality is that she enjoys wallowing in her own being. She is not really, truly depressed, she just wants to not have to deal with life for a while.

As I got further and further into the book, I kept thinking how much it reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey". Odd, I know, but this is why: both works follow a thread through a period of time (in one, it is a life, in the other, it is the life of man); both start with the ancestor and work their way into death, which is really a sort of rebirth; both have that odd, outsider yet omniscient, almost glassy feeling to them (this is incredibly hard to explain). And when I got to the end, I was creeped out to find the same song that Hal sings as he dies printed during the chapter entitled "Death". Call me crazy, but I think the movie was a slight influence for the book.

Feb 9, 2010

The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

This is, I'm afraid to report, a rather underwhelming book. Biased, conventional, unoriginal, and vague, this book is much more a history book for the layman than it is a probing book for the scholar. The premise - that Christianity systematically destroyed rational thought as epitomized by the Greeks - ends up getting lost in the historical background and eventually even undermined. Instead, the real conclusion, and one that would have made for a much more interesting book, is that Constantine and his successors, by giving Christianity pride of place in the empire and seeking to use it as a means of social cohesion and control, created the culture of homogeneity that was to lead Christianity inexorably towards the so-called "Dark Ages."

Instead, we get about 300 pages of mere historical description, and the remaining 40 pages consists of actual analysis. What is most unfortunate about the book is the fact that Freeman, instead of starting with a problem and doing research in order to seek out an answer - as historians and other scholars are expected to do - started with his conclusion and then used evidence that only backed it up. This is trick history, lay-scholarship at its most insidious. There are no opposing view points, so counter-arguments. A layman would be easily convinced, but that is only because Freeman has told half the story, at best. All it takes is one look at the other books he has written, e.g. "The Greek Achievement" to know he is remarkably biased. It's a shame, really, since his writing is readable and understandable, particularly from a lay perspective. Over all, this is a disappointing read.

Jan 18, 2010

Alive in Necropolis, by Doug Dorst

I really, really liked this book. It truly defies attempts to set it into one category or another. Despite the graphic sex and drug scenes, Dorst manages to not make his novel seem vulgar at all. Instead, the book is about lonliness, about that internal drive we all have to just feel like we belong, like somebody cares, like somebody loves us.

The book is ostensibly about Mike Mercer, a rookie cop in Colma who spent the years after college without a purpose in life. He has a much older girlfriend who he is clearly very fond of, but is, as he puts it, too afraid to let go and find out if he loves her or not. The book is about so many more people than Mike, however. It's about Jude, the 16-year-old son of a movie director father who doesn't care enough to try to understand him; it's about Mike's coworker Officer Toronto, who has serious anger management issues and a habit of falling hard for women who cannot love him back; it's about Mrs. Featherstone, the widow of a cop whose life has even less meaning without her husband than it did with him; it's about Fiona, Mike's older girlfriend who's watching the seconds tick by as though they were years of her life. What all these people have in common is simply the need to be heard, to be seen, to be cared about as much as they care.

Plot-wise, the book is really quite clever. In Colma, the city of millions of graves the dead live on their lives much in the ways they did when they were alive. But Doc Barker, a sociopathic criminal, and his three companions have gotten out of control since Wyatt Earp left town. They assault the dead, demand items of emotional value, and then kill them, for good. What the dead of Colma need is another enforcer of the peace, and this is where Mike comes in...

Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions, by Linda Kauffman

Unfortunately, what started out as a very interesting idea - an attempt to define a genre that has yet to be recognized - ended up being a very long college lit paper. The ideas are all there, but the organization is atrocious. Instead of simply sticking to her point, and thereby making the book possibly a hundred pages shorter, Kauffman delved far too deeply into generalized literary criticism. Each paragraph would start with a topic sentence that was referential to the book, but then continue to go deeper and deeper into subjects that were hardly relevant. Kauffman comes off looking like an over-excited college senior, brilliant and imaginative, but disorganized and unedited.

Kauffman's argument is that amorous epistolary discourse is a genre in itself, a genre that started with Ovid's Heroides, flowed through the letters between Abelard and Heloise, a possibly fictional Portuguese nun to her French lover, and on to various novels, such as Clarissa, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Absalom Absalom! Obviously, what is unique about this genre is that it encompasses the actual correspondences between former lovers, and fictional ones as well. These discourses are typified by legal language, absence, the writer who writes to someone else but mostly to herself (and it is always a woman).

While I take no issue with Kauffman's argument, it is difficult to agree with a premise that is so badly set forth. Not only is the organization and editing terribe, but Kauffman assumes that we have read all these pieces. Of course she cannot write a description of each and every one, and certainly her book has encouraged me to read many of them, but it is exceedingly difficult to understand a point of literary criticism when one does not even know the plot! Not to mention the spoilers involved.