Oct 29, 2012

Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

I can't help it, I love everything Pratchett writes. Sometimes, you really need a little humor in your life, and I know I can always count on Pratchett's books to make me laugh out loud. He's just so delectably British, and so irreverently original. His books are actually basic mysteries, but nearly unrecognizable as such due to being wrapped in a thick candy coating of fantasy. Only someone as smart as Pratchett can make surprisingly intelligent humor so effortlessly fun. His books provide a very welcome respite from the more "serious" literature I sometimes read, and I always pick them up with great expectation and glee.

Oct 26, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This is not an easy book to read, but it sure as hell is a good one. Mitchell, of "Cloud Atlas" fame, pulls us into the world of turn of the century (19th Century, that is) Dejima, a small island off the coast of Japan near Nagasaki, the only patch of land on which the few permitted Dutch traders can live and work. Aside from this one outpost, Japan is a closed nation. The shogun two hundred years previously had outlawed interaction with any foreigner, and Japan is just now beginning to open itself to new technologies and languages. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk with the Dutch East India Company, there to enrich himself so he can return to Holland and marry the woman he loves. We follow several other characters, some Japanese and one Englishman, so that even though we skip around in time fairly frequently, the reader gets a full view of all the happenings.

I call this a difficult book to read not because of the writing, which is superb, but because of the subject matter and unflinching detail. Mitchell thrusts us into the story as a courtesan is giving birth to a baby who seems to be already dead, with only his arm sticking outside his mother's body. Mitchell continues this tenor throughout the book, and there are some parts one cannot read while eating, or even thinking about eating. You push through it, though, because Mitchell's writing is just so fantastic. Books like this are the reason I love reading so much: the language wraps itself around you, becomes almost a part of your mind as you read, and truths even the most dedicated philosopher expounds upon are put in simple, beautiful terms. This book absolutely makes me want to read everything Mitchell has and will write; he is truly a genuine talent.

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks

I picked this up in a hostel in Zurich despite its cheesy movie tie-in cover. I normally stay away from World War Whatever books, but this looked intriguing. I lucked out - "Birdsong" is a fantastic, engrossing novel about WWI.

Faulks includes an interesting introduction in which he describes his motivation and intentions with the book. His goal was to bring to light a largely glossed-over part of our past, one that is rarely addressed as it should be, often due to the extreme PTSD endured by the survivors. Faulks wanted to dig deep into the war, rather than continue the tradition of shying way from its horrors. He contrasts the graphic details of trench warfare with the graphic details of lust-fueled sexual passion. His point: sex and death are two sides of the same coin, both of which tend to be relegated to the liminal parts of our cultural and societal consciousness.

Why do we not remember? There is hardly anyone living who lived at that time, and certainly none (or extremely few) veterans. It is high time we address what happened to the men who fought and what it has done to humanity as a whole. Stephen, the protagonist, says he is curious to see how far man can be pushed, to what brutal, animal extremes he can go, before he can go no further, do no more. It is clear that limit has yet to be reached, not with the gas of WWI, nor the atom bomb of WWII, nor Agent Orange of Vietnam. As human civilization grows and develops, as we find new and ingenious ways to destroy each other, the bestial nature of humanity seems to find new depths to plumb. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in an effort to create a weapon so horrific that war would cease, the limits of human cruelty having been reached; he failed. When, Faulks asks, will it end? When will we learn? And how do we stop?

The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge

I picked up this science fiction novel at the same hostel in Switzerland I mentioned before, and it was worlds better than its hokey '80s cover would indicate. The eponymous queen has ruled over Tiamat's Winter for a century and a half with the help of a youth-giving substance culled from the blood of a local sea creature. Fearful of what will become of her technologically backwards world when the all-powerful Hegemony departs for a hundred years and leaves the planet in technological darkness, Arienrhod creates a clone of herself, a perfect copy to take over when Arienrhod is ritually sacrificed to the sea. But Moon, her clone, is everything she wanted and nothing she expected, adn the complexities of her uncivilized world run far deeper than anyone has ever guessed.

Vinge's story and writing are superb, truly enthralling and imaginative. I'm surprised and saddened that I've never heard her name before, for if this one novel is any indication, she should be a common name in sci fi literature. I'm definitely going to try to find more of her work.

New Voices in Science Fiction, ed. by Mike Resnick

This compilation was published in 2003, and indeed, it includes a couple stories by authors who have gone on to hit it big in the science fiction community - Cory Doctorow, for example. Some of the stories are a bit trite and unoriginal, but others are quite good. The story "The Faithful" by Kage Baker is utterly brilliant, and I laughed out loud at the ending. I actually read it over again to better appreciate it. For a book I randomly picked up in a hostel in Switzerland, I was very pleased with this.

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Thus concludes the trilogy of The Lord of the rings, though it ends quite differently than in the movies. The movie, of course, ends (more or less) with the destruction of the Ring, but that event takes place only two-thirds of the way through the book. After, we travel with the hobbits to witness the crowning of Aragorn and the end, finally, of Saruman. I like that Tolkien gave such thought to the fact that life could not have possibly gone right back to normal after the destruction of the Ring; so many books end at the climax but give no space to the rebuilding that must come after. Tolkien's is a more complete method of storytelling, I believe.

The one major complaint I have with the series is the lack of attention given to women. There are only two women of any import in the entire story, and only one is human. Eowyn seems, on the outset, to be a rich character due to her desire to fight for her people as the men do, but this is later revealed as the emotional reaction of a spurned woman. Though she practically saves the day, she is soon relegated to the role of wife. All other great deeds are performed by males, though they often use tools given to them by women to complete their tasks. Woman's role is to inspire, but it's not enough to make one forget how few there are in the entire work.

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This second installment of The Lord of the Rings is broken up into two parts: the first two-thirds follows Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they seek out the hobbits Merry and Pippin, who star in their own sections. The last third follows Frodo and Sam as they make their way towards Mordor. I preferred the former, as the tale of Frodo and Sam's trek is gloomy and grave. Merry and Pippin at least are cheerful and wondrous, especially once they meet the Ents, and Aragorn's crew are noble and even a bit humorous at times.

Again, it's interesting to see how Peter Jackson translated the book into film and to note what liberties he took with the plot structure. For example, the battle for Helm's Deep takes up a small section in the middle of the book, whereas it is the massive climax of the movie. Another change of note is how much more intelligent Gollum is in the book. To be sure, he is insane and twisted, but he also seems to understand more and is much better at communicating. My guess is the changes Jackson made to his character were meant to make Gollum all the more loathsome. But I think we lose the sense that Gollum used to be Smeagol, and that he was once a creature much like Sam and Frodo, a point I think Tolkien wanted the reader to remember.

The Fellowship of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the third time I have attempted reading the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I'm happy to report that I was finally successful in reading it all the way through. I think my previous failures were due to the age at which I tried reading it. When I was younger, I read because I wanted to know what happened; I was much more interested in plot than the writing itself. Now that I am older and have matured as a reader, I can sit back and enjoy the words, as well as the story they convey.

It's still a slow read; the tale meanders and stutters. It is much like a classical epic that way - the object isn't so much the outcome but how it is reached. Like Odysseus, Frodo Baggins is an unwilling hero in his own tale, but he does what he must to reach the end.

I must admit to having seen the Hollywood versions of the trilogy, and the book tends to pale in comparison. I'm sure that, in large part, this is due to my own preconceived notions. I have the movie running through my head as I read, so spectacular and larger than life, that it makes the book seem not quite grand enough. I do wish I had had the chance to read the books before seeing the movies, as I'm sure I would read them with different eyes.

That being said, the tale is grand and much fun to follow, and Tolkien's voice is skillful and alluring. I look forward to continuing the journey.