Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The study guide says this is a memoir in books, part personal memoir, part history of Iran and part literary criticism. The author is an Iranian English professor, so literary criticism is her thing. I don’t know how I feel about that. It seems like cheating to use other authors’ work to fill up your manuscript. Some of the books she reviews I’ve read. Some I haven’t. I had a course in Victorian novel in college. That was forty-eight years ago. Even the ones I’ve read I don’t remember. Anne will be shocked. She thinks I remember everything but our anniversary. Don’t tell her. What’s that? Oh, am I on a tangent again?

The book is about a reading group, so I suppose the author had to talk about some novels. While I am reading, I ask myself, if I write a book about my writing group, would I include their writing and the books and movies we discussed? I probably would, but I would focus more on the people. Would I talk about the history of the United States during the time of the workshop? Probably, though only in the way it affected the members of the group, the way the war affected the lovers in Ianesco’s Frenzy Galore for Two or More. Over here are bodiless heads, and over there, headless bodies.

I learned about the Islamic Revolution that threw out the Shah, established the extremist Islamic Republic and forced women to wear scarves and burkas. America flirted with a similar assault on liberty by the religious right during the Bush administration.

It was hard to connect with the characters, because there were so many of them and they moved in and out of the scene. I experienced their stories vicariously, through the author. She has a tendency to tell, rather than show, which can happen in a memoir that strays toward autobiography.

The revolution introduced a drastic change in feminine fashion. The women were required to wear what they called veils, so as not to tempt the men. Even the act of eating an apple in public could be provocative. Men cannot be expected to resist the allure of such scandalous misbehavior. The veil became a symbol of oppression versus freedom. The concealment they wore is not what I would call a veil. Veils in the west are like nets, revealing more than they conceal, more provocative than prohibitive or protective. The Iranian women wore scarves that covered all but their eyes. Still the men weren’t safe. A woman can do things with her eyes alone that will propel a post-pubescent male into paroxysms of priapism. It would have been more effective to leave their heads on display and require them to black out a few teeth.

This is a book about books, the women who read them and the society in which they do it. What should a novel accomplish in this setting? The role of poetry is more elegantly stated. Archibald MacLeish says a poem should not seem, but be. Marianna Moore says the job of the poet is to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Billy Collins says we shouldn’t tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it. A good novel should be all of that and it should tell a story through the characters. Admit it. I was doing well until I added Billy Collins, but I like his unpretentious style so much.

Each novel is important to the women in the group because it creates an imaginary world that is different from their own and it allows them to experience, through the characters, things that are prohibited in the readers’ own lives. Good novels do that for me. For a short time, I become the strongest character in the story. Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek made me want to undo my belt and look for trouble. His Last Temptation of Christ gave me a new definition of truth.

Nafisi says empathy is the heart of the novel. I agree, if by that she means identifying with the characters, taking a truth from them that we never knew before. I suppose that’s something I sensed about novels before, but I never thought of it as a universal standard of success. Beyond all of the little lessons of the books within the book, the main theme of Reading Lolita in Tehran is that people in power can be petty and mean, but that’s hardly a new lesson. Even Catch 22 taught that, or was it something about cats sleeping on Yossarian’s face?

Nafisi helped me understand some of the novels the group read better. I knew the message of The Great Gatsby before. The very rich are different from you and I, to which Hemingway replied, yes, they have more money. But Fitzgerald meant they are careless and self-centered, a la Mel Brooks as Louis Quatorze in The History of the World, “It’s good to be the king.”

In moving to America, Nafisi made the right choice for herself. She abandoned her country and her students, but one has to decide whether to save the world or live one’s own life. Eventually, a steady onslaught of stress will burn out the most stalwart patriot and pedagogue. As my paternal grandmother used to say, “It gives me the jerks.”

Player Piano - Kurt Vonnegut

1952, 320 pages. Genre : Dystopian Lit.
This was Kurt Vonnegut's first pubished novel, and is set in Ilium, New York, where it follows the misadventures of Dr. Paul Proteus in a 1984-esque world. The back-cover blurb on my book calls it as "a cross between Animal Farm and Alice In Wonderland," and that's a fair description.
What's To Like...
This is "applied dystopia". Whereas Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984 all have essentially the same mood, books like Player Piano (satire added) and Animal Farm (um... animals added) at least give the Big Brother story a new ambiance. Also, Vonnegut sticks to a straight chronological timeline here, which is not true in quite a few of his novels. I know chrono-hopping can be confusing to you non-time-travelers out there.
Best of all are the characters themselves. The good guys have their faults; the bad guys have their endearing traits. Proteus has few, if any, outstanding qualities. Gray is a nice change from the black-or-white characters in most stories.
What's Not To Like...
This is not Vonnegut's best effort. He self-rates it a "B", and I'm inclined to agree. It's a good first stab, but it lacks the polish of his later work. The most glaring weakness is the tired, well-trodden dystopian plot. For an earlier discussion of this, see here. I keep waiting for a book in this genre to come up with something different for a storyline. Anything different.
When I look into my crystal ball, I see...
As with any book in this genre, it's fun to see which parts of the future the author got right, and which parts he didn't. For brevity's sake, we'll limit ourselves here to some of his hits.
1.) The Back To Nature Movement. At one point, Proteus decides to "cleanse" himself, and purchases an old farm that doesn't even have electricity. Jaded flower children followed suit 20 years later. With an equal lack of success. Eva Gabor, where are you today?
2.) Let's sing the company song! Thank God, I never had to do this. But it's big over in Japan, and I have a friend who used to work for Wal-Mart, and claims they started every day off by singing the Wal-Mart song. Whatever that is. Oh, and Wal-Mart used to pick a different person each morning to lead the singing. So the trick was to scrunch down behind other patsies to avoid being called upon.
3.) The ultimate anathema. In Player Piano, the label-of-death was being called a saboteur. It didn't matter whether you actually were one or not. Today, of course, we call anyone who doesn't go along with us a terrorist.
4.) Everyone's a doctor. Vonnegut just barely missed on this one. Everyone in the privileged category in Player Piano gets a PhD. Whether it has any use/meaning or not. Nowadays, we don't have garbage collectors; we have sanitation engineers. Secretaries aren't secretaries; they're administrative facilitators. Same sort of thing.
Bottom line - this is a good book to read if you're already hooked on Vonnegut ( I am), but Slaughterhouse-5, The Sirens of Titan, or Breakfast of Champions are all better introductions to him.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Talk, Talk by T.C. Boyle

Talk, Talk by T.C. Boyle
The protagonist is Dana Halter, a deaf woman who teaches English in a school for the deaf. She has a Ph.D. from Gallaudet University. Her sidekick and romantic interest is Bridger Martin, a computer operator who paints out the wires in special effects action adventure movies with virtual actors. Why am I thinking of Judy Tenuda? “I want a sensitive guy, like you, but with a human head.” Oh yes, he also adds the heads to the virtual actors.

The villain is Dana Halter, alias Bridger Martin, alias Frank Callabrese, also known as William Peck Wilson, former restaurant owner and a black belt in karate with an anger management problem. He is currently gainfully employed as an identity thief.

Dana’s quest is Peck Wilson, his real name, but don’t call him that. Find him and make him stop using her basic identifiers. Dana’s strongest quality is what she calls determined, but her mother calls stubborn. Her tragic flaw is her difficulty in communicating with the hearing world.

She gets stopped for running a stop sign and thrown in jail due to a case of mistaken identity because her doppelganger has outstanding warrants in several states for passing bad checks and assault and battery. That starts the plot rolling.

Bridger gets sucked into the black hole of Dana’s obsession because he loves her. Meanwhile, the man of many names is living the high life as a doctor in Marin County, though all he does is doctor false IDs. His Achilles’ heel is Natalia, a Russian babe with an attitude and a spoiled girl child named Madison.

What ensues is a cross country chase, in which each time Peck Wilson thinks he has escaped, he gives in to some Natalia induced act of stupidity and is found again by Dana and Bridger.

In the end, the imposter is on the lam again in New York, Dana gets a job teaching English at Gallaudet and Bridger, his speech permanently altered by a kick to the voicebox, is back in California, painting out the wires on stunt people playing virtual action heroes and putting his head and Dana’s on the principals in the pixel screenplay when his boss isn’t looking.

What did I like about it? It has continuous page turning action and insight into the deaf and high tech criminals. What could have been done better? I can’t think of anything. Will I read anything else by this author? I don’t know. I read whatever the librarian tells me to read. I saw T.C. Boyle’s picture on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine. I’ll probably read the interview, if I can find it in my pile of back issues.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Thin Place - by Kathryn Davis

2006, 275 pages. Genre : Fiction, American Literature
Kathyrn Davis' 6th novel examines a cross-section of humanity in a bevy of people (and a number of animals) in a town steeped in Americana.
What's To Like...
This book is hard to characterize. It's about three girls/friends coming of age; but it's not Chick-Lit. It's about one of those girls being able to bring people and animals back to life; but that's really just incidental to the story.
It gives the hyperactive, mischievous thoughts of dogs; it has a resolute beaver that never loses hope even when caught in a trap; and there's a feline who tests the saying, "Curiosity kills the cat". But this isn't Dr. Doolittle. It has a 92-year-old lady still full of life, but this isn't On Golden Pond.
What's Not To Like...
There's not much of a plot. It's more of a snapshot of a small New Englandesque town (although the exact location of it is never really given). With about 50 pages to go, things start to build towards a climax, but even that is anticlimactic. If you're seeking for swashbuckling action, look elsewhere.
There are a lot people who, for some reason, expected The Thin Place to have a spiritualistic overtone - good-vs.evil; demons & angels; etc. True, there's a bit of that here, but this is more mystical than metaphysical.
Finally, this is not an easy read. The story demands your full attention, as it swirls from one being to another in almost random fashion. Clive Cussler fans should avoid this one at all costs.
Overall Rating : A-
There's no middle ground. You'll either love The Thin Place, or give it up after 50 pages. It reminds me of Waiting For Godot, but instead of witty dialogue to substitute for a plot, Ms. Davis treats you to some beautiful writing. This is an excellent book for a quiet evening with New Age music playing in the background. But don't try to read it while watching TV.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Arson and Old Lace by Patricia Harwin

I wanted to like this book. It takes place in England, it's a mystery and has a cat, but the problem that did it for me was the main character's complaining. Cathy Penny is recently divorced and moves to England where her daughter lives. She picks Far Wychwood because her and her (then) husband fell in love with it so many years ago. Apparently love didn't last with the husband, but still exists with the village. The village isn't exactly in love with her, though. She meets her cantankerous neighbor, George Crocker, who's independently challenged. No one else wants to pitch in and help him, including his son. So, like a good neighbor, Cathy is there, whether George wants it or not. Unluckily, this arrangement doesn't last for too long, because within a few days, George's house burns down, hence the "Arson" in the title, "Old Lace" never makes an appearance unless it applies to the age of the people in the book. Yet, before she stirs up trouble with George, she stirs up trouble in the church when she interrupts progress by the new vicar and accidentally discovers a pile of bones. She digs even deeper to uncover who the bones belong to and who murdered George Crocker.

The title appears to be a play on the title of Arsenic and Old Lace a delightful movie, which is also a murder movie easy on the murder because its pretty clear from the beginning who the murderers are and the reasons why. I think using this play on the title raised my expectations of the book and that's exactly where it fell. The main character wallowed, which she claimed she wouldn’t do. I don't mind getting into the characters' lives, especially when I'm reading a series, but I think the author needs to put effort into getting the reader to care about the characters first. I cared less and less about Cathy, especially when she wallowed, questioned her sanity and her daughter's temperament, constantly caused trouble then walked away from it and internally complained about being the outsider of the village (even though she should've known about it first). I think the negativity is what did it for me in the book. The main character was persistent in getting to the bottom of the mystery which follows in a mystery book, but I could have done without the extraneous problems; my life gives me more than I need without reading about it.

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

The Ten-Year Nap

rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer was a book that a friend from one of my book clubs chose as our July read. I found it to be enlightening but depressing at times.

Sometimes I get tired of all the talk about working moms and moms who are home with their children. So when it came time to go to the book club meeting, I stayed home with my daughter instead! I wasn't completely finished with the book at that point, and I was stuck in a part where the women were all disgusted with their choices, regardless of what choices they had made. And at that point, I found the self-centeredness of many of the characters tiresome.

But as I continued to read the book, I thought to myself about how self-centered I am at times too. As a mother who works full-time outside of my home, I am sometimes jealous of those who have the (what seems to be from my side of the fence) luxury of staying home to play with their children. The book helped me to realize (as I have realized over and over) that no matter what choices we make, there are always ups and downs and even sideways.

I particularly enjoyed the interaction the women had with the men in their lives as it characterized accurately the struggle we all go through as men or women - both work and homelife can be tiresome at times. It is the quiet joys of both parenthood and work that make life worth that struggle.

In the end, it is the relationships we have with other people and being grateful for what we have (instead of always wishing for what we can't have) that make life so rich and satisfying.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening is the story of a bored society woman, Edna Pontellier, who neglects her husband and children after falling in love with another man. I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t enjoy it. Reading it seemed to steep me in the same sort of ennui that Edna feels. The plot moves slowly, without much being accomplished.

I read this book for our Classic Literature book club, but I didn’t find much of literary value within its pages. The main character is selfish and unlikeable, but not enough that the reader feels strongly about her. I don’t mind selfish and unlikeable characters—I loved reading about Catherine in Wuthering Heights, for example, but the main character in The Awakening wasn’t sufficiently developed to inspire strong feelings about her, either good or bad. I came away from it with the impression that the reader is intended to somehow feel sorry for her, but I couldn’t muster up enough interest in her meaningless life to care what happens to her in the final pages. Sorry for the negative review (and the brevity of it--I'm trying to get ready for vacation), but this one gets two thumbs down.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Last of the Breed by Louis L'Amour

First off, I wanted to mention that I think Louis L’Amour is one of my favorite storytellers. He has written numerous books with interesting characters and plots. I have read quite a few of his Westerns in the past. I enjoy reading them because for me it is pure entertainment. I can relax while reading because I don’t have to think too hard yet I do become entranced in the book that I want to keep reading. I understand that many people don’t really care for Westerns and I can understand that. So, I decided to review one of L’Amour’s books that is considered a contemporary adventure novel rather than a Western. Here it is:

Last of the Breed

By Louis L’Amour

This story follows the events of U.S. Air Force Major Joseph Makatozi "Joe Mack" who is part Sioux, part Cheyenne, and an exemplary athlete which was intriguing to me from the beginning. It is set in the "Wild East" of the Siberian landscape. (This is a place that I’ve never been nor do I know very much about it. I enjoyed L’Amour’s details and descriptions of this seemingly barren landscape although I can’t really comment on his accuracy since I’m not an expert.) It begins with Joe Mack being shot down by the Russians and captured. He did not go down easily and now he feels desperate in the Soviet prison camp. He realizes if there is any chance for escape he has to act immediately. There is really only one way out – a route that lies over the icy land to the Bering Strait and across the cold sea to America.

What would a L’Amour book be without proper enemies? (Spoiler Alert!)

Joe Mack’s enemies are Soviet Colonel Arkady Zamatev and his Yakut henchman Alekhin. They are intelligent characters with the experience necessary to trap Joe Mack again. It takes all that Joe Mack could possibly posses within him along with the knowledge that he is from a lineage of pure bred survivors. He uses every skill he ever knew and he endures beyond that in order to overcome, Alekhin, the Yakut scout. The race for escape and survival is on for Joe Mack and the orders to track and capture him begin for Alekhin.
Filled with suspense artfully done, Joe Mack has thoughts that he needs no one and avoids all contact with others. Soon, he is forced to humble himself and take shelter from a lovely Romanian woman, Natalya, and her father. I liked Natalya for her mystique. Perhaps, because between her and Joe Mack, they silently fall in love or maybe there will always be a warm memory of good friendship. I felt this scene gives the book a rare glimpse of humanity to Joe Mack’s character. For most of the book, Joe Mack is isolated undergoing a rough transition to merge himself with the wilderness. There is nothing insularly noble about him or the way he conducts himself throughout the story but it is riveting just the same.

An interesting note is that this book was published in 1986 and was written to take place sometime in the 1980's. This means that this story was possibly written during the Cold War but that it took place before the opening of the Iron Curtain revealed the kidnapping of American pilots by the Soviets.

A lot of speculation has been mentioned about a sequel because of the limited amount of closure in the ending. I am personally glad to find out that L’Amour had supposedly never planned or has ever written a sequel. I prefer it that way as sequels can be mundane. I think Last of the Breed stands on its own.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

1984, by George Orwell

So between being the third person to review this bok, and leading off with a picture of the 'cold war unicorns' (I think the red white and blue horn, and the 'angry eyes' are a nice touch), how can anything I write NOT be anticlimactic? Well, I shall have to do my best.

So, here's the weird thing about George Orwell. It's 2008, now, and the world is NOT ruled by Oligarchical Collectivism. Never was really - pretty much, when Orwell talks about how the Russians or Nazis would torture people just long enoug h to get htem to say whatever they wanted them to say? That's really about as far as we got. In fact, I will grudgingly say that to be perfectly honest, we are in many ways much, much more free today than in Orwell's time. Hang it all, if I talked about Russia in the 1950's the way I talk about, say, the Middle East today, I'd be socially ostracized and if I was important enough, possibly jailed. It would be bad. Sexual freedom? Well, THAT prediction is just totally wrong - you can be dirty in a whole mess o' ways now that you couldn't in Orwell's time. The list goes on and on.

Yet, 1984, Animal Farm, these books still feel relevant at some gut level. Why is that?

Well, first of all, it's useful to look at what Orwell got wrong, because he did get somethings wrong.

There are two basic concepts that Orwell was unable to predict in 1984: identity politics (which you saw in things like the rise of religious terrorism, decolonialization, the expulsion of the soviets from Afghanistan, etc, etc, etc), and globalization of telecommunication - ironically two competing forces.

The first of these is identity politics. I think Orwell, at some level knew that he was wrong about this, honestly. When you read 'Goldstein's book' in 1984, for instance, it talks about how Oceania essentially has no culture that it forces upon its subjects, that there is, after all, racial and ethnic equality. Except that the Lingua Franca is English and the official language is Newspeak. Which is sort of exactly like forcing a culuture on people. You teach your people to be afraid fo everything different, and then you pretend there's no difference between, say, a British man and a Brazilian? You teach them to hate the sight of an Eastasian, but expect them to embrace a Polynesian as a brother no different from their own? The sheer mechanics of making a permanent empire are, at this point in history, insurmountable, because at some point in time, you have to conquer, take over, and absorb a whole bunch of cultures with a cultural identity. Orwell, like many people in his time didn't see that, for instance, absorbing the British empire was little victory, because the British empire was dying, already dead really, it just didn't know it. Nations and Empires are born of either revolutionary or conquistadorial zeal, and in this case, Americans and Brits didn't have the sstomach for the first, and teh second breeds resentment and disunity in your colonies - it's the colonies that had the reovlutionary zeal in the late 20th century, a time that saw the birth of so many new, small nations, and the dissolution of so many empires.

The second thing he missed was the revolutionary effect of global, almost universal, cheap communications channels. In a way, he knew this was coming too - the telescreen, after all is a telecommunications network of sorts. But I think what he didn't know was that this growth would happen so quickly, and it would be driven by capitalist-style greed for capital, not oligarchical greed for power. So, AT&T was glad to milk every dollar it could out of as many consumers as possible, by letting them call whoever they wanted. And, since AT&T was out of the control of the oliigarchy, and grew too powerful a threat, it was broken up, and telecommunications now is an Adam Smith Wonderland. In spite of content providers, their communications channels are being used in ways that, frankly, they'd probably rather not HAVE them used. And it's just too big now. The only way to control your peoples' communications is by having no technology whatsoever (think North Korea), in which case your country grows slowly less relevant and powerful with time, or to take on the insurmountable task of filtering all communications, as they try to do, and frankly fail, in China. It's just too big of a task.

But, this is where it gets interesting, because, ironically, while these two forces have created an environment in which 1984 didn't happen, they also create an environment in which 1984-ish scenarios COULD happen. In telecommunications, what you see now is a never-ending arms race between those who would watch, and those who would not be watched. I don't know, yet, what this means, but I do know that at some point, even today, really, it's impossible for a government to effectively watch everyone that could be committing speechcrime. I can encrypt my communications from this computer so effectively that no computer on earth could decrypt them - the United States has gone so far as to make lame attempts at restricting the export of such algorithms, on the premise that they are armaments - yeah, that's not working out so well for them. The only way, then, for the governemnt to control my communications is to categorically deny me the right and ability to use such an algortihm, or to attack the infrastructure, or otherwise to overtly act to prevent my doing what I want. So, when the temptaiton for some individual becomes too great, that's what will have to be done, and that will have unpredictable results.

On the other side of the house: we haven't seen this AS MUCH here in the states because we're too rich, but identity politics is, I would suggest, slowly spelling the end of the nation state as we know it. In a nation like Iraq, we see this already - the power is not in the hands of the government except inasmuch as it is granted by more powerful ethnic groups. Nations are not built around a notion of nationhood, because humanity is no longer really that patriotic to a nation. Even in America, many people cannot decouple their patriotism from, say, their defense of Christianity, or Western Ideals. The United States, as an entity, is neither of these things, its a structure for governing people. And if that governance conflicts with, say, your loyalty to God, at some point, what do you do? What did Timothy McVeigh do? What do Abortion Clinic Bombers do? What do the Militias do? They say the government has deserted 'what it stands for' and it's important to make some competing show of force. This is the sort of thought that ends up in revolution, in the classic, Marxist sense, in many ways. Could this evolve into a Marxist revolution? I don't know, I don't think so, not directly. But it evolved, for instance, into the Taliban, which essentially, has a leftist bent in many ways, or the Leftist movements in South America earlier in the century that were oftentimes highyl influenced by Catholic priests. Identity becomes a symbolic embodiment of grievances - they hate us, they hate use, they hate us because we're ________.

Anyway, I'm mostly just rambling, but the point, to me, is that the real power of 1984 is not in the specifics of how this society is structured, it's in the idea that the same righteous passion that can drive men to overthrow unjust social systems can be harnessed, perverted into something else, something more sinister, and we see this passion all over the world, today. I could say a lot more, I could talk about the laziness of Empires, I could talk about countries like Haiti and Zimbabwe, I could talk about the homogenizing effect of culture, but I've babbled long enough. I read 1984, and the history is bad, but the soul is good (or, rather, genuinely bad).

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker

Dracula. Okay, so, maybe it's a bit dated now, and maybe you do or don't like it. But, most people would admit it was at least a seminal novel of it's kind, that it was... you know. Not crap. Let's go with that, since I know thre are some who will have trouble even with this mild description. I know there are those who like it, and those who don't. I don't think it's perfect, myself, though it was a 'good ripping yarn' as they say.

So, when you're talking about the father of a genre, and you find a book you've never read by them, you enter with certain expectations. Oh, my friends. Release those expectations. This book, my dear ones, will not live up to them. No matter how low they are. If Mystery Science Theatre did books, this would be good fodder.

I would have liked to enjoy this book. Sure, within the first chapter, you have a protagonist who just sounds like a totally soulless person, meant to do nothing but play foil to everybody else in the story, but there was SOME interesting ideas in there. And then, inexplicably, halfway through the book it's like he got bored of writing the plot he was writing and started writing another one, about this big snake. The antagonist of the other plot ends up just sort of going crazy and electrocuting himself off-camera at the end. The snake on the other hand - and I'm not making this up, gets drowned by sand, struck by lightning and ignited with a whole bunch of dynamite, in a scene, where, and I know you don't think this is true, but really, you watch for several minutes as bits of snake flesh, blood and inexplicably, pieces of the woman that the snake could turn into blow up from a hole in the ground like a volcano. Way to go with the subtelty, Bram, my friend. Mix into this that we spend two thirds of the book hearing about how beautiful one good female character is, how kind and sweet, and then inexplicably end up having hte protagonist fall in love with her sister who we know next to nothing about, a terrifically bad stereotype of an African who is persistently referred to without any trace of irony as a 'nigger' holding all the inherently inferior evil, vanity, and power-lust of all Africans, you know (I just kept waiting for this to turnabout and have him end up not being as nasty as everyone assumed, but he was), an enormous semi-magical kite that ends up having no real purpose in the story, and an invasion of birds that never even gets resolved... oh, and? When they blow an enormous hole in the ground, it ends up uncovering an enormous cache of china clay, so they can be rich, forever. Sigh... I'm missing so much. It was really, really, really bad. Anyway you look at it. REally. Don't read it. I beg of you. There is such badness in this book it will imbue you, as it has me, with a new measure of badness, that is impossible to shake off. And the vision of a volcano of sand and snake guts, which really, does anyone need to be subjected to?

My personal favorite line:

(after Adam tells the wise old friend that he plans to blow the snake to bits with enough dynamite to blow up a skyscraper)

"That seems a good plan, a very excellent one. But if it has to tear down so many feet of precipice, it may wreck the whole neighborhood..."

"And free it forever from a monster!"

Sorry about, like, blowing up your homes, oh, and killing all of you, I guess, but on the bright side, I've freed you forever from a monster!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Journal of the Plague Years - Daniel Defoe

That's a plague mask, from long ago - you were supposed to wear it if you were a doctor. I guess they figured the plague couldn't find it's way down that gynormous nose. Need I even mention the resemblance to Spy vs. Spy.

See, the thing about this book is I didn't like, because it was boring. I mean, it wasn't that the subject matter was boring, but... well... it was like reading a very old research paper. Right down to the part where in research papers the kid often tries the old 'say the same thing in five idfferent ways' trick. It's a lot like that. Daniel Defoe, you know. Great writer and all that. Only, not for research papers.

At the same time, I'm a little ashamed to not like it, because I really can imagine a story about the plague, that wasn't some other story just set in the plague, being engrossing. Only, it would be sort of... I dunno. Tasteless. Splatter-lit. You know. You could write a great 'its a horror story only it's real!' on the plague. And it's a little sad to realize that part of you would LOVE that. And then you just sort of feel bad, like, these were real people dying, and I just get bored hearing about it.

On the bright side, I did learn a great deal, and now that I'm THROUGH the book, I feel like I actually know what hte plague was like, rather than what its like in a horror movie. Which is cool. Only, nobody in the book wore this wicked mask, and that's a little dissapointing. Not that I liked it in Beetlejuice, it just looked cheesy, but I have the feeling that there is potential in that pointy nose...

Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear

After two novels by Greg Bear that started strong yet left me unsatisfied by the end, most people would expect me to be finished with his books. But that just isn't the case, because it would take a serious failure to make me decide that. Besides the fact that he has at least one more Nebula-award winning book that I plan to read, this one interested me because it isn't sci-fi, it's fantasy.

Perhaps few people make a distinction, yet there is a great difference between them. Fantasy books are usually magical, with imaginary worlds far removed from earth. They are typically based on feudal Europe or other civilizations that once existed. Science fiction, on the other hand, typically relies on technology and modern knowledge. It usually is related to our earth, and typically takes place in the modern world to far distant futures. Occasionally, clever authors try to mix the two together, but I rarely enjoy the result.

The fact that Greg Bear wrote a fantasy novel piqued my interest, but it's not unheard of. After all, the two genres are lumped together at a bookstore. It's only natural that there is some crossover. All that aside, I thought it would be interesting to see what his writing was like when he was a much younger author, and to find out how different his style would be in regards to a different genre.

Songs of Earth and Power is actually two books put together into one. The first one, The Infinity Concerto, was published in 1984, and the second, The Serpent Mage, followed in 1986. Mr. Bear was a college student at the time, and he gives us a little history of the novel in an author's note in the back of the book. There, he shares a story of his attraction to a girl in one of his classes, with whom he goes on a few dates and generally unsettles due to his strong interest in her. The thing which makes it interesting is that he based one of his characters on her, and then, after putting the character into a sort of limbo, discovers that the girl in real life was involved in an accident and died. It caused him some mental anguish, although he seems ultimately to have pulled through it. The Serpent Mage wound up being dedicated to a girl who never even knew she had inspired a character in his book.

With that tidbit of gossip finished, I should get around to sharing some of my thoughts. For once, Greg was successful in writing a book which I mostly liked. Certainly not everything was perfect, but enough that I was pleased. Perhaps best of all, the ending was not a letdown. In fact, the entire second portion was quite a bit more satisfying than the first.

It began really well, with lots of mystery and colorful events taking place. Typical Greg Bear. And it stayed that way for a while, with the same thing occurring as in his other novels: I got used to the exotic world and people, and annoyed at knowing so little about what is going on. Just like his science fiction works so far. The first section disappointed further as the main character bumbled ignorantly through dangerous situations, surviving on dumb luck, charity, and a lack of any of the supposed danger. When leaving Lamia's place, he is instructed to be very cautious because the land is such a dangerous place. Days later, he is being trained by three sisters and running all over without much care. And though he does wind up hurt a few times, later knowledge makes me wonder why he was ever targeted, since everyone seems intent on keeping him alive as a tool, respecting other people's wishes that he stay alive, or ignoring him completely. So he bumbles about, gradually learning the rules in Adonna's realm, and eventually killing off enough of his enemies (rivals?) to get back home, which was his goal from the beginning. Along the way, there are some interesting characters, some puppy love (pre-infatuation with college girl, though, she was in the second part), and exotic locations which keep things from getting dull, yet there is a strong feeling of aimlessness as well.

Things got better in the second portion. Adonna's realm is failing, and all of the sidhe (I guess these are Celtic/Gaelic fairy-folk) are returning through all of these portals to earth, where they once resided but left because of a strong dislike for humans. Take their lack of fondness for people, combine that with some human xenophobia and the rampant magic the sidhe are bringing back with them, and the earth is in a volatile state. Our hero, Michael, is pulled into the middle of things because he alone has the experience to deal with things. The experience, but not the knowledge. He sets out to learn, and with subliminal knowledge implanted during his training and some luck or intuition, begins one of the quickest rises to power ever witnessed. In a few months he is ready to vie with some other powerful characters for the role of mage, where he might be able to pull the earth through the rough times and keep total destruction from taking place. While I'm not too keen on dumb luck and convenient happenings (and there are some), what really made the last portion fun is the environment. You have conversations with Mozart, Mahler, and the Loch Ness monster (supposedly the snake in the garden of Eden), and trips to worlds created by other mages, very similar to 3-D virtual worlds in a MMORPG. It is very imaginative and quite fun, despite the danger. Whether Michael is able to succeed or not became unimportant because I was so caught up in the fascinating juxtapositions of characters from history and strange locations. There was quite an imagination at work in these books, and I liked it.

One more thing I wanted to share as a positive element (sorry about the long reviews) was the strong role of the arts - things such as music, dance, art, poetry, architecture, and even oenology, the science of making wine. In Songs, artists with a strong enough mastery are able to create magic like opening portals and altering reality. I have performed and taught music, and believe that most of the beauty and richness in our lives is a result of artists sharing their gifts with the world. While public schools may feel that the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic are the most important subjects, or that true success can only be measured by performance on standardized tests, I believe the arts give everything else that we do some meaning. The arts put some warmth and creativity into being human, and I happily support and agree with any recognition they get.

Bottom line: this is a very imaginative work that will lead the reader through some interesting worlds indeed. Although there is the inevitable ignorance of what is going on being used as bait to continue reading, and a bit of dumb luck, coincidence, and aimless wandering, the story gives enough through creative environments and growth to make it worth picking up. This time, I felt like the mysteries were mostly resolved, and I wasn't lost by unexplained detail falling to the wayside.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Trouble with Magic by Madelyn Alt

The trouble with this book is it either had more than one author, a neurotic author or a neurotic editor. I’m positive neurosis or a clash of personalities was involved somehow. Meet Maggie O’Neil, recently fired and literally stumbles into her next job working in Enchantments where fine goods are sold, including witchcraft. From the beginning, her new boss, Felicity, reveals she is a witch. At first, Maggie is put off by Felicity’s alternative lifestyle, but money wills out and she takes the job. On the first day, Felicity’s estranged sister is found murdered with Felicity as prime suspect. Determined that Felicity is innocent, Maggie sets out to find other likely suspects, finally zeroing in on the correct one. What some people won’t do to get Employee of the Month.

Why I claim this book had some neurosis or personality issues is the writing was very inconsistent. I developed a love-hate relationship with the book. The writing would start off okay, but then switch off to some wild tangent out of left field. I’m not sure if it’s her first book or what, but I found it slightly troubling. Maybe the author’s writing will improve with subsequent books in the series.