Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Self-Help

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
8/10, an evocative collection of short stories with wonderful language but little story

I first heard of Lorrie Moore in a writing class, because of her short story "How To Become A Writer," included in this collection. It's a wry look at the writer's life in the second person ("Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than ten minutes a day; like sit-ups, they can make you thin."), a format that most of the stories in this collection follow.

They're much more than just a gimmick, though. Moore has a real gift for language and description, real situations and three-dimensional characters. The stories are all rather depressing in tone, but the writing is lovely and immersive. Moore creates a world rich with detail, full of characters and places, and her eye for the important details is terrific.

What I missed from this collection was some sense of resolution to the stories. Moore's characters move through their situations, changing and reacting, but their situations rarely come to any character resolution. While the stories themselves are engaging and quite well written, a real pleasure to read, none of them stayed with me long after reading the book.

To study the craft of writing, Moore is a great read. Learning how to pace a story, what details to include, how to build characters and situations, all of that is here in these stories. But it's harder to figure out what to take away from the stories. Don't worry too much about that and you'll enjoy this collection.

Review: Number 9 Dream

Number 9 Dream, by David Mitchell
8.5/10, a surreal multi-layered coming-of-age adventure

The beginning of "Number 9 Dream" is tough to get into. Eiji Miyake, a young man in Tokyo for the first time, is searching for clues to the identity of his father, but sorting out his fantasies from reality is challenging; like the flood that overtakes him (or does it?), we are plunged into his narrative with little preparation or context. But the story eventually sorts itself out, the magical realism elements fall into their place, and Eiji's story moves along.

Each of the first eight sections of "Number 9 Dream" is split between the present day narrative and some other narrative, whether youthful fantasies, dreams, letters or memories from the past, or something else. In most cases, the "background" narrative provides support and foundation for the ongoing one. In a couple of the chapters, the foreground narrative actually becomes more bizarre than the background. Through all of it, Mitchell explores the lines of reality and fantasy, desire and expectation, promise and hope with all the skill you'd expect from his other works.

One of the reasons I think he likes to play with split narratives ("Black Swan Green" is his only single-narrator book) is that he is so good at character voice. Eiji has a distinctive voice, but so do his fantasies, so do the memories and the other characters he encounters, and so, in fact, does each setting he passes through, from his job at the train station to the gleaming corporate tower where his father's attorney works to his filthy apartment with its transient feline roommate to the countryside where he grew up.

If there is one flaw in "Number 9 Dream," it is that, being used to Mitchell's transcendant endings, the finale of this one does not quite measure up. Either it requires a bit more study and thought than I've put into it, or it simply leaves the narrative somewhat unresolved--which, given the rest of the story and the style, is fine. I'm not sure what I was expecting, only that "Ghostwritten," "Cloud Atlas," and "Black Swan Green" all had terrific endings, with "Cloud Atlas" and "Black Swan Green" among the best in modern fiction.

Still, as with a few creators like Kazuo Ishiguro, Pixar, and the Beatles, the weakest of Mitchell's books is still a delightful, thoughtful experience, well worth picking up and enjoyable from beginning to end. Its complexity makes it probably the first of his books I would want to re-read, if only because of the feeling that there were connections between the various parts that I'd missed. If nothing else, it's instructive to see him develop the techniques that allowed him to write "Cloud Atlas," and to see parts of the stories begun in "Ghostwritten" continued here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Flood of Reviews

Yes, I'm catching up on all the books I'm behind on reviewing. I want to have a clean slate to start the new year. Sorry for the flood, but hopefully you'll have some interesting things to pore over when setting up your New Year's resolutions for what to read next year. :)

Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a beautiful, haunting tragedy of a woman reminiscing about her life in Japan

I've made no secret of my writer-crush on Ishiguro in reviews of An Artist of the Floating World, Never Let Me Go, When We Were Orphans, and even The Unconsoled. "Pale View" was the last of Ishiguro's published books on my list at the time I read it (he has a new collection out now), and it was his first published novel.

Some of the rough edges show, the techniques he would perfect in "Remains of the Day." The narrative is by no means straightforward, skipping back and forth between present day in the West and many years ago in Japan. Etsuko, the main character, has gotten a visit from her daughter, which begins her reminisces of her years in Japan and a young woman she befriended there with her recalcitrant daughter, Mariko. As the narrative winds its way through the past and present, without the urgency of "Artist of the Floating World" or "Remains of the Day," it is still engaging and fascinating, and it includes an element those later books did not: a touch of horror. Especially in the interactions between Mariko and Etsuko, Mariko behaves oddly (even for an Ishiguro child) and has a creepy fixation on odd details.

Mariko turned over her hand and the spider crawled into her palm. She closed her other hand over it so that it was imprisoned.
"Mariko, put that down."
"It's not poisonous," she said, coming closer to me.
"No, but it's dirty. Put it back in the corner."
"It's not poisonous, though."
She stood in front of me, the spider inside her cupped hands. Through a gap in her fingers, I could see a leg moving slowly and rhythmically.
"Put it back in the corner, Mariko."
"What would happen if I ate it? It's not poisonous."
"You'd be very sick. Now, Mariko, put it back in the corner."
Mariko brought the spider closer to her face and parted her lips.

Despite the odd, semi-fantastical nature of the reminisces, Ishiguro still manages to build up to a revelatory climax that is emotional and shattering. Though this isn't the most masterful of his works, and it takes a good bit of thought to read through, it's still a terrific, skilful work. And it depresses me that it was his first book because it's still really good.

Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
7.5/10, a dry but fascinating tale of family and mistaken identity in 1500s France

This story was published as a way to document the second ever documented case of circumstantial evidence, but Janet Lewis finds a human drama within the case as well. Bertrande de Rols is married to Martin Guerre at the age of eleven, and returns to live with him a few years later. His father, a stern disciplinarian, has rubbed off on Martin to some extent, but also bred in him a rebellious streak. After one particularly daring act of rebellion, fearing reprisals from his father, Martin flees, promising Bertrande and their young son that he will return soon.

Years go by. Martin's father never forgives him for his transgression, not until he dies. And the year following his death, Martin returns, looking much different and acting more considerate and erudite. Perhaps the years have softened him? Bertrande welcomes him back into her bed; her family welcomes him as head of the farm. But as the years go by, she becomes convinced he is not truly the Martin who left her. She can only convince one old uncle that she is right, but when a soldier appears who seems to back her story, she gains enough credence to bring her returned husband to court to prove his identity.

Lewis hews closely to the facts of the case as they were presented, elaborating on some of the human interactions and the feelings of Bertrande. Bertrande's sense of justice and propriety may seem a little outdated to us, but they're important to her sense of honor, and they form the basis of her character. The story is short but clear, and the twists and turns are the more engaging for being real, or at least based in reality.

The story ends somewhat abruptly, but that's where the reality of the story really takes hold. It would have been nice to have a clean wrap-up and a more emotionally satisfying conclusion, but all the ending does is remind you that these were real events and real people. After the conclusion of the case, there was no need to keep track of the litigants, so there are no records, and Lewis is forced to speculate. Though brief, her thoughts really tie up the narrative.

This was made into a movie, which I haven't seen, but the premise itself is fascinating. For as long as we've been telling stories, we've been fascinated by the nature of identity and personality, and this story speaks strongly to those themes.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: The Magicians

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
9/10, a wonderful tale that brings fantasy and magic into the real world

"Harry Potter for grown-ups." An odd thing to say, since most of the Harry Potter fans I know are over 21. "Like a real-world Narnia." Another odd thing to say, because Narnia was supposed to be based in the real world of 1940s England, from which the Pevensies escape to Narnia. But those phrases do aptly describe "The Magicians," the most accomplished modern fantasy in years.

Quentin has just graduated from high school and is preparing for his alumni interview with Princeton. When his interviewer turns up dead, he gets another mysterious invitation and finds himself in a large exam room taking an exam that he doesn't fully understand. After some on-the-spot interviews, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills, a school for magicians hidden away in upstate New York.

It's not Hogwarts. The students drink, use drugs, have sex, and make mistakes. Magic, like many flashy things, is a lot more tedious on the inside, requiring not only talent, but dedication and attention to detail. Quentin makes friends and enemies, and graduates with little idea what he wants to do in life. Then one of his friends comes by with the bizarre claim that he knows how to get to the magical land of Fillory, the subject of a popular set of children's books.

From there, the story goes on, but even in the magical fantasy land, it doesn't get any less "real." And besides the engaging journey, the book leaves you with a lot to think about afterwards. The characters learn more than magic; as we follow them through school, we watch them learn that the point of an education is not the learning, it's what you do with it.

Grossman (who is on Twitter as @leverus and is entertaining to follow) writes well and creates a fascinating cast of characters, a terrific world to explore, and an engaging and thought-provoking plot. He eschews or subverts the conventions of fantasy, making pointed references to quidditch at one point, but the book stands on its own even if you're one of the three people who's unfamiliar with both "Harry Potter" and "Narnia."

"The Magicians" is a terrific read from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it for anyone who liked "Narnia," "Harry Potter," or any other contemporary fantasy. It'll leave you with a wistful longing, but only because it feels so difficult to say good-bye to the characters after having been with them through so much.

Review: Mothers and Sons

Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín
8/10, a melancholy collection of stories of Irish families

Tóibín, author of Brooklyn, penned this collection of stories about families in Ireland. Loosely following the theme of mothers and sons, he tracks happy and sad families--but mostly sad.

The overriding theme, actually, seems to be "things aren't great, but we'd rather they not change." The characters in the stories are presented with opportunities to change their lives, to learn something, and in nearly every case, they put aside that chance.

That doesn't make the stories bad. They're engaging and interesting, written with Tóibín's lovely touch with language, if not the humor of "Brooklyn."

Every day he had planned his return [from military service], longed for it in detail, lived in the ordinary future where the smallest domestic detail--the sound of a jeep starting up, a chainsaw, a hunter's gun, or a dog's bark--would signify that he had returned, that he had survived. He had imagined this homecoming in all its satisfying comfort and freedom so closely that he had put no thought into how soon [his younger brother] Jordi's turn would come, how soon his brother would have to submit himself to the humiliation of the haircut and the standing in the cold waiting for the lorry to take him to Lerida. Miquel knew how bad it would be for his brother, and it was as though some more vulnerable and innocent part of him were going to have the haircut, leaving an empty bed behind.

I have remarked before on the uniqueness of Irish writing. If you enjoy it, then this collection will not disappoint you. It's a beautifully-written, sad world that is worth visiting.

Review: Amsterdam

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
7/10, a technically competent story that falls short of actual meaning

After seeing "Atonement", I became curious about Ian McEwan's stories. I found "Amsterdam," recommended in various places as a "dark comedy tour de force," or variations thereon, and I thought it'd be worth a read.

Certainly, McEwan creates memorable characters and extraordinary situations. The setup for "Amsterdam," loosely, is two friends reminiscing over affairs with a woman at her funeral, and mutually despising a politician with whom she was most recently taking up. The friends are a newspaper editor and a composer, and their lives become further disrupted when some photos of the politician surface that might be embarrassing. Over the seemingly minor question of whether the editor has a moral obligation to publish the photos, the two friends have a falling-out, which leads to further extraordinary situations and a fairly unbelievable ending.

It might be called "dark humor"; I find that a lot of people who attempt dark humor end up sliding too far to the "dark" and not including enough "humor." That's the case here, where a macabre and grotesque situation is supposed to be funny simply because it exists. There isn't enough time given to the setup of the two men and their friendships for us to appreciate the quick twists and turns of the story, and the extremes to which they go seem incongruous with the rest of the world they inhabit. Without giving too much away, the hinge of the whole moral dilemma seems weak, but perhaps that's just my unfamiliarity with British customs and traditions as regards their politicians. Still, in a country that outdoes the U.S.A. for tabloids, I find it hard to believe that there would be that much furor over embarrassing photos.

I do have a thing about endings, and the head-shaking nature of this one rather ruined the experience for me. It's possible that McEwan's other books are more worthwhile, but I wouldn't recommend this one.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Movie Review: Up In The Air

Since taking some screenwriting classes, our standards for movies have risen, slowly but surely. We pick at plot holes more, we attack dialogue, we scorn useless characters and sometimes entire movies ("Benjamin Button"). Yes, movies have been somewhat ruined, as our teacher warned us, but on the other hand, when we find a movie that really shines, the reward is that much greater.

"Up In The Air" is one of those rewards. It succeeds in a variety of areas: snappy dialogue, great acting, a great premise and imagery, good direction, and a story that makes you think for a while after you leave the theater.

It's suited to our modern times. George Clooney plays a contract firer, a person hired to travel around the country and announce layoffs to people for companies that don't want to make the announcement themselves. He has seen all kinds of reaction from the people he's laying off, and he knows how to deal with it all. He loves to travel, and he loves the life he's living.

Enter Anna Kendrick, playing a young business school grad who's come to Omaha to change the company. She thinks the company can cut costs by firing people over webcam--which would mean Clooney would no longer be required, or permitted, to travel.

Also enter Vera Farmiga, a fellow traveler with whom Clooney shares a passionate night. They have an amusing moment of trying to synch up their travel schedules so they can meet again, and she seems the perfect companion for him.

Between these two women, Clooney's world is in for some drastic changes, some of which he'll handle better than others. But the movie is subversive: Anna has a steady boyfriend and expounds on the joys of stable relationships, and Clooney is required at one point to attend his sister's wedding, leading one to think that this is going to be just another parable about the benefits of a family and how lonely the single life is. And then it turns it all on its head.

What this movie is about, as Clooney says eloquently in a speech to J.K. Simmons, is opportunity. Choices. Not limiting yourself to one thing, whether that thing be family, a job, or a way of life that keeps you on the road. In its own way, his addiction to travel is as confining as his sister's complete inability to travel. And the movie is artfully done, with subtle touches and great performances from Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga, not to mention Simmons, Jason Bateman, and a host of other small parts.

The dialogue snaps and crackles, as good as the dialogue Clooney delivered with such panache in "Ocean's 11." Toward the later part of the movie, it becomes less amusing and more serious, but it never drags.

Along with "Up," coincidentally, this is one of the best movies I've seen this year. It's not getting much attention--perhaps Clooney, in his third movie in as many months, is overexposed--but it deserves an Oscar nom.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Revew: Ghostwritten

Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell
9/10, a sprawling lovely tapestry that presages "Cloud Atlas"

I've made little secret of my admiration for "Cloud Atlas," Mitchell's award-winning novel. "Ghostwritten" was his first, and in it you can see the elements he later wove more successfully into "Cloud Atlas": the global setting with specific and eloquently described locations; distinct and wonderful character voices; a unifying theme rather than an overarching plot; a rather dramatic conclusion.

But "Ghostwritten" is not as complete a book as "Cloud Atlas," lacking depth in many of its component parts. It spans the globe rather than time, traveling from Okinawa to Tokyo, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, London, Ireland, and New York. In "Cloud Atlas," the stories were linked with sometimes-thin devices; here, too, the linking feels forced at times, the more so because it's not always clear what the stories have to do with each other. They all share a theme of power and brutality, like the stories in "Cloud Atlas," but here Mitchell takes the theme in a decidedly different direction.

In some cases, the protagonists of the stories are the ones with power; in other cases they believe they have power; in some cases they are merely victims. But in all cases, Mitchell displays the marvelous gift for voice and description that made "Cloud Atlas" stand out to me, and even if some segments dragged a little, I never felt bored, never wanted to put the book down.

It's not a quick read, but it's a worthwhile one. As I've said in the past, if you want to learn about character voice, there are few people you could pick up lessons from better qualified than David Mitchell. So far, none of his books have disappointed, and if you've finished "Cloud Atlas" and are looking for something to remind you of it (complete with recurring characters such as Luisa Rey), pick up "Ghostwritten."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville
10/10, a brilliant, engaging "otherworld" adventure

My only previous exposure to China Mieville had been a short story read in our fabulist class, about a pile of garbage that comes to life through the devices of a shaman, and staring at the spine of "Perdido Street Station" in our bookshelf for five years. "Un Lun Dun" had gotten some good buzz, and when I picked it up in the bookstore and saw that the first chapter was titled, "The Respectful Fox," well, it was like Mr. Mieville was reaching into my pocket and taking out nine dollars.

And you know what? I don't mind at all. The fox only appears in the first chapter and then is gone, but I didn't care. He bows to Zanna, the latest in a series of odd incidents that have occurred to the young British girl, and soon she and her friend Deeba are in Un Lun Dun--from "Un-London," one of a multitude of "abcities," where all the refuse and unwanted things from the real cities end up, along with some people and animals, and some things in between.

Zanna, it turns out, is the "Shwazzy," destined to save Un Lun Dun from the horrible Smog. The quest she and Deeba set out on takes them to a town of ghosts, a large market where they meet a man who sews clothes from books, a ride on an old double-decker bus, to a bridge that has no fixed location, but joins any two places you can think of. That's where they meet the Propheseers and the Book, which contains all information known about the world, and is happy to share it smugly. They also meet the master of un-brellas (broken umbrellas) and a cadre of ninja-like garbage bins.

And from there, things get weird.

I can't share any more about the plot, because discovering it is part of the joy of the book. But there are so many other joys: the beautiful writing that manages to be both cinematic and literary (one of the side jokes I loved was in the Library of Un Lun Dun, where they keep all the books that haven't been written, one of the Librarians mentions going on a search for "Oh, All Right Then: Bartleby Returns"), the imaginative characters Mieville invents, the personalities and problems they all have, the illustrations (provided by the author), the humorous moments...

This book reminds me of curling up in bed at the age of ten with a fantasy novel. The way all fantasy feels to you at that age is the way this novel feels to me now. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It owes a lot to Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere," but it is lighter than Gaiman, brighter without being less sound. I enjoyed "Neverwhere." I loved "Un Lun Dun."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
9/10, a funny, insightful, and engaging look into class and society in late-1800s New York

The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was Edith Wharton in 1921, for this novel. "The Age of Innocence" is the story of Archer Newland, a young man in New York society in the late 1800s, engaged to be married to May Welland (note the names: New-land, Well-land). She is everything he could want in a society wife: she always knows just the right thing to say and do. And yet, sometimes he feels dissatisfied, because he knows she is only saying what Society has scripted for her. He feels he will never get to know the "real" woman.

Enter Countess Olenska, Ellen, a scion of the family who has fled an abusive marriage. She knows little of New York Society, but after a couple faux pas (attending the party of a common artist! where there is dancing!), she is accepted into their ranks. Archer falls in love with her free spirit and sees in her the same desire he himself has, to show the Society folks how much of a sham their posturing and elegant disguises are, to show that they are insulating themselves from life.

And yet, and yet...every time he steps boldly toward Ellen, she retreats; when she makes a move in his direction, he seeks the shelter of the familiar. But they grow closer and closer to running away together even as his wedding to May grows nearer and nearer.

Wharton's grasp of character and story is marvelous. Archer is a tortured and complicated person, no less so than Ellen, but the side characters are simply wonderful: the old dowager who defied expectations to become highly respected and influential, who now is too large to get upstairs in her own house and now has the unconventional arrangement of having her bedroom on the ground floor; the van Luydens, one of the most influential families in Society by birth who nonetheless seem to prefer solitude to the company of people; the lynchpin of society, the aging dandy who knows all the gossip because everyone invites him everywhere to hear the gossip he knows, and in the process he learns theirs (and he lives with his unmarried sister, whom he sometimes sends to the less important engagements)...it's a marvelous cast of characters, and it makes for a terrific story.

Through it all, as through this review, runs the thread of Society, the unwritten code by which Archer and his peers say certain things and leave others understood; do certain things and leave others undone. Archer continues to question Society, pointing out to himself the ridiculousness of it even as he digs himself deeper into its grip.

A highly enjoyable and most recommended read. I will certainly be looking up more of Edith Wharton's work.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Review: Strange Itineraries

Strange Itineraries, by Tim Powers
7.5/10, an inventive collection of short stories

Continuing with my summer of reading my favorite authors, I took this Christmas present off my book stack. I'd already read The Drawing of the Dark, an early Tim Powers novel, and I was hoping for more of the same.

When it comes to imagination, Powers never disappoints. All the stories in the collection are based off brilliant ideas, and the writing is generally quite good. He has a way of introducing the protagonist's problem in very matter-of-fact language, where ordinary tasks pose huge issues or carry immense weight: the picking up of a baby's bottle, for instance, or walking across a closed bedroom.

But the stories lack the coherence and drive of his novels, for the most part. "Where They Are Hid" is the best of the bunch, a gripping time-travel story in which consequences and actions are mingled and unfold with perfect precision. Many of the others settle for being weird, which is just fine--Powers does weird with his own particular touch, and I love reading it. I'm just used to his stories having more texture and depth, and perhaps that's a limitation of the short story form.

Because they're short stories, though, they don't require a large investment of time to read. If you're looking for a taste of Tim Powers and you don't want to embark on one of the novels, this isn't a bad place to start.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a journey through the past and present of post-war Japan from the point of view of an elderly painter

Masuji Ono, a retired painter living in post-war Japan, is anxious for his younger daughter, Noriko, to be married. She is twenty-six, and one set of negotiations has already fallen through. Setsuko, his elder daughter, is happily married with a son, and the two of them visit Noriko and Ono frequently. Ono was a painter of high regard before the Second World War, but has not worked since the disastrous ending of the war.

We learn about this in flashback and memory, as Ono tries to understand the cause of his daughters' attitudes toward him through his memory of events. He frequents a local bar and has some friends there, but slowly they all disappear. He remembers his break from his own teacher, who wanted only to paint images of pleasurable areas in the entertainment district--the so-called "Floating World." Ono prefers to paint images of important things, things that will help Japan on the path to greatness, and in fact that path leads him to some recognition and prominence.

But the war has changed everything. We don't learn this in plain revelation; instead, we have to come to understand it in the way Ono does. We begin with his preconceptions and we see, perhaps somewhat before he does, that they are no longer valid. Ultimately, he finds, his own world was no more permanent than the "floating world" he derided.

As with most of Ishiguro's work, the journey is the real pleasure. There are many similarities between "Floating World" and his next novel, "The Remains Of The Day," both being reminisces of men after wartime whose certainty in their decisions slowly erodes. But where "Remains" has a powerful revelatory ending (one of my favorite things in any book ever), "Floating World" leaves the revelation up to the reader to parse.

It is, as always, a marvel that this narrative holds together as well as it does, given how much it rambles and wanders. Ishiguro never loses track of what's important, though, and he establishes his characters with swift, sure strokes, building up mystery around them. Does Ono's prize pupil hate him for his pre-war work, or is there another reason? Ono's wife and son were killed in the war, but who feels that more acutely, himself or his daughters? What is the reason the marriage negotiations broke down for Noriko, and will the current ones go well?

Some of the lesser questions go unanswered, but not in Ono's mind. He is a beautifully drawn character struggling to accept the changes in his world and to bear his responsibility for them. While this is not quite up to "Remains of the Day" or "Never Let Me Go," it is certainly a worthwhile and engaging read.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Online Book!

A college roommate of mine has written a book about the life of his cat. I've seen the whole thing, and I really enjoy its spare style, which manages to be humorous and emotional all at once. He's posting chapters online in an attempt to get it more exposure, so if you like cats, and stories about cats, go take a look and leave him a comment!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are Workshops Valuable?

There's an interesting New Yorker article by Louis Menand that addresses a recent book on the topic. I love the writer's conclusion:

I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

(h/t Lance Mannion)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
9/10, a beautiful story about a young Irish emigrant to New York

I saw Colm Tóibín read a passage from Brooklyn a year and a half ago, and promised then that I would buy it when it came out. I fulfilled my promise when I saw it on the shelf recently, and I'm pleased to say that the book lives up to the promise of the reading.

It's the story of Eilis, an Irish girl who emigrates to America in her late teens or early twenties. She builds a life there on her own, and then a tragedy calls her back to Ireland (it's very like The Dive From Clausen's Pier in that way).

Like William Trevor, Tóibín writes in what I can only describe as a very Irish way. He writes lyrically, in a narrative that has direction but not urgency, in which things happen in their own time and the pleasure is in the journey. We meet people and get to know them, and they're all important in Eilis's life in one way or another. But I don't get the sense that each incident is necessary to explain the progression of the story--it's not critical to show that she spends Christmas Day helping in the parish, or her attitude toward the African-American women who come in to the store. What each little incident does is build up the picture of her life in America, to contrast with her life in Ireland, and it's in these pictures that the story comes to life.

I do love William Trevor, but Tóibín might be a little ahead of him in my bookshelf now. Although they write with the same lyricism, Tóibín writes with a lighter touch. The scene with Eilis's first Atlantic crossing, which he read at Stanford, involves their neighbors locking the door to the shared bathroom, and poor Eilis not only forced to pee in a mop bucket, but becoming violently seasick later in the night. Fortunately, her feisty companion comes to the rescue, showing her how to pick the lock on the bathroom door and really lock the neighbors out, with the aid of a heavy steamer trunk.

Brooklyn is a joy to read, and it moves along quickly. Eilis is, surprisingly, not always a sympathetic protagonist. She does occasionally behave cruelly, and is unapologetic about it (rather than thanking her landlady for a nice gesture, she is suspicious of the motive behind it and remains cold, so that she won't be in the lady's debt). But if you don't always agree with her choices, Tóibín gives you enough of a wide window into her thoughts that you always understand them. It is particularly interesting to contrast the people in Ireland, whom he tinges with a sort of inborn hopelessness, with the people Eilis meets in America, who are some of them Irish, some Italian, and some simply American: open to possibilities and bright with energy. It's no accident that the Italian family she grows close to is planning to buy property on Long Island and set up a homebuilding business, while all her friends in Ireland see no further than continuing the family business, doing what their parents have done and their parents before them. And that, ultimately, is the choice Eilis must make.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Review: The Drawing Of The Dark

The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers
8/10, a somewhat scattered supernatural adventure in medieval Europe

It is a fairly well-established fact that I am a huge Tim Powers fan. I haven't posted reviews of all his books--I read "Expiration Date," "Earthquake Weather," and "Last Call" before starting this blog--but I have reviewed The Anubis Gates, one of my favorite time-travel "Olde Worlde" stories.

So I was looking forward to "The Drawing of the Dark," another chapter in his Fisher King universe, which is just like ours except for the supernatural/occult world that underlies it, a world ruled by Kings, in the east and the west. In Vienna in the 1600s, the West is weak, and the King of the East, wielding the Turkish army like a sword, intends to strike at its heart.

None of this is known to Irish mercenary Brian Duffy. All he knows is that he's hungry and friendless in Venice, until a mysterious old man offers him the job of bouncer at a tavern in Vienna. He sees some strange things on the road to Vienna, but arrives there safely, to find that Epiphany, the girl he loved many years ago, is now a widow working in the kitchen. The tavern is a converted monastery, and also a brewery, whose famous Herzwesten Bock beer is due to be released in Easter.

Strange things continue to swirl around Duffy, from a ship of Vikings sailing down the Danau to hideous flying creatures attacking him. When the old man joins Duffy in the tavern, he reveals that the Herzwesten Dark beer, due to be drawn on All Hallow's Eve, is actually a source of power and renewal for the Western King, and that the Turkish army's attack has been planned to steal the Dark, or corrupt it if that is not possible.

Duffy himself is excellently drawn as the reluctant hero, though there is more hero in him than he knows. Powers paints a vivid picture of medieval Vienna, with his usual cast of eccentric and delightful characters, and the ins and outs of magic are as well thought-out as usual. But Duffy's reluctance to get involved and distance from the center of the action makes him a difficult vantage point to narrate the story from. In "Last Call," Powers has a similar hero, but his own story is more compelling in this case, and he is much more of a central figure. All Duffy wants is for things to quiet down so he can rest.

While the story is still engaging and tense, with several twists and turns, it isn't quite up to the rest of Powers' works. For a completist (like me), it's definitely worth reading, but if you're looking for an introduction to Powers, try The Anubis Gates, Last Call, or Declare.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
10/10, a coming-of-age story that is evocative and engaging

Life is tough when you're thirteen, and nobody knows that better than Jason Taylor. In the English parish of Black Swan Green, we are introduced to the ranks of Jason's class of schoolboys through an afternoon on a frozen lake, in a game of British Bulldogs, played thus: they split into two sides, and when the non-Bulldogs capture a Bulldog, he has to join their side on the next attack. Jason hates this game, not just because of the physical nature of the attacks, but because you're forced to turn and betray your friends.

Jason peppers his narrative with observations like that, coming across as a thirteen-year-old making discoveries about life. He walks us through the life of a boy who not only has to navigate the perilous social strata of the schoolyard, but also a tumultuous family life and a personal issue, a stammer that comes up so subtly that he almost sneaks it up on us. He personifies the directions in which his teenaged pysche pulls him, assigning a personality to each of his impulses. One of the strongest is the Hangman, the one who seizes his tongue and makes him stammer. It's no coincidence that his biggest fear is his stammer being discovered.

Cloud Atlas proved Mitchell to be gifted at narrative voice. We see that gift here, not only in Jason, but in the personalities of his world in Black Swan Green parish. And although the story reads at first like a series of diary entries, it soon acquires a coherence thanks to the different plot threads that recur: his sister's boyfriends and transition to law school; his parents' struggle to maintain their marriage; his own personal trauma involving his grandfather's watch; the odd social stratification in the parish that is rarely brought to the surface but always lurks just beneath it.

But Black Swan Green is much more than simply an exercise in character. It's a full-fledged story, engaging enough to bring me back to it night after night, with (a rarity) a believable and satisfying (and beautiful) ending. You might find the slang difficult to follow at first, but Mitchell knows just how to use it with enough context to give you the meaning, and eventually you won't even ask what "poncy" or "sarky" mean.

If you thought Cloud Atlas was too esoteric, give this one a whirl. It's more accessible and just as good.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Being An Editor

I somehow seem to have slipped into this space where I am an editor. I look at TV shows now and ask why certain elements were introduced as thematic images. I read stories and see movies and get more annoyed at plot contrivances than I used to. And I appear to have unreasonably high standards for fiction now. I recognize all of this. I try to not subject people to it unnecessarily.

But here's the thing: if I'm editing your work, for a magazine or something, I am trying to help you. I am not picking at your work because I don't like you, or because I was in a bad mood, or because it's fun to tear people down. I'm picking at your work because I want to find out what your vision is, what's the best and clearest and most compelling way to convey that to your audience. You have the right to ignore my advice, of course you do. It's your work. But getting defensive and argumentative is not a helpful response, ever. All it does is make ME want to ignore YOU.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review: 2666

2666, by Roberto Bolaño
A sprawling, epic, literary journey through Europe and Mexico.

I have gotten into the habit of assigning grades out of ten to the books I read, and I find that most of the ones I enjoy end up getting grades around 8. I have no idea how to grade 2666. I never got tired of it, as I did Europe Central, but I can't really say I would recommend it enthusiastically. I'm glad I read it, because and in spite of the fact that it doesn't conform to the style of books I usually read, but I can't think of anyone I know that I would highly recommend it to.

It begins with the story of four scholars of German literature, all devoted to a particular novelist by the name of Benno von Archimboldi. The man himself is a recluse, and so the search for him becomes as important to the scholars as the search for the meaning of his books. It leads them to a Mexican city, Santa Teresa, where Archimboldi may or may not have been found. There they meet a professor by the name of Amalfitano, and hear about a series of killings of women in the town that remains unsolved.

The second part tells the story of Amalfitano, and that is all we will hear of the scholars we have gotten to know in part I. Amalfitano, a professor whose strange obsessions with certain numbers and aspects of scientific theory drove him to Mexico from Spain, brings his daughter to Santa Teresa. In the third part, an American journalist named Oscar Fate travels to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, becomes intrigued by the murders of women, and meets Amalfitano's daughter.

Part four is a recital of the various murders, 108 of them, almost as a police report. Interwoven with those reports are the stories of a young bodyguard-turned-cop, a seer, a detective who falls in love with the head of an insane asylum, and the owner of a computer repair store, a German-born naturalized American named Klaus Haas, who goes to prison under suspicion of having committed some of the crimes. Surprisingly, though I was most apprehensive about reading this part, it turned out to be the most engaging and offers at least a partial resolution.

And part five, finally, is about Archimboldi. It does not reveal much about him except to show us what has happened to him. It shows the writing of his books but not what they are about; why his publisher loves him, but only in the abstract ("he was restoring German literature to its rightful place"); the troubles he experienced but not, really, anything about him. He remains a remote and fairly mysterious figure in his own narrative. We do find out why he traveled to Santa Teresa, and the end of the book is, if not a resolution, at least a satisfying note, a very "Remains of the Day" sort of thing.

Bolaño writes in a variety of styles; he is just as likely to use a two-word sentence as he is a two-page one (you think I'm joking, but I'm not). He will wander off course to tell you the story of a minor character, he will embed narratives within narratives (the young Archimboldi at one point begins reading a journal he finds, in which the author begins to recount other stories), he will be poetically lyrical or brutally terse. I am certain that there is a point, a unifying theme, but I only know this because some of the reviews have told me so. This is the sort of book I would have to read over again in order to pick out these things; it is the kind of book one would have to study, and at 900 pages, I would rather register my admiration for the scope of the work and move on.

There are passages I loved, and very few passages I felt the urge to skip over. This is an unusual, unique book. If that sort of thing interests you, then I highly recommend it. If you are looking for something with a cohesive story arc, with characters who change according to what happens to them, to narratives that don't stray for more than a paragraph or two from their central story, then this is probably not the book for you.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Book!!

Okay, screw "Wolverine" and "Star Trek." Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book out. The interview is kind of cool--though it's depressing to hear him say that great writers often write their masterpieces in their thirties. It also dwells on "The Unconsoled," which apparently is getting more love as time goes on.

But heck--new book!! 9/22/09 should be a holiday. :)

(Also, apparently "Never Let Me Go" is being made into a movie!)

Monday, April 27, 2009

2666 Update

I'm finished with 4 of the 5 parts of 2666. A large part of the book was centered around the Mexican town of Santa Teresa, where a large number of women were killed over the span of four (I think) years. Part 4 is called "The Part About The Crimes" and gives a description of the discovery of each one of the bodies of women found in that timeframe. Woven into the descriptions are some of the stories of a kid who works his way up from drug-lord bodyguard to cop; a detective who falls in love with the director of an insane asylum; an American of German descent who becomes a naturalized Mexican and is accused of one, then all, then none of the murders; and a reporter who becomes interested in the cases and eventually finds the lead that shows us the truth behind them.

That's the interesting part: at the end of this (very long) section, we are actually given some insight into the cause of the crimes, although none of the characters actually has his story conclude. From what I've read about the book, I expected it to be much more open-ended.

It would be a bit of a stretch to say I'm enjoying the book. But I am admiring it, and appreciating it, and definitely enjoying parts of it. The writing is quite good, even in translation, the characters interesting and the world engaging. I'm not sure I needed to read a hundred or so descriptions of murdered women, but then, Bolano doesn't seem particularly concerned with the conventions of what you should and should not include in a narrative.

And now, on to part 5. Only 250 of 900 pages left to go. I need another plane trip.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Makes Good Science Fiction?

Still forging through 2666, so even though I have a Bill Bryson book to review, I will hold off for the moment on reviews and give you this Roger Ebert blog post. Since his cancer and therapy have prevented him from speaking, Ebert has been writing a long and thoughtful blog. He's met a lot of interesting people and has some great stories to tell.

This entry made me think, not about the subject per se, though that's interesting too, but about the one line he writes, that Arthur C. Clarke was often prescient in his science fiction. And I thought about Clarke and Bradbury, extraordinary storytellers who turned their gifts to science fiction, and I thought that the key to understanding science fiction is to understand, not science, but people. The yearning for communication that Ebert describes is at the heart of many good science fiction stories about merged minds and telepathy; the curiosity about what is Outside is the foundation of a library of excellent SF; the need for companionship and our social nature informs much of the "softer" SF of the sixties.

These are parts of people that remain constant through the years. Good science fiction imagines how they might react to new technologies like cell phones, like the Internet, like flying rocket cars. And because people bend technology to their desires, rather than the other way around, the really good science fiction becomes, eventually, truth.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009

Writers You Should Read

I'm making March my unofficial Promote Writing month. So to start with (and perhaps end with, depending on how motivated I get), here are three blogs you should read by writers you may not know, all in the SF/Fantasy vein:

http://ursulav.livejournal.com/ - Ursula Vernon, fellow Sofawolf author and also published children's book author. She's funny, quirky, and lays bare her soul. Always entertaining.

http://matociquala.livejournal.com/ - Elizabeth Bear, many-times-published author and Hugo award-winner. Funny and quirky as well, but talks more about writing.

http://whatever.scalzi.com/ - John Scalzi. Smart things about writing, and he writes a lot. Hugo winner as well, has published many fiction and non-fiction books.

What writing blogs do you like to read?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Getting an Agent

Because I'm too lazy to type something on my own, a very interesting link about getting an agent for your book.

Short version: if you have a good book, it's much much less trouble.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Changing Horses

I almost never do this, but there will be no review of William Vollman's "Europe Central" forthcoming anytime soon. I have reached the 100-page mark and this is what I know:

* He refers to Hitler as "the sleepwalker" and Stalin as "the realist." This was mildly interesting at first but grows increasingly more irritating as he uses real names for EVERYONE ELSE.

* A German woman who likes to paint peasant women holding dead children went on a trip to Russia where she was honored for her art. Sort of. And listened to a symphony by a composer.

* That composer was married but left his wife for another woman, for whom he wrote an impassioned symphony(? it's just called Opus 40) through which you can hear his love.

That's it. There's like seven hundred more pages of this. I have a great deal of respect for the "beautiful sentence" crowd, but I don't consider plot an acceptable casualty of the doctrine, and I don't have a lot of time to read. If I want long, rambling description, I'll at least read Proust, who may take forever to get somewhere but provides a much more interesting ride. On to the next book on the stack.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Wisdom from the late DFW

Looking through Consider the Lobster to get a quotation for a friend this evening, I happened upon this little bit of wisdom for writers, from DFW, distilled down for brevity:

The two most important rules for writers are:

(1) The reader cannot know or perceive anything other than what you put down on the page;
(2) You cannot expect the reader to feel the same way you do about any given thing.

These rules, he says, are so plain and obvious that it is astounding how difficult it is to get college-level students to put them into practice. They are truisms that we wave our pens at and say, "of course, of course," and then they totally fly out of our heads while writing. To simplify, of course, one could boil those down to one thing:

* The reader is a separate human being living in a separate world from you, whose only intersection with your world is the words you put down on the page.

Just something to remember.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Declare

Declare, by Tim Powers
9/10, a seamless blend of spy novel and supernatural thriller

O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?
Return, and we return. Keep faith, and so will we.

The Afterword to "Declare" is every bit as fascinating as the story itself. Intrigued by a book about Soviet double agent Kim Philby, Tim Powers began reading more about the man and his life. He found that the more he read, the more it felt as though Philby's life revolved around a central mystery that nobody had yet written about. Being, as we know, one of the masters of the contemporary supernatural, Powers took it upon himself to write that mystery, and Declare was born.

Powers created Andrew Hale, a British Secret Service agent whose birth in Palestine and baptism in the River Jordan make him perfectly suited for assignment to the supernatural division of the Service, which goes by various acronyms over the course of his association with it. He isn't always told the full truth; in fact, part of the joy of the book is the reader's journey along with Hale as he travels from ordinary espionage to something larger and more frightening.

But his journey is not only a journey of knowledge. Hale's journey is intertwined with that of Philby and Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, the latter a creation of Powers like him. The three of them perform a dizzying dance between the secret services of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France that is occasionally hard to follow, but never so much that it impedes the reader's understanding of the story. Each of them is faced with the question of what is most important in life several times along the course of the book, and Powers brings that question to a satisfying answer with the end.

As always, Powers exhibits a dazzling imagination in the intricate details of his supernatural world. It meshes perfectly with our contemporary world, and its rules have the internal consistency and detail one might expect from a watchmaker. I have a particular affection for magic, especially in a contemporary context (as in urban fantasy), where magical phrases like the one above have layers of meaning and power. Powers expertly doles out just enough information about his world to draw the reader in.

In Declare, Powers adds some terrific characters. Beyond his main three, a host of supporting characters fill the book out and give it life. He moves them through London, Paris, Beirut, and Moscow, each one lovingly described. Sometimes the action is a bit hard to follow, and if there's one flaw in the book, that would be it. But this is a thrilling, satisfying read, and it immerses you in his world so much that you want to go up to someone on the street and say, "O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?" just to see what they might say in return.

Friday, January 16, 2009

To Chase The Sublime

Via Maud Newton, whose blog I've only recently started to read: a hysterical satire of literary criticism.

Wow, Fiction Works!

I had to bite my hand to keep from laughing out loud in the office at the following excerpt:

We could all do worse than to write like Saul Bellow. And when I say write like Saul Bellow, I mean be Saul Bellow. And when I say be Saul Bellow, I mean unzip the skin from his body and wear it as a sort of Saul Bellow suit so that we can get cozy in it and truly inhabit it and understand the Old Macher.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's On Your Stack?

Books on my shelf this year:

Declare, Tim Powers - I love his work. 1940s-to-1960s war drama with the requisite supernatural element.

Europe Central, William Vollmann - "Through interwoven narratives that paint a composite portrait of [Germany and the USSR] and the monstrous age they defined, /Europe Central/ captures a chorus of voices both real and fictional--a young German who joins the SS to fight its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Stalinist assaults upon his work and life. With these and other unforgettable stories, Vollmann breathes life into a haunting chapter from the past and gives us a daring literary masterpiece."

2666, Roberto Bolaño - An epic story, a Christmas present from Mark, whose last such venture was "The Shadow of the Wind," which turned out pretty darn good too.

The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers  - More Tim Powers, but medieval.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage, Bill Bryson - A tour through Shakespeare's world to understand the context of his plays.

Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers - Short stories. Yes, someone went through my Amazon list and got me all the Tim Powers books.

Mothers and Sons, Colm Toibin - Saw him speak at Stanford and loved his talk and the excerpt.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton - 1920s social drama, Pulitzer-winner. I'd heard of it but never read it.

The United States of Arugula, David Kamp - A history of food snobbery in America.

Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne - A history of my favorite city.

Out of the Kitchen, Jeanette Ferrary - A book by our food writing teacher from last year's class.

The View From The Upper Deck, D.J. Gallo - Sports humor from one of my favorite sports humorists.

Can I Keep My Jersey, Paul Shirley - The story of an NBA journeyman. Paul Shirley blogged on ESPN.com for a while and is always entertaining.

Jane Goodall, Dale Peterson - A biography by an author. I met him during his research at the U of M's Center and read the book he co-authored with Jane, "Visions of Caliban." Haven't gotten to this imposing volume yet.

Hopefully I can get through all of these in 2009! I'm looking forward to them.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Review: Bellwether

Bellwether, by Connie Willis
8/10, an enjoyable contemporary story of science research

In Passage, Connie Willis tells a story whose stakes are literally life and death. In Bellwether, the stakes aren't as high, but the story is still enjoyable.

Dr. Foster studies fads, and one of the enjoyable touches in the book is the beginning of each chapter, which lists a (sometimes relevant) trend, its birth and its demise. Willis does her research for these books, and it shows. Dr. Foster works for a high tech company (amusingly called HiTek) that sponsors scientific research with one hand, while the other seems to do everything possible to impede it. There isn't the urgency of "Passage" here, but the plot is similar: female scientist struggling against bureaucracy and her peers to accomplish a breakthrough, who meets a like-minded scientist whose help becomes essential.

"Bellwether" is a light, enjoyable read. Like all Willis's books, the characters are a delight to get to know, and you will put down the book knowing more about the subject than you did when you picked it up. The subject matter more or less forces her to root the book firmly in the mid-nineties, which is a good thing in this case. I remember the anti-smoking fad, the various beverage fads (still going on today), although for good measure, Willis throws in several other fads of her own invention that don't seem too outrageous. You'll also learn a little bit about chaos theory, something about libraries, and just a pinch about fairy godmothers.

Though you can see where everything is going before it gets there, that doesn't make the book any less fun to read. Like her earlier work, "To Say Nothing Of The Dog," "Bellwether" plays for comedy more than drama, and she proves equally adept at both.

Review: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

"The Tales of Beedle the Bard," by J.K. Rowling
9/10, a short, enjoyable collection of fairy tales from the Harry Potter universe

Upon finishing the "Harry Potter" series, J.K. Rowling declared there would be no more stories in that universe, at least not for a while. With good reason: although her love for the world shines through in her stories, it must be exhausting to have so much attention focused on it. Certainly she need never work again.

Some of the stories must have been kicking around in her head, though. This small collection of fairy tales includes the tale of the three brothers referenced in "Deathly Hallows," as well as a few others, and commentary on the tales by Albus Dumbledore. Viewed as a part of the Potter-verse, they are all attuned to the theme that magic by itself does not solve problems; rather, it's the good qualities in people that matter the most. One wishes Voldemort had paid more attention to these stories.

On their own, they differ from Andersen's or Grimm's fairy tales in precisely that respect. While good qualities in people usually win out in fairy tales, a lot is also due to magic and charms. It's a challenge for Rowling to build fantasy into a world that is already fantasy, and mostly she accomplishes this by avoiding the issue. The stories feel more like tall tales than fairy tales--slight exaggerations of the real world.

That's not meant to be a criticism. The stories are entertaining, and Dumbledore's commentary is fun because it relates the stories to the Potter world, though also to ours. If you're a Harry Potter fan, chances are you already have this book. If not, they probably won't interest you. But it's nice to revisit the world again, and it's nice to read Rowling's writing again. The theme of good human qualities shining through is no less appealing for being closer to the surface here, and her imagination is as fun as always.