The Comfort of Strangers

December 21, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

strangersThe Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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This isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, but I stumbled across it twice in The Book of Lists: Horror when authors listed books that weren’t classified as horror, but may as well have been. Having read it, I can see why: it’s a stark look at sexual obsession and how it affects people. It takes a while to get to the central issue of the novel, but even as McEwan is setting up the story, we get a sense of things being not quite right.

Colin and Mary are a couple vacationing in Venice, and their relationship is strained. A chance encounter with an expatriate from London puts them back on track, but that encounter leads them down dark roads that ultimately end in tragedy. In relation to other works of horror, it feels a little tame, but for a book that’s well within the literary canon, it shows a darkness its contemporaries tend to avoid.

McEwan does a great job capturing the setting and the main characters in the first chapter. His style is crisp and precise. In addition, he captures the relationship between them, which is arguably more important than the characters themselves. They and the secondary characters in the novel are drawn a little thin, but I feel like this is intentional; the book is more about relationships and how we let them define us, so it makes more sense to focus more on what exists between the characters rather than the characters themselves.

This is an unusual book, in that it might be darker than readers of literary fiction would like, but it doesn’t feel dark enough for casual readers of horror. For readers who like examinations into the darker side of humanity, though, it’s a perfect fit. It’s not a favorite among dedicated readers of the author, but as an introduction to him, it stands as a strong work. I understand he has a few other novels that perform dark examinations like this one, and I’ll have to add those to my list of books to read.

Started: September 17, 2017
Finished: September 17, 2017

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Wolf in White Van

February 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

wolfWolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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Something terrible happens to a teenager. This isn’t noteworthy in and of itself (terrible things happen to teenagers every day), but Sean is reduced to being carried to and from his bedroom due to the terrible thing that befell him. We know this at the very start of Wolf in White Van, but it will take until we get to the end of the book to know exactly what happened, and why it happened.

Along the way, Sean introduces us to a play-by-mail role-playing game that he began creating after his accident. We get more glimpses into this world than into his own at first, but slowly, we realize that the world he creates in his game reflects what he’s been going through in his life. It’s Sean’s way of processing all the terrible things in his life, up to and including and after his accident.

Wolf in White Van can be frustrating, since the story takes its time in revealing the details of Sean’s life, but it can also be compelling, as you’re drawn into his narrative and read to see what’s happened in Sean’s life. This isn’t anything new to fiction, but Darnielle handles it with the right amount of tension, like teasing a fish onto the hook when it begins to nibble at the bait.

The story is told backward, revealing small pieces of the larger story from the climax to the point where we understand better why things happened the way they did. We don’t get a full understanding, since the large “Why?” question is never explicitly answered, but when in life do we get all the answers? Interestingly, the title of the book comes from what one can supposedly hear when playing Larry Norman’s song “Six, Sixty, Six” backward. The book, like the song, is backmasked.

The book isn’t easy, though it’s not unreadable. For such a short novel, it carries a heavy weight, forcing you to concentrate on seemingly minor details. Nothing is extraneous; everything is important. The temptation to rush through the story is great (not just to get answers, but also thanks to Darnielle’s pace), but to do so runs the risk of missing a key detail.

This book was published to great acclaim from critics and readers, for good reason. It’s thoughtful and readable, compelling and challenging, somber and reassuring. It’s not a feel-good book by any means, but it feels necessary. It may not be for all readers, but it has something important to say.

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The King in Yellow

May 6, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

yellowThe King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

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Like most people, my interest in this book went up after watching the first season of True Detective. Unlike most people, I took my time in getting to it, as I downloaded this book two years ago. So (as usual), I’m a little late to this party.

What’s already known about this book is that it’s a collection of ten stories, some of which center around a novelized play titled “The King in Yellow”, which has a reputation for driving its readers insane. It’s also known that Chambers influenced a lot of future Weird fiction writers, including H.P. Lovecraft. With that kind of reputation, it’s hard not to go into this book expecting a lot out of it.

“The Repairer of Reputations” is set in the author’s future (1920), where many advances have been made to improve society. Chambers peppers the story with these advances in a glib, horrifying manner, similar to the way Jonathan Swift did in “A Modest Proposal”. The story introduces us to the play, and the suggestion that it has undue effects on its readers. It also introduces us to Hildred Castaigne, a socialite who has suffered a head injury and is now an eccentric. His situation, along with how his brother responds to him, suggests that his version of events may not be accurate, though it takes a while to catch on to this fact, forcing the reader to question all of what Hildred has told us in this story. It’s an effective piece, even if I was confused in parts of it.

“The Mask” is set in the same world as “The Repairer of Reputations”, and the play makes another appearance in the story. Here, we meet a group of friends, one of whom is a sculptor who has discovered a solution that will turn organic objects into marble, instantly. He demonstrates this with a rose, two goldfish, and a rabbit before it becomes more sinister. The motivations of one of the characters wasn’t that clear to me, though this story’s narrator was more reliable than Hildred, so I don’t think I was being played. Unless the play was part of what made the characters sick, I feel like I missed something.

The next story, “In the Court of the Dragon”, is less clear than the first two stories. The play features again, as the narrator had read it before attending a church service that goes awry. Whether or not what actually transpires is real or just imagined is questionable, and the ending is too vague for me to get a real sense of what was supposed to have happened.

“The Yellow Sign” is the fourth of the interconnected stories, giving us a little more detail about the play. The story is about a young artist and his model, both of whom stumble across the book after they have confessed their attraction to each other. It reminded me a little bit of Thinner, in that once of them has read the book, the other feels obligated to read it, too, so that she won’t suffer her fate alone.

“The Demoiselle d’Ys” isn’t about the play, and doesn’t even seem to be set in the same world as the first four stories. It’s about an American hunter lost in the French woods, and how he stumbles across a family who offers to help him. Like the preceding stories, this one is more than it seems, and Chambers does a great job of building up the atmosphere around the story, giving us small, unsettling details that prevent the reader from relaxing, even if he’ll likely figure out what’s going before the story ends.

“The Prophets’ Paradise” follows, and is less a story than a collection of prose poems. There are eight vignettes that make up this story, and all told the entire piece is about nine pages long.

The following story, “Street of the Four Winds”, is another shorter story, this time about an artist who befriends a stray cat. He discovers the cat’s owner, and returns the cat to her, but what he finds there is, of course, a little unusual. It had an appropriately chilling ending. This marks the first of the last four stories set in France and featuring artists.

“Street of the First Shell” takes us back to the longer stories, as the last three stories in the book make up over half of the book’s length. It doesn’t have anything to do with the nameless horrors of the preceding stories; instead, it’s about the horrors of war. It had an emotional ending, since Chambers focused on the characters surrounding the war, but the descriptions of war felt rather clinical. I wasn’t expecting splatterpunk, but it felt more like a summary of events than anything else.

The next story is “Street of Our Lady of the Fields”, and is about a naive American in Paris who falls for (I believe) a prostitute. It’s a gentle story, out of place against the preceding stories, but it highlights Chambers’ skills at characterization and setting. I wasn’t expecting a story from the 19th Century to feel modern in those aspects, but parts of it felt like it could have come from a story written just this year.

The final story, “Rue Barée”, is another story about artists in Paris, and also about love. It came as no surprise to me as I was doing research to find that Chambers himself studied art in Paris before writing this collection. What did surprise me was the subtle nod to the first story in the collection.

I raced through the first few stories, and then stalled out during the last four. Finally, I made myself finish the collection so I could move on to something else. Chambers definitely had the skills for telling a good story and engaging the reader, and I have an appreciation for him as a writer. I was also surprised at the wit he displayed, as evidenced here:

“… but now let me present you to two of the sights of Paris, Mr. Richard Elliot and Mr. Stanley Rowden.”

The “sights” looked amiable, and took vermouth.

Still, folks coming across this collection based on the otherworldly flavor of True Detectives would be better off skipping the last three stories. They’re good, but they’re lengthy, and have no hint of the weird that readers would be looking for.

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The Alchemist

December 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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This isn’t the kind of book I would normally read. I was at the bookstore, wanting to buy something (I know you’ve all been there before), and this jumped out at me. Plus, I knew of the book, knew it had a huge following, and figured maybe it was time to see what it was all about.

There’s a slight fantastical element to it, but mostly it’s a literary fable, complete with its own moral. It’s a brief book, but as the author notes in his foreword, it’s about searching for treasure and self, and the story and its message are universal.

The story is simply told. It’s not that it’s dumbed down, but that it’s written in clear, concise language. Given that the book has been translated, I’m not sure if the style is more the author or the translator (or both), but it works well. The story is already a fairy tale, and the language of the story supports it. It’s direct, without getting sidetracked into things like characterization or even plot, but it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t intended to have either.

The story reminds me a lot of Norton Juster’s Alberic the Wise. They’re not identical: Alberic the Wise is summed up well with its concluding line “It is much better to look for what I may never find than to find what I do not really want”; and The Alchemist is about treasuring what you have instead of what you want. There’s just something similar in the characters’ journeys to self-discovery.

It also reminds me a little of The Secret, that horrible New Age claptrap from 2006 that basically told people that all they needed to do to get what they wanted was to think positively about it. Early in the book, Coelho tells us, “When you want something the whole universe will conspire together to help you get it”, and it sounded just a little too close to the message of The Secret. On the bright side, Coelho doesn’t present that message as some spiritual truth; on the dim side, Coelho feels the need to repeat this message quite a bit through the novel.

I wish I could say something more about the story, but it doesn’t have any resonance with me. Even if it isn’t as hokey as The Secret, it still has a New Age angle to it that didn’t do anything for me. It just felt mediocre.

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The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe

July 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson CrusoeThe Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Peter Clines

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I’ve been on a “Weird Al” kick for the last couple of weeks (due in part to finally seeing him live), and as I was listening to his catalog, I was reminded how I appreciated his parodies so much more in the ’80s and early ’90s. Back then, I still listened to popular music, and I was familiar with the videos that accompanied them, so I was able to catch all of the subtler jokes that played around with a particular lyric or scene. During the concert, the inhaler joke from “Inactive” was lost on me because I didn’t know the Imagine Dragons song well enough to realize there’s something similar in the actual song.

I bring that up because I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe, and I feel like much of the impact of the mash-up is also lost on me. As I was reading Clines’ retelling of the story using lycanthropy and the Cthulhu mythos, I downloaded a Kindle version of the book to get a sense of how much Clines changed Defoe’s original narrative (conclusion: not much), and also to see how much of it he abridged (conclusion: quite a bit), but I didn’t bother reading the entire thing. I still feel like I know enough of the story to get a sense of it without having to read it, and having now read The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, I can’t imagine it would be quite as interesting.

In fact, the recent trend of mash-up novels hasn’t made much of an impression on me because I haven’t read any of the classics they’re based on.  I was sort-of tempted by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter because it was more an alternate history story than a mash-up, but even then, I couldn’t get too interested in it. The main reason I decided to read TEAotLRC had more to do with Peter Clines than anything else (though I’ll admit that the Lovecraftian elements intrigued me more than zombies or sea serpents or vampire hunters or what have you).  14 was enough for me to want to read more of his work.

The thing is, TEAotLRC isn’t really Clines.  It’s more Defoe than anything else.  Crusoe being a werewolf is a brilliant addition to the actual story, as it does more to explain Crusoe remaining on the island for so long.  Here, Clines tells us that Crusoe was already wracked with guilt over his condition, and over causing the death of one of his shipmates, and he chooses to remain there to protect himself and others.  At first, it seems odd to include the lycanthropy angle at all, but the more Clines takes us in that direction, the more sense it makes.

The Cthulhu aspect of the story also works remarkably well, since Cthulhu lived in an underground city in the South Pacific, which is exactly where Crusoe was stranded.  As evidenced by Lovecraft getting co-author credit for this novel, Clines lifts large portions of “The Call of Cthulhu” and adds them to the story, putting them in just the right place to make them work with the setting.  In fact, the mash-up works so well that I’m surprised that, with all of the Lovecraftian authors out there, this was the first time someone had the idea to put the two stories together.

My only complaint was that it took a long time for the Cthulhu angle to get going in the story, and that once it did, it was still more an afterthought to the stranded-on-an-island story.  Clines hinted at it early in the story (on Crusoe’s first sea voyage, he’s part of a crew that loses their ship to an underwater creature, and he keeps mishearing the captain mutter to “Gon” instead of God), but it wasn’t until the halfway point that the mythos started to enter the story.  Up until then, it was mostly Defoe, with an occasional reference to the Beast to remind us that this Crusoe was also a werewolf.  Once Crusoe befriended Friday, the Lovecraftian elements took another backseat, again to the original story by Defoe.

I admire the potential of this story, and respect what Clines has done by mashing these three stories together, but I can’t honestly say I’m a fan of the resulting story.  Ultimately, it was too much Defoe and not enough Lovecraft or Clines.

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The Name of the Rose

July 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

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This book took me longer than expected to finish.  It’s a heavier book than I normally read, which certainly contributed some, but it’s not so heavy that it’s unreadable, or incomprehensible.  No, what really caused the delay was me downloading You Must Build a Boat to my device and spending nearly every waking hour for over a week playing that stupid game.  I probably could have finished this book in a week, otherwise.

I’ve read one other Eco book, Foucault’s Pendulum, close to twenty years ago.  It wasn’t an easy book.  As I recall, I thought the story was intriguing, but the philosophy bogged me down.  I also remember that there was a pivotal scene at the end of the book where one of the characters said something important.  In Italian.  Without a translation.

So, I get it — Eco knows lots of stuff, and he wants to make sure you know that about him.  The Name of the Rose is another book like that, with more time devoted to discussing history and philosophy than to the story itself.  I hate to come across as anti-intellectual, but when it comes to my fiction, I prefer for the story, not the philosophy, to take center stage.  When the philosophy services the story, that’s great, but when it’s the other way around, I wind up feeling like I have to slog through pages and pages of philosophy before I find the next nugget of story.

The thing is, to take the history and philosophy out of the book would be to remove its context, as well.  So much of the story is anchored in its time and setting, and a story set in an abbey would be less of a story if one didn’t discuss the context of the abbey, again in its time and setting.  What story remains would be engaging still, but it wouldn’t be as relevant.  Look at the movie adaptation of the book to see what the story would be without the context.

For what it’s worth, the story here is really good.  Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, is accompanied by his scribe, Adso of Melk, to investigate a death at an abbey.  Brother William is a Sherlock Holmes-ian character, perceptive and wise and thoughtful, and how he investigates the death is intriguing and interesting.  The story is one of politics, history, intrigue, and mystery, complete with questionable characters, red herrings, and a satisfying conclusion.

The construct of the story is significant, too, as the story itself is three layers deep: the book has a foreword written by a scholar that suggests this book is a found manuscript written by Adso; the prologue is narrated by Adso himself, suggesting that the story to follow is one written many years after the events of the story; and then there is the story itself, again narrated by Adso.  By the end of the story, years have passed, and it’s difficult to know if Adso is a reliable narrator.  Eco doesn’t present him as such, and monks were known for their prodigious memories, but how accurately can someone remember events from so many years ago?

Overall, I enjoyed the story, though I got bogged down with the history and philosophy Eco included.  It’s hard to say who the audience for the book is; the mystery is intriguing, but it has so much other discussion in the novel that it seems like it’s geared toward religious scholars.  Still, casual readers might enjoy it as much as I did, but I wouldn’t recommend it without reservation.

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House of Leaves

May 25, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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For me, story is king.  No matter what else an author wants to put into his book, if the story fails to satisfy, then the book won’t work for me.  This is part of the reason why, when I first attempted to read this book some seven or eight years ago, I ultimately abandoned it.  It was too much form and not enough function, even though the function beneath the form was intriguing.

Earlier this year, I decided to give the book another try.  I figured maybe (maybe) I had matured enough to be able to wade through the form to find the function beneath.  At the very least, being on the kind of reading kick I’ve been on for the past two years, I figured I would be able to persevere through it.

The problem is with the way the story is presented.  The plot here — regarding an impossible house covered in a documentary that apparently doesn’t exist — is intriguing, but it’s surrounded by a ton of details that, honestly, feel unnecessary.  It’s filled with a ton of hidden information and a few puzzles (even the index has some treasures to uncover, if you’re that committed), and the author even buried his own name in the story via an acrostic in the footnotes.  Yes, footnotes.  These aren’t the kinds of footnotes you would find in a Terry Pratchett or Jonathan Stroud book, either; these are actual, informational footnotes to sources that don’t even exist in the real world.  Some of the footnotes go on for pages.  In some of those, the story develops further, but others are just pages and pages of detailed examples of architecture or people, and serve no purpose to the story other than to give the reader a sense of disorientation that the characters experience.  I didn’t read those word for word; in fact, as soon as the narrative broke down into comma-separated phrases of any kind that went on for an extended length of time, I just jumped forward to the next paragraph.  There were at least two point in the novel where I nearly gave up on it again because I couldn’t get past all this kind of crap.

The thing is, the form of the book reflects its function: in one chapter, where the author examines labyrinths, the story is formatted within a small section of the page, surrounded by footnotes that take you from page to page, going forward and then back, some of the footnotes themselves having footnotes that you’ve already read; in another chapter, some of the characters are at the top of a lengthy staircase, others at the bottom, and depending on which characters are the focus of the narrative, the text is formatted at either the top or bottom of the page; in yet another chapter, a character is crawling through a small space, represented by the box of text on the page growing smaller and smaller along with the space.  It’s an intriguing way to format the book, and I can’t deny that it works.

There are actually two stories taking place in this book, on within the main narrative itself, and another through the footnotes of a character who is compiling the book.  His story is much less interesting, but no less necessary since an outside viewer is necessary to show the effects the main narrative has on an outside viewer.  The core story, though, is pretty fascinating, and it helped that I waited so long to read it, since other readers have posted some thoughts and possible answers to some of the riddles buried in the book.  In fact, just typing in “House of Leaves” and the page number took me to a wealth of information about whatever it was I was looking for.

The book is clever, and it’s one of those books where you finish it and just admire it for the effort the author put into it.  But it reminds me a little too much of 2001, a nearly three-hour movie with an intriguing story that could have been told in about 20 minutes had the director just stuck to the story instead of showing off how skilled he was.  To put it another way, House of Leaves is a five-ounce story wrapped up in twelve pounds of obtuse.  In this case, though, the extra effort to get past a lot of that detail was worth it.

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The Book of Merlyn

May 9, 2015 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

The Book of MerlynThe Book of Merlyn by T.H. White

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According to what I’ve read about the Once and Future King books, this volume was initially intended to be included with the other four books in the omnibus printing.  It was rejected due to wartime paper shortages, and was finally published a few years after White’s death.  I wanted to read this because I had liked The Once and Future King so much, and I was disappointed to find that this book was less a conclusion to that Arthurian tale, and more a philosophical look at war and its causes and effects.

The Once and Future King ends unresolved, though White sets it up so that we’re pretty sure that the downward trend of the story will continue.  He ends that story definitively here, but he does so really with the first chapter and the last two chapters.  Arthur is despondent on the night before his final battle with Mordred, but he is then reunited with Merlyn, who takes Arthur off to the cave where he was imprisoned by Nimue.  There, the two of them meet with the animals Arthur met through his transformations to discuss the nature of war.  This convinces him of the futility of war, and when he returns to the battlefield, he convinces Mordred to make peace.  Unfortunately, even that victory turns sour when a knight draws his sword to kill a snake, which is seen by the other side as treachery, and the battle erupts anyway.

The conclusion of the legend is appropriate and tragic, but it doesn’t really tell us much more than what was revealed in The Once and Future King, and the rest of the book is more philosophical in nature.  In addition, Merlyn has Arthur undergo two additional transformations, but when the book was initially rejected by the publisher for inclusion into the book, White went back and added the two scenes to The Sword in the Stone, making those chapters redundant here.  In fact, I wonder if the book was initially rejected for its content and not for the paper shortages, since much of the book seems superfluous at best.  Much of the discussions of war could have been included in an essay or a non-fiction book.

Those who enjoyed The Once and Future King might want to read this for its curiosity value, but I don’t see it as an essential part of the Arthurian tale.  It just doesn’t add enough to the story to make it worth reading, unless you’re curious to see what White thought about war before having to participate in it himself.

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The Once and Future King

May 7, 2015 at 2:05 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Once and Future KingThe Once and Future King by T.H. White

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As I was reading this book, I came to realize that I really don’t know much about the legend of King Arthur.  Most of what I know is the broad strokes (Arthur, Guenever, Mordred, Merlin, and Lancelot), and the most comprehensive work I’ve seen of the legend is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which suggests that I really don’t know the legends at all.  I found this novel to be fascinating, not just because it educated (eddicated?) me further on the legends, but because it turned out to be so good.

I’m usually apprehensive about reading books this old, because the narrative style tends to be so different from what I’m accustomed to with modern fiction, but the writing in The Once and Future King felt very natural.  It still felt dated, but not like The Man Who Was Thursday or The King of Elfland’s Daughter; it was due more to word choice than anything else (though I’m happy to say that I learned a few new words while reading the book).  The themes and characters, though, feel timeless, and the book overall, with its cast of characters, thoughtful analysis, and slapstick sense of humor, winds up being charming.

The book is comprised of four other books, each written and published separately from the 1930s to the 1950s, and each book looks at a different aspect of King Arthur’s life.  The first book, The Sword in the Stone, is probably the most famous and most discussed of the four books, and for good reason.  In the book, Merlyn educates Arthur (known at this time as “The Wart”) on various aspects of leadership, war, community, justice, and history by transforming him into a variety of animals.  His education also comes in other ways (the way Merlyn dashes Wart’s idealism about knighthood was particularly memorable), but the transformations teach him empathy, which winds up being Arthur’s most important trait on his way of introducing chivalry to replace the “Might Is Right” way of leadership that had existed for so long.  By the time the book reaches its conclusion, with Wart pulling the sword from the stone and becoming King of the Britons, he’s had the education necessary to make him the most appropriate leader.  Additionally, I was absolutely thrilled to see that White pulled in all of the animal friends he had made during his transformations to accompany him when he pulled the sword from the stone; in fact, they ended up being necessary.  They went from serving as lessons to becoming his allies, which I thought was a brilliant thematic summary of all that had taken place in the story.  In order for Wart to transform in King Arthur, he had to have his friends there to help him.

The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, saw the further education of Arthur as he’s presented with his first war as king.  Initially, he looks at the war as being “splendid”, which disgusts Merlyn.  Through further teachings and introspection, Arthur comes to realize that there is no honor to war, and seeks to eliminate it all together.  The irony is that Arthur has to go into battle and defeat the other army in order to bring about that change, but Arthur at least recognizes the irony of the situation.  While he’s going through this revelation, we’re treated to glimpses into the lives of the children of this king Arthur battles, and we find a group of children who are thoughtless, self-centered, and prone to violence.  The children are troublesome (and in one case, commit an atrocity that offends even their mother), and represent all that Arthur has to overcome to institute his code of chivalry.  The way White presents it, it feels like it will be a lost cause, and he ends the book with a scene that underlines that point, complete with arrows and exclamation points.

The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, is mostly about Lancelot and his ultimate fall from the Round Table.  I found his character to be the most interesting, just because he was so conflicted about himself.  Arthur is a tragic hero, due to what he represented to Britain, but it’s nothing compared to the personal tragedy that Lancelot endured.  His love of duty and his love of his king (to say nothing of his love of Guenever) drove him to sacrifice so much, but in the end it was his actions that led to the downfall of Arthur.

But then the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind, shows that, while Lancelot’s actions contributed to the fall of Arthur and the Round Table, it was Arthur’s adherence to his ideas of Chivalry and justice that were the real cause.  Arthur could have easily rid himself of his dilemma by banishing or killing Mordred (who was also a source of Arthur’s sins and poor judgment), but his insistence on holding to the code of justice forced him to take actions against his wife and best friend.  He was so focused on maintaining that idea that he was willing to give up his own happiness and go to war to defend those ideals.  While he was engaged with that, then Mordred stepped in to take the power from Arthur and reinstate the “Might Is Right” rule that Arthur was so desperate to change.  And the real tragedy of that tale was that Mordred was Arthur’s illegitimate son, and was only wanting to betray Arthur out of spite.

The book ends on a sort of cliffhanger ending, but I understand that a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, published outside of this collection, concludes the saga.  Needless to say, it’s the next book on my list.

I was surprised to find that I liked this book as much as I did.  It had subtlety and charm, good guys and bad guys, comedy and tragedy, and honor and despair.  I loved that it flowed with an undercurrent of humor, and loved seeing how White, a modern writer, could add modern history to the story by having Merlyn live backward through time.  I thought it was brilliant that White was able to tell a classic tale from a modern perspective, making comparisons between ancient mythology and, say, Einstein and Curie to give it a better frame of reference for readers.  Some of the narrative conventions did date the story, but it never pulled me out of the story completely.  It was engrossing, engaging, and entertaining.  It was everything a good book should be, and the book was, in a word, perfect.

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1Q84

April 21, 2015 at 8:35 pm (Reads) (, , )

1Q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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I first tried reading Murakami several years ago, when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle came highly recommended to me from several friends. I didn’t make it very far into the book, but not due to lack of interest; as I recall, I had checked it out from the library and had to return it due to there being a long holds list. But 1Q84 is the first book of his I’ve finished, and … well, it’s interesting, to say the least.

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction.  I read books mostly for plot, and while I’ve finally come to appreciate character-driven stories, straight-up literary fiction (in my experience) is more about theme than anything else.  I say that because I wonder if I’m missing the point of the novel.  It does have a plot, and it’s interesting and compelling enough, but I can’t help but think that the story could have been told in a fraction of the length of this novel.  My edition clocked in at 1157 pages; I feel like the plot could have been told in about 400, easy, if Murakami condensed some of the dialogue, or left out much of the detail.  Because there’s a lot of it.  I mean, the level of detail in this novel could put that in American Psycho to shame, and at least in American Psycho the detail was there to show how obsessive and out of touch Bateman was.  In 1Q84, I couldn’t determine why all that detail was necessary, to the point where I wonder if those details are what makes this novel significant.  But lengthy descriptions of cooking and sleeping and breasts (even the female characters seem obsessed by them) just doesn’t seem like the point of anything here.  The novel just feels superficial.

Speaking of the story being compelling, I was surprised to find that the story was very breezy and easy to read.  For a story of this length, and from what I’ve heard of Murakami, I was expecting this to be a dense read, but the story flows easily enough.  Murakami alternates his points of view from chapter to chapter, first telling the story of one of the characters (Tengo), and then telling the story of the other (Aomame).  Both stories are intriguing, and the alternating of the chapters is a good way to keep the reader engaged.  I was tempted sometimes to read over certain chapters, but as the stories progressed, it became clear that there was some intertwining of the two, and before long, reading one character’s chapter revealed more about the other.  But it did take a long time to get there, and then once the novel reached its conclusion, it seemed to move along too quickly.

Given Murakami’s reputation, I expected there to be some complexity to the story, but when you break it down to its base elements, the story was pretty simple.  There was some effort put into interweaving the two stories, but even then, it didn’t have any more complexity than the average fantasy novel.  For the length of the novel, I was expecting something a little more impressive.

In addition, the story is described as a love story, and while I can see why, I’m not really convinced that love has anything to do with the story at all.  What relationship there was wasn’t convincing to me.  There wasn’t a kind of breathless passion that translated the relationship, especially when the two characters in question supposedly fell in love at ten years old, then separated and didn’t see each other for twenty years.  And it’s not that they found one another, rediscovered each other, and then built a relationship out of it; they had been pining for each other and had convinced themselves that they were the only ones for each other.  And it fell totally flat with me.

Much has been made of the title of the novel, since in Japanese, the word for “nine” is a homophone of the letter Q, making the title a pun on George Orwell’s ubiquitous novel.  Some of the blurbs speak of the Orwellian setting of the novel, but I don’t really see it.  Maybe it’s my lack of understanding of Japanese culture, to the point where I don’t know what’s an actual part of the culture and what isn’t, but nothing in the novel jumped out to me as being equivalent to the political state of Nineteen Eighty-four.  The novel is set in that year, and the comparisons are made within and without the novel, but it didn’t make a connection with  me.

Overall, the story was just disappointing.  I’m still holding out hope for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I’m kind of curious what fans of that novel think of 1Q84; if they liked this one as much as that one, then maybe I should just pass on that one, too.

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