Book Reviews

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§ – The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Losing track of time and civilization in seemingly secret UK locales.

Macfarlane, a naturalist and Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge emersed me in a world I had no idea existed. This quote early on gives a good picture of what the book attempts to do “… as I traveled … I would draw up a map to set against the road atlas. A prose map that would seek to make some of the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again, or that would record them before they vanished for good.”

This is a book that I would not normally read, but in it I found some amazing research and an unparalleled John Muir like enthusiasm for bucolicism (if that’s a word). Macfarlane is the type of narrator that weaves prose descriptions of landscapes with his own imaginative journey through the wild and gives quite an unusual perspective on cartography. He also has some fun adventures. For instance, when you’re reading in your head you’re saying, ‘wow that river must be freezing, you know the one with ice floating on it?’ And the next sentence Macfarlane is stripping down naked and jumping into it.

The book familiarized me with places in the UK as undiscovered options in an upcoming summer trip and for that I am thankful. The touching story about his friend and fellow adventurer Roger was a great personal detail. I’m also very impressed with the ending, because it was truly a beautiful scene, when Macfarlane returns to his office in “civilization,” reflects and arranges his ebenezers full circle as if to nest himself within the realities of the world—quite understandable in this day and age.

4 of 5 Stars. (June, 2009.)

 

§ – Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Compulsory reading: How have I lived this long without it?

Last night I talked to my housemate, a psychology PhD who studies social scientist Rene Girard. Girard posits the belief that societal consciousness requires a scapegoat to break from frustration and violent anger. This scapegoat for example, Joan of Arc or Martin Luther King Jr (or the supreme example) Jesus Christ, is used to purge the society’s social unrest, so that it can function and break an uncomfortable cycle which would spin out of control. This is mirrored also in tribal consciousness of course as natives sacrifice an innocent one such as a virgin to an “angry” God, which lifts the burden of guilt from all.

We talked about the role that the brief book Notes from Underground (90 pages) has played in the modern consciousness. What I think we took away from the conversation was that Dostoevsky marked a turn from collective consciousness, to a realization that we (as individuals) are the problem. That we really don’t have to view a scapegoat such as a homosexual or a Jew as the source of our problems. That we should be looking within ourselves for society’s flaws, not hating or destroying lives, and especially not succumbing to the scapegoat tendency of the mob. The beauty of the book is that it opens up a person to honesty and unpretention that should be expected from a self-conscious thinking person.

Dostoyevsky takes us in cycles in this two-part book. Part I: Underground, is a kind of philosophical treatise on his own complex paradoxical psyche. He starts a line of reasoning admitting his flaws, then turns it around into the kind of discursive reflection that one can experience as an internal monologue. It is highly valued by philosophers, social scientists and literati, because it is far-reaching, pulling beautiful reflections from multiple disciplines, and it is a highly stylized, honest and dramatic first person narrative. Part II: Apropos of Wet Snow, keeps us at arms length, but acts out the unbelievable passions of the Underground Man. This is done from first person point of view as the man takes on a group of Russian men who have little if none respect for him, and in his defeated and vengeful state he seeks out a prostitute and attempts to rehabilitate and redeem her, wanting to pull her up from what he sees is her hopeless and disgusting fate.

The book is terrible in its honesty and wondrous in its honest and relentless wit. A true masterpiece by one of the top five novelists of all time remains accessible in its short form. I recommend the Norton Critical Edition, because it has responses to the work by authors such as Ralph Ellison, Woody Allen and Jean-Paul Sarte, including literary criticism, sources for some of Dostoyevsky’s material and letters from the author to his friends. A sheer masterwork of reflection and an astounding example of first person narrative, which as a bonus, includes a wealth of content that is significant and far-reaching for all mankind and for all time. 5 of 5 stars. (June 8, 2008)

 

§ – John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent

There are better Steinbeck books.

This is not Steinbeck at his best. At times, he struggles in and out of blatant “telling,” giving us exactly what we need to know in expositional dialogue between characters. These unrealistic exchanges share information that all of the characters in the story already know, so of course these parts drag.

Set in New England at New Baytown a village “which is on the cusp of expanding,” the kooky narrator lives in his own inner world, where Steinbeck unfolds a social criticism against expansion at the cost of morals, greed, and the story of fallen American families. The ending, economically, though beautifully written, comes from left field, and is undeveloped in terms of a connection with the rest of the story. It is the same old, same old Steinbeck in terms of theme, but without the execution which his other books perform superbly. Read the other Steinbeck works, I’d put this at the bottom of the Steinbeck list. 3 of 5. (March 6, 2008)

 

§ – Gabriel Gárcía Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

An epic, magical description of a beautiful and passionate family doomed to recommit their mistakes.

(Plot spoiler warning—elements of this review slightly delve into the outcome of the characters’ lives.)

In jungles out of reach of most of civilization, where settlers fight even the plants that grow voraciously outdoors, what would be more of an oddity than ice? What is colder? What is more solitary? What is more fleeting? The ice could be the Buendías family and the town of Macando, which have been odd and fleeting since the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez establishes them in the first sentence. Marquez invokes the death of the ideals of the independent village in the death of Colonel Aureliano Buendía and the fascinating “discovery” of ice. Both are examples of the village’s solitude from the rest of the world, and how unique and arbitrary the Buendías were when they encountered, head-on, that world beyond their oasis in the jungle.

Gabriel Gárcía Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story of pride and loneliness and distraction within a family line with members who are so similar that they repeat the dysfunctional pathologies inherent in their family line over and over and over, and yet they are so unique in their ways of going about it, that one cannot hope but to cheer each new Buendía on to redemption. But there is no redemption. Each fate is gruesome and macabre and piles upon the previous fate, and combines with the purposeful mix up and jumble of names (which Marquez commands with precision,) until the final horrible ending of the book produces the effect he is seeking: desolation, melted ice without even a watery residue, and an uncomfortable memory of all the choices the family members could have made to live in a blissful solitude (though he implies that part of the tragedy is the solitude).

The narrative is handled omnisciently, through a narrator who pushes us onward through explanations of the characters’ superstitious misconceptions, beginning with the quixotic entrepreneurial schemes of the patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendía, and adding (his wife) Ursula’s wild prophecy, which she stays faithful to throughout the book, that incest within the family leads to a baby with a pig tail. The hot wind brings waves of lucidity to Ursula old blind Ursula: Was she the ice? When she “melted” at the end of the book, the house fell into utter disrepair. She was the Buendía who lived for more than 100 years and lived the entire time the Buendía house was a home.

There are many biblical, and Catholic religious allusions throughout the story, which add comic relief and an undercurrent of irreverence and humor, but the sad tale, like so much fiction of these days, makes a joke of religion and the priest or pastor etc. The pseudo-Christianity present in the novel is yet another peg for the author to launch off of to showcase the confusion which the Buendías face in village community life. They know nothing of anything beyond themselves. Their religion is based on religious practices, and there is no tangible hope that God will intervene or has any involvement in their lives, and I’m not even sure He was ever mentioned, besides in cursing rather, they will visit prostitutes and give authority to ghosts and gypsies, follow the latest technologies and give the most credence to Pilar Ternera, the village whore and fortune teller.

Now, all that aside, this is a beautiful novel with a shabby-chic Dia De Los Muertos feel. The novel orbits around the tragic issues that the characters undergo and their eventual entropy revolves and revolves and we forget—and we are reminded—of the tragedies, and the past loves, and the joys with precise and exquisite language, where each word is perfectly chosen for entertaining and artistic ambiguity, so that we are convinced that Marquez is a genius, and then we are transported by each of his strong technical pinpoints to facts mentioned off-hand that are woven into the story by his technical artistry.

I could not stop reading or enjoying or despairing, because the tragic-comic family carries the endearments and sympathy that we naturally give to biblical protagonists, and there is a sense of magical possibility in all of the action, and we are smothered and taken with a desire to make these great people see hope and come together and function well, because we, unlike the Buendías have not given up on redemption but in Macando, redemption is undiscoverable. (If we are true to the artistic endeavor Garcia-Marquez has taken up, then we are obliged to refer to the Buendias as a group.) The distinctions in the family are purposefully blurred by the author for effect, so in turn, sweeping generalizations about the family as a whole can be made. Keep in mind the communal, or family identity (within many cultures) is more significant than the identity of the individual. 5 of 5 stars. (June 30, 2007)

 

§ – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“There is more than one way to burn a book,” writes Ray Bradbury. This is the basis of the coda in the Del Ray Science Fiction edition that I read. What an inspiration to have a note to me, a fellow writer to write exactly what I feel I must write. “Editors and minorities hold sway in the industry, subtly but in a way that will abbreviate your prose into milquetoast sound bytes. Who will resist this?”

Bradbury gives permission and some encouragement to be yourself as a writer. You’d think this wouldn’t be difficult, but for a person who spends his time in writer’s workshops, where students can make unmeasured comments so that they can achieve a good participation grade, this encouragement from Bradbury can inspire you to keep in the more risky or edgy ideas you have in your writing.

Damn, I love the 1950s fiction. Oh man, serve it up with a TV dinner and an issue of Life magazine and I’ll shovel it down like so much nuclear ash! It’s gritty and violent and offers campy phrases, but most of the entire plot is engaging and Bradbury’s creativity is boundless. The narrator winds and wheels on with clean and clever meanderings, liberally and tastefully unraveling a fluttering kite string of beautifully simple sentences which blow and stagger while directing the kite on a gale force campaign against censorship. Bradbury was reacting to the times he lived in, and in Orwellian fashion wrote to raise an issue he was concerned with. Does social change come through term papers? Does it come through narratives of fiction or myth or holy writings? Does it come through violent actions or peaceful protests? All of the above! But from my Christian perspective, I’d have to say that God propelled his method of enacting social change through a series of narratives, namely the Bible. All (truly correct) Christian responses are crafted along the railways of that book and can be guided and compared against that narrative. So story is paramount to me.

All this to make the point that Bradbury defends fiction, books, including the Bible and the other stories we tell because he sees them as valuable. Even in the forms of new media such as text messaging, electronic mail and the Internet, we take the words, the text and act and react based on it. If it’s written down it is a touchstone.

Oh yeah, you want details about the book. Bradbury’s ideas are timeless.—way futuristic man. He predicted in the ’50s a very pretty bevy of many items and gadgets fully present in our lives today (video walls, audio ear bugs, robotic dogs, broadcast TV/video high speed chases, and an underlying suspicion that government exists in misguided policies that end up vindictive, rather than benevolent). His predilections were/are classic, even timeless. I kept reading to find a place where he was prophetically behind the times, but there none, to my knowledge not even an instance—this translates to brilliance.

The text is condensed and the book short, which makes it fun, though a bit brief if you’re looking for a long-term commitment. He beautifully crafted the “thin” characters so that they were an embodiment of a philosophic slant rather than an attempt at real flesh and blood people, yet all of it adds up to much more than only a few gasps of wonder and enjoyment at the book’s clever composure. Five of Five Stars. (July 17, 2007)

 

§ – Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Prose opens up a great dialogue, though her taste can be more than a bit stuffy.

Reading Like a Writer threatens to be the next On Writing Well or Bird by Bird–entry level books, which writing instructors require for an undergrad writing course. But this one falls short. Her canon and examples are meant to make professors nod and rewrite their syllabi, attempting to change the literature required in high school and in undergrad English programs. And despite that, her list of must read now books is a bit dated and some can really be out of touch for today’s reader.

As she continues on to the second half of the book her good-humored jabs and pleasant levity came less and less frequently and the prose analysis became less dynamic, then less objective, then more geared toward easily debatable opinion. This book excels over others such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Bird by Bird, in that you have the opinions of fiction from an extremely important American writer in our time. On the topic of technique, Francine Prose breaks from the standard advice given to writers that they should “show” action and personality instead of “tell” through narration; She says some of the greatest writing is telling (from a narrator’s insight). She points to the opening page of Pride and Predjudice as an example of telling being wonderfully executed; I point to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as a confirming example among my recent reads. And in the mass market, The DaVinci Code (though it would be poo-pooed by the literati) makes good use of telling, to really keep the plot moving and fast paced. I just think the problem with telling occurs when a narrator really has nothing interesting or engaging to add, or does not stay within “the character” of the narrator, causing the telling to be simply filler—a construction of a lazy writer. The author must truly learn how to show before telling and that is why introductory writing material must stress this: there is just so much lazily constructed text that I think showing is a worthy goal for the beginner.

The second gem of advice is the focus Prose places on crafting the perfect sentence. Learning the importance of agonizing over every word was beneficial to me and that alone made it worth purchasing this book. This is so tough to do. I was inspired and driven to increase the effort I had put into several sections for my novel and Prose’s advice helped push me to the next level, so thank you Francine for that!

What raised the book to a 3.75 out of 5, is the focus that Prose puts on reading quality literature while writing in order to emulate it, rather than avoiding brilliant writing so that you won’t be discouraged when comparing. I add that even if you end up being pummeled to death by a writing group or a workshop through their excessively critical or conversely simple air-headed praise (where you’re not even sure if they read it). I think there is an argument though that really makes for showing, in that in beginning to write you really need to know how to do both, and you for sure could see the examples (from your fiction class) where telling is an absolute cheap and easy way out of creating true tension or conflict in your work.

I’ve gone through periods where I’ve hated reading pluperfect literature while writing because it is so discouraging, and periods where some great stuff has been soured in my eyes by one misinformed comment from a well-meaning classmate. I love reading the greats now while I’m writing, because I’ve given myself over to imitation. Joyceian, Bradburian and Mertonian. Why not? Go for it. If you can emulate without stealing, then you’re writing really tight stuff and you’re mimicking the proven techniques of the greatest writers. That’s every writer’s goal, write? Right.  3.75 of 5 stars. (July 11, 2007)

 

§ – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Fun codes, half-truths, malleable facts and mass market appeal. This genre is so hard to review; in terms of success, it is successful—I mean Americans have eaten this up, sliding Dan Brown’s irreverently politically correct chivalry through the negative fricative groove in their tongues and deep into their respective gullet chalices. The book is a franchise, and whole careers have been made simply from The DaVinci Code criticism. Millions of refutations to the book have been sold. That’s really amazing.

And then there are those endearing things about this book: That Mr. Brown used every single page to further the mystery. Great work. I was holding on to the edge of the dustcover with my fingernails in each of the 105 chapter cliffhangers, plus even one epilogue chapter, and I was curious the whole time. So with that and the style of the short hanging chapters: it meets educational methods our teachers and the Internet have trained us to work within. Dan Brown can see that the American educational system has taught us to think in very brief, summarized segments (akin to the 45 minute class period), and jump from short section to short section, like we do randomly on the web. He’s speaking to our culture and meeting us where we are. ADD central. The riddles, of course, are very fun.

Some people have turned their noses up at the apparently amateurish use of simple codes, but I have never really gotten into the code culture. So to me it was very entertaining, as I’m somewhat dense when it comes to these types of games. I can’t even make out the hidden pictures of the sharks and squids you’re supposed to see in those strange posters that look like blue static and ink blots in the mall. So the riddles got me. A few things that made me laugh in this book: 1. Brown mentioning and locating the action in gratuitous and obvious tourist destinations, so that the cultural dilettante can say, “I’m an informed and modern world traveler; I’ve been there. This is so relevant and important to my life.” 2. Brown pandering to women, even obviously manipulating facts so that the entire female race is a martyr at the church’s feet (he no doubt knows that 80% of mass-market readers are women). Why not put them on the pedestal—literally—and worship them through pagan sex—The best way to achieve market proliferation? This obviously serves two historic male passions (which are apparently covered up and shamed by the church and probably okay with the Knights Templar?): lust and money.

Now specifically, regarding the pagan fertility rights actually taking place in Solomon’s temple; and the Jews hiding it from us. This is one of the absurd “discoveries” that Brown’s characters relate, without bursting into laughter themselves. The Jews did fight the proliferation of pagan fertility rites and prostitution and widespread orgies on the mountaintops in and around Israel, but never in the temple. It hadn’t been defiled until the Jews lost control of it, so this was not part of any type of true YHWH worship. I would recommend that everybody step back one step from Dan Brown’s circumference, as the thunder is rumbling and the lightning is flashing, and I think lightning conducts very well through adjacent bodies.

All the hype: Partial truth mixed with malleable-made facts and an understanding of what kind of book appeals to the mass market is the perfect mix for Brown to attain money, fame and greatness. I recognize the skill he put into it, it’s a fun but scary book (if you realize Americans will take any of the presented religious facts as true); its like going to a big summer movie with bad dialogue, but good-looking actors: All of it’s fake and shallow but entertaining (wait a minute, it was a summer movie). It did what it tried to do (get you to read it). 5 of 5 stars (June 18, 2007)

 

§ – Ulysses by James Joyce

Have patience, it becomes funny, moving, then genius.

If, like this novel, you never want your day to end, if you don’t mind an author torturing, humiliating and exploring the utmost depths of an Irish Jew, if you want to go head-on with the most pretentious Irish author ever, if you have the stamina to read, even though you don’t understand, if you can deal with a 44 page sentence (in this edition) with no punctuation and six paragraph breaks, if you want to meet Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailor and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailor and on and on including Linbad the Yailer and Xinbad the Phthailor and did I mention Pinbad the Pailer and Minbad the Mailor?; if you don’t mind consulting your dictionary and/or electronic translation device for four to eight words per page excluding Irish colloquialisms, bawdy banter, Italian, French, German, High Church, Latin, bastardized Joycian eurospeak (so like, with my vocabulary, you’d have to like, look up like 3,500 words), If you love sentences, if you have a tongue-in-cheek, bookish sense of humor, if you really want a sense of accomplishment, if you want to disrupt your fellow coffeehouse patrons with your guffaws and objections as you try to read quietly to yourself, if you want to throw a book at a wall and feel not one ounce guilty for it and then pick it up again and underline, highlight and define phrase after precious phrase, if you want a book which you will return to your whole life for nuggets of insight and top-of-the-craft structure, wordsmithing and sentencemanship, if you want to learn how to construct the most beautiful prose you can write, if you can stomach long stretches of flat out drivel and gratuitous doggerel, if you want to risk going “cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo”, if you want to study Eire, Shakespeare, human character, sexuality, foreign language, the complexity of human relationships, from a wily, witty and hilarious narrator, attend a funeral, read an old turn of the (last) century newspaper, vicariously feast on the internal organs of all kinds of beasts, if you want to attend a spectacular fireworks celebration occurring simultaneously with an ambiguously described masturbatory session of flirting and a high church service, if you want to sneak home late at night and enjoy a cup of cocoa with a friend while your wife is in bed dreaming about her life, if you want to ponder the future of Ireland, if you fancy yourself a serious or curious reader, writer, liver, friend, lover, philosopher, psychologist, politician, student, epicurean, astrologer, European, cosmopolitan, artificer, usurper, friend of literature or artist, and if you’re fascinated that all of the previous list and much more that could possibly happen in one day, then read Ulysses by James Joyce, if not, then Nulla Bona, Jack, but read it later anyway (and then you may even meet Darkinbad the Brightdayler). Five of Five Stars (April 24, 2007).

 

§ – Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

Sunrise to sunrise, a masterful organic native narrative.

A somber sort of psychological disconnection peppers this story of a Mexican/Native American war veteran. Grasping for meaning in his life, and dealing with scars from his combat. Tayo gathers himself to his ancestors through the pulling forces of the stories, poems, potions and incantations used by Native American tribes such as the Lagunas, in their daily lives.

What seem to be digressions in the plot, actually serve quite seamlessly to mimic the mind of the protagonist and devalue the legitimacy of the European imperialists and immigrants who came to ‘own’ Native American land. The book contains gripping descriptions of the west, and brutal stories of war veterans, and fascinating Native American rituals, including their definition and explication within the lives of the people, whose very ceremonies are fading away through neglect and intermarrying.

As a writer, the narrative is a masterwork of flashback, foreshadowing and cross-genre (poetry) of the skill and authenticity of which I’ve never seen; and I learned inkwells full of style and verbal alacrity from this piece. Silko’s research in Christianity is weak, describing it through Tayo, without understanding the true teachings of Christ. It would have been interesting to see some kind of comparison between Native American religion and Christianity, if researched properly, as it could add interesting conflicts and depth. Maybe Silko was attempting a criticism of some kind of midwestern American Christianity and therefore was unable to really deal with the issues Jesus was interested in.

That aside, this is a master work of American literature, and a must read for a modern fiction writer or one curious about Native Americans, or any person who wants to read the best of the best in literature. As this was my introduction to Native American fiction, so I have no related titles. But Silko was buddy-buddy with N Scott Momaday of the Kiowa tribe who is a Pulitzer Prize winner and who praises this book immensely. That may be enough reason enough to read both. 5 of 5 stars. (Mar. 1, 2007)

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