The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis
Good one: emotion, adventure, suspense. And that twist.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
Not as good as the first one. Less architectural, although walking through coats until they become a forrest is cool.
Ending is kind of disappointing. The victory of the heroes is assured by the sudden machination of "deeper magic." I wish this deeper magic had been mentioned in the beginning.
That's the thing about stories: they work when the element of resolution is something that has made its appearance early, then has been forgotten. When the resolution just comes out of nowhere, like when suddenly the hero can fly or stop time or something, it doesn't feel like a story.
Still like reading it, though.
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Such an epic idea and series of ideas, with such realized potential that the structural flaws mostly around its ending only make me admire its epicness.
Let's do away with the flaws: the price, first of all. Twelve euros is steep for an e-book, but hell. And the narrative is too fast at the end. A hundred important things happen but all with very little tension, as if the plan was complete but the publisher rushed the book out the door.
To create tension, you miss twice then bullseye the third time. Let me be clear: the last sixth of Seveneves, after flawless execution of the first five sixths, is a string of bullseyes. All that's missing is the "misses," those teasing narrative events that tell you you're getting close to the big reveal but which make you think everything's gone to hell. It feels like Stephenson had the entire plan written out, but for the very last part the publisher rushed the book out the door. Nevertheless, since the GOOD parts got written, it's still a good read.
We're left with: A catastrophe novel of immense, epic ideas, relentlessly coming one after the other; A funny novel, with funny characters and an unthinkable optimism in the face of the most unthinkably biggest disasters that could ever occur; and bunch of good little stories within a good big story. Don't spend twelve euros, but read it.
Update: for some reason Google Plus is re-publishing this post every time I make a small change, while Google Blogger is reverting my text to old versions and deleting key paragraphs. Hopefully, this will be the last correction.
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
It has come to my attention that there is such a thing—and I will retroactively apply this to several persons I have come across—as an English geek.
Unlike my experience at university where I encountered math geeks and computer geeks and also engineers (geekness included by definition), nobody in the entire Arts faculty lacked social skills or failed to wear make up, or got really... I don't know... excited about books.
But I wasn't paying attention. It is through authors like Pynchon that I realize that there were undergraduates sitting in those English lectures ... geeking out. Checking dictionnaires. Writing dictionaries. Intertextualizing. Geeking out on how stories work. How... I don't know... the alazon turns out to be the hero in Pride and Prejudice (I'm just making that up). How language changes. How Spenser sounds medieval and funny because he was making fun of funny-sounding medieval writers. Learning to speak Middle-English.
I'm stupid. Now that I think of it, I met them. I guess the English-geekness was just so overshadowed by the profundity of math-geekness that it was difficult for those poor English geeks to sprout. There were obviously linguistics geeks. And secular exegetical geeks. But there were really literary-structure geeks. It's through reading Pynchon that I realized there must be a whole world of people out there looking for this kind of writing that just thrashes around all these theories and models of English literature. And that's why I like reading Pynchon.
But... the awesome thing that I've just realized with Stephenson is that you can be an English geek and a math geek at the same time.
Purity, Jonathan Franzen
Purity belongs to that class of story based entirely on its protagonist learning who his or her parents are. It tells us many awful stories in skilled mind-twisting order, with a high-impact revelation of parenthood. It is rich and fat, and bold.
There is something else though. There is more than dash of insanity in several characters, and their motivations are hard to follow. But the text is so tight that I'm convinced that difficulty is just me not putting in enough effort. It's so tight that I'm willing to forgive it anything.
Die Trying, Lee Child
Okay, we are clearly dealing with exciting, well-told stories, but in every one the bad guy gets shot in the head without knowing who killed him.
These are good revenge stories, but they are missing the watch-the-big-guy-fall pieces that make books like A Man in Full or Le Comte de Monte Cristo so satisfying.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
I really like it, although I can see how it is an odd read.
Even a sometimes unrewarding read. But the guy's neurotic, manic-depressive personality and imagination... It's magnetic. It's just awesome of him to unleash such a quantity of himself, and such an entertaining quantity. Besides, it's a masterpiece. How does he manage to write such an amusing and lighthearted book on such a horrible subject? And then, there's the whole curiosity of a twenty-something suddenly becoming a parent of a 7-year-old. What would you have done? That's fascinating.
He has also invented something. There's this massive introduction/preface/acknowledgements section which he untraditionally uses to analyze and apologize for his book. In this section, all his insecurities come out and then he analyzes them and then tells you he's aware that he's analyzing his awareness of his inability to come to terms with his use of his insecurities to get your attention... it's a vision with so many layers that, like the title, you just never have a point of reference to tell you if this guy deserves pity or is truly a total genius. It's pity, but that's the genius, so he doesn't deserve pity and therefore it's not genius, but he knows that, so we must pity him, and therefore... by induction, it's ... what? which one? what is it?
Despite the logic puzzles, it's quite an easy read. If you're not interested in the young-unexpected-parenting theme, then it will feel dull, but if you are then along with his unique style and whacked out imagination you'll be buoyed right through.
The Hippopatamus, Stephen Fry
Consciously but involuntarily, when I read, I always observe if the author has a tic. If he does, I have trouble reading any further work; if he doesn't, I keep going.
I'll give you an example of one who failed. In Rutherford's London, he uses an interrogative as a particularly romantic qualitative, just way, way too often: "How lovely the bridge's arches," "What fragrance wafted from the fields," "How brazenly bulged his muscles under the tanned skin." It sounds Ok at first, but after 800 pages, I no longer see the text; I see the tic.
It can be anything. A word, or a particularly over-dramatic way of ending each chapter. I hope I always start with the benefit of the doubt, but once I notice it, I can't ... well, the author gets in my face. I can't suspend disbelief. And if you can't do that, why read?
In Fry, I haven't seen it yet, but I am beginning to see a hint of it. It's really hard to pin down, but the tic I am beginning to see is a sort of childishness. I'm not going to try to analyze it.
I'm not going to try to analyze it because I don't want to ruin it for myself. His books are immensely fun, simple ideas developed in astonishingly complex directions, and I would hate the discovery of an irritating habit to destroy everything.
L'amour au temps de choléra, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, tr. Annie Morvan
I was not prepared to suffer another slab of magic realism, much as I liked the first two. And I was impressed at how Marquez didn't need it.
This is good storytelling, and it's a story that needs skill. That he pulls it off without magic realism--and that he manages more than once to even tip over the brink of magic realism before pulling back--proved to me, in the funny sense that these things need to be proven in academic reading, but do not so in casual reading, that this guy is very, very good.
If there were ten other Marquez books waiting for me, and if this one had been the third in a
row that dosed out the same gimmick, I would not have given the rest a thought. Now, I expect how ever many of them are left to be too few.
Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Tom Sawyer or Harry Potter? This book's OK. I like the wry narrator, but I feel that his wit is wasted on the subject of children. Why children? He observes a good deal about adults, but does it bring something to do it through children's eyes? To ponder...
I can see from the confident language and colourful dialogue why this is a classic, but it has some structural weaknesses--chapters that just seem useless and independent of the story, events that lead nowhere--that don't make it very exciting. It's not great; it's curious.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco, tr. Geoffrey Brock
Painful, though not boring because you're always waiting for that final resolution, and you don't realize that Umberto is taking you farther and farther away from it. So not boring, because you always believe he'll reveal the key to it all for you, even as the right-hand ream gets thinner and thinner, and as the larger and larger illustrations leave less and less room for the crucial text. And no- he does not reveal it. He reveals nothing but has just tricked you with his smirky face into plowing through catalogs and catalogs of gratuitous comic book narratives and war-time Italian pop lyrics, encouraging you with good but despairingly sparse stories, encouraging you to come to the end of nothing. Nothing at all, not even what we didn't think was worth caring about. Yet- though nothing- something. Something that returns to the beginning and ties something down; I'm just not sure what it is.
It's not painful; it's... Gently frustrating.
The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg
A good amateur's survey of the history of English, better at the start than its rather mechanical surveys of Australian or West Indies vocabularies towards the end. You learn things: for a little background, Old English for example was an inflected language, like Latin, but commerce between two inhabiting tribes on the island of Britain, separated by a political barrier, brought about prepositions like "on" and "for" to replace inflections which two separate races could not hear clearly. Plenty of fun stories and facts, if over-romanticized. But hey, the romantization is a good form for telling the story of a character that has lived 1500 years.
One more thing: especially to one living in francophonia, The Adventure of English reminds me of which words are "really" English, and the game of finding the "English" equivalents of Latin- or French-derived words like "derive," "barrier" or of course "surrender."
The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison
Very good fantasy. Treats its romantic, imagined universe with surprising confidence, unapologetic for its amusing inconsistencies: a setting on a world named "Mercury" lacking the most elementary foundation in the physics of the planet Mercury; a hero race named "Demons" that start the book sporting horns, a feature which receives no mention during later physionomic detailing; and a host of other geologic and temporal inventions that have no ambition for basis in any reality.
I've heard it called "high fantasy:" perhaps the "high" refers to the state in which one's mind must be to accept the textual constructions, but I don't feel it is fantasy at all: just a sort of outpouring of images from fun nights on Hallowe'en, romance novels and war films that finds itself in the same binding.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
1st of all: Very good book. Immersive, at times tense, then thoughtful. Concentrated.
A concentrated work, concentrated ideas, squashed together tightly, in a tight box. A prison. This Dostoevsky hates the city; it stinks so much. People live unimaginably abominably. Watching them squirm in the hot, dusty ruts is irritating and attractive. The civilized reduced to animals by the heated dirt and bricks.
Gratuitous philosophy. This one thought that; that one thought this, thought and theorized and analyzed his theories and then analyzed his own analyzing, all this in cynical disgust, all going nowhere. One would think the world can only be ended if such text is possible in it.
The entrance is easy; feels like we are the hero. How he gets where he is is minutely studied, observed, hypothesized and understood, such that we can be him, do his deeds even the most sinful. And thus we can follow him even when he goes mad: this is admirable, this concentration from the author, that he can take us so far from our own lives in a vehicle that we feel we can ride.
The Descent of Alette, Alice Notley
I don't usually like poems, but this reads like a story. I like it.
There is also a neat style worth mentioning. Notley uses quotation marks to separate poetic feet, meaning that every few words you get an enclosure in quotation marks, and there are no words free of these marks. So you get a barrage of quotation marks. And indeed, each break between quote-wrapped feet does make you pause, creating a rhythm that the author says is "intended."
Good for her. I'd add that there's an effect of quotation marks that she doesn't mention... that of creating a sense of irony. It's what attracted me first to the book, and what kept me reading.
The Skystone, Jack Whyte
Great idea, and well-delivered on the whole, if some details in execution are a little irritating.
Best thing about this book is how it makes you go, "Hey, so what else can I learn about how the Romans got booted out of England?"
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
Mind-numbing catalogs of whale types and sailing activities, descriptions of whale anatomy in overly-romantic terms. There is only a single meeting of the hero and the monster, and that is at the end; makes you miss the old "two unsuccessful encounters before final triumph" story. The actual story is stark.
Yet: this starkness is a testament to overwhelming narrative willpower, and that is impressive. Plus there are so many crazy little bits that I can't help liking it. Watch:
Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Le Comte de Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
Plotted in two dimensions, hero's power over time, many good books start high, say seven, drop quickly to one and remain there until near the end, when they rise to ten. That return feels amazing.
Monte Cristo is simpler: starting at ordinary five, we glimpse six then drop to one and stay there only a short time before heaving up massively to ten and remaining there for the last three quarters of the story. That long stay at ten feels mind-blowing.
What I like is how it's tempered. Unlike Frye's The Stars' Tennis Balls, a nominal God drives and justifies revenge, and the milieu validates it. Consequently, the punishment is not dementia. More simply, it's fun to watch the star Monte Cristo build up all the little pieces that will eventually act in concert to cause his enemies' overthrow, in many cases the enemy forced to hammer in the final nail himself.
Le Retrait, Frédéric Moitel
When it starts, it feels anchored in something, as if the words were a continuation of what you were living, even though you've never heard those words before. There's that precision to it all the way through, which is guiding although it takes you through alien thoughts, alien houses and alien sex.
That precision gives the book a stunning beauty, in its form and in its narrative. It is depressing, yes, often maddening, but it is something you can look at for a long time.
The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker
This took me a really long time to read (see below), because it often gets into this subtlety thing that I just didn't feel like unraveling.
What I did unravel is that some of us have been taught to feel guilty for Western society's achievements, and that perhaps even more of us has gotten used to thinking that reason is the only human faculty worth mentioning. It is therefore stimulating to think that what defines a human being is not just reason, but other faculties and idiosyncrasies that exploration of which may lead to more targeted invention, or more striking art.
Let's not forget that Pinker's a pretty funny guy, and writes very approachably. But he takes on problems of large magnitude: what happens when individual instinct goes up against a carefully constructed community convention? The Language Instinct was more fun than this, and in Blank Slate, it's surprising how much subtle argument goes into a conclusion that Pinker himself admits is self-evident. The book is an academic navigation, a very careful one, and appreciable for the quality of its thought and writing, not for its pull.
Hide and Seek, Ian Rankin
Very nice: captivating but a tad repulsive, so discourages all-nighters.
You know how detective novels are all about some macho guy into whose lap multitudes of chicks and the solution to the mystery helplessly swoon? In this one, the main character is not assigned to the case, is mean to subordinates, bad at lovemaking and although he figures out the case is unable to make the arrest. The broken cliches are nice.
Unnatural Causes, P.D. James
Good read. End is a bit artificial.
You know how detective novels are all about some macho guy into whose lap multitudes of chicks and the solution to the mystery helplessly swoon? In this one, the main character is not assigned to the case, and all but the ugly girls flee him, but he still solves the mystery without effort. The partly-broken cliches are nice.
Le Royaume de la paix, Frédéric Moitel
This was hard to read, since it was rather intensely intellectual, deeply probing of human participation in urban society, exhaustive, cataloguing and of course archetypal. It gives little for the reader to hang on to. Intentionally.
But there are good bits. I like the repetition. I like how he says things like il a le temps ou non d’observer les boutiques qui se succèdent et s’illuminent or il y a la personnalité qui développe ou non des affinités or my favourite: Les fantasmes et les souhaits de rencontres furtives pendant les vacances au soleil ou non apparaissent et occupent durablement les cerveaux ébranlés des hommes et des femmes célibataires ou non, homosexuels ou hétérosexuels, à plusieurs dans une chambre où ils transpirent en jouissant ou pas.
This is really, really hard to read. And I don't feel I did it any justice given the little effort I put in. But it's very, very tight, it's lyrical, it's possessed, it's right.
Harry Potter et les reliques de la mort, Jean-Francois Ménard
Two things distinguished this one from the other potter books: no school year structured the narrative, which suffered, and the story actually ended. I found the part just before the end, the penultimate part, very tense. But the ending was a fight, and Rowling simply can't do fights, and it was, as always, a letdown.
Nice to have things wrapped up for these slightly-more-than-usually-touching characters, but the narrative is not memorable.
Next, Michael Crichton
Interesting to read this while reading Pinker's Blank Slate: many of the arguments are similar. An attempt to find a center between the absolutely against and absolutely liberal on genetic manipulation.
The stories are what I suppose is classic Crichton: hard to put down.
Inside the Tornado, Geoffrey Moore
I liked the part where he says that this book is not really inventing any new marketing principles, but it is presenting them in a way that high-tech entrepreneurs--typically engineers--can understand them. That's how it feels. It feels like vague, hand-wavy marketing practices are being converted into equations.
I also like when he tells stories about real companies. One could compose an entertaining book just by compiling analyses, in hindsight, of all the failures and succcesses over the last decade of the high-tech industry. I wish Moore had done more of this; but his objective is pedagogy, not entertainment.
Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, Geoffrey A. Moore
This is the first time I've read a business book, and it went well.
Geoffrey is satisfactory with anecdotes, decent with humour. Most parts of this book are a good read in the way the front page of the economy section is a good read. If there is any discomfort in the style, it is the huge number of typos and linguistic errors in my copy. While I don't find typos and errors significantly distracting, their density in this book at least somewhat checks its humour. I suppose it's like the phenomenon of someone stumbling over a joke.
As for its theses, it's certainly opened my eyes to business in general. Techie that I am, I am grateful to have spent just the short time it takes to read this book, for the number of puzzling marketing and behavioural questions on which it sheds light.
Liasons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos
The other book I know that is written in correspondence, La Nouvelle Heloïse, sometimes gets awkward. There's this one scene in LNH where the hero is writing, in a letter, that someone is opening the door to his hiding place in his lover's bedroom, and so he has to end the letter, and escape. One feels that if the author wanted to narrate such moments of suspense, then he should not have chosen letters as his medium.
LD, on the contrary, is always believable. That is, the action is such that the authors of the letters always have an obvious motivation to write letters. Through this, and other aspects, the book solidly reassured me of its structure.
Other than that, the story is engaging, often exciting, and it is a good read upon which to pass several multi-hour sessions.
Ocalone w Tłumaczeniu, Stanisław Barańczak
The title, in my translation, is Completed in Translation.
I have lots to say about this, but only time to write some bullet points.
Robert Frost poem: striking translation.
If I had to pick an example to post here, it would be the e. e. cummings.
Not only are the translations good, but it makes poetry interesting.
A Son of the Circus, John Irving
I was disappointed that this was not a murder mystery. It starts out like one, but then, way before the end, Irving reveals the whole secret. From then on you're just watching the inevitable tying up of all the various narratives.
Too bad. I had once started this book, but I had stopped before the part where you realise it's not a murder mystery. Thus I actually read that beginning part twice. I had really been hoping tha Irving would put his considerable powers towards the very crafty plot needed to obscure and then reveal an assassin. He did not; it's just another Irving.
Harry Potter et le Prince de sang-mêlé, J.K. Rowling, tr. Jean-François Ménard.
Yet another book that is strangely addictive despite not being that good. In trying to resolve this puzzle, I've got a lot to say about it.
There were many technical things that this book made me consider. Rowling is definitely avoiding many existing formulas for this kind of narrative, and she's doing it admirably. For example, Harry is not a great sorcerer, nor really great at anything supernatural except flying on a broom. He's just courageous, really. In a book set in a supernatural world, we could forgive Rowling for making the hero supernaturally powerful. But he's average and just tries hard. So, Rowling is taking a harder road. Throughout this, her complex structure stays intact.
This structure is another thing. I'm satisfied that every piece that Rowling introduced throughout the series has fallen into place. Harry's ability to speak to snakes was introduced very early, but it has found a consistent explanation; some other details about Sirius that I've now forgotten were also tightly integrated; and generally Rowling resolves all details that she raises, no matter how long ago in the series. This is impressive considering the number of years she's been writing the series. And reading a book that does this well is rewarding, in the way laughing at a sitcom is rewarding.
What disappoints me about this sixth book is how few details are left to resolve. I'm worried that the last book will be nothing but a long, tedious battle between hero and villain, and Rowling sucks hard at battles. I don't know what's wrong with her, but it's like whenever she narrates action, she tries to describe every little detail separately. She never takes advantage of the spontaneity or the poetry of action. She's strong when she sticks to her mathematical unknotting of the structure she's set up, and that's what I'm afraid will be lacking in the seventh novel.
What's left to resolve? Why do I want to read the last book? It's not to learn if Harry wins; he will win, by definition. I suppose I'd like to find out anything else about Voldemort, like where his evil really comes from. And I'd like to know what side Rogue (Snape, in English) is really on, and by extension what Dumbledore's plan has been all this time.
This is the only way the last book can be interesting: if it's all a long, slow revelation of Dumbledore's somehow eternal and all-encompassing plan. If it resorts to cheap lightning bolts shot from magic wands, I'm going to feel like all these previous weeks invested in reading this series have been wasted.
The Cider House Rules, John Irving
What surprised me was how easy John is on us. Several times, just as the jaws of narrative are about to clamp down hard on our favourite characters, he rescues us from tragedy. I continually felt that I was on the verge of disaster, when he would circumvent it by such devices as the villain announcing that she was no longer interested in revenge, or by a key confession arriving early, while we expect it to remain as a point of tension until the end of the story.
But, I'm just thinking: it reminds me of Dickens' style, the works of whom feature so prominently in this book. John must have intentionally planned these plot rescues, these "happy twists" that simply end a sub-narrative before it has a chance to get ahead of him. Remarkably, these moments, which should upset the rhythm, never deprive the story of an ounce of its powerful engagement.
I'm not saying that I felt "happy twists" in Dickens, though; rather, Dickens' abrupt halts to sub-narratives feel like unfulfilled forays. John does it WAY better. I wonder if all this, mentioning Dickens so much, then doing better, then mentioning Dickens again, is intentional?
L'oeuvre au noir, Marguerite Yourcenar
A bitch to get into, and a pain throughout, unread it would have left me in shame.
Its redeeming quality is Yourcenar's apparent superpower. I cannot imagine how or why a being would take on such projects. It's because I admire this book that I enjoy it. It has an insistently bleak aesthetic, and its structure, as far as I can tell, is at best elusive. How can anyone consistently write this? Yet she writes perfectly.
Those are my thoughts on the form. My thoughts on the theme are as follows: one of the things that I find alternatively annoying and reassuring about Yourcenar is that she takes on some of the worst human fears, and poetically renders them natural and befitting our cycles of existence. Any horror you can think of, on a scale from personal to worldwide, Yourcenar can balance against other human traits until she convinces you that it is nothing but a barely existing neutrality. Her resigned way of writing about carnal pleasure in the same vein as about genocide is simple comforting.
My thoughts on the content? I don't think much of it. I don't get the feeling that the story is the most important part of this narrative.
Complete works, vol.1, Harold Pinter
Each violent, familiar story is a metamorphosis. Subtle, but grating when read in sequence. Makes me curious about Ovid.
This volume includes The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, A Night Out, and stories "The Black and White, and "The Examination".
I am certain that The Dumb Waiter, which I have read before, is the basis for most of Tarantino's films, especially Reservoir Dogs.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
Very easy to read, very rewarding, very enlightening.
I really can't fit Bryson's argument into any popular topics that abound today. He seems to go beyond many of them, though never arrogantly; just out of pure curiosity. And because of this curiosity, he manages to ask a much more pertinent question of humanity than any media, government or international organisation is currently screaming about.
I'm also impressed at the amount of work Bryson did to write this, all the more impressive in that he doesn't come across as hard-working.
Age of Reason, Thomas Payne
For a work titled "Age of Reason", I was somewhat disappointed at how much spleen it showed. Payne's tone made me expect one of those rock-solid philosophical treatises that edifies an impenetrable structure out of pure logic. I'm not sure if I can remember the books I am talking about, but they turn up every once in a while in philosophy, or math, or in a newspaper column, and we all recognise them by their comforting foundation and incontrovertible attention to detail. While Payne starts out this way, he does not follow up, and it's too bad, because his topic merits the care.
I will give one example of a disappointing premise. Near the end of the work, Payne declares that "[The religion of Deism] must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes." By Deism, Payne means the belief in a single god, whose only manifestation to human beings is the world in which we live: no scripture, no apparitions, no communion, or so on. It certainly sounds reasonable to state that this type of religion "must have been the first" that man believed, but the point is very debatable. Personally, I doubt it, and I doubt it because of the excellent and precise survey of religions published by James Fraser in The Golden Bough, which establishes that all humans throughout evolution have tended to supernatural beliefs before settling on the natural. Besides which, Fraser found that humans more naturally believed in a multiplicity of anthropomorphic gods than in a single superhuman entity. Isn't it easier to think that "people like us" are causing thunderstorms than in thinking that simple physical principles guide the particles that produce all phenomena we experience?
Whatever the truth, I find Payne's failure to treat certain such obvious questions as a weakness considering the argument he put forth.
Nevertheless, there is a good deal of the edifying in here. For example, and for this I am truly grateful, this is the first time I have ever seen anyone clearly question and examine what the Bible really is. Never before have I heard anyone trace the claims about the Bible to their logical sources. Payne defines the boundary we have if we want to consider the Bible logically. Besides which, he is the first I've ever read to show that "revelation", that is, the communication of god to man, is entirely unremarkable, because as soon as it is written down, or spoken out loud, it becomes hearsay.
Needless to say, the argument bodes poorly for the Bible. I am very curious how the churches have responded to these observations.
So in the end, I like this text for the very basic, fundamental questions it poses, questions so fundamental that I'm ashamed not to have thought of them. I also like the fun literary exercise that it goes through of undermining the Bible's authority by using only the Bible text. On that note, I think my recommendation is pretty obvious: don't read, unless you're into secular Bible theory.
Interpretation of Dreams, Freud, tr. James Strachey
This is good. I read it very slowly over a year, and I started to pay more attention to my dreams because of it.
As a scientific work, it's pretty rigorous. Although there are numerous parts where I felt that Freud was not addressing some obvious objections, most of his theory is a hundred times more solid than people seem to give him credit for. I get the feeling that people generally expect Freud's dream theory to explain up front the content of any possible dream. But it's not that: instead, he meticulously examines what the limits of our knowledge of dream, given of course that we can never record them nor ever really be sure what anyone actually dreamt. He establishes the limits of what we can know, and then without trespassing these limits he argues his hypothesis.
While it remains a theory, and one that demonstrates a few faults, it's still the only theory I've ever heard about dreams that reaches this level of completeness. So, until I find a better theory, this one has a lot of potential.
Is this a good read? The first chapter is super boring. Then, it gets much, much better. I would almost recommend skipping section one, or just skimming through it, or maybe reading it last if you feel interested.
The Endurance, Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Caroline Alexander
Although it is somewhat immoral to read a book the title of which is subtly intended to inspire my wife to stay extra unpaid hours at work, I enjoyed this.
It traces the voyage of the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, in his failure to complete his most famous expedition, and the miraculous endurance that he and his crew had to suffer as a result of that failure. The conditions of navigation and trekking in the antarctic are spectacular, and while the word "chilling" is appropriate literally, here it is its figurative sense that is the more haunting.
The book has two main parts: in the first, the narrative of life on the ice is slow, and the categoric descriptions of all the men involved often ponderous, but it is rescued by the mountains of stunning photographs of Frank Hurley, taken with the professional aim of paying for the expedition; in the second part, with camera equipment no longer available, the story itself, which describes why the camera equipment is no longer available, is incredible. Which, in sum, means that this is a good book.
The Endurance was a year-end gift to all employees in my wife's company, and I am seriously convinced that its point was to alleviate the guilt of the management for keeping everyone late hours at work.
Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz, tr. Jeremiah Curtin
First of all, I didn't want to start this book at all. It looked boring.
My first impression reminded me of War and Peace. It begins with a discussion that all of a sudden, with one sentence, launches an epic story. But as the first few chapters unfolded, I saw that the epicness was not quite as big as Tolstoy's.
And then, the appearance of pious Christian characters professing their faith bade even more boringness.
But later on, I realised there was a great deal of audacity in setting a historical novel in the midst of a history that is covered by the Bible. Unlike a "life of Jesus" book, or movie, Quo Vadis is an imagination of what the characters surrounding Jesus were doing, and especially what they did after he died. So it must stick to facts that are covered by the Bible, but it must fill in the parts that are not covered. I think that's an admirable risk for a writer. I suppose an historical novelist always takes this risk--the fact that he or she must meet "checkpoints" that are verifiable in textbooks--but with all the cultural weight that the Bible carries, basing a history on it is just that little bit harder.
Finally, I appreciated that, although Christianity is unoriginally presented as triumphant in the end, the book allows very blunt debate between Christians and atheists. The principal atheist who converts to Christianity for example, backslides several times, even forgetting himself and killing a bunch of random people just to save a favourite. Doubts about the priopriety and potential of Christianity are carried through until the very end.
And finally, the story turns out very rich, the details original, and the read attractive.
Neuromancer, William Gibson
While I read it, I was hyped as hell. Now I'm depressed like a betaphenethylamine comedown. And I think it's because of Molly. I think she was in love with Case, but couldn't admit it. I've got quotes to prove it.
So it's funny: the first two times I read it, I was spatially disoriented; I didn't know what was going on. Honestly--some passages I read this time recalled images in my memory from the previous reading, and the old images were completely wrong. I had this one picture of Case watching the ninja from the top of a narrow tunnel, maybe over a TV screen, when really they were both standing beside a pool. I think it's fascinating how Gibson whips you around in space; how if you're not careful you can have no idea where the characters are standing.
But I don't want to analyse; I want to transmit. It's a hyped book, ruthless, sensitive, like Molly. And I like Molly, and she's gone, and that's tragic.
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
After being forced through Handmaid's Tale in highschool, I vowed: "No more Atwood."
But this was good. The greatest improvement over Handmaid is the lack of preaching. It's funny (as in humour), a fast read, conscious of the present, imaginative of the future.
The best though, was its ambiguity. Ie., what happened? Who loved whom? What happens after it ends? Who did what, exactly? Structurally, I have the impression that this book leaves multiple possibilities open at numerous points of the narrative. I feel like I could pick a spot in the middle and read a whole different book depending on how I interpreted the text.
In literature courses, we actively search for these points, and put great effort into uncovering ambiguity and non-intuitive possibilities, but the unique feature of Oryx and Crake is that these possibilities are unavoidable.
And yet... we never feel let down that the author is hiding something. No, rather, she seems to intentionally "paint herself into corners" where she is obviously no longer able to explain what is going on, and therefore we must do so.
So where Handmaid was patronising, this rough vision is pleasantly Socratic.
Pélagie-la-Charette, Antonine Maillet
This is my second reading, this time in French to see what the big deal was. They do use a lot of funny expressions and grammar like "J'allons au noroît" ("Nous allons au nord-ouest.").
It made me want to cry again, so epic it gets at some points. Twice, I think, there's things that are very touching, because you realise they're true and they're enormous.
It also made me think how my education confounded the Acadians with the Quebecois; how all I was told came from maybe a single page of a textbook.
Oh, and it also struck me structurally: especially when the author's own ancestor appears in one of the characters' tales. I can't stop thinking of the people as characters, but on a parallel plane they were real people. I still can't get my head around it: usually books either talk about historical figures, or about fictional characters, and the situation is clear. Here, no; they're both.
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
I suppose I would sound smarter if I hadn't read Pico Ayer's afterword before writing down my thoughts, but what he says is spot on: this book is timeless.
I was sitting there trying to figure out what the story was, and I realised that the story is simply that of a bad government, or even more generally: destiny. The people whom the bad forces harm as they go along don't really suffer any discernible narrative progress. Other than learning how to live with calamity.
That, of course, makes it sound much more depressing than it really is; its fine balance comes from how much happiness the book is able to bring you amidst a sorrow that seems insurmountable.
It's just brilliant. The writing feels as natural as if the author was just making light, regular breaths, and they were floating down and lying on the page as sentences. And yet, this effortless, instinctive activity results in a remarkably structured and profound text. But then, hey, breathing is profound.
One flaw, I felt, was the Anna-Karenina-ending. That single instant wasn't as richly motivated for me as the rest of the events in the novel. It serves to highlight, though, that all the events, all the decisions and reactions of the characters, are explored through a crystalline myriad--tragic, comic, everything--of facets. It really does make you feel like you are living these people's lives.
Harry Potter et l'ordre du phénix, J.K. Rowling, tr. Jean-François Ménard.
This is the first Harry Potter book that did not give me the "Tetris-effect". Although the story is still fairly captivating, something is missing, something which made me unable to get rid of any of the first four books from my mind. I do not know what this missing element is; my going hypothesis is that as the kids have aged, I no longer feel any protective parental instinct towards them?
Based on that theory, the attraction of the previous books was that they engaged my protective parental instincts. I wonder if anyone else has felt this.
Again, a decent read, though fairly disappointing action scenes, where one feels that the resolutions of certain tensions are cheap. I think I can now wait patiently until the series is finished before I continue to the next one.
Watermark, MA Creative Writing Bath Spa University College 2004, Pridy, R., ed.
This is a collection of short stories and excerpts from the Bath Spa MA in creative writing, which my buddy Dan did.
There is some really good stuff in here. Some of it is just brilliant. Some of it is crap. My attention was drawn to one of the critics' comments printed on the cover: "there is no house style, no School of Newton Park", referring to the fact that everyone writes in their individual style. This is an interesting thing to look for in a collection from a creative writing programme: I generally agree with the guy. There is a story that's insanely funny; another one ominously troubling, and a few other interesting pieces in between.
Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry, Isabel Rivers
Although this is a textbook and, as such, not necessarily the most attractive casual reading, once into it I found that it gave me the most incredible ideas. For creative writing, I mean. I'm talking about ideas that are hardly possible to bring about. They all had to do with writing on four- or five-fold exegeticable structures, or exploring the relationship between classical and modern religion.
This is an interesting book because of its surveying quality of thought in both classical and medieval times. As such, it opens up vast complexes of ideas.
Harry Potter et La Coupe de Feu, J.K. Rowling, tr. Jean-François Ménard
As addictive as ever. The "darker" edge of this one made me more uneasy when I finished it. But my main reaction is how goddam invasive these books are. It's not even impossible to put down; it's impossible not to keep thinking about it even after you have put it down. I don't know what it is... it's not like it's even the best story I've ever heard; it's pretty mediocre that way. What could it be that gets Harry so inside my head, dammit! (Note the lack of question mark.)
An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
Historically-set murder mystery. Mystical ending. A rare structure: four manuscripts tell the same story, in sequence, from four different angles. Only the last writer has access to all the other manuscripts. And thus the exciting and unexpected truth is hidden from us until the very end.
The trouble is that it takes a great deal of pain to read through the first three manuscripts. It's as if the author's heart wasn't really in them, but he knew he had to write them to fulfill form. A gruelling read; somewhat rewarding at the end. Some of the historical details (English renaissance) are interesting.