Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Swords from the North by Henry Treece

So I must confess at first I wasn't going to write up this book. The reason I read it in the first place is that I was at a used book store, couldn't decide what to get, and spun around in a circle with my arm out. I stopped on Swords from the North and it was only two bucks, so I figured why not. I read it mostly on the metro and it was an interesting enough story for the first half, but kinda started to trail off toward the end. But the last five pages were so hilarious that I figured I had to share with y'all. I'm going to assume no one is actually going to read this book, so I'm going to go ahead and give away the ending. You've been warned.

Swords from the North chronicles the adventures of Harald and his gang of Norwegian mercenaries working for various emperors and empresses in Constantinople. In the first half of the book Harald is strong, just, witty and clever. He makes an agreement with the emperor and he and his band of slightly less strong, just, witty and clever northerners join the security forces. Eventually they ship out on some mission that I'm too lazy to look up and eventually Harald pisses off the general of the forces (who is stupid and petty) so much that one of them peaces out. I think it was Harald because objected to some stupid and petty thing that the other general was doing. Eventually Harald gets back to Constantinople and learns that the other general has been talking mad shit about Harald and run off to Italy, so Harald goes off to destroy him. It's about this time that Harald starts to slip and isn't quite as badass as he used to be, eventually becoming a total prick (until the ghost of his saintly brother comes and reads him the riot act). Then he goes back to being better, but still not as cool as his old self. Eventually we learn that the other general's forces have been destroyed and he's wandered off in exile somewhere, so Harald never gets his revenge. After awhile Harald and his merry men go back to Constantinople, where the empress arrests him and orders him and his top lieutenants maimed for all the atrocities they committed during the Harald-is-a-prick phase. The night before they're about to be tortured, they are rescued and peace the hell out, setting sail to go back north.

So throughout the book there was a secondary plot line with Harald and this Greek princess, Maria something or other. He met her at the beginning when she was little and was the only person to ever be kind to her. She pined for him while he was away and was mistreated by her elders, eventually being traded as a wife to some caliph in Egypt. Well, when she's en route she runs into Harald (in his post-prick phase) and he rescues her. She's the one who has him rescued right before his torment and he brings her with him when he and his gang go north. So that's the first 195 or so pages of this 200 page book. During the last five pages, Harald is mourning because some of his men were killed in the escape and Maria comes to him and tells him that he has to be strong if he's going to be a king, and that when she's his queen she'll help him become a better king. It's at this point that Harald says, (and I paraphrase) "Ummmm, I'm betrothed to some other Norwegian chick. Yeah, we're going to get married as soon as I get back. I told you this when we first met." She freaks out and he lets her off at the next port with enough gold and treasure to get her back to Constantinople. The end.

I started laughing out loud. They set up this romance, at least in the background, for the whole book, then in the last pages when they're about to ride off in the sunset the author's like PSYCH! It was great. I was amused.

And with that I'm done with the trashy stuff for awhile. Back to some serious books.

(also, I couldn't find a picture of the book cover, so I went with this badass viking instead).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Tempest Tales by Walter Mosley

And so began the story of Tempest Landry, three years after his death in Harlem, USA.

When Tempest Landry finds himself in front of St. Peter, he provides a justification for each of the sins he is charged with, he argues his case, and eventually refuses to go to Hell. No one had ever done this before, but if they had, they would have found out that the free will that man has on Earth follows him into the afterlife. St. Peter cannot force Tempest to go to Hell; Tempest must be convinced of his wrongdoings and accept his punishment. Heaven has no choice but to send Tempest back to Earth, albeit in the body of a recently damned soul. However, Tempest is not given more time on Earth to rebuild his life, but to accept his sins and their dire consequences. To that end, Heaven sends an accounting angel down to Earth as well. His job is to work on Tempest and persuade him to accept the divine judgment of St. Peter. Joshua Angel takes his task seriously, but he has never been to Earth in human form before. There are so many things to distract him, so many things for him to experience. It isn't long before Angel and Tempest both realize that there is much more riding on Tempest fate than either of them thought.

Paralleling Langston Hughes "Simple" stories, Mosley's characters reflect a complex African American identity. Angel mirrors the middle class African American, while Tempest gives voice to the common Harlemite. The story is fascinating and incredibly original. The characters and story have a depth to them that few authors are able to achieve. As the book comes to a close, it is clear that the tales of Tempest are not finished. As he did with Easy Rawlins and Socrates Fortlow, I hope that Mosely writes a number of books centering on Tempest and Angel.

Highly recommended.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Don't Hassel the Hoff by David Hasselhoff

The sex thing was still bothering me. In church, I became aroused every time I kneeled down prior to taking communion. - Hasselhoff on puberty

'Well, Wiener, it's you and me against the world.' - Hasselhoff on being newly divorced

Maybe Looking for Freedom did have some influence on the Wall coming down. - Hasselhoff on personally ending the Cold War

As you can tell, Don't Hassel the Hoff was rife with unintentional comedy. Hasselhoff has quite the high opinion of himself, to be sure, though how can you blame him when people yell, "Thank you for existing!" at him and when he restores peoples' faith in God on a regular basis (ok, just once or twice, but still). There are a number of anecdotes about how his presence made ridiculous impacts in people's lives. While I agree with Jim that this reflects poorly on the people who made the ridiculous statements (like the girl who promised not to kill herself just because she saw him in an elevator), I also think the fact that he includes them as stories about how cool he is demonstrates pretty clearly how big an ego he has. But then again, I've never had a 22-some with Tom Jones and 20 dancers, so what do I know?

Another amusing part of this book was that every once in awhile Hasselhoff would use the British spelling of a word, despite the fact that he grew up in Baltimore. Like "faeces" and "programme." Who spells it "faeces"? Seriously. I don't know how drunk the ghostwriter/editor must have been when they went over this book for a final time, because there are definitely a few errors and incorrectly used words. For example, when Hasselhoff was in South Africa one time a bunch of kids mobbed him and gave him stuffed giraffes, one of whom was Charlize Theron (spelled Charleze in the book). I didn't mind, though; it just added to the charm/hilariousness of the book.

Another thing, Hasselhoff loves to name drop. Doesn't matter how pointless it is to the story he's telling, if he can shoehorn in a celebrity recognizing/talking to/praising him, he'll do it.

I will say this about Hasselhoff, though: (according to him) he does a lot of great work with charity, especially those that help sick children.

A few more things: I have no idea how Baywatch stayed on the air for as long as it did (thirteen seasons!); shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, Hasselhoff did a concert in Germany in which he drove a car (named Freedom) through a styrofoam wall on stage. He also was pissed that there was no mention of his performance (linked above; how bout that light up jacket?) of Looking for Freedom at a museum dedicated to the fall of the Wall (he acknowledges that people gave him a lot of shit for saying that, but never denies feeling it); Hasselhoff spent a couple of years during high school in the Atlanta area and attended Marist (my school's biggest rival. bitches); David is also really pissed that his singing career never took off in America. It clearly continues to bug him.

That's about all. If you're ever looking for a light, funny read, I guess maybe read this book. It's at least entertaining.

Push by Sapphire

I always did like school, jus' seem school never did like me.

Push is the story of an African American teenager growing up in Harlem in the 1980s. "Growing up" may give you the wrong impression, because Claireece Precious Jones' adolescence bears almost no resemblance to what most people experience.

After being kicked out of school because she got pregnant, Precious finds herself in an alternative school, with a teacher who genuinely cares about her. Precious begins to take pride in herself, and her life begins to change. That's not to say that things get easy, but they do get better.

This brutal, unflinching story is told from the perspective of the main character. Sapphire does a excellent job of capturing the spirit of this girl who has been uncared for and abused most of her young life. I thought the way she chose to end the book was a little odd, but overall I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream by Peter H. Wood

I met Peter H. Wood a few years ago, during the planning stages of America I AM. He was part of two of the scholarly panels that we convened to flesh out new ideas for the exhibit. While we were in New York, we would get breakfast early before each day's meeting began. He was very friendly and easy going. On the last day we were there, he gave me two of his books: Strange New Land and Weathering the Storm.

Peter H. Wood is not a formally-trained art historian, but his long term interests in race relations and in American painting led him to collaborate with art historian Karen Dalton in 1988 on an exhibition and a related book, Winslow Homer's Images of Blacks. Continuing this line of research and writing, Wood wrote an exploratory paper about Winslow Homer's watercolor The Gulf Stream. This was the basis for his book Weathering the Storm. Wood contends that "Winslow Homer's works generally, and The Gulf Stream specifically, take on richer and deeper meaning when viewed through the prism of history."

The book is divided into three equal parts. Wood begins with an analysis of the reviews and critiques of The Gulf Stream, detailing how they changed from 1899 until it was purchased years later by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also provides some background on the painter. Next, Wood provides some context--geographical, personal, political, and social--for the time that Homer completed The Gulf Stream. Wood finishes his analysis of this painting with a long look back toward slavery. Much of his career as a historian has been devoted to slavery and issues of race. As a result, this third section is excellent.

Drawing from the life of Winslow Homer, the time in which he lived, and the history that informed that time; Wood creates a new and compelling interpretation of Winslow Homer's most recognizable painting. He invites you to stop and linger in front of The Gulf Stream.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world of the not-too-distant future. There are two main characters in this book: an adult male and his young son. We never get their names. McCarthy refers to them as "the man" or "he" and "the boy." This lends a cold, sterile feel to the novel. We follow the two characters as they make their way down the road, heading roughly South and toward the coast. They have no real destination in mind, but they keep moving. Life is beyond bleak and the only way the two survive the day-to-day hardships is by relying on each other.

I liked this book, but I don't see what all the fuss is about.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

...The spirit burns for Pamela with a white-hot flame. The energy she draws from it is palpable; one can almost feel the heat emanating from her skin. "I tell you," Pamela says, pressing her hands to her chest, beaming, "when you feel that spirit--the real spirit--there's nothing like it. You're full of fire inside."

And that fire is being spread very effectively to the next generation of fundamentalists. Pamela's daughter Emmylou, who is on the cusp of adolescence, lays out plans for a house she has designed across the dining room table. "I did it on the internet, according to the Principle," she declares shyly, and then points out the home's numerous special features.

..."It's eighty-five feet long by seventy-five feet wide, all on one floor. This center part here will be open, like a courtyard. Over on this side is where the children's rooms are--one for the girls, one for the boys. Plus, there is a nursery for the young ones. The father's room, the master bedroom, is over here. And these are the mother's rooms, one wife here and the other wife there. And the neat thing is, there's a space to add another room here for a third wife."

As she describes the many unique elements she has designed, her enthusiasm builds. By the end of the virtual tour her eyes are gleaming. This is her dream home, customized for what she imagines to be the perfect life--the life she hopes to live when she grows up."

Sorry for the long passage, but this came near the end of the book and gave me goosebumps.

Also, this book really got me thinking about religion so forgive me if this gets a little overly philosophical. I'll start by saying I was raised Catholic, left the church after all those priests got caught diddling little kids (and one of our parish's own priests caught looking at child pornography), and now consider myself a non-religious person who believes in something bigger than gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. That's about as specific as I'm able to get.

I started writing a book review here and then the first paragraph turned into a really personal exploration into my concept of what religion is (or has become). I decided not to post that because I don't know that this is an appropriate forum for that sort of thing. I'll just post the one question that triggered my 1000+ word digression: What does it say about religion, religious texts, and ecclesiastical authority that modern religion has moved away from certain rules and laws found within religious texts (that are still considered to be word-of-God by followers) because their practice is now considered archaic (ie. polygamy, pretty much everything in the book of Leviticus, etc.)? To me, this question was an underlying theme of Under the Banner of Heaven that isn't directly addressed but constantly lurking just below the surface. So I'll leave off the philosophy at that and talk a little about the book itself.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a look at Mormonism and Mormon Fundamentalism (mostly the latter) in America over the backdrop of a murder committed by two Fundamentalists in the 1980s who claimed God commanded them to murder a young woman and her infant daughter. Krakauer analyzes the history of the "violent faith" of Mormonism in America. I really have no idea how fair Krakauer's treatment of Mormon Fundamentalism was but the picture he paints is a bleak one indeed. We hear stories of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and incest. Perhaps most frightening is the role that these crimes seem to have a played in the foundation and growth of America's religion.

I really enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven. I didn't really learn anything new and shocking as I learned a lot about Mormon Fundamentalism's shady underbelly during the whole Elizabeth Smart saga (which is addressed in the book). However, Krakauer's writing is clear and consumable and if you're at all a cerebral person it will make you ponder whatever faith you have.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

It would not matter a single straw if a Brontë story were a hundred times more moonstruck and improbably than Jane Eyre. . . . It would not matter if George Reed stood on his head, and Mrs. Reed rode on a dragon, if Fairfax Rochester had four eyes and St. John Rivers three legs, the story would still remain the truest story in the world...
- G. K. Chesterton

As the above statement from Chesterton implies, Jane Eyre was sensationalized, a little over-the-top, and at some points simply unbelievable. But as Chesterton goes on to explain, Jane Eyre is true to emotion. At the heart of the story is the unquenchable desire to be loved.

The book can be view as parts: the first being Jane's formative years, the second being her adult life. The book opens with Jane as a 10-year-old orphan, living with Mrs. Reed, who treats her horribly. The Reed children are no better. Jane is sent off to a school, where life is not that much better. Young Jane's spunky demeanor makes for some funny exchanges with the adults in her life. One of my favorites was when she was being interviewed by Mr. Brocklehurst as a possible candidate for the school of Lowood.
"Do you know where the wicked go after death?"
"They go to hell," was my ready orthodox answer.
"And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
"A pit of fire."
"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"
"No, sir."
"What must you do to avoid it?"
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: "I must keep in good health, and not die."

Not long after Jane finishes her education at Lowood, she becomes the personal instructor for a little girl under the care of Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. This is where the book took a turn that I didn't expect. It got dark and mysterious. Something was going on at Thornfield Hall, something sinister and it involved Mr. Rochester in some way. Because of this Jane flees Thornfield Hall with no destination in mind. Jane makes it on her own, but is soon drawn back to Thornfield, where the story comes to a close.

In general, I enjoyed the first part of the book more than the last. But the whole book was well-written, and some parts were quite riveting.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Vicar of Sorrows by A.N. Wilson

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generationsExodus 20:5

The Vicar of Sorrows is the story of the decline and fall of one Francis Kreer the vicar of Ditcham, a small parish in Berkshire. Upon the death of his beloved Mummy who, upon hearing a rumor that he was a “Ban the Bomb” clergyman decided to leave half of her estate to a former lover, Francis is thrown into a state of depression from which he can never truly free himself. His own grief is transformed into anger which he viciously directs at his wife Sally who turns in despair to the stuffed toys of her childhood; tidily tucked into the recesses of her wardrobe. This is one wardrobe that fails to yield any of Narnia’s magic and with each trip Sally’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Jay, a young vagabond, casts a powerful spell upon the hapless cleric who abandons Sally and his young daughter Jessica in pursuit of an impossible relationship. It is only the friendship of Wing-Commander Maxwell-Lee, a truly kind man, that sustains Francis until even he is forced to relegate the vicar to the Bishop of Didcot, who wants little more than Francis to sign a letter of resignation (and non-disclosure).

While the book is a tragedy it is not without humor. Wilson is a skilled and impish writer and he shines most brightly when describing his dizzying array of characters. Exemplary is his description of the Archdeacon: ...who derived most of his views from liberal newspapers, took a very lenient view of Damien’s proclivities; but one had to be sensible, and think of the ‘old dears’ in the pew, who might be slower than the rest of us to realize that fornication, when practiced by homosexuals, was no longer exactly a sin.

On the whole The Vicar of Sorrows is something of a sad book as we view the web of deceit, woven by Francis’ mother, transformed into grief then rage and finally a sort of madness that leaves the vicar of Ditcham foaming at the mouth but with no clue as to who he should bite.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Time, which was an immediate on-rushing enemy to the onlookers in the street and the firemen on the roof, was only a small far-forgotten event to the girls; for they were stunned not only by the force of the explosion, but, when they recovered and looked round, still more by the sudden dislocation of all familiar appearances. A chunk of the back wall of the house gaped to the sky. There, in 1945, they were as far removed from the small fact of time as weightless occupants of a space-rocket.

Let us put aside the subject of Muriel Spark's sense of economy, which I feel like I have been prattling on about for one, two, three, four books. Yes, it continues to impress but in another sentence or two I'll have written more about it than Spark took to write The Girls of Slender Means.

Instead, I have another facet to extol. Funny that Billy should post today on Slaughterhouse-Five, since what has always remained with me about that book, other than Billy Pilgrims' massive wag, is the idea of an alien race that views time as a panorama, seen all at once. I recall that the image is one of a mountain range; to the mountaineer the mountain miles behind is in the past, but to the faraway observer, each mountain is seen as a part of the whole.

So it is with Spark. With the exception of Robinson, there are no plot twists or surprises in her novels, for the simple reason that everything of importance is unloaded up front. Sometimes this takes the form of a "flash-forward"* scene and sometimes it happens in the middle of a sentence:

It was the girl in Jane that had moved him to kiss her at the party; she might have gone further with Nicholas without her literary leanings. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women of the same business.

How subtle, yet how opposed to what we think good writing ought to be: organic, well-paced. I am reminded of Eco, who in his postscript notes that his dialogue is so carefully timed that his characters only converse as long as it takes to get to where they are going, and no longer.

And so before the first couple of chapters are over, we know the bare bones of the story: In 1945, Nicholas Farringdon will enter the social orbit of the May of Teck Club, which supports London girls in their twenties who are separated from their families. He will be initiated therein by Jane Wright, a decidedly non-slender girl whose employer will decidedly not end up publishing Nicholas' book. He will sleep with Selina on the rooftop of the May of Teck Club, before the building is destroyed by an bomb in the garden left undiscovered until after VE-Day. He will die years later, martyred as a priest in Haiti. This is the whole story, yet these cannot even be called spoilers.

The arrangement imitates the way Vonnegut's aliens view life, though Spark was probably thinking more of God. Like the undiscovered bomb, death lingers; though Nicholas survives the collapse of the May of Teck Club his true end is equally gruesome. Spark treats the intervening years as if they were nothing. Nicholas dies here and not there; yet he does die. When Nicholas tries to console the visiting father of a girl whose life did end in the collapse, they fail to make sense of her death, but what sense is to be made? It is a place we all must go, and the timing seems a matter of small importance.

Trapped in time, the girls of the May of Teck Club fail to see this. Though they are puzzled by the presence of the older ladies who have remained at the club though they have long since left their thirties, they fail to see that they too will become those women, or are them already. They fail to see that the new wallpaper they disguise will in a few years' time become quite fashionable. The anarchist Nicholas fails to see that he will die a Catholic convert. But Spark, who moves through her novels like God, sees it, and shows us. The absence of surprise explains some of her unsentimentality, her cold detachment, and makes one wonder if God feels the same way about us.

*And to think, with Lost forty years in the future.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

(I fear that I am not quite experienced enough in literary criticism to do this book justice, because it is rife with symbolism and meaning of which I probably just scratch the surface, but bear with me. Also, this is probably full of spoilers, so feel free to skip to the post scripts)

First, on Vonnegut's writing style: This was my first Vonnegut, so I don't know if his other books are similar, but I must say his prose was mesmerizing (I was going to say hypnotic, and in fact described it to Chris as hypnotic last night, but Jim just used the word to describe the writing style of the last author he reviewed, so I figured I'd change it up a bit). He uses short, direct sentences that in other contexts might be choppy and annoying, but in this book works. At first I found that the page breaks after every few paragraphs, even if there wasn't a scene change, were a little disorienting. After I got used to them, though, I started to feel like they added to the narrative a little bit, for reasons I will explain.

On the story: Kurt Vonnegut tells us the story of the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a fictional chaplain's assistant, but I wonder how much is autobiographical. I do know that, like Pilgrim, Vonnegut was a POW who hid in the meat locker of a slaughterhouse while American bombs completely destroyed Dresden, a mostly non-military target, and killed more than 135,000 people. Taken at face value, Pilgrim is a time traveler, "unstuck from time." The plot follows him mostly through his time as a prisoner, but as he travels to other parts of his life we get to see them, too. We learn about his wife and his plane crash and his children, etc. We go with Pilgrim when he is abducted by aliens and spends several years on the planet of Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants basically explain existence to him. (Pilgrim is not missed, however, because the Tralfamadorians were able to return him to Earth milliseconds after he left, even though they had him in a zoo for years). Tralfamadorians are able to see in four dimensions (time being the fourth), so to them existence is like a photo album, they are able to see all points at once. As a result, death doesn't upset them; when they see a dead guy, they think, "well, sucks for that guy right now, but we also see him when he was alive and happy, and those were good times, so...don't sweat it." They describe each moment like a bug trapped in amber, not part of any flow of time, but distinct and everlasting (which is what I thought the frequent page breaks were meant to represent).

As far as I can tell, Billy Pilgrim is just bat shit crazy. He witnessed unimaginable horrors and can't cope with it, so he invents his time travel and his trip to Tralfamadore as a coping mechanism. As Vonnegut says at one point, "They both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosweater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes." If everything is always and you can pop in and out of various life experiences, then death and destruction don't seem quite so horrible. The Tralfamadorians advise Pilgrim: "That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones."

Vonnegut uses the refrain "so it goes" dozens of times throughout the book, almost every time he mentions death. The mantra attempts to desensitize Pilgrim to the tragedy he has experienced, tries to convince him that everything is both random and pre-determined anyway, so why worry about it? I found this fatalist approach even more interesting after reading the first paragraph of Vonnegut's wikipedia page, which states that he was "one of the most influential humanist writers of the 20th century." I feel like his humanism ultimately comes through, despite Pilgrim's fatalist approach. Many of the deaths described in the book are natural and random, and when you read about Pilgrim being the only person to survive a plane crash and another character being the only one to survive a tank attack, the "so it goes" seems a reasonable to process that information. But sometimes Vonnegut throws you a curveball. In one scene, another prisoner tells Pilgrim about a time when he fed a dog a steak laced with sharp metal spikes (which killed it in a horrible way) as revenge for biting him. After being lulled into a pattern of "oh wells" every time someone dies, this one in particular made my ears prick up. It wasn't destined or random, it was just cruel. What I think Vonnegut was saying is that yeah, sometimes terrible things happen and they can't be helped, you just have to accept them and move on, but there are other things that are wrong and evil (like the bombing of Dresden), and those things can be avoided.

I personally found this book for another reason: the summer after I graduated high school I was traveling in Europe and got to have lunch in Dresden. It is now a beautiful city, not the wasteland that Vonnegut described, but you can still see scorch marks on some of the buildings, which I thought was pretty interesting. Unfortunately I can't find any pictures from my trip. So it goes.

He told Billy to encourage people to call him Billy - because it would stick in their memories. It would also make him seem slightly magical, since there weren't any other grown Billys around. It also compelled people to think of him as a friend right away.

Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who'll get one.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

"But how do you see you?" she asked.
"Ever read
The Brothers Karamazov?" I asked.
"Once, a long time ago."
"Well, toward the end, Alyosha is speaking to a young student named Kolya Krasotkin. And he says, Kolya, you're going to have a miserable future. But overall, you'll have a happy life."
Two beers down, I hesitated before opening my third.
"When I first read that, I didn't know what Alyosha meant," I said. "How was it possible for a life of misery to be happy overall? But then I understood, that misery could be limited to the future."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Neither do I," I said. "Not yet."

Unlike any other author, I enjoy Murakami's work solely for his writing style. For the most part, I disregard the story-lines because... Well, I have no idea what the hell is going on in them. One of the first books I read in 2009 was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and I fell in love with Murakami's dreamlike prose and scatterbrained narrative. There's something hypnotic about his writing and its hard to put down even when the plotlines don't seem to make any sense.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland... tells two parallel story-lines. One of a 35-year old man making a living in a futuristic Tokyo as a sort of highfalutin* data encrypter fighting on one side of what he calls the 'infowars.' In typical Murakami fashion, a middle-aged man living a boring life, through the course of his everyday responsibilities, finds himself drawn into a confusing, complex series of events that could potentially lead to the end of the world.

The second story is more fantastic. Another man finds himself in a strange village with no memory of who he was before he arrived or how he got there. This village is inhabited by quiet, placid townspeople and beautiful unicorns that live in harmony with the townsfolk. When our protagonist is separated from his shadow and learns that his penumbra will shortly die without him, he begins a journey to escape from this mysterious town with his sundered companion.

Those two summaries are vague for two reasons: The intricacies of the story are two complex to go into here and even if I tried I'm not sure I would make any sense. Eventually the reader comes to understand (sorta) how the two stories relate to one another. Ultimately, Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is a story about consciousness and self. I enjoyed it thoroughly but, as I've said, that comes from the fact that I love Murakami's style so much that I can excuse a slightly convoluted plot.

* Can you believe this is actually a word?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.

The Name of the Rose
is an intimidating book to review. Not merely because of its erudition, which is considerable, but because of its theme: the value of the written word and its ability to translate knowledge and wisdom. It poses tough questions about what we seek in books and what they offer to us, and in that sense becomes about itself, making any review by necessity incomplete and simple in comparison.

Wait, you say, might it not be said (by Umberto Eco, even) that all books are essentially about themselves? And thus we return, like the labyrinth that lies at the heart of In the Name of the Rose, to where we began. No excuses, then.

The year is 1327 and the Catholic church is on the precipice of the crisis known as the Great Schism. The Pope has moved to Avignon, and faces the enmity of the Holy Roman Emperor, the only peer he has in Europe. The church is--much in defiance of popular notions of Medieval history--deeply fragmented, into monastic orders and heretical sects, and the line between is not so clear. It is in this climate that an English monk named William of Baskerville comes to an unnamed abbey in northern Italy to facilitate a meeting between the Pope's representatives and a group of Franciscans supported by the Emperor. But as soon as William arrives he is set to another task--investigating the death of a young monk who may have been thrown from the high walls of the abbey.

Deaths multiply: Another brother is found beaten to death and dumped in a vat of pig's blood. A third is poisoned, and still another has his head bashed in. The murders seem to have something to do with the abbey's clandestine library, a massive labyrinth closed to all but the librarian and his assistant. William and his assistant, Adso of Melk--the book's interpreter--determine through keen investigating and deductive reasoning that the conflict in the abbey revolves around a strange book, but what it is, and who wants it, and who wants it to remain concealed, is the mystery.

The Name of the Rose has the swiftness and intensity of a good pulp detective story, but it is also a book deeply concerned with weightier matters. Eco fills much of the book with lengthy debates on heresy and proper theology that dominated the religious and political landscape of the day. Amazingly, these sections are almost as gripping and fascinating as the underlying mystery. Yet, the book remains playful--after all, William of Baskerville's name is undoubtedly a not-so-sly allusion to Sherlock Holmes.

Eco is a semiotician by profession; he writes about signs and symbols and the process of their interpretation. The Name of the Rose, then, is a meditation on how we interpret--how we interpret a text, as William does when he breaks a secret code based on the symbols of the zodiac, and as the reader does in reading the book itself; how we interpret the symbols of the world around us, as William and Adso do in unraveling the mystery; not least how we interpret the will of God. I would not like to spoil the events of the novel, but I will say that William's process--unlike the archetypal Holmesian detective--is not flawless, but flawed and messy. So it is with us, who see through a mirror, darkly.

I can't recommend this book enough. Eco coined the term opera aperta, the "open work" that is the most rewarding because it offers the most possible interpretations and meanings. Perhaps because of this, The Name of the Rose seems to appeal to all sorts of readers, from lovers of thrillers to medievalists and in between.