Archive for the 'Review' Category

Epic fantasy a near epic surprise

I don’t often pick up epic fantasy doorstops like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, which is the first novel in a projected seven-volume series called A Song of Fire and Ice. The cover art alone on these things usually looks hopelessly adolescent. And pages of maps and schematics of tangled family trees makes a vein in my neck start to throb.

But when you can get it on the Kindle for $3.90, it might be worth a surreptitious look. After all, the first four novels of A Song of Fire and Ice have been translated into 18 languages (thank you Wikipedia) and an HBO television series is currently in production.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, in a sentence, the fuss about skillful plotting, imaginative world-building and serviceable characterization anchored by prose that’s well above what you can sometimes find when you go slumming in the genres. (Hey! Who says it’s slumming!?) Here’s an evocative example, just one sentence, that deftly sketches a throwaway character: “This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block.”

Not bad. Who would expect such concision in a hulking book like this? Martin never comes close to reaching the poetic heights of Mervyn Peake in Gormenghast (who does?), but there were times I thought his ear for English was so finely tuned, and his flair for Age of Chivalry-type phrasings so apt, that he must certainly hail from the land of King Arthur himself.

His actual place of birth? New Jersey.

Oy. That A Song of Fire and Ice has been dubbed “the Sopranos in Middle Earth” is purely coincidental, I am sure.

A Game of Thrones is an engaging enough hero’s journey that will provide hours of enjoyment (think also, “Diana Gabaldon for guys”) but be warned: it is long. There are more characters in it than you can waggle a piece of Valerian steel at. And if you can’t stand the thought of all the trees being sacrificed to produce nearly cube-shaped paperbacks like these, you can always read it on the Kindle.

Or wait for the HBO series on TV.

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Tom Robbins ‘Lite’ fails to quench readerly thirsts

Years ago, while in university, I used to enjoy the sly, self-reflexive playfulness of Tom Robbins’s early books. In fact, somewhere between Aldous Huxley and Stephen King I went through a Tom Robbins phase. So it was with a certain sense of nostalgia and curiosity that I picked up his most recent book, B is for Beer.

B is for BeerI wish I could report Robbins and I hit it off again like old chums, but one of us has changed. Billed as an adult book for children and a children’s book for adults, B is for Beer is a slim, sappy little tale I can’t imagine appealing to either group. The story, whose kindly narrator is always talking down to the reader, transports Gracie, our six-year-old heroine, to the mystical reaches beyond “the seam,” a sort of parallel otherworld. There she learns all about, what else? Beer. Her guide is none other than the Beer Fairy.

Perhaps it doesn’t look so bad sketched out like that, but the result manages to be so boring and predictable I felt like I missed the transcendent intoxication part and went straight to the hangover.

Much of the text, for example, is devoted to Wikipedia-type information on the origins of beer and methods for brewing it. And although you might expect a stylist like Robbins could overcome those shortcomings with some prose pyrotechnics, such is not the case.

Many of the figurative devices are either incomprehensible, juvenile, or both:

“The week passed as slowly as a snowman’s gas.”

“…if good looks were two flakes of snow, she could provide nesting grounds for half the earth’s penguins.”

“…her bright and bouncy little life seemed to lie scattered in pieces, like a disco ball after an earthquake.”

And then there are the preachy little asides like this one:

“Some brewers will leave particular beers unfiltered, however, so they can continue to age in the bottle. Children such as you, Gracie, are best left unfiltered while you age, although some parents and institutions, regrettably, do attempt to filter the young souls in their charge.”

And many, many puns and other wordplay:

“…(for a time she believed yeast to be the opposite direction of west)…

Oh Tom. Stop. You’re killing me.

If all that isn’t enough to leave a bad aftertaste consider the cover price: $24.99 for what is essentially a hard-covered short story. (I wisely borrowed from the library.) However many bottles of beer those $25 bucks might buy, I promise you they’ll bring more amusement than this little belch of a book.

Bottoms up.

Tree of Smoke casts spreading shadow

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson shows how great writing can deliver the reader straight into the stinking belly of the whale, largely without the reader realizing they’ve been swallowed.

TreeOfSmokeWinner of the United States’ National Book Award in 2007, this dense, 700-page novel of Vietnam ranges from the war’s most visceral evils, to quiet, human moments of the people caught up in it. Johnson references myth, scripture and history, but also uses a pointillist’s brush to render scenes of striking depth and texture.

The overall effect is harrowing and unforgettable.

Challenging, too. Tree of Smoke isn’t an easy read and the mixed reviews on Amazon reflect that. (There are as many one- and two-star reviews as four- and five-star reviews.) Most of the naysayers invariably begin, “I must not be smart enough for this…” or “I just couldn’t get into this….” or “I picked this up because it won an award but I can’t see why…”

Interesting how books sometimes review readers. Do you really need to be a member of MENSA to appreciate literature? Clearly not. (As this blog and its author attest!) But readers will always be rewarded by a little patience, an openness to different narrative approaches, and a willingness to expend some candle power on what they’re reading.

Movies have trained us to be passive receivers of narrative. We grab our popcorn, strap ourselves in and then the story simply unspools in front of us. It’s no wonder many of us now apply the same strategy to books. We straddle the first sentence and then ride it to its conclusion many pages and chapters later. We notice the surroundings as they pass, but we rarely pause to reflect on the journey while we’re taking it. How many of us routinely go back and re-read something that happened a few chapters previous? How many will read a book twice before passing judgment?

Perhaps readers no longer have the desire to nurture the close collaboration with the writer that a rounded appreciation of fiction requires. The reading public, drunk on books like The Da Vinci Code, has only one demand: “Just tell us what happens next!”

What happens to the various characters in Tree of Smoke is, in a sense, beside the point. What happens is the giant wheel of war, with its iron spokes of history, idealism, hatred, glory, treachery, humanity and hope, grinds through a span between 1963-70. The characters in the novel either have their shoulders to that wheel, are getting ground underneath it, or are hanging on for dear life.

Granted, it takes the first 200 pages to get the wheel turning, and it’s this apparent decoupling from a traditional narrative engine that many readers probably find difficult. But go ahead – live a little. Ask yourself if your inability to enter into anything but the most traditional narrative dream state may be a symptom of an atrophied imagination.

It’s been said that novelists can’t disguise their personal cosmologies. Ian McEwan may claim he’s an atheist, but a book like Atonement suggests at the very least he’s a Church of England atheist. (I wish I could claim ownership of that line — can’t remember where I heard it.)

Johnson, on the other hand, weaves the idea of God into the very warp of his novel. I love how Jim Lewis’s review in the New York Times speculates that his dedication to H.P. stands for Higher Power. (Incidentally, Lewis himself writes the kind of insightful review that makes me want to search out his books.) I’m sure that among the many PhD dissertations ripening at this very moment, at least a few will examine Johnson’s expression of God in Tree of Smoke.

From the trees all around came the waterfall sound of scrabbling claws and the curses of demons driven into the void.

More women screamed. The men howled. The jungle itself screamed like a mosque. Storm lay naked on his back and watched the upward-rushing mist and smoke in the colossal firelight and waited for the clear light, for the peaceful deities, the face of the father-mother, the light from the six worlds, the dawning of hell’s smoky light and the white light of the second god, the hungry ghosts wandering in ravenous desire, the gods of knowledge and the wrathful gods, the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into this world.

His poem whirled upward as an ash…

Tree of Smoke is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. Thank God people still write like this; thank God books like this still get published; and thank God writing like this still gets critical acclaim.

Amen.

I know it was free, but do I have to like it?

The nice people at Anansi Press give away free books on Facebook every now and then in exchange for 200-word reviews of said book. I cashed in recently and they sent me a new novel called Valmiki’s Daughter. Despite wanting to like it, well, we never really hit it off. I sent back this tepid review a few weeks ago, which I don’t think will ever see the light of day on their site, so here it is on mine – in all its lukewarm splendour.

I opened Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo fearing it just wasn’t going to be my cup of chai. And despite the often evocative writing, the intriguing setting in sun-splashed Trinidad, the multifaceted themes of identity – and despite my own best efforts – I never really embraced the experience.

n20137676200_1387My outsider status is partly due to my lack of interest in gay-lesbian themes. But I must also confess an aversion to novels featuring a self-absorbed cast of characters who are, with few exceptions, pretty unlikeable – especially the men. (Satire excepted, of course, but Valmiki’s Daughter is earnest to the hilt.)

There is such a fog of sadness that clings to this novel. Viveka, the title character, is a young woman who discovers she loves other women – one in particular. Her father has lived a lie with his own homosexual longings, but does that mean she must also?

For a moment it appears Viveka will break free from the restrictive disapprovals of family and Indo-Trinidadian society: “She had no map of her future, but she knew who she was. She would not be diminished because of it.” And…

“In exchange for honesty, integrity, a lifetime of service, she prayed that she and all people like her be granted the freedom, so long as it did not hurt anyone, to love whomever they chose, to love well and have that love returned without judgment.”

Amen to that – even without the bargaining preamble. The hopeless ending, no matter how realistic it may be for those living a closeted existence, comes as such a disappointment. How sad.

At times Valmiki’s Daughter has an unfocused, second draft feel to it. Why does one of the principal characters – the captivating French woman Anick – only show up halfway through the book? And am I imagining this, or does the novel at times want to be more about Anick than Viveka?

Other quibbles: I’m not sure the showy second-person travelogue interspersed throughout always carries its weight, especially in the lengthy opening passage. And although I was initially impressed that the text was free of so many of the silly spell-check editing errors that creep in these days, there it was on the beach on page 380, “a slow parade of people in bathing suites.”

Nevertheless, there is clearly talent on display here. And I will freely admit that I am the wrong sort of reader for this novel. For the right sort of reader, I’m sure Valmiki’s Daughter will be more than a satisfying experience.

Time-traveling with Harlan Ellison

When you return to a writer you loved in your youth, it is also in some sense to return to the person you once were. If you’re lucky, the cringe factor will be slight in both cases.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little literary time-traveling with the recent release of the bio-doc Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is an entertaining look at the life and world of science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Has there ever lived a more pugnacious, irascible writer? ‘Prickly’ would be another apt word. (The film’s trailer is embedded below — you’ll get a pretty good sense of the type of guy he is in two-and-a-half minutes.)

It’s been said that if we’re really lucky, not only do the books from which we will most benefit find their way into our hands, they’ll do so at exactly the most opportune moments of our lives. I’ve always thought Ellison had pretty good timing that way. I was a geeky, outsider adolescent in the 1970s when I first stumbled on his work and I was immediately transfixed by that voice: clear, angry, fearless, smart — and with a conscience.

Here was another apparent outsider who felt the same way about many of the things I did. I nibbled at his short fiction but positively devoured his essays and other non-fiction, such as his scathing indictments of ’60s and ’70s television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. I can remember buying his short story anthologies just so I could read his introductions; now and then I’d finish one of the stories, too, but more often than not I’d put them away until the next impassioned diatribe came along.

After watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth I thought I’d dip back into his work and see how it’s held up. Tellingly, despite the many culls my book collection has undergone over the years (seven boxes punted before the last move), I’ve never quite managed to let go of the handful of Ellison books I own. These now have faded, creased covers, missing dust jackets and some with a shaky name inscribed by a 14- or 15-year-old mini me.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the short story collection Approaching Oblivion, which encapsulates both Ellison’s tone and worldview. He refers to a letter he received from a James Chambers, who has described the four Kent State university students who were killed when the National Guard opened fire at a demonstration as “communist-led revolutionaries, hooligans and anarchists.”

Now that scares the piss out of me.

That is approaching oblivion. It is reaping the whirlwind of half a decade of Nixon/Agnew brainwashing and paranoia. It is a perfectly apocryphal example of the reconditeness to which The Common Man in our time clings with such suicidal ferocity. I won’t go into my little dance about the loathesomeness of The Common Man, nor even flay again the body of stupidity to which “commonness” speaks. I’ll merely point out that the Ellison who believed in the revolutionary Movement of the young and the frustrated and the angry in the Sixties, is not the Ellison of the Seventies who has seen students sink back into a charming Fifties apathy (with a simultaneous totemization of the banalities and mannerisms of those McCarthy Witch-Hunt Fifties), who has listened long and hard to the Chambers letter and hears in it a tone wholly in tune with the voice of the turtle heard in the land, who — when the defenses are down in the tiny hours after The Late Late Show — laments for all the martyrs who packed it in, in the name of “change,” only to turn around a mere five years later and see the status returned to quo.

I still find that compelling, but maybe not quite as much as I once did. Can any indignation burn as hot or self-righteously as adolescent indignation? And the angry writer, angry Jew schtick in Dreams With Sharp Teeth strikes me at times as simply wearisome. OK — everyone in the world has their heads up their butts except him. Whatever.

The short stories in Approaching Oblivion are uneven. (Yes, all these years later I’ve managed to read all 11.) Despite the strange and bleak futures they depict, they serve as strong indicators of the age in which they were written. Many carry the burdensome freight of a really important MESSAGE. Some show signs of quaintness, a susceptibility to which science fiction, as it ages, seems particularly prone. For example, in “Hindsight: 480 Seconds,” one man is left alone on earth to record for posterity the death of the earth when an asteroid hits. And what does he record his thoughts on? “Memory cassettes.” I guess at least they weren’t “Memory Eight-tracks.”

In “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” a successful man travels back in time to visit the persecuted boy he once was. Like re-reading Ellison, the experience is tinged with various parts excitement, nostalgia and sadness. You really can’t go back again. Sometimes it’s the memories of things that are best savoured, and not the thing itself.

But I’m still not getting rid of his books.

The clerisy: alive and well — and blogging!

So who has the right to parse or praise prose, and in ways that may influence the impressionable minds of other readers? Not just any Tom, Dick or Harris. Or so it would seem, judging from some of the sermonizing going on in the blogosphere.

pool.jpgA recent review in The New Republic of Gail Pool’s book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, has helped reopen a hoary skirmish between those who see themselves as The Sacred and Professional Guardians of Literary Standards, and the rest of the unlettered rabble of pretenders who dare to express their views on what they read. James Wolcott is the reviewer and here is a teaser from his review, Critical Condition:

Long before bloggers became synonymous with damp mold and scurrilous moldaway-4.jpginvective, book reviewers were cast as the pox carriers and bottom feeders of the word business, tattooed with the rep of being bitter, envious parasites, cunning predators, or charter members of the Dunciad. They tore the iridescent wings off Romantic poets for sport, and crouched in the hills like hyenas waiting for Hemingway to falter. Insidious by nature, they fluff up authors’ reputations in order to fatten them up for the sacrificial kill: the young slain for failing to live up to their early promise, their distinguished elders dragged by their whiskers into the lair of the spider-queen, Michiko Kakutani, to be eaten. Even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reviewer is considered suspect, a discount knockoff of a real writer.

It’s a lively and enjoyable bit of analysis that has rightly received worldwide Web circulation, as has Pool and reviews of her book, including 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – let’s just say ‘dozens’ of blog posts. Meanwhile, Pool’s hand-wringing thesis (and this is admittedly a rather flip abridgment based on the Wolcott review) appears to be:

  • Given that book reviews are declining in quality
  • And given that book sections are decreasing in size
  • And given that the internet is a cesspit of craven and shabby reviewing

We should therefore…

  • Establish some sort of professional code of conduct that lays out better ways to pick books to be reviewed, reward reviewers, and develop technical competence.

Fair enough. But it’s always seemed to me that the heart of this particular scrap is less about the ‘How?’ of reviewing books, and more about the ‘Who?’

Academia has long asserted its robed and mortared authority as Keeper of the Canon, albeit often without consensus and mired in its own protracted internecine convulsions. Literary criticism ain’t for the faint of heart. The multi-tiered mainstream media — from the New York Times to Your Town Times — also claim proprietorship as upholders of literary standards, but with varying impact and credibility. And of course at the bottom of the totem pole — well beneath the dirt-line, in fact — are we bloggers. Wolcott exhumes a passage from a New York Sun item on book bloggers written back in the spring of this year by Adam Kirsch:

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can’t, blog.

conspiracytheory.jpg

Bloggers, with their suspect motives and outsized chips on their sloped little shoulders, simply can’t be trusted. And in some cases that may be true. But might it also be possible — and not just 99-monkeys-typing possible — that professional critics may have their own motives for attempting to discredit a class of laypeople that’s been stealing some of the limelight to which they were formerly accustomed? I mean, have you heard?! Even mainstream media outlets have institutionalized blogging! Understandably, nervousness about the influence of bloggers is widespread and more than a few professional print reviewers are circling the wagons.

But perhaps an idea like that just makes me a conspiracy theorist.

monkey-typing-738255.jpg

At the end of the day the whole debate is really a bit silly and assumes the reader has little intelligence and few critical faculties of her own — both when it comes to reading books, and reading reviews of books. Most of us in the reading trenches have been at this for more than a page or two now and we’ve honed our intuitions when it comes to books and book reviews.

davies.jpegThe late great Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s finest exports of the 20th Century, weighed in on the whole business of writers, readers and reviewers in his 1960 essay, “A Call to the Clerisy,” which is in his book, A Voice from the Attic: Essays in the Art of Reading. I think he still says it best and would in fact applaud the efforts of the book-blogging community today.

It is particularly displeasing to hear professional critics using the term ‘layman’ to describe people who are amateurs and patrons of those arts with which they are themselves professionally concerned. The fact that the critic gets money for knowing something, and giving public expression to his opinion, does not entitle him to consider the amateur, who may be as well informed and sensitive as himself, an outsider. Admitting that there are triflers hanging to the skirts of the arts[,] it is generally true that we are all, critics and amateurs alike, members of a group which meets on a reasonably equal footing. The critics have their special tastes and firm opinions and are in some cases, more experienced and sensitive than any but the most devoted of amateurs. But they should never assume that it is so; they, of all people should know the humility which art imposes and avoid the harlotry of a cheap professionalism.

Hear, hear.

Davies argues for more influence from what he calls the ‘clerisy,’ which sounds suspiciously like the blogosphere:

voice.jpegWho are the clerisy?…. The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime, but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As lately as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now. But the clerisy has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups, not themselves malign or consciously unfriendly to literature, which are part of the social and business organization of our time. These groups, though entrenched, are not impregnable; if the clerisy would arouse itself, it could regain its sovereignty in the world of letters. For it is to the clerisy, even yet, that the authors, the publishers, and the booksellers make their principal appeal.

Enough about who has the right to say this or write that — I think I’ll go read another book.