2.24.2010

Review: Pieces of a Rainbow, by Maria Savva

Eesh. I wish I could say I enjoyed this collection of short stories, but I really did not. Perhaps, if I hadn't spent the last month or so reading tons of short stories to compare these with, perhaps then I would have liked it a little. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Savva claims that her stories and characters are from the real world and "true to life." But to a writer that should never mean boring. None of her characters are sympathetic. "True to life" they may be, but the problems in the prose make them flat.

The focus on the 7 colors of the rainbow (the red of a sunset, the orange of a little boy's hair, the yellow of daffodils, the green of envy, the blue of the ocean, the indigo of a woman's scarf, and violet....which in this case is the name of a baby) seems completely forced. It was as if she added the colors for the sake of adding colors, not to better the story or the collection as a whole.

Savva warns us (on the back of the book) that "There are not always happy endings, but the tales reflect the real world, and the forces of nature at work in our lives sometimes beyond our control." You know, dark and dreary is okay...when it's efficiently so. But I felt nothing from this book. Some of the stories are sad, but they're over-editorialized. It's more like reading someone's obituary than reading their story. The phrasing is juvenile, and there's pretty much nothing literary about it.

I read one person's comments (I think on Amazon.com) about how Savva completes a thought and executes a vision with so few words. I'm all for simplicity, but the lack of adjectives is atrocious. And then there's the annoying use of italics. I like italics when they serve a real purpose. I was discussing this with a coworker and he reminded me about Michael Ende's The Neverending Story which utilizes italics to distinguish between Bastian's world, and the world of the book within the book. That makes sense.

But Savva uses italics to signify the past, and it's kind of brutal. Pages and pages of italics that don't feel appropriate. Not only that, but to (I guess) increase page count, the entire book is double-spaced. It's distracting, it's (again) juvenile and it feels like.....well, it reads like what it feels like - a student's forays into writing for the sake of a class.

2.23.2010

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, by Susanna Clarke

"Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done should be done from love or joy or righteous anger."

I have read so many short stories in the last month that I am beginning to have trouble distinguishing between them. Especially when almost all of them have been about magic. That's terrible. That's why I love my novels. Well, that's not the only reason, but it's a reason. Not that short stories are bad. I don't mean that at all. Especially not about Susanna Clarke's collection within The Ladies of Grace Adieu. 

I can't truly recommend the collection unless you've read Clarke's freshman novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which informs much of the history. It also informs her voice. I think it might be difficult for strangers to Clarke's writing to grasp her tone. Or maybe that's just me. Also, minimal (MINIMAL) knowledge of Stardust (even the film) is helpful in one of the stories. It's difficult to define Clarke's writing because it's so very pastiche. I mean the style and wording and general characterization is at once Austen, Dickens and Byron. Usually, pastiche bothers me. And I think when I first started Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell I was irked but only so far as the first few chapters at which point I was swept up in the story.

As I said before, these stories are about magic. Like Ursula LeGuin, everything is in Susanna Clarke's own world. She only has to rely really on her own mysticism, the lore of her creation--her alternate history. Though I should point out that they are still based on common myths in many cases. The title character of "Mrs. Mabb" is derived from the fairy Queen (Mab) whom Mercutio discusses in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. "On Lickerish Hill" is "Rumpelstiltskin" of Grimm Brothers fame. "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is related to the mythology of weaving. Going back to the Grimm brothers for a moment, I recall a quote from Jacob Grimm that I heard once (and promptly looked up to make sure I had it right): "If, while riding a horse overland, a man should come upon a woman spinning, then that is a very bad sign; he should turn around and take another way"; something perhaps that The Duke of Wellington should have kept in mind (haha).

My favorites, though, were her two stories that featured strong antagonistic male faerie characters. I know how hard it is to grasp that sentence with a straight face but I totally mean it. In her novel, there's a character who remains unnamed. He is a faerie and he is mostly referred to as the "gentleman with the thistle-down hair." And he's an amazing character - a fantastic antagonist, and the perfect idea of what faeries should be according to Clarke's world. Both "Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower" and "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" contain very similar characters with a brilliant amount of beauty, smarts, pride and covetousness to put Tinker Bell to shame.

It's a nice grouping of stories, well-told and very well-arranged, and it's a quick read. Especially after the monster that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That behemoth is 1006 pages in paperback...

2.19.2010

Review: Russian Literature: a very short introduction, by Catriona Kelly

Sometimes I feel like my entire education is made up of “very short introductions” to a myriad of subjects. As if I know that I don’t know everything but feel that, should I come across a given subject on Jeopardy, I could handle it pretty well – many subjects at least. And then I read these perfect 150-page Oxford University Press bundles of wonder that end up putting my own education, my owns claims of knowledge, to shame.

I literally knew nothing about Russian literature. I avoid Chekov, sparing no expense, and I tried reading Anna Karenina at age thirteen. Yeah that didn’t work out. I think I got through chapter eight of part one. I know. Fail. War & Peace has always been of interest to me, but I supplemented it by watching "North & South" starring Patrick Swayze instead. I figured the ampersand counted for something. The closest I’ve ever gotten to a stage version of something actually Russian (I'm leaving Kushner out here) was Gogol’s The Inspector General, both at Fordham and on the TV show "Wishbone." Win.

But neither of those two experiences drove me to pick this book. Actually, I didn’t pick it. It was a Christmas gift from my mother who knows I like the “Very Short Introduction” series. Russian Literature is not one I would have picked up. I have to say, I’m doing that a lot lately – reading books that I wouldn’t have picked up if someone else hadn’t suggested it or given it. What that says about my taste, I’m not sure, and I don’t think I’m ready to have that conversation with myself.

So, moving on: I’ve always lived on what I think of as an anglicized literature timeline: American Lit, British Lit, and English-language translations. So when I read that imaginative literature was a Western concept, I had to stop and think. Have I really only been reading Brit lit? I had never really thought about it before. While the bourgeois Western Europeans were writing their little ditties, “textual production in medieval Russia was dominated by ecclesiastical needs.” Ooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

So really, Russian literature (in the commonly understood Western sense) is not that old at all. Well slap me in the forehead do I feel dumb. In my senior year at Fordham, I took a class with Andrew Furer called “Literature of Social Change” which examined the socioeconomic effects on American Lit. Keyword American. I don't criticize Prof. Furer for leaving it as American, but I'd have appreciated knowing about Russia.... I’d never really thought about it in other countries. Not that I was assuming that there were no socioeconomic causes and/or effects, but that I’d never considered what they were, really. Kelly’s narrative goes pretty in depth to explain the economic changes, social changes, class structure changes, government changes, and sexual revolutionary changes that affected the mode of Russian Lit.

It took everything I knew about Russia and the Soviet Union, itself, and broke it into little pieces of real understanding – not a series of dates and names. On top of that, never having taken a class in Russian language, and not really paying attention to the language when I worked on Kushner’s Slavs!, I hadn’t grasped the uniqueness of the written language itself – the way the language works compared to the Romantic languages (and even German) that I’ve been exposed to – the way the adjective can move around in a sentence to give it a different meaning every time you said it….I never knew that. Slavs was funny and very poignant to begin with but now, looking back with all of this knowledge, it’s even better!

One of my favorite passages was on the limits to the centredness of Russian literary tradition – how 19th and 20th century writers in Russia retained an “imperial” mindset in which everything other, everything non-Russian, is ethnic, is exotic – until they didn’t. Eventually they came to find the beauty and other within Russia, spreading the germ that eventually allowed literature to go beyond the bourgeois. Ironic since Americans seem to still have that mindset about, oh, just about everything. Way to go, America. Anyway, it’s good stuff. Whether you want to know about Russian Lit or not, it's good stuff.

2.17.2010

Review: Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin

“I don’t care what’s ‘allowed,’” he said, with a frown she had never seen on his face. “The Archmage himself said, Rules are made to be broken. Injustice makes the rules, and courage breaks them. I have the courage, if you do!” – “Dragonfly"

I’ve never read any of LeGuin’s work. The Left Hand of Darkness sounds familiar, but I went into this book not knowing anything about the series. Very fortunately, this particular book is a source: it doesn’t interrupt or on rely the rest of her series for its foundations. It acts as the foundation. And what’s great is LeGuin has created this entire world, so there’s no attempt to compare it with the world we live in, in terms of confirming facts or dates or events. We rely solely on LeGuin for the validity of her stories.

I compare it to the way that Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior acts as a source, a reference, for the novels that take place later in Redwall's and Mossflower’s history. I was able to relate more to it, actually, by comparing it to Jacques’ series. It’s pretty interesting when you think about it, the way LeGuin’s characters rely on the magic, on the religion of wizardry while in Jacques’ world they rely on the history and the nature around them in a very agnostic fashion.

LeGuin’s world is beautifully crafted. I especially appreciated her ending the piece with her “Description of Earthsea” (which perhaps I should have read first) that made me even more interested to read the series. Both her male and female characters are painted with bright bold strokes that keep the reader engaged the whole way through, and her mysterious land of the archipelago is so well established, that I sometimes actually believe it exists.

The most poignant of her included stories, for me, was “Dragonfly” in which a young girl harassed by her drunken father (who rules over a dying society) chooses to seek out her true name for herself. When she finds it, she is dissatisfied and ends up on the island of Roke where wizards are bound by their rules to only instruct men. Half of the mages side with her, though, and her quest for her true identity becomes the mages’ path toward change, revision, rebellion and truth.

Her journey toward finding, understanding and knowing her true self is so relatable. True, we women don’t all turn into dragons and fly into the West once we find ourselves, but she really embodies the strength and pride of womanhood to me. It was moving, and it made me appreciate LeGuin in a way that I hadn't anticipated: as a model for social change.

Laced throughout LeGuin's prose are markers of social inequity: child labor, slavery, subjugation of women, anti-feminist behavior, disparagement of youth and an ignorance of truth. Every one of these themes is easily related to our real world. We'd like to believe that our time does not still enslave children or submit to the belief in inequalities. But these things still exist. These characters overcoming the trials that we still suffer through, is pretty inspiring. In no way does LeGuin's world pretend to be a Utopia; it only seeks to give us the guidance needed to build the keys to one. Perhaps, as the mages discover once Irian has defeated their powerful fellow mage, a "pure" and "chaste" religion is not what we need. Perhaps what we need is a return to nature. Perhaps the mysticism from LeGuin is not so different from Jacques after all.

2.02.2010

Review: Nocturnes by John Connolly, pt. 7: A Coda

Covering "The Bridal Bed," "The Man from the Second Fifteen," "The Inn at Shillingford," "Mr. Gray's Folly," and "The Cycle"

Seriously.... SERIOUSLY creepy.
Most of these stories are much shorter and so they really pack a punch when they're bunched together like this. "The Bridal Bed" wasn't so bad until you consider that he's going to have sex with his dead bride in a second. Ew. Not so creepy as gross. "The Man From the Second Fifteen" has a strange race of bat-like creatures taunting a man, baiting him and capturing him. But a lot of animals do things like that so that's only kind of creepy.

Enter, "The Inn at Shillingford." The similarities with Sweeney Todd were bad enough. But then there's a strange goop on the ground...and then the goopy half-burned woman is in his bed? Oh sweet Jesus. Did not like that one. I kept looking around my room during this one to make sure nothing was out of place and no doors were ajar when they shouldn't be.

The final two stories contain a certain fear and reverence towards women, and yet completely villainize them as well. I had no idea that a folly could be a visible piece of architecture. I felt a little misled by the story's title at first. "The Cycle" had to be my favorite of all of these. You kind of see the end coming but you kind of don't. It's the one time where I felt like the "monster" was entirely justified in its behavior. I just hope that, when I hit that time of month in a couple of days, my skull doesn't change shape and I don't grow so much hair...

2.01.2010

Review: Nocturnes by John Connolly, pt. 6: "The Reflecting Eye"

I haven't had the pleasure, yet, of reading from John Connolly's Charlie Parker, P.I. thriller series. Honestly, I assumed (unfairly) that his writing for that series might be a little colder than his other work. I made this assumption based (again, unfairly) on the work of other writers. Apparently I forgot that I was talking about John Connolly. In Nocturnes he has included a long novella called "The Reflecting Eye" which fits into the Charlie Parker world. I have to say, I'm impressed. The story fits into the collection perfectly because of the subject matter but, based on the fact that a certain death tourist is noted as a recurring character from Charlie's past, I have to assume that the other novels (as should be expected in Connolly's work) follow suit. I didn't really love the way it ended, with the stinky wallpaper glue still not explained, and the Collector still at large, but overall I enjoyed Charlie Parker's characterization and two gay friends, Angel & Louis. Dirk Pitt should have had at least two gay friends.