Literature is flush with stories about science run amok, and most of the good ones have grander ambitions than simply "Science is Cray-Zay!" Shelley'sLiterature is flush with stories about science run amok, and most of the good ones have grander ambitions than simply "Science is Cray-Zay!" Shelley's Frankenstein was a Victorian cautionary reaction to Enlightenment curiosity. Goethe's Dr. Faustus warns readers about the morality of ignoring the means for the end. H.G. Wells examines the all too easily crossed moral boundaries inherent in tinkering with nature in The Island of Dr. Moreau. The Russian satirist, Mikhail Bulgakov, also tapped into this sci-fi sub-genre, but with the intent of making some dangerous sociopolitical statements. Because Soviet history is a very muddled and confused mish-mash of morals and ideologies and agendas and intentions, just what sociopolitical statements Bulgakov was making can be a bit ambiguous in hindsight. Regardless, even at the time of writing, the Soviet powers-that-be were concerned enough with his observations about their attempts at social engineering, most of his works (including the presently discussed novel A Dog's Heart were either heavily censored or simply disappeared. It wasn't until the 1980s when Bulgakov's works were rediscovered in a meaningful way and became another example of how powerful a philosophical tool good science fiction and satire can be.
As stated above, Soviet history makes a clear interpretation of A Dog's Life complicated at best. I've discussed the novel with many actual Russians, and they don't agree on its meaning, so there is no way I can, with any confidence, post anything I think is a definitive analysis.
To boil it down, the book is about a prominent scientist, Dr. Preobrazhensky, who attempts a surgery that will turn a dog into a man. If there is any allegorical confusion, it isn't here, as Bulgakov was very clearly trying to say something about the Soviet attempt to create a new society. What is less clear is just what he was saying. The 'new man' in question is Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, a man who started life as a dog. During his physical transformation, he also seemingly undergoes a moral transformation, and the raging debates I've had are concerned with whether this moral transformation is due to simply being an amoral creature (i.e., a dog) being asked to understand and participate in a flawed Soviet society, or is it due to Sharikov becoming immoral due to the influence of the seedier elements of that same society.
As an American with only an outsider's view of Soviet history, I feel unqualified to say with any certainty, but my personal opinion the former. Sharikov is 'bad' because he doesn't know any better. A possible comment on how the lumpen-proletariat are simultaneously victims and obstacles of the revolution. And if you don't know what 'lumpen-proletariat' is, then you'd better crack open a history book, because everything Bulgakov writes is so saturated with the politics and social structure of the time, there are layers to the story that will fly over your head and under your radar (feel free to choose our own metaphor) if you're not at least partially familiar with Marxism and the Bolsheviks and the NEP economic system and the Moscow housing shortage and the quirks of Soviet bureaucracy.
If you don't know about any of that stuff...well, Bulgakov has a chaotic and humorous writing style that will likely engage you even if you're not in-synch with many of his sociopolitical themes and nuances. Like all good sci-fi, this short novel works equally well as satire, a philosophical statement (however ambiguous it may be), and simply as a good story. And in the vein of Shelley and Wells, he blends his unique sense of humor with some pretty dark and grotesque imagery. It is effective story telling regardless of how you approach your dissection of its content.
In Russian literature, most Americans know Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Gogol. Bulgakov is less accessible due to the heavily Soviet context of his works, but he is no less revered in Russia. So if you'd like to explore a highly acclaimed yet little known writer, A Dog's Heart is a great introduction to Mikhail Bulgakov.
And when you've finished it, go and find his Master and Margarita, in which the writer takes the satirical darkness to an entirely new level and creates one of the best works in all Soviet, and maybe all of Russian, literature....more
David Mitchell is the literary equivalent of Christopher Nolan. Both men are obvious talents, but both are also burdened with a fanbase that heaps upoDavid Mitchell is the literary equivalent of Christopher Nolan. Both men are obvious talents, but both are also burdened with a fanbase that heaps upon them hyperbolic praise that is a little off-putting to those who haven't drank the kool-aid. Nolan fans who gnash their teeth every year when Nolan isn't nominated for all the Oscars sound a lot like readers who call Mitchell the British Murakami. To those who make that comparison in earnest I say: Have you ever actually read Haruki Murakami?
To be clear, "Ghostwritten" is a nice read, and yes, it explores big ideas and approaches its plot with a complicated interconnected narratives. It's fun and keeps the reader on his or her toes. Several individual stories stand out and elevate the novel as a whole beyond being a mere gimmicky stunt. The Holy Mountain story is patient and dreamy and almost sublime. The 'noncorpum' story plays out like a fascinating thought experiment and compares favorably to any well-written high-concept science fiction you might think of. The Night Train chapter veers off into places wildly different than everything preceeding it, and the resulting tonal incongruance is effective. All of these best bits work really well because in them, Mitchell tosses out one of his much lauded 'big ideas' then lets it float around and become whatever it needs to.
Where the novel falls flat are all the other bits, where the 'big idea' isn't left alone to breathe, but hoisted around on the characters' shoulders and indicated excitedly with big glowy neon signs, just in case you didn't notice how impressive and transcendent it was being. Yes, the arbitrary interconnectedness of the world is an inherently interesting idea, but many of the interconnections are so clunkily established as to rob them of their arbitrariness. Once you grasp the novel's central conceit, it almost becomes a game to see if you can spot the character who will be arbitrarily interconnected in a future chapter. But it's kind of a boring game because many of those characters are so awkwardly shoe-horned into scenes and disrupt the narrative flow so blatently, they're rather easy to spot. These are the moments when the novel begins to feel gimmicky.
There is a similar Jeckyl/Hyde feeling to Mitchell's handling of foreign cultures. He's a Brit and lived in Japan, so all the stuff that takes place in England and Asia carry an authentic weight. I, on the other hand, currently live in Russia, and can say with some authority that the characters populating his version of St. Petersburg don't ring particularly true.
Ultimately, "Ghostwritten" is a novel that is very easy to enjoy so long as you don't buy into the hype of Mitchell's hard-core fanbase. There is a style that David Mitchell does, and he does it well, even in this, his first and therefore least polished novel. But within that style, there is a built-in gimmicky quality that robs each work of its sublimity. An obviousness in the structure that is less impressive with each new novel once you recognize that it's there.
When one reads Murakami, one finishes the last page in a haze of confusion. You know there are sublime, big ideas woven into his novels, but it's hard to say exactly what they are without thinking about them for a bit and maybe talking and arguing about them with a friend, and even days and weeks and months later, you're still left scratching your head about what it all meant.
Mitchell is a fun and exciting writer, but he's too cautious and exacting to ever leave his readers with a sense of unsurety, which robs books like "Ghostwritten", an otherwise pleasant and inventive book, of their edge....more
"Azincourt" reads like a very good documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Battle of Agincourt. It is filled with interesting details about the"Azincourt" reads like a very good documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Battle of Agincourt. It is filled with interesting details about the period and does a remarkable job of placing the confrontation into historical context. The production values are high so the settings can be vividly rendered and the battle scenes effectively staged. Cornwell is able to hire decent actors to play his point-of-view protagonists, so they're modestly engaging when the story focuses on them.
But ultimately, it's a documentary, and is subsequently focused more on interesting historical insight than on plot. Cornwell makes some token efforts at characterization, which aren't totally wasted, but most of the dramatis personae ultimately drift back into medieval cliches. There's the star-crossed peasant lovers, the evil and corrupt priest, the arrogant but noble Frenchman, and the loutish but lovable man-at-arms whose best insults revolve around pissing and farting (and having read "The Canterbury Tales", I can verify that this is historically accurate). Watching their various subplots play out is about as suspenseful as waiting to see if Bugs Bunny will manage to get away from Elmer Fudd for the hundredth time.
No, the real meat of "Azincourt" is the history and geopolitics of the day and the military strategy, and at these, Cornwell shines. The prose is only maybe above average, but the details are fascinating. There are moments where you can almost see the author showing off, proud of some rare nugget of trivia about the 15th Century he uncovered in his research. And more power to him: these are the strongest parts of the novel, and the main reason I can give a moderate recommendation to anyone interested in military history or the medieval era or historical fiction....more
There are two conflicting halves of Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing”. The first is rather effective, and plays like the travelogue of a man giThere are two conflicting halves of Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing”. The first is rather effective, and plays like the travelogue of a man gifted with subtle and enlightening observational skills. In this half of the novel, the author brings his talent to bear on life in Paris and life as a teacher. Having traveled in Paris, I was impressed with how vividly Maksik recreates the dreamy romantic allure of the city. Having been a teacher for many years, I was impressed with his knack for bringing to life the many subtle nuances of the profession that make it one filled with copious gratification and frustration. This half of the novel is a strong piece of observational writing.
The second half of the novel, unfortunately, is a clunky, wish-fulfillment romance with the twin flaws of a) being icky because the hero teacher seduces a teenage student, and b) being ickier because after being published as a work of fiction, has now been accused of being based on the actual illicit goings-on of the author, who like the novel’s hero, also worked at an international school in Paris and who also (allegedly) lost his job after having an affair with a teenage student.
Now, I’d not normally be one to judge an author or his works based on his personal indiscretions (Lord knows I have little room to criticize along those lines). But Maksik has published this novel under circumstances that practically demand you take his personal history into account. Had he published “You Deserve Nothing” as an autobiographical tell-all in which he justifies or asks forgiveness for his deeds, this would be a much different review. But he published it as fiction. A fictional account, in fact, of a teacher seduced by a fawning student, then ousted from his job, not because of harm brought upon anyone, but because of the insular bickering of jealous and cliquish teenage girls.
To be sure, Maksik doesn’t portray himself as a total innocent (and yes, by all accounts, the novel’s hero is a flimsily veiled version of himself). There is a foregone sense of despair from “Will”: he knows he’s violated a fundamental rule of teaching and he patiently waits for, then accepts, his inevitable comeuppance . But there is a deeper subtext at work in which the author views Marie (the smitten student) as a shrinking violet who needs this experience to find her maturity. No matter how angst-ridden Will is, and how selflessly he accepts the mantle of martyrdom, the author is insistent that this was a healthy and productive, if not star-crossed, relationship for Marie.
And who knows, maybe that set-up contains a worthy story to tell.
The problem is that based on eye-witness accounts of many real students and teachers who bore witness to the real-life events around which Maksik’s ‘fiction’ circles, his version of things is frustratingly obnoxious largely because it takes many real people (whose identities the author makes no attempts to disguise) and passes them off as creations of his imagination. But more sinisterly (and this is the icky part) it portrays the victimized student as being on his side during and after the events unfold. Based on statements from the actual girl in question, she was far more conflicted about what transpired, and not an enamored acolyte of her would-be lover.
It’s bad enough to produce a poorly-written, wish-fulfillment romance. It’s an entirely higher level of bastardness to take part in the traumatic events of a real teenage girl’s life, then twist, distort and publish those events as a fictional account starring you as the romantic anti-hero.
Next to the trials and traumas faced by the real school’s faculty and students, and particularly the young girl who served as the model for ‘Marie’, this may seem like a petty final thing to complain about, but as a reader, I’m ultimately frustrated that Maksik is obviously a talented writer. Each time the novel got away from ‘Marie’ and paid attention to the beauty of Paris and the quirky details of the teaching profession, and even an exploration of the misplaced hero-worship of another student, Gilad, the novel has a lovely rhythm and an efficient prose that is light but fulfilling. That the author of that half of the book could be such a douchebag that he’d have the nerve to write the other half of the book as well seems like a real waste of an intriguing talent.
[p.s. I’m rather torn on what rating to give to the book. All things being equal, this is easily a 4-star read. And in my mind, it was an engaging enough experience that the sordid personal background could only whittle away one of those stars. Although I feel a little scuzzy giving it three stars, that’s where my gut it telling me to rate it. So it goes.]...more