I've said that one of my favorite sub-genres is historical fiction about writers. The Master of Peterburg is a tour de force. It's about a brief perioI've said that one of my favorite sub-genres is historical fiction about writers. The Master of Peterburg is a tour de force. It's about a brief period in the life of Dostoevsky during which he tries to reconstruct the death of his adopted son, who may have committed suicide by jumping off a tower, been killed by police, or been murdered by members of a revolutionary group in which he has become entangled.
What makes this novel so interesting is that the fictional Fyodor M. Dostoevsky becomes a character in a Dostoevsky novel. He is Raskolnikov, in Raskolnikov's Petersburg, being interviewed by shifty police bureaucrats. It has the aimless obsessive wandering, the obsessive thinking, the guilt--though, unlike Raskolnikov, we're never sure what Fyodor is guilty of. (The novel is based on a suppressed chapter of Dostoevsky's Demons, so that may be a more appropriate background.)
But the master of Cape Town is also fully present, and the ending is something that I can't imagine Dostoevsky writing: wearing his dead son's white suit, Dostoevsky starts writing a novel based on sketches (or a diary?) in his late son's papers, in which a young man wearing a white suit cruelly teases and abandons a half-wit woman by pretending that he's her imaginary suitor. And the fictional Dostoevsky realizes that this is betrayal; that writing is betrayal: betrayal of his son, of the young girl watching him, of the characters in his son's fiction (or diary). The novelist has no self: he creates himself by becoming others (his son, his son's protagonist), and in the process, betraying them.
And the betrayals continue. I don't know much about Coetzee's life, but one of the reviewers points out that Coetzee's son was killed at the age of 23 in a falling accident. So Coetzee and son mirrors Dostoevsky and foster-son, as the writer empties his own self and reconstitutes it from the raw material surrounding him.
Brilliant writing about a brilliant writer....more
I liked it. I'm not going to say it was fantastic. But I'd read another book by Rathbone, and recommend this to anyone interested in historical fictioI liked it. I'm not going to say it was fantastic. But I'd read another book by Rathbone, and recommend this to anyone interested in historical fiction about the early middle ages.
Two things I like particularly:
In the final volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, a character who has lived for 700 years or so attends a modern Renaissance Faire, which he hates: it's all fantasy, not history. And one of his complaints is that "there's no shit." This book has the shit. Maybe not quite as much as an 11th century Englishman had to live with, but certainly enough to elevate it beyond run-of-the-mill historical fantasy.
And, despite all the action, all the characters (there are plenty of both, mostly historical), and a stage that spreads from Northumberland to the Levant, this book gives me an eerie sense of what it would have been like to live in England before it was overpopulated, when humans were actually relatively scarce. The seals, the oaks, the fog: no other book does it quite so well.
On the other hand, I resist the idealization of the pre-Norman English. I'm sure William wasn't a nice guy; people whose sobriquet is "The Conqueror" rarely are. "The Bastard" was probably more appropriate. But I find it hard to take this world where the King took care of the Earls, who took care of their underlings, who took care of their underlings, down to the lowliest serf (of which there were few). If that's how it was, well, we lost an awful lot when William conquered. But I don't believe that myth; on the contrary, I believe we're still paying the price of that myth. ...more
Another beautiful book by Saramago. His style is quirky, but getting used to it is worth the effort.
What is life for a clerk at the Central RegistryAnother beautiful book by Saramago. His style is quirky, but getting used to it is worth the effort.
What is life for a clerk at the Central Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages? Something to be compressed to a slip of paper and filed away. Something that can't be known, even if you try to track it down. Something that you can decide to live, or not to live, but that can't be lived vicariously, not even with painstaking research. The Registry is a repository of dusty paper that can neither create nor restore life, and certainly can't live it.
I'm perhaps harsher on Senhor José than other people who've written about this book. He's certainly endearing in his humble and muddled way. But at the end, he's a person who hasn't lived, except through his records of other people--even the unknown woman whose history become an obsession, and who he will never meet. Perhaps the most poignant scene (I will try very hard not to write a spoiler) comes towards the end, when he's in her apartment, and considers spending the night in her bed. Of course, she isn't there, and of course, he decides it's best just to go home.
I can't get All the Names' odd kinship to another beautiful book by a Portugese author, Night Train to Lisbon, out of my head. Night Train is much the opposite: about a middle-aged Latin teacher who suddenly walks away from his classes to find the life that he hasn't lived. It's a beautiful pairing.
It's hard to call this a fairy tale or a short story. It's a beautiful little piece of exuberant and humane imagination, whatever that might be calledIt's hard to call this a fairy tale or a short story. It's a beautiful little piece of exuberant and humane imagination, whatever that might be called. Read it. ...more
I'm a Banville fan, and I've read most of what he's written. Ancient Light didn't grab me; it's a lot like The Sea, but not as good.
Like most BanvilleI'm a Banville fan, and I've read most of what he's written. Ancient Light didn't grab me; it's a lot like The Sea, but not as good.
Like most Banville books, Ancient Light is about memory, storytelling, and the relationship between them. What are memories, if not the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? What is accurate, and what is inaccurate? What does it mean to remember something?
The protagonist brings this up time and time again throughout the novel: did I remember this correctly? It couldn't possibly have happened like this, but here's what I remember. But that trite, commonplace insecurity about memory is blown out of the water by the final chapters, which throw the entire narrative into question. Did anything described in the previous chapters actually happen? It's breathtaking, and I only wish the rest of the book deserved an ending so brilliant.
I have been careful not to write a spoiler, so if you want to find out more, you'll have to read it yourself.
[Aside to self: I really ought to re-read and review the many other Banville books I've loved, particularly Copernicus, Kepler, and Athena]...more
One of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. Everyone says that, so I might as well.
After a re-reading following Márquez' death, something elseOne of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. Everyone says that, so I might as well.
After a re-reading following Márquez' death, something else that everyone is doing, I'm even more impressed. I have not traveled in South America, but there's a sense in which this book is South America. The endless revolutions, the macho, the exuberance, the religion, the bananas, the decay: it's all here. We've wondered for years what the "great American novel is." We still don't know. But this is surely the great South American novel.
I'm also fascinated by Márquez' claim that this is not magical realism: it's just realism. He's right. There is an abundance of imagination, and certainly no small amount of exaggeration, but this is a story that takes a grandmother's stories very seriously. "Magical realism" is a defense that Norteamericanos use so they don't have to think about swarms of yellow butterflies. Or, for that matter, court decisions that rule that an American banana company never existed, and therefore couldn't be held culpable for its actions. ...more
Interesting, but lightweight. More about the personalities and the walks in the woods than the science.
It is very sad to see the US' programs for discInteresting, but lightweight. More about the personalities and the walks in the woods than the science.
It is very sad to see the US' programs for discovering planets outside the solar system, and even life outside the solar system, go by the wayside. But this book didn't convice me that this is the most important scientific question facing us. ...more
This made a lot more sense to me after I realized that Eggers is the creator of McSweeney's Internet Tendency. If you like McSweeney's, well, here's 5This made a lot more sense to me after I realized that Eggers is the creator of McSweeney's Internet Tendency. If you like McSweeney's, well, here's 500 pages of it. You may find that it's quite possible to overdose, even if you like McSweeney's a lot.
There are parts of this book that are sheer, well, staggering genius: a few pages that could have come straight from On the Road, the ending paragraphs that are riffing on Molly's soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses. And lots that's simply annoying, which I suppose is what you'd expect of any heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
Ultimately, despite all the denials, the "how to read this book" that tells you to skip everything after the first few chapters, the preface that you're not supposed to read, the "acknowledgements" that you're also not supposed to read, and that mock almost every theme that might conceivably be present, this is a very human and loving book. It's a book that's cynical about cynicism. ...more
Just a beautiful short book. Could easily be read in one sitting.
As I was reading it, I thought "This is Gaiman's version of John Banville'sThe Sea".Just a beautiful short book. Could easily be read in one sitting.
As I was reading it, I thought "This is Gaiman's version of John Banville'sThe Sea". It's irreducibly Gaiman, but also as carefully and beautifully written as Banville. And about many of the same themes: memory, childhood, death, and loss, but placed in a mythic context that Gaiman handles better than any other living author. ...more
If you look at my list, you'll see that I'm indulging my taste for African writers.
And I'm trying not to write a review that just trashes the many ridIf you look at my list, you'll see that I'm indulging my taste for African writers.
And I'm trying not to write a review that just trashes the many ridiculously bad reviews of this novel. I can't resist entirely. To the person who wrote that "nothing happens": what happens in any novel? Jane Austen: two people get married. William Faulkner: people obsess over their incestuous ancestors. Herman Melville: a bunch of guys kill a really BIG whale. Shakespeare: lots of people kill each other, sometimes by accident. Get over it. If all you want is action, read Rick Riordan.
This is a book about people trapped in their own personal mythologies: most notably Okonkwo's desire not to be like his father, who was poor, lazy, and a coward. He "hated everything his father loved": in particular, gentleness, conversation, storytelling, music. That's really the framing for the novel. Okonkwo isn't some kind of African hero who's taken down by the colonialists: he's deeply flawed himself, unable to compromise and adapt, unable to love his firstborn son. It's no surprise that he self-destructs.
When I picked this book up at the library, I grabbed one of those school editions with supplemental material at the end. Normally I ignore that stuff, but this one included an interview in which Achebe quotes an essential Ibo proverb: "You can stand in the house of a coward and point to where a brave man once stood." Ibo culture is hardly unique in valuing bravery, but its attitude towards bravery is much more nuanced. Okonkwo's tragedy lies in his inability to do anything but behave as a caricature of bravery.
The title, taken from Yeats' The Second Coming, is also crucial. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Okonkwo has no center; he's only capable of extremes. And while the first Christian missionary seems capable of holding a center (he's interested in the clan religion, and attracts converts by building a school and a hospital), Mr. Smith, his successor, is as one-sided as Okonkwo. The center cannot hold when it's the worst who are full of passionate intensity. Can Africans and Europeans accommodate each other? Perhaps, but not when both sides are full of "brave" men.
One more thing. When I was in my 20s, I went on a volunteer work project to Angoon, Alaska, a village of about 400 Tlingit natives and no whites. And it was challenging to hear their stories: about how they were a "rich" people who suddenly found out that they were "poor," about how they suddenly found out that the land they had lived on for generations was now "owned" by some other nation (and its lumber companies), and was no longer theirs. No battles, no wars, which would at least have let them understand how and what they lost. You see the same disorientation here. The British don't conquer; they just assume.
This isn't the greatest novel to come out of Africa, but it may be the first to think seriously about why "things fall apart." And, getting back to the reviews, almost every reviewer who hated the book assumed that Okonkwo was some sort of model African. That's the same assumption Mr. Smith and the District Commissioner make. To make that assumption is to miss the book's point entirely....more
I almost took this book back to the library before starting to read it. Once I started, I was oddly fascinated. But not in a way that would lead me toI almost took this book back to the library before starting to read it. Once I started, I was oddly fascinated. But not in a way that would lead me to give a strong recommendation.
It's well written (as you'd expect from a Norton editor-in-chief). But it moves slowly, and has a 19th century feel; sections begin with a chapter of scenery-setting that's reminiscent of George Eliot. That's a bit of an anachronism in a novel that takes place in (roughly) 1916. The narrator's "this is a history, not a novel" framing gets tiresome, particularly when he brings it back at the end.
As to the story itself: despite the Romeo and Juliet remarks on the back cover, I don't see any Romeos and Juliets here. It does have a pair of young lovers, who despite their magnetic attraction, never seem to be made for each other. Yes, Toma is a better match for Harriet than her husband, but that wouldn't be hard. Potentially more interesting is the problem of invention, creation, and systems thinking. As one of the characters says repeatedly, invention isn't the issue; it's building systems. But system building ends up with Toma caught up in a patent problem that involves both GE and Nikola Tesla (who doesn't appear in the novel). And the way Lawrence handles this problem is hardly compelling; it's a minor thread that occasionally comes to the foreground. So are other potential themes, including race, class, the status of immigrants.
Race, class, and immigrants play an interesting role in the book's language. When Toma (a Serbian immigrant) is with Harriet (New England heiress of a failing iron foundry), the language is decidedly late Victorian, where a lock of hair only has to brush against skin to elicit the repressed longing and desire of a late-19th century heroine. But when he's with the mulatto girlfriend he inherited from his Black boss, the language is proto 50-shades: "she bit him on the nipple. He was immediately ready." It's an important contrast, but it never gets more than interesting. Those two worlds, different as they are, never intersect. And Toma ultimately goes with suppressed desire, rather than real passion. Too bad for him.
I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy it. This is the real Steampunk: inventors making stuff work at the start of the electrical age. But while Lightning Keeper is an OK book, it's not a memorable one.
What to say. I'm a big fan of Pynchon, particularly Gravity's Rainbow and the under-appreciated Vineland. He's probably the greatest living comic noveWhat to say. I'm a big fan of Pynchon, particularly Gravity's Rainbow and the under-appreciated Vineland. He's probably the greatest living comic novelist, and the greatest living historical novelist, both at the same time.
But this one never grabbed me. It's Pynchon; there are a lot of characters. But for once, I thought there were too many, and I couldn't remember who was who. And for the most part, I didn't care. There's no Tyrone Slothrop trying to keep his balls on (read it...), no Darryl Louise Moody doing penance for an unforgivable martial arts maneuver. Not even any banana pancakes from a banana tree on top of a London apartment block. And no Mason and Dixon trying to work out their relationship in the swamps of the new world.
That's not the real problem, though. I lived through the dotcom bubble. It's easy to be cynical about it. But cynicism is cheap. Insight is hard. Bleeding Edge is about cynicism, not insight. Gravity's Rainbow is a powerful re-reading of World War II through the lens of Vietnam. It blows apart your assumptions and the comfortable narratives you've been taught by schoolteachers (and parents), so you can reassemble them. That just doesn't happen here. Yes, the entrepreneurs of the Internet Bubble were dirty, greedy capitalists, just trying to make money regardless of the cost, human or otherwise. Who knew?
I could (and probably should) give this another read, and see if it's better the second time. ...more
Fitzgerald isn't my favorite author by a long shot. But nobody ever reads his stories, and they're worth your time. He has a wonderful ear for the lanFitzgerald isn't my favorite author by a long shot. But nobody ever reads his stories, and they're worth your time. He has a wonderful ear for the language of the 1920s. ...more
A lovely historical novel about Edward Cole, a self-made bookseller at the end of the 19th century in Melbourne, Australia. I don't know how much of tA lovely historical novel about Edward Cole, a self-made bookseller at the end of the 19th century in Melbourne, Australia. I don't know how much of the history is accurate; Lang has also written a scholarly biography of Cole (E.W. Cole - Chasing the Rainbow), so I assume she knows her facts. The fictional Cole is a character I would have loved to meet: he does what he loves, and loves what he does, in total disregard for business sense. When the Australian economy collapses, he expands his bookstore; he adds a publishing business, a tea room, parrots, and monkeys (just because he likes them), building what was arguably the largest bookstore in history. And he almost goes to ruin defending his Asian employees against the legally enforced racism of time.
I loved The Chess Garden, but John the Baptizer just plodded. Not that you'd expect a novel about a figure like John to be a thriller, but this felt lI loved The Chess Garden, but John the Baptizer just plodded. Not that you'd expect a novel about a figure like John to be a thriller, but this felt leaden. Lots of scholarship went into this book, and there are some interesting insights into John's character, but that doesn't save it. The dysfunctional Herod family is more interesting, but that isn't where Hansen's heart is.
John is a gnomic, elliptical character in the Bible, and trying to give him a narrative and the history, is a project that's probably doomed for failure, though heroic in its own way. I imagine that Hansen felt something like John Milton writing lines for God in Paradise Lost: "oh, crap, wtf do I do now?" ...more
Certainly a book to be read slowly and carefully. Banville's writing is wonderful, as always. But this is not a page turner. Reminds me of Night TrainCertainly a book to be read slowly and carefully. Banville's writing is wonderful, as always. But this is not a page turner. Reminds me of Night Train to Lisbon, though in an oddly inverted way: a life that is shrinking to nothing, rather than expanding to new possibilities. ...more
I'm not sure why I read this; it's the sort of book I'd expect to be awful. A retelling of the Adam and Eve story? Really?
But Belli has written a veryI'm not sure why I read this; it's the sort of book I'd expect to be awful. A retelling of the Adam and Eve story? Really?
But Belli has written a very sensitive and nuanced book. God rarely shows up, which is no doubt a good thing. It's hard to write about God without ending up "of the devils party without knowing it" (Blake). The Serpent is sly, cunning, intelligent, and very attractive and human. And Adam and Eve are just people trying to figure out what's going on, and survive in a world that has suddenly become hostile. How do you understand concepts like death if you started your existence in a world where death didn't exist? How do you deal with facts like hunger, food, survival, and eventually murder?
Spoiler? Well, you know how the story ends....more