"Sacred Games" is a sprawling thing that tries to be a noir detective story, a bookish equivalent of the action thriller, and a Dickens-scale state-of...more"Sacred Games" is a sprawling thing that tries to be a noir detective story, a bookish equivalent of the action thriller, and a Dickens-scale state-of-India novel, all in one go. It reads as two alternating and quite loosely connected novellas, interspersed with a sprinkling of short stories that are related to but fairly tangential to the action of the two central stories. Although any given portion of the book is well-written and lively enough, the cumulative effect of so much material can be a bit of a test of patience.
Although it certainly offers an interesting glimpse into Indian police and criminal culture, "Sacred Games" is held back a bit by its eagerness to teach us about how things work in India. Chandra alleges an endemic level of petty corruption in the Bombay police establishment, and I have no reason to doubt him. For his characters to be continually mulling over the nature of this corruption, however, feels a bit unnatural, and Chandra is not always able to resist letting his fiction turn into something like expose'.
This tendency of characters to relate to their world in ways that seem unnaturally educational is not restricted to police sociology. At one point late in the book, an Indian character speaks at considerable length about how he feels about American films. This interlude did nothing to advance the story or to develop the character; indeed, it seemed to be there only to teach me what American films look like from an Indian point of view. Interesting? You bet! But a bit disruptive to the story's integrity.
Not at all a bad read, "Sacred Games" is however nowhere near brisk enough to make a fully satisfying genre novel and is just a bit too self-conscious and didactic to fully succeed as a capital-N novel. Not recommended for slow or impatient readers.(less)
Jane Eyre is a well-crafted and entertaining novel, and I daresay it must have seemed at the time like a quantum leap forward in pleasure reading. Its...moreJane Eyre is a well-crafted and entertaining novel, and I daresay it must have seemed at the time like a quantum leap forward in pleasure reading. Its greatest strength is in the development of its title character, who is the book's narrator and protagonist. She is a solumn but quirky heroine, not a little uptight but also bracingly intelligent, diligent, and sassy. I suspect that Jane Eyre was also, by the standards of the day, an unusually independent and liberated female character. The use of the first person is intimate and beautifully pulled off; Brontë crafts a character-narrator who writes about herself in a way perfectly consistant with her reported thoughts and actions, and this adds a great deal of depth and verisimilitude to the book.
[mild spoilers from here on out]
Brontë also keeps us wondering how her story is going to end. Even having seen countless allusions to Jane Eyre over the course of my reading life, even knowing that I would eventually encounter the famous sentence "Reader, I married him," I was still left guessing until very close to the final page which way things would fall and who would be the lucky groom. Importantly, I found myself caring a great deal how the book would end, which is always a sign that the author has done well.
There is, to be sure, quite a bit about Jane Eyre that seems a little corny today. Who knows, maybe it seemed a little corny at the time as well. There's a Great Big Coincidence, there's an Unexpected Revelation Involving Money, and there's a little cosmic magic towards the end that makes the eyes roll a bit. But eh, that's the Nineteenth Century for you. (To be specific, it's the middle Nineteenth Century; part of the historical interest of the book is its portrayal, from a vantage a decade or so later, of the profound isolation possible in the last years before rail travel radically shrank the world, and of the epic journeys still undertaken then to traverse just a few dozen miles.)
Too, I found the overall structure of the novel slightly inelegant. It is constructed in four episodes -- four distinct times and places in the title character's life -- and an coda. The first two episodes (early childhood and schooling) are brief and tightly constructed to the point of seeming almost chopped off, ending just as they are reaching their stride. The third episode (Mr. Rochester's house), on the other hand, sprawls out in extended slo-mo, gleefully hanging on to its Big Secret for as long as humanly possible. Generally I don't feel a enormous need for perfect order and balance, but something about this assymetry -- or rather, the irregular pacing that produced it -- bugged me a bit.
But on the whole, Reader, I liked this book. I liked Jane and her uncanny understanding of the psychology of courtship. I liked the big, brash, sharp-witted Mr. Rochester, with all his many faults and flaws. I liked being called "Reader." I liked the musty smell of old book wafting up from a classic novel, too. Wrapped in a quilt on autumn evenings, making my way through this vintage volume, I felt like Charlotte Brontë was right to call me "Reader." I'd earned the title.
Plot: Plucky girl escapes abusive foster home to attend abusive school for orphans. Arriving at adulthood, she meets Mr. Right*, but is troubled by the magnitude of his asterisk. Then she meets Mr. OK, who is nice enough until she does him a big favor, at which point he turns into a world-class knob. Eventually she marries somebody.(less)
Might be better titled "Why Video Games Matter TO ME," and slightly marred by the dismount, an odd and oddly mean-spirited attack on the concept of sp...moreMight be better titled "Why Video Games Matter TO ME," and slightly marred by the dismount, an odd and oddly mean-spirited attack on the concept of spoiler warnings. Otherwise a bracingly smart and often quite funny collection of essays on live-action console video games. It's a genre I have never played and have no interest in ever playing, but Bissell's musings still make provocative reading.(less)
What a disappointment of a sequel! It treads water for its first quarter, then unravels into a mishmash of characters with Amazing Superhuman Powers w...moreWhat a disappointment of a sequel! It treads water for its first quarter, then unravels into a mishmash of characters with Amazing Superhuman Powers who keep bumping into each other in a rolling series of Really Amazing Coincidences. And then, the book slams to an end with half of its narrative balls still in the air.
Not bad as pulp fiction, I suppose, but if books have IQs this one's is about half of its predecessor's. (less)
Better than expected. PKD turns out to be a competent genre writer, and I have been giving him short shrift for many years. But there's still a wooden...moreBetter than expected. PKD turns out to be a competent genre writer, and I have been giving him short shrift for many years. But there's still a wooden quality he shares with a lot of the "classic science fiction" authors of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It comes out in overeager exposition -- especially in the first half of the novel, in this case -- and an excitement about the premise that causes inattention to the craft of storytelling. Characters are thin, but not paper-thin. Dialog is actually pretty good. Puckish self-reference is a snooze, especially coming at the very end of the book. "I might have used the I Ching to write this!" PKD challenges us -- but why would we care about that? Shouldn't you be bringing your story in for a landing?(less)
Beowulf is a message in a bottle from an amazingly remote time and way of life. It is like a letter that you find in the attic, written by a cultural...moreBeowulf is a message in a bottle from an amazingly remote time and way of life. It is like a letter that you find in the attic, written by a cultural great-great-grandparent, an eccentric ancestor that you never had the chance to meet and whom you know precious little about, but whose influence is still felt every time the family gets together.
The differences between your life and the life of a medieval Anglo-Saxon tribesman are notable. You, gentle reader, live perched on the framework of a global economic system, a relatively stable social order, and myriad wonders of technological achievement and materials science. The Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, has a life style that, although by no means "natural" -- we're talking about human beings, here -- is far more exposed to the elements and to the immediate questions of food supply and survival than we are or probably could bear to be. Manufactured items are exceedingly rare. With communication sporadic and resources few, human-on-human violence is a commonplace.
These are people without literacy, without an organized justice system, without antibiotics. They can not expect to be famous in the future or to be defended from assault by others, and they know that life is always extremely tenuous. All of this breeds a way of thinking about priorities that seems to the modern eye, shall we say, bracingly rugged. There are no frills, and there is no romance. Beowulf, the warrior hero, lays it out for us before going into battle:
"...do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark."
A NOTE ON THE TEXT No one knows the exact origins of the Beowulf story. We don't know whether it was an important legend among the Anglo-Saxons or just a random one that happened to survive by accident. It is an oddity in that it is a written relic of a non-literate people; the oral tale survived long enough into the reintroduction of literacy for someone -- two someones, judging by the handwriting -- to write it all down.
There is a lot of Christian content in Beowulf layered over a clearly pagan core narrative. This may be because the scribes who wrote the tale down, who were almost certainly monks, manipulated its content; or, it's possible that the tale had evolved Christian trappings among its tellers in the newly Christianized population. Either way, the text reflects its having been written down in the period of transition from non-literate pagan England to literate, Christian England.
THAT WAS A GOOD KING The Anglo-Saxons are a tribal people; in the grand game of Civilization, they have discovered Iron Working but not Monarchy. What they call "Kings" are really regional warlords. The job of these kings is to protect their people through wise leadership in war and diplomacy, and to ensure that everyone gets an equal cut of the spoils. Alliances must be well thought out, wars must be prosecuted with vigor and valor, and treasure and the honor that it signifies must be distributed fairly and properly to those who have earned it.
To an great extent, Beowulf is a kind of Medieval Machiavelli, a manual of advice for the Anglo-Saxon king. Beyond the basic tale of hero fighting monsters, the text is packed with digressive speeches that recount the histories of tribes, heroes, and events. Each of these tales comes with an implied suggestion for the best practice of leadership.
One of the key messages of Beowulf, for instance, is "avoid feuds." The idea that "it is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" is intended to deter crime and violence by the threat of reprisal, and doubtless it often served that function. It's an unstable system, though, in that once the peace is broken it tends to stay broken, in an endless cycle of reprisal killings. And this is bad. Feuds are costly, disruptive, and almost impossible to stop once they are underway. They can fester for generations. The Anglo-Saxons, as you might expect, understood the psychology of this very well; at one point, the tale contemplates two tribes trying to end a decades-old feud through a judicious political marriage:
"Than an old spearman will speak while they are drinking [at the wedding feast:], having glimpsed some heirloom that brings alive memories of the massacre; his mood will darken and heart-stricken, in the stress of his emotion, he will begin to test a young man's temper and stir up trouble, starting like this: 'Now, my friend, don't you recognize your father's sword, his favourite weapon, the one he wore when he went out in his war-mask to face the Danes on that final day? ...and now here's a son of one or other of those same killers coming through our hall overbearing us, mouthing boasts, and rigged in armor that by right is yours.' And so he keeps on, recalling and accusing, working things up with bitter words until one of the [bride's:] retainers lies spattered in blood, split open on his father's account.... Then on both sides the oath-bound lords will break the peace...."
It's hard to end feuds. Readers of Beowulf are reminded of this constantly, and reminded that the best path is to make sure that feuds don't get started in the first place.
An even more important message is "be generous." Give until it hurts. In Beowulf, the final measure of a king is how much loot he is passing around. If you are distributing a lot of gold to your people, it shows that you have successfully fostered and defended the wealth of the community, and that you honor and respect the work of the people who made it all possible. It is, oddly enough, a more or less democratic mechanism, a way of assuring the consent of the governed. If you are tight-fisted, you will sow resentment and dissent, and you will not be king for long.
Considering that we are in the Early Middle Ages, here -- the proverbial "Dark Ages" -- its impressive what a promenant role queens have in this system of distributing wealth and honor. They mix freely and with apparent ease through the company of warriors, and the honors that they bestow through words and gifts are portrayed as somewhat independent of, but equal to, those of their husbands. That they possess some measure of power -- and that they, like their husbands, were considered under obligation to exercise that power wisely -- is shown clearly in this episode:
"Great Queen Modthryth perpetrated terrible wrongs. If any retainer ever made bold to look her in the face, if an eye not her lord's stared at her directly during daylight, the outcome was sealed: he was kept bound in hand-tightened shackles, racked, tortured until doom was pronounced -- death by the sword, slash of blade, blood-gush and death qualms in an evil display. Even a queen outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that. A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults."
Queens are definitely not entirely autonomous, but then this is not a society of autonomous individuals. Everyone in the community is bound to everyone else by obligations of service, responsibility, and the sharing of loot.
ABOUT THAT LOOT The Anglo-Saxons are mad for it. They do not share our notion of the embarassment of riches. Unabashed materialists, they find gold fascinating and lovely, and frankly want as much of it as possible. In a time of very, very few manufactured goods, a handful of gold hoops seems to have represented the good life. Indeed, to an Anglo-Saxon gold "rings" (bracelets, really) ARE the good life -- they are the luxury automobile, the McMansion, the marble countertops, the master bedroom suite with wraparound shower, the weekends in Aspen, the whole deal. It's all wrapped up in a few bands of metal. A person's rings represent their honor and their standing among their peers, and thus, like the luxuries of any era, they have a psychological worth unrelated to their inherent beauty or utility.
This is the kind of thing that makes Beowulf so fascinating. Its characters think and act in ways that are often wholly alien to us. But at the same time, they are human beings and, for those of us who grew up in the matrix of the English speaking world, they are important cultural ancestors. In there with the alien, there are plenty of glimpses of what we share.
ON THE TRANSLATION I read the popular recent translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heany. This version is sometimes criticized on technical grounds and for being "too much Seamus Heany, not enough Beowulf." I am unqualified to comment on the technical questions, but can comfortably say that "too much Seamus Heaney" is an oxymoron. The text as he renders it is a brilliant piece of alliterative poetry. I read it out loud, probably to the puzzlement of the neighbors, and it felt great coming out of the mouth. The only problem was getting the rumbling rhythms out of my speech for a few hours afterwards.
SUMMARY You know the story. Man fights monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mom, and a dragon. The fights don't make up much of the text, though, and for my money they are just window dressing for a much more interesting meditation on the qualities and responsibilities of leadership. (less)
My edition leaves out the subtitle and is just called "Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible," but since everyone natters on about how damn dry the forest i...moreMy edition leaves out the subtitle and is just called "Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible," but since everyone natters on about how damn dry the forest is the word go, the subtitle isn't really much of a spoiler. I have a small collection of hard-cover Tom Swifts, probably first editions. They seemed impossibly ancient when I first read them, although this one was only 45 years old at the time. Now it's pushing 85, which doesn't seem so old. It must have been printed on the most acidic paper available, though, because the pages are browned and brittle; it SEEMS like a much older book than it actually is.
How does the writing hold up? Not as bad as I expected! "Victor Appleton," if that was a real person, was clearly a very capable writer! And, I'm guessing he cranked this stuff out at least a chapter a day, basically sending first drafts in to the publisher, where a red pencil was ceremonially waved over the manuscript before it was set to type. The plotting, characterization, and dialog are all perfectly wooden, but no worse than in most mass-produced genre fiction down the ages.
The two servants of color who hate each other because they compete for the love of Master or "Massa" Swift are a bit much to swallow, and should have been in 1930, and the dialect writing for the Swift family's faithful "Negro" is a national embarrassment. Points to the Appleton machine, I guess, for including two sympathetic Italian characters to counterbalance the evil Italian character. And, it is interesting in a young adult serial novel to see the author make gestures towards explaining how things work -- you actually come out of "Big Dirigible" with a sense of young Mr. Swift's management style, credit standing, and ability to weigh immediate profit against the possibility for publicity and relationship-building when putting together a contract.
Three stars was just sentimental -- these books are from my childhood. This book "was OK": two stars it is.(less)
It's hard not to read this book on the terms of its movie adaptation. We find that: --> for long stretches, the book is virtually the movie's scree...moreIt's hard not to read this book on the terms of its movie adaptation. We find that: --> for long stretches, the book is virtually the movie's screenplay, yet --> the movie's endgame -- the whole Wilson Pickett business -- is a tack-on that isn't in the book. The book's ending is more to scale with the rest of the story, but with a charming optimism to it. --> the book is very short and very brisk, and probably has a shorter running time than the movie.
Now, in the unlikely event that you read this book on a James Joyce kick, it is hard not to note the long long shadow of the great literary modernest on even the light literature of later years. Most readers of, say, 11th grade level or higher could cruise through this puppy without really noticing that it's a non-traditional narrative. Yet it is, quite: there is very little exposition, and virtually no physical description of characters. Almost the whole narrative load is carried by dialogue, without quotation marks and usually unattributed, and with a surprising proportion of song lyrics and musical noises "spoken" by horns, guitars, and drums. The effect is to make the story vivid and intimate, but a whole lot of ground had to be broken before this kind of innovative voice could be written and read as an accessible entertainment. Thanks, Mr. Joyce!(less)
I know more about the background of this book than I usually do because the edition I read had a foreword by Da...moreWell, it’s no Lolita.
But then, what is?
I know more about the background of this book than I usually do because the edition I read had a foreword by David Lodge. He’s one of my favorite writers-about-literature, so I actually read what he had to say, although not of course until I had finished the book. And I’m glad I did; not only did his thoughts and comments enrich my understanding, but his at-first baffling description of a key scene made me realize that I had accidentally turned over two pages at the end of a chapter, thereby missing one of the best passages in the book.
Anyway. Pnin is an early entry in the campus comedy genre, a portrait of an eccentric professor of Russian written in seven discrete, episodic chapters. From the foreword, I learned that Nabokov wrote the book in a series of short stories that were first published in the New Yorker before being appearing together as a novel. Yet despite this, and despite that the individual episodes vary widely in tone and theme, this is no collection of short stories. The novel is in fact tightly interwoven, with mysteries from the opening page that aren't cleared up until the final chapter, and a florid abundance of subplots that gently progress over the course of the narrative. Much of the primary plot, the “story,” happened long before the rather quotidian events described in the book, and is only gradually uncovered and discovered through fragmentary references to the past. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to describe Pnin as a kind of Cubist portrait, in which we see a single life from all sorts of angles simultaneously – or at least as "simultaneously" as you can burn through 130 pages (it’s short!).
This being Nabokov, Pnin is chockablock with erudite wordplay that is positively Nabokovian, and I say this in every confidence that two-thirds of it went straight over my head. But it ain’t all highbrow stuff, either. There’s plenty of making fun of how our hero, the eponymous Professor Timofey Pnin, talks funny, and there’s a long scene that relies on the sitcom device of him thinking he’s talking to one guy when he’s actually talking to somebody else. The opening scene, in fact, is a long shaggy dog story about how Pnin has got on the wrong train and hasn’t figured it out yet, ho ho ho! It’s not likely to have you in stitches, but Nabokov has the comic timing to make it all work.
Now if you’re like me, you are fascinated by the way that the nature of the narrator structures a work of literature, amIright? And in this regard, Pnin is positively over the top. From the first sentence, Nabokov introduces an ambiguity as to whether the story is being told by a garden variety omniscient implied narrator or by a specific but unnamed storyteller within the world of the novel. But as we start to get comfortable with the omniscient narrator, who after all constantly remarks on Pnin’s thoughts and feelings, the unnamed storyteller will suddenly pop up and assert himself, remarking offhandedly for instance that someone who Pnin knows is a mutual acquaintance. As the book continues, these intrusions get more and more frequent until, by the last chapter, the narrator is writing in the first person and is the active party, Pnin himself still at the center of attention but as the object of someone else’s observation. (And just to put the cherry on the cake, Lodge tells us that Nabokov drops numerous biographical hints that the narrator is, in essence, real-life Nabokov.) I don’t recall seeing anything quite like it before, and no wonder; this kind of writing requires a technical virtuoso.
But is it any good? Well, in most of the chapters, Professor Pnin is a fairly pathetic figure. His research is silly, he’s a poor teacher, and he talks funny. He’s not well-integrated into American culture, his personal life is lonely and unhappy, and he is petty, selfish, and vain. If he stayed in this one mode to the end of the book, he would be pretty hard to take.
But, there are surprises waiting that add a great deal of depth to the novel. On a weekend road trip, Pnin gets himself lost on country roads through his foolishness and vanity – but then, suddenly, reaches his destination, a country house where he is staying for the weekend with several of his fellow expatriates, intellectuals who fled the Bolsheviks and then the Nazis before washing up in alien North America. Among his own kind, the ridiculous Dr. Pnin is suddenly revealed as an intelligent, sensitive, even urbane man with more subtleties and sorrows than anything we have seen of him on campus. A few chapters later, he hosts a party for his handful of campus friends, and although he is still a bit of a buffoon in this setting we can also see that he is a humane figure who is playing a tough deal as best he can.
So Pnin is funny, but darkly funny. It’s witty but spare. It’s a lot of fun for readers who like to put some work into their fun.(less)