This is such a lovely book. On the one hand it is a brilliant intellectual accomplishment: a re-purposing of a classic epic poem from a feminist perspThis is such a lovely book. On the one hand it is a brilliant intellectual accomplishment: a re-purposing of a classic epic poem from a feminist perspective, and a clever interpolation of contemporary narrative with ancient literature and myth. On the other hand, it’s just a beautiful novel: a portrait of a shattered family, an unconventional love story, and a frank depiction of the often violent ways societies respond to change. Add to this a rich, loving portrayal of ancient pre-Roman Italy that feels somehow true, and it has earned a place next to Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian as one of the best fictional depictions of ancient Rome out there. ...more
I'm not much for royalty, and I know nothing about the War of the Roses--even the Wikipedia entry on that subject gTomorrow a whisper may destroy you.
I'm not much for royalty, and I know nothing about the War of the Roses--even the Wikipedia entry on that subject gives me a sense of confusion I haven't felt since high school algebra classes--but Josephine Tey manages to recast one of the most infamous scandals of of that era as a kind of detective story, and it works remarkably. Once I found out what this novel's schitck was I was ready to bounce, but I'm glad I didn't.
Inspector Grant is laid up in a hospital bed recovering from a bad fall, and a friend brings him a portrait of Richard III. Grant, who doesn't recognize him as Richard III at first and who has a talent for reading faces, at first places him "on the bench" instead of "in the docks", and he is surprised when he learns that it is the face of one of England's most notorious royal murderers.
Because he's bored out of his skull sitting in a hospital bed, he starts to "investigate" further, trying to figure out how his impression of the portrait could have been wrong. Virtually immobile, he is assisted in this by a visiting US scholar, Brent Caradine, and the bulk of the novel consists of dialogue between Grant and Carradine, recounting historical events. For a novel where the main characters sit around and talk about centuries-old events, it manages to be both engaging and suspenseful. Tey gets in a lot of good digs at history and those who write it (history, it turns out, isn't just written by the victors, but by the victor's lackeys), and mints a term, Tonnypandy (in reference to the Tonnypandy Riots) to refer to false events that are provably false that people go on believing are part of actual history anyway.
It's a pretty incredible thing for a mystery novel to work with no on-page murder, corpses, chase scenes, or sex, but the historical intrigue carries the story quite well....more
These are some very elegant, philosophically charged science fiction/alt history love stories. My favorites: "The Gift," about an off-world tour guideThese are some very elegant, philosophically charged science fiction/alt history love stories. My favorites: "The Gift," about an off-world tour guide writer's tragically misconstrued love affair, and "The Héloïse Archive," a wonderful novella consisting of a series of newly-discovered letters from Héloïse d’Argenteuil to Peter Abelard that, along with showing Abelard's darker side, chronicles a miracle at the Paraclete Oratory that changed the direction of history....more
Last month I was visiting the MFA in Boston. After an hour or two of wandering through rooms sporting giant, bombastic 19th century American paintingsLast month I was visiting the MFA in Boston. After an hour or two of wandering through rooms sporting giant, bombastic 19th century American paintings, I came upon a dim hall with small, colorful prints hanging from the wall, like this one:
Although the Edo referred to in the Hiroshige prints is a place (a city later to be renamed Tokyo), Edo also refers to the period of Japanese history starting from around the turn of the 17th century through the late 19th century. I know nothing of Japanese history, but like all good art, the Hiroshige prints evoke their place and time so vividly that by the time I left the hall I felt like an expert on the Tokugawa shogunate. When I got home I ordered several reproductions of my favorite pieces.
Coincidentally, during my trip to Boston, I was reading Cloud Atlas, and was becoming one of the millions to fall under its spell, and so when shortly thereafter I saw Mitchell’s new book in my local bookstore sporting a Hiroshige print on its cover (the very same one shown above, in fact, titled “Sugatami Bridge, Omokage Bridge”), and when I saw that it was set in Nagasaki during the Edo period at the turn of the 19th century, I immediately put my request in at the library and bided my time.
Edo-era Japan was notoriously insular, and the island of Dejima, the geographic locus of this novel, epitomizes that insularity: Dutch traders to Japan could not set foot in the Japanese nation, but this tiny artificial island in Nagasaki bay could house the Dutch garrison because it was not technically Japanese soil.
On this island just before the turn of the 19th century arrives Jacob de Zoet, a devout, somewhat naïve Dutch clerk with an I-cannot-tell-a-lie kind of honesty. Although tasked by the new Chief Resident to document the corruption that has afflicted the Dutch operation in the years preceding his arrival, Jacob soon gets caught up in a series of intrigues, including bending his ethics to assist the Chief Resident in his negotiations to increase the copper quota, a shady transaction with one of Nagasaki’s most powerful and shady players, and internecine squabbles among his own people culminating in a nasty double cross of sorts. And then he meets Orito, a Japanese woman with a burn mark covering half her face, falls in love, and we’re off to the races.
Jacob’s interest in Orito, which is the string that pulls us through the first third of the novel, feels a bit forced at first, almost as if the author is nudging the two together and saying “there there you two, go develop a love interest so I can get this novel off the ground.” Likewise, early on, the dialog among the Dutch feels similarly forced, with authorial interruptions separating the first clause of a character’s words from the rest, and a very stylized patois that at times strikes a false note. But as the story builds a head of steam and the characters evolve their individual quiddity this weakness fall away and, from around page 150 or so I was captive.
As the story progresses, following its various strands to a hermetic mountain monastery with a dark secret, to an uninvited British frigate that shows up on Nagasaki Harbor one day, to the halls of the local magistrate and back to grungy old Dejima, we are treated to dozens of colorful stories told by various members of the novel’s large ensemble cast. As I mentioned in one of my status update, these self-enclosed tales, in addition to serving as extended characterization (and treating us to instances of Mitchell’s virtuosity for clever argot), are little way stations where we get a breather from the snowballing tension of the plot and can revel in pure storytelling for the space of a page or two.
In Cloud Atlas, the disparate narratives seemed to be driving home a point about human greed leading to a dehumanized, destructive society, and this theme creeps up here as well. Here’s a passage from later in the book where a slave on Dejima talks about the trade his masters engage in:
“Their talk turns to owning, or to profit, or loss, or buying, or selling, or stealing, or hiring, or renting, or swindling. For white men, to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more. Their appetites are astonishing!”
It's hard not to feel the truth of this by the end of this story.
This is a novel that combines the very best of literary virtuosity with the historical verisimilitude of first-rate period drama with the slow and skillful build up and rapid release of tension that I associate with the best thrillers. It was a real pleasure to spend a week with it....more
I’ve been meaning to read Kay for quite a while now, probably since hearing the buzz around Ysabel a few years (?) back. The other month I picked up TI’ve been meaning to read Kay for quite a while now, probably since hearing the buzz around Ysabel a few years (?) back. The other month I picked up The Summer Tree at the library, and put it back down about a dozen pages later, on the run from clunky storytelling and stock characters.
But I actually sought this novel out, waiting my turn at the NY Public Library as its only copy made its way through about twenty other hands. I was eager to read it, first because my sense from reading other reviews of Kay on Goodreads was that there is a real difference in quality from his earlier work (of which The Summer Tree is one) and his more mature works. Second, Under Heaven is set in a time and place I’ve been very interested in these days: the Asian continent around the turn of the first millennium.
In the larger sense, Kay does credit to the field of epic fantasy in the way he breaths life into his world, which is based heavily on 8th century (CE) China. The traditions, mores, values and art of that society are rendered with a Merchant Ivory level of detail, as is the geography and environment, which evoke some nice poetic moments, like this one:
“The distant outer edges of the road had been planted with juniper and pagoda trees by the present emperor’s father, to hide the drainage ditches. There were beds of peonies—king of flowers—running between the lamplit guard stations, offering their scent to the night in springtime. There was beauty and a vast grandeur to the imperial way under the stars.”
Still, when you spend six hundred pages with an author (as with a roommate) you come to notice certain minor faults which, after a while, in the absence of truly awesome writing, can telescope into huge failings.
Among these are the passages following Shen Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, who was made a “false princess” and given to a barbarian leader as a peace offering from the emperor. En route she gets rescued by a Tarzan-of-the-steppe type character (complete with stock barbarian dialogue) and we are treated to a fairly lengthy and tedious description of her journeys with this man as Li-Mei descends further and further into a classic damsel in distress.
Also frustrating are the things that Kay leaves on the table: there are a number of interesting relationships and tensions left unexplored, paths that could have been taken that would have resulted in a more satisfying read. Instead, Kay seems to favor the more quotidian events (a lot of journeyings to and fro, conversations that do little to deepen characters and only just rehash exposition we’ve already read earlier) to these nascent tensions.
Among the things I thought could have been better fleshed out [***MINOR SPOILER ALERT***] was the relationship between Shen Tai and the rebellious general, Roshan. Their brief meeting in the early half of the novel shows us some unexpected depth to the military commander who, up until that point was depicted as a disgustingly fat strawman (Kay’s reliance on the fat = evil stereotype set him back a couple of points in my book, no matter that An Lushan, the historical figure on which he is based, was believed to be obese), and Shen Tai’s emergent sympathy with the man is a thread I was expecting to see develop later on, but instead the narrative just drops it, and Roshan returns to the beastly 2D caricature he was before.
Also, despite the large number of female characters, I’m fairly certain that Under Heaven fails the Bechdel Test.
All-in-all, though, I’m happy to have been given a glimpse into an imagined version of ancient China, which was my primary reason for picking up the book in the first place, but Kay’s reputation as a master of the epic story gave me higher expectations than were warranted....more
Cloud Atlas is a novel of novellas: six long stories set centuries apart that, on their own, would stand as dazzling, pitch-perfect prose masterpiecesCloud Atlas is a novel of novellas: six long stories set centuries apart that, on their own, would stand as dazzling, pitch-perfect prose masterpieces, but intertwined as they are here form a dizzying, and somewhat heartbreaking mosaic of disparate lives.
Structurally, there is a beautiful symmetry to Mitchell’s arrangement of these six tales. The first five of the six novellas are interrupted mid-way through by the subsequent novella, and only the sixth is given continuously in its entirety. After the sixth novella, we work our way backwards, reading the last half of the first five novellas in descending order, until we finally get to the completion of the first story. The novellas are arranged in ascending chronological order, starting (and ending) with the journal of Adam Ewing, a 19th century notary from San Francisco who is abroad in the Chatham Islands looking for the beneficiary of a will, and culminating with a post-collapse science fiction tale set in a neo-primitive far-future Hawaii.
There are subtler symmetries here, too: the name of the protagonist from the first story is Adam (get it?), that of the last story is Zach’ry (A thru Z). Hawaii features in a number of the stories, sometimes overtly, sometimes less so, as do characters with comet-shaped birth marks (coincidentally, the Hawaiian archipelago is comet-shaped, too). In addition to the overt connections between these stories (the protagonist of the second is reading the journal of the first, and the recipient of his letters precipitates the mystery of the third story, etc.), each story touches on the theme of human striving, overreach, and the predatory nature of humanity and our institutions (the corpocracy of the fifth story, “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, is probably the most overt instance of this theme).
Mitchell has a poet’s ear for language, and he has a deft sense of genre: the two science fictional sections successfully make copious use of well-established wide-ranging SF tropes (corporate totalitarianism, gene-ripped clones, post-apocalyptic society, etc.); one section (“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”) is written in the style of a contemporary paperback thriller (indeed, in a subsequent section one of the characters who runs a publishing house is reading the manuscript of it and assessing its commercial viability), and it is thrilling; and “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” has the feel of a 19th Century tropical adventure novel in the same vein as Typee and William Hope Hodgeson's Captain Gault stories.
I had some fun picking out the other writers who were clearly inspirations for some of these stories: “An Orison of Sonmi~451” is somewhat Philip K. Dickian (though way better written); “Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After,” the post-collapse story, is reminiscent of Riddley Walker; and the second section, “Letters from Zedelghem,” is full of Nabokovian astringency that reminded me a little of Pale Fire. And the overall structure of the novel has its roots deep in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and Labrynths.
And, like Nabokov, it's hard to tell whether any of the narrators deserve your trust: all the stories, with one exception, are first-person narratives, either journal entries, letters, interviews, or monologue, and there are times when we are warned not to give too much credence to what we've just read (Sonmi~451 refers to hair-line cracks in her story, and indeed these cracks are everywhere). Reader: be on your toes!
Despite all the blurbs on the back of the book touting Mitchell as a master ventriloquist, these stories are more than just polished imitations of established masters; not only does Mitchell successfully summon a Nabokovian voice when he needs to, but he has produced a novel of Nabokovian heft: Cloud Atlas is every but the feat of raw virtuosity that Pale Fire is....more
Now this book fits to the tee my conception of a “great” novel – a great theme taken from one of the greatest and dismal passages of modern history, pNow this book fits to the tee my conception of a “great” novel – a great theme taken from one of the greatest and dismal passages of modern history, passionate (borderline histrionic in parts, but still…) characters – some with secret pasts or skeletons in the closet, all of which come out into the daylight by the end – and a story that slowly ratchets up the tension like a slow cooker. The kind of passions that Dickens plays to can seem on the cheesy side, but still, I had to regularly choke back tears during the last thirty-odd pages, and so did you....more
I just love what Powers is attempting here - a spy story cum secret history of the cold war where magic, ancient djinns, guardian angels and biblicalI just love what Powers is attempting here - a spy story cum secret history of the cold war where magic, ancient djinns, guardian angels and biblical myth are really the secret drivers of the arms race (very Indiana Jones) - but for me this was a case of the plot of a novel being far more interesting than the writing. I think the problem is that there is just so much information Powers must convey to give the story even a glimmer of credibility (in the suspended disbelief kind of way) that he had to indulge in some overwriting just to take care of the exposition. Still, it was a fun read, real brain candy, and with an awkward, somewhat unconvincing but still somewhat sweet little love story thrown into the works. I think I'll try Anubis Gates next....more
This book reads like the a (uber pre-)prequel to Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Vidal recounts the Lincoln presidency with a good amount of fidelity toThis book reads like the a (uber pre-)prequel to Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Vidal recounts the Lincoln presidency with a good amount of fidelity to actual history and a knack for bringing out (or, where the facts are silent, fabricating) the tension between certain personalities and the drama inherent in that moment in history. ...more
A charming and somewhat delicate little novella that puts an answer the longstanding question, "what if Napolean dissapeared at Waterloo, was thoughtA charming and somewhat delicate little novella that puts an answer the longstanding question, "what if Napolean dissapeared at Waterloo, was thought dead, but actually escpaped the battlefield and found contentment among the merchant class?" This literary petit-four is well worth the one or two days you will spend reading it....more
Baudolino, the protagonist of Eco’s fourth novel, is probably my favorite of all Eco’s protagonists. More flawed and approachable than Brother WilliamBaudolino, the protagonist of Eco’s fourth novel, is probably my favorite of all Eco’s protagonists. More flawed and approachable than Brother William, less troubled and more fun than Belbo, and not a self-obsessed nut job like Roberto de la Griva, Baudolino is a low-born guy with a serious gift for languages who happens to be in the right place at the right time. In addition to working raw history and philosophy into his narrative, which Eco does so well, he also brings to life the world of Prester John, a fantastical character from 12th century legends, and gives it pride of place at the climax of this story. ...more
By far the tightest and most well-written of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and an amusing if lengthy read, it is fraught with the same problems as the rBy far the tightest and most well-written of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and an amusing if lengthy read, it is fraught with the same problems as the rest of the trilogy: the ambitous, sprawling plot holds together tenuously at best. Still, he does a decent job of portrarying state of scientific discovery at the time, and the book is chock full of the author's trademark quick-witted and sharp humor....more