Rachael's tales are a vivid and resonating romp through the places we know best, smallish towns and the giant hopes of the big-hearted, but underappreRachael's tales are a vivid and resonating romp through the places we know best, smallish towns and the giant hopes of the big-hearted, but underappreciated, highlighting the quietly magical and miraculous things we would otherwise have missed, and each tale, bittersweet or triumphant, resounds with a universal trueness. Passing up this compilation would be akin to a nestling accepting the world as just a dull ring of twigs, never venturing outward, never learning how to fly....more
Because Umberto Eco demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of 14th-century (and earlier) ecclesiastical history, one might suspect him to be a student ofBecause Umberto Eco demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of 14th-century (and earlier) ecclesiastical history, one might suspect him to be a student of the subject, or rather, the dean of a college of religious history. Or, and this seems more likely, an 800-year old biographer who finally got around to putting his early experiences down in writing 30 or so years ago.
Unfortunately, in truth, he was a medieval history professor before being convinced to write historical, monk-centered murder stories set in the middle ages. Take heart, though, that despite the disappointing fact that he is not eight centuries old, this description is probably a significant oversimplification.
Because I lack a similarly vast understanding of 14th century Churchology (I KNOW it's not a word, but understand anyway!) in all its fascinating minutiae, the book made itself a challenge to read in some places. This is not the fault of the story, but, as Ezra Pound might have said, of the reader for being too ignorant to understand it. I certainly fit that bill in some respects, though, as with many great books, this one was an avenue to further my education. And, where once I might have been led to my trusty 1960s era encyclopedia set (so old it was spelled encyclopaedia--a point that cost me dearly in a grade-school spelling contest), an iPad Wikipedia application served to bolster and clarify.
The historical fiction is one that, when done effectively, I enjoy a great deal. In the past year I've started reading Gore Vidal's novels, and the experience has been delightful and rich for someone accustomed to more straightforward historical books. I enjoy these stories (for the same reason I enjoy historical works, minus the fictional narrative) largely because of the informational safari the process of reading becomes, leading from one research point to a hundred others, along an interweaving web of educational adventure. Anyone who has experienced the fission reaction that is opening a dictionary to find the meaning of a word, only to be led to another word, and on and on until you run out of fingers to serve as placeholders, will understand the kind of digressive undertaking it can become. And Huzzah for that!
Eco's main Sherlock Holmsian character William of Baskerville says as much himself: "Often books speak of books." As does the narrator of the tale, the novice monk Adso: "Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves."
With that in mind, you may want to consider having some form of resource on hand, though it's possible to bull through without it. (It may also help to be fluent in Latin or, at the very least, have an understanding of one of the romance languages, because there's a lot of untranslated Latin.) Fortunately, Eco manages to inject enough intrigue into the story amidst an ocean of detail that I was able to come away feeling I'd read a story rather than bumbled into a food fight betwixt historians and emerged feeling dirty and stupid.
Ultimately, my complaints are few and ridiculous. The characters of the monks grew rapidly tiresome as conversationalists, often because they felt compelled to try and bend every explanation or dialogue into a demonstration of God manifest in the world (which was the point--a point I'll get to...). This made conversing with them exhausting. (... now.) Amusingly enough, it becomes clear before long that these monks are something of a contradiction, for all their pontification. And this is the tension, apart from the murders and the library labyrinth, that drives the story. Here we have God-devoted monks trying to eschew the world around them, yet their purpose is to preserve knowledge of the world, of philosophers, of the secular world, and in many cases, the heathen world (as they reprinted many Islamic texts as well). While material wealth is coveted, ironically, by the monks of the monastery, so is intellectual wealth. And this particular abbey has an Erebor-like hoard of books. It would not be an exaggeration to say the book ends with Smaug descending from the skies, driving the monks away, and heaping all the books into a monstrous pile and falling asleep for a decade. Feel free to use these final two sentences as the springboard for your Lord of the Rings/The Name of the Rose mashup, spinoff fiction.
Eco is a savvy writer and recognizes their attempts to maintain a virtuous shroud, and it's apparent the protagonist felt the same way. I felt the corner of my mouth pull up whenever William offered a short, dismissive platitude in an effort to end some rambling speech about how God Made Such And Such or interjections of humble thanks for some arbitrary blessing and get them back to the subject of his investigation or to add something substantive to a philosophical argument (arguing philosophy with the devout is itself exasperating, considering how easy it is to dismiss rational thought in a world overseen by an omnipotent overlord and thus removing the need for thought altogether). The monks' attitudes are understandable, but speaking to them with the intention of gathering information was like wading through swamplands in sponge boots.
At the same time, and this may not be to the liking of more devout readers, the book is written from a secular angle. Yes, the main characters are all religious as is the narrator, but the monks are very human in their vanities and vices--some of which are decidedly and mortifyingly anti-Christian doctrine.
In the end, the story was definitely interesting from a plotting perspective. A series of murders in a 14th century monastery surrounding a secret library and solved by a Former Inquisitor Turned Thinking Monk? Pretty neat.
Yet the biggest takeaway from this story is the experience of going back to, what seems to me, a vivid and historically accurate experience of religious life in the 1300s, filled with religious proprieties and all its contradictions in the face of the secular Renaissance as it gathered steam, peppered with observations that set intellectuals and religious at odds and strengthened humankind as a provider for itself of technology to sever the need for a giving God, and as the religious battled the countless schisms and interpretations of Christianity as opposed to the belief of the general populace that Christianity has always existed as it is, uncontested and unadulterated.
This isn't so much a story as it is an experience. If you're in the mood for an experience, I encourage you to have this one....more
Let me begin with a deep and heartfelt apology: Dogget Mann has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a long, long time. For that reason alone I am asLet me begin with a deep and heartfelt apology: Dogget Mann has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a long, long time. For that reason alone I am ashamed for not having told the world about it sooner. I don’t think the slightly increased knowledge of this story would have improved the world noticeably in the past few years, but perhaps exponentially as the years passed for certain. I feel a genuine sense of guilt for not adding my voice to the support of this book, author Lester Milton, and to the bright but hapless Dogget Mann himself, who seems to find himself everywhere but the right place in the right time.
Dogget’s matter-of-fact view of the world lends to some amazing insights about human behavior—it’s easy to warm to him quickly, particularly contrasted to the chilly nature of the world in which Dogget lives. Dogget loses his parents early in life, and escapes still others along the way, all the while searching not for adventure, but for an existence the content take for granted. Naturally (otherwise this would be a considerably shorter story), he is unable to find either.
Lester Milton’s storytelling is wry and breezy, and may come off as deliberately simple to appeal to younger readers, but, in the end, his story might be too smart for them. Here and there the story is dotted with poignant life lessons, drawn all the sharper by Dogget’s clarity of thought, offhandedly breaking down behavioral problems, and solutions, in the space of a paragraph addressed to the family members he is escaping. His conclusions about the behavior of those around him are simple, straightforward, plain, and yet these easy solutions to glaring character flaws had, to the instant of Dogget’s analysis, escaped them. Viewing the world through the unclouded lens of a child’s eyes is always fascinating, and opens our own to the ease with which we ought to be able to rectify our interpersonal ills, which makes our inability to correct them even more profound and perplexing as individuals and observers.
The biggest tragedy, or at least a close second compared to the adventuresome events in the life of a boy who is simply looking for stability, is that this book has been overlooked for so long. Again, because of my neglect, I feel partially to blame for this. Dogget’s story is an amazing and striking one that deserves your attention, but, like the boy himself, has nevertheless remained lost despite all his efforts.
I'm sorry, Lester, that I haven't written this sooner--I'm also sorry that the rating system ran out of stars....more
A carousel of perspectives with few resolutions that don't end in death--a shock formula that wears out very quickly for me. The dialogue is top notchA carousel of perspectives with few resolutions that don't end in death--a shock formula that wears out very quickly for me. The dialogue is top notch, but that's not why you read this series. You read it for the characters, the plot, the oft clever dialogue, and the ongoing (and vain) hope that your particular favorite character will somehow survive.
I've read this book, but I'm not engaged enough to continue reading until I know I'm getting something other than a David Lindelof "the best answer to a question is more questions" ending. Or, more appropriately, the George R.R. Martin "time to make room for some new characters... Surprise! *kill*" resolution. It's a simple writing strategy, but one that is effective in the cutthroat world he has created.
I have many, many friends who enjoy his books. My comparative indifference is part of a minority and, to fans, a mystery. If they are still raving when the series comes to an end 30 years from now, I may pick up where I left off....more
An interesting overview with minimal insight, commentary, or authorial voice. Half the book seems to be bookended by quotation marks. No doubt the resAn interesting overview with minimal insight, commentary, or authorial voice. Half the book seems to be bookended by quotation marks. No doubt the research was exemplary; there's no overlooking it. I feel I might have been as well served by a lengthy Wikipedia entry.
I was not enchanted as I'd hoped to be, but as much as I enjoy looking at timelines, this assemblage of events rang a pretty dull note. An abundance of telling rather than showing. It didn't help that the book read like a bus tour with a driver who never took their foot off the gas to let me absorb the scenery. If there's an audiobook I feel certain it's read by John Moschitta.
Main character Milo is an unfortunate child weighed down by the burden of a tedious existence, flitting reluctantly from one state of ennui to anotherMain character Milo is an unfortunate child weighed down by the burden of a tedious existence, flitting reluctantly from one state of ennui to another, which says something about himself. To wit, in the words of Harvey Danger, "If you're bored, then you're boring." So it's unlikely he would have a safety net of friends who might help him out of this state, and parents seem largely absent.
Where a contemporary cure for the unfortunate Milo would probably involve expensive medication prescribed by the expensive psychiatrist receiving gratifying kickbacks for the medication prescribed, Milo is miraculously blessed instead by the fantastic. And thank goodness, because the likelihood of the former solving anything (for Milo, anyway) seems doubtful.
And herein lies the wonderment of children's literature--the ability to escape to a place where they can heal themselves of the injuries they receive in reality and patch up the holes in their hearts from errant arrows. Childhood isn't so far removed that I can't remember the sense of safety that came from escaping into a fantasy world where the resolution to problems came with the turn of a page. This book is not only for Milo, it's also for the children suffering in the same fashion as Milo.
Literature that can hide something profound within a shell of simplicity always gets my approval. Children's literature is predisposed to this possibility based solely upon its audience. But a smart author like Juster knows a clever work can succeed on multiple levels, pretending to be a work directed solely at children while having a pertinent message they can take with them to adulthood, and The Phantom Tollbooth does so by giving meaning to the innumerable cliches and patterns of behavior that make up our world, and shining a light on their absurdity and the ridiculous caricature one becomes when they exist for a singular purpose or belief. By pointing out the ridiculousness of a world built out of cliches, turns of phrase turned literal, and puns come to life, one ought to see how silly it is to view the world from a singular perspective or as one that exists in black and white, right and wrong, and all the other false dichotomies zealots and equally ignorant people believe in, as well as the problems it creates. Notably, the absence of Rhyme and Reason.
All the myriad dullnesses of the educational process that bore Milo in reality are brought to fascinating life in a fantasy world that invigorates him and rekindles his curiosity--the very spark of life.
Milo takes the transition from reality to fantasy very much in stride and with characteristic glumness, and we get a glimpse of just how far he has fallen from engaging in the world. Gladly, Milo regains his sense of wonder in starts and spurts, until it has been completely restored. This is, to my mind, a fabulous recovery, and a resurrection in its own right worthy of praise and relief. There is nothing more depressing than a child lost to depression, and few things more gratifying than seeing a sense of purpose restored.
The story is rife with puns (though, as stated, not without purpose), something acceptable for younger audiences but something I find appalling and corny, but the story itself is compelling and never sits still long enough for the reader to become bored, maintaining a continuous train of thought despite its restlessness. In this, the story has an advantage over me.
Despite never having read this as a child, even though I should have, I feel confident in assuming I would have liked it then, probably more than I do now. As it stands, I feel obliged to deduct 0.01 stars for each year I am removed from childhood, which, ultimately and as designed, shouldn't have any sort of effect for a good long time.
If you're looking for an equally good feeling story of redemption and self improvement, but in a much shorter form, I strongly suggest Juster's The Dot and the Line....more
Persian history at the peak of the Achaemenid Empire (5th century BCE) is pretty neatly summed up in a few lines from our high school world history coPersian history at the peak of the Achaemenid Empire (5th century BCE) is pretty neatly summed up in a few lines from our high school world history courses, largely in connection with Greek history. We hear a few snippets about the Persian rulers, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes; a big paragraph about the runner who sprinted from Marathon to warn the Greeks of the Persian attack (which was comeuppance for supporting a revolt in Persia and burning the city of Sardis) and ever after served as the namesake for future long-distance running contests; the battle at Thermopylae in which a handful of Spartans embarrassed an overwhelming Persian force under the Persian king, Xerxes, immortalized and buried under a mountain of hyperbole in cinema, and how Greeks won freedom from a terrible oppressor, launching democracy, serving as a basis for civilization and western world, blah blah blah.
Hyperbole. And partial nudity. And epic nose chains.
Essentially, most of what we know about Persia has been related through the lens of Greek history. The Persians amassed an enormous army and had an equally enormous empire, making them the perfect foil in the Star Wars parable that we've made Greek v. Persia history out to be.
Look, sir! Greeks!
It's a suitable mentality to have even in the current age, as the Persian empire stretched across the middle east, a land that is, and has been, largely unfriendly to the Western world for centuries, mostly for religious reasons (on both sides) that didn't exist during the Achaemenid empire.
Say, isn't this this pretty much the same empire Alexander ruled and was considered so awesome for creating, but promptly fell apart when he died?
The question that must come to mind to anyone reading this myopic history is: How did this empire come to be so massive and rich? Surely it could not have been all bad. Vidal's Creation answers this question and carefully explores what most folk of the Western hemisphere have deliberately ignored as a relic of the backwards and dangerous middle east: the Persian perspective.
What Vidal provides in Creation, from the viewpoint of the fictional diplomat and spiritual inheritor of Zoroastrianism, Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of none other than Zoroaster and childhood friend of Xerxes, is the story of a lush and powerful civilization, rife with power struggles and an abundance of history, just like the Greeks, and with ample justification for the contempt that Persians in power felt for the Greeks. And not without cause, as they're depicted as self-serving, filthy, shifty, and hardly trustworthy. Reading Creation, you're liable to share the Persian contempt. In many ways, and without stretching the truth, Spitama compares and contrasts Greek and Persian civilization, and it's difficult, in the end, to see how Greece receives the historical accolades while Persia is ignored. There's certainly a sense of foreboding and bitterness in Spitama as an old man recounting his journeys throughout the Persian empire, Greece, India, and China, who seems to know the wheels of fate have turned inexplicably in favor of Greek culture.
While much of Spitama's angst is directed at the Greeks, having metastasized from previous Persian rulers who had to deal with them, he also serves as a diplomat to the East as well. He visits and marries in India, is captured in China, and meets figures of extraordinary historical significance.
It's important to note that Vidal has selected a singularly remarkable time period and location to explore, in which the likes of significant eastern historical figures, such as Siddhartha Guatama (the Buddha), Master K'ung Fu-tzu (Confucius), Lao Tse (creator of the Tao Te Ching), were mucking about in the East at the same time prominent Greeks and Persians were mucking about in the "West". Not only do we meet these philosophical titans, we get to listen to their followers interact and deride one another, which is an unparalleled treat.
Much of the greatness I attribute to this story has little to do with Vidal's writing ability, which itself is slick as wet glass in the reader's mind, and more to do with Vidal's selection of time period. Volumes and volumes and volumes of books have been written on each of the characters in this work, on the empires explored (including those lesser-known in India), on the political machinations of those in power (including Zoroaster himself, which provided Spitama with an important political role where he otherwise might have been No One). But to combine this confluence of activity and personality seamlessly into a single novel is all at once an obvious choice, a fascinating exploration of that which most overlook, and ultimately nothing short of sublime....more
Easily the most enjoyable book I've ever read, with Watership Down putting in a strong second-place finish. Certainly the best ever in telling, and spEasily the most enjoyable book I've ever read, with Watership Down putting in a strong second-place finish. Certainly the best ever in telling, and spinning anew, the centuries old Arthurian legend. Gone are the old stories relayed in stark and monotonous detail, replaced by characters bursting with vitality.
The story benefits greatly from White's knowledge of medieval culture, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (review here), whose influence is credited directly in The Book of Merlyn, occasionally affected and quirky dialogue, infrequent intrusions of contemporary fact (the 1950s, both from White and Merlin's perspective), and fascinating observations on human nature. But what makes the book truly sing are the titanic, troubled, and heroic characters, all striving in vain in favor of an ideal that ultimately cannot be supported due to a myriad of tiny failings inherent in the human condition.
The story teems with elements that readers of all ages can appreciate: a bit of history, a bit of love, a bit of learning, a bit of humor, a bit of bitterness, hope, miracles, and an ending that leaves you with an understanding that the ending only takes us back to the beginning, and that perhaps Arthur will have a second and better chance.
The effort required not to enjoy a book of this caliber is certainly as rare and extraordinary as the book itself....more
(Update: the BBC's 7-episode production of the book is an excellent abridged rendition of this magnificent story)
Susanna Clarke's first offering is an(Update: the BBC's 7-episode production of the book is an excellent abridged rendition of this magnificent story)
Susanna Clarke's first offering is an innocuous champion amongst books, made all the more so by the author establishing a reader's expectations for bland, Victorian prose and the gentlemanly tropes you'd expect from a Jane Austen novel. Nevertheless, the novel is magically compelling: it hooks a hand into your belt buckle and pulls you along for a splendid renaissance of English magic and a fascinating look into the history of the once proud tradition and leading figures.
In reading Clarke's novel one gets the sense of a greater world just beyond the view of the normal, as though the populace has developed a form of mystic-blocking cataract, and that old world can only be seen by looking through a prism of magical knowledge. Magic is an undercurrent undetectible to most, like a third dimension to the residents of Flatland, but it is incontrovertible presence for those who know where, and how, to look.
Clarke depicts magic as a droll hobby for well-to-do-but-nothing-better-to-do Englishmen, who deem magic is something fun to discuss in a nigh-university setting, but not something that can, or should, be practiced. Magic, like many practices that have perished before it (alchemy, divination, et al), and other similar bogus means of robbery should (astrology, fortune telling, mutual funds), is doomed to become obsolete as a practice. That is, until the reclusive Mr. Norrell decides to prove magic is real. How he does so is neither a Gandalf-slays-Balrog, nor a Harry-Potter-magic-wand-bolt, nor anything so showy and conspicuous, but is nevertheless powerfully convincing, and is made so solely by the strength of Clarke's prose. Without Clarke and her ability to write, the scene simply doesn't work.
And this is the strength of the entire book: Clarke's ability to construct relatively unspectacular scenes that come screaming to life on the back of her writing. Couple this with extensive entries and anecdotes on the history of English magic (which include frequent references to the book's most fascinating, enigmatic, and invisible character: The Raven King, who is purportedly the greatest magic-using, non-magical-creature ever) contained largely in footnotes that often eat up the better part of a page, and you have a universe of characters, history, and events that Tolkien would have been proud to call his own....more