City of Saints and Madmen is a selection of novellas and short fictions set in the fictional city of Ambergris. The book begins with “Dradin, in Love,...moreCity of Saints and Madmen is a selection of novellas and short fictions set in the fictional city of Ambergris. The book begins with “Dradin, in Love,” which describes a missionary returning to Ambergris during a local festival to discover how his hometown has changed during the many years he has been away. “The Transformation of Martin Lake” juxtaposes art criticism with narrative to tell of a dark period in the life of Ambergris’ foremost painter. In “The Strange Case of Mr. X,” a doctor’s meetings with and thoughts about a patient he is observing in a psychiatric institution becomes an inquiry into reality and madness.
Michael Moorcock’s mention of Titus Alone in his introduction to Vandermeer’s book should give readers some idea of what they might expect from City of Saints and Madmen: like Gormenghast, Ambergris is a complex and fascinating fictional world with its own history, politics, and religious and artistic culture. In addition, like Peake’s, Vandermeer’s work is fantastic and frequently grotesque.
City of Saints and Madmen is the most entertaining book I have read since reading House of Leaves eight months ago. I was only just past halfway through this book when I went to a nearby bookstore (not the Borges Bookstore of Ambergris, alas) specifically to find more works by this writer (the bookstore had a copy of The Steampunk Bible, so that’s what I’ll be reading next).(less)
In Snow Crash, a computer hacker investigates a mysterious virus. Assisting him is Y.T., a courier who skateboards into and out of a number of tight s...moreIn Snow Crash, a computer hacker investigates a mysterious virus. Assisting him is Y.T., a courier who skateboards into and out of a number of tight situations while providing the protagonist with an additional set of eyes and ears. The story is set in a technologically advanced future whose economy and infrastructure is controlled not by government but by for-profit organizations (the protagonist is employed both as a pizza delivery man for the Mafia and as a collector of data for the Central Intelligence Corporation). Much of the action, which includes sword fighting and skateboard and motorcycle chases, is set in virtual reality, referred to by the characters as “the Metaverse.”
Also set in the Metaverse are long expository dialogues between the protagonist and the “Librarian,” a virtual character with whom the protagonist discusses computer programming, linguistics, religion and ancient civilizations. It is out of these discussions that the protagonist is gradually able to piece together the facts about Snow Crash and the conspiracy behind it. (less)
This novel does not have much of a plot. It depicts a three-men-in-a-tub situation (to be exact, two men and a baboon). The three experience a series...moreThis novel does not have much of a plot. It depicts a three-men-in-a-tub situation (to be exact, two men and a baboon). The three experience a series of adventures, some with mortal consequences, as they visit different fantastic islands. The novel includes a lecture by Faustroll on ’Pataphysics.
The writing, with sentences like “The place where the sun sets has the appearance, between the folds comprising the Town’s mesentery, of the vermiform appendix of a caecum” (59), will send some readers scrambling for their dictionaries. Others, though, may enjoy Jarry’s sense of humor (but for pure farce, Jarry’s play Ubu Roi is probably a better choice than Doctor Faustroll).
Jarry was a Dadaist, and Dadaism was a paradoxical movement, seeking to produce anti-art (one of the better-known Dadaist works was a signed urinal, a “readymade” attributed to Marcel Duchamp). In this context, perhaps the ridiculously mannered style and the episodic, and ultimately pointless, narrative reflect an anti-artistic, anti-literary impulse—although an argument could be made that Jarry intends the episodic narrative as a parody of travel journals and picaresque novels. If, though, Faustroll is intended as anti-literary, how is one to rank it? As George Carlin asks, “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”
I’m giving to this book three stars: one for its indifference to literary convention and readers’ expectations, a second for the way it throws a Godelian monkey wrench into the machinery of critical ranking systems, half a star for the sophomoric story, and another half a star for its style (consider this, for instance: “The meshed base, unsinkable because of its oily coating, rested upon the waves’ denticulation like a sturgeon upon several harpoons, and beneath it was a keyboard of water and air alternately” ).(less)
I like the way Superspy is set up. The text is a series of short stories each of which is told from the point of view of a different spy. The tone of...moreI like the way Superspy is set up. The text is a series of short stories each of which is told from the point of view of a different spy. The tone of the book is ironic, depicting most of the spies as limited with regard to their knowledge of the larger plot to which their own experiences belong; in contrast, the reader has the advantage of seeing how one story intersects with another as two characters from different stories meet in a third story, or an object like a code book from one story reappears in a later story, suggesting connections among characters who may never have actually met. Because the spies themselves appear to be more involved with their own personal affairs--their romances, dreams, memories, etc.--than with the missions with which they are engaged, it falls to the reader to play the Superspy of the title and to decode the book in order to determine whether there is a single plot to which all these individual plots belong.
The artwork is not so finished in appearance as that which is typical of other cartoons or graphic novels: Kindt’s characters are angular in appearance, and his images look like sketches, at once detailed and rough (there are exceptions to this, though, particularly in his pastiches both of classic comics and of the watercolor illustrations familiar from vintage children’s picture books).
I like the inclusion of simulated smudges and creases in the margins: they give the book the appearance of having gone through many hands, as if it were a code book that had been passed from one spy to another before finally reaching the reader. (less)
[Update, Jan 28, 2013: In response to a comment by Claudine Frank, the editor of The Edge of Surrealism, I have removed from this review a passage in...more[Update, Jan 28, 2013: In response to a comment by Claudine Frank, the editor of The Edge of Surrealism, I have removed from this review a passage in which I mistakenly characterize "The Structure and Nature of Totalitarian Regimes" as having been constructed from notes made by attendees at Caillois's lectures rather than as having been authored by Caillois himself. For Frank's comment and my response, please see the comments section following this review.]
While popularly known for its melting clocks and psychic automatisms, the Surrealist movement had an academic side as well, perhaps best represented in work by theorists like Georges Bataille and his College of Sociology colleague Roger Caillois. The latter is probably best known for “The Praying Mantis,” an essay on analogues in abnormal human psychology and myth of the mating ritual of the cephalophagic insect. That essay is included in The Edge of Surrealism, along with others on a variety of subjects such as secret societies, Satanism, Paris, and “the noon complex.”
The essays are organized chronologically such that one can trace the development of Caillois’s thought as it was shaped both by his personal experiences and by larger historical events. For instance, one text entitled “The Structure and Nature of Totalitarian Regimes” represents a series of lectures Caillois gave in 1940 in which he discussed the sociological and cultural meanings of the fascist movement that had been gaining power in Europe through the previous decade.
One can also trace the maturing of Caillois’s literary style through this book: while the writing in the early essays can sometimes be a little mechanical or clunky, somewhere around the middle of the book a much more flowing and poetic style emerges that seems to gain in polish and self-assurance from one essay to the next.
As a thinker, Caillois is an interdisciplinarian, typically employing in his writings ideas from many different fields including sociology, psychology, biology, history and political science. In some of his later essays, Caillois reflects on his own methods and argues for the significance of interdisciplinarity in academic research (while employing interdisciplinary techniques to make his argument, as in “The Bridgemaker,” which juxtaposes ideas from architecture, etymology, Roman history and anthropology, among other disciplines, in order more fully to explore the issue under discussion).
For each essay, editor Claudine Frank includes an introductory note supplying cultural and intellectual context. If I have a problem with the book, it is with these notes, which sometimes seem to me enthymematic in their alluding to issues and events that might be familiar to an audience already acquainted with Caillois’s work, but not to the general reader in need of a little more expository detail. For the essays, though, this book is a good general introduction to Caillois’s thought.(less)
In Rings of Saturn, Sebald writes about Joseph Conrad, Chinese Empress Tzu Hsi, a matchstick model of Jerusalem, the herring industry, and a number of...moreIn Rings of Saturn, Sebald writes about Joseph Conrad, Chinese Empress Tzu Hsi, a matchstick model of Jerusalem, the herring industry, and a number of other subjects, each of which is connected in some way to the history and character of East Anglia. The book is interesting not only for what Sebald has to say about these things (or about Thomas Browne’s skull or Michael Hamburger’s studio room) but also for the way Sebald mixes together the historical, the journalistic, the autobiographical and even the novelistic in a prose that is fluent and languorous.(less)
The late David Foster Wallace had an intimidating intellect, and he knew it. I read his emphasis on his Midwestern background in “Derivative Sport in...moreThe late David Foster Wallace had an intimidating intellect, and he knew it. I read his emphasis on his Midwestern background in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” as functioning to reassure the reader that although Wallace’s writing is challenging in the way much postmodern writing is, yet one does not have to be an Ivy League-educated intellectual to enjoy his work. For me, the author’s employment of rambling structures in these essays, his inclusion of confessions to embarrassing facts about himself, and his frequent deployment of a colloquial style that reminds me of nothing so much as the “skaz” of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, all contribute to Wallace’s representation of himself as merely another Joe Anyone who just happens to be most comfortable deploying such conceptual frameworks as Euclidean geometry and postmodern theory within which to express his ideas on subjects like tennis, television and David Lynch.
But make no mistake. Wallace is incredibly smart, and his long sentences with their parentheticals within parentheticals and their linking of complex ideas with complex frameworks in which to explore them constitute a great workout for the brain. It is a highly cerebral exercise, with all the self-referential meta-irony of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid or the xkcd webcomic.
The first essay is about Wallace’s experiences as a competitive tennis player growing up in the Midwest. In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he deploys television as a device with which to make sense of postmodern literature. “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” is an instance of “pith-helmeted anthropological reporting,” in which Wallace represents a visit to a state fair with a degree and quality of detail as to make that experience seem as exotic and foreign as anything you might find in Lévi-Strauss or Mead. In “David Lynch Keeps His Head” Wallace describes being on location during the filming of a scene for the film Lost Highway. Other essays in the book are on such subjects as post-postmodern critical theory, professional tennis, and luxury cruises.
I enjoyed the selection a lot, and in particular his essays on tennis in the Midwest, on television and on David Lynch. Although some of the references in his essay on television have dated since the early nineties when he wrote it, Wallace has some very useful points to make about irony in TV advertising and in shows like St. Elsewhere with regard to what this can tell us about the work of writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis and Mark Leyner. The article on David Lynch does not include an interview with the director, but along with his description of his experiences among the film crew, Wallace includes some very good cultural, psychological and philosophical analysis of Lynch’s work (readers who enjoyed Infinite Jest should like this article: among its features is the inclusion of a list of the types of lenses Wallace sees in one of the trailers on the film-set: the list is entirely unnecessary, but it reminded me of the precision of detail in some of the footnotes on James Incandenza and cinematography at the back of the novel; one problem with the article, though, is that it contains a lot of other unnecessary detail and repetitions that could be been left out without detracting from the main points Wallace is interested in making).
Having been on a cruise of the sort he describes in the title essay, I can say that Wallace nails this one.
Of the other essays in the book, that discussing professional tennis player Michael Joyce interested me least, mostly because I know little about the subject (the sport and the athlete); I leave it to other readers to comment on how it works for them.(less)
Uncommon Exercises For the Mind. In this handy reference guide you’ll find symbolic fish, sensual beaches, and the digits of chance. While away hours o...moreUncommon Exercises For the Mind. In this handy reference guide you’ll find symbolic fish, sensual beaches, and the digits of chance. While away hours over drinks at the bar with “The Exquisite Corpse.” Invite friends to the salon for a soiree of “Questions and Answers.” Write a Dadaist poem for yourself and post it to your neighborhood grocer. Or revisit scenes from Surrealist history with transcripts of moments from games among such early luminaries as Breton, Aragon, Peret. Pictures too, most tastefully selected, some illustrative of possible outcomes of play, others included for their salubrity, and yet others with no discernible relation to anything, but which clearly belong in this text because of their intuitive appeal. Accompanying the book is the pamphlet “Little Surrealist Dictionary: A Game of Re-definitions” in which you may read, for example, that an “aquarium” is a “Humid square of requiems.” As well, there is a folded sheet of glossy paper on which is printed the playing area for “The Goose Game,” incomparable for diverting your nonplussed boss or for passing the time as you wait for the one after 9:09. The works, book and all, come in a handsome box printed with picture and instructive quote by the Comte de Lautreamont (if your local bookstalls should be displaying these goods sans leurs boite-a-porter, demand that the bookseller produce the article in question, present contents of which are to be included in the transaction, or the deal is off; consider sending a report by lobster notifying constabulary of the thwarted misappropriation).(less)
Aesop pretty much owns the genre of the fable. Dominated by talking animals who exercise reasoning and moral agency, these short allegorical tales are...moreAesop pretty much owns the genre of the fable. Dominated by talking animals who exercise reasoning and moral agency, these short allegorical tales are as entertaining as they are instructive. Some readers may find the stories morally problematic; nevertheless, fables like “The Ant and the Grasshopper” or “The Hare and the Tortoise” seem indelibly part of our culture: in this respect, they meet a Longinian requirement for literary greatness, just as their capacity both to educate and divert satisfies a Horatian criterion for excellence. If you have not yet read nor heard stories such as “The Lion and the Mouse” or “The Fox and the Grapes,” this volume, or any collection of Aesop’s work, is worth checking out. If you already know and enjoy these stories but want to know more about Aesop’s other, lesser-known tales, this is a useful book, bringing together roughly three hundred stories attributed to the Greek fabulist.
The short introduction by S.A. Handford, who also translates the stories into a simple and readable English, is a scholarly history of the fable and of Aesop’s place within that tradition.(less)
The main limitation of this critical study of filmmaker Luis Bunuel is that it came out in 1963 while the director was still in mid-career, and yet to...moreThe main limitation of this critical study of filmmaker Luis Bunuel is that it came out in 1963 while the director was still in mid-career, and yet to make such films as Belle du Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Nevertheless, this is a useful source of commentary on Bunuel’s earlier films such as L’Age D’Or, Nazarin, Viridiana, and Un Chien Andalou, which latter Bunuel co-wrote and directed with painter Salvador Dalí, and for which he is perhaps best known.
For me, another limitation of the book is the rhapsodic tone of some of Kyrou’s commentary. That the book is the work of a fan seems obvious from passages like the following:
“As indifferent to threats as to ill-intentioned praise, Luis alone continues to offer us a defense against commercialism, stupidity, falsehood, traditional logic, resignation. If today he holds a place that he has won with great difficulty, if he has an audience, it is because he alone gives expression to our desire—a desire that is becoming daily more universal—for a radical change in our way of thinking and in our way of living; because he is a magnificently untamed creature who dares dynamite the bars of our age-old prisons and teach us to look without being blinded upon the black sun.”
(The claim Kyrou is making here is rather bold; nonetheless, I cannot help but be impressed by the fact that he made it when some of Bunuel’s greatest works were still yet to come).
The book also reprints some of Bunuel’s writings, including a few of his film reviews, his surrealist text “The Giraffe” and the scenario for Un Chien Andalou (however, readers interested in Bunuel’s writing should take a look at Bunuel’s An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings, which collects most of the texts Kyrou includes here, and many more; check out, too, Bunuel’s funny and entertaining autobiography, My Last Breath).
In addition to Kyrou’s commentary and the selection of Bunuel’s writings, the book includes several interviews with Bunuel (one of which is with François Truffaut) and some critical reviews by writers like André Breton, André Bazin, Henry Miller and Octavio Paz; it is because of these interviews and reviews, which I do not have in any of my other books on Bunuel, that I decided to get a copy of this book.(less)
If you are interested in the history of Pink Floyd, you might read this, although other biographies such as Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyss...moreIf you are interested in the history of Pink Floyd, you might read this, although other biographies such as Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey or Comfortably Numb have many more details about the group and their music. If you are interested in the graphic artwork on the album covers of releases like Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here, you might try Walk Away Rene by Storm Thorgerson, head of Hipgnosis, the company that designed those covers. The Pink Floyd Experience does not really work as a biography or as a graphic novel. For example, there is little attempt to deploy in the narrative the visual imagery associated with the band—no teacher resembling the one in The Wall, no pigs flying in the margin, no pastiches of the album covers--; rather, the book follows the members of the band in their interactions with one another, their managers, and (particularly in the latter part of the book), their lawyers. Nor, except for those parts early in the book that depict Syd Barrett’s drug use and his eventual breakdown, is there much about rock and roll excess (which I did not expect to find—Pink Floyd is not generally associated with the more wild behaviour of rock stars, such as smashing instruments onstage or trashing hotel rooms; this being the case, though, why did someone think this group would be an interesting subject for a graphic novel?) For me, the artwork was problematic. I find that the realist style of drawing makes it difficult to distinguish among different characters and to determine who is represented in one panel or another unless he or she is referred to by name. Adding to this difficulty are those instances in which a character’s hairstyle or facial structure seems to change dramatically from panel to panel, with the result that initially I am not sure whether I’m looking at the same character or a different one. For me, the book is more an exploitation of Pink Floyd’s fame than an aesthetic consideration of their work.(less)
In his discussion of the language of comics, Scott McCloud describes how the techniques cartoonists deploy function to represent non-visual and kineti...moreIn his discussion of the language of comics, Scott McCloud describes how the techniques cartoonists deploy function to represent non-visual and kinetic information in a medium that is visual and static. McCloud employs the comic book form to express his argument; the great advantage for the reader is that he or she is shown rather than told the techniques comic books deploy to represent such things as the passage of time or the smell of a rotten tomato. McCloud analyzes the medium as an art form, commenting on realism in comics, and on the styles of individual cartoonists. While most of his examples are from North American cartoonists, McCloud includes examples of Japanese cartoons, particularly in his comments on East-West differences in style and technique. There is some discussion of comics in relation to art and culture, but McCloud’s emphasis here is on theorizing how, in addition to visual information, the comic book communicates such things as sounds, feelings, and action. I started reading this while at a friend’s house; by about page 50 I found that I was enjoying the book so much that I told my friend I would have to get a copy of my own, which I have since done. A great book not only for cartoonists and fans of the comic book medium, but for critics and theorists as well.(less)
A family moves into a house and finds a strange architectural feature in one of its rooms. The father of the family, a professional photographer, expl...moreA family moves into a house and finds a strange architectural feature in one of its rooms. The father of the family, a professional photographer, explores the anomaly, shooting videos and taking pictures as he investigates, first alone, and then later with his brother and his friends. However, in a Borgesian kind of play with fabula and sjuzet, Danielewicz does not supply the reader with a direct representation of these events; rather, the “novel” is a reproduction by a group of editors of obsessed student Johnny Truant’s arrangement of researcher Zampano’s chapters and notes for what were to be a book-length critical analysis of the films the father shot. Like Flann O'Brien’s The Third Policeman or José Carlos Somoza’s The Athenian Murders, much of the fun of this novel comes from the looping (and loopy) footnotes that add another level (or maybe three, or maybe another dimension) to the narrative. A great tale about family, love, relationships, obsessions and darkness that is at times as surreal as a novel by Murakami and at others as creepy as a story by Lovecraft or Poe. As of this time (October), of the books I have read this year, House of Leaves is the one I have enjoyed the most.
Reading this book takes me back to the late 80s and early 90s when I was living in Montreal and getting the free weekly alternative paper The Montrea...moreReading this book takes me back to the late 80s and early 90s when I was living in Montreal and getting the free weekly alternative paper The Montreal Mirror where, along with Cecil Adams’s The Straight Dope and Matt Groening’s Life in Hell, I’d find Rick Trembles’s Motion Picture Purgatory, film reviews in comic strip form. While I’ve since moved from Montreal and the Mirror no longer includes Trembles’s work, the strips have since been republished in book form, which is great whether you’re a fan wishing you could re-read those original strips or you missed Motion Picture Purgatory the first time around but you’d still like to know more about Trembles’s unique approach to film reviewing.
Because they are in comic strip form, I find these reviews fun to read, even if I know very little about the movies Trembles is discussing. In contrast to prose reviews that typically include commentary on character, on narrative, and on themes, Trembles’s work focuses on film as a visual experience. Although he will sometimes include a paragraph or two on the kind of thing one usually finds in a discursive review, such as details about plot, about relations among characters, or comments on the production history of the film, for me his work is best when his emphasis is on the images in the film, which is to say sex, violence, and special effects.
I could say more about Trembles’s aesthetic, about his battles with the Mirror over the content of his strip, or about his love for stop-motion animation, but if you’re interested, you should check out examples of his work here. (less)
**spoiler alert** A popular device in some romantic narratives is to represent unresolved attractions between characters, the effect of which is to pr...more**spoiler alert** A popular device in some romantic narratives is to represent unresolved attractions between characters, the effect of which is to produce suspense and impatience in the reader with regard to the question of “will they or won’t they?” The technique, which can be traced from Blanche and Stanley through Emma and Mr. Knightly all the way back to Beatrice and Benedict, continues in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. In this book, Orlean tells how she traveled from New York to Florida to learn more about a man who is on trial for stealing orchids. While interviewing the man and others associated with the orchid industry, many of whom express great passion for the flower, the writer wonders whether their rampant enthusiasm would be one she’d be willing to share. In describing her feelings about the flower, Orlean exploits an ambiguity as to whether she succumbed to its beguilements. Although Orlean put restrictions on herself, for instance resolving never to keep any of the orchids she was given as gifts by the breeders and collectors with whom she came into contact and instead finding someone else to give the flower to, yet in her descriptions of the flowers she writes sensuously and at times so lovingly of the attractive colors and suggestive shapes of the orchid as to limn an intimate precision that frequently borders on the sexual. What might these lyrical caresses reflect? Perhaps in such passages Orlean’s objectivity as an observer and talent as a writer work at such a high degree of intensity that the reader cannot help but be seduced by her language and the pictures it creates. Or is it the case that the writer, succumbing to a passion to which she still will not admit, yet communicates something of her true feelings in a sort of verbal swoon? (And if the latter, does it not yet reflect something of her abilities as a writer, insofar as she is able to represent her ravishment even as she experiencing it? Would she have been able to represent that riot of emotion if she had not first experienced it?)
Inasmuch as it both deploys the techniques of fiction to represent actual persons, places and events, and it blurs the lines between the subjective and the objective, The Orchid Thief can be read as an instance of New Journalism. Like Capote’s In Cold Blood, it is in the form of a novel; like Mailer’s The Armies of the Night or Didion’s The White Album, the journalist’s experiences, including his or her subjective impressions, can become part of the “objective” story the journalist reports.
In addition to the story of Susan Orlean and her romance with the orchid, including her search for the “ghost orchid,” a kind of white whale for her, there is a lot of information on the history of orchid collecting and breeding. Everything you wanted to know but that it would never have occurred to you to ask... (less)
While the typical conspiracy thriller depicts characters discovering signs of a conspiracy and then reacting to it, in Foucault’s Pendulum three chara...moreWhile the typical conspiracy thriller depicts characters discovering signs of a conspiracy and then reacting to it, in Foucault’s Pendulum three characters invent a conspiracy theory as a sort of intellectual diversion. One of the characters, Casaubon, who also narrates the novel, is an academic who specializes in Medieval studies and who wrote his thesis on the subject of the Knights Templar. The other two characters, Belbo, and Diotallevi, work at a publishing company that puts out books on occult and esoteric subjects. Once Casaubon starts working at the publishing company, the three begin sharing ideas and, as a way of making fun of some of the more fantastic of the manuscripts they see in their work, they invent a conspiracy theory that they refer to as “the Plan.”
The Plan is ambitious, hypothesizing not only how the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons and the Illuminati are connected with one another, but also how these secret societies are connected to Atlantis, the Assassins, the Baconian theory and the Nazis. The three characters have among them a vast knowledge of European history, and because of this they are able to employ historic facts in their construction of the Plan, both as a way of connecting different parts of the theory together, and as a way of increasing its plausibility.
But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” As the characters work on increasing the historical accuracy of their theory, the line between fantasy and reality blurs and the characters begin to wonder whether the Plan is not just a fiction they thought up, but a real conspiracy that they are in fact discovering.
The line blurs for the reader as well. The Plan goes through a number of versions, each more complex than the previous, because with each new version the characters include another set of historical events or another secret society that was not mentioned in the earlier versions. Thus, once the characters have worked out a version of the Plan that describes the connections between the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians, for instance, they discover a historical event or coincidence that will make it possible to include the Freemasons as well. To do this, however, they have to reinterpret the connections between the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians. After such sets of connections have been drawn and re-drawn three or four times, it takes a feat of memory to keep any version of the Plan entirely sorted out in one’s mind.
Contributing to this blurring of fact and fiction is the paranoid logic of of the characters’ thought processes: frequently, they will begin with a hypothetical connection between two historical facts and then build other hypothetical connections upon this first connection, supporting many of the subsequent connections with whatever historical facts seem to fit, with the result that sometimes one forgets which parts of the Plan are based in fact and which represent the fictional connections among those facts.
I found Foucault’s Pendulum challenging to read. I was not able to do it, but I suppose some ideal reader would be able to follow the details, both factual and fictional, of each version of the Plan, while keeping in mind an idea of how the general shape of the Plan is changing with each version. At one point, Casaubon supplies Belbo and Diotallevi with several pages listing a number of historic events, each of which might or might not be employed in the next version of the Plan. Casaubon’s narrative reproduces this list for the reader, without narratorial commentary, and while a reader with a strong grasp of European history and a good knowledge of the history of secret societies might be able to grasp what the list might suggest with regard to the shape subsequent versions of the Plan might take, I found as I read it that I was truly unable to see the forest for the trees.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Eco’s novel depicts his characters overwhelmed by the connections they are able to make among various historical events, and if the reader is overwhelmed by those connections, perhaps he or she better understands what the characters are experiencing.
Difficulty level? Not as high as Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses—you won’t need a companion or a reading guide or even Wikipedia to get through this one: Eco explains most of his references, and in fact much of the “action” of this intellectual thriller (with the emphasis on “intellectual”) consists of dialogues among the characters that could be read as essays, in dialogic form, on the different subjects the characters discuss. Like Platonic dialogues, but here instead of Socratic method becomes paranoia and the search for truth a search for the ultimate secrets of power. (less)
In this “novel,” Hell begins with a scene set in a small town that appears to be based on a personal memory. Before he has brought that scene to any k...moreIn this “novel,” Hell begins with a scene set in a small town that appears to be based on a personal memory. Before he has brought that scene to any kind of conclusion—before he has even gotten his reader interested in it—he shifts to a different action and a different location: New York City and a rock and roll playing vampire and his zombie friend. There appears to be no connection between this scene and the one that preceded it. It is like a surrealist film. However, the vampire and the zombie appear to be two of the “main characters” as much of the rest of the “narrative” is about their experiences (there are subplots, too, one of which is about a pair of women killing one another).
It would be difficult to say what the “story” is, and whether what the book depicts is some objective but fantastic fictional world or the world with which we are familiar, but which has been distorted by the perceptions of the narrator who sometimes interrupts the story to include surrealistic or schizophrenic little asides and essays.
There may be some point Hell is making, whether about America and its violent history, or about New York City as an urban experience, or about the rock and roll lifestyle, or about the kinds of ideas one gets when one combines late-night B films with the poetry of Gerard de Nerval. I am not sure whether it is about one of these things or some or even all of them. The book is raunchy, excessive, unfocused, confusing, and I enjoyed it a lot. (less)
One difference between this edition of Kurt Cobain’s Journals and other books making accessible the journals or diaries of some individual or other is...moreOne difference between this edition of Kurt Cobain’s Journals and other books making accessible the journals or diaries of some individual or other is apparent right away: while journals by writers like Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg typically reflect the conventions of mass-market printing that have become familiar to us from reading almost anything, the publishers of Cobain’s journals appear to have foregone the transcription and typesetting processes associated with conventional printing altogether. Here, from the cover that is a reproduction of a Mead notebook cover to the pages of the journal itself, each a reproduction by digital photography of a page from Cobain’s journals, complete with horizontal blue lines and vertical red lines, the publishers appear to have done what they could to supply the reader with a simulacrum of Cobain’s notebooks, so that in addition to the words of the text, one can enjoy the handwriting, the doodles, the smudges, the crossed out words and the interlinings. This form of presentation seems particularly suited to Cobain’s work, inasmuch as he was not only a songwriter and musician but an art student with interesting visual ideas as well, which latter are reflected in his notes for Nirvana videos, and also in the drawings and cartoons included on some of his journal pages.
As a writer, Cobain reminds me sometimes of Charles Bukowski as there seem to be similarities in the imagery both writers employ, and in the directness of their respective styles. At one point Cobain mentions having burned all of his Bukowski books, so it seems a reasonable assumption that he had read that writer and at some points even emulated him.
Because of the presentation of the book, it is possible frequently to forget that one is reading a mass-produced text and not Cobain’s actual journal; for a mechanically produced book, Cobain’s Journals supplies more of an illusion of what Walter Benjamin termed “aura” than most other mass-produced objects. (less)
The book is a quick read, with very short chapters, many of which consist of a few sentences. Frequently those sentences read like poetry, reflecting the work not only of the author but the sensitivity of the translator as well. In addition to the fragmented (imagistic?) text depicting moments from ten years in Isaac’s and Bunuel’s friendship, the book includes reproductions of photographs, drawings and paintings, and photocopies of letters. (less)
Years ago, following the discovery of corporate spies who were stealing his secrets while working in his chocolate factory, Willy Wonka fired all of h...moreYears ago, following the discovery of corporate spies who were stealing his secrets while working in his chocolate factory, Willy Wonka fired all of his workers and closed the gates of his factory to the public. Since then, no one has been allowed in, and no one knows what goes on inside—until now. A letter appears in the newspaper, written by Mr. Wonka, telling readers that he will be allowing five children and their guardians to visit his factory and see how he makes his chocolate; moreover, each of these children will receive from Mr. Wonka’s factory a lifetime supply of chocolate. But to be among these five children, one must find one of the five golden tickets, each of which has been packaged in one or another of Mr. Wonka’s delicious products.
While every child in the world (and probably many of the adults as well) would like to have a chance to visit the famous factory and meet its mysterious owner, one child for whom such an experience would be particularly exciting is Charlie Bucket. Charlie and his family are poor, so Charlie only gets chocolate once a year; moreover, he and his parents eat boiled cabbage at most of their meals because it is all they can afford. To make things worse, Charlie has to walk past Mr. Wonka’s factory every day, and as he passes, he smells the smells coming from there and they make him think of the chocolate he enjoys so much, but has so seldom.
Unlike some of the other children in the story, Charlie is patient and polite (and perhaps the alliterative possibilities are intended to suggest that these personal qualities are related to Charlie’s poverty—the other children, significantly, are rich, rapacious and rebellious), and it seems to be because of his strong impulse control and his ability to delay gratification that Charlie avoids making some of the mistakes made by the other children.
But Dahl’s book is not all serious moralizing. The exaggerated representation of poverty, the caricatured characters, the fantastic interior of the chocolate factory, and the unreal volubility of the factory owner himself, suggest that in this narrative Dahl is more interested in humor and fun than in communicating standards of good behaviour to children. A satiric work, and just the thing for a still-developing sense of schadenfreude. (less)
Night is Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experiences in Auschwitz and in Buchenwald. In it, he describes how, as a teen, he was separat...moreNight is Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experiences in Auschwitz and in Buchenwald. In it, he describes how, as a teen, he was separated from his mother and siblings and how he and his father were taken in an overcrowded cattle car to Auschwitz. And while there is much in the book on the physical sufferings he experienced during this time—the extreme thirst, hunger, cold, lack of sleep, along with the brutalities of his Nazi keepers—Wiesel’s focus is on his spiritual sufferings, and in particular on how life in the concentration camp, in the presence of evil and death, challenged his faith in God.
It is bad enough that books such as this had to have been written; worse, though, that it appears that the message of books such as Wiesel’s have yet to penetrate some regions of the world, such that now we should not be surprised if we see similar survivor memoirs emerging from areas such as East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan...
Like Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities., this is an interactive work of graphic fiction. While some words appear in the stories, in...moreLike Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities., this is an interactive work of graphic fiction. While some words appear in the stories, in titles, in narratorial comments, and in signs and papers in the characters’ surroundings, there is no dialogue. Nevertheless, one can move from panel to panel, following the apparent action without a great deal of effort: even if it is difficult for a jellyfish-bat creature in one of the stories to distinguish actual threat from playing or from accident, Woodring’s employment of familiar facial expressions, poses, gestures and comic book conventions make the determination of such distinctions easy for the reader; moreover, the absence of speech and thought balloons supply Woodring with more space in each panel to include more and richer visual detail. Nevertheless, while there is enough continuity from panel to panel to make it possible to guess how each follows the one preceding it, the guesses are only that: guesses. We really do not know the relations of the characters to one another or to the world in which they live, a world different from ours in which vase-like objects materialize in the air, a chicken has a yard sale, and later plays a game of cards with three other feathered creatures, including a cube and a torus. Because this world is different from ours, we can never be certain as to the meanings of the actions in the stories. Thus, it is always possible to ask how much one’s reading of the stories is an accurate understanding of the meaning of the action, and how much that reading is merely one possible interpretation, reflecting one’s own expectations (for instance, in one of the stories, the character with the mask and the forked tail may be giving Frank a reward, or tempting him—or he may be doing some other thing which has not yet occurred to me but which may have occurred to some other reader). In this way, Woodring calls attention to the way in which we make sense of the world, for instance anthropomorphizing that which is unfamiliar to us. However, although the characters in the book may behave like humans, they are not human, and we are frequently reminded of this by one character in particular: he resembles a man but he is never clothed, goes about on all fours, and sometimes acts as a beast of burden, drawing a cart driven by one or another of the other characters. Is he man or animal? Woodring leaves it up to the reader to decide. (less)
In this work of fiction, the Khazars are a people who were prominent in early medieval times, but whose numbers have gradually decreased until now the...moreIn this work of fiction, the Khazars are a people who were prominent in early medieval times, but whose numbers have gradually decreased until now there are almost none left. In the twelfth century and again in the twentieth, they are the focus of a number of scholars researching the conversion of this people from their traditional religion to one of the major organized religions; the twist is that the Islamic scholars claim the Khazars converted to Islam, the Jewish scholars that they converted to Judaism, and the Christian scholars that they converted to Christianity.
Perhaps because of all the work by Jorge Luis Borges I have already read, a lot of this seems to me imitative of the Argentine's fictions. The book is in the form of three dictionaries, one reflecting the Islamic, another the Jewish and a third the Christian viewpoint on the “Khazar polemic.” One of the metafictional devices in the work is that some of the information in each dictionary is about the production of the dictionary. Also like some of Borges’s work, Pavic’s novel employs the conventions and style of non-fiction writing to comment on fictional books. In addition, there is much about dreams, dopplegangers, mirrors, alphabets and ephemeralities, themes I associate with Borges’s fiction. One story in particular reminded me of Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”; something else in the book reminded me of something that happens in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy it, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had not already seen some of these ideas elsewhere. Pavic’s writing here is poetic, and while sometimes he employs the form of the story, at others he uses the form of the historic chronicle, paratactically juxtaposing miscellaneous facts together not because of a narrative relation between them, but because they are details in the biographies of the individuals about whom he is writing. While this is a difficult style to read, it also seems to resemble the style of pre-modern historic writing; thus, it contributes to the “realism” of the book.
One distinction between Pavic and Borges is that the latter never wrote a novel, and for me this is one significant difference between this book and Borges’s stories: while Borges imagined possible hypertextual novels in his short fictions, in his Dictionary, Pavic supplies us with one, and it is this aspect of the book that makes it unlike most others I have read (the exceptions being other hypertextual novels like 253: A Novel and Pale Fire). As you read around in it, you find that each of the “books,” the Red, Green and Yellow (the Christian, Islamic and Jewish dictionaries respectively) is connected to the others in ways that are not apparent to their respective authors. While at times I found the experience of reading the book to be something like following the links on a Wikipedia article, at others it was more like hearing first one side of a conference call, and then later hearing the second, and then the third side.(less)