If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
Catching Up: Books
I always have the best of intentions to remain current with my reviews, and yet half a year has gone by again with nary a one. So it goes. Let's see what we can do to catch up, shall we?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: The friend who gave me my copy of Manhood for Amateurs also gave me this one. Oscar de Leon is an overweight, painfully nerdy Dominican-American boy, and, as you might guess from the title, this is his story. But it's also the story of his sister, his mother, and his grandparents--the Cabral family, suffering under the weight of a generations-long fukú--a Dominican word for "curse." It's also the story of the Dominican Republic, itself, with long asides and footnotes about the country and life under Trujillo regime. It's also the story of the Dominican immigrant experience in New York. It's a lot of things. Though I think the style--making heavy use of footnotes, as I mentioned--and the interjection of Dominican slang, and the density of science fiction and fantasy references (some of which even I had to look up) might serve to alienate some readers, it's nonetheless a powerful and moving story. (Read 8/22/11 - 10/26/11.)
The Chalion Series, by Lois McMaster Bujold: From reading her Vorkosigan novels, I already knew that Bujold was adept at creating both interesting, well-rounded characters and intriguing worlds, but I wasn't sure how it would translate to a fantasy setting. As it turned out, not unlike a few of her Vorkosigan stories (Cetaganda and Falling Free come to mind), the setting is what I found most captivating about this series. The three loosely connected novels (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) explore different facets of what I found to be a unique cosmology, wherein gods are real but can only act through humans who willingly consent. Bujold won the Hugo for the second one, while I personally enjoyed the first the most, but all three are well worth the read. (Read 10/27/11 -12/25/11.)
The Desert Spear, by Peter V. Brett: I read the first book in this series back in 2010 and immediately groaned at the prospect of having to wait. Of course, in the meantime I found ways to occupy myself, but I was pretty happy when the same coworker who loaned me his copy of The Warded Man dropped the sequel on my desk. Where the first book spread its focus between three main characters--Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer--this one spends much of the first half developing the backstory of a fourth: Jardir, the desert leader we met in the first book. Jardir's sections were reminded me a bit of Dune and the Aiel portions of The Wheel of Time. In fact, thinking back over the series so far I would say that Robert Jordan seems to be a pretty apt comparison, though without the endless branching and subplot after subplot after subplot. Indeed, everything I loved about The Wheel of Time when I started that series (as a teenager, mind you) seems to be present here, and reading this series kind of makes me feel like a kid again. I'm very much looking forward to the third book.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher: I've now finished the first six of these books and I think I can fairly say that I'm going to get to all of them eventually. The four that I read since I last reviewed the series (Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites) follow the same formula as the first two, and it's predictable enough that perhaps reading a bunch back to back isn't the best way to go, but I found that even after six of essentially the same book, I care about the characters and am interested to go back for more. (Read 1/15/12 - 2/8/12.)
Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher: Despite what I said about reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's books in succession, I actually went and read ten of them in under a month. The same coworker who loaned me the first two Dresden books also let me read his copy of The Furies of Calderon, after which I went out and bought Kindle copies of the rest of the series (Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury). The way the series follows the life and career of the protagonist reminded me a bit of Forester's Hornblower novels, though of course the setting is completely different. I will say that Butcher has a few writing tics that become apparent after reading a bunch of his books--he loves to end chapters in cliffhangers, for examples, or with people passing out--but he also plots tightly and writes memorable characters. The fact that I blazed through this entire series in just over two weeks ought to say something about how much I enjoyed it.
The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie: Just before I started reading this series, I solicited opinions about it on Google+, and this is one of the responses I got: "I think Abercrombie is a very good writer -- from a style perspective -- and very enjoyable, but he's gratuitously cruel to both his characters and audience expectations." Having finished it now, I completely agree. In my opinion, Abercrombie is a very skilled writer, and it's clear that with this series he was trying to subvert the tropes of the high fantasy genre and play off the audience's expectations in order to do something novel. And he succeeds in doing that, but at the end of it all I sort of felt like I'd been toyed with. In this way he reminded me a bit of China Miéville, though the series as a whole felt less like a raised middle finger than Perdido Street Station did, at least to me. I found the world-building to be first-rate--what backstory we did get on the history of the world was, for me, the most interesting part of the series, and I found myself wishing I could have read that story instead. Intellectually I appreciated what he did here, but I don't see myself returning to this series. (Comprises The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings. Read 2/9/2012 - 2/22/2012.)
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara: This one has been on my list for a long time, and I'm happy I finally took the time to read it. I suspect that an interest in the Civil War may be a prerequisite for enjoying this story, but I found Michael Shaara's account of the Battle of Gettysburg to be gripping, and all the more so for how human he made it. Unlike the historical fiction I often read, this story is based on real events and, as much as possible, on the writings of the men who were actually there. Thus, there isn't much larger narrative to the story--that has to come from the knowledge the reader brings with him. Given that the book chronicles only the battle itself and the events immediately preceding and following it, I think a lot of people wouldn't find it to their liking. I, on the other hand, was riveted. Not only did Shaara bring the events of the battle to life, but in presenting it from the point of view of the men who took part in it, he painted an amazing picture of the end of the war. (Read 2/27/12 - 3/1/12.)
Six Months, Six Words
You know, I keep meaning to write new reviews, but with one thing or another, it keeps falling by the wayside. Seems like I set out almost every day to catch up on my reviews, but by the time I've got the dishes done and the laundry put away and my son bathed and I've finished the day's work for my new photography business, all I want to do is collapse on the couch and watch re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the plus side, that means I've been ending a lot of evenings lately doing what I want--Juliette and I started season five of Buffy this week--but, of course, it means I've slipped a lot on some of my other responsibilities.
But you didn't come here to hear me whine. You came here for book reviews. So, in an effort to finally get back on track, I decided to do one huge omnibus review of everything I've read in the past six months. The twist? Each review gets six words.
The Hunger Games Trilogy: If you haven't already, read it.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy: Conspiracy theories make my head hurt.
Leviathan Wakes: The best new sci-fi in years.
Treason's Shore: A weaker series than I remembered.
His Majesty's Dragon: Like Hornblower, but with dragons. Fun.
Lolita: Beautiful prose, utterly uncomfortable reading experience.
And there we are. Hopefully it won't be another six months before I can get my act together. ;)
The Hunger Games
Started: 12/7/2010 | Finished: 12/8/2010
Started: 1/24/2011 | Finished: 1/25/2011
Started: 1/26/2011 | Finished: 1/26/2011
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Started: 1/4/2011 | Finished: 1/21/2011
Started: 1/31/2011 | Finished: 2/8/2011
Started: 3/11/2011 | Finished: 3/16/2011
His Majesty's Dragon
Started: 3/17/2011 | Finished: 3/19/2011
Started: 3/21/2011 | Finished: 4/6/2011
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
By Peter Carey
I wasn't sure, when I finished this novel, whether or not I liked it. Having had seven weeks to mull it over, I'm still not sure. That doesn't happen that often for me, but it appears to be where I am with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.
A big part of my ambivalence stems from my difficulty in figuring out just what the book is about. It is, as the title suggests, a personal story. Tristan Smith is born with grotesque deformities that isolate him for the rest of his life--he can barely speak, only walks with difficulty, vomits when upset, and is so hideous that most people can't stand to look at him. So, on one level, it is a character study of a deeply marginalized and alienated person--we see the roiling internal life of a central figure who is effectively cut off from the world around him.
But then, it's also clearly meant as a political allegory. Tristan is born and grows up in the country of Efica, a fictional island nation whose beginnings as a penal colony recall author Carey's native Australia, but whose language and culture rather bring to mind South Africa. (Or, at least, the loosely formed image of South Africa that I have.) Tristan's mother is an emigrant from Voorstand, another fictional country whose cultural hegemony and cloak-and-dagger espionage agents are an obvious reference to the United States--though Voorstand's Dutch-influenced dialect is also reminiscent of the Boers.
The interplay between Efica and Voorstand colors every aspect of the novel. Tristan's mother is the founder of an agitprop theater company, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in the company of that theater group as they work and tour and speak against Voorstandish influence in Efica. Tristan grows up both despising Voorstand and entranced by its flashy culture. (The lie is later put to that flashy impression when Tristan visits Voorstand and sees, instead, a landscape of inanity and social decay.) Seeing Tristan's world as we do, through his eyes, we're given a glimpse at the other side of first-world relations with the third world.
The political aspect might seem overbearing if it were completely earnest--and I'm not sure it's not overbearing anyway--but there's also a fair amount of satire. Of the world superpowers, of course--Voorstand's feared intelligence agencies are depicted as almost farcical, and the country's society is based on what amounts to a literal worship of Disney characters. Conversely, Efica--especially the artists surrounding Tristan and his mother--are portrayed with such self-importance that it's hard to imagine that Carey isn't making fun of them, as well.
On top of all of that, the form of the book leaves me wondering how much, if any, can even be trusted. The story is told in Tristan's own voice, complete with footnotes on fictional history and cultural explanations, presented as a memoir or confessional. Throughout the book, Tristan addresses the reader directly, imagining us to be Voorstandish citizens who see him as a terrorist, and imploring us to understand his perspective. It's reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's repeated asides to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Between that allusion and the fact that so much detail is included in scenes where Tristan was either not present or was too young to remember or understand, it seems at times that the reader is invited to wonder just how much is being made up or covered over to further some other agenda.
There's a lot going on in this book, and it's clearly a skillful work. But despite the fact that I can appreciate, even marvel at the craftsmanship, there was still something holding me back from really connecting with it. Maybe I'm simply too American or too bourgeois. I don't know. I'd love to get another take on it, though, so if any of you out there do read it, let me know what you thought.
Started: 11/23/2010 | Finished: 12/7/2010