Friday, January 30, 2015

Elegy for Kosovo by Ismail Kadre; translated by Peter Constantine (1998)

I know next to nothing about the Balkans, and the most I probably knew was in the midst of the wars there in the 1990s, and that's slipped away.  I have close Serbian friends too, so I probably should retain more, but alas.  (I also feel that what little I know probably surpasses what most of the general American populace knows, but that's another blog post).  Elegy for Kosovo is about a famous battle that took place between the Turks and the Christians of the Balkans in 1389 at Kosovo, the results of which (the Turks won) have haunted the region (and the world, really) ever since.  The Balkans are quiet for a while, but like a the volcano Vesuvius, periodically magma bubbles up and bombastically and horrifically erupts.

The dictionary defines "elegy" as a lament; also a mournful, plaintive, melancholy poem, also a lament for the dead.  While not a poem in the traditional sense, the book - really three connected short stories - is almost like a lay (which is fitting, because the middle story is about minstrels brought along to the battle by the Christians to sing victory songs, and what happened to them after the defeat).  Mournful, beautiful language (I wonder what it reads like in the original Albanian).  The first story, particularly, reads like nonfiction only in storyteller form.

Elegy for Kosovo: StoriesElegy for Kosovo: Stories by Ismail Kadare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My trusty dictionary (.com) defines elegy as: "a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead."  While not a poem in the traditional sense, Elegy for Kosovo - really three connected short stories - reads like an epic lay.  That's fitting, since the middle story is about war minstrels brought along to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389 to sing songs of victory, and how even in defeat they can't shake away their songs of war.  This is indeed a mournful book, but quietly strong and elegant in language (I'm not an expert in translations, but I would say that Peter Constantine's translation is quite magnificent; I'm curious as to how much more beautiful this would be if I were fluent in Albanian). It's not the kind of book that will reach out and grab your attention; it's much too stately for that.   It is definitely a lament, for the battle of 600 years ago, and a lament for today, as in the beautiful, haunting words at the end:  "O Lord, hear my prayer!  Take away all the mud around here, for even a few drops of blood are enough to hold all the memory of the world."


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Monday, January 26, 2015

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

Maybe not the book  to read the week before I turn 45, with all the associated fears of growing older and losing my looks and ending up dying alone and unaccomplished that seem to always accompany my latest birthdays.

I think in 1964, ending up alone and having to hide your gay life from your neighbors, colleagues, and students - save for one or two close and trusted friends - was the product of a homophobic society.  Not so true anymore - I think if Geo were alive and alone today, it would  be more of a choice.  His students would probably know he was gay - and certainly suspect, if he didn't specifically tell them - and very few of them would care one way or the other.  His neighbors, save the rare (and worst kind of) Christian conservative wouldn't shun him because he was gay (we didn't find that to be true in our old suburban neighborhood, and certainly not true in our hipper, more urban neighborhood).  The book is a slice of time in that respect.

But it does still have some resonance when thinking about growing older as a gay man in a culture that exalts youth over middle and old age.  Geo is operating in a world of a culture of youth  that both respects and humors him, maybe even panders to him.  Although the end hints of a relationship to come with Kenny.

I did read Geo as bitter and sad, which made me feel much pity for him, and hopeful that he could eventually find some peace and happiness.  The fact that he had to hide his relationship with Jim and pretend it didn't exist, that was excruciating and sad.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A slice of gay time from 1964, but with some implications that can resonate for the 21st century.  You can't separate the "gayness" of the novel - the protagonist is a gay male after all, and the plot centers on his relationships regarding his homosexuality.  But some of what Geo suffered in the 1960s as a closeted gay male doesn't exist in the same way in 2015. I think in early 1960s, ending up painfully alone and having to hide your gay life from your neighbors, colleagues, and students - save for one or two close and trusted friends - was definitely a product of a homophobic society.  Not so true anymore - I think if Geo were alive and alone today, his isolation (and frankly his bitterness) would  be more of a choice (also, he's suffering greatly from grief, which most definitely would heighten his sense of insolation regardless of what time period he was living in).  Today, his students would probably know he was gay - or most certainly would suspect, if he didn't specifically tell them - and very few of them would care one way or the other.  His neighbors, save the rare (and worst kind of) Christian conservative wouldn't shun him or pity him because he was gay either.  But it does still have some resonance when thinking about growing older as a gay male in a culture that exalts youth over middle and old age.  Geo is operating in a world of a culture of youth  that both respects and humors him, maybe even panders to him; if that was starting to become true in 1964 (several years before the youth centered summer of love, Woodstock, etc.), then that's definitely true in the age of selfies and Snapchat.   


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)

Sometimes The Thorn Birds reminded me of Gone with the Wind.  Maybe because of the Irish father.   It may have been the font though.
It also occasionally reminded me of Edna Ferber's Giant.  But it's not nearly as good.
I don't know if my family watched the miniseries or not. It was first aired in March 1983, which would make me 13 years old.  A hideous, awkward time.  I vaguely remember Barbara Stanwyck as Mary Carson coming on to Father Ralph, and him stripping off his clothes in the rain.  Perhaps after that we turned the channel.
I also know I read this at some point later.  I'm not sure when.  But I remember the father Paddy and the brother (I didn't remember which one) being burned in the awful fire (I didn't remember that the brother was killed by a wild boar; I thought he was burned too).
So up until that point, really up until Meggie gets married to Luke, I thought the book was ok.  Not great, but ok.  The whole thing between the priest and the little girl was weird.  Really weird.  But perhaps with the sexual scandals throughout the church over the last twenty years, apropos.
But after Meggie marries Luke, blah.  I was bored, bored, bored.  It's a ponderous book, and I'm not exactly sure what the appeal is.  Why is this book beloved?  I thought it was mostly dull



.The Thorn BirdsThe Thorn Birds by Colleen McCulloughMy rating: 2 of 5 starsThere is a legend of a bird who wrote a book about a priest with a crush on a little girl, and the back drop was Australia, complete with gum trees and kangaroos and emus, and Bonzer Blokes, and sheep shearing.  And Irish convicts.  No Aborigines though.  I guess they were not invited to this particular party.  No Crocodile Dundee or shrimps on the barbee either.  This book is beloved; it was made into a beloved miniseries in the 80s.  I remember Barbara Stanwyck making Father Richard Chamberlain strip in the rain and admiring his body, and I think then my mom made us turn the channel.  I know I've read this book at least one other time, because I remember some gruesome deaths that I won't spoil here.  But as a re-read, I came away bored and un-beloving.  It's not an awful book.  It's well written.  It even has a plot.  I just didn't find that plot very interesting.  I guess I've never lusted after or been in love with a priest.

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Then there is this Goodreads bitch.

4.5 -- What I consider to be a "trashy novel". The lack of morals and the betrayal of vows on both sides of the affair were sad to read about. Ralph would have been more attractive if he had overcome his desires instead of succumbing to them. And the character Ralph made constant comparisons between women and spiders spinning their webs...

Parts of the novel read like a fairy tale: a hard beginning, the saving grace of a "benevolent godmother" coming just in time. Yet this character is vindictive and malevolent and punishing and jealous.
 (less)

Made me want to read the novel.  Joy, stick to Bethany House Publishers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990)

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchGood Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So this book is beloved, a cult book, one of those books that people in the know discover each other and talk about madly and passionately.  And up until last night, I thought I was one of those people too!  My memory is playing tricks on me, I guess, because re-reading it, I wasn't quite so enamored.  I worship at the temple of Neil Gaiman, and think he's one of the best writers writing today; I can't think of a Pratchett I haven't come away with utterly amazed.  And yet, Good Omens, it just didn't click for me this re-read.  Perhaps Gaiman and Pratchett have matured, like cheese, they've aged and become finer (and smellier?).  I feel awful to admit this, but for bit chunks of the book I was sort of bored.  I seemed to trudge along, and occasionally collapse under the weight of its own cleverness, its own Pratchett-ness.  Gaiman hovers over Good Omens, and occasionally dives in, but there isn't the haunting feeling you get when you are reading a Neil Gaiman book.  This seems pure Pratchett to me, and perhaps - again, I hate to say this because I adore and admire and respect and love Terry Pratchett, that's the problem with the book.  There are later books (or earlier books?  I'm still not exactly sure where this fits into the Pratchett chronology) that are so much, much better, where the Pratchet-ness - the jokes, the asides, the I can't believe he just said thats, the slap yourself in the heads because you were so surpriseds, Death -is honed sharp.   There are better books by Pratchet and Gaiman to read out there (any of the Witches books; The Graveyard Book).  Although one SHOULD read this book; and maybe if it's your first time, you'll be amazed.  Read it twice; you may feel differently.


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"Many people, meeting Aziraphale for the first time, formed three impressions: that he was English, that he was intelligent, and that he was gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide."  I had forgotten this quote was from Good Omens!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)

I don't want to be bitchy about the Chronicles of Narnia.  Yes, the world C.S. Lewis built sort of sucks compared to Middle-earth (Didn't Tolkien say that).  Yes, the Christian allegory could be annoying - although I like puzzles, and consider the Christian imagery and allegory sort of interesting, particularly as an adult.

I love Narnia.  Re-reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I once again felt the branches against my face as Lucy made her way through the back of the wardrobe, nearly smelled the snow and pine trees, could hear the snow falling in the woods.   Narnia made me love reading.

It's a great Christmas book - the snow, the appearance by Father Christmas.


Auntie Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu (2013)

Cozy mysteries for me have a Miss Marple sweet spot, and there aren't very many that reach the special A Murder is Announced place,  Auntie Lee's Delight's has lots of promise, but it didn't quite reach the pinnacle of Marple-dom.  Which is interesting, because Olivia Yu (in an interview at the back of the book) lists Agatha Christie as her number one influence.  She needs to do a deeper study of Dame Agatha.  The plot was uneven; there was too much initial exposition without enough action.  I also thought it was a cop out to use international characters rather than locals; I wanted more of a sense of Singapore, and Yu didn't quite reach that.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories (2014)

I always have trouble describing exactly why I love the writing of Connie Willis so much.  Especially, particularly to friends when I'm recommending her books.  Quirky, idiosyncratic plots woven perfectly together; snappy, crisp dialogue; lots of subtle humor; lists of stuff.  A love of Agatha Christie and Christmas.  Sudden appearances of church music - modern church music, choirs.  Then, at the back of this book of all of her best short stories, the following from a speech she gave in 2006 (http://sfrevu.com/Review-id.php?id=4426):

"And I owe all the books I've written to books.

They taught me how to write.

Agatha taught me plotting
Mary Stewart suspense
Heinlein dialogue
P.G. Wodehouse comedy
Shakespeare irony
and Philip K. Dick how to pull the rug out from under the reader."

That's it, in her own words.  That's the recipe for a Connie Willis.  

This was unlike most books of short stories, in which one or two are wonderful, a few are mediocre or sort of interesting, and several "skippable" stories.  You'll devour every one of these.  It's like a cookie completely made up of chocolate chips.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If this book of short stories is a chocolate chip cookie, then it's a cookie that's completely made up of chocolate chips.  Unlike most books of short stories, in which you have a few wonderful stories, and a hodgepodge of mediocre stories, and a couple of stinkers - each and every one of these are brilliant.  They are all award-winners of some sort (but that doesn't mean anything when it comes to liking or not liking a piece of literature); what really makes them delectable is that they all are trademark Connie Willis. The last bit of the book includes some speeches Willis has made, and in 2006 she said this about her own writing:  "And I owe all the books I've written to books.

They taught me how to write.

Agatha taught me plotting
Mary Stewart suspense
Heinlein dialogue
P.G. Wodehouse comedy
Shakespeare irony
and Philip K. Dick how to pull the rug out from under the reader." (you can find the whole speech here: http://sfrevu.com/Review-id.php?id=4426).

Add a touch of screwball comedy, and that's the recipe for a Willis right there.




Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Interesting.  Very interesting.  I kept thinking about an interview I heard or read by Lev Grossman.  He wrote The Magicians, which was really well written but not one of my favorite books I've ever read.  Essentially, The Magicians was like Narnia or Diana Wynne Jones or Harry Potter, only for adults.  And really, not just for adults, but literary adults.  And this, if I remember the interview correctly, was one of the reasons he wrote the book.  Because (and I could be remembering this all wrong; I"m going back six years ago or so) he saw lots of adults reading Harry Potter.  And as I read Station Eleven, I thought:  dystopias are realy, really "in" right now in young adult fiction, and many adults are reading The Hunger Games and Shipbreaker and the rest (Planet of the Apes and World War Z both come to mind as well).  And so maybe Emily St. John Mandel did a Lev Grossman, and wrote a literary dystopia.   This is complete conjecture, and also I'm side stepping away from the novel itself.  Which I liked.

So Contagion happens, only the viruses win.  Scary ass viruses, and although she never says as much, the place it comes from makes me think it was manufactured, like Planet of the Apes.  And humanity is almost completely wiped out.  Except for little pockets.  And this troupe of musicians and actors travel from outpost to outpost of humanity, making art.  And part of the story has to do with their past, in which actor performing in King Lear dies on stage.  And I wish I knew more about King Lear but I just don't, so I probably missed some literary allusions.  There was a graphic novelist, and crazy prophet,  and a former paparazzi turned paramedic.  And all of their stories collide in the future in which hardly anyone survives.  Which seems convenient to the plot, very convenient.

Luckily though, I never felt completely at sea.  I wasn't quite sure why the stories all connected, but they did.  Like literary fiction of all shapes and sizes and colors and thickness, there was deep shit going on that I probably didn't get because I'm superficial and I'm mostly in it for the adventure.

At least a little of the book must be about how humanity needs art, and that art survives.  At least that part I understood.

This was my second "end of the world as we know it" book this year; I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, and I came away from with almost the same impressions:  good, not great but good, but also pondering exactly what the point of it all was.

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting, very interesting.  Sort of a literary take onWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (minus the zombies) or (I blush)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  I'm not exactly sure what my takeaways from the book were though; art survives; people interconnect in ways they aren't always aware of; the person trying to save your life may also be... okay, no spoilers.  But well worth your time.


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