Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

David Mitchell

I so enjoyed Mitchell's Cloud Atlas that I had to read more of his work. Fortunately, I was not disappointed by his first novel, Ghostwritten.

Ghostwritten employs the same structure as Cloud Atlas; that is, each "chapter" involves a specific character that somehow relates to the remaining, seemingly disparate, characters. The characters in Ghostwritten span the globe, and each of the nine "chapters" takes place in a different country. Unlike Cloud Atlas, the novel does not span hundreds of years, but rather all the stories occur at about the same time.

The first story, set in Japan, centers on "Quasar," a doomsday cultist who has just carried out a gas attack in a subway. The second story moves to record-store employee Satoru Sonada, also a resident of Japan. The other stories involve a haunted Hong Kong lawyer; an old Chinese woman who runs a tea shop on the Holy Mountain; a nomadic, disembodied intelligence that can "transmigrate"; a Russian art thief; a British musician and ghostwriter; an Irish physicist running from the CIA; and a late-night radio-show host in New York City. While some may find this setup to be somewhat gimmicky, I found it innovative and interesting, especially because each chapter's voice is truly unique and different from the rest. I didn't feel as if the same voice were being used for a "new" character.

I'm sure there were a lot of connections that I missed, since from what I can tell there are numerous, subtle threads that connect the various characters. It's definitely a book that's worth rereading to catch all those "ah ha! I missed that the first time!" moments.

My only beef with the book is its ending; I'm just not sure what Mitchell is trying to say. I *think* he's saying that we are all controlled by something greater than us that we are unaware of and ultimately cannot comprehend, that we are all animals in a zoo, unaware that the zookeeper is even there. I'd like to think he is implying God is the zookeeper; that would at least be somewhat of a comfort, but I don't think that's what he's saying. Rather, it seems the world's "zookeeper" is a mish-mash of technology, world powers, and capitalism. Which really sucks. But, as I said, this is a book that bears rereading, and, as such, my understanding of it will likely change over time.

In a nutshell: A fun, entertaining read that is definitely literature. Stylish and innovative, yet not schlocky or trite.

Bibliolatry Scale 5 out of 6 stars

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Monk, by Matthew Lewis

The Monk
Matthew Lewis

Now THIS is a good book!!! This is another in the way of Lolita and Watership Down, in that I’ve read it several times already—but it's another book that demands rereading every couple years. It’s just so damn good! Because of its high scandal factor I've wanted to teach it, but considering I teach in a Catholic school, the idea of a monk turned rapist and devil worshipper may not be such a good idea.

Oh please! I say. It’s not like it’s not relevant. Sometimes people are so uptight. This is classic literature, folks! And great literature at that.

The book’s main character is Ambrosio, who, as an infant, was abandoned and given to the order of the Capuchins. Raised by the monks, Ambrosio showed great promise even at an early age, and he soon took his orders. He becomes a figure of great piety—easy enough, when you’ve spent your entire life within the walls of a monastery. The only time he ever leaves is every Thursday, when he delivers a sermon to the massive crowds who come to see what they deem a living saint. During one of these sermons, his eyes light upon Antonia, a young girl of fifteen, who just so happens to be the most beautiful, most pious, and most innocent girl in existence. Filled with lust, Ambrosio vows to have her, and he will stop at nothing to do so. And that’s only the beginning!!

Yeah…so probably wouldn’t go over well in a Catholic school. Which sucks, because this is a book I can really get behind. First, it’s a Gothic novel, so there’s lots of creepy, crazy stuff. I also find it amazing that a book this scandalous was written in 1794. Also noteworthy is that Lewis wrote it before he turned 20, which of course makes me feel great that I’m a bit past that age and have nothing this awesome to my resume. The book is not all scandal and sensationalism, however. The book also raises interesting points on the true nature of piety. You cannot be truly pious if you hide from sin. Rather, you must face it daily and refuse it.

Granted, the book can be a bit melodramatic at times, but it's all in keeping with the genre. The melodrama can easily be overlooked in the presence of everything else that is so great about The Monk. On my now fourth read, I'm finding lots of ironic, funny lines I previously missed. And I never cease to be amazed at the depths to which the monk will sink so that he might have his desires. This is definitely a book that gets better with age.

In a nutshell: A fabulous, page-turning classic that gets better with every reading. You must read it, if you haven't already.

Bibliolatry Scale: 6 out of 6 stars

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Portrait, by Iain Pears

The Portrait
Iain Pears

Well now this was an entertaining little book! And I don't mean this in a belittling way; The Portrait takes only a sitting or two to read, and is highly entertaining.

I have to say that I liked this book a lot better than Pears' Instance of the Fingerpost, which I found much too long and ruined by its dumb and unbelievable conclusion. In contrast, The Portrait was short, believable, and smart. Can't beat it! The story is told via a dramatic monologue; an artist speaks to his critic after a long absence. It's clear something bad is going to happen. Animosity drips from each page as the artist paints his critic's portrait.

Unfortunately, the idea that something bad will eventually happen is given to the reader long before one opens the book, so long as one is observant enough to read the cover comments. I'm giving nothing away here. To be fair, there is enough not-too-subtle foreshadowing along the way that will guide the reader to this same conclusion. (Ironic that the learned critic would miss these clues.) Fortunately, there were a few surprises that were not indicated by either the cover comments or the un-subtle foreshadowing, so I wasn't entirely let down.

The book also raises some interesting questions about the interplay between art and criticism. Does the artist make necessary the critic? Or the other way around? I'd like to think both artist and critic are necessary to one another, a symbiotic relationship of sorts. Pears, however, seems to see the critic as a parasite that feeds off the labors of the artist. Undeniably the critic has great powers of influence. Does that mean the critic deems what is True Art while the dumb masses follow blindly? Perhaps, if he uses his powers of discernment correctly. He might, however, toy with the public, as the famous Ellsworth Toohey did in Rand's The Fountainhead. In this case, the critic might elevate trash and watch the masses lap it up, believing trash to be True Art. Perhaps, as Pears also seems to assert, True Art is so compelling, so disturbing, that it cannot even be shown to either critic or audience, but exists solely for the artist himself? Pears offers no explanations to these questions, although his sympathies surely lie with artists. In fact, one is almost lead to wonder if Pears himself hasn't been burned by a critic's acid pen one too many times. He seems to be drawing from personal experience. Hopefully, not too personal.

In a nutshell: The Portrait is highly entertaining, short novel even if it doesn't shake the ground a reader walks on. Dramatic monologues are not often used in novels, and it was refreshing to see one here. Not the best book I've ever read (it was rather cold for that, as was necessary), but it did give me a pleasant way to pass an afternoon.

Bibliolatry Scale: 5 out of 6 stars

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I Am No One You Know, by Joyce Carol Oates

I Am No One You Know
Joyce Carol Oates

For years I’ve been ambivalent to Joyce Carol Oates; I recognize her as a good writer, but most of what I’ve read from her over the years was really nothing memorable (with the exception of Zombie, a book that scared the crap out of me) in my mind. Willing to give Oates another try, I picked up two collections of hers. So far, I’ve read I Am No One You Know.

I’m so pleased to find a collection of stories which doesn’t contain a story or two that just lets you down. Usually in a collection of stories, there are about 2 stories (if I’m lucky) that “wow” me, about a lot that “okay” me, and a few that “wtf” me. Blessedly, I found zero wtf stories in this collection, and more than a few that wowed me.

The stories are all disturbing in their own ways. There is something of the grotesque in them, as well as a little something that makes the grotesque appealing. There is beauty in her sparse prose, which illuminates even the most horrifying scenes.

If I were pressed to name a favorite, I’m not sure I could. Of the nearly 20 stories, I found the most memorable to be “Curly Red,” about a sister who tells on her older brothers after they commit a horrific crime; “The Girl with the Blackened Eye,” about a girl who survives being kidnapped and raped; “The Instructor,” about a shy girl who begins to teach college and encounters as a student an ex-con who stalks her; and “Aiding and Abetting,” about a husband, who, fed-up with his emotionally unstable brother-in-law, talks him into suicide. The stories are so memorable to me that I regret only mentioning these stories, and not others. But I simply can’t do justice to them all with a quick summary.

In a nutshell: The writing is good; the stories are better. Or are the stories good and the writing better? It doesn't matter--even the most disappointing story wasn’t disappointing at all. Each makes you feel you are getting something new.

Bibliolatry Scale: 5.5 out of 6 stars

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Watership Down
Richard Adams

I WANT TO BE A RABBIT. Dammit! Why, God, why was I born a person? I want to be Bigwig. Or Fiver. Or Thethuthinnang, so I can have a cool name I'm not sure I'm pronouncing correctly.

To quote the french, le sigh.

So, anyway, years ago, me mither once told me about her favorite childhood book. She gave it to me to read, and it was all yellowed and weathered, and I saw it was super long, and I was like, oh crap do I really have to read this? But I did and it became my favorite book EVER. I read it about once a year after that until giving the book to my grandmom to read; I haven't seen it since. I still feel bad asking gram for it back, so I haven't.

Fast forward to a month ago, when I finally bought meself a new one. I wasn't going to read it yet, but I'm plowing through Anna Karenina, and, guess what? I'm bored and need a distraction. I'm not even quite 100 pages in, so I'm hoping I'll still be swept away. But for now: rabbits.

So I put Anna down and read this book again for the first time in years. Not surprisingly, I think I loved it more than I remember. Only this time, I didn't cry. (Well, to be fair, I was reading parts of it in work--I couldn't put it down, responsibilities be damned--and students were near. It wouldn't look right to be seen crying over a book about rabbits, so I had to suck it up. But damn, it was close for a minute there.)

This time around, I caught on to a lot of stuff I missed as a child. But the beauty of the story hasn't changed. It's a simply told story of a group of rabbits in search of a better life. The characters make the story, however, and I still, after all this time, can't decide which one is my favorite. There's Fiver, the psychic ; Bigwig, the lovable tough guy; Hazel, their unlikely leader; and El-ahrairah, the mischievous rabbit of folklore.

In a nutshell: A book for everyone of all ages. It's a fairly long read, but one that will fly by. And you aren't human if it doesn't make you even a little misty. I mean, come on. Rabbits, people. Rabbits.
Bibliolatry Scale: 6 out of 6 stars.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Parallel Worlds, by Michio Kaku

Parallel Worlds
Michio Kaku

When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronomer. Astronomy is super cool. I love learning about what will happen when our sun dies (that is, it will expand and engulf Earth, which will burn in its outermost layer) or about our future collision with the Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years.

Unfortunately, I soon learned that astronomy = math. And I hate math. So I gave up on the whole astronomy thing, but I still love to watch those nerdy programs on the National Geographic Channel. So I thought I’d enjoy Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, which discusses the birth of the universe (and the multiverse, the theory that our universe is but one of many), parallel dimensions, string theory, time travel, and the like.

Kaku is one of the cofounders of string theory, so he is more than just a geeky know-it-all. More importantly, however, he has the gift of storytelling. He relates this heavy information interspersed with witty anecdotes and asides. He’s a pretty darn good writer for a scientist, if I may say so myself.

At times, the book gets a little too complicated for my non-math-and-science brain, but Kaku’s clear analogies and explanations make some pretty complicated material understandable. And whenever it got a little too difficult, I just remembered that a little skimming never hurt nobody.

In a nutshell: if you are interested in the universe (and who the heck isn’t?), Parallel Worlds is a great—albeit tough—book. You may not understand 100% of the information it contains, but according to Kaku, many astrophysicists don’t either. Nice!

Bibliolatry Scale: 5 out of 6 stars

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory
Iain Banks

I like weird books, but…man. The Wasp Factory is about a teenage murderer in Scotland. The Times (London) is quoted on the back of the book as calling the book “Rubbish!” – it is better than rubbish, but I’m not calling it great literature. The story is certainly disturbing (at times a bit too much so), but what prevents this from being a better book is the lack of outstanding prose. The real draw here is the narrator’s description of his heinous deeds.

Frank Cauldhame is sixteen and has already killed three people. He has strange rituals and weird collections. Frank’s descriptions of his crazy daily life are very entertaining, if not highly disturbing. Because of this shock value, the story was interesting and I’d recommend it to others.

However, the ending is another one of those “here’s a really crazy ending you’ll never see coming,” and I couldn’t help but wish Banks had explained the narrator’s craziness in a more logical way. Intending to study criminal psychology before switching to literature, I have always loved criminal minds, and usually there is a seemingly simple, yet extremely twisted reason murderers are what they are. Mostly they become so due to abuse or genetics, but Banks explains his murderer’s insanity with something really unexpected.

Unfortunately, at the end, though, I wanted more depth. It seems as if Banks says, “Here is Frank’s crrrraaaaazzy secret. Isn’t it super crrraaaaazzzy? That’s why he’s a killer! And now that he’s aware of it, problem solved!”

Except in life, things are never that simple. That’s why, after reading The Wasp Factory, I felt that despite its disturbing material this book was mostly fluff. It is a light read (at a slim 184 pages) and the story is compelling enough to propel one through in one or two sittings. Is it worth it? Sure, if you like gross and kooky stuff.

In a nutshell: entertaining but ultimately superficial.

Bibliolatry Scale: 3 out of 6 stars.