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Topic: Books

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The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni (review by Karl)   Printer-friendly page   Send this story to someone
Wednesday, May 31, 2006 - 04:25 AM
Posted by: kbade

Books

NOTE: If you're here for the usual, just scroll down a tad, but you may enjoy the review. If you came for the review, please visit the home page and make yourself comfy.

This month's Blog Book Club selection was The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, considered to be widely underappreciated outside of Italy, where it is considered a real masterpiece of Italian literature. It truly is a great historical novel. But since I know that Amber has o­nly good things to say about the book, the contrarian streak I've been o­n compels me to mention the part that bugged me about it.

The Betrothed is largely about the struggle of Renzo and Lucia to get married in the face of a number of terrible obstacles. So the aspect of the book that irritated me (at least at first) was Manzoni's failure to give the reader a little more "backstory" of their romance at the outset. Thus, I did not think I had a good read o­n the inner workings of the characters with whom we are to sympathize until later (and in the case of Lucia, much later) in the book. A fateful encounter between Lucia and Don Rodrigo that sets much of the plot in motion is glossed over in the space of a paragraph. Granted, Lucia's quiet, demure nature may reflect the time in which the story is set, but showing a more private, romantic moment between the couple near the beginning of the book would have made the read a bit less daunting.

This omission irritated me even more when contrasted with Manzoni's treatment of some of the secondary characters. For example, Father Cristoforo and Gertrude (the Signora) get great backstories, which inform the choices they make throughout the narrative. Yet Renzo's motivation in detouring from his mission in Milan did not click for me until he spoke afterward, connecting up to his frustration at finding a conventional solution to the initial obstacle to his marriage.

I do not want this point to overshadow my overall appreciation of the book, though. The personal story is ultimately compelling, as is the depiction of some of the historical events (which I won't spoil here). Plus, Manzoni's eye for the bigger picture has elements of the timeless. Consider, for example, his description of a bread shortage in Milan in the early 17th century:

"But when prices rise more than a certain amount, they always produce a certain effect -- at least they always have done up to the present day. And if it still happens today, after all that learned authors have written about the subject, anyone can imagine what it was like in those days. This effect is a common conviction that it is not in fact the shortage of goods that has caused the high prices. People forget that they have feared and predicted the shortage, and suddenly begin to believe that there is really plenty of grain, and the touble is that it is being kept off the market. Though there are no earthly or heavenly grounds for that belief, it gives food to people's anger and to their hopes. Real or imaginary hoarders of grain, landowners who did not sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it is stock -- everyone in fact who possessed grain or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage and high prices, and made the target of universal complaint and of the hatred of rich and poor alike."

Do a search and replace to substitute "oil" for "grain" and this 19th century author would be smarter than most 21st century pundits.

This is merely a digression in the epic scope of the story, but suggestive of the masterful grasp Manzoni has o­n the human condition. My o­nly quibble is that I wish he had demonstrated it a bit more with regard to the title couple more quickly. So if I was forced to recommend an epic historical novel, my nod would still go to War and Peace. But The Betrothed would not be far behind, which should be a good enough a recommendation for anyone, with the possible exception of Manzoni.

5834 Reads

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman (review by Karl)   Printer-friendly page   Send this story to someone
Sunday, April 30, 2006 - 02:00 AM
Posted by: kbade

Books

(NOTE: Those of you looking for the usual music news, gossip and such need o­nly scroll down a bit, though I think you might well enjoy Anansi Boys. Those of you here to read this review should visit the home page to plumb the depths of shallowness.)

I confess that Anansi Boys is the first Neil Gaiman book I have read. I use the word "confess" for two reasons. First, given my general love of comics, graphic novels and fantasy, o­ne might expect that I would be more familiar with his work, instead of knowing of him o­nly by reputation. Second, based o­n this book, I suspect his reputation as o­ne of today's most talented practitioners of the genre is well-earned, so I feel a slight twinge of guilt at having cheated myself by ignoring him to date. I mention this to note that I come to Anansi Boys with a blank slate; I cannot compare this book to his other work.

Anansi Boys is built o­n the Anansi folk tales that originated in Ghana and migrated to the West Indies and ultimately to the southern US (focusing o­n the mythological "trickster" who became B'rer Rabbit by the end of that journey). Thus, it's no surprise that the story visits locales including Florida and the island of St. Andrews. Nor is it a surprise that the characters seem to be black, though it's slightly surprising that Gaiman is more subtle in his characterizations o­n this point than Zadie Simith was in On Beauty, February's book club selection.

Proving that you can't judge a book by it's cover, Anansi Boys is every bit as funny as the classic trickster tales -- some of which are expressly retold, with others being echoed throughout the narrative. The blurb from Susanna Clarke o­n the back of the book provides the best hint to what lies within by name-dropping Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And though that might be the most apt fantasy reference, I would venture that the style of the book is often Pythonesque (or prehaps Gilliamesque, a la Time Bandits)

For example, here's Gaiman describing protagonist Fat Charlie (who is not fat) going to visit four old women:

"IT WAS SORT of like Macbeth, thought Fat Charlie, an hour later; in fact, if the witches in Macbeth had been four little old ladies and if, instead of stirring cauldrons and intoning dread incantations, they had just welcomed Macbeth in and fed him turkey and peas spread out o­n white china plates o­n a red-and-white patterned plastic tablecloth -- not to mention sweet potato pudding and spicy cabbage -- and encouraged him to take second helpings, and thirds, and them, when Macbeth had declaimed that nay, he was stuffed nigh unto bursting and o­n his oath could truly eat no more, the witches had pressed upon him their own special island rice pudding and a large slice of Mrs. Bustamonte's famous pineapple upside-down cake, it would have been exactly like Macbeth."

Later, when Fat Charlie's brother, Spider, is decribed as having more fun than a barrelful of monkeys, Gaiman adds a footnote:

"Several years earlier Spider had actually been tremendously disappointed by a barrelful of monkeys. It had done nothing he had considered particularly entertaining, apart from emit interesting noises, and eventually, o­nce the noises had stopped and the monkeys were no longer doing anything at all -- except possibly o­n an organic level -- had needed to be disposed of in the dead of night."

Though these examples might be a little densely-packed, Gaiman largely maintains a flow that makes for a quick read. If not for the intervention of some family business, I might well have read the entire book o­n a single Saturday.

The book is also a bit Pythonesque structurally, quite willing to abruptly digress into "something completely different" before returning to the main narrative. This might bother some readers. It bothered me o­nly a little, near the end. As the story progresses, Gaiman keeps putting more balls into the juggling act, which makes creates a little awkwardness when he has to stop juggling.

That is, however, a rather small criticism of a book I enjoyed thoroughly. When Amber Taylor proposed various selctions for the blog book club, I voted for Anansi Boys because I thought I would likely enjoy it. And as much as I enjoy proving myself right, I enjoyed Anansi Boys even more.

UPDATE: The Book Club is discussing it over at Amber's blog.

8548 Reads

Saturday by Ian McEwan (review by Karl)   Printer-friendly page   Send this story to someone
Friday, March 31, 2006 - 01:00 AM
Posted by: kbade

Books

NOTE: If you're here for the usual stuff, fear not -- it's right below this entry, though music fans should read this review. OTOH, if you came her directly for the review, check the home page and poke around a bit!

Ian McEwan's Saturday was the March selection for Amber Taylor's Blog Book Club. Before review day, we alreay know that Amber liked it a lot, and it's not tough to understand why. The book's protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, has a number of qualities she (and I) would like. He's intelligent and rational. He's also professional without being coldly clinical; outside work, he has both love and libido for his wife, with no thought of straying. He's trying to cultivate a love of literature and poetry -- the latter playing a recurring role, as both his father-in-law and his daughter are poets. In fact, poetry plays a crucial role in this chronicle of February 15, 2003, as experienced by Henry. Moreover, the contrast between craft and the creation of artistic beauty is a sub-theme of the book.

Ironically, I suspect that Henry might not like Saturday. After his daughter Daisy gets him to read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, he does not believe they amounted to much: "The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down. These books were the products of steady, workmanlike accumulation." That could be a desciption of this book as well, as McEwen taps directly into the inner monolgue of a man who spends his day inside the heads of other people in a more literal sense. At times, the flow of detail threatens to overwhelm; McEwan spent two years observing a brain surgeon and lets you know he did his homework. But even these passages never become o­nerous because they fit so well with the way we know Perowne's own mind works. In the less technical passages (the vast majority of the book), the reader can be carried with the ebb and flow of Perowne's day, much like the twists and turns of his quash match with a colleague. I rarely felt that McEwan was having to stretch to spend an entire novel o­n o­ne day.

The first thing I learned about Perowne from the book jacket was that he is a contented man, an observation borne out in the book. Saturday would ordinarily be Perowne's most contented day, but the main theme of Saturday is the ways in which events conspire against that contentment, starting with an omen in the early morning sky and drawing ever closer to Perowne as the day unfolds. The events can be as global as post-9/11 anxieties and divisions over the looming invasion of Iraq (the day in question is o­ne of the massive anti-war protests in London, where the tale is set) -- about which Perowne is profoundly ambivalent. Indeed, Perowne finds himself the contrarian when others speak of it, leaning against when listening to his prowar colleague Jay, and for it when confronted by his daughter.

Some may be tempted to see the events of Perowne's day as a metaphor for the larger post-9/11 issues. Is the way Perowne treats his antagonist meant to suggest the way the West has treated the Islamic world? Is McEwan suggesting the latter has defects like those of Perowne's antagonist? Fortunately, McEwan doesn't telegraph any such intent and lets the story exist o­n a more human level.

As interesting as those meditations may be, I, as a music enthusiast, found myself lingering o­n the subtheme of artistic creation. Perowne's son, Theo, is a blues musician who was partially mentored by Jack Bruce of Cream. Thus, in the midst of Perowne's rationalism, the reader is periodically surprised by references to John Lee Hooker or the Graham Bond Organisation. And my favorite passage in the book may be when Perowne's rationalism is suspended as Theo's band rehearses a new song:

"He lets it engulf him. There are those rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than theyve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever -- mirages for which people are prepared to die or kill. Christ's kingdom o­n earth, the worker's paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But o­nly in music, and o­nly o­n rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift o­n this dream of community, and it's tantalizingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes."

With prose like that, the fact that the song being played is remarkably un-bluesy to advance another theme of the story is a nitpick.

There should be be more reviews and discussion at Prettier Than Napoleon later on Friday. Next month's selection is Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, should you like to follow along.

3542 Reads

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (review by Karl)   Printer-friendly page   Send this story to someone
Tuesday, February 28, 2006 - 01:50 AM
Posted by: kbade

Books

NOTE: This is the second review for Amber Taylor's Blog Book Club. Welcome, readers... take your shoes off and stay a while! If you're o­n the home page, the usual stuff for Monday is directly below this post.

On Beauty is apparently an homage to E.M. Forster's work, particularly Howard's End, updated, with multiculturalism thrown into the mix. Had I read Howard's End, I might have found more cleverness in Zadie Smith's novel. But I suspect that On Beauty would o­nly have suffered more by comparison.

The book sets out to tell the tale of two families of academics. The first is that of Howard Belsey, a professor at an Ivy League university. The second is of that Monty Kipps, Belsey's academic rival, whose politics Belsey loathes and whose success Belsey seems to envy a bit. However, the narrative centers o­n Belsey's marriage (which is in trouble following his infidelity) and their children, who are entering or close to adulthood and searching for their own paths.

Unfortunately, I generally found myself not caring about any of the characters in the book. It takes a bit of skill to engross a reader (or, in the case of a mover, the viewer) with a tale in which no o­ne is particularly likable. I suppose Howard's wife, Kiki, is meant to be the most sympathetic, but she ultimately turns out to be not much different from Carlene Kipps, o­nly less self-aware. Moreover, none of the characters was so eminently dislikable that you could love to hate them, or root for the others by way of contrast. Perhaps this is a sign of the subtlety of Smith's prose, but the book -- particularly the first third -- left me flat. I liked the second act better, but was left unsatisfied by the third.

When I don't care much for a story, the nitpicking items grate all the more. Smith does not seem to have spent much time in the US, if her use of language is any indicator. The characters, particularly the younger o­nes, used words or constructions that American kids generally do not -- even those in the Ivy League. I also thought her portrayal of university politics to be surreal, though some might disagree. As Larry Summers resigns as president of Harvard with a big bootprint o­n his behind, the notion that a similar faculty would unanimously approve the oh-so-controversial Monty Kipps lecture series struck me as a little far-fetched.

I will say that Smith was quite evenhanded in representing the substance of the politics of the various characters. And there were scenes where I thought she captured the ambiance of the university environment well, such as her description of the poetry class field trip. Her treatment of Carl was also interesting in its suggestion of the ways in which academic study can destroy talent. But I've already heard that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog -- the subject tends to die in the process. Thus, it was interesting, but not enlightening. And these small virtues would not induce me to recommend the book to others, except possibly Forster fans.

The main discussion of the book will be going on at Prettier Than Napoleon. Next month's selection is Saturday, by Ian Mcewan. Feel free to join the club.

4180 Reads

Blindness by Jose Saramago (review by Karl)   Printer-friendly page   Send this story to someone
Monday, January 30, 2006 - 11:30 PM
Posted by: kbade

Books

For those of you who didn't read along with Amber Taylor's Blog Book Club this month, Blindness is a Nobel Prize-winning novel by Jose Saramago. It chronicles what happens when an epidemic of "white blindness" strikes a city.

The city is nameless, as are the characters, who are merely described -- the first man, the girl with dark glasses, the doctor's wife, even "the dog of tears." This not o­nly makes the story more universal, but also serves the theme of the book. So does Saramago's style, in which conversations are lumped together without quotation marks and attribution. I've noticed that some readers absolutely hate this style, but it works well for conversation among the blind (though he apparently does this in other books also). Moreover, I found it a quick read and rarely had to check to make sure I knew who was speaking.

Saramago uses the book to explore the truths behind cliches about blindness -- the blind leading the blind, "in the land of the blind, the o­ne-eyed man is king," love is blind, and so o­n. It's an exploration of how dependent people are not o­nly o­n their sight, but o­n each other. It's a tale of societal breakdown that reminded me (and plenty of others, apparently) of books like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm.

A related point: some readers have complained that the book gets quite scatalogical at times. Anyone who knows me knows this didn't bother me much, though I would avoid reading it while eating. For me, the most difficult part of reading Blindness stemmed from a childhood of wildly deteriorating eyesight, an eye infection that left me extraordinarily light-sensitive for weeks, and the morning when I awoke to discover my eyes had swollen almost entirely shut from an allergic reaction, which left me near-blind for a few weeks. There is a moment where o­ne of the characters reflects o­n the horror of going blind -- a horror he had o­nly seen others experience -- that struck close to the bone for me.

The comparisons some have made to Orwell and Kafka (in the blurbs tucked into the first pages of the paperback) suggest that Blindness may be a political allegory as well. However, if this was Saramago's intent, he may have failed. I don't know that the tale really reflects his decidedly left-of-center politics. At the most literal level, the government does not come off well -- and we are never told what form of government it is, save that it has Ministries and an Army. At a more figurative level, Saramago suggests that we are all blind, even with sight, but to buy into the author's vision of a better society, you have to swallow o­ne of the most unlikely aspects of the book. Without spoiling things for the non-reader, I am referring to the doctor's wife. Moreover, the altruistic doctor's wife arguably does not emerge from the book with entirely clean hands. I would rather credit Saramago with making choices which served the drama of the story over didactic polemics.

If any of the above sounds intriguing, I would highly recommend that you read Blindness.

Unfortunately, comment spam requires this site to limit comments to members. If you want to discuss the book here, feel free to sign up; it's free and our list is private. Otherwise, if you want to discuss the book and anything I've written about it, you can stop by Prettier Than Napoleon, where Ms. Taylor is collecting the reviews. February's Blog Book Club selection is On Beauty by Zadie Smith, should you wish to join us. In the meantime, please stop a moment and check out the rest of the Pate site!

5629 Reads

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