Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reading List: None Died in Vain

None Died In Vain
by Robert Leckie

As with a number of other books I've read in the past year, I'm dipping back into history with this one, and as we're celebrating the hundred fiftieth anniversary of it, I'm glad that I've finally hit the Civil War.  This is a favorite obsession with many Americans, and at least one of my blogging associates.  These guys know the conflict backwards and forward, all the famous names and battlefields and campaigns.  I know most of it, too, but it's always nice to refresh the memory.  So far I've once again been reminded that the great conflict of the 19th century may very well have been the one with Mexico, which has been deemed the proving ground for the Civil War by some historians, the last necessary bit of instigation needed to make it happen and where the great generals forged themselves.  More to follow...

Divine Misfortune

Every time I read a book, I want it to amaze me.  Sometimes I truly believe I've only collected the books that are guaranteed to amaze me.  Now, maybe some people are lucky (or delusional) enough to experience that.  Me, I end up with fewer such books and more like Divine Misfortune, which I only hoped would be a revelation.

This was my big experiment with A. Lee Martinez, who I hoped would be my new Douglas Adams.  I love Douglas Adams.  Almost everyone who loves Douglas Adams loved him for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I love him for Dirk Gently, and more specifically, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, which if you need some basis for comparison because you're obviously not at all familiar with it, is very similar to Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  It's one of my all-time favorite books.

Perhaps I set Martinez up to fail?  It seems most of the characters in Divine Misfortune are in similar circumstances.  It's a book in which all the old gods are still around and mortals have streamlined the devotion process by making it pretty much like modern dating.  In fact, exactly like modern dating, online profiles and all.  That's how Phil and Teri hook up with Lucky, raccoon-headed god of prosperity.  Except there's about a thousand things they don't find out right away that end up complicating this relationship.

Big surprise, right?  I do end up admiring Martinez as a writer.  In a lot of ways, he's exactly a writer of my generation.  It's obvious.  It's also obvious that he, too, read a lot of Dave Barry.  (And enjoyed a hearty laugh at his many, many jokes.)

Actually, Divine Misfortune reads a lot like one of Dave's solo fiction efforts, Big Trouble or Tricky Business.  It also reads like one of those cookie cutter narratives that pass for James Patterson books and/or ALL OF POPULAR FICTION.  Seriously, someone has a whole template for this stuff, and writers like Patterson and Martinez, or perhaps their nefarious editors, have taken it to heart.

It's a book that features characters doing stuff, but keeps the reader at a huge distance from these characters, instead believing (and apparently successfully so, because as I said, this is popular fiction) that readers simply experiencing the vicarious woes of said characters is the same as actually writing these characters.

If you're a writer like Dave Barry or Douglas Adams, this is not a problem.  If you're not, then it is.  I'm not saying that Martinez is a bad or uninspired writer, but that he is not what I had hoped.  Earlier this year I also sampled Martin Millar via Lux the Poet, which was much closer to what I'm looking for in this vein.  Martinez was a writer I discovered working in a bookstore, and although he clearly writes the popular fiction style, he's not what you'd call a breakaway success.  I tried promoting him, though I don't know if I ever got very far.  (Because I was always promoting the most obtuse material, I don't think I ever got any traction.)  Now I'm kind of glad.

Again, Martinez is not a bad writer, and Divine Misfortune is not a bad book.  In fact, in a lot of ways, it reads like a book version of those many, many computer animated movies that've been released over the past decade, in the wake of Pixar's massive success.  It could easily be a computer animated movie, and you'd never guess that it was originally a book.  Put a facade of deep meaning into it, and it could even be Pixar.

But at least as far as I've seen for myself, Martinez is no Dave Barry, much less Douglas Adams.  Shame.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reading List: Divine Misfortune

Divine Misfortune
by A. Lee Martinez

Ever since Douglas Adams, I've sought a comedic writer (with a name other than Dave Barry) capable of writing an amusing adventure.  Earlier this year a lot of buzz was given to Year Zero from Rob Reid, and maybe at some point I'll add that to my collection.  I've already ruled out the cult following of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books became far too insular.  I think succeeding generations will agree with me, or perhaps I will end up revising that opinion.  That happens.  As it stands, Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman, would be the lone Pratchett standout.  Anyway, I was thrilled to discover A. Lee Martinez, who may yet prove to be my answer.  I will find out after reading this book.

Ecce Homo

Friedrich Nietzsche was batshit insane.

I make this statement not in relation to his last years, in which he was a certifiable lunatic, but well before that.  If you don't believe me, you too should read Ecce Homo.

I should also note that I make this assertion with all due affection.  Nietzsche was a genius, but he was also isolated and liked to believe all kinds of crazy shit.  The problem was always that he was a product of his times and he didn't realize it.

Still don't believe me?  How about his neandertal views on women?  Surely in keeping with the times.  or his purely reactionary beliefs, especially concerning Christianity, that he tries in vain to argue are driven from within rather than without.  Or that he spent a great deal of energy reading, and then argues that reading is inherently bad?

He was a philosophical, intellectual nightmare.  And yet he had some pretty interesting ideas.  He contends in Ecce Homo that he was simply ahead of his time.  He laments that he was not accepted by his own countrymen.  These are assertions any genius can make.  But they're also more convincing when you don't spend all your time compounding your breakthroughs by simultaneously believing things that were easily refuted in his own life, if only he'd admitted it.

Granted, this is a failing we all share.  But it's distressing coming from someone whom many have come to admire, at least in theory.  I suspect most of them have not actually read Friedrich Nietzsche, or perhaps are simply fanatical disciples (which, by the way, is another concept he refutes) who are incapable of approaching him critically.

Ecce Homo is the second book I've attempted to read from Nietzsche.  The first was Thus Spake Zarathustra, earlier this year (the kind of year I've had, I mistakenly asserted before that I read it last year), which was patently his attempt at defining a new religion by rejecting a very similar religion (Christianity).  If he'd ever actually written, or presented his refutes, concerning the reasons for rejecting Christianity, perhaps I might understand why he basically invented the modern schism and certainly atheist movement.  Instead he did everything but.  And that's the crucial missing piece of the puzzle.

Clearly Ecce Homo was an attempt at self-justification, and yet if it truly expresses anything, it's that Nietzsche's madness sprang from his inability to self-analyze.  I suspect that he may best be categorized as a mind that was free to explore its own ends, and discovered that they led, appropriately enough, to the abyss...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reading List: Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo
by Friedrich Nietzsche

A few years ago I started writing a book called Ecce Homo, a Latin phrase derived from the Gospel of St. John, "Behold the Man," concerning Pilate's presentation of the scourged Christ.  I thought, very few people could possibly have written a book with that title.  Well, I was wrong.  Nietzsche beat me to it.  Now, Nietzsche had a much different vantage point.  My book was actually about Adam & Eve.  His is a memoir.  Naturally I had to read it for myself, just for the coincidence.  Nietzsche is one of the more intriguing philosophers in history, relevant over the past century for certain elements of his ideas taken somewhat out of context, including the idea of the Superman.  Last year I read Thus Spake Zarathustra, a kind of gospel for Nietzsche's religious beliefs (which were not Christian).  I couldn't finish it.  Yet I knew I had Ecce Homo waiting.  Here I will get to find out what I think of Nietzsche in possibly more welcoming material.  Although he did go mad soon after writing it...

The Romantic Dogs

When I was in college I was fortunate enough to encounter a burgeoning poetry scene, which meant that this was and remains the most intimate I've been with the form.  In the years since, I've continued to collect poetry on a sporadic basis, but actually reading it remains a dicey prospect.  However, among the works published from the late Roberto Bolano in English over the past few years was a collection of poems, The Romantic Dogs.  Bolano considered himself first and foremost a poet.  I already loved him as a writer, and so it was an easy decision to add the collection to my reading order.

Fortunately and unsurprisingly, Bolano was an engaging a poet as he was a novelist.  As in his books, the poems of Romantic Dogs are strongly narrative in nature, and strike upon many of the same themes, for instance living among the uncertainties and hidden beauties of Latin America.  Most Americans don't really think about living in Latin America.  For us it's a place for vacations and the source of endless waves of immigrants, someplace that may be nice to visit but hardly to live.  In the poems of Roberto Bolano, it is possible to exist there in an ongoing capacity, even as dreams sustain him, and a steady stream of lovely female companions.  This is not only where he lived, but where he found his muse.

His was an important and vital voice, perhaps the greatest of his generation, and the rest of us are still trying to catch up.  It's intriguing to know how intimate and familiar Bolano could be, and nowhere could this be more true than in his poetry.  In his novels there's always the sense of literary journalism, which is true for much of world literature though rare for American writers, but in his poems Bolano is free to relax and let his mind wander, which is my favorite kind of poetry, where you get to know the poet and not just whatever they feel like describing.

It's worth noting that there's a series of poems centered around detectives included, which is still more proof that Bolano was fascinated by these civil servants, and not just in the pages of 2666 or The Savage Detectives, and they fall at about the midpoint of the collection.

Half the collection is the Spanish original, and half the English translation of Laura Healy, one version following the other.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading List: The Romantic Dogs

The Romantic Dogs
by Rioberto Bolano

Bolano is the genius writer behind 2666, one of my favorite books of all time.  He passed away a decade ago, but his enduring legacy rightfully began to surface in the years that followed, international editions of his complete works, including his poetry, which this volume represents.  I love poetry but don't often read it, because finding the poets who write vital poetry and not just everything you think about poetry is exceedingly hard.  Bolano not only knew how to write novels, but as it turns out poems as well, which is appropriate, because apparently he thought of himself first as a poet.

London the Biography

Peter Ackroyd has been a favorite writer of mine for more than a decade.  He's as well-known for his fiction as his nonfiction, although neither of this is true unless you're British or appreciate literature and culture.  That is to say, Ackroyd is fairly obscure to American readers.

Until London the Biography, I hadn't gotten around to his nonfiction, although point-in-fact until the last few years I hadn't gotten around to reading anything besides The Plato Papers, which was a masterpiece that proved curiously divisive for critics.  London was actually Ackroyd's follow-up publication to Plato Papers, strictly for the record.

Basically, London the Biography is an oversized version of those regional books you'll find in local bookstores and sometimes museums, although it tackles one of the most significant cities of the past two thousand years.  Because many people have written about it in the past, Ackroyd's effort is both a synthesis of existing material and his own passionate ode.  It is not a strict chronicle, however, in case you were wondering.  Instead, as his preface makes clear, Ackroyd splits his subject into many different topics which explore the character of London from its many different vantage points.  At times this causes overlap in the material, and while one book cannot possibly hope to offer a complete representation of anything so vast a subject as a city that has its roots in Roman times, Ackroyd is about as comprehensive as you can get without being pedantic.

In fact, that's one thing that should be made clear.  London the Biography is not a textbook.  Ackroyd's alternating career as a novelist makes itself known.  He is a storyteller, and his chosen method of execution allows him to remain one throughout the book.  His expansive research reveals many interesting facets and characters even natives may not know about today, and if you choose to cherry-pick through such revelations, you will still find yourself with a worthwhile experience from the seven hundred sixty pages awaiting you.  Sometimes you'll wonder why he doesn't spend more time on some historical figure who instantly sounds like they could fill their own book and probably have, and then you look at the bulk of the book again and thank Ackroyd for simply referencing them.

It's his love for London that moves your reading along, and although Ackroyd can sometimes generalize and inflate the city's significance with thoughts that could and should more easily be more widely translated around England and indeed the whole world, you can forgive the sentiment, because his subject after all has endured and continues to be the center of a large population in its own right.

I read London the Biography because I love Peter Ackroyd, but really, it's London that I ended up loving.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading List: London the Biography

London: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd

I've been a fan of Ackroyd since reading The Plato Papers more than a decade ago.  He's a British writer who has steeped himself in the rich heritage of his culture, and has made a career of turning that appreciation into both novels and nonfiction.  Until this point, I've only read his novels.  London is his most monumental work of nonfiction, and as its title suggests is a broad scope of history pertaining to one of the world's most famous and enduring cities.

Thoughts on Alexander the Great

In reading Robin Lane Fox's Alexander the Great, I cannot help but also comment on Oliver Stone's Alexander.  There are at least two ways to view Alexander of Macedonia today, academically and as part of our collective popular culture.  As Fox makes clear in his book, Alexander would've enjoyed being a part of pop culture, being obsessed as he was with Achilles from Homer's The Iliad.  Today we have a complicated enough relationship with Homer.  There's plenty to talk about.

As one of the most notable figures in history, Alexander the Great will always capture the imagination.  He stretched the boundaries of the classical age, uniting it as never before and helping to make our modern age possible.  He belonged very much to his own time, and yet he looked backward as much as he pushed everything forward.  It may be easy today to view him as a typical conquering tyrant.  In Stone's vision, he becomes a fallible man obsessed with the demons of his past.  Is there any middle ground?  As Fox makes clear, the truth of the man is a little difficult to know at this point.  He lived a long time ago and all the existing records are secondhand at this point, not primary source, and even then, Alexander's own myths were already forming around him, which he encouraged, accepting versions of Zeus and Dionysus as his father as much as Philip, who paved the way for his ambitions if nothing else (but was probably, lets face it, his father).

Today it's hard to imagine that someone like him could be lost to the popular consciousness.  I read through several versions of The Iliad earlier this year, and have long been fascinated with the tale.  Yet in high school I found myself in the extraordinary position of writing a paper on the identity of Homer. Like Shakespeare after him Homer became lost to history and was presumed to be as much a fiction as his legacy.  Alexander didn't care so much about Homer as he did Achilles, the perfect example of a warrior, not even a king, and that may be the distinction that created the man, who became king but became one of the greatest warriors history has ever known.

Fox strives to find the truth of the man and succeeds, with a style that is very familiar to me, since I tend to write in it myself, though he can sometimes lose focus, nowhere greater than a rambling ending that reads very much like an academic exercise rather than the vital vision evident in the rest of the book.  I've read other biographies this year, too, about men whose lives cannot be definitively known, but Fox does a remarkable job keeping himself focused without becoming too lost in contextualizing Alexander.  (Writers, this is always the fatal poison.)

At the start of the millennium pop culture developed a fever around Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, a series of three films (soon to be expanded into six with additional installments inspired by the prequel The Hobbit).  Stone came along with Alexander a year after the last of these films, and as I've said instead of featuring the incredible journey and vision of his subject the director elected to explore the man and his effect on those around him.  Based on what I now know better from Fox's book, an epic trilogy could easily be made of Alexander's achievements and would probably be more popular, but even Troy, based on Homer's tale, failed that year.

Critics at the time were underwhelmed by Stone's effort, suggesting that the subject was lost in the swirl of emotions, that none of his genius was evident.  I can probably admit now that the details are swallowed up in this vision, though the scope is massive for a single film, regardless of the approach.  It would have been impossible to say everything there is to know about Alexander in a single film.  What Fox makes plain and how Stone represents it, however, is that Alexander was not just a sum of his experiences but rather a giant who ultimately overwhelmed his contemporaries.  If Stone fails to allow those around him to appreciate Alexander the Great, it's because that's exactly the way it was, and Fox backs up this assessment.

It may be worth noting that Stone used Fox as a primary source for his film.

Even Fox, though spending a great deal of time interspersing Alexander's life with what others thought of him and were inspired by him later, doesn't truly explain how Alexander deserves to still tower over mortal men.  He's depicted as a self-styled successor of Achilles and Heracles (the Greek form of Hercules, the Roman name you know better), and chasing after gods who in this version of history are founding fathers almost more than divine beings.

To me, it's fascinating.  Fox writes the history, Stone began the modern effort to make the story.  Hopefully more will follow.  Alexander the Great deserves to live in both worlds.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reading List: Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
by Robin Lane Fox

Ever since Oliver Stone's Alexander, I've developed an appreciation for one of history's, well, great figures. I assume none of my teachers was quite so fascinated with the Macedonian conqueror.  This is a book that I've had waiting on the Reading List (and in fact off of it before the List came about a few years ago), and now that I've reached it am just as glad now and when I first got it to have had on it.  Stone used it as once of his chief sources of inspiration.  I understand that Alexander has a poor reputation, but you must understand that it's my favorite movie (as in out of all the movies I've ever seen), so I hold the distinction of the connection between the book and film seriously.  Hopefully I will understand Mr. the Great all the better upon reading it.

Thoughts on Our Mutual Friend

Like most students, I read Charles Dickens in grade school, the classic Great Expectations.  While I'm pretty sure that covers the extent of my practical experience with him, Dickens of course is also well-known for The Adventures of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and numerous other books besides.  In modern culture, he may best be remembered for A Christmas Carol, which has been adapted many times for the stage and screen, the story of how Scrooge rediscovered his love for humanity after spending a regrettable part of his life as, well, a scrooge.

It might be said that Dickens loved to write about the struggles of society to reconcile itself from one level to the next.  His final completed work, Our Mutual Friend, may yet prove to be his definitive statement on the subject, a tapestry of lives ruined and salvaged by a sizable fortune left unclaimed by the apparent death of the heir and instead bequeathed to a working man besieged on all sides by those looking to benefit.

Judging from the merits of the work itself and the footprints I see in later English literature, I think that the book left a sizable impression at the time that history has all but forgotten.  Part of that is no doubt due to the celebrity of one of the most famous novelists in history.  In modern times Our Mutual Friend resurfaced as a reference in the TV series Lost, no doubt for the parallel narrative device of reinvention after disaster.

Dickens emerges in this late work as a talented if bloated writer, endlessly lively in his prose but too unsparing in his admiration for a large cast of characters, sometimes very tenuously expressing useful commentaries to the central plot.  The author famously serialized his stories (something Stephen King attempted to reintroduce with The Green Mile), and perhaps it was this format and his own reputation that prevented him from a more concise version of the story, which itself plays out almost like an alternate and more skilled version of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, although again for some reason neither works as well as it could.

Like Madding Crowd, there's a name that's resurfaced in popular literature (Bella, as in the Twilight saga, whereas Hardy inspired the name for the lead character in The Hunger Games).  That's just to say.

The edition I read ran to eight hundred pages.  I would've been fine with a version that ran half that long.  Once I got to the part where the climax came, I didn't see the point of the book continuing.  The essay at the start of the edition remarks how the arc of John Harmon contrasts that of Bradley Headstone, though the latter is used less than is suggested, and thus his arc has less impact than it could.

In all, it's a story that is greatly fascinating, but even though it's written by an acknowledged master of the form, could easily be improved.  There's even a version I have in mind that would make it a story worthy of Dostoyevsky (much as I admire Dickens, I adore Dostoyevsky).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reading List: Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend
by Charles Dickens

One of the hallmarks of the 2004-2010 TV series Lost was its willingness to incorporate literature in the backdrop of its tapestry.  Perhaps one of the more visible examples of this trend was Our Mutual Friend, which was famously the "sodding book" Desmond Hume kept with him in the event of his imminent demise, as he'd read everything else Charles Dickens had ever read, and was saving it for last.  I haven't made too fine a point of reading much of what is considered classic literature from among these Lost books, but I figured this one would be worth it.  Desmond was a favorite character.  I would never share his particular neuroses concerning Mutual Friend (partly because I have decidedly not read all of its author's books), but I've had it waiting for several years now, and am happy to finally be reaching it.

(There is no picture of Penny in mine.  Shame.  Also no key for a fail-safe to implode a hatch.)

Thoughts on The Green Lantern

Jerome Charyn spent a great deal of time studying Russian literature.  My experience is more limited.  Aside from the recent Ice Trilogy (perhaps the most notable recent example?), I've read Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov is a favorite of all possible books) and the collected works of Isaac Babel (who is likely a favorite of Charyn's), though his famous Red Cavalry/Benya Krik tales remain his best.  In style, Charyn's The Green Lantern is very similar to Russian literature.  It is also an affirmation of his distinctive style.

Set in Russia in the years leading up to the invasion of Moscow during WWII as Stalin seeks to solidify his place in Soviet history by a systematic purge of his critics, the book follows the unlikely rise of a stagehand who becomes King Lear and then the darling of an entire country.  This foundling is an archetype in Charyn books, usually thrust into a pack of wolves representing a much larger institution.  In Johnny One-Eye, for instance, the stage was the American Revolution while in The Tar Baby the staff of a literary journal that dominates a small California town (at least in its own imagining).

Another hallmark of Charyn's work in his ability to accept sexuality as a necessary element of human affairs.  He usually employs the least savory aspects of this basic biological urge, the ones society will tend to judge, which is to say his women tend to be whores.  In The Green Lantern the biggest whores are no different from anyone else, simply trying to survive (which is true in any of Charyn's books), but this time there's a more subtle explanation given.  The lead whore is a world famous actress who made the mistake of traveling to Hollywood and then returning home.  The idea of home for Charyn is always a complicated one.  He likely subscribes to Thomas Wolfe's adage, "You can't go home again."

Stalin's Russia is a unique literary stage for me.  As was the case in Johnny One-Eye, Charyn's depictions of historical figures prove to be a revelation.  Stalin himself is a human monster, but more often human than monster, a classic trickster in the author's eye, able to contradict and remain faithful to himself.  At the start of the narrative he is mourning the death of his wife, which like all the deaths in the book is actually an execution, and appears to be a tragic figure.  Yet every time we see him he appears vital, impotent only when called to public appearances.  (The title of the book comes from a fictional novel based on a character originally created by Maxim Gorky that plays Stalin for a fool, using the signature green lamp that hangs outside his window at all hours as its symbol, a work redeemed only by the onset of WWII.)

Stalin is surrounded by real and imagined celebrities.  It's the march of these celebrities, their rise and fall, that informs the urgency of the book.  In a lot of ways, The Green Lantern is the necessary piece of Russian literature that explains a problematic period of the country's history, the Tale of Two Cities for the Soviet revolution.  I'd previously read the excellent Archivist's Tale that recounts Babel's final days, and reading Babel's own stories and about his life put new shape to a time that for many Americans was simply a precursor to the Cold War.

If you need another reason to read the book, consider it a cousin to the more famous Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which details the human fallout of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with Shakespeare taking Balzac's place.  It's also striking that Charyn continues to evoke a previous era in literature altogether, even in so Russian a novel, what might be familiar to readers of Melville's Israel Potter, the story of a tramp who stumbles through history (many years before Forrest Gump or Zelig).  As Joseph Ellis relates in After the Revolution, this was exactly the kind of material Americans were writing before anyone thought Americans had anything worth saying, borrowing from the work of Swift and Sterne, farces that shed light on life through the most esoteric means possible.  That Charyn is still doing this today, and that he has worthy contemporaries like Thomas Pynchon sharing his efforts, speaks to the enduring strength of the genre.  Yet Charyn is distinctively his own, creating an ever-shifting landscape where good frequently inhabits a coat of gray, like everything around it.

This is the guy who evoked sympathy for Benedict Arnold, after all.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reading List: The Green Lantern

The Green Lantern
by Jerome Charyn

After being amazed by the author through his Johnny One-Eye, I chose to hunt down earlier works, and one of my selections, was The Tar Baby, the previous book in the List, and the other was this one, which I will admit was chosen because it shares (coincidentally or not) the name of a favorite comic book character.  There are not superheroes as far as I know in The Green Lantern, but it does take place in Soviet Russia and otherwise seems very similar in plot to what Peter Ackroyd (The Lambs of London) usually does.  In fact, that's part of why I'm interested in Charyn, because he reminds me of Ackroyd as well as David Maine, a writer who appreciates history and culture and what they both can mean in vital fiction.

Thoughts on The Tar Baby

The term "tar baby" has many meanings, and one of them is racially offensive.  Perhaps that's something to keep in mind.

The book The Tar Baby is Jerome Charyn lampooning of academic pretensions.  It takes the form of a literary journal whose latest issue is a tribute to a recently deceased contributor.  The lampooning takes the shape of the many different opinions and stories about this dead man, the squabbles that arise between contributors and the conflicting interpretations they hold of local lore.

A lot of what fills in the weird shape of Tar Baby will be familiar to Charyn fans who have at least read Johnny One-Eye, set during the Revolutionary War and featuring a central figure who ends up caught between large egos and the home setting of a brothel.  It would not be a stretch to assume Charyn had Tar Baby in mind when he wrote Johnny, disentangling one narrative to form another.  That's a part of the author's genius.

I haven't read too much of Charyn, but at this point I can now with some additional confidence state that he's among our most vital novelists, a sort of more vulgar version of Thomas Pynchon.  Like the sad subject of Tar Baby, however, his legacy has been obscured by the peculiar means in which he has chosen to express himself.  Perhaps Tar Baby itself has played a part in the lack of popular momentum he's met, critics who saw too much of themselves in the skewered blowhards who inhabit the landscape of Galapagos (a name that resonates to Darwin and Vonnegut, though any significance is downplayed).

Part of the phantom in the middle's tale revolves around the famed philosopher Wittgenstein, an interpretation that seems to leave out any historical accuracy for the sake of fictional expediency, which causes its own tizzy, naturally a reflection of the many mirrors within the book.

If you're a fussy reader who needs a lot of convention, think of Tar Baby as a collection of inter-related short stories.  Even if you have trouble swallowing one installment, there are plenty of others to choose from, and parts of Charyn's work summarizes helpfully anything that might have slipped your attention.

It's a wonderful exercise, though perhaps best understood as an ancestor of the more successful Johnny One-Eye.  That would make sense in the world of The Tar Baby, too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reading List: The Tar Baby

The Tar Baby
by Jerome Charyn

Charyn is a writer that I completely stumbled into discovering.  One of his most recent books, Johnny One-Eye, provoked an irresistible interest as an irreverent look at the Revolutionary War, and it was with some surprise on my part that I discovered that I would soon be reading another of his, a biography of Quentin Tarantino.  if chance had guided me toward two Jerome Charyn books, what else might he have that would prove of interest?  So I had a look and found that he has quite a few books and a long history, and yet I've only just learned of his existence!  Johnny One-Eye proved to be a brilliant piece of fiction.  I quickly selected a few more of his novels for future reading, anticipating the day I would get back to reading him.  And now having barely begun Tar Baby, which is a satirical look at pretensions of the literary set (something I just read about from another era with Jonathan Swift), I believe I can say with growing confidence that Jerome Charyn is yet another writer that deserves to be elevated far above his current reputation.  

Thoughts on The Preservationist

David Maine's first book tackles the story of Noah's Ark.  Like a few of his subsequent novels, The Preservationist is an irreverent though ultimately piercing look at a familiar biblical tale.

Maine tends to look at his characters from cynically hopeful perspectives.  He views them as fallible human beings, even if most of them have a relationship with a being some of his readers may not believe in.  I say that because you don't need to be religious to enjoy this author, even if he keeps drawing inspiration from stories most people will associate with faith, in this instance that time God sent a flood to wipe out the entire population of the earth, except for whatever could be crammed into one massive boat.

As usual for Maine, there are alternate spellings for familiar names, so there may even be some disassociative elements to help some skeptics swallow events.  Noah becomes Noe, for instance.  Unlike the later Fallen, which chronicles the first humans (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel), extreme old age comes in hundreds of years, so that there is indeed a mystique that cannot be explained by ordinary science.  God still appears in his typical obtuse ways, which is typical for Maine, who likes to keep everyone on their toes.  That Noe is very old doesn't help the rest of the cast appreciate what's going on, and even Noe has his moments.  The cast includes his three sons and their three curious brides, whose perspectives gently probe the limits of just what it meant when God said he was starting over and saving only the good ones, which seems to mean only Noe and his immediate family.  Being relative outsiders, were they saved only by proxy?

In Fallen character arcs were very specifically split into sections.  In this perhaps more nebulous incarnation, Maine alternates between his cast.  The three sons are distinctive, though two of the wives are somewhat similar, so it's the events they experience that tends to differentiate them, while the third is an innocent whose musings are almost an ironic statement on the whole affair.  Taken as a whole, it's a tapestry that supports the original story while also raising new questions about it.

Being the first of anything, you can either support pretty well what comes later because it becomes a template, or demonstrate an evolution.  In some degrees Preservationist is exactly what Maine does with his later books, but it's also clearly a learning curve, figuring out what works, something Fallen demonstrates and The Book of Samson all but deconstructs, while Monster 1959 takes in an entirely new direction, perhaps the book Maine always wanted to write about God, or perhaps nature, directly but could never bring himself to do.  He knows he walks a very fine line between irritating religious readers and those who don't believe a word of it.  Readers who can follow that line will adore him.  His success at unifying all three readers will always be Maine's biggest challenge.  The prominent blurb on the cover of the book pointedly attempts to sidestep any such controversy by referencing Life of Pi, though the two stories really have nothing in common except taking place on water.

The Preservationist marks Maine as one of the most vital writers of his time from the outset.  The inscrutable wife of Noe, who dies as inexplicably as she supports a husband who barely seems to acknowledge her, may as well be the unifying guide in the narrative.  As in religion, life is constantly presenting you with challenges you may never understand.  This is a book that tries to help you feel better about that.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

More Thoughts on Fallen

I don't normally do this, but I'm double-dipping on David Maine's Fallen.  In my last round of thoughts, I focused on the fact that it's a book based on a biblical story that called to my mind professional wrestling.  A few things still need to be made clear.  One of those is that Maine does not approach this story (or any of his similarly-themed books) from a devout attitude.  He's not trying to convert anyone.  He's simply trying to make biblical characters more human.  Sometimes that means that he's closer to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses than, say, VeggieTales.

As far as pop culture goes, it may help to have Mel Gibson in mind while reading Fallen, specifically his performance in The Patriot, where he plays a father struggling how to respond to the Revolutionary War coming to his home territory.  Gibson frequently portrays desperate men, but in this film much of his desperation comes from the relationships he has with his children, many of whom don't understand what's going on, or are making decisions that exasperate him.  That's the relationship between Adam and Cain exactly, and Cain and Abel, and Adam and Eve.  Imagine Gibson's desperation on a biblical level, if he'd ever made that Judas Maccabee movie following The Passion of the Christ.  Many people now only see Gibson for the endless series of controversies that have followed him for a decade, but I think a certain amount of that follows the kind of life he projects into his films.  As I've said, that's straight desperation.  He's played very few calm men.  No matter what you think of Gibson now, keeping him in mind while reading Fallen would be a good thing.

Another obvious pop culture reference turned out in later seasons of Lost when the story of Jacob began to unfold.  In this TV series, a mysterious island with strange properties causes a lot of people to experience a lot of weird things.  We learn that the man with the earliest experience in this regard is Jacob, who became responsible for the island after his brother chose to reject it and their adoptive mother.  This is another relationship that's very similar.  Jacob's brother and mother were originally introduced in the show as corpses referred to as Adam and Eve, so the connection can be that simple if you want.  The point is, the simplicity and complexity is right there.  Maine has approached what characters who can sometimes be reduced to "the first man," "the first sinner," "the first murderer," "the first victim" and turned them into thinking individuals whose relationships are endlessly complicated.

It's the perfect example of David Maine's instincts as a writer, his ability to craft a story that attempts to explain the human condition in one of the oldest stories we have by making it new again.  Some of it would seem to alienate potential readers, and every best analogy I can make only seems to further complicate that potential, but these are challenges that present themselves, much like life itself.  If you want to accept this particular challenge, it's a rewarding experience.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reading List: The Preservationist

The Preservationist
by David Maine

With this book, I'm finally closing a loop.  Back in college I read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, a modern interpretation of the classic Noah's Ark episode from the Bible.  Some years later I read about the release of another such book, which is this one.  I started to feel as if I was destined to read this curious genre.  I didn't read Preservationist right away, however.  It was released in 2004, but I didn't read David Maine until last year, two of his more recent books, which prompted me to get his older ones, including Preservationist, which ended up being the last in my reading cycle from the author.  It's only appropriate.

Thoughts on Fallen

David Maine has written the majority of his fiction based on classic biblical episodes.  The last one I read was The Book of Samson, and there are a lot of similarities to be found in Fallen, and I'm going to take an unorthodox approach to explain the appeal.

Professional wrestling.  Yeah, so I'm making it ten times more difficult to explain David Maine by using this particular analogy, but it's what came to me as I was reading Fallen.

In professional wrestling, the object of creating a successful persona that fans will care about is exaggerating a personality so that it's clear and identifiable.  The paradox is that most wrestlers are giant meatheads, so attempting to imagine that they have anything approaching intelligent thought is the one thing most outside observers always have a problem grasping.  They think of wrestling as mindless, stupid entertainment.  Actually, the Bible today is not so different.  We've managed to so thoroughly deconstruct the object of religion that the Bible no longer means anything but a bunch of mindless, stupid stories supporting something that only simpletons could possibly appreciate.

So, professional wrestling.  Samson featured the biggest meathead in the Bible.  Not coincidentally perhaps, Maine begins Fallen with Cain's son, who is also a giant meathead.  But remarkably, the story delves into the mind of this meathead, via his father, the first murderer in recorded history, on his way to tracing all the odd developments of early mankind backward to the moment we lost the one thing we've been trying to figure out ever since: perfection.  From Cain we go inside the head of Abel, and then to Adam, and then to Eve.  We begin with the first murderer, and work our way to the first sinner.  You may find Eve to be thoroughly unredemptive, but Maine's genius is that he both allows that judgment and works his way into figuring out how she got that way.  That's the whole point.  It's her reactions, and the reactions of everyone else, that gets us to the point where even someone like Cain has been able to redeem himself.

Structured like Christopher Nolan's film Memento (in other words backward), these are characters will little to say to each other but great emotions.  It's not hard to see this unfold in a wrestling ring.  It's not hard at all.  Most writers prefer to make things much easier.  Then again, most writers don't tackle the tough subjects, the ones that matter to everyone.  A lot of the more literary types do write about miserable family experiences, but they don't get very far because they don't really know where they're going.  Maine gets around that by showing the end point first and then revealing how it happened, through the most extraordinary means possible.

It's a depressing read, but it's a little of what life must seem like to someone who doesn't experience it the way we do, always going forward.  It's structured in a way that fits the elusive fifth member of the narrative into the story without actually giving him a part (that would be God).  Adam is always saying to trust God.  Why?  Where's the plan?  It's Hell getting back to Heaven.  This is exactly how (and why).

A writer like David Maine is capable of using familiar elements in unfamiliar ways, and for those who aren't ready for such things (the copy I read was very quickly weeded out of a library), it's startling.  It takes time to process, too, much like the life it's attempting to explain.  Does it make anything easier?  Maybe more than other books, like a friend who knows what kind of life you've had, what kind of troubles.  Everyone has led this kind of life.  Most of them don't know it.

Best of the David Maine books I've read so far.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reading List: Fallen

by David Maine

Favorite authors can sometimes happen by accident.  When I first came across David Maine, it was through the book I'll be reading next, and obviously I didn't read that one right away, but I kept the author's name filed away.  Years later, I came across him again, with some of his more recent releases.  So I finally started reading him.  And I found out that I really loved his work.  And so he becomes one of the rare authors I must continue to read.  Fallen has the same subject as one of my own manuscripts, by complete coincidence, the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.  Maine has written several books based on biblical stories now, so it's not at all surprising that he chose this story.  Since my manuscript is safely completed, I can honestly say I cannot be influenced by what I will read in the coming weeks (or however long it takes).  The funny thing is that I bought this book through an online marketplace, and when it arrived, I was surprised to see it in a large print edition.  I do not read large print books.  I do not need to.  I may have generally poor vision, but this will be somewhat comical.  Just some trivia for you!

Thoughts on Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies is the kind of book that readers transitioning away from young adult fiction can appreciate.  It's also a book that long-time literary fiction fans can devour.  It's a dream in every respect.

Paul Murray's 600+ page opus tracks the drama that occurs in an Irish boarding school when Daniel Juster attempts to juggle a mother dying of cancer, the pressure of competing on the swim team, falling in love, and handling irrepressible peers (and one bully).  It goes badly.  He's Skippy, after all.  The death occurs at the very beginning of the book, but Murray quickly flashes back to the start of events and allows the reader to track the series of events that lead to Skippy falling dead during a donut eating contest with his roommate, eccentric genius Ruprecht Van Doren, who's never lost a contest in fifteen attempts.

Skippy Dies is filled with unexpected parallels, a perfect symmetry that each of the characters involved are never privy to, believing as their lives implode that the universe is full of chaos, irreconcilable with the truths they desperately pursue.  Because half the novel tracks a pack of obnoxious teenage boys, Murray has written both an excruciatingly funny book, and also one that's impossibly tragic.  Other writers might have tried to find some more definitive redemption in this mess, but Murray prefers to let his story find the hidden ironies that exist in the real world, exactly the thing his characters struggle against.

It's what Harry Potter might have been like if J.K. Rowling only had one book to tell her story.  Or what Stephen King might have done with Carrie if there was a whole class of misfits, teachers and all.  It's uncompromisingly brilliant.

Split into three parts ("Hopeland," named for the game Skippy plays and remains one of the many secret worlds inside the story; "Heartland," where all the main characters struggle to obtain their goals; and "Ghostland," in which everyone tries to figure out life after Skippy), Skippy Dies is a long short read, easily digestible (especially if you have the three-volume box set like I do) and completely engrossing, tackling the biggest questions we know without making it seem difficult, like one giant epiphany, requiring the whole cast of characters to unfold.  You won't like all of them, but the more Murray sticks with them, the more you understand how they're necessary, how the chaos of their lives ends up coming together.

Will it make you feel better about your own messed-up life?  Well, maybe a little.  But as Murray goes to great lengths to explain, understanding something is a lot more complicated than any one element can make possible.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reading List: Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies
by Paul Murray

After Ice Trilogy, this was my other great literary discovery in the past few years, something I've looked forward to reading for some time.  The edition of Skippy that I bought comes in three separate volumes, which to me always indicates something worthwhile, and if you can understand what I by the examples 2666 and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, then more power to you.  Hopefully once again my faith will be rewarded.

Thoughts on A Tale of a Tub

Jonathan Swift is one of my literary heroes.  Gulliver's Travels is a work of creative genius and a hallmark of political and social thought.

Apparently he had to work his way to that point.

A Tale of a Tub is from considerably earlier in Swift's career, when he was mainly concerned with his contemporaries.  Seriously, A Tale of a Tub (and various works included in the volume I read) is all about Swift's reaction to the thoughts swimming around the literary scene of his day.  If the Internet existed at the time, it would have been posted rather than published (and perhaps later published).  It's all about the squabbling over distinctions between the classics and current efforts, how thinking was either superior in his own day or had really reached a zenith hundreds of years in the past.

It's all stuff we still grapple with today, which becomes clearer in some of the other essays included in the comprehensive edition.  Should the present be sacrificed to the past, simply because there's a extensive knowledge and appreciation of what already exists versus what someone is trying to contribute now?  It's a little odd that Swift's Tale is actually about the schism of the Christian faith that was still fresh at the time, because hardly anyone is worked up about that anymore (as opposed to, oh, Islam); the different dominations are so well established that they virtually function completely independent of each other, even though they follow the same basic tenets (something ecumenical cooperatives have attempted to rectify in recent years).

Tale follows three brothers (when it bothers to do what it's supposed to be doing; there's a lot of the Laurence Sterne style of writing, which can be bafflingly alien to modern readers) who represent the Catholic Church and the two acts of the Reformation.  There's very little to this narrative, though, certainly not what someone would expect from familiarity with Lemuel Gulliver.  It mainly concerns itself with trivial matters.

Most of it, as I may have suggested, probably meant far more to Swift's contemporaries than their successors.  Today it exists as an intellectual exercise, which remains its thrilling legacy.  Curiously, very few people in the modern age care about such things.  More readers than I'd care to calculate would only consider Tale to be impenetrable, even in academia.  I don't know how exclusive the schooling has to be where interested persons would not find themselves isolated to care about it, but I never experienced it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reading List: A Tale of a Tub

A Tale of a Tub and Other Works
by Jonathan Swift

Anyone who spent a good amount of time paying attention in school is at least familiar with Jonathan Swift.  I became a pretty big fan after Gulliver's Travels, the allegory about political systems that gave us the term "yahoos" (bonus points if you know the exact context), and was always amused by "A Modest Proposal," a sermon he gave that suggested hunger among the poor might be solved by eating their own babies.  I believe it was when I was reading Tristram Shandy and The Third Policeman last year when I was inspired to read more Swift, and so here I am.

Thoughts on Ice Trilogy

Ice Trilogy is not a book that a lot of people are going to read, but typically, it's one they should.

Basically, inspired by the continuing intrigue over the Tunguska impact in 1908, Vladimir Sorokin weaves a tale about 23,000 individuals involved in a "Brotherhood of Light," who speak with the heart and are reincarnations of the spark of creation.  That's what's on the surface.  The subtext is all about individuals who isolate themselves from the mainstream and convince themselves that they are the only people who matter.

Basically an allegory fundamentalists.

It's no surprise that Sorokin would be inspired to write something like this.  The writer and the perspective are Russian, and throughout the three volumes collected in Ice Trilogy, Russian political history over the past hundred years is explored in all its tumult.  It's another layer of the story, and as such is a worthy addition to the Russian literary canon established during the 19th century.

It's shocking how easily and quickly the Brotherhood loses its humanity.  All other humans begin to be referred to as "meat machines," devoid of purpose and value (until those who, many years after the Brotherhood movement has developed, try to figure out what's going on are forced into servitude for the group), merely the biggest sign of corruption on Earth, the one flaw in all the cosmos.  Since the Brotherhood is so consumed with its mission of awakening each of the 23,000, it thinks nothing of actively participating in all the evil acts (except eating meat and processed foods) that it condemns in the rest of humanity, an irony that never occurs to any of them.

Each member of the brotherhood is blond-haired and blue-eyed.  You can imagine what this means during WWII.  Germany becomes known as the Country of Order, versus Russia as the Country of Ice.  Ice is the main unifying factor for everything that happens in the story, the stuff that's found in the Tunguska impact zone and used to awaken members of the Brotherhood, processed into Ice hammers and pounded on chests until the heart murmurs its true name (almost uniformly short, guttural ones).  Sometimes locating potential Brothers (and Sisters) isn't so easy, because those who are capable of spotting prospects are extremely limited.  That means that Ice hammers can sometimes be used rather indiscriminately, which leaves dead bodies and living victims in the wake of the Brotherhood's grand quest.

The first volume, Bro, was written and published after the second, Ice.  Ice is much like the third and concluding volume, 23,000, portraying both people who know exactly what's going on and those who struggle with it.  Bro (named after the first of the awakened) explains the origins of the Brotherhood.

Sorokin always seems to understand when his narrative needs a fresh spin, and his perspective on the proceedings is considerable.  The amount of inhumanity is striking, and is the one element that most readers seem to have taken from it, but as I've said, the author is not unaware of what he's accomplished.  If he weren't, he wouldn't bother with all the struggling, all the ironies.  There's no single central character, and very few of them receive more than cursory arcs.  Most of them are defined by how they're affected by the Brotherhood, both members and ordinary humans.

Before too long, you'll find yourself wondering if Sorokin is sincere in the narrative about the ultimate fate of the Brotherhood, and its belief about what happens when they're all back together.  Is this, after all, just a Heaven's Gate cult?  There was a rash of that going on at the turn of the millennium.  One might consider the entire 20th century one vast nervous waltz, and Ice Trilogy is about that, too.

It's also simply a fantastic read.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reading List: Ice Trilogy

Ice Trilogy
by Vladimir Sorokin

I've learned in recent years that if I want to find my next favorite book, it won't always be handily listed for me as a bestseller somewhere.  Some readers go out of their way to read obscure authors, and pride themselves on the exclusivity.  For me, it's not a question of how many people appreciate it, but whether it really will affect me the way I want it to, a breathtaking literary experience that I believe will one day join the classics everyone remembers but nobody actually reads, so that it will at least be listed better.  2666 and Your Face Tomorrow are just two of the books that have met that criteria for me.  I came across Ice Trilogy as a listing in a trade publication while I was working at a bookstore, one of those catalogs that lists upcoming releases.  You will note that you have probably not heard of Ice Trilogy outside of this post.  It was never hailed widely as one of those important new books (2666 was, Your Face Tomorrow wasn't).  It's a book that tries to do what all the big important books in the 19th century did, represent an entire era.  A lot of American books in the last century tried to the American version of that, and most of those books are in fact regarded as classics, but most of them are better windows than doors.  None of them are a Moby Dick or Brothers Karamazov.  So you can imagine that I hope Sorokin pulled it off.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Thoughts on The Book of Lies

Brad Meltzer wormed his way into the hearts of comic book fans thanks to projects like Identity Crisis, and tricked his way back in via his day job as a mystery writer with The Book of Lies, which tackles the real world origins of Superman.  The moment I heard of this particular effort, I knew I would one day break my regular practice of generally avoiding popular fiction like the plague.

Popular fiction is romance books and thriller books, and probably most of the sci-fi books large quantities of people read.  I don't consider Harry Potter to be popular fiction; it's fiction that happened to become extremely popular, the same way bestsellers are (and publishers selected better ten years ago).  The next time I delve into these waters will be Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.  For now, I'm happy I took this little sojourn, this visit into foreign lands.

Meltzer comes from the same school that seems to dominant popular fiction.  He writes very didactically, which is to say the unpolished prose that someone can learn in school if they're not careful.  It's most painful in the beginning of Lies, when the narrative has not had a chance to build momentum.  In that way, such writers are already using the pageturner method, helping the reader along.  Considering that there are only a handful of characters (and only one who doesn't turn out to be actually significant), Meltzer makes sure that each one has a very specific and deliberate use in the plot, whether it's obvious from the start or not, and the same points are hammered for the duration of the four hundred or so pages they inhabit.  In a lot of ways, that's how I write, too, so I'm not saying this is a bad thing.  If it's not the conspiracy, it's figuring out the relationships that interests the writer, and they interest the reader, too.

Earlier than you'd imagine, Meltzer drops the bombs that this is a story that will involve not only the unsolved murder of Mitchell Siegel (father of Jerry Siegel, father of Superman) but Cain (as in & Abel), and a loosely sketched web of individuals who believe these two giant myths are connected.  (It's another odd little quirk of fate that there was a character named Cain in the last book I read, so once again the random order of my reading list has withstood its own chaos.)

It's a rather large stretch of the imagination, and to a cynical reader, Meltzer's obvious attempt to cash in on Dan Brown's success, as many other writers have done in recent years.  Yet the beauty of it is that the story spends so much time exploring Jerry Siegel, that a whole new level is introduced, one that deftly blends all of Meltzer's ambitions into a theme of family that transcends the genre.  Perhaps for the first time, Superman emerges as a central piece of the American story, Meltzer's own Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, with a poignant conclusion to the desperate search and foolish antics that have been driving everything to that point.

It might even be considered a little corny, but Meltzer has spent so much time using relationships as a crutch in the story, when he finally gets around to explaining that those relationships really are what's most important to The Book of Lies, it may cause you to rethink more than just your assumptions of a genre, if you're as skeptical of popular fiction as I am.

After a string of bad books and breaks this year, I've needed something that pulled me out of my comfort zone and make me take notice.  Meltzer has my gratitude for that.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reading List: The Book of Lies

The Book of Lies
by Brad Meltzer

As a comic book fan, the name Brad Meltzer comes to mind as the writer of Identity Crisis, a DC Comics event wherein the Justice League comes to terms with some bloody awful truths.  It was among the most heralded events of the Aughts, and while Meltzer has only written a few other comic books since, he's better known as an author of Dan Brown conspiracies.  This is not my usual genre, and so I have not until this book attempted to read one.  Meltzer kind of makes it easy for me to care about Book of Lies, thanks to its plot interests in Superman, his creators, and the first biblical murder, Cain and his brother Abel.  I guess I'm about to find out if this is the sort of thing that interests me as a reader.

Thoughts on Far From the Madding Crowd

Sometimes you really can't go home again.

Jude the Obscure is one of my most treasured reading experiences, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it's one of my favorite books.  Naturally, I thought it was safe to assume that Thomas Hardy could not disappoint once I revisited him.

I was wrong.  Far From the Madding Crowd was written some twenty years previous to Jude, which is notable as being the last novel he ever wrote thanks to a public backlash, and now perhaps I can better imagine why this occurred.  Madding Crowd is a deeply conventional work, not even merely in comparison.  It hardly seems possible that the same author wrote both works.  Where Jude is calculated and dark, Madding Crowd is meandering and melodramatic.  You care what happens in Jude; before the ending of Madding Crowd, you'll wish Bathsheba would not have encouraged three such disparate men into loving her and by a dizzying number of coincidences ended up right back where she started, at the side of Gabriel Oak.

Where Jude is depressingly realistic, Madding Crowd is depressingly artificial.  I find it appalling that the literary establishment would even keep the memory of the book alive.  Jude represents genius, where Madding Crowd exhibits tedium.  What else do I have to say?  I would now tend to avoid any further reading from Hardy as if he had contracted the plague.  For this author, it's enough to know he had one great book in him.  Even if it was twenty years earlier and he had different sensibilities and was consciously playing to the public, it's just disappointing to know that Hardy had so little inspiration in him at this point.  Like Melville, perhaps the more he indulged himself, the better he got, and that's all I really need to know.

To reiterate, it is Madding Crowd that ought to be obscure.

Fun fact!  Bathsheba goes through a number of last names in the book (Troy, Boldwood, Oak), but her original surname is Everdeen.  And that's where The Hunger Games got it from.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reading List: Far from the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd
by Thomas Hardy

After Jude the Obscure, Hardy has my everlasting devotion as a treasured writer.  It is not a condemnation, then, to say that this is the first time since I read Jude some years ago that I have gotten around to reading him again.  Rather, it is a testament to a defining experience, and a belief that one book would have been suffice to appreciate Hardy's talent.  Few writers have one great book in them, that is to say, and because there are so many books to read, it can sometimes be enough to read the one great book you've discovered from them.  Eventually, of course, there are further opportunities without an outright pursuit of them to read such authors again, and here I am, finally having reached such a point with Mr. Hardy.

Thoughts on After the Revolution

After the Revolution is Joseph Ellis's meditation on the formative development of American culture.  That's the ambition, anyway.  Mostly it's a repetition of wild ambitions and popular beliefs that didn't happen quite the way our forefathers imagined, mostly because they didn't seem to recognize how messy their emerging country really was.

I need to stress that Ellis has a terrific thesis, but he seems to have been overwhelmed by the project.  He devotes two chapters and most of the words in the books to a few lines often repeated with little variation, that many colonists and Western civilization as a whole pretty much assumed that the center of culture was soon going to plant itself in America, and that maybe this didn't happen because many people believed that this only happened in societies on the decline.  If you want to know how messed up and conflicted thought was at the time, this is a wonderful illustration of contradiction.  Each of the four men Ellis writes about were eventually swept up in patriotism or nationalism, and were completely blinded by their belief that they could have their cake and eat it, too.

Ellis published After the Revolution in 1979, when he would have been thirty-six, roughly five years older than I am now.  It is perhaps not surprising that he made his real contributions to literature nearly twenty years later, when he finally got to the business of writing about the founding fathers themselves (notably in Founding Fathers, which I read upon its release in 2000), since he seems not have warmed to the task quite yet.  Clearly having done his research, Ellis met his failing in his inability to write anything substantial either about his topic or his four subjects, each of whom are buried in an effort to crudely match his thesis to their lives, touching on numerous contradictions but failing to reconcile them, believing that the period in which they lived adequately explains how they entered and failed to emerge from what was in essence a national quagmire and development.

I had no initial inkling that his aim was to expound on the formative steps of American culture, certainly not from the back cover, which makes the book sound exactly like Founding Brothers, for the generation that succeeded the Revolution.  Yet each of these lives cross paths with the war, to varying effect, and if anything speak to a population that while growing was still small enough for everyone to pretty much know everyone, so that the new country comes off as more of a small town than an influential nation.  That would be why it was hard to get anything done, once the truly meaningful task of codifying its own existence was accomplished, a task that seems incidental to the narrative in this book.

Ellis lacks perspective, which is presumably the opposite of what After the Revolution was meant to accomplish.  Still, it is a fine survey of the times, and covers details your ordinary schooling experience will likely have ignored.  It's just, it could have been better.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reading List: After the Revolution

After the Revolution
by Joseph Ellis

The author of Founding Brothers, intimate portraits of America's leading generation, writes in this book about the generation that lived in the Revolution's aftermath.  I guess originally the book was on a more general topic, but Ellis has refined his focus on the arts, which many believed would soon belong to America, even before the Revolution, as a sort of birthright of civilization's progress moving westward, as it has through at least one interpretation of history.  The book contains another series of portraits, this time of artists who believed that the time was come for greatness, and their dawning disappointment when it didn't.  Anyway, should be interesting.

Thoughts on The Scarlet Pimpernel

Sometimes the idea of a thing is far better than the thing itself.

Among other examples that come to mind, The Scarlet Pimpernel must be added to that list.  This is a classic piece of literature that is a cross between the swashbuckling literature of the 19th Century and the superhero genre of the 20th.  It is, in fact, the bridge between them.  But it is probably inferior to both.

Baroness Orczy brought her multicultural background to the story of a member of the British elite who chooses to aide his French counterparts during the Reign of Terror, saving them from the guillotine that famously claimed the head of, among other, Marie Antoinette.  Sir Percy Blakeney is a fop who doesn't have the respect of his French bride, who is the real star of the story, whom we follow as she comes to England and almost immediately runs afoul of French inspector Chauvelin.  Lady Blakeney is repeatedly referred to as the shining intellect of Europe, yet Orczy doesn't really illustrate how, except to repeat the same description countless times in a melodramatic narrative that could have stood as the inspiration for 24 a century ahead of time, dragging out a series of events that take several usually short chapters to happen.  About halfway through, Lady Blakeney realizes the truth of her husband, who is at the center of an entire league trying to undo the foolish savagery of a revolution.  (A pimpernel, by the way, is a flower, which the mysterious hero uses as a calling card, much as Batman does today with bats.)

It's funny that I've read this book after Emile Zola's Germinal (or even Martin Millar's Lux the Poet, which revolves around a riot caused by social injustice), since it's another example of the way we tend to react to things like Occupy Wall Street, the most recent exhibit of the inequalities people are always trying to address in some definitive way.  Yes, it's frustrating, but we have many examples of the wrong way to deal with it, and The Scarlet Pimpernel is a curious addition to this literature, showing sympathy for "the other side" through a hero who seems to contradict every expectation.  The introduction makes much of the fact that Lady Blakeney is the author's surrogate, but that doesn't mean it makes the story interesting.  The title character and plot are interesting, the execution is not.  It is worth considering in the grand scheme of the tradition in which it fits, but it should not be remembered for any real contribution.  Zorro, Batman, and Iron Man each have more to say than Orczy, who seems to have wrapped herself up in a fantasy about horrid times a century in her past.

It would have been terrific to report that this was a rousing and relevant piece of fiction, but that's only the facade, the Percy Blakeney veneer.  There's no Pimpernel to be found here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reading List: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Baroness Orczy

One of the things that made Peanuts stand out was that while Charles Schultz was quite capable of mastering the standard comic strip formula, he regularly stretched beyond its tropes to create characters who weren't simply absorbed in their own fictional lives.  Schroeder's obsession with Beethoven was the most obvious manifestation of this, but Schultz is also responsible for my first encounters with the name "Scarlet Pimpernel."  It's probably one of the more antiquated heroic epics, featuring a name that means practically nothing today, but for some reason I became interested in it a few years back, when I was working on a heroic epic of my own, and I'm glad that I went out and bought it and added the book to my Reading List, because otherwise I might've forgotten all about it again, because as I said, it's hard to take just the name seriously these days.  At any rate, I shall soon have some thoughts about the actual book to share...

Thoughts on Lux the Poet

Imagine putting Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams, and Neil Gaiman in a blender. You may end up with a writer like Martin Millar.

Lux the Poet features as its main character...Lux, who is a poet.  Picture if you will a young Zaphod Beeblebrox (besides "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe"), who is self-obsessed and completely delusional, wandering around a city-wide riot and trying to get as much attention with as many lies as possible, failing miserably, and stumbling into an assortment of interesting characters, not the least being Pearl, the object of his affection.  (Yeah, you can imagine that not being such an honor, can't you?)

Actually, it's exactly a Dave Barry novel, if Dave Barry were British instead of suffering in Florida through regular inanity he nonetheless turns into brilliant comic material.  So there's a number of ways you can relate to Millar as a writer, but what you really need to know is that he's entertaining and perhaps working toward a masterpiece.

It's also true that he's not quite there yet.  His cleverness can also be compared to the ideas young writers have when they don't really have anything to say, and so they make up as much nonsense as possible just to make it interesting, and Lux reads a lot like that, too, and so Millar is as much a writer with great potential and not inconsiderable skill, but also someone who's incredibly immature in ways he doesn't yet realize, winging it with a desperation that's catchy.  Hey, Neil Gaiman is a fan, so you know he's doing something right.  I just hope that he gets around to doing it better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reading List: Lux the Poet

Lux the Poet
by Martin Millar

I'm always on the lookout for writers who can truly let loose with some fun storytelling, and so it was with considerable relief that a suggestion from a former coworker turned me on to Martin Millar, who seems to be exactly that.  Lux was not suggested as an ideal starting point, but it was the selection that spoke to me as the only logical choice.  He's basically a street-level Neil Gaiman (a great supporter of the author's), Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett.

Thoughts on Germinal

Like Thomas Hardy and Dostoevsky, Emile Zola was a writer in the 19th Century looking to examine the individual in the midst of social change.  Where Hardy and Dostoevsky concentrated on the individual, Zola centered on social change.  Germinal is a book the Occupy Wall Street 99%ers would certainly find intriguing, blending the various reform movements of that period into a central thesis of the plight between the rich and the poor, the idea of revolution that was still then possible in the Western world, and the rights of individuals to control their own destinies.

Focusing on the mining industry in his native France, Zola introduces a complete stranger to a community that has for a hundred years been working at the same playbook, with one family in particular representing the need to sacrifice succeeding generations to the basic cost of surviving, breeding children for miserable profit and labor and ignoring the debilitating health concerns that have slowly ground each of them down to little better than savages, and being represented as the middle class, no less!  Etienne Lantier is a member of a different clan entirely, Zola's pet family he writes about in a whole series of books, none of them as wretched as depicted in Germinal, each of them representing the different aspects of life at that time, all on a theme of inheritance.  Published in 1885, Germinal is Zola's best shot at immortality, and the sad part is that it's not only obscure today, but relevant to the point of being moot, exploring everything but what it actually says, even though one character voices the reality that social justice is a concern that was struck down a generation before Etienne came to town, and many times before that, well before the current political regime, before the last revolution, before this epoch, and certainly well before Darwin stuck a label of "survival of the fittest" on all of humanity.

Selfish interests pervade every character of Germinal, as well as a refusal to believe anything but what they already believe.  Etienne, for example, was ready to revolt before he ever entered the monstrous Voreux mine, and spends most of his time not thinking about it in one of the book's few glossed-over periods, only to emerge as exactly the radical looking for a strike that he already was.  By the time he has helped decimate the family that readily took him in, he leaves it behind, admitting that he finds these people revolting, and that he has survived the experience looking simply to advocate the same principals that led to such needless disaster, believing as Zola apparently does that the revolution would ultimately be successful.  In 2012, I can assure you, the revolution was certainly not televised.

Revolutions were such a common element of Zola's day that they had gradually lost all their effectiveness, a fact that he does not seem to have realized.  That's why a book like Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, written a century after the fact, can dance around the absurdity of it rather than simply wallow in its misery.  Germinal is an epic that deserves a rightful place alongside the French literature of its day, but it lacks any real concern for any of its characters, even Etienne, who barely registers as human, and in fact disappears for long stretches at a time, provoking and then surviving by sheer force of will disasters of unimaginable magnitude, many things that on a human scale can be seen coming from a mile away, and with regular human obstinacy play out without much concern for the consequences.  It's comically naturalistic, launching a literary method that is still championed to this day, to the detriment of anyone actually understanding anything.

Many of its readers, then as now, will probably not really relate to Germinal.  They are reading a book.  I grew up in a family that fought its hardest to avoid the kind of fate that unfolds for everyone in Zola's story, but the fact is, that world still exists, where people fight hard to ignore realities and most of the time are able to outrun them.  I'm probably the one closest to these characters, and closest to Etienne, who deludes himself into thinking education is a way out of this mess, and even though the reader sees how wrong he is, he doesn't, and the book ends with the reader allowing themselves, as he does, that this isn't the case, even now, when all his plans have come to ruin.  I am not advocating the abolishing of education, which would be silly, but so is Zola's message that knowledge is enough of a step in the right direction (the title is meant to convey this as much as the myth of dragon's teeth).  Knowledge alone only makes one aware.  If one does not know what to do with knowledge, they will come up with a lot of ridiculous notions, which they can do without knowing anything at all.  It's the ability to reason, which several of Etienne's conspirators believe they're doing, that really proves the difference, the ability to think critically.  Anyone will be able to see exactly where Germinal is headed, and like a horror movie want to scream and wake the characters up, but to no avail.  That's what it's like in the real world, too.

Zola became a reluctant social advocate at the end of his life, famously penning the open letter "J'accuse" after the French government wrongfully convicted a man they called a traitor, and it's rumored he paid for it with his life.  He might have left a bigger impact if works like Germinal had better understood what they were doing.  He was a writer who was frequently controversial, and he helped break a lot of ground, but not with dragon's teeth.  Germinal gestates in the popular imagination as a warning about futility, about the failure of the imagination to conceive of a world that plays by a new set of rules, rather than wallowing in revolutions that are no longer relevant.  If all you do is challenge the establishment, if all you want to do is replace the establishment, then you're doomed to failure from the start.  Most of the characters in this book blunder from faulty reasoning to faulty reasoning without making any attempts to correct it, and we're supposed to sympathize with those victims of injustice.  Zola presents them as complicit in their own misery, and most of them completely uncomprehending of that fact, including Etienne.

Germinal is a terrific read, and Zola employs a fair number of interesting storytelling techniques, but as a philosophy and a lasting message, it comes up wanting, and so it's no surprise that readers have gradually left it behind.  There are no characters truly worth rooting for, and that's the most damning thing about it.  You'd think now if at any time it might have enjoyed a popular revival, but I guess I'm glad that didn't happen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reading List: Germinal

by Emile Zola

A century ago Emile Zola was well on his way to becoming one of the classic writers.  Of course, he was dead by then, but everyone had started to love him, which was a little bit of a complicated process.  He was a social muckraker who would be perfectly at home today, and probably not as well known.  He famously wrote "J'accuse" to condemn the mistreatment of a suspected traitor, very late in his career, writing books about various injustices.  Germinal is his best-known work, and yet it's pretty obscure, though it deals with coal miners (one would think that more people might rediscover it now, considering).  I came across Zola most recently in a survey of Academy Awards winners, specifically The Life of Emile Zola, released in 1937, a movie which itself has fallen into obscurity.  (In France, Germinal finally became a movie in 1993.)  After reading the book, I will hopefully be able to say whether or not he deserves this fate.

Thoughts on All Shall Be Well...

There's a whole school of writing right now that professes the best stories involve family and how screwed up they are.  They're gawk literature.  You could go back to David Foster Wallace or start at Jonathan Franzen, or simply look at all the nonfiction that has filled up bookstores around the same framework, everyone trying to gain interest and sympathy through the absurd, and no one breaching the obvious solution to any of it: Hey, deal with it already.

Now I know, the point is, we all have our issues, and for some of us those issues are obviously to do with our upbringing (and how many other stories are there were the perspective comes from people who can't reach that conclusion?).  Making a spectator sport out of it only makes a loser out of everyone, though, the accident everyone needs to rubberneck out of morbid curiosity.  Tod Wodicka nearly succeeds in subverting this in All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, about a family whose individual members have done an excellent job of creating walls around themselves, creating barriers against each other, from the crazy Lemko grandmother to the father and main subject who prefers the Middle Ages to the present day to the two kids who grew violently opposed to nearly all of it when their mother dies from cancer.  It's the mother who's supposed to be at the heart of it, but she's the cipher who fails in that position, the opposite of Lisbeth Salander, who gives everyone everything they want without bothering to make any meaningful connections to any of them, leaving all of them just as hollow as when she came into their lives.

Everyone blames the father, of course, and Wodicka spends a great deal of time trying to explain why, and generally concluding that he's always putting everything off, always telling himself that he's going to do the right thing, until he does the wrong thing instead.  But that's not really what's happening here, and Wodicka seems to know that, but he keeps getting distracted, too, first as a matter of course, as a way to tell his story dramatically, then as the characters' own surrogate, especially in the title of the book, which comes from an anecdote that has virtually nothing to do with anything, all as Wodicka attempts to suggest that that's exactly what's going to happen, even though it's clear that all will not end well in a conclusion that leads itself to the reader's imagination.

Perhaps writing a few more books will allow Wodicka to trust himself rather than try and be clever, try and be noticed.  All the the writers quoted on the back of the book write exactly like he does, and I've read a few of them, so that's why I know it's an epidemic.  That's modern literature for you, everyone writing and no one truly reading, and certainly no one thinking.  It's assumed that reading will lead to thinking, but that's not really the case.  When the characters go out of their way to avoid thinking and the writer goes out of their way to avoid thinking, it's asking a little much to assume that the reader is going to break that trend.  Its posturing.  This isn't Thomas Hardy and it certainly isn't Dostoevsky, the models these writers clearly cannot match.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reading List: All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
by Tod Wodicka

I had no idea what this book was when I first heard of it, only that it had the most ridiculously awesome title I'd ever heard.  I would like to emphasize "ridiculous" at this point, because it now becomes clear that it is in fact another of those books from those new authors who are trying to make a name for themselves by superficially standing out by telling essentially the same story as everyone else, some dude with a quirky problem figuring out both his family and his life.  This is why I generally try to avoid new literature that comes recommended by critics, not so much because the resulting book isn't any good but that I really wish more writers were more confident in their own abilities (or, I guess, publishers).  I realize I'm generalizing, and maybe it's just my disappointment in learning pretty quickly that the story is not as awesome as the title.  Then again, I didn't say it wasn't bad.  But this is a title that demands judging!

Thoughts On 1215: The Year of the Magna Carta

Now this is what I wish A Distant Mirror had been like.  Danny Danziger and John Gillingham present a portrait of the times and events that helped shape the Magna Carta, which at the time I added 1215 to my collection and then actually started reading it had forgotten what that was.  I'm certain my history teachers didn't forget to mention it, but then, the authors made several suggestions that they're writing to a primarily English audience, and so those readers were no doubt as aware of Magna Carta as I am, for instance, of Madison's Federalist Papers (though if you don't know what either are, don't assume they're literally comparable).

Basically, Magna Carta is the forerunner of democratic rule in the modern world.  It was something King John was tricked into endorsing, even though he quickly backed out of it.  King John was Richard the Lionheart's kid brother, and exactly the guy referenced in all those Robin Hood tales.  He was a rat bastard who lucked into securing England's glorious future, and so is probably one of the world's great heroes.  You can read all about him in the book, as well as everything that shaped his decisions as well as Magna Carta (literally the "big charter").  This is also the way that the Tecumseh biography I read earlier this year should have gone, but sometimes writers believe they have to smother a subject in order to cover it.  I'll never understand that.

For good measure, the book includes the text of Magna Carta in the back, but that's another thing I didn't feel like reading.  I do feel a little silly and ignorant now as opposed to when I started reading it, like I've regressed to an earlier age.  But like many books I've been reading lately, there's some interrelatedness going on, with the added insight that people did in fact know that the world was round back then, and that it's only our assumptions about our ancestors that would lead us to believe otherwise.  History is only history if we remember it.  It can become something quite different, a comfortable fiction if you will, much as Magna Carta itself became.  But you can't have everything.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Reading List: 1215 - The Year of the Magna Carta

1215 - The Year of the Magna Carta
 by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham

Knowing how A Distant Mirror turned out, I'm hoping for something a little more lively with this latest historical survey.  Not being British, I'm interested to know just what kind of impact the Magna Carta actually had.  It's something I certainly studied, briefly, in school, a long time ago, but then, it also happened a long time ago, nearly a millennium ago.  I don't claim to be an expert in just about anything, so my interest is fairly loose, even though I love history and know a certain amount of it.  Hopefully it'll be fun!

Thoughts on Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nietzsche is someone I became interested in for reasons other than philosophy.  I suspect that's the same for a lot of people.  In fact, I'm certain that some view him in positively religious context.

For those people, Thus Spake Zarathustra is some kind of bible.

And honestly, I don't know how else to consider it.  The man was a thinker, and he had a lot of ideas, not the least of them being the Superman, what he considered to be the future of humanity, the difference between us and this ideal right now being the same that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  He was also known for the statement, "God is dead," and that's probably the key transition mark between the Reformation and our modern age of Western skepticism.

The funny thing is, Nietzsche reaches this point not out of a deeply held atheism, but rather believing that humanity has in essence outgrown God.  You won't find this more clearly stated than in the dense Modern Testament that is Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book that does everything it can to replicate your basic biblical experience, blending the Old and New Testament (and only obliquely referencing Christianity; in fact, all references are oblique herein), so that only those who are actually considering making a religion out of Nietzsche will consider reading it all the way through.

What's funny is that he doesn't even attempts to hide his frustrations, even repeatedly damning poets, which is ironic, because the style is basically free verse, and there are even passages presented in the form of poems!  So that's the kind of thing you can expect if you want to read it for yourself.

I was expecting something different, I guess, especially since this was written only about a century ago.  I think Nietzsche went a little crazy.  He was definitely brilliant, and I greatly sympathize with his loneliness, but the bottom line is, this is not the product of a mind that was in complete control of itself, or at least not one that wanted to communicate itself clearly.  Thankfully, I have another of his books waiting in line, so I will have a basis for comparison.

But this is one good reason why most people have developed an aversion to reading older literature.  Or literature in general.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Reading List: Thus Spake Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra
by Friedrich Nietzsche

In the sixty pages I've spent with this book so far, I can already tell that Nietzsche was a brilliant mind...who was, like many of his kind, still limited by his own times.  It reads like the Modified Testament, a revision of biblical theology by refuting the very beliefs it supports...I will keep reading.  I believe in Nietzsche, as I said, and thoroughly enjoyed the account of the book's creation, as told by his sister, and relate to his loneliness a great deal.  Hopefully it becomes a little more enlightening.

Thoughts on The Enchantress of Florence

To my mind, a good writer immerses themselves in their subject matter.  For some writers, that entails doing an incredible amount of research.  For others, it means getting inside the head of their characters.  Sometimes, it's both.  Such is the case with Salman Rushdie.

His Satanic Verses became one of the most infamous books of the 20th century when it sparked death threats in the Muslim world, even though the story deals mostly with Indian culture.  It was one of the most imaginative books I'd ever read.  Naturally I had to include Rushdie in my future literary adventures.

When I got around to reading The Enchantress of Florence, I had no idea if Rushdie was a one-trick pony.  That's always a possibility after all, and it's not like the book world goes out of its way to celebrate itself the way music, movies, and TV does, at least not as publicly.  It's incredibly insular (as is poetry, only moreso).  I suppose I shouldn't have been so concerned.  I mean, he wrote The Satanic Verses.

Enchantress of Florence is a period piece (Satanic Verses takes place in the present, except for those parts that inflamed Muslims), set during the earliest years of the New World, and features several notable historical figures, including Akbar the Great, Amerigo Vespucci, and Niccolo Machiavelli (I for one was apparently hugely ignorant about Machiavelli's life outside of writing The Prince), all revolving around a trickster who in the end is revealed to have faded into his own story.  This is just one of the many mirrors to be found in the plot, which reflects on itself and on the present without ever referencing it.

Rushdie, as I suggested, did an incredible amount of research for the book, but he spends a lot of time meditating in it, allowing the characters ample time to reflect.  He is a cerebral writer with a labyrinthine plot in mind.  Too many writers only look at the surface of their stories, and it's the narrative that is supposed to amuse their readers, and many readers believe that this constitutes good writing, and in fact most advice you'll find for writers is to "show, not tell," when in fact a brilliant writer can show through telling more accurately than any minute description of scenery and details.  I mean, there's a reason why most art does not evoke a direct representation of reality.

Anyway, that's not really talking about Enchantress of Florence.  But the best I can say is to recommend reading it for yourself.  You may discover more than a set of facts.
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