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.
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