Friday, December 31, 2010

Books of the Year 2010 and of Things to Come

I read, cover-to-cover, fifty-three books this year; of which only one was a 2010 release.  As usual, I seem to be consistent in staying away from the pulp blockbusters in a given year to seek out what is perhaps more substantial and enduring (though probably unheralded) beyond the immediate commercial push.  I only put down one book after starting it this year, and that more than anything else is something I'm very proud to say.  I don't mind putting a book down for any reason, but I've apparently developed a keen eye for what I like and avoided much that I didn't.   

There were a good deal of books in a series read this year, which, naturally, leads to a lot of repeat author experiences; although not all the repeat authors reads were works in a series.  Here's the break down:  
Neil Gaiman 2
Gene Wolfe 2
Gabriel Garcia-Marquez 2
Michael Swanwick 2
Guy Gavriel Kay 4
Greg Keyes 4
Arturo Perez-Reverte 5
Edward Whittemore 5
C.S. Lewis 5
There remaining books read were all from different, unique authors.  
This is officially not a "Best Books of 2010" list.  As previously noted, I've only read one book from this year.  As such, these are the books that stood out to me--enough to merit some special designation--at the end of my year of reading.  
Best New Author Discovery (And coincidentally, the shortlist for my favorite reads of 2010)
I can't give this to Miriam Gershow as I've come across her short stories (which are fabulous) in years past.  In the same breath I have to say, Whittemore, Joe Hill, John Fowles, Perez-Reverte, Akira Yoshimura, Garcia-Marquez, K.J. Parker, and Ivan Turgenev.  How's that for wussing out on a single answer (not to mention diversity)?  
I've offered a host of comments on Perez-Reverte, of which most of my reading has been confined to his Captain Alatriste series, and of Whittemore I've commented on every one of his books.  I've only read one book each from Yoshimura, Hill, and Parker and each was fabulous while Turgenev, Fowles, and Garcia Marquez are authors of 'classics' and near cheating to mention.
Most forgettable Reads
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes, The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, The Last Song of Orpheus by Robert Silverberg , and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Silverburg was as un-engaging as it was inoffensive, Kostova was a let down of 'blah' proportions, and after the initial power of Barnes the middle and end of the novel were a complete snore-fest.  Of Ms. Bronte (pick one...), I'd just rather not speak…
Biggest Surprise 
The Dragon's of Babel by Michael Swanwick and The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Swanwick should come as no surprise but, I'll have to read it again to fully absorb the depths of awesome he gave readers.  He may be the most original mind in fiction today.  It's as though he lives for turning cliches into something fresh.  Furthermore, The Dragon's of Babel has stuck with me more than any other book read this year.  It's not a piece of fiction you fly through, nor is it so difficult as to be tedious.  It's a book that can be read and enjoyed on many different levels.  It's very mature and one I feel will endure for a long time to come.   
Grossman's book was an absolute gem; I can't wait for the next.  It was contemporary, visceral, and a success on every level.  

The Best Book I Read in 2010
The Local News by Miriam Gershow.  I tried multiple times to leave comments on this outstanding book, but was unsuccessful in writing anything that wasn't a litany of praise.  If I could physically force readers to pick up anyone book before all others, it would be The Local News.  It's better than great, and to find out why and just how good it is, you have to read it yourself or wait until I do so a second time and can commit my thoughts to paper.  
None of the above categories would really fit for Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet and yet, I feel it an error to not mention what are easily the most profound, bizarre and wholly original books I came across this year.  Scour your used books stores, hunt for them at library sales, buy them online when you have to.  English language readers should be ashamed of 'out-of-print' status of these wonders, but if you look, you will find them.
Next years reading strikes me a bit odd: my shelves are weighted down with names like Chabon, Eco, Franzen, and Zafon; it seems my taste in fiction are on the move.  But I'm sure I'll find time for comfort food and not to mention slimmer volumes.  
2011 is looking like, "The Year of the Doorstopper" for me.  Five-hundred plus page giants are breeding on my shelves.  I'll set the same reading goal as I did last year: fifty books read, but I wouldn't be surprised to fall short of that number and triple the page count of this year's reading.  
Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Year in Rum

In what I hope is a continued series into next year, I offered up comments on sixteen bottles of rum (and sipped here and there on countless others) through five separate post.  I learned a lot and honed my taste to a fine edge.  I have a penchant for the old world stuff: big, robust, aged in wood and meant to be enjoyed all by itself.  While I can appreciate the marketing and money making of the flavored sugary things I don't enjoy them enough to work them into my personal collection.  

Greatest Discovery:

I'm a bit surprised myself to say this but Anniversario has grown on me.  It's more versatile that I originally gave it credit for and exceptionally well-priced for what it is.  At the time I had it, I would have predicted Ron Barcelo Imperial to occupy this spot, but I doesn't strike me as profound a discovery now as it did then.   

Greatest Offender:

Depaz Blue Cane Rhum Argicole is plan and simply put, awful.  Furthermore, it's awful at a high price; no redeeming qualities to mention.  There isn't a close second place that comes to mind, and even if there were it would be misleading as to Depaz's awful-ness to mention someone else in the same breath.  

Greatest Dissapointment:

I could mention a great deal here but more than any other rum I really wanted more out of Pyrat and 10 Canes Rums.  Both are good, but I felt as they were on the cusp of something really special but didn't fulfill.  

The Best Rum You Can Drink:

Of the rums I sampled this year, I have to go with Zafra Master Reserve.  As I said in my review, "This is what scotch drinkers would drink if they weren't so high and mighty as to try something other than scotch."  The Mount Gay Extra Old gets an honorable mention, but comes up short in a taste test where all things are considered.  Two rums I didn't get to drink enough of to offer comments on were Zaya, and Ron Zacap XO Centenario Solera Gran Reserva.  I can say with confidence, both the Zaya and Zacap will be serious contenders to the space currently given to Zafra.  You can expect me to track down bottles of these two in the new year.  The general rule for this coming year is, if you looking for a great rum buy something that starts with a "Z" and you should be alright.   

Should funds allow, I'd love to continue this series in 2011 as the market is incessantly being introduced to new products and rare items are seem to pop up with greater and greater frequency.  There's plenty out there I've yet to have, and I'm telling myself I've gone through all the bad stuff.  
To the good stuff ahead...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

It's a bit early for this post, I know, but I plan a few other "year in review" post in the very near future.  The Christmas season has come and gone!  Yea!!!!  Back to regular life; which is no bad thing.  Outside of a stressful month of work (compounded by the holidays, and other people's holiday stress) December was a blast.

I had a party the first weekend of the month with a stellar drink menu and full bar that was the envy of every true mixologist.    There were Margaritas, Papa Dobles, Blood and Sand, Tom Collins, The Pegu Club, Long Islands, Spring Break and Mama's Milk (the latter two were of my own device and extremely well received) plus anything else you could think to concoct.  I had top-shelf everything and small fortunes worth of freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice.  It was beyond decadent and nice to feel like I'm not broke-to-def for once in a while.

I also was humbled by a beverage this month; rum of all things.  Here I think I know this particular liquor from front to back and out of nowhere comes the mention of "Hot Buttered Rum."  Not wanting to remain ignorant to a drink that uses my favorite spirite I quickly made up a few batches with different spices.  The conclusion is that hot buttered rum is not for me...   Hot booze in general doesn't strike my fancy, but I do feel more veteran for the experience.

I also saw The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 3D and IMAX and all that jazz.  I'll say what I always say about seeing movies: it was fun and I had a great time.  I see about three movies a year and don't expect much and while this film had large deficiencies they were trumped by the badassery of the dragon.  Perhaps that should be a lesson for all film makers.  If you include a badass looking dragon moviegoers will forgive a lot.     

On the reading front I am bound and determined to get through Jane Eyre before 2011.  That said, I've got my work cut out for me.  I don't get along particularly well with the Brönte sisters but as with Wuthering Heights, I can't quite justify putting this book down, nor do I get excited about sitting down to read it, but once I get going it's enjoyable enough.  I also finished The Silver Chair and A Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, 20th Century Ghost by Joe Hill.

This was also an absurd month for book purchases: six.  It's not that big of a number but considering my large stack of already unread books and the fact that I've told myself I'm not buying anything more until said stack has evanesced, (I'm not 100% sure you can conjugate evanescence in the manner I previously did, but it felt right so I said, "what the hell" and went for it) six is a lot.

December is also looking to be a big blogging month for me as well; not that that statement of fact arouses anyone's interest, but I thought I'd mention it.

Apropos 'things to come,' 2011 will be a year of wait-and-see.  In the first third of the year I hope to hear that I got accpeted into someones Ph D program and if not hopefully I'll find new full time employment.  I already know the reutine of the latter and there are many aspect to the former that I hope to undergo.

Let the waiting begin.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Bagging and the Need to Rub One Out

I guess if you are a regular book reading person, the issue I'm about to complain about never comes up.  However, if you read more than three to seven books a year my complaint may also be true for you.

So I've just come home from yet another trip to Books for Less.  (Yes, I know I'm not supposed to buy anything until I've read all the stuff I already have, but I had a bunch of stuff to trade in and while I was there I figured I'd look around.)  I only bought five books and when the nice clerk was done checking me out he rather unceremoniously, if cheerfully, dumped all my shit in a bag and said, "Have a nice day!"

Now, my shrink friend Andi would be all over me here (but she doesn't read my blog so I'm safe.)  I'm complaining about the possible damage of books that I bought in a used book store... But there were at least five or more other books that I didn't buy because of the condition they were in, so I'd like to think the ones I wanted to purchase would make it home in the same condition that I found them on the shelves.  Am I being absurd?  That said, I like the place, the people and the price that I bought the books for too much to say anything further.

I can't exactly quantify the following so prepare to roll your eyes: this may have been the greatest used book store purchase ever.  The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and an Easton Press Edition of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; all were bought for a total of $22.76 and believe me when I say Huck Finn is in "Like New" condition.  You should be jealous, because I'm bragging.

Clarke is a Christmas gift for someone that I know won't read it, I have a moral aversion to Card, but was caught up in the moment and couldn't hold back, Bradley was there and an odd feeling of compulsion overcame me (and there is an awesome Simon and Schuster 'remainder stamp' on the bottom in the shape of their logo that I've never seen before) Spakowski I have extraordinarily high hopes for being the greatest thing since rum.  We'll see.  As to Twain, I haven't read it but how could I say anything wrong about a man who writes such essays on masturbation?   

Friday, December 24, 2010


Well today has been a giant cluster**** and that's all I'll say about that...

To alleviate holiday stress I went book shopping.  It was probably the least amount of time I've ever spent in my favorite used book store (mentally, all I wanted to do was go home.)  I did feel slightly better after purchasing Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and Michael Chabon's Summerland.  Hill and Chabon have previously proven themselves to be awesome and Franzen's someone I've wanted to checkout.

Now I have gifts to wrap as well as expel the remainder of holiday stresses with extensive R & D apropos hot buttered rum.

Happy Holidays; Bah-humbug; or my new favorite, "Whatever, dude..."   

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

The title of this book is terrible, but that is about the only thing you'll hear me complain about.  Joe Hill is the unequivocal Crown Prince of Modern Fiction, but his parentage and my pretense aside; boy oh boy does he deliver.  
This short story collection certainly has circumstances that will put your nerves on edge, but it's not horror fiction.  It is at times scary but more due to a sense of the unknown created by the author than any abject descriptions of gore.  It's also laugh out loud funny, outright charming, and unabashedly sentimental at times.  There is great variety here and a whole lot to like.
"Pop Art" is a story that is, quite literally, too good to be in any collection.  Everything else pales in comparison--no matter how good--to this story of an inflatable boy, his trials at school and growing up, and a surprising friend he makes.  Upon finishing this story I remember asking myself out loud, "Did Peter S. Beagle write this?"  What better compliment can I make?  "Better than Home" is in the same vein and so sweet as to be saccharine, yet never infringed on the grounds of cloying.  There is a very bright kid with some serious nervous conditions that finds he doesn't need special treatment, medication or facilities, for none of these aides eases his anxiety like the attention of what is certainly one of the greatest father's in fiction.  Hill treads the waters that separate melodrama and heightened emotional realism with profound skill and the affect on the reader couldn't be stronger.  However, not all is sweet and tender in this collection.
There are plenty of stories involving children in peril.  "In the Rundown" is a nice take on 'wrong place at the wrong time' as is the all too visceral (and, unfortunately, disturbingly tangible) story of child abduction in "The Black Phone."  It's in these story that Hill jolts the reader the most.  Things don't usually happen the way we want, nor are the endings fully explained; it's the issues that go unknown to the reader--what we 'fill in the blanks'--that enables these stories to stick in our minds as long as they do.  
Despite Hill's originality (which is generously on display in this collection), he also nods to past writers' works.  Francis Kay, wake up one morning as a very large insect in the Kafka-esque story "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" and "Abraham's Boy's" is the most unexpected Van Helsing telling you may ever come across.
The only down spot for me was "Dead-Wood."  At only four pages it was the shortest in the collection but I don't feel there was enough material here to expand on and what was present was too weak to be included.  It turns out angry, non-sentient trees who loudly rustle their leaves as the wind blows really isn't that disturbing… or at least not to me. 
"Voluntary Committal" was without doubt the strongest in the collection, with the exception of the previously mentioned "Pop Art."  The story of boy, Morris, who is a bit slow and retains his penchant for building forts into adulthood.  There are missing people who are never found and none strong enough to see where the cardboard tunnels of Morris' creation lead.  The combination of clever writing and unexpected scenarios make the mundane feel fresh and left me thinking, "How have I not come across this guy before?"  

The title is as misleading as it could possibly be with the exception of the first story, "Best new Horror."  I can suggest a host of better titles: "Joe Hill's Ass-Kicking Fiction;" "Read this Book;" "Damn!;" and those are just off the top of my head.  I'd say this book were criminally under-read if it sold fifty million copies.  Simply put, Joe Hill is a manifestation of everything that's great about fiction.    

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Kindle Reading Experience

I was gonna label this post with with my standard 'book reviews' but I didn't think it would be fair to do so as I had no experience with any other e-readers as a point of comparison and seeing as I only review the quality of publisher's books after I've gotten my hands on at least three of them.  As of right now, I've only read one book on Kindle.

It's a sexy little piece of hardware.  I'm no technology geek, but found it to be solid and well made.  While the extreme light weight of the Kindle was a bit disconcerting it didn't feel flimsy in my hands and the weight felt expertly distributed throughout the entire device.  The buttons have a nice solid 'crunch' to them when pressed--I enjoy that kind of feedback--and the words on the screen couldn't be easier to read.  There are other hardware aspects I could mention or dwell on but it's all around well done, so I'll skip on to my reading experience.  

I have to say that my feelings toward Kindle are a bit jaded as the only book I've read on it was terrible.  The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis is by far and away not the strongest entry in The Chronicles of Narnia.  If Kindles were like books, I'd be trading this one in next time I visited a used book store.  I mention this only because the book did color my feelings in using Kindle.  
Maps, while not crucial in The Silver Chair but perhaps vital to something like The Name of the Rose, suck ass on a Kindle.  It was grainy and failed to raise any of the curiosity that maps usually hold over me in reading.  Maps are particularly bad when they span multiple pages as you can't see the whole thing at once.  The only issue I noticed that suffered more than maps  was illustrations.  

The pictures in The Silver Chair by Pauline Baynes looked bad; especially so as I had the physical book on-hand to compare.  While I didn't read the book for the pictures, any added bonus they may have imparted was negated by the poor quality of their rendering.
My biggest gripe with Kindle is the words on the screen.  One screen's worth of text is not a 'page.'  The percentages of a book's completion as displayed by Kindle really didn't work for me.  I think this is no fault of the Kindle rather my long established reading history doesn't base my progress on a percentage, therefor seeing one doesn't really resonate with me.  Worse than not having a good feeling as to how much I had read, was not being able to see if I wanted to read further.

When I come to a page break, chapter's end, or otherwise feeling like I'm done reading at the moment I always flip ahead a bit; looking for the next page break or chapter's end etc.  If the next chunk of text comes to an end in six to eight pages, then I'll keep reading.  If it's thirty more then I'll stop reading for the time as I originally intended to do.  I can't do this with Kindle and it drives me crazy.  As noted before one of Kindle's screens doesn't equal a page of text and I haven't spent enough time with the device to reconcile the difference.  

It's a brilliant piece of hardware.  I still think it's greatest promise is in educational systems: eliminating 'new editions' of text books every semester by way of a download, decreasing the weight of backpacks by an estimated 843%, and least of all dropping the cost of printing text books and the expense of already broke students having to buy them.  Assuming publishers and authors can ever figure out away to make a viable business model out of e-readers I think they would be very well received as an educational tool.  As for me, I could never get over the fact that I was reading a Kindle and not a book.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'm Struggling...

"Killian left the blanket on Gage--didn't want it--and left Gage where he lay on a rise above a little creekbed somewhere in eastern Ohio."
The Widow's Breakfast by Joe Hill opening sentence

Anyone else have trouble reading that sentence?  By the end of this weekend I hope to have posted my glowing review of 20th Century Ghost by Joe Hill (it exceeds awesome), and in three-hundred plus pages of fiction this was my only gripe.  I think I read it about six-eight times before it clicked.    

Perhaps it's just me.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thoughts on Fiction

This is a short passage I came across today in Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghost.

He had been drawn to horror fiction... because it took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes.  All fiction was make-believe, which made fantasy more valid (and honest) than realism.  (Page 14)

Interesting thought don't cha think?  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

So... I'm an Examiner Now...

Look... See... It's the truth.

This will be an interesting adventure.  My rule on this blog is to post once a week (which is miniscule by popular blogging standards).  Examiner ask me to do so three times a week.

Here's to hoping things don't become too asinine...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Month In Review and of Things to Come

The biggest news to share this month is that I have joined; I'll be blogging about books, and publishing, no rum or video games.  Most articles there will be two-three hundreds words so I'll have a slightly different focus.  Things here will stay the same, so no need to worry.  As I do an occasional review for examiner there maybe so mirror image blogging, but for the most part, at Examiner I'll be expounding on the small points that I usually only mention in the "End of the Month" wrap on on this blog.  I'm looking forward to it; it's not a job, but I will soak up some time.

December is looking all kinds of awesome and for reasons you may not expect.  I'm hosting a badass party this coming weekend with an very impressive drink menu (more to come on that later).  I plan on committing to doing some serious reading on my borrowed kindle--much more to come on that later.  Also, I have plans to go see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which has been my favorite book in the series thus far.  (I go to a movie two or three times a year, so it's big deal for me.)  

I hit the "forty-nine books read this year" mark in November and since my goal for the year was fifty, I'll feeling pretty good about where I stand.  The Last Song Orpheus, The Magicians, The General in his Labyrinth, and The Dragons of Babel were all solid; only the first failed to strike me as anything special.   

I also cranked out so massive reviews this month; naturally I cheated.  It was a lot of fun posting my thoughts on Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet.  It was also a lot of work.  I had been reading a book a month since August and wrote comments for each upon finishing the novel.  I didn't post the first comments until I was done with the last book.  I had planned on doing a brief commentary on the series where I'd explain that my comments on the individual books were focused on the entertainment side of the writing and in this planned post focus on some of his amazing literary allegory and overall talent that I intentionally glossed over in the individual reviews in hopes of getting a potential reader excited enough to track down the books.  I abandoned this post as soon as I read Josheph L Winland Jr master's thesis on Sinai Tapestry.  He certainly made me consider Strongbow in a different light, and overall I think it's great to see Whittemore's work getting scholarly attention.  

Great as the Jerusalem Quartet was and as much as I enjoyed each book, I'm glad I'm done with it.  There is something exhausting about books in a series for me.  Sure it's comforting to return to something familiar from time to time, but I like new things even more.

I'm setting aside six books to read next month.  (I can actually see progress in my shelf of unread books!)  Three are short novels from the Chronicles of Narnia and the rest are the most varied books I could ever put side-by-side.  Don't you just wish I'd say what they were?  

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jericho Mosaic by Edward Whittemore

For comments on books one, two and three of The Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, and Nile Shadows please follow the respective links.

The primary difficulty in commenting on the final novel in the Jerusalem Quartet is in putting it in context. This book stands alone better than any other it’s predecessors. Quin’s Shanghai Circus—a book outside the Jerusalem Quartet—has more unifying events and characters relating to the Jerusalem Quartet than Jericho Mosaic, the quartet’s end cap, does. When viewed on its own, it is an exceptional novel. Readers only have to detach themselves from all they’ve grown to love about the first three books to appreciate Jericho Mosaic for what it is. And in giving up so much, I'd be lying if I said Whittemore doesn't give birth to a bit a resentment on the part of at least this reader.

"Being holy, Jerusalem was an endless source of myth. (page 5)"

Finally. After a book long excursion in Egypt we are home in Jerusalem. The affect this shift in setting has on the reader is substantial and with it comes the great expectations of the series first two books. Sure, like the previous works in the series, there is a great deal of travel: Lebanon, Syria, Argentina, and most notably the titular Jericho, but the beginning of the novel is in Jerusalem. As readers, we brace ourselves in preparation for the bizarre originality that Jerusalem seems to best bring out in Whittemore. However, as the Rolling Stones once said, "You can't always get what you want."
Jericho Mosaic is about an Iserli spy and unrest the Middle East that spans forty years. Tajar, a crippled Israeli intelligence officer 'raises' Yossi, and Iraqi Jew, to the be the greatest Israeli spy ever. Their success is unprecedented--both in dangers and results. Bell is a horrifically scared, Caucasian Christian Holy man who greatly resembles a British intelligence commander from Nile Shadows. Anna Cohen moves to Jerusalem from Cairo and finally settles into a sustainable life including a family of sorts. There is also a lot dealing with the PLO and KGB, the Israeli six day war, and "The Runner" operation: the most secretive espionage circuit ever conceive in the Middle East. Despite the cast of characters and the return to Jerusalem, events are more predictable, and mundane than what we've come to expect from the author.

There are secret agents, double agents, and nods to "a mostly blind Argentine" author but missing are the unique scenarios, and wandering character connections. Much of the Whittemore's pontifications on life are present as we see Bell's life, and that of his close friends, unfold in Jericho. In this novel there is less of a sense of 'story telling' and more of a generic feeling of plot, suspense and straightforward narrative.

Much like Sinai Tapestry the narrative bounces around between multiple characters and never sticks with one long enough to become attached rather, leaves you wanting more. Unlike Sinai Tapestry, Jericho Mosaic is that last book in the series; there is nothing more to follow. All the characters and their lives are extremely interesting but in comparison the presentation feels shallow and superficial to previous characters in the series.

Repetition--a concept one would think Whittemore immune to based on previous books--plagued Jericho Mosaic. I can recall at least three passages which detail the KGB's move to Cyprus; long passages that did nothing to advance the story. It was almost as if Whittemore was running out of material. Themes of two-sided characters, inherent to a 'spy' book, are brought up but never fully explored. There is also a woefully underdeveloped concept of disfigurement: Bell with the face of a demon, Moses an Ethiopian eunuch, Tajar a cripple due to past war injuries all go on to achieve great things in their life yet the novel continually focuses on real horrors of World War II that so easily shatter the phantastic setting of quasi-reality the author had achieve in previous entries. The most subtle, and best developed theme, was of the power of the exile abroad: Bell, Anna, and Yossi all find strength in being away and control over their lives that never seemed possible.

Jericho Mosaic is an exceptional novel and successful on all levels; a book with many layers that would benefit from re-reading. Perhaps the book's only true flaw is that it was the published closure of the Jerusalem Quartet with its meager relations to the previous novels it may have been better to stand on it's own.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Interruption to your Regularly Scheduled Life.

I have friends in from out of town. I have family in from out of town. I have friends in from out of country. I can't wait to see them all, and I'd also like to think that there is time for the standard minutiae of stuff going on that I call my life.

I have had plans the last few day; nothing has come of them. From reading to blogging to cleaning to planning the most fabulous party ever nothing has gotten done, my life has been put on 'hold.'

It would seem the holidays are upon us, and as always, I enjoy them while they're here, but can't wait for them to be over.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An injustice.

I really haven't done this book justice. Over the course of a week I read The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A lot of it I read at work. I also read a good bit on the train. I never really dedicated the time to the book it deserved. With the subtleties of the texts and the longer sections to read before page breaks I'm sure I didn't appreciate it as much as I would have if I had more time to read in a relaxed state of mind. I read when time and energy allow, and unfortunately the wrong book came up this week.

I did like the book, but I don't think any circumstance would have made me like it as much as Strange Pilgrims; the only other work by Garcia Marquez I've read.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nile Shadows by Edward Whittemore

For comments on books one and two of The Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker, please follow the respective links.

Nile Shadows represents a departure from so much that has previously been established in the first two novels of The Jerusalem Quartet. Whittemore ceases to obsess with the vast network of character relationships and connections, wandering narrative, and perhaps the biggest change of all, he leaves his setting--Jerusalem--behind. What's gained is a bit awkward and perhaps more conventional of a novel, but these incentives come at a cost to pre-established characters and to a degree, all that made the first two books of the series as remarkable as they are.

It is difficult to overstate the power of the novel not taking place in Jerusalem. The novel's move to Egypt is permanent and there is a sense of starting over. O'Sullivan Beare is brought into Cairo by a mysterious trio to do some investigative work with his old time friend, Stern. We have to adjust to Cairo just as O'Sullivan Beare does and it is a stiff experience. We never quite get used to it and things always feel a bit out of place, even for an underworld pro the likes of Beare.

Contrary to the previous entries in the series, Nile Shadows has a strong traditional story arc and it is spelled out for us on the first few pages. The novel opens with the climax and then backtracks in an attempt to make that climax resonate strongly with the reader after the fact: a difficult proposition that many have tried before and a device that I've never been a fan of.

As we never saw the milieu of characters lives in the first two novels Beare is brought in just to discern that in Stern's life. It seems that Stern, a born Jew, has gotten himself heavily involved in some dark business concerning World War II and there are multiple intelligence agencies that would like to know exactly what he has been up to. There is a false plot involving a stolen code that explains all of Rommel's success in North Africa and what has been bought and sold for the Germans to obtain such a code, but the real story is much more personal. Beare, and a handful of Stern's other friends, know that Stern's time is very limited. He is involved too deeply in both sides of the war efforts; too valuable and too much of a liability to be left alive by all those who value him. Before his life is prematurely cut short, those who care about him make it there most earnest desire to communicate to Stern how much he has meant in the lives of so many.

Stern, being an idealist and dreamer who once outlined the constitution and governance of a Levantine nation where all could live in peace and prosperity, is struggling to find value in his life as his goals have been so exponentially scaled back. David and Anna Cohen who almost view Stern as a father, the horrifically scared Bletchley, and Liffy, whose acting ability make for a disturbingly good spy all try in there own way to help Stern see the fruits of his labors. While the new characters all feel real and are well fleshed out the problem is the pre-exsisting ones never seem to mesh.

Stern, Beare, and Maud (yes, Maud is in Cairo as well working for an intelligence agency) standout perhaps too much at the expense of the story. Stern never feels concrete. We learn of his past and what he has been up to through all the novel's new characters who in some way or another are connected to his life. Sympathy comes easy however he remains aloof and on the fringe of the narrative; never taking direct action and only fleetingly making tangible appearances. O'Sullivan Beare perhaps absorbs the worst of the damage as it is he that the novel follows in the search for clues as to Stern's past. While his endearing sincerity and openness remain, Beare feels like little more than a vehicle for other characters exposition. Beare is at the whim of Liffy, Amhad, and others only so they can preach their life's philosophy's and fill in the gaps of Stern's life. This marginalization of one such as Beare hurts but doesn't have the overall undermining affect on the novel as one would think. Beare is the focal point of the story but plays little more part than a prop. Maud's moments seemed to be little more than incidental fan service, though they felt good and I loved everything shared in her scenes they did little to advance the story of the novel.

In gaining a straight forward traditional story presentation Whittemore abandoned the freewheeling nature of his previous novels and things become a bit mundane. There's Waterboys and Monks (the two largest espionage groups in Egypt), hand grenades and tanks, Churchill's secret flagship and wild parties thrown by a living mummy but the dream like atmosphere that made the previous entries as exotic as they were have faded like the past novels main characters. Gone are Wallenstien, Haj Harun and most noticeably Jerusalem, and so to is the sense of wonder that they created.

It's perhaps the most accessible novel Whittemore had written, one that would still benefit from re-reading, but overall much easier to grasp. Nile Shadows is satisfying on all levels but feels more like a remnant of previous entries and what perhaps should have been the true beginning of something else.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Last Song of Orpheus by Robert Silverberg

I bought this book on a whim. I wasn’t familiar with Silverberg’s previous publications, merely the title appealed to me. It’s a bleak, dry telling of Orpheus’ life and one that didn’t leave me wanting an encore.

Orpheus is cursed to live a cyclical life. One in which he knows the outcome of events before they happen only because he has lived and been reborn into this life for all eternity. The repetition in Orpheus’ life is perhaps what gives way to repetition of his story telling.

There are certain phrases that Orpheus is compelled to use nearly every page. I can’t over emphasize how annoying this became. His character descriptions were no better. At the mention of Jason I could mentally add—before Orpheus would say it—that he was foolhardy and cautious. I could do this, because the printed word ‘Jason’ seemingly couldn’t appear without his signature adjectives.

If you’ve ever known someone who couldn’t tell a story face-to-face in a satisfying manner that entertained you for even mere seconds then you know what it’s like to read Orpheus’ tale. This is not a narrative in which you read what happens as events take place nor is it exactly a memoir. It’s as if Orpheus, the main character, manages to tell a second-hand account of his own life in the most detached manner possible. He tells of his love for Eurydice, his travels to Egypt, and his time on the Argo with Jason to recover the Golden Fleece, all in the most plodding, plaintive I-couldn’t-care-less tone of voice. Perhaps it’s due to his knowing what will happen in his life as he has lived it before but, it’s as though his entire life as a demigod is a chore.

There is not a lot of backbone to Orpheus, especially so considering he’s the son of Apollo. He marches straight into the Hell and demands the release of his love after her early death. As she dies a second time, lost to Orpheus forever, all the spirit in him is gone and he limps along in life nearly oblivious to the fact that he is, alive.

There was nothing in this short novel that I could say was bad or even poor, yet I never felt Orpheus was even remotely interested in his own life, so why should I be? The Last Song of Orpheus is short and ultimately satisfying yet it’s nothing I’ll be adding to my play list. What should have been a glowing, unique story (a myth that has survived for how many years?) is spoiled by an overly somber, melancholy to a fault, storyteller.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I think it appropriate to begin my commentary of The Magicians the same way I'll end it: by telling you that it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely worth your reading time. Flaws abound, but get over it; if your reading extends past Harry Potter and genre epic fantasy you'll read The Magician's, laugh, enjoy, and on some level (albeit a very superficial one) be moved to some degree.

Quentin Coldwater is a high school overachiever with his sights set on Ivy League enrollment. His education takes a twist as he winds up at Brakesbills, a school for aspiring magicians. In addition to becoming a magician, he hopes to find that the fictional realm of Fillory from his childhood reading is as real as magic. At Brakebills he becomes what he was in high school: a great but still not standout student. He possesses neither the innate ease that his friend Eliot can perform magic with, nor the fey, god-like power of Alice, a fellow student of his class.

The language used in telling this story is perfect. Grossman employs a contemporary vernacular that is perhaps too intelligent and trending for the nerdy kids using it, but one that feels right to the reader. More than any other aspect it is the speech, both dialogue and monologue that makes the work feel real; as if it is all plausible and really happening in our world. The prose feels kitschy, yet there is an art to what is written; Grossman scores major style points with his prose.

We learn what it is like to train to be a magician in today’s world and the horror that there is nothing to do with your magical abilities of any remote interest to anyone (least of all the magician) once you have completed your studies. The elaborate exposition focuses on Quentin and his magical fraternity of friends as they stumble into adulthood. The plot seems to hinge on a point where entrance to Fillory, a magical secondary world as laid down by C.S. Lewis verbatim in Chronicles of Narnia, becomes a real opportunity. But before we go to Fillory ( "We! Are! Going! To! Fill! O! Reeeeeee!" If you’ve read the book you smiled there too...) lets get back to that stumbling…

The book unrelentingly harps on virtually all the characters alcoholism. Drinking is indeed a culture in many American educational institutions but the kids at Brakebills could possible give the University of Georgia a run for their money. The theme is repetitive and over-indulged to the point where we think these kids can’t do much anything until they had a sip of something. Further more, all the students are winos… I found this point not only incongruous with collegiate drinking (admittedly taking into account only my own experience due to a higher-than-beer-or-cheap-booze-price, weaker overall effect, and sophistication of taste) but wholly unbelievable as at some point it felt like the school was in fact sponsoring these benders. To think what they accomplished by being hammer 24/7 it does make you wonder what they could have done, should they ever be sober. By the time Quentin and Eliot upgrade to illicit drugs I was only surprised they hadn’t gotten there sooner. The collegiate experience felt real—as if I know what magical college should feel like—except that no one got kicked out or put on probation for chronic alcoholism and the social problems that arise from such an affliction. Cause you get kicked out of school for that kinda thing…

In addition to campus wide drinking bouts that would awe Andre the Giant and Ernest Hemingway, all the students at Brakebills sleep with all the other students (and at least one case, a teacher too). The small group of primary characters eventually felt like the cast of a white-washed TV sitcom, where all players are attractive, live on the same street, party at the same bars, and then have drunken indiscriminate sex with anyone else on their street; regardless of gender it would seem… At least with sex, as opposed to drinking, there are consequences to deal with that yield emotional maturity and character growth; the drinking only beget hangovers that were promptly cured with three more glasses of wine.

Drinking to excess and sexual promiscuity are certainly standard college fair, but damn… apparently I was a prude in undergrad and grad school.

With a quarter of the book remaining events do take an odd twist and the novel becomes a genuine epic fantasy quest book as we finally get to enter Fillory. This change of direction isn’t necessarily bad, but to me this last portion either felt rushed or the previous three-quarters were prolonged. The time spent in Fillory is as clichéd and generic as any other genre fiction, albeit infused with a modern attitude and Grossman’s ever-present smart ass sense of humor.
The cast is awesome: a bunch of kids who can out drink Jackie Gleason and W.C. Fields back-to-back and whose sexual exploits make Ramses II look virginal. Life lessons, love, loss and enough tween-age angst abound to the point that these emo kids might call bullshit, and yet all I can say overall is, it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely worth your reading time. Consider this a glowing recommendation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jerusalem Poker by Edward Whittemore

For comments on Sinai Tapestry, book one of the Jerusalem Quartet click here.

A twelve year poker games comes to a close, ending with the three who first began it. The stakes are nothing less than complete control of Jerusalem's underworld. However, from start to finish this game is rigged and the pot inconsequential.

Just as its predecessor Sinai Tapestry did, Jerusalem Poker spurns conventional storytelling and what many—myself included—would deem to be of paramount importance: a central plot. However, don't call the novel flawed; the differences are not a bad thing.

Two new primary characters get introduced in this volume to Whittermore's already huge and wildly varying cast. Cairo Martyr is a black Moslem with plans on repaying the Arabs for there centuries long involvement in the slave trade by stealing Kabba. Cairo's cousin, Munk Szondi is not only a Wallenstein, but also the connection of all the Middle Eastern based characters to the eastern European and Asian ones.

The character connections are endless, and always enthralling. Making the connections is part of what the book is primarily occupied with. Concerning current events very little is ever said. We learn of Cairo's mentor Menelik Ziwar (Strongbow’s life-long best friend) a living mummy who never leaves his sarcophagus, and how Cairo has ground Egypt's pharaohs of old to dust and made a fortune in selling them for their aphrodisiac qualities in addition to being a cure-all for any aliment. But once he makes his fortune and states his long term life plans, very little is said of what is presently happening in Cario's life.

Munk's background is perhaps a bit more developed. We puzzle out his connection to Skanderberg Wallenstin, come to grips with his phenomenal military career, and learn of his exile from his family in the most intense and amusing knitting scene you'll ever read. We see how 'The Sarah's,' the female portion of his family that owns the greater oil wealth of the middle east try to buy back the Ottoman empire from Strongbow--whom they didn't even know bought the empire to begin with. It's all as beautifully bizarre as it sounds.

Much more is learned of Strongbow as Whittemore incessantly dwells in the past. The poker game all but has Strongbow's stamp of approval: it is played in the room he wrote his thirty-three volume treatise on Levantine sex, his sundial erratically chimes midnight at any time of the day confusing the players, and the scarab that has been used by Strongbow and his son Stern to smuggle just about everything in an out of Jerusalem presides as co-games master, sharing the honor with Haj Harun.

If the story had to be distilled in to a central element, for me, it would be the growth and development of Joe O'Sullivan Beare whose father, with the gift of prophecy, proclaimed him to be the future King of Jerusalem. There is no conventional plot or point of conflict that all events build toward and yet there is forward motion and things never become stagnant or feel bogged down. Joe has problems claiming what is 'his' until he can bring other events to terms he can understand. He knows where the Sinai Bible is and has known for twelve years; yet can't bring himself to uncover it just yet. He knows where Maud is, his one-time wife and mother of his child but won’t go to her; he knows about his children and finally does get to see half of them. The final chapter where he meets his son for the first time is perhaps the most moving and flawed. Bernini, O'Sullivan's son, is nothing more than a vehicle for some of O'Sullivan's beautiful reminisces on his life. Bernini prompts his father with the right questions and proper indulgences however, he's is far too intelligent for his age. This issue becomes larger as we learn of Bernini’s learning ability being slower than other kids his age. It's a unique passage--as is the book--where upon completion you wouldn't change a thing due to the summation of the affect it has on the reader.

The Levant at large is again the main character as we see Jerusalem, Egypt, Greece and many other locales in a way that makes you believe they have to be exactly as Whittemore uses them. If ever this part of the world needed a tour guide or travel agent to attract interest Whittemore would have been the best choice.

Quasi fantastic elements return and as in Sinai Tapestry many of these events surround Haj Harun, who among other things, recalls the story of Daniel in the lion's den before the event actually happened. He also leads us to underground Jerusalem where a few ghost or possibly real people are still living; Masons from the times of the first crusade. It is on this trip to underground Jerusalem that Joe finds his one-thousand year old cognac bottles that he drinks his poteen from. The fantasy elements are never dwelled nor elaborated upon and the effect is a glancing confusion of ' is this real or not?' which is probably exactly what the author intended; a brilliant display of less is more. Cairo also experiences a good bit of the supernatural being a mummy tomb robber. Whittemore, who was ever in possession of a dark sense of humor seems to shine in these scenarios. Nothing here will haunt your dreams but leaving you laughing with wonder and thinking, 'What the hell just happens?' The only exception to the reality bending absurdity would be Haj Harun, himself; who, the more he rambles, the more believable to the reader it becomes that he is a three-thousand year old defender of Jerusalem.

We learn of his phenomenal sexual exploits with a Persian princess centuries ago. As if we weren't already sympathetic to Haj, either for his lunacy or curse of living three thousand years, we learn that real heroes, like dents in a helmet, 'go unnoticed' and this knowledge cast a somber cloud of reflection on the reader when thinking of all the characters you will come to love in the novel. Furthermore, Haj may not be the only near immortal character around, other than the ghost of Jerusalem's' past, Haj alludes to at least two others who have been around for a few thousand years.

A complaint would be a similarity in characters voices; which is particularly bad considering the wildly diverse characters in the story. Outside of Joe saying 'Jaysus,' and speaking in broken Gallic--and at times broken English--and starting to ramble as much as Haj, there isn't a great deal of distinction in characters voice until we get to Nubar.

Nubar is dying of anal syphilis, and a nasty mercury addiction that isn't helping either. Not only does he carry on the Wallenstein family tradition of mental instability and some unhealthy sexual habits, he ups the ante with advanced alcoholism, and self imposed starvation. Hyper acute paranoia, obsession, and dementia all make for an interesting personality, but his role in the novel remained a question to me. He feels the Sinai Bible is his by rights as his grandfather forged it, further more he thinks it is the equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. He is a comic, chaotic display of epochal mental instability, but otherwise a diversion from O'Sullivan Beare, Cairo and Munk.

The women of Joe's life get more interesting as we come to understand why Maud left both a paradise in Jericho and O’Sullivan Beare (who outside of being an extrodinarily successful criminal is an exceptional family man). She left without saying goodbye or with Joe ever being able to hold his first born son; without a word or letter as to where she went. In understanding her past history of people walking out of her life she panicked and left before Joe could ever dream of leaving her. Maud aside, it is Theresa that is perhaps more complicated and in need or greater help, and considering where Maud is mentally that is saying something. Whittemore's female characters are absolute psychological nightmares; but they serve a purpose other than tormenting themselves: they all seemingly get to torment Joe.

Most central to Joe’s development is his relationship with Stern. Stern is vulnerable, that is why people like him; that is why he is a morphine addict. Joe is the opposite despite all he's been through in his life he is solid. The only outward affect of his life's troubles is his drinking: an insatiable habit that has lead him to home-brew. Joe always wishes he could meet one of the great figures of the 'past' as his 'place' isn't solidified and he can't appreciate his life’s achievements.

Joe and Stern try to patch things up twelve years removed from Greece and World War One. Stern is tormented by the eight-year old girl he had to kill. She desperately asked, "Please" and the word has haunted Stern ever since. It goes unsaid that it was supposed to be Joe to do the deed, but the man who had killed virtually everything that's ever lived froze and Joe couldn't do it. Joe was too mad at himself, his life and the world to deal with the situation. Stern acted out of terrible mercy. The two try to reconcile events they never should have lived through but ultimately can’t.

All characters have problems relinquishing the past and it impedes them in the future, (Sterns inability to make new friends, or rekindle with Joe, Maud preemptively leaving Joe, Joe constantly recalls the 'Black and Tans' of Ireland and his inability to get over his past life to get out of his position in his current life), this is why Whittemore dwells on Strongbow and Wallenstein as they provide solid paths for the reader to follow while we try to navigate the unpredictable world and the amazing characters Whittemore has living in it.

Jerusalem Poker is a book that will certainly benefit from re-reading. It’s not an easy piece of fiction to get through but it is one of the more satisfying novels I’ve yet to come across and one that few who've read it will be able to forget.