Saturday, April 30, 2011

George R.R. Martin and Trains

So I'm on the train going to work reading "Skin Trade" from Dreamsongs Volume II (I'm guessing "nocturne" is too over used as a title and with my musical background I think the word should be reserved for Chopin).  I come to a page break and put my book away as I'm getting off at the next stop.  I notice the college aged looking kid across from me is reading something from "A Song of Ice and Fire" (which ever book has the red cover), a forty something-ish woman further back is reading Armageddon Rag and as I'm stepping off the train I see a lady coming on with Fevre Dream in her hands.  It would seem Time Magazine had a point in naming Martin influential.  At the least, he was extraordinarily popular yesterday at this particular place and time.

Unrelated to trains or Martin,  I just got my copy of Michael Swanwick's Dancing with Bears from the mailbox!  You should be jealous.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

There is a tree in a garden that bears fruit.  The fruit of the tree are books and while not exactly forbidden it is certainly a tree of knowledge.  Knowledge that can bring about enlightenment, change, power, and, at least for this novel, a foreboding sense of despair.  
Hiob, a priest, has led a delegation of his brethren to India in search of the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John.  In Valente's story John is not a myth but a real person who himself fled the icon wars of twelfth-century Constantinople and traveled east on a mission to find the church established by Saint Thomas.  What he finds after crossing an ocean of sand on a ship of which he is the sole survivor is either the garden of Eden or a hell worse than any he had imagined.  
Hiob and his fellow priest arrive at a village and find a strange woman dressed in yellow.  She allows them to rest and make camp there and also allows Hiob to select any three books from the above mentioned tree.  Like any fruit, the books oxidize and rot as they are exposed to the elements.  Also like fruit, the books are subject to bruising and need to be treated very carefully.  Hiob selects his three books: The Word in the Quince; The Book of the Fountain; and The Scarlet Nursery; and immediately sets to reading and copying them in his own non-perishable script.
The Word in the Quince is an account of John's time upon leaving Constantinople.  We hear him describe the land he has come to, Pentexore, how every living thing has been given eternal life through a replusive fountain of youth, how anything planted in the ground will grow and flourish and bear fruit--from a silver ring, a book, one's lunch or even an unfortunate soul who found a way to die in the land of everlasting life.  He describes the red, blue and white lions, genderless winged peoples, and other strange inhabitants of Pentexore.  John is confronted with their existence, intelligence, and culture while trying to cling to his own Christian convictions and knowledge that tells him all these strange creatures are devils.  
The Book of the Fountain is Hagia's, John's wife, account of his entrance into Pentexore.  Her perspective is personal and also representative of how John is perceived by all the land's other inhabitants.  He is seen as a baby, ignorant to all yet obstinate to education as all he is told is decidedly against church belief.  In Hagia's account we can see the conflict of the people of Pentexore wanting to embrace John and his adamant refusal to be one of them.  Of the three books The Book of the Fountain is the most heavily laden with foreshadowing as we see John sin--by his standards--time and again and how the seeds of his pride will grow, bear fruit and, what I assume will be disclosed in later volumes, ultimately destroy Pentexore.  John's faith, and his adherence is to deny the land beneath his feet and the people living there.  No one understands why John must deny every indulgence that would make him happy or risk a final death in the hope of eternal life when the people of Pentexore have all of that at the present.     
The Scarlet Nursery was my favorite book of the three.  It is told by a caretaker to three royal children.  Through the stories told to the children we learn of the history, culture and nature of life in Pentexore: how, "among the immortal, good manners are as important as bread and water," and how immortal life grants an insensitivity to being well… alive.  Living in the land of perfect abundance gets old.  The stories of The Scarlet Nursery tell of how the people deal with the monotony of everlasting life, and of a rulers wish, "to discover a city where folk did not consider that living forever meant drowning in the worst cruelties they could fashion."  And when one lives forever, they become as insensitive to cruelties as they do to living.   
The narrative is rather linear with only small interruptions of Hiob and The Scarlet Nursery not immediately relating to John's life.  It's hard to pinpoint an apex of the book as there is no climatic battle or traditional focal point that all events build toward.  Instead what propels one to keep reading is the same wonder of discovery that John relates as we read about a people and a setting unlike any other.  For me, this book and others like it should be what readers think of when 'epic fantasy' is mentioned.  It is expansive and extremely dense.  More than anything it is exotic and will leave you in awe of Valente's originality and creativity.  While what drives the plot maybe a bit obscure, the legend of Prester John is about a Christian King… and in his coronation lies what I would deem to be the 'high-water' mark of the novel.  
I'm honestly not sure I'd care about the quality of the novel's plot, characters, or subtext so strongly has Valente's command of prose arrested my senses.  She assigned herself a tough task of describing a fictitious land inhabited by a bizarre population and succeed in creating a mythology and history that she could easily never exhaust.  Everything from John's sunburnt scalp to the flowers and exotic animals are described in the most vivid, living color that words can possibly capture; all without coming across as overwrought.  Sometimes the images she gives us are, quite literally, too beautiful to imagine, and other times they are equally stunning with a nightmarish quality readers should be repulsed by to some extent but even in these moments I was still thinking, 'but it's so pretty…'  (I'm trying really hard not to gush about how much I love Valente's prose.)        
As overripe fruit is wont to do, the three books picked by Hiob erode and rot before the end of a single one is reached.  As The Habitation of the Blessed is only book one of three I can acknowledge the irony in not wanting to know what comes next, rather in future installments I want to know if my suspicions about this book will be confirmed.  (What or rather 'who' is this tree of knowledge?  Where are Hiob and his delegation of priests when they come across the woman in yellow and who are the people that seem to serve her and why?  I have ideas to answer all these questions but discovering how Valente resolves matters will be much more fun than my speculation.)  
It doesn't hurt to know a little history of the myth (in my past reading I thought people at the time assumed John's kingdom to be in sub-Saharan Africa), the eastern Christian church circa 1100AD, or Nestorianism, but none of that is necessary either.  There is nothing in this book so esoteric as to not be discernible with only what is given.  The Tower of Babel, the fountain of youth, the 'tomb' of Saint Thomas and the most beautiful perversion of the beatitudes are parts of the backbone of the story.  This is historical fiction based on a medieval hoax at it's best.  If you are seeking something not from the mold of standard epic fantasy with European culture in a secondary world filled with elves, swords and sorcery that Martin and Erikson seemed to have perfected; The Habbitation of the Blessed will serve you well.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Red Tree by Caitlain R. Kiernan

Sarah Crowe is writer who has no grip on life.  After her first forty years in the South--Alabama and Georgia--and one tumultuous relationship that fatally ends, Sarah tries to restart her life and writing career in 'middle of nowhere' Rhode Island.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the novel is how many voices readers encounterThere is Sarah's agent who published a 'preface' to The Read Tree, which is a journal of Sarah's final days (we learn from the very start of the book that Sarah committed suicide).  There is Sarah's journal itself, which obviously makes up the overwhelming majority of the book.  There is Sarah's fiction: we are given at least one short story and an excerpt from one of her novels.  Finally, there is the voice of the home's previous tenant and co-author of The Red Tree Dr. Harvey, who also committed suicide. 

Kiernan is very impressive in that all her voices sound real and authentic.  They are each distinct and hold up very well.  It's a chore to make the singular voice of a novel be strong enough to hold reader interest let alone so many varying one.
The first one-hundred plus pages of the book recount near all of Sarah's life up until the present.  The pace is slower than need be and easily could have been jump started with stronger foreshadowing.  Even had the reasons to keep reading been made stronger and if the novel had started a third of the way in I'm not sure there would have much more to work with.
The plot is rather thin in this near four-hundred page book.  The house in Rhode Island where Sarah lives has a disturbing history.  It's previous tenant Dr. Harvey, a Ph D in parapsychology, was studying the history of the house and the eponymous tree.  There are disturbing tales of violence, murder, and worse.  Aside from living in the same house, Sarah's strongest connection to Dr. Harvey is finding his typewriter and unfinished manuscript about the tree in the house's basement.  The tree is depicted as an alter of sorts as well as a pseudo-sentient being; it commands people to do terrible things and leaves leaves in places they shouldn't be; often times in places it should be impossible for leaves to be.
Sarah's new life in Rhode Island is anything but productive.  She never once makes an effort to work on the novel she has been paid an advance to write.  Reading the average person's diary is altogether boring if you don't know the individual.  Sarah is no different.  Her journal entries are repetitious and full of digressions and while she constantly points these two flaws out they are, in fact, still there.  The journal feels real and so the writing is realistically flawed.  For the reader, this is not positive authenticity.  She obsesses over the tree and harps on and on about its domineering presence, but understand that the tree doesn't do anything.  It's a tree.  Strange things do happen but nothing is ever explained.

There is a psychological factor to the book that is a lot of fun and at it's best, nothing short of brilliant.  By the book's end you will certainly be wondering, "what happened?" and wanting to know what was real.  However, Kiernan's subtlety in conveying Sarah's mental state is so well conceived and controlled, and the pacing is so evenly measured that plot events were robbed of power.  By the book's end I could reflect on events that could have made a bigger impact had I been given more information, earlier.  Sarah's mental deterioration is phenomenal in retrospect: having finished the book.  Appropriately, her instability is difficult to detect while reading the book.  Thus, none of the book's events felt concrete enough to truly have impact.  It is positively disturbing how well Kiernan manages Sarah's mental collapse.  I hope you'll note the irony of these 'criticisms.'  I think Kiernan is a great writer but somehow her strengths compiled to work against her. 
Fans of Kiernan don't need to pay any heed to my comments as they have no doubt already read the book.  New comers to Kiernan wanting to get a taste may be better advised to check out some of the authors short fiction, as I think it is much stronger.  Ultimately, the immediacy of fear and obsession with the red tree that the novel's characters were so obsessed with was never conveyed to me with equal strength.

I think The Red tree is an exceptionally well written novel.  And for reasons that are genuinely very hard to point out--yet enjoyable to read about--it is a very creepy novel.  Unfortunately, I didn't think it was a very interesting novel.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

Vacation, Reading, Good and Bad

I've never been good at reading on vacation.  I always seem to bring the wrong kind of book.  I don't particularly care for 'throw away' paperbacks and I'm so fussy about reading in comfort (quiet, my favorite chair, ottoman, rum and coke) that I think I'm gonna give up on reading in all further vacations.

Reading on the beach is anathema to me.  There is sun, an ocean, friends, new people to meet, too many drinks (if there is such a thing); reading is not going to happen in that setting for me.  Ever.  Even in less-awesome-than-the-beach locales reading just isn't happening.  Perhaps I'm too much a creature of habit and unable to break my routine.

As I have had a few days off from the other job this month--the technical term is furlough-- I planned on getting some extra reading done.  I don't see much extra in the making.  The Red Tree almost killed me.  Talk about having to power through... If I took this with me on a trip I would not have finished it.  That was last week.  This week I've been getting through The Habitation of the Blessed, which I feel certain will be the best book I read this year.  Even though I'm enjoying this book so much, I feel like I should have finished it by now.  The next time I have time away from work, I'm going to fully enjoy whatever I'm doing and not plan on any reading.

Expect reviews of both The Red Tree and The Habitation of the Blessed shortly.  And as far as good and bad go; these are two books that I would not normally leave comments for.  I don't like being super negative and when I like something as much as I do The Habitation of the Blessed it becomes difficult for me to express anything more than, "This is awesome."  At the least, it should be a good exercise for me.  

Back to normalcy and the everyday rut of my life.  Perhaps now that things have settled I'll still have a chance of doing a lot of reading this month.