Sunday, July 31, 2011

The month in Review and of Things to Come Part II


Somethings I forgot to initially share... 

In light of Borders going all-the-way-out-of business, has anyone been to a Barnes and Noble lately?  Because wow, have they ever expanded their sales product line... They have games, and stuff, gifts and junk that is anything but a book; I don't fault them.  Do what you gotta do to survive I guess.  (MORE BARGAIN BOOKS!)

I bought three books this month; sorry...  The already reviewed, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt which shares an unfortunate title with a modest Tom Cruise movie, and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.  They were all at four dollars or less, so it was kinda okay for me to be buying books... Kinda.

That's all.  No more.  I promise.     

The month in Review and of Things to Come

July has been a very good reading month.  I finished Dreamsongs Volume II by George R.R. Martin, How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry by Howard Hirsch, The Hammer by K.J. Parker and The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.  How's that list for diversity?  I've also started and hope to soon be finished with Nicole Krauss' Great House, expect me to mention this book a lot come the end of the year…  
Looking forward to August's reading I have a huge birthday gift from my interwebs best friend forever for life for right now in Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey.  It's massive and will be a nice challenge to get through by the time my pre-ordered copy of The Magician Kings by Lev Grossman arrives.  I used reward points to get a free copy of The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  Finishing Great House and the three others should keep me busy.  
I went to a small beer tasting for my birthday where I had Koningshoeven's Dubbel.  It may be the best trappist ale there is, and considering the competition that is really saying something.  It's rich, light oh so flavor and lingers on the palette long after you've taken a sip.  I think it is now being called "La Trappe" in the States for reasons unknown to me.
A rather boring month all in all; not much to say.  It's still hot as hell.   

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

"A clever photographer, someone had once said, could photograph anything well.  But Faulques knew that whoever said that had never been in a war zone.  It was impossible to photograph the danger, or the guilt.  The sound of a bullet as it bursts a skull.  The laugh of a man who has just won seven cigarettes by betting on whether the fetus of the woman he just disemboweled with his bayonet is male or female…. No one brushed the dust off a cadaver."  Page 198

My previous reading of Pérez-Reverte hadn't prepared me for The Painter of Battles.  This is easily the most introspective and intimate work by the author I've come across.  There is none of the colorful florid language of his historical fiction nor any of the guile and plot cunning that he displays in his contemporary thrillers.  The Painter of Battles explores, life and death, the meaning of both, art, and a very close examination of morals under extreme duress.  
Andrés Faulques was a war photojournalist.  After a long and successful career he has retired and committed himself to painting a mural and never again photographing what is essentially humanity as it's worst.  Ivo Markovic is the subject, or perhaps 'victim' of one of Faulques best known pictures.  His face becomes recognizable all over the world, and his life is absolutely ruined because of it.  After much time has passed since Faulques takes the photo, Markovic tracks Faulques down and the two talk of many things.
Markovic blames Faulques for many of his actions, and sometimes his inability to act.  Faulques embraces the impending doom of fatalism and preordained law while Markovic will not be shaken from his position that everything is guided by choice.  Their battle of words and minds plays out by way of stories of Markovic from his time at war and in remembrances of Olivdo Ferrera, Faulques lost lover.  Both men learn a lot from each other in a short time and though there relationship seems odd once each learn of the others intentions somehow things work.  It is not the intense verbal sparring and witty repartee of modern minds.  In fact, very few are ideas presented are definitively refuted.  The concepts brought up and how they are dealt with are slow in developing and demand a good bit of thought.    
The author was a war corespondent and while I'm sure he was drawing heavily from his own experiences I was also reminded of the late Kevin Carter and his photo documentation of South African execution by necklacing.  Markovic would say by positioning himself for the perfect shot, for the sake of art, instead of acting out in a manner that might prevent whatever atrocity he was about to photograph that Faulques was a good as perpetrating the crime.  Faulques would say while he was on the job in a war zone, he was as good as not there.  Merely an impartial eye to take pictures for what happened for the world to see; it was not his job to be involved in what was going on around him.  
The narration is cold and distant and completely at odds with the peculiar terms of friendship that govern interaction with Faulques and Markovic.  It works brilliantly.  Ideas are dwelt on for long periods of time.  Paragraphs span pages.  As such this short, two-hundred page book you thought you'd finish in a weekend turns out to be wonderfully dense with no fluff to skim over and much time need to fully absorb what is given.
Pérez-Reverte has a unique presentation in this novel where much of what you would swear is spoken dialogue, isn't.  Not merely the past recollections of Olvido's life but even exchanges between Faulques and Markovic that are happening in 'real time' he writes as prose and not dialogue further enhancing the narrative distance of the story and it's characters.  Such distance is necessary considering the deaths described and the graphic situations that many are made to live through in The Painter of Battles.
If I had to say there was a weakness, and I admit to reaching pretty far in pointing this out, it is in the description of Faulques' photographs.  'A picture is worth a thousand words,' and when those words had to be committed to paper in a novel for the many various photographs Faulques took it certainly slows things down in a novel where the pacing is already deliberately controlled.  This spelling of pictures out is necessary as it adds realism, gravitas, and ultimately fuel to Markovic's fire concerning Faulques' life.  
It is almost against my own volition that I felt satisfied by the ending: I didn't once roll my eyes.  I miss the florid beautiful prose of Pérez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series and the fast pace whodunnit-ness of his thrillers, however, I'll welcome this slow, methodical, melancholy from him anytime he chooses to write in this style.  I can say with some feeling of certainly that The Painter of Battles may never be his most popular book, but I'll also make the case that it may be his most powerful.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Hammer by K. J. Parker

On the surface level, The Hammer feels like a novel.  There are characters, backstory, and the framework for tension, but events never seem to become anything more than an outline.  It is as if the passage from concept to meaningful, fully-fledged, weighty production never happened, or perhaps such a change happens only it didn't have a chance to mature.  I struggled getting through this novel and only did so out of past enjoyment of the authors Purple and Black and Blue and Gold.  
So there is a "Colony" a "Company" and an oft mentioned "Home."  Oh, and there are also some "Savages…"  None of which are ever given proper names a la real life which serves to facilitate my feelings of the book being an elaborate concept.  These 'place-holder' names don't have much depth and they seem to be mentioned in the same superficial way you may tell a story to a friend and reference, "that guy at the bar."  The 'Company' has a monopoly on all goods used, bought  and sold on the "Colony."  The colonist pay rent the 'Home' government by way of cattle.  There is an out of favor high and once mighty family the met'Oc (I've long since had a dislike for the author's naming conventions) who live on the Colony.  They occupy a space marked by near destitution, yet able to inspire fear to all the colonist because one of the met'Oc boys occasionally plays the part of a dangerous lunatic.  They are also the only people in the colony with weapons of any sort: swords, and a brace of pistols. 
I had a hard time taking any of the characters seriously and though the better part of book deals with Gignomai met'Oc--yes that is his name--he was the most unrealistic of them all.  Gig, as he is called, doesn't much like his family and runs away to the other side of the colony which is still within spitting distance of his family.  He then decides to start a bloodless revolution against Home and the Company's monopoly by building a factory so the colonist can provide for themselves.  Main character or not Gig is as substantial as "that guy at the bar:" a cheap vehicle for a shallow soon-to-be-forgotten anecdote.      
Slowly.  Ever so slowly, Parker introduces a measure of tension.  Things aren't what they seem, motives aren't as they have been stated, and apparently there is a killer inside us all.  There are social problems with the met'Oc and the rest of the colonist and eventually we learn of a very twisted family history.  The major plot points and revelations felt weak and more like a "hail Mary" pass in an attempt to redeem the previous three-hundred pages of strong, yet unrealized, ideas.
Parker excels in the small exchanges.  The one on one conversations where thought or ideas are discussed between characters of conflicting interest are wonderful.  These moment are to infrequent and don't have enough bearing on the primary plot to warrant a recommendation to read the book.  Previously I had thought Parker to be synonymous with awesome; now I'll proceed with caution concerning any further books by the author that stray from the color-wheel.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Get your music out of my fiction

I try so hard to keep real life out of blogging, but I can't hold back any longer.  I'm not a musicologist nor do I have a DMA.  A meager bachelor's and master's degree in piano performance.  Outside of a very high proficiency in being able to play the instrument I also had to take many classes that I will sum up as "How western classical music came to be, and how it works." 
Good writers do research on the topics they choose to write about.  If your main character is a surgeon and you plan on talking about surgery in the book, you have to write convincingly enough as to be realistic to any surgeons who enjoys fiction and may pick up your book.  It's a matter of credibility, hence the research.  
Music seems to occupy a unique space when it comes to writers: it's not so esoteric as surgery--after all who hasn't had piano lessons and if you can play open chords on the guitar then yes, you can perform damn-near every song by Bob Dylan--but the auto-didactics armed with a superficial amount of knowledge or those who took 'singing lessons' from that old lady in the church choir are really starting to get on my nerves.  I wish, I truly wish, I had kept a log of all the offenders I've come across in the past year's worth of reading.
Perhaps it is because music is such a basic and integral part in so many peoples lives, but whatever the reasons, far too many authors indulge in overwrought, self-indulgent, and more often than not, erroneous analogies and metaphors that may sound nice and poetic, but to one who knows can kill the prose and story being told faster than the sixteenth notes of an Allegro or faster Chopin etude.  (See?  Even when a likeness if properly made, it's still obnoxious… or at least to me it is.)
I'm happy that so many writers, at least in my reading, seem to make mention of sonata allegro form, rondeau, or a baroque French overture, but if you should feel the need to dwell on these topics make sure you are studying up on the matter to the same degree you would if you were talking about what it takes to get a space shuttle into orbit and not merely relying on those band or orchestral lessons from seventh grade.  
I think I'll keep my log of offending writers ( and critics and bloggers ) in my head as to not have a concrete list of negativity.  The words already printed can't be taken back but there is hope for new writers!   Heed my words!  Know what you are talking about before you commit the crime of ignorance in your novel.  Such a crime not only makes me mildly angry, but also speaks to your quality as a writer.  So next time you are feeling the urge to make an analogy about your characters in fugue or hexachordal combinatoriality, unless you really know what you're talking about; don't.   

Monday, July 11, 2011

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

"Nannie Slagg entered, bearing in her arms the heir to the miles of rambling stone and mortar; to the Tower of Flints and the stagnant moat; to the angular mountains and the lime-green river where twelve years later he would be angling for the hideous fishes of his inheritance." (page 43 of the Overlook Press Omnibus) 
Titus Groan is the newly born seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast.  The novel bearing his name is more about the world he is born into rather than about Titus himself.  Gormenghast is everything and there is nothing but Gormenghast.  The reader must come to understand this before anything else and as such Titus Groan, is a complete and very successful novel on its own.  It does, however, feel like a wonderfully patient--and wholly necessary--introduction to what will become the story of Titus' life.  
I choose the above quotation not as an example of the Peake's finest prose rather it encompasses two traits that I found at the heart of the story: enormity of, well, everything, and decay.  Gormenghast is the name of the castle of The House of Groan.  It is the name of the mountains, the lake, and the surrounding land.  In Titus Groan, there is nowhere else, but Gormenghast.  Rather than to suppose that the novel takes place in a very small area the opposite is what the reader comes to find.  Gormenghast, world without end, is everything and as best we know there is nothing else.  Needless to say, the concept takes some getting used to.  Our first encounter with this truth is through the character Steerpike who by a series of curious events finds himself on the exterior of the castle, not outside of it, merely on an outside roof.  

"He saw spread out before him in mountainous facades a crumbling panorama, a roofscape of Gormenghast, it's crags and its stark walls of cliff, pocked with nameless windows.  Steerpike for a moment lost heart, finding himself in a region as barren as the moon, and he became suddenly desperate in his weakness, and falling on his knees retched violently."  pg 104  

His efforts to escape the confines that he had only moment before found literally suffocating only yield greater physical discontent and greater weakening of his physical constitution: decay.  Later, we hear the word 'roofscape' replaced with 'castlescape' so large is Gormenghast that from a high vantage point on the outside of the castle nothing could be seen in a given direction that wasn't the castle.  The 'crumbling panorama' and 'cliff, pocked with nameless windows' that induce Steerpike to vomit bring about the other inescapable point of Gormenghast, everything is in an advanced, yet leisurely, state of decay.  Though the rot of Gormenghast may in fact be advanced the castle is alive and in many regards thriving.  It is described as 'breathing' and being 'sentient.'  Buildings 'grow' from pre-existing buildings in Gormenghast as do branches from a tree.     

In a castle of such size there is always some manner of maintenance to be done.  Everywhere there are piles of rubble and seasoned lumber scattered about in equal amount.  Of more interest than the castles upkeep or as the status quo would have it, degradation (remember 'stagnant moat' and 'lime-green rivers') is its inhabitants and their mental states that are given Peake's primary attention.  
Flay is chief servant in all of Gormenghast castle and attendant to Sepulchrave, the current Earl.  Though his dimensions are never given we come to see him as impossibly tall.  His knees are falling apart under the weight of his height and make a hideous loudly audible sound as he moves.  He speaks in a very distinct short hand of his own device as though the effort of talking has become come too burdensome itself in Gormenghast.  (I'm inclined to agree with him.)  He is slow and deliberate in all that he does and we are given to think he has not had a change of clothing since he was first appointed his post.  Yet he proves to be a patchwork of blind loyalty capable of startling (and original!) violence.  ("Cats as missiles," Steerpike recalls.)  Other castle servants include an obese chef, Swelter, who seems so large in fact as to be near splitting open, a nurse who is a midget, Nannie Slagg, and a master of ceremonies who has lost a leg in service to the castle and enjoys spitting on people.  Dr Prunesquallor is the sole exception of abnormality in the servants of Gormenghast as he seems to make a conscious effort to hide his intelligence, ironically done by talking down to all the other servants, as to better understand his surroundings and be of greatest use.  The castle's most grotesque inhabitants and those that embody and mirror Gormenghast the best are none other than the royal family.  
Sepulchrave seems detached, smart, and altogether normal.  His fall into depravity is marked by a very powerful calamity one even stronger than the birth of his son and heir.  Sepulchrave has twin sisters of a very uncertain mental stability.  To say they are slow-witted is an offense to Forrest Gump.  They were never given a place of prominence nor was anything ever expected of them because of their mental facility.  What they have learned in their seclusion is a lust for power.  They feel they have been displaced by Gertrude Sepulchrave's wife.  They have no ability to think for themselves, and the ease in which they can be manipulated proves to be a point that Sepulchrave will have sorely regretted overlooking.  Gertrude spends her days talking to birds and dealing with an exceptionally large host of white cats.  To say she is disturbing is a vast understatement, but she also has powerful moments of clarity and insight.  Fuchsia, Titus' sister is something of a work in progress.  She is fifteen and given to all the vagaries of being a teenager.  Yet just when we are at our most certain of her family's genetic trait of madness manifesting itself she is capable of displaying--like her mother--clarity of vision, insight, and can shed her cloak of nonsense with ease and astonishing power.        
Titus Groan may have a certain aural attribute that makes it a more fitting title that Streepike, but if the title is supposed to reflect upon who or what the book is about, then Steerpike would have been a much better choice.  He is seventeen at the novel's start and in the service of the kitchen.  From this most abjectly base position he becomes the kiss-ass of the castle; doing small favors for people of importance and slowly but surely earning favor in return.  He is devious, manipulative and wholly self-serving.  By the book's end he sets himself up to be quite possibly the most powerful person in Gormenghast.  Everyone in all of Gormenghast accepts and deals with their lot from The Grey Scrubbers who clean the kitchen to Sepulchrave King and Commander.  Everyone but Steerpike, he doesn't belong.  He wants something more; something better for himself.  Fuchsia puts it best:

"Behind him (Steerpike) she saw something which by contrast with the alien, incalculable figure before her, was close and real.  It was something which she understood, something which she could never do without, or be without, for it seemed as though it were her own self, her own body at which she gazed and which lay so intimately upon the skyline.  Gormenghast.  The long, notched outline of her home.  It was now his background.  It was a screen of walls and towers pocked with windows.  He stood against it, an intruder, imposing himself so vividly, so solidly, against her world, his head overtopping the loftiest of its towers." pg 213
For all of it's personalities and grotesque decay there is a sense of pride and belonging instilled in everyone in Gormenghast.  It's home--even to Steerpike--it is where everyone wants to be.  The Groan family is "of the blood" and that means something to all though it is never explicitly detailed to the reader.  There is no leaving, there is no starting over somewhere else, and that is because everything is Gormenghast.  The servants seem to deal with the gravitas that is Gormenghast by drinking in excess while the Groan family indulges in more laudanum than is strictly necessary.

Readers of the book may note that there is one major character I've yet to mention: Keda; Titus' wet-nurse.  I'm not sure if I'm writing a book review or a literary criticism (it's a sorry attempt at either, I admit) and to that end I'll excuse myself from saying anything more than this: even more than Steerpike, Keda does not belong in Gormenghast.  Beyond that I'll let readers decide for themselves what to make of the who I would deem the character who 'stole the show.'    
The story takes place in less than two years and ends with Titus' coronation--as a toddler--as Earl of Gormenghast.  If you think you've read a book about aristocracy living a typical life of leisure in an immense castle you haven't read Titus Groan.  It's not the kind of originality that took effort and feels well conceived rather the story is told from a direction of story events that no one else considered going in.  That alone makes things fresh enough.  It's a huge book, and just the beginning, but I am looking forward to how things grow larger and fall apart at more profound depths in the next installment.  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

The summer is fully upon us.  The April and May anomalies of 90+ degree heat have given way to the expectation of sweating in the shade.  The reality is worse but that's enough talk of the weather.

My blogging activity took a massive nosedive in June and yet my stat tracker says my blog has never before seen such activity.  Even more surprising, June marked the first month that my review of Easton Press Books was dethroned as the most widely read entry on my blog.  The usurper was Kathleen Winter's Annabel by a factor of three at that.  Activity for Annabel included four variant spellings of the author's name and one query asking if it was a true story.  This information is more banal that most I share on my blog, but for some reason it amuses me.

My slower-than-last-year reading trend is holding true.  I got through three books this month; all of which were fabulous.  Stories of your life and Others by Ted Chaing, Lavinia by Urusla K Le Guin, and Titus Groan by Mervye Peake.  I owe a review for the latter.  It's coming...  June's meager reading is thus far a front runner for taking all the 'Year's Best' awards.  This month's reading also put into sharp relief why I don't mind being behind the current reading trends.

My 'to be read' stack is somewhere between 50-60 books.  Only one of which was printed this year.  I can't thank enough all the readers, reviewers and bloggers out there who sift through stacks of ARC's of varying quality only to infrequently find something substantial.  I'm impressed by the quality of my own reading if I may say so.  There have been duds to be sure, but all-in-all not being the first to read this week's latest and greatest has really helped me find and focus on what stands out and why, sometimes years past a books initial publication.

I'll find another door stopper for July and I also plan to hunt my selves for some 'lighter and easier' reading material than the 'dense and heavy' stuff I've been doing as of late.  Perhaps I'm being a wuss but whatever.

Apropos of nothing, I know two people who read what I thought to be the best piece of fiction my eyes came across last year, The Local News by Miriam Gershow.  My father--who brought the author to my attention--thought it was one of the best pieces of fiction he had read that he didn't care for in the least.  I agreed with him that the tone is not for everyone; I was happy to see we both found the quality beyond dispute.  Maria had some pleasant things to say for it as well, which perhaps redeems the past near clunker I recommended her.    

As for July, I've got a lot of time on my hands and not much to do so I'll try not to get into too much trouble.  No promises.