Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

I've already hinted at how awesome of a reading month August has been.  I read The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Call me by your name by André Aciman, and Great House by Nicole Krauss, the first two of which I've let commentary for.  I made a substantial dent in Kushiel's Dart.  Also, I read a couple of stories on line this month which is rare for me as I don't like reading on a computer screen--it reminds me too much of work: The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick and The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland for a While by Catherine Valente.  Swanwick's story has his usaual mark of, "Is this Fantasy, SF, or contemporary fiction?" that I find awesome.  Valente continues to create her own mythology in everything she writes, which I find mind-blowing.  Finally, I've read about a hundred pages of a short story collection by Margaret Atwood, The Dancing Girls, which has done nothing for me.

Oddly, I haven't read anything in the past five days.  I've been busy but more so than this I've been so thoroughly sated by Call me by Your Name that I just haven't felt the need to read a book.  To put an exclamation mark on how good of a reading month this has been, I will say now--with absolute certainly--that my meager 'best book I read this year' award will come down to Call me By your name and Great House, either way I choose, I lose.  At least I've got a lot of time to consider the matter.  So read them both yourself by the year's end and then you can tell me why I picked the wrong one.

August ended on a bit of a bummer: a funeral for a family member, a whirlwind trip, relatives, high emotions and all that goes with it.  I picked up the Atwood book looking for something read in the car, and at the hotel, perhaps the circumstances I've been reading it under have affected how I view the stories but I don't think so.  I missed out on the Grossman book tour stop in Atlanta, but hopefully his publisher will give him the same treatment for the third book, and I'll catch him then.  

Next month I look forward to the Braves clinching a playoff spot.  I plan to finish The Dancing Girls, Gormenghast by Mevryn Peake, and The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Hopefully, I'll also get around to another chunk of Kushiel's Dart.  I'd hoped to get to The Tiger's Wife this month but due to a shipping err that didn't happen.  Not sure about September, but it will get read by the year's end.  I'm tentative on a few writer's workshops in the Decatur Book Festival, which is a really big deal, if you're in the area and thinking about going.

Though it's still ninety degrees in the shade, it hasn't been ninety-eight degrees in the shade for a week or so: I look forward to this trend...

In terms of reading, I need to get August out of my system, Now.  Of the fifty-one books still clogging up my unread stack I'm sure I've got some real good ones, but I've got to get these past couple of gems out of my system if I'm to enjoy anything else.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


This is fun.  Much as I've admitted to liking Lev Grossman's books I don't think I've ever read any of his reviews greater than what is printed on the back of a book as a blurb.   I did laugh, smile, roll my eyes, 'wink' when I came across The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, not due to the quality of the book rather Grossman's literary ties with Narnia.  All things considered, Times' list of 100 Best Novels was rather standard fair.  

I don't read enough non-fiction to comment on this one

I can't imagine there is much value to these kinds of list outside of those who only read a handful of books a year, but they are still fun to look at. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Things pick up in this sequel to Grossman's 2009 The Magicians more or less where we would expect them to.  We find our once Earthbound Fillorian royalty rather well adjusted, fatter and even lazier, and though it may be hard to believe, they are just as bored with being a master magician in Fillory as they were on Earth.  
Quentin, the main character of both The Magicians and The Magician King is still somewhat plagued by his inability to be happy.  It's not that the life of luxury isn't for him, rather he feels there should be something more to his existence.  Oddly, he declines the first adventure that presents itself to him organically in favor or one of his own making.  His own quest eventually leads him to find the seven golden keys that wind up the world.  
In many regards, I found The Magician King to be stronger than it's predecessor.  The purpose was stated much soon even if it isn't until much later that reasons why are given.  Quentin has also grown up… kinda.  Much of the emo angsty stuff that caused me to roll my eyes in the first book is gone, and with it, I can admit, many of the engaging and fun relationship drama that characters became wrapped up in.  The only real character development of interest comes from Julia, the book's co-star.
After events in Fillory get underway the book's structure alternates between current events and filling in the gaps of Julia's life while the other magicians Kings and Queen were at Brakebills.  We learn how she got her education, the seedy magical underworld, it's members, organization and purpose.  I have to be honest and say I grew to dread these sections.  They were always very interesting and helped establish Julia to the same extent the others were established in the previous book.  However, these sections also had nothing to do with the story at hand until the closing pages.  As we had already seen the structured magical education one can receive in the first book I thought the idea of showing the polar opposite was great.  Furthermore, I think there is more room to develop what Grossman has already laid down.  I do wish he would have explored and developed this idea elsewhere.  As in another book or series.
Grossman is still funny though it comes at a cost.  There is the free flowing dialogue that sounds like my friends and I talking as we do at a bar only the subject matter isn't about the Braves and beer rather a magical world and dragons.  The books speech felt real and organic to me.  Much of the prose is also jammed full of pop culture references and good and bad jokes alike (and more fantasy fiction literary allusions than even the author is probably aware of).  The prose is also humorous but to me it felt a bit more force and unnatural; like a comic working too hard for a joke that was never that funny to begin with.  
Grossman is relentless in his mocking praise of fantasy fiction.  My favorite comment came at the expense--or is it homage?--of the Eru Ilúvatar, the creator of all things in Tolkien's world.  While he twist and contorts fantasy troupes he has in each of his books embraced one that makes me want to roll my eyes or throw up my lunch.  After certain events in The Magicians when Quentin's hair turns white I almost put the book down.  I'll give nothing away as to what fantasy troupe Grossman welcomes in The Magician King but beware the comments (should there be any).  I will say not only does this particular fantasy troupe need to die, but I was shocked at the jokes being made only seconds after it happened.  I know it's only a book and Julia isn't the most likable person to begin with but damn… 
The ending will be bittersweet for many, if not an outright point of contention.  It put me into a rage.  Days after having finished the book I can appreciate the disturbing logicality of the conclusion and applaud the author's efforts.  His characters are just as compelling and unlikable as before.  And the knockoff Narnia elements can't get any higher.  The Magicians and The Magician King are still my favorite two books to hate.  I can't wait for the next one.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

"Then let me say one more thing.  It will clear the air.  I may have come close, but I never had what you had.  Something always held me back or stood in the way.  How you live your life is your business.  But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once.  Most of us can't help but live as though we've got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between.  But there's only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.  Right now there's sorrow.  I don't envy the pain.  But I envy you the pain."  Page 225
It's more than a bit intimidating… picking up this book for the first time.  The back cover informed me of no less than five top honors won in 2007.  There are heavy expectations with a novel as this and plenty of room for disappointment.  
Seventeen year-old Elio and his family are settling in for the summer at their mansion in the Italian Riviera.  As is their custom, since Elio's father is a prominent university scholar, they host a visiting scholar from abroad for three months.  Oliver, the 'muvi star' as the locals call him is this year's lucky guy.  He is twenty-four, American, and loved by everyone in the town of B.  None more than Elio.  
Elio's narration tells much about everything but himself.  What we have to conclude through his discussion with others, particularly Oliver, is that he is brilliant for seventeen yet has managed to maintain the emotional ineptitude of his peers: he doesn't know how to act, think, or how to express himself.  Aciman doesn't tell a story about falling in love.  Elio's feelings are known right away.  Rather Elio tries to explain how things got here almost as if he is defending his emotions.  
There is a sensitivity in Elio's voice and I actually grew to see his character as fragile as the book went on.  He is hard to describe as anything but delicate.  Much of his emotional angst could be explained by his age and yet his maturity--not his being mature for his age, rather his insights and intelligence--has a awful time reconciling his actions and feelings.  This is put into sharp relief when contrast with Oliver who is blunt, brash, and confident in all he does.  Elio is torn by desire and lust, guilt and shame.  He is walking insecurity.  
Both characters sexuality isn't merely intriguing: it is all-consuming.  The American 'muvi star' has no problem making friends, acquaintances,  and lovers in a beautiful summer in the Italian Riviera.  Nor does Elio, despite his age, inexperience and hormones, struggle to find the affections of women his age.  They both flirt with women.  They both make love with women.  They both conduct themselves in manner that is completely in line with who they are.  It's all a ruse.  A guise to cover what they want from each other.  One of Aciman's particular strengths is conveying the attractiveness of Elio and Oliver without ever giving the smallest inclination as to what they look like.  We know more of Oliver's clothing and Elio's artistic interest than we do concrete physical descriptions of what they look like.  Each reader is allowed to envision them as they will; and each reader will be correct.  
The book's title is a concept that defines Elio's and Oliver's relationship.  While the words "Call me by your name," are spoken more than once it is more than the silly gesture that it seems.  Elio and Oliver are one and the same person: likes, dislikes, interest, passions; there is nothing they don't share.  Elio wants to wear Oliver's bathing suits, his shirt, to sleep in his bed to--quite literally, wear his skin and be inside of him.  Again I say that is not a metaphor ( well, not really ) this is Elio's most dear desire.  The only thing more disturbing than Elio's obsession, and there is no other word for his feelings, is Oliver's reciprocation.  This wanting to be the other person culminates in the phrase "Call me by your name."  'I am you and you are me.'  While I'm confusing pronouns, I assure you Aciman gives new, near disturbing beauty to the phrase, "I want you inside of me."  
"He was my secret conduit to myself--like a catalyst that allows us to become who we are, the foreign body, the pacer, the graft, the patch that sends all the right impulses, the steel pin that keeps a soldiers' bone together, the other man's heart that makes us more us than we were before the transplant."  Page 143
If I had a point of contention with the novel--and I don't--it would be the title.  "Call me by your name," means so much more than just the words to the characters: the phrase is the embodiment of an idea; and expresses far more power than, "I love you."  I felt that when the line was used in the book it was almost robbed of some, though not much, of it's power just by the reader already being familiar with the title and not understanding it's meaning. 
The summer the two spend together is exactly ninety days.  A little, way too much, and not a lot can happen in that span of time.  I'll shake Aciman's hand, give him a hug and kiss in congratulations for writing the only believable "years after" moment in any book I've ever read.  The power of this relationship goes far beyond the physical and time itself seems unable to exhaust Elio and Oliver's feelings.  
The narration is raw, delicate, susceptible to bruising, and probably more honest than any reader would be comfortable reading.  It is equally convincing in its veracity, vicious lack of subtly, and relentless brooding.  This is some of the most beautiful prose and use of language you will come across.  If ever there needed to be an argument made for literature being art, here is my evidence.  Upon completion of the book, the same back cover doesn't have so much clout; for once, all the critics got it right…    

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What I'm reading and not writing about

There are strong chances that August 2011 will go down as my best month in reading ever; and the month isn't even done yet.  That said, I've been having a hard time telling people why what I've been reading is so amazing.  I've tried and fail to write commentary for Great House by Nicole Krauss three times.  I've since given up; I'm determined that it will be easier to do upon re-reading.  Weeks after finishing Great House I am still learning new things.  It's tough making concise quasi-intelligent remarks about a book where so little happens, and no, I don't mean that in a bad way.  I will say, regardless of what the author may think (I'll ask her in November at a signing), I roll my eyes every time I see a review for the book that says, "It's about a desk..."  

With Krauss, my main problem in not being able to write a half-decent commentary was how much I enjoyed the book.  I wasn't ever, for a second, thinking of stopping to take notes.  Her truly spellbinding way with prose held me awe.  Bathroom breaks were planned before or after reading.  The phone was turned off, not merely put on silent.  I recall at least two skipped meals while reading Great House.  Horrible I know...

I also enjoyed The Magician King a great deal.  Unlike Great House, lack of commentary for Lev Grossman's latest can only be blamed on me being a lazy ass.  It happens... I will get around to it before his author event in town next week, or at least that is my goal.  As with The Magicians, I have a lot to say.

Call me by your name might just be the most beautiful thing committed to paper.  When I finish I'll have more to say on this gorgeous book by Andre Aciman.   For now, suffice it to say: Go.  Read.  It.  Now.

I've also yet to finish Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey.  I'm about a third of the way in thus far and more than anything else read this month, boy do I ever have some things to say about this one.  It's massive and books this size, 900+ pages, always present problems for me.

I may get to and through The Tiger's Wife as well which would probably be in lieu of plowing through more pages of Carey.  We'll see.

So fear not; I've fallen off the blogging horse but things in my most interesting life of reading are still happening.  More to come soon (-ish).  

Monday, August 8, 2011

The National Book Award 2010

I'm calling shenanigans; blindly.  I finished Great House by Nicole Krauss the other day and without having read any of the other finalist for 2010 I can say the panel got the it wrong.  I'm done being silly now.  Great House was amazing and if nothing else completing it will urge me to read Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon; the winner of the 2010 National Book Award.  

Great House was delicious.  Sex with butter and chocolate might come close; or something like that...  It almost demands a re-read before commentary.  And so I'll fault Krauss for starting my, "To Be Re-Read List."  As if I don't have enough books to read for the first time.  There will be a few others on the list as well however, Great House will occupy a unique space encompassing a re-reading for both pleasure and comprehension.

Lord of Misrule has a lot to overcome.