Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin

"Balian tried to see the friar's face properly before he spoke again but, having failed: 'I dream of entering a city that looks like Cairo, yet is utterly false.  I dream of leaving it or trying to, but I am impeded by two agents of Satan called the Father of Cats and Michael Vane.  I dream I am awake and I am not and I dream of a temptress, a woman called Zuleyka, who seduces me from chastity, and when I awake from these dreams my face courses with blood.'  "Page 165-166

I wish I could remember what originally brought this book to my attention.  I read about books that sound interesting, put them on my TBR list and then proceed to forget about them; often times until years later.  I like doing this.  Usually by the time I get around to reading something on my list I've completely forgotten what it is about and carry no expectation or preconceived ideas into reading the book.  Almost always when I start a book I've no idea as to what made it originally catch my eye.  All that said, The Arabian Nightmare is a particularly rare book in which immediately before reading I could have read multiple reviews or even detailed plot analysis and still not know what it was about. 

What is concretely known as an absolute truth is extremely sparse in this near three-hundred page novel.  We know the story happens in late fifteenth century Cairo; that Balian is an Englishman hired by the French king to spy on military forces abroad while presenting himself as a pilgrim.  We know that almost immediately upon his arrival in Cairo Balian begins to suffer from an unknown malady.  The Arabian Nightmare is a sleep disorder in which the afflicted can't be certain they have the condition.  Their sleep is tormented, they can't tell the difference between dreams and reality, and in Balian's case he wakes covered in his own blood.

In the beginning, while Balian is still somewhat lucid, we see him come in contact with two sets of people, both of who profess a want to help him; each of which has ulterior motives; neither of which is immediately understood.  The Father of Cats, Master of the House of Sleep and physician to the many 'patients' there and his assistant Micheal Vane claim to want to help Balian.  Balian's instinct, training in intrigue, and most of all his dreams warn him against The Father of Cats and Vane, but he inadvertently finds solace in their associates, particularly a prostitute Zuleyka in whose arms Balian finds some manner of comfort.  As he soon finds his stated intentions of being in Cairo overwhelming as his condition ever declines he seeks a visa to finish his pilgrimage to Sinai and the monastery of St Catherine, and eventually to get out of Cairo all together to save his sanity. 

There is a second party that also has a great interest in Balian seemingly solely due to his affliction: Dirty Yoll, the storyteller and eventual scribe of The Thousand and One Nights, and Jean Cornu, Master of the Order of Saint Lazarus, leprous crusader knights who are rumored to be inured to pain.  (Awesome.)  Both parties claim to want to help Balian but their motives and intentions are made anything but clear.   

We see Cairo and Irwin's characters not through Balian's eyes but much as he sees the world around him in his present physical state.  Irwin's prose clearly--powerfully even-- conveys his story while maintaining a nebulous, never concrete, dreamlike cloud of obscurity.  Cairo is vividly seen: it's multi-cultured inhabitants, unique sights and eccentricities (Laughing Dervishes, talking apes), its magic, the romance surrounding it that would allure any Westerner at the fifteenth century, and always a blatant sensuality, all while having our perception slightly obscured or distorted; never fully believing what is presented. With such minimal description it's amazing how much of the setting is actually seen: while not in first person everything is shown as if being described by one suffering from the Arabian Nightmare.

Hardly to be distinguished from the djinn were the moods {of Cairo}, most often turbulent and melancholy, which swept over the town as rapidly and unaccountable as a thunderstorm.  Dust devils too were dangerous, seeking, as they flicked about his ankles, to draw the unwary traveller off into unfamiliar paths.  It was for this reason that all rejoiced when the rains came, for the rains held the spirits down and the spiders, daughters of the rain, came out and the air, purified of old passions, smelt new again.  Page 113

Balian's health declines rapidly.  He is not sleeping.  He has lost an obscene about of blood.  He is physically weak and it would seem the entire city is chasing him.  His mental facilities are leaving him.  "The voices of people that he heard in the street it did not seem to him that he heard in the street at all but in his head."  The more abstract of an illness The Arabian Nightmare seems to become, the more concretely I started to think the narrative followed an undiagnosed schizophrenic with a severe ailment that led to hemorrhaging.

The narrative gets more tangible closer to the end and events become static, almost tangential, as Yoll dictates stories across four chapters that may or may not be allegorical, philosophically related to the text, or perhaps merely pure fantastical diversion. 
As we come to understand two artifacts of the dream world, both of which Balian has encountered, all is made clear as to Balian's importance in the eyes of so many and the even the Arabian Nightmare is somewhat understood.  My favorite interpretation of the story's events was a none too subtle reference pointing toward Dr. Frankenstein's creation escaping his control and exceeding the expectations of his wildest dreams.

I could read it again or five more times and still perhaps not be able to tell you what it's about.   It's not the largest cast of characters you'll encounter but all are of great importance.  There came a point (rather early on) when I thought I should start taking notes and the book became a bit intimidating.  There is some work involved reading The Arabian Nightmare.  It's dark, and scary in places, but it never gets uncomfortable.  It's whimsical and pure fantasy at times, and it's in those portions where the story is most substantial.  It's not always easy; following Balian around and seeing things through his eyes with his illness can disorientate and astound even the most stalwart reader.  The Arabian Nightmare is consistently entertaining and continually thrust the reader in the understanding and discovery process.

So what did I learn?  What did I understand or discover?  I haven't the slightest clue; perhaps, even, nothing, but as Balian learned what we think we are chasing and trying to understand isn't always the point of the process.        

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

It's easy to talk about a book and start with, 'This book is hard to talk about.'  The reasons stated can range from plot sensitivity to the book not making a strong enough connection with the reviewer to share anything of merit.  Will Grayson, Will Grayson is difficult talk about for a very unique reason: it follows two narratives, one written by each author, each dealing with a different main character named 'Will Grayson.'

From a distance--before I actually read the book--I had many thoughts as to what the story was about and how this mechanic would work: alternate realities in which we see the same person live different lives under different circumstances; maybe how Will Grayson sees his life and how the rest of the world see Will Grayson living his life (which is close to what happens); or perhaps some psychological study.  Upon reading the novel it is much more simple than my supposition: it deals with two guys, one in Evanston the other in run down, not so nice part of Naperville (which I'm pretty sure doesn't exist considering my past visits to Naperville), both named Will Grayson and the circumstances that lead their lives to coincide.

Halfway through the book, I think to myself, 'Well this is cute,' and it's not even that I wanted something more substantial, and while I was compelled to read (I'll say it consumed me, five hours over two day; done) I did finish it slightly wondering what it was about and if the story mechanic involving a grand coincidence of meeting someone with your name and having them play a role in your life was merely underwhelming or fell short of its potential. 

The difficulty of two Will Grayson's is made easy to follow as the chapters alternate between their perspectives: one Will's story is told fluidly as you'd expect to find in a novel, the other Will (they each refer to the other in the book as 'The Other Will Grayson' or 'o.w.g.' somewhat surprisingly it's never confusing) doesn't believe in punctuation and the dialogue is presented in a slightly manic shorthand.  For my purposes there will be Will Grayson, and will grayson, respectively. 

Both Will's struggle with complications of being teenagers and who they will allow themselves to be.  Will, has very specific rules of engagement with other people that he strictly adheres to; with his conflicting desire to be with a certain girl and polarizing love of the fact that he is not in a relationship.  will, with his antidepressants, feeling of isolation and wholly repulsive feelings of lack of self worth and insecurity won't allow himself true friendship.  (In a cast of infuriating characters, will grayson was particularly hard to like.) 

The Wills unifying thread is the larger-than-life, unstoppable force of nature that is Tiny Copper: a division one, college football nose tackle who is not only physically massive but whose capacity for being gay may take the crown when it comes to fiction.  (A crown Tiny would be ecstatic to win.)  Will Grayson laments having Tiny as a friend, claiming he has no choice in the matter; that he is stuck with Tiny.  will grayson is always furious with himself for pushing people away and never allows anyone to be as close a friend as Will Grayson and Tiny are, and will grayson does this for reasons that were never made fully convincing to me.

Tiny is loud and obnoxious and a bit of a bully (meant in the best of positive, friendliest of ways).  The story is supposed to be about both Wills learning that they need other people in their lives and yet the book is undoubtedly about Tiny.  Which, of course, makes one question the title. 

In my past reading experience with Green, he has proven very comfortable using a secondary character to narrate the story of someone else's life. (Quentin from Paper Towns told the story but Margo was certainly the main character, just as The Fault in Our Stars was Augustus' story as told by Hazel)  This is my first experience reading Levithan but he displays his more intimate, brooding, slightly self-destructive will grayson with equal aplomb as Green's reluctant extrovert. 

A cruel trick by a questionable friend bring the Wills together and it's Tiny who manages to enhances, and--on the scale of high school drama--ruin each of their lives.  There's a rapid rise of maturity displayed by both Wills at the book's conclusion concerning forgiveness and acceptance that didn't ring true to me, especially considering their previous behavior.  By the end, Will gets the girl (no surprise) and will confronts a lot of problems and internal turmoil.  The novel lacked a climax for either character that felt like it would lead their characters to truly change or grow, and in a bad way the larger-than-life, flawed-but-awesome Tiny remains the same from start to finish.

I don't really know what Will Grayson, Will Grayson was about but it was incredibly fun: a word that concretely means nothing in today's vernacular and yet one that I can not ascribe to the vast majority of what is possibly 'better than this' fiction out there.  There's tension, conflict, forward motion, even resolution all despite the story being relatively weak.  I doubt this is either author's best work but it's easy to get caught up in the specifics of the story, speculate about characters, and even if the conclusion doesn't resonate as strongly as it could have, don't be surprise if you don't notice due to the fact that you'll be having such a good time reading.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A new to me author

David Levithan was recommended to me a few weeks ago by a co-worker.  I had never heard his name before but looked into him and saw he wrote a book with John Green, who I am familiar with, and now I'm halfway through Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I'll have comments for that book shortly but when I first started googling Levithan and learning about him all I could find was the cover for his new book coming in August.

It's not a good cover and, "You heard it here first," Knopf will change it before publication.  (Or at least I hope so.) 
This is worst type-setting ever.  The font; the color of the font; the absurd size of the font all need to go.  The image trumps the title, so the letters don't need to be so large.  (I'll forgo telling you how much the 'i's' dot above the lower portion of the 'y' makes me want to drown puppies.)  It's as if they what this extreme close up picture for shock effect but try to cover it up as best they can with the font.  If the title were printed in the smallest size possible we'd still know what this book was named...  The picture conveys the point; as such, it could stand to be zoomed out a bit.  While the font, and font size are awful there isn't any dead space to put the letters in a shot as close up as what Knopf is using.

The Fix Knopf should do:

Change the color of the font.  Do it.  Do it now!  Change the font to anything else.  Shrink the hell out of the font.  Zoom out and put the letters not-on-peoples'-faces.

The Fix they wont do:

Don't alter the image at all and remove all the text.  That picture is the title...   "Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan" on the spine would be just fine.   

That will never happen.  I could maybe see a European publisher do it, more so than an American one, but I don't think any publisher would be okay with no text on the cover. 

The Month in Review

March turned out to be a prolific reading month.  It would be awesome to make seven books a month my norm but I'm not making any promises.  Everything I read was really good with only National Book Award winner Goblin Secrets by William Alexander failing to make any impression on me at all.  I preferred fellow short list nominee Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos, but those are the only two from the young adult category that I read.   

I'm hoping that Everybody has Everything by Katrina Onstad wins all kinds of awards upon it's US release. 

Sweethearts, Code Name: Verity, and Permeable Borders were all surprises in one way or another.  If any of those books sounds exciting I wouldn't hesitate to recommend anyone them.  The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket rounded out my reading or the month (and I was upset that I didn't get to see more of the Quagmire triplets).

I did buy a lot of books this month.  Most of which was stuff that I had already read, but enjoyed and wanted to own: Inkheart, and it's follow up Inkspell by Cornelia Funke; the previously mentioned Goblin Secrets; The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin; Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (who I'm seriously in love with); Hate List Jennifer Brown; The Magician King by Lev Grossman; and Everybody Has Everything by Onstad.

Expect The Arabian Nightmare and Inkspell to be discussed soon.  Right after Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.  (Which is kinda really awesome.)  I'm kinda bummed that my library doesn't yet have a listing for Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare especially since it came out the nineteenth.  Actually I don't understand how this is...  Oh Well...

I'm not planning on seven books for April.  The rain has stopped.  Baseball has begun and the Braves--as ever--are already working on my nerves.  Spring and springishness is in full effect.  I'll do what I can on the reading front but I see a lot of other activities vying for my time in the coming weeks. 

Oh, and 'vying' might be might least favorite spelling of an irregular English language word ever.