09 March 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," Accordion Crimes," The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "Colonel Roosevelt", "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Bin Ladens," "The Runes of the Earth," "King Leir," and "Never Let Me Go."

Book reviews were a little delayed, because of an annoying earthquake that got in the way.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins

As is usual with Tom Robbins books, the plot of Cowgirls is a wild mish-mash of dozens of scantily-related concepts that all bump along with each other, clashing into strange dialog and ludicrously impossible situations, and finally concluding with a thunderous collision that all seems to mesh as if it had been planned all along - a mastery of purpose that seems plausible but unlikely. And of course, Robbins remains enamored of sex - sex written in the most visceral and enthusiastic manner imaginable. Odoriferous, lubricious, salacious.

Cowgirls is about the most gifted hitchhiker of all time, the possessor of a pair of amazingly oversized thumbs, and her adventures with an all-female cattle ranch, a maker of feminine hygiene products, the Asian adoptee of a Native American apocalyptic cult, and the author himself. It cannot be summarized in any more coherent manner, and so I'm sorry if that looks like the result of a game of Mad Libs. It's just how the man writes.

He also writes in an exultant manner, throwing himself into each idea with almost the same enthusiasm he devotes to his descriptions of sex (almost). It's involving and fun, with little discomfort or malicious twisting. While there is dread and drama, it's written with the same Eyepatch Rule as most television: the threat of bodily harm to major characters is strictly commensurate to the level of drama necessary at this point in the story arc. There are no senseless, gut-wrenching deaths or nihilistic disasters. It's artificial, reassuring, and extremely welcome in an era of "edgy" sadist writers. You never find yourself cringing and throwing up your hands in irritation, or loudly declaring how almost every problem in the plot could be solved if people would sit down and have a quiet open talk. Robbins' books, in other words, are pretty much the opposite of the TV show Lost.

I recommend it for anyone.

Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx

Coming from Tom Robbins, we discover that Annie Proulx is entirely dissimilar. I guess we already knew this from Brokeback Mountain or The Shipping News, but the woman has no mercy.

Accordion Crimes is one of the "common element" sorts of books: a collection of basically unrelated short stories that each happen to include the same object or place to loosely tie them together. As one might guess, the common element in this book is an accordion. And believe me when I say that I am not spoiling anything for you to say that pretty much each story ends terribly. You'd have figured that out after the second or third nightmarish death by one of the accordion's owners.

Proulx is a brilliant writer. She has a particular turn of phrase that plucks a moment or person from out of the background, shining it carefully for inspection. But it's a harsh light, and even the fond or funny bits are limned with the awareness of a doom that will soon be upon us. It doesn't help that the accordion's owners are immigrants to America, and suffer many of the problems that such status has brought people for so many years - Oh, great, we're led to think. This one's a French immigrant. How's he going to be oppressed and crushed?

This book is worth reading, but it might be best to save for when you're in a particularly good mood. That way you can appreciate the wonderful writing and clever use of the bon mot without needing to go weep in the shower with a bottle of wine.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (series), Douglas Adams

I read this series all in a shot, and my immediate thought was that I hadn't remembered hating Trillian quite so much the first time I read these, years ago.

I mean, yes, you're inclined to dislike her right from the start because she chooses intergalactic cad Zaphod Beeblebrox over the entirely pleasant (and more importantly, narrative) Arthur Dent. But that could be easily forgiven within the span of one book, let alone five. It might be too much to hope that Arthur "gets the girl," but they could become friends or she could regret her choices in a wistful way when she realizes she misses the boat - this latter moment could happen the third or fourth time Zaphod forgets her birthday or the like.

She becomes less relevant during the middle few books, but remains curt or condescending, and it's only in Mostly Harmless that she really comes into her own as a complete jerk. She conceives a child, gets bored with her, and dumps her on poor Arthur - who never asked for that responsibility and who was barely involved. Then she flits back out to her job.

Pretty much every time she shows up in the books, I hate her.

Beyond that, I was also surprised to find that they weren't anywhere near as good as I remembered them being. The first one is marvelous and extraordinarily funny, with clever jokes sprinkled liberally throughout a creative story. We care about the characters, we giggle at the word play, and all in all we walk away feeling pretty good. But right off the bat in the next book is an immediate decline in quality, swooping down into mediocrity. Adams' tone and quality of the books varies so widely that it's hard to believe they're meant to be a continuous narrative. The second, third, and fourth books tend to kind of run together as an in-discrete series of wacky ideas and random bizarreness.

The first and fifth books are by far the best, because they seem to have been actually put together with forethought. They have a dramatic arc that draws us in, interests us, and makes us emotionally invested. They're not just a madcap slosh of zaniness. Not that zaniness isn't good, but it gets tiring. We need the grounding of Arthur Dent and his house or Arthur Dent and his sandwiches before we can find our footing - that's when we can enjoyably watch a cascade of wacky adventures. In the second, third, and fourth books the action just rolls on ceaselessly, as [CHARACTERS] get out of a tight scrape because of [BIZARRE THREAT] and go to visit [UNUSUAL WISE MAN], only to get accidentally catapulted to [NORMAL PLANET WITH ONE WEIRD THING ABOUT IT].

These are some funny books, so you should definitely read them. But if you take my advice, you'll give yourself at least a couple of weeks between each one. Get your footing.

Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris

One of the first serious biographies I ever read was Theodore Rex, Morris' account of Teddy Roosevelt's years in the White House. It was big and sweeping in scope, well-befitting the man himself. Colonel Roosevelt, the successor (and third in the series) concerns the years after his Presidency, when Teddy occupied himself with small-time politics (including a soon-abandoned third party), hunting, and writing.

The book is weighty and well-researched. Morris appears to have been meticulous in his compilation of all things Teddy. But that's not why these books set the standard, and have raised him to be the authority. Instead, it's his evocative writing. Since Roosevelt left copious personal journals, Morris is given the opportunity to humanize the man in a way seldom possible with such personal figures - and he avails himself of this chance with great skill.

Roosevelt was larger-than-life, the kind of person that would seem unrealistic in fiction. He was a brilliant naturalist, skilled hunter, dignified statesman, erudite author, and canny political operator. His list of accomplishments seems almost silly in its scope at times: he killed a cougar with a knife, personally led a heroic cavalry charge and was granted the Medal of Honor, won the Nobel Peace Prize, explored vast stretches of the unknown interior of Africa, instituted the public parks system in America, broke up the trusts, wrote more than a dozen books (including many bestsellers), and delivered a speech even after being shot by an attempted assassin.

He had his faults, of course. Even beyond the faults of his time (imperialism, racism, misogyny), he squandered much of his patrimony, toyed with the fates of thousands of disappointed and devoted followers with his ego-indulging third party even after it had clearly lost viability, and could be extremely selfish.

Roosevelt had the great good fortune to live a life that was filled with adventure and stunning achievements of a wide variety, and could easily have become a person-less hero in the hands of a lesser biographer. Morris does him good credit, writing of a great man with unclouded eyes. He keeps in touch with all the peripheral figures of Roosevelt's life, tracing the many relationships of a wide-traveling man with great consideration for the reader, who is delicately and seamlessly reminded of who Elihu Root was or where we last saw eldest son Ted. Morris makes only reasonable demands of the reader, presenting the story without making us try to memorize the life of a man he appears to have absorbed in toto. If you are interested in Roosevelt, you would do yourself a disservice not to start on the trilogy today. I can assure you that even by the time you reach this third book, you won't be bored with the life and times of the Rough Rider.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I was very pleased with Colonel Roosevelt, but its weighty mass was nonetheless a significant haul. And so I decided to relax with some lighter reading. When I say "lighter," of course, I am speaking purely of style: at 1300 pages, Monte Cristo is anything but light.

The story is a simple one. A man is framed for a crime, then condemned to prison for life. He eventually frees himself and obtains great riches and education, so as to return to hand out justice.

But while it might be lengthy (if not literally heavy, thanks to my Kindle), Dumas' masterpiece is not in any way a chore. I have returned to it repeatedly over the years with great delight, even as I disdain to revisit his other adventure stories (such as the Musketeers series). Something about this one just holds me, each and every time. I suffer with Edmund Dantes in his fall into the depths of the Castle D'If, thrill in his escape, then revel with him as he fondly rewards his friends and vengefully crushes his enemies. It's the ultimate fantasy: the wronged man becomes an agent of justice, in all the spectacular glory allowed by infinite wealth and infinite craftiness.

"I too, as happens to every man once in his life, have been taken by Satan into the highest mountain in the earth, and when there he showed me all the kingdoms of the world, and as he said before, so said he to me, 'Child of earth, what wouldst thou have to make thee adore me?'

"I reflected long, for a gnawing ambition had long preyed upon me, and then I replied, 'Listen,—I have always heard of providence, and yet I have never seen him, or anything that resembles him, or which can make me believe that he exists. I wish to be providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish.' Satan bowed his head, and groaned.

"'You mistake,' he said, 'providence does exist, only you have never seen him, because the child of God is as invisible as the parent. You have seen nothing that resembles him, because he works by secret springs, and moves by hidden ways. All I can do for you is to make you one of the agents of that providence.' The bargain was concluded. I may sacrifice my soul, but what matters it?" added Monte Cristo. "If the thing were to do again, I would again do it."

This is a novel of dizzying highs and terrifying lows, and the switching back and forth - what Kurt Vonnegut called in Sirens of Titan the "thrill of the fast reverse." It's a little fluffy - not high literature - but extremely enjoyable. Read it on cold evenings, curled up with a warm drink and marveling at the power of man to experience such extremes.

The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll

The Arab world is a pretty important place in recent history, but I have always been generally ignorant of it. It's shameful, but it was completely unmentioned in schooling and for a long time I never bothered to sit down and get a grasp on that whole mysterious, opaque world. Thankfully, that's starting to change, and this book is helping to change it.

The Bin Ladens was actually a wedding present, oddly enough, but it was just the sort of thing I like. It took a confusing and wide-ranging family history in a strange land, and distilled it into a narrative that was intriguing and easy to follow. The origins of the family and the origins of Saudi Arabia are told in the same manner, avoiding tedium with light-fingered summaries and touching down on amusing anecdotes and important events. It's written in a style that should be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of contemporary non-fiction - the manner of a newspaper reporter working himself into a new manner of speaking. Pacing is assigned central importance to hold your attention, and careful deference is paid to laying out the basis of future events. For example, in a chapter filled with breezy glosses about the many businesses and properties purchased by the wealthy Bin Ladens will come a pause, and Coll will describe one of them in detail for no immediate reason - only because in the next chapter someone important dies there, or gets married, or so on.

It's very formulaic writing, with almost no fire to it, but it's also very adept. If it lacks heart, that's not an unforgivable crime for such an informative and easy book. And it gives insight into a family that started out with a small catering cart and eventually became the personal concierge service of the entire Saudi royalty and the biggest construction firm in the country, responsible for renovating all of Mecca and Medinah (including the holy buildings like the Prophet's Mosque). Mohamed Bin Laden, the patriarch, had 54 children who would scatter to all manner of professions and lifestyles - keeping track of them and turning out their story in such a readable manner must have been a extremely difficult.

Don't read it for fun, but if you want to learn, check it out. Fair warning: Osama's story is given, but he's only a part of it - so don't pick this up thinking it's just about Terrorist #1.

The Runes of the Earth, Stephen R. Donaldson

I picked up Lord Foul's Bane when I was about sixteen. It was in the high school library, and looked interesting. Pickings were getting a bit thin at that point, and I liked some fantasy books. This one was decidedly strange, though.

Barely halfway through, I realized that this was more than trashy genre fiction. This was great stuff.

Flash forward a few months, and I'd read all of the Thomas Covenant books - they were two trilogies, with the sixth book completed at the year of my birth. They were marvelous books, written with a unique style. Donaldson has a penchant for a certain kind of obscure language, weaving in "puissance" and "eldritch" into his writing with deliberation. He recognizes the accumulated cultural power behind these words, and their call-back to old stories of high magic and honor, and turns that cultural weight into a tool. It could easily be goofy or awkward, but the solemnity with which he writes instead makes it a potent technique.

The Thomas Covenant books became great favorites of mine. The story is long and complicated, filling six books with ease, but it's a story of sacrifice, self-loathing, and transcendence.

Imagine my delight when I discovered in 2004 that Donaldson had begun writing a third trilogy, to complete the story. There had been a wait of twenty-one years, though, and so I refused to start the third trilogy until it was complete.  I couldn't stand beginning again, only to wait two or three years between each volume.

Finally, last week I saw the ninth and final Thomas Covenant book in the store. I could begin.

In the first trilogy, Thomas Covenant is a leper: outcast from society and afflicted with completely deadened nerves. But one day he is cast into a magical realm called the Land. Unwilling and unable to accept the reality of this world, he believes he must instead be in a dream or hallucination - anything less than this unbelief would unseat his reason. But as he journeys to defeat an avatar of evil, he learns greater self-loathing as he sins ,and his defenses begin to crumble. Only at the last does he realize a balance between having to choose, and he finally manages to make the one choice that matters.

The second trilogy joins Dr. Linden Avery to Covenant as he is thrust back into the Land after ten years of peace. He finds it vastly changed, and his hard-won unbelief and ability to manage this possible illusion compromised. They journey together on a second quest to defeat evil, and Covenant reaches the with another profound understanding that helps transform the way he will live his life.

This third trilogy stars only Dr. Avery, who returns to the Land by herself. Considering the twenty-one year gap, it was amazing how perfectly Donaldson kept the style and tone. I'm not sure I would have thought there was such intervening time, because it's as if he never stopped thinking about it.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are fantasy. They're not typical fantasy, so there are no elves or orcs, but they do take place in a land of magic and magical creatures. So if you hate those sorts of books, you probably won't like these.

Further, they are deep fantasy. They're not fluffy Dragonlance books or sleepwritten books about how awesome are swords. They're grim and terrible and glorious and wonderful. They end with crashing triumphs, and leave you with epigraphs sitting in your mind and moral questions tugging at your thoughts.

But really, who can say who might like these books? They're highly unusual, and very good. Give them a try - maybe you'll find out something new.

King Leir, Anonymous

Shakespeare didn't come up with his own stories. That may sound harsh, but it was pretty much true. Like many authors, he took the stories of others or true occurrences and used them as sources. We've tracked down a great many of these sources. The Tempest, for example, used as a primary source an account of a shipwreck near Bermuda.

This version of the story of King Leir (Lear/Leare/Leire) is one such source. It's a much simpler play, with broader themes, and with nothing like the brilliant writing of the Bard. It came out of a theatre troupe, the Queen's Men, formed by Queen Elizabeth to help spread the Tudor legend to the provinces.

The most glaring difference in this version is that it has a happy ending. Lear doesn't blind himself, doesn't go mad, and is instead put back on the throne at the end. No one gets hung tragically. In addition to this (rather important) change is that the Edmund/Edgar subplot does not exist. This is actually because it came from a different source, added to the story by Shakespeare.

Sad to say, but this play is almost wholly notable only because of its more impressive successor. Reading it is like reading a crayon rendition of the Sistine Chapel - you find delight mostly in the bits that remind you of the beauty of the real thing. You can see the spunk of Shakespeare's Kent in the spirited words of one of the French King's attendants, and a hint of Lear's epic madness in Leir's comparably tame wailing.

This one is interesting from an academic standpoint, and might stand well on its own in a world without a Shakespeare, but you're better served just reading Lear again instead.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

I had previously read and enjoyed Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, a story about a butler's quiet distant love, set in the different world of professional English servants. It was intense and wistful, and so spectacularly filled with passion and feeling that it was all the more remarkable that this emotion was conducted to us entirely by subtext. I loved it, and couldn't wait to read this next Ishiguro.

The plot couldn't be more different: in Never Let Me Go, the setting is the near future, in a mysterious boarding school called Hailsham where two girls and a boy develop a lasting bond. But the tone is precisely the same. Kathy is quietly forthright and kind, but watches as a relationship develops between her bolder friend Ruth and the boy Tommy with whom she has a strange rapport. As their lives progress through an unusual path towards an unavoidable doom, you can almost hear the unspoken longing that thrums through any contact between Kathy and Tommy. Small actions like a smile assume that electric tension you find in Victorian novels where anything more would be taboo.

There are two great mysteries in the book, introduced early on and revealed in full only near the end: where is Hailsham actually located, and what is the oft-hinted but never-spoken fate of Hailsham boarders, once they leave the school? But these matters aren't central, even though the latter would ordinarily seem to be overriding in importance. Instead, the central issues are the relationships between the characters, which loom large and whose vast feeling makes any questions of mere life or death seem less important.

I strongly recommend this book. It's extremely well-written with the subtlest touch, and it communicates a passionate but silent longing that is worth experiencing. You can't go wrong.

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