Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

I liked it; I really liked it! Who knew? I've neglected reading this book for years and years because Joyce's Ulysses took me all one summer to read and I didn't care to devote that much of my life to another book. Then I read Dubliners just lately, and I enjoyed it. So I decided to take it a step further and read this one, and I am so glad I did.

Portrait of an Artist seems to bridge the gap between the relatively realistic narration of Dubliners and the language experimentation and symbolism of Ulysses. It tells the story of Stephen Dedalus from his youth through his adolescence and young adulthood. His is a typical progression: thoughtless adherence to his parents' beliefs, to rebellion against those beliefs with the accompanying guilt, to attempts to find his own beliefs and philosophy of life through intellectual examinations of the beliefs of others, to self-realization and the formation of his own life philosophy. It is a journey we all must make, and it is one often seen in literature. But Joyce conveys the evolution better than anyone.

For one thing, the complexity of language increases as Dedalus progresses through life. The first section perfectly reflects the primacy of physical sensations and the disjointed and selective thoughts of a child. The language of the section portraying Dedalus as a teenager communicates his sexual awakening and his deep sense of guilt and defilement.The very words used arouse feelings of disgust. The language in the section of his university days is pretentious, and the characters often speak in Latin and cite quotes from various distinguished models as they search for their own identities. The language in the last section is the first instance of direct discourse from Dedalus, as he arrives at an adult determination. And it returns to the much less complex language of his childhood. All that is to say that the language of this book conveys the story more even than the narration of events. What an accomplishment!

A section in the middle of the book, after Dedalus has "sinned" and before his university days, features the sermons of a priest on hell and its various torments. This section is so powerfully written that one does not wonder that Dedalus, as he hears it, turns from his "sinful" ways. Preachers everywhere should memorize and declaim this section--it would bring people to repentance in droves.

It's the masterful use of language, and not the story, which makes this novel great. I might even try Finnegans Wake some day.

This is #3 on the Modern Library Top 100. Only 10 more to go for me!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

What an extraordinary book.

I feel so much smarter since I've read it, because now I know all about the Roman Empire from 10 B.C. to 41 A.D. Seriously. I read a great many historical fiction novels when I was a teenager, but I have not read very many as an adult. As I got older, I discovered that much of the history I learned from fiction was not very accurate. Even now, though, I probably have some skewed facts floating around in my head that I still consider history, but which are totally wrong.

I believe this book got everything right, and it is written in a style that is totally convincing as an account by a witness to the intrigues of Rome during the times of the Caesars.

This is supposedly the autobiography of Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, which carries the action from before his birth to the time of his becoming Emperor of Rome in 41 A.D. Claudius survives against the odds, as he is despised as a weakling and dismissed as an idiot because of his lameness, nervous tics, and stammer. He is thus not considered a serious contender for Emperor and escapes the poisonings and executions that befall so many of his relatives. As a youth, he is told by a wise counselor, "Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual glory." He follows that advice and is thus witness to the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the mad Caligula before becoming Emperor himself.

Graves does a remarkable job of bringing all this to life in an understandable fashion. He has to deal with a very complicated genealogy, as most of the central characters are married at least twice, with children from all marriages, and also often adopt the children of deceased relatives (which happens with some regularity). Graves also has to differentiate between people who have the same, or almost the same, name. For example, you have Julia the Elder, Julia the Younger, Livia Julia, Julia Livilla, and Julia Drusilla. And so it goes with all the names. And Graves manages to make this clear, so that I was never lost.

The most fascinating character here, for me, is Livia, the grandmother of Claudius and the wife of the Emperor Augustus. As the "power behind the throne," she is a very astute ruler but also absolutely ruthless in getting rid of children and grandchildren who stand in the way of her grand design for Rome.

This novel is totally fascinating and so convincingly done that Graves could have tried to pass it off as a "found" autobiography of Claudius. It is #14 in the Modern Library Top 100.

Highly recommended.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Marion and Shiva Stone are the twin sons of a secret union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon who are serving at a mission hospital in Ethiopia. Orphaned by their mother's death and their father's abandonment, they are adopted by an Indian doctor and grow to manhood in a troubled country, until Marion has to flee Ethiopia for political reasons and completes his medical training in America at an inner-city hospital, only to return in the end to Ethiopia, his adopted country.

But between the birth of the twins and Marion's return to Ethiopia comes some wonderful storytelling about love, betrayal, and sacrifice; political turmoil and its consequences on ordinary people; and medicine as it ought always to be practiced. For 600+ pages, the narrator, Marion Stone, take the reader on a journey that is attention-riveting.

This book has some problems.

Author Abraham Verghese is himself a doctor, and the story contains many very detailed descriptions of surgical procedures. For a non-medical reader, these were somewhat disruptive of the narrative flow, but they did give a verisimilitude to the narration of a physician who instinctively cares personally for his patients. Marion (and earlier his father) are asked the medical question, "What treatment is offered by ear in an emergency?" Marion and his father both answer, "Words of comfort." I wish I had seen a doctor like that the last time I was in the hospital. (My cousin, Phil McCurdy, M.D., who recommended this book to me, says that it is very medically accurate.)

The first-person narration works well in the first part of the book, as the character Marion tells only what he has learned from others about the early lives of his parents. The first-person point of view also give immediacy to other parts of the book, as Marion recounts what he does and what others do to him. But then in some parts of the book, Marion tells of thoughts and actions of others which could not have been known to him, and this seems contrived and unreal.

The ending also seems to me to be a bit too contrived, designed to be a real tear-jerker. Don't get me wrong--it worked and I cried through the last 30 pages. Afterward, though, I felt a bit manipulated.

This book has one huge plus.

The story-telling and the story are extraordinary. I stayed awake until 2:30 in the morning to finish.

This won't become a classic that will be studied in schools, but it is a very enjoyable read. I won't read it again, but I'm glad I read it once.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

Rick Deckard lives on a future earth following World War Terminus, which left a cloud of radioactive dust leading a large portion of humanity to emigrate to other planets, mainly Mars. Those who leave earth are given an "andy" (android) to use as they wish, usually as a slave laborer. Androids, which have become so advanced that they cannot be distinguished from humans except with special tests, are outlawed on earth, however, and those androids who escape from the colonies to earth are hunted down and eliminated. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who eliminates androids.

The ultimate test as to whether an entity is human or android is a bone marrow test after death, but bounty hunters are required to be sure they are eliminating androids, not humans, by using a test before elimination that measures the subject's empathy. It seems that the android makers have not been able to include empathy in the DNA structure of their androids.

Through a unique set of circumstances (including somewhat falling in love with an android), Rick perceives that he has developed empathy for his prey. He has a moral dilemma, for sure.

This novel is interesting as it develops a theme of what separates the human from the machine. Machines (androids) can be more intelligent, more physically apt, but are they superior? In Dick's book, empathy seems to be the difference that makes humans superior. They care about other humans and about animals (which are rapidly becoming extinct because of the radioactive dust in Dick's created world).

Among Dick's interesting ideas for his fantasy world-of-the-future, the most intriguing is the mood organ, which stimulates various parts of the brain so that a person can dial his desired mood for the day. If this were real, I would dial a 481, "awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future, new hope." Sometimes, when I am bored, I might as well have dialed a 888, "the desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it." I think many people are stuck on 888.

Dick wrote this novel in 1968, and it seems almost prescient in its depiction of "machines" that are smarter than humans. The book is interesting and thought provoking; however, it did not seem as good as I had once thought it. (First read maybe 40 years ago.) Its plot was a little bit illogical at times, and it seemed to be somewhat according to the sci-fi formula. By the way, the film Blade Runner used the basic premise as a jumping-off-point, but conveyed an entirely different message.

Interesting; read when you have left-over time from reading better books. (This book has, however, one of the best titles ever, doesn't it?)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Young journalist Jack Walser interviews the circus aerialist Sophie Fevvers, purported to be half woman-half swan, and is enchanted (almost literally) by her larger-than-life personality, her huge blue eyes and long golden hair, and her story. As she tells him of being found in a basket surrounded by the shells of the egg from which she was hatched, of being reared with kindness and love by whores, of being featured as the Angel of Death (complete with wings) in a female freak show/bordello, time stands still for Jack (literally). He convinces his boss to allow him to investigate further by joining the circus as it travels to Russia and crosses Siberia to get to Japan.

In his new undercover role as a clown, Jack enters the magic world of the circus, where a pig can point to letters to spell out business advice to the owner, where monkeys negotiate their own contracts, and where his Sophie "flies" with multi-colored wings as part of her trapeze act.

Then the circus train is blown up by outlaws somewhere in the middle of Siberia, and Jack loses his memory and is separated from Sophie and the others. Found by a native shaman, Jack is covered in eggshells from the train's kitchen and is "hatched" to become a shaman-in-training.

And he and Sophie meet again.

Nights at the Circus could be considered a book of magic realism, but it much more magical than realistic. It is more like a surrealistic dream, where anything can happen. What is real and what is an illusion? As a fakir in Kathmandu says to Jack, " not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody."

Many people abhor stories that are not "true-to-life"--which, as they see it, could never happen. They don't want to read about magic and intelligent animals and other fairy-tale-like happenings. These people will hate this book.

Others, like me, appreciate stories that explore the boundaries of what is real and what is illusion, enjoy a dream-like narrative where all things are possible. These people will love this book.

The writing is extraordinarily good and original, sustaining a dream-like quality throughout.

The novel is also somewhat of a feminist allegory,taking place at the dawn of the 20th century. One character says to Sophie, "Oh, my little one, I think you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground."

Some people would really, really hate this book, and some people would really, really love it. I really, really love it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

I love Charles Dickens!

He is the best storyteller ever. Sure, his plots are the tiniest bit melodramatic sometimes, but that's what a good story is all about--the big events. Would a story about a little girl on the way to her grandmother's house with a basket of cookies have been told to generations of children if it concerned only her inner turmoil and fear about becoming a woman? No, we need the (symbolic) wolf, and the attempted deception, and, yes, the wood chopper. Dickens published in serial form, so he had to include cliffhangers to keep readers coming back for more. You don't have to read the first 50 (or 100) pages to get to the meat of the story; he starts off with a bang and never lets up.

The story of Hard Times concerns the children of Thomas Gradgrind, who have been educated at his school and at home to ignore emotion and "fancy" in preference for facts. "Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else," he says. Consequently, his children Louisa and Thomas grow up emotionally stunted and, in the case of Thomas, selfishly self-centered.

Intertwined with their story is the story of Mr. Bounderby, the factory owner in the fictional city of Coketown, who also adheres to the philosophy of "just the facts," allowing him to ignore the wretched condition of the town and the workers because the statistics say that everything and everybody are proven to be above average.

Dickens often concerned himself with revealing the inadequacies and failings of society and government during his time, and that was the case here. While this philosophy of education is no longer in vogue (In fact, it has veered the other way somewhat.), the viewpoint of the factory owner still seems to be operative--it's all about the facts--profit and loss figures. What does it matter that rivers and lakes are polluted; it's too expensive to fix those problems. What does it matter that hundreds of thousands of people in my own country are put out of work; it improves the profit-margin to outsource overseas.

But the real genius of Dickens resides in his portrayal of characters. They are sometimes exaggerated, particularly the villains, but they are instantly recognizable as people you have known. When I meet a person who is a real suck-up, I think to myself, "He's a Uriah Heep." (from David Copperfield) When I meet a person who seems truly selfless and empathetic, I think to myself, "She's a Biddy." (from Great Expectations) Now when I meet a person who is a complete humbug, pretending to be someone he isn't, I will think, "He's a Mr. Bounderby." (Or maybe I will think, "He's a Rick Perry." Forgive the current political commentary, but Rick Perry is the biggest humbug I have seen in a long time.)

This is not the most enjoyable Dickens book I have read, but it was still better than books by most everybody else. It was a little grim, short on the usual comic relief, but still better than the rest. Just as the less-well-known plays of Shakespeare (which are also melodramatic and have exaggerated characters, but long on story and accurate character portrayal) are also better than the rest.

Read more Dickens!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

I had heard about and read about Bukowski, a Beat-Generation poet and novelist from the early '70s known for his gritty realism, but I had not read anything of his until I picked this book up at Half-Price. The cover says that it has sold over a million copies in more than a dozen languages, and that it is "amazing, hilarious and unfalteringly entertaining." So I wasted half a day reading it.

Yes, wasted.

The narrator Henry Chenaski is a low-life alcoholic who spends his life getting drunk, having sex with girlfriends and chance acquaintances, and betting at the race track, all while working at the post office. Finally he resigns from the post office. End of story.

All this is written in an arrogant tone, as if the narrator feels himself to be superior to all the other characters, especially to his fellow workers. Bukowski has stated that the novel is autobiographical, and he seemed to take pride in the tumble-down life that he led. I have known guys like this--he is every drunk or drug addict who ever excused his addiction as an indication that he is too intelligent and sensitive to deal with the angst of living among the clods and drudges.

Alcoholism is not hilarious and entertaining, even to the alcoholic, eventually. And it is not hilarious and entertaining to read about.

I hated this book more than any other I have ever read. (And I have read some really bad ones in my time.) The fact that many have bought it and (I suppose) liked it is very discouraging.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Here's another book that is wildly popular, and yet I just heard about it. It is Book 1 in a five-book series, and I don't know if Martin really finished the story or if other books are still to come. The blurbs on the cover and inside-front of this book compare the author to Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings)and T.H. White (The Once and Future King), and those are two of my favorite escapist reads. So I gave it a try.

Game of Thrones is set in an alternate world in a medieval society with knights, jousting tournaments, liege lords, and high kings. The current king, Robert, visits the home of his dearest and oldest friend to ask him to be his "Hand," kind of a prime minister. The friend, Eddard Stark, and his family become the focus of the book, which follows them through a political turmoil of assassination, betrayal, and war. All of this is written realistically and could very well have been inspired by England's long War of the Roses. But lurking on the border of the main action lies an element of magic and the supernatural.

The book is 800 pages, and the plot is too convoluted for me to even attempt to summarize it.

Suffice it to say, Martin is not the new Tolkien or even the new T.H. White, although those authors do write of wars and include elements of magic. He is not even close to being as good a writer as either one. He could certainly be the new Robert Jordan, who attempted the same sort of "epic" series; in fact, that is the best comparison I can think of. But to give Martin his due, he does tell a darn-good story, and I did keep turning those 800+ pages.

He has structured his novel cleverly, with each chapter being from the viewpoint of one of the main characters, with the action being simultaneous but in different places, to follow the multiple story-lines. And each chapter concludes with something of a "cliffhanger," so that the reader keeps reading, wanting to know what happens next, wanting to get to the next chapter from the viewpoint of that particular character. This reminds me so much of the structure of soap operas, which use the same technique exactly. This book is, indeed, a multiple character, medieval setting, political, supernatural soap opera. And as with The Days of Our Lives,you become involved despite yourself. And afterward, you feel as if you have somehow lowered your normal standards, but you watch the next day anyway.

However, some things bothered me all the way through. The writing was very uneven: Sometimes it is actually quite good, as in Catelyn's description of a battle at night: "The battle came alive around her. She heard hoofbeats, iron boots splashing in shallow water, the woody sound of swords on oaken shields and the scrape of steel against steel, the hiss of arrows, the thunder of drums, the terrified screaming of a thousand horses." Sometimes the writing is very bad, as Martin repeats himself often and frequently misplaces modifying clauses and phrases or pronoun references, so that the reader is left adrift as to what is really being talked about. This example is actually very humorous:

"Dany curled up on her side, pulling the sandsilk cloak across her and cradling the egg in the hollow between her swollen belly and small, tender breasts. She liked to hold them. (Woo, woo. This is getting risque.) They were so beautiful, and sometimes being close to them made her feel stronger, braver, as if somehow she were drawing strength from the strong dragons locked inside." (She has dragons in her breasts? No, wait, the dragons are in the eggs.)

Martin is also very free with his depiction of sex, which is not usually particularly offensive to me, except that his situations are pretty off-putting: We have brother-sister incest, many instances of rape, sexual orgies, mentions of children with adults, sexual sadism, and only one mention of what might be considered normal sexual union. It just seems a bit sensationalistic.

I realize that it was difficult for Martin to see the whole as he was writing a book this lengthy, but a good editor should have cleaned things up for him. I could have improved the book myself and cut about 100 pages by leaving out some of the descriptions of the clothing. In a climactic scene where Lord Stark denounces the new self-crowned king, Martin takes time to describe the wearing apparel of all participants. Really?

I don't subscribe to HBO, but I understand the network just aired a series based on this book. The costume designer shouldn't have had to use imagination at all, because all clothing is minutely described.

I will not read this book again, but I might read Book 2 in this series--I want to know what happens. If it is better than this book, I might read the third one. If it is like the Twilight series, and just the same old-same old, then I am done.