Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a historical novel, in one sense, because it is based on true events in the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg, a young philosophy student in late-18th-century Germany, who later gained fame as the Romantic poet Novalis. In contrast with most historical fiction, however, it tells little of the grand events going on at the time, concentrating more on the changes in intellectual thought. Friedrich falls impetuously in love with the ordinary-seeming twelve-year-old Sophie, but it seems that he loves what she represents to him more than he loves her as a real person--he calls her "My Philosophy." He writes an introduction to a story in which he says,"...I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else." Sophie seems to represent the flower to him, and perhaps it and she are symbolic of a search for inspiration, innocence, nature, and love.

This is one of those books that would seem to require background knowledge for full appreciation, in this case a knowledge of German Romanticism (which I lack, unfortunately). It does provide interesting details about daily life at the time. For instance, the progressive medical thought prescribed alternating doses of whiskey and opium, to maintain a healthy balance. I imagine anyone would feel better after such a treatment.

Fitzgerald's writing here is very direct and uncomplicated, yet has a strange gracefulness. Unexpected flashes of humor occur now and then. Though the plot has the essential ingredients of tragedy, it is not emotionally involving at all. On a scale of 1-5, I would give this one a 3.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Surely everyone has experienced the anxiety dream during a time of stress--the one where you suddenly realize you've forgotten to do something important and you start trying to do it and circumstances and people keep holding you back. Here's how the anxiety dream goes that I have often had, especially while in college: I suddenly remember that I have not been attending a class for weeks, but the final exam is that day and I can still pass the class if I pass the exam. So I begin trying to study, but people keep bothering me and weird things keep happening and I don't get much done. Too much time slips by and I realize I have only a few minutes to get to the test. But then I cannot find the right classroom. I search and search, opening door after door, getting more anxious all the time about humiliating myself and disappointing everyone I know. That's about the time I usually wake up.

This book is exactly like that. Really. It's a 535-page-long anxiety dream. And I could not finish it. I read 207 pages, but I just could not bear to finish it. It made me too anxious.

This is apparently the dream of a renowned pianist who has come to give a concert in an unnamed city. Immediately he is confronted with the fact that he has a full four-day schedule of events, which has apparently been sent to him. He only dimly remembers the schedule and cannot locate it, but embarrassment forces him to conceal that fact for the moment. He does gather from conversations at his hotel that his schedule will include a speech that is important to the town. He has no clue what that's about. Various people keep asking him for special favors. And so it goes.

Here's the last bit I read before deciding to give it up: The pianist learns he is scheduled for an important meeting, but he decides to take the young boy who may or may not be his son back to their old apartment to look for a lost toy. On the way he meets a reporter and photographer who want to interview him. He leaves his ?son? in a soda shop to go with the reporter, who persuades him to take a bus to a specific building. On the bus, the pianist encounters a childhood friend who says that he had promised to come to her house the night before to meet her friends. He says he will come after he has finished with the reporter. After being let off the bus, he and the reporter and photographer hike up a steep hill for a considerable time. There the pianist is confronted with another musician who begs him to come to a luncheon. He takes a long car ride to a small cafe and witnesses the other musician being humiliated and denounced. Suddenly he remembers his son, and finds that the cafe and the soda shop are actually parts of the same building.

Can you see why I stopped reading? I turned to about page 400, and could see that the dream was still in progress. I turned to the next-to-last page, and could see that the dream was still in progress. Enough already.

Ishiguro does a phenomenal job here--this is exactly like a dream. It is possible for the reader to discern many things about the psyche of the pianist from the elements, much as our own dreams can be revealing. Various characters in the dream seem to be representative of the pianist at various stages of his life. But it is precisely because Ishiguro accomplishes his goal so masterfully that I cannot finish the book. The anxiety of the dream transfers to me and makes me unbearably uncomfortable.

To whom would I recommend this book? To those who can read on a strictly intellectual level, without becoming immersed. It is well done, but it was extremely disturbing to me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley

The novel takes it title and structure from music, particularly the music of Bach, as it weaves themes and moods in and out, contrasting one instrument with another. Huxley does the same here, presenting a large cast of characters and allowing them to present their ideas separately, contrasting one viewpoint with another. He says, "In the human fugue there are eighteen hundred million parts....It is only by considering one or two parts at a time that the artist can understand anything."

This is a novel about life-philosophies and where they lead the separate characters. Huxley portrays one of his characters (a novelist, modeled upon himself) as writing, "The character of each personage must be implied, as far as possible, in the ideas of which he is the mouthpiece." And that is exactly what Huxley does here. He also allows various characters to give long speeches wherein they explain their ideas.

What Huxley is primarily concerned with is the balance that he feels must be achieved of the three aspects of man--the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual or emotional.

All of this sounds very boring, as I relate it, but it is not. It is often very funny. (A murdered corpse just going into rigor kicks his murderer. That was priceless.) The plot is actually quite interesting, including bits of high drama. The types of people portrayed are realistic, if a little exaggerated. The ideas are interesting and give me something to think about. The writing is impeccable.

It is slow-going reading, and the people seem more like stereotypes than real, so emotional investment in the novel is minimal.

This is #44 on the Modern Library Top 100 list. It is certainly an interesting read and very well done, but it is written with an intellectual focus, revealing perhaps that Huxley had not achieved a balance in his own life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Woah! This book was not what I had expected at all. Collins has gone from an indictment of a degenerate society which indulges its decadence by watching people fight to the death, to a very obvious indictment of war and its dehumanizing effects. And this is not a case of good versus evil after all, but a scenario that depicts a rather cynical attitude of mistrust of the motives of all those in power.

The problem is that this is a "young adult" book. I know that a great many adults have read and appreciated the series, too, and the message of this third installment and its scenes of violence can be taken in stride by them. But I wonder about the actual young audience, which seems to begin at about age 11. I'm thinking here about my granddaughter, who I had decided was too young to read even the first book. She begged me to loan her my copy, after some of her friends had read it. I did, and she loved it. She is now reading the second book (which is kind of a replay of the first, but much less interesting), and she will want to read the third, I suspect. Will she perceive the message, or will she just be disturbed by the violence and disappointed by the not-very-happily-ever-after ending? I just don't think this is suitable for the so-called "target audience." They should not be faced with so many moral ambiguities at such a young age, I don't believe. (It was being sold at my granddaughter's Scholastic Book Fair at an intermediate school for grades 5 and 6.)

All that being said, the rest of this concerns how I perceive the book as an adult reviewing a book for adult readers. The anti-war message is overly obvious. The moral dilemma of whether an oppressed populace should be as ruthless and cruel as the oppressors to gain ascendancy is not really addressed.

On the plus side, the plot is much more intricate and well paced than in the second installment. And the portrayal of the role of media in shaping popular perceptions is brilliant. The descriptions of Katniss's "attack group" being "styled" and recorded on film are so cynical, but so probable in real life. I am reminded of the famous photo of the flag raising on Iwa Jima, which was used to such good effect in World War II. According to now-revealed historical records, the event was "re-staged."

It will be interesting to see how the film makers will handle this installment of the trilogy, but I'm sure they will make the movie. I have not seen the film of the first installment, but reviews I have read have said that the movie neglected character development in favor of action and quick-editing techniques. How will they handle an anti-war message, I wonder. I fear that all the movies will devolve into an audience "thirst for violence" mentality, which the books supposedly denigrate.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell

This is book #10 in A Dance to the Music of Time, the 12-book series which is listed at #43 on the Modern Library Top 100. The books are currently published as 3-novel volumes, with each novel taking up about 250 pages. Thus, in the past, I have reviewed these in 3-novel sets.

I read the first set of three last November and the next set shortly thereafter, and I was enthralled. They were funny, the different plot lines were interesting, and they provided wonderful glimpses into the culture and political climate of England at the time (between the World Wars).

The third set covered the narrator's World War II experiences. They gently lampooned the ridiculous aspects of the military bureaucracy, making them the most humorous that far. It became evident that the narrator's school acquaintance Widmerpool was going to show up in every novel, growing more and more powerful and influential. He is one of those characters you love to hate, so you keep hoping for his downfall.

This is the first novel of the last series of three--only two more to go to finish. And disappointment--I was bored.

Here, the narrator recounts his life after the war, when he is writing a scholarly work while doing book reviews for a new, rather left-wing magazine. He tells the story of the eccentricities of a new writer he meets, and of his disappearance from view after a disastrous love affair with a vampire-like femme fatale. Of course, Widmerpool reappears, as the husband of the seductress.

Why didn't I like this book when I have loved all the others? It seemed to be based on specific people rather than on "types" of people. It highlighted only one small aspect of the society of the time--the publishing business. I strongly felt that it was necessary to be "in the know" about the literary and political climate in England at the time to truly appreciate it. It was much more difficult to read, somehow.

I don't know exactly why I didn't like it very much, but I do know I do not want to read the last two novels right now. I will read them eventually, because when I have gone through 2,500 pages with a writer, I'm not going to stop now, with only 500 pages to go.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Children of Nature by Joseph S. Coy

What a treat to get to read and review this book! The author is one of my former students at Plainview Christian Academy in Plainview, Texas. And the book is good, folks--I kid you not. I am so proud of him.

The book has not yet been published; Scott (his high school name) has just finished it and sent me a manuscript copy to get my feedback. I'll admit I was a little nervous about the whole process. What if it turned out to be terrible or just trite and unoriginal? Could I tell him the truth? I certainly would not have reviewed it here if I did not have good things to say. I would have kept my comments between the two of us.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I am pretty tough on books. I found faults with The Help, which was a best seller. I criticized Catching Fire, which has sold millions of copies. I am being entirely honest is this review, so you know if I find faults I will report them!

Children of Nature is a so-called young-adult book, targeted to about the 10-16 year-old market. But as with all really good "young-adult" books, it can be read with pleasure by adults. Taking place on a post-nuclear apocalyptic earth, it tells the story of children born with special powers of control over earth, fire, wind, water, plants, and animals. As with all people who are markedly "different," they often suffer fear-induced persecution. But, as is skillfully revealed, they have a purpose, a "mission." They just don't all agree about what that mission is.

We have suspense. We have unexpected plot twists. We have some characters we really care about. We have the added interest of age-appropriate sexual attraction. Everything is logical and, within this created world, possible.

What makes this book better than the average is the underlying philosophical allegory of what it means to be human. These children all have love and hate, good and evil, inside, as do all. And what makes them human is that they have the power to choose.

I'm going to be giving Scott some suggestions about improving the book, mainly additions I think he could make to give the story more "punch," so to speak. I know he is also getting feedback from other sources. But as it stands now, I believe it is extremely worthy of publication.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Book #2 in The Hunger Games trilogy

I was not really planning to finish the series, but I found this for cheap at the resale store, so....

The first part of the book tells the story of the heroine and her fellow Hunger Games survivor Peeta as they embark on their obligatory Victory Tour of the 12 provinces. They come to realize that their act of defiance of the Hunger Games rules has sparked the spirit of revolution, making them dangerous to the Capitol. The second half of the book focuses on the next session of the Hunger Games.

I was not nearly as impressed with this second book. Collins's use of first person, present tense as a narrative voice is very awkward throughout the first part of the book, when not recounting fast-paced, suspenseful events. The plot has weak spots, including the central premise that the acts of two (apparently) love-addled teenagers would have the power to spark revolution. To quibble on fine points, the fact that two healthy teenagers (one, at least, in love with the other) could sleep night after night "wrapped in each other's arms" without any sexual activity at all is beyond believable.

Things pick up when Collins tells the story of the new Games, but the concept is no longer new and not as interestingly portrayed as in the first book.

When I find the third book on sale cheap somewhere, I will probably read it, but my feeling right now is that Collins should have stopped after the first book.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Embassytown by China Mieville

This book begins like a traditional science fiction novel, with a self-deprecating space-adventuring narrator, Avice, who doesn't take herself too seriously (think Hans Solo in Star Wars), returning to her home town on a planet at the very end of known space. She sprinkles her story with unfamiliar terms and words, much as Anthony Burgess does in A Clockwork Orange, and, as in that book, most of the meanings gradually become clear. So far, so good.

The natives of the planet have a language unique in the known universe, one that only a few especially-altered human Ambassadors can speak. And then a new Ambassador arrives from off-world, whose speech causes a violent disruption of the fragile balance between the natives and the humans. Avice is thrown into the middle of the conflict, of course.

From here on the book departs wildly from the familiar science fiction realm. Goodness, it's really about language, and how it can affect thought patterns and even ways of life. It's about the signifier and the signified. It's about semiotics. It's science fiction for the graduate-school crowd.

Traditional science fiction often provides purely escapist reading: grand adventure stories in deep space/alternative universe settings. Mieville takes this and adds a big dose of philosophy and scholarship. If I knew more about language development and so forth I might be even more impressed, or I might be struck by the shallowness of his ideas. As it is, I just found the book fascinating.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

This is one of the most frustrating books I have ever read--I wanted to lose it and never find it again at one moment and to read it far into the night the next moment. It is too long (almost 900 pages in paperback); contains too many characters, themes, and story threads; and has pages and pages of historical information and accounts of plays and puppet shows which seem to have no connection to anything. And yet the plot is fascinating, and when I finished I realized all the seemingly extraneous material really does have pertinence. It turns out to be one of the best books I have read in a good while, despite all my expectations.

The Children's Book tells the story of the children of several families from 1895 through the end of World War I in 1917:
*Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Florian, Robin, and Harry--the (supposed) children of Humphrey and Olive Wellwood. He is a political writer and she is the writer of fantasy tales for children. Her unmarried sister Violet actually does most of the mothering of the children. Free spirits.
*Charles and Griselda--the children of Basil and Katharina Wellwood. He is a banker and Humphrey's brother, and she is German. Very conservative.
*Julian and Florence--the children of Prosper Cain, who is an Army man and the curator of a museum. Their mother is dead. Conventional.
*Geraint, Imogen, and Pomona--the children of Benedict Fludd, a mad-genius potter and his laudanum-addled wife Seraphita.
Philip and Elsie Warren--the ambitious and creative lower-class children of a pottery painter.
Wolfgang and Leon--the children of the German master puppeteer Anselm Stern and his wife Angela. (SPOILER ALERT)Anselm also happens to be the father of one of Olive Wellwood's children.

This, then, is basically the story of how all these children with various inheritances and upbringings turn out. All the historical information pertains to the influences of the culture and the political climate at the time on their outcomes. The plays and puppet shows seem to be symbolic representations of the journeys the children take to adulthood.

Few of the children turn out as the reader would anticipate, much as real-life children so often defy expectations. Free spirit parents sometimes produce responsible and conventional children. Conventional parents sometimes produce children who ignore social expectations. And sometimes parents produce children who seem like carbon copies.

This novel contains so many aspects that it becomes overwhelming. I admire the British, who put it one the short list for the Booker Prize, and I believe the judges, who awarded the prize to Wolf Hall for that year, were mistaken. This one should have won.

I love this book, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone. Some would love it, but most would want to throw it across the room, as I often did. Most people have lives to live and things to do and would not have the time it takes to appreciate the book. I'm glad I had the time.