Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Third reading; first read about 1985.

I remember really liking this book when I first read it, and even when I read it again 5 or 6 years later. I have kept it for almost 30 years, but now I can't really understand why.

Maybe I really liked it because the basic premise was fascinating and new to me. A relatively small dense woodland in England is revealed to be a "ghost" wood, where the further in you go, the bigger it gets. Inside the wood, primal mythological creatures and characters (mythagos) can be brought to life, presumably through the human racial unconscious of the modern day explorers. Two brothers become obsessed with the wood, mostly because both fall in love with one of the mythagos, Gwynneth, the prototype for many of mythology's warrior princess characters. As they become rivals and enemies, the two find that they, in a sense, have become mythagos--the Outsider, who is destined to be killed by his Kin.

Some of the obvious source inspirations for the plot are John Crowley in Little, Big and Jungian psychological theory, but this was not obvious to me when I first read it, so I was quite taken with the plot.

With this reading of the novel, however, I realize that so much more could have been done with the story to impart a dreamlike sense of wonder and fear. The fault is in the presentation, which is "telling" rather than "showing," in a very straightforward, factual, and ultimately boring narrative voice. Both the miraculous and the horrific are stripped of emotional content because of the tone.

Mythago Wood won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best science fiction novel. It is still considered by some to be a classic of the fantasy genre.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Second reading; first read in 2010.

Some writers can write character dialogue so believable and true-sounding that a reader can forget he is reading the words of a made-up person. Some writers can tell such an interesting story, with all the necessary suspense and pacing, that a reader is compulsively impelled to keep turning the pages. Some writers can include philosophical and ethical ideas in a novel that cause a reader to think about the implications long after the reading is over. Some writers can successfully invent new forms and methods of telling their stories.

David Mitchell does all of the above, all in Cloud Atlas.

On the surface, the novel contains six linked stories, with half of each of the first five given first, then one central story in its entirety, followed by the second half of each of first five in descending order. Confused? It goes like this:

Part 1 and 11 is a journal account written by Adam Ewing, a young notary on a sea voyage in the 1800s. Mitchell writes this portion in the style of Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, and, indeed, it begins with the finding of footprints in the sand of a South Sea island.

Part 2 and 10 is told in the form of letters from young composer and all-around rake Robert Frobisher to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith in 1931, as Frobisher is working for (and stealing from and cuckolding) the ailing master composer Vyvyan Ayrs.

Part 3 and 9 is a third-person thriller in the pop-fiction style, taking place in the 1970s in California. The heroine, Luisa Rey, is a plucky young journalist, who is alerted to the potential dangers of a new nuclear facility by Rufus Sixsmith, one of the scientists who worked on the project, reappearing from the previous story.

Part 4 and 8 is a comic tale set in the 1990s about the publisher Timothy Cavendish, as told in a first-person memoir. Imprisoned by his brother in an old-folks home, he plots a daring escape with some of his fellow "inmates."

Part 5 and 7 jumps to the unnamed future, in a question & answer session between the clone Sonmi-451, who has been sentenced to immolation, and an unnamed Archivist, who is recording the interview. Sonmi-451 has been created to work in Papa Song's restaurant (which resembles McDonald's more than a little) in a world dominated by corporations, where clones are used virtually as slaves and viewed as less than human.

Part 6, the central story told in its entirety in one entry, takes place in an apocalyptic future, as an oral story told by Zachry about his world as one of the most "civilized" tribes of the residents of Big I (Hawaii). Into his world comes Meronym, one of the Prescient who have tried to keep civilization and learning alive.

All of the above are absorbing stories in their own right, but wait, there's more. All are connected in some way. Frobisher from 2 and 10 finds a copy of Ewing's journal (from parts 1 and 11). Rey from 3 and 9 finds the letters written by Frobisher (parts 2 and 10). Cavendish from 4 and 8 receives a copy of the story of Luisa Rey (from 3 and 9)as a potential manuscript to publish. Sonmi-451 from 5 and 7 views a film made from the memoir of Cavendish (in 4 and 8). And Zachry, in 6, views the holographic record of Somni (5 and 7) in an orison given to him by Meronym.

But wait, still more. More than a few clues hint that some of the characters are reincarnations of previous characters, the most obvious clue being the persistence, from character to character, of a comet-shaped birthmark. In the central story, Zachry says, "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow?...only the atlas of clouds."

More than obvious is the larger message, that history seems to repeat itself endlessly. All the stories feature the themes of human greed and the urge to enslave the less powerful by the more powerful. Not a very uplifting message, except that the last paragraph (as written by the part 1 and 11's Adam Ewing) indicates his vow to fight slavery, even though he is only "one drop in the ocean." He says, "What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

I could write more and more and more. It is one of those novels which can be read time after time with new insights and delights each time. I was prompted to reread the book after learning that a movie made from the novel was to be released in October and by seeing the trailer, which was very intriguing. I so hope that the movie makers did justice to this most wonderful novel.

This made my "best of" list for Year I of reading on this blog. I can't recommend it too highly!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

War Trash by Ha Jin

Second reading; first read about 5 years ago.

"When a general evaluates the outcome of a battle, he thinks in numbers--how many casualties the enemy has suffered in comparison with the losses of his own army. The larger a victory is, the more people have been turned into numerals. This is the crime of war: it reduces real human beings to abstract numbers," writes author Ha Jin in this fictional account about the Korean War. He postulates that the nations and the generals involved in a war view the individual soldiers as expendable pawns, "war trash."

Jin's protagonist, Yu Yuan, is a "volunteer" soldier of the Chinese Communist army who is captured by the Americans and becomes a prisoner of war, already dishonored in the eyes of his government because he did not die fighting. As a proficient speaker of English, he becomes an intermediary between the Chinese and the Americans and thus enjoys a rather privileged status, yet he soon finds that he has more to fear from his compatriots than from his captors.

For those in need of a quick history lesson (which I was), the Korean War started just a few years after the Chinese revolution, when the Communists gained ascendancy under the leadership of Chairman Mao, and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Formosa. Thus, the Chinese POWs were given the choice of being returned to mainland China or to Formosa. Although Yu Yuan is not politically minded at all, and actually fears the Communists, he longs to return to the mainland to care for his aging mother and to be reunited with his fiance'. His account of his imprisonment includes incidents of extreme cruelty from the Communists, from the Nationalists, and sometimes from the Americans, as the battle for his allegiance is waged inside the POW camps, not because he is valued as a human being, but because he is a pawn in the public relations campaigns of the factions.

The actual recounting of events here sometime becomes tedious, yet the narrative elements all add up to a powerful indictment of ideologies and of war when they disregard the human beings involved.

Recommended for history buffs and for those inclined to be receptive to an anti-war message. Winner of the Pen Faulkner Award.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies

Second reading; first read about six years ago

Canadian author Robertson Davies begins his last novel with this sentence, "Should I have taken the false teeth?" With this intriguing question, he introduces the sudden death at the alter of an Anglican priest. The novel that ensues contains a little dash of mystery; a reminiscence of youth; a remembrance of old friends; many ruminations about art, music, literature, and philosophy; and a growing acceptance of the limitations and new challenges of old age. This is probably not a book which would be especially appreciated by readers of middle age or younger, as it moves very slowly, contains a minimum of plot, and rambles more than a bit about matters which I would not have understood when I was, say, 40. But it is the perfect book for me.

Davies seems to me to have a deep and wise understanding of human beings and their foibles, employing a most gentle, kind, and extremely witty satire. Every sentence is impeccably and gracefully written. He displays an enormous breadth of learning, while never seeming arrogant or superior.

Davies has long been one of my favorite authors, particularly for his Deptford Trilogy and his Cornish Trilogy. To me he accomplishes what Henry James attempted. For readers new to Davies, the earlier novels are much more plot-driven and might, therefore, be more appreciated.

The last sentence of this novel is as impressive as the first sentence: "...this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night."

So must we all say, "Good-night."

Among the many special observations and tidbits in this novel is this one, which was a special favorite of mine: "Homosexuality had become, not the love which dares not speak its name, but the love that never knows when to shut up." I was forcibly and amusingly reminded of the recent Chick-Fil-A uproar. (Don't let this make you suppose that Davies was homophobic at all. Almost all his novels have sympathetically-treated male and female gay characters.)

Highly recommended for readers of "a certain age."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Second reading; first read about 2002.

Ned Kelly is a well known outlaw in Australia, having much the same status down under as the U.S. outlaws Jessie James and Billy the Kid. Some consider him a common thief and murderer (bushranger in Australian lingo), and some consider him a folk hero who was persecuted by the ruling British because of his lowly Irish origins. Many documented facts exist about his life of crime, which began at age 15 and ended with his hanging at age 26. Carey supplies the in-between, gathered from legend and hearsay and his own imagination, to provide Ned Kelly's motivations and misadventures which led to his life of crime. Carey utilizes a fictional "found" group of hand-written reminiscences, purportedly written by Kelly before his death to explain himself to his small daughter.

Thus the novel is written in the supposed language of Ned Kelly, who has been only marginally educated. Punctuation is largely absent, making it very slow reading. The strangest thing, though, is that Ned Kelly seems to know how to spell very well. For this reason and others, I never succeeded in believing I was actually reading the words of Ned Kelly. I was always aware I was reading a novel. It actually became somewhat tedious after a bit, as event after event was recounted.

Since Ned Kelly's final capture is told of in the prologue of the novel, there was no suspense. Since I never fully bought into the supposed Ned Kelly narrative, there was no immersion into the action. I think I must have enjoyed this novel more the first time I read it, but this time I found it, quite honestly, to be a chore.

True History of the Kelly Gang won England's Booker prize in 2001, beating out Ian McEwan's Atonement and David Mitchell's number9dream, two of my favorite books. I don't know what they were thinking!