Archive for June, 2011

June 30, 2011

Hear the Wind Sing

Author: Haruki Murakami
Published: 1979
Website: Wikipedia Page

Hear the Wind Sing is Haruki Murakami’s first novel, and its influence on his future work is obvious. Murakami’s work is not formulaic, but he once again has a single male protagonist who discusses life with one male friend and several female friends as he listlessly walks through life. I do not know whether it is fair to compare Hear the Wind Sing to Norwegian Wood because the first was inspired by a (according to Wikipedia) player hitting a ball in a baseball game when he was in his twenties and was his literary debut while Norwegian Wood is a carefully created story with fully described characters; but I cannot help but feel that Hear the Wind Sing was an outline for Norwegian Wood. I am definitely losing a lot in the translation from Japanese to English, and the side-characters in each novel are slightly different, but while two novels by the same author often share subthemes, these two works share almost every theme. The first similarities that spring to mind are: suicides by nearly identical people in each novel greatly influence the nearly identical main male character’s view of life. The protagonist and his male friend in each novel often go to bars and sit for hours while having philosophical discussions. And the magical realism which is so vibrant in many of Murakami’s other work is surprisingly lacking in each of these.

Hear the Wind Sing is not a story with a plot or novel with a purpose. Instead it is a meandering stream-of-ideas novel which chooses to center on two friends. My understanding of the plot and purpose of Hear the Wing Sing can probably best be captured by the fact that after finishing this novel I had no idea what the main character’s name is (which is why this post refers to him in such a clunky manner). Hopefully this is because he is in fact never referred to by name, but if he is then that would not affect the novel at all. The protagonist’s friend is nicknamed The Rat, and besides for The Rat and the bar in which the two friends spend much of their time, the only named character is a fictional author who goes by Derek Heartfield and whose fictional fiction the narrator often spends paragraphs analyzing.

Hear the Wind Sing is confusing, ambiguous, and frustrating, yet I am glad I read it because of the way it reflected on Murakami’s other works. On the other hand if I did not know who Murakami was or if this had been the first Murakami novel I had ever read, I would have been very disappointed.

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June 30, 2011

The Amulet of Samarkand

Author: Jonathon Stroud
Published: 2003
Website: Wikipedia Page

The Amulet of Samarkand is the first book of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, though it could easily stand alone. It is a fantastic work of fantasy, employing classic tropes in novel ways, adding in original material and style and doing it all in a readable but thorough way. The two main characters are Nathaniel, an impetuous, ambitious, intelligent and conscientious rascal training as a magician’s apprentice, and Bartimaeus, an irascible, sarcastic, powerful djinni. The world in which they live is late 20th century Britain, but imbued everywhere with magic in the form of objects and creatures. Magicians are those learned figures who can, with a great deal of work and study, learn to control both. The melding of the mundane and the magical is an impressively difficult task for a fantasy writer, especially since it requires a great deal of explanation so that the reader knows where the lines of demarcation are in this alternate universe (a wholly invented world has no such demands put on it). Stroud pulls it off by taking a strongly authoritative tone, treating what is to the reader a new discovery as an obvious feature of the world. This allows him to gracefully place important information, description and exposition wherever they are necessary, without them ever becoming heavy-handed. The lively and engaging plot certainly helps with that as well.

As a result of the author’s sincere security in the world he has created, he is free to not take himself or the story particularly seriously. At times, Bartimaeus seems less like a terrifying magical denizen of the Other Place and more like a cantankerous, impatient mentor to Nathaniel (which he essentially becomes, over time), and this provides levity and fun to the darker parts of the story. Stroud is perhaps best known for his use of footnotes, in which Bartimaeus can continue talking while just happening to explain various more technical aspects of the magical realm.

There is, of course, a quest, a project, which is the underlying structure of the fantasy, but surprisingly, the author very much takes his time getting us there. Yet, the characters are so amusing and sympathetic (Nathaniel, torn from his parents, stuck under the thumb of a mediocre boor of a magician, Bartimaeus, sarcastic and caring in turn, with all sorts of stories from his time in ancient Egypt) and their back stories are so rich and important to the ‘main’ storyline that it doesn’t matter at all. In fact, the book would be much worse without it.

The book is in turn fantastic and very real, dealing equally adeptly with magic and politics, and occasionally blurring the line between good and evil (with, for example, Nathaniel’s easy dismissal of commoners – nonmagicians – as not fit to rule) without undermining the gripping struggle between Nathaniel and the villain, and ends in a very satisfying manner that still leaves a tantalizing expectation of a sequel.

June 29, 2011

Cold Comfort Farm

Author: Stella Gibbons
Published: 1932
Website: Wikipedia Page

Cold Comfort Farm is Stella Gibbons’ tale of a most peculiar family living on a farm and the snobbish and pretentious cousin Flora who tries to fix them. I was quite lucky to have read Cold Comfort Farm a day after finishing P. G. Wodehouse’s Pigs Have Wings. Each novel is a comedy and a parody of life in England during the early-mid 1900s. While Wodehouse focused his satire on the lords, earls, castles, and manors of the time, Gibbons chooses to make fun of the glamorization of the countryside. The reader is first introduced to Flora, a sheltered yet full of steel and entirely stubborn twenty year-old orphan whose parents raised her well-mannered and wealthy before dying almost bankrupt. Flora’s modest income results in her choosing to stay with relatives; and of course the relatives she agrees to live with are the gloomiest and direst as they plow through their secluded life on Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex.

While Wodehouse grabs the reader with absurdity and farces, Gibbons chooses to express satire with straight-faced narration and without actually admitting that anything strange had taking place. And yet looking back on the novel I cannot help but realize how silly it it. Cold Comfort Farm stars a grandmother who has stayed in her room for twenty years, a mad uncle obsessed with water-voles, and an orphan who spends all her money on clothes for her cousin and who spends that money for the sole purpose of feeling okay about rearranging and fixing the life of every one of her family members. Just as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (although I have never read it!) sought to force zombies into a classic story (I might be wrong!), Cold Comfort Farm seemed to attempt to place a carnival of characters into Heidi’s mountaintop retreat without giving away the hilarious act until the final chapter. It was a great read, and for those of you who have read either Pigs Have Wings or Cold Comfort Farm, I really recommend that you read one after the other.

June 29, 2011

Cities

Author: Scientific American
Published: 1965
Website: Amazon Page (it’s pretty cool to read a book that’s out of print)

Cities, a collection of Scientific American articles about urban life, held much promise as an exploration of the problems of urbanization, possible solutions, and the future of city life, socially, economically and politically.  Instead, it was a set of dry, data-heavy essays with little relation to each other which failed to impart even a single central idea apart, perhaps, from the fact that dealing with cities is both necessary and difficult. Perhaps that is a necessary consequence of the way in which SciAm article are written, but no 21st century citizen needs a book to tell them that.

Despite the book’s adamant refusal to be interesting even given the relevance and timeliness of the subject matter, a few important points stood out to me. Firstly, the book was published in 1965, which not only led to amusing references to then-President Johnson, but also several predictions, many of which were impressively inaccurate. One of the essays discussed the nature of urbanization and the trend of immense city growth that showed no signs of abating, even if the urban to rural ratio ceased to increase at its then incredible rate. Based on this assumption, the piece predicted a 2010 New York City urban area population of 30 million. According to the last census, that number is actually 18 million, only 4 million more than the number cited in the essay. The reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps we need to redefine what we think of as an urban area for purposes of sociological analysis, given that central cities, suburbs, exurbs and outlying lands are all interacting in more and more complex ways. It’s also possible that we simply underestimated how little people want to live in a place as crowded and dirty as New York City, though that seems unlikely. Either way, the alarmism relating to overpopulation was clearly overwrought.

By far the most interesting essay of the book discussed planned cities by focusing on Stockholm, which began to be organized by rational planning in the 17th century. This piece appealed to my childhood love of construction, forcing me to think how I might, with nothing but legos and foresight, create a city that could last centuries into the future, provide for the current needs of its people while maintaining vital flexibility and strike a delicate balance between private and public ownership. Clearly, this is a massively difficult undertaking, especially with the constant need for quasi-political decisions such as whether to take steps to accommodate cars or to encourage public transportation, and how to regulate land use.

But the striking thing about Cities was not any of the sociological analysis, graphs, data or proposed solutions, but rather the fact that 36 years after the book was published, we are facing exactly the same problems in our cities, and we still don’t know how to fix them.

June 28, 2011

Pigs Have Wings

Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Published: 1952
Website: Wikipedia Page

http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly/2010/02/ninth_circuit_throws_judge_joh.phpPigs Have Wings, as is true of the several P. G. Wodehouse novels I have read, was hilarious. Wodehouse is probably best known for creating the butler Jeeves: a feature of many books and short stories and also the butler from askjeeves.com (a currently defunct but previously quite popular search engine). Pigs Have Wings revolves around Blandings Castle, where the reticent Clarence, Earl of Emsworth, who is only capable of being animated when discussing the income tax and pigs, constantly feuds with the wonderfully named Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe who lives in the castle next-door. As should be obvious from the title, the two actual protagonists are the Empress of Blandings and the Queen of Matchingham, pigs who are set to square off in the pig-weighing contest of the decade. Many emotion-shapes including love-triangles and love-quadrangles as well as a marriage-triangle and a hate-pentagon abound as a multitude of aunts, nieces, wards, penniless authors, and wealthy drunkards spend varying amounts of time in Blandings Castle; and Wodehouse uses each of these characters to further the performance of devious plans surrounding the sabotage of the pig-weighing contest.

Although the plot is interesting enough on its own, the character’s names add yet another round of laughs to the marvelous tale. Charles Dickens’ Pumblechook, Uriah Heep, and Smike make him the master of designating names to characters in ways which coincide with their attributes, but Wodehouse’s Cyril Wellbeloved and Orlo Vosper are just a few examples of the author’s penchant for misnomered names; which make the comedy even funnier as small details about each person become known to the reader. Pigs Have Wings is absurd in the best sense of the word as lords, earls, and drunkards act out a carefully staged yet solemnly slapstick rotation of nefarious acts, and so, thankfully, Pigs Have Wings was a great end to an amazingly rainy day.

June 28, 2011

The Family Markowitz

Author: Allegra Goodman
Published: 1996
Website: Wikipedia Page

I decided to take a risk with this book, venturing into a genre I rarely touch: the novel. Admittedly, The Family Markowitz is a series of short stories more than a novel, but it is not historical fiction, or fantasy, or science fiction. It is a gentler form of writing, without obvious climaxes or suspenseful cliffhangers to forcefully guide the story in a particular direction. That gentleness is put to good use by Goodman as she purposefully strings together somewhat offset anecdotes into a whole.

Because of the success of the book, much has been said about it as a whole, about what it has to say about the modern Jewish-American family, or about academia, or loyalty, or happiness, but the work is really at its best analyzed through the lens of what it does for each character. Though I grew up in a Jewish-American family, full to bursting with crotchety academics and neuroses, I actually found myself able to relate to most of the characters only as a spectator, letting each event happen in turn. Except when it came to Miriam, the young, ambitious medical student who turns to observant Judaism, to the chagrin and confusion of her parents.

This was a girl I could understand. A bright, talented child, burdened with the responsibility of being the oldest, but fully capable of bearing it, goes into the heavily romanticized world of medicine and finds it lacking in warmth or meaning. So she turns to religion, ritual, praxis, community and God to find what is missing, and discovers that in going through this highly personal, hopefully transcendent journey, she has left her family far on the other side. Instead of exploring the sadness of change, the difficulty in turning away from practice without repudiating its source and the effects of age and generation, Goodman understands Miriam to only see the gaping chasm of meaning and commitment between her and her family. Miriam’s response is to become belligerent and critical, because to her, the path has become too obvious. That approach, which appears to be characteristic of Goodman’s writing, keeps the powerful emotions from, as Ed would say, stewing in their own juices.

The tragedy, of course, is that Miriam’s increasing frustration at her family’s cluelessness is so deeply sincere, even as it tears at her mother, who is suffering from her own feelings of inadequacy already, and her father, whose role as a patriarch is buffeted this way and that from the changing relationships he has with his brother and mother, and now his eldest daughter, who rejects even his treasured place at the head of the Passover table. And then she gets married, and it is certain that the stories that could be told about her new life would ring just as painfully with all the foibles of family.

June 27, 2011

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

Author: C. S. Forester
Published: 1948
Website: Amazon page

http://reginajeffers.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/the-british-royal-navy/C. S. Forester is probably best known for writing the novel on which the Oscar-winning film The African Queen (starring Humphrey Bogart) was based, but his Horatio Hornblower series is considered by the internet (and the blurbs on the back cover) to be one of the best series of military fiction ever written, so I thought I would give it a shot. The first book in the series, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, is a set of short stories designed to introduce the reader to Horatio: an awkward seventeen-year old working his way toward becoming a lieutenant. Forester uses arcane naval vocabulary regularly and I often resorted to googling a term and twice accepted that the sentence I had just read should be thought of as a rhythmic (and untranslatable) Gaelic poem. But each short story was riveting, the thread which held the short stories together was quite believable, and the cast of characters which Forester created had me hoping that each sailor would either quickly fall to his death or regally land on the next deck as they jumped from ship to ship in naval skirmishes. This binary works quite well in military fiction, which tends to be based on a series of battles and exactly one main character.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower might not be a dense philosophical book about life, but it has its moments in discussions of depression, gambling, friendship, and trust in which Forester takes a step back from naval history and allows Horatio to evolve a full sense of who he is. What I love about this book is that although it has all the trappings of a stereotypical story about coming-of-age in the military, it manages to eschew the stereotype and be a swashbuckling adventure with a serious and fully developed main character: something which many of the standard mass-market airplane novels I have read over the past few years have been incapable of doing.

June 27, 2011

Letters to a Young Mathematician

Author: Ian Stewart
Published: 2006
Website: Wikipedia Page

Ian Stewart’s work as a public advocate of mathematics comes through strongly in this sweet and entertaining book. The epistolary style is endearing and emphasizes the passage of time as ‘Meg’ goes through her life as a mathematician, beginning as a student and ending as a tenured professor. However, it doesn’t provide a great deal of structure, as Stewart writes essentially exactly what he pleases in each chapter with little warning of what’s to come. Sometimes he writes about the internal structure of the mathematical community, the ways in which people collaborate and don’t, the historical trajectory of the social role of the mathematician and the importance of conferences, all of which is interesting, though not hugely novel.

Other times, he gives ‘Meg’ advice, which, while often humorous, is usually so specific that it appears as if he wants his book to be a life reference guide for mathematicians, which seems at odds with his stated goal of being an engaging inside look at what being a mathematician actually entails. Stewart’s comic sense is at its best in telling absurd anecdotes about the many many mistakes made by mathematicians, which are hilarious both because humans are silly and also because of the contrast with the image of a mathematician as stodgy, stuffy and stoic.

Stewart’s clear passion, though, aside from math itself and the wonder of patterns and proofs and interdisciplinary connections, is the philosophy of math. He ventures into the nature of mathematics (formalism and Platonism), whether ‘god’ is a mathematician, the interplay between pure and applied mathematics, and a few other topics. None of his analysis would make it into the annals of philosophy, but his pragmatic attitude towards the often overplayed philosophical dichotomies is refreshing and would likely be highly informative for a reader who had never read philosophy before.

All in all, Letters to a Young Mathematician is an enjoyable read, and one that I, as a math major, could often identify with. However, the title should be taken seriously. For all it delves into the world of professorship and tenure, the book is really meant for non-mathematicians and high school students.

June 26, 2011

Neverwhere

Author: Neil Gaiman
Published: 1996
Website: Amazon page

The first fifty pages of Neverwhere are an introduction to London Above and London Below: coexisting worlds with extremely limited interactions. The remaining three-hundred pages of Neverwhere are an introduction and exploration of magic, quirky characters, and the overly black-and-white theme of good versus evil in Neil Gaiman’s interesting world. After reading Neverwhere I had a short debate with myself about which literary classic it most closely mirrored, and Alice in Wonderland jumped to mind. Alice in Wonderland is not a well-known novel because a girl fell down a hole into a new world; rather it is a classic because the supporting characters, dialogue, and plot are so wacky that the reader is at once laughing and rolling his or her eyes. Neverwhere is similarly ordinary when it comes to the main character, Richard: a bland London worker-bee who falls out of love and into London Below. What makes Neverwhere wonderful and worth reading and possibly rereading is the cast of characters with whom Richard interacts: an angel, a girl named Door, a fraudulent yet honorable bodyguard, and lots and lots of rats. Gaiman is amazingly good at making the reader feel privileged to access the world he has created even as the plot itself deviates only slightly from the stereotypical fantasy-genre tale of adventure.

I recently heard Gaiman speak (and read from Neverwhere) at the University of Chicago, and looking back on his reading I am convinced that Neverwhere is one of those books where the characters can be thought of in entirely different ways by the people who read them. Gaiman’s descriptions are vivid, and the people and places seem alive, but when I read the passage that Gaiman chose to read to his audience in an auditorium, the details I chose to pull from the text (tone of voice for example) were entirely different from the details which Gaiman emphasized. I love books which allow the reader to reimagine characters based on the author’s framework, and Gaiman does just enough vivid explaining and subtle blurring of facts so that the reader must make his own decisions about the appearance, tone, and disposition of the individuals who surround the protagonist.

And lastly, I think that I should thank whoever designed the cover for my edition of Neverwhere, because it is one of the nicest and most tasteful (i.e. non-garish!) covers I have seen for a book in the fantasy genre in a huge amount of time. On to the BBC short series!

June 26, 2011

The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins
Published: 2008
Website: Wikipedia Page (by the way, the description of this book as science fiction is laughable)

Yes. Now I, too, have bought into the cultural mania that surrounds the newest, hippest, low-barrier to entry fantasy since Harry Potter. Well, that was probably actually Twilight, but we won’t go there. I had somehow escaped the obsessive subculture that has grown out of this series, and had no interest in it until I spotted it at The Strand (my new favorite bookstore) and realized it was written by Suzanne Collins, whose Gregor series I greatly enjoyed. I was right to trust in her again.

The Hunger Games is written in a similar style to the Underland Chronicles: fast-paced, character-focused and conversational enough to make for very fast reading. Despite the straightforwardness of the plot and execution, which led to a largely predictable set of events, at several important moments there were multiple options for a conceivable way forward, allowing for suspense and excitement even for a seasoned fantasy reader. The language and description are at a sufficiently advanced level for these books to appeal to an older demographic than the Gregor books, with all the same engaging escapism.

The plot was clever and, despite similarities to Battle Royale (though not, as I expected, Lord of the Flies), had many original touches. Collins clearly enjoys throwing her characters into difficult-beyond-reality situations which test their every physical and emotional capability. This permits her to employ active description of strategies and interesting activities, which not only is she quite competent at but also engages the kind of fascination I had with The Hatchet. Readers will likely never have to fend for their lives in a sadistic death match executed for sport and entertainment of an entire nation, so there is a fascination with the minutiae of skinning and hunting and healing quite apart for the general plot.

Unfortunately, all this description takes time away from character development. For this kind of fiction, that emphasis is entirely normal, but it meant that Katniss Everdeen, the main character, is sympathetic but not well-understood. To induce contradictions in character as a way of building complexity is an effective strategy, but only when sufficient time is lent to the endeavor. Her romantic foil (one of them, at least), Peeta Mellark is interesting at first for the surprises in character and action he keeps throwing out, but ceases to be more than one-dimension once it becomes clear that not only is he in love with Katniss, he is somewhat useless as a Games partner.

Much more interesting are Katniss’s internal struggles at the beginning, end and a few points in the middle, which are probably easily identified with by any teen who has struggled with unclear romantic impulses and identity issues. Which is to say, all of them. This, of course, provides a great deal of fodder for sequels, so it remains to be seen what Collins does with it.