July 12, 2011

Frankenstein

Author: Mary Shelley
Published: 1818
Website: Wikipedia Page

Frankenstein, described by some as the first work of science fiction, is surprisingly novel-like. Similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which of course came significantly later), the science aspect of the narrative takes a secondary role and acts mainly as a vehicle for the rest of the story. In fact, the science which animates the monster who has captured the imagination of several generations of literary critics and Halloween costume designers is intentionally left out in Frankenstein’s recounting of his miserable life, ostensibly to protect Walton, the scientist cum shipman who rescues him from the Arctic tundra. Thus, the main thrust of the story takes place in a more traditional format, which some interesting twists. The overarching story is that of Walton, who writes letters to his sister about his journey north and happens upon a sick man leading a sled pack through glaciers and eventually comes to hear his story, which is told in classic first person narrative and includes the story of his monster, who himself tells his life in first-person. While this may seem confusing, the stories are distinct and engaging enough that the unorthodox layering actually adds important elements to the story, making each character sympathetic in turn.

When a story is fundamentally about conflict, as Frankenstein is (between personal hurt and public harm, between creator and created, between god and man, between human and non-human), it is the more comfortable option to give the reader a hero to back throughout, but Shelley refuses to take this route. Instead, she forces the reader to consider every character’s hardships and motivations in making the often terrible decisions they make. There is room for disagreement, but at least the underlying reasons are understood, which makes the shared humanity of the humans and monsters (and it’s not always apparent which is which) all the more clear.

July 11, 2011

Atonement

Authors: Ian McEwan
Published: 2001
Website: Wikipedia Page

Atonement is set in World War II Britain, and the war is the dividing line between two very different sections of the book. The first half of Atonement is a description of a family made up of brooding adults and a group of children. It focuses almost entirely on the younger group’s machinations (a word which, with its ominous underpinnings describes the children’s thoughts and plots perfectly). The next half of the novel describes the result of the innocent narrative in the first section which quickly became tragic. To say anything else would give away Atonement’s twist, but the story pivots on the contrast between the two halves of the novel; and McEwan excels at highlighting that contrast while connecting the two time-disconnected sections through character development.

After reading McEwan’s Amsterdam a few days ago, I decided to pick up Atonement, and I somewhat understand why Amsterdam won the Booker Prize and Atonement did not. Both books were full of McEwan’s wonderful, dreamy, and thorough description, but while Amsterdam was concise and its characters memorable, Atonement’s characters felt slightly fake, and the changes they go through in the transition from the first section to the second felt too perfect. Amsterdam was subtle even though its high-reaching tale of incriminating photographs, politics, and newspapers was not at all understated, but many scenes in Atonement felt destined to happen, and the ending was not all that surprising.

July 11, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

Author: Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
Published: 1871
Website: Wikipedia Page

It is a well established rule that by and large, sequels do not measure up to the originals. They extend a pleasurable or fanciful world, the develop characters, but they do not add depth in original ways and create elements which influenced a generation. None of this is true of Through the Looking Glass (and what Alice Saw There), though it must be admitted that Looking Glass hardly acknowledges its role as a sequel, maintaining nothing from book to book except the main character, the cat and a powerful imagination.

The most enjoyable aspect of reading Through the Looking Glass, was the discovery of the context surrounding literary tidbits familiar to me because they have so ingrained themselves in our culture. Furthermore, the context was illuminating in a way that was not the case with Alice, because there was a semblance of structure, provided handily by the chess motif, in which Alice, as the pawn, made her way to the eighth square to become a queen. The Jabberwocky (a fantastic poem everyone should memorize), is not on its own, but a memorandum in the Red King’s notebook. The classic quote about thinking of six impossible things before breakfast is not a standalone from the inimitable Lewis Carroll but rather part of the White Queen’s personal worldview.

What all this adds up to is an impassioned defense of creativity, silliness and a touch of insanity in everyday life. Even the premise, that of going through a mirror, is part of everyone’s quotidian fantasies about what lies just on the other side, whereas almost no one I know ponders about the mysteries of what might be beyond the depths of a rabbit hole. The math and the wordplay are all important too, of course, but this other aspect is wound craftily throughout the storyline in a way that is never obvious. The subtle message is there, however, telling the readers to indulge their fantasies of talking to themselves, playing both sides of a croquet match or a chess board, and thinking about math, logic, language and fantasy in all sorts of new ways.

July 10, 2011

A Walking Tour of The Shambles

Authors: Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe
Published: 2002
Website: Amazon Page

I have no idea what to call A Walking Tour of the Shambles; it is a part fantastical, part guide, part to-do list, and supremely inventive story created by two very good authors: Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe. Both are better known for their fantasy and science fiction, but they decided to collaborate on this book (by mail!) and the result is wonderful. The entire adventure takes place in a three block area of The Shambles: a shadowy area in Chicago near enough to the Sears Tower that an observer can see the tower from The Shambles, but The Shambles cannot be seen from the tower. Gaiman and Wolfe’s animated word choice and marvelous use of parenthetical remarks (because although parentheses are most often used by authors to explain a previous occurrence, Gaiman and Wolfe use them to introduce new phrases, words, and objects on the reader’s tour) help the reader experience the marvels of co-created ghostly blocks which are haunted by the omnipresent International Brotherhood of Meatworkers. The authors’ inspired creation of words includes the wonderful portmanteau swandolier (because what else would describe the person who directs a swanboat?) and adds to the interesting and mainly second-person experience which the reader undergoes as he feels his way through this alternate Chicago.

As a student in Chicago, A Walking Tour of the Shambles just made me more excited to explore the various downtown neighborhoods and try to find—although they probably do not exist—the detailed houses, streets, statues, and people which this guide does such a good job of exploring.

July 10, 2011

Alice in Wonderland

Author: Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
Published: 1865
Website: Wikipedia Page

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it must be said, for all that it is now considered mainstream and has had significant effects on Western culture and literature, is profoundly strange. Really strange. Setting aside the oddness of the denizens populating Wonderland, and the fact that sizes of people and landscapes change at a moments’ notice, and that a dream interpreter would have a field day with young Alice, scenes meld into each other without the barest hint at a transition, characters appear and disappear seemingly at will (not their will, of course, that would restore far too much sense and directionality to the story, but someone’s will), and the stories are punctuated by the oddest poetry I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Call it nonsense literature if you like, but the fact remains that if it were not for Carroll’s (Dodgson’s) wit, charm and a general sense that the author knows what he is doing, even the endearingness of a hookah-smoking caterpillar or the Cheshire cat simply could not overcome the overwhelming insanity that the reader is dragged through.

However, the book does contain these things. Alice has the running motifs of change of size and playing cards, along with more mathematical and historical references than I could hope to recognize. Best of all is the thick wordplay and the poems I couldn’t help but read aloud to myself, even on the subway. These elements make the twisting, unnavigable road of a narrative feel like a glimpse into the mind of a creative thinker, a writer, a jokester, a minister, and a logician. They give the stories sufficient structure to prove that the author is taking the readers on a journey he commands, rather than getting lost in a dreamworld he can no longer control. That journey can be one of fun, or of deep contemplation. For all the lighthearted absurdism, Carroll still wants us to ask what our dreams mean to us, and what worlds we have within us.

July 9, 2011

After the Quake

Author: Haruki Murakami
Published: 2002
Website: Wikipedia page

After the Quake is a collection of six of Murakami’s short stories which take place following the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Murakami’s stories are powerful because none of them center on the earthquake; instead, in each story one of the characters refers to it as if it took place in the distant past or foreshadows a future earthquake in Tokyo. The earthquake affects each story without becoming the focal point, yet since the earthquake is the only connection between the stories, it emphasizes to the reader the earthquake’s tragedy and destruction without seeming overdone. This collection was remarkably fresh when compared to Murakami’s full-length novels because none of the short stories have a chance to reach the monotonal form of Hear the Wind Sing or the repetition in Norwegian Wood. After the Quake reminded me most of Murakami’s series of tangents in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which ranged from wartime flashbacks to spontaneous discussions of wells. It is these tangents and the blending of magic with Murakami’s thoughts about the Kobe Earthquake which make After the Quake crisp and informative while remaining unconventional.

I picked up this book because I loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart, and as the first collection of Murakami’s short stories which I have had a chance to read, I am once again awed by his sometimes hilarious and other times poignant use of magical realism. No other author, with the possible exception of Neil Gaiman, mixes the magical with the real so well. And while Gaiman can rely on the fantasy genre to support much of his magic, Murakami has the added challenge of adding magical and spiritual moments to a book which has so many of the characteristics of historical fiction. Life-size frogs and wizened fortune-tellers enter the world of Japan and Thailand as characters struggle with the Kobe Earthquake and their life’s troubles. It is this confluence of real and unreal which gives After the Quake the spark which is so hard for most other authors to create.

July 9, 2011

Pride and Prejudice

Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1813
Website: Wikipedia Page

Pride and Prejudice is a classic work of fiction, and for good reason. The movie (RED FLAG: Judging a book by its movie) led me to believe that it was no more than an upscale version of the “trashy” novels people read at the beach, but that response would be doing it quite an injustice. The story follows the family Bennet in 19th century England, through travails of love, romance, class, poverty and incredibly restrictive social mores. Austen perhaps stumbles the slightest bit in placing the vast majority of character development and social commentary all in Elizabeth Bennet, the main character. However, Elizabeth is such a well-crafted and well-rounded presence that it can be forgiven. Her sarcasm and quick wit are refreshing without being unbelievable, and her fierce devotion to truth, fairness and rationality (a word used a surprising number of times) provide an excellent counterpoint to her loveable elder sister Jane, who is much more optimistic and forgiving, and to the more irritating characters i.e. most of the rest of her family, Mr. Collins (an unsuccessful suitor) and Mr. Bingley (Jane’s eventual husband)’s family, who are frustrating in precisely the way Austen means them to be. Jane is sweet and loving, which we are meant to respect, but not so much as Elizabeth’s keen intelligence, which is contrasted against the most despicable of the annoying characters’ salient features: general idiocy and lack of self-awareness. For all the issues of class (with Elizabeth and her family being of comparatively low class, whereas Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s eventual husband and Mr. Bingley are rather wealthy, and with marriage of the daughters being Mrs. Bennett’s apparent sole goal in life), this is a book about the exaltation of the intellect. Grasping, indolent, selfish people are the villains, kind people are permitted to be happy, but in an inferior sort of way, and smart, complicated people are the heroes destined for eternal bliss. That Austen wishes that to be her legacy is clear from the very end of the book, in which Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, is said to learn from the example of Elizabeth, that a wife may be teasing and playful with her husband, even challenging him.

My only complaint is that Austen’s clear gift for dialogue is not put to use in the more emotionally evocative scenes, such as Elizabeth’s profession of love to Mr. Darcy, when Austen switches, for no apparent reason, to prose.

July 7, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Authors: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Published: 2009
Website: Amazon Page

http://www.feathersandcupcakes.com/?p=2869The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes place in the aftermath of World War II; and the novel is comprised entirely of letters sent to and from a set of family members, friends, and strangers who eventually become friends. The story centers on Juliet (a young writer who has recently published a well-received collection of newspaper columns) and her search for a new subject for a book. As Juliet pursues an idea, the reader is slowly shown each character’s backstory and introduced to the people with whom Juliet interacts.

Although the subject matter of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, as befits its title, inventive, it was a fun book to read because of Shaffer and Barrows’ use of the letters to convey emotion in interesting ways. Just as dialogue in a non-epistolary novel usually proceeds from one scene to the next as the reader would expect, so too do Shaffer and Barrows’ letters. And as the novel’s series of letters hesitantly make their way from a writing desk to their recipient, emotions are delayed, outcomes are changed, and plots are foiled because of the nature of slow long-distance communication. It was slightly agonizing in this more accelerated age of email to constantly wait as characters interacted with one another by mail; but as someone who can’t remember the last time it took anyone more than a few hours to respond to any form of communication, reading this book was probably a good experience.

Shaffer and Barrows manage to convey such a wide range of tone in their hundreds of painstakingly created dispatches that the letters actually seem to be a collection from an archive. And I think it is the ability to make a cohesive story out of an archived collection which gives this book its charm and freshness.

July 7, 2011

The Ghost Map

Author: Steven Johnson
Published: 2006
Website: Book Website

The Ghost Map is like a better version of Cities, a nonfictional version of The Cry and the Covenant and an excellent piece in its own right. It tells the story of the 1853-4 cholera epidemic which ravaged London, taking thousands of lives. The book aims to be many things, and does an impressive job of raveling the threads of cause and influence that inform the contemporary and modern understandings of the event. In its medical thriller moments, there is a great deal about the bacterium itself, the way that Vibrio cholerae infects its victims, lodges in their intestines and kills them in a matter of hours or days. Johnson is quite capable of explaining the infestation of waterways in layperson’s terms, which makes the science which is clearly very important to the author palatable for all readers. At times the discussion of evolution becomes a little long-winded, although I have a science background, so that isn’t exactly fair. The sociological analysis is also fascinating; the ways in which people in London interacted with each other and their water supplies, how the sewers and sewer systems were built and the underlying political infrastructure of it all.

Best of all, the book also recounts various efforts to combat the disease, through the lenses of John Snow, an anesthesiologist and amateur sociologist/epidemiologist, Father Whitehead, a priest, and various other individuals who tipped the balance against the epidemic. Their stories make for reading exciting as if it were fiction, with detectives and heroes, science and empirical evidence. A certain kind of fiction, anyway. The villains are political inertia, those damn miasmas and the general difficulty of locating the exact cause of a hitherto poorly studied disease. Nonetheless, Snow, Whitehead and their compatriots were successful.

That victory is also part of the book, because Johnson engages in a great deal of meta-analysis that, while occasionally verging on preachy, does indeed provide a useful and inspiring framework in which to put the story. As Johnson tells it, the eradication of cholera in London is also the vindication of urbanism, of human ingenuity, and of science, that humans can solve not only the problems that nature throws at them from the outside, but also those they create for themselves through, for example, extreme population density. In the epilogue, he writes these conflicts large, bringing in global terrorism, bioterrorism, world cities and creationism. It can feel a bit tangential, but the main thrust is both clear and prudent: the changing human landscape will induce perhaps as many problems as it defeats, and there will always be a need for more understanding and more forward looking visionaries.

P.S. The picture is Snow’s map of the Cholera outbreak. Take a look. Notice the clumping. Hint: Broad Street had a well.

Also check out http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow.html

July 6, 2011

Amsterdam

Author: Ian McEwan
Published: 1998
Website: Wikipedia Page

Amsterdam reminded me of Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, which I recently saw and surprisingly enjoyed even though Malick’s characters were the best-acted miserable group of people I had ever seen in a movie. Similarly, Ian McEwan flits from one complex and miserable character to another as he explores the relationships between acquaintances (mainly distant) brought together by a character’s life and her eventual death. The (arguably) protagonist of Amsterdam, Molly, dies before the novel begins; and it is McEwan’s skill at revealing her characteristics through other people’s thoughts which make her the protagonist and which makes Amsterdam a novel about misery, change, and the effect of a death on a group of friends and acquaintances. From a newspaper editor to a politician to a famous composer, McEwan implies that Molly’s satellites were uninterested in each other until her death and funeral; this separation introduces the reader to those same satellites’ suddenly strengthened, very intense, and ultimately divisive connections.

Amsterdam’s literary heft comes from McEwan’s ability to suddenly alter the narrator’s point of view without affecting the plot; but the novel’s interesting plot and complex character development come from his creation of a moment in each chapter when the reader is sympathetic to each character as well as a similar moment when the reader finds each one despicable. None of the people in Amsterdam are likable, whether they are self-described geniuses, arrogant politicians, boring writers, or jealous widows. And this lack of likability allows Amsterdam to be about the events and relationships and not the people. At no point in this novel was I rooting for a character (although each one had his emotional moments). And the way Molly haunts the reader grants McEwan the right to unsentimentally explore death and how it brings people closer together with harmful consequences.