Thursday, April 30, 2009
Batman has a lot more going on and a lot more bad guys to watch out for than I would have thought. I like the dynamics of his relationship with Selena Kyle/Catwoman and the artwork is beautifully drawn.
The Long Halloween follows the crimes of Holiday, known for his gag of killing people only on holidays, for the duration of a year. During this year Batman also contends with the Joker, and Harvey Dent is scarred with acid, transforming into the infamous Two-face.
Honestly, I had a hard time getting into a graphic novel. Being so dialog and art driven, I found it difficult to follow. For my underdeveloped palate, I'll just continue to wait for the next film.
Kate Klein moves to London to stay with her mother after an embarrassing incident with her crush. While returning home one year later, Kate meets her future husband, is quickly married and a mere four years later finds herself a miss-fit mother of three trying to survive in suburban Uptown, Connecticut.
Kate alienates herself further from both her husband and her peers by determining to solve the murder of a local mom. This intrigue leads her to discover that everyone has a secret, however boring or over the top these secrets may be.
Goodnight Nobody is a dramatic change from Weiner's typical writing style. While usually at her best when writing about relationships, Goodnight Nobody allows both of Kate's romantic interests to fall flat, undeveloped. Far too many things are left unresolved in this clunky mystery, with annoying characters, and a disjointed plot. Weiner's strange attempt at a new genre leads us to hope that she will leave the mystery writing to others in the future.
The Devil in the White City is the true story of The World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893. More specifically, the tale concerns the events surrounding its inception and execution as well as a number of grisly murders that took place near the fairgrounds. The two men described in the passage above were Daniel Burnham, the principle mind behind the fair and one of the most important architects in our nation's history, and H. H. Holmes, a sociopathic serial killer that gave America her answer to England's Jack the Ripper.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Admittedly, lately I'm on a non-fiction kick and I've had a special place in my heart for stories about architects since I read The Fountainhead in high school (I like Ayn Rand... sue me). The passages concerning Holmes and Burnham are separated by chapter and it would be easy for this to turn into a literary strobe light with one interesting chapter profiling a masterful serial killer followed by a tedious chapter concerning itself with cornice measurements, appropriation committees, and other architectural or political minutia. However, reminiscent of Melville's passages about whale anatomy in Moby Dick, Larson's best writing is found in the chapters about the World Fair's planning and construction. Although, some of the most memorable and beautiful passages are direct quotations from 19th-century correspondence between this architectural landscaper and that structural engineer. Here's one I particularly enjoyed describing the view from the apex of George Ferris' rebuttal to Alexandre Gustav Eiffel's much lauded tower:
"It was a most beautiful sight one obtains in the descent of the car, for then the whole fair grounds is laid before you... The view is so grand that all timidity left me and my watch on the movement of the car was abandonded... The harbor was dotted with vessels of every description, which appeared mere specks from our exalted position, and the reflected rays of the beautiful sunset cast a glem upon the surrounding scenery, making a picture lovely to behold... The sight is so inspiring that all conversation stopped, and all were lost in admiration of this grand sight. The equal of it I have never seen, and I doubt very much if I shall again." - W.F. Gronau, assistant to George Ferris.
All in all the book is just masterfully put together. The passages about Holmes and Burnham complementing each other with the occasional mention of a third party: Patrick Prendergast. Pendergrast is introduced as an eccentric but seemingly harmless character. The reader, through short, concise passages, follows Pendergrast's descent into lunacy. A descent that ends in tragedy when he assassinates the mayor of Chicago days before the closing ceremonies of the fair.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who'll listen. It's non-fiction and informative, but the story contains elements so bizarre and preternatural that I'd have thought it a work of fiction if not for being told otherwise.
Highlights: Seeing the effect the fair had on the world - Shredded wheat, Cracker Jack, Disney World, the acceptance of Nikola Tesla's alternating current, etc.
Lowlights: I would have enjoyed reading more about Holmes, but I suppose there are plenty of books out there about him to read.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
In the moment that Abby Mason looks away from her fiancee's six-year-old daughter to photograph a seal pup the child disappears. Frantic, Abby and her fiancee Jake spend the next several months looking desperately for Emma and slowly growing apart. Abby cannot let go of her own guilt and sadness at losing the child that would have been her daughter. Jake struggles to forgive Abby and himself for leaving Emma to go on a trip.
The book's title comes comes both from the San Francisco setting and also Abby's struggle to remember specific details about the day Emma went missing so that she might be able to find a clue to her whereabouts. Abby dives into books about memory and tries hypnosis in between ceaselessly searching the San Francisco landmarks where a little girl might be taken and relentlessly working to help the investigation.
It isn't until a tiny shoe is found on the beach months later that Jake decides to halt the search. Convinced his daughter wandered into the ocean and drowned under the eye of a distracted Abby, Jake holds a funeral and grieves by burying a tiny empty casket. Abby, refusing to give up the search, is given an ultimatum: make a new life with Jake by putting Emma in the past or give him up for her fruitless continued searching. In the end, Abby follows a clue trail to Costa Rica, where after three exhausting months, she finds Emma living with her kidnappers at a popular beach resort. Exuberant that she, Jake and Emma can now live happily ever after, she is struck when Jake lets her know there is no place for her in their lives now.
The ending of this book was hopeful of course because Emma was found safe, but sad too in the dissolution of Jake and Abby's relationship. The themes: memory, a step-mother's growing but powerful love for her new daughter, a relationship strained beyond repair, and letting go. My mom recommended this one to me, and its definitely very reminiscent of some Lifetime-type chick lit. However, this book's writing is actually quite nuanced, and I enjoyed the imagery of the San Francisco coastline through out the seasons as Emma stays missing for an entire year.
All in all a good book. I would not recommend it to any of the guys though.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Not long after Milo enters this new world, he is charged with a quest. He must rescued the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air so that they can be restored to their rightful places and that the world will run smoothly again. He is helped along the way by two friends. Tock is a giant dog with a wind-up clock imbedde in his side. Humbug is a large well-dressed bug who is wrong about nearly everything. Of course, by the end of his quest, Milo learns how interesting seemingly simple aspects of life can be.
I did not like this book as much as I excepted I would. However, at times it is quite clever and original. It is Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Terrace arranged to get a chimpanzee from William Lemmon, a bizarre clinical psychologist teaching at the University of Oklahoma, who also ran the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma. Terrace intended to teach this chimpanzee American Sign Language and thus prove Chomsky wrong. To add insult to the academic injury that Terrace hoped to inflict on Chomsky, he changed the chimpanzee's name to Nim Chimpsky. The idea was to raise Nim in a typical human environment -- this meant living with a family on New York's Upper West Side -- teach him to sign proficiently, and prove that he was using language in a way that was comparable to how humans used it. Project Nim was born.
This book purports to be the story of Nim's life, or put anther way, the biography of Nim Chimpsky. Let me put this notion to rest right off the bat. It is not. Rather, it is the story of Project Nim. In that regard, the book is interesting and insightful. Hess provides the complete, detailed story of Project Nim. But Nim is just a part of that story.
Hess provides a detailed history of this landmark project, but the story is so disorganized that it is sometimes hard to follow. Hess introduces people and chimps at an alarming rate. She seems to think it necessary to give the full name and partial background of a handler that Nim bit once, never mind that this person does not show up again in the story. Hess also has the annoying habit of referring to people by their first name on one page, and then on another, using their last name. When you are dealing with a large number of people this gets confusing pretty fast. The result of this type of writing is that at a couple of different points I read a phrase like, Nim always got along with so-and-so, and found myself wondering if so-and-so was a human or a chimpanzee.
Hess is not a particularly good writer, but lucky for her, the story she is telling is an interesting one. Nim was a unique chimpanzee who lived a remarkable life. He was intelligent and gregarious, starting conversations with almost anyone who approached his cage. Nim was even a regular on Sesame Street. He also spent a brief amount of time in a testing facility, frantically signing to be let out. After all, if you raise an animal to think it is a human, it is not going to understand when you suddenly start treating it like an animal. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is equal parts history and cautionary tale.
Video of Nim signing with Bob Ingersoll, one of his many handlers
NPR piece about Project Nim
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Debbie has reached the point in her life where she could quit working, prop up her feet, and do nothing all day. But anyone who has been around Debbie for more than a second or two knows that that is not going to happen any time soon. Instead, she is putting her energy to good use, literally making the world a better place. Every weekend, all over the country, dogs are being rescued from certain death in kill shelters and then driven by dedicated animals lovers to a new life in another state. Debbie is one of those dedicated drivers. Actually, she prefers it when her husband is the driver, so she can be the dedicated comforter. This book is a collection of Debbie's stories from years spent on the Dog Rescue Railroad. Her stories are funny and touching, supplemented with pictures of the doggies she has met and helped along the way.
Each story focuses on a specific trip and usually on one dog, unless Debbie happened to be rescuing more than one that day. My only real complaint about this book is that the stories are not long enough. Most of them could have been filled out more. Also, I would have loved to have had a little more about Debbie, such as where her love for animals came from, and more about her getting involved in the Rescue Railroad. But those are minor complaints. Overall, the book was thoroughly enjoyable.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
So I finally got my hands on A People's History... after years of hearing about it and going "oh yeah, that seems worth checking out." Going into it, I was a little worried that it'd read too much like a textbook and not be enjoyable enough to hold my interest long enough for me to actually take anything from it. Luckily, that was not the case.
A People's History of the United States is pretty much exactly what it claims to be. Zinn starts out describing the reality of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas and interactions with the natives, dispelling all the elementary school myths of peaceful trading and equilateral interaction. Zinn quotes primary sources where Columbus comes across as a blatant racist and describes how easy it should be for Europe to subjugate the docile natives. This is more or less the theme of the work: If you learned something in history class that didn't make the American government and its founders look like total assholes... then you were lied to. This applies to everything from Vietnam to the War of 1812 to our involvement in WW2.
One of the things I most enjoyed about A People's History... is its view of the United States not as a unified, homogenous body but a loose confederation of people rich, poor, black, and white. It's easy to think of the Civil War as the people of the North fighting for abolition vs. the people of the South fighting to protect state's rights. Really, it was the poor of the North fighting the poor of the South because the rich landowners of the South felt that the rich politicians in the North were imposing on their business interests. So often in our history books, especially in dealing with foreign policy, we lump all of the United States into one big group and assume that everyone agreed with whatever policy was being enacted. It's interesting to read about the struggles and protests of certain groups whose ideas never made it into the 9th grade curriculum.
I had a few problems with the book, though. First, Zinn seems to have no qualms about bending the truth in order to make his point. He tries very hard (and often with great success) to make it seem like the government only follows its own rules when it is convenient to do so. One example off the top of my head is when Zinn criticized Carter for violating the War Powers Act by carrying out military action in Central America without Congress' approval. But the truth is, the War Powers Act allows the President to carry out a war for 60 days without Congressional approval (which Zinn actually mentioned a few chapters earlier.) I also hated the chapter on the 2000 election. In it, Zinn discusses the 9/11 attacks and botches the entire thing. You're claiming to right a history of the people of the United States, claiming to bring forth the working man's plight in American history... And you don't even address the heroism and selflessness of the blue-collar NYPD and FDNY? Or the resulting sentiment of national unity? Instead Zinn spends the entire section railing against American interference in the Middle East and the subsequent Xenophobia directed towards Americans of Middle Eastern descent. I get his point, I just don't see how you can write about a book about the class struggles of the United States and not discuss a time when, perhaps more than ever before in our nation's history, there was a genuine feeling of community stretching from one coast to the other.
That said, I really enjoy the book and I highly recommend it to anyone who's interested in history or just wants to learn a different view on events you've already learned about. I don't think A People's History of the United States should be looked at as gospel, it has its own biases, but it's certainly an important work in that it provides a counterpoint to some of the propaganda we've been forcefed since elementary school.
Highlights: Chapters on the Cold War, WW2, Vietnam, Civil Rights movement
Lowlights: Chapter on the 2000 election, perhaps an overdependance on excerpts from other works, also it didn't really knock me on my ass as I'd heard it would.
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is the first in a long series of books about Mrs. Pollifax of the CIA. Mrs. Pollifax was not always a spy in the Secret Service, and this story of her very first adventure tells how it all came to be. Mrs. Pollifax is getting up in years, her children live a ways away and she hates to be a bother, but sometimes, Mrs. Pollifax thinks of not stopping when she walks to the edge of her balcony to set out her pots of geraniums.
Mrs. Pollifax decides she must do something to bring meaning to her life, and remembers her childhood dream of being a spy. So, she hops off on the first bus to present herself to the Central Intelligence Agency. Through a seemingly unfortunate mix-up, Mrs. Pollifax is employed as a courier. Her mission: to retrieve a set of microfilms that will blow Castro's dark little secrets wide open.
The trouble is, the Commies catch wind of the mission and Mrs. Pollifax along with her new friend Farrell, are whisked away to Albania to be questioned and tortured by General Perdito and the Red Chinese. Farrell attempts to kill himself by jumping off a cliff rather than give away the secrets he knows, but sustains only a broken leg and a gun shot wound. As Mrs. Pollifax realizes the gravity of their situation, a plan begins to form in her mind. With some extraordinary luck, charm, wit and the help of a few guards who have come to adore Mrs. Pollifax, she, Farrell, and an unknown Chinese prisoner escape to Yugoslavia where they are rescued by the CIA.
I read this book a few years back and really loved it. I have to say that I loved it just as much the second time through. The book well plotted, exciting and funny. Mrs. Pollifax is a truly classic character.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Mother stepped closer to the judges and said loudly to be heard over the din, "It is false. The Devil is a liar. I looked upon none since I came into the room but you."
Author Kathleen Kent grew up hearing the stories of her distant relative Martha Carrier, who refused to confess or repent to the crime of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. The Heretic's Daughter is the work of her research into that dark time period of American history and her own family's past.
The story is narrated by ten-year-old Sarah Carrier, who is sent to live with her aunt and cousin Margaret when her brother and grandmother catch small pox. Margaret is a bizarre child, often claiming to see and hear ghosts and spirits. Nevertheless, Sarah and Margaret are inseperable, but a family feud keeps the girls apart once Sarah is fetched back home.
Contrasting with Sarah and Margaret's close relationship is Sarah's stormy relations with her mother, Martha Carrier. Martha and Sarah are the same: strong-willed. Neighbors are suspicious of Martha because she will stand up to any man and fights vigorously for her family's interests. Basically, Martha is kind of a bitch to the outside world of Puritan New England. Her husband, a tall quiet man, has a secret past in Engand having to do with the recent civil war there and the attempted overthrow of the monarchy by Oliver Cromwell. Martha keeps this information, her family's history, written in a red book that she gives to Sarah when she is arrested for witchcraft.
One of the themes of the book is fidelity and the mother-daughter bond. Sarah is truly her mother's daughter. The general public of Salem believe it too, and Sarah is arrested as well. Leading up to her mother's absence the two commonly shared a more peaceful and loving existance. When Sarah watches her mother go to her death, knowing that her own testimony may have helped lead her there, the guilt's effect almost kills Sarah herself.
Overall, this was a quick read and an entertaining book. Nothing too complicated. The story is interesting, the themes are easy to parse out of the text and there isn't a lot of subtlety. It was definitely a detailed and interesting look at the history of one woman, Martha Carrier, told through the eyes of her daughter Sarah amidst the backdrop of Indian raids, smallpox and the Salem witch trials.
After narrowly escaping the she-monsters, Percy makes it back to Camp Half-Blood, a safe place where demigods spend the summer. He learns that Kronos's army intends to circumvent the camps protective barrier by using the Labyrinth constructed by the ancient architect and inventor Daedalus. (Remember Icarus who flew too close to the sun fell to the earth when the wax holding his wings together melted? Daedalus was his father and the maker of the wings.) The Oracle chooses Annabeth to lead a group into the Labyrinth and try to thwart the attempt to attack Camp Half-Blood.
Riordan employs Ovid's version of the Labyrinth -- a maze of numberless winding passages and turns that open into one another, seeming to have neither a beginning nor an end -- rather than Homer's, which was a maze with a definite path. As he does in the other books, Riordan adds his own personal touches to the mythology here and there. In his rendering, the Labyrinth is connected to the lifeforce of Daedalus. It is a living thing capable of change.
Labyrinth suffers from some of the same problems that books two and three did. It is on par with the last two, neither of which were as good as the first book.
My review of The Lightning Thief (Book One)
My review of The Sea of Monsters (Book Two)
My review of The Titan's Curse (Book Three)
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Perhaps best-known for the bleak semi-true crime story The Girl Net Door, Jack Ketchum has a reputation for being an extreme horror novelist. I picked up Red to see if his reputation was deserved and, while his other books are probably more extreme, Red was more of a morality tale than anything.
Avery Ludlow is a sixty-seven year-old widower who's had a tough life. His wife Mary and youngest son Tim are dead, gruesomely killed by his eldest, Billy in a fit of drunken rage. He runs an old general store that barely sustains him, but besides the store has nothing in his life except Red, an old dog who has himself seen better days. One morning while out fishing, three boys approach him, demanding his money. When he has nothing to give them, they shoot and kill Red just to be cruel, and walk off laughing. The rest of the book has Ludlow following the boys and trying to extract first an apology and then, when that fails, justice.
Because of Ketchum's reputation, I thought I knew where the story was headed from the outset. Old man with nothing to lose takes bloody and over-the-top revenge on the family who wronged him. I spent the middle section of the book watching Ludlow stymied at every turn, and waiting for the moment when his fuse finally disappeared inside his cherry bomb, but the moment doesn't come. While Ludlow does eventually take more drastic measures than, say, I did when my dog was poisoned by next door neighbor, he never picks off the family members one at a time, never tortures the maid, never burns down McCormack's house. The slow burn in this story is even slower, and even when pushed into more extreme action in the finale, Ludlow feels reads like a man possessed. His actions and reactions seem realistic and even, in context, slightly understated for a man in his position.
Of course, the story does end in bloody recompense for the boys and their family, and justice is served, but none of it comes directly by Ludlow's hand. That's where the morality of the story lies: The family is eventually undone, not by Ludlow's machinations, but by their own greed, paranoia, and bloodlust. Blood begets blood, or something like that. Red was a taut, pulpy little thriller, and I just wish I'd read it before I nailed my neighbor's cat to her barn door.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall: My story of growing up in a polygamous sect, becoming a teenage bride and breaking free of Warren Jeffs.
Recently, I picked these two gems up at the library. I'm a big fan of reading similarly-themed books in pairs and the theme of "books about polygamist cults written by their former members" seemed like a good one to delve into. While on a road trip with my family through the whole of Utah a few years back, I read Jon Krakauer's excellent book "Under the Banner of Heaven." That book tackles the shared history of the modern Mormon church and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the latter of which is a polygamist cult that practices its own branch of Mormonism in southern Utah, Texas, Canada and in tiny communities scattered around these places.
Krakauer's book was interesting and disturbing. That book, combined with the Lifetime movie "In God's Country" about a woman's escape from the FLDS, and a business trip to Salt Lake City this summer all combined to stoke my interest in learning more about life under the mantle of FLDS membership. Fortunately for me, two books have come out within the past few years on this very subject.
"Escape" by Carolyn Jessop focuses on the life of a woman born into an FLDS family, who lives her entire life within the church as a true believer in its doctrine. When at eighteen she is forced to marry a 68-year-old community leader, she becomes the fourth wife in a polygamous family. Jessop describes the pains of sharing a husband she does not want with other "sister wives" and trying to raise her children well in a home where they are not loved or valued. How could they be, when there are dozens of others living under the same roof? Merrill Jessop, Carolyn's husband, would go on to marry many other women and had fathered well over 1o0 children by the publication of Carolyn's book.
Carolyn undergoes some abuse, both emotional and physical, at the hands of her husband Merrill, and also from her "sister wives." It is the abuse her children face from their "other mothers" as well as their older siblings that finally forces Carolyn to run away one night with all eight of her children. She later managed to secure full custody rights, and was the first FLDS woman to escape with her children and to retain them. The book concludes by talking about the family's ongoing struggle to reconcile their upbringing and worldview with the outside world of suburban Utah. It also touches on the changes in the church that occurred after the death of the last prophet, Rulon Jeffs, brought on by his son Warren. A cult of personality developed around Warren who preached that families must forsake any member that was unworthy (in other words, any member that Warren kicked out of the church), and who talked constantly of the coming apocalypse.
"Stolen Innocence" by Elissa Wall is also written by a woman who escapes the FLDS but her point of view differs from Jessop's as Wall is 18 when she escapes and a larger portion of the book is devoted to her highly publicized court case in which Warren Jeffs was found guilty of accomplice to rape of a minor. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, Elissa, who grew up in a polygamous household within the church, is told she is to marry a local man several years older, already an adult. Her tumultuous marriage begins with her rape at age fourteen by her "husband." Their bond is not legalized because Elissa is not of age. Elissa does not like the man she has been placed with, who grows frustrated at her unwillingness and rapes her continuously for the next four years, sometimes violently. Elissa suffers three miscarriages and a stillbirth by the age of eighteen, when she runs away and is convinced by authorities to testify against Warren Jeffs, the FLDS prophet who arranged and performed her marriage and who threatens Elissa when she tries to get out of it.
Elissa is somewhat vindicated when Warren is convicted and sent to prison, where he remains.
Each of these books dealt with different but horrifying traditions practiced by the FLDS cult: plural marriage and the marriage and rape of young girls. Good reads both, although Carolyn's was quicker and more exciting while Elissa's was more detailed.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
We fended and coped, we survived and grew, side by side or with Victor on my shoulders. We survived but never prospered. We were never going to prosper. We were allowed the freedom of the streets - no one gave a fuck - but we'd never, ever be allowed up the bright steps and into the comfort and warmth behind the doors and windows. I knew that. I knew it every time I jumped out of the way of a passing coach or car, every time I filled my weeping mouth with rotting food, every time I saw shoes on a child my age. I knew it every time a strange man would offer us money or food to come with him. I knew it, and the knowledge fed my brain. I was the brightest spark in a city full of bright and desperate sparks.Took me a while to write it up, but, ladies (really just Meagan, right?) and gentlemen, I present to you a really, really good book.
When I first started reading A Star Called Henry, I told Chris it was like a grittier version of Dubliners, which, looking back, is like saying that cocaine is grittier than aspirin. Not to disrespect Joyce, but he was writing in a different era. Joyce was writing about the events leading up to the Irish Revolution, but he was writing in 1910, before the revolution. Considering the moral atmosphere of the time, and the restrictions of English rule, it's not surprising that Joyce's Dublin underbelly was considerably softer than Doyle's. Doyle published A Star Called Henry in 1999, and so was a bit more free with his expletives and references to guts and doin' it and stuff.
Henry Smart (great name) is one of my new favorite characters, at least in the top three. He's the son of a one-legged whorehouse bouncer, forced onto the streets at age five, and learns to fare for himself. At fourteen he joins up with Eamon de Valera and the Irish Republican Army, more for the sake of fighting than for the Republic, gets thrown into prison, escapes, becomes a dock worker, reunites with the IRA, escapes jail again, and is just an all around badass. He has a supernatural connection to the rivers of Dublin, and carries around his father's wooden leg (for bashing heads). His story is so huge that it's hard to believe that the book ends when he's twenty. And yet it's not hard to imagine that there were hundreds of young Henry Smarts fighting for their culture and their home in the early 20th century.
Henry Smart is like a superhero, or Irish hercules. He's invincible, his personal story is borderline mythology. I have a man-crush on this character, and a book-crush on this book. Then I found out it has a sequel (dun dun DUN).
Jim, I'm Afri-mailing this to you soon.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs...
And darkness winds between the characters.
It occurred to me upon re-reading my review of the first book in this trilogy, Titus Groan, that either my review seems more negative than I truly felt or I have warmed up to the book considerably since I read it. In retrospect my complaints seem a little pedantic, and I would argue to myself that the series' flaws are well compensated by its virtues: an endless exhibition of creativity and ingenuity, and an obliquely poetic sense of description. Comparing Peake's books to Harry Potter, I remarked that they lack Rowling's "affability"; now I wonder why a book as unique as this would need to be affable.
So let's consider this a fresh slate, and let me explain what I do enjoy about these books:
In the first book, Titus Groan, Titus is recently born to the Earl and Countess of Gormenghast, a vast castle at the foot of Gormenghast mountain. As a baby, he doesn't do much, but there is no doubt that he will be an important figure for the castle; as the only heir to the Earl he will inherit all of the castle and its ancient system of ritual. Ironically, it is Titus who is the main character of Gormenghast, but the castle fills the central role in Titus Groan. It is many miles across, and houses untold thousands; there are parts of it that haven't been seen by human eyes in decades. Titus, aged 11 and feeling a bit of wanderlust, strolls into one such part of the castle in Gormenghast that is overrun by nature:
There had once been a great casement facing upon this terrace. It was gone. Neither broken glass nor iron nor rotten wood was anywhere to be seen. Beneath the moss and ground creepers it may be that there were other and deeper layers, rotten with antiquity; but where the long window had stood the hollow darkness of a hall remained. It opened its unprotected mouth midway along the pavement's inner verge. On either side of this cavernous opening, widely separated, were the raw holes in the stonework that were once the supporting windows. The hall itself was solemn with herons. It was there they bred and tended their young. Preponderately a heronry, yet there were recesses a nd niches in which by sacredness of custom the egrets and bitterns congregated.
I have complained that Rowling doesn't have the chops to provide the sense of awe and wonder that Hogwarts deserves; in fact she wastes very little ink on describing it at all. Peake succeeds in that, and the various rooms and hallways of Gormenghast provide some of the books' most captivating passages. Like Hogwarts, it is riddled with secret passageways and bizarre corners; one of my favorites is the tallest part of the castle, the Tower of Flints, where the Death Owls live who pick into oblivion anyone condemnded to death. Elsewhere it is a labyrinth of chambers, attics, roofs, and quadrangles.
The passage about the herons provides subtle commentary on the state of the castle, which, like its inhabitants, has a troubled soul: the egrets and bitterns gather "by sacredness of custom," as the castle itself is guided by thousands of pages of rituals which determine the operation of every event in the castle. All these rituals are kept by an old man named Barquentine, the Master of Ritual; and Peake suggests that this is where the real power in the castle lies. Many of these rituals involve Titus, who, as a baby at the end of the first book, unceremoniously drops the symbols of ritual into a lake, foreshadowing his rejection of the castle's antiquated laws as a teenager. But the castle is crumbling in places, and has let the herons in with nature. Ritual cannot keep it alive forever.
The most interesting character, however, is Steerpike, who in Titus Groan is depicted as a handsome and serious youth who, through a campaign of deceit, manages to work his way up from kitchen boy to Barquentine's assistant, making him heir to the position of Master of Ritual. Steerpike lusts after power, but it is a cold lust; he has infinite patience and works cleverly over the progressing years to procure positions of increasing power. We find out at the beginning of Gormenghast that he has faked the deaths of Cora and Clarice, the deceased Earl's moron sisters, and shut them up in an unfrequented part of the castle telling them that he is protecting them from a rash of "Weasel Plague," but we know that when they become too complicated to keep alive he will murder them without pity. He has no remorse, and indeed no emotions beyond a determined and robotic drive for power.
He is, in a word, badass. Here is a passage I liked that I think does his character justice:
The sun was blocked away. For a few minutes the shadow disappeared like the evil dream of some sleeper who on waking finds the substance of his nightmare standing beside his bed -- for Steerpike was there, turning the corners, threading the mazes, gliding down slopes of stone or flights of rotten wood. And yet it was strange that with all the vibrancy that lay packed within the margins of his frame, yet his shadow when it reappeared reaffirmed its self-sufficiency and richness as a scabbard for malignity. Why should this be -- why with certain slender proportions and certain tricks of movement should a sense of darkness be evoked? Shadows more terrible and grotesque than Steerpike's gave no such feeling. They moved across their walls bloated or spidery with a comparative innocence. It was as though a shadow had a heart -- a heart where blood was drawn from the margins of a world of less substance than air. A world of darkness whose very existence depended upon its enemy, the light.
Peake's writing has such richness, such evocativeness that really brings out the strangeness of the world he has created. There is no magic, and no races other than humans, but this must be fantasy because it feels so very fantastic; there is no mistaking Gormenghast for a castle of medieval Europe. In fact, I think it makes "real" fantasy books look rather bland by comparison.
The BBC did a miniseries called Gormenghast that conflated both books; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers played Steerpike, which I think is a perfect casting choice. But I can't decide if I'd like to see it, because I think that it might ruin a lot of the images in my head. What it really needs is a big, multi-film Peter Jackson epic. I'd totally watch that.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
The story is about a house--a particularly ordinary house near the California coast--that is taken away from one woman, Kathy Nicolo, by clerical error, and sold to Colonel Behrani, a former Iranian military officer scraping by in the United States after being forced away by the Iranian revolution. The third player is Lester Burdon, a sheriff who falls in love with Kathy despite being the one to evict her from the house.
For Kathy, the house is a symbol of history and stability, for Behrani, it is his way into real estate and the promise of a better future for his wife and children. Though Jim notes that Behrani seemed more unreasonable than Kathy, I'm not sure I felt the same--the house clearly has great symbolic value for Behrani, who struggles with the loss of his identity in his new home, and I can understand that he might not want to give it up easily. However, I never received a fair answer to this question--since the kind of auction where Behrani purchases Kathy's house seems rather common, why can't he just do it again with a house that isn't ill-gotten?
What I expected was the kind of story I love, two opposing sides who believe themselves to be in the right hurtling toward tragedy. And that is the sort of story I think that Dubus intended, and yet I found crucial elements missing--though I am not quite sure what to call them. Is it likability? I admit that I felt some measure of affection for Behrani, who carries himself like a wounded lion, hurting very deeply but refusing to admit it even to himself. And yet, as Jim notes, he is stubborn, and sometimes inexplicably so. Kathy I found easy to loathe, a flighty and witless woman who throws away weeks worth of notices from the tax office because she claims that she was in a state of confusion or mental unrest after her husband leaves her. When she isn't busy being helpless she spends her time being hapless, giving in without resistance to a love affair with Lester, as well as the bottle. With the house gone her life is unraveling, and while that explains some of the things she does--like pointing Lester's revolver at a convenience store clerk during a nervous breakdown, or the various ways she intrudes upon the Behranis--don't exactly make Behrani's assessment of her as a psycho bitch any less accurate.
But the worst of the three is the sheriff, Lester. Jim finds him to be the most tragic figure, and to be sure he causes the most tragedy, but I found myself rooting for Lester to get his most of the time. Here is a man, married with kids, who is so overcome by Kathy's beauty that he enters into an extended affair with her, and idolizes her so much that he bends--and breaks--the law in severe and mystifying way to help her get her house back. Perhaps it is because Kathy seems like such a poor catch that I find it difficult to hold Lester in such high esteem--why ruin your life and the life of others for such a nutjob? There simply is no magic in their affair, which is cheap and ugly, and that makes the things Lester does for Kathy--ridiculous, improbable things which pull the pin on the tragedy--seem all the more absurd.
But more than that, I think these characters suffer from a lack of believability. I have been trying to put my finger on it for a while now, and I think that perhaps the issue is that these characters fit their types too snugly. Behrani is a proud man dealing with the loss of his status and the difficult future of his family, but there is no spark in him that signifies to us that he is a human being. Kathy is worse. She is a recovering addict and an addict who is recovering; her relationships with people operate around that single facet. Though I have not seen the film, I think perhaps it may succeed where the novel does not on the strength of performances by good actors like Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley, who have the power to breathe life into writing that is rather inanimate.
To boot, the first three-quarters of the book are pretty damn boring. Kathy sits outside her house and broods, then fucks Lester; Behrani rages inwardly about Kathy, or his ouster from Iran, or his wife's dissatisfaction. The final chapters are better, because they ratchet up the action level about 90%, and the tragedy unfolds, but never does the plot seem borne from the character of real people but engineered meticulously by the (not so) invisible hand of the author. But what is left, at the end? There's quite a lot of blood and ruin, but why? To teach these fatuous people a lesson? This is a tricky game if not done right; here it feels as if Dubus is punishing his characters simply for punishment. The tragedy was conceived long before what precedes it; tragedy is the point. Like tearing the wings off of flies.
I guess to someone who likes this book all of my complaints ought to seem unfair; after all I'm on record above as loving a good tragedy. But this one is too thin, too bloodless to work for me.