I wonder that my reviews are getting briefer as time goes by.
I'll list the books read since the last post, and withhold their "ratings" if I'm not going to explain the reasons behind reacting the way that I did. Except for those that I loved, loved... And then set the stage for what I'd like to write on next ...
Since May I've been through:
Lyrical Ballads (1798 edition) - William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Paladin of Souls - Lois McMaster Bujold
The Yiddish Policman's Union - Michael Chabon
Rollback - Robert J. Sawyer
The Claw of the Conciliator - Gene Wolfe
The Sword of the Lictor - Gene Wolfe
The Citadel of the Autarch - Gene Wolfe
Tarzan of the Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs
Tarzan gets the next word, because I'm fascinated by the thing.
A Wind in the Door - Madeleine L'Engle
(Apparently the edition that I picked up at a Victoria used-bookstore is somewhat unusual - pictured at right. I used to love these books when I was a kid: I remember asking at garage sales if they might by chance have "anything by Medeleine L'Engle?" Here's to a lovely story by a lovely person...)
Three mini-reviews amidst a busy season:
Donald Dudley - Roman Society
Not a light read, but a vast one... I can't comment on the scholarship, but the world painted here inflamed my imagination and cast my heart beyond the thousands of years: oh, the places I saw. Here I felt the sun of Lucretius' farm, I met briefly and humbly the ancient guide: Virgil. I thought on a sentry tower in rainy weather on Hadrian's wall. I thought on the sleeping dead in Pompeii. I pictured the sun-drenched construction of the Pont du Gard; I dreamed the slow gaze of the eye of the Pantheon... I rode the frontier and mouthed the words: "all things must pass!" while the walls fell and fired... Mostly, I thought long and often on the tides humanity, the ebb and flow of suffering and peace, of individual men and women throughout the ages dreaming themselves of arcadia, of love, of conquest, of war... Such a topic doesn't lend itself to brief reviews, or to light histories. Dudley, a peerless historian, follows his seminal work The Civilization of Rome with this text in which he treats the tides of philosophy, the lives, the personalities, the religion and art of the Republic and Empire. It takes some work, but the mind strains to take in the vista here presented. Can the importance of understanding the past be overstated? I'll avoid the trite: it cannot.
Final Grade: A-
Re-read? As a reference, I'm certain I'll be back.
Neil Gaiman - Sandman: The Dream Hunters
Apparently this work fits within the mythos of a comic book series created by Gaiman. It's also meant to stand alone as an illustrated novella. The book had sat on my shelf for years, and finally received the gaze of the random number generator. The tale: mediocre and forgettable. Gaiman is considered something of "rock star" in the modern Fantasy/SF genre. I'm not a groupie: I'll admit that straight-up. The tale is written as a pastiche of Japanese folk tales: folk tale it is not. I know that Gaiman is using the form as a vehicle for whatever it is he's trying to get across - mainly an air of mystical depth that doesn't materialize. That's what you get when you try to pastiche and don't respect the source material. Doesn't respect the source material? "Didn't Gaiman translate Princess Mononoke," you might ask? Don't get me started on the self-serving malarkey of an afterward that Gaiman pasted into the back of this work - which, when held to the slightest scrutiny, evaporated as the whole cloth it was. And then Gaiman has the moxy to sneer at his own preposterousness when confronted: read the first two paragraphs of the wikipedia entry.
Yoshitaka Amano's art is fine with some lovely highlights - the Fox and the Tanuki are gorgeous. Here, the art's interpretation of the text seems to me the work's primary merit. But Japan is perennially vogue, and it seems that if you stretch far enough, you can fit your brand over the frame. Do yourself a favor: forget that you read this review, and then go and buy any edition you can find of Ueda Akinari's Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) for a truly wonderful read. Why waste time on self-advertising?
Final Grade: Strictly B material
Re-Read? Back to the used-bookstore for you.
Robert Charles Wilson - Spin
What to write about this novel? It's been nearly a month since I finished - the images remain: a vast and bloody sun filling the sky as a man drives his dying childhood love across a desert... A vast arch in the cerulean sky above the Indian Ocean - the gateway to...
I continue to be exceedingly impressed with Wilson's work. I don't think my previous comparisons with Arthur C. Clarke are too fine. His characterization is true (mostly - I'll grant that this novel had some strictly "use" characters) - his writing gutsy and poignant, and his ideas - well, his ideas... I'm leaving too many ellipses lying about, which means that I think that you should read the book and that I shouldn't write much at all so that none of this harrowing tale is spoiled for you. Then call, and we'll talk about it all you like.
Final Grade: A
Re-Read? Yes - probably as part of dyad with the sequal that I just heard about: Axis
Kim Stanley Robinson, for those who don't know, is the author who envisioned mankind's colonization of Mars over centuries; who read California's palm in three lovely novels. It's been said that a man's reach ought to exceed his grasp. In my experience, I'm not sure that I've seen the reach exceeded when it comes to our beloved "KSR"... For an author known for ambitious projects, this novel actually ends up feeling concise compared to some of the narratives we've aprpeciated in the past: a palm-of-hand story for Robinson, and author who likes his canvases big.
The Years of Rice and Salt starts with what every alternate history novel requires: a tantalizing question beginning with "What if..." In this sense, the alternate history sub-genre (a current golden child of mine) grasps the best of what Sci-Fi can be: a liberating palate, a space to explore "what-if" questions in ways that the new "Realism" can't facilitate. Think of The Left Hand of Darkness; think on Fahrenheit 451. In the special space of Science Fiction, just like the beloved special spaces of myth, of folktale, of "fairy tale," the project of understanding our worlds, inner and outer, carries on. What if a godly Gilgamesh was befriended by a bestial Enkidu? What if a Grendel so foul threatened hearth and home in an already harsh land - what would it take to stand against that sort of fear? "Science fiction" ain't new. In many ways, the so-called Realism (a moniker that is in itself nothing but suspect) is the new kid on the block. Robinson's "what-if," as part of this tradition, is entrancing: what if the Black Plague hadn't just crippled the Christian West in the 14th century - what if it had delivered a death blow? What then of Islam, of greater China, of South Asia, of the "Americas" even? How's that for an impertinent question?
Robinson essays to answer his query in an epic that spans a millennium. Robinson's novel might be considered a chronicle in the sense that we are permitted successive views of important happenings along a timeline. The central device here, used as Victorian novelists deployed "the letter" is Reincarnation. Robinson's characters are born and die over and again down through the centuries. The Bardo is the substrate from which the tales of the text are launched. At the end of lifetimes, the characters - tied together in a "familial" jati of souls - meet again in limbo to discuss, to remember, to prepare again to forget. I'll provide one hint that I didn't pick up on until late in the text: pay attention to the first letters of characters' names.
The epic begins on the shores of the Wasteland - the Mongolian horde butts up against the haunted desolation of an exterminated Europe. From there, the text proceeds in a series of remarkable journeys: Mecca to Manchuria, a new France(Firanja) to North America (Yingzhou in the novel), Kerala to the Orkneys. Robinson is our guide, showing us through the eyes of his migrant souls what this other Earth might look like. The project here is not anything as petty as Christian-bashing (as though you were worried): Robinson's history follows a remarkably similar course to the one we are familiar with. This is fair - and in itself a response to the West's solipsism. Exploration and colonization have similar effects. A renaissance is suitably stymied by reactionary forces of church and state. Industrialization leads to equally universal consequences - even more devastating in Robinson's capsized world. I'll leave it to your explorations to discover what forces rise and fall, what ideas flame about the globe...
OVeral, the novel is a lovely work. "Humanist" is a difficult word to avoid when describing the finished epic. Robinson seeks the heart of the matter: religion, ideology, politik aside ... what does the heart yearn for? Tolstoy reincarnated poses his question: "What do men live by?" I know, I know ... there is no "outside" ideology... But there is. The loveliness of the novel builds in the last few chapters. It's not all just vicarious tourism: Robinson's discussions on the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the distribution of finite resources in a finite world are worthwhile and carefully proposed. The building sense of grandeur in the simply human imperative - to always, always and forever try again was heartening and elevating. Robinson restrains himself and doesn't travel paths that we haven't: the text ends around the year 2000 in this other world, and that year looks in many ways similar, and in a few instructive ways more lovely and more terrible than the year 2000 that we knew. When it comes to a text like this, my summaries are cheap: you need to travel the lanes of time yourself. Resist the blurbs.
I need to say that I often wondered how a Muslim would respond to the novel. I can imagine that the experience of imagined history might be more jarring closer to home: a history, for instance, of a Mormon country in Western North America. This would be a good time to note that the novel's copyright is 2002 - a stitch in time as it were. I'd be curious to know how much of the text was completed before an early autumn day in 2001... Robinson's discussions seem respectful to me - he isn't arguing specific cosmology, but the ways in which people respond to divinity, to the sacred. The complaints raised by some of his characters are well-heeled in modernity, and at the same time his fondness for Sufism is again apparent (see his Mars Trilogy). Buddhism gets a more cursory treatment - Chan and Theravada are largely unmentioned. Hinduism is similarly glanced off. The Dao is set up as Islam's primary counterpoint, which works well in the text. One other thought: I need to state that I enjoyed the text, just like I enjoyed Mansfield Park, but I guiltily cringe knowing that Edward Said would have had a field day with this novel. Us Westerners: always tempted by that scimitar's edge of Orientalism.
I did enjoy The Years of Rice and Salt. It's not a light read, though it makes for compelling reading. I had few complaints. The reincarnation device made me interrogate my own ideas about the afterlife, the purpose of mortality: which seems to me part of the purpose of the text. What do we believe, and why? If you have good answers to these questions, you might find your own beliefs and hopes enriched through them contrapuntal harmonies... Robinson has created another beautiful thing.
Final Grade: A/A+
Re-read? once more through the Bardo... yes.