Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)

Our latest book club read (go DAFFODILS!), suggested by the always amazing Corie, is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004). I sometimes feel like I gush a little too much on this blog (maybe because I'm easy to please, or maybe because I read things I know I'm going to like), but at the risk of overgushing and giving the hard sell to my fellow DAFFODILS, I loved loved loved loved loved this book.

If you and I get into a discussion about aesthetics, you will soon realize that my favorite aspect of a story is its structure. It isn't the only thing, but a crappy structure (or a bad ending) can ruin a movie or book for me, and a solid structure can lift up an ordinary story and make it into something worth exploring. Cloud Atlas has one of the most unique and well-executed structures I've seen in a long time, and that alone is enough to hook me as a reader.

Here is the structure in a nutshell, without giving too much away: six stories, each interrupted halfway through, except for the sixth, which is told in its entirety. After the center story ends, we finish the fifth story, then the fourth, then the third, then the second, then the first. Sometime during each story except the first, a connection between that story and the preceding story (which seem to have nothing to do with each other) is revealed.

Luckily, Mitchell offers way more than just structure in this engaging exploration of the past, present, and future; cultural domination; nuclear politics; and escape escape escape. And he does all that while juggling the stories of a 19th century notary on a ship in the south seas, a risk taking bisexual composer taking refuge from his debtors as an amanuensis in Belgium, a mid-70s California journalist investigating nuclear cover-ups, a snarky British publisher who has been locked up in a nursing home against his will, a revolutionary clone in corpratist future Korea, and a plucky young man and his mysterious visitor on post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Whew.

Mitchell writes all of that in a way that makes sense, sticks to the structure without being too cutesy, and tackles writing styles ranging from a mid-century epistolary novel to a clockwork-orange science fiction vocabulary explosion. Plus it is fun to read!

I'll set a discussion of the themes and many complexities of this novel aside for our book club meeting and leave it at this: you should read this book. And I should read it again.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mutants by Gordon R. Dickson (1970)

Way back last summer I had an extremely fun Eastern Nebraska / Western Nebraska / Fort Collins vacation and while we were wandering around in Fort Collins, I picked up this wonderfully covered collection of short stories by Gordon R. Dickson called Mutants (1970). It finally migrated up to the top of my very slow-moving reading pile, and I'm happy to announce that the contents are just as great as the cover.

While some of the stories are a little dated, there are some very strong contenders included in this collection. One of my very favorites is the sci-fi / western story "Roofs of Silver," where a group of scientists from the home planet check in on a community of settlers who colonized a new mining planet 100 years ago and have been living as a closely knit group since then. One of the scientists "goes native," marries a settlers daughter, and leads the group to believe that he is a rehabilitated "wild one" -- one of the humans on the planet who is not part of the settled community. When the scientists' scans show that the community is becoming inbred and unstable, our protagonist refuses to believe the evidence and tries to conduct his own experiments to prove that the instability is in the wild people on the planet, and not in his new family.

Other stories include galactic space opera style battles, small environmental morality tales, and a prim and proper spinster who is given super human powers by a chance visitation from a little dude from a different dimension who makes her clock strike 13.

Dickson is particularly great at the first few sentences of his stories:

But you know, I could sense it coming a long time off. It was a little extra time taken in drinking a cup of coffee, it was lingering over the magazines in a drugstore as I picked out a handful. It was a girl I looked at twice as I ran out and down the steps of a library. ["Of the People"]

Reru did not like to see humans eat. So he was waiting in the living room while Taddy and his parents finished breakfast. ["Listen"]

The last dog on Earth was dying. ["By New Hearth Fires"]

Miss Lydia Prinks was somebody's aunt. Not the aunt of several somebodies, but the aunt of one person only and with no other living brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, or nieces to her name. A sort of singleton aunt. It would be possible to describe her further, but it would not be in good taste." ["Miss Prinks"]

Well, it was about four in the afternoon. You know how it is that time of day at Savannah Stand, with most of the day-charter flyers back in the ranks. All the hanging around and talking and the smell of cigarette smoke in the air, and the water stains drying back to the pale color of the concrete from the flyers that have just been washed down. You know what a good time of day that is.
["Home from the Shore"]

And it isn't just the beginnings of these stories that are good -- Dickson was a prolific and widely published science fiction writer, and there is no doubt that the man could write a solid story. While I have a slight preference for science fiction short story anthologies by a variety of authors, the stories in this collection are each unique and make up a very lovely book. With a very amazing cover.

[As an aside: My copy was printed in 1978 and it looks like it was printed last week. Maybe they used some super-special science fiction acid free buffered paper here, or maybe it came to Fort Collins from the fourth dimension!]

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein (2011)

Ah, the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program knows me so well. Their fancy algorithms put me in touch with another novel I had never heard of before that I absolutely loved. Sarah Braunstein's The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (2011) is not a fun and happy read, but it is a compelling and fulfilling one, and I'm very glad it was magically sent to my doorstep.

One of my favorite story elements is structure, and the structure of this novel is unique and perfectly suited to the interlinked characters, places, and times. The book is divided into parts, each of which begins with a chapter titled "Leonora." Leonora is twelve, and we know from the very first time that we hear from her that she is going to be kidnapped. Her story, popping up throughout the novel, anchors us as we drift between the other characters while the connections slowly become more concrete and inevitable.

The stories of the other characters initially seem like vignettes held together by the theme of missing children -- literally missing in the case of runaways and abortions, but also missing in the sense of disconnections, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. Paul lives in an isolated cottage with his lonely mother Goldie, and Thomas, an abortion doctor's nurse, has been peeping through their windows for years. Judith is a surly teenager who runs away to the city with her sketchy boyfriend Q and calls to be rescued, or witnessed, by a family friend and his teenage son. Sam's mother drove her entire family into a train when he was three, killing everyone but him. Now he balances the goodness he wants to show to the aunt and uncle that raised him, and the anger and rebelliousness that eat at him from the inside.

This novel is filled with people who are lost, unsatisfied, and unsure what to do next. As the novel moves forward through time, characters age, intersect, lose each other, and find something else. Nothing is entirely resolved, but everything is settled, and the book comes together beautifully. Braunstein has a descriptive and empathetic writing style that fills out every character, even the most tangential, and the tension in the book's plots make this a fast and moving read. Highly recommended.

[p.s. Corie, I am totally going to lend this to you the next time I see you.]

Monday, March 07, 2011

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (1938)

Nabokov is one of those authors that I like too much to rush out and read all his books, because then there wouldn't be any more to read. Instead, I savor one every year or two and then set the rest aside for future enjoyment. Laughter in the Dark (1938) is such a perfect knife-twistingly hilarious story that I'm glad I finally picked it up off the shelf.

Every review of this book seems to quote the first couple of sentences, so I'll join the club and include them here. They do tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the story and why it is being told:

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.

This doomed love affair between the wealthy older Albinus and the vampy, sexual, and young Margot is often cited as being "practice" for Nabokov's most famous novel, Lolita. While there are definitely parallels between the two novels, the feel of the two is very different for me, and I don't think Laughter in the Dark should be thrown away as a lesser novel. This is a tragic story with a foregone conclusion, but Nabokov's insistence on heaping one misfortune after another on this group of fascinatingly unlikable people has a lot of humor in it. I don't want to spoil it, but the rescue scene towards the end of the book is one of the funniest things I've ever read, and I didn't expect to be that amused by this book.

The widely available English version of this novel was translated from the Russian by Nabokov himself in 1938 (after he was dissatisfied by the original English translation) and revised again in 1960. I couldn't imagine a different translation of this book where every word fits perfectly in its place. This is a fast read with a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, and just enough moral lessons for a person to sink their teeth into.


Has anyone seen the 1969 film version of this with Anna Karina? I'm pretty interested in how it translates to the screen...

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990 by Charles Wright (1990)

I have a dirty little secret: I am horrible at reading poetry. I read all the time. I love fiction, non-fiction, everything I get my hands on. But poetry is my downfall. I read it too fast, I can't tell if I like it or not, and my mind always starts to wander. I want to be good at reading it, but usually just get frustrated and put it down.

But not this time!

The World of the Ten Thousand Things by Charles Wright (1990) showed up on Harold Bloom's western canon list, and since I have made it a life-long project to work my way through the list, I figure now is as good a time as any to dive into some poetry.

Obviously the way I had been reading poetry (the same way I read fiction) wasn't working for me, so I decided I'd try something new: Every morning before work I would read one or two poems out loud, and then read them silently. Then I'd put the book down. The next day I would re-read silently the poems I read the day before, and then read another poem or two out loud. I essentially read the book three times (and it took three months), but I feel like spending that much time with the words -- and particularly reading them out loud -- really helped it all to sink in.

This book is actually a collection of four of Wright's poetry books, written between 1980 and 1990. Wright is a past winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, so as you might imagine, this is a nicely written collection. Wright's poems explore memory, language, death, time, seasons, nature, and all that good poetic stuff, but they are firmly rooted in experience, his personal past, and the geography and natural beauty of the places that surround him. Most of the poems are two or three pages long, although some are as short as half a page, and a few are much longer -- including a forty-page journey through a single year. While the themes and style are consistent across the collection, we still see Wright change his focus and play with different tones and formats as the collection progresses.

While I really enjoyed reading this collection, I'm not sure I've mastered the art of talking about what I like about poetry yet, but I'll keep practicing and see what I come up with next time...

I just spent twenty minutes flipping through the book and trying to find something to quote, but it is hard to find the perfect thing. Instead I'll just quote the first part of the first poem in the collection, which happens to be one of my favorites:

From "Homage to Paul C├ęzanne"

At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.
Like us, the water unsettles their names.

Sometimes they lie like leaves in their little arks, and curl up at the
Sometimes they come inside, wearing our shoes, and walk
From mirror to mirror.
Or lie in our beds with their gloves off
And touch our bodies. Or talk
In a corner. Or wait like envelopes on a desk.

They reach up from the ice plant.
They shuttle their messengers through the oat grass.
Their answers rise like rust on the stalks and the spidery leaves.

We rub them off our hands.