Friday, February 28, 2014

The Pun Also Rises, John Pollack

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some AnticsOn a drizzling afternoon in old London, in an age when men of certain stature or pretension still carried swords about the city's crowded streets, two scholars sat fireside at the Grecian Coffee-House on Devereux Court, arguing fiercely over the accent of a Greek word. 

"The pun is commonly dismissed as the lowest form of wit, and punsters are often unpopular for their obsessive wordplay. But such attitudes are relatively recent developments. In The Pun Also Rises, John Pollack-a former World Pun Champion and presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton-explains why such wordplay is significant: It both revolutionized language and played a pivotal role in making the modern world possible. Skillfully weaving together stories and evidence from history, brain science, pop culture, literature, anthropology, and humor, The Pun Also Rises is an authoritative yet playful exploration of a practice that is common, in one form or another, to virtually every language on earth. At once entertaining and educational, this engaging book answers fundamental questions: Just what is a pun, and why do people make them? How did punning impact the development of human language, and how did that drive creativity and progress? And why, after centuries of decline, does the pun still matter?"

The Pun Also Rises is a slim but clever exploration of the fascination that puns have for some of us, and the exasperation for others. Or both. Because of the book's length, I raced throughout without really writing down any notes, but I did find it fascinating. I'd never really thought before about the scientific aspects of punning and humor in general. After all, depressing though the thought is, we only find things funny because of reactions in the brain. Everything happens solely because of reactions in the brain. The only reason I'm able to type this review is because of my brain (and my hands too, of course). You get the point. 

The humor we find in puns themselves is basically at least partially because of the incongruity good puns cause between our right and left hemispheres as the brain tries to toggle both meanings. Of course, knowing this might take the humor out of puns for some, but I found it interesting to know. The brain is such a fascinating organ, and obviously that's a grossly oversimplified explanation; Pollack goes into greater detail, although most of the book isn't scientific. 

There are many great puns from history woven into the book, as Pollack explores the many ways in which puns and other humor have helped form society. That said, I think he made a few too many leaps in declaring puns to be so, so influential on culture; I wasn't entirely convinced, although some of his arguments made sense. After all, puns allow us to consider different contexts, and to realize dual (or triple) meanings of things. Pollack reveals that in reality, interpreting and processing the pun takes a lot of effort on the brain's part. 

There's a fair amount of history in The Pun Also Rises, both the history of puns and of nations. This is, I think, where I wasn't entirely convinced; Pollack wrote as if puns were the single most important part of society at certain periods, when obviously this wasn't the case. I realize this was a book on puns, but it almost felt like he was focusing too much on puns. Does that make sense? Anyway, the history was still really intriguing, and I enjoyed reading about the way that puns have pervaded much of society, and also how they began to fall and become denigrated as low-brow humor. 

As well as including puns in anecdotes, there are many puns in the chapter titles and subheadings (and in the title and subtitle). One of my favorites was the pun where someone was asked whether they would like a nightcap before bed or a candle to take with them and they responded in ancient Greek "Neither one nor the other", which phonetically sounds like "Neither toddy nor tallow". It was genius.

Anyway, ultimately through this delightful book, Pollack illustrates that puns are indeed more than "some antics."

154 pages.

Rating: ****

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Across a Star-Swept Sea, Diana Peterfreund

Across a Star-Swept Sea (For Darkness Shows the Stars, #2)If the Wild Poppy dared return to Galatea, Citizen Cutler was ready. He'd stationed armed guards at the entrance to the estate and placed an additional ten soldiers around the perimeter of the taro fields. 

"Centuries after wars nearly destroyed civilization, the two islands of New Pacifica stand alone, a terraformed paradise where even the Reduction—the devastating brain disorder that sparked the wars—is a distant memory. Yet on the isle of Galatea, an uprising against the ruling aristocrats has turned deadly. The revolutionaries’ weapon is a drug that damages their enemies’ brains, and the only hope is rescue by a mysterious spy known as the Wild Poppy. On the neighboring island of Albion, no one suspects that the Wild Poppy is actually famously frivolous aristocrat Persis Blake. The teenager uses her shallow, socialite trappings to hide her true purpose: her gossipy flutternotes are encrypted plans, her pampered sea mink is genetically engineered for spying, and her well-publicized new romance with handsome Galatean medic Justen Helo… is her most dangerous mission ever. And Justen has secrets, secrets that could destroy their entire world."

I enjoyed For Darkness Shows the Stars, but it wasn't great or anything; this book, inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, was much better in many respects. Towards the end, I started to get tired of it, but I raced through most of the book, entranced by the world-building and action-packed plot. I was immediately swept away by this book; it was suspenseful and gripping, much more so than the other Peterfreund I've read. There's nothing very thought-provoking here (despite the author's attempts), but it's certainly good entertainment. There are some questions of morality that are in the story though, just like in The Scarlet Pimpernel. On the one hand, the aristos who are being rescued are nasty, entitled people, but on the other, they're still people and despite their own cruelty they don't deserve to be treated like animals, having their intelligence Reduced.

The Reduction is of course an added plot-line (it's also in For Darkness Shows the Stars). Basically, way back, some people started genetically engineering themselves, which worked for a while, but it resulted eventually in the Reduction, where "regs" lost their intelligence. Those who didn't undergo the genetic modifications (called Luddites in the world of For Darkness Shows the Stars) ruled quite cruelly over the Reduced, until a cure was discovered, and then the tables were turned. It's these harsh aristos who are being subjected to a taste of their own medicine, so to speak. It's quite horrifying, and also provides plenty of opportunity for political power play. And, Justen is part of it as well, having made the "pinks", the pills being used to reduce the aristos and anyone affiliated with them. All of this is a little confusing to sort out, but once I did I was fine.

The romance is added as well, because of course YA fiction has to have it. It wasn't bad, though I would have cut some of the scenes with Persis and Justen (what is it with weird names in YA fiction?) I was more interested in the intrigue and the action. I also feel there was another issue here; the two of them wouldn't tell each other things! I feel like Persis should have told him about her identity as the Wild Poppy early on, and he should have told her of his inadvertent involvement in making the pinks, and how sorry he was. Then a lot of the book's machinations would be have been irrelevant.

I enjoyed the way Peterfreund adapted The Scarlet Pimpernel; unlike the original novel, from the beginning we know the identity of the Wild Poppy, but Justen does not, and that is a particularly agonizing part of the story, which again, could have been solved if they had just been as honest as possible with one another. Still, Persis's personas are portrayed well; she's playing a dangerous role, as both a courier and spy and as a shallow socialite interested only in her wardrobe. You can tell that she's frustrated by always having to pretend to be so dumb.

One of the best things about this novel was the world-building; New Pacifica and its society really came to life, and I was enthralled by the descriptions of this lush world. It seems like paradise, but of course it's not. The book also boasts plenty of action.

More than halfway through the book, the characters from For Darkness Shows the Stars appear! I wasn't surprised, since I'd read a review that mentioned this, but it did feel a bit odd to me. I also didn't remember them that well, and they introduced a whole other aspect to the story's complexity (admittedly, the story isn't that complicated.

Ultimately, Across a Star-Swept Sea was a good book of its kind, so if you like YA, I'd recommend it. However I've found lately that a lot of YA fiction feels trite and shallow and frivolous to me; I'm becoming even more of a snob.

449 pages.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. 

"When the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, fleeing her brutish husband, her rebellious independence and passionate awareness of life stir the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, already engaged to be married to her cousin May Welland, "that terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything." As the consequent drama unfolds, Edith Wharton's sharp ironic wit and Jamesian mastery of form create a disturbingly accurate picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending 'civilization.'"

I first read The Age of Innocence several years ago, and I'm not really sure how much of it I comprehended, or even, looking back, how I managed to finish it when I was about nine years year old. This time, I really appreciated the clever writing and the nuances which made this book moving and astute. Wharton deftly captures the society that Archer lives in through description, dialogue, and his own reflections. I bookmarked so many interesting passages. 

The novel proceeds at a leisurely pace, but it is also quite intense and searing, as Archer is turned from the system he was once so much a part of. Yet he also does remain part of it, dutifully doing what he's told to, marrying May Welland, despite his passion for the Countess Olenska. The way that Archer is trapped by the world he lives in and doomed by his circumstances is skillfully, heartbreakingly told; I sympathized with him, but I also felt a certain irritation at the fact that he didn't rebel, didn't cast off his obligations. 

The scenes with Archer and Ellen Olenska are so slow-burning and yet intense; one can feel the tension and the electricity between them, and also the doomed nature of their relationship. The fact that Archer does not cancel his wedding to the lovely but shallowly innocent May Welland provides a device to further the rest of this wonderful story. 

Speaking of May, expert descriptions of her are woven throughout the book so that by the middle one has a clear picture of what she's like, "that terrifying product of the social system [Archer] belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything." May is so innocent, and so blind. She follows society's expectations of her, and thus is not free, but she doesn't even recognize her lack of freedom, and it is this (among other things) that frustrates Archer so deeply. Once, briefly, she comes out of her shell, but Archer "[understands] that her courage and initiative were all for others, and that she [has] none for herself."

Another of Archer's increasing horrors is that everyone is the same, that in pressing for an earlier engagement (for example), he's just doing what's expected of him: "His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make - even to the point of calling him original." He adds that "we're all as like each other as thsoe dolls cut out of the same folded paper. We're like patterns stencilled on a wall." The problem, I think, is that Archer wants to change May, but it's not going to happen. Here's another chilling quote from the same section: "It would presently be his task to take the bandage from [May's] eyes, and id her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?" Whereas Ellen's are fully open. 

The Age of Innocence also has quite a lot of ironic, witty humor. Wharton brilliantly skewers the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of late 19th century American society, at once supposedly more "liberal" than Europe, but at the same time just as focused on reputation. For example, "an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences." There are also so many rules about who to entertain, and what to wear at different functions; of course, Countess Olenska flouts all of these conventions; in that sense, she is rather a cliche of a woman different from the rest, scornful of the world's opinion, who makes the male main character start to question his heretofore tranquil existence. 

All of this is captured through beautiful, elegant prose; I absolutely loved the writing which was thoughtful but not overwritten. I felt sorry for the characters, particularly Archer and the Countess of course, but also for May Welland. She's a sweet sort of person, and the way she is is not her fault. Later, she reveals herself to be much more understanding.

There are many feminist sentiments in this novel, most of them expressed by Archer, who starts to believe more and more that women should be free and allowed to have just as many experiences as men, which is a novel idea for the time the book is set (1870's), and for Wharton's own time as well (the book was published in 1920).

The Age of Innocence is not perhaps as exciting or dramatic as other 19th and early 20th century novels, but it appealed to my brain and to my heart; the ending was certainly so heartbreaking and sad, but also inevitable. I would highly recommend this wise and witty novel. It still has plenty of relevance today. 

298 pages. 

Rating: ***** 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchIt was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.

"According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner. So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth's mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist..."

This novel has been in the back of my mind for quite a while; I'd heard that it was hilarious. And it was, but also utterly zany in a trademark Gaiman adult fantasy style. At the beginning, there were so many different characters, but they gradually all settled into place. Still, I would have preferred more scenes with Crowley and Aziraphale; I loved their banter and the way they seemed to complement one another. An angel and a devil, friends. The other characters had their points too; many of them were quite amusing, especially the witch hunting Agency. I also liked reading about the Them, the band led by Adam, the supposed Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness. Talk about epithets. And insanity. And irony because his name his Adam, yet his purpose is to be the destroyer of the world.

The pace of this book slowly builds as the time of the apocalypse gets nearer and nearer. I was never quite sure what was going to happen or really what exactly was going on. The characters and the powers in this book work in mysterious ways; Adam just thinks about something happening, "turns over in his sleep" and the nuclear reactor from a power plant disappears. None of it is fully explained, but that was okay, because it didn't need to be. As it was, the book wasn't bogged down, and I read it pretty quickly despite its length. 

As one might expect, there were so many funny and insightful quotes in this book that had me laughing out loud. They speak for themselves.


“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.” 

“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” Too true, too true. 

“Anyway, if you stop tellin' people it's all sorted out afer they're dead, they might try sorting it all out while they're alive." This is also true; somehow Adam, despite his lack of knowledge, manages to hit many things on the nail. 

"Now, as Crowley would be the first to protest, most demons weren't deep down evil. In the great cosmic game they felt they occupied the same position as tax inspectors - doing an unpopular job, maybe, but essential to the overall operation of the whole thing...and on the other hand, you got people like Ligur and Hastur, who took such a dark delight in unpleasantness you might even have mistaken them for human."

Kind of out of context, but: "On the top of the pile a rather large octopus waved a languid tentacle at them. The sergeant resisted the temptation to wave back."

Read more hilarious quotes here on Goodreads. This book is highly recommended. It was weird, yet brilliant and hilarious and unpredictable. 

412 pages.

Rating: *****

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin

The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails YouFrom the introduction: This is a medical handbook - with a difference. 

The title of this book is basically self explanatory; The Novel Cure is a reference book giving different novels for that will cure or alleviate different ailments, whether physical or emotional. From the given summary: "To create this apothecary, the authors have trawled two thousand years of literature for novels that effectively promote happiness, health, and sanity, written by brilliant minds who knew what it meant to be human and wrote their life lessons into their fiction. Structured like a reference book, readers simply look up their ailment, be it agoraphobia, boredom, or a midlife crisis, and are given a novel to read as the antidote. Bibliotherapy does not discriminate between pains of the body and pains of the head (or heart)." It's pretty straightforward, and quite an amusing idea. 

I was quite surprised by the sheer number of books featured in this volume that I had never even heard of, never mind read. The Novel Cure reminded me of just how many (possibly) good novels are out there, and of how one has to be selective in reading, because there will never be enough time to read every halfway interesting book.

I got quite a few reading suggestions from The Novel Cure, whether or not I suffered from the specific ailment it was prescribed for. I also bookmarked helpful entries, maladies that I either suffer from or may suffer from in the future (for example, adolescence). Some of their choices seemed a bit dubious to me, but others were spot on. I have yet to try any of the cures, but I look forward to doing so in the future. The authors also explained their choices fairly well - sometimes their cures are novels that offer solace and a portrayal of a character in similar predicament. Sometimes their novel solutions reflect a model to which the reader should look up to. And sometimes novels provide the opposite: characters you most definitely don't want to resemble.

I haven't actually read the book cover to cover yet; I stopped around the R's. It's not exactly a book to read like that; it's a book to use as a guide, looking up your ailment, or just simply to get recommendations if you're in a certain mood. It's a book to be savored and bookmarked. I suppose the premise is a bit gimmicky, but I enjoyed perusing the book, and am glad to have it as part of my collection. You will be too.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the Penguin Press.

432 pages.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Swan Gondola, Timothy Schaffert

The Swan Gondola: A NovelEmmaline and Hester, known in the county as the Old Sisters Egan, took their coffee cowboy-style, the grounds fried-up in a pan to a bitter sludge, then stirred into china teacups of hot water. 

"On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair. One of a traveling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpetbag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect."

I had high hopes for this novel, but sadly they were not met. Although I read 200 pages of it, I was never very engaged or interested in the story. I kept hoping it would get better and achieve the Night Circus wonder I was promised, but it didn't and I finally gave up. 

The descriptions had the potential to be splendid, but they weren't. Same with the characters and the historical setting. Omaha in 1898? That's pretty unusual, and I was intrigued to see how it would be portrayed. It wasn't; the author tries to describe it, but the language was never compelling or magical. The World's Fair seemed like it could of been an interesting and glamorous setting, but alas, it wasn't. The thing is, there was so much potential for great description, but instead it was flat and lifeless. After a little less than half of the book, I'd had enough.

I received an ARC from Riverhead; The Swan Gondola came out last week. 

454 pages. 


Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava LavenderMy maternal grandmother, Emilienne Adou Solange Roux, fell in love three times before the eve of her nineteenth birthday. 

"Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and na├»ve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration. That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo."

I was quite surprised by The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, but happily I found it both strange and beautiful, which is sometimes an excellent combination. This novel is definitely not for some because of how weird it can be, but to me it was a delightful yet disturbing blend of historical fiction and magic realism, a genre I love when well done. 

Despite how different and how much better it was, I couldn't help thinking of The Kingdom of Little Wounds, another ARC I received from Candlewick, although I didn't finish it. Both seem like they would be easy books to read, but they're not, and both talk quite frankly about sex and death and other mature things. They're definitely aimed at mature young adults. This book wasn't quite as disgusting though, and the narration was endearing and compelling. It strikes me that More Than This is another very disturbing and brutal but brilliant YA book published by Candlewick. They seem to be branching out and trying to bend the limits of the genre, and I've enjoyed two of the three edgier YA novels.  

This book is beautiful and wonderful in the way that fairy tales are before they're made into cheerful versions in which things end happily ever after. Through each generation of the Roux-Lavender family, there is blood and death and pain and love that doesn't work out so well. The combination of heartbreak and joy is what makes this book so magical and memorable. 

The Crane Wife is another new book I've read recently that deals with loss and grief and healing. It also happens to use birds and feather imagery to explore that. Both books have beautiful writing and memorable turns of phrase, but ultimately I enjoyed this one more. It was more unique, and a wonderful blend of fantasy and realism. There's just enough balance between the two to make the book seem somewhat plausible but also wholly magical.

The historical settings of the novel are quite atmospheric, from Beauregard's "Manhatin" to Seattle, where Ava's grandmother finally settles. It's an epic family saga, really not just Ava's story but that of all the star-crossed relatives who come before her. It's such an all-encompassing book, and I loved how deep it goes into the family. Living in the Pacific Northwest fairly near Seattle, I could definitely understand the pervasiveness of the rain; in fact, the rain and lack of it plays a major, major part in the book, and I could relate to that constant precipitation, and the shock when it disappears. The night when it finally rains again is the brutal, heartbreaking climax of the novel. 

Many motifs run throughout the book, making it even more fairy-tale like. There are of course, the wings, which are always quite symbolic of freedom and flight. And since Ava can't fly, lack of freedom. The rain is vital, and the bakery and the baking plays a major role as well. 

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender had its shocking and heartbreaking moments, but it was totally worth it. And the ending was just beautiful. This is a magical and marvelous novel; I wasn't expecting much, but I was blown away. I would highly recommend this book; although it doesn't come out until late March, it's worth the wait. 

302 pages (in the ARC).

Rating: *****

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster

The New York TrilogyFrom "City of Glass": It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

"City of Glass: As a result of a strange phone call in the middle of the night, Quinn, a writer of detective stories, becomes enmeshed in a case more puzzling than any he might have written.

GhostsBlue, a student of Brown, has been hired by White to spy on Black. From a window of a rented room on Orange Street, Blue keeps watch on his subject, who is across the street, staring out of his window.

The Locked Room: Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind his wife and baby and a cache of extraordinary novels, plays, and poems. What happened to him--and why is the narrator, Fanshawe's boyhood friend, lured obsessively into his life?"

I was debating about whether to write three separate reviews or just one, but as you can see, I'm going with one. 

I'm not sure what I think of Auster; I can definitely see why some people hate his work, but I actually find its tone kind of endearing and certainly interesting. That said, The New York Trilogy was very different from Moon Palace, and although the writing and overall mood were similar, this collection of novellas was so much weirder. "Surreal" is a good word to describe them.

"City of Glass", the first novella in the collection, was an utterly bizarre take on the mystery genre. The mystery and the premise is never fully explained; neither is the case of mistaken identity, "the wrong number that started it". It was very difficult for me to understand Quinn's motivations; he just decides to take on this case even though his name isn't Paul Auster, and meticulously follows Stillman around. The story started off great, but then it started to get so odd. 

The same thing happened with all three novellas; the story began intriguingly enough, and then it just devolved into insanity and irrationality, with metaphorical discussions on park benches, and characters going around doing crazy things. The prime example of this is Quinn camping out in front of the Stillman's apartment for months, living underneath a dumpster and just obsessively watching the entrance. It didn't make any sense; why would anyone in their right mind go to that length just to carry out a job that wasn't even meant for them in the first place? But I suppose that's the point; Quinn is no longer in his right mind; he has no idea what he's doing or why he's doing it. 

The main character of Blue in the second novella, "Ghosts", also makes some pretty odd choices. While I did enjoy the fact that all of the characters were named after colors (Blue, Brown, White, Black, Gold, and also Violet and Rose), the story was just bizarre. Blue obsessively watches Black at his desk because that's what White told him to do. He dismisses even just leaving, as if that can't happen. Yes, perhaps, the outcome was inexorable, and that's certainly the idea, but I think that most of the time everyone has a choice, at least to a certain extent. 

In general, this book just puzzled me, and "The Locked Room" was no exception. The story begin appealingly enough, but it descended into darkness and madness, just like the others. None of them are bad per se; just different. Auster certainly knows how to take the typical mystery and turn it on its head. 

The stories don't really seem to have much connection, not until the very end, when there is some. I won't give it away, but even that was confusing.

Auster does write very well. For instance: "New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well...On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere. New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again." Wow.

If you're into surreal fiction, this book is definitely for you. I didn't love it, but the writing was quite skillful. 

371 pages. 

Rating: ***

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott

Flatland: A Romance of Many DimensionsI call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers who are privileged to live in Space.

"Narrated by A. Square, Flatland is Edwin A. Abbott's delightful mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world. All existence is limited to length and breadth in Flatland, its inhabitants unable even to imagine a third dimension. Abbott's amiable narrator provides an overview of this fantastic world-its physics and metaphysics, its history, customs, and religious beliefs. But when a strange visitor mysteriously appears and transports the incredulous Flatlander to the Land of Three Dimensions, his worldview is forever shattered."

Flatland is a weird little book, as one might expect; however it was fairly entertaining, and the writing amusing enough, despite the narrator's didactic and elitist tone. I find it hard to believe that the author's views could be as elitist as those of the narrator though. The society of Flatland is centered around how many sides each shape has - the more sides the better. The women are just straight lines, and are treated abominably, characterized as having no sense at all. 

In the first half of the book, nothing much happens; it's just an explanation of what life is like in Flatland. Then something does happen, but very little; not much is explained. The book was more like a treatise than a novel. It wasn't bad per se, but certainly not what I was expecting. At all. 

There's some math in the novel, which I found interesting, and several times diagrams to explain the narrator's point. Some of the later things are kind of difficult to understand, but this aspect was fascinating. To us, the third dimension seems so transparently obvious, but to the inhabitants of Flatland it seems ludicrous. A. Square cannot conceive of a third way of measurement coming from inside him up. And us humans find the idea of a fourth dimension insane, but who knows? It's certainly an intriguing thought which Flatland artfully explores, if not from a very practical perspective. After all, the characters are all shapes, and the third dimensional visitor who shows A. Square the third dimension is nothing but a sphere. However, through these shapes, Abbott astutely pokes fun at scientists who refuse to accept anything new. 

Society is also satirized through the society of Flatland, which is cruel and unfeeling. Despite knowing that it was meant to be mocking, reading about the way that Flatlanders deal with issues was quite infuriating; those figures born with "Irregularities" are either altered or just summarily executed. Basically, they just execute or imprison anyone who's out of line. Hmm, bears startling similarity to late 19th century England...

Anyway, this was such an odd little novel; I'm not entirely sure that I'd recommend it unless its quirk appeals to you. It had its points and was thought-provoking at times, but it wasn't great or anything. 

118 pages. 

Rating: ***