Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fates and Furies (by Lauren Groff)

This year I'm not going to play the fool's game of guessing what I think will be shortlisted for the next Tournament of Books, but if I were, I'd put some money on this buzzy novel by Lauren Groff.

This is an incredibly well-written, intimate portrait of a marriage and the lives orbiting it. The relationships are messy and the backstories are complex. Been done before, you might say. But not quite like this.

The point of view is largely centered on the married couple at the center of the novel, but it drifts in and out of the heads of minor characters, sometimes even just for a paragraph. This makes it somewhat obvious that the perspective of the wife, Mathilde, is being omitted -- at least until the last third of the novel, which shifts into her point of view and recasts many of the novel's previous incidents and events.  I loved the structure of this -- Groff jumps around in time, and secrets unfold non-chronologically for maximum impact. Some secrets are predictable, some are not, but all are compelling. 

The writing itself is virtuosic, yet it was entertaining enough to qualify as a "vacation read" and made a day of travel fly by. I'm oddly reminded of Jonathan Franzen, only Fates and Furies blows Freedom out of the water as far as I'm concerned. An excellent litfic novel.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Don Quijote (by Miguel de Cervantes), Volume 2

I can't find where I originally read the quote, but apparently there's a maxim that you should read Don Quixote three times in your life -- once in youth to see how funny it is, once in middle age to see how sad it is, and once in old age to see how true it is. I love that.

Part two continues the meta-ness of part one -- and in fact ramps it up.  It was written a decade after part one, but in the interim, there was a false Don Quixote part two published. In the real part two, Cervantes's characters have heard of the false part two and explicitly complain about it. Also the ostensible "real" writer of part two, who is not Cervantes, takes a bigger role and is mentioned often. The book concludes with "his" words, in fact, rather than Cervantes's. 

There are a couple of other shifts in part two. One is that the side stories are now integrated into the main plot, so Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are involved in some way in almost all the action. Another is that Quixote's madness seems to ebb somewhat, and he starts to seem more rational, while Sancho says and does some wise things, becoming slightly less foolish.  (Also, Don Quixote calling himself a world-renowned knight errant is now kind of true, after the publication of part one, which means many of the characters in the novel have in fact heard of him and his exploits. Meta, meta, meta.)

Our loyalties shift even more because of the main antagonists of part two, the duke and duchess, who play a series of rather cruel tricks and pranks on the two protagonists -- we start to feel that if we see Quixote and Sancho purely as objects of humor, we are complicit in the way they are being treated by the duke and duchess.  At least this is my middle-aged reading of it! Maybe if I'd read it in youth I would just enjoy the humor of it.

The ending is also extremely powerful -- Don Quixote's friends attempt to trick him out of his madness, and it backfires. At the end we realize we were rooting for Quixote all along -- we wanted Sancho to disenchant Dulcinea, even if "the matchless Dulcinea del Toboso" has always been a figment of Don Quixote's imagination. We want Quixote to continue to be a knight errant, not to have to go home in mental, physical, and spiritual defeat.

My friend Chris asked me if this classic work is a must-read. I don't know. I think part two is much stronger than part one -- more unified -- and absolutely worth reading. However, first you have to get through part one, and I confess if this hadn't been a reading goal of mine, I might not have managed it. The downside is that it's a bit repetitive. Some girl who is the most beautiful girl who has ever been seen in all the world is in love with a low-class shepherd or something, and stuff happens, and they live happily ever after. Don Quixote does something crazy, Sancho spouts out a bunch of crazy (and amusing) proverbs. Over and over. I contrast it with something like War and Peace, which is equally an investment but never feels like a slog, and is wonderful from start to finish.

I am very glad I did read it though. It gave me so much more context for a major cultural touchstone, and the experience of reading it surprised me. I was absolutely moved by the ending, and by Quixote himself. The metatextualness of it seems far ahead of its time. Raffels's translation is excellent. And it was certainly the most major work of literature I can think of that I hadn't yet read, so it makes me happy to add this one to my mental trophy case.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (by Alfred Lansing)

You may remember my love for Into Thin Air, so this book was right up my alley. It's the story of Ernest Shackleton's planned trip across the Antarctic continent, which was aborted when his ship was surrounded by ice and had to be abandoned. His men spent almost two years traveling over land, sea, and ice, trying to survive. It's a story of survival in the face of insurmountable odds, and is absolutely riveting to read.

It ended up really being a thought-provoking read for me as well. It was written in the 1950s, so it is purely a triumph of the human spirit story without addressing any of the larger questions that came to my mind when I read it. It doesn't need to address any broader context to be a successful book, yet the context for me, reading it in 2015, was inescapable.

The first thing that struck me was the language of colonialism about "being the first to penetrate the virgin continent" and all that. Brought me right back to my favorite college history course, a survey of the British Empire. Empire-building was all about men "penetrating" places, with complete disregard for the native populations and a sense of entitlement that survives to this day in the form of white male privilege. A lot of evil came out of colonialism, and in particular British colonialism, so it's a bit disconcerting for a modern reader to see it 100% celebrated.

Secondly, there's the pointlessness of the entire venture. Honestly, they just kind of sail into a bunch of ice and are like "oh crap we're stuck." Yes, they do unfathomable things to survive and suffer tremendously and show great courage. Again, I felt for these men every step of the way. But what choice did they have? It was either that or die, and they very nearly did. And for what? To be the first to penetrate the continent? It seems way more pointless to me than climbing Everest, because it seems more foolhardy.  (Also, for much of the book I didn't get a strong sense of Shackleton's leadership -- in fact he makes some bad decisions early on and Lansing doesn't really emphasize what he does right and what actions really saved them.  But definitely by the time you get to the end, not to spoil anything, you get the full Shackleton experience.)

The other thing that it made me think about was climate change and environmentalism -- I know, I'm fun. But in order to survive they have to do a lot of slaughtering, of seals, penguins, and even their own sled dogs. It's a whole lot of "fuck you, nature!" Obviously in this one instance, these men did what they needed to do to survive, and nobody can begrudge them a few hundred penguins here or there (yes, they kill hundreds at a time). But it's impossible to read and not think about where this attitude -- the bounty of nature belongs to us -- has gotten us as a  society. And being set in Antarctica, and watching these men inflict damage on the natural world on a small scale, you think about how much damage humanity has inflicted on the planet as a whole.

Apart from all the deep thoughts, I also wanted more at the end -- I wanted to know more about what happens next, what impact the ongoing war would have, reintegration into society.  An absolutely gripping read that made me think and left me wanting more -- you can't ask for better than that.


Monday, November 02, 2015

Career of Evil (by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling)

As per usual with this series, the central relationship between Cormoran and his partner Robin is the best part about the book. It gets really good in this one, even though we're left a bit hanging by the ending. Since "Galbraith" seems to be putting these out at a rate of one per year, I'm guessing she'll come back to the dangling plot threads in the next installment. I do so love/hate a good cliffhanger!

This is by far the best of the three books in the series, and I did enjoy the first two. This one is a step above, though. It isn't perfect in that it's a bit slow paced in points, but again, I don't mind this if it means more time spent with the characters. At the same time this installment ups the creepy factor (many chapters from the point of view of the Ted Bundy-esque killer) and has Rowling's signature plotting style, which is always fun to read.

If you liked the first two, you'll love this one. If you haven't gotten into the series, start with the first one, as the relationship between Robin and Cormoran is really key to enjoying it. (And Robin continues to be everything that is awesome. If Hermione Granger were a detective's assistant, she'd be Robin.) 

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