Catching Up: Books
I always have the best of intentions to remain current with my reviews, and yet half a year has gone by again with nary a one. So it goes. Let's see what we can do to catch up, shall we?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: The friend who gave me my copy of Manhood for Amateurs also gave me this one. Oscar de Leon is an overweight, painfully nerdy Dominican-American boy, and, as you might guess from the title, this is his story. But it's also the story of his sister, his mother, and his grandparents--the Cabral family, suffering under the weight of a generations-long fukú--a Dominican word for "curse." It's also the story of the Dominican Republic, itself, with long asides and footnotes about the country and life under Trujillo regime. It's also the story of the Dominican immigrant experience in New York. It's a lot of things. Though I think the style--making heavy use of footnotes, as I mentioned--and the interjection of Dominican slang, and the density of science fiction and fantasy references (some of which even I had to look up) might serve to alienate some readers, it's nonetheless a powerful and moving story. (Read 8/22/11 - 10/26/11.)
The Chalion Series, by Lois McMaster Bujold: From reading her Vorkosigan novels, I already knew that Bujold was adept at creating both interesting, well-rounded characters and intriguing worlds, but I wasn't sure how it would translate to a fantasy setting. As it turned out, not unlike a few of her Vorkosigan stories (Cetaganda and Falling Free come to mind), the setting is what I found most captivating about this series. The three loosely connected novels (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) explore different facets of what I found to be a unique cosmology, wherein gods are real but can only act through humans who willingly consent. Bujold won the Hugo for the second one, while I personally enjoyed the first the most, but all three are well worth the read. (Read 10/27/11 -12/25/11.)
The Desert Spear, by Peter V. Brett: I read the first book in this series back in 2010 and immediately groaned at the prospect of having to wait. Of course, in the meantime I found ways to occupy myself, but I was pretty happy when the same coworker who loaned me his copy of The Warded Man dropped the sequel on my desk. Where the first book spread its focus between three main characters--Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer--this one spends much of the first half developing the backstory of a fourth: Jardir, the desert leader we met in the first book. Jardir's sections were reminded me a bit of Dune and the Aiel portions of The Wheel of Time. In fact, thinking back over the series so far I would say that Robert Jordan seems to be a pretty apt comparison, though without the endless branching and subplot after subplot after subplot. Indeed, everything I loved about The Wheel of Time when I started that series (as a teenager, mind you) seems to be present here, and reading this series kind of makes me feel like a kid again. I'm very much looking forward to the third book.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher: I've now finished the first six of these books and I think I can fairly say that I'm going to get to all of them eventually. The four that I read since I last reviewed the series (Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites) follow the same formula as the first two, and it's predictable enough that perhaps reading a bunch back to back isn't the best way to go, but I found that even after six of essentially the same book, I care about the characters and am interested to go back for more. (Read 1/15/12 - 2/8/12.)
Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher: Despite what I said about reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's books in succession, I actually went and read ten of them in under a month. The same coworker who loaned me the first two Dresden books also let me read his copy of The Furies of Calderon, after which I went out and bought Kindle copies of the rest of the series (Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury). The way the series follows the life and career of the protagonist reminded me a bit of Forester's Hornblower novels, though of course the setting is completely different. I will say that Butcher has a few writing tics that become apparent after reading a bunch of his books--he loves to end chapters in cliffhangers, for examples, or with people passing out--but he also plots tightly and writes memorable characters. The fact that I blazed through this entire series in just over two weeks ought to say something about how much I enjoyed it.
The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie: Just before I started reading this series, I solicited opinions about it on Google+, and this is one of the responses I got: "I think Abercrombie is a very good writer -- from a style perspective -- and very enjoyable, but he's gratuitously cruel to both his characters and audience expectations." Having finished it now, I completely agree. In my opinion, Abercrombie is a very skilled writer, and it's clear that with this series he was trying to subvert the tropes of the high fantasy genre and play off the audience's expectations in order to do something novel. And he succeeds in doing that, but at the end of it all I sort of felt like I'd been toyed with. In this way he reminded me a bit of China Miéville, though the series as a whole felt less like a raised middle finger than Perdido Street Station did, at least to me. I found the world-building to be first-rate--what backstory we did get on the history of the world was, for me, the most interesting part of the series, and I found myself wishing I could have read that story instead. Intellectually I appreciated what he did here, but I don't see myself returning to this series. (Comprises The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings. Read 2/9/2012 - 2/22/2012.)
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara: This one has been on my list for a long time, and I'm happy I finally took the time to read it. I suspect that an interest in the Civil War may be a prerequisite for enjoying this story, but I found Michael Shaara's account of the Battle of Gettysburg to be gripping, and all the more so for how human he made it. Unlike the historical fiction I often read, this story is based on real events and, as much as possible, on the writings of the men who were actually there. Thus, there isn't much larger narrative to the story--that has to come from the knowledge the reader brings with him. Given that the book chronicles only the battle itself and the events immediately preceding and following it, I think a lot of people wouldn't find it to their liking. I, on the other hand, was riveted. Not only did Shaara bring the events of the battle to life, but in presenting it from the point of view of the men who took part in it, he painted an amazing picture of the end of the war. (Read 2/27/12 - 3/1/12.)
A friend of mine started an interesting project recently, a sort of multimedia horror dime novel for the web--he calls the format "digital pulp." The project is called Turnskin, and through a series of blog posts, video diaries, "found" footage, tweets, and Facebook posts it follows the story of a young LA woman after a strange encounter she has with what she describes as a "serpent creature."
Thus far there are about 20 or so entries at the blog site, and there's enough going on (and hinted at) that I'm interested to read more. I can see a strong connection to the modern New Weird movement, and to the older weird fiction pulps that were its precursors. I get the impression that there will be some sort of Gaiman-esque secret world revealed in forthcoming installments, and I'm looking forward to finding out more.
The prospect of using the web as a medium for narrative is something that a lot of people have explored over the past decade or so, to varying degrees of success. I think that the ones that tend to work well are ones where the author is familiar with web culture and how the medium is consumed and interpreted by its audience, and can execute on that knowledge. In some ways, you can see the idea of a blog-based story as the modern take on the epistolary novel, and that comparison works in a lot of ways. But at the root, blogs are consumed and understood by their readers in a very different way from letters, and that difference in tone has to be taken into account for a web-based story to work well.
I have to admit, I wasn't convinced at first that Turnskin was going to work well. There's a certain "writerliness" to the blog posts that struck me as inauthentic. But what I failed to take into account was the way that the different platforms that the project encompasses all work together. My "aha" moment came when I popped open the protagonist's Twitter feed. Right there at the top of the page--just like every other Twitter feed--is the description that the girl chose for herself: "I am an artist, writer, daydreamer and reluctant barista." Reading that, it clicked for me: this is exactly how the sort of person who would use expensive adjectives in her personal blog would describe herself. And, man, I know that person.
In that light, I really have to give my friend credit for a well-thought-out, layered, deep characterization. Kudos, dude. Kudos.
Fall Review Roundup
Here's a brief, non-inclusive list of things that have happened since I wrote my last review: I had a birthday, Jason had a birthday, the seasons changed, I shot my first wedding, and my daughter was born. I also read five books and saw three movies. Here are some quick takes, just to help me get caught up:
The Wise Man's Fear: After such a strong debut and after waiting impatiently for as long as I did, I was a little worried that the second installment of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle wouldn't live up to my hopes. I needn't have worried, though--this second chapter may be even better. I'm not sure how Rothfuss will be able to wrap up this series in just one more book--there seems to be so much story still untold--and I'm sure that it will be years yet before I get to find out, but, man, I'm hooked. (Read 6/26/11 - 6/30/11.)
Manhood for Amateurs: I received this as a birthday present from a friend of mine who has very good taste in books, and who paid me the incredible compliment of telling me that she chose this for me because it reminded her of my writing. Having read it, I can kind of see what she means, in that the essays in this collection are about the same sorts of things that I tend to think and write about: fatherhood, American culture, pivotal moments of his youth and young adulthood. The difference is in the quality of writing--it almost seems impossible but his prose is both unmistakeably in his voice, so particular to himself, but at the same time so resonant and familiar that it felt like he was reading my mind. Suffice it to say, if you enjoy the stuff I write here, you will love this book. (Read 7/6/11 - 8/15/11.)
Cars 2: It seems thin praise, but mostly what I can think to say about this movie is that it's not as bad as everybody said it was. Sure, there wasn't much to it, a lot of the milieu didn't make sense, and the first movie was better. But it was a fun little diversion, and Jason liked it enough that he's still talking about some of the characters three months later. (Viewed 7/9/11.)
Winnie the Pooh: I wish I could tell you more about this movie, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, and didn't wake up until the credits rolled. What I do remember seemed a little smug in its postmodernity--the movie is presented as a book being read, and it breaks the fourth wall several times by having the characters interact with the printed text of the book--but the characters were mostly as I remembered them and Jason liked it. ("Viewed" 7/17/11.)
Storm Front and Fool Moon: One of my co-workers loaned me the first two books in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, and I tore through both of them in three days. They were, as he presented them, quite fluffy but very fun reads. Urban fantasy isn't typically one of my favorite genres, but I enjoyed the characters and the fast-paced, action-mystery plots, and I'm looking forward to picking up the rest of the series one of these days. (Read 8/16/11 - 8/18/11.)
The Lion King: Ever since we got that CD of Disney songs for Jason, I've been excited for him to see The Lion King, and he's been excited as well. When it came to theaters in advance of the Blu-Ray release (I could go on and on about how much I hate the whole concept of the Disney Vault, but that didn't stop me from snapping up the Diamond Edition as soon as it became available) we headed over to our local cineplex, where we found that the only showing at a good time for us was in the 3D theater. Which is unfortunate, because this movie was really not well-served by being re-done in 3D. Let's leave aside the argument that 3D is gimmicky and distracting and potentially migraine-inducing--the bigger problem is that the 3D version is way too dark. This is a movie that is all about bright, beautiful, cinematic scenes, and to have it all smothered and dulled by light-eating 3D glasses is just shameful. It looks better on my TV at home, and that's just not right. (Viewed 9/17/11.)
I do have one more book left to review, but since I just finished it a couple of days ago I'm going to let it marinate a bit more and give it its own post, hopefully next week. Until then, have a happy Halloween!
Just a little administrative note: I'm no longer part of Amazon's affiliate program, so I no longer receive a commission for sales through links on this site. The links are there now only as a convenience to you.
By Lois McMaster Bujold
It's been nearly a year since I finished the last of the Vorkosigan novels, in which time Bujold has managed to add yet another to the already impressively lengthy series. As regular readers of this blog will know, this series has managed to become one of my all-time favorites in the field of soft science fiction--i read the bulk of it in one go that took just over a month. So how does this latest offering stack up? Well, it was certainly enjoyable, but even so I'd unfortunately have to put it at or near the bottom of the series.
Cryoburn sees Miles Vorkosigan come to the planet Kibou-daini in order to investigate one of the cryogenics corporations that dominates the society there--a corporation that is attempting to expand into the Barrayaran Empire. In the course of his investigation, Miles--as usual--uncovers a couple of hidden cryo-corp schemes and rescues some children, but the real meat of the novel is in its exploration of the Kibou culture. On Kibou-daini, you see, death is no longer a normal part of the life cycle--instead, people have their bodies frozen, to be revived at a later date, and Bujold uses her protagonist to help imagine what such a world would be like.
Now, a number of other Vorkosigan novels have a similar arc. Falling Free and Ethan of Athos, for example, or Cetaganda. I enjoyed all of those three, and the latter was one of my favorites. So why didn't I appreciate this one as much?
What I keep coming back to is that up until the very end, I didn't feel like this really needed to be a Vorkosigan story. So much of the story works like a more fleshed-out thought experiment--as a lot of science fiction does--that having Miles in there almost felt like an afterthought.
Of course, the same is true of Falling Free and Ethan of Athos, and I enjoyed those. The difference, I think, is that while those two stories are set in the same universe, Miles doesn't actually appear in either. The latter works at a level removed by only involving secondary characters from the main series. The former, on the other hand, is set hundreds of years before Miles' birth, which actually sets up some very satisfying callbacks in 2002's Diplomatic Immunity. In both cases, the inclusion in the Vorkosigan canon works to add a bit of extra flavor to the story, rather than it feeling shoehorned in like Cryoburn did.
On top of that, while the characters in Cryoburn are certainly well-realized, none of their relationships really drive the narrative. In Falling, we get to see the Quaddies through Leo Graf's inexperienced eyes, while in Ethan of Athos, the title character's naivete in the greater galactic environment not only gives us the chance to explore his society, but also give a fun outsider's look at the world we've already grown to know. There's a bit of that operating in Cryoburn in the chapters where Jin, a young Kibou-daini resident, is the POV character, but because we spend so much time with Miles, it doesn't come off as well. And ultimately, not much that happens in Cryoburn really has to matter to any great degree, not until the very end.
Though, to give credit where credit is due, the "Aftermaths" coda is just about perfectly handled. Bujold manages to sum up a whole lot of emotional content in just a few surprisingly short vignettes.
Longtime fans will most likely find this an enjoyable but not outstanding new entry. For the rest, while this episode is, like the rest, self-contained enough to be pretty friendly to newcomers, there are other places to start that are even better. (I recommend starting at the beginning, as I did.)
Started: 6/10/2011 | Finished: 6/13/2011
Kung Fu Panda 2
The Monday after I saw Kung Fu Panda 2, I mentioned to a coworker that I had done so. "I'm sorry," was his response. Which struck me as strange, since not only was it quite a good movie, but so was the first one. It turned out that he hadn't seen either, but it really speaks to the perception of DreamWorks as an animation studio that he would jump to such a conclusion.
Not that I can really blame him, of course. DreamWorks Animation initially made its name with Shrek, which wasn't bad (even though I do think it's ludicrous that it beat Monsters, Inc. for Best Animated Feature). But then came the second and third Shrek movies, which were awful, not to mention such gems as Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Madagascar, and Bee Movie. After such a long string of stinkers, I had, like my coworker, pretty much written off the studio.
Starting in 2008, though, with Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks seems to have finally gotten its act together. The first Kung Fu Panda was a lot of fun, and 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was strong enough to give Pixar's offering from that year--Toy Story 3--a serious run for its money. In fact, I'm still not sure which I like better. And heck, even the fourth Shrek movie was decent.
So, coming into Kung Fu Panda 2, I had high hopes and expectations, and I'm happy to say that they were all met. I really liked it. I liked all of the returning cast--Jack Black, of course, as well as Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, James Jong, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu. Together, they formed a very effective ensemble, with a very good mix of comic sensibility and depth of character. Throw in Gary Oldman as the villain, Shen--a role perfect for Oldman's often over-the-top style--plus smaller appearances by Victor Garber, Dennis Haysbert, Danny McBride, Michelle Yeoh, and even Jean-Claude Van Damme* and you have a cast of voices that made me rejoice to hear it. Yes, there are a lot of famous names in there, but they all worked really well in their roles.
Plus, there was a lot of range to the script. It had me laughing at some points and actually got me a little choked up at others. I mean, who knows, I have become a bit of a crybaby in the past few years, but there was an honesty to some of the character interactions that I just found touching.
I'd put this as the first must-see family movie of the season, whether or not you have kids. And if you haven't seen the first one, throw it on your Netflix queue, because it's also well worth seeing.
* And, by the way, if you haven't seen Van Damme's 2008 film JCVD, I highly recommend it.
Viewed: 5/30/2011 | Released: 5/29/2011 | Score: A
Given that Sky Blue Sky Studios was the same group that brought us Ice Age and Robots, I really wasn't expecting much from Rio. After all, we live in an age where Pixar has repeatedly shown us that not just animated movies but family movies can have full, rounded characters with complex relationships in stories with real emotional depth. In comparison, Blue Sky's movies have typically just tried to cash in on celebrity voices and visual gags. And in a lot of ways, Rio follows that same formula. Still, I have to admit that it did a better job than any previous Blue Sky offerings, and while that's not exactly high praise, I can say that I enjoyed the movie well enough.
There's not really a lot to the movie, plotwise. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue parrot who lives with his owner Linda (Leslie Mann) in Minnesota. It turns out that he's the last known male of his species, so a Brazilian biologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) brings Blu and Linda down to Rio de Janeiro to try to pair Blue with a female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). But Blu and Jewel wind up getting stolen by bird smugglers and wacky hijinks ensue as the parrots try to escape.
I think the main problem I had with this movie was Jesse Eisenberg's voice acting. Not that he did a particularly bad job, and in a lot of respects that casting choice makes sense. Blu is, after all, shy, awkward, and young. If you want a voice that sums that up quickly you're pretty much down to Eisenberg or Michael Cera. The problem is that both of those actors have such distinctive voices that hearing them immediately evokes their images, so having Eisenberg voice a cartoon bird kept jarring me out of the movie.
On the other hand, despite the fact that the jokes were mostly pretty facile, they were executed well enough by the various actors that I found myself laughing out loud several times. Plus, the movie was quite pretty to look at--it's really amazing how far computer imagery has come in such a short amount of time.
It's pretty unlikely that Rio will be winning any awards, but if all you need is a movie you can take your kids to without too much pain, you could definitely do worse.
Viewed: 5/8/2011 | Released: 4/15/2011 | Score: B-
Six Months, Six Words
You know, I keep meaning to write new reviews, but with one thing or another, it keeps falling by the wayside. Seems like I set out almost every day to catch up on my reviews, but by the time I've got the dishes done and the laundry put away and my son bathed and I've finished the day's work for my new photography business, all I want to do is collapse on the couch and watch re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the plus side, that means I've been ending a lot of evenings lately doing what I want--Juliette and I started season five of Buffy this week--but, of course, it means I've slipped a lot on some of my other responsibilities.
But you didn't come here to hear me whine. You came here for book reviews. So, in an effort to finally get back on track, I decided to do one huge omnibus review of everything I've read in the past six months. The twist? Each review gets six words.
The Hunger Games Trilogy: If you haven't already, read it.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy: Conspiracy theories make my head hurt.
Leviathan Wakes: The best new sci-fi in years.
Treason's Shore: A weaker series than I remembered.
His Majesty's Dragon: Like Hornblower, but with dragons. Fun.
Lolita: Beautiful prose, utterly uncomfortable reading experience.
And there we are. Hopefully it won't be another six months before I can get my act together. ;)
The Hunger Games
Started: 12/7/2010 | Finished: 12/8/2010
Started: 1/24/2011 | Finished: 1/25/2011
Started: 1/26/2011 | Finished: 1/26/2011
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Started: 1/4/2011 | Finished: 1/21/2011
Started: 1/31/2011 | Finished: 2/8/2011
Started: 3/11/2011 | Finished: 3/16/2011
His Majesty's Dragon
Started: 3/17/2011 | Finished: 3/19/2011
Started: 3/21/2011 | Finished: 4/6/2011
Gnomeo & Juliet
2010 was a pretty good year for animated movies. Of course, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon were fantastic, and I wrote before about liking Tangled quite a bit. Heck, even the latest Shrek offering was decent. And then Jason's interest in movies has been growing steadily, and we had a bunch of theater gift cards left over from Christmas, so we decided to take a chance on Gnomeo & Juliet.
Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnomish take on Shakespeare's classic tale of star-crossed lovers failed to measure up to the high bar set by last year's animated hits.
I had my suspicions going in, of course. I mean, a tragedy ending in a double suicide doesn't seem like the most fertile ground for a family cartoon, does it? But then, animation studios have been doing a great job with creating more honest, engaging children's fare lately, well-written stories with fully realized characters. Maybe this one would follow that same path, I thought. And then I heard Kenneth Turan's review on NPR's Morning Edition, in which he called it "playful, inventive, and endearing," and "the pleasantest surprise of the season." With that kind of praise, I let myself be talked into overcoming my initial reservations.
Having seen it for myself, I have to wonder whether Mr. Turan and I actually saw the same movie. The writing was completely formulaic and dull, replete with your wise-cracking sidekicks and pop music montages. The performances were forgettable. The humor was tired, and there was no real sense of emotional engagement. In short, there really wasn't anything to lift this above the level of, say, Shark Tale or one of the middle Shrek movies.
Leaving the theater afterwards, I had this image of a bunch of clueless studio execs sitting around saying things like, "Our focus studies showed that parents appreciate pop culture references," and "You know what would be hilarious? Let's give this one character a bunch of malapropisms for no reason. And then he'll be voiced by Michael Caine!"
Now, look, I don't have anything against these ideas, per se, but if you must put in pop culture references, could you at least put in some fresh ones? There must be hundreds of movies at this point that have used the Matrix bullet-time gimmick or the American Beauty rose petals or thrown in an "I wish I could quit you" for no reason. Maybe that was OK the first year after those movies came out, but it's just not topical anymore. Nobody cares anymore.
The really tragic thing about this movie is that there was actually some evidence that somebody involved actually did know something about filmcraft, because there was one scene that had some genuine emotional content. (Tellingly, there was no dialogue at all in that part.) But even that didn't really work in the context of the film as a whole, being almost a throwaway scene that ended up just feeling incongruous with all the silliness in the rest of the movie.
Of course, there's always the chance I'm just being snobby. Most of the other families coming out of the theater with us talked about how good and cute it was. They seemed pretty happy on their ticket purchase. Maybe they really did like it; maybe they just liked having a chance to get out of the house with the kids. I don't know. But in an era where Pixar is repeatedly proving that you can make animated movies that are both entertaining and emotionally complex, I just can't recommend a movie like Gnomeo & Juliet.
Viewed: 2/19/2011 | Released: 2/11/2011 | Score: D+
By Brandon Sanderson
I probably wouldn't have picked up another Sanderson novel so soon after finishing the Mistborn trilogy, but a coworker loaned me this one thinking that it was the third book in that series so I had it on-hand. Still, it made for an interesting comparison, since Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel, and Mistborn followed soon after.
Elantris is the name of a huge, once powerful and beautiful city. For hundreds of years, the city was populated by a race of benevolent demigods, each of whom was at one time human but was transformed into an Elantrian through a mysterious process called the Shaod. But ten years prior to the beginning of the story, the Elantrians' magic failed, causing their city to crumble. More than that, though the Shaod still takes people, instead of becoming powerful, near-immortal magic wielders, they turn into shambling wrecks, unable to die or even heal--any wounds suffered by a new Elantrian remain painful forever.
The story opens with Raoden--a prince of Arelon, the country formerly ruled by Elantris--waking to discover that he has been taken by the Shaod, on the morning he is to be wed to Sarene, a princess from across the sea. Like all those transformed since the fall of Elantris, he is banished into the rotting city, and the rest of the world is told that he has died suddenly. Sarene is left to find her way in Arelon on her own, while Raoden discovers the depths to which life--if it can be called that--in Elantris has sunk in the past ten years. Into this scene comes a third character, Hrathen, a warrior-priest intent on subjugating Arelon for his dark masters, and Raoden and Sarene must work to discover the secret of Elantris' downfall before Hrathen achieves his goal.
All in all, the book was decent, but in comparison with Mistborn, it was easy to see that this was the earlier work. Like a lot of speculative fiction, Elantris is built around one central idea. In this case, it's the mystery of the Elantrians' downfall. The problem is, that idea was a little too central for my taste, leaving me feeling in the end that the book was just too long for what it was. Which is not to say that the book is boring--Sanderson does a fairly good job of keeping things going from scene to scene--it's just that much of what happens, especially in the first half, ends up feeling digressive by the end.
Still, I do have to give Sanderson credit for coming up with an interesting concept. The characters were fairly well-crafted, too, even if the world they inhabited felt a little simplistic to me. What worked the best for me was actually not so much the plot but rather the time spent with Raoden, exploring the ruins of Elantris. Both the descriptions of the city, itself, as well as the survival-of-the-fittest culture that arose there were quite evocative. (As a side note, it made me wonder how much influence was drawn from Mervyn Peake's Ghormengast novels--I haven't read those yet, but reading this made me bump them ahead in my queue a few places.)
I don't know if Elantris is quite worth the praise it's gotten from critics and readers, but it was nevertheless a pretty entertaining read. It's out in paperback at this point, so you should be able to pick it up fairly cheaply in your local bookstore.
Started: 12/9/2010 | Finished: 12/16/2010
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
By Peter Carey
I wasn't sure, when I finished this novel, whether or not I liked it. Having had seven weeks to mull it over, I'm still not sure. That doesn't happen that often for me, but it appears to be where I am with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.
A big part of my ambivalence stems from my difficulty in figuring out just what the book is about. It is, as the title suggests, a personal story. Tristan Smith is born with grotesque deformities that isolate him for the rest of his life--he can barely speak, only walks with difficulty, vomits when upset, and is so hideous that most people can't stand to look at him. So, on one level, it is a character study of a deeply marginalized and alienated person--we see the roiling internal life of a central figure who is effectively cut off from the world around him.
But then, it's also clearly meant as a political allegory. Tristan is born and grows up in the country of Efica, a fictional island nation whose beginnings as a penal colony recall author Carey's native Australia, but whose language and culture rather bring to mind South Africa. (Or, at least, the loosely formed image of South Africa that I have.) Tristan's mother is an emigrant from Voorstand, another fictional country whose cultural hegemony and cloak-and-dagger espionage agents are an obvious reference to the United States--though Voorstand's Dutch-influenced dialect is also reminiscent of the Boers.
The interplay between Efica and Voorstand colors every aspect of the novel. Tristan's mother is the founder of an agitprop theater company, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in the company of that theater group as they work and tour and speak against Voorstandish influence in Efica. Tristan grows up both despising Voorstand and entranced by its flashy culture. (The lie is later put to that flashy impression when Tristan visits Voorstand and sees, instead, a landscape of inanity and social decay.) Seeing Tristan's world as we do, through his eyes, we're given a glimpse at the other side of first-world relations with the third world.
The political aspect might seem overbearing if it were completely earnest--and I'm not sure it's not overbearing anyway--but there's also a fair amount of satire. Of the world superpowers, of course--Voorstand's feared intelligence agencies are depicted as almost farcical, and the country's society is based on what amounts to a literal worship of Disney characters. Conversely, Efica--especially the artists surrounding Tristan and his mother--are portrayed with such self-importance that it's hard to imagine that Carey isn't making fun of them, as well.
On top of all of that, the form of the book leaves me wondering how much, if any, can even be trusted. The story is told in Tristan's own voice, complete with footnotes on fictional history and cultural explanations, presented as a memoir or confessional. Throughout the book, Tristan addresses the reader directly, imagining us to be Voorstandish citizens who see him as a terrorist, and imploring us to understand his perspective. It's reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's repeated asides to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Between that allusion and the fact that so much detail is included in scenes where Tristan was either not present or was too young to remember or understand, it seems at times that the reader is invited to wonder just how much is being made up or covered over to further some other agenda.
There's a lot going on in this book, and it's clearly a skillful work. But despite the fact that I can appreciate, even marvel at the craftsmanship, there was still something holding me back from really connecting with it. Maybe I'm simply too American or too bourgeois. I don't know. I'd love to get another take on it, though, so if any of you out there do read it, let me know what you thought.
Started: 11/23/2010 | Finished: 12/7/2010