Friday, October 31, 2014

Clearing the stash

I recently joined an online book group, and last week I participated in the bimonthly "toppler" activity. The purpose of the toppler is to set aside as many other activities as possible to embark on an intense readathon to clear your shelves of malingering titles. Most members, however, report that their "to be read" list tends to grow rather than shrink during the toppler activity as they add the titles of interesting books other members are mentioning.

Anyway, I managed to read four novels during the toppler week, and a couple of them were quite good. My very brief summaries follow.

First up was a classic science fiction novel I've had on my reading list for many years, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As I'm probably the only person on Earth who hadn't read this spaceship adventure tale, I'll skip the capsule summary and just note that I enjoyed it and was surprised (and pleased) at the humor.

Next was the most poignant and beautifully-written novel of the week, the Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. This was terrific stuff and another of the novels I've read this year that made me despair of becoming a novelist.

Fortunately, I followed it with the adequate, but not chill-inducing, Lady Macbeth. Perhaps I should write historical fiction. I could manage this.

If I try very hard, I could possibly write a novel of the quality of the National Book Award-nominated Station Eleven. Author Emily St. John Mandel has an engaging story of well-drawn characters in a post-apocalyptic world, and her prose is spare and elegant, although not awe-inspiring. Still, it was one of the better novels I've read this year.

I've also been clearing my yarn stash, so far with scarves and this hat:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Good poetry, bad prose

Notice: knitting content will be returning to this knitting/books/film blog.

After 8.5 years, I have completed the knitting project that has been my albatross. This sweater is why I haven't been in a yarn shop in, well, probably 8.5 years, until yesterday when I purchased the buttons to finish it off.

And here it is:

The pattern is from a gorgeous, now out-of-print book, Poetry in Stitches, by Norwegian designer Solveig Hisdal. The knitwear designs in this book are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen, and I would be happy to knit them all, if I live long enough. But for the next one, I will take the time to adapt the pattern for knitting in the round with armhole steeks, rather than divide at the armhole as written. A pattern that requires constantly consulting a chart is slow enough; reading the chart backwards when the purl rows begin is excruciating.

Also excruciating was the book I finished yesterday, Jeffrey Archer's Only Time Will Tell. I was misled by the high ratings on Goodreads. What are people thinking? This is the Lord Archer that is one of Britain's best-selling novelists? Readers from the land of Dickens consider this good? Rubbish, I say. Admittedly, few novels could follow on the heels of the elegant prose of Wilkie Collins' masterpiece and not suffer in comparison, but this was still bloody awful.

Curious to know if I'm alone in my harsh judgement of the novel, I searched out reviews and could find no critics who were impressed. (The delightful Diana Gabaldon raked it over the coals for the Washington Post).  This must be akin to the summer movies that receive one star from critics yet top the weekend box office receipts.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Woman in White

My favorite category of literature is British novels of the 19th century. (I'm also extraordinarily fond of the music and poetry of the 19th century; perhaps I had a previous life in that time).  Having just finished another novel of the era, I've been pondering the common characteristics that link Austen, Dickens, Elliot, et al, in my mind, and so far I'm at a loss to account for it.

Could the common thread be the cadence of the language? The essential Britishness of the characters? The languid pacing? The rich descriptions? The precision of the prose? The wry wit? At least one contemporary writer has deciphered the commonality enough to successfully imitate it. Perhaps one day I will have the leisure to pursue a PhD in Literature and unravel the mystery for myself.

Until that day, I can delight in occasionally losing a weekend in the company of fictional Victorians. This past weekend, I was glued to the sofa with Wilkie Collins' magnificent thriller, The Woman in White.

The title character makes only cameo appearances, but the mystery surrounding her is central to the story. Her fate is intertwined with the six principal characters -- three of whom are virtuous in the extreme, and the other three of whom are villainous. Mr. Collins has not shaded his characters in hues of gray; his hero and heroines act only with the noblest of motives and seem to be immune even to common human failings. Of his three main villains, only one transcends a one-dimensional drawing of heartless, remorseless manipulator. The corpulent Italian aristocrat, Count Fosco, is a villain worthy of a comic book: flamboyant, cunning and controlling, he is always one step ahead of his adversaries and seems to require a hero with superpowers to outmaneuver him. Yet he has a soft spot for animals and intelligent women, notably his protagonist on the virtuous team, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only one of her side to have a flaw: an ugly face.

Were this novel released in our age, a modern critic would likely take issue with characters painted in such pure terms. Even Batman has to wrestle with his inner demons these days, and the Joker perhaps had a good reason for turning to crime. No contemporary novel could support a character such as Marian Holcombe, who lives in stunning devotion to her younger half-sister who inherited not only all of the family money but also the physical beauty. Poor, plain Marian never seems to experience even a twinge of jealousy towards her fortunate sister.

I'm grateful Mr. Collins had no need to concern himself with the opinions of our century. His one-dimensional characters draw in the reader (assuming the absence of modern perversities that cause some readers to root for the bad guys), who will know clearly which team to support in this struggle of good and evil. Plus, the plot is intricate and perfectly paced.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Name of the Rose

I've been an admirer of Umberto Eco since reading his marvelous novel Foucault's Pendulum in my mid-20s. For many years, I counted it among my top-five favorite books, although I was less enchanted when I re-read it a few years ago. I read 3 of Eco's subsequent 4 novels and a collection of essays, but none have matched the delight of my first experience of Foucault.

The glaring omission in my Eco-sphere has been his most famous work, The Name of the Rose. If my enthusiasm for Eco has waned with each reading, perhaps I could rekindle it by visiting his masterpiece. I had never read Rose, primarily because I had seen the Sean Connery film version and rarely read a book after seeing the movie.

I quickly realized that this novel was not one to rush through in the midst of a book-a-week challenge, yet I soldiered on. I was in no humor to decipher medieval theological arguments, particularly those partially presented in Latin, so I skimmed those passages and tried to focus on the crime mystery plot.

This novel is full of allusions that are above my education level, but in the first chapter, I was tickled to spot an allusion to this book from a less erudite work of fiction. The story is narrated by Adso of Melk. Where had I heard that name before? Hmm, isn't Claire Fraser's cat called Adso? All of the seven Outlander tomes I've read this year are back at the library, but with a wee bit of googling I found the passage in which the cat gets its name. Jamie says his mother, a very learned woman, liked a book written by Adso, a German monk from the city of Melk. Well, Adso of Melk is a fictional character in a book published in 1980, which leads me to wonder: is this a clue that Jamie's mother time-traveled, or is Diana Gabaldon simply playing a joke? I'm now very eager to read the most recent Outlander novel in hopes of unraveling this mystery.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Shadow of Night

This month I'll be reading 8 books, I hope! This ambitious undertaking is necessitated by next month's even more ambitious undertaking: to write 50,000 words of a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month. To stay on plan for the book-a-week challenge, I'll need to bump November's books into October, so that I may devote all of November to writing a novel for which, at this point, I have neither characters, plots, themes or ideas of any sort.

First up was Shadow of Night, the second volume in Deborah Harkness' All-Souls trilogy. I didn't like it as much as the first, but as I've invested so much time in these characters, I'll undoubtedly read the final book to find out how the saga ends, even though I've had enough of witches and vampires already.

So much contemporary popular fiction is presented in the form of a series, and the most common variant of that seems to be the trilogy. I don't know if this trend is reader-driven or publisher-driven. (I suppose I could google it, but I have a bad cold and can't summon enough energy right now to read the answers). If readers are responsible for the situation, it must be because they are reluctant to let go of enjoyable characters and make-believe worlds (the fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi genres accounting for a disproportionate share of the trilogy scene). Publishers, of course, are usually eager to cash in on reader preferences. I wonder how often a publisher says to a writer, "hey, this is a good story, do you think you could stretch it to three books instead of one?" If this is happening, I would like to beg publishers to reconsider. Few stories are worthy of extended treatment. My judgement of Deborah Harkness' trilogy, now that I'm two-thirds finished, is that it would have been better as a single volume. Give me one excellent 1,000-word novel instead of three mediocre 500-word novels. (J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon, you are exempt from this rule).