Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Historian

So I finally finished The Historian. The key word there is FINALLY. That is one overlong book. I enjoyed it, but with many caveats. Its length isn't necessarily one of them; I certainly have enjoyed other 642-page books. But this one didn't read quickly. Author Elizabeth Kostova attempted to use numerous voices--the unnamed narrator, the narrator's father, mother, and the narrator's father's professor, to name a few--but she didn't distinguish between them.

In a review in The Guardian UK, Jane Stevenson notes that "Kostova is a whiz at storytelling and narrative pace, and she can write atmospheric descriptions of place, but she has no great sense of the location of language within time, and not much talent for impersonation. Unfortunately, the shape of her story commits her to a great deal of it. That there is no distinction between the narrator's voice and exposition is legitimate, since the narrator is recounting the events of 1972 from the standpoint of 2008, but the father's voice is identical, which is bad, and so is the voice of an Oxonian Englishman in 1930, which is ludicrous." Indeed, both the narrator's father and the narrator's professor end up sounding like David Hyde Pierce's Niles Crane--fussy, prolix, and effeminate: to put it bluntly, a wuss who would never have captured the heart of the enigmatic, edgy Helen.

As well, Kostova has said that she wanted the excitement of research to equal criminal forensics. But the research in The Historian is spotty and drawn-out. The protagonists travel from the United States to England, France, Istanbul, Bulgaria, and Romania through all time periods and at each step uncover such infinitesimally small pieces of information that the long treks become just a seemingly endless series of anticlimaxes. The real climax of the book is over in a blink, almost besides the point. (If you want a book where research is exciting, read Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, Robert Kurson's fast-paced non-fiction account of two divers who identified a mysterious wreck off the coast of New Jersey. Kurson makes going through pages of archives positively thrilling.)

That said, Kostova writes beautifully about place and scene. The book is richly and gorgeously visual, which is no small feat. Her descriptive art carried me most of the way through this multi-generational tale, but would have been better served by judicious editorial cuts.

On deck
Blonde Lightning, by the most-deserving-of-a-best-seller Terrill Lee Lankford; sequel to the very excellent Earthquake Weather

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

To read or not to read, redux

As part of this blog's massive update, I wanted to repost a couple of entries from my political/cultural rant, The Obstinate Eye, called To read or not to read, part I and part II (I know, I know, I'm so clever.)

July 8 and 9, 2004
You know things are really bad when a good mystery just won't do it anymore. You know, to take your mind off the drudgery, cruelty, mean-spiritedness of what passes for news and politics.

I love a good mystery. Michael Connelly, Elizabeth George, Nevada Barr, Sue Grafton, Donald Harstad, Val McDermid. Tough, smart, and often witty protagonists making the world safe, if sometimes a bit sadder.

I just finished a really good one, Earthquake Weather, by Terrill Lee Lankford, a hard-boiled Hollywood mystery with more than a taste of Raymond Chandler.

But murder most foul just wasn't, well, foul enough to drown out the bleak white noise of everyday life. I need a stronger hit these days. Like apocalyptic weather, reptilian aliens, ghosts, ghouls, things that not only go bump but also crash in the night. Anything strong enough to make me glad to be in this dimension--er, world.

As I was saying, in a normal world, the more mundane of mysteries--the serial killers, the sexual predators, the vengeful apprentice or jealous spouse--would be enough to make me feel that all's right with the world, that the ingenious, intrepid detective or private eye or special agent can get the bad guy.

But now even the mysteriously sinister anthropomorphic house, imbued with the occult for generations, is losing its abiity to suspend my disbelief. There's just nothing more horrifying than what's going on in the news. The Haunting of Hill House? The scariest book ever written? A picnic. The unreliable narrator? Don't make me laugh--what we are living with now is the ultimate example of an unreliable narrator.

The Blair Witch Project, yeah, that could be scary--if you renamed it The Bush White House Project.

I want my fun reading back! Vote the scary man out of office!

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

September slowing down

Updated August 2005

I had been wanting to read Sineater by Elizabeth Massie for some time, so it was a big letdown to find it not worth the wait. This had, first of all, too many animal deaths, which by this time is such a cliche people ought to stop using it. It's like the expendable ensign (aka "The Red Shirt") on Star Trek; you know that person/pet's gonna die. It was also anticlimactic, and suffered from "The Village" Syndrome.

As for Elizabeth Hand's Mortal Love (see below), I had to return it. Too many books, starting to not be enough time. I'll have to catch up with it later.

Also read
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris. Another whimsical, poignant, and funny collection of autobiobraphical essays. Sedaris captures ephemeral moments and moods beautifully--here, in "Put a Lid on It," he talks about one of his sister Tiffany's pieces of art:
[Her] latest [mosaic] project is the size of a bath mat and features the remains of a Hummell figurine, the once cherubic face now reeling in a vortex of shattered coffee mugs. Like the elaborate gingerbread houses she made during her baking days, Tiffany’s mosaics reflect the loopy energy of someone who will simply die if she doesn’t express herself. It’s a rare quality, and because it requires an absolute lack of self-consciousness, she is unable to see it.
When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden, Bill Maher. Very acerbic, thought-provoking essays from the master of Real Time.

Against All Enemies, Richard A. Clarke, on CD. Who would think that Clarke could make the intrigue, deception and vitriol surrounding his revelations about the failure of US intelligence, and the Bush administration in particular, to face the reality of terrorism sound so, well, boring? Unfinished.

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Thursday, August 26, 2004

Dust and dirt ending August

Finished two really good books:
Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King
Live Bait, P.J. Tracy

Am also currently listening to Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, written and read by Al Franken. Fantastic, infuriating, funny.

Next up, in no particular order, my latest library haul:
Sineater, Elizabeth Massie. I've been meaning to get to this for years.
Mortal Love, Elizabeth Hand. I've been a fan of hers for years.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris.
When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden, Bill Maher.
Against All Enemies, Richard A. Clarke, on CD. Eric has this now.

So when will I get to these borrowed books?
Blood Rites: Book Six of the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.

I never finished The Second Assistant. I let Eric tell me the end . . .

Monday, August 09, 2004

All smoke and no sizzle

Just finished reading Brimstone, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's latest mystery starring FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. What a disappointment. At their best, Preston and Child's Pendergast novels (starting with "The Relic," including "The Cabinet of Curiosities") evoke a kind of X Files creepiness, mixing the mundane with a hint of the unknown in a very realistic manner, which of course is the best way to create chills: set something very strange in a very real world.

This one started out well, but as it went on, there were too many cliches, including at least numbers 4, 6, variations of 7 and 16, 13, 36, 40, and 64 from The Evil Overlord List. And the evil, including a promising subplot that ended awkwardly and abruptly, turned out to be depressingly earthly and almost ludicrous.

Their next book might be more interesting, as it will focus, it seems, on Pendergast. But it appears it will be based on the distressingly worn-out ultimate "evil vs. good" battle. Reminds me of the time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Giles said urgently, "It's the end of the world," and Buffy, Willow, and Xander replied, "Again?"

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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

August Books

R is for Ricochet, Sue Grafton. Another wonderful chapter in Kinsey Millhone's life that goes down as smoothly and satisfyingly as comfort food. One question, though: When the HELL is Kinsey going to get a friggin' CELL phone??? She's a P.I. and is always on the move. It's at least 1986 or 1987 now, alphabetically. According to Selling the Cell Phone, "By 1987, cellular telephone subscribers exceeded one million and the airways were crowded." Get with it, girl!! And a great quote:
I could see where owning a cat would render a grownup completely goofy in time."

Am reading:
Brimstone, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Wahoo! Another creepy mystery/thriller starring not-quite-human FBI Special Agent Pendergast.

Next up:
Must finish The Second Assistant, Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare, which I lent to Eric.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi. Am afraid this is going to lose its place on the list because, besides Brimstone, I got the following books in from the library . . .
The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.
Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, Dean King.
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter, After I quoted this book in an e-mail discussion about bias against smart people, I thought I'd at least try to skim through the actual book.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

July Books

Monkeewrench, P.J. Tracy
The Taking, Dean Koontz
Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane
The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler (unfinished: Sophie's Choice Syndrome*)
What Are You Looking At?, Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang, ed. (unfinished: Short Story Syndrome*)
Armed and Dangerous: Memoirs of a Chicago Policewoman, Gina Gallo (unfinished: too many books, too many renewals*)
Nightmare House, Douglas Clegg

Am reading:
The Second Assistant, Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare

Next up:
R is for Ricochet, Sue Grafton
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

Eric finished (!!) Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs.

June Books

The Poet, Michael Connelly
The Narrows, Michael Connelly
Lost Light, Michael Connelly
The Fat Girl's Guide to Life, Wendy Shanker
Lucifer: Inferno, Mike Carey et. al.
Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, Scott Allie
Little Black Book of Stories, A.S. Byatt (unfinished; boring)
Earthquake Weather, Terrill Lee Lankford

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