November 27, 2007

Book 63: Henry IV, Part One

Henry IV, Part One
William Shakespeare

Ah, Shakespeare. We all knew I would get around to the Bard eventually, didn't we? Henry IV, Part One is a good example of why and how Shakespeare has achieved his mighty reputation. The play is enjoyable enough but displays a sense of epic self-consciousness that still resonates and, at times, clogs the narrative. As for the story itself, it is important to England's history and the preservation of its memory, but actual plot elements are few and far between. The very vague connection between Falstaff's scenes in various taverns (complete with lol-heavy slapstick fat jokes) and the important parts of the play is slightly annoying, as Falstaff comes across as unnecessary. Shakespeare does utilize a rather hilarious web of entanglement for his thieves, and his comic wit is sharp when dealing with Prince Hal's and Falstaff's role-playing, but this second story just doesn't seem to have a place in the grand histories of kings and rebellions.

Shakespeare definitely has a flair for the dramatic (ahem), but, as usual, this gets to be a little too much at times, as eloquent speech overwhelms the reader and clouds any sense of what is actually happening. I believe that Shakespeare is well-suited to his form, and that such diversions may work out well on the stage, but on paper alone they are less than fully satisfying. What Shakespeare has done, however, is created an interesting and vibrant picture of what could have been just another rebellion in the olde days of yore. His language is excessively elegent, but part of the play's difficulty lies in the fact that there is a huge gap between Shakespeare's English and our own. Henry IV, Part One seems remarkably modern at times, and as for the haughty language, we are dealing with kings of a bygone era. Henry IV, Part One isn't necessarily a book suitable for a trip to the beach or a vacation time-killer, but it is certainly interesting for the glimpses it offers us of the eras of its setting and composition.

Grade: B+

November 24, 2007

Book 62: Cosmicomics

Italo Calvino

Finally, a collection of short stories that is entirely cohesive and where one can help boost understanding of the others. Not quite a collection of disparate stories and not quite a composite novel, Cosmicomics masters the short story and sets an impeccable gold standard for collections of short fiction. The stories of Cosmicomics are not only linked together by a common narrator or by recurring themes (such as lost love), but by unquantifiable characteristics that, taken together, provide a view of the macro- and microcosms of the universe unparalleled by science or, almost certainly, by any work of fiction. Calvino seeks not to define the universe, but to make scientific facts come alive in the adventures and lives of vividly defined existential beings. In doing so, he brilliantly weaves together the vast infinity of space and the minute emotional twinges we humans feel.

Taking on the entire universe and grappling with such concepts as galactic recession and the Big Bang is no small feat, but Calvino suceeds in every conceivable manner. His narrator, Qfwfq, is vividly imagined and consistent even though he exists outside of space and time. At different points he is human, dinosaur, interstellar being, and microscopic atom; though he changes within stories, he is always himself somehow. Instead of creating a cop-out character who could be anything the author needs at a given moment, Calvino works with the fabric of the universe and makes believable a constant in the broadest sense of the term. Qfwfq's consistent resemblance to humanity throughout (and perhaps despite) his many forms brings the universe down to our level and makes the scientific facts preceding each story come alive. We are reassured that humanity has fundamental characteristics that permeate the entirety of time, making our short stay on Earth relevant and part of the vast plan of the cosmos.

Cosmicomics is far from a haughty sermon on human relevance and the insignificance of individual lives. Calvino takes the largest of distances and times and humanizes them with unparalleled skill and literary dexterity. The stories in this book are all gripping and all achieve exactly what they mean to. Some are a bit stronger than others, but all are miles ahead of their time. While drawing inspiration from the cutting edge of science, Calvino manages some astonishing predictions and observations that cut right into the computer age. His imagination of a world of relativity, comprised entirely of signs and marks of one's existence, comes thirty years before the Internet and forty before Second Life, which is all but described in "A Sign in Space". Despite Calvino's use of the science of the Sixties, the book is fresh and modern even decades after its publication.

Calvino masters both scope and depth in Cosmicomics, taking on everything with a distinctly human perspective and making science relevant and within the grasp of any ordinary reader. I also imagine that these stories would be well-received in the scientific community, adding an interesting and often humorous perspective on the often dry annals of science. Cosmicomics takes the mind-boggling and brings it down to size without losing any of its grand expanse. The stories each imagine a distinctly human universe that is comforting and familiar, insisting that we are important and part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. Even more astounding is that this is managed without a hint of pride, but rather with only the phenomenal reach of Italo Calvino's vivid imagination.

Grade: A

November 20, 2007

Book 61: The Apocalypse Reader

The Apocalypse Reader
Edited by Justin Taylor

The premise of apocalypse promises to create interesting, if not always excellent, stories, and this collection offers up quite a few worth the time. Taken together, however, the collection feels patchy in parts and has stories that vary from excellent to bizarre and annoyingly postmodern. While I understand Taylor's insistence on collecting stories that focus not only on the Apocalypse as we commonly think of it but also on minor apocalypses such as the loss of a child , I think that his collection suffers from a lack of coherency because of the variance of apocalypse in the stories. If they were grouped more thematically, it may have been easier to track the point of the more indecipherable stories, but the collection is as it stands and can become a bit confusing.

The stories themselves vary incredibly in their quality. There are some by new authors that are stunning and weave in new and fresh methods with stunning success. There are others, however, that seem to relish their art to the point where there really is no story and nothing to grasp onto. I cannot get a firm grasp on Taylor's criteria for inclusion; the stories are so wildly inconsistent that the book is really only useful for finding the gems, a feat that can be easily accomplished within the span of a library loan. Taylor has put together an interesting attempt, but ultimately the collection fails to hold together and captivate the reader the way apocalyptic literature should.

Grade: B

November 18, 2007

Book 60: The Faerie Queene, Book 1

The Faerie Queene, Book 1
Edmund Spenser

I am not an academic. I enjoy old literature and consider myself to have a fleeting but passable familiarization with Middle English as a language. I can more or less comfortably read Chaucer and, with some well-placed glosses and footnotes, can fully understand Shakespeare. Where I falter, however, is with Spenser's deliberately overworked poetry. Over-archaized verse that flaunts its superior morality while commiting hypocrisy at every turn, The Faerie Queene is not to be read by those outside of the know. In fact, even those studying it for a conceivable purpose would probably do better with more interesting and feasible works from the era. If this is England's national epic, I'll go to France or Germany- at least I can understand them in translation. Spenser's work is impossible to enjoy and can only be understood with the help of a personal tutor, extensive footnotes, and a doctorate-level understanding of Greek mythology and the history of England.

I hesitate to be so cruel toward Spenser, but I cannot imagine he was much easier to read in his own day. In fact, because we have the benefit of context and scholarship, it may be easier to read Spenser now. Spenser's use of Spenserian (oho!) verse does not propel the story forward or give it the gravity he intends; rather, it creates a forced metrical feel and an utterly painful rhyme scheme that screw up the syntax to a point where it is impossible to discern what is going on at any point in the story. Characters will start dialogues without being properly introduced, point of view will shift dramatically, and names change left and right without explanation. This story requires a map.

In itself, the tale is mainly flawed by its complexity. If Spenser spent more time creating interesting literature and less trying to fluff himself and his image I'm sure he would have created a worthwhile allegory. When the story is focused on itself and not on obscure Greek name-dropping it gets quite interesting. The caveat, of course, is the fact that the virtue of Holinesse can belong to both Catholics and Protestants throughout the story (it is supposed to settle on the latter) and that magic is either evil (Catholic) or good (Protestant) on Spenser's whim. He won't win over any converts with his hole-ridden plot, but he gives it a good whack anyway. Spenser does go a bit overboard by naming characters directly after each vice and virtue encountered, but this fits right in with his grandiose stylization and merely reinforces the reader's notion that Spenser is a man utterly full of himself.

The main fault of The Faerie Queene is that its author doesn't trust its message to speak for itself. Instead, Spenser employs far too much grandstanding for far too little actual substance. He undermines any argument he may have in the process and makes himself look silly instead of academic and/or intelligent. Reading this book is an excruciatingly bad experience that I would recommend avoiding if at all possible. I want to be well-read in English literature, but I don't like having my time blatantly wasted and, indeed, stolen by a hoard of academics who are willing to pry Spenser apart. There is no joy in Faery Lond for the common reader.

Grade: C

November 13, 2007

Book 59: The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth
Norman Juster

Call it children's literature, call it silly, call it what you want: this book is simply amazing, hands down. The Phantom Tollbooth may have primarily children in mind, and it is an excellent story for them, make no mistake, but any linguistically-minded adult can (and should) have a field day with this book. Packed cover to cover with clever puns and jokes that constantly poke fun at the silliness of idiomatic English. Sure, this book may be advertised for children, but it almost takes a full-blown English major to fully understand and appreciate Juster's neverending wit and powerful insights.

One of the reasons the book succeeds so brilliantly is that its main character, Milo, is stuck in the kind of malaise we all encounter at some point; all he wants to do is whatever, and he is able to discover the power of language to define and change the world around him. The book is didactic, but not overpowering in its morality, and its deepest levels of direction are only carefully pried apart deliberately. The book is far from a lesson in morality and instead attempts (successfully, I think) to immerse the reader in the magical world of words and numbers, the world of knowledge that continually opens doors and creates new paths in the midst of utmost boredom.

The book's way with words is nothing short of amazing. Every other sentence is a pun, but these are not the groan-inducing jokes you'd expect. The puns in this book all serve a purpose and all have mulitple levels of meaning that enhance both the text and our everyday language. We learn, as Milo does, that the power of language is the power to connect to unknown depths in our own minds. Norton Juster has created a hilarious romp through a world of seeming contradictions and dream-like creatures of fantasy and readers of all ages should be able to delight and revel in the joys of taking things literally. The Phantom Tollbooth is one exciting linguistic revelation after another that should prod serious thinking and pure enjoyment. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Grade: A

November 8, 2007

Book 58: The Tolkien Reader

The Tolkien Reader
J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien is an author known for the depth of his imagination and his skill in bringing the small details of a foreign world into crisp, clear focus for readers across generations. The Tolkien Reader certainly does not disappoint on these counts; its shorter selections are every bit as imaginative as his epic work and, in the case of the last section, help to refine our idea of Middle Earth even further. The selections in this book are carefully chosen and represent Tolkien at his very finest in his different literary guises. The first selection, a retelling of the Battle of Maldon, is expertly rendered and fully captures the style of the epic stories of its era. Not only does this section of the book include the well-rendered play that fits in perfectly with the historical canon of the genre. The essays that accompany this short fiction are intriguing and will be useful to anyone studying Old English literature. Tolkien's depth as a scholar is brilliantly displayed here, but there is more to be had.

The second section of Tolkien's writings consists of a binary work combining an essay "On Fairy-Stories" and the short story "Leaf: By Niggle." Tolkien here displays his excellent ability as a critic and, more importantly, a literary theorist, explaining some of the uses and forms of fairy-stories and fantastic literature in general. Not only does Tolkien theorize, however; the short story that follows is an excellent representation of all that is extolled in the essay as Niggle's tale and art transcend their scope and become, in a sense, real. Combining these two as "Tree and Leaf" shows the great care Tolkien takes in creating and upholding his theories; if we take the theory outlined in the essay as the sturdy trunk of the tree, "Leaf: By Niggle" is a perfectly crafted leaf branching off of the theory and into literary greatness. The story itself is at once funny and profound, and it is exceptionally interesting to see Tolkien succeed so greatly outside of the realm of Middle-Earth.

Yet other realms of Tolkien's multiple gifts are revealed in the story "Farmer Giles of Ham" and poetry collection "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil." The former is a delightful story that reads like a fairy tale for adults. A slightly ironic and dry sense of humor is required, and a knowledge of the forms of children's stories is helpful. Within the bounds of this more traditional form, Tolkien undermines some traditional fairy tales while coyly alluding to others ("The Brave Little Tailor"). The hero is far from heroic but, in his displays of practical wit and general sense of responsibility, Farmer Giles manages to overthrow a dangerous dragon and become king. Embedded in this delightful tale is a critique of certain strains of older European literature, as well as several nice potshots at the unassailable dominance of Latin in Old Europe. Tolkien's affinity for languages is clear but does not overwhelm the story, which succeeds marvelously on both the level of sheer delight and sharp satire.

"The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" may be the least remarkable stand-alone section of The Tolkien Reader, but it is fantastic nonetheless, particularly when viewed in light of its preface. This is a collection of poems ostensibly from Middle-Earth, each of whose origins are described carefully and which seem, especially in light of the more historically-minded portions of the book, to spring out of actual happenings rather than any imaginary world. It is here where art becomes truth as the poems interact with their own world and yet make sense to our own. Why shouldn't the Hobbits have a legend of a man in the moon, after all? The poems themselves are carefully constructed and display a remarkable ability in rhythm and rhyme. Taken together they add a layer of depth to Middle-Earth that can be enjoyed by seasoned travelers or newcomers.

Therein lies the beauty of Tolkien's writing, embodied exceptionally well in this collection. The thread that holds the book together is Tolkien's ability to work on numerous levels concurrently, building on his knowledge of old literature to create relevant and interesting modern stories, which can then add unto themselves a layer of subtle satire that does not overpower but rather enriches their magic. These stories may be deemed fantastic, but they and their worlds are as real to us as our own as Tolkien meticulously builds their histories and character, particularly with the inclusion of prefaces and introductions. The Tolkien Reader is an excellent introduction to the many facets of this ever-talented writer, and makes a solid argument for the prominence of fantastic narratives in the world of high literature.

Grade: A

November 1, 2007

Book 57: The Erasers

The Erasers
Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is a strange book. While I expected to be thoroughly confused and maddened by the looks of the disjointed prologue, I had to give the book a shot and, on retrospect, it deserves admiration. The Erasers is a daunting venture into relative reality, a particularly strange choice for a mystery story but one which works incredibly well. The traditional mystery's questions of what happened and how the pieces fit together are elaborated upon and taken to a whole new level of relative uncertainty in this book, which mixes tense and narrative perspective so often the reader is as confused as the starring befuddled detective Wallas.

The premise of the book is simple and gripping enough, but its satirical overtones take over soon enough to keep the reader from being too emotionally invested, and thus disappointed when the mystery takes on new literary territories. Rather than focusing on its plot, which is muddled, the book functions a bit like Kubrick's classic "Dr. Strangelove": by its end, the book itself has become much more important than its own events. This effect, of course, comes about only because of spectacularly careful and artful construction, which may be frustrating for the hard-boiled mystery reader but which should dazzle and delight literary critics and those looking for something new and different.

The Erasers, while a detective story, manages to transcend genre with its satirical depiction of the entirely inept Wallas and its greater artistic endeavours. Robbe-Grillet has constructed a book that forces the reader to ask the purpose of books and the usefulness of language. Other questions, such as narrative reliability and the usefulness or cliched boredom of certain stock characters. On reflection, The Erasers seems to be as much about literature as about mystery or even itself. That is not to say, however, that the book is dry and without fun. It is often funny and, though an intellectual challenge at times, well worth the effort. The punch at the end is absolutely hilarious and somehow comes across not as contrived but as brilliant, adding to the satire but wrapping up the plot realistically, given the characteristics of Wallas and his general bungling.

The Erasers defies and defines literary conventions and weaves a carefully constructed critique through its interesting and confusing plot. Wallas and the reader are together confounded at every turn, and only the reader is trusted with the true circumstances of the plot. This book can be frustrated when first explored, but a little reflection and a second read will reveal a wealth of treasures that make it well worth sifting through the confusion and confounding maze of the narrative.

Grade: A