May 31, 2008

Book 22: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Hailed by some as the prime literary example of the Jazz Age, it is hard not to expect great things out of The Great Gatsby, a slender novel that packs quite a punch as it evokes the glitz and glamor of the Roaring Twenties alongside a personal tragedy far too common in any age. Fitzgerald uses limited space to get at a fundamental part of the human condition, the pain of unrequited love and the inevitable sadness that comes with living in the past. The book doesn't turn any conventions on its head but it is honest throughout. It is narrator Nick Carraway's normalcy that draws the reader in and makes the story applicable to any readers. The narration is simple and to the point and Nick Carraway seems to mirror general opinion regarding the events at hand. He is an individual and he does play a specific role in the story of Gatsby, but Fitzgerald's novel is so accessible because his narrator pulls no punches and relates to the reader. Carraway is never unnecessarily omniscient and his entrance into major plot events does not strain credibility in any way, making Gatsby's ultimate decline all the more tragic. Yet Gatsby always maintains a safe distance from both Carraway and the reader, always slightly shady and all the more evocative because of it.

Fitzgerald's short novel is straightforward and to the point. Its main strength comes in its characters, all of whom are immediately vivid and recognizable. By keeping the novel's events simple, Fitzgerald is able to examine their effects in more detail. The book is firmly rooted in the Jazz Age and the strange ability of Prohibition to make millionaires , as well as the effects of long deployment on hometown love. The characters float along almost carefree until the underlying tragedy of their situation catches up with them- the tragedy is evoked with light touches but is deeply moving all the same. Fitzgerald simply presents it as it is without overly moralizing and without unnecessary extra drama. The story is limited to its fairly small cast and does not attempt to be an epic, reaching epic status through its simplicity and deft (yet subtle) insights. Fitzgerald's concise novel seems a bit simple at first glance; there is nothing terribly surprising in its plot and its characters are normal, though vividly imagined and brought to life. What lurks beneath the surface, however, is an artfully constructed story of love and loss, tragic because of its simplicity and because of the ability of Fitzgerald to evoke the mood of the Jazz Age in a story that transcends its time and applies and moves readers today.

Grade: A

May 30, 2008

Book 21: Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair
William Makepeace Thackeray

While in Europe, I decided to tackle this lengthy Victorian classic, which was all the more interesting due to my newfound familiarity with the London landscape and quite different from my previous two reads. This book is a sprawling look at upper-class life in Victorian England and fully delivers on its subtitle as a "novel without a hero[ine]." Thackeray takes several traditional character types and puts them in realistic situations and has them act in realistic ways. The bold, beautiful woman, the subservient wife, the strutting soldier, the faithful friend: they're all present and they are all subsequently exposed as ridiculous stereotypes as they behave normally but are treated with a caustic eye by the author. Thackeray's send-up of upper-class Victorian society is often delightful even for readers relatively unacquainted with the era. Despite its lack of truly likable characters and the narrator's annoying tendency to break into the narrative at ill-chosen points, Vanity Fair is a compelling novel that constructs an interesting, if predictable, narrative around vividly imagined characters who somehow become more than their stereotypical templates.

Despite the insistence of the blurb on my copy of the book, the story of Vanity Fair is based on an ensemble cast sufficiently inter-connected and sufficiently diversified to maintain interest across storylines. The main characters come into contact occasionally, and each time their meeting showcases individual development that persists despite the general predictability of the novel and its plot. Thackeray takes the mundane and the expected and infuses them with life by treating them utterly seriously, a task both helped and hampered by his lively and omniscient narrator. Every now and again the narrator will pop in with a snide remark or observation about a certain character with whom he says he is acquainted; these intrusions, however, become more wearisome than revealing and eventually begin to detract from the overall quality of the book. The narrator himself admits at times that he is long-winded and that his asides are mere distractions; unfortunately, there is often more truth than misplaced humility in these remarks. Regardless, however, the narrator does make shrewd observations and his farewells and gift for foreshadowing help tie together the often vastly separated main narrative threads of the book. It is often easy to get lost in the grand plot of Vanity Fair, and while Thackeray constructs two equally compelling stories centered on two very different women (refreshing in a novel of the time, despite the negative portrayal of these almost-heroines), the balance between them is inconsistent as one story overshadows another for a hundred pages. At times, the book feels like two different novels that happen to contain overlapping characters and a common narrator; while both stories are interesting it is far too easy to get entirely lost in one only to be thrown headfirst into another quite later. One of the stories is effectively abandoned somewhere in the middle of the book, which is a real shame given its promise and unpredictability and intrigue compared to its counterpart, a sparse domestic drama.

With such major plotting flaws, it would be easy to dismiss Vanity Fair, but the novel remains nonetheless compelling. What is most interesting is its adamant refusal to bend the credibility of reality or respond to the whims of those who long for happy endings. Very little about the novel seems contrived, and the text is accessible even today as a portrait of Victorian society. The stereotypical characters reflect the values of their society and are interesting despite, or perhaps because of, their immediate familiarity. What Thackeray lacks in pure originality he makes up for in spunk, both through his straight-faced portrayal of the silliness at the core of Victorian vanity and through several of his leading ladies. The women in the novel are refreshingly independent and powerful, though they must of course operate realistically in a male-centric society. Lower classes are also given a voice as servants are individually distinguished and actually factor into the course of events.

Thackeray is, in a word, accessible. Vanity Fair takes the Victorian novel and criticizes it enough to be refreshing but follows its templates enough to be recognized and useful as a foil for other literature of the period. The book maintains intrigue and interest despite a general feeling that the story is heading in a certain inevitable direction. The characters and situations are fresh and the narrator, though over-present, does provide valuable and often very funny insight. Thackeray takes no prisoners and shows little mercy, dismissing certain silly characters outright and criticizing all of the people in his book. There is no straightforward good or evil, and the ambiguity surrounding his characters is what ultimately makes Vanity Fair succeed and keep its relevance today. The novel paints a realistic and accessible picture of a bygone era with a well-seasoned skeptical eye from within and is an excellent experience for those interested in the Victorian era or societal satire. There is much to learn between the lines of Thackeray's prose as the book overcomes the typical and becomes somehow extraordinary.

Grade: A-

May 20, 2008

Book 20: The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire
Colin Wells

Read in preparation for my trip to Rome, this book was at once inconceivably annoying and reasonably informative. Wells has a unique blend of the actual ability to convey historical information without boring to tears, only to have his power evaporate due to a complete and utter lack of editing of any sort. It's as if no one read the proofs. If Mr. Wells is British, surely some of our differences in grammatical opinions can be chalked up to dialect differences; regardless, this book is riddled with misplaced commas and truly appalling sentence structures. The most reprehensible error I may ever have seen in print is a reference to "Dicken's" [sic] as a possessive, when the author is clearly references Dickens the author (my edition of the MLA even uses this as a specific example, where the correct version is "Dickens's"). I have seen and sighed with exasperation over many misunderstandings of the poor maligned possessive apostrophe but this took me rather aback. Did no one edit this grammatical monstrosity? Is there no hope left? Misplaced commas abound and can usually be excused in books, but in books where they appear every few sentences they become utterly unbearable and distract so much from the content that the book becomes much more of an effort than the most laborious heavy-handed historical tomes.

What of the content, then? The content itself is relatively interesting, and the grammatical mistakes are even more tragic because Wells appears to have more talent than most historical writers. He wisely chooses to focus not only on the power struggles at the top of the Roman hierarchy, but also on life in the army and provinces, a crucial step towards understanding the Empire in its entirety. This objective, however, to expose the sum total of the Roman Empire, is somewhat hampered by Wells's (see what I did there?) own thinly veiled admiration of Octavian/Augustus, which occupies an unjustifiably large portion of the book. Again understandably, tracing the origins of the empire through Augustus is necessary, but in a brief history one must be brief and attempt to spread the information around a bit. Wells continually provides interesting and moderately well-presented information, but strange juxtapositions and inexcusable time shifts continuously break continuity and leave readers confused. Breaks between chapters contain understandable time shifts (chapters alternate between top-heavy and little-guy descriptions) but jumps also inexplicably occur within and between the supposedly continuous narratives of alternating chapters. Again, the information is well-presented and remarkably understandable, but Wells seems intent on confusing his readers.

This book, which in more organized hands could have been an engaging and useful history of the Roman Empire, succumbs in the end to Wells's inability to edit and think of the bigger picture. The author repeatedly insults Tacitus but uses him as one of his most trusted sources in the next sentence. Source problems aside, this is utterly confusing and makes no sense whatsoever, especially in light of the author's own well-placed and surprisingly honest discussion of the source material in the second chapter. Wells consistently allows his own bias to shine through the narrative, and rather than making the book lively and interesting, the work becomes dull and imposing. Wells thinks he is providing an objective look at the history he presents but the text time and again takes a ridiculously subjective turn that, rather than providing humor or witty commentary, is merely pompous and annoying. It's horrible that a well-written history is riddled with so many simple errors and greater errors of vision. History is so often written terribly, but Wells had such a chance to shine. Among his many faults is an interesting history of the Roman Empire that isn't terribly difficult to understand, something sorely lacking in historical writing today. Sadly, this book succumbs to an utter lack of editing and vision and is more than mediocre, endlessly annoying and confusing to an uninitiated reader, the book's stated prime audience.

Grade: C-

May 14, 2008

Book 19: Revelation Space

Revelation Space
Alastair Reynolds

Picture it: a sunny afternoon in Hyde Park. Joggers abound and just over the trees to the east you can catch a glimpse of the British Eye, and on a bench beside a main thoroughfare a girl is immersed in a space opera, unable to tear her eyes away as the grand plot comes to a close. The command that Reynolds enjoys over vast reaches of space and time is used to excellent effect in his debut novel, an intricately plotted cosmic tale placed in a rich and detailed universe not too far in the future. The universe itself has a good feeling about it- its inventions are consistent and sufficiently advanced to be interesting, but realistic enough to maintain the bounds of credibility. Throughout the book, it is clear that Reynolds put a lot of serious thought into building this universe and, as the book's final mysteries are revealed, its history comes together alongside the plot and the stories of the individual characters. The book also deals consistently with its potentially difficult timeline, in which subsequent chapters happen hundreds of years apart. Everything converges properly, however, and the story remains intact across the centuries.

Though a bit predictable, the plot is nonetheless consistently engaging and the characters firmly developed and intriguing. Reynolds employs an entirely appropriate third-person omniscient voice in Revelation Space that allows for ambiguity that, in turn, rounds out his characters. Readers are left to decide for themselves about Sylveste's character as we see him through his own thoughts and others' thoughts about him. There are almost two different stories converging, with two different sets of characters motivated by their own specific desires to seek offsetting ends. Even the story's minor characters are well-developed and sufficiently three-dimensional to resist stereotyping and continually surprise as the plot twists and turns. Despite the book's excellent characters and setting, however, and despite its consistency, the plot of Revelation Space is a bit hard to grasp in parts. This is not only due to its interesting and fresh ambiguity regarding certain characters and situations; it is mostly the result of the slight mishandling of the book's Big Ideas. It will be fairly obvious to some readers where the book is heading by the final quarter of the plot, and the big revelations at the end of the book are kind of a letdown, though the journeys undertaken towards this finale are still surprising and interesting. The very end, however, is inconsistent and leaves too much to the imagination, offering not even an acceptable inconclusive conclusion.

Overall, the book is an interesting and lively journey through intergalactic space. Reynolds deftly handles many cris-crossing and intersecting characters and plot lines and manages to straighten them all out in the end, even if the reader is lost for a while in the middle. This, then, is the main problem with the book: sometimes it simply takes too much on. Its multiple storylines all come together but with what in mind I'm still not sure. The act of revelation in the book is far too often more confusing than it should be, and the plot is a bit too tangled in parts to do justice to the book's fantastic setting and characters. Reynolds isn't patently obvious with his existential secrets but nor does he clarify them by book's end, leaving readers a bit confused and unfulfilled despite one hell of a setup. Revelation Space is intriguing science fiction that gets to the heart of the genre and attempts to answer some of life's big questions. Unfortunately, the imaginative brilliance behind it is dampened a bit by misplaced focus and technical difficulties in plotting that may be resolved by re-reading the book, an experience in revelation that I wouldn't necessarily rule out after this first journey through Reynolds's vibrant imagination.

Grade: B

May 3, 2008

Book 18: The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man
Ray Bradbury

This is the second of Bradbury's novel-esque short story collections (similar to The Martian Chronicles, one of the best books I've read and certainly some top-notch science fiction). While The Illustrated Man is nowhere as coherent or, ultimately, as fulfilling as its counterpart, its stories universally showcase Bradbury's talent and vision as he successfully probes several of the darker aspects of human nature. This book is, as previously mentioned, primarily a short story collection, but it begins with a framing narrative that is in and of itself rather interesting and which would benefit from some extrapolation and development. The story of the tattooed wanderer, whose Illustrations are the stories represented in the book, is fascinating and original, and it's too bad that this worthwhile frame is dropped entirely after the second story, reappearing only in the sparse afterthought of an epilogue. The epilogue itself is also incredibly intriguing and allows for several possibilities that explain the Illustrated Man's story in full, but Bradbury leaves too many holes and his stories ultimately seem like a short story collection rather than a sort of thematic journey into the human psyche.

This lack of cohesion, however, does not detract from the stories themselves nor some of the themes they regularly explore. Almost all of them are set in similar automated futures with recurring technological elements (Bradbury's fondness for rockets is inescapable; they appear in nearly every story) and most deal with the degeneration of the human spirit. A couple of the stories are uplifting (such as "The Other Foot", which admirably takes on contemporary issues of racism, the triumphant finale "The Rocket" and, arguably, the wonderfully ambiguous "The Highway"), but most end in despair or with well-placed ellipses. The effect of these sadder stories is not one of hopelessness but simply truth: Bradbury lays the human condition in front of his readers and spares no sentiment. What you see is what you get and these stories present a realistic view of the human condition and less-than-optimistic reactions to it. "The Rocket Man", for example, is beautifully elegiac though it reduced me to tears and "Kaleidoscope" provides what I would assume to be a fairly accurate (if not a rather bold attempt at) representation of what men's thoughts might be facing imminent death after fading communication. The story is a meditation on lonliness and human relations though it is far from heavy-handed.

It is this mode in which Bradbury operates. On the surface, his science fiction is mostly mainstream rockets and Mars fare many assume is typical to the genre. Lurking below the surface, however, are valuable insights that can be easily teased out of the general fabric of the story. It is refreshing to read science fiction that meditates so thoughtfully on the present and meditative fiction that does not aspire to the fully realistic. Bradbury's observations are welcome and even more poignant because of their fantastic settings and technologies, and if he does overuse rockets a bit he at least differentiates the stories and settings in which they appear. The Illustrated Man is an excellent collection of stories that, while it doesn't represent a full picture of humanity and abandons its promising prologue, still provides insight and probes the human mind in ways that completely realistic fiction cannot. Bradbury is fantastic without being unrealistic and always retains fully recognizable humanity in his short fiction; each story is a fully developed world unto itself and though some seem to lay the groundwork for excellent longer projects (I would love to see more of "The Long Rain" and especially "The Fox in the Forest"), every tattoo of the Illustrated Man is an interesting and worthwhile tale.

Grade: A