Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss, 2006.

This novel is the first time I've read Desai. I heard of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, but I haven't picked it up. In fact, I don't know what prompted me to pick up The Inheritance of Loss. Some of my friends make it a habit to read the Booker winners (and nominees), but it's never been one of my habits.

It's an odd book. There are gorgeous moments of lyrical prose, but the book feels almost too composed. It begins in medias res; its plot lines are slight and ephemeral. Ostensibly, the story revolves around Sai, who goes to live with her grandfather when her parents are killed. In India, near Nepal, Sai, her grandfather, and the cook have the shape of their lives changed dramatically as the Gorkha National Liberation Front begins to push for a separate Gorkha state. Interwoven into this context is the story of the cook's son, an illegal immigrant in New York City. There are major plot points: Sai falls in love with her maths tutor, who falls in with the GNLF. The lives of their neighbours are shifted and turned upside down by the GNLF. We see the history of the grandfather, as he studies at Cambridge, and returns to be a member of the Indian Civil Service as a judge. We see his own tortured marriage. To my reading, though, the story is less important than the atmosphere, and the books that Desai shows Sai and Noni and Lola (two neighbours) reading themselves point to the greater importance of milieu than of plot. It is a story of a particular place at a particular time, and how people living their lives are swept up by, or have their lives changed by, the events going on around them that they themselves might prefer to have remain peripheral.

It's an intriguing book, and a quick read. I'm certainly glad I picked it up. It's not, though, one I think I'll return to.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007.

Do you not know what happens in the book yet? If you don't want to know, don't read this blog entry. I'm not much for summarizing plot, but I'm not going to conceal it. Deal with your own issues elsewhere.

This blog entry is in two parts.

Part I: The book itself.
A writer to Salon commented that Rowling's prose is sturdy. It's unexceptional, but it's fun and it suits the purpose. It's not Tolkien, and it's not art. It is quite entertaining, though. An associate writes that much of the book is filler, as Ron and Hermione and Harry wander through England without a real plan. It's dull. Note to JKR: not having an editor? Dumb idea on your part. There are moments of levity, but most of the book is an attempt to be as well-done with the chapter ending cliff-hangers as is a novel by Dan Brown; Rowling doesn't do it as well. Harry's death is poorly written; the train station scene ludicrous. The entire situation lacks the pathos needed. The fights through the climax are fine, but I have the sense that characters were introduced in other books so I'd care that they're killed off now; with few exceptions, I was not much moved. Ho hum.
The part which I found baffling was the postlude set 19 years into the future, with a happily married Harry, complete with three kids. I recognize that some people aren't happy unless they know everything turns out well, but the postlude was just silly.
The book is quite good for children's pulp.

Part II: Spoiler silliness

Right. Anyone remember the beginning of Romeo and Juliet?

Chor. Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The eminent playwright begins the play by telling you EVERYTHING that will happen. I don't remember people being upset about this when Luhrman's version was splashed on movie screens across the globe. Yet, for the last months, there has been inch after inch of copy filled with news of the embargo on this book. Who's been feeding spoilers? There's surely a special hell for those people!

I have no sympathy for this crap. What happens is never as important as how it happens. Little Nell dies, people. So does Smike. If you missed it being telegraphed when they were first introduced, it doesn't matter. The HOW matters, and that's the point of the sonnet I've quoted above. I've grown weary of the idea that knowing what happens "spoils" what is to come. That's just not the way books have ever worked for me. /rant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Benjamin Constant, Adolphe, first version published in 1816.

The eponymous protagonist falls in love with Ellenore, a woman who is the secure mistress of Comte de P.--; he woos her, and she leaves the Count. The two characters are then unhappy until Ellenore’s death.

That’s actually how short Constant’s supposedly semi-autobiographical novel seems. There’s little action. Nearly every word is Adolphe reflecting on what is happening, rather than him describing the plot. There are moments of great beauty, but I found it hard at times to connect with the musings because they were often so detached from the plot. Adolphe speaks, time and again, of his weakness, and his inability to break things off with Ellenore, but most of those words felt forced to me, and lacked much in the way of passion. I do think a better than passing understanding of how society worked in the time period might well help me the better to connect, but this novel seems more ripe for a good Merchant Ivory film adaptation than for me to reread it, slight though it was.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Martin L. Smith, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture, 1989.

I had this book recommended to me by my spiritual director quite a space back, and on first glance, fell in love with it. I read the first chapter, thought that it was bang-on, and then school interrupted my reading. I took advantage of another educational moment to read it in its entirety, and its initial lustre seems to have faded for me.
Smith begins with a relaxed and informal introduction to what prayer can be, how it can be the placing of ourselves into a position from which we can more easily listen for the movement of the Spirit in our lives. He engages and makes sense of popular misconceptions, and attempts to de-mystify prayer while retaining a sense of its necessity and rewards.
It’s the second part of the book that disappointed me. While the ideas are sound, I found myself reacting against the book: Smith feels prescriptive as he outlines meditation, lectio divina, and contemplation as options for prayer. Unsurprisingly, he privileges stillness in a way as to make my kinetic self deeply uncomfortable.
I need to give some of his ideas a fair chance, but this book is unlikely to be the wondrous tool for merging encountering scripture and prayer together that I at first hoped it would be. I think it's likely a great book for people who are just encountering these ideas for the first time, or for whom stillness is more likely to be a rewarding part of their prayer life, than it was for me.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Reread: Raymond and Hannah by Stephen Marche. I have little to add, since my last reading of the book a few years back. I picked it up off the shelf a couple of weeks back to read from, just to skim, as I was waiting for L- to be ready for us to go off somewhere. I kept reading. I really do think that, overall, the book is very good. It captures lust, longing, and love--or at least, with regards to the latter, its absence--so ridiculously well that Marche remains on my Keats List. Hmph.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Diana Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon, 1984.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve reread this book. I just so enjoy falling back into Howard’s world, as he puzzles out the seven siblings who “farm” various aspects of life in the town in which his family lives. It’s one of those wacky bildungsromans that can only happen in a brilliant fantasy world that is so closely tied to reality and yet so far from it at the same time. Part of my fascination is that I identify with Howard, as he daydreams and constructs spaceships in his head; part of it is that I long for adventure and mystery. Plus, a goon just sounds like fun.
How can one dislike a book that begins by identifying facts it will prove? They're not boring and trivial facts, either, but are essential and life-changing facts like “All power corrupts, but we need electricity” and “It pays to increase your word power.” Like most of Wynne Jones’ books, this one is fun and silly, and repays rereads. A nice divertissement.