Saturday, December 26, 2009

64. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

"It seems like that guy is everybody's best friend," my dad said when I told him I had picked up the first book of Douglas Adams' other series. It's not hard to see why. Adams' talent, wit, and bright though sarcastic personality shine through all of his books I've read so far. He was clearly intellectually engaged, which this book's extensive (and unfortunately, largely impermeable to me) discussion of the relationship between music, mathematics, and computer software shows. I'm in no place to judge whether he's accurate or completely making stuff up, but it sounds complicated enough to me.

Adams has a gift for amusing one-liners that shows up here as well as in all of his hitchhiker books. Unlike the hitchhiker books, this book even ties up neatly in the end. However, the getting there is so confusing and frustrating that I admit I had no patience for it. The Dirk Gently of the title doesn't appear until well over a hundred pages in, and isn't even mentioned for the first five chapters or so. The first chapters introduce the reader to a series of different characters and scenarios that bear no apparent relation. This is a common device, not one I have ever liked, and here it is taken to the extreme.

Perhaps it's because I'm more familiar with them, but I was much more fond of the Hitchhiker characters. Dirk Gently himself is interesting, but not particularly likable. My favorite character, Reg, a Cambridge don, turns out to be nearing senility, which rather than being funny, is disappointing, because otherwise he'd be a modern-day Merlin. Come on, you know how my generation loves magic.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
is exactly what you'd expect from Douglas Adams not trying as hard as he should have. It's witty in parts, brilliant in parts, dull in parts, and cheesy in parts. I guess you have to take the lumps with the rest.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

63. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Tita is a kitchen prodigy from the moment she is born. Her thwarted love story is told in monthly installments of recipes. I give Esquivel credit for an interesting format, and the interweaving of food and fiction is well done. The plot is simple, though strange. Tita's formidable Mama Elena perpetuates a family tradition where the youngest daughter, that is, Tita, must never marry and must care for her mother until her mother's death. As a result of this baffling tradition, Tita's lover marries her older sister, just to be near her. Mishaps ensue.

Esquivel is clearly a member of the Latin American magical realism trend. Ghosts are sighted and encounters with the supernatural occur. The simplicity of the story, however, causes it to lack the significance of, say, House of the Spirits, and while the phenomena fits, it just contributes to an overall strange feeling. Read it for the food, the plot is mundane at best, and at worst, absurd in such a way that it feels flawed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

61. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

The last read for Sixteenth Century was intriguing when discussed, but relatively disappointing in reading. Other than a bit of Dr. Faustus and Hero and Leander , this is the first Marlowe I've read. I've heard such favorable comparisons with Shakespeare, but this play at least did not exemplify half the wit or character depth of the Bard's oeuvre.

I find the actual history of Edward II riveting. He was a blatant homosexual, who gave his beloved, Piers Gaveston, all the titles and money he wished for, arousing the ire of his barons. The "noble peers" overthrew the king, killed Gaveston, his ignored and ill-treated queen, Isabella, turned against him in exchange for the love of the usurper Mortimer, and the king was ultimately executed with a red-hot poker thrust through his bowels. When his son, Edward III, came of age, Mortimer was executed and Isabella imprisoned for life. This much is TRUE. What could you do with this as a play?

Marlowe leaves it pretty much at that though, except speeding up the time line, jumbling events a bit, and adding in a few characters. His Isabella is interesting to look at psychologically, she starts out as very sympathetic and remains loyal to the king even when he spurns her. Then, she begins plotting against him and accepts Mortimer's love. Well, can you blame her? Gaveston especially, but Edward as well, start out as pleasure-obsessed and a bit thuggish, but get sympathetic when they're oppressed and executed. Is Marlowe saying that situation determines character?

But the dialogue is only okay, it has its moments, comparison to Shakespeare, even the history plays, I wasn't impressed.

62. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This beautifully written literary thriller pulls you in and invites you into the exciting literary underworld of Barcelona. Zafon plays with my heartstrings when he describes the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and its concept, the secondhand bookshop where the main character Daniel lives and works, and the fabulous pen that once belonged to Victor Hugo. I'm also a sucker for books within books.

Despite all this, the mystery is predictable and the characters, except for the main character, not as well drawn as I would like or as I suspect Zafon could make them if he tried. Daniel is our young impressionable hero who discovers a mysterious book The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, whose books seem to be disappearing. The rumor is that a man goes around finding all Carax's books and burning them. Daniel is soon caught up in this and must investigate all over Barcelona to discover the true story of Julian Carax, who is burning his books, and why.

Zafon portrays a Barcelona that is overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War and still experiencing the aftereffects. Daniel's Barcelona is not a safe place, and this is significant to remember. There is also a message about the importance of literature, which could have been stronger. Movies are popular and television is just arriving on the scene, but the mentions of it are at moments where they just seem to occupy space and sound too deliberate. Read The Shadow of the Wind for fun, not for substance.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A World in a Book

60. A Year in the World by Frances Mayes

I don't know if it took me a while to warm up to her writing style, or if it took her a while to warm up while writing this book, but I definitely appreciated A Year in the World more and more as I read it, and it formed a thoughtful, personal, lyrical perspective on place and the meaning of place in a person's life.

I picked up this book that my mother had been reading because the first section is on the author's visit to the Andalucia region in Spain. I am particularly interested in all things Spain at the moment, as I will be studying abroad there next semester. I will be in the Valencia region (yes, as in oranges), but I would like to visit as much of the country as I can. Andalucia is a southern region, where Spanish Visigoth culture collided with Moorish-Arabic culture for hundreds of years. Mayes describes the iconic azuelejos tiles found everywhere, as well as the Moorish half-arches and latticed architecture.

While there is no stated concentration on food, like Anik See whose book I also just read, Mayes seems to be a culinary aficionado, and luscious descriptions permeate the pages of food that she eats in every country and some of what she tries to recreate herself. There are a few recipes, two that I recall from the Scotland section, a friend of hers' mother's summer pudding recipe, and a toffee pudding sauce recipe from a Scottish housekeeper.

In terms of Spain, she especially whetted my appetite for tapas and significantly peaked my interest in flamenco. She also travels to Portugal in the next section, hence my decision to continue, reasoning that I might well find myself there as well. If I do travel there, I hope to meet someone similar to Carlos (pronounced Car-loosh), the chef of a well-known restaurant and baker of an apparently to-die-for chocolate cake, who happily cooks Mayes and her husband a personal Portuguese dinner, and gives them a list of the best, out-of-the-way, seemingly secretive places to dine.

One aspect of the book that I could not get out of my head, and did not contribute favorably to my perception, was the obvious fact that Mayes, her husband, and all of their friends and the people they meet are very wealthy. I might not have noticed this so much in, say, 2007, but in 2009, it's an aspect that can't escape me. Not only are they jaunting over Europe, but they constantly refer to Bramasole, the Italian villa they are restoring (the subject, I gather, of her earlier bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun), another Italian property they are having restored, the three or four star hotels they reside in, or mansion-like homes they rent, the plethora of top-tier restaurants visited and limitless menus they seem to order, and Mayes' constant shopping for evil-eye trinkets, rugs, any native artwork, she buys it all, passionately, but with an obvious disregard for cost.

Mayes is a bestselling author, she's earned her money, but no one I know can afford to travel the way she does. So, while my appetite is whetting for those tapas, I'm planning one or two big nights out when I can have them, and unlike Mayes, I won't be eating dinner afterward. I won't get a churro every day, and when I do travel, I'll be staying in youth hostels and eating at street kiosks, and anything I buy will be a small gift for a family member or friend, carefully chosen. Mayes seems to imagine buying a home in every place she visits, and while I recognize that it's only a dream and part of her overarching theme about learning to belong in a place, it seems just a little bit more possible for her than it should be.

Like I said, I did really enjoy this book, Mayes has a talent for giving a very personal, specific perspective on the places she visits, and she really takes the time and effort to understand different cultures. Her cultural synthesis feels helpful to actually understanding the places. She also quotes from other writers and travel writers about place. One chapter, about southern France, seems to be practically written by Collette. But Mayes' interest in other writers is a glimpse into her influences and why she writes the way she does. There are several digressions about her childhood in Georgia, and how she was affected by that place, and it seemed to strengthen and bolster, rather than detract from, her discussions of other places. She is also the author of many books on poetry, which shows in the lyrical elements of her writing.

I don't know if there are more travel books in my near future, certainly a guidebook on Spain will be purchased, and I plan to read my Zafon book and other Spanish authors if I have time. Any recommendations for must-reads from Spanish authors?