Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Catching Up

I've been reading faster than I've felt like blogging these days. Here's the list, and some quick comments:

25. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

I actually read this on the plane over from Madrid. It's the second in the Millenium trilogy about Swedish journalist Mikhail Blomkvist and especially the disturbed and brilliant young researcher and computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander. This book concentrates much more on Lisbeth's character and continues Larsson's probing of violence against women, and other crimes, in Sweden. What keeps these books from just being (amazingly well-done) thrillers is Larsson's obvious desire to use them as a wake-up call against how women are abused in his country, and around the world, every day. He explores many angles of the problem and uses hauntingly real characters like Lisbeth to demonstrate the psychological consequences, even as she stunningly conquers her own victimhood. Personally, I LOVE Lisbeth's character (couldn't you tell?) and I'm sad I'll only get to spend one more book with her.

26. Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind

I have to say, this started off as extremely generic and one-dimensional fantasy, but it gets impressively complicated and terrifying by the end. What this book has going for it is sheer shock value. Recommended to teenage boys.

27. Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I was disappointed in this groundbreaking scifi classic. I should have read it when I was younger and less familiar with the genre. Foundation is all plot. The great psychohistorian Hari Seldon maps out the future of a colony he establishes, the Foundation, before the Empire as everyone has known it for 12000 years finally crumbles. Without Foundation, Seldon claims, there will be a chaotic interregnum of 30000 years. With it, it will be reduced to only 1000. The book follows the inhabitants of the Foundation planet, Terminus, at intervals when "Seldon crises" occur, or Foundation must battle for its survival in the most statistically predictable way. All the characters are stock and used simply for a purpose, for the reader to learn their clever idea of how to weather the latest Seldon crisis and compete with internal and external political opponents. The only reason I can think of that this was so influential is that Asimov looked quite a bit farther into the future than most people were when he was writing, and his ideas involved a human race that occupied multiple planets throughout the universe. Asimov was writing in the '40s to early '50s, and other ideas like his don't come in till the '60s with Dune and Star Trek.

28. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I enjoyed this more than I expected to, and liked it better than Brooks' People of the Book.. The story is based on the town of Eyam, in Derbyshire, England in the 1600s, where the townspeople shut themselves off to contain the plague for a little over a year. Brooks tells the story of that year through her vibrant fictional narrator, Anna Frith. Frith is a maid to the local minister and his wife, who are the strongest forces behind the decision to quarantine. While much of what Anna has to relate is traumatic and may seem far-fetched, I think Brooks did a very accurate job of portraying the physical and psychological aspects of plague. The book shows a lot of research and also a lot of inspired imagination. I would recommend it to fans of non-romanticized historical fiction.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

24. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I'd received this from Bookmooch some time ago, but never got to it before leaving for Spain. Bulgakov apparently reached cult status in Russia, due to this twentieth century Soviet era novel. He does not seem to be as well known in the US, but probably not among the ranks of the most obscure either.

My summary of this book could be one sentence: The devil pays a visit to Moscow. The devil is actually in the details. Bulgakov was writing while highly aware of the probable censorship he would receive. The book can be abstract and surreal a lot of the time, but the writing itself is straight forward, which is really all I ask. The important comparisons and allusions being made here, I would say, are in the 'feel' of the book.

At first, the characters who encounter the devil or supernatural occurrences are not believed by the public or authorities, and the smart ones say nothing as they know sticking their necks out will only result in unpleasant investigations and interrogations. Plenty of this goes on, before the police, who are really only lesser devils in the characters' lives, decide they have a 'case' and try to figure out what is really going on. The irony, and strange feeling that builds, is that the devil coming to Soviet Moscow is really not so hard to believe at all. It's really not that more terrible or unusual than your neighbors spying on you or people being carted away in the middle of the night, never to return. Whatever the devils can do, it may be extraordinary, but is it really worse? What is really more odd or unnatural?

There's also a side story, being written by the main character, the Master, about Pontius Pilate. The story interests the devil extremely. The point of that seems to be about the eternal balance of good and evil. Is the tired Pilate, "the wicked procurator of Judea," really so different from Yeshua ha-Notsri, the peace-advocating philosopher?

The Master and Margarita got much more exciting in the second half, while the first part is more of a build up. Bulgakov also has a much more abstract style than the nineteenth century Russian greats, but the times he was living in were quite different.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

23. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I've been MIA for a month now, but mostly with a good reason. After my study abroad program in Spain ended, my boyfriend and I met in Madrid for a three-week trip traveling in Spain, France, and Germany. Expect posts soon about our travels in Madrid, Toledo, Marseilles, Lyon, Paris, Munich, Fussen, Koln, and Berlin, as soon as he relinquishes the pictures!

I first heard of Cranford from Wuthering Expectations, and it piqued my interest immediately. I bought it and took it with me to Spain, but kept it in reserve for when my library access would cease. As it turned out, I didn't have time for reading while traveling, so it was the first book I read on my arrival home.

I enjoyed this slim novel for many reasons. First, it possesses many of the characteristics I most value in fiction; a clear, witty narrative, focus on unique characters, and above all, truth in portraying the interactions and behaviors of people. Elizabeth Gaskell's writing reminded me strongly of Jane Austen. She uses funny observations and sardonic remarks to convey the circumstances of the world and society that she lived in. Of course, the two authors did not write far apart, Gaskell was only half a century after Austen and they would have had many of the same cultural and historical influences. However, in my opinion, Gaskell's material is braver and more groundbreaking than Austen's. I still prefer Austen's writing style, but I have to really admire Gaskell in her choice of subject matter.

She writes almost exclusively about women and she dares to tackle economic issues and make them more central to her book, and more tragic than even Austen does. Austen solves her heroine's money woes by providing them with wealthy suitors, Gaskell does at last provide a destitute heroine with a comfortably situated brother, but only after quite serious reviews of economic woes. Gaskell also addresses death early and often, which Austen usually shunts to the side, as happening either before or after the meat of her story. Her characters are not young and not even very smart. She lets the reader laugh at their foibles, but also shows how such women can be sweet and inspiring after all.

Cranford, the story of an anachronistic, occasionally deluded, and altogether naive town, of older genteel ladies, is both hilarious and historically relevant, as it rose from the pen of an author who deviated more than others from women's literature in the Victorian era, and her lack of focus on a romantic plotline is rather extraordinary, even today.