Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Report: A Clash of Kings

Martin makes good on all the momentum he generated in A Game of Thrones, bouncing around his landscape to check on characters he's built and destroyed while adding in new heartbreaks waiting to happen along the way. His ability to shift among voices and make no two characters seem remotely similar is astounding. The political themes deepend and continue to flower, and his storytelling delivers shocking, heart-shattering twists that stun and injure your psyche even if you see them coming because you've seen the show.

You need to have read the first book to have any hope of comprehending the context of what's going on, but Martin throws in some welcome background with convenient flashbacks and plot point rehashings. Many of those go a step beyond the norm to shade previous events you thought you understood, throwing in different perspectives to make you reconsider what you know. The book doesn't so much end as it pauses for a breath you have no interest in taking. Bring on book three.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Report: The Jungle Book

Rudyard Kipling definitely took whatever it was people used as crack in 1894. His animals talk to each other like they're having 19th century Paris salon political debates while throwing out "thees" and "thous" like they're in the King James Bible. There was one way to write this book, and that was to bore into it with eyes closed, teeth gritted and arms and feet pumping furiously, without any concern of appearing like a lunatic.

The Mowgli/Baloo/Kaa/Bagheera parts of the book are the only ones that make any sort of sense, and that's why filmmakers ignore all the rest of the junk -- and there is a metric ton of junk -- and focus on that sweet, inspiring tale. You get way more than just jungle when you enter this Kipling landscape. There are barely intelligible, way, way long, bizarrely musical stories about mongooses (mongeese?), walruses, seals, birds and -- why not, "Eskimos." Kipling hops across the globe, telling his strange tales through various animals, all who share the same demented voice. The book punishes you, entertains you, then punishes you some more, leaving you battered, bruised and left alone with the wolves.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review: A Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin is such a good writer that it's blatantly clear that he cut a blood magic deal with Mirri Maz Duur, cutting a horse at the throat and slaying the unborn Dothraki child of Khaleesi -- destined to mount the world -- to secure the unholy deal of granting him unimaginable powers in storytelling and word economy.

Martin bring's an unfairly skilled touch to his saga, matching the drama and tension of his sweeping, unpredictable story with masterly writing that would be unbearably fascinating even if it was about something boring and pointless. He fuses the descriptive economy of Hemingway with the storytelling momentum of J.K. Rowling to create something that makes all other popular fantasy writing seem pathetic and hollow by comparison. Compared to Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are hacks.

The narrative shifts of his chapters, moving from the point of view from one character to another, is a master class in granting distinct voices to the people inside a writer's head. One moment he can capture the whimsical view of a 7-year-old invalid, and the next have you sympathizing with the Machiavellian ambitions of an incestuous traitor. Martin has much to say about race, religious influence on government, geopolitics, the power of oral history as it relates to education, parenting and sexual repression, but Martin keeps his thoughts to himself and lets his readers sort it all out as they watch him juggle his fascinating, cruelly disposed-of characters he sends into dizzying entanglemes with one another.

A Game of Thrones is one of the best books I will ever read, but I will stop short of The Book Is Better snobbery, even if I wouldn't argue with those who swear it is. For me, the HBO is so damned amazing that even Martin's writing can't match it. You can watch the series, ignore the books like most everyone else and be just fine. But if you are at all interested in dorky oversexed fantasy and fail to start this series, you have failed at life and need to take a step back and re-evaluate things. Take the black, commit to the monastic duty of reading or listening to the written word, and let your imagination dance with dragons to see how it compares with the HBO vision.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Report: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Two-thirds of this is a history book and and exhaustive history of French architecture, and the other third is a much more brutal version of the story that became the Disney movie. This is a weird and frustrating book, best appreciated as an exercise in flowery descriptive writing than storytelling or forward momentum. It's like sitting down with a half-senile grandpa and listening to his conspiracy-laden stories from the olden times, and it quickly to the point that you're listening to him not because you particularly believe him or care what he has to say, but because it's enjoyable to listen to him talk.

The ending is harsh and abrupt, which is sort of the way it has to be because there is no good way to wind down a story so depressing and pathetic. The overarching theme is of the way prejudice and blind hatred thrive among regal beauty, reflecting the true nature of man with more honesty than art or architecture can convey. An evil clergyman, a deformed, blind and deaf hero who is more sensitive than those with working senses, and a hapless victim of cultural bias, framed to die for the sins of her own people as well as those of her oppressors. There is beauty here, but it's buried deep and takes a hell of a lot of effort to get to it. As a whole, Hunchback is not worth the effort.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Book Report: A Confederacy of Dunces

Very much a Don Quixote for the modern era. Ignatius, the obese, racist, homophobic and entitled moron, also shares a lot with Ash from Army of Darkness. There is nothing to like about the character, but he's irresistible because of his unwarranted audacity. He is a self-parody living in a parody of New Orleans, which itself is a parody of civilization. John Kennedy Toole ratchets up the absurdity and keeps the comedy flowing constantly, to create his one great masterwork before he took his own life. As he might have morbidly assumed, he didn't receive a lick of notoriety until his mom forced his ratty manuscript on a literary professor.

This is one of the funniest books I've read, with humor that's bittersweet not only because of the circumstances of its creation but because of the futility of Ignatius's grandiose plans to conquer the world with his never-finished manuscript and find true love in a stripper he sees on an advertisement and fashions to be a trapped intellectual like himself. Ignatius is an insane moron, but lovably so, and to gaze into his soul is to glimpse uncomfortably at your own incompetence. This is a beautiful book that is also an overworn joke beaten to death and resurrected, only to be killed again chapter after chapter.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Book Report: The Snow Queen

I'm surprised crack cocaine didn't exist in the days of Hans Christian Andersen, because he seems to have partaken while he was writing this. I have read some freaky old-time children's tales, so it's tough to shake me. But this one managed to do it by getting really weird and disturbing from the outset, then slamming hard on the gas and careening off the bridge and tumbling into a fireball of oblivion.

We're talking magic mirror shards that get lodged in your skin to give you superpowers, talking dolls and -- not joking -- the recurring sidekick character Baby Jesus. This story is said to be the basis of Frozen, but very little of this grease fire besides the snowy setting made it into the movie. That is for the best.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Report: Emma

This is one of the most fascinating, and sickening, character studies I have come across. There are two sides to Emma -- something deep and nasty that doesn't come across in the movie adaptation or the loose, modernized version, Clueless.

On one side, Emma is a conniving sociopath obsessed with manipulating everyone around her to fulfill her whims, as well as the scared child who does everything she can to suspend her childhood and avoid starting her adult life. Much of the latter persona comes from the cruel, needy influence of her dad, who pulls the same manipulative tricks on her that she does on her friends and suitors. Emma's dad maneuvers to imprison her as some sort of nonsexual pseudo-wife/servant, just as she dominates Harriet, possibly in an expression of a repressed longing to capture her as a wife/servant for herself.

While Harriet slowly manages to break free of Emma's grip, Emma wrestles against the unspoken tyranny exerted by her dad, and the high-stakes chess game plays out in a vicious satire that leaves everyone hurting for most of the time. I loved it all except for the ending, which is exuberant and fulfilling in a romantic comedy way, but feels like a cheap cop-out that dismisses some of the harrowing truths Jane Austen was building toward.