Friday, December 12, 2014

Review of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

I can see why Cloud Atlas doesn't appeal to everyone. The language is rich to the point of intoxication; the characters are as stingy about self-revelation as ordinary humans; the structure is at once simple and arcane, like a crab canon penned by Bach or Buxtehude; and above all, Mitchell commits the cardinal sin of expecting a good deal of his readers. If you are looking for a novel that explains and hands plot points to you on a silver platter, apply elsewhere.

But as a reader and perhaps especially as a writer, I was richly rewarded by the time spent in Mitchell's hall of mirrors. I found his serial storytelling intriguing, completely suitable for this ambitious peregrination of a story that loops back and forth through time, life, and death. I found myself admiring his pacing, his refusal to tell too much too soon. I marveled at the skill with which he differentiated the voices and diction of his characters--the sheer tonal range he was able to encompass.

This is, quite simply, a gorgeous book on every level. It is not for the easily distracted nor those who expect from their fiction a quick and easy liftoff. Those who are willing to commit to the journey, however, will experience that elevation characteristic of all fine  literature. Cloud Atlas is a beautiful and supremely well crafted piece of storytelling.

Monday, September 01, 2014

My All-Time Top-10 Books ... For Now ...

Jessica Lemmons nominated me to list the top 10 most influential books in my life. Wow... my life... ten books... Okay, here goes, pretty much in chronological order:

1. The Bible. Not necessarily trying to come off devout here (though that's not a bad thing); these were the
first stories I heard, even before I could read; these people were my earliest heroes. And besides, "the Bible" means "the Book." What else can I say?
2. Green Eggs and Ham. This was one of the first books I ever read by myself. I was blessed with a
mother who knew the importance of reading, and she subscribed to a children's book club that delivered
classics like this to the door of our farmhouse in Missouri. I was reading pretty fluently before I ever entered first grade (no kindergarten in the Bell City R-5 School District in those days).

3. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (sorry, guys; this has to be a 2-for-1). I probably read the kids' abridged version of these (another book club; see above) twenty times each when I was a kid. And please... I lived less than a mile from a floatable body of water. What red-blooded boy wouldn't want to build a raft and go exploring after reading about Tom and Huck? (The raft pretty much sank, but that's a different story)

4. Lord of the Flies. Yeah, I know... But this was the first "modern" novel I read (around 8th grade, as I recall), and unlike many, I didn't read it for a class; it was just lying around in the Bell City High School library. For the first time, I realized that not all stories had a happy ending. And that was okay.

5. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (a 4-for-1). Around senior year in high school, best I remember. Tolkien hit me like a meteor out of a clear sky; never before had a created world so captivated me with its completeness. I wanted to go there, Sauron be damned.

6. The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and Mere Christianity (sorry for all the package deals, but there you go...). C. S. Lewis taught me how to think about my faith. I needed that. Still do.

7. Ringworld. SciFi was an addiction, starting in high school, that carried over into my early adult life (which I'm still living, by the way). Larry Niven's Ringworld and its sequels may have been the apex of this phase. Also, it was around this time that I started to think I might be able to write something, myself. Niven's skill with a yarn was an inspiration.

8. Celestial Navigation. Anne Tyler's characters in this, one of my earliest "grownup" novels, truly broke my heart. This book taught me what can happen when an author's creation really connects with a reader's emotions. These were people who inhabited my mind in a way I hadn't previously experienced in literature.

9. God Came Near. This was the breakout book by my friend, Max Lucado, and his experiences, along with my growing conviction that I could write, pushed me to begin working on the collection of short pieces that eventually became my first published book (for which Max was kind enough to write a foreword).

10. All the Pretty Horses. The pared-down, salty, utterly authentic language of this book changed my whole approach to prose. Cormac McCarthy started teaching me that it was more important to decide what to leave out than what to put in. No other book in recent years has had as much direct influence on my approach to writing.

Okay, them's my stories, and I'm stickin' to 'em... for now. I won't nominate anyone else, but I will say how enjoyable this exercise was for me; I encourage you all to do the same. Thanks, Jess!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review of _The Night Circus_, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What to say aboutThe Night Circus... Other than that it is a lavish, sensory tour-de-force, a sumptuous fin-de-si├Ęcle fantasy, a tale about magic that manages a magic all its own.

Erin Morgenstern made a wise choice in situating her opulent story at the turn of the twentieth century, in the waning years of the Gilded Age. This gaslit, Victorian landscape readily lends itself to the type of baroque, densely descriptive narrative that helps Morgenstern achieve and maintain such an exquisite hold on her created world. The territory has been well scouted before her, of course, by the likes of E. L. Doctorow (The Waterworks) and Mark Helprin (A Winter's Tale). Something about the exuberance of the era, coupled with its hidden decadence and its fascination with the unknown--both scientific and occult--allows one to believe that a flight of fancy such as Morgenstern spins here could actually find a hiding place among the gaudy folds of the times. One wants to believe that it all really happened--that it is still happening.

Go and get your ticket to The Night Circus. But be careful: you may be tempted to stay past closing time.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of Donna Tartt's _The Secret History_

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me say at the outset: Donna Tartt's prose in The Secret History is brilliant. She succeeds completely, I think, in evoking time, place, and mood. In that sense, the book afforded me that prized experience of being seduced by a world, of entering into it (mostly) willingly and being allowed to live there until (mostly) sated with the secret and guilty delights it had to offer.

However ... I felt slightly frustrated by my inability to form a bond with any of the characters. All of them are more or less deeply flawed, which is fine, of course. But Richard lacks Holden Caulfield's poorly hidden sympathy (which would have provided at least some redemption), and the brilliant Henry, as much as I wanted to admire him, had no interest in my admiration--or anyone else's, it seemed. The others fall in a line somewhere behind these two, to a greater or lesser degree.

I must give Tartt an admiring nod for having the chutzpah, especially in a first novel, to stick to her guns and tell the story with such lovely absence of passion. Her skillful descriptions are all the more remarkable for the cold and remote tone she achieves throughout.

By all means, read The Secret History. But I wouldn't pair it with lavender tea beside the fireplace.

View all my reviews