Read any other good books lately?

My last reading list was incomplete. I left off a few good books, and some that were so bad I forgot I’d read them. Also I have since finished a few more. So, here goes with the remainder of 2007’s literary review, with formulas provided.

Quality Literaure, or thereabouts 

Ian Rankin – Knots and Crosses

On Jess’s suggestion I did fish this out of the school library and found it much better than Naming the Dead. It isn’t really much of a whodunnit, either – the only real is mystery here is: ‘why is Rebus so repressed that he cannot remember what the rest of us figured out eighty pages ago?’ But that is an interesting story in itself. 7/10 from moi.

Saul BellowCollected Short Stories

I’m a little perturbed by the description provided by by Bellow’s wife in the introduction, of Saul at the type-writer:

“Composing for Saul is an aerobic activity. He sweats when he writes, and peels off layers of clothing. When he is concetrating particularly hard, he screws up his left eye and emits a sound that’s a cross between the panting of a long distance runner and a breathy whistle.”

Is that what it takes? Ye gods. So much for the sedentary man of letters. Anyway, these are good stories (the ones I’ve read, anyway), but very American, examining the experience of the European /Jewish immigrant to America, often cast as the reminiscences of very old (and probably dying) men. I think I miss a lot of the nuances here. If I want this kind of thing to have maximum effect I’d be better of reading about the experiences of the Celtic immigrant to Canada or Australia, as in Alistair McLeod’s No Great Mischief or Islands. I’m going with 7/10.

Ursula K Le Guin – The Birthday of the World

An amusing cross between anthropology, science fiction and soft porn. Well, the porn is really only in the first section on sexual habits. Religion and politics are the other ‘not-to-be-discussed-at-the-dinner-party’ themes that Le Guin happily embraces in her own fashion. Many of the tales are in the form of reports, written by space-travelling observers who have been posted to far-flung planets. You get human-like creatures who can change gender, a race who live almost entirely apart from one another and have no concept of ‘people’ as plural, and a race who must form marriages with two men and two women.  The back cover blurb struggles to justify the relevance of this by arguing that it ‘probes the essence of what it means to be human’, but really, I think it’s just fun.  6.5 / 10.

Airport Schlock 

Dean KoontzBy the Light of the Moon and Odd Thomas

I read the second one of these novels in order to ensure that the first was not an abberation by an otherwise talented writer. This was folly. They are both equally terrible.

Koontz dispenses with the trivial matter of ‘character motivation’ by having all of his central characters possessed by a supernatural and uncontrollable desire to fight evil. Similarly, he overcomes that annoying question of ‘how do the characters know things?’ and the whole tiresome issue of ‘plot’ in general, by giving his heroes the ability to sense evil actions just before they happen. “My danger sense is tingling, Fenestre! I must drive to the place where a murder is about to occur!”

In the first novel, these rather convenient qualities are actually injected into the protagonists by a delusional super-scientist. I’m sure if Koontz could inject readers with a serum which made them find his books plausible and interesting, he would do it in a second. Actually, he is one of the most popular writers in the world right now, so something of the sort must have already happened. 2/10.

Kim Wilkins – The Resurrectionists

Here’s the formula:

1x heroine, vulnerable but with hidden psychic strength

1x remote location in rural Britain, one of those ‘tuck’d away places’ that turn out not to exist when you look them up on multimap.com

1x ancient Celtic or Anglo-Saxon spiritual menace that has long lingered in this sinister hollow / eerie moor,  known only to to the shifty locals

1x unusual outcast / drifter boyfriend

1x inept incomer policeman or corrupt / shifty local policeman (optional)

Well, if you thought you were reading a description of one of the ‘Merrily Watkins’ novels by Phil Rickman, that’s because Wilkins appears to have stolen his formula, down to the last dark eyelash on that exotic boyfriend. The only difference is that Wilkins has obviously done a lot of research on witchcraft for this novel, and you can really tell, because of all the sections that read like a bad research paper. 3/10.  

In a category of their own

Douglas Adams – The Long, Dark Tea Time of the Soul

These are supposed to be ‘funny’ books but they always leave me feeling rather sad and I’m glad there aren’t any more of them. The central character (Dirk Gently) has a belief in the ‘interconnectedness of all things’, which means that his method of detection is to wander around randomly until things sort themselves out, which they do, but not in very satisfactory ways. ‘Listless’ is they key adjective here. I wonder if Adams, who has gone off the radar, now resides in that special hospital reserved for ‘funny’ Englishmen, alongside John Cleese, and waiting to take his place in the dark comedians’ graveyard next to Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. (Ricky Gervais and Chris Langham already have their places reserved, I suspect. I was very upset to hear the news about Chris Langham).  5/10

O. Henry – 100 Favourite Stories

My original rendition of the formula here was something like ‘detached omniscient narrator provides ironic tableau of life in turn-of-the-century New York apartment building.’ A friend of mine online commented that it is more like ‘the protagonist hubristically seeks outcome A, yet by an amusing turn of events beyond his control, outcome B occurs, leading to his downfall. Pathos ensues.’

I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle. But really, I only read about eight of these. I’ll save the other ninety-two for another life.   4.5/10 

Children’s Literature

I have been reading  a lot of children’s literature and early fantasy writing over the last few years, trying to find models for what the genre used to look like before Tolkein got his grubby epic mits on it, and perhaps, what it could look like again.

C.S Lewis – Of This and Other Worlds

Lewis is a fine writer, but he’s not at his best in this compendium of critical writings of fantasy literature. This is partly because the pieces were clearly not meant to be read as a collection, and are very repetitious of one another. For example, he makes the same rather good point – that fantasy is only considered children’s literature because it is currently unfashionable – in about half of the pieces, often using the same analogy to do so. 

The other problem is that he over-explains things. This is particulary sad and ironic in the section in which he states that it is the basic archetypal ideas of fantasy (pirates, volcanoes, etc) that excite us, and that the author’s attempt to catch these in a narrative net will never quite do them justice. “The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter is apt to be frittered away into mere excitement once the journey has begun.” That’s fine, Clive. We don’t need eight more examples. 5.5 out of 10  

Frank BaumWizard of Oz and John Dough and the Cherub

I’d never actually read Oz before and found the writing entertaining, as did Cody when I began reading it to him (this is still in progress). John Dough was fun, but not a patch on Oz, really, although the silliness of it reminds me of a child’s version of James Branch Cabell. Baum’s modern fairy tale formula seems to work best when it is highly structured – almost colour-coded, as is the case with Oz. While the characters and ideas in John Dough are amusuing, the plot is episodic and basically prettty random. Unrated.

Alan Garner  – A Book of Goblins

It must be nice to be famous. I’m sure if I went to Penguin Books with this exact collection (fairy tales, poetry, and amusing ephemera, some of it only tangentially related to goblins) the Children’s Editor would smile, nod, and then pull that special lever that opens up the trapdoor in the floor and plummets the would-be author into the crocodile lake that surely, all editors have beneath their offices. But if I said my name was Alan Garner, they would print it and then reprint it nineteen times.

It’s a great collection. In particular, it contains the story Yallery Brown, which is wonderful, and you should read right now. That alone gets at 9/10 from me.   

Roald DahlCharlie and the Chocolate Factory

Cody got a great deal of enjoyment out of this when I read it to him. My own particular form of racism was revealed to me as I gave each of the central charcters regional accents. All of the spoiled children were either Texan or New York Americans. Charlie himself was a non-descript English boy. Wonka was a rather camp, passive-agressive Irishman.

Cody has been lecturing me on the dangers of becoming spoiled ever since this was read to him. 6.5 /10

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (CONTAINS SPOLIERS)

Well, thank goodness this is finally over. Predictably, Rowling lost control of her own project to hordes of nerds and internet speculators, in exactly the same way as the creators of the X-Files did, and the writers of Lost are currently doing. You just can’t make an epic seven-year mystery these days, without half the planet guessing the outcome! I have enjoyed all of these series for the ride rather than the destination, which is inevitably anti-climactic. We guessed it all, long ago, and it was never that mysterious to begin with.

And really, we have to be glad that Rowling added in that ‘Nineteen Years Later’ section at the end (in which we see a middle-aged Harry comfortably settled and doing not much), if only because it rules out the possibility of a ‘Harry Potter – The University Years’ series, in which Harry and Hermione form an avant-garde rock band and Ron experiments with drugs. No thanks. Goodbye, Hairy Pooter. This series is OVAH!

6/10 (although I’d give the series overall a 7.5).

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