Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips

The Tragedy of Arthur is a unique novel, and if nothing else, I have to give Phillips credit for having the guts to write it. For not only is the book a (fictional) story of (a fictional) Arthur Phillips, his con-artist dad, and a never-before-seen-in-the-modern-world Shakespeare play, the novel also includes the entirety of the "newly discovered" Shakespeare play itself. And, boy, does it take some balls to write and publish your own Shakespeare play, particularly since that play is lauded and authenticated as "true Shakespeare" within the story (framed as the play's introduction).

But, to back up a few steps. The majority of the novel is the "introduction," written by (fictional) Phillips about how the play Arthur came to be discovered and published. The story is really an account of Phillips' fractured relationship with his father, who spent most of Phillips' life in jail for counterfeiting and other scams. Phillips' father gave him Arthur on his near-deathbed, and Phillips spends much time trying to decide if the play is genuine or a last trick of his father's.

This set up has a lot of interesting possibilities, including Phillips' relationship with the Bard himself--a person so admired by his father and sister that Phillips couldn't help but dislike him. Nonetheless, I just couldn't get in to the story. Phillips spends most of the introduction self-flagellating, bemoaning his mistakes and whimpering about what a terrible son/brother/husband/father he was and is. For this reason, I found Phillips immensely dislikable, even though I didn't think his crimes and errors were nearly as terrible as he--and especially his sister--found them to be. The story dragged, even though it's relatively short.

I did enjoy some of the insight into the cult of adoration that surrounds Shakespeare, having mixed feelings about him myself. I disliked Shakespeare in high school and college, but I've come to appreciate him much more now that I teach Romeo and Juliet. I know the play so well now that I really love it, but it took a lot of time to get me there. I don't pick up a random Shakespeare play and immediately feel enthralled (though an absolutely amazing performance of Othello I saw a few years back did have me convinced). I could identify with Phillips' anger at the deification of Shakespeare and our complete willingness to excuse and explain away any potential errors or weaknesses in the plays as actually signs of Shakespeare's genius. There has to be a happy middle ground between recognizing his talent and influence and being realistic about his creations.

Nonetheless the "woe is me {mope}{mope}{mope}" of the introduction was so infuriating that I really didn't want to read the play itself, The Tragedy of Arthur, which appears at the end of the book. However, I surprisingly enjoyed the faux-Shakespeare--both the characterization and dialogue. I'm not enough of an expert to say how skilled (the author) Phillips is at imitating Shakespeare, but he doesn't seem to do a bad job.

Kudos to Phillips for a unique and daring novel--I just wish the story hadn't been such a drag.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"The Death Cure" by James Dashner

I had been looking forward to reading The Death Cure. Though Dashner's previous books in the series, The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials, weren't especially memorable, they were a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the mix of mystery, adventure, and dystopian elements, and the fast-paced cliffhanger style helped make the books especially engaging. Unfortunately, The Death Cure did not live up to my expectations.

In a series built on unanswered questions, it can be difficult to wrap-up the storyline in an effective way. Going in, the reader knows Thomas and the other Gladers must learn the truth about WICKED and determine their role in protecting the earth from the disease called the Flare. Nevertheless, Dashner just didn't seem to know where he was going. First, unlike previous novels, it felt like little was happening, and when something did, it was almost always centered around guns, fistfights, and bravado-laced hostage taking. The inordinate amount of fighting and death seemed out of place, like it should have belonged in a mass market crime thriller. Hundreds of (mostly unnamed) people die, but there's really no empathy.

Thomas' relationship with and conflicting feelings about Theresa were at the center of the previous novels, but Theresa is almost completely forgotten here. There's no character development on her part, and it's never clear what her motivations are. Thomas mostly ignores her, and I was surprised to see so little resolution between them.

The book seemed like it was trying to raise ethical questions by setting up the conflict between WICKED, which is willing to sacrifice human subjects at any cost in order to find a cure to for the Flare, and the Right Arm, a resistance movement focused on survival rather than a cure. The question of whether it's morally permissible to sacrifice a few to potentially save many is an important and challenging issue. However, Thomas and his friends' insistence on the evil of WICKED, combined with the cartoonish nastiness of WICKED's leader, distorted any moralistic exploration.

I found myself bored through much of the novel, and the ending was a cop-out that avoided answering the hard questions. It was a disappointing end to a promising series.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the first young adult book I've read since August, though I requested it from the library quickly based on the praise I had heard for its quirky story. However, the story itself is not too unusual, at least to fans of fantasy with a gothic twist. Jacob grew up hearing fantastic stories from his grandfather about an island filled with children with special abilities. Though he devoured the stories as a child, as he grew older, Jacob believed in them less and less until his grandfather is killed in a bizarre tragedy. Hoping to learn more about his grandfather's history, Jacob seeks out the island and discovers Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a sanctuary for X-Men-like children that remains in a time loop of one day during World War II.

What sets Miss Peregrine apart is its use of odd vintage photographs, which appear periodically throughout the book (i.e., as Jacob examines the photo, it appears in the novel). Though the photos are interesting and certainly creepy, they also have the unintended effect of making the novel feel like a creative writing exercise. I could just imagine an instructor saying, "Here are five random photos; now make a cohesive story from them!" Even though writers are free to get their inspiration from anywhere, such inspiration is usually less apparent. Seeing the photos made me think, "Okay, so here's how Riggs choose to work this photo in." Fair or not, I couldn't help seeing the story as forced and inauthentic because of it.

This sense of inauthenticity also extended to the characters. I just couldn't quite buy Jacob's teenage angst, and he often seemed much younger or much older than he's supposed to be. I also didn't connect to his relationship with Emma, which happened far too quickly.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is not a bad story, and it would be great for a younger audience with a lower reading level. However, it didn't bring me in.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

I'm not quite sure why I waited so long to read The Poisonwood Bible except I think I had it mixed up with Prodigal Summer, which I own and started a few times but never got in to. Nonetheless, I'm happy I finally gave the book a try, especially in the well-done audio version I listened to, which is narrated by Dean Robertson in a convincing southern accent.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family, who travel to the Congo as Christian missionaries in the 1960s. The wife, Orleanna, and the four children, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, are led with maniacal religious fervor by the father, Nathan. The story is told from the sisters' alternating viewpoints as they struggle to adjust to life in Africa.

The voice of each sister is especially well-done and reinforced by small shifts in tone from the audio narrator. Ruth May, the youngest, is naive and enthusiastic. Leah and Adah are twins, but Adah was born with some kind of deformity that results in a limp. Adah is silent yet sarcastic and irreverent; Leah is devoted to her father, which makes his fall from grace in her eyes all the more painful. Rachel is vain and flighty. Kingsolver is especially talented at making each girl, and their parents, fully realized characters. It quickly becomes clear that although Nathan is the reason they all travel to the Congo, he is mostly absent from their lives.

The first half of the book explores the family's first year or so in the Congo. The family's interactions with and lack of understanding of the people Nathan is there to convert take center stage. The second half of the book takes place over several decades as the family members go their separate ways and live out their adulthood. Because this part of the novel is spread out over such a long period, some of the intimacy of character that so defined the first half is lost.

Poisonwood Bible takes place over a turbulent time in the history of the Congo as the country transitions from Belgian rule to various forms of independence. Like another book I read this summer, White Woman on a Green Bicycle, Poisonwood Bible explores these changes through the eyes of white individuals living in the country.  Though, like in White Woman, this means the native Congolese voices are largely absent, the technique does expose the stereotypes and prejudices of non-citizens and particularly white Americans.

For me, it was the detail and nuance of the sisters' daily lives in a world that first appears strange, but then became familiar, that drew me in and kept me hooked.

Friday, October 14, 2011

"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is a novel that's built on the reader's (and characters') constant immersion in a dream-like world, where every event has the tinge of a fairy tale and every encounter bursts in intensity and emotion. It's a book completely dependent on mood, and there's some danger in that; if the reader doesn't buy in, there's no book. However, fortunately for readers, Morgenstern's Night Circus is a success.

It's a hard book to describe effectively. There are two protagonists, Celia and Marco, and they're not quite magicians, but they are able to manipulate the world around them. As children they're bound by their teachers to a mysterious competition with each other, though it's a competition with hazy rules and no timeline. The setting of this competition is the Night Circus, a fantastic event that shows up and leaves unannounced. As Celia and Marco work to create even more staggering illusions for the circus, they must fight between their feelings for each other and their obligation to the game.

The world of The Night Circus is rich in several accounts. First, there's the description of the circus itself, a completely black and white exhibition with untold wonders in every tent. Morgenstern's world is so vivid that the reader can't help but envy the characters' ability to visit it. Secondly, there's the richly drawn characters and the electricity between Celia and Marco. They're not together particularly often, but when they are, the reader can't help but feel their attraction. It's one of the more compelling romances I've read in awhile.

At times the book can be overly cryptic, and the twins Poppet and Widget were intriguing characters whom I would have liked to see more of. I'm not sure if the ending quite worked, but it's mostly satisfying.

Nonetheless, I felt like I entered a new world whenever I picked up the book, and I was disappointed when I suddenly noticed I was nearly finished.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Eye in the Sky" by Philip K. Dick

I know the name Philip K. Dick solely from him being the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which I haven't read), the book on which Blade Runner (which I haven't seen) is based.  Looking at the inside cover of the book I did read, Eye in the Sky, I was amazed to see just how prolific a science-fiction writer Dick was. Eye in the Sky, published in 1957, is one of his earlier works.

The novel has a simple premise that's light on the science-fiction and heavier on a dramatic plot. When a group of people are injured while observing a science experiment, they all fall (mostly) unconscious and begin entering, in succession, the subconscious "dream" worlds of each other. The protagonist is Hamilton, an electronics expert who has recently been fired because his wife, Marsha, is suspected to be a Communist.

It's a decent, though not thrilling, set-up, but Dick doesn't seem quite sure of his concept. There's no consistency in the type of dream worlds the characters enter. For example, the world Mr. Silvester, a religious fanatic, is a weird mix of pseudo-Christianity and pseudo-Islam; it's hard to see where that would fit in his psyche. Mrs. Pritchet's "world" is clearly her dream fantasy: she can remove anything she finds unpleasant at will. However, Miss Reiss' world isn't her fantasy, but rather a gross manifestation of her paranoia and fears. From a sci-fi perspective, I found that lack of consistent world building irritating.

Nonetheless, there's some fun to be had in the transition between odd worlds and in the group's (somewhat) clever ways of knocking out the person who is controlling the world in order to progress to another individual's mind. This might have been enough to make for a diverting read had it not been for the main character, Hamilton.

Hamilton's a privileged self-righteous blow-hard who looks down upon everyone else, but it seems Dick wants the reader to admire his behavior. The reader never even gets to see Hamilton's dream world because he's so "in touch" with reality. Yet take his behavior: When Bill Laws, a black physicist (relegated to the position of tour guide in the real world), finds some comfort in Mrs. Pritchet's world (a world in which he commands his own company), Hamilton has nothing but scorn. When Marsha supports Mrs. Pritchet in removing a prostitute that Hamilton is trying to have sex with from the world, Hamilton is furious, and it's Marsha who has to apologize! Marsha's anger should have been directed Hamilton, not the prostitute, but that doesn't excuse Hamilton's behavior. See how he sneers at his wife when she tries to make up:
     "I love you, Jack [Hamilton]," Marsha quavered wretchedly.
     "And I'm in a hurry," he answered. "Okay?"
     She nodded. "Okay. Good luck."
     "Thanks." As he moved toward the picnic site, he said to her, "I'm glad you've forgiven me about Silky [the prostitute]."
     "Have you forgiven me?"
     "No," he said stonily. "But maybe I will when I see her again."
     "I hope you do," Marsha said pitifully.
     "Just keep your fingers crossed." (168)

Hamilton's attitude toward his wife is bad throughout. He's condescending and easily assumes the worst of her (in this novel, that she's a communist). Marsha is characterized rather pathetically (reading "quavered wretchedly" as a description of her speech makes me wince), but that dosen't make Hamilton's attitude okay. Hamilton's supposed to be the hero, but I couldn't stand him.

The best part of the novel is its fierce anti-Communist stance, which just comes off as funny. It allows for awesome lines like, "You all believe it. You think I'm -- a Communist" (214). I've read some reviews that said the book is a critique of McCarthyism, and I suppose there is some criticism of unfounded Communist paranoia, but the novel clearly supports the idea that Communists = pure evil. In the end, Eye in the Sky is probably better suited as evidence of '50s attitudes than great science-fiction.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"The Magician King" by Lev Grossman

In my review of The Magicians, I described my ambivalence for Grossman's first novel in the series. Although I found the themes he explored fascinating, the novel itself was at times tiresome. I ended the review by saying, "When my husband and I finished listening to the audiobook, one of our first questions to each other was, 'Would you read the sequel?' I still haven't determined my answer." Well, it turns out I answered that question quickly and affirmatively as I finished The Magician King less than a month later.

The Magician King felt like a much different book than The Magicians. Some of that is probably due to reading the book (rather than listening to the audiobook version) since the pace felt quicker. Nonetheless, I think most of the change is due to the structure of The Magician King. In The Magicians, Grossman is concerned with exploring magic in the real world we know, and his novel is full of dissatisfied characters musing about their dissatisfaction with life. Most of the story takes place at Brakebills, so there's not much in terms of a narrative plotline. No evil to fight; no quest to undertake.

However, in The Magician King, the protagonist Quentin is already in a magical world when the novel begins, and, like a dissatisfied reader yearning for adventure, Quentin partakes on a quest early in hopes of finding the sense of purpose in life that has always eluded him. For the reader, this means that, from the start, something is always happening. There's none of the boredom and drunkenness that characterized much of The Magicians. Instead, Quentin is traveling far and wide, encountering strange creatures and mysterious islands. This doesn't mean that interesting themes aren't explored: the restlessness of magic; what is means to be a hero. However, these themes are explored while "stuff" happens, which is a lot more interesting to the reader.

The Magician King also flashbacks frequently to tell the story of Julia, Quentin's high school friend who, after failing to pass the Brakebills examination, discovered magic on her own. Her torturous journey to find belonging forms a nice parallel to Quentin's experiences at Brakebills (but is a lot more interesting).

In all, The Magician King was a far more enjoyable read than The Magicians, though I'm not sure the second book left me thinking as much as the first.