a (mostly) patchwork bookstack, briefly

October 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

seeing as NaNoWriMo’s coming up, I may come back to curse/praise the effort of creating a book in about a week. I have missed blogging. Ditching it for a while’s helped me to realize what the value of it actually was, which was stretching my Communicating in a Written Format muscles rather than just narcissistically venting my spleen in (pseudo-)public before vanishing back into sloth or the real creative & practical pursuits I ought to have been doing in the first place. Doop! Also it is true that the more reliably I blog about my reading material, the less likely I am to do this:

Stuff I Read Since My CS Lewis Binge

Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch. I read The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in this series, earlier this year. The greatest strengths of Red Seas were the same as its predecessor’s–fast, engaging action sequences and hilarious dialogue. A lot of fantasy authors try to be funny and fall flat on their faces. Lynch is a breath of fresh air. He gets Whedon-esque quippy at times, but he spreads it thinly enough across the book as a whole that it never comes off as too cloying or over-the-top, especially since it is ultimately a lighthearted romp of a series despite its grisly detail and high body count. It’s kind of nice to read fantasy that’s clearly meant to be an Adventure rather than a trudge through the grit and grime factory. “Have fun,” says Lynch, “I sure did.” Locke and Jean are an endearing iteration of Those Two Guys–you know, the pair of heterosexual men who console each other with booze and punches to the arm through the inevitable deaths of their comrades and love interests and offer to sacrifice their lives for each other two or three times a week.

He does have that all-too-common issue of overloading the reader with worldbuilding detail, however, and this gets exacerbated by how much traveling the main characters do–this is worse in Red Seas than Lies. Lynch gets overexcited about how many different factions are plotting against each other and using/being used by Our Heroes, and I’m sure it’s all orchestrated very cleverly except I missed out on a bunch of it because I couldn’t have cared less about the two dozen names being thrown at me in the first hundred pages. The series as a whole also does an…okay job populating its ancillary cast with women of various castes and professions, but rarely foregrounds a woman unless she’s going to be fridged in the third act. I predicted one character’s death two hundred pages in advance because she started flirting with one of the protagonists. Seriously? We gotta get past this. I’m now conditioned thoroughly against giving a damn about a character whose name isn’t Locke or Jean until the next book proves to me I should bother.

A Terrible Love of War, by James Hillman. This book got a lot less obnoxious once I realized it was meant as essentially the World’s Longest, Emotional Blog Post rather than a work of scholarship per se. This is my first experience reading Hillman, but I wonder if he always writes like his prose is meant to be read aloud in a movie-trailer voice. He’s. So. Dramatic. The drama works magnificently where it’s appropriate–namely, when he’s reaching the apex of a chapter or his overall thesis, when he’s going for momentum with a climactic revelation–but he uses it so often everywhere else it’s a little hard to tell when you’re supposed to be most moved? Sort of like reading Mervyn Peake, where someone pushing around peas on a plate gets the same intense diction as someone preparing to commit murder.

Anyway, James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War could (in its first two thirds) just be titled “James Hillman’s Terrible Love of War.” He rhapsodizes about the terrible majesty and power of war, manifested as the archetype-god Ares and his companion Aphrodite/beauty/desire. As a onetime student of classics I probably found his constant use of Greek mythology as structural and thematic aid easier to swallow than other readers might–it’s not hard to understand, but it feels bizarrely archaic if you’re not used to coming across this stuff in life. His great talent seems to be for synthesis. He’s collected a lot of quotes and stats that he sprinkles across each of the book’s three sections (War is Inhuman, War is Sublime, Religion is War) with…well, it felt more like aesthetic grace than rhetorical…? I was unsure how to feel about that. Are you trying to prove a point, or are you trying to make me feel your feelings? Can you do both? Well yeah, but because of the aforementioned Super Dramatic Tone!!! it was difficult to reach the point through all the heaps of feelings, even if he did succeed in making me have a few myself.

The last section, “Religion is War,” was the best. I happened to agree with a lot of it, so, er, that might have helped with its success for me as a reader, but I’d argue that even with that aside it has the strength of being more specific than its two previous sections. The first posited that war is awful (no really?), the second that it’s like nothing else and has captured our attention for millennia (wow, duh). “Religion is War” is built around the idea that the relationship we have with war as a force unto itself is strikingly similar to the relationship we have with divinity. Western monotheism, especially in its American forms, revolves around the worship of something all-powerful and conquering and never wrong, in whose name we will inevitably make war again and again convinced of our own superiority. It’s not a new idea, but his presentation of it is compelling, perhaps more so because he’s clearly struggled with this idea as a former soldier and former Christian. I especially liked this passage. Overall, though, the last section might have worked best for me because by that time I maybe finally understood the source of all the dramatic language–Hillman rhapsodizes like this as a symptom of his own fascination with the inhuman/sublime? he pushes past it with great effort to condemn himself for it, and outline it as part of a great affliction of humanity which by the last page he confesses to having no idea how to fix? The bleak conclusion is that the relationship between humanity and war and religion may be borne out as symbiotic, with all three surviving until the first destroys itself or time proves the last one right.

Yikes.

Everybody Calls Me Father, by “Father X.” ‘Father X’ is actually a childhood acquaintance of the co-pilot’s, and I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this book since she blogged about it here. (Incidentally, if you’re sick of hearing my heathen ass complain about Christian apologists or want a point of comparison you might enjoy her posts; she is a weird Catholic with a lot of interesting things to say). It’s a fictionalized memoir of some of his life as a priest. It is both charmingly and infuriatingly informed by being from the 1950s. Father X’s prose style is very straightforward and earnest, which I love, especially when it touches upon practices that I often find too esoteric or invested with solemnity to understand. He seems to embody the phrase “Aw, shucks” from start to finish. It’s impossible to read any part of it and doubt his sincerity. He’s the kind of humble that one wishes more authorities (religious and otherwise) would reveal themselves to be.

Unfortunately, after several chapters it breaks from personal narrative to become a series of extremely off-putting and saccharine anecdotes about People Behaving Perfectly For Christ or Learning Their Lesson and Monologuing Accordingly. The first one involves the death of a young woman in a car accident who cheerfully tells her friends and family as she bleeds out that she’s headed to a better place. I thought of Lewis. Yuck. Another young woman properly converts to Catholicism after lapsing during high school; dumps her boyfriend because he’s not Catholic and meets and marries a much more perfect Catholic man within a year; later on her ex-boyfriend converts too. A local upstanding newspaperman and friend of Father X’s teams up with Father X to condemn a local drugstore owner for selling comic books containing violent or sexual imagery; the drugstore owner sends someone to beat up the newspaperman (???) but then remembers his deceased mother wishing he’d been more Catholic, repents emotionally and immediately, and resolves to life a better Christian life. There’s a whole chapter denouncing the silly arguments of Planned Parenthood that not everyone has the resources to parent responsibly. It goes from quaintly behind-the-times to skin-crawlingly toxic with such speed that the whole book was soured for me.

I was disappointed, because, darn it, I just got done being uncomfortable with Lewis! I wanted to be friendly this time! Man…

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Murakami was hot stuff back when I was in college, and continues to be one of those authors that someone recommends me two or three times a year, so I eagerly took the opportunity to borrow Kafka on the Shore from a coworker. Now I’ve read it and, uh…I’m not sure what to say, because I’m pretty sure I Did Not Get It. Not in the sense that “ugh, this is clearly not for me” but that I must have missed something. I got to the end and had no idea why anything had happened.

…it also might not be for me, though, because I ran into some of the same problems I had the last time I had a go at one of these sprawling magical realist projects. Namely, sexism (two female characters, both awful, more on that in a moment), things happening for no reason as an otherworldly-but-lazy way to progress the plot, and yet more incest. Why is there always incest???? Fifteen-year-old Kafka sleeps with his mom and sister-figure, who are the only two women in the book; his mom’s life basically ended when her lover died when she was young and she’s been waiting to die since then though she is briefly revived by the opportunity to bang her son; his sister (who may or may not be his real sister? I’m not sure? but she clearly told him they were like brother and sister and he’s wondered if she’s his sister a lot) exists to help him out and to at one point be raped by him yeah OK no we’re. We’re done here.

It’s OK because it’s literary fiction! No, it’s not. It’s still gross. It’s a shame, too, because the other half of the book (it alternates between the two protagonists from chapter to chapter) stars a character I absolutely loved and whose story, while equally baffling, was both less offensive and way more interesting. Nakata rules, Kafka drools. I don’t know what else to say about this one. If you want something mysterious and atmospheric and pretentious that’ll take you many repetitions to puzzle out, just go listen to the new Joanna Newsom album instead.

Murakami fans: which one do you like? Is there one without incest as a major plot point?

Next up on the reading list: the next Locke Lamora book, a romance novel about lesbian werewolves (!!) and this very science-y book about trees I’ve been working on for a couple months but that’s taking me forever to finish because I don’t understand a lot of the words. And NaNo! Good luck to NaNo folks this year!

 


E (the delinquent)

 

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