Letters from the Earth
Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings by Mark Twain, edited by Bernard DeVoto, 2/5
From a scholarly perspective, this collection of previously unpublished writings by Mark Twain is no doubt a valuable resource. However, from a casual reader’s perspective, it was a bit of a tedious mishmash. The main attraction, to me, was an unfinished story, dubbed by the editor “The Great Dark,” which made it onto the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.” The concept was memorable–a man and his family are trapped on a dream ship exploring a microscopic drop of water–but the tone was very uneven and the story too unpolished and indeed, unfinished, to be a satisfying read. Much of the rest of this collection consisted of snarky essays in which the author mocked Christianity in an ignorant and closed-minded way that, in my opinion, reflected more poorly on himself than on the religion.
Why I read it: this was the last book I had left to read from the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, 2/5
Le Guin’s exploration of that inherently contradictory concept, an anarchist society, felt pointless and unbelievable, probably because anarchy itself (even the idealized, fictional version portrayed in this book) seems ridiculously illogical, unrealistic and childish, as I understand it. Is the government oppressive? Get rid of all forms of authority! Do the rich exploit the poor? Get rid of all possessions! Is anarchy failing? Apply more anarchy!
My main problem is not necessarily with Le Guin’s portrayal of anarchy in the book (though I did find that pretty implausible) but that when it inevitably starts to unravel, she falls back on more anarchy as the answer. It’s as if rebellion was a cause itself, not something to be employed in the service of a cause. Her attempts to extract some sort of deep philosophical meaning from the simple fact that a society of rebels will inevitably become a regime to be rebelled against itself did not resonate with me at all.
Another reason I didn’t enjoy reading this book is that I dislike feeling preached-at and reading fiction that contains fake science and sexual themes, all of which are prominent features of The Dispossessed and annoyed me enough to ruin any chance of achieving suspension of disbelief.
[Why I read it: Jan from choir recommended Le Guin to me a couple years ago and my friend Sarah mentioned on Facebook that she’s a huge fan.]
The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake, 3/5
Possessing the writing style of an orphan love child of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens, Peake sees the world through rotting-salmon colored glasses and creates a gloomy trilogy that is, for all its sprawling imaginativeness, unsettlingly grim and ghastly. Perhaps readers who are less sensitive to words’ connotations, sounds, and tastes would be less disturbed, but I was continually galled by Peake’s preference for off-putting, unpleasant language. The opening paragraph alone contains several good examples: the castle of Gormenghast is surrounded by “mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls” and one of its towers, “patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”
So what, you might think, he’s just describing a creepy old castle. But no, almost everything is treated similarly. A candelabrum is “like a vast spider suspended by a metal chord,” a character’s teeth are like “two brand new rows of gravestones,” the morning sky is “awakening air quilled with blood,” and a lone cloud is “like a wing ripped from the body of an eagle.” Almost all of the characters are portrayed repellently and most posses gross names such as Rottcodd, Mr. Flay, Swelter, Steerpike, Nannie Slagg, Doctor Prunesquallor, Lord Sepulchrave Groan, Sourdust…and many more. It is not often that a reader is presented with so many characters and so few of them likeable.
The first two novels are partly redeemed, in my mind, by their vivid portrayal of many memorable characters and an imaginative setting for a plot that contains several exciting episodes and a few moving ones. I think the first two books are much stronger without the third, which was disjointed–almost incomprehensible at times–and ended poorly (it is not surprising to learn that it was cobbled together from the manuscripts of a dying author).
My review would not feel complete without mentioning Peake’s skilled illustrations, which were scattered generously throughout the text. It is so unusual to encounter an author who is capable of drawing what he writes (I always felt sorry for Tolkien in this respect). Also noteworthy is the author’s prodigious vocabulary. Between pages 309 and 793 (the trilogy is almost a thousand pages long, but it took me a while to realize that the strange words were going to keep popping up, then even longer to get tired of writing them down), I encountered no fewer than 23 very unusual words, 16 of which I am almost absolutely sure I’ve never seen in print before. For the curious, here are the 16 words with links to definitions: liana, canalized, spilth’d, daedal, abactina, lacuna, umbrageous, anile, cruddled, gracile, marcid, oriflamme, purdah, titivating, humus and mulcted.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed the BBC miniseries based on the first two books.]
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis, 5/5
In this touching story, set in an eerily believable dystopian future, Tevis explores what it means to be human–a well-worn topic that somehow finds fresh, new life under his sensitive but sure hand. I quite liked how the story unfolded when approached with rather less preknowledge than could be gained from the previous sentence, so I will leave this review suitably sparse. Suffice it to say that the author’s insight into the human condition combines with the book’s accessibility, immediacy and artistic merit to outshine, in my opinion, other novels in the genre, such as Brave New World and 1984.
[Why I read it: A recommendation from my friend, Alison.]
Ready Player One
Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline, 3/5
A dystopian setting in Planet Earth’s near future provides an interesting contrast to the steady stream of 1980s trivia in this homage to geek culture. It is, perhaps, unreasonable to complain about the preponderance of cliches and stereotypes in this novel, since Cline uses them effectively to create an exciting, page-turner story. However, the complete lack of character development, increasingly contrived plot, clumsy foreshadowing, excruciatingly poorly-written “love” angle, and lightweight ending complete with deus ex machina ultimately kind of killed it for me.
[Why I read it: I waited so long for this book to come in at the library that I’ve completely forgotten how I heard about it. Perhaps a friend told me about it?]
New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, translated by Andrew Bromfield, 4/5
I enjoyed this most recent addition to the Watch Series, told from the now-familiar perspective of Anton Gorodetsky. The author was successful in bringing in some new ideas/elements, though I did get a bit lost at the end of the story and had to consult Wikipedia.
[Why I read it: I’ve mostly enjoyed this series, starting with the first book, Night Watch.]
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, 5/5
The storyline is excellent, the characters interesting, the setting detailed and the writing skilled, but what has always struck me most favourably about this book is Card’s abnormally well-developed theories on the psychology of leadership and the natural, believable ways these theories are embodied in the characters he creates. The actions and motivations of the characters do not seem artificial or forced–Card avoids the contrived, stilted interactions and scenarios that many less skilled writers resort to when attempting to be “psychological.”
[Why I read it: I wanted a refresher of the book before submitting myself to the shallow spectacle, the hollow shell of any meaningful narrative, that will be, if current trends in the film industry are any indication, the movie version. I am not seeing it solely to complain, however (though that could surely be fun)–my brother is writing a short paper comparing the book to the movie and, since I teach him writing, I want to understand his thought process.]