Wednesday, July 2, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I am not quite ready to hail Marquez’s masterpiece as the finest piece of literature since Genesis. Yet his splendid Latin American tale is so awfully good that the moment of hailage is not too far away.

So lyrical, so dreamlike, One Hundred Years reads even better accompanied by Counting Crows’ “Dreaming Tree.” Appropriately enough there is so much from the sprawling story that stays etched in the memory, so many characters, so much tragedy and joy, so many modest yet profound life lessons.

What I found wanting—the plot device that cannot quite hide the fact that the novel is merely a series of short stories; that sexuality assumes too large a crutch to the novel’s plot—is easily brushed aside in the wonderment through which I shared the Buendi family’s fate.

Seize the Day, Saul Bellows

When Bellows won his Nobel in 1976, the judges, like so many others before and since, singled out Seize the Day as a modern day masterpiece.

I suppose they are all right.

“Right” because the story evokes the peril of personal ambition and the pain of existential loneliness like nothing I’ve read since the incomparable Death of a Salesman. Yet also only “suppose” because flaws somewhere within the plot or the writing style prevent Bellow’s short story from fully conveying the depth of feeling this reader expects from what is essentially a statement on the isolation, failure and despair of modern man.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

There are books that move me to write my own novel. Count this as one of them, but for all the wrong reasons.

First the good: Mistry’s six-hundred page epic about Indians living through Indira Gandhi’s disastrous Emergency regime is an endearing mix of pain, humor and familial love, and save for a few simplistically evil figures, the characters spring to life, rough edges intact.

As to the bad and ugly, you can start with any number of stereotypes that are agonizingly overplayed: the young male characters’ sexual obsession is one of many examples. Yet what damns this novel is that it is so relentlessly grim, so wedded to a hopeless perspective on the challenge of life, that at some point the reader wants to throw the book aside and ask why anyone would devote so much space to say little more than life- or at least India in the late seventies- is endlessly awful.

Any number of admirable reads posses a fairly bleak outlook on life. But when A Fine Balance spins a story for six hundred pages with nary a redeeming message in sight, the bitter taste at the end does not reflect empathy for the characters’ wretched fates as much as frustration for trusting in an ultimately soulless novel.

Mama Huhu or Horses and Tigers

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

More a fable than a story, three things kept the book from really earning my admiration, all of which reflect the fact that I simply read this book too late in life. A decade earlier, and we might have had something special together. So much for the past.

My first problem with Coelho’s bestseller is that much of the grist is taken from Genesis, which would only be to the tale’s credit except that when even the ending turns on what is an all too familiar Hasidic yarn (though whether eastern European Jewry can really claim ownership over the tale, I’m not quite sure), the use of so much that is familiar leaves me desperate for signs of authentic creativity.

The second problem goes deeper, as much of the story’s admirable ideas about life’s purpose are ones I had already internalized from elsewhere by the time I got together with The Alchemist. The result was page after page of admirable messages that this time around, resonated only at the level of a study guide.

The third problem goes deeper still, but as it is largely personal, reflecting why and when I read The Alchemist and my immediate reaction to that context, let’s leave it aside for personal conversation and agree for the moment that this is a story to share, just at the right place and time.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Almost necessitated the creation of an even more atrocious rating. The unique perspective utilized by the novel saves some respect. Otherwise this is a total bomb.

The plot goes nowhere for way too long, and then becomes obvious midway through. With nothing to look forward to, the reader is shamelessly dragged along for a while, hoping that the characters will at least began to have some personality.

Doesn’t happen and by the end everyone- you included- is the worse for the experience.

A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.

High expectations are par for the course with the books on this list. So the heady proclamations that crowd Canticle’s backside, “enduring masterpiece,” “on every sensible list of the half-dozen great novels of the last half of the 20th century,” do not excuse a book that fails to package an appealing plot or any character studies into thirty chapters otherwise consumed by a pessimistically told moralizing tale against nuclear weapons and human hubris.

This book is worth a skip unless you want to tap at the Strangelovian era fear of nuclear hubris. Or if you’re a secret fan of imaginary monastic life and mumbled Latin prayers.
Mama Huhu or Horses and Tigers

A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay

Wikipedia calls Arcturus the “major underground novel of the 20th century” and no less an authority than Yale literary critic Harold Bloom lauds it as one of the finest literary works of any century (a more apt commentary from a less renowned critic notes that the story reads “like the description of a very powerful acid trip”). Such was my inspiration to step into the strange metaphysical mind of Lindsay and through a heavily metaphorical and exceedingly bizarre realm of make-believe, contemplate good and evil and their relationship with existence.

It should make for heady reading but chances are that the laconic writing, nonsensical plot and the endless unexplained mysteries will leave you disappointed, frustrated at a journey that fails to provide the resources even the most patient reader expects from a two-hundred plus page text.

Mama Huhu or Horses and Tigers

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Dense and challenging is perhaps the quick way to capture Joyce’s fictional autobiography. The protagonist’s maturing stages, the politics and geography of late nineteenth century Ireland, the view within the mind of a thoughtful young man’s contentious engagement with Catholicism. Some passages left me clapping aloud, and two conclusions reached at the novel’s end concerning the nature of an artist make the previous pages almost seem worth it.

Almost, that is, because ultimately this book fails as a read that I could not put down. What kept me going through the sometimes soporific monologues was my great respect for where Joyce was going with the novel. In some ways Portrait is a very lonely book; the only character the reader engages is the young man himself, everyone else is kept at a distance and filtered in and out in frustrating glimpses of the surrounding world.

Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en

Before you complain about my choice of a Chinese story, note that until your Chinese is far better than my own, my recommendation is to expose yourself to Wu’s masterpiece through Arthur Waley’s magnificent translation known as Monkey.

Before you insist that a story about a monkey demigod and his even more bizarre traveling companions has no place on your reading list, ask yourself how much less you would appreciate the world with no knowledge of Greek mythology or classic Talmudic and Chassidic parables. And then after you put aside your misgivings and thoroughly enjoyed yourself, you will, like me, wonder at how a tale of such profound and delightful nonsense came to be China’s most famous folk tale and what that may suggest about a culture that is certainly worth exploring further.

The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh

All Quiet on the Western Front is described as this story’s only peer for sharing the soulful sorrow of war through one character’s unblinking vision. Having only experienced Remarque’s classic onscreen, I’ll go with what I know and insist that while Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried captures the pathos of Vietnam like nothing else in print, The Sorrow of War moves beyond the war that devastated the author’s homeland to depict a soul as it crumbles under the relentless strain of memories of battlefield horrors and lost love. From the unique writing approach to the story behind the story, and most of all through the power of the text, this book cries out to be read.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Twas back in the fall of 2007, when I asked friends to recommend favorite books and with their suggestions in hand, set forth to re-engage myself in the realm of reading. Reading can be a solitary journey, however, and so this site is designed to both encourage me to continue forward as well as share my own perspective on the titles I cover. I have thrown together a few easy categories to convey my judgment of a particular read. While some titles will surely qualify as "Avoid at all cost," the goal is to invest my time and yours in reads that will set you off on your own storied journeys.

This here tag means by whatever means necessary and as quick as you can, read this book. It is a for sure life changer, no matter if or how you'd prefer to be changed. The few, the proud, the unforgettable.

If its good and it knows it, you'd be a fool not to read this story. Whatever it is about, you will almost certainly want to clap your hands many a time. That is, this book is one for the ages.

These here have their flaws but no matter. For nearly anyone they are highly advised reads, and for those who believe, these books are your bread and butter.

Mama Huhu or Horses and Tigers

Chances are you have never had the occasion to use that most remarkable of Chinese salutations "Mama Huhu." If you have, chances are you did not realize the literal meaning "Horses and Tigers." But the understood meaning- "so-so," "just ok"- captures these middling reads, stories that could've, should've, would've but to everyone's collective loss, fell short.

When you have to say what should be obvious, there is a lot to be said for doing so quickly and efficiently. Sure it can be awkward but if you ignore the warning and read these books, you'll either regret it or prove that you and I can, thankfully, appreciate the world very differently.