The OF Blog: From Iraq to Arthur and Parts In-Between: Reviews

Thursday, January 26, 2006

From Iraq to Arthur and Parts In-Between: Reviews

Because I read a lot both inside and outside the spec fic realm, I thought I'd just keep things simple and review every few weeks some of the books that I've read in short capsule-type reviews, in case the material might appeal to others. Now not all of these books (in fact, the majority) are going to be in English, so while my thoughts will be in my native language, the material itself is more likely to be in Spanish than in English. But there might be some English-language translations available, so feel free to look for those.

Tómas Eloy Martínez - El vuelo de la reina This book won the 2002 Alfaguara Prize for Spanish-language literature and after having read it, I can understand why. While on the surface the story might appear to be a simple tale of the obsession that a renowned Buenos Aires newspaper editor has for a reporter, Eloy Martínez has made this much, much more. The story feels like it's part of the obsession, passionate, repetitive at times, almost pathological in its exploration not just of the relationship between the editor and his 'Queenie,' but also of the world around. Written just as Argentina was about to plunge into its 2001 financial meltdown, the story reflects that, the sex scandal in the US White House, as well as the Bosnia War. Elements of real-life mixing in so well with the fictional personal as to create a story that is well worth the re-read. Sadly, no English translations yet exist of this novel, at least to my knowledge.

Mario Vargas Llosa - Diario de Irak This is a non-fiction journalist account of Vargas Llosa's trip to Iraq during June-July 2003. Accompanied by his daughter Morgana (an accomplished photographer), he spent two weeks there, meeting with various people in the street as well as some of the Ayatollahs and other religious leaders there. It is an interesting account in which he is very honest in his pre-war thoughts of the US-led invasion and his sympathy for the desire of the Iraqi people to be free of terror is quite evident throughout this short collection of newspaper pieces written at the time. Although he left before the insurgency became more lethal, he does note the problems caused by continued American occupation. It is an interesting and fairly balanced interpretation of the war and its immediate aftermath. The pictures alone and the imagined captions to them are worth the $12 that I paid for this book.

Eliseo Alberto - Caracol Beach Another Alfaguara Prize winner (in fact, the inaugural co-winner in 1998 and currently available in English translation), Caracol Beach is a story that straddles genres and cultures with apparent ease. It is in part the tale of the madness that haunts a Cuban soldier after the atrocities of the Angolan Civil War. It is a tale of a senior party gone wrong. It is a story of a father dealing with his drag queen son and his lover. It is the mixture of the real with the imagined, of sanity and madness, and told with a humane touch. I really enjoyed this account of how madness can co-exist with 'sanity' and just how tragic of a loss life can be. Highly, highly recommend reading this story in whatever language suits you best. I've yet to read an Alfaguara Prize winner that didn't deserve the title of "Well-Written Book."

Gabriel García Márquez - El otoño del Patriarca This was the most difficult García Márquez novel I've yet to read. Written in a semi-stream of consciousness style (few punctuation points, no paragraphs, only 5 chapters), this was a very fluid and sometimes dream-like nightmare of the last days of a Caribbean tyrant's reign. After this novel, García Márquez grew sick of the subject matter and said he would refuse to write fiction again as long as the dictatorship of August Pinochet remained in power in Chile. Although he broke this in order to write El amor en los tiempos de cólera, it is certainly understandable as to why he grew sick. This story utilizes its strange structural form and its poetic turns of phrase to underscore the brutality, the callousness of the tyrant's reign. It is one of García Márquez's more moving works and a total 180º from the tone and style of Cien años de soledad. But it was a necessary turn and this novel, for the most part, works as he intended it to work, as a condemnation of how we permit dictators to come into our lives.

John Steinbeck - The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights Many thanks to a friend of mine from India, Rohini, for pointing out to me that Steinbeck did an adaptation of Thomas Malory's La Mort d'Arthur. I just finished reading this on Tuesday and I thought he did something very clever in this reinterpretation of the Arthur accounts. Although Steinbeck himself declares that his original intent was to modernize and 'clean up' the famous stories (as Malory himself did from 13th century accounts), he in turn ends up doing a Pierre Menard: In retelling Malory, he mades the stories more than just repetitions of 15th century accounts. Indeed, in many places, the stories take on meanings that could not have existed in Malory's time, such as how the reader interprets some of the interactions between the knights and the 'fair damsels'. Due to his rearrangement of some of the scenes and the reduction of repetition, Steinbeck's account, although based almost entirely upon Malory with little in the way of overt re-writing or in the introduction of new material, becomes much more 'modern' for the reader. In fact, Steinbeck himself notes this in passing in some of the letters that were reproduced in the back of the book. Indeed, those letters become almost as valuable as the extant materials (as Steinbeck unfortunately never completed this adaptation before his death in 1968) in revealing just how Steinbeck was interpreting Malory, both for his time and for our time. Certainly a book well worth the read, especially if you like Arthurian romances.

Brandon Sanderson - Elantris This book left me with mixed feelings. Although there were many praiseworthy elements to the book (the ability to conclude matters in less than 500 pages; the sympathetic characters; the general sense of optimism with which Sanderson imbues his characters), I couldn't help but notice the mechanics to the story were a bit awkward in places. Maybe it was due to me having read stories that utilized first-person limited narratives or rapidly shifting, dialogue-heavy exchanges, but it just seemed at times that the dialogue in Elantris was clunky and too descriptive when the characters were interacting with each other. In addition, things sometimes came across as a bit too providential at times, as though everything was going to be solved, piece of cake, in a short time after only a little bit of suffering. But these points only served to lower a potentially very good tale to merely a good and very acceptable first novel by an author. It shall be interesting to see how Sanderson has grown as an author when his Mistborn series comes out, starting this summer.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Hey Larry!

Funny how both our book reviews of ELANTRIS are almost identical.

And like you, I'm interested to see how much different MISTBORN will be, especially since it's a trilogy, which will give the author more room to manoeuvre. But I think that Mistborn novel were actually written before ELANTRIS. Not sure about that, though.

Are you going to give David Forbes' book a shot? Like Sanderson's debut, it shows promise, even if there are certain areas in which Forbes must improve. . .

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