The OF Blog: Mid-February Capsule Reviews

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mid-February Capsule Reviews

The month so far has brought some more excellent reading, again split almost equally between English and Spanish-language works, and both inside and outside the traditional spec fic realm. So with that in mind, time to review in brief the books I've read through last night:

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day; naked - Sedaris is a hilarious commentator for NPR, commenting on the weird and the wacky of everyday American life. In these two books of his (both Christmas gifts from a dear friend of mine), he explores various aspects of his own life, from childhood lisping problems to his parents' interactions with their children (the chapters in naked about his older sister's first menstration and the mom discovering this porn book that he had found in the woods are particularly revealing) to coming to grips with his homosexuality. The stories are in turns hilarious, delightly mean-spirited, and for the most part convey a sense of bemused wonder at just how silly a mundane life can be. The writing is clear and to the point, with a dry wit that makes the intersection of the Silly and the Boringly Serious all that more fun to read.

Rubén Darío, Azul.../Cantos de la vida y esperanza - This is an omnibus collection of some of Darío's best known works. This Central American poet started to write just before Walt Whitman died, and in many senses, Darío is one of the few poets that can challenge Whitman's status as being one of the best and most inventive poets of the free verse style to ever grace the Western Hemisphere. The stories within the poems range from the Classical to the Sublime, with more than a little political commentary thrown in (the poem directed toward Theodore Roosevelt is most revealing about the attitudes that a great many south of the Río Grande had toward the encroaching power of the United States during the first decades of the 20th century). There is a sense of vitality evident here, especially in some of the poems toward the end of Cantos, and certainly Darío will be a poet that I will re-read quite a bit in the coming years, as he just dazzles at time with the clarity of his verse.

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find - Years before, when I read Kelly Link's first collection, Stranger Things Happen, I remember thinking that I had read a short form author that had a similar emotive appeal to me. After I picked up this story collection while waiting for George R.R. Martin to sign my book at the November 8th booksigning in Nashville, I realized that it was something connected to O'Connor's work (as I had to read a couple of her other short stories in a College Lit class, back in 1992-1993). As I read on in this collection, I was just left being stunned by the conclusions. Whether it be the Misfit and his ultimate choice in the title story or the 4 year-old child of neglected parents and the aftermath of his forced Baptism by a travelling minister to a skeptic confronted with an earnest Bible salesman or the story of a hard-working Polish immigrant on a Southern farm that was the most damning of them all, each of the stories here contained a power, a message of Redemption or Hell that was contained in the choices the characters would make. Just as the conclusions of Link's stories tied together event and choice, so does O'Connor's tales. It is a real pity that she died in her early forties back in the 1960s, as she just might be one of the best short form writers that the modern times have ever seen. Truly a book that crosses genres back and forth with ease, one that will move most any....and possibly just leaving them feeling crushed, drained, or ecstatic for days afterwards.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Capitán Alatriste - Pérez-Reverte has often been compared to Alexandre Dumas (peré) for the swashbuckling passion that his tales have, the intricate plots within plots, and the fast-paced action. It is a comparison that the author has never shied away from, even going so far as having one of his works being titled in English The Club Dumas. In Capitán Alatriste, Pérez-Reverte introduces the eponymous lead character, a veteran of the Flanders Campaigns of the early 17th century. Europe is engaged in the Thirty Years' War and Spain, France, and England are involved in their own court intrigues, as the heir to the English Throne, Charles I, is searching for a wife... In this backdrop, Alatriste and crew take over the D'Artagnan/Muskateer roles and interject themselves into this labyrinthine tale. To tell more would probably irritate those who hold 'spoilers' to be sacrosanct, so suffice it to say that if you enjoyed Dumas's tales, you'll likely enjoy Pérez-Reverte's. However, if you get fed up with subplots within subplots and the 19th century-style of narrative storytelling, then this book might not be for you. However, being a Dumas fan, I enjoyed this one quite a lot and certainly will be buying the other tales that are out in Spanish. And yes, this book is also available in English translation as Captain Alatriste and was just released a year ago.

Isabel Allende, Paula - This was a difficult book for me to read. Not because it was poorly-written, because it wasn't, but because the book was developed out of the writings that Allende did while her daughter Paula was in a coma due to porphyria (from which she later died). In this book, Allende talks in both the then-present and the past, deciding that if her daughter were to awake and had forgotten her upbringing, that she would relate to her, in book form if necessary, the history of the Allendes and the power that the spirits have had in shaping the lives of Granny, Allende's mother, and Allende herself. Important events such as the rise and fall of her uncle Salvador Allende's UP party, the Pinochet dictatorship and Allende's exile, the passions and the cruelties of a love grown cold - all of these and more are narrated in a style that reads as much like a dream as it does a memoir narrative. Although I had to read this slower than usual when reading in Spanish (and there is an English translation available for this as well), it was well worth the read, especially for the ending which contains quite a bit of hope. If you've read and enjoyed Allende's works, then this will be a book well worth reading.

Manuel Puig, El beso de la mujer araña - Available in English in book (and movie/play) form as The Kiss of the Spider Woman, this story was a play off of more ancient themes of love and friendship being formed by the unlikeliest of people. In this case, the two unlikelies are Molina, a homosexual and a dreamer, and Valentín, a revolutionary who regrets having left a woman for the Cause. Both sentenced to six-month terms in a Buenos Aires jail, the two begin talking and it is the dialogue contained within that possesses a power that moves the story in ways both predictable and surprising, as each of the two begins to take on aspects of the other. Puig did an excellent job with the characterizations and using a minimum of detail in Part I to make the reader focus on the characters and this pays off in spades in Part II. Some of the subject matter might not be appealing to younger readers or for certain others, but on the whole, I would recommend this book for most to read.

Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before - For some unknown reason (perhaps it was hearing too many people saying that they didn't enjoy this book as much as The Name of the Rose or Foucault's Pendulum), I delayed reading this book for years, despite having read and enjoyed each of Eco's other four full-length novels released in English. That is a shame, because in some ways, The Island of the Day Before is at least as important as the others. Perhaps the nature of the tale, revolving around 17th century notions of how the universe was constructed and its meanings, was a stumbling block for many, but I found it to hold an extra appeal based precisely on that construction (sometimes, being a cultural history major has its advantages!). The story of Roberto and the abandoned ship and the search for the mythical Islands of Solomon, not to mention the race to develop the reliable concept of Longitude, read like a fevered dream, but a dream that approaches the 'reality' of the times more than that of our technical world. I believe Eco did a good job in highlighting these differences in viewing the world and this certainly was not a 'weak' book by any stretch. However, due to the difficulty of processing these images, this might not be the most-accessible work of Eco's for others to read.

And in a few weeks, I'll post more on the late February readings. Let me know if there are any thoughts/questions/etc. that you might have about these books.


Neth said...

Thanks Larry - you managed to hit two books that are on the Stack.

Me Talk Pretty One Day has been there for some time. It's been highly recommended by several people while my wife was rather unimpressed. Though I expect it will appeal to my sense of humor.

I just picked up The Island of the Day Before this weekend at a used book convention. I haven't yet read any Uco and when I saw this for $5 in HB, I wasn't going to pass it by.

Alric said...

Larry, it looks like a good list.

Personally, I've been thinking about picking up that Sedaris novel for a little while now, ever since you first mentioned it.

I'm looking forward to finally reading Allende's Zoro. I should be able to get to it in a couple weeks. I was surprised, and delighted, to see Allende carrying the Olympic flag representing South America. It's nice when literary talent is recognized on a world stage.

Island is one of the few Eco novels that I haven't read yet. I also have to pick up his latest, which I'm eager to read.

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