Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Book Review: The Red and the Black by Stendhal

I'm rating this book subjectively rather than objectively, and experienced through the ears (as an audiobook) rather than through the eyes. I wanted to see -- well, hear -- what this great 200-year-old novel would be like when I couldn't catch everything. The fact that it's divided into two books is helpful in this regard, because they provide different experiences. The first book, which takes place in a small French village, is simple and straightforward, as shown by its Wikipedia plot synopsis being 1/4 the length of the second. It was perfectly enjoyable to read and easy to follow. I laughed out loud as much as I did listening to Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor, and for many of the same reasons: all these authors really do hit the same points deep down, although the points are made in very different ways. The second book, which takes place in Paris, gets political and convoluted. I couldn't completely follow the plot. There's some reference to the revolution happening at the time which I didn't even know the name of. Too many revolutions in the 19th century, I guess. For all that, I still caught the main point and could see little things I would not have seen otherwise. The role of "copying" is perhaps the central human activity of the hero, and it's easy to see how this book inspired Rene Girard so profoundly. Book II is probably more important but was less enjoyable. The most telling fact is that I was so determined to go in blind that I wasn't sure if this book was written in the 19th century or the early 20th century, and the dark humor and social critique feel so modern that I thought it was written in 1910, when it was actually written in 1830. Talk about ahead of its time. Next on my "listen to long old books" list is Don Quixote but that's even longer so I'll spend some time in my own century first. Yet despite the cultural and temporal barriers to understanding, the message and wit of this book shines through and makes the whole exercise well worth it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Book Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

On the surface, this is a story about a new doctor caught up in World War I. You need a bit of a strong stomach to get through some of the medical descriptions, especially in the first half of the book, which are described well (perhaps a little too well!). The story's told from the perspective of the young doctor Lucius, and his baptism by fire in the medical profession is intense. But the story is really about the attachments he makes as a doctor to those around him, and how those attachments are broken, and his quest to reattach. Lucius is awkward and endearing at times, but there's not enough tragedy or inner pain to his awkwardness, except in a few scenes late in the book. He doesn't seem to notice his own brokenness enough. There's a love story with some beautiful scenes, and its trajectory is different and poignant, sweeping you along in the last third of the book, but it was paced oddly and I feel like I never got to really appreciate the best parts. There's a lot of mystery and things left unsaid, which sometimes feels like a romantic mist but other times becomes just an inert fog. Part of the problem may be that it's not as good as an audiobook, which is how I experienced it. This book is different from your usual wartime novel, and the closest analogue I can think of is All the Light We Cannot See, but this is more literary and less inventive than that (although possibly better written in terms of descriptive language). This is a complex, puzzling, unique book, like a good indie movie that you enjoy the characters, setting, and story, but doesn't quite come together for you.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

This is better than Harry Potter.

It's imaginative, epic, well-paced, romantic, and psychologically realistic about loss and isolation as well as longing and fulfillment. It's got alchemy (that feels like authentic Medieval alchemy), expert foreshadowing, likeable characters with pressing burdens that make them all the more likeable, and a philosophy where the old stories hide the highest truths. Not to mention it's got the best twist of an ending since the end of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, I realize that was 1990).

Even though it's got complexity and bitterness -- it is a story about a misfit, orphaned librarian, a God-slayer, and a cloistered royal family of teens -- in the end analysis it's intensely sweet.

Only the secondary characters fall short of the rest of this world's exquisite detail and I-didn't-expect-that-but-yes-it-had-to-be-that-way surprises. Against the backdrop of excellence they stand a bit dim, like sunspots, and pull this down from five stars. My comparison to Harry Potter also falters in audience: this one's decidedly narrower, for older teens and up, so it's not exactly putting the "Y" in YA lit.

But my goodness, what a story.

I won't say anything else except to note that there is a sequel, for which I scrupulously avoided all information except the title, and I wish I had avoided that. Want to avoid spoilers from the sequel? Go read this now.