Wednesday, September 30, 2015

One Sentence Reviews: September

I have now sat upon my review of Mary Renault's The Charioteer for two months, like a hen with an egg. I begin to wonder if it will ever hatch... or if I've been incubating a rock this whole time.

In the meantime, I read a lot of classics and war stories this month, most of which deserve a thumbs-up! If you haven't read some of the 4- and 5-star rated books of this month, I highly encourage you to give them a go.

September 2015

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015, historical fantasy)
    • Local wizard claims village girls to help him fight the spread of a haunted forest. -- A worthy addition to the ranks of modern fairy tales. 4/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory (2008, supernatural thriller)
    • Society has more or less adjusted to the pandemic of temporary demonic possessions, but one man struggles with the suspicion that he has never recovered. -- The book started strong with a compelling premise and a narrator I enjoyed, but crumbled over time. 3/5 stars.
  • Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates (1990, historical fiction)
    • A white girl and a black boy are the only witnesses to a murder, which distorts the rest of their lives. -- Neither as lyrical nor as moving as her short stories. 2/5 stars.
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895, historical fiction)
    • Inexperienced volunteer has high expectations of his own bravery and prowess entering the Civil War, and is disappointed. -- I remain convinced that the "classics" of early American literature only maintain a spot on the list because there is so little to choose from. 2/5 stars.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929, historical fiction)
    • Isolated from the society that sent them to die, German soldiers salvage what food and what peace they can. -- Required reading for high schoolers, but in my opinion, this should be handed out again a year after college for a new perspective. 5/5 stars.
  • Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque (1936, historical fiction)
    • German WWI veterans enjoy the small slice of life left to them. -- Thoughtful, meandering, and comforting, like a slow-cooker stew. 3/5 stars.
  • The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke (1905, poetry)
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008, historical fiction)
    • Two accidental criminals are offered a reprieve in exchange for an impossible task: to find a dozen eggs in Leningrad, a city starving under siege. -- It's too ghastly to be as funny as it is, yet somehow succeeds. 4/5 stars.
  • Year's Best SF 9 collected by David G. Hartwell (2004, sci-fi anthology)
    • One good story by Octavia Butler had me wanting more; one or two others were temporarily engaging; the rest were entirely forgettable. 3/5 stars.
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012, historical fiction)
    • Captured wireless operator agrees to tell her Nazi captors everything she knows, in the form of a story about her best friend. -- Gross Sobbing About Female Friendship And Unreliable Narrators: The Book! 5/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2006, fantasy)
    • High-society thieves in a complex fantasy underworld take on a job that may prove too clever and deadly to pull off. -- I didn't know how much fantasy literature needed the "heist" subgenre. 4/5 stars.
  • A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird (1879, memoir)
    • English lady traveler chronicles the American West and her accidental romance with a mountain desperado. -- One of my personal "comfort" reads, both for the historical exploration of places I've lived and for the charm and ache of the real-life Hollywood love story. 4/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013, historical fiction)
    • (Sequel to Code Name VerityTraumatized female pilot struggles to describe the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. -- Without an appealing or sympathetic narrator, this laundry list of horrors failed to be a good story. 2/5 stars.
  • White Space by Ilsa J. Bick (2014, YA sci-fi)
    • Ensemble cast of teens are plopped into a series of existential nightmares as a result of their (fictional) author's supernatural meddlings, and die variously. -- A hot mess of a book, the reading of which felt like someone shaking you and shouting "Are you freaked out yet?!" at the top of their lungs. 1/5 stars.
  • The Dickens Mirror by Ilsa J. Bick (2015, YA sci-fi)
    • (Sequel to White Space) Ensemble cast of teens reappear in different roles in an apocalyptic Victorian London, and die variously. -- The author prides herself on being "challenging" in an awkward self-insert scene, but mistakes "incoherent" for "insightful." 2/5 stars.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: "The Book of Hours" by Rainer Maria Rilke

Every aspiring writer, at some point in their studies, will get Letters To A Young Poet quoted at them. This is a fact and a certainty, much like the sun rising in the east or the line at Starbucks Coffee. For most, that is the only contact ever made with German writer Rainer Maria Rilke.

A month ago, I stumbled across Stephen Crane's magnificent poetry and realized that I have never once read The Red Badge of Courage. It turned out that I preferred his poetry. But this got me reading other war novels: All Quiet on the Western Front, City of Thieves, Code Name Verity... and since I have the brain of a ptarmigan hen (to quote the latter), I mistook Erich Maria Remarque for Rainer Maria Rilke and added The Book of Hours to my library list.

This progression--from poetry to war novels and back to poetry--may have been accidental. But, like falling into a pit and discovering an ancient king's tomb, it led to glorious things.

It is difficult to recommend a collection of poetry, and impossible to summarize. Preferences of subject matter and style are more personal and specific in poetry than in fiction. One cannot say with any confidence "You will like this, because you enjoyed this other thing." So I do not know, dear reader, whether you will relish Rilke's odd, fluid, spiritual poetry as I did. I only know that to not offer it to you would be a failure on my part.
Your first word of all was light,and time began. Then for long you were silent. 
Your second word was man, and fear began,
which grips us still. 
Are you about to speak again?
I don't want your third word. 
Sometimes I pray: Please don't talk.
Let all your doing be by gesture only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means. 
Be our refuge from the wrath
that drove us out of Paradise.
Be our shepherd, but never call us--
we can't bear to know what's head.
The Book of Hours is composed of three sets of poems, each written over a series of few days, many years apart. They are short and conversational. They read best altogether, each set at a time, since the poems are often continuations of an earlier "thought" rather than a discrete creation. Word choices and structure call back and forth between the pages.

For someone with ambivalent feelings toward faith and spiritual things, Rilke's poetry is staggering. The subtitle of the collection, "Love Poems to God," is more accurate than can be conceived. In Rilke's poetry, dogma and ritual have no place. It is like a kaleidoscope, transforming familiar images into radiant new shapes. It asks deep, strange questions about what the relationship must look like between a creator and a creation.

The collection has an infectious passion about it. It changes how one sees the very idea of God, and of oneself. After reading just the first set of poems, I was left thinking: we expect so little, and we understand nothing at all.

This all starts to sound rather "churchy" as I read over it, so let me pause: there is no "church" to be found in The Book of Hours. There is, instead, a strange and moving portrait of someone infinite and lonely. Rilke's ideas are unique and daring. He envisions his deity as a son rather than a father, for "it is sons who inherit, while fathers die;" he worries about his immortal beloved as a figure almost of pity, who is left abandoned when the poet himself dies.

I keep using the word "strange," because to fully express how this poetry reads to me would require a full orchestra and a light show. It is lyrical, emotional, transformative. It is affirming in a way I have rarely found in spiritual poetry.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night,
These are the words we dimly hear: 
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
I look forward to owning a copy of the poems. I look forward even more to memorizing them. I would dearly love to know if they have the same effect upon you, dear reader. Take my accidental stumbling into The Book of Hours as a favor to yourself and seek out these poems purposefully. Let me know what you think.

(The particular translation I have, published in 2005 by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, includes the original German text alongside the English verse. I know just enough German to be occasionally vexed by their decisions, but it ultimately deepens the experience.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: "The Last Unicorn" by Peter S. Beagle

The unicorn has dwelled in her quiet woods for centuries, untouched by the passage of time and unconcerned with the world. She is disturbed when passing hunters mention that all other unicorns have gone--if they ever existed. Reluctantly, the last unicorn leaves her woods to find her kin. She promises to return quickly, but already the leaves begin to fall from the eternally blossoming trees.

Unicorns are not questing beasts, and the world no longer recognizes her. Those who do know a unicorn when they see one aren't young and innocent at heart, but hungry and desperate. The only magical beasts remaining are monsters. But despite the Red Bull, King Haggard, and the Midnight Carnival, the greatest threat to the unicorn come from the people who want to love her.


The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: none that I can think of
Overall Response: The prettiest book in the English language and a must-read for any lover of fairy tales.


More Thoughts: Dear reader, are you familiar with the original novel of The Princess Bride by William Golden? It begins with the line "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it." That is how I feel about Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

Of course, I have read the book, and dog-eared every corner, and written a fourteen-page thesis about it for my own amusement, and, most recently, read the entire thing aloud to my audiobook-loving former roommate in a 48-hour timespan. (Pro tip: The attempt to pull off a proper "King Haggard" voice may result in permanent damage to one's vocal cords.)

Even so, every time I read The Last Unicorn, it feels like the first, most wonderful time.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

The Wood by Agnieszka's village is full of horrors. Over the years, it has swallowed up both peasants and queens, and its haunted trees grow over the ruins of ancient kingdoms as well as villages like her own. The Dragon keeps the Wood at bay with his wizardry as best he can. In exchange, he takes one girl from the village every ten years. After a decade in his service, the girl is set free--but she never comes home again.

Everyone in Agnieszka's village knows that her friend Kasia will be the one the Dragon picks: she is beautiful, charming, and brave. But to everyone's surprise--even to his own--the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead.


Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)
4 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: horrific imagery, attempted sexual assault
Overall Response: I really love fairy tales.


More Thoughts: I don't know what to say when people ask my favorite fiction genre. When I was younger, I would have said "fantasy" without hesitation. These days, my reading list includes very little fantasy. I eye airbrushed swords-and-sparkles covers with deep suspicion. Lists like "How To Tell If You Are In A High Fantasy Novel" make me cringe even as I laugh.

Naomi Novik's Uprooted (read on the heels of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn) makes me suspect the trouble: I don't enjoy fantasy as much as I enjoy fairy tales.