Category Archives: Fiction

Travels In The Scriptorium – Paul Auster

Warning: This whole review is a spoiler, so don’t come crying to me later all – “You ruined the ending for me and now I’m upset and you need to buy me cake.”  – because you’ve been warned and cake is expensive and you don’t deserve cake, what with the way you’ve been behaving.

Paul Auster likes a good twist and he likes to question reality and motive. His writing (at least the two novels I’ve read) also tends to reference the act of writing itself, or reading, touching on the position of Author-as-Creator or Reader-asParticipant. I like Auster’s writing, so I don’t mean this to be a dig, but in some cases, Travels in the Scriptorium in particular, he fits in my bookcase as a sort of Borges-lite.

Scriptorium is a beautifully written day in the life of an older man, dazedly attempting to figure out if he is being punished or protected in the strange white room in which he awakes. Auster excels at portraying confusion without actually being so confusing that you stop reading and rock slowly back and forth, back and forth in a tumult of mixed-up misery…sorry, back to it…Auster’s readers suffer with the narrator as he tries to understand how he has come to be in the hospital/prison room, and what role he has played in the lives of the visitors who come to berate, question and forgive him.

The twist when it comes, is not Auster’s best (The narrator is an author! The angry people are his characters. Your mind! It’s blown!)

So here’s the thing, really…I have thought about, and actually made mention several times in previous reviews (Kosiński, anyone?) of the excessive cruelty certain authors seem to inflict on their characters. My complaint is that often, this seems  above and beyond the requirements of the narrative, so I should be all in to the punchline of Scriptorium. I’m not though. Human nature, it’s unpredictable.

 

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Crash – J.G. Ballard

Gross.

It’s supposed to be, and it is.

Completely unrelated to the pandering, race relations film by the same name, Ballard’s Crash is about the relationships between cars and sex, sex and death, desire and murder, fear and attraction and semen and vinyl. Lots and lots of focus on semen and vinyl.

In today’s world of hypersexualized violence, it’s actually unusual to find someone capable of writing about sex in a way that’s a complete turn-off. Ballard achieves this through a cast of repulsive characters and a clinical vocabulary of body parts.

According to the introduction, Crash is about “societies dependence on technology as intermediary in human relations”. This may have made more sense in 1973, when the book first came out. In today’s world of dinner table conversations via text messaging, cars hardly seem the biggest threat to interpersonal communication.

So basically, reading Crash will seriously skeeve out anyone nosy enough to read over your shoulder and it will make you closely examine the dashboard of any car you’re traveling in. How much do you like that Jaguar emblem? Enough to want it permanently embedded in your forehead?

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The Distant Land of My Father – Bo Caldwell

My favorite moment in Caldwell’s novel of political upheaval in China during the 1930s, and the corresponding personal upheaval in a small American family living there, comes late in the story. The heroine, Anna, is a young adult living in Pasadena, and has a job at the Huntington Library ( a real place for those of you who aren’t in Los Angeles). Anna’s job is to read letters and documents from local estates that have been left to the Huntington, and make notes of information relevant to Pasadena’s history. If I were to invent the most perfect job in the world it would be no different from Anna’s.

Caldwell clearly feels similarly, because The Distant Land of My Father reads like a story created from journals and correspondence. The narrator focuses in and out, from micro images of a mother’s hairclip or a Chinese wax seal that seem pulled from an attic inventory to factual historical events, straight from newspaper clippings or soldier’s letters.

As a lover of details, I found The Distant Land of My Father’s slow pace and quiet tone soothing, although I could imagine more active readers growing restless. Caldwell describes Chinese breakfast menus and South Pasadena gardens with the same tone as she depicts the horror of political prison camp and Japanese bombing. It’s slightly disconcerting. In the end, the story of personal forgiveness is less interesting than the details surrounding it, but this is worth a read for any fans of Pasadena or Shanghai. It’s really a story of cities.

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The Elephant Keeper – Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper’s main human character is Tom Page, a stable boy turned elephant expert in 18th century England. Tom’s story starts with the arrival of two half-dead baby elephants on a boat returning from India. Tom grows up with the elephants on a village estate and becomes the only person able or willing to understand the mighty beasties.

As the Fates (in the form of increasingly nasty people) try to manipulate and abuse the elephants for various reasons, from ivory farms to 18th century rapemobiles, Tom ties his own fate ever tighter to the lady elephant, Jenny. Jenny is the true star of the novel and Nicholson writes her with quiet, noble humor. Of all the characters in the book, Jenny is the only one you would wish as a friend. She’s portrayed so lovingly it becomes totally believable that Tom would sacrifice human interaction to stay by her side.

Tom himself is a bit of a washout, Jenny really deserves better. Nicholson’s depiction of Tom is of a man not quite gullible enough to be a lovable naif but too dumb to be an appealing hero. Still, Tom does his best to keep Jenny safe, and considering the sad end most menagerie animals faced during the 1700s, and even today, the story would have been far shorter had the elephant been without a keeper.

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World Without End – Ken Follett

Much like In the Woods, World Without End also starts with some children of the British Isles having an intense experience in a forest. The similarities end there. World Without End is a much more externally based bit of story telling.

Ken Follett is a writer of historical fiction based in the middle ages. He’s most well known for The Pillars of the Earth, which tells of the building of a cathedral, from the  structural details to the social consequences.

World Without End is a sequel to Pillars, taking place two centuries after the building was completed and following the lives of the people in the town as they plot, scheme, build and romance against a backdrop of plague and warfare. The dialogue is awkward and the characters are cartoonish. One can easily see a casting agent perusing weaselly mustached cowards and meat faced bullies  to play the villains in the movie version. The heroine is so good as to be almost irritating and everyone in-between is a bit of a sheep.

There is a love story, (several in fact) and lots of medieval sex, with Follett taking the time to work a bath in to the story each time. Apparently he’s concerned that all his detail of moist clefts and engorged shafts might not be as appealing if they weren’t both freshly washed.

The building and fighting facts are good even if the sex scenes are not. I feel much more prepared should I find myself facing the challenge of rebuilding a stone bridge in a fast moving river so that the fleece fair can take place as planned. I also have a much more coherent plan to fight the French. Now what’s this painful swelling in my armpit?

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In the Woods – Tana French

Oh Lord, that’s a terrible decision! Don’t go up those stairs! Don’t trust her! Don’t go in the woods!

In the Woods isn’t a horror movie, but the main character repeatedly chooses the wrong path. If to the right are roses and unicorns, and to the left a reddish sky and the twisted remains of those who have gone before, Detective Rob Ryan always chooses the left. It gets painful, because you want to like him but he’s an idiot.

Tana French starts out with a gloriously creepy premise. Two decades before Rob ignores the unicorns, he was the sole survivor of SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS which happened in the suburban woods outside Dublin. The story is contemporary, and Ireland is free of snakes, fairies and Druids…or is it?

No, it seems to be a relatively unmagical place, full of sloppy cops, child molesters and corrupt politicians. As Rob and his endearing partner Cassie Maddox try to track down the molesters while avoiding the slop and corruption, tendrils of  Rob’s past come winding in, blurring the line between plot and coincidence, past and present.

If you enjoyed Warner Herzog’s version of The Bad Detective, you’ll enjoy a similar self destruction in In the Woods.

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Black Hills – Nora Roberts

rar! rar, rar, rar! roar! rar rar roar! growwwl! roar roar!

Oh, I’m sorry, don’t you speak mountain lion? Perhaps you shouldn’t read Black Hills then. It’s only for people who understand the soul of the Puma.

Actually, there’s a lot of sex in it too, so if you like sex and mountain lions, you’re all set.

Nora Roberts is a romance writer, “America’s Favorite Writer” according to The New Yorker (according to the back of the book). It could very well be true, I can believe that America likes sex and mountain lions. America also likes stories of childhood lovers who grow apart, but then find themselves facing a terrifying killer who threatens all that they hold dear.

America is totally riveted as the lovers, older now, but no less passionate, must find a way to learn to trust each other and let love back in to their hearts, while at the same time outwitting a maniacal and brilliant murderer who will stop at nothing to destroy them and live out his twisted fantasies.

Not only does Roberts leave America breathless with anticipation regarding the fate of Cooper Sullivan and Lil Chance, but she also teaches the country a lesson about conservation and our dwindling natural resources. Important resources, like mountain lions. RAR!

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