3.28.2011

One of Our Thursdays is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

One of Our Thursdays is Missing
One of Thursdays
is Missing
When I learned that there was going to be another Thursday Next book, I could hardly wait for it to be published. I read the first book, The Eyre Affair, years ago and completely fell in love with the series. They're like nothing else I've ever read. Jasper Fforde has an impressive imagination, an encyclopedic knowledge of books and reading, and an anarchic sense of humor.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing picks up some years after First Among Sequels. But instead of rejoining our heroine, Thursday Next, the protagonist is the written version of Thursday Next. This series is the most meta experience I've ever had as they take place partly inside the Book World. (On a side note, I've never laughed that hard at a map in my life.) Comedy bumps up against Human Drama. Horror borders Fantasy. And TransGenre Taxis take travelers to the Dickens Freeway or Gaiman Junction. Populated by dreaming androids, colonial explorers, characters from vanity press, hostile mimes, and a whole host of others, this was one of the most entertaining books I've read for a long time. There were times when I was laughing so hard I had to stop reading to catch my breath.

On top of the marvelous world Fforde created, there is a terrific mystery. The written Thursday is called in to investigate an accident (a book crashed into Conspiracy) and finds that there is something else going on. She then discovers that the real Thursday Next has gone missing. To save the Book World, written Thursday has to live up to her namesake. Without giving too much away, written Thursday developed unexpected grit and depth as she outwits the Men in Plaid, schemers in the Council of Genres, and the disgruntled cast of her series.

Even if the mystery wasn't as good as it is, I would recommend this book (and the rest of the series) to anyone I know who genuinely enjoys reading, who regularly fall in love with characters and settings. These books are for Readers, not just readers (if that makes any sense.) I say that because Fforde's books are full of the wild, creative joy that goes into a truly great story. As soon as I set down One of Our Thursdays is Missing, I wanted to pick up The Eyre Affair and start all over again. I don't know how Fforde does it. These books are so packed full of ideas, book jokes, and philosophy that anything I write about them never comes close to describing the experience.

All I can say is, Readers, you must read these books.

The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes
The Heroes
As advertised, The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie, returns us to his First Law world to witness a three day battle between viking-like Northerners and vaguely Anglo-German Unionists from the perspectives of everyone from lowly raw recruits, to the King's Observer, to an army wife, to a prince. We see everything from the initial skirmishes to the peace talks at the end. Even though it's a fantasy novel, a genre often dismissed as pulp, this book could teach an attentive reader about the bloody futility of war.

The battle takes place in a valley with little strategic importance. It just happens to be where to the two combatants fetched up when the leaders decided to stop dithering and start fighting. Over three days, we watch as land is taken and re-taken, characters die messily, and the leadership make mistakes. There are some jingoistic stereotypes here, but it didn't take away from my experience of the book. The characters whose viewpoints we do see are fully fleshed out characters. We learn their histories, their motivations. We get to feel a taste of their terror as they take their place at shield walls or participate in charges.

One of the things I very much enjoyed about reading this book was watching how small events and mistakes could completely change the outcome of a battle. I could not help but think of the old bit of doggerel: for want of a shoe a horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the battle was lost. Messages go lost, preventing attacks. Trickery is used, causing panicked retreats and colossal casualties. Even though there is leadership in place, large parts of this book read like chaos theory in action.

Last year I read Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, a terrific revenge story. In that book and in this one, readers see that there is a larger not-so-cold-warish conflict going on. I want to read the first trilogy to see if there are more clues about what's going on, who is fighting, and why. But Abercrombie lets the mysteries stand. I don't pretend to know why, but I will say that it gives the world depth, a sense of history. I love books where you know that the world will go on even after you run out of pages. In The Heroes, there's so much politicking that you know the armies will end up fighting again.

The Heroes is utterly gripping. Even though it's over 500 pages, they flew by. I'd sit down to read and the next thing I knew, it would be an hour later and I'd be another 100 pages in. I just had to know what was going to happen next.

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

Wise Man's Fear
The Wise Man's Fear
I've been looking forward to Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear ever since I finished the first book in this supposed trilogy. The first book, The Name of the Wind, was so fresh, and the main character so engaging, that I wanted to know more about this book's world. While I do get to know a bit more about the world, The Wise Man's Fear is not as tightly constructed as the first book. As I explained to a fellow reader last week, The Wise Man's Fear is not so much the continued adventures of Kvothe as it is the continuing adventures.

In the first book, Kvothe claims that it will take three days to tell his life's story. This book picks up on day two. And, in the first book, the plot followed a rough arc as Kvothe journeyed from traveling actor to street child to university student, all the while searching for the people who killed his family. That search almost disappears in this book as Kvothe travels around his world having, essentially, adventures. The story leaps from episode to episode, with a few call backs to the first book. As I read, I kept waiting for more to be revealed about Kvothe's enemies--but there wasn't much. Reading this book seemed, at times, like reading a series of short stories. The only thing that connected them was chronology.

There were other missteps in this book. Kvothe, who I very much sympathized with as I read the first book, wavers between stone-cold killer and the seventeen year old boy that he actually is. Characters should grow and develop over the course of a book, granted, but its too much of a leap to see Kvothe slaughter a pack of mercenaries or traveling bandits with every appearance of bloodlust and then a few pages later to move on. Kvothe's emotional and moral compasses jerk around too quickly for belief, at times. I had to wonder if it was some of Rothfuss's inexperience as a writer showing through.

It is a shame that this book didn't shine as much as its precursor. I have hopes that the next book will be better. I sincerely hope that it will return to the original plot arc. It just seems that there's so much left of the story that it can't be wrapped up in one more book. Not that I wouldn't mind another book about Kvothe; I just hope that future books are more tightly (and believably) written.

3.13.2011

Malinche, by Laura Esquivel

Malinche
Malinche
Malinche, by Laura Esquivel, is a deceptively simple book. Told almost as a folktale, this novel read like a gloss on the life of Malinche, an interpreter who worked for Hernan Cortes during the conquest of Mexico. If you're looking for a biography, or a novel that will transport you to sixteenth century Mexico, you won't find that here. But if you're looking for a meditation on Aztec beliefs, syncretism, conquest, cultural misunderstanding, and gender, Malinche is the book for you.

Malinche gets a lot of blame for her role in Cortes's success. Reading the history, one might think that events would have gone very differently if it weren't for Malinche and the myths about Quetzalcoatl's return from the east. In a sense, this book might be read as an apology on her behalf. In Esquivel's interpretation, Malinalli (La Malinche) suffers abandonment and slavery before ending up with the conquistadors. After learning Spanish, Malinalli strives to interpret not just the words but the meaning, the intent, behind the words. She gives such importance to the power of words that she sees translation as almost a religious duty, one that gods might punish her for failing at.

As events inevitable progress, Malinalli starts to feel regret for her part in the destruction of the Aztec Empire. She wonders if she should have told the truth about what the Spanish were and what they wanted. Malinalli is far from a vengeful character. More than anything else, she strikes me as a person who has risen far above their pay grade.

It's hard to get a grip on the historical Malinche's feelings and motivations. As I said, this is not a biography. Malinche is written in what I see as a folk tale style. The language is stripped down, but with rhetorical elements like repetition of phrases and ideas. I suspect that this book is best experienced aloud, rather than by silent reading. Even better, it should be told with the folk song "La Llorona" playing on a loop in the background. The narrative is recursive, too, progressing chronologically forwards before drifting back in time. If I had to create a timeline for this book, it would look like a stretched out spiral.

For me, Malinche was not a satisfying read. I read and enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate, especially the supernatural elements. But it didn't work for me with this book. It seems to me that there is so much history and culture that Malinalli's story doesn't need stylistic or supernatural embellishments. It was hard to me to lose myself in this story. I couldn't see Mexico when I read it. Even when Malinalli reflects on her life and her beliefs and her fears, there was nothing subtle to ponder over. When Esquivel would state, in so many works, why Cortes did this or why Malinalli did that, it seemed shallow. I suppose parts of this book would appear profound, but to me it was all surface glitter.

The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall

Lonely Polygamist
The Lonely Polygamist
Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist was a difficult book for me to wrap my head around. I'm still not sure if I understand what Udall wanted to communicate. The story revolves around Golden Richard, one of his twenty-eight children, and one of his four wives. The narrative moves between these three characters and, at the end, only a few things change. One of the few conclusions I reached was that the ending of this book doesn't matter; it's all about the journey. And, not to give too much away about the ending, I think this book is about how life--in whatever form it takes--just goes on.

The first character we meet is Golden himself. Unlike other polygamist patriarchs I've seen portrayed in fiction, Golden doesn't have a lot of religions convictions. For most of the book, he seems bewildered, more than anything else, about how his life shaped up. We see his history in small interludes, not flashbacks. In his present, Golden is organizing the construction of a brothel in Nevada--the only job on offer at the time. He is desperate to hide this information from his strict older wife and the rest of his community. Ironically, he spends most of his narrative on his own, far away from his gargantuan family. Golden isn't much given to reflection about his family. So while there was a lot of worrying on his part about a new woman who caught his fancy and about the way his Nevada job is spiraling out of control, it's hard to tell what he really thinks about his role as pater familias. In a way, Golden falls into polygamy the way that children used to take on their parents' jobs, because that was the way things were done. He's certainly not taking on plural wives for religious reasons.

Another part of the book is told from the perspective of Golden's youngest wife, Trish. Trish was the daughter of polygamists whose mother broke away after her husband's death. But Trish drifts back into the life after a disappointing marriage. Trish is an outsider of sorts, given that her sister-wives are at least a decade older than she is. Trish also lives in a duplex, away from the rest of the brood. Like Golden, she doesn't reflect overmuch about her marriage. Instead, she spends most of her time waiting for a piece of Golden's time until she meets a sweet local oddball with a fascination for explosives. But through Trish, we do get a glimpse into how the household(s) function--and fail to function. We see the rigid order of the first wife and the rebellious chaos of the second wife and the fading of the third wife.

A third part of the book is told by Golden's son, Rusty, the family black sheep and scapegoat. This kid can never do anything right. One would think from this brief description that Rusty's meant to gain the reader's sympathy, but he's a hard kid to like. He's secretive, a little perverted, selfish, a Holden Caulfield without the vocabulary or the principles. He's that kid, the one who smells funny and says things that are uncomfortable and bizarre. I suppose some readers might think that Rusty just needs a little attention, a little love to sort him out. But I think a little medication might be in order for this kid--or at least some counseling.

The three narrators lead such separated lives that reading The Lonely Polygamist is almost like reading three books at the same time. Only the fact that they're part of the same sprawling family ties them together. Because none of them ponder about why they're a family, about the religion behind it, it's hard to know what this book is trying to say about polygamy. This is one of the hard things about this book for me. What is it trying to say? If it's not trying to make a statement about polygamy, what is the message? With a topic like this, I have to believe that there is a reason why Udall chose polygamy. There are too many abuses in the system for the message--at least in my mind--to be that this is just another way of life, as valid as any other. When I turned the last page, I wanted to ask the author, "What are you trying to tell me?" And yet, the ending--without giving too much away--shows the Richards family carrying on after failures and deaths. They just...soldier on.

I feel a bit like I have to warn future readers. If you're expecting Big Love on paper, this is not your book. This book is not about politics or scheming or sex. It's about a family. Admittedly, it's an odd family. But their stage is smaller than the stage the Hendricksons are playing on. Watching them reminded me of nothing so much as the first line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Lonely Polygamist perfectly illustrates the second half of that statement.