Monday, October 23, 2006

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I first came across Carter’s good name in a eulogy written by Salmon Rushdie in a fairly recent book of his essays entitled Borders. I’ve not finished reading Borders yet, but I was sufficiently captivated by his descriptions of Mrs. Carter’s prose, language, and storytelling, that I ordered up a copy of The Bloody Chamber.

Angela Carter tackles a small collection of fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber. She twists them each to her own ends, usually to play with notions of gender roles, but not in an obvious or dull way. Consider, for example, two different retellings of Beauty and the Beast; one in which Beauty herself transforms into a beast, and another in which she is figuratively beastly towards him. Snow White here involves a fantasy girl, birthed from lust, snow, and a couple’s disenchantment with one another. There are vampire queens, gambling cobblers, rapacious Arabian princes, and so on. The subject matter is a delightful flight of fancy.

But it’s Carter’s language which really glows. There are no dull sentences here, no moribund clichés, no plodding paragraphs. Carter’s words pair off into couples and waltz about beneath the glittering crystal chandeliers of her descriptions; her verbage is active and interesting, her adjectives uncommon. And while, yes, Mr. Rushdie, she does only slightly too often pair off words like “eldritch” or “coloratura”, and while, yes, Henry Holt, she does overwrite many passages into a poetic bouillabaisse rather than more straightforward prose, the language itself is still delightful to read. The Professor would say here that part of the fun is just letting all these fun phrases dissolve on your tongue like acid or a snowflake. And I’d be forced to agree.

Carter is (as Holt complains) a bit prurient on occasion. If phrases like “her cunt split open like a fig” upset you, then some of these stories likely will too. But with a name as obviously provocative as The Bloody Chamber, what would you expect?

Good stuff, Mrs. Carter. I can tell you had fun writing these stories, and I’m eager to read more of those offerings you left with us before you left for some version of Valhalla, where golden eldritch Valkeries punish Loki and sodomize Eric the Red with bountiful cornucopias of amberwine and icemead… Or wherever it was you went… :)

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men borrows a Yates line for its title. It’s another CMC novel in which evil wins, or at least gets away. It’s also basically a pulp thriller, fundamentally in the same vein as Jack Crow or Travis McGee. Lots of bullets fly, there’s a little sex, and some Mexican drug lords.

Of course, the esteemed Mr. McCarthy’s language renders all of this in a tone that imparts neobiblical weight to each action, though with nowhere near the beauty or complexity of some of his other novels. And in any case, you don't ponder too deeply the wordsmithing here. Fundamentally this is still mostly action.

What happens is: a young man stumbles across the aftermath of a drug war killing in rural Texas. He takes the money. Worse, he decides to bring water to a dying man. This dooms him, and everyone else. The resulting tale is a man-on-the-run type chase thriller. It’s exciting, but really not in the same league as the rest of his novels.

And in the end, aside from, “darkness always prevails”, I’m not sure what kinda take home lesson I’m really left with… And best of all, since McCarthy seems to be on a bit of a roll, there’s a new novel already out, which might well shed further light into this darkness!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Contact by Carl Sagan

Hmm… We discover that we’re receiving signals from another solar system. We finally translate the signals, and they’re giving us instructions for how to build a machine. A very complex machine, which will take us to first master any number of new schools of technology and basic sciences. We finally build the machine, overruling the concerns of all of the usual anti-progress types (Republicans and organized religions for the most part.) We send an odd international assortment into the machine, which teleports them to a galaxy far, far away. They have a weird encounter, return, and the machine is put out to pasture in a sea of red tape.

So what do we learn from this 400 page journey? Well, a lot about radio astronomy. And a lot about the types of hassles radio astronomers must have faced in trying to establish a real scientific community during the Cold War. And, to be fair, an excellent amount of primer information on some of the basic physics, distances, and forces that shape and describe our current understanding of the universe.

Carl Segan is a superb teacher. His science fiction is a bit on the dry side (okay, it makes beef jerky look succulent), but his science is nicely explained for the layperson, and his tale moves along at a decent clip. He is, in this regard, better than say, Neil Stephenson, who feels like he’s lecturing whenever his characters are lecturing. Segan on the other hand, manages to make his characters feel like they’re simply rehashing a few basic truths to that they’re certain you must have already known, but just forgotten because you’ve been too busy with your workaday life. The amount of tutorial Segan works into this primer, and the plausibility with which he describes one likely scenario in which we could make contact with another civilization are both compelling. Once the science fiction starts in earnest (once the message is decoded and the machine construction gets underway) he loses a bit of focus, and tries to start wrestling with some Bigger Themes ™ that really distract from the interesting questions: What if we received a signal from distant space? What might it say? How would we go about interpreting it? What sorts of effects might this have on human society?

I’ve never seen the film w/ the esteemed Mrs. Foster, but I suspect that making a movie of this novel misses much of the point. The goal of Segan’s life and his works seems clearly to have been to educate the public about the basic nature of space science.

Considering many of my countrymen now claim to believe that the planet we’re currently spinning through space aboard only came into existence about six thousand years ago, it’s probably just as well that Dr. Segan is no longer around to see the low esteem into which science has fallen in the first part of our brave new millennium.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A quick personal update before we return to the books:

I read all of these back in Vancouver over the early summertime. I'm now back in Texas, living in scenic Hyde Park near the UT campus. It's nice to be home. I'm still nine or ten books behind in posting, but trying to devote a little time to playing catch up.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s wrote The Orchard Keeper long before All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men had catapulted him to near the top of the short list of those the NYT Book Review considers to be the best living American authors.

The Orchard Keeper lacks the ferocity and might of Blood Meridian, or the attention to cultural beauty of his Cities of the Plains novels, but does keep a nice focus on natural beauty. There are many loving stares at ice forming on the edge of streams, the behaviors of animals and trees, and so on. If this sounds a little sleepy, well, it is. But the novel isn’t dull exactly.

From a plotting standpoint, we’ve got a couple of characters whose fates are intertwined and bound in purpose to one another by a long cold killing committed in self defense. The glacial, but steady invasion of modernity and progress into the Tennessee Valley provides the other impetus for change here, as an old man and a boy run afoul of the law.

This is a beautifully written novel; McCarthy has a skilled ear for regional dialog, a trained mind for precision in language usage, and a sincere love of rural spaces. It’s not his best, but it’s still light beyond what most ever accomplish.

I'm also very excited to note that McCarthy has just released a new novel called The Road, which deals with my favorite topic: APOCALYPSE! I'm off to the bookstore to buy it!

Books of Blood Volume Three by Clive Barker

I enjoyed the final of Barker’s Books of Blood. But there’s no genius here. Just a solid ability to tell a sordid tale. Few of these stories really make it hard to stay awake night; these aren’t run of the mill boogeymen coming to a house like yours. They’re exotic, highly supernatural events which wholly transform (usually by ending) the lives of anyone who has the misfortune of getting too near them. This slight focus shift makes the Books of Blood original at the least, and downright interesting at its best, most depraved moments.

From the gay male prostitute Pygmalion story, to the tale of a Girl & friends washed up on a literal island of the seadead, there’s little here that’s mundane.

This is good stuff, and I’d enjoy trying my hand at writing this kind of thing sometime. I want to go pick up whatever Barker’s latest novel is now, to see if his mastery has increased along with his readership and fame.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer had written a few journalistic pieces on those who push to the extreme ends of human adventure before he became so hugely successful for publishing Under the Banner of Heaven. One of these previous works, Into the Wild, was a pretty interesting account of a young man found dead in the Alaskan outback, and how he ended up there. But Into the Wild in no way prepared me for this fascinating, often chilling (no exaggeration) expose in extremist Mormonism.

A few things you probably don’t know unless you read this book:

1) Mormonism is the fastest growing religion on the planet; currently there are something like twenty million of them worldwide.

2) Mormonism asks a believer to swallow some notions which are pretty hard to believe, mostly because their founder, Joseph Smith, seems to have been both eccentric, and widely regarded as fraudulent by a number of people. (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily separate the Latter Day Saints from most other mainstream religions. Good ole mainstream Christianity has some stuff that’s pretty hard to take literally…)

3) Mormonism is a very new religion, so there’s a lot of actual data on it’s founders; the kind of data that typically gets shrouded in myth for older prophets.

4)There seems to be some history of violence in the Mormon faith, leveled at non-believers. (Again, as with most..)

5)There are a significant number of North American Mormon extremists (about forty thousand), for whom polygamy, “bleeding the beast”, very different notions of gender relations, and some other unusual practices are commonplace. You’ve probably heard of Warren Jeffs, recently captured by the FBI – he’s the charismatic leader of a bunch of these folks in the US Southwest.

Krakauer’s painstakingly researched book is not an anti-religious screed; at least not in my opinion. It is, instead, a fascinating look at what makes certain people push well beyond those social limits which normally inhibit certain types of behavior. In the case of a number of Mormon Extremist communities and families described in these pages, this extreme behavior extends to murder, infanticide, kidnapping, rape, and so on.

This is an account of prophets, madmen, murderers, scandals, lots of lurid sex, quite a bit of thinly veiled lust and misogyny. It is an important book for anyone who is interested in comparative theology, for anyone who is consumed by topics in constitutional law, for those who better want to understand the American southwest, or for those who just want to come point and laugh at the freaks, of whom there are many in this work.

A fascinating, lurid, and scary true crime expose in the vein of In Cold Blood, but significantly more topical and interesting.