The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel García Márquez

March 24, 2012 at 22:41 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism) (, , )

10/10

Experimental literature is all very impressive, but seldom is it quite this good. If any readers doubted the abilities of Gabriel García Márquez to stretch himself further than the limits explored in his opuses, to revisit the brave and elaborate narrative structure of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the constant and overlapping shifts in time and reality, this book will be more than sufficient as an answer. The Patriarch might be dead, to begin with, but Márquez thrusts himself deeply into the old man’s past and tangles himself so far into his life that when his death is reiterated at the end, it comes with a real pang of nostalgia and even surprise.

“…and then he half-opened the bedroom door and peeped into the audience room and saw himself laid out more dead and more decorated than all the dead popes of Christendom, wounded by the horror and the shame of his own body of a military stud lying among the flowers, his face pale with powder, his lips painted, the hard hands of a dauntless young lady crossed over the chest armored with military decorations, the showy dress uniform with the ten pips of general of the universe, a rank someone had invented for him after death, the king-of-spades saber he never used…”

-The Autumn of the Patriarch

The experimental sentence structure must be mentioned, if only to acknowledge its overwhelming success. Some of the sentences in this book stretch on for more than three or four pages, piling on commas (or ignoring them entirely) in a decidedly stream-of-consciousness style that still manages to move the narrative along, and still envelopes the reader in the storyline. Márquez is writing expansively, and probably even showing off a little, but he remains aware of his reader and never bloats his work with self-indulgent piffle.

Otherwise, what can be said? What can be expected? The story is as tragically sweet and delightful as anything else he has written. The focus does go beyond the Patriarch himself, but stays much closer to the one central character than in some of his other books that ostensibly centre around elderly men. Intricate character study, celebration of a villainous and heroic legend, deeply intriguing political commentary and sociological hypothesis, and most importantly, a thrilling and moving story. Its narrative scheme is obviously more pronounced than some of Márquez‘s other books, and has the potential to irritate, but considerably more potential to excite and delight. This book could be recommended to anybody, but certainly to anyone who has already fallen in love with the style of this master author.

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Wide is the Gate, by Upton Sinclair

February 22, 2012 at 19:50 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

As one six-hundred-page volume in a ten-volume series, it is unreasonable to expect this book to be either fast-paced or action-filled. One of the most instantly noticeable things about it, then, is that by around the two-hundred-page mark, the snail pace does markedly pick up, and there are several briefer adventures amidst the endless politicking and banter that might have otherwise been expanded to full book length stories in their own right (Lanny Budd’s adventure in wartime Spain is nothing short of thrilling, and equals anything Hemingway or Fleming might write about martial high-jinks).

“Look at Ramsay MacDonald, look at boondoggling and the N.R.A. and the other messes of the New Deal! Look at what happened in Spain in the last four or five years!”

-Wide is the Gate

Sinclair has a lot to say, and he takes his time over it, which is perhaps his saving grace. His capitalist characters are greedy or ignorant, his fascists are memorable monsters and his socialists are brave-hearted rogues. If he plastered these definitions all over his book in three hundred pages, it would all be very dreary and impossible to bear, but he does take time to flesh his creations out before stuffing his thoughts into their mouths. He spreads a very thick message very thinly throughout an awful lot of absolutely terrific prose, and turns a lengthy sermon into an even lengthier piece of excellent literature.

“The green was beginning to fade from the landscapes, and a soft drizzling rain veiled every scene, making it look like an old painting whose varnish had turned brown.”

-Wide is the Gate

It is easy to see Sinclair himself as the tired and jaded socialist spiritualist living vicariously through Lanny Budd. The heroes of this book are equal parts evangelist and prophet of doom. It was written, by the way, in 1943, when the future of the Nazi government and the Allied opposition to it were far from settled. This mixture of heady fanatical optimism and grim pessimism ends up creating something of a perfect storm in terms of accutely believable (if occasionally fantastical) characters, and goes a great way towards offsetting the overt political messages pinned to every page. Due to its length (maybe some five thousand pages of Lanny Budd, if the rest of the story is taken into account) this book is an intimidating commitment to make: but very worth it. A lost gem from a seminal author, and deserving of higher praises in the pantheon of great literature.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

October 18, 2011 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

The worst news for writers in the world everywhere is that they almost certainly will never write a book as good as this one. One of the most marvellous things about One Hundred Years of Solitude is that after reading it, the world seems slightly grey and pale, like waking up from the most vivid of dreams. This is the sort of book that readers will stay up all night reading. This is the sort of book that will give readers the same dreams that the characters dream. This is the sort of book that readers will sit silently and think about after finishing. This is the sort of book that readers will begin all over again because of the wistfulness and the delight in memory and the staggering sense of a full and rich chronicle. This is the sort of book that readers will feel they have lived, and it will be a surprise to look up from the pages and realise that a hundred and twenty years have not, in fact, gone by since starting it.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

-One Hundred Years of Solitude

It would be immature and churlish to say that this is the best book ever written, and certainly there are parts of it that are dimmer by comparison than the others. The story of Remedios the Beauty is somewhat palid compared to (for instance) the stories of Amaranta or Aureliano Buendia, and Gabriel García Márquez relies on sensuality a little too much (particularly with the story of José Arcadio), which is one of his enduring faults. The politics of the book are rather lofty, but readers do not need intimate familiarity with the Liberals and Conservatives and their bloody ravening of South America in order to enjoy this book.

García Márquez betrays himself as a mystic more in this story than in many of his other classic works, and it is this sense of a century- (or centuries-) long dream drifting past and ebbing and flowing back and forth in time itself that emerges as a principal flavour. He fixes upon certain words and motifs so regularly that they gradually become redefined according to his story (the eponymous “solitude”, for instance, or the cruel rains). His ability to subvert even the simple meaning of words, to take them and make them so intractably a part of his narrative, is astonishing. His characters are at once believable and multifaceted, even when they take the most fantastical and grotesque forms. Truly a master of the ensemble writing, there are at least a dozen characters who might be said to be the chief focus of this book, and two dozen more who will surely win fans, who will fight for them as personal favourites. As in the later work, Love in the Time of Cholera, his creations are shown aging and loving, dying and hating, evolving from young children to decaying patriarchs and matriarchs with a kind of graciousness and sweetness fascinating to behold. The author has utterly mastered the art of making a sad or even an unpleasant or devastating thing beautiful, and of making a lovely thing bittersweet.

This book ought to be recommended reading everywhere.

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Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellman

September 19, 2011 at 03:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Literature, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

Ellman’s style is prim and polished and very aloof. He writes with great attention to detail, but like a barrister rather than the poet he describes. There are honestly vast sections of this book that seem as cheerful as obituaries, and as vivid as tax codes. Considering the sometimes languid and often obtuse subject of the biography, this style is peculiar to say the least. Bafflingly, equal attention is given to minutiae as to life-changing encounters and pivotal events in Oscar Wilde’s life; and while it would have been impossible to offer exposition on unknowns and irresponsible to speculate or even editorialise much, it is left to the reader to wonder how many of the six hundred pages are at all relevant in building a complete picture of Wilde, and just how much of the account is a mess of flotsam and jetsam, pieced together with deference to chronology and indifference to anything resembling a narrative.

“For Wilde, aestheticism was not a creed but a problem.”

-“Oscar Wilde” (R. Ellman)

Wilde is quoted copiously throughout, and Ellman religiously copies down the original texts of any amount of letters and recollected snatches of conversation, in English, French and Latin at least. He scores points for veracity, but seems again to be writing a scholar’s book for scholars’ palates, rather than a portrait of a man. His friends and acquaintances are selectively arranged, with Ross and Douglas having the lion’s share of their work reproduced, and others mentioned regularly but without depth.

As noted, Ellman does not often offer an editor’s opinion; but then, neither does he frequently offer a scholar’s analysis, either upon Wilde as a man or upon Wilde’s works as literature. Occasionally he goes so far as to admit that one piece of poetry is not as advanced as later works, or is flawed, or is a masterpiece; but he seldom goes much further to explain his judgements. Some of Wilde’s works are not mentioned at all, and only a few are given even this briefest of treatments. For a critical view of the poet and his poetry, or for a sociological query of his life and legacy, this book is not satisfactory at all. As a flawless piece of research with interesting resources and a detailed chronology, this book is a complete (although rather pedestrian and unfortunately cumbersome) biography.

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain

September 12, 2011 at 14:12 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature) (, , , , )

8/10

Is it important for a book to be interesting and entertaining without being likeable or true? Mark Twain’s irresistible humour and jaunty style is positively infectious, and he certainly knows how to tell an appealing story. It is on this merit, and almost this merit alone, that this book receives its recommendation. His note in the preface about Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution turning him from a mild Girondin into a bloodthirsty Marat seems at least to be catching, and his laid-back style sets the unsuspecting reader up for a surprise when he launches jarringly into one searing indictment after another, essaying without pretense to convert others as he himself was converted. His simplistic comment that Carlyle is a neutral man and that therefore the facts spoke their gospel to him is a very telling hint at his beliefs that he trumpets through Yankee Hank’s mouth; namely that conservatism and monarchy are the wickedest evil to be perpetrated upon humanity.

“You see, I had my handkerchief in my helmet; and some other things; but it was that kind of a helmet you can’t take off by yourself.”

-A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

At first it might seem natural that the bold colours he paints in are plainspeaking and obvious facts, and that his gospel ought to run swiftly and be glorified in all the unenlightened nations of his 1889 world. Looking beyond that, however, he presents to his readers only a rather shabby straw man; a sad patchwork creation dredged from every era and nation of history, from the deep south of the slave states to the court of the Sun King to Ancient Rome to the utterly fictitious world of Thomas Malory (in which all things are supposed to find their consummation – and there’s a pretty irony there, if you care to look!). As an indictment of the human race and condition, Twain’s opus might be a fine thing. As a piece of political pamphleteering, it is rather trite. Quite besides the childish reasoning and the immature philosophies that Twain’s Yankee spouts forth at the slightest provocation, and quite besides the book’s uselessness as a historical novel, it is flawless. It is a fairytale, and a story for nineteenth century proto-socialists to pat themselves on the back with, but it comes down a hundred years rather poorly. An excellent novel, then, if the reader can sniff at the posturing.

As a side note, the magnificent illustrations by D. C. Beard are quite as beautiful and poignant as the text itself, and add significantly to the story, enriching and enhancing wheresoever they are found, and often giving the punch line more convincingly than Twain’s prose. Reading an edition with these original illustrations restored is not optional.

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Heretics, by G. K. Chesterton

June 19, 2011 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

9/10

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is a very funny man, which certainly comes in handy when he takes it upon himself to scathe and blister his peers. His denouncement of their heresies begins as piecemeal accusations and isolated comments on extremely idiomatic character traits and specific published works, but does come to some coherent sense by the end of the book, when it becomes apparent that neither Shaw nor Kipling nor the Yellow Press are his true targets; and the entire work coalesces into a remarkable study of humanism and the realisation that the train is blowing full steam ahead towards “progress” – without any real idea what it left behind, or what the “progress” actually is.

Chesterton offers some wonderful insights into the redeeming qualities of dogma, religion, ritual and several other dirty words that he rehabilitates so eloquently as to build a swift and beautiful case for common sense and the re-evaluation of fundamental questions of what is good and pure and true–and why.

The book does lose some of its flair and excitement towards the second half, but chiefly because Chesterton populates his examples and his case studies initially with timeless writers and thinkers, and later with figures and entities personally aggravating (or known) to him, but less significant for the rest of us. Despite this, he retains his wit and his penchant for the surprising paradoxical proverb until the end, and provides an excellent complementary volume to Orthodoxy, operating magnificently as either a stand-alone or companion piece.

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Defending Middle Earth, by Patrick Curry

June 7, 2011 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Literature, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

3/10

Curry makes some excellent points in this book, the chief of which are modern criticism’s tendency to arrogantly dismiss non-“literary” books, and commit itself blindly to genres which have more “grown-up” themes; the other key point he makes is the difference between reading a thing allegorically, and reading it with application. These two points aside, this book is little else than a lengthy essay, written in the essay style and about as interesting to read as can therefore be expected. He is unfortunately repetitive, and has a propensity for quoting lengthily from all manner of authors and poets, whose words only occasionally have much relevence to his subject.

His ecological agenda he defends quite ably, pleading with some merit that it was in fact Tolkien’s agenda first: but the vitriol and scorn and soft, quiet seething are all Curry’s. His railing denouncement against the critics who in their arrogance dismiss The Lord of the Rings and especially The Hobbit as childish books, and therefore unworthy of attention loses a great deal of the strength that it should rightfully have held when Curry looks down his nose time and time again at other works of fiction that he considers to have imitated Tolkien’s world (or even that he considers indicative of a general deterioration of literary standards). Altogether a interesting book, let down badly by the author’s agendas and prejudices, and by its own unwieldy length and shallow exploration of its subject.

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