Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Who Is Mark Twain?Who Is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My experience with Mark Twain is (I suspect) similar to many others: I was forced to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in school*. To say that I didn’t care for them would be an understatement (to this day, Tom Sawyer is my least favorite book in the world because all I can remember about it is forcing myself to read it page-by-agonizing-page in fourth grade).

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course. My reading tastes have always leaned more towards swords and sorcery or laser guns and spaceships (or, in the case of Star Wars, laser swords and sorcery). I found the plodding pace of life on the Mississippi a terrible bore. And, of course, since these are Twain’s most celebrated works, I’d mostly just assumed that this sort of thing was all he had to offer and he must be the most overrated author to ever call America home.

Fortunately, the release of his autobiography has spurred a great deal of interest in this “father of American literature”, and this book was given away free on Amazon’s Kindle store (alas, at the time of this writing, it is a whole $10; that deal has evaporated). Never one to turn down a free book, I downloaded it. Given all the hype surrounding the release of his autobiography, I was somewhat eager to see if maybe I hadn’t misjudged the man. So I started reading.

I quickly found the answer to my question: yes, I had gravely misjudged Mark Twain. He’s clever, has a sharp wit, and is genuinely funny. This book contains a sample of previously unpublished work (according to the editor, at least) and it covers a wide range of genres and styles. There’s a lecture or speech that he was to give, newspaper columns and letters to editors, short stories, reminiscences, and all sorts of other things. Some of them are even unfinished which is both fascinating (how often do you get to read unfinished, unpolished drafts from your favorite authors) and a little infuriating (“WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT JUST STOPS?!”).

Sometimes I agree with him (“Interviewing The Interviewer” is a little scary in how accurately it portrays our modern media. I guess this has always been a problem.), sometimes I disagree with him (I’m a fan of Jane Austin. Mr. Twain was not.), and sometimes I’m not really sure what point he was trying to make (as in “The Quarrel in the Strong-Box” where I’m not sure what he was getting at, but I’m pretty sure I disagree with it. At any rate, this is probably the weakest piece in the collection.).

But through it all, he writes with great style. As with all great authors, it’s nice to just sit back and examine how he uses the words. And I think I understand now how it is that he defined the American literary tradition for so long (separate, of course, from the great English writers).

I’m glad that I got to read this. It’s changed my mind about one of the greatest literary figures of my nation. And it’s given me cause to seek out more of his work (at least the ones that have nothing to do with the Mississippi River).

*This review is filled with parentheticals. So I decided to add a foot-note star as well. I re-read Huck Finn in college and I found it was much improved. I don’t know if this is because I was a mature reader or if I just had a better teacher. The college teacher made a comparison between Huck and Ferris Bueller. I maintain that Ferris is a better character in every respect. If only because he got to drive a Ferrari.

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Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

The City & The CityThe City & The City by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[WARNING This Review Contains Spoilers]

There are a great many things to like about this book. The characters are fun and likable. There’s a fun murder mystery driving the plot (with intrigue and conspiracy around every corner!). And the setting (the two cities of the title) is one of the more memorable and interesting that I’ve seen in a long time.

But there are also a great many things about this book that I do not like. And because I’m a negative person, I will spend far more time talking about them than I will the positives.

The writing style is…interesting. It’s written from the first-person perspective of the main character, Inspector Borlú. And, of course, Borlú has lived in his city (Besźel) for his entire life, so the peculiarities of its situation are not something he thinks to explain.

I’ll give the secret away here: Besźel and Ul Qoma are two cities (really, city states) which exist in the same physical location. The whole thing works because the citizens of the cities very carefully and studiously anything that isn’t “in” their own city. This unique situation has necessarily evolved its own vocabulary: crosshatching, unseeing/unsmelling/unhearing/etc., breach, Breach-with-a-capital-B, grosstopically, and so on. It took four or five chapters for me to really get comfortable with what was happening, and even through the end, I spent a lot of time going “Huh?” and trusting that eventually Borlú would let me know what was going on.

Now, obviously, this is a perfectly fine writing style. And it certainly adds a certain verisimilitude to the first person telling. I just don’t care for it personally: I don’t like surprises and I like to know what I’m reading. I prefer to solve my mysteries along with the protagonist and not have him creating a meta-mystery for me to unravel. But that’s just a matter of taste.

Where the writing style *really* falls apart is the author’s (or character’s) rather sloppy approach to writing dialog and (to a lesser extent) exposition. I suppose it’s possible that Miéville was attempting to mimic real human dialog (or even real translated dialog since most conversations are in the fictional languages of the two cities and are ostensibly translated by Borlú); but I dislike dialog like this. Real human conversation is filled with rhythm and body language and pitch pacing. Replicating just the words removes not only the beauty of the conversation but also the context. It renders conversation into a confusing mass of fragments and run-ons and interruptions that the reader has to puzzle through.

And so Miéville removes two important contexts from his book: the text itself is missing all of the context of human speech, and the story is missing the context of the reader knowing just what the hell everyone else takes for granted. With these two contexts missing, the book becomes more homework and less enjoyable. It’s still a good story: but you have to WORK to read it.

It’s worth it, though. I’m not convinced that it should’ve won a Hugo (2010 Best Novel), but it *is* good: it’s just far more literary than I’m entirely used to. But, again, that’s just a taste thing.

Interestingly, one of the huge complaints I had about it was redeemed in the last pages. Once I finally figured out what was going on with the two cities, my suspension-of-disbelief meter was pinged beyond normal tolerances. There’s just no way this would work. Imagine stepping over a dying child because she wasn’t “in” your city. Once Breach had disappeared the people who couldn’t do that, it would be two cities filled with compassionless psycopaths. But, the book made it very clear that everyone in Borlú and everyone in Ul Quoma are just regular people. It just didn’t make sense.

And then, (possibly in the epilogue; I don’t remember), someone gives it away: it wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. And it doesn’t. Everyone pretends that it does because everyone wants it to work, and everyone goes out of their way too unsee things that aren’t supposed to be there: but the rules are broken in tiny ways millions of times a day. And that’s why the cities work. Because everyone involved wants them to. That’s something I’m comfortable with (in the same way I’m comfortable with fiat currency, zing!). So I can’t knock the book for it.

But, of course, I can’t credit it for going so long without soothing my brain, either.

I can’t recommend The City & The City. But I can’t unrecommend it either. It is what it is. Intriguing and gripping wound up tight with literary and borderline-poor-writing. Of course, it won a Hugo.

So what do I know?

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