27 July, 2012

Dahl is always worth a read

Switch Bitch
Roald Dahl
I’m fairly sure that i first read this while at Loretto ~ either there or at UHill ~ which is a bit surprising as one doesn’t think of a school for adolescents (which category both places fit) as the ideal location for a book essentially about the passion and inevitability of sex. It is without doubt, however, that i have read this Dahl previously, and have gained just as much pleasure from it this time through. He is the master, in his short stories, of odd switches, changing point of view or behaviour so that his readers’ expectations are confounded; and what a joy that confoundment is!

Someone Like You
Roald Dahl
Found two Dahl books at the library, obviously, took them out! Takes me back to Loretto, sitting in the window in the newspaper area in the library, reading a subversive book ~ for there is no doubt that, to a sixteen year old, at least such a one as i, that Dahl is purposely subverting the proper view of life. And very enjoyably he does it, too. This particular book, i remember, i found flawed in that i did not enjoy the last story (or four stories, depending on how you view them) as much as the rest; on revisiting, i agree with my younger self, to the degree that i think they are of a slightly different quality and style, not quite in fitting with the rest of the book, and they might have been better placed elsewhere; i disagree with that self, however, that they are flawed or lacking, judgements which i now think i made then as a beginning reader, not yet fully able nor willing to accept variation as a quality. I trust i have now grown up a bit, and am slightly better able to read and judge.

17 July, 2012

The Mythos

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales
H.P. Lovecraft

It is a good two and a half months since i took this book out of the library; what can possibly account for my taking so very long to read it? After all, it’s not that long (twelve stories in five hundred and fifty pages), nor difficult (first published in the pulp magazines of the first half of the Twentieth Century). The truth is, i’m not altogether sure what has held me up, other than life itself ~ i’ve tended to be at work quite a bit over the Christmas period, and then when i’m home i’ve gone to bed quite early, which has severely cut down on my reading time; i don’t think that there is anything in the book itself which has held me up ~ indeed, i have enjoyed it each time i’ve read it ~ so the time factor oughtn’t be any reason for me to have bad feelings towards it, or Lovecraft.

These dozen stories are what might be termed classic horror, along the lines of Poe, though more detailed, more developed, perhaps, than Poe was; they tend to revolve around Lovecraft’s creation of a mythos of Elder Ones and ancient evils based on some interstellar travellers who brought conflicts to Earth in the aeons prior to the present. These evils have been glimpsed by certain authors of the past, in particular Lovecraft’s favourite, Abdul Alhazred, whom he several times refers to as “the mad Arab”, and his book the Necronomicon which is completely forbidden and evil, yet seems to have been available to everyone in the stories who has wanted to see it. This apparent contradiction is one of the minor complaints that i do have about the book, and it appears in a stronger form in one of the later stories, “At the Mountains of Madness”, in which a couple of explorers are making their way through a long abandoned city of the Elder Ones, amazed at all the sculptures and reliefs they find, and they are able, within the constraints of the small amount of time available within the plot-line, to comprehend millions of years’ history as shown in those reliefs, as well as offer a critique of the relative degradation of the later ones. It’s as though Lovecraft lost track of what the time-line was within his story, and he compressed what would in actuality be many years of study, learning about a truly alien culture purely from its art, into a couple of hours or so. This kind of fault in a book or story is annoying, but not sufficiently so to prevent me from reading more; i have to say that, using my single criterion, this book was a success for me.

03 July, 2012

I'm left with questions

John Coleman Wood

Another e-book read for Early Reviewers. I had a small gap in the reading of this and, unusually, found that what i had read had not remained with me sufficiently for me to pick up the book and continue; i had to go back to the beginning and start again. I only mention this because it is relevant to my review in that i, normally an involved reader, am able to follow several books at once (recently it was a dozen i had going), without confusing them, but this time i was not able to. I am not sure i can put my finger on the reason that i was confused, though a couple of ideas to come to mind, intimately linked with the book and my review. 

First of all, the plot is not told in chronological order but jumps back and forth through time from the present, the book's opening, to several different points in the past. Also, intermixed in the plot are snippets from an anthropologist's notes or writings; the implication is that they are those of the main character, a never named American studying in East Africa, though i think they could well be actual notes made by Wood in the course of his studies.

Another reason for my confusion, and this lasted far longer than my original start and restart, indeed, even after having finished the thing i still have less than complete clarity, is the names and personalities, such as they are, of the African characters. Wood's protagonist (awkward to refer to him this way, but he is nameless throughout) seems less interested in them as people than as objects of study and, as he is our reference point, our point of view, we are given almost nothing to distinguish them one from another. In fact, the anthropologist’s wife (also nameless, “she” and “her”) is also less a real character than a memory or image of one ~ perhaps this is intentional as, in the present she is dead. Ultimately, this particular issue for me revolves around a lack of distinctive character in the novel and, as i tend to prefer character-driven writing, that is something of a weakness.

Usually if a particular book ~ or sometimes it's all of an author's works ~ is less character-driven it will be more plot-oriented; in this case, however, i don't find that compensation. The plot in The Names of Things is thin, almost as though nothing happens, just the recording of a journey walked through some of the land of the tribe studied, along with the memories inherent. I don't really understand Wood's meaning or purpose behind the book; since there really is not much of a plot, as i mentioned, nor do the characters present anything new or compelling to me, certainly not the two North Americans, while the Africans are hard to distinguish though as a group perhaps new, why was the book written?

In a sense, it seems as though the sole purpose to the novel is to present what the life of an anthropologist is like; this would make it more autobiographical than anything else, which may i suppose explain the namelessness of the North Americans. At any rate, despite the several negative points i have made, i did not not enjoy the book so much as find it necessary to reclassify it in my mind. It clearly does not fit into my categorisation as “Novel, good”, yet it is not clearly a book to throw away; i am not sure exactly how to categorise it. Nor am i sure whether it is a success by my criterion; all i can say it that another book by John Coleman Wood would be much more likely to be picked up and read by me if it is non-fiction rather than fiction. That makes this an awkward review, i'm afraid, of what is, in a number of ways, an awkward book.