May 3, 2014

Chaos and the Literary Conversation

In his book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, M. Mitchell Waldrop defines the edge of chaos as "the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive." That’s where my reading habits live; on that line between the stagnation of another book saying the same old thing, and the anarchy of books that are so empty they do nothing to edify my mind and soul. That’s where I occasionally find a book with a soul of its own that forever becomes part of me. Wikipedia defines a complex system as one “composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties not obvious from the properties of the individual parts.” When it comes to reading, that complex system is what I call the literary conversation.

In 2003 I read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Most of the book is concerned with the various levels of reading - from skimming to syntopical - and the various methods and processes involved in reading at each of those levels. There is also a lengthy section with chapters on ways to approach the reading of different genres. While I found all this interesting, I felt it was ultimately impractical for me because focusing on the method by which I read would distract from the enjoyment reading has always given me. I'm sure I've subconsciously incorporated some of the things I learned from Adler and Van Doren, but I can't make myself follow a set of steps or procedures to do something I enjoy doing in the way I've always done it.

The first thing from the book that has stuck with me is a statement to the effect that, to be considered well-read, one should have at some point read The IliadThe OdysseyThe AeneidThe Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. I'm not sure why that stuck with me or why it then became important for me to read them. Maybe it was just another "reading list" to be conquered, but the almost total absence of poetry in all my years of reading made this one a little daunting. Since 2003 I've read and enjoyed the first four, and I look forward to getting into Paradise Lost at some point. One of the benefits of having read these is that my reading of books that reference them directly or allude to them has been enhanced.

The second thing I took from Adler and Van Doren is their actual reading list, included as an appendix. It’s very heavy on the ancient classics, philosophy, and science, so working through it has been a lengthy process.

The last two things are somewhat related and are those that have most impacted my reading; not how I read, but how my reading effects me. These are the concepts of the pyramid of books and the conversation of great books – the literary conversation. The authors contend that the books we read form a pyramid with the base consisting of the majority of our reading material; that which doesn't stretch our reading skills. As we move up the pyramid, we encounter books that are increasingly difficult for us because, at the time we read them, our reading skills – how we understand a book and make it our own – are not at the level necessary to grasp all that is available from that book. If we return to those books at a later date they will not seem as difficult because our reading skills will have improved in the interim. At the peak of each of our individual pyramids is the handful of books that will improve our abilities each time we read them because there is much more there than can be grasped at a single skill level. This is not to say that any given book will be at the peak of everyone's pyramid. There are too many ways for books and people to relate to each other for that to be the case, and that's where the literary conversation comes into play.

Adler and Van Doren believe that great books - those that stand the test of time and consistently stretch the reading abilities of large numbers of people - engage in a conversation with us and, through us, with each other. In my experience, the most common form of this conversation is when an author quotes or alludes to another book in his own work. The book quoted or alluded to is generally one that is considered a classic. Some instances can be fairly extensive, as in Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle wherein the protagonist experiences a chapter-long nightmare based on Dante's The Inferno. A more subtle - and to me more satisfying - form of the conversation occurs when I recognize in different authors a common theme or concept expressed from differing perspectives. I read Thomas Pynchon's V. and Umberto Eco's Baudolino about a month apart. Despite the dissimilarity of the authors and the stories, a climactic scene in each of the books conveyed, from almost opposite perspectives, the point that the journey is often more important than the destination. The scene from V. gave me the perspective that sometimes, when what we've sought is almost within our grasp, we make our faith a lie so that we don't have to give up our quest by achieving its goal. Baudolino viewed the same point from the perspective that the achievement of a goal sometimes precipitates the loss of the spirit, drive, and fellowship that were the quest. I don't know if I happen to periodically recognize such similarities because of where I am in life at the time or if Serendipity flutters her wings at just the right moment, but such moments always elicit from me a softly uttered, "Wow!"

July 23, 2013

Who's To Blame? – Life After Dane* by Edward Lorn

If Life After Dane were a TV show, it would be some kind of combo, mini-series, spin-off of Criminal Minds and The Dead Files. Ella has spent months travelling the country to attend the trials, in numerous jurisdictions, of her estranged son, Dane, aka the Rest Stop Dentist. She's never stopped loving him, even after discovering what he'd been doing in the years since he left home. When she returns to her life-long home in Colorado after witnessing Dane's execution, at the hands of the state of Arkansas, she has to face the disapproving looks of everyone who knows what he's been up to. Those looks are quickly forgotten when Dane begins appearing to Ella in decidedly unsettling ways. Things get even more bizarre when Sven Godel, a journalist trying to make his career on the Rest Stop Dentist, show's up with a video of his final interview with Dane. Everything she thought she knew changes drastically when, despite her absolute disgust with Sven, Ella watches the video. Dane's visitations become more terrifying and much more violent, causing Ella to embark on a new cross-country journey in hopes of finally putting Dane and the Rest Stop Dentist to rest.

This book contains several graphically violent scenes and is not suitable for all readers. If you're at all squeamish about such violence, delve into this book at your own risk.

In addition to being a horror story, Life After Dane takes a considered look at who's responsible for "creating" serial killers. It does so from the perspective of society, family members, and the serial killer himself. Some of those perspectives may surprise and shock the reader.

The characters are well-developed throughout, and the portrayal of their descent into terror on their exposure to Dane's ghost is excellent. Because it's narrated by Ella, her character and veracity are critical to the story. As it progresses, she becomes, more and more, an unreliable narrator. You're never quite sure if Ella's really being haunted by Dane or if he's just a manifestation of her deteriorating mental state. Even the things that happen to others - things she attributes to Dane, since she's telling the story - could be her mind's way of dealing with what she's done herself. The twist at the end may have you re-reading the whole book to find what you know you must have missed the first time through. You probably didn't miss anything. Lorn's just that good at springing surprises.

Life After Dane is a quick read - mostly because it's hard to put down, once you get started - but also for its brevity and because Lorn's prose flows so readily across the page. It's also a must-read for anyone who's into serial killers or who just enjoys a good evil-ghost story. 

June 11, 2013

Reality Bites – Virtually True* by Adam L. Penenberg

In the not-too-distant future, True Ailey is on the backside of his career as a journalist. Corporations are the new Mafia – controlling society through thugs and the technology embedded in everything and everyone. Virtual reality is the drug of choice – as addictive and debilitating as heroin. Information is the most valuable currency. Much of the world has fragmented into small republics where ethnic and cultural wars are part of everyone’s daily life. Exiled to one of these hellholes by his network, True is trying to hold his life together. When his friend is assassinated, he sets out to determine who’s behind the attack and for what purpose. His digging puts almost everyone he knows in danger the closer he comes to exposing the ultimate cover-up.

A little over half of Virtually True is written in third person, present tense. The remainder, mixed throughout, is third person, past tense. This makes for a very bumpy read – especially when it randomly jumps from past to present tense. Feels like talking to some pretentious jerk who always refers to himself in the third person. All this is very distracting from a plot that’s not all that easy to follow in the first place. The concept of the story is interesting, but it’s developed in such a choppy manner that it’s difficult to maintain interest. Because the storyline frequently jumps from reality to virtual reality, it’s also difficult to know what’s true of any character, and thus almost impossible to muster empathy for any of them, one way or the other.

If you’re seriously into technology and virtual reality, Virtually True may provide some interesting thought experiments. If you’re not, it could prove tedious and frustrating. 

May 31, 2013

A Life of Her Own – Lay Death at Her Door* by Elizabeth Buhmann

At forty-two years of age, Kate still lives with her father because she’s never completely recovered from the effects of witnessing a murder and being raped when she was twenty. Lately, she’s feeling trapped by her father’s overly protective attitude, and she’s ready to have a life of her own. Her sense of urgency in that regard increases dramatically when the man who’s spent the past two decades in jail based on her eyewitness testimony is exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.  

Lay Death at Her Door is classified by the publisher as a mystery, but it’s not a classic mystery in the sense of the protagonist solving a crime. I wouldn’t call it a thriller either, although it has some aspects of that genre. I’m not sure an accurate classification is possible. At its core, this is the story of a woman’s obsession and of its power to destroy her life. The story is told by Kate almost as a memoir of how she came to be in her current situation. Buhmann does a superb job of letting Kate peel away layer after layer of the façade she’s spent her lifetime creating. We see the dominance of her ego in things she says, almost as asides, from time to time. The secrecy in which she is shrouded becomes more pronounced as she further isolates herself from the few people who are part of her life, while simultaneously using them to satisfy her obsession. We feel these things just as those people do. Although Kate is an unlikeable character, it’s hard to not feel some sympathy for her. The other characters seem weak or despicable in their own right, but we only see them through Kate’s eyes, just as we see her only through her own eyes. In Kate, Buhmann has created a classic unreliable narrator.

Purely from a plot perspective, the story will hold your interest. The “climactic” scene is telegraphed, possibly intentionally, but is only a precursor to the true climax. The last twenty pages of the book have more twists than a bag of pretzels. The true appeal of the book, though, is in witnessing the disintegration of an obsessive personality…like the train wreck you can’t help but watch. In that regard, Buhmann’s storytelling is in a class with Lolita.

Reading Lay Death at Her Door is like sitting raptly across the table from Kate while she relates her tale of woe and realizing when she finishes, that you've scooted your chair as far from the table as you can get it. 

May 27, 2013

From Time to Time – The Last Radiant Heart* by Daniel Lance Wright

Jack Dane isn't necessarily happy with his life as an underpaid feature writer for a small metropolitan newspaper, but he enjoys the comfortable routine it affords him. That comfort is shattered when unwelcome visions begin pulling him into their reality. Nikki is a psychologist and Jack’s best friend from college. He’s always been romantically inclined toward her, so seeking her professional help is a little awkward. Despite her own attraction to Jack, Nikki agrees to see him professionally. She’s skeptical of his tales, until she experiences the reality of one of his visions. Meanwhile, Jack meets Arthur, an aging clairvoyant, while writing a background piece related to some recent crimes. Arthur’s revelation of the true nature of the visions leads Jack and Nikki to redemption of sorts for members of each of their families.

I thoroughly enjoy exploring theories about the concept and reality of time and space, which is something The Last Radiant Heart does in quite a bit of detail. Unfortunately, too many things about the story and the writing distracted from that exploration in this instance. Foremost is the fact that the theory of time Wright puts forth has internal inconsistencies; like precluding linear time at one point and embracing it at another. The theory seems to be twisted to fit the plot, rather than the plot arising from a consistent theory. Then, there’s the sexual tension between Jack and Nikki. In the first two-thirds of the story, it feels forced and unnatural. Then it just disappears. The climax of the story, while dramatic, is disappointing given the buildup it receives. I expected something earth-shattering, but just got an, “Oh, look at that.” kind of event. Finally, Wright pushes the political correctness way too hard when Jack discovers an unknown fact about his cultural heritage.

Several aspects of the writing were annoying, as well. When Jack first describes his visions to Nikki, they sound like something submitted for a descriptive writing assignment, rather than a distraught individual telling a friend about a very disturbing experience. The narrative is in third person, but every so often, a sentence in first person pops up for no story-related reason. The use of a few clichés in writing is almost impossible to avoid, but including enough to draw the reader’s attention to the fact they’re there is way too many. Timeline inconsistencies and numerous missing articles and prepositions were like speed bumps in this reading foray.

The concept at the core of The Last Radiant Heart has the potential for a great story. Regrettably, the execution falls far short of that potential. 

May 23, 2013

Love Triangles – Dark Moon* by Maggie Tideswell

Dark Moon revolves around a love parallelogram – two love triangles mashed together with two of the characters in both triangles and the other two characters related to each other. The characters display the emotional and reasoning capacity of a herd of eighth-graders. From that perspective, the story would go something like this: Storm and Trevor have been dating since seventh grade, and Storm wanted Trevor to ask her to go steady, but he was just playing it cool. Then Storm and Jarred met and hooked up, and that same night Trevor asked Storm to go steady, but she was freaked out because of what she and Jarred had done, so she told Trevor she’d think about it. Then Jarred decided Storm had to go steady with him because they’d hooked up, and he really liked her a lot, but Storm didn’t want to have anything to do with him because she thought he took advantage of her. Storm’s BFF, Donna, just wanted to have fun and kept telling her she should have some fun too. Storm still wanted Trevor to like her, but she wasn’t sure about him because he started acting kind of weird. Turns out, Elle, Storm’s lab partner, had been friends with Jarred for a long time, and wanted to go steady with him, but he told her they were just friends, probably because he was so into Storm. Oh, and Elle just found out that Trevor’s really her brother and is actually such a bad boy. When Trevor found out about Storm and Jarred, he freaked out and treated Storm really bad. He even tried to hook up with Donna to get even with Storm. But he still wants Storm to go steady with him. He and Jarred got into a couple of fights over Storm, and Jarred’s been really protective of her, but in a creepy, stalky kind of way. When Storm decided to go steady with Trevor, he got really controlling of her, and then he and Jarred got into a really bad fight over her, and…well, you know…

Based on the synopses I’d read, I was expecting Dark Moon to be a paranormal/supernatural thriller. What I got was a fairly standard romance with some supernatural thrown in, almost as an afterthought. Each chapter had me throwing up my hands in frustration as the characters found more and more senseless ways to think and behave. The few attempts at developing the supernatural aspects of the plot appeared to be stuck into the story to fill holes and potentially explain the characters’ odd behavior.

Fans of romance may enjoy Dark Moon, but true paranormal/supernatural fans will be disappointed.