Coldheart Canyon (Clive Barker)

Barker has generally used a two-part structure in his books – you sort of defeat the bad guy halfway through, but then you realize that either it was much bigger and badder than you had imagined or there’s another much worse bad guy waiting behind the one you were after. In this one, though, he moves away from that into a much more unified plot. There’s still the magical world that exists parallel to ours, and the wide cast of characters so you don’t know who’s going to make it through and who won’t.

A famous actor gets plastic surgery, but has a bad reaction to it and goes into hiding in a secluded neighborhood off Sunset Boulevard. There he meets some sex-crazed ghosts (and people who should really be ghosts by now) and enters the basement room that becomes The Devil’s Country. The obsessive president of his fan club tracks him down and has her own, very different experience.

There’s a section of about twenty-five pages where the author retells the story of how his own much-beloved dog died, and it’s not really essential to the plot, but it was essential to his grieving process and really, with almost seven hundred pages, it’s not long enough to feel like we’re completely sidetracked.

I love every Clive Barker book I read.

 

Gut Symmetries (Jeanette Winterson)

Sometimes I think that if people had a vocabulary for what they’re doing, they’d be more comfortable with it. These days we’d call this a polyamorous relationship and leave them in peace.

A young scientist has an affair with an older, married colleague. She feels guilty, so she talks to the wife about it. The wife is angry, of course, but also unexpectedly young and beautiful and artistic, so the women have an affair as well. Then there’s some trading around among the three.

What’s really interesting, though, is the intersection of different types of knowledge. Theories of gravity and attraction among subatomic particles and celestial bodies collide with poetry and attraction between lovers of various sexes. There’s only one world, and a Grand Unified Theory would have to encompass every mode of being, not just at a particle level but in all the ways we know ourselves. The book is full of synchronicities and parallels and connections, so many that I’d like to read it again so that I can see more of them and understand them when I see them.

I love every Jeanette Winterson book I read, and I’ve needed to read books I’m going to love.

 

Veronika Decides to Die (Paulo Coelho)

The first few times I read this book I loved it, but this time I was a lot less enthusiastic. It’s still an interesting story about a woman who learns to live well from the inmates of an insane asylum, but the discourse about mental illness is much more troubling to me now than it was before.

Coelho’s idea seems to be that mental illness is cultural and all you really have to do is learn to reject society and embrace who you really are in order to be healthy. There’s some value to that for some problems, but I don’t think schizophrenia can be cured with self-love, or that astral travel solves depression. He makes the chemical explanations sound equally as faith-based as the metaphysical ones, so serotonin and dopamine seem to exist on the same plane as the third eye and the soul. There may be value in both the mechanistic view of the body and the four-humors spiritual view, but it’s important to interact with those ideas on their own terms. Cortisol isn’t the same thing as black bile.

 

The Beauty of Men (Andrew Holleran)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this depressing. It’s about a gay man who survives the AIDS crisis but can’t handle middle age. It was like listening to that guy I dated briefly in Texas all over again – no life in the present, just a constant remembering of those who’ve died while taking care of an aging parent who is also going to die soon. There’s some cruising, but he pines for a man who doesn’t love him, which keeps him from being happy. Twenty years later, life for gay men in rural areas isn’t this bleak. I understand the importance of having recorded this moment in time, but I don’t live in that moment, and things are better now.

Protagonist lives in the same area of Florida that my dad does, so I did spend some time wondering where that boat ramp is. Not that he makes casual sex seem anything other than futile and depressing. Holleran writes well, but the world he creates is dark and empty and desperate, as if AIDS kills some men’s bodies but robs others of their souls.

 

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

This is a Harry Potter-Narnia mashup for grown-ups, with a little Dungeons and Dragons mixed in.

Quentin Coldwater gets pulled from his elite private school for teenage geniuses to attend a magical college. He gets through all four years in a little more than half the book, wanders around adulthood miserable and high until the two-thirds point, then he and his friends go off to Fillory, a magical land from a series of children’s fantasy books Quentin is obsessed with.

This is a book about what it’s like to grow up. Quentin is really bad at it. He can’t handle real-life adult problems, even after four years of school and comparative independence, so he turns to addictions for a while, then retreats into his childhood fantasy world only to discover that it’s full of adult problems too. Education, sex, and drugs haven’t prepared him to face the fact that he has to deal with the mess of who he is instead of hiding from it. In the end, he gets one of those mindless office jobs as another way of hiding from himself. There are two more books, so I hope he gets some self-awareness eventually.

There’s a television series based on these books that I rather enjoy, but it’s dramatically darker and more violent than the book. The book focuses exclusively on Quentin instead of tracking Julia’s parallel but more traumatic experience. Another important difference is time. The book encompasses five or six years (probably, maybe more), from when Quentin is seventeen until he’s in his early twenties. The series changes Brakebills to a post-graduate program and compresses everything from this book into a year or so. The compression of time makes sense with the actors not aging quickly and the fast-paced world we expect from entertainment, and the delay makes the sex more palatable I guess, because no one wants to watch twenty-two-year-olds having a threesome? (Poor Alice.)

 

The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King)

The intended audience of this book is dramatically younger than it is for any other Stephen King book I’ve read. It’s about a sword-and-sorcery fantasy land, with a prince locked in a tower and an evil magician who secretly runs the kingdom. Instead of going chronologically, there’s this circularity of the narrative, edging the plot forward a bit then running back to explain the backstory or to catch us up with a different character in a different location. It’s exciting and all, Stephen King deserves absolutely all the praise he gets, but the ending was rather dissonant with the rest of the book. Despite the fact that there’s a severely alcoholic teenager, most of the tone is light and kid-friendly, so when the magician grabs an axe and comes charging up the steps of the tower, it’s scary in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Besides, he can do magic and he poisons the king. Why is he charging around waving an axe over his head at all? Did he suddenly forget all his magical abilities in the overwhelming hatred for the prince? Yes, he’s one of those villains who wants to see the world burn, but he does everything else so quietly and intuitively that the eruption of physical fury at the end is really out of character.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

There was a recent movie, but I haven’t seen it.

The thing that strikes me about this one most strongly is how important it is to stay current with the news if you’re going to solve crimes, and how much easier it was to stay current with the news a hundred years ago. Hercule Poirot is less tired than he is in books written thirty years after this one, both literally and as a character. It’s a very well-ordered story: events unfold until the murder, then the detective examines the crime scene and interviews the witnesses and suspects, then he brings them all together and explains how the murder was done and by whom. There are no surprises, no desperate turn of events, and very little violence. The lack of action makes me wonder why this one is so popular and why it is so often considered the representative, exemplary Agatha Christie novel. Maybe people like the combination of simplicity and intellection. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

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