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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

What a great book.

Started 2/14, finished 2/22.

Not to be shallow, but doesn't the Arturo Pérez-Reverte have the coolest name ever?

So, it took my 8 days to finish this because of the Black Evil, otherwise known as Madden 2006 for the PlayStation. I believe I would have finished it in 3 had it not been for that. Someone who really reads fast could probably finish it in an afternoon, and my bet is that's what the author intended. I would say it's meant to be devoured in a short period of time, except that would imply it reads like a screenplay. Far from it. Like The Club Dumas, the translation is very well done, and if the prose of the original Spanish isn't lush and beautiful I'd be very surprised.

In the 1620s, in Madrid, there lives a war veteran, Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, known as Captain Alatriste. He's a sword-for-hire, confronting blackguards on behalf of cuckolded husbands and unpaid bookmakers, and dispatching them for a few doubloons. In this adventure, he is hired by two masked men to rob a pair of English noblemen who are traveling in Madrid. Once the arrangement is struck, one of the masked men leaves. A friar of the Inquisition then appears as though through divination, and instructs Alatriste not to merely rob them, but to kill them.

Once Alatriste is in the situation where he would kill the Englishmen, something starts to feel wrong. He chooses not to kill them, and prevents his fellow murderer from doing the same. Once he installs them at the villa of a friend, he finds out who they are. He also finds out that, by sparing thier lives, he has prevented a war between Spain and England that would have changed forever the history of Europe. Suddenly, Alatriste is forced to protect himself from those who hired him, as well as from those who don't want the world to know what his charge had been. Hijinks ensue.

And what hijinks they are...

The story is told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old boy, Iñigo Balboa, the son of a Basque soldier who once saved Alatriste's life, and then lost his own. The young Balboa tells this tale as an old man, remembering the days with not a little romance and historical perspective, and occasionally you suspect that the narrator is embellishing with a smirk on his face. It all rings true. As the captain confronts his problems of life and death, the boy is falling in love with a beautiful but dangerous girl, told in such a way that would inspire nostalgia in anyone. This choice of POV is vital to the quality of the story. It allows the author a great many lenses with which to view the action, and it's obvious that he chose well when to employ them all.

Imagine my delight when I found out that Pérez-Reverte has written 5 of these books, and plans 2 more! The second has just been released in English, with the rest to follow up shortly. I can't wait until they come out - it's a bit of Dumas for those who want Dumas stories about Madrid instead of Paris. It's the kind of story I would read to my kids, and only edit a little for the violence. It's fun for the sake of fun, and as a side effect you learn a bit about history and gain a strong perspective on what it was like to live in the period.

Book #8 will be The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.


Friday, February 17, 2006

The Master, by Colm Toíbín

Started 2/2, finished 2/14.

A colleague saw that I was reading this and told me I was much better off reading a book about Henry James than reading Henry James. I wouldn't know. I picked up the book not having any idea it was about Henry James, and since I had "announced" that it would be the next book, I figured I'd go ahead and finish it. I'm glad I did. The Master represented such a change of pace from what I've been reading... well, it was refreshing.

It's a shame the weather was so warm while I read it. This seems like exactly the kind of book you want to read curled up in front of the fire, with some big dog sleeping at your feet. Toíbín doesn't just write about the late 19th century, he doesn't just describe it: he gives it what an architect would call a "rendering". It's three-dimensional, sharply colored, and given a perspective that I've rarely seen in writings from the period. Now, I'm no expert on the period, far from it in fact. But this book makes me think it would be a worthwhile era to explore.

The book is a series of eleven set pieces, segmented as chapters, covering a four-year period in the author's life. In each chapter, we are given a glimpse into James late in his 50s, his perspective on life, and his daily activities. As he moves about, writing his novels or traveling, his memory is sparked. He begins to dwell on one relationship from years before, spinning a flashback and infusing it with rare authenticity. They mostly revolve around dead friends and relatives, one even revolved around a city, but these characters become the most interesting in the novel, overshadowed only by the author himself. Hijinks most certainly do not ensue.

In these chapters, we are given an insight into the mind of an artist both as a young man and as an old man remarking on himself as a young man. It's the kind of perspective I would expect could only be written by a man who has been through it all. I've wondered if this started out as an experiment, where Toíbín became fascinated by James, then decided to pen an essay, then decided to make a project out of it. I would suspect it's the kind of project you never think will be published, let alone be successful, and I'm curious as to how exactly he brought it about. It's not quite biography, it's not quite memoir. You could say it's a biography of the mind of an artist.

In any event, the prose is lovingly written. It's evident that Toíbín spent considerable time and energy on striking the right tone, and in this he manages to be even and consistent. It's quite admirable. It's made me think about getting on Project Gutenberg and reading some of James' works. Who knows? Maybe he'll get an entry somewhere on the 25.

Book #7 will be the delightful Captain Alatriste, by Artur Pérez-Reverte


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Lullaby, by Chuck Palahniuk

Started 1/28, finished 2/2.

It's about something called a culling song, an African lullaby sung to the infirm and dying to pass them on their way gently. When this poem is printed in a book of poems in libraries across America, people start accidentally "putting their children to sleep" with it, and it's up to Carl Streator to find and destroy every copy. Hijinks ensue.

It was a truly great book, but I'm never reading it again. I'm not even sure I can read any more Palahniuk. He crosses lines that I can admire in theory, but which I could never do. Never never never. If that makes me a more pulpy writer, a more shallow person, a less commited storyteller, I'm willing to accept that.

I don't even know if I can recommend this one. The thing is, I have a little hangup, a little problem when a storyteller starts killing children. Maybe it's because I'm a new father, and because I love that kid more than I've ever loved anything in my life. Maybe the idea of losing Alex is the single greatest fear I have. I can't take it when the entertainment I seek, the nourishment I get from good literature, puts my worst fear right in front of my face. I've rarely wept while reading, but the fact that these things can be written with a smirk, the way Palahniuk does it, makes them tears of anger more than sadness.

However, I won't call this frivolous. There is a point to what he does. This book is profound and cathartic, and makes me think more about the little tiny things in life that aren't important, and how much value I (and we as a society) place on them. This crap. These artifacts of uselessness.

When asked what I thought of Revenge of the Sith, my answer is unwaveringly full of bile and vitriol. George Lucas tells stories about knights and fairies and people with laser swords and nice little tales. GEORGE LUCAS SHOULD NOT BE MURDERING CHILDREN. I couldn't get past that, because I don't think he "earned" the right to portray such horrors in his little space opera. I don't criticize Palahniuk for the same reason, because it's redemptive and powerful, and because those who deserve a comeuppance receive it, one way or the other. It's not a frivolous story, and it earns the right. I just won't be able to take it again. If they make a movie, I can guarantee you that I will never watch it.

This book was one giant middle finger to modern American society. It was fractal in its form: one middle finger of a book, made up of middle finger chapters, each sentence of which is a granular middle finger. Palahniuk hates us so much that he becomes a parody of himself, and redeems it all by pointing out that he is no different. There's a line in Fight Club that sums it up:

"We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't."

That line was spoken by Brad Pitt, millionaire and movie god, and he fully aware of the irony. It's self-mocking in equal share with its everything-else-mocking. Lullaby pulls the same rabbit from the same hat: Palahniuk knows more about upholstry materials than I ever will, and he's the one telling me that it's meaningless. That is why I think he is brilliant. Someone who can ride the fence of humanity while it flushes itself down the commode. Someone who can become world famous, rich, successful, and sought-after as the voice of a new generation.

If he weren't so good at it I would hate him. I've known people like this all my life, and I generally can't stand them. These naysayers. These coffeehouse freaks. These iconoclasts. I was probably one of them at some point. Well, if I was waiting for the real thing, I think I've found it.

I may have more to add as this one digests some more.

Book #6 will be The Master, by Colm Tóibín