Monday, June 8, 2015

Sumer Is Acumen In...

Lhude Sing..... oh blast.

I think I gave myself a mild case of sunstroke yesterday. Or it could just be that this, the first truly hot day we've had thus far, triggered the heat headaches I generally get during this time of the year, when the rest of the world is lhude singing "cucu" and I am considering moving to Antarctica. Or it could be that I had a restless sleep last night. I remember waking at least once to strange dreams. Though I remembered nothing of the dreams when I crawled out of my bed in the pale grey of early morning... I hope all of you Sun Worshippers are pleased. 

But that was a digression. I did not come to lament the passing of clement weather. Not to complain about heat headaches. No! I Came Burdened With Glorious Purpose. I came with a plan. I came to review books! 

I have been making more of an effort lately to read things. I know that such a statement, coming from the mouth of a legitimate book person, must smack of irony. But I am in earnest. I have not been reading nearly as much as I like, and this grieves me. The trouble is twofold: One, that my own predilections in literature are rather quirky, and run very counter to popular trends in books these days. And two, that I have a remarkably low toleration for the style of writing in most popular fiction, coupled with an intense dislike of the obligatory tough female romantic interest (and all the paragraph-skipping nonsense that goes with it) which current storytelling finds impossible to dispense with. The result of this is a discouragement that quite puts me off reading for a while - a state of existence which my teenage and young adult selves would have found inconceivable. It is most unpleasant, as I miss the singular satisfaction that come with immersing oneself in a good book. So I have been making more of an effort to find things to read. The results have been mixed:

The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck

I did not have very high hopes for this one. I dislike Steinbeck, mostly on principle, and doubt I shall every read another one of his books again. However, once or twice a year I try to read something nominally 'classic' that falls outside of my comfort zone, and had stumbled upon a review of this particular work that made me think it worth a shot. I was pleasantly surprised.

The action takes place some time after the close of WWII, and France's dozens of political parties are so at each other's throats, that they are unable to elect - much less keep - a government in power. Once they have all argued themselves hoarse, they decide on a most unexpected course of action. They decide to re-instate the monarchy. What they are looking for is a patsy. What they get is Pippin Héristal, legitimate heir to Charlemagne and amateur astronomer, whose sole ambition is to gaze upon the heavens in peace… and who astonishes the nation (and himself) by taking the job of monarch seriously.

It is a very light work, and the satire is merely farcical, not mean-spirited. Pippin is a rather endearing. Like many good kings of myth and story, he goes out to meet his people, incognito. In Pippin’s case, this means dressing in his oldest clothes, and dashing about on his little motorbike. He talks to the people and he listens to what they have to say. The story bubbles along, cheerfully pitting the unworldly Pippin against the self-interested modern world he has been dragged in to. There is a chapter near the end that gets a bit bogged down with the sort of political ideology that makes me so leery of Steinbeck, but it is brief, and gentle, slightly bittersweet ending makes up for it.

Would I recommend it? Well I wouldn't exactly go around shouting its praises. The Napoleon of Notting Hill takes the idea more seriously. The Mouse That Roared is more fun. Still it is quite charming, and Pippin is such an altogether nice man that I quite enjoyed my time with him. So, yes. If you are looking for some pleasant reading for an evening or two, give Pippin IV a try.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

This might be the one and only time in my life that I have completed a book by a popular author. I was going to say that it is the first bestseller that I ever got all the way through, but due to the vagaries of human nature, both Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society were on the bestseller list. So let it be noted that I am capable of enjoying popular fiction. But Dean Koontz falls into a category of author I avoid with almost snobbish superiority. To a man, these authors churn out books with impossible frequency, and write with a curiously voiceless prose that serves merely to tell the story. There is nothing special about it, nothing to give pleasure to the inner ear of the reader. It is a vehicle, nothing more.

Why, then, you might well ask, would I bother with such a book at all? Well, in part so that I could say that I had actually read one of those authors that everyone else seems to love, and that, having tried, I can be honest in my dislike. And in part, because I had read a review about the Odd Thomas series, extolling its orthodox Catholic underpinnings, and I believe that much good can be accomplished by weaving traditional philosophy and theology into a popular story in a modern setting. So I took the plunge and read the thing.

I shall be honest right off the start and admit that the protagonist, the premise, and the way the story plays out, reminds me a bit of Matt Murdock and Neflix's Daredevil. It is possible that I would have enjoyed Odd Thomas more, had I not already seen Daredevil - and had Daredevil not done it better. It did have some good things going for it. The story itself was not bad at all, though a bit too much like a popcorn film. There was enough conscious morality to save it from banality. The titular hero is a 20 year old fry cook, whose first name really is Odd. (Odd is actually quite a popular name in Norway. It comes from an old Norse word meaning a sharp edge.) Our Odd can see dead people, as well as a creepy sort of spirit which he terms bodachs, which are heralds of coming death. They bear only the slightest resemblance to the bodachs of folklore - it is simply the word Odd uses for them. Because of his ability, he is about to assist in the solving of old crimes, and in preventing new ones. Odd himself is a very good character, old for his age, wise and wry - given to an entirely understandable discouragement at times, but retaining a sturdy hopefulness. He tries to be virtuous and is honest about his weaknesses. He doesn't bother with whether his ability is a blessing or a curse. It is merely a responsibility, and it makes him selfless. Odd regularly goes out in to dangerous situations, in an attempt to use his gifts for good, and often comes home quite the worse for wear. I really like Odd a lot, and if I ever read another book in this series, it will be solely on account of himself. It was refreshing to come across such a wholesome and principled character.

The writing is what killed this one for me. For the most part, it was merely bland. It disappeared into the landscape, and so long as it stayed that way, it was bideable. However, it occasionally lapsed into a hard boiled attempt at something vaguely poetic. Every time it did that, I was pulled violently out of the story, recasting the phrase in my mind, trying to twist it into something that wasn't trying so hard. The short, taut chapters made it easy to keep turning the page and reading "just one more" before getting on with the rest of the day, but I think the momentum fell off a bit about halfway through. By the end, I was just frustrated with the pat way the story covered all the points. There was nothing superfluous in the writing. It was very economic, which is not a bad thing, but... well, for me, at any rate, there was no joy in the telling. The story was just there. 

Would I recommend it? You actually get a caveated answer. I would not recommend it to my friends, as their taste runs similar to mine, and they would probably all be as frustrated with it as I was. However, it was an entirely decent book - a good deal is made about the chastity of an important couple's relationship - and I can see what the author was doing with it. I wanted to like it. It just didn't suit me. But, I would have no qualms whatsoever in recommending Dean Koontz to librarian patrons, who are fond of that sort of thing. Indeed, it is rather nice to know that I have that option now.

Vango by Timothee de Fombelle

I have been trying to read more books for adult, and get away from YA stuff - mostly because I like a certain amount of maturity and thoughtfulness in my reading - even when I am reading for fun. That is not to say that I don't read a fluff. I do. I have, indeed, been reading far too much fluff and I am a bit tired of it. Vango, however, sounded intriguing  "....In a world between wars, a young man on the cusp of taking priestly vows, is suddenly made a fugitive..." The first chapter opens with Vango, laying on the ground with other young men, at the beginning of the ordination ceremony, and ends with him climbing the Gothic carving of the cathedral face, to escape a gunman who is inexplicably shooting at him... and catching a ride on the zeppelin which miraculously appeared at that very moment. From that point on, we get an understated, old-fashioned story, full of chases and shadowy men, mystery, intrigue, and adventure. The book is set between the wars, and the tone of the book matches the time period. It is impossible to give any sort of a summary without spoilers, so I shan't try. The downside of it, to get that out of the way, is that this book is apparently the first in the series, and ended without any real resolution, which disappointed me. But the book itself.... Well, for all the familiar feeling of an old-fashioned yarn it had about it, I can't remember the last time I read anything quite like this - certainly nothing that has been recently published, and definitely no other YA book that I can bring to mind. There is a hidden monastery on an island, that figures largely into the plot, and I doubt that anyone else has ever come up with such a swashbuckling reason for a monastery to be hidden. I want to live there. Vango is believable as a young man who wants to be a priest, but he is not annoyingly pious or faultless - quite the opposite. He is sweet, quiet, meek, obliging - and also stubborn, reckless and impetuous. I really want him to be a priest... but there is a dashing young woman in the book too, who is not a love interest yet, but shows every indication of turning into one in the next book. I didn't want to like her for that reason, but she is so spunky and fun, that I do like her. Quite a lot. I just would rather she remains Vango's sisterly friend. 

Would I recommend it? Oh, come on. There is a zeppelin. And a hidden monastery. And Italian islands. And a hidden treasure. And a young man on the run. Of course I recommend it.... I should however, in fairness, point out that Vango tells its story on its own terms. It is not a fast paced book, for all the drama and suspense it generates. The author has an easy affection for the story, and easy affection for his characters, and a delight in the landscape and time period he has set the story in. I keep using the phrase "old fashioned" to describe it - and it is. But sometimes, old fashioned hits the spot, and on that level Vango delivers. I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series. 


Jack said...

I've been eyeing Vango whenever we pass each other as it makes the rounds. I really shouldn't add more to my list until I've brought it down a bit more, but the book seems to be calling to me. I might have to make another exception.

Maria said...

Oh, you should! It is such a refreshingly fun, old-fashioned sort of book.