Archive for April 22nd, 2008

Quick Book Reviews

Here are my brief takes on some interesting novels I’ve read recently:

The Dogs of Babel, by Carolyn Parkhurst – A linguisist’s wife dies unexpectedly amid curious circumstances and the only one to see her on the last day of her life was the family dog. So the linguist does what any of us would do in the same situation—he devotes himself to teaching the dog to talk in order to uncover the mystery surrounding his wife’s death. As over-the-top and contrived as this story could have been, Parkhurst actually weaves a compelling tale that tugs at the heart of any dog lover and depicts the love of a man for a woman that far surpasses all her faults (which are many). In flashbacks you get to know the wife, and find her more and more unloveable the more you get to know her, and yet in the present her husband is pursuing the impossible in order to understand her death. You find that she is indeed lovely because she is loved and the extent to which he demonstrates his love for her, even after her death, while bordering on insanity, is a sad/sweet story of self-giving, sacrificial love.

On a related, but completely irrelevant note, my dog can say “I love you” (actually it’s more like “Arrr Ruh Roo”, but we know what he means.)

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – A story spanning several centuries, beginning in the late 1700’s and stretching into a far distant post-apocalyptic future, Cloud Atlas contains a series of accounts of different, seemingly unconnected people set together in a quasi-chiastic fashion. Each story stops right in the middle at a pivotal climactic point, only to be picked up and concluded at the end of the book, with each conclusion appearing in reverse order. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, each story fits inside the others until the connections between the lives of the individuals begin to come clearer and the book concludes right back where it started in the 18th century. Mitchell is full of imagination and creativity. There is a good deal of fun to be had in pulling apart the mystery of the connections between the various lives, but the pay-off at the end of the work is not so hot. It’s kind of a disappointment actually. Still, it’s worth reading just because of the innovative way he tells the story.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks – Set in the near future, World War Z is a collection of survivor’s accounts of a recent global outbreak of a virus that has turned a substantial portion of the population into zombies. Brooks writes as a journalist who is traveling the world, gathering an oral history of the rise and fall of the zombie hordes. What Brooks is in fact providing is a commentary on the way that different world cultures tend to deal with their problems, and the failures and successes of each worldview. Like most stories set in the future, it is all a commentary on the present (understanding the undead-walking-the-earth simply as a metaphor, of course).

The Road, Cormac McCarthy – The author of No Country for Old Men tells the tale of a father and his young son struggling to survive in the decade after an undefined global catastrophe. There’s no vegetation left, no animal life, only humans fighting to make the best of what remains of the burned-out husk of civilization. This is probably the most terrifying book I’ve read in a while. There’s a sense of dread hanging over it all. Some of the scenes are the stuff of nightmares. With every page turn, you just know something awful is about to happen any moment, and yet (without giving anything away) there is redemption and hope and resurrection on the other side of the grave. This is one of those that you can’t say too much about without giving it away, so I’ll stop, but I’d say if you have a strong constitution for such things, I would highly recommend it to you.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole – This is one of those that I’ve started on and put down a number of times, and finally forced myself to plough through it to the end. And it was worth the work. The story centers around a slothful, directionless, glutton of a man named Ignatius Reilly who lives with his mother in 1950’s New Orleans. As he flits from one sure-to-fail pursuit to another, blaming everyone and everything but himself for his failures, surviving off of other people’s patience and embarrassment, he works himself into such a state of self-deception and hopelessness that he puts himself into a position far beyond any forseeable redemption. It appears that Reilly learns nothing from his misadventures, but the reader should. I intend to direct my own son to read this when he’s 16 or 17 if for nothing else than to give him an example of what kind of man he is not to be.

So what have you read lately?

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