Till We Have Faces

Confession 1: I didn’t enjoy the Narnia books. In fairness, I only read two before I felt I’d had enough. But, there it is. The characters seemed ludicrously non-reactive to the extreme circumstances they faced, and the plot (as I recall) seemed to be a grabbag of whimsy that more or less went nowhere as you waited for Aslan to show up.

In fairness, I was not raised as a Christian, and I was only later told about the apparently blatant use of Christian imagery. So, perhaps part of my confusion about the books’ popularity came from entirely missing the point. Then again, perhaps this is why the old religions (it seems to me) are so much more adept at creating compelling epics. What meaning is there in Gilgamesh’s questing or Odysseus’ journey if there is a single omniscient abstraction orchestrating the whole thing?

Till We Have Faces still carries plenty of Christian imagery. In fact, the main character is torn between her local pagan religion, with its funny smells and magical irrationalities, and the skeptical atheistic tradition embodied by a Greek advisor to her family. Of course, she ends up more drawn to something vaguely related to Lewis’ vision of Christianity.

Fine. Now, set that all aside, and realize that this is a wonderful book. The main character, an old woman telling her own history, is absolutely fantastically crafted. There is a richness of understanding in this book, which Lewis contemplated his whole life only to write in his old age. Everywhere is profundity – in the politics of the world, in the various characters, in the way passing time twists understanding of previous events. I, who am not generally a fan of CS Lewis, adored this book. Considering its relative shortness, the emotional depth is remarkable.

Till We Have Faces (Lewis)

American Born Chinese

I really enjoyed this book, which is a sort of braiding of three plotlines, one a fable, one a farce, one a diary, all of them on the topic of finding one’s identity as an Asian person in a predominantly white society.

The only thing I will say by way of critique (and maybe this is sort of like someone at a restaurant critiquing small portions rather than quality, BUT…) is that the diary portions were so clever and subtle that I found myself rushing through the other segments. The other parts were there for a reason, and certainly were important to the building of the story and the ultimate coalescing of the different narrative melodies, but… I feel like I could have easily enjoyed three or four hundred pages of the more realistic portion of the tale.

American Born Chinese (Yang)

The Wild Party

Wow. What an incredible poem and story. I wasn’t able to put it down after I read the first stanza.

This book was written in the 1920s, but didn’t get much of a print run, mostly due to the sex and murder, one suspects. Anyway, it is a great story told with incredible melody. Here’s a stanza, selected more or less at random:

The candles flared: their flames sprang high:
The shadows leaned dishevelled, awry;
And the party began to reek of sex.
White arms encircled swollen necks:
Blurred faces swam together: locked
Red hungry lips:
Closed eyes:
White shoulders burst their ribbon bands;
Rose bare to passionate, fumbling hands:
White slender throats curved back beneath
Attacking mouths that choked their breath.

In short: DANG. Wow, what a book. The version I got was a re-issue with very pretty artwork by Art Spiegelman, author of Maus. He apparently happened on the book by accident, due to finding it in a used book store, having a beautiful cover. The illustrations are an excellent reason to re-issue the book, but the star here is really the words. I won’t go so far as to the pictures take away from the poem – they, in fact, have this wonderful Art Deco gruesomeness that I assume was in part inspired by Ward’s book “Gods’ Man” – but part of me regrets having not read it first without pictures.

The Wild Party (March)

The Game-Players of Titan

I would have to call this a failed Philip K Dick novel. Like all of his bad novels, there are strands of pure beauty here and there. But, somehow nothing seems to come together in this book. It feels very rushed and slipshod. The universe of the book really doesn’t make a lot of sense. And, just in terms of showmanship, the game that the Game-Players of Titan play appears to be some variant on The Game of Life. I mean, if you’re going to have an alien game be a major plot element, at least make it cool, no?

The Game-Players of Titan (Dick)

Martian Time-Slip

Not Philip K Dick’s finest work. It has lots of interesting moments, and all the elements that make Dick amazing are there, but… somehow it just doesn’t seem to coalesce. Almost all Dick novels follow a pattern, in which a number of small stories are set up in a very strange future reality. The stories are advanced as they bounce against each other, ultimately coming to some sort of resolution. When this works (as in Dr. Bloodmoney, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Man in the High Castle) it’s magnificent. It’s that part of Mozart’s 40th where suddenly all the melodies intertwine and change.

When it doesn’t work, it just feels confusing and discordant. I’d put Martian Time-Slip in this category. Worth reading if you’re a fan of the author, but otherwise probably not.

Martian Time-Slip (Dick)

Dr. Bloodmoney

What a great Philip K Dick novel. I’d put it up there with his best work. It is meandering and strange, and yet very beautiful. Like all good Dick novels, I can’t really explain it by trying to describe it. It’s a post-apocalypse book, but it’s really not like any other such book. It’s more of a poem in a certain sense. Anyway, go read it.

Incidentally, the title is quite unfortunate. Apparently, Dick’s editor changed the title to sound vaguely like Dr. Strangelove. It’s a bit sad that, this late in his career, Dick was still subject to that sort of thing.

Dr. Bloodmoney (Dick)

It Can’t Happen Here

This book by Sinclair Lewis has been recommended online a lot lately (since it has to do with the idea of a sort of populist fascist coming to power in America). I’m a bit torn on it.
On the one hand, there’s some cleverness in the portrayal of the leader’s rise. And, given that the book is from 1935, in some sense it predicts the nature of fascism as it rose, at least in other countries.

On the other hand, it’s about as subtle as an Ayn Rand novel. Generally speaking, the characters are simplistic and predictable, and (it seemed to me) there was very little cleverness in explaining exactly how the fascist leader character was able to dismantle all the other centers of power and bureaucracy in Washington.

It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis)

A Contract with God

I think this book must be read as a historical document, as it’s sometimes considered the first serious graphic novel. Given that pedigree, it’s interesting to point out that the book is in fact somewhat transitional between books and comics, containing large sections of (hand-drawn) text, with somewhat simple drawings. I didn’t find the stories themselves particularly amazing (sorry if that’s utterly without class to say!) but they aren’t bad, and they are well drawn. And, as a window into the history of comics, it’s quite good. Incidentally, if you are interested in the history of Jewish New York, there’s a lot here for you as well.

A Contract With God (Eisner)