Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: January 2009

Review: Declare

Declare, by Tim Powers
9/10, a seamless blend of spy novel and supernatural thriller

O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?
Return, and we return. Keep faith, and so will we.

The Afterword to “Declare” is every bit as fascinating as the story itself. Intrigued by a book about Soviet double agent Kim Philby, Tim Powers began reading more about the man and his life. He found that the more he read, the more it felt as though Philby’s life revolved around a central mystery that nobody had yet written about. Being, as we know, one of the masters of the contemporary supernatural, Powers took it upon himself to write that mystery, and Declare was born.

Powers created Andrew Hale, a British Secret Service agent whose birth in Palestine and baptism in the River Jordan make him perfectly suited for assignment to the supernatural division of the Service, which goes by various acronyms over the course of his association with it. He isn’t always told the full truth; in fact, part of the joy of the book is the reader’s journey along with Hale as he travels from ordinary espionage to something larger and more frightening.

But his journey is not only a journey of knowledge. Hale’s journey is intertwined with that of Philby and Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, the latter a creation of Powers like him. The three of them perform a dizzying dance between the secret services of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France that is occasionally hard to follow, but never so much that it impedes the reader’s understanding of the story. Each of them is faced with the question of what is most important in life several times along the course of the book, and Powers brings that question to a satisfying answer with the end.

As always, Powers exhibits a dazzling imagination in the intricate details of his supernatural world. It meshes perfectly with our contemporary world, and its rules have the internal consistency and detail one might expect from a watchmaker. I have a particular affection for magic, especially in a contemporary context (as in urban fantasy), where magical phrases like the one above have layers of meaning and power. Powers expertly doles out just enough information about his world to draw the reader in.

In Declare, Powers adds some terrific characters. Beyond his main three, a host of supporting characters fill the book out and give it life. He moves them through London, Paris, Beirut, and Moscow, each one lovingly described. Sometimes the action is a bit hard to follow, and if there’s one flaw in the book, that would be it. But this is a thrilling, satisfying read, and it immerses you in his world so much that you want to go up to someone on the street and say, “O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?” just to see what they might say in return.

To Chase The Sublime

Via Maud Newton, whose blog I’ve only recently started to read: a hysterical satire of literary criticism.

Wow, Fiction Works!

I had to bite my hand to keep from laughing out loud in the office at the following excerpt:

We could all do worse than to write like Saul Bellow. And when I say write like Saul Bellow, I mean be Saul Bellow. And when I say be Saul Bellow, I mean unzip the skin from his body and wear it as a sort of Saul Bellow suit so that we can get cozy in it and truly inhabit it and understand the Old Macher.

What’s On Your Stack?

Books on my shelf this year:

Declare, Tim Powers – I love his work. 1940s-to-1960s war drama with the requisite supernatural element.

Europe Central, William Vollmann – "Through interwoven narratives that paint a composite portrait of [Germany and the USSR] and the monstrous age they defined, /Europe Central/ captures a chorus of voices both real and fictional–a young German who joins the SS to fight its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Stalinist assaults upon his work and life. With these and other unforgettable stories, Vollmann breathes life into a haunting chapter from the past and gives us a daring literary masterpiece."

2666, Roberto Bolaño – An epic story, a Christmas present from Mark, whose last such venture was "The Shadow of the Wind," which turned out pretty darn good too.

The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers  – More Tim Powers, but medieval.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage, Bill Bryson – A tour through Shakespeare’s world to understand the context of his plays.

Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers – Short stories. Yes, someone went through my Amazon list and got me all the Tim Powers books.

Mothers and Sons, Colm Toibin – Saw him speak at Stanford and loved his talk and the excerpt.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton – 1920s social drama, Pulitzer-winner. I’d heard of it but never read it.

The United States of Arugula, David Kamp – A history of food snobbery in America.

Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne – A history of my favorite city.

Out of the Kitchen, Jeanette Ferrary – A book by our food writing teacher from last year’s class.

The View From The Upper Deck, D.J. Gallo – Sports humor from one of my favorite sports humorists.

Can I Keep My Jersey, Paul Shirley – The story of an NBA journeyman. Paul Shirley blogged on ESPN.com for a while and is always entertaining.

Jane Goodall, Dale Peterson – A biography by an author. I met him during his research at the U of M’s Center and read the book he co-authored with Jane, "Visions of Caliban." Haven’t gotten to this imposing volume yet.

Hopefully I can get through all of these in 2009! I’m looking forward to them.

Review: Bellwether

Bellwether, by Connie Willis
8/10, an enjoyable contemporary story of science research

In Passage, Connie Willis tells a story whose stakes are literally life and death. In Bellwether, the stakes aren’t as high, but the story is still enjoyable.

Dr. Foster studies fads, and one of the enjoyable touches in the book is the beginning of each chapter, which lists a (sometimes relevant) trend, its birth and its demise. Willis does her research for these books, and it shows. Dr. Foster works for a high tech company (amusingly called HiTek) that sponsors scientific research with one hand, while the other seems to do everything possible to impede it. There isn’t the urgency of “Passage” here, but the plot is similar: female scientist struggling against bureaucracy and her peers to accomplish a breakthrough, who meets a like-minded scientist whose help becomes essential.

“Bellwether” is a light, enjoyable read. Like all Willis’s books, the characters are a delight to get to know, and you will put down the book knowing more about the subject than you did when you picked it up. The subject matter more or less forces her to root the book firmly in the mid-nineties, which is a good thing in this case. I remember the anti-smoking fad, the various beverage fads (still going on today), although for good measure, Willis throws in several other fads of her own invention that don’t seem too outrageous. You’ll also learn a little bit about chaos theory, something about libraries, and just a pinch about fairy godmothers.

Though you can see where everything is going before it gets there, that doesn’t make the book any less fun to read. Like her earlier work, “To Say Nothing Of The Dog,” “Bellwether” plays for comedy more than drama, and she proves equally adept at both.

Review: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” by J.K. Rowling
9/10, a short, enjoyable collection of fairy tales from the Harry Potter universe

Upon finishing the “Harry Potter” series, J.K. Rowling declared there would be no more stories in that universe, at least not for a while. With good reason: although her love for the world shines through in her stories, it must be exhausting to have so much attention focused on it. Certainly she need never work again.

Some of the stories must have been kicking around in her head, though. This small collection of fairy tales includes the tale of the three brothers referenced in “Deathly Hallows,” as well as a few others, and commentary on the tales by Albus Dumbledore. Viewed as a part of the Potter-verse, they are all attuned to the theme that magic by itself does not solve problems; rather, it’s the good qualities in people that matter the most. One wishes Voldemort had paid more attention to these stories.

On their own, they differ from Andersen’s or Grimm’s fairy tales in precisely that respect. While good qualities in people usually win out in fairy tales, a lot is also due to magic and charms. It’s a challenge for Rowling to build fantasy into a world that is already fantasy, and mostly she accomplishes this by avoiding the issue. The stories feel more like tall tales than fairy tales–slight exaggerations of the real world.

That’s not meant to be a criticism. The stories are entertaining, and Dumbledore’s commentary is fun because it relates the stories to the Potter world, though also to ours. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, chances are you already have this book. If not, they probably won’t interest you. But it’s nice to revisit the world again, and it’s nice to read Rowling’s writing again. The theme of good human qualities shining through is no less appealing for being closer to the surface here, and her imagination is as fun as always.