Beatrice and Virgil


Beatrice andbeatrice and virgil Virgil, Yann Martel

I was among the millions of people who were enthralled by Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I’ve read it a few times. I’ve shared it with others. The writing was so engaging and pulled me in, the story so fascinating. I loved the book, the story it told, the examination of fantasy and fable. Sadly, I am also among the many who, after falling so deeply in love with Life of Pi, found myself disappointed in the follow up, Beatrice and Virgil.

Beatrice and Virgil opens on an author, Henry L’Hote, who bears a striking resemblance to Martel himself. L’Hote is a Canadian author. He wrote a book that was surprisingly well received and continues to sell for years, with many adoring fans. The book told a story through animals, and is described as approaching a serious story using animals to give it a fantastical bent. He then suffers severely from writers block, waiting five years before writing another book—an essay and fable about the Holocaust, which he foresees being sold together. His essay proclaims that there is not enough true art about the Holocaust, which gets to the truth outside of facts, and we should allow greater exploration of it through art. The fable will present this artistical description of the Holocaust, and the stories shall be packaged together as a flip-book and sold as one.

The publishers tear down Henry’s idea, to the point that he decides his first book was enough and he will give up writing for the time being. He and his wife decide to move, settling in “one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin.” While there, his wife finds employment as a nurse, and he putters around, playing clarinet, being in an amateur theatre troupe, working in a chocolate café. (A café that sells chocolate, I mean. Not made of it.)  However, people continue to send him fan mail, and eventually he receives a letter from someone who is coincidentally living nearby, in the same city. A letter that includes the short story “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” by Gustave Flaubert, a piece of a play with the two characters Beatrice and Virgil, and a short note saying that the author needs his help.

Through this note we are entered into the rest of the story. Henry finds an elderly taxidermist, also Henry, working on a play—a play very similar to the style of Waiting for Godot, as Martel himself points out in a common theme of self-awareness—based on two of the animals in his shop, Beatrice, a stuffed donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. They have been through unspeakably terrible experiences they refer to as “the Horrors.” They wander around on a striped shirt. Their list of how they shall remember their experiences includes a word that sounds like “Auschwitz” and an address tied to a trove of documents from the Warsaw Ghetto. Though Henry the Taxidermist denies it throughout, the play seems very much like a tale of animals that is about the Holocaust. Henry the author is intrigued.

I do think that Martel is a talented writer, speaking strictly in terms of writing. I was pulled into the book and read through it quickly (it is under 200 pages.) Some of the passages, such as the first part of the play where Beatrice and Virgil discuss a pear, are quite beautifully written. And I agree with his meditations on fiction being almost more important than fact in tapping into deep truths, although I wouldn’t say he is the first to have this insight.

That being said, the problems of this book far outweigh one well-written passage. For one thing, it’s far too self-referential, while also remaining distanced from itself at the same time. In one review I read it was referred to as a lesson in post-modern pastiche and I can’t say I entirely disagree. And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys post-modern pastiche!

As already mentioned, the main character, Henry L’Hote, is clearly meant to resemble Yann Martel. The first part of the book, outlining why author Henry would want to write such a book of an essay and a story in the first place, clearly serves as the essay within this book, with the play acting as the story. And yet at the same time, it remains distant. Even Henry is kept at arms length, as we are told this is a pen name, and never given his real identity. The story itself, this fable for the holocaust, is written as a play in the style of Godot, that is written by a character that the main character then meets. We are at least 5 layers removed from this fable that Martel wants to tell, which seems a rather coy, and almost fearful, way to present his tale.

Then there is this. While I agree that horrific events should be told through a variety of art, that is not, in fact, what this is. While the book focused quite a bit on our own ways of looking at history and art, and the trials of someone who wants to write about it, for a book about the Holocaust it actually focused very little on the horrific events and how we were supposed to examine and feel about themselves ourselves. It did not talk about why they happened or how we prevent them or how we live with them or how those who went through them can continue. It was using the Holocaust as a way to address how we tell stories, rather than stories as a way to tell the Holocaust. Which is, in my opinion, not at all the way to address such a horrific occasion, and a rather disrespectful treatment of it. Far from the arguments presented by the concerns of Martel in this book, it’s not disrespectful because there were animals or a fable, but because he was far more concerned than the author struggling to write this story than any participant in the story. It was the Holocaust as background.

This last is, by far, the biggest concern of the book. The Holocaust was the attempted extermination of a people; it was neighbors turning against neighbors; it was ‘good people’ engaging in, going along with, or turning a blind to the most horrific acts, it was an example of the worst of society and the reason we must constantly be vigilant against the rise of evil, exclusion and inertia. It’s not a way for an author with no connection to it to work out his feelings on art and himself. Let us not cheapen it in such a way.


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jonathan strangeJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

This sprawling, 1000+ page story of magic’s return to England is truly amazing. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it takes place in an England where Magic is—or at least was—very real, with an alternate history where John Uskglass the Raven King had ruled over the North for centuries, faerie roads used to be common, and many groups and clubs of learned men meet to discuss and write articles on the history of magic. At this time, however, it has been generations since the last faerie road has closed. And this is the mystery at the heart of the book: what has happened to British magic, and when it will return to England?

When the book begins, we are introduced to a group of theoretical magicians—men who study magic, not perform it—with a new member asking the impolitic question of why practical magic no longer exists. Through this discussion we eventually come to Mr. Norrell, who offers to prove his practical magic in a dramatic fashion if all theoretical magicians will renounce their claim to the title of magician. His success brings him to London, where he endeavors to restore magic to its rightful, respectable place, aid the war effort, and win high regard—but only for his own particular thoughts on magic. We are eventually introduced to Jonathan Strange, charismatic, impulsive, and a brilliant natural at magic, who stumbles into his career as a practical magician.

This is the bare-bones of a story that takes us throughout the Iberian peninsula in the war, through the way magic begins to effect numerous characters throughout the story, introduces us to an amoral faerie, the Man with the Thistledown Hair, and sees magic reintroduced to England. And most of all, dives in depth into the story of the Raven King and the history of the England just off to the side of our own world, where many similar things have happened, but in very different ways.

The world building in Jonathan Strange is truly staggering. Many characters in the tale have their own tales. The background story of Jonathan Strange, for instance, doled out in one or two longish chapters, could have been its own standalone short story. Almost every character we encounter is fully fleshed out, and their own story expertly woven into and important to the larger narrative. Even more amazing, though, is her story of magic. The alternate history, and the tale of the Raven King, dips in and out of the story at all turns, with the Raven King overshadowing everything that is done with magic, and even politics in the Britain of the book. In addition, footnotes are given for numerous references to magic and history, and citations of other books within this world, with each footnote being its own tale again. For instance, take a look at just this one footnote in the book, a fairly representative one:

One autumn morning the Cumbrian child went out into her grandmother’s garden. In a forgotten corner she discovered a house about the height and largeness of a bee-skep, built of spiders’ webs stiffened and whitened with hoar-frost. Inside the house was a tiny person who at times immeasurably old and at other times no older than the child herself. The little person told the Cumbrian child that she was a songbird-herd and that for ages past it had been her task to look after fieldfares, redwings and mistle-thrushes in that part of Cumbria. …

…and on for several more sentences to the end of the tale. To say nothing of the occasional three and four page footnote. David Foster Wallace has nothing on Susanna Clarke.

I also loved the way Clarke brought in other topics in a subtle way, an excellent example of “show don’t tell”. The book is not a polemic or a treatise on social justice issues by any means. But any careful reading will pick out the way the same magickal affliction affects an aristocratic woman and a servant in very different ways, with the former an invalid who everyone can tell is ailing the latter forced to carry on in the same manner. Or the way some of the problems may have been solved earlier if people were expected more to listen to and pay attention to sidelined women. These issues only arise here and there, but are certainly present to anyone who cares to pay attention.

I’ve read this book twice now. And each time it’s been just as surprisingly delightful, intriguing, and just so, so impressive. I guess there’s more detail in something like The Silmarillion, but Clarke still has my admiration because she made it interesting, too. I know the thickness might be off putting to some, but I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a wonderful story, amazing world created, and for anyone willing to put in the thought and time discussions a-plenty to be had.


MortMort, Terry Pratchett

We return to Discworld with Mort, following the story of Death as he goes through a mid-eternity crisis, and his chosen apprentice, Mort, as he decides whether or not to become Death. In the process we meet Death’s butler, his adopted daughter, learn about Afterlife and theology on the Disc, and watch Mort deal with the how to address that whole fate thing and how much we should mess with it.

Death is a recurring character in Discworld, having made cameos in the previous books, and giving him his own series was a good idea for a spinoff. It occurs to me that the reason almost endless spinoffs for something like Discworld can work is that, freed from the necessities of weekly episodes and annual seasons, an author can wait until he actually has a good idea to write a story. It’s a truth that serves books well and I’m grateful for it.

Mort is, well, not exactly a prequel but it does take place before the other books, with Rincewind of the first book making a brief appearance early in his wizarding career. It is certainly a stand alone book, however, that a person could pick up without fully knowing the world, although having a working knowledge of how exactly the whole thing works what with the world turtle and all does add a certain something. The only mild drawback I’d say is that, by making this a book anyone can drop in on, Pratchett does need to repeat some things.  It’s not so much a problem that he goes over the same information on the inner workings of Discworld, but he does seem to be overly found of a few phrases, such as how the light moves lazily on the Disc due to the magical field, that are used more than they need to be. But I suppose if one waits more than a week or so between reading his books it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. And it’s a bit hypocritical of me to complain about this when I was just criticizing a book for going too far in the other direction.

And, honestly, what complaints I may have are minimal. Pratchett’s skill at weaving a tale, his humor, and his deftness of dealing with what can be grim topics with wit and just a touch-hardly any, really, it doesn’t get in the way at all-of compassion is on full display in this book. It’s not everyone who can take a story about Death and turn it into a fun book that isn’t either too dark or too kitschy or too much of trying to make it be a whole thing and making a statement. Here it’s just that Death is, and he’s trying to get through existence as best he can, just as all of us are. I greatly enjoy the way Pratchett plays and subverts tropes, done throughout in this book. And he’s a clever writer. His descriptions of Death capture the doom and gloom and seriousness with a few creative twists, and he pulls us into scenes quite creatively. I’m glad I finally started reading Terry Pratchett. He’s quickly become a favorite for all of my light-hearted reading needs.

Michael Tolliver Lives

michael tolliver livesMichael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin

Armistead Maupin is known for his Tales of the City stories, a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle throughout the 70s, chronicling a unique time and place that will never be recaptured. People look back on these books with real fondness, and through it Maupin had a unique view point to capture the sexual revolution, the first glimmer of gay rights, and the destruction of the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, all of this is what I have picked up from reading *about* Maupin. I never read any of the Tales of the City stories. Instead, I picked up Michael Tolliver Lives, which catches up with a lead character several years on. Why did I start there? Because this was sitting there waiting to be taken at the Library Book Sale, my main source of reading material, and the others were not!

It’s a shame I didn’t read the others first, because then maybe I would have liked this book. Instead I felt myself unable to connect with any of the characters, not particularly interested, and thinking that everything felt superficial and like a caricature.

Michael Tolliver Lives catches us back up again with Michael Tolliver, an aging gay man who’s been in San Francisco from the beginning (he featured in the earlier books), now married to a younger man, running a landscaping and nursery business, and dealing with the death of his conservative mother in Orlando, FL, and his more-or-less adoptive mother back home in San Francisco. For all that, there didn’t seem to be much conflict or tension in the book, and everything proceeded as you’d expect. The book seemed to stay on the surface of the story. And much of this is because some of the conflict had already been introduced before, I’m sure. Much of the relationships were told, not shown—because it was just a reminder of what the reader should already know.

There were some people who apparently loved this book, but I think all of them are people who loved these characters from before, and enjoyed checking in. Some series you can drop yourself into. Some you can’t. This book was for people who had loved Tales of the City and looked forward to seeing what everyone was up to now. It was the reunion special. But just like I wouldn’t watch Fuller House without knowing the first one, don’t pick this up unless you already know and love Michael Tolliver and his life.


Well of Lost Plots

well of lost plotsWell of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots is the third installment of his Thursday Next series, and it starts off more or less immediately where the former book, Lost in a Good Book ends. Thursday Next is a Jurisfiction Agent in a Great Britain similar to the one in our world, but with some notable differences.  Genetic engineering is quite common, and Thursday has a pet dodo she made with a home genetics kit. The series takes place in the 1980s, but the Crimean war is still raging. Wales is independent. Zombies, werewolves and vampires are all real, but more of a nuisance than anything else. Time travel is possible, but highly regulated by the Chronoguard. There are severe cheese shortages and cheese import laws. And the most relevant to the series, people take books seriously. Very seriously. Like, there is a special operations division, SO-27, dedicated to tracking down forged books and protecting literature. Oh, also, literary characters live in book world and have their own policing agencies to keep the plots as they’re supposed to be and sometimes people from the real world can enter the books and vice versa.

Well of Lost Plots is unique in the series so far in that it takes place entirely in the book world. And from here on out there will be SPOILERS for what has happened in the first two installments, and you have now been warned. At the end of Lost in a Good Book Thursday Next had been apprenticed as a Jurisfiction Agent policing book world rather than books in the real world, her husband, Landon, had been eradicated through time travel by the multinational Goliath Corporation, and she was somehow still pregnant with his child in this time stream. Thursday is less distressed by this part than many of us would be since her own father, a rogue Chronoguard agent, had been eradicated and still pops up in her life regularly. Sadly, Landon’s eradication seems to be somewhat more complete.

While she’s pregnant, and planning how to get her husband back, Thursday decides to take a break in Book World as a Jurisfiction Agent, subbing for a character in a seldom-read book while continuing to track down Page Runners (characters who escape their books), evading Grammasites (parasites who feed on words) and fighting off a plot to make all books far more generic and lifeless through what sounds suspiciously like e-books.

I’m constantly surprised that Jasper Fforde’s books are not far more popular. They’re incredibly witty and clever, the world building is truly impressive, and they are full of allusions and references that can only be understood for the overeducated types who have spent far too much time in our world’s paltry equivalent of Book World. There is absolutely no reason that nerdy hipster types shouldn’t be referring to Jasper Fforde constantly and bragging about how many of his jokes and references they understood. Each book is basically a novel of in jokes for literature and history nerds.

Well of Lost Plots is just as clever as the others, and Fforde is a talented enough writer to pull off all of this. It just works, you see. Oddly enough, Lost Plots was somewhat easier to understand than some of the others in the series, I thought, since it only takes place in Book World and one doesn’t need to try to keep track of all of the rules of both worlds. And, a further benefit for those of us who like to be in on the jokes, it sets up the Nursery Crimes series. One doesn’t need to have read one book to get the other, but having read The Big Over Easy definitely made me appreciate some of the bits of Well of Lost Plots more.

Anyone who spends too much time on books, especially classics, who enjoys being the smartest in the room, or who likes Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or other witty British authors will likely enjoy all of Fforde’s work. He’s one of the more creative and imaginative authors I’ve read, and I’ve got the rest of the series waiting on my to be read shelf for the next year.

Cannery Row

Cannery Row  Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

A fairly short book, Cannery Row isn’t so much a novel as it is a sketchbook. Published in 1945, it takes place on a particular street in Monterey, CA, during the Great Depression. The book covers the characters and their goings on, a window into one particular place and time and the people making their lives there.

The ostensible plot of the book centers around Doc, a marine biologist who works at the lab in Cannery Row and is likely the most “respectable” person in the book. He studies the marine life and collects specimens, which he packs and sells to labs and classrooms around the country. Mack, the leaders of a very contented community of drunks and layabouts, decide to throw a thank you party for Doc to thank him for all the good he’s done for them and everyone else. Along the way this premise is used to flesh out the people and buildings who are to be found on Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is an evocative writer, able to set a scene or make you know a person with a few well chosen words or phrases. And he is an amazing observer of humanity. Steinbeck is a master of find a way to describe those aspects of people or humanity that are under the surface, the type that seem to go away when you look at them straight on, and find a way to describe them perfectly. It shows up in all of his books, which are populated with such poignant characters, but in a book where the story is the characters, his talent really shines.

Cannery Row reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Brautigan, in all the best ways. He’s not nearly as absurd, and all of Steinbeck’s sentences make sense, but the book also doesn’t feel entirely real, either. Cannery Row seems to exist just next to our world, the way much of Brautigan’s writing does. But at the same time it’s easy to put oneself there. I smell the tide and feel the cold water when reading of Doc’s excursions the same way I smell loam and feel Northern California fog when I read Brautigan.

I adore this book. Steinbeck is always a joy to read, but it can be hard to be joyful when reading his stories. Cannery Row is a departure from those, although similar to books such as Tortilla Flat, which played with the same concept and location but with a different group of characters. It’s not that it’s all slight, as there is much going on under the surface of the story, but the book doesn’t deal with heady subjects, just the basics of living and the many different ways people go about that. It’s a delightful novel, with beautiful language, and that radiates with love for its subjects. A truly wonderful experience to read.

The Constant Gardener

ConstantGardenerbookcoverThe Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Oftentimes before I write one of these essays I look at other reviews of the book to help muddle through my own thoughts. Nothing helps me to sharpen and clarify my opinions after all as much as disagreeing with someone else. I look at reviews especially when it’s a) been a while since I finished the book and I want to refresh my memory and/or b) if it’s a book that came out more than a few years ago as I like to be reminded of the climate when it was released.

When reading reviews of The Constant Gardener I noticed two main things. Firstly, that every reviewer had to write about The Constant Gardener in relation to other books by John Le Carré. I haven’t read anything else by Le Carré–although I have two other books of his on my to-be-read shelves–so I’m afraid it will have to stand on its own for me. Secondly, that the reviewers all commented on this new type of book that Le Carré had struck upon, a novel that explored the wrong doings of corporations (as opposed to the cold war spy novels of previous years), and one that was meant to motivate people to action. The reviews all wonder whether this sort of intrigue, a person against a corporation, a book that was meant to anger us about an industry, could possibly take off. It’s so strange to hear now, when fighting against an evil corporation is the standard in so many novels and movies. I had no idea Le Carré was such a trend setter.
On to the book itself, read with none of that background knowledge, it was a very engaging read. Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, is a quintessentially British character, quiet, gentlemanly, courteous, and content as a foreign service officer drifting along for his career. The kind of man who can be easily overlooked, with the best description being that his politeness is easily mistaken for weakness. A character I recognize as someone to be admired from many of the British mysteries and suspense novels I’ve read. His beautiful young wife, Tessa Quayle, who many suspected was having one or more affairs, is brutally murdered at the start of the book, leading Justin to search for the real reason she was killed, and carry on her work.

The book takes on, in a rather roundabout and fictional way, pharmaceutical companies, corruption with both donor nations and developing nations, and the use of donations and people in the developing world as guinea pigs for new drugs. This is what Tessa and Dr. Arnold Bluhm–who the rumor mill said she was sleeping with–had been tracking, with Tessa trying to find a way to bring attention to their bad works within the British government, naively insisting on working within the institutions.

And this was my biggest issue with the novel. Tessa is portrayed throughout as an activist, highly moral, tenacious, and brilliant (and rich and gorgeous and so on and so forth. She is the point of the whole novel and the plot point for Justin to start his part of the story, after all.) She is forward thinking encrypting her communications, sending additional letters to family for others to find, etc. And yet, the report that would expose these bad deeds, that Justin is trying to piece together, is never found. I just found it so difficult to believe that this brilliant lawyer, knowing that she’s fighting an amoral corporation with many resources and no scruples about silencing critics, wouldn’t have created a fail safe and sent the report off somewhere. Left a key for Justin to a safe deposit box? Mailed copies to her brother? Anything. It didn’t ring true to me. Apologies for nitpicking, but I’m afraid it’s what I do.

The second part that I thought didn’t quite work was this apparently brand new notion of a novel that would motivate people to future activism. Le Carré was obviously sincere about this, and wrote a follow up bit that’s in the book about how all of these pieces are true in their own way, and that these bad acts are happening around the world and primarily in Africa. However, the companies and occurrences were too generic in the book for me to feel that I could use them as a jumping off point, the activist groups fictionalized as well. There needed to be a bit more docu- to the -fiction for it to really work as the rallying call he intended.

As a book, though, I found it compelling-despite my issue with the MacGuffin at the center–and a suspenseful novel. Le Carré can craft a page turner, that is for sure, even if it’s a page turner far more subtle than other suspense or spy novels we might be used to. And I enjoyed the characters more than I thought. For anyone whose seen the movie, don’t let it discourage you. The relationships as written in the book made far more sense, Justin was more compelling, the various characters on the periphery were more rounded and intriguing, and overall I wanted to keep reading. Le Carré is not an optimistic man, I fear, and this book was no exception, and despite his novel decrying the neo-colonialism of capitalism and humanitarianism, there’s still more than a whiff of old colonial feeling in the book, leading to an air of sadness over the whole affair. It kept me thinking about the book well after I’d finished, though, which I always take as a good sign. I look forward to finishing the others on my to be read shelf and taking on some of his classics.