Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Recommended Reading: OSC's Enchantment, Jonathan Ames, & More

In order to lend some weight to the complimentary rumour (that I began spreading) concerning the fact that I read actual books and not just stories with brightly drawn, remarkably fit superheroes, I give you another installment of Recommended Reading wherein I recommend something good to read that I have recently completely and, in a new, unexpected, thrilling twist, do the exact opposite by warning you off certain books that have proven to be intolerable. Suck it Michiko Kakutani.

Hit the Jump.

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

Naturally I am a huge OSC fan. I loved every Ender book, every Bean book, and every Alvin Maker book (the final installments of these series are the only things I've ever set-up a google alert for, though without any luck yet.) I tracked down Songmaster, the only work of his that deals with someone gay, and while things don't turn out great for the gay guy, naturally, it was incredibly beautiful. The Homecoming Saga or, retellings of the Book of Mormon via science fiction, were denser and thus harder to get through. And then his most recent publication, The Lost Gate, which I reviewed here on Superpowers That Be, was really quite terrible.

After that last experience I backed off for awhile. I mean, with an infinite number of novels out there to read, you can't just stick to one man's bibliography, no matter how good he is. However, after reading the seminal Frank Herbert Dune series, which sets ones' expectations quite high, followed by some truly unreadable material (see below) I needed to get back to something I knew I could rely on.

Thus I ordered Enchantment from the library, written by Card in the '90s (so a safe distance from his recent stinker) and concerning fantasy and classic fairy tales more than science fiction. It is, in fact, a sort of retelling of Sleeping Beauty, though little is recognizable beyond the pretty lady in a magical coma awakened by a kiss.

Ivan Smetski grows up in modern-day Ukraine, with a literature & linguistics professor father and a wise, mysterious mother. Sensing the collapse of the USSR, Ivan's parents pursue a visa to Israel by tapping into their heritage and openly converting to Judaism (including a bris for both Ivan and his father, and changing their surname to Shlomo.) They lose their apartment and job, and move to their Cousin Marek's farm in the Carpathian forests to await the visa. It is there that young Ivan, or Vanya, or Itzak now, a fan of running, happens upon a perfectly circular clearing deep in the forest. It is a large chasm filled with leaves and in the middle, a pedestal rises, upon which a beautiful woman lies sleeping. As soon as he sees her, however, a rustling begins in the chasm and something beneath the leaves begins to move threateningly towards him. Young Vanya runs away as fast as he can, and the next day the family gets their coveted visas and goes to America instead of Israel.

Vanya grows up in upstate New York, studying hard, excelling in track and field, and following his father's footsteps as a scholar of ancient Russian literature and languages. He dates girls, and eventually meets one whom he wishes to marry, Ruth, and proposes despite his mother's non-descript yet vehement objections. Throughout his life, however, the image of the woman in the forest and the monster under the leaves stays in his head, and in his dreams. As a graduate student, he must return to Kiev in order to complete research for his dissertation, so he takes the opportunity to visit Cousin Marek again and then to confront his memories of the magical clearing.

In doing so he begins a great adventure; fighting the great Bear-god of winter, awakening a princess with a kiss, being transported to a heretofore lost nation in the 10th century, learning to exist in a different time, communicating and falling in love with the proud, stubborn princess, and fending off the attacks of the villainous Baba Yaga. Yes, that's right, Baba Yaga is in this story (don't say her name out loud though,) and Card's writing from her point of view is particularly entertaining. She's not alone as we also have Mikola Mozhaiski, honorable cripples, multiple time travels, poisoned picnic food, Molotov cocktails, and much, much more.

Fables' Baba Yaga

The idea of retelling fairy tales, or more specifically of bringing ancient tales and characters into a modern setting, is quite a popular one these days. Obviously Fables is the best example of these, being so long-running and involved and dealing with almost every public property fictional character ever made, including, memorably, the ubiquitous Baba Yaga. But even TV is following the trend, with the upcoming show Once Upon A Time, which Jane Espenson of Buffy (and other stuff) fame writing what seems to be a live series version of Fables, only changed so as not to have to deal with any copyright mess.

Few people can weave a story like Card though, or give us a character at once conflicted, terrified, observant and brave. One of his strengths is in showing us a normal person confronted with the fantastic and unbelievable, skillfully illustrating his shock and yet convincingly showing the process that propels him onwards. Another is his deft grasp on religion, and the personal morality that comes with it, not to mention his comprehensive and fascinating research on the pertinent Russian folktales. Most praiseworthy, however, is quiet ability to build a love story behind all the plot developments, simmering and growing, until suddenly you have to recognize it as a solid, indestructible thing, a very human progression of marriage and friendship.

All in all it is an extremely entertaining, swift, and even educational read.

The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames (currently reading)

I'm only about a hundred and some odd pages into this one, but I'm certainly enjoying it. I was a big fan of Wake Up, Sir!, a gift from my sister, but there's something about Ames' writing that keeps me from pursuing, and completing, his other works. (Though I'm definitely a fan of his TV series Bored to Death, which hopefully will return sometime soon.)

To be honest, he tends to depress me. Don't get me wrong, he's a hilarious writer, and I often find myself actually laughing out loud while reading, which doesn't happen often to me. But he tends to find humor in bleak, eccentric parts of life, often painting a very bittersweet picture that the humor doesn't entirely alleviate. Often it just bums me out.

In order to combat this pattern, I try and take any breaks from reading (back to work, getting off subway, falling asleep) at a hight point, just after a good joke, and so far it's pretty much working. The main character, Louis Ives, moves from New Jersey, where he taught middle school English before losing his job, to Manhattan and lives with the very strange but bizarrely dignified Henry Harrison, developing a relationship with him and a secret , sexual life in the dark, nightime streets of New York. Ives is described as a tall, blond Jew, and yet I cannot stop picture Jason Schwartzman when I read.

In fact, I believe there was a movie made with Kevin Kline as H. Harrison that I may be curious to see after I finish the book. If anyone else has seen it, I would love to hear your thoughts (and I'd also love some advice about watching David Lycnh's Dune now that I've completed that series, as well as if his son's continuation of the epic is worth reading.)

Not Recommended: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

It's like a tapeworm typing binary through my smokey brain waves.

As a big fan of Auggie from Covert Affairs, I took their numerous title-dropping to heart and got Snow Crash from the libary, apparently Auggie's favorite novel. It was, frankly, unreadable. Every line is loaded with at least one simile, most of them bizarre and unsettling "like sunrise over a napalmed fishing village." It's basically a futuristic, techno-noir, written by a pretentious cokehead who thinks he's Raymond Chandler reborn in the computer age. Stay away, my friends, stay very far away.

That's if for now. If you have any suggestions of your own, please let me know! Have a great one folks.

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