Friday, November 30, 2012

Wilderness by Lance Weller


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The book's description from Lance Weller's website:

Thirty years after the Civil War’s Battle of the Wilderness left him maimed, Abel Truman has found his way to the edge of the continent, the rugged, majestic coast of Washington State, where he lives alone in a driftwood shack with his beloved dog. Wilderness is the story of Abel, now an old and ailing man, and his heroic final journey over the snowbound Olympic Mountains. It’s a quest he has little hope of completing but still must undertake to settle matters of the heart that predate even the horrors of the war.
As Abel makes his way into the foothills, the violence he endures at the hands of two thugs who are after his dog is crosscut with his memories of the horrors of the war, the friends he lost, and the savagery he took part in and witnessed. And yet, darkness is cut by light, especially in the people who have touched his life—from Jane Dao-Ming Poole, the daughter of murdered Chinese immigrants, to Hypatia, an escaped slave who nursed him back to life, and finally to the unbearable memory of the wife and child he lost as a young man. Haunted by tragedy, loss, and unspeakable brutality, Abel has somehow managed to hold on to his humanity, finding way stations of kindness along his tortured and ultimately redemptive path.
Quite simply, Wilderness is a beautiful and heartbreaking story. Beautiful in the writing which inspires strong emotions of compassion, sympathy and appreciation of both the nature of people touched by tragedy and suffering and yet persevering to live a meaningful life without giving in to despair and loss of morals, and the Nature, with its landscape, the wilderness surrounding humans, this powerful element of rebirth, always escaping absolute destruction. Heartbreaking in how much pure evil can live in the hearts of men who are determined to hurt others and ruin their lives simply because they can. Heartbreaking also in watching innocent people get hurt, suffer and die in the nightmare of what is perhaps the worst of all wars, civil war (not that there are good wars because there aren't, ever). And Civil War and the battle of the Wilderness is an important event in American history this novel deals with as well.

The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864

Lance Weller is such a talented writer that saying how unbelievable it is his Wilderness is a debut novel seems somehow trite and taking away something from the depth of Mr. Weller's gift. It just somehow doesn't seem to matter whether it's his first or tenth novel. What matters is the story, the characters (good and evil and somewhere in-between) and the meaning, all of which will linger in one's memory for quite some time. Really, I would be surprised and not a little disappointed if anyone who reads it, would find Wilderness lacking in anything.


FTC: I received an e-galley of Wilderness by Lance Weller from the publisher, Bloomsbury via NetGalley for a review.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Notes on Chopin by André Gide, translated by Bernard Frechtman


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The book's description from the publisher:

An inspiring discourse on the power of music from one of the twentieth century’s most important figures, André Gide. 
André Gide, one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century and a devoted pianist, invites readers to reevaluate Frédéric Chopin as a composer “betrayed . . . deeply, intimately, totally violated” by a music community that had fundamentally misinterpreted his work. As a profound admirer of Chopin’s “promenade of discoveries,” Gide intersperses musical notation throughout the text to illuminate his arguments, but most moving is Gide’s own poetic expression for the music he so loved.

I'm not very familiar with the works of André Gide, the French writer, philosopher and Nobel laureate. Notes on Chopin did thankfully give me a pretty good idea of what kind of writer Gide was. He had strong opinions on topics he cared for and it's very clear in Notes on Chopin where he didn't hesitate to use strong words, such as imbecile when talking about pianists who misunderstood the music of Chopin, or barbarity when describing what direction the whole music movement was going. I admit, it was refreshing to read such unchecked anger and indignation when nowadays one is surrounded by authors who seem to be walking on tiptoes careful not to make to strong of a statement dictated by this awful monster of 'political correctness'.

First and foremost, Notes on Chopin is a kind of an homage to Chopin by one of his most ardent admirers who not only was passionate about classical music but also knew quite well what he was talking about. Such knowledge is displayed in what is perhaps the most exasperating side of this work for readers who are not music afficionados: very technical explanations and instructions on how certain notes should or should not be played, complete with drawings of such noted, names of tempos, etc. Thankfully, Gide counterbalances his classical music 'lessons' with opinions and judgements that at times become thrilling and spicy, as well as inviting to music laymen, such as myself. Whether he does it with intent is quite another issue. Something tells me, not so much. André Gide seemed to have taken on a pompous and condescending attitude, and he certainly didn't care one whit about it.

I may be unjust in such judgement of this accomplished and esteemed writer. It may also be some residue from reading Notes on Chopin. One probably shouldn't pay any mind to it. Mostly because, even if you know little about Chopin or classical composers, it won't be a waste of time to devote a day at most (the book is quite sort) to reading this book/essay. Especially if one likes to expand one's knowledge in the field of music world.

A Note On Translation

This Open Road e-book edition has been translated from French by Bernard Frechtman. After some investigation of mine as to his body of work, he seems to be quite  an accomplished translator of French literature. It is therefore somewhat baffling to me that there should be errors, such as can not instead of cannot, repeatedly appearing throughout the book and signs of a bit of a struggle with sentence composition making a few of them sound slightly off and/or awkward. I'm inclined to fault the translation and the editing equally, instead of putting the blame solely on Mr. Frechtman's. Overall, it doesn't make the reading experience unbearable. This issue only takes a little bit of enjoyment away from what otherwise is a work quite worthy of a reader's time and attention.


FTC: I purchased Notes on Chopin e-book.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey


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The book's description from the publisher's site:

A studio executive leaves his family and travels the world giving free reign to the bipolar disorder he's been forced to hide for 20 years.
In her tour-de-force first novel, Juliann Garey takes us inside the restless mind, ravaged heart, and anguished soul of Greyson Todd, a successful Hollywood studio executive who leaves his wife and young daughter and for a decade travels the world giving free reign to the bipolar disorder he's been forced to keep hidden for almost 20 years. The novel intricately weaves together three timelines: the story of Greyson's travels (Rome, Israel, Santiago, Thailand, Uganda); the progressive unraveling of his own father seen through Greyson's eyes as a child; and the intimacies and estrangements of his marriage. The entire narrative unfolds in the time it takes him to undergo twelve 30-second electroshock treatments in a New York psychiatric ward. This is a literary page-turner of the first order, and a brilliant inside look at mental illness.
So very little is written about mental illness. And whatever is written that's of any value is almost never read by the right audience. I hope that Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See will end up in the hands of readers who must read it not because they suffer from mental illness but because they share their lives with a manic-depressive, depressive or schizophrenic person. I have no idea how Juliann Garey managed it but she wrote exactly what it feels to be mad and that there's no 'snapping out of it'. Ever. Because when you try to hide your illness, like Greyson had, it won't eventually go away but return with a vicious vengeance.

Greyson's bipolar disorder finally reigns supreme over his mind and his life. It's absolutely heartbreaking to be a remote witness (as a reader) to how the lives and spirits of Greyson's, his father's and every person's who loved them get ravaged by this invisible monster. But you will not be able to tear yourself away, no matter how much what you read will make your heart ache. Therein lies the power of Ms. Garey's writing. Her prose is beautifully spare, with enough impact to pierce your heart with sorrow for those people who find themselves ruled by a potentially very deadly disease and can do nothing about it, just like they couldn't do anything to prevent it from happening.

Juliann Garey will make you her hostage for the time it'll take you to read Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See. This is not a feel-good novel, it's disturbing, and it's tragic in many ways. But the way this author captured what is going on in the mind of a person affected with a mental illness (bi-polar in this case) is brilliant, precise and as close to the truth as you can get. It's torture and Greyson has to live with it until he dies. In the end, the choices made will be more easily acceptable to any reader, especially those who thankfully never have to live through Greyson's nightmare.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See from the publisher, Soho Press via Net Galley for a review.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey will be on sale on December 26, 2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


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The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

‘Now that I had finished, the beauty of my dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart …’

Obsessed by creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life by electricity. But his botched creature, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear. 

Mary Shelley’s chilling gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley near Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Frankenstein would become the world’s most famous work of horror fiction, and remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity.

Many thoughts float through my mind now that I'm finished with this gem. These thoughts seem to be in disagreement with the majority of other readers (fans or not) of Frankenstein. But maybe this tale is a classic precisely because it means so many different things to so many readers. I don't usually use 'timeless' in relation to any pieces of literature, or at least not lightly. But Mary wrote a timeless story if ever there was one. Here's why:

People are assholes and I'm part of 'people', and Frankenstein is a mirror of truth that shows humanity's real reflection and if there have ever been monsters populating this world, it's always been people that are the most dangerous, the most destructive and the cruelest. Maybe Prometheus is not supposed to be praised for saving humanity (there are multiple versions of that myth so, who knows?) but was in the wrong and Zeus was correct in wanting to let humanity perish? Whatever your conclusions may be, one thing is certain: the story of Victor's creation is heartbreaking and I indeed shed tears of sorrow. That being was a beautiful one. He was someone instinctively prepared to be good, do good and see good in others. Whatever evil he did was grounded in what he learned from humans, starting and ending with an all-consuming selfishness and obsession with revenge he learned from his creator, Victor Frankenstein.

What I'm mainly in disagreement with other readers (and lit. critics) is that I don't see any direct link between Mary Shelley's story and religion, God and the dangers of trying to play god in science, and hence going too far. I think if there is anything we're getting warned against, it's the dangers of our passions that can turn into obsession and  push us over the edge where no morality, no good or evil any longer exist but only our singular drive to achieve what we obsess over. It blinds us to everything and everyone. Victor tries to give that warning to the young man to whom he tells his story. As a matter of fact, it's actually one of the first things he says. He even mentions how, if we took our time and not let the sick obsession take over our beings, America would have been discovered much later but without the tragedy and bloodshed the actual discovery otherwise left in its wake*.

I also think that Mary Shelley was in fact a very talented and deliberate writer even then, even at nineteen. I know that many criticize her for the lack of polish and certain amateurishness in her writing. And I'm sure those people know what they're talking about, some of them are my reading friends who I'm 100% certain know what they're saying. But here's my thought: choosing to let Victor tell his own story, she made his account reflect his hideous personality with an accuracy that wouldn't have been present if told in the third person by Captain Walton to whom the story was told. Third person narration would have been too impersonal to have the same impact or too tainted by the potential narrator who was clearly enthralled by Victor. Hence, Victor is despicable because Mary wanted us, the readers, to perceive him as precisely such. Criticism, therefore, of the whole book based on a reader hating Victor is unfounded and should, I think, be re-considered.

**Minor Spoiler**
Victor is in thralls of the very obsession he's moralizing against to the very end, when on his deathbed he is willing to tie the young captain and the lives of everyone on the ship to the promise of chasing after Victor's monster until he is killed. So yeah, Victor is quite a little hypocrite too.

Last but least, the fact that Captain Walton, who also tells his own side of the story in letters (again, a lot more personal and with more impact) is feeling grief over Victor but not over the fate of Frankenstein's creature, that he sees nothing bad in and feels no anger over Victor's conduct/self-pity/self-glamorization is very telling as well. That right there seems to me to be Mary's commentary on the whole of humanity, on our bigotry, hypocrisy and inability to see and cultivate true beauty and innocence.

Frankenstein is really a beautiful and very sad story. It's worth everyone's time. The one thing I don't think it is, is a horror story. It's not at all scary. As I mentioned above, I actually cried over the tragedy of Frankenstein's creature. His despair, helplessness and hopelessness are truly moving. Not a story I will soon forget, if ever.

FTC: I purchased a copy of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

* It's not a direct quote, just my mixture of paraphrasing and interpreting of what Victor said.