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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

I typically do not read crime novels. I have covered this before, but in a nutshell – I’m a neurotic who is afraid of crime. Prior to receiving a copy of Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, I was not aware of her fifteen book Inspector Gamache series. We have had Penny’s books in the store, but they were as foreign to me as most other mystery novels. I was encouraged to pick this novel up based on the strength of its setting; The Beautiful Mystery takes place within a cloistered monastery in Quebec. Then I found out that the title refers to ancient chants believed to be the literal voice of God on Earth and I was hooked.

The story centers around an aging police inspector, Gamache, and his young protege, Jean Guy. As I said, this is the fifteenth book in the series, so the two men have a long history, but it was not difficult to suss out their feelings for one another as a newcomer to the series. The admiration they feel is palpable and, when coupled with the fact that Jean Guy is engaged to Gamache’s daughter, the father-son dynamic is there without the necessity of fourteen books worth of character development.

The two men are called in to investigate a murder within a monastery. Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups happens to be a world famous monastery. After releasing a recording of its divine chants, the world has taken notice of the small group of monks studying ancient music in the Canadian wilderness. It quickly comes to light that the murder has to do with this sudden fame. There is a rift amongst the monks between those who wish to be more open to the world and share their music and those that believe they should remain cloistered, serving in solitude. The turmoil amongst the monks is wonderfully countered by Jean Guy’s jaded religious views.

Things become very tense near the end of the novel when Gamache’s superior, with whom Gamache has a difficult relationship, shows up at the monastery in order to cause friction between our dynamic duo. The mystery itself begins to play second fiddle to the characters, as is likely to happen in a series that is propelled by its characters, but like all good detectives Gamache gets his man. Everything wraps up satisfactorily if a little quickly with just the right amount of strings left dangling for the next installment.

As I read more mystery novels, I am beginning to realize patterns within them. There are certain techniques that authors employ and audiences expect – it is a whole new way of looking at the material I am reading. I’ve been enjoying getting to know the genre and definitely look forward to more forays into other authors as well as more of Penny’s Gamache series. As long as we can maintain a low body count and keep the violence to a minimum, I should be okay.

Also, completely irrelevant, but is Armand Gamache not a fantastic name for a detective? For that, I commend you, Louise Penny.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I wrote recently about rereading some of my old favorites and seeing how they stack up against my memories. One of my favorite books from my early teens (and here I must admit that at this time in my life I was mostly reading Edgar Rice Burroughs) is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. When I read this novel all those years ago it stood in my mind as a testament against censorship and the people that were fighting to stop my questioning and cease the spread of knowledge. A funny thing happened when I reread the novel; I realized that it is not about censorship at all.

Bradbury wasn't writing about how the state is trying to keep us down. He wasn't arguing against "the Man." He was warning us about what we are in danger of doing to ourselves. Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a firefighter whose job it is to set fires, specifically to set fire to books. Guy doesn't have a problem with burning books; in fact, he's never really thought about it. He's just doing his job. Then he meets someone for whom life is more than just coming and going. Someone who questions and experiences life. Suddenly, Guy becomes curious about what is in those books. The trouble with books, Guy is told, is that they make people sad. Thinking is difficult, questioning leads to unanswerable conundrums. It is far easier to ignore problems and disappear into what Bradbury perceives as the ultimate enemy of intelligence - television.

I feel like now is the time for me to tell you that this novel begins with an attempted suicide. Guy's wife, Mildred, almost kills herself. She is neither happy nor unhappy. She is so complacent, so bored, that she takes one sleeping pill after another until she falls into sleep or a coma, whichever comes first. Mildred lives in such a hyper aware state that she is aware of nothing; in fact, she cannot even recall her near death experience the next morning. She is fed a steady diet of television and headlines, thus has never had to be bothered to think for herself or ask any questions. Consequently, she has never felt the unhappiness that can be caused by searching for answers that cannot be found.

As Guy begins to question the life he shares with Mildred, he becomes increasingly bemused by her behavior. At one point he is questioning her, demanding that she provide him answers to questions she cannot fathom. Finally, Mildred shouts "leave me alone" to which Guy replies, "that's all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be left alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" And there it is. What Bradbury was saying, what I've been trying to say. The questioning, the bothering, the thinking, that gadfly upon us that Socrates so insisted we need - that is the way of life.

So no, Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship. It is a story about willful ignorance. It warns of the dangers of not doing things because they are hard or ignoring the things that make us feel sad or confused. When I first read this book I loved it because it fought against censorship and some grand idea I held about "the Man." Now, I love this book because it reminds me why I am alive. To be alive is to be struggling. Books are the purveyors of ideas - our great weapon in this struggle.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

PseudoReview: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is the first in my grand effort to reread some of my all time favorite books this year. I have long referred to Gatsby as my favorite book despite the fact that, until very recently, I had not picked this slim volume up in over ten years. It was pure joy to be reacquainted with the novel and to find that it is still as wonderful as it was then. I am always so surprised when people confess that they do not enjoy this novel. The Great Gatsby is so good that it plays on your terms, whatever they may be. It never feels as complex as it is; the many metaphors are never overbearing. You may come to Gatsby as someone who studies literature or someone who simply enjoys it and the novel will deliver its ample gifts to you either way.

There are so many ways to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's master work that I am hesitant to review it. I am afraid I may alienate potential readers as many an English teacher has before. I feel that one of the reason I loved Gatsby so much in high school is that I read it without a guiding hand. I was allowed to take from it what I would and leave the read for discovering later. Going into the novel with such an attitude basically allowed the book to blow my mind. Finding the layers of meaning with each phrase and action on my own taught me that literature is a game played between reader and author. That game, that conversation, achieved between authors both living and dead is why I am a reader. Individuals that I have never met (or who have been dead for decades - centuries) are pushing at my mental boundaries with every new book I encounter.

Reading The Great Gatsby I realized for the first time how much books had to teach me - about history, life, myself. The experience is one that I value absolutely. So, I could tell you that the novel is a work of perfection, that every word was chosen with the utmost care, and I could explain that it is the embodiment of the diligence of the writing craft. But, I'd rather tell you that The Great Gatsby is my favorite book and F. Scott Fitzgerald moves me. I think that in this case those are the words you need to hear.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses is a stone of a novel, both hardened to the core and sharp around the edges. It is the story of John Grady Cole, a young man who travels to Mexico in hopes of working and one day owning a ranch. John Grady grew up on his grandfather's west Texas ranch and a life of working with land and horses was all he knew. When his grandfather dies, John Grady is faced with both losing his only family and his way of life forcing him to realize, at the tender age of sixteen, the true isolation of man. He then travels to Mexico in search of the connection he needs, not to man (though he does have a traveling companion) but to nature, the spirit of the world.

As John Grady settles into the life he is able to forge for himself in Mexico he returns to his commune with nature and spending his days working horses. These are the best passages in the novel. The spirit of the horses is so beautifully described; they are animals that we have tamed yet they are wholly wild and their own. It is obvious that McCarthy shares with his characters the respect he imbues upon them of the marvelous beasts. To McCarthy and John Grady horses are of a joined soul. Unhappy in isolation and thriving in communal groups, they are established as the opposite of humans. In every instance in this novel it is groups of humans that cause trouble for one another. Our lot is isolation because only alone are we free from the tyranny of others. Even John Grady's first love leads to the bleakest depths, loss of freedom, loss of innocence, and loss of life.

The novel depicts a world view of life in the nasty, brutish and short vein, as when an older character warns John Grady of trouble and loss saying: "In January I will be seventy-three years old. I have known a great many people in that time and few of them led lives that were satisfactory to them." My perception of John Grady is as a symbol of McCarthy's thoughts on isolation. Human interaction is a dangerous business, and characters like John Grady (those that are tied to nature or pursuits outside of society) are far better off away from others in a more natural state. One that understands isolation and feeds on it instead of fighting it. It is a dark view, but this is a dark novel. It is also a beautiful novel, fully realized and vividly described. Definitely worth the read.


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