The Gift Of Rain – Eng

The Gift of Rain, a beautifully written novel by the Malayan writer Tan Twan Eng, explores the world of Malaysia during World War II. Its hero, Philip, half Chinese and half English, is born in Penang, and does not feel he belongs anywhere. He’s not accepted by the Chinese culture in Malaysia, nor the Brits. So he bonds up with a Japanese teacher of aikido, who does accept him, even becomes, it is implied, his lover, but has mysterious and disturbing links to the increasingly militant and aggressive Japanese government.

The characterization is excellent, the situations powerful and suspenseful, the world realistic, and a beautiful reflection of life. Heck, the symbols and undercurrents are amazing. I admired all that. And the main issue for the lead character was masterful: when Japan invades Malaysia, Philip is torn between loyalties to family, country, and his sensei (teacher). And he finds himself in a position where perhaps he can protect people. Or be seen as a betrayer of them.

It’s a great conundrum, an agonizing position to put any character in. And while Philip tells his story long after the war, so we know he survived, to my way of thinking this is nevertheless a tragedy. In a sense he does not survive the war. And many of his family and friends are killed.

So in one sense, I got a bit of a self-revelation here, discovering how much such a deep tragedy is not to my taste, no matter how well-rendered. The hero does have a tragic flaw, misplaced loyalty, and it brings down his world. So if you like that sort of thing, this may be the book for you.

For me, partly maybe it’s my distaste for blunt violence. And the lack of heroic actions by the main character throughout the book. But why this book failed to appeal to me, when I liked the even more graphically violent The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, I can’t exactly say. Maybe I had more sympathy for the characters there. They were trying to survive, they were trying to protect their friends. They performed acts of bravery, despite how much O’Brien discounted that impulse in his narration.

In this book, one character is actively undermining a whole country, working to ensure most of its people will die brutally. So he’s no hero to me. Another collaborates with the enemy, willingly serves as a propaganda tool. Yes, he does try to save people, a little, but he is singularly ineffectual. Mostly he just wants the forgiveness of the people he watches die. Others are plain victims. I needed a more obvious hero to root for.

Maybe I’m too demanding a reader. I kept thinking, yes, all of these things happened in World War II, or similar actions anyway, but we have known that for decades. So I didn’t feel I was learning anything new about how people act. For me, I want a novel that stands up for justice, that can show us a way to attain it, or at least strive for it. Brutality and injustice are hard, and I don’t find them news. A way out of such cruelty, even for just a few, now that’s something worth writing about. We need beacons these days. Guides. Hope, even. I did not feel that, reading this book.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Things They Carried – O’Brien

Light In August – Faulkner

Legends of the Condor Heroes – Jin Yong

Advertisements

The Tale Of Despereaux – DiCamillo

Every once in a while, one needs a reminder that reading is supposed to be fun, and Kate DiCamillo certainly delivers that message with The Tale of Despereaux. It’s a classic children’s story, even to the point of beginning with the birth of the protagonist, and a breezy read. DiCamillo certainly does not coddle her characters, and enough of them are festeringly evil to keep things interesting, but her overall tone is quite tender. The contrast between such seeming kindness by the narrator, and the cruelty in the lives of the characters, creates a safe place for young readers to process nastiness in the world. At least, that’s my suspicion.

The story moves fast, though DiCamillo backtracks any number of times. Her characters are well-drawn, even to the point of exaggeration, which is perfect in such a tale. Again, it makes the danger perhaps a little easier to stomach, because dealing with the death of beloved people is a big part of this world… often it is mothers who have passed. And even very young protagonists are treated callously by any number of heartless people. So the fact that the narrator is kind and reassuring, draws the reader through the darkest moments, and feels perfect.

The fun comes from the good guys acting heroically, the idiots behaving foolishly, and above all from the triumphs that lift the hero, Despereaux, to the heights of romantic passion and joy. As felt by a very young mouse, that is.

If one does not go into the story looking for eternal verities, or a classic on the level of Wind in the Willows, one may come out the other end discovering that this story grows on you, that it offers satisfaction rare in current writing, and that maybe it does in the end engender its own kind of classic feel.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Orczy

The Little Prince – Saint-Exupery

The Wind In The Willows – Grahame

The Things They Carried – O’Brien

I find it difficult to assess a book like The Things They Carried as fiction on any technical grounds. Tim O’Brien has written a brilliant, powerful book, life-changing even, but the stories here read so much more like essays, autobiographical reflections, than works of fiction. Calling this fiction maybe allows for the fuzziness of memory, the shying away from specific incidents, the allowing of apocryphal tales, but the power here arises from the implicit contract with the reader that this stuff is real. It’s too gut-wrenching not to be.

I don’t know what techniques a writer can take away from this. Write clearly, simply, on a straightforward manner? Sure, but unless you have a subject like this one, you will never reach this level of sad beauty. We feel so much for these characters, root for them so hard, despite their flaws. In fact, their world explains and sacramentalizes their flaws in ways a civilian environment could never do. I suppose someone who has never lived this sort of life could try to adapt that to their own work. I don’t think I would ever try.

This is great writing, transcendent writing, but not for the weak of heart. If ever you wondered what the Vietnam War was about, this will explain it. It’s hard to believe this doesn’t sum up war in general, in fact. You will come away from reading this wishing fervently for peace. I did. And what greater gift can a work of fiction give us?

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

A Brightness Long Ago – Kay

The Little Prince – Saint-Exupery

The Secret Agent – Conrad

 

Can You Forgive Her? – Trollope

I don’t think anyone is a better writer than Trollope. He does things almost no one else approaches, in my view. Can You Forgive Her is another of his wonderful, gossipy, honest, tough novels, that keep you turning the page and rooting for (or against) his characters. He often makes his people fools, he often makes his women willful. Much 19th century writing has as a subtext the struggle for equality by women, and he blends in that fight skillfully.

But what especially caught me about this book was his ability to render the interactions of women so exactly. The conflict between Lady Glencora and her unofficial duenna Mrs. Marsham is breathtakingly powerful. It isn’t just that the women back stab each other, but that Trollope lays out their motives for doing so in such clear terms, and shows the fight, step by step, in every passive-aggressive moment.

The layout: Glencora has been badgered into marrying a man she is not in love with, Lord Palliser. Palliser believes he has the complete right to order her to do whatever he wants, including be close friends with the friend of his sainted mother, a busybody named Mrs. Marsham. He then sort of (deniably) sets Mrs. Marsham as a spy/duenna on Glencora to be sure she is being proper. Glencora is thinking she’d rather go off with the man she once loved (a complete loser), and Mrs. Marsham wants to improve her thinking and behavior. Because Palliser sees Mrs. Marsham as older and wise, and his wife as young and foolish, he takes Mrs. Marsham’s side over his wife in all issues. Lots of conflict, lots of oppression. And Glencora has been thinking she isn’t worth much because she can’t have a baby. Trollope is also among the best at motivating his characters, you see.

Anyway, by Chapter 43 (Volume 2), Mrs. Marsham and Glencora are ready to have it out. First, we are given more info on Mrs. Marsham: “Mrs. Marsham… had many good points. She…bore her poverty without complaint. She was connected by blood… with people rich and titled, but she paid to none of them egregious respect… she was no fool.” And then, “The catalog of her faults must be quite as long as that of her virtues.” Next, they are set up to not like each other. “…though (Mrs. Marsham) thought well of the money, she was not disposed to think well of the bride.” Because, of course, Glencora controls the money in the family. Only she hasn’t quite caught onto that fact.

Now, having set up the motivations and inclinations, the cat fight begins. “I thought I might find you at home,” said Mrs. Marsham, “as I know you are lazy.” Glencora counters, “I never could see… driving about London in the middle of the winter.” “One ought to go out of the house every day.” “I hate all those rules.” “My dear Glencora, one must live by rules in this life… you’ll get over that feeling.” The knives are out, they are testing each other’s skill. The older woman trying to teach and school the younger, the younger fighting for her independence.

And so the conflict grows. Glencora’s friend Alice is there, and as may happen with these sorts of fights, Mrs. Marsham goes after her. “Mrs. Marsham… was a little triumphant. She felt that she had put Alice down; and… she determined to keep her down… ‘Is Miss Vavasor going to walk home?'” For Alice is a poor relation of Glencora. Mrs. Marsham points that out with this comment, and then goes after the perceived weakness. Glencora responds. “‘Why should she walk? The carriage will take her.’ ‘You are very good-natured… but gentlemen do so dislike having their horses out at night.'” Meaning that Glencora is going against her husband’s best interests here. Meaning that Glencora is being careless of her husband’s goods. Finally, Glencora starts to awaken to the realization that the money in the marriage belongs to her. She wakes up to her power, due to this catty backstabbing. “‘No gentleman’s horses will be out,’ said Lady Glencora, savagely, ‘and as for mine, it’s what they are there for.’ ‘I dare say it’s all right,’ said Mrs. Marsham. ‘It is all right,’ said Lady Glencora.”

This is tricky work for a writer, and almost no one truly get such scenes right. One has to suppose Trollope would observe the social whirl in his life, then go home and ask his wife about the context of what they observed, learning how women fight, what they might get out of it, and so on. This is not stuff men can easily understand. And what one does not understand, one cannot write. (I forget who originally said that, but it sure seems true to me).  So much subtlety. So many layers. Carefully building the scene to such naked displays of power, and then having that change the characters forever. Wow.

Read Trollope, if you want to learn how a master weaves it all together.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

A Brightness Long Ago – Kay

The Little Prince – Saint-Exupery

The Other One (La Seconde) – Colette

 

A Brightness Long Ago – Kay

What is it about Guy Gavriel Kay’s work that sweeps the reader along so effortlessly? A Brightness Long Ago does not have the two-dogs-one-bone plot structure of must (most?) fantasy novels. Something more rare and wondrous is going on here. A Brightness Long Ago is a historical fantasy, set in a parallel world to the Mediterranean (mostly Italy and thereabouts) around the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

There are several focus characters here, men and women basically trying to make their way through a threatening world. What lies ahead of them? Great success or sudden death? We read to learn. Sudden violence visited on people by men with power, sometimes for reason, sometimes not, keeps the suspense level high.

A huge aspect of Kay’s work here, as usual, is puzzling out the motives of various powerful people, and whether their decisions are likely to lead to the imminent death of whoever it is we care about. The lead character, Danio, is the son of a tailor, who thinks he wants to be a bookseller, but who also feels fascination for the intrigues of power. Which life will he choose, quiet or grand?

Kay is very good at giving us folks to root for: youths hoping to succeed in life, kind people risking themselves to help, oppressed types seeking vengeance. A favorite trick is to give some sort of inflection point, and then intone something like “and because of that choice, everything changed.” It’s effective, and fun.

He does cheat, in one sense, in that very little of the fantasy element is integral to the story. In fact, I almost think he could dispense with it plot-wise without affecting anything, except that the mystery of the ineffable adds flavor. Certainly I love those little hints of something more affecting us.

Maybe Kay’s greatest strength is simply his voice: an attention to detail, enough knowledge of sword-fighting, medieval economics and politics, and swoops of romance keep me coming back, at least. Anyway, I just like his people. And what writer, in the end, can hope for more?  Highly recommended.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Faust Parts One And Two – Goethe

Black Leopard Red Wolf – James

The Last Unicorn – Beagle

Faust Parts One And Two – Goethe

The two parts of Faust, by Goethe, are actually two separate stage plays. Excuse me for treating them as fiction, but these are only tangentially plays, in my view. Not impossible to stage, but you’d chase your audience off pretty darn quick if you tried to put them up, I’m thinking. I’m sure people have. But Goethe was not particularly concerned with conflict here, nor continuity, cohesion nor any of the other C’s authors are taught to consider. As fiction, however, they work for me as modernist, experimental works.

Goethe plunges into what makes a man good or evil. Is it simply being flawed? Lustful? Careless? If so, then his character Faust would seem doomed to be hauled off to hell by the demon Mephistopheles. He is careless of those he loves, but his interest is in experiencing human existence to its fullest. His deal with the devil isn’t really a contract, per se, (many of the mechanical aspects of the play were very hard to interpret. I recommend time with a knowledgeable interpreter; for me that was George Priest) but more of a bet: ‘if you ever catch me sloughing off, you can haul me off to Hades,’ is a rough interpretation of part of it. Very different than the popular understanding of the deal, I think.

There are long, dreary stretches where it is very hard to understand how what is happening on the page has anything to do with the main action of the work. But these are also the parts where Goethe wrestles most directly with the big questions of life, so it’s all a case of what’s to your taste.

So if you like thinking about the nature of reality, of humanity, of hope and despair, this might be the story for you. But be aware you will be running down endless rabbit holes inhabited by Helen of Troy, Paris, and countless other classical personages unfamiliar to all but a few of us. The language, in translation anyway, is beautiful, the storytelling abysmal. Maybe that’s appropriate. I’m glad I read it, but the story begs for someone to come along and update it. I’d say, wait for the movie.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Idylls of the King – Tennyson

The Song of Hiawatha – Longfellow

Paradise Lost – Milton

Idylls of the King – Tennyson

I’m reading all these old classics these days, often trying to understand why people liked them so much back in the day, occasionally wondering why they have fallen so out of favor. Idylls of the King, by Tennyson, is one tale where I think I do understand why it is less read these days. Yes, it’s marvelously written, and keeps the reader’s interest all the way through, yes the language is amazing, while conflict is never far away: “She reddening, “Insolent scullion! I of thee? / I bound to thee for any favor ask’d!” / “Then shall he die.” And Gareth there unlaced his helmet… but she shriek’d, / “Be not so hardy, scullion, as to slay / One nobler than thyself.”

In a few lines we are bathed in details of character, emotion, conflict, and situation. Something strange and interesting is happening, and we want to read further to learn what. The language does get dense, but never as confusing as much contemporary work. So why don’t people flock to Idylls of the King? One issue, I suspect, is that the story does not form a continuous narrative. Gareth appears, then fades from view, with no continuity. Who is he, why is he hear, how does he matter? Tennyson does not bother to lay out any of that for his reader. He simply assumes everyone knows the story well enough that he can jump in media res, no context. And back in the 19th century, evidently, he could. But those days are long gone. Few of us know the details of the King Arthur story beyond the King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot triangle, the wizard Merlin and something about a sword.

Furthermore, pieces of the narrative are missing. Why Tennyson chose some of the pieces of the myth to expound that he did is not obvious to me, as entertaining as the tales he laid out are.

Finally, many of the tropes Tennyson works on seem a bit… faded to us these days. The struggle for equality, for meaning, for understanding, none of that is here. Lone eagles out battling evil we have in plenty, of course, but the tension of evil about to win, the huge stakes that make such stories so popular these days, really are not emphasized here.

I guess my take-away from this might be, then, to accept with humility that even our most favored contemporary works may be met with a yawn in a generation’s time. Dust gathers in the most surprising places. And we should not worry much about pleasing any future generations, as we cannot fathom what their concerns and delights may turn out to include.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Song of Hiawatha – Longfellow

Legends of the Condor Heroes – Jin Yong

The Fall Of Gondolin – Tolkien

The Song of Hiawatha – Longfellow

A work written well over a century and a half ago will often show its age, advocating, even as received wisdom, ideas that now seem awful. So why read such work? First off, much that was written then still can be insightful now. And there is no knowing which work holds up, often, without reading it ourselves. The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was revered for generations. Something must be worthwhile in such a work. And indeed, to read such old works can serve as a window into a world long dissolved into history. It points out how people once saw things, and what they didn’t see about themselves, their worlds, their failings and strengths. It is hard to believe readers in the future will not see many such flaws in our own work, however proud we may be today.

So it is here. This is a huge poem by a white guy that cops native ideas, words, and culture for its own purposes. What truth about the natives may have existed then, we see reflected here perhaps only dimly. But it is possible to see that Longfellow respects his subjects, and honors them as best he can, as a noble people, with honor and humanity.

This poem had a huge impact when it came out. My grandfather memorized parts of it, loved it, and recited it back in the day. Many places in Minnesota derive their names from this poem. It presented natives as noble, honorable, curious, and brave, while adding a patina of romanticism, and powerful language, fun to contemplate and quote. “‘What is that,’ he said, ‘Nokomis?… That is but the owl and owlet, / talking in their native language.”

One thing to admire is how deeply Longfellow set his story in its setting. Minnesota was a remote, wild place at the time of this poem, but Longfellow brings it to life with vivid, beautiful language. The story contains much conflict and learning, with surprises and epiphanies. That makes the story very readable. Longfellow displays his skills.

But ultimately, Longfellow’s own biases twist and damage the poem. The hints of condescension and paternalism befoul his message. The sense of superiority, perhaps not even noticeable at the time, when the missionaries arrive near the end to educate, enlighten, and save the natives, jars me now. That attitude leads, perhaps inevitably, to the gratuitous smear of anti-Semitism in the last few pages. Oh, Henry, why did you do that?

I do believe works like this are worth reading. We come to know what was valued then, and what has changed. We are spurred to examine ourselves for our own blind spots and limitations. And we share with those who went before the love of beauty, the hope for a worthy future, and the dedication to the noble and good, however flawed we may be.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Paradise Lost – Milton

Tom Jones – Fielding

The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

Paradise Lost – Milton

Getting into arcane stuff, here, and arguably not even fiction. This is actually a long poem, though it is written in story form. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is one of those great, lost works of English literature everyone has heard of and almost no one has read. Now, having tackled it, I can sort of see why.

Let me start off by saying there is a great deal of beautiful writing here, amazing language carefully crafted to the point of being gripping simply for the way the words are strung together. Time and again I found myself finding cliches that, along with Shakespeare and the Picture of Dorian Grey, obviously originate here. Even the larger fame of Satan pretty much came from this work, as versus other names for the devil, if I am not mistaken.

That said, the reader must get used to the idea that everything is going to be very familiar. Milton simply decided to expand on the earliest parts of the Book of Genesis. Don’t come into this expecting to be surprised. Of course, fantasy readers are going to have little happy moments… the idea of a huge war between God’s crew and legions of demons really needs to be a huge movie directed by Peter Jackson. And poetry buffs, as I indicated, will have their breath taken away by the language.

One technique I was most grateful for was Milton’s blessed habit of writing up an explanation of what’s to follow at the beginning of each of the twelve books (chapters, roughly). So you don’t have to muddle through the tortured language, trying to figure out what is going on. It’s all laid out clearly, so you can just indulge in the splendor of confusion that is the poetry at its most arcane.

Milton wrote this shortly after the English Civil War, and one wonders that he did not end up having his head chopped off, tackling a religious topic at such a time. He seems to have been savvier than Bunyan, at any rate, who spent years in jail. I’m glad I read Paradise Lost, ultimately, though I can’t imagine it would have much of a contemporary audience, absent that putative huge movie.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Tom Jones – Fielding

The Pilgrim’s Progress – Bunyan

The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

 

Tom Jones – Fielding

Not often does a book gets better as it goes along, but Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, sure seemed funnier towards the end. It’s a very theatrical book, and sure enough, Fielding hustled a living in the theater for a while. So it has all the sensibilities of a French farce — the sexiness, the improbable meetings and near-misses, the impassioned hero who loves one woman but oh, gosh, what about her… if you like that sort of thing, this is for you.

The heroine is too too good for words, but there are plenty of other women willing to be bad, if only Tom will give them a chance. So, expect the improbable. But of course that’s a big part of the fun: the froth, the very unlikelihood of each step, seeing whether the author can pull off his latest plot twist… and generally, he does. This is very carefully plotted, the villains have their reasons, the heroes have their flaws, and people do forgive each other.

The setup went on too long for me. This is not a short novel. But the reader does receive a payoff, ultimately. Let me point out that the book took me literally years to get through, as this is not naturally my thing, and I don’t think that was due to the archaic language, or at least, not much. I would say, think of the beginning as a sample of the whole. If you find yourself smiling, you will likely be happy all the way through. But if you find yourself annoyed… well, you probably won’t think the book worth it if you slog on. I am glad I read it, though, and I did enjoy it more at the end, as all the story threads came together, and the farce began to reach its natural conclusions. Maybe I just felt a sense of satisfaction, that things ended as well as they did.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Pilgrim’s Progress – Bunyan

The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

Gulliver’s Travels – Swift