31 July, 2015

The Time Machine by HG Wells

1. What an ending! That ending is just perfect. No matter how many times I read this novella, the ending gets my mind turning. Throughout, the story is paced well – the actions do not crowd together, the philosophical and personal introspection doesn't drag slowly on, and the shifts in time back and forth are typically accompanied by the character assessing their situation and setting their scene, which helps the readers do the same. For instance, after that Time Traveler finishes his long story, everything stops for a single paragraph: he lights his pipe, the first person looks around, each of the other characters is placed while the first person gathers his bearings, then the interrogation begins. This also allows the reader to gather his bearings after this fantastic and lengthy monologue. Wells does a good job of these little breaks for the characters and readers, it helps the whole stay legible.

2. Wells's task apes that of the Time Traveler: namely, to relate these scenes and these stories to somebody who has never been there and can never be there. Wells succeeds. I do not think that any other Wells book I have read is so well written. "A man couldn't cover himself in dust by rolling in a paradox, could he?" "This possibility had occurred to me again and again while I was making the machine; but then I had cheerfully accepted it as an unavoidable risk—one of the risks a man has got to take! Now the risk was inevitable, I no longer saw it in the same cheerful light." "Witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man." There are many examples here of writing I'd like to list out, but that would take too much time. His writing expands premises and contracts conclusions, but explores them later through actions and ruminations. He also effectively uses grammar instead of letting it prescribe his prose's pace and structure –dropping words and punctuation as needed to influence the readers' understanding, to reinforce importance, and alter the pace as needed.

3. The book takes industrialism-era capitalism to a logical extreme as a warning against it. The basic tenant is socialistic, but he doesn't awkwardly preach. This is a classic science fiction technique that he does well here. He does not tell it off so much as show some dangers inherent in it. His writing here both shows and tells about other things – and does both well without becoming redundant. But in his anti-capitalism, it's almost all showing. Actions speak louder than words, some say, but here this communicated his point well.

4. This novella is tight and focused. On the day I read it again, I cannot now point to a single part that does not illuminate something central to the book: characters, cultures, situations, or theme. There seems to be no word out of place, distracting, or not helpful and, perhaps, necessary. While I also really enjoy complex narratives and puzzles to piece apart, this simple narrative just steals my heart every time. I like novellas because they are usually focused well: The Old Man and the Sea, The Red Badge of Courage, and this one are three that always come to mind as my favorites. Later fiction dealing with eschatology and time travel has shown, too often this theme can get mired down dully examining the paradoxes implied by the narrative device — the time machine here. But Wells admirably sticks to his story and does not get distracted from making his point. I think this works — not necessarily because it could be called efficient, but because it allows him to delve deeper into what he is interested in. It allows his theme of the dangers of capitalism to be the focus, rather than the time machine itself — which is just the tool to talk about that theme. I enjoy fiction that is a human story, and honestly so, no matter how fantastic the setting or set pieces, because as a human I can relate to these stories in a way that I can't relate to a time machine. Wells focuses on the human aspects of his story very well.

5. The character of the Time Traveler himself is echoed in both the Eloi and Morlocks. The Eloi are his dramatically whimsical side played out to the nines. While the Morlocks are his industrious, engineering side exaggerated. This is an effective tactic for such a short book. Any longer and the obvious comparisons could have easily been overplayed, but in this context it really works. The Time Traveler could become too ambiguous a character without this.

30 July, 2015

The Plague by Albert Camus

For Garrett

1. This is a failure. It failed to hold my attention, my interest, or my empathy. It is a convoluted mess, and it leaves me to think that Camus can't be bothered to tell a story, write a sentence, or communicate an idea. At the least he cannot here. His characters are flat and uninteresting and they all speak in the same voice - they are mostly indistinguishable throughout the novel. Even if the character similarities are intentional for some obscure point about "mankind", this is just bad writing. A lot of the pages seem like filler - like they do not illuminate characters, situations, the plot, or the underlying ideas. It also seems like a shallow description of a plague ravaged town that carries little weight or believability. Camus is forever telling his readers that he will explain something later, which I think is a bad writing tactic.  But by the time I got to the end of the book, I wished he would've explained some of the book itself.

2. What is it actually about? I could not argue effectively against a surface interpretation - it could be just a fictional story about a plague town. Where he does gain depth, it's all over the place - Christianity, communalness, love, individuality, revenge, and violence. But I also could not argue against any of those being "the plague". Perhaps violence is the strongest argument simply because Tarrou states explicitly that is the plague to him. But he's not the main character, so have a grain of salt. The third option is contextually based: a besieged city during either world war. The book is based in some unnamed Mediterranean city, and many of those went through similar experiences shortly before the book was written. I don't know, but if Camus did, he should've gotten to the point eventually.

3. It's moderately interesting that the main character is the plague, not a human. But, Charles Dickens did this better in A Tale of Two Cities. And that is the first time I have ever said that Dickens did anything better than anybody.

4. Maybe this was well written in French, but this translation makes it seem poorly written. The translator isn't even named on the cover or inside the book. I can't read the one character struggling to write a single sentence without believing that he is voicing Camus' own frustrations. There are some beautiful descriptions, some poetic metaphors, and an over-arcing mood of strangeness that are all well done. But they are rare enough to be notable.

5. Ultimately, his arguments are ineffective. His anti-Christianity is straw-mannish and overly bitter. His anti-death penalty is idealistic and naive. His saintliness is confusing, but interesting - though he may be actually talking about citizenship. His "love is egoism" argument is shallow and self evident, aside from being repeated so often that I'm sick of it by the end. His individuality arguments are undermined by the lack of same in all of his characters. His arguments about revenge can be summed up with: all people want revenge at times, and sometimes that is a bad thing. The broader argument that adversity draws people together and tears them apart is self evident and not explored in any interesting way that illuminates humans or humanity.

6. If he was satirizing something, I missed it. By writing a bad book he failed to satirize it effectively. If one writes a bad book intending to make fun of bad books, they've just added another bad book to the list. Nothing else. I don't think he was satirizing anything, but I certainly am having a hard time understanding this book. What did I miss here?

7. On reflection of a couple of weeks time, I do think that his main theme is saintliness without god. This explains much, but not everything. I still do not like this book, but realizing this as an ideal helps fit this novel into the oeuvre of Camus' work.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas & Auguste Maquet

For Garrett

1. This novel is a rollicking good adventure. Something is always happening—every chapter has its point. Even when a scene comes as a surprise with no forewarning—like the first Cavalcanti scene—it only takes a couple of pages to get underway. In this, at this, to this I marvel. But how did he do this? I think it was mainly through two tactics: the first is the incessant action that remains central to every chapter, driving the plot forward; and the second is long breaks for back story or separate stories within the overarching story. These lengthy back stories allow the actions to breathe and the readers to catch their breath. The plot is so relentlessly driving that these breaks from the action are necessary. Haydée's three chapter long story is the most glaring example of this, and what a story! I was all attention. And when her story was over, the book returned to the driving necessities of Edmund's revenge and I felt refreshed and ready to continue.

2. Descriptions are splendid here. Instead of full on blazon, we get "lovely", for example, which allows the imagination of the reader to run with it, imagining their own version of "lovely" and placing that in the novel. This, like never showing the monster in a horror film, is much more effective than blazon could have been. But, he still gives enough specifics to get the ball rolling: a long neck, thin lips, delicate hands, et cetera. Usually he gives one or two of these, and that works. These descriptors come off as hints, tantalizing glimpses that get the mind running. This praise of descriptors applies equally to people and places. It's imagination sparking to think of that lovely garden beside the telegraph tower—a place full of hinting lines that the reader has to fill in with details from their own experience.

3. My biggest complaint is a lack of personality in many characters. This doesn't matter in Shakespeare's plays because they are so short. But here, because this book is so long, the lack of personality in the characters is glaring. At its base this is the side effect of his focus on actions. Like Marshawn Lynch, he is all about that action, and his characters seem to be as well because that's the only way we know many of them. The many characters end up being indistinguishable in a novel so packed full of actions. Though the Count, Albert, and Abbet Faria are distinguishable and their actions support their characterization, they are distinguished by more than just their actions. Their conversations, their thoughts, their interactions with other characters all define these three actual characters better than the indistinguishable rest of the characters in the book.

4. My 2nd biggest complaint is that the novel skips the character changing time in Edmund Dantès' life. We see, in his dungeon, the beginning of the change and the reasons for it. But we miss the 10 years where the change actually occurs. This is probably to increase the mystery of his return. But I think the hints to these 10 years are not quite enough for me as a reader. He had the treasure, then he had a hundred million. He is a new person, but we do not see the character arc. The book is focused, like the plot, on the revenge. It ignores the large bit of time where Edmund Dantès betters himself and prepares for his campaign. As somebody who often prefers character development to plot, I do think this is a weakness in the novel. Though we can speculate—especially with the hints provided—this novel leaves me wanting to know more about that period in Dantès' life than the basic: 1. Steal treasure. 2. ??? 3. Profit!

5. We're left with the puzzle of Edmund Dantès at the end: namely does the reader believe that he is God's agent or not? The ending leaves us with this moral ambiguity. This is the central problem of the book, and it's not answered at the end despite hints seeming to point in both directions. I enjoyed this mystery. I feel like when the book first came out and everybody in the world had read it, you could define something about people by whether they thought Edmund was God's divine wrathful angel, or whether he was a petty slighted lover selfishly pursuing his own vengeance.

Baudolino by Umberto Eco

For Garrett

1. Chapter Structure: without some cheap cliffhanger endings, he keeps it moving well and quickly. How? Each chapter is a sort of short story, and something interesting happens in each. But I don't think the titles can be undersold: they're slightly spoiler-ish, slightly funny, and all while beautifully satirizing Biblical interstitial titles, which are dumb. Because of the narrator himself, some chapters fly by while others more slowly examine something perplexing.

2. Honesty: Baudolino doesn't understand the meaning of his life story and neither does Eco. Until Baudolino understands at the end, the book lets in little light. It's confusing when Budolino is confused and clear when he has clarity. This is fun! But it turns off most of my friends to this novel.

3. At its base, this book is a combination of a medieval travelogue and dialogue. This is intriguing and well realized. It's a nontraditional dialogue, sure, but it works. Neko (Pictured Above) with his wealth, his power, and Baudolino with his love, his power. Neko with seeing the forest, Baudolino with examining every tree. I don't think it lacks movement at any point.

4. Foreshadowing: Eco is a master of this here. From slipping in his father's death at the start, to every chapter's title, to little mentions and hints of the journey Budolino takes, the foreshadowing helps make this book run. It keeps the reader excited for what's coming next.

5. Characterization: Frederick is wrathful and loving both, but the rest, well, they're not explicitly described at almost any point. I'm thinking mainly of Neko and Baudolino. We slowly understand that Baudolino is childish, trusting, and sort of going through the motions of life. Not listless, per say, but perhaps not as addicted to long-term goals and dreams as others. Even his project of discerning his story is forgotten by him for 40 plus years after he tries just ten pages. His big character arc is really tied up with this, so by the end he has goals and follows them. Neko on the other hand, is a wealthy, powerful member of court, and values the finer things of life. He's addicted to his culture. Through and through he finds meaning in keeping things as they are. Today he would be really into sustainability. By the end, neither of their reactions are surprising because Eco does a great job of defining them by showing rather than telling. The secondary characters are more told, but this works for them because they are not central to the novel.

6. The End: Baudolino glimpses meaning to his life—his service to those around him—then goes off to pursue that, first as a stylite outsider dispensing wisdom and sense, then as a father trying to find his daughter again. He also wants his story told as a sort of text to learn from; in other words, he wants to serve the world through their memory of him as well. He is horrified by learning that he drowned his father, and wants to continue helping people—it becomes his obsession. Though it really was all along, he finally realizes it.

29 July, 2015

Info Post

1. I do not want to discuss whether I agree with the ideas or not. This discussion does not inform me as a writer, which is what these notes are intended for. Rather, I want to find out how an argument is formed through this storytelling and writing, and how those techniques help or hinder the arguments, the ideas, or the reader's ability to engage with them.

2. I see a difference between storytelling and writing. Some books written well are boring and nothing that happens seems important to me, while some good stories are written so poorly that I cannot understand or enjoy them. The two are intertwined and support each other: what lasts seems to be popular stories that are well written. This is a key examination in these notes.

3. Some of these notes come off as me making objective statements. I do not intend this. These are all simply my perspectives on these books in the personal context in which I read them. But to save me from writing "to me" too many times, I will just say what I perceived and not worry about tediously billboarding my personal perspectives.

4. I think it may be useful to think of most of these books as on a line somewhere between pulp fiction and literature. That is to say, driven by the plot with no import, or driven by import and introspection with no plot. These are extreme ends, obviously, and impossible. But literary fiction is genre fiction in the same way that science fiction, fantasy, and chick lit are.

5. The popular phrase when I was in college was, "Show, don't tell." I disagree. I think books that only show risk illegibility, while ones that only tell often fail through boredom and reader fatigue. Instead, my thinking about showing and telling is, "Show and tell, but do both well."

6. Thanks for visiting and feel free to jump in with your notes or disagreements. These are intended to be notes for me, posted on a blog simply to be more easily searchable. But I am always up for a discussion about these issues and writing in general.

7. I only wish I was taking notes like this for my whole life. There's a lot of great books I've read and learned from that I don't have notes on. Think of this as my notes on books I've read after turning thirty.