Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

What better setting for a fantasy (
or, as the author insists, science fiction about first contact with an alien world working on different laws of physics) than the fabulous Kingdom of Prester John, full of strange, immortal beasts, a dream for Europe all through the Middle Ages? And as brought to life by Valente, it is a dream-like place, where buried beds bloom into bed-trees, animals talk, and everyone lives forever from drinking mountain-juice. The entities that inhabit this fabulous land are innocent, the endless years governed only by the Lottery that assigns new lives every so often to keep away the ennui and entropic decay of eternity with the power of chance, until John comes and things are forever changed.

Five narrators tell the tale of John and his land: John himself; his headless wife, the scribe Hagia; the large-eared storyteller Imtithal; Hoib von Luzern, the monk who plucks the latter three's stories from a tree, driven mad by his desperation to record their stories even as they crumble before him; and Alaric of Rouen, Hoib's protege who must continue the recording in Hoib's place. The language is beautiful. Almost too beautiful, in a way; everyone is a poet, apparently. Yet, why not? It is a dream-land, after all. It's really hard to complain about a book with beautiful language after all.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is an often quite funny book. Watching people of totally different cultures interact often is. Yet it is also sad and wistful and melancholy, a dirge, as the subtitle calls it, for a land that never was. Though it is billed upfront as the first book of a trilogy, somehow I don't want it to be. I usually like my endings conclusive and my loose ends, if not tied off, than at least very net, and hate ambiguity. Yet ambiguity suits this tale well; you can fill in the blanks on the rest of the story without two more book laying it all out. I think it's more powerful knowing what happens, but not quite why or how.

Depending on one's spiritual status, one could either be offended or invigorated by Valente's demolition of Christian thought, how mean and small and petty it is. Even the main Christian in the book, John, is a damnable heretic! And there's sure as hell some other heresy going on, too. This is not for the spiritually faint-of-heart. But for who love tales of far-off lands and stranges creatures told lyrically told, The Habitation of the Blessed is for you.

Jane and the Damned: A Novel
by Janet Mullany

Jane Austen and vampires fight the French in occupied Bath. What more, exactly, need I say?

Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love by Andrew Shaffer

Fun, pithy love (well, "love") stories told with a dry, ironic sense of humor and sprinkled with wry footnotes (my favorite kind!), Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love is a breezy, humorous look at the juicy, tawdry romantic foibles of some of history's greatest thinkers.

As someone who has not so much failed as yet to really get started in love, I'm frankly a bit afraid of relationships, of it all going terribly wrong. But as the Neal Pollack quote that begins
the book says, "It's always nice to know that no matter how badly you've screwed up your love life, someone else has done far, far worse." And, hey, since I don't plan to accidentally (?) strangle my partner or get castrated, I think I'm safely out of contention for Worst Love Life Ever forever.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Forty variations of the Odyssey, some almost science fictional, some fabulist, some in first person, some in third person, some barely a paragraph, some pages long comprises this collection of postmodern, metafictional sketches. Each story is an exploration of
one particular image, character, or theme of the Homeric epics, challenging us to see the epics in new and unusual ways. An interesting and enjoyable meditation on the foundational texts of Western literature, it's a great thought-provoker for any student or admirer of Greek mythology. (And, guess what? It even has the snarky footnotes I so love!)


arte( said...

I bookmark all of your Book Club posts (six, since I started reading your blog). Thanks for doing these reviews -- much appreciated. Buying a few and reading them is the next step. :D

Frank said...

Thank you, arte. I like doing them. They can take a while, though; I want them to be just so.