Saturday, December 31, 2005

BOOKS: Just Under the Wire

Wouldn't you know it? Young Master Sam chose this week to come down with one of his inconvenient ailments. This time it was a fairly innocuous low-grade fever that mainly just made him C-R-A-B-B-Y. Mostly at night of course. This despite the fact that I kept pointing out exemplary sick children in literature, such as Tiny Tim and Little Nell, who bore their maladies bravely so as not to be a burden. Sam didn't buy it and had a few choice things to say about Dickens. Well, he didn't say them, of course, but I could tell he was thinking them.

Since we're getting to be old hands at this sick baby thing, we knew that nothing was in jeopardy... except my completing my fifty books for the year. The tears are still drying on my face from the final one, but I'll get to that later. First...

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (#49)
Remember back in the heady days when
Fametracker had discussion boards? The books boards kicked serious ass, and I was a hardcore regular. Another frequent poster, Hazel Motes (Hazel, if you're reading this, howdy!), whose opinions I grew to respect deeply, posted more than once that Pale Fire was one of his all-time favourite books. I made a mental note and committed myself to finding and reading it someday.

Which I did. And if ever a book blew my mind while at the same time making me feel like I've lost my academic mojo (read: become a bit of a dummy), it was this one.

It's hard to describe
Pale Fire. It's not a novel, per se, though it is fictional. The first section is a previously unpublished 999-line poem by a reclusive genius poet named John Shade. The remainder of the book is a footnoted commentary on the poem by Dr. Charles Kinbote, Shade's "self-styled Boswell," who has taken on the task of applying his academic acumen (he's a botanist) to analyzing this work after Shade's death.

It took me a little while to wrap my head around this approach to storytelling, but I got into it. At first, it seemed like the story was merely comprised of revealing Kinbote's arrogance and ignorance, along with his over-identification with and adoration of Shade. Amusing as all this was (who doesn't like to read snarky commentary on academic hypocrisy?), I was at a bit of a loss as to what all the hype was about (and Pale Fire has been hyped greatly, including one critic calling it "one of the great works of art of this century").

As I made my way through the footnotes, however, the real story appeared. It's an intricate, suspenseful, dark -- though still funny -- story about academic envy and political intrigue. And I can see how the hype is deserved.

My one complaint about
Pale Fire is that I came across it too late in my life. My smartypants undergrad self would have eaten it up with a spoon. As it was, while I enjoyed this book immensely, its experimental narrative and postmodern circling around its themes made me a bit impatient at times. I've become a linear thinker, I fear. Probably due to hardening of the arteries.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (#50)
This is a novel about opera and kidnapping, as unlikely a pairing of subjects as you could expect to find. But such is the glory of fiction: here they are.

The story begins on the evening of a private performance by celebrated soprano Roxanne Coss on the occasion of the birthday of wealthy Japanese businessman Mr. Hosokawa. The setting: the vice presidential palace in a fictional third-world country. While Roxane's final note is still quivering in the air, the lights go out. When they come back on, the men and women present realize there's been a coup and they're all hostages to a paramilitary group with an outrageous list of demands.

When I say that this is a novel about opera, what I really mean is that it's a novel about music. Reading this book reminded me of a term I learned a few years ago:

Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. (I got that definition here, where you can also go to do some tricks that replicate the synesthetic experience.) In other words, a synesthetic individual might be able to see a particular colour when they hear different sounds, or to smell a certain scent when they see certain colours. Fascinating, huh? Who would have guessed that such a thing was possible without the necessity of consuming cheap acid?

The way that Patchett writes about music is almost like synesthesia. Throughout Bel Canto, listening to beautiful music is like falling, like diving, like eating, like swimming, like sex, like breathing. Amidst this bounty of metaphors and similes is Patchett's clear conviction that music is the one true and beautiful thing we have to cling to.

When I say this is a novel about kidnapping, what I really mean is that it's a novel about the complex relationships that form between kidnappers and hostages. There's another term that comes into play here:
Stockholm syndrome. It's used to describe the relationship a hostage can build with their kidnapper.

Bel Canto could be a textbook on Stockholm syndrome. As the weeks and months pass, the line between captors and hostages blurs and, within the vice presidential palace, they build an unlikely Eden.

But it's not a textbook. It's a gorgeously written, unabashedly told love story... actually, two love stories... and in the end, three love stories, all of which won over even a poseur cynic like me. As the novel progressed, I found myself a victim of Stockholm syndrome, identifying with the captors and, like the captors and hostages alike, finding myself wishing for an unlikely ending: that all these characters would be allowed to live the rest of their days in the idyll they'd created.

I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say, while it rung slightly improbable to me, it was unexpected and lovely and strangely, sadly uplifting.

It's been a long while since I read a book that made me wish it went on and on forever. What an inspiring way to end this year.


Anonymous said...

I loved Bel Canto, too. Try The Magician's Assistant, also by Ann Patchett -- it's a very different book, but also very good.

Happy new year. :-)

landismom said...

So I guess the question is, for those of us who've loved this year, is what will you do next year?

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for all the entertainment and the great book recommendations you've provided this year! I've put both Pale Fire and Bel Canto on my reading list. And, like landismom, I'm looking forward to finding out what you're planning to do in the new year.

kdmacken said...

I just found you today! I read your entire blog (Jan-Dec) in one day because I couldn't "put it down"... I hope this doesn't mean you're finished. I have plenty of new titles on my list, and I need to hear how Sam turns out.
Happy New Year... :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree with all that has been said about Bel Canto. I picked it up at the Goodwill randomly on one of those "I just need SOMETHING to read" trips, and it's one of the few plots that I've committed to my (admittedly full of holes) memory.

Anonymous said...

Woohoo! I'm going to a big old book shop today and am going to be picking up quite a few titles you've recommended over the year. So, I'm happy you made it. Another 50 books next year?

And happy new year to all!

Melissa said...

I also loved Bel Canto! There was something magical about it. I have re-read it several times and it hasn't lost its charm.

Mike said...

"(Hazel, if you're reading this, howdy!)"

Howdy! I have no excuse for not knowing you were a fellow ex (*sob*) FTer this whole time. I've been with you since the beginning, but I never connected you or Doppleganger with the Publishing & Multimedia forum. (A forum I weep for daily.)

I'll blame hardening of the arteries, too. Anyway.

Hooray! Hooray for Pale Fire, but an even bigger hooray for the fact that you actually enjoyed it. The first time I read it, I remembered thinking much like you did: "Come on already -- we get it. You're homoerotically obsessed with Shade. Can we go now?" But then it started getting creepier and creepier. And then, I had to start it again from the beginning, and then the beginning seemed really creepy, too, what with Kinbote sneaking around the Shades' windows and the young men. And yeah, it's funny -- but there were moments where I pulled the shades in the living room while reading it.

And, finally, much like everyone else has already said, I hope you go for 50 again -- or at least mention what you're reading.

--Mike/Hazel Motes

PS: Thanks for the kind shout-out.

Anita said...

Bel Canto sounds like a fabulous read. I read Ann Patchett's A Patron Saint of Liars this year. I enjoyed it, but didn't feel compelled to rush out and buy the rest of her work. Until now. Your description sounds fascinating.

Pale Fire seems intimidating . . .I admire your tenacity in sticking with something so challenging. It's inspirational!