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Flight Behavior Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver is such a good writer that she can make you forget — or forgive — some pretty substantial problems in a novel. This is a good thing because Flight Behavior has several although it is still a book well worth reading.

Flight Behavior has a number of shortcomings, but these do not include its language or characters, which are solid, complex, persuasive, and satisfying.

The novel’s central character is Dellarobia Turnbow who like many Kingsolver characters is a woman with an intelligence, spirit, and sex drive too large for her circumstances. In Dellarobia’s case, these circumstances are a small Appalachian town, an ill-matched husband acquired through a high-school pregnancy, a small confining house with two young children, and subsistence farming on the land of her resentful in-laws.

As Flight Behavior opens, Dellarobia is set to destroy (and so escape) her marriage through a particularly reckless and desperate act of adultery. When she climbs up the wooded hills of her husband’s family’s land to meet her lover, she discovers the entire Monarch butterfly population of North America, which has settled for the winter in rural Tennessee rather than deep in Mexico, because of climate change. The vision of the butterflies turns Dellarobia around, literally and figuratively, and send her life in new and remarkable directions.

There is a great deal in Flight Behavior to enjoy and admire. Each of Kingsolver’s characters walk on to the page fully formed, convincing, and distinct: from Dellarobia’s husband Cub, to her best friend Dovey, to her family and the people in her church, to Dr. Ovid Byron, the lepidopterist who appears to study why the Monarchs have so radically changed the migration patterns hard-wired into their DNA. Kingsolver makes it easy to understand and empathize with her characters even when they aren’t necessarily likable. Her conversations are a pleasure to read. And she makes the emotional arc of Dellarobia’s story moving and real.

The problems in Flight Behavior come from its plot construction, which is a bit of a mess, and its “big themes” which are didactically over-emphasized to the extent that readers might feel the need to take notes in case there is a test at the end.

The plot problems begin with Dellarobia’s reaction to the butterflies, which she feels is some species of religious revelation, which causes confusion in Dellarobia and controversy in her church.  This is a fine and intriguing idea, and fair enough. The problem is that the religion angle fizzles out before we are a third of the way through Flight Behavior with no more explanation than Dellarobia and everyone just seemed to forget about it.

Another plot line that fizzles is Dellarobia’s romantic obsession with Ovid Byron that goes on for a tantalizingly long time before we discover it is the shaggiest of shaggy dog tales. Then for good measure, when we are in the home stretch, Kingsolver drops on us one of those shocking personal secrets that typically form the “big surprise” of 19th-century novels, only to have all the characters involved immediate disappear for the rest of the book, the surprise unexplored and unresolved. In a novel that clearly demonstrates its commitment to conventional plot architectures, these qualities can only be seen as flaws.

The biggest of Flight Behavior‘s big themes is global warming, which is not only disrupting the life cycles of the Monarch species but seemingly the weather of Dellarobia’s home as well, making the precarious economics of the Turnbow and neighboring farms more precarious still. Kingsolver clearly believes the globe is warming and human activity is a cause (as does the consensus of the scientific community and me too, by the by) but she pursues this theme through long conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid, which weaken the novel while having no impact what-so-ever on public opinion. The novel is weaker because Kingsolver’s management of the exposition is ham-handed and her talking points way too obvious. As for public opinion, climate-change deniers are thin on the ground among readers of literary fiction to begin with, and the few members of that choir who might be in need of a sermon on global warming are not going to be moved. Few things are less persuasive than a lecture. Particularly when your audience is captive and you had promised them a story not a seminar.

Kingsolver also has a reasonable amount to say about the conflicting world views, mutual misunderstanding, and reciprocal lack of respect between the religious, conservative, working-class (at best) residents of rural Tennessee and the wealthy, well-educated liberals who descend on Dellarobia’s home to study the butterflies, agitate to protect them, or use the Monarchs as an occasion to indulge their self-righteous narcissism. Like with her handling of climate change, the problem with this theme is that it is too often explored through explicit, long expository comments from Dellarobia. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas in novels, but big ideas in novels work best when they are implicit and handled with subtlety.

The good news is that there is so much good stuff going on in Flight Behavior, and Kingsolver’s talent is so mature and sturdy, that your pleasure will be only mildly diminished by the novel’s problems. And you’re likely to be impress by how well the book succeeds in spite of them.

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the littlest angel charles tazewellI know it is downright mean to pick on a story like “The Littlest Angel” — but I have to tell you folks, I think the book stinks and stinks despite its subversive take on Christian theology. I’ll give you my reasons why. But first, in case you don’t know the story, here is the set-up.

“The Littlest Angel” is a children’s story written in 1946 by Charles Tazewell which follows heaven’s littlest angel, who can’t sing on key or arrive on time or keep his halo on straight or fly without tumbling through the air.

One day, he’s summoned to speak with the Understanding Angel and the Littlest Angel explains there was nothing for a small angel to do in heaven and he was homesick for earth. The Understanding Angel asks “what would make him most happy in Paradise” and the Littlest Angel asks for a box he’d left under his bed at home. He’s given the box and the Littlest Angel becomes a model citizen of heaven.

Sometime later, God announces that Jesus would soon be born in Bethlehem and every angel in heaven prepares a gift. After thinking and thinking, the Littlest Angel decides what the infant Jesus would like best is his box from home. The Littlest Angel gives his gift proudly, but grows ashamed of the “small, rough, unsightly box” filled with “useless things” compared to “all those other glorious gifts” just as God reaches out his hand to the box.

It is at this point in the story that I begin crying. Every single damn time.

Well, I don’t actually cry. I just become physically unable to speak. Which was a problem when I was supposed to be reading “The Littlest Angel” to my children. It went like this:

Younger son: “Mommy! Daddy’s making those funny faces and not reading the story.”

Wife [walking into the room]: “Again?”

Me: “Just finish the book and leave me alone.”

So what is in the box? Tazewell tells us …

A butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yes, and two white stones, found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers, and, at the bottom of the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute and infinite devotion.

Then “The Littlest Angel” gets very particular, by which I mean it flirts with heresy, because Tazewell has God say this about the box:

This small box pleases Me most. Its contents are of the Earth and of men, and My Son is born to be King of both. These are the things My Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, regretful, will leave behind Him.

What I like about the story is that Tazewell suggests with the contents of the Littlest Angel’s box that the glories of life, consciousness, and creation are expressed mostly fully in the smallest things. Then Tazewell says explicitly God values these things; and not only values them, but states his son Jesus will regret leaving them behind as the Littlest Angel did.

Normally, we understand the purpose of the incarnation of Christ to be the redemption of sin through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, motivated by his and his father’s love for humanity, and the earth a poor miserable place compared with heaven. In Tazewell’s story, the emphasis is on the incarnation as an act of radical empathy, with Jesus embracing the suffering AND the joy of human life, and sin shuffled off to one side, which frankly is where I think it belongs. Original sin has always struck me as the equivalent of God breaking our legs so sometime later he could claim credit for resetting the bones.

All this sounds good enough, but the problems with “The Littlest Angel” are larger than its virtues. First, we have the issue that the pathos of the story is founded on the death of a child, which is difficult to manage without making the reader feel cheaply manipulated, and this is exactly what Tazewell does. I do feel manipulated and the fact that Tazewell’s manipulation works on me only increases my resentment.

Second, “The Littlest Angel” is a frequently toxic combination of the cloying and the fascist – which is to say it is sentimental. Sentimentality is a big cartoonish emotion, equally useful in provoking copious weeping or torch-lit rallies, and sweetishly easy to gobble down.

Think of sentimentality as a big piece of Coca Cola cake (search the recipe, it’s delicious) versus the beef steak, wheat berries, bitter greens, and red wine of the real thing.

“The Littlest Angel” is lousy with sentimentality as I think you can tell from the way Tazewell describes the contents of the box. And it gets worse in the Children’s Press, Chicago copy the littlest angel sergio leoneI have which features the 1962 illustrations by Sergio Leone (same name, not the film director). Check out the little guy:

He’s an avatar of Aryan cuteness in blue footie pajamas which is particularly galling since Tazewell tells us the Littlest Angel died in Jerusalem before the birth of Christ. Do you think there were a lot of radiantly blond, blue-eyed little tykes running around Jerusalem in footie pajamas circa 100 BCE? You do? Okay, I won’t argue, but you clearly have come to the wrong shop.

Somewhere in “The Littlest Angel” is a story worth telling that doesn’t stink. Maybe I’ll take a whack at a revisionist version some day. Or maybe I’ll just it tuck away for when my children have children and let them decide what they think of it for themselves. In either case, I’m keeping my copy.

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Neil Gaiman NeverwhereIf the task of the fantasy novel is to create an engaging new world and tell an absorbing story in it, then Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere delivers the goods just fine. If it is do more than these, then Neverwhere comes up a bit short.

Neverwhere is primarily the story of Richard Mayhew, a pleasant but vague financial analyst in the modern City of London (or “London Above”), and the Lady Door, a member of the aristocracy of “London Below” which is a realm of fantastical or historic persons and places below the city tied together by the London Underground.

Richard finds Door lying injured on a city street and is soon drawn into her desperate attempt to flee the killers who murdered the rest of her family while simultaneously seeking to understand the reason why her family was murdered.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a satisfying number of delights. These include the murderous Misters Croup and Vandemar, a Dickensian pair straight out of nightmare; the Floating Market where all the contending citizens of London Below gather under a general truce to plot, trade, and revel; a large group of colorful supporting players; and the angel Islington who is still mourning its failure to save the people of Atlantis from destruction.

Gaiman’s invention is not endless, however. His plot has just enough twists to keep the story in pleasant motion. Gaiman often reaches for the word or phrase you’d expect, to the extent that I was often completing his sentences in my mind as he did on the page. His Angel Islington and Richard’s snobby rich girlfriend come straight from central casting. And at best, his characters have just enough distinct qualities to be sufficient for the story – which is to say they have two.

So the young lady Door is waif-like yet resolute. The Marquis de Carabras is amoral but scrupulous in the paying of his debts. The Black Friars are kind but a touch sinister. Most particularly, and not successfully, Richard Mayhew is hapless and heroic.

Mayhew is mostly paralyzed by fear and protected by the other characters out of pity, except for a few moments when he rises to a challenge that has defeated scores of men and women from London Below over the course of centuries. One challenge is the dread “ordeal” and the other is the great “Beast of London” which lurks in a labyrinth. Neither of these victories seems probable and Gaiman makes them less so by frequently playing Mayhew’s character for laughs.

This gets at my two disappointments with Neverwhere, which I had expected to like better based on Neil Gaiman’s reputation. The first is that none of the characters were sufficiently developed that I could feel an emotion toward them and so feel that something was at stake while reading Neverwhere; and what should be at stake in reading is our hearts. Mine was never engaged.

Secondly, what binds a fictional world together and makes it breathe, whether it is utterly fantastical or obsessively mundane, is its emotional tone: how the author feels about the world he or she has created. I don’t think Gaiman ever decided how he felt. Instead, he has the ha-ha mostly feckless Richard Mayhew stumbling around a story that is threatening and apocalyptic. This makes Neverwhere entertaining for sure. But it doesn’t make it anything more.

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The twenty-one novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series are the greatest sustained work of English-language fiction written in the 20th century for the high craft of their characters, story lines, language, and themes, for the breadth of their erudition, and for the sheer stamina of O’Brian’s invention.

The series follows Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, naturalist, naval surgeon, and intelligence officer, as they fight in the Napoleonic wars as well as the War of 1812.

The series begins with superlative novels that include the books in my best of O’Brian list below. Then, like the happiest of long-running marriages, the Aubrey-Maturin novels take a modest step down to the level of very good indeed; with my metaphorical marriage encompassing not only Jack and Stephen’s monumental friendship, but more importantly, the great devotion of O’Brian and his readers to each other.

I’ve listed my five personal favorites, in order of admiration, with notes and some spoilers. (I’ve included a complete list of the Aubrey-Maturin novels below these reviews for convenience.)

Post Captain (1972)

Post Captain - a best Aubrey-Maturin novel by O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s magnificent sophomore work is the crown jewel of the series. The novel begins with O’Brian in full Jane Austen mode, following a young Jack Aubrey with prize money in his pocket and time on his hands because of an unfortunate lull in the Napoleonic wars, as he pursues his eventual wife, Sophie Williams.

Soon, fighting breaks out again but more significantly, Jack and Stephen’s friendship breaks down over a second woman (Stephen’s eventual wife, Diana Villiers) and they challenge each other to a duel. This is the only time in the series when the enduring friendship between the Aubrey and Maturin is shaken, and it makes for some of the most difficult and moving reading in the novels.

In Post Captain, O’Brian’s skill at writing complex, lucid, and compelling battle scenes emerges in all its glory, as does his humor, most especially when Jack is forced to escape suddenly hostile French territory by disguising himself as a dancing bear.

Unlike many of the later novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which don’t end as much as they simply stop, Post Captain concludes with a bang.

O’Brian places Jack in command of one of the four British ships that famously captured a Spanish treasure fleet bringing gold back from the New World to finance Spain’s entry into the war against England. Stephen, in his emerging role as an indispensable intelligence officer for the British, gathers the information that makes the capture possible. goodreads page.

HMS Surprise (1973)

hms surprise best aubrey maturin obrianIn HMS Surprise, the pace is faster, the action more exciting, the stakes higher, and the plot architecture tighter than in Post Captain, which it immediately follows in the series’ sequence.

For my money, HMS Surprise features the best set-piece in the entire series: Jack’s brilliant and daring rescue of Stephen, who has been captured as a spy by the French and is being tortured in the town of Port Mahon on one of the Balearic Islands. This is also the moment when the friendship between Jack and Stephen becomes stronger than death, and so the great and enduring heart of the Aubrey-Maturin novels begins to beat.

In HMS Surprise, both Jack and Stephen face down significant rivals. For Jack, it is the French Admiral Linois, who defeated him in the series’ first book, Master and Commander. For Stephen, it is a new contender for Diana’s affections, who he challenges to a duel that leads to another of the series’ most famous sequences, in which Stephen performs surgery on himself.

Finally, HMS Surprise launches two more of the novels’ great elements. The first is the theme of marriage’s problematic nature, as Jack looks forward to bliss with Sophie in the book’s final lines (Jack predicts the future will be “pure paradise”). The second is exotic locales. India features prominently in HMS Surprise, and future novels will take Jack and Stephen all around the world. goodreads page.

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Fortune of War - a best Aubrey Maturin novel O'BrianJack and Stephen are equal as friends, but Jack is more often the agent of action in the novels, partially because he is the captain of the frigates on which Stephen serves and partially because his appalling bad judgment in nearly every aspect of his life except as frigate captain is always getting him into trouble.

The Fortune of War is the single book in the Aubrey-Maturin series that truly belongs to Stephen. In it, he and Jack have been captured by the Americans during the war of 1812. Both are taken to Boston, where a severely wounded Jack is held prisoner, but Stephen walks about with considerable freedom, since the Americans believe him to be just a naval surgeon rather than a British agent.

French agents, also in Boston, know better however, and they engage Stephen in a deadly game of cat and mouse which transforms The Fortune of War into the series’ only true spy-thriller. Thrown in the mix are Diana Villiers, that brilliant complicator of Stephen’s life, and a hair’s breadth escape that wraps up the novel nicely.

Also in The Fortune of War, O’Brian brings the double nature of Stephen Maturin into sharp focus. In the novels to this point, we’ve known Stephen as an accomplished naturalist, a committed physician, and a talented spy – but only had hints of his deadly ruthlessness. Here, Stephen kills without hesitation or regret when driven by circumstances, and O’Brian creates another contrast with his great friend, Jack Aubrey.

Jack as a naval officer is personally responsible for far more deaths than Stephen, but Jack cheerfully regards war as the world’s greatest professional sport. The rewards are immense, the rules complicated and subtle, losing often deadly, but the players feel little actual animosity for their opponents as long as they adhere to the laws of the game. In Stephen’s war, there are no rules, the killing is vicious and personal, and grudges extend beyond declarations of peace. Another way to say it, of the two men, it is Stephen who has the soul of a killer. goodreads page.

The Far Side of the World (1984)

far side world best aubrey maturingAs the Aubrey-Maturin series progresses, the plots of the books become less discrete and the arcs of the stories flatten; so the novels transform into one continuous narrative that blossoms with asides, digressions, false starts, storms and accidents, sudden reversals, changes of mission caused by the whims of Jack’s superiors or shifting geopolitics, and the messy complexity of the characters most of all.

The Far Side of the World is a particularly rich example of these qualities. In the novel, Jack is sent in the HMS Surprise to prevent an American frigate from attacking British whalers in the South Seas, and almost nothing goes right. He is significantly delayed by a lightning storm off the coast of Brazil that damages his ship and requires significant repairs, which allows the Americans to slip into the Pacific and strike the whalers. Later, a typhoon nearly wreaks Jack’s frigate and destroys the American ship for him. The crew is unhappy with an aging, incompetent midshipman who they believe is back luck. Stephen is entangled in political intrigue while reveling in his opportunities to collect scientific specimens. And much more.

There is something existential in all this chaos, and without suggesting that O’Brian intended to write a philosophical novel – he has entirely too much sense and talent as an artist to bother with such stuff – the total vision of The Far Side of the World delivers exactly that. goodreads page.

Desolation Island (1978)

desolation island best aubrey maturin o'brianIf The Far Side of the World flirted with existentialism, Desolation Islands walks right up to this dreary philosophy and gives it a big wet kiss.

Jack accepts the command of the Leopard, an aging ship barely fit to navigate the English Channel, in a mission to transport prisoners to Australia. These prisoners attack and murder some of their guards. The ship is stuck in the doldrums and battered by storms. An epidemic kills most of the prisoners and much of the crew. The Leopard is chased and nearly destroyed by a vastly more powerful Dutch ship of the line. An iceberg damages the Leopard so severely that Jack makes a desperate landing on Desolation Island (one of many in the world at that time) where they are at risk of being marooned permanently.

Desolation Island contains two of my favorite extended set pieces. The first is the Dutch ship’s pursuit of the Leopard, which takes place in the Roaring Forties, where the waves are mountainous and O’Brian’s powers of description are superb. The second is the crew’s extended stay on the cold, bleak island of the novel’s title – which Stephen regards as a natural philosopher’s paradise he is in no hurry to leave. This is an example of O’Brian’s humor, of course. But it also suggests that joy and wonder can be found any place, if you just know how to look for it. goodreads page.

Complete List of Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason’s Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes or The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

on the hms surpriseHow big of a Patrick O’Brian geek am I?

Pretty big, apparently. Yes, that would me at the wheel of the HMS Rose in San Diego, which was used as the HMS Surprise in Peter Weir’s film. I won’t tell you exactly how excited I was to discover the ship was available for touring because it would be embarrassing.

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The Consolations of Literature | “HMS Surprise” by Patrick O’Brian

The Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian | 100 Word Reviews

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clive james dante's infernoThere are two fundamental questions for contemporary readers of Dante’s Inferno translated into English. The first is “What should we make of the story?” assuming we don’t want to pull on our scholar’s togs and get all 1300 CE. The second is “How should we judge our experience of the language?” considering Dante is famously difficult to translate.

I’ll address both questions within the context of Clive James’ new translation of Inferno published as part of The Divine Comedy earlier this year.

What the Hell is Up with Hell?

As you doubtless know if you bothered to click through to this post, the Inferno follows Dante Alighieri, a Florentine Italian born in the 13th century who has lost his way in middle age as he travels through hell accompanied by the poet Virgil in search of (ultimately) God’s love or, as it may be, the hottest platonic one-night stand in all of literary history with his dead and now angelic crush-for-eternity, Beatrice.

Dante’s excellent adventure will take him through Purgatory and finally to Heaven, but first he has to get past hell; and hell is a horrible place to live, although it is unbeatable as a destination if you are tourist, which is essentially what Dante is.

As a fictitious world – and since I am a liberal Christian, I am going to posit hell does not exist – Dante’s Inferno is an unparalleled feat of imagination. Hogwarts may be more fey and witty, Middle Earth may be more thoroughly worked out (though maybe not since Dante drags all of Italy and much of 1300 Europe into his poem). But for sheer originality and ummph-um-pa-pa, nothing comes close to Dante’s hell.

Nothing comes close to the Inferno in the category of high-class torture porn, either. And torture porn is something this monument of world literature doubtlessly is. Dante the poet, rather than Dante the character in the poem, revels in the sufferings he has dreamed up and canto after canto delivers stand-out horrifying and/or disgusting examples of the concept of “poetic justice”.

Hell is supposed to be the expression of divine retribution. Why then does it often feel closer to bloody-minded titillation? This question is probably familiar to anyone who has seen the frescos in medieval Italian churches or Albrecht Dürer‘s gorgeous engravings of the Inferno, but it is worth repeating.

Then there is the issue of just what kind of sins get you into hell and how much shit these sins get you into once you are there.

Dante’s hell starts off sensibly enough. We begin with the virtuous pagans: you were good guys, but you didn’t know Christ so sorry, you’re screwed. Then sins of appetite or emotion that follow along with many of the seven deadly ones: lust, gluttony, and wrath for example. Then heresy. We know medieval Christians were particular about people disagreeing with them, even on the small stuff, so okay fine, we’ll give Dante a pass on heresy. Then violence in the seventh circle – we’re right with you D, we definitely don’t like violence.

But then we get to the eighth circle of hell, where the fraudulent are punished, and here the head scratching of modern humanist readers begins.

Because the eighth circle is filled with panderers, flatterers, astrologists, simoniacs, corrupt politicians, thieves, counterfeiters – while Attila the Hun is rumored to be floating around a whole circle above.

How is it exactly that a guy who raped and killed his way across the Eastern and Western Roman Empires for twenty years is considered a little less bad than someone who made a living out of telling a dull king he was brilliant or proclaiming that since the moon was in the seventh house, now is a propitious moment to make the moves on your lady friend?

And speaking of rape, where are the rapists? Mixed in with the violent I guess, but they don’t merit a mention to all appearances. Where are those that hate? In the eighth circle, the only ones that truly deserve to be there by modern lights are the Sowers of Discord. Traitors are in the ninth and last circle, with Satan in the center of it all.

Dante Loves Him Some Dante

Another particular feature of the Inferno is just how highly Dante thinks of himself. It starts with the foundational premise of the whole Divine Comedy, namely that Beatrice in heaven has persuaded God to give Dante some special help.

Now I know God is all-knowing and all-powerful and his love has no bounds, etcetera; but there are plenty of people in heaven who have friends on earth, and God seems to have issued exactly one golden ticket for exactly one special tour of his magical damnation plus salvation factory, and that ticket went to you, Dante. And you didn’t even need to buy a Wonka Bar to get it.

Then there is the remarkable early canto where poets like Homer, Horace, and Ovid welcome Dante as a colleague and equal. Now I’m not saying they are wrong. Dante is their equal. But – dude – you write yourself into a scene where great dead poets of antiquity say you’re the bomb, and then you get all choked up and grateful about it? I ain’t buying.

It almost seems petty to note, beside these examples, that Dante the character also makes a habit in hell of telling various suffering souls he can make or break their reputations back on earth if they don’t play nice and answer his questions. Apparently, being God’s special project and an immortal poet ain’t enough for D. He has to make sure people know he’s the world’s best PR flak, too.

There’s also the whole Dante-Virgil bromance, or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a major man-crush Dante has on Virgil; and also the Dante getting to decide who goes to hell thing; but I will let these slide because other commentators have noted them and because I believe I might now be trying your patience with this line of criticism. If not my flipness.

The Clive James’ Translation of Dante’s Inferno

I should say before I go forward, offering small praise for great achievements, that Dante consistently writes scenes that are convincingly felt; that many of these scenes are compelling without understanding the background of the characters involved (but not always); and that the Inferno has incredible momentum – it reads fast and short, even with the volume of detail and people it contains.

This is especially remarkable considering that James’ translation of the Inferno is substantially longer than the original because he has woven into his work many explanations about characters and stories which Dante’s readers would not have required and which other translators typically place in footnotes.

I find this an odd choice because it is for just such information that God first invented footnotes and more recently, the tablet computer. I can’t blame James for ignoring this second invention, since he says he began work long before the iPad and Kindle Fire were invented; but these devices render the need for extensive notes obsolete. Honestly, most folks who are going to buy a copy of The Divine Comedy likely own mobile computers and can sit comfortably in bed with both James’ book and their tablet. I did. Worked beautifully.

As for James’ translation, I think it is as good as you can expect from the impossible task of translating Dante into English.

It’s not simply Dante’s famous ABA BCB terza rima that makes him difficult. English translators with any sense at all avoid it, and James uses an ABAB scheme and iambic pentameter with an AA rhyme at the end of each canto instead.

It’s also that Dante is justly celebrated for the vividness, precision, compactness, and music of his poetry. The little time I spent with a side by side translation of Dante makes me admire anyone brave enough to try it.

James is brave enough and often succeeds beautifully. You’ll find many sequences of lines where you’ll forget you are reading a translation or rhyming poetry at all.

But then, inevitably, you’ll also find lines where syntax or word choice (and so sense) are distorted to fit the poem’s scheme as well as filler words, stuck in to keep the pentameter or jury-rig a rhyme. This pops up during moments when, for example, Dante might ask a question and Virgil says before answering it, “You ask me so I’ll tell you.”

But I’ll apologize to James because these feel like quibbles, and offer what I hope is a compliment instead: your Inferno was so good it made me eager to read Purgatorio. I’ll let you all know how it went when I’m done.

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sookie stackhouse novels harrisIf the perfect beach book (1) offers a likeable heroine (2) tells stories about problems you don’t have, (3) is smart but not taxing, and (4) contains enough sex to make up for the fact you can’t have any since you a sharing a motel room with your kids – then Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels, including the recently published Dead Ever After, are pretty good choices.

Certainly, Ms. Harris has earned her success with the character of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid living among vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, and just-folks humans in the small Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps.

Much of Sookie’s appeal comes from the fact that she is a normal person. Every day, she gets up and works an unglamorous job. She shops for food, buys gas, cleans her house, and watches TV. At night, she says her prayers. On Sunday mornings, she goes to the local Methodist church. Sookie tries to look after her hard-working but sexually reckless brother. Most of the time, she wonders if she’s done right or not.

Sookie is also appealing because her strength comes from her character, not her paranormal abilities. In almost every fight with a supernatural being – and with many normal humans – Sookie is overmatched, but she will fight all the same if forced, rather than surrender. Sookie also has great courage. She will put herself in danger to help a friend or a person to whom she feels obligated. She will act on principle when it’s against her own self-interest. And she can make hard decisions when her good sense tells her she has to make them.

Another quality of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels is their social commentary. The books are occupied with how society treats people who are different, and you don’t have to look hard to see the parallels between the vampires in Harris’ novel and homosexuals (and others outside sexual, gender, and lifestyle norms) in our own.

The supernatural can also be seen as the outward manifestation of interior psychology in the novels. Sookie dates vampires and werewolves, which is another way of saying she goes out with no-good men who are blood-suckers and animals, while ignoring the romantic possibilities with her dependable boss Sam, a shape shifter who likes to take the form of a collie.

Sookie’s mind-reading power functions in a similar way. Her telepathy is really the magical extension of her natural intelligence and perceptiveness, qualities that can make a woman living in a small town “different” or “odd” to many of the people around her.

None of these parallels should be taken too far. Harris does not invest every character or story with a deeper meaning. Or put another way, with a nod toward Freud’s famous observation, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse books.

Charlaine Harris is not a great prose stylist, but her writing demonstrates craft, and Harris conveys the sound of Sookie’s voice – and particularly her sense of humor – very effectively.

Her plot architecture is another matter, however. Many of the books are constructed around a series of loosely related incidents, rather than a unified story that has an arc and momentum. The mystery elements of her stories are often thin and feel perfunctory. Her plots seldom twist. And as the series has stretched on, it has become more and more of a soap opera.

This is not such a bad thing for beach books, however, and it means that you can read the series in any order. So try a couple if you discover you just can’t read Woolf’s The Waves while the ocean crashes and the seagulls cry and your neighbors the next umbrella over are blasting Bon Jovi. I couldn’t.

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What’s the difference between an innovation and a gimmick in literature? An innovation expands the author’s vision while a gimmick tries to hide his lack of one. You’ll find excellent examples of both in George Saunders’ recent short story collection, Tenth of December.

When Saunders is good in this volume, he is very good indeed, and the elements he uses frequently throughout Tenth of December work well together to create resonant stories. These elements include …

  • language that is faulty or inadequate, usually because the narrative voice belongs to a person with whom Saunders has not shared his gifts as a writer.
  • characters who are teetering on the edge of economic / social / psychological / personal failure confronting other characters who enjoy extraordinary success (no one seems to occupy the middle ground).
  • the motif of fictional pharmaceuticals that can regulate every human characteristic.
  • strong satiric impulses balanced by great empathy for his characters.

tenth of december george saundersOne of the best stories in Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead” in which Saunders slowly reveals to us that the narrator is being used as an unwilling test subject for powerful drugs because he has been convicted of murder. Here words are deformed by bureaucrats and scientists, who use technical language to obscure the horror of their actions, and Saunders deploys his innovative premise to deliver a knock-out meditation on free will, regret, and redemption.

Another excellent story is “Victory Lap” which tells the anxiety-provoking tale of a high school girl, the middle-aged man who attempts to kidnap her, and a high school boy who intervenes.  Saunders nails the voices of all three characters. The kidnapper narrates the pathetic execution of his pathetic fantasy to perfection, but it is the teenagers who really shine. Their words grasp at ideas and emotions without quite seizing hold of them, and you get the sense in the end that Saunders intends the triteness of their language to be a deliberate defense against the fear they experienced.

In these examples, the innovations – the science-fiction premise of “Spiderhead”, the conspicuously stylized narration of “Victory Lap” – work with the other elements to create stories that capture your mind, your heart, and your gut. But that’s not the case for every story in Tenth of December.

For example, “Exhortation” is a staff memo composed of inept motivational business-speak wrapped around the message that the department will all be fired unless performance measures improve. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is mostly about what happens when a worker at a Renaissance-Fair business takes a drug that makes him a highly articulate speaker of ersatz medieval dialect.

Other than admiring Saunders prose, or nodding in automatic agreement at the obvious lessons (offices are insane places in “Exhortation” and sexual harassment is bad in “Fiasco”), there is little for the reader to do. The gimmick of the style doesn’t hide the thinness of the story.

The longest piece in this collection, and I think the weakest, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. The story is told through the diary of a man who plunges his family from serious money problems to desperate money problems by making an expensive, impulsive, and useless purchase.

This purchase happens to be (as is eventually revealed to us) four young girls from poor countries who hire themselves out as living lawn ornaments.

As a big honking obvious metaphor for the exploitation of third-world labor by Americans, you would be hard pressed to find a metaphor bigger or more honking or more obvious. Once Saunders shows the metaphor to you, however, there is not much left. You can enjoy the gyrations of the story. I didn’t. You can admire his prose style. I did. But virtuosity alone is never enough to satisfy me. It has to be in the service of something other than itself.

Don’t let this stop you from reading Tenth of December. The rewards outweigh the frustrations, and your effort will be entirely redeemed by its best and shortest story, “Sticks,” in which a man tries to connect with his family by decorating a metal pole in their yard with clothes and words. Here Saunders does more in two pages than many writers can do in one hundred. And that’s neither innovation or gimmick. That’s  talent.

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