Sun, 30 Nov 2003

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

— SjG @ 4:26 pm

John Barth, Mariner Books, 1991

Rarely do I read a book and get to the very end still undecided whether I really like it or really dislike it. This, however, is such a book.
Barth interweaves tales of legendary Arabia with modern New England, and does it in a way that’s compelling. Portions such as the narrator’s first experiences of love and sexuality are poignant, believable, and touching. Other portions, such as the endless plot twists in Sindbad’s world, feel too long and, eventually, contrived.

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The Innocent

— SjG @ 4:25 pm

Ian McEwan, Anchor Books, 1999.

Disturbing and compelling, the better parts of this story take place inside the head of a very young British agent in post-war Berlin. The surrounding story (dealing with the historical events and cloak-and-dagger logistics of Project Gold) is interesting, but the real fascination is watching our protagonist make the mistakes of youth, and then much more serious mistakes. As suggested by the title, we delve into innocence in all its meanings, as well as what happens as innocence meets up with experience and evil.

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Sun, 16 Nov 2003

I Thought My Father Was God, and other true stories from NPR’s National Story Project

— SjG @ 4:24 pm

Edited by Paul Auster, 2001, Picador Press.

There are some really good stories here. Some are touching, some are profound. We see that Auster is particularly interested, however, in stories that feature touching coincidences. This wouldn’t bother me, except that after a few, the Twilight-Zone-ish “coincidence … or something deeper?” theme starts to feel hokey.

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Sun, 9 Nov 2003

Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and his Son Pantagruel

— SjG @ 4:24 pm

Francis Rabelais, 1532 and later, as translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Antony Motteux, read as an e-book from

Way back in college, I had overheard educated people refer to Rabelais’ work as “The Porky’s of the 16th Century.” While I sincerely doubt anyone will remember the film Porky’s five hundred years from now (does anyone remember it now, a mere twenty-some years later?), I can see why Rabelais has endured. This particular book is longer than it needs to be, but it contains a curious mixture of moralizing and ribaldry. You can almost hear Rabelais chuckling through the centuries as he tweaks the nose of the establishment, while simultaneously espousing its values (e.g., Pantagruel’s morality lectures to Pantaglais).
Rabelais was fond of, and possibly one of the earliest users of, what I call “list humor.” This involves interrupting a story with a list of specific details, which start out reasonable, and become increasingly absurd, not the least so because of the length of the list. He also clearly enjoyed mixing ridiculous exaggeration into the midst of more prosaic descriptions. Modern readers may experience a bit of the Shakespeare/Bible Copycat Syndrome (“I thought that book was just a big bunch of cliches…”) and may find the book a bit long, but I’d recommend giving it a try.

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Thu, 9 Oct 2003

My Life as a Fake

— SjG @ 4:22 pm

Peter Carey, 2003, Random House

I would argue that the hallmark of Peter Carey’s writing is not necessarily the Australiana, nor his attention to details, but the way he describes people: somehow showing them to be ridiculous, misguided, and confused, while simultaneously offering a warm, human regard for them. This imbues the characters with a believability — they are flawed, yes, but mostly sympathetic. Carey’s obvious love of language further strengthens his characters, who express themselves in language that’s perfectly ordinary — for them.
My Life as a Fake is no exception. The threads of the story, woven around and extrapolated from an event in Australian literary history, are less important, in the end, than the interplay of characters and the language they use to express themselves.
Plot-wise, this is far from my favorite Peter Carey book. It has some interesting diversions through the territories of Southeast Asia, an exploration of a grand quest, and a number of people experiencing revelations of their personal histories. But, really, the total plot arc was not as compelling as the individual stories of the characters.
The language of My Life as a Fake, however, is subtle, and though it lacks the almost brutal directness of some of Carey’s other works (compare The Thrue History of the Kelly Gang, or Jack Maggs), there is an elegance to it. There are some nice touches, like an Australian who has lived long years in Singapore still occasionally calls people “mate,” but will also sometimes append names with a familiar “-la.”

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