Saturday, October 24, 2015

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Darkness Visible:  A Memoir of Madness by William Styron is a slender, yet profound, exploration of one man’s struggle with depression.  While in Paris to receive a prestigious award, the author becomes increasingly aware of how deeply his depression has rooted itself in his psyche and decides to get help once and for all.  His candor in describing his complicated journey towards wellness lends this a strength few memoirs offer.

Styron is best known for his novels, Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner possibly most of all.  I was curious to see how Styron would describe his personal experience, mostly because I am dealing with several people who seem to be struggling with depression.   It is easy to forget that, even though in our society we talk more openly about mental health issues, there is still a strong stigma attached to a diagnosis of depression. 

Most remarkable for me, was reading Styron’s honest subjectivity.  He never projects his personal experience onto others. He concedes that what worked for him may not be the solution for others, reinforcing the idea that each person’s experience is unique.  It would be easy for a reader to assume that what’s true for the author is true for everyone who has depression but he never allows this false idea to take root. 

I suppose this is what I appreciate most about this book and why I want to recommend it to anyone who knows someone with depression.  While it may not give you insight into the specifics of why the person you know is suffering, it will give you a better understanding, maybe even some compassion, about why this is such a struggle.  If nothing else, perhaps the insight on the pages will build some patience in your heart and, even where you may not be able to fully understand the profound struggle, you can find room to listen to the person living with depression.  At least, I hope that this is what is happening for me, anyway.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Bats of the Republic:  An Illuminated Novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson is a cleverly told story that takes place in an America that is both familiar and unique and moves in and through time.  Filled with illustrations from documents, drawings supposedly made by the characters themselves, there is so much creativity used to tell the parallel stories of Zeke Thomas and his ancestor Zadoch Thomas.  The blurb itself suggests a further connection—Zadoch Thomas has been given the responsibility to deliver a secret letter and, three centuries later, Zeke is given that letter when his own grandfather dies.  Things begin to spiral out of control when the letter goes missing.

That’s all in the blurb and it takes over 100 pages for the letter to go missing.  And the cloud of bats, also mentioned in the blurb, don’t appear until after page 300.  Until then, you are supposed to become so enchanted with the men’s stories, and the stories of the women, Eliza and Elswyth, that you can’t help but read on in spite of the constant shifts in story from one narrator to another, into the novel within this novel and all the transcripts and documents that are provided.

It is truly a well-crafted novel and I can’t help but think that the author got caught up in How he wanted to tell the story and What he wanted the reader to take away from the story that he forgot two very important things:  characters and plot.  The characters here are all two-dimensional and nobody has a clear change of heart.  In other words, the bad guys stay bad and the good guys remain boring page after page after page.  Even when the characters were most in peril, I had no problem putting the book down and picking up another book.

Seriously, when reading a memoir about depression and suicidal ideation is more entertaining than a novel, something is wrong.

The plot is thin, at best. There really is no narrative arch whatsoever. I desperately hoped that the conclusion would brilliantly tie everything together but it didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love novels that have ambiguous endings and/or don’t fall into the neat little package of a happy ending.  I didn’t want something concrete. I just wanted . . . something.  And this novel offered nothing but a few fragments of interesting images and mostly tedious to read text.  (Don’t even get me started on the white font on black paper, which was bad enough without there being grey font on black paper.  FYI, there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of websites that use grey font on a black screen and you’d think someone would have figured out a still clever but more legible way to translate the author’s creative intent accordingly.)

After slogging through the hundreds of pages of disjointed content, the story ends and Dodson inserts a photograph of a bat suffering from White-Nose Syndrome and explains that the bat population is at huge risk because of this fungus.  He shares a link to the BatCon organization.  If you simply must part with your money or merely want to learn more about bats, I urge you to google Bat Conservation International and donate the money you would spend on this book directly to them.  You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and tedium and still have the pleasure of learning more about bats.  And it’s great to want to draw attention to the plight of bats.  Too bad an author with as much inspiration but more talent couldn’t have bene the one to do it.  Unfortunately, the ones I think best equipped to have done this more effectively are not alive (David Foster Wallace, Terry Pratchett) or have other things to write (Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates).  In the hands of an author who could make how the story is told as important as the story itself, perhaps the bat population would stand a chance.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan is the first novel in the massive Wheel of Time books.  I began reading these back in 2005 or 2006 but realized I was reading them faster than the author was publishing them and, since I loathe waiting for The Next Book, I stopped reading, planning to read the entire series once all thirteen books were published.  And now that all fourteen books are not only in publication but have been so for a while, I am finally getting around to reading them all. 

In this first novel, we are introduced to Rand al’Thor, his best friends Matrim (Mat) and Perrin, plus the village girl on whom he has a crush, Egwene al’Vere, and Nynaeve, the village Wisdom who is training Egwene to follow in her footsteps.  Other important characters include Moiraine and Lan, whom some readers may have met in New Spring.  Following in the tradition of James Campbell’s hero cycle, Thor and the others are forced to flee their homes.  Along the way, they make more friends (Thom Merrilin—a Gleeman, Loial—an Ogier) and enemies.  At first, the young travelers see everything as a fun adventure but the danger to them all increases and the urgency of their quest forces them to take greater risks. 

Each of the characters is motivated by something different.  Rand, forced from his home, at first only wishes to return but soon realizes that the danger that he faces is following him so returning to his village would only endanger everyone and everything he holds dear.  Mat and Perrin initially go for the adventure but both are, like Rand, changed.  Egwene wishes to follow Moiraine to the White Tower to become an Aes Sedai.  Nynaeve, determined to bring them all home, initially follows them to protect her neighbors but finds other reasons to continue in the journey. 

In the end, each character, having been changed, is forced to make a difficult decision.  Although they are all still together, it is clear that they must go their separate ways if they are to not only fulfill their destiny but do what they each believe they must.  The reader is left gratified but also curious to know what will happen next. 

Unlike George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, this series is not especially dark, following more along the lines of the High Fantasy tradition of J R R Tolkien, without sounding quite as mythic.  And Robert Jordan creates a complex world, with layers of details that don’t always seem significant but come into play later, sometimes not until a later book.  This is why so many people choose to read and reread these books.  I’m glad I’m finally getting around to finishing the series because I have wanted to know for a long time what happens with Rand and the others.  I have my suspicions but I believe Jordan, and eventually Brandon Sanderson (who was hired to finish writing the series when Jordan was diagnosed with an incurable disease), are sure to surprise me.  If not, I’ll know in thirteen more books. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is another brilliant novel from a woman who knows how to craft a story that reads like a classic but has all of the modern psychological depth of a contemporary novel.  I loved her book, Tipping the Velvet, so my expectations were pretty high, going into this book.  Isn’t it lovely when you finish a book you hoped you’d really enjoy and find yourself having fallen in love?

The story sounds like something straight out of Dickens. Sue Trinder is an orphan living in Victorian London with a family of thieves.  When a member of the family comes with a scheme to cheat an heiress of her wealth, Sue is enlisted to help, tightening the loose threads of her fate, even as the ties herself more firmly to the loyalty she feels for her family. 

The novel is told in the first person from two point-of-views, in the past and present tense, depending on the narrator.  This two-point perspective manipulates the reader even as the characters manipulate one another, creating sympathy for some and more disdain for others.  And just when you think you know what is going to happen, or believe you couldn’t like a character (or perhaps hate one more), Waters masterfully twists things yet again. 

Can you tell I loved this novel?  I became delightfully lost in the story and had to force myself to put it down when life insisted I stop reading.  Brilliant novel for anyone who loves Dickens or the Victorian Era but wants something more modern, more provocative, yet equally gratifying to read.

I would love to see the BBC production someday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel from an author who has written frighteningly prescient novels.  I mean, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed impossible until the neo-conservatives started making noise in United States politics. 

In this novel, Stan and Charmaine are living in their car as their lives and society have fallen apart.  The economic collapse has resulted in the couple being jobless, homeless, and facing a violent world where they have no choice but to find a way of surviving.  When they learn about an opportunity to give them a haven, a home and employment, naturally they are willing to do anything to be safe.  And much will be demanded of both as they sign on the dotted lines. 

Although neither Stan nor Charmaine are especially likeable, you do come to care about what will happen to them.  There are many twists and turns, fueled by the desperation to live a “typical” life.  But when society itself has fallen apart, what is typical and how much can anyone sacrifice to escape an ugly reality?

Atwood does a wonderful job of exploring the cost of sacrificing personal freedom for security.  It’s easy to see the implications in our own media as politicians continue to warn us about the dangers of terrorism and illegal immigrants, highlighting how our economy continues to struggle, and we’re on the brink of disaster from within so vote for me and I’ll save you and yours.  Yes, my expectations were very high for this novel because it was favorably compared with The Blind Assassin in the blurb but I don’t think this novel comes even close to being as brilliant as the former novel.  And with all the unexpected twists and turns presented, there were a few that I saw coming a mile away, including the “big shock” at the end of the novel. Nonetheless, it was a compelling read and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Gone Girl and or loves dystopian literature. Also, I was not aware that this was the fourth of a series of novels, and it definitely works as a stand-alone novel.  I may or may not go back and read some of the previous volumes.  So many books, so little time.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Out On The Wire by Jessica Abel

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel is an interesting resource told through Abel’s skillful use of graphic story telling.  She is an author of two textbooks about making comics which I joyfully gave to my daughter because Abel is so talented and able to communicate information that makes even confusing content accessible.

This new addition to her nonfiction graphic resources is no different, giving the reader a behind’s the scene look at how radio programs are produced, carrying reader from the inception of an idea to the final airing of an episode.  I had never thought much about the work that goes into some of the NPR programs with which I am so familiar.  I now have a better appreciation not only for This American Life and RadioLab but I find myself listening to podcasts with more respect for the work that goes into all of them. 

Early in the book, Abel shares an excerpt from a previous publication she made for This American Life called Radio: An Illustrated Guide.  The most interesting part of this is not only seeing how much has changed and/or stayed the same with how the one radio program is produced but even seeing Abel’s own creative process and growth.  The fact is that the rest of this book is actually stronger than the excerpt.  I honestly think it would have worked best as an appendix or even bonus at the end of the main text because so much in production has changed. 

Nonetheless, I found this book interesting, more so the more I read.  Although there are a lot of people who come and go on the page, Abel illustrates each so the reader is not left confused and even gives them a unique voice, evidence of her skill.  Even for someone  without a vested interest in learning how these programs are produced will find themselves, like me, enthralled with the various processes and later, long after the book itself is closed and on a shelf, listening to programs with greater appreciation.
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