Friday, May 21, 2010

Getting Stoned with Savages

GETTING STONED WITH SAVAGES (J. Maarten Troost) - Three Stars

I haven't been reading much lately, and was pondering closing down this site. I decided to keep it open (since my reading thirst waxes and wanes), but I'm scaling back. From now on, each "review" will simply be a start rating and maybe one or two sentences about the book. Detailed conversation can occur in the comments section if anyone desires.

Getting Stoned with Savages doesn't have quite the freshness of Troost's preceding book, Sex Lives of Cannibals, but his writing does have a good humor to it and his books are a nice combination of travel guide and anthropological study.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Road

THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) - Four Stars

Too much post-apocalyptic media is focused on the apocalypse itself. We are with the protagonist(s) when tragedy strikes, and we follow them through the aftermath. "The Road" focuses several years down the line, when whatever threat that originally caused the apocalypse is long dead, and the survivors must deal with the new threats that have risen from the rubble. Indeed, the apocalyptic event in "The Road" is barely even mentioned. Vague flashbacks hint at a nuclear holocaust, but the whos, whys, wheres and whens aren't even thought about.

This vagueness and lack of detail permeates every aspect of the novel. There are no names: places are referred to as "the river" or "the house," the protagonists of the novel are simply "The Man" and his son, "The Boy." Time, too, is irrelevant: it is mentioned infrequently in monthly classifications, and McCarthy often leaps forward weeks at a time unannounced, leaving it up to the reader to determine how much time has passed. And, of course, the landscape plays right into this: dead trees, blasted earth, deserted cities. McCarthy's palette has no color, only a thousand shades of gray.

The simple plot: The Man, certain they won't survive another winter at their current location, leads The Boy south on a road to the sea, in hopes of finding warmth, food, and (theoretically) good people. However, the father is so fanatically protective of his son (and distrusting of every stranger) one wonders how anyone could ever get close enough to them (literally and figuratively) to be seen as good. The ruthless selfishness with which The Man protects The Boy precludes them from being anything but loners, and every day is simply a rote journey of trying to find enough food to stay alive while avoiding the roving gangs of starving cannibals.

Despite the constant threat, very little happens in the novel. The threat is constant, but again, just a kind of vague, gray threat hanging just outside the current events. McCarthy's biggest success is keeping the novel interesting and preventing it from sliding into monotony, despite the absence of intricate detail and the fact the same thing happens in pretty much every section of the book. All of this combined gives me zero desire to see the movie. This is a story that can only be told in literary form. If the movie is at all exciting, it hasn't been faithful to the book (which sounds like an indictment against the novel, when it isn't). Even the horror of what humanity has become is kept at arm's length for most of the novel, so when McCarthy hits you in the face with sparsely-placed gory details, they are doubly shocking.

However, the book lost some punch for me. Being as it is almost entirely about a father's love for his son, my own damaged relationship with my father (coupled with my total absence of desire to have a child) may have sapped some of the impact. To me, it was a three-star story written with five-star skill. And what skill! This is a master author at the peak of his game. Anyone with even a little interest at reading skilled writing should give the book a go.

In the end, the lengths The Man will go to for his son brings his own claim about being one of the "good guys" into question. It's just one last way McCarthy surpasses the standard. Instead of tackling the philosophically simple "how far would you go to survive?" McCarthy poses a far trickier question: "how far SHOULD you go?"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Secret History of Moscow

THE SECRET HISTORY OF MOSCOW (Ekaterina Sedia) - Two Stars

The Secret History... is a story about disaffected 1990s Russia citizens who discover an alternate-dimension/underworld underneath the streets of Moscow. A place where all of the old Russian fairy tales actually exist, as do some people who had to escape tragedy on the surface. Father Frost, rusalki, domovoi, Napoleonic soldiers, Decembrists' Wives and many other inhabit this strange underworld of black water and glowing trees.

The plot, what there is of one, involves a Russian mobster who has discovered a way to trap people's souls and send them to the underworld (the "whys" and "hows" are never gone into in great detail). The story is primarily about a handful of surface world denizen's adventures in the underworld as they try to find out while people have been turning into birds But the plot meanders and the pacing is uneven.

A few of the characters are pretty well fleshed-out, but the cast of the story is quite large and most are barely more than cardboard cutouts or plot contrivances. The various sub-plots are handled in a similar fashion: some are quite ingenious, some are aborted barely after being started, and several more fade into the background and are left unresolved.

I dunno. It was an easy read and mildly enjoyable, just not terribly fulfilling. In a way I feel bad for giving it two stars, but it's warts are plentiful and evident. Plus, I look at the list of three-star books and it's not as good as any of those.