Drive By Reviewing

by Wardog

Four for the price of one! Wardog shares her surprisingly terse thoughts on Middlesex, 13 Ways Of Looking at the Novel, The Angel with One Hundred Wings and Biting the Sun.
I've been reading in a particularly ferretbrainish way of late, rapidly and relatively indiscriminately, accumulating about a paragraph's worth of opinion per novel. It's not that these books aren't worthy of a full review, it's just it seems the majority of my critical facilities were turned off or otherwise dormant at the time of reading.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

Thus begins Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer-pulling Middlesex, the story (or rather history) of Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides, bearer of a rare genetic mutation. S/he is a hermaphrodite raised as a girl, ''reborn'' as a genetic boy in adolescence. Now a man living in Berlin, pursuing love and still struggling to understand himself, Cal unravels his history and identity back through the generations to his grandparents, the siblings Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, their escape from Smyrna to the promised land of America in 1922, their love affair and their marriage.

I read The Virgin Suicides a few years ago which, despite being quite stylistically accomplished, left me primarily, to use a technical literary term, feeling rather blah. Middlesex, however, is completely different: rich in detail and resonance where The Virgin Suicides seemed distant and careless. The book sprawls across eight decades of family life and American history, by turns poignant, profound, hilarious and often downright bizarre (a Muslim temple scam? the invention of hot dogs that flex like biceps?), but never wavering in its affection for and acceptance of humanity in all its forms and guises.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is apparently the famous author of several novels I haven't read; I picked up 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel because of its big friendly cover. The last book of popular criticism I chanced upon was John Carey's What Good Are The Arts which gave me trouble with what I perceived to be its rhetorical tricks and cagey refusal to commit to an opinion. There's no danger of that, here, though. Jane Smiley's unpretentious accessible style may lack Carey's wit and flair but it's refreshingly direct and no-nonsense.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is Smiley's response to 9/11. Experiencing writer's block for the first time in her life, she chose to read a hundred novels. Or rather, as she explains in one the most charming passages in the book, she was going to read rather more than that but then she realised she was a slow reader. The novels she has chosen, she explains, aren't meant to be a hundred of the best, they are novels she believes to be important or interesting, and they are a fine, eclectic collection ranging from the Tale of Genji to Lolita to White Teeth.

Smiley's book can be divided roughly into three parts: the first explores the novel form itself starting with some incredibly simplistic definitions that this jaded ex-student nevertheless found rather comforting (i.e. it is long and written in prose), the second (in my opinion least interesting) segment seems to be something of a guide to writing your own novel (this can summarised as: it is hard, have confidence and keep going), in the third, Smiley offers a mini-essay on each of the hundred novels she read.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel offers nothing new or radical but it has a certain down-to-earth open-mindedness that is highly appealing. Although Smiley augments her earlier definitions with considerations of the history of the novel and the psychological of the novel and so forth, she is at her best when exploring the pleasurable intimacy of the novel and the covenant between author and reader and protagonists. If anything, it falls a little awkwardly between categories, neither detailed nor depthy enough to appeal to "serious" readers and too personal and whimsical to really serve as an introduction to the novel. But the style is engaging and the conclusions unthreatening and that, in itself, must be its main recommendation.

The Angel with One Hundred Wings: A Tale from the Arabian Nights by Daniel Horch

I picked this up primarily for nostalgic reasons, hardly knowing what to expect. As a child I had a particularly memorable copy of the Arabian Nights and by particularly memorable I mean deceptively short and beautifully illustrated. The Angel With One Hundred Wings is set in Baghdad during the ninth century, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, a generous but capricious and ultimately rather lonely monarch. The narrator of the story is Abulhassan, a pharmacist and alchemist, an elderly man renowned for his piety and wisdom. The book consists of numerous interweaving plots, but the main one concerns the love triangle that develops between the Sultan, his beloved fifteen year old concubine Shemselnehar and the Prince of Persia (who, for the record, does absolutely no jumping onto ledges and falling into spike traps I was kind of disappointed). Abulhassan finds himself reluctantly at the centre of the affair, torn between loyalty to his friend the Sultan (with whom he plays chess) and loyalty to the Prince and as the situation grows ever more tangled and dangerous he learns to value what he has and to regret what his decisions have cost him.

Abulhassan is an interesting narrator for what could have otherwise been a quite conventional romantic story. Despite his age, he has neither the wisdom nor the piety with which he is credited. In fact, he is cowardly and ambitious and he knows it, but he gradually confronts his mistakes over the course of the book and, despite his flaws, he is never unsympathetic. Shemselnehar is similarly complex, despite her power and her beauty we never forget that she is a frightened fifteen year old girl far from home:

"But Shemselnehar, his beloved, he shielded only with his subjects' fear, and she walked through this world as if she had the plague."

And the Sultan, blinded by his love for Shemselnehar so that he does not recognise his own cruelty to her, never becomes easily classified as the villain of the piece. Actually, he was my favourite character, wearied by power and loneliness. If anything, the Prince of Persia was the weakest link he is so half-heartedly sketched that I think the implication must be that Shemselnehar loves him not because of who he is but because he represents the choice that the Sultan denied her.

It's a very easy and enjoyable read. It won't change your life but it is prettily and evocatively written and, if like me you're a complete ignoramus, the Arabian setting feels opulent, alien and exotic.

Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee

And now for something completely different! Biting the Sun consists of Tanith Lee's 1976 novel Don't Bite the Sun and its 1977 sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine. It's basically pure pulp sci-fi/fantasy but, since The Silver Metal Lover, made me cry like a girl I've had a shameful fondness for Tanith Lee that I am always looking for opportunities to indulge.

Both books are set in a distant future of scientifically implausible technology. Human beings live in a handful of weather-protected domes and are taught and cared for by machines through an almost endless adolescence. The teenagers change their bodies and their gender, have love affairs, take drugs, engage in synthetic dreams and, since technology has overcome death, kill themselves for kicks. The main threats are boredom and social exclusion.

It's all really very silly but it's great fun. Lee excels at depicting the petty passions of teenage life and her portrayal of soul-less decadence is, as ever, compelling. Both books follow the adventures of the unnamed narrator and her search for (and eventual discovery of) meaning. There's not much to be said about it really but if you're in the market for some easy-going trash this is utterly perfect.
Themes: Books

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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 23:27 on 2009-05-10
I think we need to have more drive-by reviews -- or perhaps random ones?
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