A messy tribute to the power of story

Everville (Book of the Art #2)

Everville by Clive Barker

This is the second of Clive Barker’s planned “Books of the Art” trilogy. At heart, this expansive dark fantasy is a tribute to the power of story. Storytelling itself is part of the story. It’s very clever, but the execution is messy and unfocused. As usual, Clive Barker has inventive flashes of genius throughout that make you wonder how he ever thinks of these things. But while it’s an improvement over The Great and Secret Show, it’s still a far cry from his best work. It’s likable, though, and I enjoyed reading it for the most part.

I’m not sure if I’ll read the third one if there ever is one. The first came out in 1989, and this one in 1994. I don’t know what the long delay is, but I’m sadly not holding my breath for the continuation of this story. If you’re not already a Clive Barker fan, I’d recommend starting with Weaveworld, Imajica, and The Thief of Always instead of this series.

Another crazy horror world from Clive Barker

The Great and Secret Show (Book of the Art #1)The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Great and Secret Show is an expansive, unpredictable, and unsettling work of horror fantasy involving a dream world and its relationship to our own. Like much of Clive Barker‘s work, it’s wildly imaginative, gets you thinking differently about the world we live in, and is generally a good read.

But while it’s worth spending the time with this long, meandering book if you know you like Clive Barker’s work, I wouldn’t recommend this for the uninitiated. Weaveworld and Imajica are similarly expansive works, but both are tighter and better written than this, with more compelling stories with more interesting characters.

There’s also a general, well, goofiness to this book. The bad guys are more whiny and annoying than scary. And some things are just so over the top it almost seems to become a parody. Clive Barker always tries to push the boundaries, which I love, but in this book he just crosses into silliness sometimes.

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“Lust, murder, incest, and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature”

The Monk

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this post is from a review of The Monk in the British Critic. This book was scandalous in its day, and Lewis was forced to put out a censored version. He actually created four different versions over the years, according to the introduction. This is really one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. That’s an amazing thing to say about something that came out in 1796.

It’s best not to know too much about the plot before coming into this. It’s a classic Gothic novel, with crazy atmospherics and convoluted stories within stories. The central plot is about the corruption of a celibate monk by evil forces. Along the way, there are ghosts, a cross-dressing monk, seriously evil nuns, and more. I found myself laughing at how outrageous it all was and thoroughly enjoying every minute.

I think devout Christians would likely find this book pretty offensive. The characters are also not exactly fully fleshed out. But it’s a fun, quick, and easy read. If you’re looking for a classic that pushes the boundaries, you can’t beat it.

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Tom Jones is fun, but one of the greatest?

The History of Tom Jones, a FoundlingThe History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I try to read at least one major classic novel a year. They take more work than a contemporary book, but these are the greats, and there’s a reason they’ve lasted for so many years. I’ve long looked forward to reading The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. It’s on so many greatest-ever lists. It was also published around the time of Lawrence Sterne’s hilarious, creative The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I absolutely loved.

I was disappointed to find that Tom Jones isn’t in the same creative vein as Stern’s masterpiece or Don Quixote: Translated by Edith Grossman, which preceded it by more than a century. Henry Fielding’s classic is a well-structured picaresque novel about the roguish but essentially good-hearted Tom Jones and his comical pursuit of his beloved Sophia. I found it somewhat difficult to get into, but really enjoyed it by the end. Once you get to around page 500, the last 300 pages fly by. But that’s still 500 pages. It has a very intricately plotted story and, when things finally start clicking together, it moves forward at a relentless pace. The characters are thinly sketched, but you come to like many of them.

One warning is that each of the 18 books that make up the novel begins with an introductory chapter best used to cure insomnia. These self-indulgent, rambling discourses about writing and such have nothing to do with the story and just aren’t particularly interesting. Overall, though, this book is definitely worth the effort. It’s a bawdy, funny, and generally great book to spend some time with.

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A masterpiece of American literature

Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Song of Solomon is a masterpiece of American literature by Toni Morrison. Morrison has won all sorts of awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. If you haven’t read her work before, this is a great one to start with. It is one of those rare books that’s about people, politics, and American history all at the same time. The personal, political, and historical all resonate to create a powerful tapestry of human experience. It’s complex, beautiful, and marvelous. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Don’t read anything more about it; just read it.

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So much more than a Victorian romance

North and South

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

North and South begins in London, where Margaret Hale is staying with her wealthy cousin. After her cousin is married, Margaret returns home to find that her father, the parson in a small village, is having a crisis of conscience. He decides to quit his post in the church and takes a job as a private tutor in the northern manufacturing town of Milton. The air there is polluted, and the people suffer from poverty, starvation, and disease. Margaret comes to know people of different classes and gets involved in their affairs, including a conflict between a mill owner and his workers.

It’s best not to say much more about the plot, but Elizabeth Gaskell is, as always, entertaining and easy to read even as she depicts the most painful things. This book is admittedly not as masterful as Wives and Daughters. There is a very unlikely and frankly unnecessary coincidence to move the plot, and there are also some characters that she doesn’t treat with the empathy and sophistication that she does virtually all the characters in her later work. But I like how daring this was in its approach to social issues. It is partly a romance, which many seem to see it as, but it also tackles larger economic and social questions. Gaskell is clear-headed and prescient in her thoughts about technology and the constant changes it will continue to bring to society. In the end, though, this book really hinges on Margaret learning to grow up, take responsibility, and make her own choices. It’s almost a coming of age story at its core. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would rank it as one of the great works of Victorian literature.

One final note about the 2004 BBC production. I have loved many of these productions and couldn’t wait to see this one after reading the book. I had been really wondering how they could ever depict all these internal thoughts and revelations in a drama. After seeing the beginning, I realized they weren’t even trying. It may be great on its own merit, but I just couldn’t watch the thing, it seemed so far from the book in spirit.

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Touring the poetry universe

Poet's ChoicePoet’s Choice by Robert Hass
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read some of the columns by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass that make up this book when they were first published in the Washington Post. As a collection, this “notebook of a poet’s readings,” as Hass describes it, makes a wonderful bedside book. I would read one or two entries before turning off the light and fall asleep thinking about what I’d just read.

Hass is a thoughtful guide, posing questions and pointing out details to pay attention to. A particularly strong aspect of his selections is the wide range of different types of poems represented. Hass includes classics like Robert Frost’s haunting “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s powerful “Sympathy,” and Matsuo Basho’s haikus. You’ll also find wonderful poems by more contemporary poets such as Denise Levertov, Hayden Carruth, and Michael Ondaatje. You never know what you’ll encounter next. It’s a surprising voyage of discovery, and there’s a lot to treasure if you keep an open mind.

Haas wrote that he aspired to help “give us back what we are losing–a shared, literate public culture.” I think this is a great model to follow, and makes a gem of a book.

Reading Beowolf

An epic poem written somewhere in the seventh to tenth century in Anglo-Saxon? Beowulf always sounded intimidating to me and sat on my shelf for years because of it.

I shouldn’t have waited. This is a great yarn told beautifully. Seamus Heaney‘s verse translation makes the poem exciting and accessible. It’s a gripping tale of heroes and monsters and dragons. But like all great literature, it’s also a lot more.

This poem tells of a feudal time before Christianity, a world before countries and their governments protected people. The fall of a king or a warrior could mean catastrophe. The bloody conflicts between the Geats, Danes, and Swedes bring a palpable sense of terror even more threatening than the monsters. An old woman’s worst fears at the end of the poem aren’t about monsters, but an invasion leading to slavery and abasement.

Beowulf is great not only for its story and its musings on glory, heroism, and aging, but also for the glimpse it gives us into a very distant past.

What’s Going On In There?

Hand opening doorI’ve been working on some poetry lately. “What’s Going On In There?” isn’t at all representative of what I’ve been doing. But I recently saw a call by Drunken Pen Writing for scary Halloween poems. A few days later, I was looking through some old poems of mine and noticed this short story that I’d never quite gotten to work. I wondered if it could work as a poem and gave it a try. I was much happier with it, and sent it off to DPW, which accepted it for publication. Read it here.