Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

22522805Blurb:

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review:

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, a fablelike quest story set in the decades after King Arthur’s reign, I was struck by a desire for something I never wanted to see again after receiving my high school diploma: a reading guide. I wanted an old-fashioned English class worksheet full of questions that used to make me rage (What does the titlesymbolize? Can we describe the novel as a modern-dayallegory? Why or why not?). This vintage wish is not masochistic but simply necessary: there is allegory and symbolism and motifs and all sorts of nitty-gritty literary stuff to unpack here, so much so that I needed a guide. Or maybe just a fellow reading discussion partner to accompany me.

Alone, as a piece of storytelling, The Buried Giant fails. As a motor of thought, however, as a tool to provoke meditation, it succeeds. Which, using my personal calculator, says that as a literary work, it fails overall. The problem here is that the story doesn’t stand up. Essentially, Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to find their son’s village. Along the way they meet a Saxon knight and start to grapple with the “mist,” no mere British meteorological phenomenon but a dastardly (or beneficent?) haze that fades the memories of all the medieval inhabitants. There’s also a dragon, of course.

Normally I’d be quite keen on any “literary” author’s attempt to retell legend, but the result here is flat, from the plot to the dialogue. (Brace yourself: one of the protagonist’s repeatedly calls his wife “princess.” And by repeatedly I mean every.single.time he has dialogue.) There’s excellent and timely stuff here about grudges and forgiveness, both after a lover’s quarrel or a bloody war, and if moving on really means moving forward, which means leaving the past firmly in the past. But the dull story inches toward an ending that we can predict, even if the final pages are on par with other masterful Ishiguro endings à la Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day.

The Buried Giant is evidence of Ishiguro’s continued fascination with memory. Is memory valuable or nefarious? Does it push us onward or pull us backward? Are we the lives we’re living or merely the lives we’ve lived? He’s normally a maestro with these topics, but it didn’t shine through here. With Ishiguro, however, my memory is merciful and short.

2 stars out of 5

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Review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

46165Blurb:

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic and witty first novel, was written when the author was only twenty-three years old. This semiautobiographical story of the handsome, indulged, and idealistic Princeton student Amory Blaine received critical raves and catapulted Fitzgerald to instant fame. Now, readers can enjoy the newly edited, authorized version of this early classic of the Jazz Age, based on Fitzgerald’s original manuscript. In this definitive text, This Side of Paradise captures the rhythms and romance of Fitzgerald’s youth and offers a poignant portrait of the “Lost Generation.”

Review:

The literary landscape is overpopulated with insufferable egotists, often of the white male semi-autobiographical variety, but what separates the sympathetic from the antipathetic?

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald playing in his usual time period with his usual beautiful words. In the booming era leading up to and following the Great War, men were being lost and found. A lucky guess on the stock market made you a millionaire and gave you a name, but battles in Europe led to a battered generation of men questioning where they were going and if it was anywhere good. Amory Blaine spends the entirety of This Side of Paradise as one of the lost until he miraculously finds himself at the end.

This joyous climax did not evoke any triumphant readerly emotions here, however, because Amory Blaine is the most hateful, undeserving character I’ve ever met. And sure, perhaps his character is a window into the minds of the Lost Generation, but if people were/are thinking like this, then I don’t want to know about it. Amory meanders through life, striving towards something indefinable, which is to say striving towards nothing. His privileged childhood and adolescence lead him to Princeton and into the arms of many delightful debutantes whose chief qualities are soft lips and the proclivity to use said lips even before a marriage proposal. Amory’s striving often looks more like stomping. In climbing upwards, he crushes these women and various other members of the underclass (in other words, anyone who didn’t spend his sixteenth and seventeenth years “prepping” in Connecticut, New York, or Massachusetts), an ascent which again, isn’t upwards, but nowards, since he has no destination except superiority.

These are legitimate words uttered by/about Amory:

Oh it isn’t that I mind the glittering caste system. I like having a bunch of hot cats on top, but gosh, I’ve got to be one of them…But I hate to get anywhere by working for it.

Amory usually liked men individually, yet feared them in crowds unless the crowd was around him.

He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her ; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think.

And say all you will about unlikeable narrators—I’m certainly an ardent defender as seen here—but something about Fitzgerald’s depiction of Amory rings false. I didn’t know if I should pity him or sympathize with him, so I ended up being disgusted by him. Amory, like personages from The Great Gatsby, is a careless man. But his thoughtfulness is supposed to make him a redeemable man as well, so that we cheer when he reaches epiphanous clarity riding along the New Jersey highway in the novel’s final pages.

Yet I couldn’t cheer for Amory, I couldn’t like Amory, I couldn’t even tolerate reading his various anodyne thoughts. Insipidness is still insipidness, even if it dresses well, prepped at St. Regis, studied at Princeton, and finds itself described by the magic words of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2 stars out of 5

Review: The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

2198274Blurb:

In 2000, Douglas Preston fulfilled a dream to move his family to Italy. Then he discovered that the olive grove in front of their 14th century farmhouse had been the scene of the most infamous double-murders in Italian history, committed by a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. Preston, intrigued, meets Italian investigative journalist Mario Spezi to learn more. This is the true story of their search for–and identification of–the man they believe committed the crimes, and their chilling interview with him. And then, in a strange twist of fate, Preston and Spezi themselves become targets of the police investigation. Preston has his phone tapped, is interrogated, and told to leave the country. Spezi fares worse: he is thrown into Italy’s grim Capanne prison, accused of being the Monster of Florence himself. Like one of Preston’s thrillers, The Monster Of Florence, tells a remarkable and harrowing story involving murder, mutilation, and suicide-and at the center of it, Preston and Spezi, caught in a bizarre prosecutorial vendetta.

Review:

There are frequently days when the crappiness of the world is too awful to even contemplate and I struggle not to simply fall to the ground, wrap my head in my hands, and give up. But after reading The Monster of Florence, no not anymore, because I have a talisman, a mantra of sorts, to repeat and cling to in these moments of darkness. I have a reminder that even if things are bad, they are not and could never be as uncomprehendingly inefficient, vile, pathetic, medieval, and, yes, even evil, as the Italian justice system. For the rest of my life, if I read an article about the incompetency of an American judge or watch a documentary about the failing criminal system, I can finish and soothe myself, “Well, at least it’s not Italy.”

How lovely it is for others to fail so that we can reassure ourselves that we are not the worst. This nonfiction story traces the beginnings of “Il mostro di Firenze,” the titular Monster of Florence, a serial killer worthy of the fascination for those who “love” (this is far from the right word, but I’m struggling to find better—evidence of an unhealthy fascination that should be discarded despite our undying interest?) serial killers. His trail of corpses spans decades in the picturesque Florentine hills. He kills couples in the midst of sex, shooting them with his infamous Beretta, and then cuts away pieces of the woman’s genitals to keep. His reign of terror was so great that by the end, he only victimized foreigners since every young Italian couple knew not to venture into the hills, no matter how much they wanted to find a secluded place to have sex.

And that’s only the killer. He’s far from the most interesting part of this tale. The plodding and misguided police investigation fingers numerous suspects but apparently never the right one. It becomes a humiliation for the authorities, which is where things proceed to become even more interesting. Scapegoat satanic cults are summoned from nowhere, bodies of innocents-now-presumed-guilty are exhumed years later and claimed to have been “replaced,” false evidence is planted in innocuous gardens, and journalists attempting to solve the case are arrested as accomplices.

The very writers of this book—an American journalist partnered with an Italian—are considered criminals for daring to question the extremely suspect conclusions of Italian prosecutors more eager to close the case than to find the right suspect. At one point a criminal profile of “Il Mostro” is assembled by the greatest team of FBI profilers on the planet only to be hidden away because it did not correspond to the suspect the Italian authorities wanted to convict. The judicial system is so profoundly incompetent that you get verdicts like this,“Acquitted; for the reason that the allegation is nonexistent.” In Italy the authorities can run free and fabricate charges, ruining dozens of lives in the process, all in the name of “justice” which for them is nothing more than saving or building their own reputations.

If you are fascinated by incompetency, you must read this book. If you watched the Amanda Knox case, aghast at the supposed “evidence,” read this book (the prosecutor in her case is also a villain here, coming up with crackpot theories about the Monster and then creating the evidence to support them after the fact.) Unfortunately, it’s not the best written book—Spezi and Preston wrote it half in Italian, half in English and then translated the other half for their respective audiences. It shows: the writing is often clunky, particularly the dialogue which reads like an airport thriller novel.

The Monster of Florence is about ego, not only the ego required to kill but also the ego to decide who is a killer. But it’s also about our egos, our ego as readers of true crime, that same ego that makes us slow down at a roadside accident and wonder, “What happened here?” It is egotistical to assume that we can unmask, that we even deserve to unmask, the identity of an unknown and notorious killer. Is truth feasible when so many people desperate to find it are running around looking for it? It’s folly, and it takes a system as disastrous as Italy’s to show it.

3 stars out of 5

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

870775Blurb:

Eva never really wanted to be a mother – and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

Review:

Today is an era of impermanence. The clothes we buy can be returned to the store with a receipt. The stories we hear on the radio enter our ears and disappear into the ether. The grudges we hold are thrown away with a mere “Sorry.” But I suppose there is one thing we can’t take back, for which there can be no redos or second thoughts. For women at least, a child is forever.

That’s where protagonist Eva finds herself after the birth of Kevin, her ambivalently desired son. From the moment he refuses to nurse from her breast, she wants to give him back. But she recognizes, of course, that this is impossible and would brand her as “evil” by most of the population.

The entire book is composed of retrospective epistles written in the aftermath of a school shooting committed by teenage Kevin. But it mostly grapples around the tense relationship between mother and son, asking, “Is Kevin difficult to love just because Kevin is difficult to love? Or is Kevin difficult to love because his mother doesn’t love him enough/properly/unconditionally/etc?”

Unconditional love has always scared me a little bit. Why should anyone deserve such power? I remember asking an ex-boyfriend question after question, “If I did this slightly horrible thing, would you stay with me? And if I did this slightly more horrible thing, would you still be with me? Okay, and what about if I did this truly truly awful unforgiveable thing? What about then?” He hated this “game” but I loved it. I wanted to know where the line in the sand was drawn. And maybe Kevin and Eva’s entire relationship is the attempt to draw a line in the sand, all the way up to killing several kids in a high school.

So mothers can’t get a redo for a child, and I guess most would also argue that another everlasting thing is murder. Death is forever, and the trigger puller is forever. Except what Shriver excellently shows here is the mania surrounding these mass shootings. His mother is not forgiven for her alleged maternal lapses; Kevin, however, is forgiven by his captivated audience. The reasons for Kevin’s massacre remain opaque. But it’s something about the desire to write his own story, to become an actor. Stricken by affluenza, he wants more and he wants the unknown.

We readers are complicit in consuming this story. But Shriver writes so well, choosing the perfect anecdotes to highlight Kevin’s developing killer psyche, that it’s impossible not to. We Need To Talk About Kevin tells you what will happen from the get-go. Yet it is still so complicated and defies simple understanding. And somehow this story about a mother hating her son, a son hating his mother, and this same son hating the world and thus destroying it is one of the greatest tales of forgiveness that I’ve ever read.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

10847Blurb:

Brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty insist they were commanded to kill by God. Krakauer’s investigation is a meticulously researched, bone-chilling narrative of polygamy, savage violence and unyielding faith: an incisive, gripping work of non-fiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behaviour.

Review:

I find it difficult to talk about religion because it’s forbidden to call it into question without being labeled “amoral” or quite simply just without hurting other people’s feelings. But this inability to discuss it has led to a lot of crimes committed in the name of God, and I think, like everything, to create positive change, religion needs to be interrogated. But as Jon Krakauer exposes in his exploration of Mormonism Under the Banner of Heaven, religion refuses any attempt at interrogation, hiding itself behind the specter of “faith.”

Faith. Impossible to understand because when you ask any questions about it, someone will respond that you merely “have to have faith.” How can you evaluate something that can’t be seen or heard or touched but merely felt? Krakauer does so by going back to the very beginnings of the Mormon faith, telling the story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets from God unearthed in Upstate New York to Brigham Young and his bloody war against US domination. At the same time he intersperses anecdotes from modern Mormons, particularly from the Fundamentalist sect, who believe, on faith, all sorts of weird things. A common belief among these men (they’re always men; since the Church only allowed black priests in 1978, I think sexual equality won’t arrive for quite some time) is that they all happen to be God’s one and only unique prophet who can interpret his word on Earth.

This story is a wild ride, incredibly readable despite dealing in straight fact, simply because for any non-Mormon and particularly for any non-“faith”-y person, it’s obvious, hilariously so, how ridiculous this religion can be. For example, if you look at historical documentation surrounding Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s divine proclamation supporting polygamy is not divine so much as he wanted a godly excuse for his earthly philandering ways. Celestial marriage, as the Mormons call it, has been the most divisive issue in the Church ever since, pretty funny considering it was created because the Church’s founder just couldn’t keep it in his pants.

Another surprising thing I learned from this book: Mormonism was born in blood. Lots of it. The Western world loves to call out Muslims as bloodthirsty barbarians, but look no farther than the late 1800s in Utah, where Mormons murdered hundreds of “Gentiles” sometimes for political posturing, sometimes just because.

If you’re at all interested in Mormonism, that uniquely American brand of faith which, by the by, is also one of the fastest growing religions on the planet, Under the Banner of Heaven is a terrific entry. For the faith or the faithless, there is something here. I finished it with a greater understanding of Mormon history but still no appreciation as to why some people are so compelled to believe. And for once, I’m okay not knowing, cognizant that “knowing” would mean “unknowing” almost everything else.

4 stars out of 5