Saturday, January 21, 2012

EW's 20 Classic Closing Lines

It seems to me that if I was going to take on Entertainment Weekly’s 20 Best Opening Lines as a reading challenge, maybe I should also consider taking on the 20 Best Closing Lines as well.  That having been said, I’m going to back-pedal on trying to complete both lists in a single year.  I could absolutely do it, but it pre-supposes that I won’t be reading other books, those of the Not-On-These-Lists variety, and I just don’t think that’s reasonable.

Like the other list, some of these I’ve read, and some I haven’t.  Even more interesting, is that two of the books appear on both lists.  I will say, there are more books on this list that I have read and loved, and that I look forward to re-reading than the other.

So, here I go, with eyes bigger than my stomach for reading – let get going on another endeavor!  

1.  Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
2.  The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett (1953)
3.  Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
4.  The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1986)
5.  Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth (1995)
6.  Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
7.  Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
8.  A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
9.  Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)
10.  Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (1952)
11.  Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922)
12.  Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (1847)
13.  Sula, by Toni Morrison (1973)
14.  Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945)
15.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)
16.  The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler (1953)
17.  Rabbit, Run, by John Updike (1960)
18.  The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
19.  Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1961)
20.  The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Interesting literary fun fact: Charles Dickens was paid by the word to write.  This was a piece of information that I remembered only after finishing A Tale of Two Cities, but it explains a lot.  I’ve been trying to read this ‘great’ piece of literary zeitgeist for the better part of two weeks, and only just finished it.  Now, that’s a long time for such a short book.  My copy only runs about 370 pages – and when I finally buckled down and forced myself to finish it, it only took a few hours.  And, for those of you who take exception to my characterization of this work as ‘great’ above, don’t take offence.  I, personally, didn’t like it all that much, but I recognize the place it has in our literary tradition.

A Tale of Two Cities is…. well, it’s a little hard to explain.  For a 370 page book, only the last 150 pages have anything remotely close to readable pacing.  The first two-thirds are a long, drawn-out, morality exercise.  I flatter myself by considering that I have more than a passing knowledge of the French Revolutionary era and the Victorian era; Dickens was writing of the first during the second.  The purpose of the French Revolution (briefly) was to over-throw the traditional society and state structure that had driven everyone but the über-wealthy into abject poverty; the Victorian era is characterized (in part) by a sense of morality that would make Mother Teresa eager to throw off the shackles of convention.  Top all that off with the book having been written in 1859 – 10 years after a series of protests that for all intents and purposes destroyed the remaining traditional-core of Europe’s power bases and 20 years after the Corn Law Repeal movement in England, which really did away with any sense of an aristocratic power-base, and what you get it a novel that reads like it’s playing to today’s 99%.  The running sentiment to the first 200 pages or so is “Woe is me, I’m poor.  The rich suck.”  Blarg.  Too preachy, too long winded, too boring.  Worse, is that, as a historian, I was able to recognize various philosophies that were at play, and Dickens was anachronistic in using them as he did.  The only thing that kept me going was knowing I HAD to post SOMETHING on this blog soon, that this was a book on my reading challenge, and that it’s a pretty big piece of our literary history.

But then…. I don’t know, at one point, it got interesting.  It seemed as though Dickens realized he couldn’t drag out the writing of this work for too long and finally put the horse to the yoke (I did start typing ‘pedal to the metal,’ then thought the metaphor to anachronistic for this review) and started developing some plot.  When the action moves away from England, and into France, the reader is treated to various character and plot developments that are engaging and touching.  I’ll admit, I was tearing-up while reading the last page, and full-out sobbing when I got to the last line.  And no, I absolutely cannot tell you what happens.  The reader can take a good guess at what the ending will actually be by the start of the third book, but Dickens pulls out all the stops and engages you through the last part of the book, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you.

As I mentioned above, this book is part of a reading challenge I’m taking on in 2012.  A Tale of Two Cities was put on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 20 books with the best opening lines.  And this opening line is a doozy – everyone knows some iteration of it:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
See what I mean about getting paid by the word?  A ruthless editor would have cut that line, and this book, in half – if not more.  But, the true poetry of this book?  The true literary tapestry that everyone should know?  It’s the closing line:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
Still wordy, but emotionally painfully, not painful in an editorial sense. 

Now, someone writing a literary analysis of this work will point out to me the on-going dichotomy themes.  Thank you, Coles Notes, but I would have to seriously dumb to not catch that.  Both the opening and closing quotes reflect those themes, but I think they are reflective of the book as a whole: the first half requires a mental machete to hack your way through; the second half is emotionally poignant and elegant.

Should you read this book?  Sure, why not?  If you can find an abridged version for books 1 and 2, all the power to you, but try to read book 3 in its entirety.  However, I know one of my high school tutoring students was assigned this as class reading.  Do. Not. Force. Children. To. Read. This. Book.  There is no surer way of turning off a reader than expecting them to get through the first 200 pages of this book.  Wait until you’re mature enough to stick to a task, and don’t have a dozen other things clamouring for your attention.  I can’t insist everyone put this on their bucket list of books to read before they die, but you should give it at try at some point, if for no other reason than to say that you’ve read it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore

One of my all-time favorite books, by one of my all-time favorite authors, has to be Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by the incomparable Christopher Moore.  I first heard about this book back in my early undergraduate days and it hit me at a time when I was questioning my faith and my religion.  Though I was raised Roman Catholic, I was beginning to study European history in depth, and engaging in the theories behind the reformation debates.  Anyone with a passing knowledge of European religious history knows what a mess it was, and anyone with any in-depth knowledge of the topic can appreciate the various nuances that colour our modern religious world as having spouted from the cluster-f*ck that was the era in question.  Lamb, then, hit me at a time when I was exploring the realities of religion and faith, and it hit me hard.

At its basic tenant, Lamb is a comedy; it has to be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  Telling the tale is Biff, Jesus’ best friend, who proposes to the reader a history of the saviour NOT found in the gospels.  What did happen from manger to age 33?  Moore’s book (completely fictional and, in the author’s own words, not intended to be held in the same vein as the Bible) proposes how it was that a kid from Nazareth learnt to be the messiah.  Along with his good friend Biff, Jesus leaves Israel in search of the three wise men to learn how to meet his destiny.  With stops in Afghanistan, China, and India, Biff and Joshua (his real name, not the bastardized Greek version we use now) are on a quest for knowledge.  But different types of knowledge.  While Josh is learning about the Divine Spark (later to become the Holy Spirit, but only after Sparky the Wonder Spirit was vetoed) and how to love his fellow man, Biff learns about high explosives and how to love the women in his life.  In the dirtiest ways imaginable. 

The balance, then, between the two main characters is what makes this tale so heartwarmingly relatable.  We all know who Josh turns out to be, but Biff’s presence gives us an understanding of who that man might actually have been – Biff adds humanity and humility to the man who was the Son of God.  That humanity is probably best captured in the line “Don’t ever let anyone tell you the Prince of Peace never struck anyone.”  Biff had it coming though – he was hitting on Josh’s mom.  Jesus/Joshua becomes touchingly real and human in this book.  And when you think of it, that is amazing.  Moore was able to take a character we all know, and all have pre-conceived notions about, and wipe away the party line and, instead, give us a completely new person.  The results are commendable. 

I don’t want to get too deep here – that is not the purpose of this book.  At its heart, it was designed to make you laugh, and it does just that.  Within its pages we find the root of the Jewish tradition of having Chinese food at Christmas (while living with the 8 Chinese concubines of Gaspar, the first wise man, it was a yearly event); we hear of Josh’s love of irony when in India he can’t stop poking Untouchables; and we learn that the Easter Bunny results from Josh’s over-indulging in the water-come-wine at the wedding in Cana, getting morose, and decreeing that every time he was sad, bunnies should be around since they made him happy (“So let it be written…” he told Biff, and it stuck.)

I had the great pleasure of meeting Christopher Moore at a book signing once, and we spoke briefly about who this book appealed to most.  In his experience it was always lapsed Catholics and Mormons.  I have to say, I fit the mold.  I was already pulling away from my religion when I found this book, and it was one of the (many) nails in the coffin.  Not to discount anyone else’s beliefs, but to me, the world needs more humour – too many people take the Bible (and other Holy Books) and turn it to their own purposes; many times with tragic results.  Lamb, on the other hand, seeks to make you smile and laugh.  I’m not saying Moore turned me atheist, but his work made me re-evaluate the energy I was putting into my internal debate, and I realized it wasn’t worth it.  I would rather laugh and live with a light heart than follow the proscribed rules and traditions of a book which, as a professional Historian, I can’t confirm the validity of.  I can read the King James version of the Sermon on the Mount, and feel preached at, or I can remember the drafting process between Biff and Josh in which dumbfucks were to inherit fruit baskets.  (Biff insisted that line get drawn, and it was.)  Give me Josh over Jesus any day.

Do I recommend this book?  Absolutely.  I have read it (almost) every Christmas for the last 7 years, and I never get tired of it.  I think it should be proscribed reading for everyone.  I get the impression that this is very much a cult classic amongst the literary set, but I wish it was more main-stream zeitgeist.  There were a couple of Christmases where I was giving Lamb away as gifts to all my friends; I even gave it to my very devout aunt.  (Who loved it by the way.  I did hear, however, that her Church friends think I’m evil for spreading it around.  Oh well).  I implore you to read this book, then read the rest of Moore’s works.  If you are looking for an introduction to classic Moore, you’ll find it in Lamb.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Pendergast Series, by Doug Preston and Lincoln Child

This Christmas I decided to spend away from home.  After a bear of a year, the stress of Christmas did not appeal, and I decided that I would rather spend a week sitting on a beach, doing things at my own pace, and indulging in my passion for reading.  And that’s exactly what I did.  I was gone for 7 days, and took with me a bunch of books and managed to read most of Preston and Child’s series of Special Agent Pendergast books.  It was classic me – spending all day reading and managing to devour 8 books in 7 days.  I freely admit I have an addictive personality, and it usually presents itself with book series.

Once again, my interest was caught by the extremely engaging nature of the characters in the book.  The main character which runs through each book is FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, an extremely intelligent and wealthy individual who has no time for rules and proper procedures.  In most of the books, he’s assisted in his investigations by Vincent d’Agosta, an NYPD detective who is loyal to a fault.  Having read Relic and Reliquary (the first two books in the series), I had assumed the d’Agosta would be a staple in each books, but that’s not necessarily true.  While he’s a character in almost all of the books, there are a couple which the authors call ‘standalone’ books in which he doesn’t make an appearance.

In terms of a series, these books all have a similar flow, but a few of them don’t fit the general pattern of the others.  What do I mean by that?  Well, most of the books follow the same general pattern – a series of crimes (serial killings) being committed by what could conceivably be a supernatural force, Pendegrast (sometimes added by d’Agosta) steps in to investigate, and it’s revealed in the end that there is a perfectly logical, scientific explanation for everything.  It does a realist’s heart good to get to those endings…. But a handful of the books incorporate non-scientific probabilities.  Because I was enjoying the reading and the vacation so much, I went with it, but in retrospect, I think I would have rather the authors leave out the hocus pocus, and stick with the scientific explanations.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the strongest books are the ones with solid police and scientific investigations at their core.

I briefly mentioned the ‘standalone’ books in the series.  There are several that can be read independent of knowing the rest of the books (though there are usually some call back or passing mention of previous characters), and there are several that are mini-series within the larger series of books.  Relic and Reliquary are a pair, and tell the story of the museum beast; Cabinet of Curiosities is a stand alone, but introduces several characters that you need to be familiar with to read the rest of the series; Still Life with Crows is a standalone, without d’Agosta, but is probably one of my favorites; Brimstone could be considered a standalone, but it’s dénouement leads directly into the next two books; Dance of Death and Book of the Dead, are another mini-series in which Pendergast has to stop his genius, but evil, brother Diogenes from carrying out the perfect crime (though there are two books, they arc as one story); next is the standalone The Wheel of Darkness, which I really didn’t like - this book completely departs from the realm of the believable, and following from the cohesiveness of the Diogenes arc, it’s a rather abrupt change from the authors; next is Cemetery Dance, which was the first Preston and Childs book I read, and which gets back to the tried and true pattern mentioned above (this too is a standalone, but there are characters present from previous books); finally, we come to Feaver Dream, the first of another mini-series, this time following Pendergrast’s attempts to find his wife’s murderers.  I was almost at the end before figuring out that I wasn’t going to get a satisfying resolution for this book, which sucked, since it was the very end of my vacation.  But still, I’m avidly waiting for a chance to read the next book in the run.

All in all, I really did enjoy these books.  I’m going to give myself a few months (maybe a year), and re-read them to see what I feel about them.  Admittedly, I managed to read them in unique circumstances, but I have a feeling that the majority of them will stand up well.  There are other Preston and Child books (not of the Pendergast series) that I’m sure I’ll be exploring in the near future, so I think it’s safe to say that these two are going on my list of authors that I keep a weather-eye out for.  In the end, I strongly recommend these books to anyone who enjoys fast paced, mystery fiction.