Kate Ross, Ursula K. Le Guin, Umberto Eco (trans. William Weaver), Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver)

The following books were read in December 2005.

Cut to the Quick, by Kate Ross: The first of the Julian Kestrel mysteries featuring a Regency dandy as the detective. When you hear such a premise, the sort of protagonist brought to mind is a flippant, well-dressed wit whose trivial façade hides a sharp intellect. In a word, rather like Peter Wimsey minus perhaps the appearance of foolishness—in any case, someone who puts on an act of superficiality as befitting a dandy. I am not the first to hold such incorrect assumptions before making the acquaintance of Mr. Kestrel, arbiter of fashion and amateur detective, but I soon revised my impressions. Julian, to put it simply, is the epitome of cool. His very way of life can be summed up as “It’s not what one wears but how one wears it.” (I’m certain a quote to that effect occurs in the book.) I was surprised to find him such a sober character, and the resulting mystery is hardly the humorous novel of manners I expected, but rather dark and unsettling. More Brontë than Austen, with all the suppressed passion, buried family secrets, and declining noble houses (as Gothic as one can get without resorting to supernaturalism). Julian remains calm, collected and rational throughout the story but nonetheless he is rattled and provoked by events (no Holmesian detachment here).

Four Ways to Forgiveness, by Ursula K. Le Guin: Four interconnected novellas in the Hainish universe, describing the planet Werel and its former slave colony, Yeowe, which recently gained independence. Both planets hope to join the ranks of the Ekumen but are reluctant to accept the social and cultural changes sweeping both societies, in the wake of Yeowe declaring independence from Werel. After years of warfare attempting to keep control of its colony planet, Werel itself faces an internal emancipation movement and a breakdown in its internal caste system. Of course, Le Guin does not examine these societies from a bird’s-eye view; instead we are given a picture of these two planets piece by piece through the stories of the individuals living in this time of tumultuous change.

I confess, the reason why it’s taken me so long to update this blog is because I have been trying and trying for many months to write down my reaction to this book. That it made an impact is certain, although I can’t say that the book provoked any major change in my way of thinking. However, these four novellas are some of the most compelling stories I’ve read by Le Guin (I would rank it with The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and the short story “Solitude”). Le Guin chooses outsiders for her perspective: outsiders because they are marginalized by society or outsiders because they are strangers. There are many social issues explored in new and thought-provoking ways, from the institution of slavery itself to the position of women in an oppressed society to the tension between tradition and progress. Slavery forms the major theme, and Le Guin creates an interesting twist on the issue of race and skin color. The Werelians all have blue-toned skin (a pigmentation developed in response to their sun’s spectrum), and the slaveowners have dark, blue-black skin while the slaves are pale, almost ashen. I appreciate these details of worldbuilding in Le Guin’s writing; she is as memorable to me for the cultures she constructs as she is for her characters. Indeed, an easy connection to draw is the slave-based societies of the Confederate South and the aftermath of the Civil War, but in fact Yeowe reminds me also of African countries, struggling to build a nation post-independence, and Werel’s caste system reminds me at times of Hindu India and at times of even more ancient civilizations. But I think drawing such comparisons is useless and reductionist. These novellas are not commenting on the history of one specific nation; they are describing something fundamentally human. Le Guin is describing the journey, both metaphorical and literal, of an individual in a changing society and culture: the struggle to define yourself as a person when others are so willing to reduce you to anything less. It is not a paean to individualism but rather a testament to human integrity. There, it took me far too long to figure out how to say that, but now that I have, it’s almost a relief.

A Broken Vessel, by Kate Ross: In retrospect, I think this mystery was my least favorite of the series. I liked Sally well enough but didn’t understand why she was so fascinating to Julian (I don’t know if he quite understood that himself). More to the point, the crime itself was dreadfully unpleasant, especially the abduction of young girls and women. That isn’t to say that crime is ever pleasant to read about, but the theme of degradation ran throughout the novel, from the reform house for “fallen” women to the horridness of the crime itself. So many of the incidental characters, not to mention the main culprit himself, repulsed me, and Julian didn’t play enough of a role to erase the bad flavor left in my mouth. But it does Kate Ross credit, since it’s a much more realistic depiction of Regency society than the drawing rooms of Almack’s alone.

Whom the Gods Love, by Kate Ross: Quite possibly the best constructed mystery in the series. Through Julian, we get to see the dead man from the perspectives of the people affected by him: first as the man he appeared to be, then more gradually, the man he really was underneath. We are left with vivid portraits not only of Alexander Falkland but of all the other characters as well, with their fears and passions, at both their best and their worst. I think this book is the only one in the series where Julian doesn’t fall in love with a woman. Of course, my favorite part of the book was Verity Clare, better than the most audacious of Shakespearean crossdressing heroines. The scene where Julian meets the Clares’ grandfather was also a rare insight into Julian’s past; he is such a self-contained, unreadable person that he makes it difficult for anyone, including the reader, to get a handle on him. Julian is someone who takes excruciating care not to expose his vulnerabilities in public or private. It was nice, I thought, to see him drop his defenses, even for a second.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco (trans. William Weaver): I don’t understand at all how people can tolerate the insipid prose of The Da Vinci Code when they have a sheer masterpiece like Foucault’s Pendulum to fill all their occult conspiracy-theorizing needs. Actually, mentioning the two books in the same paragraph seems a sin, since the two operate on completely different levels. I once heard that reading Foucault’s Pendulum was a prerequisite for any would-be modern literate, but it was not so much the cleverness or the erudition that impressed me as the sheer epic impact of the book. The wittiness (I couldn’t stop laughing at the wry humor in some parts of the book, especially in the descriptions of some of the “Isis Unveiled” patrons), the growing uncertainty and suspense (the book begins on a foreboding note, that a joke gone too far would become sinister), the love, the tragedy, the mystery in the oldest sense of the word. The book covers an exhaustive spread of occult-related subjects, from the Templars and Rosicrucians to South American voodoo rituals. Not to mention speculation on nearly any other imaginable topic as well, like computer programming and pinball machines. I love literature when it thinks in such an exuberant fashion, drawing wild yet convincing connections, where everything is a metaphor, in both a meaningless and meaningful way. The book is not just about faith and skepticism, but about Europe in the post-war era, about falling in love and being in love, about dissatisfaction, about identity, about making sense of a nonsensical world. Foucault’s Pendulum was one of those books that washed over me like a tidal wave, such was its colossal force.

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver): I finally settled down to reading Calvino, after seeing him referenced just about everywhere. I was about to choose If on a winter’s night a traveler but changed my mind at the last instant, because who could resist the poetry in this image: Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, one listening for the first time of the cities in his own empire that the other has traversed. I was reminded of Schrödinger’s Cat, multiplied manifold: an infinite range of possible cities…Are they one city? Many cities? Something of the tone reminded me of Kahlil Gibran—the imagery, the traveling, the distant setting. Indeed, a book to read over and over again, in excerpts and in whole, on insomniac nights or long subway rides.

Comment (1)

  1. Datenshi Blue wrote::

    I totally agree with you about The DaVinci Code and Foucault’s Pendulum. I was lucky to read Foucault’s Pendulum way before I read The DaVinci Code and I just couldn’t see what the big deal about the Code was. I liked the parts where there’s talk about DaVinci’s paintings, but that’s about it. Everything else looks like a cheap ripoff.

    I believe that Foucault’s Pendulum is a masterpiece. *___*

    Friday, August 4, 2006 at 04:54 #