Friday, February 24, 2012

Fiction Friday (8)

I noticed this morning that it's been quite some time since I had a Fiction Friday. This is partially due to my blog slowdown in January, but mainly due to the fact that I spent over a month reading the same book. That's something that hasn't happened in some time. It wasn't a lack of reading that caused this but rather the length of the book. But as always, I conquered the text and have moved on. In order to properly put the past two months behind me, I give you reviews on the two books that occupied my reading time during that span. Enjoy.

Forever by Pete Hamill
(Back Bay Books, 2002)

This is the type of book I'd never pick up on my own, but which I read because it was a gift. The reason I say that is simply because a flip-through in the store would reveal that the writing style is not the kind I gravitate towards. I prefer more surrealistic language and transporting prose, and given that Pete Hamill is first and foremost a journalist, this novel is written in a more direct manner. For many people, that is probably a pro rather than a con, which is also probably why it has the "National Bestseller" tag printed on the cover while most of the books I read do not. All of that said, I did quite enjoy the book, even if it is a book with competing aspects, some of which I thought were far more intriguing than others.

The first hundred pages or so are firmly steeped in Celtic folklore and the conditions of Northern Ireland during the mid-1700's. It follows the story of a boy and his parents who live as protestants while secretly holding shunned religious beliefs. This world comes alive quite nicely, but as with the book as a whole, I found it tries to tackle too much, to be too all-inclusive, thus muddling the points it tries to make.

This first part of the book serves to set up a semi-epic frame tale that carries the rest of the narrative. It's a folktale-ish story of revenge and mysticism that plays out over 250 years in Manhattan. But the real highlight of the book for me was witnessing the evolution of New York through the character's eyes. Having been a New Yorker, it was utterly fascinating to see how this small island beat the odds to survive.

Then comes the last part of the book. As soon as this segment begins, it's painfully obvious that the story is going to turn into a 9/11 story. It felt disappointing to me because the book was so much more than that, yet it was ultimately going to be bunched into this sub-genre. But I suppose one can't talk about the history of New York City without dealing with the most important day in the city's history. And to it's credit, it covers the topic excellently. Having been in the relative area on that day, I felt this account captured the confusion and numbness that most New Yorkers experienced that day. Yet, at the same time, seems to discredit it by steeping it once again in mysticism.

In the end, this was a fascinating read that sometimes got lost trying to present social consciousness regarding slavery and equality within a context of folklore.

Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
(NYRB Classic, 2009)

Another fascinating book in the NYRB series, a series which attempts to bring lost books back into the world. This time it's a collection of several longish short stories by a Russian author. Most of these stories were written in 1920s, in the earliest days of the Soviet Union, but somehow they feel incredibly contemporary.

The writing style feels more in line with fiction of today than of the past. There's almost a post-modernist angle to many of the themes in the book, especially those dealing with the end of ideas and the bankruptcy of literature. There were so many great concepts and details in these stories that I continue to think about, now more than a month after finishing the book. One in particular involves an expanding room that reminds me so much of Doctor Who and his brand of Time Lord science. Certainly worth checking out from literary historian point of view.

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