Review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie is a significant figure in modern writing, and I recently read his Joseph Anton: A Memoir (my review). In it he mentions the conception and the development of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Amazon affiliate link), and how it related to the very real issues in his life at the time he wrote it.

As an English teacher I focused heavily on young adult literature, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories is aimed at younger audiences than I typically worked with, but that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of merit.

Where Rushdie gets things right is in having an ironclad story concept and premise. This is a book you can read to kids, because the surface-level action is top-notch and flows smoothly, the wordplay introduces new vocabulary while also adding comic twists on characters, and the deeper subtext is great for discussion and bears deeper themes.

To describe this book in one word, I would say that it is mythological.

It’s set in a world inspired by Rushdie’s Indian Muslim heritage, with a strong helping of literary references beyond that. It’s exotic without being needlessly so, and that helps contribute to an overall spirit of whimsy and discovery.

There are some darker themes and elements: there’s allusions to Rushdie’s life hiding from a fatwa calling for his assassination, but only in a very veiled and indirect form as part of Rashid’s troubles with his storytelling. A central conflict between light and darkness, which is resolved by both sides coming together in harmony, could be thematically scary. The protagonist’s mother leaves his father for another man at the start of the story.

With this said, none of the content in the book is gratuitous. It all takes place in a larger narrative, and its goal is to raise and answer questions, not just expose children to ideas without giving them the foundation from which to deal with a complex world.

Of course, as someone familiar with Rushdie, it’s clear that these are all taken from events in his own life. He handles them respectfully, without claiming to have perfect knowledge. The bond between Rashid and Haroun that develops over the course of the story is touching, and delves deep into the nature of fatherhood. Rushdie’s life as a condemned writer shows through the cracks as well.

It’s worth noting that the epic battle between good and evil is presented in a way that is very deliberately pro-freedom. Rushdie doesn’t condemn his opponents as single-faceted villains, and they’re given as much complexity as is possible in such a work, but he makes clear why they’re the villains and why it is necessary that people have the freedom to speak and to tell stories.

Reading the book as someone interested in Rushdie’s life and evaluating it for its use in the classroom or teaching, I found it quite enjoyable nonetheless on entertainment merits. Rushdie has a very clear and compelling style, and while he dresses it up in a fanciful, almost Seussian, manner for the sake of being amusing, he does so with a lyricism and authenticity that is infectious.

There were quite a few points where I had to just stop and guffaw at something that had been said. Rushdie makes sure that there aren’t obtuse things that only make sense to adults (and the book is free of crass double meanings), but there are definitely parts that are absurdly humorous or deeply profound that only more mature readers can fully appreciate.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a fantastic book, and one I look forward to reading with children. It’s tremendous for its storytelling, sublime in its language, lofty in its message, and meaningful to its core. There’s a few positively excellent bedtime stories in here, and beneath them lie deep depths of wisdom and artistic expression.

Review of When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (Amazon affiliate link) tells the story of a British detective in the master writer’s hallmark style.

All of Ishiguro’s work that I am familiar with–The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant (my review), and When We Were Orphans–shares similar storytelling methods and a common motif of how memory leads and misleads us through our lives.

When We Were Orphans is stylistically closer to The Remains of the Day, and if you had told me that Christopher Banks were the protagonist of The Remains of the Day I would need to seek out biological trivia to prove you wrong. This is the sort of character that Ishiguro seems to have the strongest affinity for, however. If people complained that The Buried Giant was muddled because of the constant shift between focal characters, they will be happy to know that all the mystery and confusion that comes from When We Were Orphans is a result of Christopher’s own confused memory.

Unlike the two other novels I’ve read by Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans focuses more heavily on action through its sole protagonist’s eyes, though it is written in the form of letters recounting events.

The Buried Giant certainly has some action, but it’s told only through a few characters’ eyes (three out of several, and two of these only barely).

What Banks encounters in When We Were Orphans is more personal and builds up tension better, at least in my opinion. This external tension is paired with internal tension, so while Ishiguro’s other work is primarily reliant on psychological suuspense one also gets the feeling that Banks’ life could very well be in danger at many points.

Whether this is an improvement or not, I am actually unsure. I will say that When We Were Orphans reminds me a lot of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich in terms of the protagonist’s development. Where the other novels by Ishiguro often dwell on themes of self-deception, this one goes more heavily into it, to the point that an astute reader should quickly see where Banks has deceived himself.

Set in the period immediately preceding the Second World War, it should not be particularly surprising that this theme would play a key role in the novel, as the question of what to do in light of growing totalitarianism and the crisis this spread through the free world is one that forms a central element of the conflict. Banks’ self-deception is matched by an equally good effort by almost every other character in the novel.

However, it is worth noting that Ishiguro does not let this descend into triviality.

Banks is a man of singular conviction, a master detective who also at many times has things escape him because he is not prepared to see them. He is someone who struggles with his memory and putting his perceptions into order, but like the elites of Britain in his day, who he hobnobs with, he has a certain amount of naivete. Despite claiming and earnestly believing that there is a struggle between good and evil, he parrots the notion that he is one of the good guys doing good work while holding on to deep cynicism in other ways; he doesn’t have the hero’s spirit, but he has the hero’s role.

The delusional excesses of the period are played out over and over, and much of the novel’s appeal lies in how it handles the role of an evidently exceptional individual trapped in a declining culture.

The childhood period of Christopher’s life in Shanghai, where the novel spends much of its time recounting his relationship with his mother, raises many of the questions that the book is going to continue to develop over its course.

And that is something that I would cite as a great strength of When We Were Orphans. It raises a large number of questions, like the masters would, but unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy he doesn’t feel compelled to provide us with a clear answer and spoil half the point of the exercise. This is in no way a criticism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy–they were guides trying to lead society away from perdition–but Ishiguro asks questions about the nature of the hell that the great novelists of the 1800s were trying to steer us away from.

When We Were Orphans is a darker novel, thematically speaking, than Ishiguro’s other work. The Remains of the Day deals with personal tragedy, The Buried Giant deals with historical injustice and the depravity of the world, and When We Were Orphans deals with both.

As with his other novels, Ishiguro expects the reader to keep up with him, but the reward for that is a depth and authenticity to the characters and a mystery that the readers can try to solve. When We Were Orphans delivers intrigue and depth, and there’s a great story here. Just be forewarned that it takes a long time to get to where it’s going, and if your main focus is on figuring out “what happens” you’ll get to the conclusion before Ishiguro finishes asking the questions he poses.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant Review

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Amazon affiliate link) is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it has fantasy trappings that support a great literary story.

The story follows a man and his wife as they travel to see their son. I could draw comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and also to classic Arthurian stories simultaneously; it’s a fusion of modern narrative trappings with the worldview and storytelling style of ancients.

Along the path, the couple meets a variety of interesting characters. Most of the characters have an almost mythological role in story, and even those who are recycled from Arthurian legend have a very different presence in The Buried Giant, where they are turned into new and complex figures.

As a study in storytelling, The Buried Giant is tremendous. It switches between perspectives, develops a deep mythos that its characters explore, and plays with and subverts expectations.

If I had one criticism to give, it would be that it is unapproachable to the average reader. I do not know if this is necessarily the case, but it certainly feels like in The Buried Giant there’s a book that wants you to meet it where it stands, instead of coming to you. However, Ishiguro has not won the Nobel Prize for literature without reason. The read may be difficult, but it is difficult because it seeks to challenge the reader. My only other experience with Ishiguro’s work is The Remains of the Day (Amazon affiliate link), which I found really enjoyable. I thought I had written about it, but apparently I have not (or at least I can’t find it, which wouldn’t necessarily be that strange).

The Buried Giant is almost a hundred-and-eighty degree turn from The Remains of the Day. Some common themes are found in both books, especially around memory, and both focus heavily on characters in a deep way, similar to what you would expect from a Tolstoy novel. One major difference is the amount of dialogue. The Remains of the Day is largely introspective and focused on going back into memories, but The Buried Giant has a little more action and deals with the present and the desire to recall the past.

This is where I have seen the most criticism for The Buried Giant. It is written in Arthurian language, or rather, the dialogue and introspectives are, si9nce there are points where the author addresses the reader directly. This is an intentional stylistic choice, and to me feels comfortably like Lewis or Tolkien doing similar things in their works; in fact, I found the opening chapter to be very reminiscent of Tolkien in its storytelling format. However, these stylistic anomalies and the complexity of the text and storyline make it a matter of taste whether someone will like The Buried Giant or not.

My reading was split across two sittings, which is a testament to how compelling the book was, but it was certainly hard to follow and I had to go back and re-read passages a few times.

This is where another connection to Faulkner can be made. The Buried Giant is very much presented as a stream-of-consciousness, and it does a great job of having characters with secrets who are motivated by those Secrets but don’t give away the plot. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is not particularly exciting in terms of action; many of the events are talked about a lot. There is some drama in looking at how people feel about the various events; Gawain, the knight who accompanies the couple, is particularly interesting for how he views his own role in the universe and how it has changed in his mind from what others would view as objectively true.

In short, if you want the story about adventurers going out and fighting dragons and triumphing over their foes, you would do better with a swords and sorcery novel. There are high stakes, and even directly violent conflicts in the book. However, this is not what Ishiguro chooses to focus on; his protagonists are old and weary, and hardly seek any excitement, though they do manage to find some.

I don’t want to spoil the book, but it has Ishiguro’s trademark style of the ambiguity of memory and asking but never answering philosophical and psychological questions. It’s deep to its core, and I’m still pondering what some of the symbols and events represent. The unremembered histories of the characters, slowly recovered over the course of the novel, are a source of excellent dramatic tension, and also ask questions relevant to modern life.

Let me make it clear: The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. If you are interested in it because you’re interested in Arthurian legend, it will be interesting only in the sense that it is a reinterpretation of the stories. The characters are used as a sort of shibboleth, a representation of archetypal forces, not in the more traditional sense. They simply are taken from familiar forms so that we can connect with them more quickly.

I actually believe that this is one of the best parts of the book. The husband of the couple on whom the book focuses, Axl, provides an entirely different viewpoint on the Arthurian legend than you’ll find in modern retellings.

It reminds me in many ways of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which I reviewed some time back.

I can’t necessarily recommend The Buried Giant. I liked it a lot. I would definitely recommend reading it if you want a book that can be studied deeply, and which has incredible meaning when interpreted. However, there’s an uneasiness to it. I believe this was intentional on Ishiguro’s part, a deliberate intention to not make a point, but it’s still frustrating in some ways because one can only guess what it intends to mean.

Stories about forgetting often fail to satisfy because they lack significance. The act of remembering something does not usually make for a great heroic act. Ishiguro was able to overcome this in The Remains of the Day, and he is able to overcome this in The Buried Giant. However, it’s more about the mystery than any active process, and even the greatest central action ties into the desire to remember more so than changing the world than it currently stands.

Perhaps that is Ishiguro’s point.

I heartily recommend it, but only with the caveat that it requires investment. Unlike The Remains of the Day, it’s not an easy read, but I found it just as profound.

Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1

I have been loosely interested in the works of Montaigne for a while (i.e. I knew of his name), but I was not yet ready to read them for myself; I just hadn’t worked up the interest and have a lot of other stuff on my reading list.

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Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (6-7)

I finished reading the Harry Potter series on Kindle, finishing The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows in pretty rapid succession. It’s been almost a week since I finished reading the latter, so I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts.

I know that I’ve already talked about how I considered the Harry Potter series quite good (for more see my previous posts on the first three books and fourth and fifth books) when I went to read it. I was part of the target audience back when it first came out, but just never got around to reading it for a variety of reasons.

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Review: Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)

It’s not a huge secret that I’m a superfan of the Expanse and all the books (and the comics, and the TV show). Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the series, is probably the only book that I’ve ever bought a (signed) physical copy of for myself after getting it on Kindle, because I just wanted to have it on my shelf.

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Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (4-5)

Before reading the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books (The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix), my opinion of the series was that it was quite good, but not quite what I would consider to be masterful work. I did quite personally enjoy the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the earlier two were of more academic interest to me: I enjoyed them, but no more than I would any average book.

For more on my thoughts, you can read the previous installment of my review and reflection.

Review

The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix (Amazon affiliate links) are a lot larger and darker than previous books, clocking in at a combined 1400 pages and featuring a lot more peril.

I read The Goblet of Fire in an old-school print format, but I switched over to reading from Kindle on my phone for The Order of the Phoenix, something which helped since the book got a little large to comfortably take with me and I was able to sneak constant little reads of the text.

When I was reading the first three books, my interest was largely satisfying personal and academic curiosity before developing into a desire to actually read the books for their own merit, but I’m happy to say that the fourth and fifth book strung me along quite well. It’s been a long time since I’ve devoted hours-long reading sessions to a book on multiple occasions during a day; I tend to break up reading between little tasks, but The Order of the Phoenix in particular led to a few occasions of me sitting on my couch, my cat in my lap (or beside me, or diligently ignoring me) for hours at a time.

A lot of this comes from how invested one has become in the characters by the time you get to the fourth and fifth books. They’re realistic, deep, and invoke sympathy and vicarious reactions. Even when they jump to wrong conclusions (a trope Rowling uses reliably but sparingly) and “pick up the idiot ball” to borrow an expression I’ve heard used frequently, they still feel like they’re making decisions because of their own motivations, rather than choices that drive the plot.

Much of what I could say about Rowling’s writing I have already said: I consider it to be very vivid and practical; it’s not quite the most deep prose, but for its audience it is sufficient, and I would argue that measuring writing by the depth of its prose is a poor metric. It is generally improved in the later books by any account, even though it did not necessarily need to.

Further, the stories get more archetypal depth as they develop; this is not only a consequence of extended length, but a reflection of the process of Harry and his friends growing more mature and becoming more aware of the reality around them.

Reflection

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the Harry Potter series is looking at the deep characters and how they’ve grown even deeper.

I mention archetypal characters a lot: through my Loreshaper Games stuff I’ve written a short series on role archetypes, the possible roles that characters can take in a story.

What I love about Harry Potter as I get deeper into it is that there are really deep interactions between the archetypes: Potter as the Hero, Hagrid as the Herald, Harry (and occasionally other characters, like Ginny, as the plot rolls on) as the Underdog, Dumbledore as the Mentor, George and Fred as the Trickster, Hermoine and Ron as the Ally, a plethora of characters as the Villain (at least one per novel, somewhat unsurprisingly), Sirius and Snape as the Shapeshifter, various characters as the Outsider (Harry, Hermoine, Sirius, Lupin, etc), and through it all Voldemort as the Serpent.

It’s patient and willing to develop these interactions and roles quite a bit, and it sets up a Hero’s Journey that is both divided into segments and then later into a longer complete saga of Harry growing up.

I know a lot of people have expressed concern about the darkness of the universe, but I think that this is actually a strength of the Harry Potter franchise. Children know that there are things in the world that they cannot see if they are sheltered from them (and if they are not sheltered, then there is no harm in what is contained in Harry Potter to begin with), but in the series they are directly uncovered and confronted allegorically through the role of the Hero and the development that Harry has to undergo.

Jung speaks of confronting the Shadow, the secret part of us that we choose not to look at, which holds both strengths and sins that we do not want to explore.

Harry Potter’s fourth and fifth book do that wonderfully; Harry is confronted by his own limitations but also his own potential and must rise up to meet the call that he has received. He makes mistakes, and there is real suffering that results both as a result of his action or inaction and forces that extend beyond his control, but his ability to be a compelling and noble figure is drawn from the fact that he strives, not that he always succeeds without loss.

There is death, sacrifice, and loss in these books, and also wanton deliberate evil. That may seem like a dark thing to contemplate, but it is also part of becoming fully human: one cannot accept themselves if they do not confront their Shadow, and cannot be good if they have not realized what it is to be evil.

There’s a point in The Order of the Phoenix when Harry is in a fight with a Death Eater, one of Voldemort’s servants, and he tries to use a Cruciatus curse to inflict unbearable pain on the Death Eater.

He tries, and ultimately fails, not because his execution of the spell was off, but because his heart was not in it: the Death Eater retorts that in order for such a spell to be effective, one must really mean it.

It’s a testament to his nobility, and one which shows this exploration of the Shadow in the most meaningful way: to be in a fight but not wish malice upon one’s opponent requires a control and willpower that is part of the Hero’s journey toward light and away from darkness.

Wrapping Up

I find the Harry Potter books to be growing on me as I read them more; this is probably because I am an adult reading them for the first time and their target audience definitely gets older as the books move on.

There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but it’s also an enjoyable read beneath that, which is quite a merit in its own right.

Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (1-3)

One of the books that I simply never read as a child was Harry Potter, and I never saw the films either. I wasn’t that far away from it in terms of advertising demographic: it was a big deal in my social circles when I was in 4th grade or so, but I’d already read the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and was moving up to more difficult books.

However, I’ve been studying mysticism and alchemy recently as a way of trying to get an insight into the pre-modern mind, and since Harry Potter is theoretically aligned with that while also being l highly acclaimed and culturally influential in young adult literature, I figured I should jump in and see what all the fuss is about.

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Review and Reflection: This Immortal (Roger Zelazny)

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Zelazny as a great sci-fi author, but I never actually read any of his stuff. Technically I still haven’t, because I listened to This Immortal (affiliate link) on Audible, but I’m going to count that as reading for the sake of this review.

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The Mere Wife Review

I’ve been perpetually struggling to keep up on my reading even as I double down on work and writing. Last week I read The Mere Wife, a novel (affiliate link) by Maria Dahvana Headley, and I found it quite interesting.

To borrow from the blurb on Amazon:

New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothers—a housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.

I’d say that this is a bit of an understatement, but it’s a good summary of the book in the sense that you should get an idea of what it is so you can decide whether you’re interested in checking it out further.

If you’re not sold, however, I strongly suggest that you check it out. It’s an interesting, compelling read.

Image courtesy of Amazon and Macmillan.

The whole novel is told in this delightful style, something that falls nicely between stream-of-consciousness and more traditional styles. The result is a book that is occasionally confusing, but only so much so as the complications of reality are to its characters’ minds.

Most of the time, it manages to combine the sort of crisp and clear imagery that one rarely finds outside of epics; I found myself frequently thinking of Homer and Beowulf as I looked at the language and deep descriptions, which are tremendously indulgent but have a sense of action to them, something that you see with many works that belong to an oral tradition.

As far as craft goes, I don’t think I can recommend it enough. It’s rare to get such a great glimpse into characters’ heads,

Thematically, it’s heavy. Many of the themes discussed relate to PTSD, family drama and infidelity, and violence. It’d get a nice graphic R rating if it were made into a movie.

However, while The Mere Wife may occasionally veer into the realm of the grotesque, it does so no more than sacrosanct myths. Where it resorts to vulgarity it does so to depict life as it is, and while I wouldn’t be passing it out on a middle-school reading list, I’d definitely recommend it to a mature reader, especially one who has already become familiar with Beowulf.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me as I read The Mere Wife is how close it manages to feel to that epic. The three act structure is maintained, though it is different, and the characters are all closely drawn from the original myth, but given their own life and meaning.

Honestly, even if you haven’t read Beowulf, I can still recommend The Mere Wife. The protagonist, Dana, is based off of the character of Grendel’s mother, who is barely a footnote in the original epic but comes to life throughout the novel as a tragic figure.

The tragedy plays deeply into the American consciousness, but also in general to the world of the 21st century. The loss of mysticism, digital panopticon, paranoia in the war on terror, and racial tensions of our day all are developed into themes and touched upon, questions that are answered, unanswered, and explored.

Universally, The Mere Wife puts us into the shoes of its characters. Loathsome or ennobling, each gets a fair shake, and we are left feeling sympathy for all of them. It lives up to the legacy of sagas and epics, and I was able to get through all 320 pages of the tale in just a couple days, finding every excuse possible to read it.

I really cannot recommend the book enough. I will conclude with the first paragraph of the novel; it was all the preview I needed to be convinced that it was worth checking out:

Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but I’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.