Why I feel Leif Enger is the next John Steinbeck. 📚

I started reading Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander yesterday. As expected, I got ambushed and clobbered by brilliant prose, and woke up groggy several hours later, with my face in the book pages, amazed that I was unconscious to the world for how long??

I’ve read all of Enger’s previous books in order of publication — not hard to do, since there are only two of them.  It’s fascinating to track the growth of a writer through the voices of his books. Peace Like A River is like a spark of fire, and has the sound of youth: bursting with energy and superlatives, plumbing the heights and depths of emotion. It’s brilliant in the sense that light is brilliant and blinding. I got swept up in its ferocious passion, and love it for that.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome seems like a classic sophomore case. It feels more hesitant, as if now uncertain of its voice, and the fiery spark that animated Peace seemed almost quenched. Enger’s prose is still lovely and his characters are more poignantly drawn, but somehow the turns of phrase and imagery don’t glisten like they did, and this second novel doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance of the first. Yet, I sense that the prose of So Brave is starting to move in a different direction, as if it’s departing from the sources that animated Peace and reaching toward a new source or quality of prose, whatever that is. This second novel mostly falls short, although it sometimes enters that new source. While I thought So Brave was inferior to Peace, those moments of mastery encouraged me: Enger isn’t trying to recapture the past, but trying something new in his prose. (To be honest, I don’t think any author can ever quite recapture the spark of a first novel, and it’s futile to attempt.)

And Virgil Wander… Enger’s third novel successfully reaches those heights. That ‘spark’ is back, but it looks different. It’s still passionate, though not the fiery passion of Peace, and it feels more settled and matured.  Imagery and narrative glisten again, this time with more texture and complexity. And Virgil has something that the previous novels didn’t: a settled confidence that comes with experience and mastery of voice. The prose has control and precision that Peace didn’t have (and instead made up with passion) and So Brave was starting to reach for.

Have you read an author who manages to pack so much imagery and emotion into so few words?  Enger writes two sentences of less than ten words, or a two-line paragraph — and they paint a lush landscape in my mind, or evoke so many feelings of longing and wonder in me. It’s amazing. All his novels contain such turns of phrase, and they are the most precise and concentrated in Virgil Wander.

It’s been more than a decade since I last read or thought of John Steinbeck, but I think Enger gives life to his characters in Virgil Wander in similar ways as Steinbeck enlivens the cast of Cannery Row (my favourite of his stories) and The Grapes of Wrath.  Both authors have a way of drawing highly-textured, full-bodied characters in a single sentence. Main characters or bit players, they all spring off the page fully alive and with a sense of weight and history. And I think there are similarities between Enger and Steinbeck beyond characterization. Both have a whimsical knack for characterizing animals — simultaneously anthropomorphizing them while preserving their animal natures.  Both authors write with a strong sense of place, a deep embedding of the American person in their parts of America.  They address universals by getting into minute specifics of place and person. (For the record, I stole this from Russell Moore’s interview with Enger.)  And finally, it’s hard to describe, but it’s like both authors are pointing out the same kind of universal truth to me and evoking the same kinds of feelings in me.  The melancholy sorrow and numinous longing for beauty I felt when reading Steinbeck, I also feel when reading Enger.

Leif Enger’s prose is so simple, yet profound.  I want to write like him when I grow up.

I’m not finished with Virgil Wander yet, and I’m caught in the delightful position of simultaneously wanting to swallow it whole and savour every sentence. This is Enger’s best novel to date, and I look forward to being ambushed again the next time I pick it up.

📚 Book review: The Gatekeeper, by Nuraliah Norasid.

The Gatekeeper, by Nuraliah Norasid. Read July 2018.

An urban fantasy novel set in a world heavily reminiscent of Singapore. Norasid is a Muslim Singaporean author, and this novel won two literature prizes in 2016 and 2018.

The story follows Ria and Eedric, two characters who, amongst other things, are racial minorities — Ria is fully non-human, and Eedric is of half-human, half non-human parentage. Both characters face ongoing prejudice and ostracism that comes from being of an unacceptable, defeated bloodline. The story is about their struggle against a ruthless world and the increasing gulf between the majority culture and their minority status. While there are moments of brightness and hope, the story has a fatalistic overtone and ends bleakly. But not unsatisfactorily — this bleak ending is a prompt for reflection about one’s own assumptions about race, culture, and the position of minorities within a majority culture.

This book is of particular interest to me because I was Norasid’s countryman. _The Gatekeeper_ is steeped in South-east Asian culture: the history and setting of Manticura is reminiscent of Singapore’s own history, Ria and Eedric are representations of the indigenous Malay people prior to Chinese and European colonization. The novel contains a subtext of highlighting and critiquing the progress of Singapore from pre-colonial to colonial to independence to modernity, and also the social ills and complexities of inter-cultural and interracial matters in modern Singapore. The dialogue is written in the colloquial English of the region, rife with “Singlish” grammar and Malay words. When I read the dialogue, in my mind I also heard it spoken out loud in an accent well familiar to me.

Reading this book was an interesting experience. Norasid uses a fantasy setting to put distance between the reader and the cultural commentary on the real-world, to “make strange” the reality of the world so that we can see issues that would otherwise be camouflaged in normalcy. The cultural commentary was clarion and prompted my own reflection (I’ve experienced both sides of the racial-cultural majority/minority divide), but more than that, I was captivated by the juxtaposition of familiarity and strangeness of Manticura-Singapore. In some ways, that’s how I feel every time I go back to the region: it’s familiar, but also strange, and I’m now a foreigner in a place where my roots were — and perhaps, still are.

📚 Book review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley. Read June 2018.

This book reads like the fantasy equivalent of a hard SF novel: the story is primarily concerned with exploring an interesting idea, and the characters are just pegs to hang those ideas off. It’s an interesting concept, but the plot and, especially, the characters left much to be desired.

It started off well enough with an interesting premise (a terrorist bombing on Scotland Yard). The two POV characters were a bit bland and their POV voices read practically identical, but I was willing to go with it at first as the ideas in the story were interesting.

I did have a lot of trouble with the narrative style. It just seemed vague in the hazy, obscured kind of way. Now, I could detect a certain subtlety to it, like it was looking at characters, scenes, and the implications of scenes through sidelong gazes… but this didn’t work for me. It might be subtle to another reader, but I perceived it vague and bland. It was very much like looking through a hazy windows at happenings on the other side. The haziness didn’t tantalize, it just obscured things.

Unfortunately the novel didn’t get better. The story took an unexpected turn at around the 2/3rds mark: the romantic twist. Now, I generally take a dim view of romance in stories, and thus am quite critical about them. I completely did not buy this one. I think it wasn’t set up to my satisfaction — there were feints of some romantic flavour in the earlier scenes, but the payoff was jarring, like gunning from zero to 100% in a single scene. What’s more, I felt let down by the follow-through: the characters got away with it without any emotional fallout or consequences whatsoever in subsequent scenes. –Actually, there were consequences, but entirely of the plot-device sort. The consequences in character development seemed… non-existent.

As a result, I was thrown completely out of my suspension of disbelief, and lost respect for the story. I struggled to finish the rest of the novel because I couldn’t accept how the romantic twist changed and didn’t change the plot. Sad to say, I finished the novel with the taste of disappointment in my mouth. (And the plot about the terrorist bombing somehow slid out of focus and ended in a whimper, and the novel ultimately focused on the romance and relationships. Not quite what I was led to expect at the start of the novel.)

It’s probably just me. Overall, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is not a bad story. The ideas the story was exploring — namely how predicting the future impacts on causality and human nature — was quite interesting, in spite of the pedestrian characterization. And I’m quite sure that some of the subtlety in the narrative was completely lost on me, and it’s just the way I read books. But I didn’t think it was a good story either.

Book Review: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

I read Watership Down when I was in primary school, and it was a haunting, profound novel. I’ve decided to reread it as an adult, to see what my response is now after two decades.

Some books have lost their immensity and wonder, simply because I’ve grown older, have seen more of life, and live in a bigger and less ingenuous world. The Chronicles of Narnia was one such: the magic was not so profound when I reread it as an adult. I remember Watership Down made a huge impression on me as a child: it was haunting, and full of mystery, and the world was as wide and fell and “awe-full” as the rabbits saw it. Now, reading it almost 20 years later, the hugeness of the rabbits’ world was somewhat diminished (because I have seen and felt more of life), but the wonder and mystery was equally powerful as in the first reading.

There’s a quality in this novel that I’ve only felt in a few other
books. A fraught tension, an atmosphere of hugeness and terribleness, mixed with a profound and solemn melancholy. I think it comes from a sense not merely of the vastness of the world, but the profundity of existence. This makes this such a meaningful novel. While I didn’t feel the scope of the rabbits’ world as much as I felt as a child, I experienced the same mystery and profundity of life.

Watership Down reveals mystery and awe — not in intellectual, human ways, but in simple ways of the rabbit. For the rabbit, being is already wondrous as it is. Sometimes I need to come out of the heights of thought and return to this mere feeling of wonder. This is how the novel remains magical and completely worth reading.

I remember as a child, wondering why the story was so centred around Hazel. From the beginning I sympathised with Fiver, and always wanted to read more about him. But why was Hazel the focus of the story, why did he become Hazel-rah in the end?

I have some more insight now: Hazel is the everyman. Fiver is the visionary, and Bigwig is the protector, but Hazel represents the average person struggling to face and overcome his circumstances, trying to be a leader and encourage those who look up to him. He may not be as farseeing as Fiver, or as powerful as Bigwig, but he is the centre and the heart of the warren. It’s his everyman status that makes him honoured and well-rounded.

The years haven’t changed my love for Watership Down. it’s such a simple story, yet reveals the wonder and profundity that life is. Certainly a story for all ages.

Book Reviews: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

This year has been sparse for reading for various reasons, but now is as good as anytime to write book reviews again.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a book I’d wanted to read for a while. It didn’t disappoint.

It’s a slow story, told in epistolary/journal form by an elderly pastor to his young son. It’s a story about fathers and sons, family, and the struggle to reconcile different worlds and the rift between generations and lifestyles. It’s also a Christian story, about how an earthly father deals with a prodigal son.

The prose is luminous. Robinson has a way of turning the most everyday observation, and the most introspective thought, into a marvellous occasion. It is also rife with symbolism, all subtle, and only detectable if you understand Christian and Biblical principles.

It’s an intellectual story, and a faith story, and an American story. It haunts me.

The question the story basically asks and tries to deal with, is: “How does the Christian deal with the prodigal who is neither repentant nor forthcoming? How does one respond rightly according to one’s faith, how does one live faith out in the face of such a rift and an apparent defiance? Is American Christianity big enough to contain the prodigal?”

Gilead clearly poses this question to challenge Christian culture. Life and family are messy and untidy. And faith is not meant to be contemplated in the abstract, but acted out in the messy trenches of life. Is one’s faith robust enough to endure and influence the heartaches and circumstances of real life?

What is so compelling about the novel is that the narrator’s journey has no closure or ultimate growth: the only way he “grows” is in awareness of his own failings and inability to cross the gulf between the faithful and the prodigal. The stigma against the prodigal is so strong, a ban that cannot be broken. The prodigal demands honesty, but the narrator baulks at it, and that gulf is never crossed effectively. In the narrator’s failure lies the failure of many Christians, which originates from the ongoing tension between knowledge and practice. It is a commentary on Christianity, and a prompt for believers to consider their ways, and how their practice can often just widen the gulf between believers and those outside who are seeking answers, honesty, and evidence.

This is the conflict within the story’s narrator, and he never really overcomes it. His (and the novel’s) conclusion is: when words fail, when there’s an uncrossable gulf, when all the instinct is to shun and to ignore — the only way to cross over is through grace. The only reconciliation that can be made is that of grace, and blessing; not just grace shown by the faithful towards the prodigal, but also grace shown by the prodigal towards the failings and weaknesses of the faithful.

This is challenging, and the novel is full of this struggle. Because grace is unfair and undeserved, even “wasteful”. It offends justice. But the heart from which grace grows is unconditional love, and extravagant forgiveness. This is the challenge in the novel that confronts the reader.

I don’t often read “Christian fiction”, but this is a wonderful Christian novel. I believe Robinson is not a Christian, and I respect how she is able to tell such a wonderful story, so raw and honest and real.

Robinson’s later novels, Home and Lila, both tell the stories of characters surrounding the events of Gilead. I bought Lila on a whim from the library used book sale, so I will get to it soon.

I can’t help but compare Gilead to Leif Enger’s luminous debut novel, Peace Like A River, which through a different story also deals with families, fathers and sons, a faithful father and a wayward prodigal, and the Christian faith in North America, and comes to the same conclusion of grace. Enger’s novel, especially its ending, was profoundly (but appropriately) dissatisfying because of this offensive grace; while Robinson’s novel had a neat conclusion, it challenged me just as much as Enger’s.

By the way, I highly recommend Peace Like A River. The writing is so brilliant it leaves longing and ache within me. I read it last year, and Enger has become one of my favourite authors as a result.

Book Review: Reading the OED

I am one of those lunatic logophiles who will read — and enjoy — a dictionary if it’s in front of me, so I was pleased to find a fellow dictionary-reader in Ammon Shea, who wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,370 Pages. It is partly a memoir of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and part wordlist of curious, obscure words that are “both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless.”

Of course, I was excited to see what a fellow logophile would pick from the vast menu of the OED, but I swiftly discovered that Shea and I are different kinds of logophiles. And I mean vastly different. Continue reading “Book Review: Reading the OED”

Recently Read: Un Lun Dun, Amulet, Decoding the Heavens, and others…

Mini-reviews for things I’ve recently read.

I’ve been (slowly) reading through China Miéville’s oeuvre in a roughly chronological fashion for a number of years, and have finally reached Un Lun Dun, his juvenile/young adult novel. Now that I’ve read more and tasted sterling fantasy prose, I’m not as enamoured by Miéville’s writing as I once was. Nevertheless, his distinctive narrative style is quite suited for this novel, which is a light-hearted, youth-oriented variation on the New Crobuzon of his Bas-Lag novels. In fact, I’d say that this is Perdido Street Station turned juvenile fiction: the plot progression is virtually the same, and UnLondon is weird, wild and wonderful as I’d come to expect from Miéville’s fertile, off-beat, yet peculiarly sensible imagination. The characterization wasn’t much to speak of, but given the world was the main character, I expected this too. Un Lun Dun is simply a fun, off-beat romp.

I re-read Orsinian Tales while waiting for my library books to come in. Like said in my book rambling, Ursula Le Guin’s stories are endlessly captivating, and this collection is no different. It’s less overtly fantastical and more magical realism… and there’s actually no magic here except that which comes from imagination. Which is the whole point: these stories only serve to ignite the reader’s imagination, which is where the true story unfolds. All the Orsinian Tales are lovely, but I really bought this collection solely for one of the stories, titled “Conversations in the Night”, which I plan to write about later.

My latest graphic novel foray is the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, mastermind behind the Flight anthology. A juvenile/YA story, this series is filled with lovable characters and a perilous adventure, illustrated in Kibuishi’s light-hearted, lushly coloured style. I’m now engrossed in the story and have read until volume #3. There are 5 volumes so far, and Kibuishi is working on the 6th. Ah, that’s the trouble with starting an ongoing series — I have to wait for the author to finish!

The non-fiction on my TBR list have been sorely neglected; it’s time to make some dents in it. I’ve just finished reading Decoding the Heavens by Jo Marchant, subtitled “A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-long Search to Discover Its Secrets”. It’s a “popular science” account of the discovery and decipherment of the Antikythera mechanism; I love clockwork and analogue machines, so I’m especially interested in learning more about the mechanism. Marchant’s account was uneven: I think it tried too hard to be both historical and conversational/biographical, and ended up reading stilted and inconsistent. Some of the descriptions of persons involved seemed just a bit too colloquial, even emotionally biased. It was also difficult to follow the chronology of events, I found myself often wondering when certain discoveries were made, and having difficulty finding dates. Finally, a huge shortcoming was the lack of images to support descriptive writing. My engineering/mechanical knowledge is rudimentary, so I had difficulty following and visualizing Marchant’s written descriptions of gear positions and arrangements. A diagram would have been extremely helpful. Ah well, that’s what the Internet is for! In all, this was a good introduction to the Antikythera mechanism, and I appreciated Marchant’s meticulous research into all the people involved in deciphering its function, how the various theories were reasoned out, and finally the current prevailing theory and significance of the mechanism to history, archaeology, engineering and technology.

Currently reading the non-fiction book Reading the OED by Ammon Shea, with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay upcoming. Kay has been on TBR for years — at last, the day of reading him is coming soon!