Archive for Nabokov

the best books of the NYT readers

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2022 by xi'an

Two years after Le Monde reported on the list of the 101 favourite novels of [some of] its readers, which I found most fascinating as a sociological entry on said readers, rather than a meaningful ordering of literary monuments (!),  even though it led me to read Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent, as well as Jean-Philippe Jaworski’s Gagner la Guerre [To the victors go the spoils], The New York Times did something similar to celebrate the Book Review’s 125th anniversary. If on a lesser scale, as it only produces

        1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
        2. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
        3. 1984 by George Orwell
        4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
        5. Beloved by Toni Morrison

as the top five books of the last 125th years, Lee’s, Tolkien’s, and Garcia Márquez’s appearing in both lists, if with a different ranking. (The nomination rules were not exactly the same, though, with only novels for Le Monde and only “recent” books and only one per author for the New York Times.) Here is a longer list of the 25 top contenders, from which NYT readers voted [an opportunity I missed!]:

some of which I had never heard of. And not including a single Faulkner’s… Except for One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published as Cien años de soledad, all novels there were originally written in English. Sadly, the number one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is also one of the most censored by school boards in the USA! (And so are books by Toni Morrison.)

borderline fantasy

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , on December 1, 2012 by xi'an

I recently read two first fantasy novels, Lawrences’s Prince of Thorns and Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God, with the same (rotten) core idea, namely a teenager or even pre-teen exposed to violence, sadism, and mistreatment and becoming a perfect killer. The plausibility of the thing is not what bothers me, as the past years sadly demonstrated with the sad stories of child soldiers in central Africa. No, what I dislike is the borderline game turning them into characters we could identify with and like, despite their (mass) murdering.psychopathic inclinations. I know Nabokov stated in his initial lecture that this was not the point of literature, that it should not make the reader look for this identification (just as well when thinking of Humbert Humbert…!), but we are talking fantasy here, not the 19th century classic literature central to Nabokov‘s interests.

Anyway, back to my main theme, I wonder how we reached this stage. In a sense, fantasy always had been exposed to this slippery slope in that villeins are clearly identified and can be smashed to pulp without too many qualms. Take for instance the mother of all fantasy books, The Lord of the Ring: orcs and nazguls have extreme difficulties in creating empathy from the reader and the more ambivalent characters like Gollum or Boromir get their redemption moment… Same thing with Jordan’s Wheel of Time and its special brand of villeins, the Darkfriends, whose name unsubtly says it all. However, in the more recent literature, the tendency has been to increase the subtlety of the plot by painting the characters more into several shades of grey than in black or white, moving from “heroic” fantasy to “gritty” fantasy… The clearest recent example is found with Joe Abercrombie’s novels, where it is difficult to find a good guy! (The older Chronicles of Thomas Covenant also showed a strong moral ambiguity, but I frankly dislike them!) I am not contesting the literary value of books like Heroes, quite the opposite, but they make for a different reading where the reader is a spectator opening a rather smelly bag of fish. (Richard Morgan’s The steel remains also comes to mind.) In the case of those last two books I read, the plots are rather thin and the stories predictable, so I do not see the point in this exercise. (They both seem to have generated fierce debates on the fantasy forums, so I may not be the only one perplexed by the exercise.)

Out of the two books, Prince of Thorns stands the evaluation the best. While the reason why a gang of murderers obey a 14 year old remains unclear for the whole book, the story has some appealing features, even though I dislike fantasy mixed with science-fiction, in this case a post-nuclear future turned medieval and magic-laden. This is not however excusing the very gory beginning where villagers are slaughtered by this group simply for belonging to the wrong kingdom…

The second book, The Left Hand of God, is simply very poor: it starts with a warring religious order whose creed is vaguely Christian, and follows three young boys and an older girl escaping this order without much plausibility in the event. The only true battle of the book is an exact replica of the (French) disaster at Agincourt, where la furia francese and muddy fields decimated French nobility despite numerical if not tactical superiority. While this is acknowledged by the author, it gives an idea about the level of creativity in the book. Nothing to recommend.

%d bloggers like this: