Just my Opinion: Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann)

Well, I’m through with the first book of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time.)

There’s really only one way to put this: if you want to be a novelist, you should probably learn French just so that you can read it in its original splendor. It’s that good.

I’m equally as unqualified to critique this novel as I was to critique Ulysses, but I certainly enjoyed Swann’s Way more, simply because it’s less of a challenge to parse. Ulysses is a book that shows you how masterful a work it is by challenging you at every word; by contrast, Swann’s Way  shows you its magnificence by being incredibly accessible in its treatment of very subtle themes.

For a would-be novelist, Swann’s Way is both a technical masterpiece to be studied and a fantastic lesson in eliciting emotion and feelings through writing. There’re no tricks at play there, either clever or cheap. It’s all about using exactly the right words, in exactly the right way, to convey a tapestry of information and sentiments to the reader.

Is it entertaining? Not for me. I enjoyed reading it, because I want to get better at writing. But the major themes don’t really interest me, and the contemplative nature of the work doesn’t lend itself to excitement and suspense. I will say that it’s now on my list of books to refer to when describing societies: Proust’s depiction of French aristocracy in the late 19th, early 20th century is flat out fantastic, even though it’s not the real focus of the novel.

Will I keep reading À la recherche du temps perdu? Hell yes. I will probably eventually re-read it too, once I’ve seen the entirety of the novel and can better understand how each volume fits it. But for now, let’s get back to lighter fare.

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Just my Opinion: The Belisarius Series

I’ve re-read the first four volumes, and read the last two, of the Belisarius series, by Eric Flint and David Drake.

Overall, it’s an entertaining series. It covers a period of history and geographic locations that we don’t often get to see in movies or in book or TV series, and it manages to convey that feeling of authenticity you want from an historical novel without falling into the trap of endless descriptions or pontificating.

As alternate history, of course, we get a sci-fi veneer, but thankfully the authors manage to keep it fairly low-key. The focus is entirely on the in-period conflict; the bigger sci-fi framing story gets a few lines (if even that) in the first five books, and gets resolved almost as an afterthought in the epilogue of the sixth book.

Also… the series is blessedly short. Six short-to-medium novels, no dangling plot hooks, no unreasonable plot twists, and no long stretches of “well, here’s mildly interesting filler.” Sure, by the end of Book 4 you’re wondering how can the bad guys ever come back from the latest defeat… but unlike some other series I could name, by then we’re almost to the finish line.

And… this is the big one for me as a writer: the series ends well. Sure, it’s a happy ending, but what I mean is that the ending is well-paced, doesn’t invalidate the series conflict, but also doesn’t pretend that everything will be perfect forever afterward. It’s exactly the right amount of closure.

The series isn’t perfect. It overuses the same jokes over and over again. It doesn’t pretend the good guys are perfect, but the bad guys often fall into comic-book clichés or Chaotic Stupid behaviour. And there’s a distinct glint of plot armour on many of the main characters which got on my nerves at the end. Those are all small issues, however – the kind of thing I try to pay attention to, so that I don’t make the same mistakes in my writing.

But overall, it’s worth a read. Maybe not three or four re-reads, however.

And… that’s it for the Just my Opinion posts for a while. I’ve started on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is fantastic so far… but oh god it’s seven volumes long!

 

Just my Opinion: Yeruldelgger

Yeruldelgger is a relatively recent, prize-winning French crime novel (it’s still commercial fiction, but apparently a good example of the genre.)

Here’s a confession: I don’t really like crime novels. After reading a few, they all sort of start to feel the same to me. Some reveal their villains early, other go for a twist. Maybe the villain escapes or maybe he doesn’t, there’s usually an incompetent or corrupt policeman, and so on and so forth. Most crime novels remind me of the standalone episodes of crime procedural shows.

And at the end of the day, most try to distinguish themselves with a gimmick. Some go for the torture-porn angle, others shoot for improbable backstories for their protagonist.

Yeruldelgger is, unfortunately, no exception (except it double-dips the gimmick) Gimmick 1: it takes place in and around Ulan-Bator, Mongolia. Gimmick 2: the main character has an implausible backstory (including time spent in a monastery and the tragic loss of one of his daughter.)

If you can get past that (and I could) – the book is decently well-written. It avoids relying on Parisian slang, and it’s short on magical coincidences (even though it at first seems to fall into that trap at first.)

Verdict? Tolerable airplane reading material, increasing to straight good if you’re a crime book fan. It’s definitely not worth learning French to read that though, but since we’re going to take a look at Proust in the coming months maybe get started on that anyway.

Just my Opinion: Ulysses

How do you review something like Ulysses?

Even in this strictly informal, random-thoughts format, it’s a daunting task. I’ve started writing this post several times, only to delete my work because it failed to convey my meaning.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Ulysses is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an enjoyable read. Don’t bring it to the beach hoping for an easy, relaxing afternoon: this is the kind of book that’s better read in a commented form (something which I should have done in retrospect.)

It’s pretty tough to describe how dense Ulysses can get. At times, simply following the plot through Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing is nearly impossible. So forget about catching all the the cultural and political references or understanding all the literary allusions and philosophical digressions.

In fact, despite being a voracious reader and a writer, I’d say I’m at the very lowest level of reading ability necessary to begin to understand the work. I certainly would have benefited from a few undergrad classes in English Literature (or maybe a Ph. D.)

But… I think I get it. Sorta. Maybe. By that, I mean I can appreciate some of what Joyce wanted to do. I see some of the stylistic choices, I perceive how they influence how we read and perceive the text.

Certainly, it’s the book I’m most glad to have chosen for this year. I’m sure I’m a better writer for having read it.

Next up – some very, very light reading.

Just my Opinion: Homeland

So, I ended up reading Homeland, by R.A. Salvatore, instead of the Belisarius books. I’m not going to write a formal book review (heh – I’m not setting myself up to reviewing Ulysses, thank you very much), but I wanted to put a few of my thoughts down anyway.

First, a bit of background. Homeland is, chronologically, the first Drizzt Do’Urden novel, though not the first published. That matters because Drizzt is probably the most overexposed D&D character (perhaps only challenged by Raistlin from Dragonlance), and certainly inspired the most carbon-copies and barely disguised clones at gaming tables around the world. And that certainly colored my perception of the book.

In fairness, I can’t blame the author for creating such a popular character. I’m actually impressed in how well Salvatore read the late 80s, early 90s geek zeitgeist. The “loner misunderstood hero” stereotype was certainly something that connected with readers, and it’s certainly a lesson I’ll keep in mind when planning my future books.

Now… while I don’t hold Drizzt’s popularity against the book, and can certainly admit I would have found him really cool back in high school in the nineties, I can’t help but mention how irritating I found the character as a first-time, mid-thirties reader. It’s the not-quite-whiny, yet somehow holier-than-thou perception that really get me.

By contrast, the secondary characters look much better. Despite needing the drow elves to be mostly capital-E Evil (to comply with existing D&D rules and lore), Salvatore managed to write a genuinely diverse cast. Malice isn’t Vierna isn’t Maya isn’t SiNaFay.

Speaking of D&D rules and lore – the other big flaw of the book in my view is again not the author’s fault, or at least not entirely. Being stuck using the cookie-cutter magical abilities of low-level D&D wizards and the uninspired Underdark bestiary hurts the book a lot. Menzoberranzan should have felt alien, the Underdark wilds even more so, but instead we get rolled-on-a-chart monsters and generic fighters and wizards.

Final thoughts: I’m no longer the target market for this book/series… and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book (although as far as I’m concerned, the D&Disms alone probably drop the book into the “meh, read it if you need something to pass the time” category.) I’m not going to read another Drizzt book for sure, but I certainly might take a look at some of Salvatore’s other works.

 

2017 Reading List

As mentionned in my resolution post, I want to read ten books this year. I figure I might as well mention which books I’ve selected and why.

1-James Joyce, Ulysses. Because if you’re going to read one book by a specific author, might as well go with his most seminal work.

2-Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu. Same reason, only in French.

3-Undecided, Some Random Romance Novel. Because I’ve never read any romance novels, and I want to use this opportunity to broaden my horizons. I’ll need further research to decide which title I’ll actually read.

4-Ian Manook, Yeruldelgger. Mostly because I received it in a Christmas gift exchange, but I wanted some French books in this list, and I wanted to read at least one detective novel. Let’s kill an entire flock of birds with one stone, shall we?

5-Eric Flint, David Drake, The Tide of Victory. Because I read the first four books of the Belisarius series back when they were part of the Baen Free Library, and because someone can lend me books five and six.

6-Eric Flint, David Drake, The Dance of Time. Because obviously.

7-David Weber, At the Sign of Triumph. Because it’s one of the series I’m currently reading assiduously.

8-Richard Adams, Watership Down. Because I never read it and it’s been on my list of “you should read it someday” since basically forever.

9-R.A. Salvatore, Homeland. Because I’ve read more gaming fiction than I’ll ever admit to in polite company, yet I’ve never read the single one series that’s apparently any good.

10-Ian Bainks, Consider Phlebas. Because a streamer I follow keeps recommending the Culture series of books, and I want to see if it’s really worth reading or not.

First up are probably the two Belisarius books, then I’ll dive into Joyce I think. After that it’s up to chance.