Book Review: The Magus by John Fowles

November 18, 2010

This summer, I was perusing the bookshelf at the cottage and pulled down a copy of John Fowles’ The Magus. The title didn’t particularly appeal to me, but it was a book I’d seen move from bookshelf to bookshelf around my house for most of my life, and I was curious enough to read the back at the very least. My random selection was destined, as I soon found out that I was named for one of the book’s main characters. How could I have turned it down after that? This book changed everything.

Well, even if my name hadn’t popped off the page and into my pregnant mother’s brain, I’m glad I got to read such an incredible, complex and intense work of fiction. If you want to see what REAL literature is all about, get a hold of this.
It’ll keep you busy. And if you want to see what a REAL quarter-life crisis is like, this will put things in perspective!

The Magus tells the post-war story of Nicholas Urfe, a fairly cocky, commitmentphobe-ahead-of-his-time Brit, who’s feeling lost and lazy as a recent graduate in London. He is well-read and well-educated but can’t seem to find work – or he can’t seem to commit to anything resembling a settled life. When he accepts a teaching position in Greece, I felt relieved because his life was pretty dull to me, too. He’d met a modern girl, Alison, who might have been the only one willing to love him for who he was, so naturally Nicholas confirmed his travel plans and they went their separate ways. I was interested in the book at this point, but not in an unnatural way. But speaking of unnatural…(cue mysterious music, preferably via theremin.)

I won’t reveal too much of the plot, but I’ll tell you that Nicholas gets himself involved with a Ben-Kingsley-as-Ghandi-looking guy who is pointed out to him from afar as a millionaire who was questionably involved with the Nazis during the occupation in Greece. Incredibly bored and curious, Nick enters the man’s property and winds up becoming a regular guest at his summer house. We learn that the generous host, Conchis, is and isn’t who he seems to be, triggering an incredible dichotomy of confusion and obsession in Nick. When Conchis reveals that he is hosting another guest – one who is possibly deceased – Nick begins to question Conchis’ intentions, but his insatiable curiosity embroils him in a major, life-changing summer, to put it lightly.

The Magus is an artistic, dense and bewildering novel. I’ve got no idea how Fowles could have come up with such a plot, but it is incredibly unique and for that I remain a humble admirer of the author’s abilities. He manages to confront the psychology of life and death, theatre, classic literature, the distortions of a young man’s perspective, and of course blonde, twin actress/temptresses who may or may not be dead. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface.

If I had to complain, I would say that Fowles knows he is writing a story above and beyond any reader who isn’t privy to the inner workings of his brain. If I couldn’t read in French, I would have found a few untranslated passages fairly frustrating, though the reader is often so churned up inside the story herself that missing a detail here and there wouldn’t really make a difference. I was left surprised, satisfied, confused, curious, and amazed. And you will be too.

The Magus falls under the rare category of books that really become a part of your life. Like Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much is True,” or anything by Anne-Marie MacDonald, there were times when I could not stop reading. Literally. And there were times when I had better things to do but remained in bed all morning reading and reading and reading. Like Nick, I needed to get to the end of the story because once I was involved, there was no backing out. The strange, wary love I have for this book is one of inconvenience – the inconvenience of reading a tome that was impossible to remove myself from at times, that had me completely, entirely mind-boggled. And in many ways it still has me. Sometimes that’s the only way to tell that you’ve had a real, unforgettable experience, and if you’re up for it, I recommend this literary trip.

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

October 27, 2009

I just finished Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and let me tell you…needs more zombies. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me first say that I am not a fan of Jane Austen in any regard. I tolerated Sense and Sensibility for its comic elements but if I’m reading about women and their victorian relationship problems I’d far rather read Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s obsession with “le mot juste” made him far more interesting to read.

With that, I was looking forward to P&P&Z with the same regard that I was looking forward to Snakes on a Plane. The concept sounds awesome, right? Let’s take something classic and add zombies. Zombies are a little like bacon- everything is better with them. But for me, there weren’t enough zombies to counteract the antiquated story of girls looking for love despite their social position.

It’s not for me to critique Pride and Prejudice. The masses have spoken and it is one of the best loved books of all time. What I do know is zombies. I love the social commentary that is inherent in a good zombie story. These aren’t people who chose to be brain hungry monsters. They are people who, perhaps only moments before, were the parents and children and spouses of our lives now trying to get to our squishy grey parts.

Seth Grahame-Smith doesn’t quite understand this goldmine of emotional turmoil and conflict that he has at his disposal. For the most part, the zombies are an afterthought. Instead of Miss Elizabeth Bennet being a classic wit, she has incredible zombie killing skills learned in China from a Shaolin master. This means that occasionally as the undesirables attack she and her sisters are able to perform some fancy shows of ninja skills and behead a slew of dead. These zombies might as well be wearing red shirts and landing on an alien planet. In the movie version, they will be referred to as “Zombie number 2” or “Zombie in ball gown”.

He does make an impression with the reworking of one story arc. *Spoiler Alert* Elizabeth’s close friend Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins in the original version to avoid being a spinster, despite her lack of love for the man. In the zombified version, Charlotte has been bitten by the undead and will slowly fall victim to the plague. She decides that a few happy months of a loveless marriage and a husband who will properly behead her at her demise is better than no husband at all. Here, we see the true struggle of the zombie plague. Elizabeth is forced to watch her friend slowly grow paler and more bloodthirsty, unable to do anything to stop her inevitable end. Here we see the true pain of the plague. Here we know what it is to live day to day in a world overrun with the brainthirsty.

If you really want a post-apocalyptic view of a zombie world I recommend the trilogy Monster Island, Monster Nation, and Monster Planet by David Wellington. You can also pick up The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks and his followup World War Z. All of these are better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and all will give you a deeper understanding of the complex politics involved in zombie revolutions and perhaps help you to prepare for the day when the undead walk amongst us. When that day comes, don’t turn to Jane Austen for advice.

Review: The Commitment by Dan Savage

March 12, 2008

If you are addicted to The Onion and podcasts, you are probably already aware of Dan Savage’s work. His primary claim to fame is his weekly sex-advice column “Savage Love” and a podcast in a similar vein “The Savage Lovecast”. Dan has also graced the world with a collection of books. The most recent one (recent being 2005) is The Commitment detailing Dan and his partner Terry’s quandary: To marry or not to marry?

Savage’s previous book The Kid was a romp through the perils of adopting a child as a gay couple, who have only been together for two years. Both books come from a place of humor and sincerity- which is much more palatable in large doses than his other books that are suited to short reads while in the can. Having been with his partner for longer than all of Britney Spears’ marriages combined, neither Dan nor Terry really see the advantage of heading to the border and getting hitched. Their adopted son tells them they aren’t allowed to get married because they “weren’t the kind of boys who marry girls,” but that they had to live with each other and be his dads. Dan’s mom is pushing the marriage issue, even though her other children are also unmarried with kids. Dan and Terry just want tattoos. [Read more]

Book Review: What Should I Do With My Life?

February 28, 2008

What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question
by Po Bronson

Like many of us, the author (Po Bronson) sought to answer this question about his own life. And, like most of us, he had to approach it in his own way. He decided he would talk to people who had answered this “ultimate question” – nine hundred of them, to be exact. He talked to about seventy of them in detail, even lived with a few, and ultimately included fifty of their stories in his book.

Despite the reader’s understandable expectation of an answer to the book’s title question: What Should I Do With My Life? Bronson doesn’t offer any career-guides or self-help advice in this book. That’s important to understand. Any guidance or judgments are purely anecdotal. If you turn to this book looking for clear-cut answers, you will quickly learn that there are none. See this post for more about that. [Read more]

Review: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

February 27, 2008

You might not consider sitting down to read a cookbook from cover to cover, but with some cookbooks you should. Through the onslaught of celebrity chefs, catch phrases and cleverly named shows on Food Network, and the bandwagon jumpers of reality TV competition format TopChefHell’sKitchenAmericanIronChef shows- its good to find out that some people still write down recipes intended for us, the huddled masses, to cook.

I have been a fan of Mark Bittman for some time now, ever since I went off to college and received his first How To Cook Everything. Honestly, Mom, I was a little insulted. “I can cook!” I thought. But with Bittman, I could cook Everything. His first book was incredibly easy to follow, versatile, and allowed me to make a meal out of whatever was crammed in the mini-fridge and some strategically spent cafeteria money. Since that first book, Mark Bittman has entered the realm of the celebrity chef. He has a weekly column in the NY Times and has a show on PBS, but I won’t hold that against him. [Read more]