Thursday, November 05, 2009

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay is the novel on which the first season of the Showtime television program Dexter is based. Rather, on which it is loosely based, because some of the details of the show are not explored at all in the novel. If you are hoping to read more about the secondary characters—LaGuerta, Doakes, Batista, Masuka—you will close this novel feeling somewhat disappointed. The focus is solely and purely on Dexter Morgan, the narrator whose tone is self-deprecating and darkly humorous. I like dark humor; I never caught myself chuckling or even laughing out loud. I don’t know if it is because I was already familiar with too much of the story to appreciate its unfolding. I found most of the secondary characters less sympathetic in the novel than I do on the television show but I think this is more genuine to who Dexter, as a character is, because his emotional disconnect from those around him should result in the reader’s feeling a disconnect. I commend Lindsay for managing this, intentional or otherwise. It is my understanding that although the television show followed the first novel during the first season the producers and writers chose to move in new directions after that first season. I am curious to see how the author envisioned Dexter’s life after the first story’s closure. I can already tell you that the novel has a slightly different ending from the television show. That alone makes me want to read more.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd is a retelling of the gothic classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. As with all retellings, one approaches the new version with trepidation. Is there a need to retell a story that has already been told so well? Will this version offer anything new or interesting? What, if anything will be lost in translation? When I began the novel, I stepped back a bit from my own expectations and tried to allow Ackroyd to give me the pleasure of revisiting a story I found compelling and provocative. I quickly realized that story is told in first person by Victor Frankenstein I was put off. After all, for all intents and purposes, Shelley’s version is told in the first person. Is there a need to tell the same story in the same point-of-view? My resistance grew, mostly because what details were added are lurid or meant to be salacious (after all, Shelley could not dare write in detail about erections and penises, could she?). Sadly, they are also predictable. Characters enter the stage with the inevitability of their future clearly evident. But of course one would expect a story that is retold to be somewhat predictable. And the fact is, for those readers who are disinclined to read classic literature because it is tedious or tiresome or the tone too archaic, Ackroyd’s choice to tell this story again serves a purpose. He departs enough from the classic by inviting Mary Shelley herself into the cast of characters, along with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. The flavor of London is very well written. One cannot argue that Ackroyd knows his history and contextualizes the story both in content and voice. His ability to weave details leaves few, if any, stones unturned. And although the conclusion is different from the original novel’s, it is not as surprising as it should have been. (How surprising would it have been had the author chosen to carry the story forth to the same ending, one that in Shelley’s version occurs off the stage of the page? Perhaps bringing something new to an expected ending is too much to ask but if the ending must be changed can it not be changed in such a way as to surprise the reader?) What this retelling lacks is the spiritual and philosophical implications of Shelley’s original vision. Given the evolution of society, the threat of science over religion is perhaps no longer an issue but there is still so much room for debate on the ethical implications of where science crosses lines of morality in the face of necessity. At what point does the need for knowledge become more necessary than the need for morality? And in a world where we can create virtual selves by simply logging into a website, what are the implications of revivifying something that is dead? In the end, Ackroyd presents a novel that waters down the original making it perhaps more palatable for the masses but offering little in the way of real meaning. A good summer beach book for those who don’t want their summer reading light. Or perhaps the type of book one would read to fill a rainy afternoon in autumn. But for my tastes, I’ll stick with the original which is, to this day, a more provocative story than many being published today.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years by Ilan Stavans

Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years by Ilan Stavans is a look at the life of García Márquez up to the publication and success of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Stavans is planning at least one more volume to continue the biography of a man whose literature is passionate, poignant, and always provocative. Stavans shares, in his introduction, how he came to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and how this experience served as a sort of literary epiphany, a love for the works of García Márquez that apparently inspired him to write this biography. Ironically, everything that inspired Stavans is lacking in this superficial look at a brilliant writer. This book offers the facts, occasionally even digging into some details, about García Márquez’ life but rarely does the reader feel any intimate knowledge is being shared. That García Márquez is a man who does not share himself easily may be the reason for the lack of interesting facts. I am not sure. I do know that Stavans should look up the word oeuvre in a thesaurus because there really are other words that can be used and I do not see any justification for using it more than twice in a single chapter, let alone four times. I almost wish Stavans had gone for a less objective approach to writing a biography. I can only imagine how much more lively and even luscious a literary approach might have been with Stavans mingling his own passions with those García Márquez has put into words already. Perhaps that is what is missing from the book for the only passion or real profundity I found was in the words of others. In many ways, this book reads more like a Hollywood exposé where names are dropped and mentioned in relationship to García Márquez as if to validate or contextualize his own presence. The most intriguing parts for me were those where Stavans interjected himself, alluding to a difference of opinion on which he never expounds. Of course, it is possible that these are intriguing because he doesn’t explain himself further. Assuming that the next biography is as factual and free from enriching details, I hope that Stavans will someday dare to share his own relationship with García Márquez in a more intimate and passionate fashion. Rather, I hope he will if he can think of another word for oeuvre. As someone who has read with awe and profound admiration the gorgeous vision in García Márquez’ works, I think that sharing someone else’s adoration would have been far more inspiring than reading the bare details of the man’s life could ever be. A literary biography, one in which Stavans dares to share himself even when he cannot share García Márquez . . . now that would be a wonderful biography cum memoir well worth reading.
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Quoting García Márquez: Truth is that everyone writings in whatever way possible, because the hardest thing of this arduous business isn’t how one handles tools, but the way one succeeds in putting one word after another. (67) The term “magic realisim” has attached itself to García Márquez like a parasite. The signature mix of exoticiwsm, magic and the grotesque that García Márquez employs doesn’t come from the world of soap operas. Te category has achieved such ubiquity and elasticity as to become meaningless. (120)