Book Reviews: Global Reading Challenge Catch-Ups
Recently (since I’ve finished my degree) I’ve been participating in the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. Basically, you commit to making your reading more multi-cultural by hitting at minimum every continent on the earth. If you’re especially gung-ho, you can do more.
So, I’ve been working on this challenge, in service to reading outside my little contemporary-American-and-British bubble. The two books that follow are books I read last winter (within the confines of 2010, of course) which count towards Europe and Australia, respectively.
Dracula, Bram Stoker
What can I say? I LOVE Dracula. I’m not a vampire person (although I know people who were vampire fiends way back in the 90s before it was the It Thing [speaking of which, Sarah! What’s up?]). But with Dracula, you don’t need to be an aficionado. You don’t need to be addicted to the lore and the gothicism and the undercurrent of unfettered sexuality. (Although if you are still into those things, you will still find them.)
For me, Dracula is a straight-up thrill ride. I’d set it beside any mainstream mass-market BS in terms of being a page turner. Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to close a business deal and before he can say, “Things here are weird,” he’s been imprisoned by the count and is trying to negotiate an escape for himself. And things get crazier and crazier from there. Not vampire baby crazy, but good crazy.
Characters die. Respectable gentlemen break into houses and dirty their cuffs by fighting. A mental patient eats flies. And the count hits harder and harder—and more personal, and close to home—until a group of men that some literary types have dubbed the “Crew of Light” just go to find the count and kill him dead. It’s full of action, really, but also not short on creepiness. One of my favorite moments (and please note, this is a fairly MAJOR SPOILER INSOFAR AS SPOILERS FOR 100+ YEARS OLD NOVELS GO) is when the crew is traveling up the mountain towards the count’s castle. It’s nighttime and the men are asleep en route. Van Helsing wakes up to see Mina, who has already been victimized by the count (see: infected though not quite vampired yet), sitting up, just staring at the campfire. Just…staring. Van Helsing has already noticed that she’s been sleeping a lot during the day—he thought from illness—but here he catches on to what’s really happening. She is slowly and gradually becoming nocturnal.
It’s that insidiousness—the way that the vampire sneaks up on its prey, slithers in through an open window and has a woman under his thrall before anyone, including her, realizes it—that has kept the vampire a prominent cultural symbol for this long. And let me tell you, Stoker’s book has got power, and it’s going to last. We’re talking about it a hundred years later and we’ll be talking about it a hundred years after that, when emo abstinence vampires are a cultural footnote. Nothing against them, understand. They don’t need to compete, which is something we literary snobs sometimes forget. ( And that’s good for them, because they totally couldn’t.)
Theft: A Love Story, Peter Carey
Peter Carey is one of these authors (and I have a few) who I keep trying to read, because he work seems like my kind of stuff. But I’m underwhelmed by everything I try. But I keep coming back. Maybe I’m just obsessed with Carey because he gave a talk at Western Michigan—my undergrad alma mater—when I was there in ‘99 or ’00 and I didn’t go, and now I think what a wasted opportunity that was. I was probably in my dorm room watching a Friends rerun.
The real problem with Carey, I think, is that he has well-known and award-winning books (both The True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize, and Oscar and Lucinda was made into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett) but those aren’t the ones I read. I read My Life as a Fake a few years ago and liked it OK, and then this year I tried Theft, simply because I was looking for an audiobook to listen to on a car trip and it was there on the shelf to be had.
The story starts with an intriguingly damaged main character: an artist who is in dire straits, financially and emotionally after a divorce. He holes up in a friend’s country house to paint and takes his developmentally disabled brother with him. The audiobook performer narrates as the artist, Michael, his brother, Hugh, and as someone called “the Butcher.” This character was sort of an amalgam of the artist’s father and his own artistic temperament / id. The passages by the Butcher and by Hugh should have been thematically very interesting, but I was kind of turned off having to listen to them—a “slow” guy’s voice, wondering allowed if he can read The Magic Pudding again (And that’s a real book! Who knew? Australian people, probably.) and a Cockney-accented madman raving about art in the depths of hell or whatever. It would have been much better to read, clearly, so I wouldn’t have had to think, “What in God’s name am I listening to?” One of the drawbacks of the audiobook.
I especially disliked the character of the woman, too—the mysterious woman who suddenly appeared in her gazillion dollar shoes to seduce him and get him involved in fraud and forgery and this whole mess of crime, the specifics of which I don’t remember because it was way back in February that I listened to this. She seemed to be cut from the femme fatale swath, but it didn’t fit. This review—which speaks more eloquently than I can about how I felt about the book, I think—says that the painter goes along “never understanding his role in her grand design.” And yeah, that seems about right. She’s this sort of unfathomable beauty, this powerful manipulator, this woman who leads other men by the nose. She’s not a character, she’s a fantasy. It seems to me that, in general, men and male authors in particular, have more interest in this kind of fantasy woman than I do.
Still, it was a kind of interesting look inside the professional art world—agents and openings and galleries and whatnot—and it was well-written. And I still think that Carey, who’s basically the leading contemporary Australian author, is worth looking into more.