A Literary Look Back: January 2013
As I mentioned last week, a feature that I’m introducing this year is a by-the-month review of all of the books that I read last year, or what I’m calling my “Literary Look Back”. To kick it off, I’m going to start with an appraisal of what I read last January. (I considered starting with July just to shake things up, but figured that it might be a bit to soon to start messing with my readers’ heads.)
1.Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar
I’ll admit it: I am generally not to fond of the word ‘steampunk’. Whether it’s being used in literary criticism or fashion, it is a term that is overused and misused. People seem to think you can slap an clock and a corset on anything and that makes it steampunk- not so. Those misgivings aside, I can say with certainty, Camera Obscura brings a fresh new energy to the steampunk genre (or at least it did when it was published back in 2011). Here’s the intriguing description on the book jacket, which was just vague enough to catch my attention:
CAN’T FIND A RATIONAL EXPLANATION TO A MYSTERY? CALL IN THE QUIET COUNCIL.
The mysterious and glamorous Lady De Winter is one of their most valuable agents. A despicable murder inside a locked and bolted room on the Rue Morgue in Paris is just the start. This whirlwind adventure will take Milady to the highest and lowest parts of that great city – and cause her to question the very nature of reality itself.
What is reality to Milady de Winter? A strange, quasi-Victorian world filled with such literary and historical characters as Victor Frankenstein (yes, that Frankenstein), the Marquis de Sade, Dr. Moreau, and Lizard Queen Victoria (yes, she is an actual lizard). It also bears mentioning that the character of Milady de Winter is borrowed from The Three Musketeers–though Tidhar’s incarnation of the character bares little resemblance to the original. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, so I will just say that if you are looking for a fun, wonderfully strange adventure story (with a lizard monarchy!) pick up Camera Obscura.
2. The Sherlockian by Graham Moore
First, I have to say how much I love the cover of this book. Quite simply, it is minimalism at its finest. It has one of the most iconic pieces of Sherlock Holmes imagery, his pipe, but presents it in such a clever way. I tip my metaphorical hat to the book art designer.
Now on to the book: I quite enjoyed The Sherlockian. It was kind of like The DaVinci Code, with Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle taking the place of Jesus. I realize that sentence sounds slightly blasphemous, but trust me, it makes sense. Here’s the publisher’s summary:
In December 1893, Sherlock Holmes-adoring Londoners eagerly opened their Strand magazines, anticipating the detective’s next adventure, only to find the unthinkable: his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had killed their hero off. London spiraled into mourning — crowds sported black armbands in grief — and railed against Conan Doyle as his assassin.
Then in 1901, just as abruptly as Conan Doyle had “murdered” Holmes in “The Final Problem,” he resurrected him. Though the writer kept detailed diaries of his days and work, Conan Doyle never explained this sudden change of heart. After his death, one of his journals from the interim period was discovered to be missing, and in the decades since, has never been found.
Or has it?
When literary researcher Harold White is inducted into the preeminent Sherlock Holmes enthusiast society, The Baker Street Irregulars, he never imagines he’s about to be thrust onto the hunt for the holy grail of Holmes-ophiles: the missing diary. But when the world’s leading Doylean scholar is found murdered in his hotel room, it is Harold – using wisdom and methods gleaned from countless detective stories – who takes up the search, both for the diary and for the killer.
Intriguing, eh? It does echo The DaVinci Code in terms of pacing, but The Sherlockian has a substance to it that The DaVinci Code lacks. What gives this novel more weight, so to speak, is that it was inspired by the true story of Richard Lancelyn Green. He was a Sherlock scholar who, shortly before being found dead, claimed that he had found the lost diary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (I recommend reading about Green, that is a strange and sad story.) This real-life tie-in helps imbue the novel with plausibility, something that is often lacking in mysteries of this type. Thumbs up to Graham Moore for The Sherlockian.
3. Medea by Christa Wolf
In college, I took a class titled “Tragic Women in Literature”. In it we would take famous tragic female characters (Medea, Phaedra, and Ophelia, among others) and read and/or watch different versions of their stories; Seneca’s version, Euripides version, Lars Von Trier’s version, etc. It was interesting to see how their stories would change; their lives reinterpreted and the women becoming more or less sympathetic based on the author/director’s vision. However, Medea was always one character that I, despite different reinterpretations , could never sympathize with. After years of schooling, the Euripides version is just too brightly burned into my subconscious. It is Greek tragedy at its goriest. She tears her brother limb from limb and tosses the body parts in the sea to slow down her father so she and Jason can flee! When Jason has to remarry (well, according to him he has to) she responds by killing the princess, the king, and, most terribly, she and Jason’s two children! It is sick and twisted, but it is an exciting read, much like an ancient Game of Thrones.
Long story short, Christa Wolf’s sympathetic take on Medea fell a bit short. I guess you could say that I am prejudiced against Medea, but Wolf’s prose did little to inspire any change in me. Perhaps it is due to the novel’s short length, but Wolf’s attempt to re characterize Medea as a woman who was feared due to her intelligence and framed several times over, didn’t quite come to fruition. The characters remained one dimensional, the plot reduced to a dull musing on the nature of power. Perhaps some day I will come across a novel that will be able to help me see Medea in a different light, but it certainly wasn’t this one.
4. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan
Oh, I almost wish that I had never read this book so I could read it again for the first time. I loved it. Ridiculous book cover aside, this book, the 14th book and conclusion of the Wheel of Time series, was everything that I wanted it to be.
In a few books in the series, not much happens action-wise. They are more about establishing mood than furthering the plot. There is none of that in A Memory of Light. All of that careful crafting of tension comes crashing forward in a brilliant tornado of action. All of the characters whose journeys that you have followed through the years finally meet their destiny, for worse or for better. This is a novel that is hard to describe without giving too much away, but I will say that it had me yelling things out loud like I was watching a sports match. (“Whaaaaaaaat? He didn’t! No wayyyyyyyyyyyy! Come on, you can do it!” and so on.) It is action from start to finish and quite frankly it is emotionally exhausting in the best sort of way. It is a wonderful end to a wonderful series.