Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I can haz book to read!

I've tried a couple lately but couldn't get into them. For example, the highly regarded Perdido Street Station, a fantasy-steampunk rendition of a Hieronymus Bosch painting (that's how it struck me), proved too damned dense--dense with characters and concepts, places and plot points; dense with grotesquerie; dense with words. It's 722 pages' worth of dense. And, yikes, the prose! I felt I was eating my way through a fifty-pound fruit cake. What made it even more trying was that I couldn't connect with the characters, all of whom had surprisingly little humanity about them. They felt distant and exotic. They felt cold to my mind's touch.

When I view the book objectively, I see a marvel of erudition and imagination. How can I not admire this writer's skill? But when I view the book subjectively, I see . . . a fifty-pound fruit cake. Laced with mescaline. So I put the book down. Maybe I just haven't been in the right mood for this kind of read but will be in another few months. Maybe it's something I'll appreciate more in the winter.

Then, along comes Normal Miguel. In the mail. I got a book in the mail! But I don't quite know how to evaluate this novel. On the one hand, it quickly became a comfort read for me. I've been doling it out to myself, turning to it every day, if only to enjoy a few pages, just because it makes me feel good.

I love the simple lyricism of the prose. (It creaks and stumbles a bit now and then, but no matter. So fresh!) I love the characters. What PSS lacked in humanity, this book has in abundance. And the sense of place is so strong, it rises off the page with a full complement of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. I could feel the cold heaviness of those drenching rains.

This author is clearly in love with his subject matter.

However, herein lies the novel's greatest weakness. It's very discursive. Point of view is unpredictably everywhere, like the movements of a palm full of jumping beans. Not only does POV shift abruptly, it's scattered among major and minor characters alike. I get cranky when the story's flow is suddenly disrupted by paragraphs or pages of background detail about a secondary character. Invariably these passages are colorful, but . . . I'm not sure they're necessary. Are these characters significant-enough players to warrant so many digressions? Sometimes the characters' motivations mystify me too, and a few thematic strings are fiddled on a bit too ham-handedly.

Still--and this is highly unusual for me--I keep looking forward to my daily read. The novel has so much charm and so much heart, I've been forgiving of its flaws. I can't remember when that's ever happened in my reading experience. Any other piece of fiction with any of these no-nos would've had me gnashing my teeth.

So if you'd like a truly refreshing read that not only brings Mexican culture to life but weaves a sweet gay love story, give this book a try. I don't think you'll regret it.

18 comments:

Tam said...

I have heard nothing but positive things about Normal Miguel. I know the author just joined t Good Reads group and he lives in Mexico so he definitely knows the environment and culture (one would presume).

Books are a bit like people. Sometimes you know they are as slob, and drink milk straight from the carton and don't mow the grass often enough, but you love them anyway. :-)

Chris said...

I have Perdido Street Station on my TBR shelf. It's been there for a while. I don't see that changing anytime soon!

Katrina Strauss said...

Maybe I've been reading & writing romance too long (j/k with "too long", folks, do not quote me out of context on that!) but I've tried to read a few steampunk novels recently and couldn't get past chapter one. I'd conjecture it was lack of character development in favor of worldbuilding, but the worldbuilding didn't suck me in, either. When I read steampunk -- or any fantasy genre -- I expect to be immersed in that world. With steampunk in particular, I want to be caught up in a visual calliope. Just did not happen with these titles, which I won't name, because well, the titles elude me, they were that lackluster for me. Blah. Maybe I'm just comparing them too much to Gibson/Sterling, or to the lovely "soft steam" musings of our own peers.

K. Z. Snow said...

I like your analogy, Tam!

The author's bio says he lives in Tijuana with his partner but teaches middle school in San Ysidro, CA, neither of which is near the location of the story. But he's "traveled extensively" through Mexico.

It's a very sweet, upbeat book. No explicit sex, although there are many frank references to sexual encounters.

K. Z. Snow said...

Chris, don't make a decision based on my impressions! I was intrigued enough to get about a hundred pages into it, but, like I said, it just proved too thick to keep plowing through. What's more, the "hero," a scientific wunderkind, was a big, fat slob and the "heroine" (I'm not even sure these terms are relevant here) was like 80% scarab -- not a shifter, either, but a fulltime mostly-beetle.

It's a highly literate book, but I'm assuming a reader has to be a hardcore fan of edgy fantasy to get into it.

Chris said...

I think the reason it's still on my shelf is because very literate and literary books exhaust me.

K. Z. Snow said...

Katrina, you just might like PSS if it's a "visual calliope" you're looking for. It's certainly that, in spades -- in fact, so much so that the worldbuilding began to weigh on me. And there is what I'd call "character development." But I just couldn't warm up to the ways in which the characters were being developed.

I think the book has a surfeit of intellectualism, which tends ultimately to have a chilling effect on me. Hell, I didn't even understand some of the words!

Your Sleight of Hand and Ginn Hale's Wicked Gentlemen are FAR more to my tastes. They're much more subtly crafted.

Katrina Strauss said...

Aw thanks! But see, that's what I look for -- subtle worldbuilding. The books I've recently tried to read either overdid it, or didn't do it enough. They didn't come off as very romantic, either, and by "romantic" I don't necessarily mean romance (although that may have helped.) Perhaps it's due to my time spent in the goth scene, but steampunk for me is more romantic than it is technical. A lot of what's getting published by mainstream New York as "steampunk" is just too cut and dry for my taste, with the authors perhaps focusing too much on mechanical inventions and steam-vacuuming the life out of it. These titles just didn't have that otherworldly "weird fiction" vibe that, say, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does, which IMO balances all aspects of the genre very nicely.

K. Z. Snow said...

"I think the reason it's still on my shelf is because very literate and literary books exhaust me."

Yup. And that was a strange realization for me, considering how close I came to being an English professor. As Katrina said, when you read and/or write erotic romance long enough, your tastes are bound to change.

Chris said...

Heh, grad school finished off the part of my brain that might have enjoyed those types of read. :) And I was going to get my PhD in Rhetoric... but I came to my senses in time.

K. Z. Snow said...

Ooo, I did like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I think I've blocked the romantic aspects of it from my mind (probably because they were m/f *g*).

I haven't read much steampunk -- very little, actually -- but the incessant emphasis on machinery would get right the hell on my nerves.

As is the case with any genre or subgenre, too many writers become too slavish, I think, to its conventions. That happened with urban fantasy, which I honestly can't bear to read anymore. Every work seems like a clone of every other work.

K. Z. Snow said...

Chris ... rhetoric? Seriously? Gah. (And I thought I was weird for being fixated on Herman Melville!)

Chris said...

Yup. My MS thesis was on how people establish ethos (their character and credibility) online. :)

K. Z. Snow said...

And how, pray tell, is that?

:-D

Chris said...

LOL - what, you don't want to get the thesis through interlibrary loan?! ;)

Basically, by maintaining a consistent identity, making reasoned arguments, engaging in intelligent discussion, and providing support for all that without being obnoxious. For example, writing "My ten years experience as a writer have led me to..." adds to your credibility... unless you add that to every interaction you have. Then it detracts.

You build your credibility/reputation, then maintain it through more of the same. Common sense, really!

K. Z. Snow said...

Hey, I smell a guest blog in the making! ;-)

Chris said...

*falls down laughing hysterically*

Val said...

Haven't read Normal Miguel yet, but I devoured the "... fifty-pound fruit cake. Laced with mescaline" awhile back and really enjoyed it! I like your comparison -- it's very perceptive! Perdido Street Station was definitely a trippy book. ;)