Month: March 2012

Book Diary: James Lee Burke – The Glass Rainbow

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee BurkeThis, I believe, is James Lee Burke’s twenty-ninth novel, and I think I have read about twenty of those. From which you can already guess that he is likely a favourite of mine, and indeed I think he currently is probably the best American writer of crime fiction around (assuming that James Ellroy has moved beyond the genre). This is mainly due to his often remarked-upon writing style which of a lyrical intensity you do not find often, and especially not in crime fiction which often tends towards the sparse and matter-of-fact tone.

His novels are mostly set in rural areas, and the beauty of the scenery and Burke’s colourful descriptions – from the luscious green of Lousiana swamps to the sepia and ochre of the Texas prairie – contrasts starkly with the violence and corruption of human society that appears mostly fueled by greed and insanity, the few moments of warmth and human kindness fleeting and often futile. Maybe it’s just me, but Burke’s novels, never exactly a light comfort read, seem to have grown increasingly darker over recent years, and The Glass Rainbow appears to continue that trend.

It is the  eighteenth volume in the series featuring his best-known protagonist, small-town Louisiana deputy sherrif Dave Robicheaux. After having lost one wife to violence and one to a incurable disease, it would seem like like Robichaux, steadily advancing into old age,  finally has managed to carve out his own small haven of private happiness with his most recent partner Molly and his adopted daughter Alafair. Only to have drastically demonstrated to him just how fragile that happiness is when Alafair gets involved with a man he disapproves of and then is drawn into a criminal conspiracy that threatens not only her life but also that of Molly and Robicheaux himself.

And then there is Tripod, the family pet racoon who is slowly succumbing to old age, thus signalling that Robicheaux’ private paradise will eventually be doomed by time and eath, without him being able to do anything about it – et ego in Arcadia. The novel appears almost baroque in the persistence of the Vanity motif, and it certainly offers itself to be read it as an allegoryon that subject. What is quite un-baroque, though, is the rage Robicheaux and a few others muster, their outright and unwavering refusal to put up with the state of the world and accept it as God-given. Like all good crime fiction, The Glass Rainbow is a highly moralistic work and is carried by the stubborn conviction that there is a good cause to fight for, and that making a stand has value and matters, even if it appears futile.

What I’m Reading: Umberto Eco – The Island of the Day Before

This is going to be even less of a review than my usual posts on this blog; due to the complexity of the novel and it being a while since I finished reading it (Yes, I know. I’ve been lazy. And sick.), I won’t even try for any semblance of coherency here and instead just throw out some thought-crumbs in your direction (which will likely be stale, but I promise that they will not be poisoned).

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What I’m Reading: Clark Ashton Smith – The Return of the Sorcerer

Like C.L. Moore, whose Jirel of Jory stories I read recently, Clark Ashton Smith was a pulp author writing during roughly the first half of the twentieth century; in fact, he was, besides Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, one of the mainstays of Weird Tales. He is markedly lesser known and (supposedly) read than the others today, but not necessarily a worse writer for that; in many aspects I would even consider him the most interesting of the three.

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Book Diary: Samuel R. Delany – The Fall of the Towers

The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. DelanyThe Fall of the Towers is an omnibus of a trilogy Delany wrote early in his career, and while it is nowhere near the quality of his best works, it is hard to believe that he was a mere 22 years old when he completed it; it already shows a degree of accomplishment (not to mention sheer inventiveness) that many writers never manage to achieve.

Rather to my surprise, I felt myself reminded of John Brunner’s Meeting at Infinity that I read a while back (and the comparison does not seem to be completely off the mark, seeing how Delany dedicates the final volume of the trilogy to Brunner and his wife Marjorie) – like Brunner’s novel, Delany’s trilogy has a somewhat crude pulp-ish as its unassuming foundation (alien invasion in Brunner, two trans-galactic super-beings battling it out in Delany) on which they both build a splendid narrative edifice by means of dazzling imagination, brilliant invention and colourful writing (although still far from the blinding linguistic luminescence of Delany’s later works like Nova), supported by some solid world-building (I found it particularly remarkable that both authors gave some thought to how the economics of his world works – or indeed, does not).

Where Delany’s later novels build up vertical complexity, i.e., use a small cast of characters and a basic plot but add layers upon layers of world-building, character depth, mythical resonance and literary reference to that, The Fall of the Towers extends mostly into the horizontal plane – while characters appear (comparatively) flat, there are a lot of them, and the plot is quite sprawling, which I suppose is quite appropriate for a trilogy.

Even so, the whole thing whizzes by at a very high speed, fast enough to leave the reader dizzy at times from the dazzling display of words and ideas Delany fires off. I do not want to come across as nostalgic, but I am feeling very tempted to say that they just don’t make them like this any more – looking at today’s sedentary, sprawling space operas with their extensive and detailed world-building and comparing them to the fast and furious fireworks of Delany or early Brunner (or Zelazny or Eillison or…) is almost like looking at a balding, beer-bellied guy in his advanced middle age and wondering whatever became of the lean and hungry teenager with the visionary gaze that he used to be…