Elantris and the Tsundoku Condition

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I first heard Brandon Sanderson’s name when he was hired to complete Robert Jordan’s mammoth The Wheel of Time fantasy series after Mr. Jordan passed away in 2007 — gee, has it been 11 years already? The Wheel of Time was a favorite series of a few friends of mine, but I never tackled it and so I missed my first potential exposure to Sanderson’s talent. I then started seeing Sanderson’s name mentioned in discussion forums like Shelfari and Goodreads and hearing about him on bookcentric podcasts like Sword & Laser. Then some commentators I trust began shouting his name from the mountaintops after Sanderson’s The Way of Kings was released. I started doing something weird. I bought The Way of Kings, the first book of a series called The Stormlight Archive, but I was not able to read it yet. Then book two of The Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance — what a beautiful title — was released and I bought that, still having not read The Way of Kings. Then the third title, Oathbreaker, hit store shelves and I exchanged my paycheck for it. Here is the truly bizarre aspect of this entire situation: I still have not read any of them. Is it not madness to buy the second and third volumes of a series when one has not yet read the first? There is a Japanese term for this practice of continuing to buy books but not reading them: 積ん読 or tsundoku. Here is an applicable quote attributed to American author Alfred Edward Newton:

Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.

Right? If you are reading this, you are probably an avid reader like me and nodded in agreement while reading that quote. Welcome, brethren. So here I was with this condition I now know is called tsundoku and a heap of unread Brandon Sanderson novels. Three beautiful hardcover volumes comprised of three thousand three hundred forty two pages. It is intimidating. Then a colleague gave me a copy of Elantris, Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel. Unlike much of Sanderson’s later work, Elantris is a single story encased in a single volume. Being the man’s debut novel, I decided this was the best place to begin exploring his work and so on a warm, midsummer night, I entered the gates of Elantris. Holy cow, smoke, and Toledo, y’all. I enjoyed this story so much!

When the beloved Prince Raoden of Arelon wakes up one morning to discover he has been afflicted with a magical disease, his father the king secretly exiles him to the nearby walled city of Elantris. Once a majestic and beautiful city inhabited by people with godlike powers, Elantris is now a festering prison populated by the rotting unfortunates slung low by the disease known as the Shaod. Raoden must now fight the debilitating effects of his disease as he attempts to investigate the cause of the fall of Elantris with the hope of restoring the city to its former glory and healing himself and the hundreds of others with his condition. The Shaod brings madness quickly though so Raoden has little time before he is lost forever. Outside the walls, Teoish princess Sarene arrives in the kingdom to discover the man she was to marry has mysteriously died. She suspects foul play and conspiracy and begins an investigation to discover what really happened to her betrothed. As she works, he allies herself with a group of nobles with designs to overthrow the corrupt king of Arelon and becomes embroiled in a dangerous political coup just as the external forces of neighboring Fjordell threaten to assault Arelon. High Priest Hrathen of Fjordell has seen what war does to a kingdom his nation means to subjugate and so has just ninety days to peacefully convert the people of Arelon to his nation’s religion before the powerful armies of Fjordell arrive to bring destruction and death to the unfaithful.

All three primary characters are so enjoyable that I found myself conflicted when a chapter switched perspective from one character to another. I wanted to remain with each of them and continue exploring their story and their world, but I was also excited to learn more about the other two characters. This inspired me to read deeply and quickly as I thirsted for more information about each character. Even Hrathen, who is supposed to be villain, is so deserving of empathy that I found myself struggling to hate him as he executed his plans to bring about the conquest of the kingdom of Arelon. Prince Raoden is exactly the kind of leader I wish to be: decisive, intelligent, earnest, clever, empathetic. I loved his chapters and rooted so strongly for him. Sarene is a wonderful character, a strong female protagonist in a patriarchal society, fighting for truth and for civil rights in a kingdom foreign to her.

If you enjoy fantasy novels that are not just all about sword fights, stories that include intrigue and clever magic systems, read Elantris. If you have not read a Brandon Sanderson novel yet, this one will make you a fan and is an excellent example of his talent as a storyteller. I have a lot of Sanderson still on my shelf and the tsundoku still rages, but reading Elantris is a positive first step toward controlling it. One page at a time.

My Italian Bulldozer

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Alexander McCall Smith is the prolific writer of novels, children’s books, and academic texts probably best known for his bestselling mystery series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He has a vast audience of international readers who buy millions of copies of his books. He has built a thirty-plus year career writing at a rapid pace and publishing a book or more each year, at least for the last two decades. When My Italian Bulldozer was published in 2016, it was one of just five books bearing his name that were published that year. After reading My Italian Bulldozer, I wonder if he maybe ought to slow down a bit.

The journey is rough from the beginning. The clunky opening chapter features three chronological jumps backward to recount different parts of the same conversation between author Paul and his editor Gloria about the dissolution of Paul’s four-year romantic relationship with Becky who has run off with her personal trainer. The time jumps were unnecessary and confusing, and the narrative structure of the chapter would have been stronger without the pointless chronological trickery. This conversation could have been a great opportunity to establish the two characters involved, but instead I spent half of my time wondering why the chapter was being presented in such an odd manner. When a reader begins a book, they want to trust the author but after this first chapter, my trust of McCall Smith was already tenuous.

After the first chapter, Paul crosses the threshold into the main adventure of the book. This part of the story begins well enough as Paul, the author of a popular series of food culture books, is on his way to Italy to spend three weeks in the Tuscan countryside putting the final touches on his most recent book, Paul Stuart’s Tuscan Table. This premise tugs at the reader’s adventurous and romantic strings, hinting at that travel fantasy so many of us share, that desire for true freedom. I took a hesitant, hopeful step toward trusting the author. It was all downhill from there.

A series of completely ridiculous scenarios reveal an unlikable main character with terrible decision-making skills. It is as though McCall Smith has a collection of flashcards of writing prompts and drew from the deck at random to construct the story. Once Paul arrives at his destination, the hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino, he experiences a series of romantic entanglements that reveal Paul to be one of the most fickle characters I have ever seen. Add to this some awful dialogue featuring sentence structures no real speaking human uses, an American character who uses British speech patterns and lingo, and season with a dollop of borderline misogyny. I present to you a real line of dialogue from Alexander McCall Smith’s My Italian Bulldozer:

“She must have been imagining things. Women can be funny about bulldozers.”

What the hecking flip? Let me climb out onto a limb and claim that the vast majority of people, regardless of gender, do not think about bulldozers enough to form any kind of opinion about them. And there is certainly no foundation to support such a generalization about women. By this point in the book, my trust in the author had flatlined but this made me want to throw the book across the room. The dialogue might have been acceptable had the author been constructing a character who expresses a low opinion of women or an archaic view of gender roles, but this is the only such statement or action by that character nor does any other character respond to it in any way. Not to agree with it, not to challenge it. Instead, it is just a stupid line of dialogue that says nothing about anybody except the author.

I generally do not notice an author’s style unless it is exceptionally clever or exceptionally bad. The latter applies here. Granted, this is the first and likely only Alexander McCall Smith book I have or will ever read, but after reading My Italian Bulldozer, I have decided his grade school teachers never uttered the phrase “show, don’t tell”. And what is this thing he does where he states what a character is thinking and then immediately has the character say what they were thinking? It is as though his editor told him the book was too short –my paperback copy is still only 232 pages with half-page character headers—and instructed him to write more. To make matters worse, on some occasions, the thought-then-spoken dialogue is followed by further thought of the character explaining the purpose of their dialogue. To whom is this explanation directed? Does the author not trust his readers to figure out his clever prose or is he just padding his word count? I do not know which offense is worse.

The titular bulldozer is a largely pointless gimmick but does pay off at the end in a completely unsatisfying way. There are so many missed opportunities in this story. The winemaker, whose life we are told is drastically changed by the bulldozer, should have had a much bigger role in the story. He could have been the perfect mentor character, helping Paul navigate the romantic subplots using winemaking and cooking as metaphors for the various stages of love and loss. It was an opportunity for a strong friendship that would have made the this final bulldozer scene a triumphant one for the winemaker and for Paul, but because every character in this novel is as structurally sound as wet toilet paper, this climactic moment and all moments leading up to it mean nothing.

By the book’s flaccid conclusion, I was left with my head in my hands. I rarely feel the urge to abandon a book I am not enjoying, wanting to give the author the every possible chance to turn things around, but this is a book I would have dumped had I not been reading it for a book club. An inconsistent protagonist, weak supporting characters, bad dialogue, and an unsatisfying story make My Italian Bulldozer a disappointing novel I would like to forget but will probably remember for a long time so I can tell all of my friends and family to skip it.

The Travelers

I consider myself an equal opportunity reader but on occasion, I come across a book belonging to a genre I have barely, if ever, touched. I was recently in my local Barnes & Noble Booksellers store, an unnecessary but still tasty cafe mocha in my hand, ambling along the aisles of discounted hardcover novels at the front of the store. There were the usual suspects filling the overstock shelves. James Patterson always has several titles in this section because the man writes a book a month it seems. One or two of Nora Roberts's recent releases beckoned passersby with their colorful covers. A stack of Stephen King waited to creep the heck out of someone. This time, however, my eye was drawn to a new cover I had never seen before, a pale blue background picturing the undersides of passenger airliners in a pattern that made it look like desktop wallpaper. In bold red, an author's name with which I was unfamiliar, and the book title which partially covered the face of a man in a suit standing in a pose that suggested he was on his way somewhere but something to his left had startled him. Next to the man and facing away from him and me, a woman in a coat with upturned collar looking like she is probably up to something. I cannot explain what about this image intrigued me, but I shifted my cafe mocha to my other hand, picked up the book and read the front cover flap. A spy thriller. I pursed my lips in contemplation. I enjoy spy films--the Mission: Impossible series, the underappreciated Brad Pitt/Robert Redford film Spy Game, and the film that made Brangelina a thing, Mr. and Mrs. Smith--but I could not recall ever reading a spy novel. I have seen several James Bond films, but I have never read any of Ian Fleming's work. Did I read Patriot Games in high school? I do not recall finishing it, probably because school work got in the way as it got in the way of everything. No, I could not think of a single spy novel I had ever read or even really wanted to read yet I held in my hands a hardcover copy of Chris Pavone's The Travelers and I was inexplicably drawn to it. And it was heavily discounted. And I had a coupon that specifically stated it could be applied to my entire purchase including already discounted items. I had consumed half of my cafe mocha and it was fueling a blood sugar spike that made me feel reckless and adventurous. Into the shopping basket the book went.

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I started reading The Travelers within a few weeks of bringing it home, which is rare. Usually when I buy a book, I bring it home and it lives in a stack of unread books for a ridiculous period of time. For some reason, I wanted to read this one as soon as possible. If you intend to read The Travelers, dedicate time to it. I started the book in April and finished July 3 and during that time, I read three other books and listened to four audiobooks. Audiobooks are my drive time entertainment (Safety first, kids! Don't read and drive!) and the three physical books were for a book club so those were priority. It is not as though The Travelers did not hold my interest. I just made the mistake of reading it just I began participating in the book club so my leisure reading time was practically nonexistent. So learn from my mistake and mainline The Travelers. There are enough moving parts here that the story deserves your full attention. I enjoyed the story, but because I read it in fits and starts, sometimes with several days or even weeks between reading sessions. I would find myself lost and trying to recall who certain important supporting characters were. Once I focused my attention on the book though, I was so entertained by it that I read the final sixty percent of it in less than a week.

Will Rhodes is a travel writer working for the New York-based print magazine TRAVELERS. During an assignment in St Emilion, France, Will meets an attractive young Australian journalist named Elle Hardwick. The attraction is mutual and intense, but Will is a married man. Still, Elle's allure is powerful and he has a difficult time maintaining his composure and his fidelity. Unfortunately for Will, he meets Elle again on assignment in Argentina where Will's life is fundamentally changed and he embarks on a dangerous and deadly globetrotting adventure. This is one of those "trust nobody" situations and Will learns his lessons the hard way.

The Travelers progresses at a rapid pace with many scenes lasting just a page or two before the reader is whisked away to a new location or a new character perspective, each of which endeavor to tangle the web and confound the reader. Some scenes were so brief and so vague that when they were over, I was left with a "wait, what?" sensation. While that might discourage some readers, it invigorated me. I just knew that unnamed character who just waltzed into the story and said something cryptic was going to pop up again later and I wanted to know more so I kept reading, often well past my bedtime. The conclusion of the story is exciting and satisfying and I was sorry when it was over. The book is a fun ride and I am happy that I finally found a healthy chunk of time to devote to it. Chris Pavone is definitely on my watch list now and I want to check out his debut novel, The Expats. 

Blue Mars

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It took me two decades, but I finally did it. I read the final volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's landmark Mars trilogy. I had read the first two volumes, Red Mars and Green Mars, in college but then life got in the way and I never managed to start the third book. I do not often make New Year's resolutions but this year, I resolved to finish the trilogy. After so many years, I was concerned that I would not remember any of the characters or events of the first two hefty stories and the third volume would be nebulous and inaccessible. Kim Stanley Robinson adeptly reintroduces his loyal readers to the key members of the First Hundred, the original colonists of Mars, and of the pivotal moments of the previous two volumes, weaving in references to the discoveries, the betrayals, the revolution. Before too long, I was deep into book three, living on Mars with Sax and Ann and Michel and Maya, worrying with them about the future of their new home planet and the society they created.

The longevity treatments have successfully extended the lifespans of the First Hundred and those who followed them, with many of the original colonists living more than two centuries. Back on Earth, overpopulation and a great flood send hoards of immigrants fleeing to the new Mars with its forests, oceans, and clean air. So what happens when population booms and the elderly are living long lives in defiance of nature and not passing on like they are supposed to? Now you have a crisis of culture and ideology as well as population. Blue Mars explores these themes along with the environmental question of whether it is right to propagate to new planets in the name of human survival. As with the previous novels in the trilogy, chapters are presented from the perspective of alternating characters, giving readers an equal exposure to the variety of scientific ideas and socio-political philosophies that haunt the people driving the future of the planet. In addition to members of the First Hundred, readers also hear from their children, themselves now advanced in age thanks to the longevity treatments. They are Martians with full lifetimes lived as the first humans native to a planet that is not Earth and they have very different goals from their parents, conflicting ideologies for their planet.

During this time, we also learn that mankind has now successfully established colonies on other planets as well as Mars and that there are outposts in the asteroid belt. The scope of the story grows beyond just the conflict between Mars and Mother Earth as now multiple planets, each with their nationalistic pride and needs, compete for resources in a solar system that, due to improved interplanetary travel technology, is rapidly shrinking in size. It is analogous to the consequence of commercial air travel on Earth in the mid-20th century. When it takes less than a day to travel to the other side of the world when it used to take months, the world shrinks dramatically and cultures homogenize.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite authors as I have stated in my articles on Shaman and Aurora. He explains enough of the science--or invents it--that the story sounds plausible and he then surrounds that science with developed characters with whom I find myself relating in so many ways. His science fiction stories are not just a speculation of wild possibilities. They are human stories at their core. The best stories are and Robinson's stories number among the best I have ever enjoyed.