California and the Unread Shelf

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I bought this book on a whim five years ago. If I am being honest with myself, I buy most books on a whim which is why I own more books than I will probably be able to read before I die. During the last year, I engaged in an unread shelf project which challenges readers to stop buying books and just read what they already own. I am sure there are many varieties to this challenge, like not permitting oneself to buy a new book until five owned and unread books have been read, but I have not constrained myself in such a way. I am feeling this one out. I have not purchased a book for myself in months — at all this year? — and I feel pretty good about that. The act of purchasing a book always comes with a sense of joy until I return home and remember that I have nowhere to put a new book. Remorse ensues and book is piled on the floor. This cycle repeated dozens, maybe hundreds, of times until I decided it was time to stop. I reviewed my bookcases, boxed up books I had already read but had a weird sensation of wanting to keep as well as books I decided I probably was never going to read and donated them to one of those free library kiosks one finds scattered about. The one I discovered is behind a little beer brewery which seems fitting since I am usually inebriated when I buy books which is probably why I buy so many on the aforementioned whim. We seem to be uncovering the root of the matter, do we not?

When I started writing this book-centric blog however many years ago it was, I had grand plans. Stars in my eyes and whatnot. I was going to write an article about every book I read and before long, I would have a vast repository of book reviews, babblings, and relatable stories that people would discover and enjoy reading. For many reasons, things have not panned out quite like that. I am constantly reminded how difficult writing is. Sometimes, I sit down and the words just flow, but it seems most times I slog uphill in the rain under heavy machine gun fire. I doff my cap to those book bloggers who are able to put in the time and effort required to maintain a successful blog and I am doubly impressed by those who are able to make a career of it. That is the dream, is it not? Well done, you.

Now, to the book at hand: California by Edan Lepucki. I bought this at my local Barnes & Noble some months after its 2014 release. It was on the Discover Great New Writers shelf which was a frequent stop any time I entered the store. The book jacket said something about a young couple escaping the crumbling city of Los Angeles and heading for the hills to survive the collapse of the nation. With Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Hillcoat’s excellent film adaptation still pinging around in my head, my interest was piqued. I enjoy the apocalypse genre of literature and film and was intrigued by the fact that in this story, the apocalypse is not nuclear or extraterrestrial, but climatic and economic. The survivors are not wandering a desolate wasteland plagued by two-headed beasts and irradiated water. Frida and Cal escape to a forest, commandeer an abandoned shack, and manage to survive as well as they can. They are visited by a wandering trader who stops by regularly with supplies on offer. They encounter a nearby family who share survival tips and help the young couple along. Things seem to be going as well as they can, but Frida and Cal are frequently warned not to stray too far from their plot of land. Bandits may be lurking in the woods and a mysterious settlement surrounded by a fortification of ominous Spikes lies not too far away. When Frida and Cal ask questions about this settlement, the responses they receive are cagey and foreboding. When a series of events threatens their tenuous sense of security, Frida and Cal venture toward the settlement for help. Are the inhabitants hostile or are the Spikes merely protecting a friendly but frightened group of people?

My familiarity with the genre fed my expectations and I was pleased that the story defied those expectations. Frida and Cal are both presented as POV characters in alternating chapters so readers become acquainted with each of them and see the other through their partner’s eyes. This is a slow but steady character study exploring just how rapidly people can grow complacent, how much of themselves they are willing to sacrifice when presented with the smallest comfort after enduring tremendous hardship. How would I respond in such a situation? After reading the novel, I am still pondering the answer. That is what I love about the post-apocalypse genre. It is a fantasy of being able to start over without the worries of the modern world. It is a return to basic needs and wilderness survival. In this genre, mankind tends to squad up with like-minded individuals collaborating in a tribal environment. No gods or kings, only Man. Of course, that is a short-lived dream and someone always asserts authority and claims control of the people. What is most interesting about this feature of the genre is who rises to the top and how everyone else reacts to it. I enjoyed this storyline in California. The who was unexpected, as was the how. The conclusion surprised me with its truth. It is probably how things would go if this were to actually happen and that, not the book’s conclusion itself, is disappointing. I find myself believing we would do better, but I know I am just fooling myself. We are where we are because of what we are and no world shattering event will change that.

This novel is much more The Road, much less Mad Max. Both have their place and I just happened to be in a The Road kind of mood. If you are too, I think you will enjoy a steady journey through California.

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.

Ghostwritten

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I have had David Mitchell’s 1999 debut novel Ghostwritten on my to-read pile for far too long.  I bought it several years ago, shortly after finishing his wonderful Cloud Atlas, which is darn near a masterpiece in my opinion, but too many other books were in front of it on my list.  At some point though, I grew impatient and may have manipulated the composition of the pile itself to cause Ghostwritten to float to the top.

Much like Cloud Atlas – or perhaps I should say that Cloud Atlas is much like Ghostwritten in its construction – Mitchell’s debut is presented as a series of stories, each centered on a different character and with each character’s story somehow linked to the story of one or more of the others in the book.  These little Easter eggs scattered throughout the novel added an extra layer of entertainment and they engaged me as a reader more than if Ghostwritten was just a short story collection. If a character shows up for two pages and then leaves, I know I need to keep that character in mind because they might show up in someone else’s story several chapters later, or they might even be the primary character of a later chapter.  I love this!  What I find even more fun is that there are characters from other Mitchell novels in Ghostwritten and characters from Ghostwritten in other Mitchell novels.  This establishes all of his novels in the same world and while some enemies of fun would call this a gimmick, I call it a feature and an entertaining one at that.  I enjoy tracing these character appearances from one novel to the next. I am tempted to purchase every David Mitchell novel and read them in sequential order and then create a timeline. Oo, what if I set up a bulletin board with photos and pins and colored string to keep track of it all?  Yay, project! *giddy dance*

Ghostwritten’s chapters do form a connected narrative, but each is an excellent story on its own.  This is good because, even as I find delight in them, I often found myself questioning the purpose of these connections.  Why does Mitchell structure his novel in this way with a new primary character for each chapter?  Is the book about chance and randomness?  Is he making a statement about how we are all connected in some kind of universal Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way?  Even having finished my reading of the book, I am not certain I completely understand it.  I admit that makes me feel like a bit of a fool, especially considering how much I enjoyed the novel. I like the pretty colors!  What I do know is that David Mitchell’s novel is a series of wonderful stories of humankind.  In each of his characters, diverse in gender, age, environment, morality, and vocation, I found something to which I could relate or empathize.

I feel like I owe Ghostwritten a second read at some point.  Mitchell is a talented author so I feel like my lack of ultimate understanding is likely my fault and not his, especially considering I did most of my reading just before bed after a long work day.  Such an exhausted state of mind and body is not conducive to full comprehension of a clever story.  For now though, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed Ghostwritten and look forward to finding out which of its characters show up in David Mitchell’s next novel.