Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book #9 is Open Secrets by Alice Munro

This collection actually has some unifying elements to it, mainly in that the stories all revolve around the town of Carstairs and (more loosely), the Doud family and their piano factory. And as with most Alice Munro stories, the narrators are women.

Some of these stories seem more... sprawling than is usual for Munro, especially The Albanian Virgin, an odd tale of Charlotte (or Lottar) who is captured by Albanians during a trip. She tells the tale as an eccentric, older woman, so we're not entirely sure how reliable the narrator is.

I also particularly like the Jack Randa Hotel, which has Gail, who's been jilted by her significant other for a younger woman, follows him to Australia. Her stalking of course rather blows up in her face, but at the same time, she gets a modicum of revenge.

Vandals is a typical Munro work, in that it starts off just fine and then takes a completely unexpected turn to a rather dark place and leaves you feeling rather uncomfortable.

But that uncomfortable feeling is why I like to read Munro, he stories might be short, but they are never, ever simplistic and they rarely sit easily with you after you've read them.

Friday, April 12, 2013

River of Stars

Book #8 - River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


Ok, got that out of the way. Whew.

I love books, and I love certain authors, but there really are few literary things I look forward to more than a new Guy Kay book.

So here we are, River of Stars. Set in the same world as his last novel, Under Heaven, we are back in Kitai, but 400 years later. Things have changed, there's been civil upheaval, barbarian raids and wars, and Kitai is not the empire it once was. It is diminished. 

Not only is it diminshed in land, but it seems to be diminished in ideas and freedom and certainly in heroism perhaps? The freedom of women has been greatly curtailed, rules and court advancement are closely monitored, and aesthetic arts are considered far more valuable than martial ones. In fact, being good at the art of war is greatly frowned upon in this Kitai; they don't trust their military for the havoc it has caused to it's own people in the past.

Yes, the past is something that weighs heavily in this book. What do you do when you live in a time where you see the past as something superior to the time you live in? When you look on that past and see the glory where others only see it as something to be frightened of and react against?

Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are the main characters, and both are throwbacks. Ren Daiyan wants to be a soldier. He wants to be a military leader. And he should be. He's extremely good at it. He wants to lead forces to recapture the lands lost to barbarian tribes. He sees, he believes it can be done. And Lin Shan is a woman, who through a fit of what is probably supreme selfishness, has been educated by her father as though she were a boy. Her high education and vastly superior intellect make her an outcast amongst most women and men.

It is mainly through their eyes we see Kitai as it is and how it used to be. The narrative structure seemed a little different from Kay's previous books; more like short vignettes than anything. Of course they contribute to the overall story, but so many seem like small, standalone moments as well. And for most of them though, the sense of intimacy is astounding.

For really, while it is such a big, sprawling epic book, it is an incredibly intimate one. It is, as so many of Kay's books are, a love story on many levels. Love between people, but also the love for one's country. There is no doubt, that all the characters love their country, that everything they do, for good or for bad, is for love of Kitai. But of course, love doesn't always work out the way we want it and is so often bittersweet.

And that's precisely what Kay gives us here.