Friday, August 15, 2014

Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins

I wasn't a huge fan of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, but Jitterbug Perfume has become such an iconic book that I felt I had to give it a chance on the strength of the recommendations I've gotten from people who loved it, and I'm happy to say that I enjoyed it.

In a lot of ways this is just the type of book I'm looking for when I've been reading a lot of intense, srsbzns stuff -- it's whimsical, irreverent, and overall on the light-hearted side, but still well-written and possessed of a unique, intriguing plot and interesting, well-rounded characters.

Which is not to say that the plot and characters aren't all patently absurd; they absolutely are. But what makes them (as well as Robbins' quirky, weirdly floral language) work is that it's all built on top of and in service to some very well-thought out and carefully crafted themes (immortality/the after life, the role of smell/scent in the human experience, juxtaposition of biology & spirituality, juxtaposition of old world & new world). Even reading some of the most ridiculous, slapstick scenes in the book, they still came across as clever & "worked" because I could see why they were there & how they fit into the overall structure & logic of the story. (This is the part I felt was missing in Fierce Invalids, so the absurd/slapstick/goofy parts just felt dumb.)

(Also, I really just adored the whole Alobar & Kudra thread. They were so sweet together!)

So yeah; definitely enjoyed JP enough that I'm willing to give Tom Robbins a third go. A quick, fun read if you're in the mood for something a little quirky & irreverent but still clever & well-written.

The Black Prism (Lightbringer #1), by Brent Weeks

I'm always a bit wary of starting a fantasy series/trilogy because there are just so many ways they can go horrifically bad. The Black Prism was a rare treat, though.

Sure, there are a few cliched elements (false/mistaken identity, long-lost progeny of ruler-person swept up into adventures, powerful beloved ruler-person weighed down by responsibilities/dark secrets/unrequited love), but I didn't mind them because they were executed in such unique and fresh ways, which kept things interesting and (mostly) unpredictable. The powerful, beloved ruler ("The Prism") has a sweet relationship with his mother. His long-lost-suddenly-resurfaced bastard (Kip) is a sassy, chubby, uncoordinated 15-year-old who is too smart for his own good but has a heart of gold. The ex-fiance the Prism carries a torch for is a hot shit, tough-as-nails soldier & one of his personal bodyguards.

Start to finish, I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. Sequel time!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

I've put off reading this or any other book by Salman Rushdie for years because I was kind of afraid that my complete & utter lack of background knowledge about India or anything related to it might make them difficult to understand and/or enjoy, but finally decided I would never know if I didn't pick one and take the plunge. (And let's be real; if a book gets the author sentenced to death in absentia, it is automatically a must-read.)

As it turns out, I was mostly wrong, with a few caveats. If I had to summarize the feel of the whole thing, I would say that The Satanic Verses is Jitterbug Perfume all grown up--longer, more serious, a touch darker, a touch more "literary", but still dealing with themes of history, spirituality/religion, morality, life/death/rebirth, packed with quirky characters, and completely hilarious & irreverent. (There are many people this book is not for, & I suspect you know who you are.)

Caveat #1 is that it does help to have Wikipedia or Cliff's Notes handy (though, apparently, some Rushdie purists would disagree). There are historical, cultural, literary, and pop references to India & topics related to India (particularly Buddhism & Hinduism), and while notes help, it is definitely not the case that you can't follow or understand what's going on otherwise. And actually, the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of historical/cultural/literary/pop references to America & England as well, and in fact, I feel like it's totally possible to be, for example, American and well-educated and well-read and STILL miss some of the American references. And it's okay. I think it still would have been a great book even if I'd missed a lot of that stuff, but having the notes handy helped take it from great to jaw-droppingly brilliant because it exposed so many deeper layers to the storytelling.

Caveat #2 is that you must, must, MUST pay attention. You can't skim, and if you get to the bottom of a page & realize you're hazy on what happened, you must re-read, because it is entirely possible that you could turn the page & be a thousand years and a thousand miles from the previous scene & all the characters still have the same names. Full attention is required at all times, but it's worth it.

Caveat #3 is that it really benefits from re-reading. The first time through it took me a while to get into it, and by the end I realized that there were things I couldn't specifically remember from the beginning & wanted to refresh in my mind in case it helped make sense of the ending. Which eventually led to just re-reading the whole thing. And wow; even paying close attention, even reading with the notes, there are so many subtle things I picked up on the second time through, just because I already knew what happened & where everything was going. So if you like big, smart, multi-layered, beautifully written, baddass books that pull no punches, this one may be for you.