Sunday, July 03, 2011

Three to read, one to skip

Once again, I'm guilty of reading rather than blogging. The consequence is that there's a small tower of books on the stand next to the computer.

So, here's four quick summaries to reduce the tower to a more manageable size. 

69. The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi

Bacigalupi is Gaiman-like in his ability to master a variety of genres frrom pure science fiction to YA lit to unadulterated fantasy.

The Alchemist, an award-winning novella from Subterranean Press, is Bacigalupi's stab at fantasy. It's a compelling tale of a world in which each use of magic, however benign, spawns the growth of a thorny, poisonous, malevolent bramble.

The alchemist of the title uses magic to calm the persistent cough that threatens his daughter's health. He feels guilty about using magic, but justifies it by his search for a solution to eradicate the bramble.

I have only one complaint about The Alchemist -- it's a paired novella. The story of the alchemist, who is on the run when this book ends, is completed in a novella by Tobias Buckell. So many books, so little time.

70. Bradbury An Illustrated Life by Jerry Weist

It wouldn't work for just anyone, but Ray Bradbury is the perfect choice for an illustrated biography. This table-top sized book, assembled by Jerry Weist, makes no attempt to be a comprehensive story of Bradbury's life.

What it does do is capture a broad swatch of his creative life. The book is fat with reproductions of early fanzines in which Bradbury got his start, stills from television shows and movies, artist's illustrations of his stories that appeared in countless magazines, covers of pulps featuring his writing, pages of story adaptations from EC Comics and the covers of his books, including foreign editions.

It's a visual feast, and a fitting celebration of Bradbury's creative life.

71. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

Humor and pain are the elements that war for dominance in Sherman Alexie's superb stories of Indian life in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Alexie's stories are filled with vivid characters who confront heartbreak and loss, the devastating (and inevitable) effects of alcohol and the decades-old degradation that penetrates the soul of a conquered people with a sly humor and stoic acceptance.

Alexie, who tweaks our funny bone and our conscience, ranks among America's most gifted writers. 

72. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

This 2010 novel by Philip Pullman is a mean-spirited re-creation of the Gospel.

Mary gives birth to twins. One she names Jesus. The other, we are told, is given a common name, but Mary always calls him Christ, which is Greek for Messiah.

Inspired by his cousin, John, Jesus becomes an itinerant preacher who attracts a small following even as he begins to generate controversy among the religious rulers. Christ, who is regularly visited by a mysterious stranger, chronicles the events of Jesus's life and his sayings.

Eventually, Jesus is crucified. It is Christ who appears to Mary three days after the crucifixion, to several of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Christ eventually leaves the area, marries and -- encouraged by the stranger -- sets to work on his account of Jesus's life.

" . . . as Christ sat . . . he couldn't help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth: a star, an angel. And the childhood of Jesus might be studded with charming little wonder-tales of boyish mischief leavened by magic, which could nevertheless be interpreted as signs of greater miracles to come."

It's an altogether cynical excursion into fantasy that rather than re-telling the life of Jesus, seeks to re-invent it, and the establishment of the Catholic Church, as a great hoax.

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