Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Carlos Ruiz Zafon - The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind, Phoenix, 2004, translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves.

Spoiler warning!

This story had an opening guaranteed to capture the imagination of many bibliophile readers. It describes the main character, Daniel, being taken at the age of ten to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he can take one book and become responsible for ensuring its survival. In a way, this is a cheap trick, as most of the story is not about books as such, but about people and relationships.

Daniel takes a book and the rest of the tale is about his attempts to find out more about its author, Julian, who, like him, grew up in Barcelona. He also wants to learn why someone has been destroying all the copies of Julian's books. This search takes many years, and the evidence about the author's youth gradually forms a clearer picture, while at the same time, aspects of Daniel's life start to mirror Julian's early experiences.

The language is a balanced blend of everyday descriptions and more poetic passages, and it doesn't feel translated. It was a pleasure to read, and I wish more translated books met this standard.

The story of Julian's life, as discovered by Daniel, seems rather melodramatic, as do the events surrounding Daniel's journey of discovery. Without giving too much away, the relationships between Julian and his school friends determine the course of his future. This is a common theme in literature, but in real life I don't think many people have this experience. One of the revelations about Julian's identity, which should have been shocking, was very obvious to me from an early stage in the novel. Maybe less experienced readers would be more surprised, but to me this predictable discovery seemed rather unoriginal. In fact, much of the plot was based on such common themes that it was only the way they were presented, rather than the ideas themselves, that made it worth reading.

One weakness of the novel is that so many sections are reports on Julian's past told to Daniel by other characters he meets. Sadly, these sections are all written in the same style, and rarely reflect the character narrating them (although as can be expected, the discoveries build up the full picture in stages). Also, the later sections seem to assume that the narrator knows exactly how much Daniel has discovered. This seems rather contrived. In a more realistic story, the discoveries would be less orderly, and the narrations would have more overlap, contradiction, and a greater variety of voices.

Another major fault, to me, was that Chapter 35 ends with the sentence "In seven days' time, I would be dead", and then the story continues mentioning Daniel's awareness, with hindsight, that these were the last days of his life. This is something writers are specifically taught not to do - the first-person narrator must be alive when the story is told, and this seems a cheap trick to keep the reader engaged in the danger of Daniel's search. If by midway through the book the reader didn't realize the danger and didn't identify with Daniel enough, I doubt that this sort of device would suddenly change any reader's mind. Anyway, the ending was unsatisfying, since Daniel was shot and was "dead" for a few seconds, but then "miraculously" recovered and got his happy, Hollywood-style end. I found this frustrating on two levels - first, all the talk about him dying was a red herring, and second, while not being dead allowed the first-person narrative to be explained better, the happy end was in contrast to the tone of the rest of the story and some of the tragic events.

Like many stories, this was a tale of Daniel's maturation over several years. His obsession with the book he discovered and its author had many consequences, some tragic, others possibly hinting at a compensating redemption. It is hard to evaluate the morality of Daniel's actions, how much was his responsibility, or what he could have done differently.

This book might be better suited to less pedantic readers who are less likely to find the criticisms I expressed here upsetting, and those who like tales of romance and melodrama.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Group leadership - what I have learned

For the past six months I have been the chair (president) of my BNI group (chapter). As my term of office draws to a close, I have been reflecting on what I have learned from the experience.

This was my first leadership position. It represents another step in my progress from being shy and introverted to having confidence and becoming a capable public speaker. The role involved chairing the weekly meetings, making sure all the other leadership team members were doing their jobs, meetings with other group leaders and generally being a role model for the members.

Since BNI is a voluntary organization, members are supposed to function properly out of enlightened self-interest and the awareness that their behaviour creates an impression on other members. The group's leader is not strictly a "manager" or "boss", and cannot give orders. The leader has to encourage and inspire the desired behaviour in group members, explaining the logic behind the various rules (which were created by group members over the years based on experience) and the advantages of behaving as expected.

I learned that some people are more willing than others to change and develop. A few are so inflexible that they refuse even when they can see that changing would be to their advantage. This sort of attitude makes things difficult for the group members and represents a negative role model, reinforcing people's sense that things are fated, unchangeable and beyond their control.

My group members told me that they appreciated my politeness and patience, which seemed to them to be part of my English upbringing. It is hard for me to say how much of my character results from being brought up part English and how much would have been like that even if I'd lived in Israel from birth... Whatever the case, my attitude is that being patient and considerate brings better results than a more assertive or even aggressive approach. The group said that they could learn a lot from my politeness, and I'm looking forward to seeing if this actually happens in any way.

Another thing I learned is that the group has its own dynamic. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts, and the group is greater than the sum of the individual personalities that compose it. Therefore, I decided early on not to take too much credit for the group's successes or too much blame for its less successful aspects. Things happen regardless of the leader's qualities or behaviour. I know what I did well, but there are things that would have happened anyway, no matter what the leader did.

Leaders bring their own personalities and approaches to the role, and to me this represents one of life's greatest gifts - the diversity of individuals. No matter what the context, I am always fascinated by the differences between people. Yes, this can lead to conflict and misunderstandings, but it is fundamental to what makes us human. No matter what the function, each individual finds a way of doing things differently, and this makes life interesting.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fantasy art by Igor Lazarev

This week I visited an exhibition of fantasy art by Igor Lazarev, at the Karo-Arts gallery here in Haifa.

Igor Lazarev is a Russian artist (born 1962) who uses classical techniques to create vivid paintings featuring themes of mythology and literary fantasy. The exhibition contained paintings based on ancient myths, works such as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and zodiac signs. I believe this is the first time his work has been shown in Israel.

I was impressed by the combination of technical skill and oneiric imagery. Each picture tells a story of the weird and wonderful, with beautiful but strange figures in atmospheric landscapes. There seem to be many layers of symbolism and meaning to undercover, and the resulting effect is both intriguing and sometimes disquieting.

As a very verbal person, I am aware that I don't devote as much time to the visual arts as I do to literature (or music, for that matter). But when I do spend time at a gallery, I learn a lot about the art of looking. Paintings require a different approach than books, and the experience is less linear and more individual, as the eye is drawn in different directions for each viewer, and the effect varies based on the interpretation applied to the symbols. A good painting can occupy the viewer for hours, even for days (if you buy it and hang it at home), each time seeming slightly different.

I hope to visit more exhibitions and develop my appreciation of the visual arts.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

David J. Williams - The Mirrored Heavens

David J. Williams, The Mirrored Heavens, Bantam Spectra, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

I bought this book, the author's first novel, when I heard it recommended on a podcast, and later heard an interview with the author on another podcast. It sounded interesting, and I was also challenged by hearing it described as a "masculine" story... I don't usually like such descriptions, and much of what I read is written by men, possibly largely aimed at male readers, and contains the sort of subject matter often considered "masculine" - warfare and technology. I didn't want to be excluded from reading anything by gender prejudice...

This is a 22nd century political action thriller, told from the point of view of four main characters, with each section starting with a graphic icon indicating the view point character. I liked this device, which felt somehow more organic than having a text header with the character's name (and sometimes the place, date and time) as other novels sometimes have. It felt more like recognizing the character's face in a film.

The main characters are agents of the various political powers and groups. Some are Razors, capable of interaction within the zone (the future equivalent of the Internet with a VR interface, a typical cyberpunk theme). Others are Mechs, enhanced fighters. They usually work in pairs. The first such pair is Razor Claire Haskell and Mech Jason Marlowe, who meet in the wreckage after a major terrorist attack destroys the space elevator built by the superpowers. This event creates political chaos and distrust, and they are sent to investigate. They discover that their memories are being controlled by their masters. Another character is Mech Strom Carson, more often referred to, even in his own mind, as The Operator (which annoyed me), who sees the attack on the space elevator on his way to the moon to work with his Razor. The third plot line involves Razor Lyle Spencer, who agrees to get Mech Seb Lineham across the border, which turns out to be even more difficult than they first believed.

The story follows these three groups of characters in the short period from the destruction of the space elevator to the brink of a world war caused by the resulting distrust between the superpowers. They all do and witness great violence, either for self-preservation or under orders from their handlers. People change affiliations and double-cross each other, and questions of identity arise. Specifically, Haskell and Marlowe have to live with the knowledge that their memories of being lovers while in training may be fictitious, since their missions are given to them in dreams and they can never be sure what else is done to their brains. The story works up to surprising revelations about their identities.

One aspect of the story that bothered me was the way the characters were able to communicate with each other mentally, by a sort of technological "telepathy", while being fully engaged in a spoken conversation, so their mental communication can pass unnoticed by witnesses. This sort of division of attention seems virtually impossible without significant enhancements to human consciousness. Yes, people can multi-task, but nobody can give full attention to two simultaneous conversations. I can accept many technological advances, but this seems to go further than what other writers envisage. All other stories I have read where people can communicate mentally seem to assume that they have to concentrate while doing this, and are therefore silent and physically still while communicating mentally.

I discovered quite early on that the story is "masculine" in a quite different sense of the term, not related to the violence and warfare. It was so focused on the action and the politics that the characters were insufficiently drawn and so did not engage the reader's emotions. It's hard enough to care for characters who are extremely violent, but when they are so superficially described, it becomes almost impossible to feel any sympathy for their ordeal.

The writing was less polished than I would have wanted. There was more dialogue than description or internal monologue. In some places, there was an attempt to link the end of one section to the beginning of the next section (the story of a different group of characters), which seemed forced and artificial, and actually detracted from the sense of knowing which story each section is about by creating a false continuity resulting only from the omniscient author's view point. For example, on page 71, one section ends and then the next one begins:

"You get used to it," says the Operative.

[Marlowe's icon] But what you don't get used to is what these third-world cities are like in their rafters.

These flaws may be attributable to the author's inexperience in writing, and I hope the sequel will be better written and contain more depth to the characters. It would also be interesting to learn about the world, with all its political intricacies, from characters not directly involved in the struggle. I expect I will overcome my disappointment with certain aspects of this book and read the forthcoming sequel, The Burning Skies, but it's not high on my list.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Iain M. Banks - Matter

Iain M. Banks, Matter, Orbit, 2008.

Spoiler warning.

This is a novel in the much-admired Culture setting. Life in the Culture usually lacks the sort of events that make interesting reading, since it is a post-scarcity society with little conflict and people can backup and become effectively immortal. So, as in the other Culture books, the narrative focuses on the societies at the fringes of the Culture, and on the work of Special Circumstances, the Culture's elite group of agents involved in rare interventions in other societies.

The Big Idea in this novel is the Shellworld of Sursamen. This is an artifact created by an ancient, extinct species. It is composed of several hollow globes one inside the other, like a Russian doll or an onion (but with gaps between the layers). The outer surface of each globe can be inhabited, with the inner surface of the surrounding globe becoming the outer limit of the layer's space. While this is only the setting, it is both an inspiring and mysterious concept, and also relevant to the development of the story.

The main characters of the story are three siblings from a backward human culture on one level of Sursamen. The youngest brother, Oramen, is heir to the kingdom of Sarl, which is rapidly progressing from medieval to industrial culture. This society is aware of the outside universe, alien species and the Culture, but chooses to progress at its own pace (although there have recently been interventions). The second brother, Ferbin, escapes from a scene of treachery and seeks outside help to save Oramen and the kingdom. He searches for his sister Anaplian, who has become a Culture Special Circumstances agent. As can be expected, there is more to the story than is apparent at first, even to the characters themselves.

One of the main themes of the Culture novels is revisited here. To what extent should the Culture interfere with other societies? This theme is relevant to our current lives, with many in Western society feeling what can be called post-colonial guilt, and having a resulting aversion to the very concept of intervention. This may also result from the post-modernist concept of everything being relative and nothing having intrinsic value. The implications of this approach are explored in Matter, with the Sarl society allowing such things as women dying in childbirth and a rigid class system. Anaplian is presented as fortunate to be able to leave Sursamen and join the Culture, thus gaining an education and independence that women in Sarl are denied.

To me this story offers clear support to the idea that some things do have intrinsic value, and some social conditions are preferable to others. Given the choice, I believe it is clearly better for people to be born into a free society where they can advance on merit rather than being restrained by class or gender prejudice. It is clearly better to have advanced medicine and health care, and when it becomes possible, I believe the option of creating backups and being able to be reborn after death with most of one's memories should be made available to all (except those who prefer to live only once, like some Culture characters in other novels). If these social choices are inherently preferable to others, it seems to me that advanced societies have a duty to intervene and help more backward cultures change and adopt better values. The argument that societies should be free to keep their traditions can only apply if these traditions are considered equally worthy to others. People who use this argument in our current world are effectively supporting discrimination, corruption, preventable disease and death, and other such outcomes of these traditions.

Without giving away too much about the ending, the book also contains a powerful and moving theme of self-sacrifice that seems rare in current thinking.