Patrick Cothias : “The Wind of the Gods” (Vol. 1+2)

ABOVE: The Gods Pass Wind? What a horrible title.

“The Wind of the Gods” is a multi-volume saga written by Patrick Cothias and illustrated by Philip Adamov, both of whom have presumably done better. (In particular, I hear good things of Cothias’ cape-and-sword opus, “Les 7 Vies De L’Epervier.”) “The Wind of the Gods” is set in medieval Japan, but it is an overly decadent, too-European take on  Akira Kurosawa’s samurai milieu. Here, no matter what claims they make to honor or bushido, every character is lascivious, blood-thirsty, marked by cupidity, or simply DRAWN TOO UGLY. The dialogue and story are neither terrible nor memorable, and I found precious little to keep me coming back for volume 3.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH for ronin lovers, SHRUG for me.

The Ties that Bind : W. Somerset Maugham – “Of Human Bondage”

“I like W. Somerset Maugham. He’s not spectacular but he’s very readable. I’ll rather have that, than the other way around.”Haruki Murakami, “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”

“So I started reading that book, ‘Of Human Bondage.’ False advertising!” -Joke that has been around since 1915.

ABOVE: S and M stands for “Somerset” and “Maugham”

There are two ideal ages to read W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”: at 20, when  it foreshadows what’s to come, and at 40, when it summarizes what has been. I am somewhere in between, at an uneasy point when Philip Carey’s mistakes come too late to warn me from my own, but when the happy closure still seems too far ahead to convince me.

I certainly related to the novel, which is one of the better, purest bildungsromans in the canon. As Murakami would point out, there aren’t really any pyrotechnics in either style or plot: we  follow club-footed Philip from his orphan years in a British parish; through his wanna-be artistic youth, (in a Parisian milieu straight from George Du Maurier’s “Trilby”); his badly-managed sexual relationships; his crummy career that includes a stint as a country doctor (those scenes might come from  Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Country Doctor’s Notebook”). With Philip, we learn about love, sex, religion, art, philosophy, society- and with him we re-asses all those things. It’s hard to imagine a person of any artistic or philosophical bent (particularly, but not exclusively, males)  that doesn’t find something to relate to in Carey’s crippled passage through life.

“Of Human Bondage” also features a surprisingly deep set of female characters, not always a given in mainstream novels from 1915. Whatever you may feel about Fanny Price, Norah Nesbit, or Mildred Rogers, however little they may fit feminist ideals of character portrayal-  they’re actual recognizable humans. If you don’t agree, if you haven’t met them all in modern guises and modern aliases, you just haven’t gone out with enough women. (Less believable is the idealized Sally who finally rescues Philip from the shitty vagaries of dating. But then who knows? Maybe I’m too old believe in her or too young to have met her.)

ABOVE: Bette Davis first made a sensation in the role of Mildred. It’s always good to remember that Bette Davis used to be young and hot and have Bette Davis’ eyes!

“Of Human Bondage” is the mainstream novel at its finest. It  is indeed very readable, a trait that used to annoy the smugger critics, (the ones who feel insecure unless they’re serving as the guardian priests of cryptic codices). Maugham is not a critic’s writer. No mediators are needed. His meanings are immediately apparent, his sentences flow cleanly. Now that he is no longer a popular concern, it’s not even fun to tear him down for his heresy of popularity.

If you’re 20, read it and be warned; if you’re 40, read it and remember. If you’re any other age, of course, feel free to pick it up, but remember: there is no actual bondage on “Of Human Bondage.” If you don’t accept that, you will be very disappointed.

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!

Severed Shadows and Unicorn Horns : Haruki Murakami – “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”

ABOVE: One of artist Micah Lidberg’s inspired illustrations for Murakami’s novels

Split between two realities, Haruki Murakami’s “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is a marvel of a novel.  Murakami’s familiar, no-frills first person voice, (which might strike some as plain) here belongs to two men in very different lands, two men who may be  in fact converging toward each other. That’s not a spoiler: duality is an immediate theme.

The “Hard Boiled Wonderland” chapters are reminiscent of cyberpunk and Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler. The Narrator, who works completing a computational task at a Laboratory, gets caught in a nebulous turf war between Calcutecs (who work for “The System”) and Semiotecs (who work for “The Factory”). Engineer gangsters with barely explained motivations rough him up over an even less-explained unicorn horn. Creatures called INKLings feed on rotten corpses on the sewers.

The “End of the World” chapters are reminiscent of Kafka, old kaidan stories, and fairy tales. The Narrator arrives to a mysterious Town where his Shadow is severed from him, (a touch that would please J. M. Barrie or Catherynne M.Valente.) There, he “Dreamreads” unicorn horns, while A Gatekeeper, a Colonel, a Caretaker and a Librarian cryptically dispense wisdom about the strict, arbitrary rules of this reality.

ABOVE: Two heads are indeed better than one

Fantasy and sci-fi, the detective story and the surreal tale, the horror adventure and the slice of life, the modern and the primal; Murakami does not segregate genres. He would perfect his style in later, more ambitious novels, but this is a pleasant, eccentric tale. When I say that he’s my favorite Japanese writer, (Kobo Abe comes second), I admit that might be a question of my ignorance of Japanese literature, and a side effect of his facility with Western references. Still, I have read and re-read a lot of his work over the years, and it is always with the pleasure of returning to an old friend, who’ll crack open some imported brews and chat with you about Dylan and the Beatles, W. Somerset Maugham and Dostoevsky, giant talking ninja frogs and the nature of dreams.

And he has a new book out! Yay!

RATING: COOL!

Life on Mars 2? : Andy Weir – “The Martian”

ABOVE: Major Tom the Rocket Man.

C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels come with their adventurous jargon. So do the nautical narratives of the future, where Space is the treacherous ocean to sail. The terminology changes, though: EVAs, MAVs, modules, checksums. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is a castaway tale from that near future of extraterrestrial exploration. Astronaut Mark Watney has been accidentally left behind on the Red Planet – and he miraculously proceeds to survive through sheer scientific ingenuity.

It is very tempting to reduce  that plot to “Castaway” + “Gravity” = “Robinson Crusoe in Mars,” (which already exists.)

ABOVE: AKA “Gilligan’s Planet”

“The Martian” is hardly original, a recognizable descendant of science-infused adventures that go back to, if not Daniel Defoe, at least Jules Verne. (“From the Earth to the Moon” + “Mysterious Island” would be the more classical reduction formula.) But what has made “The Martian” popular (and more than a little over-hyped) is that, within the breeziest of narratives, it packs the hardest of SF. The intellectual pleasure here lies with Mark’s use of chemistry, physics, biology, geology and botany. Mark might protest that his stupidity leads him to the brink of death all the time, but that’s a pretty harsh standard of human intelligence: it’s safe to say that you or I would have died about 10 minutes into our Martian adventure. Andy Weir has taken his science seriously – and not science as some laboratory abstraction, but science as the trial-and-error process through which survival on the surface of Mars can go from outlandish fancy to eventual inevitability.

Low gravity on Mars means a lot of levity, so Weir punctuates it all with jokes, written in the vernacular of irony I’ll admit to employing all the time: “Oh, yay. I’m stuck on Mars and will probably die here. That doesn’t suck ass at all!” Half the charm is in those jokes – without them, this would be Arthur C. Clarke –  but they’re all more than a little obvious (“Disco sucks! What is UP with ‘Three’s Company’?”) I didn’t mind. Where ‘The Martian” drifts off is with a pack of secondary characters that seem as mechanic in their forced “diversity” as if they were automatons yanked from the “It’s a Small World” ride. At least Weir seems aware of how flat they are. Here’s how a German astronaut reacts to being offered a sausage:

“Ja, please,” Vogel responded.

“You know you’re a stereotype, right?”

“I am comfortable with that.”

Maybe a little less comfort with stereotypes would have led to better characterizations.

RATING: COOL! OUTTA SIGHT

Laveer your Spinnacker to the Taffrail, Matey! : C. S. Forester – “Midshipman Hornblower”

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words. A picture DEPRIVES YOU of a thousand words. You may look at this picture of the Battle of Trafalgar -

ABOVE: Battleships

- but without C. S. Forester, all you’re seeing is a bunch of ships getting shot to hell. I’d never read the Hornblower series as a kid, (more’s the pity) and that means I’ve been poor in my sea words. It also means I found a linguistic bounty in “Midshipman Hornblower” (the chronological first in the classic series detailing the naval career of one Horatio Hornblower.) Sure, I’d glimpsed “mizzenmasts,” “jibs,” “brigs,” “frigates,” and “carronades,” (as through a deep sea mist) but other words, like  “xebecs,” “fothers,” “fanegas,” “coamings” and “halliards” have the novelty of treasure islands for me.

I love archaic terms.

“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower” covers the years 1794-1798, with young Hornblower getting his sea legs in a series of exciting vignettes. Horatio HB sort of rocks the boat, and we rock with him because C. S. Forester puts you out there, drenched by the spray of the ocean spray, sea-sick, while the shrapnel of nautical nomenclature flies fast all about. Occasionally, he’ll let a little too much poetry seep in, with quasi-euphonious tongue-twisters like “a flaw of wind blew a wave of flame aft,” but this is a rip-roaring read overall.

ABOVE: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower set sail for the nearest courthouse that would legally change his name.

RATING : COOL! A hawsehole for your gudgeon’s bollards!