A Wizard of Earthsea

Last night I finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I’m quite impressed. It’s one of those books that I’ve started and stopped reading three or four times in the past (once even getting halfway through it) but have only just really read. This is surprising because it’s really a very short novel (192 pages in my edition).

What threw me off I think, was, first, the writing style. It isn’t written like The Hobbit, probably my favorite of these modern short fantasies. It doesn’t have that knowing warm, grandfatherly narrator telling about a little hobbit going off on some crazy adventure. It’s written like an old fashioned folk tale, or maybe even the most interesting history you’ve ever read. Le Guin is almost journalistic in her tone here, by which I mean she packs a lot into a short amount of space. I realized at one point that when I had picked up my book after setting it down, I had skipped a paragraph that took up about half the page. In that half page, I had missed the main characters landing on an island, being received coldly, and setting sail again before the day was over.

Like I said, pretty packed.

The second thing that through me off the first few times I tried to read it, which was when I was 17 or 18, I was too old/too young for it. I was too old to enjoy a the simplicity of it. I remember I thought it was very childish. But I was too young to hear what it was trying to say about responsibility and pride.

Part of what made the book so good was that it was such a powerful morality tale and it never tried to hide that. So often stories try to sneak in the moral as if the reader, especially if the target audience is children, were too stupid to notice. But it also treated me, the reader, with a level of respect that I don’t always see in contemporary young adult literature. I tried to read China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun a while back and it drove me nuts. He decided to throw out everything he knows about prose (and if you’ve never read him, he’s an excellent writer), apparently because he felt his audience was too stupid for the “Show, don’t tell” rule. I was told everything explicitly over and over again. I couldn’t get away from it. But Le Guin avoids that because she respects her readers, young and old alike.

I’ll recommend the book to anyone who likes a good tale, although I imagine that many people will, like I did, have trouble if they’re introduced to it between the ages of, say, 16 and 20. And for those who don’t feel like they can stomach learning about patience and the dangers of pride, I’ll suggest Le Guin’s equally great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Very different, but it contains a world just as exciting and wonderful to read about as Earthsea.

The Art of Fielding Review

Courtesy of Goodreads.com

*Possible Spoilers*

This book had a lot of potential. When I started reading it, I was really impressed by the fact that it was a “literary” novel with a plot and characters that seemed like real people, something that I don’t find enough in the more highbrow novels published these days. But around page 100 or so, the book just starts spiraling out of control. There are five main characters whose lives intersect, but not in a tight way that’s needed with such a large cast of characters. Each character slowly devolves from their position at the top of the world down to their own personal hell. You’ve got Henry, potentially the world’s greatest shortstop whose self-doubt may ruin his career; Schwartz, the Jewish baseball/football player/pre-law student who discovers Henry and trains him, maybe at the expense of his own career; Owen, Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate,” who’s extremely well-read and begins an affair with the school president; President Affenlight, a biology major turned Melville scholar who sees echoes of “The Book” (“Moby Dick”) in everyday life; and Pella, Affenlight’s estranged daughter, back at her father’s college after she dropped out of high school four years ago to marry a controlling architect in his thirties.

It’s a lot to take in. And in all fairness to Harbach, I never felt lost in what was going on with the characters. His prose is fantastic, and even though this book (over 500 pages in hardcover) should have felt dense, it was a pretty fast read for me. I understood who the characters were, I was never confused about what was going on in the plot at any given time, and I genuinely wanted to know if Henry would be able to achieve his professional baseball career, and if he and Schwartz would ever mend their broken friendship.

The trouble was, that was the only part of the book I really cared about. Pella comes in depressed and on anti-depression pills and who knows what else because of her husband, who we’re supposed to see as abusive. He was controlling and a jerk, sure, but I had a hard time disliking the guy too much. Pella complains in the novel about how he only wants to force his idealized view of their marriage on her, but in the brief time we see the two interact, she could easily just be making things up to feel sorry for herself. That would be OK, but that whole idea is dropped (and her husband apparently leaves after one dinner).

The gay romance felt awkward to me as well. The 60 year-old man accepts that he’s in love with a male student without ever questioning his sexuality or job security very much at all. And I have to say that for all of Pella’s internal monologues about sexism, Owen is essentially a romantic fantasy for Affenlight. He’s one-dimensional, and basically serves the purpose of being Affenlight’s Lover. If he weren’t that, he wouldn’t have much place in the book.

There really is a good book in here. The final baseball game is engaging, though I don’t understand the relevance of it to Henry and Schwartz and their friendship. I don’t know. I just didn’t get the book. I’m used to plots being about something. And there IS a plot in “The Art of Fielding.” I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. The plot pushes forward, but we focus on the characters on the periphery so much that we miss some key events. It’s like Harbach wrote a baseball book about a friendship between Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz, then went back and added a slew of characters and allusions to “Moby Dick” that seemed bizarre and out of place to me.

Chad Harbach is absolutely a good writer. And there are things I genuinely enjoyed about the book. But the characters in the book that aren’t depressed or disaffected, or drug-addicted are making horrible career choices and messing up their lives. There’s a lot of wallowing in self-pity and that hopelessness that seems to be everywhere in literary fiction. And frankly, I just can’t get on board with that. On page 412, Affenlight is thinking about his sudden interest in environmentalism. He says, maybe he was “a humanist back when humanity was popular, now moved on to bigger things….” I still like humanity too much to truly enjoy this book filled with characters who don’t like themselves, written by a writer who doesn’t seem to like anyone in particular.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This post contains mild spoilers for the plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Nothing too major, but be warned.

There are few things I love more than movies. Like a lot of people my age and younger, film was my first real exposure to fiction. Sitting down and watching Indiana JonesAladdin and The Lion King as a little boy are some of my earliest memories. But one huge advantage I had in growing up in a house with parents that were both movie buffs and conservative Christians is that I was exposed to old “Classic Hollywood” films at an early age. Westerns, detective movies, Disney’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (still a movie I enjoy to this day), were as familiar to me as Jurassic Park or anything that came out in the 90’s.

But one of my favorite movies since my dad brought it back from the library is John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie has a little bit of a Western feel, although it takes place in the wilderness of Mexico in 1925. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston (John’s father) star alongside Tim Holt (whose work I’m not familiar with, although a quick look at IMDb tells me I’ve seen him at least two other movies) on a quest for gold. The gold unsurprisingly changes the three men and their relationships with one another, and leads to some dire consequences for everyone involved.

Like I said, it’s a personal favorite, and I don’t know that there’s anything about it I would change. Bogart starts out as a lowly down-on-his-luck American begging a wealthy American (John Huston in a white suit) for some money and meets Curtain (Holt). They both get cheated out of some money, meet Howard (Walter Huston) who tells them about prospecting for gold, and with a sudden and unexpected bit of luck, Bogart wins the lottery and is able to fund the expedition to find gold in the Mexican wilderness.

But that’s just the introduction. What follows is the story of greed and the lust for gold. We see Bogart change from a man who would only dig for as much as he set out to get to one who convinces Howard to split up the gold three ways every night out of fear of one of his two friends stealing it. Bandits play a part, and we get to hear the famous, “We don’t need no stinking badges,” line. But what’s really striking is how impressive the whole story is. The plot doesn’t have the kind of structure you expect from a Hollywood film, especially one that came out in 1948. The “introduction,” as I’ve called it takes a significant portion of the film. And just when you think things are winding down, our heroes have to track down a character to regain their lost treasure, another character might be dead, and who knows what’ll happen to those poor stolen donkeys?

There’s a scene most of the way through the movie that takes place completely in Spanish, with no subtitles. I’m able to pick up a word here and there, but for the most part, I don’t know enough of the spoken language to keep up. But the emotions on the actors faces and the language of Huston’s camera clearly tell us what’s going on, and without feeling like we’re being

At the end, Howard tells us, “the Lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer,” gets the last laugh, so to speak. The bulk of the events in the film occur because of chance, and the lottery ticket, and the finding of the gold are really the result of chance. The final scene helps to show the audience this by showing just how crazy the world can be.

I think what really draws me to this movie is the way it handles its characters. The film doesn’t focus on the set pieces and it doesn’t have this, then this, then this, then this plot structure because Huston understands that the story really works because of what happens in the hearts of the characters. Everything that happens, happens because of their actions and because of their greed or distrust, but never at the whim of filmmakers.