Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, December 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: three non-fiction books.  Two are about
writing: "The Art of Fiction" being broader in scope, while "Confessions of a
Young Novelist" is a bit deeper and contains a more personal perspective.  The
third book is about (arguably) the father of modern political science, Niccolò

1. "The Art of Fiction" by David Lodge

This book provides insights into the art and craft of writing fiction, using
examples from a large cross-section of classic and contemporary literature.
Most of the fifty short chapters originally appeared as articles in the
"Independent on Sunday".  Many genres, techniques and other elements of fiction
and story-telling are covered.  For example, there are chapters on suspense,
magic realism, time-shift, names, lists, symbolism, chapters, titles, beginnings
and endings.  Each chapter begins with one or more passages from works of
fiction.  The next few pages explain and discuss the relevant concept.

The author has written several novels, so this is not just a dry series of
essays written by a theorist.  Obviously, avid readers and aspiring writers
will find this a useful guide.  But even casual readers can benefit from the
examples and observations presented.

2. "Confessions of a Young Novelist" by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is an Italian semiotician (studier of signs and symbols), literary
critic, essayist, author and philosopher.  This is the text of a series of
lectures on literature.  The title is ironic, since Eco was in his seventies at
the time.  His argument is that he had become a published author when he was
almost fifty, so he is still a relative newcomer.

The first chapter, tongue-in-cheekily entitled "Writing from Right to Left",
covers his writing process.  His first novel, "The Name of the Rose", was set in
medieval Italy, one of his long-time interests, and based on years of research.
For later novels, he maintained his desire for factual accuracy, going so far as
living in the settings and even enacting scenes where possible.  This is time-
consuming, and helps explain why Eco has written just six novels in thirty years.
The second chapter, "Author, Text and Interpretation", gets into some of the
technicalities of writing, meaning and translation.

In "Some Remarks on Fictional Characters", Eco provides an overview of types of
characters, and the obvious and subtle implications of these types.  For example,
some characters are purely made-up, while others may be actual personages from
history.  The latter have rich backgrounds, but may restrict an author's freedom
more than made-up characters.  Sometimes novelists "borrow" a character from
someone else's novel.  For example, a novel by Philippe Doumenc features the
ghost of Emma Bovary, and offers an alternative explanation of her death.  The
last chapter is about lists, which fascinate Eco.  He describes types of lists
and their utility, then reels off a list of lists collected from literature.

Eco has spent most of his life in academia and he brings that background to this
book, so it can get a bit heavy-going.  But there's a lot of interesting
information and insight in this compact book.

3. "Introducing Machiavelli" by Patrick Curry and Oscar Zarate

This graphic guide looks at the life and writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, an
Italian political thinker from the 16th Century.  He is much-maligned, with his
name becoming synonymous with cynicism, ruthlessness and expediency in politics.
His writing is often portrayed as a prescription for how rulers should govern,
but his intention was to describe human nature as it is and how it can be tamed.

Machiavelli's most well-known works are "The Prince", which offers advice to
leaders for a secure state, and "The Discourses", which offers advice to
citizens for a free state.  "The Prince" and its interpretation are the main
sources for Machiavelli's negative reputation.  Note that he did not suggest
leaders should be tyrants to be successful, but rather there are times when
strong actions are required for the good of the state.  He later refined and
extended his theories in "The Discourses", and many of these ideas were
implemented in the development of American and other republican democracies.
For example, liberty is based on shared civic responsibility, and should be
subject to checks and balances between the rulers and the governed.

This is a quick and easy read, helped by the liberal use of drawings.
Recommended to anyone with a passing interest in politics and government.