Category Archives: Literature

Alan Glynn – The Dark Fields/Limitless (2001)


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What the hell does this book have to do with Bradley Cooper? Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Alan Glynn’s novel, The Dark Fields, was initially released in 2001  but has been more recently re-released in book stores [as well as in movie theaters] under the title, Limitless. The film version, as you are probably aware, stars Bradley Cooper in the leading role. This review, however, is going to focus on the printed version which, in many many ways, is different from the film adaptation. [For the record, I would without hesitation recommend the book over the film.]

The Dark Fields‘ plot centers on Eddie Spinola, a self-loathing, struggling writer living in New York City (he has a whole Holden Caulfield vibe going for him at first) who comes across his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon, on the streets of the Lower East Side. Vernon, who is a drug dealer, hooks Eddie up with a designer drug called MDT-48, promising that it will change his life. Despite some initial skepticism, Eddie pops the pill, and voila!, his intelligence, productivity and concentration improve one-hundredfold. Following this surreal experience where he is able to finish the book he was working on as well as reorganize his entire apartment, Eddie is hooked. After procuring a large supply of MDT-48, he embarks on a journey of unbelievably successful writing, textbook devouring, stock trading and womanizing. Soon, though, he finds himself suffering from a few side effects such as memory loss, withdrawal symptoms and entanglement with, shall we say, people of an unsavory repute. Through these juxtaposed exploits, the novel takes an interesting look at addiction, super-intelligence and the effects that one, the other, and both have on the human psyche.

This book was an extremely fun read. The concept of science making people smart is simple but Glynn makes it very compelling – as Eddie takes advantage of his newfound power, the reader enjoys the ensuing perks along with him: decadent food, chic fashion, beautiful people and wild nights among New York’s socialites, to name a few. Scientifically manipulated intelligence is an idea also explored in one of my favorite novels of all time, Flowers for Algernon, which, interestingly enough, was also adapted into a film, Charly.

The Dark Fields wasn’t always a breeze to get through, however. Some parts of the book seemed forced; Eddie’s relationship with the Russian gangster, Gennady, felt unnatural. To me, it was lazy writing. Gennady primarily served as a plot catalyst, popping up sporadically to push certain events into motion that the author wanted to happen. On the flip side, a character like Ginny Van Loon served absolutely no purpose except as a page-filler and occasional object of lust for Eddie. Lastly, the ending came about a bit suddenly and may leave many readers dissatisfied and wanting more (I actually liked it).

Despite these complaints, however, The Dark Fields was not only a real page turner, but as I said,  it was an interesting take on addiction and a fun glimpse into the lives of business magnates and public figures. I would recommend this book to a pretty wide swathe of readers: it’s psycho-fiction for your “techies”, a casual beach book for the summer, a mystery novel, a techno-thriller, New York City poplit but most of all, it’s just plain fun.

Beer/Drink Suggestion:
A lifestyle including light to moderate alcohol consumption
Okay, so that’s not exactly a drink suggestion per se, but it is a drinking habit suggestion. As many news articles and laboratory studies have documented, there is a scientifically-proven correlation between light to moderate drinking and intelligence (as measured by IQ). So, if you want improve your cognitive abilities, skip the MDT-48 and head straight for the liquor cabinet. Your brain will thank you for it.

If You Liked This You Might Also Like
Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Adjustment Team”, Isaac Asimov’s short story “Lest We Remember”, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Ted Chiang’s Understand

Rating

4 out of 5 stars

Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist (1988)


Looking to make a change in your life? Tap into your spiritual side? Be inspired? Enjoy a fun adventure tale? I think I can help you out…

Paulo Coelho - The Alchemist

Translated from Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s native Portuguese, The Alchemist follows the adventures of a young Andalusian shepherd who leaves behind the comforts of his Spanish homeland in pursuit of his “Personal Legend”, a hidden treasure buried among the legendary Egyptian Pyramids. Along the way, he meets many characters-a king, a gypsy, an Englishman, a young desert girl and, most importantly, the eponymous alchemist-all of whom assist him in one way or another on his journey toward achieving his Personal Legend.

If, like me, you had never heard of The Alchemist until recently, then you might be surprised to learn that, according to Wikipedia, The Alchemist is the 12th best selling novel in history. It has sold more than 65 million copies and stands as one of only two books released over the past 60 years (along with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) to sell more than 35 million copies. Translated into 67 languages, The Alchemist has developed a fanatical following and has been praised by such public figures as Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and President Bill Clinton. With a list of supporters such as this the big question then becomes, “Why?”.

Well, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, The Alchemist is the kind of book that makes you step back and take a look at your own life and think about the decisions that have led you to where you are. More importantly, this book forces you to look at where your life is going. Coelho’s concept of the “Personal Legend” is a fairly straightforward idea meaning “that which an individual most desires”. Whether it be to sail around the world, become an astronaut or own a golf course, Coelho (through The Alchemist) implores the reader to devote their life’s energies to following their heart and making their Personal Legend a reality.

For the most part, Coelho achieves this aim with resounding success. Consistently throughout the novel, I found myself questioning where I’m headed with my current spiritual, career and general life choices. Especially as someone who is on the cusp of making an essentially life-changing career decision, reading The Alchemist was a unique experience because it made me justify this decision  to myself and myself alone. Pursuit of your Personal Legend can’t be swayed by family or friends nor can it be influenced by societal norms. It is something deeply personal that only an individual can discover and achieve. [Thankfully, upon further contemplation I am happy with my choice.]

The Alchemist, though intrinsically challenging to the reader, is an extremely easy book to get through; I finished it in only a matter of hours. It reads very much like a children’s fairytale and contains the innocence of a fairytale, as well: there is no sex, no drugs and minimal (essentially peripheral) alcohol and violence. This simplicity is not only part of its charm but it is crucial to its effectiveness as a tool of inspiration. Fables and parables such as The Alchemist thrive on simplicity but their receptivity is also largely dependent upon the story. In finding this balance, Coelho is quite successful as he weaves an engaging bildungsroman adventure with his underlying lessons and messages without neglecting nor over-emphasizing one over the other. There have been countless other allegories, fables and self-help books written throughout history, and the immense international success of The Alchemist is testament to Coelho’s ability to put a profound message behind a simple story better than nearly anyone else before him.

Many people have called The Alchemist a “life-changing” book. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. It is easy to poke holes in books such as this one: economic disadvantage, inherited family responsibility and unavoidable events (e.g. disease, disaster) are just some of the obstacles that would keep one from going after their Personal Legend. However, ignoring my internal pessimist (although some would say realist), The Alchemist is one of a handful of novels, particularly of the fiction persuasion, that has ever moved me to self-examination or consideration of some of life’s deeper questions: Why are we here? What is my Personal Legend? What is stopping me from achieving that dream? The Alchemist asks all of these questions of the reader and, in the end, of mankind as a whole. It is a book that sets out to inspire people and, in my case, achieves exactly that. To put it in the simplest terms, I will quote my good friend, Doug: “After you read The Alchemist you just want to make plays on life.” Well said, Doug, well said.

Accompanying Drink Suggestion
Rioja wine
This smooth, flavorful wine hailing, like our protagonist, from Spain is generally defined by a combination of fruitiness and acidity with “notes of dusty earth, dry herbs and leather”. These contrasting flavors compare to the changing surroundings of the young shepherd who leaves the rich lands of Spain for the course sands of North Africa. Furthermore, the Rioja’s main grape is tempranillo whose name is derived from the Spanish “temprano”, meaning early, because it ripens weeks before most other Spanish wines. Again, this trait can be compared to The Alchemist’s coming-of-age story which comes at a younger age than for most others yet results in a beautiful and enjoyable finish.

If You Liked This, You Might Also Like…
Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, The Bible, Any of Coelho’s other works

Rating

4.5 out of 5 stars

China Miéville – The Iron Council (2004)


China Miéville’s The Iron Council falls into a somewhat enigmatic group of literary genres. Though part of the larger “speculative fiction” genre, The Iron Council is a decidedly unique book and difficult to definitively label. It might be classified as one or all of the following: new weird, cyberpunk, dystopian fiction, steampunk, horror fantasy, weird fiction, fantasy noir, modern pulp fiction or future noir. If The Iron Council were a movie, think Bladerunner meets A Clockwork Orange, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, written by Neil Gaiman and produced by Tim Burton.

Now that I have thoroughly confused you with that comparison, I will try my best to keep the premise of the book short and sweet. The book’s plot centers on two interrelated storylines following the lives and struggles of New Crobuzoners striving to overthrow the ruling totalitarian government. New Crobuzon is a sprawling urban city-state governed by an authoritarian oligarchy (masquerading as a democracy) headed by a nefarious and faceless “Mayor”. One plot arc follows two men, Cutter and Judah, whose purpose is to seek out the aid of “The Iron Council”, a legendary congregation of New Crobuzon insurrectionists living in hidden exile. The other storyline deals with Ori, a passionate young man living in New Crobuzon’s slums. Ori begins as a romantic revolutionary reading about and discussing the dream of a free and transformed New Crobuzon but quickly becoming an active and often violent underground rebel.
To put it simply, I enjoyed this novel tremendously. Miéville is a masterful storyteller and in The Iron Council he has created a stunning and distinct universe to which his readers are transported. Not overly verbose or reliant on flowery descriptions (though his expansive vocabulary may inspire you to keep a dictionary handy), Miéville paints a dark yet beautiful portrait of the city of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants that is both strange and familiar. Readers will conjure images of their own cities and histories and overlay this with bizarre imagined creatures, improbable architecture and other supernatural elements to create a visual patchwork that is Miéville’s world. Beyond the aesthetic quality of Miéville’s writing, the novel’s dialogue is succinct and emotive and, as a result, extremely real. This simplicity and authenticity comes as a relief when compared to what is found in most other speculative fiction books: tedious, grandiose and simply unconvincing dialogue.
The general tone of the book, like the dialogue, is defined by its gritty realism. Let me make this clear, The Iron Council is not a children’s book. Scenes depicting gratuitous violence, offensive language and polygamous sex are commonplace. The ubiquity of this grimness is not, however, overwhelming. It is simply the reality of life as the oppressed, of life in the slums, of life as society’s forgotten. Miéville adeptly harnesses the bleakness that is the protagonists’ existence and is able to create a number emotionally rousing, unforgettable scenes of both despair and of joy. This rare ability to effectively channel and produce a diversity of emotions in his readers makes Miéville a truly outstanding author and has made him one of my personal favorite young talents.
Yet despite these many successes, Miéville and this novel are not without its flaws. Most notably, The Iron Council suffers from a complete absence of non-human or non-male points of view. Characters such as Ann Hari and Thick Shanks are certainly figures that fit these criteria and who play a central role in the events of the novel, but their points of view are a missed opportunity by the author. The use of these character’s points of view and the subsequent broadening of the reader’s understanding of the insurrection and New Crobuzon’s gender and racial divisions would have created a great deal more depth in Miéville’s exploration of the diverse yet unified psyches of a revolution and the transcendant spirit of all peoples. The omission of a map is also particularly grating as any sense of distance, topography and borders among the various lands is often lost. Lastly, the narrative lacks any sort of historical foundation. Events in New Crobzuon’s past are mentioned occasionally throughout and the long-term character development of Judah Low is partially explored, but readers are left asking a few basic and essential questions: How did New Crobuzon society come to this point? Have the people of this city-state ever been “free”? What are the origins of our protagonists? What are the Mayor’s motivations?
In the end, though, the answers to these questions are not what is important. These questions are not what this novel is about. Nor is The Iron Council just about a fantastical world filled with creatures like the vodyanoi, cactacae and khepri people, and people who perform hex magic, somaturgy and elementalism. This novel is about racism and class struggle. It’s about environmentalism, human selfishness and greed. It’s about faith, sacrifice, courage and most importantly, it’s about absolute and unconditional love. The Iron Council is the type of book that is best described as an emotional symphony. Expertly orchestrated by Miéville, The Iron Council left me breathless throughout, and I would recommend it to all fantasy and non-fantasy fans alike.
Accompanying Drink Suggestion:
Yuengling Black & Tan
As The Iron Council’s future noir genre suggests, a darker, heavier beer accompanies this novel quite well. The flavorful roasted taste of Yuengling’s Porter is combined with and complimented by the lighter hints of caramel from the lager, just as The Iron Council’s oftimes nightmarish and grisly scenes are complimented by the novel’s underlying themes of love, redemption and the triumphant spirit.
If You Liked This, You Might Also Like…
Works by:
H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Iain Sinclair
Rating

4 out of 5 stars