Review: Pale Fire

Pale FirePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! I was a fan of Nabokov’s prose thanks to Lolita but that book has nothing on this one. Pale Fire is many-layered, many-framed and at times makes my head spin. I wanted to knock off a few points for some incomprensible passages, but I finally decided that’s a fault of mine and not of Nabokov’s.

Pale Fire starts with a long, long poem that takes almost 1/3 of the entire book. From the advice of another reader, I skipped the poem and dived right into the meat of the actual story, which is commentary on the poem. Now, one can say that reading a commentary of a 1000-line poem sounds boring and I would even say that if I hadn’t just read this book, but trust me, it’s awesome.

Nabokov’s prose is so lyrical, so wonderful, so funny sometimes that it makes me turn green with envy. For example, this part, where the narrator was complaining about being invited to a dinner party where his hosts knew in advance of his vegetarian eating habits but still tried to serve him meat:

“I revanched myself rather neatly. Of a dozen or so invitations that I extended, the Shades accepted just three. Every one of these meals was built around some vegetable that I subjected to as many exquisite metamorphoses as Parmentier had his pet tuber undergo.”

How can one not fall in love with such a masterful command of language? Pale Fire is certainly a book that requires a dictionary or even an encyclopedia to fully enjoy. It’s hard work to read through, but it is so, so worth it. And the double entendres overflow this book if you’re into that sort of thing!

What Nabokov excels at most is his descriptions of people and their situations. Take this one for example:

“One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute: discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels.”

How can diarrhea sound so good? Because it comes out of Nabokov’s pen.

Pale Fire blew my mind on several levels, but one of the biggest explosions in my mind came at the end when our narrator realizes that the poem he wanted so much to be about Zembla actually isn’t. He ends up crestfallen that his beautiful country won’t be immortalized on paper through this poem. But the mind-blowing part is that it actually ends up being immortalized on paper through his commentary on the poem. It blew my mind in the same way that I Love Lucy is a successful television show about a woman who tries unsuccessfully to break into show-biz. So meta!

A spoilered discussion of the plot follows. If you haven’t read the book but are thinking about it, please, please don’t read the spoiler. It will tarnish the experience of reading it for the first time.

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Lady Julia Grey Trilogy

Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia, #1)Silent in the Sanctuary (Lady Julia, #2)Silent on the Moor (Lady Julia, #3)

Okay, this isn’t an official trilogy, but since I’ve only read the first three books of this series and the third book would make a pretty tidy ending to the series, I’ll just call it that. I’m a little sad that the third book’s cover is so different than that of the first two books.

Lady Julia Grey is a classy lady. When we first meet her, in Silent in the Grave, it’s the night of her husband’s untimely death. She not only has to deal with her recent widowhood, but there’s also a crime that has happened and together with her new-found ally, Nicholas Brisbane, she has to get to the bottom of what exactly happened in her house.

Deanna Reybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series reads like a Jane Austen novel if Jane Austen wrote about characters that actually did something. The language and actions of the characters are timely with the setting, but still stand out as peculiar characters, especially Julia. She speaks her mind and is a bit more independent than the women around her, but she marginally fits in to the Victorian age.

Nicholas Brisbane as the romantic interest annoyed me in the first book, but that could just be the fault of clumsy character set up. In the first book, he’s almost too good to be true: knows many languages, makes the violin sing like an angel, is charming, handsome, has a majordomo named Thelonius Monk (or something like that), on and he’s pretty darn clever. He’s definitely more toned down in the next books in the series, which makes me like him more.

The only criticism I have about the series is the use of gypsies to further the plot along. Although Julia is supposed to be a modern (for her time) woman who’s forward thinking, there still seems to be a lot of prejudice against these people and the whole “having the sight” thing is a bit too supernatural in the story. The mystery would have done fine without it. Sure, some things would have been changed, but I think it’d make a stronger story without that deux ex machina stuck in all awkwardly.

Still, the Lady Julia Grey series is a wonderful set of books to curl up with on a rainy weekend. Each is a self-contained mystery, but after reading the first one, I liked the characters so much that I was eager to read the next book to see how they progressed. I liked that Brisbane’s story is revealed bit by bit throughout the books. What I liked most, is how Julia matures as a character in terms of her interaction with her own world as well as with her feelings for Brisbane. It makes me want to go back to the first book and read it over.

Review: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It ComingHow I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was in first or second grade, one of my homework assignments was to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since the my previous goal of being a police-person was shot down and laughed at, I had already been thinking on this subject for a lengthy (for a first grader) amount of time. I thought and I thought and finally, I got a great idea. I thought of something that would be fascinating to me a well as praise-worthy to my parents. When I let my parents read my essay entitled “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up,” I thought they’d be thrilled and pat my head at having such high aspirations. To my surprise, their faces darkened and my mother turned to me and said, “No! You cannot be this!”

I had wanted to be an astronomer, but my English in first grade wasn’t very good at all, so instead of ‘astronomer’ I wrote ‘astrologer.’ My parents had to look this word up in their Chinese-English dictionary. They asked me what I expected to do as an ‘astrologer.’ Still thinking I would be an astronomer, but having a vague, six-year-old understanding of the occupation, I said I would look at the stars and planets and tell people stuff. This, to their horrified minds was exactly what an astrologer of the “call me at 1800-PSYCHIC” kind did. So they forbade me from taking on this occupation and that’s how my short-lived life as a future-astronomer ended.

Luckily, Mike Brown didn’t have the same experience and not only is he a famous astronomer, but he’s a pretty good story-teller too. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a humorous look into the chaotic years surrounding the Pluto controversy — whether it’s a planet or not. Before reading the book, I still had an almost six-year-old level of understanding of what an astronomer did. I’m now properly awed at all that scientists have discovered from looking at the sky.

When I think of planets, I think of pretty pictures taken from outer-space devices of colorful round things. What I didn’t realize was that a lot of what astronomers of Brown’s kind do is look at tons of pictures, keeping an eye out for almost untraceable movements of things that look like stars from one picture to the next. It’s amazing how much can be figured out using simple geometry and some not so simple math. I never really thought of it this way, but looking up at the sky and trying to find planets and other moving masses is kind of like an ant on the floor trying to figure out what that thing way up in the ceiling is. Except with way more distance.

How I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is by no means an astronomy textbook, even an introductory one. But it is a pretty readable, layman’s version of what an astronomer probably does in his day to day life. I appreciated the personal stories of his growing family that Brown weaved in between his astronomical discoveries, but I wasn’t that interested in them at the end and really wanted to just read about the Pluto drama. I had no idea there were such heated feelings around whether Pluto should still be considered a planet or not.

Before reading the book, I never really questioned what exactly was a planet and even now I’m still a little hazy. But at least now, I feel a little more comfortable saying that no, Pluto is not a planet.

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