September 27th, 2009

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 23

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  1. Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de — The Figaro Trilogy (David Coward, transl.) (335 pages)
  2. Keyes, Daniel — Flowers for Algernon (217 pages)
  3. Bök, Christian — Eunoia (94 pages)

Page count: 5404.

"Eunoia, which means 'beautiful thinking', is the shortest English word to contain all five vowels."

I received this book free as part of LibraryThing's "Early Reviewers" promotion. The publisher asks only for a review in return. Usually I link from LibraryThing to my LiveJournal reviews, but this time I'll link the other way in addition to my usual post here: LibraryThing review.

The concept behind this book is intriguing: Five chapters, one devoted to each vowel, that vowel being the only to occur in its chapter. This could go one of two ways: Clearly, it's a wordsmithing exercise and could easily be what I refer to as "mental masturbation," or it could end up being delightfully euphonic and imaginative.

I feel Bök was striving for the latter but that the result was closer to the former. There were certainly moments, as images ethereal flitted by, evoked by words that, because of the nature of the exercise, flowed from subject to seemingly disparate subject in what felt like stream of consciousness. But then there was the awkwardness, as the meanings of words were drastically bent to make them fit the exercise, foreign-language phrases substituted for wrong-vowelled English words, and laundry lists of words gratuitously thrown in. In the end, rather than being delightful to read, I found it mostly tedious.

Eunoia describes itself as a novel, but it's more like a prose poem or concept piece. The only chapter that has any coherent sense of plot is Chapter E, a retelling of The Iliad. (Other chapters have plots, but they are so absurd and disjointed that I can't take them seriously.)

Now, my friends know that I am anything but a prude, but I found it just a bit disturbing that every chapter contained graphic sex. Then I read the explanatory pages at the very end and it made more sense:

"Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules. All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each vowel, citing at least 98% of the available repertoire…. The text must minimize repetition of substantive vocabulary…. The letter Y is suppressed."

These final few pages should really have been a preface. I might have enjoyed the text more as a word game of sorts had I been aware of these subsidiary rules instead of attempting to parse it as a story.

There is more to Eunoia than the exercise in assonance. After the five single-vowelled chapters there is a small collection of "poems". These are also wordsmithing exercises, but they are more enjoyable to read. The elegy for the letter W is particularly delightful.

In conclusion, if you like clever, challenging word exercises, you might enjoy Eunoia. But if, like me, you're looking for more, you're likely to find it rather tedious.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 24

    Collapse )
  1. Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de — The Figaro Trilogy (David Coward, transl.) (335 pages)
  2. Keyes, Daniel — Flowers for Algernon (217 pages)
  3. Bök, Christian — Eunoia (94 pages)
  4. Zweig, Stefan — Chess (76 pages)

Page count: 5480.

This posthumously-published novella is also known as The Royal Game or Chess Story (Schachnovelle in German). Whatever you choose to call it, I never thought I'd find an account of chess matches so engrossing. This is a fascinating little book!

The premise is simple. The narrator finds himself on a ship from New York to Buenos Aires with the enigmatic reigning World Champion of chess. The champ consents to a couple of games of chess, himself against the collection of spectators. The games are, shockingly, closer than expected, thanks to the help of a mysterious stranger.

As taut and exciting as the description of the chess matches are, they encompass only a few pages of the novella. It's the backstory that is so fascinating. Zweig delves into the history and psychology of the chess champ and the unlikely challenger, where we discover a couple of unusual and disturbing stories.

There's not much more I can say about a book as short as Chess without including spoilers. It's a compelling read, a pleasant discovery.