Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book 8: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco

Filled with tangled and twisting plot lines, this novel is a challenge to read, but an incredibly rewarding one. The rich writing style of Eco breaths life and vibrancy into a story that would have left me cold were it written by anyone else. Much shorter than his other novels (especially The Name of the Rose), The Island of the Day Before is a tightly woven tapestry of intersecting lives, religions, cultures, and even times.
The main story, if one can really be picked out, is the life of Roberto della Griva, a 17th century Italian nobleman. After his ship sinks in a storm, Roberto finds himself floating next to a different, seemingly abandoned ship. Interspersed throughout Roberto's actions aboard the mystery ship are Roberto's memories of his childhood, the war he fought in, the time he spent in France learning about astronomy and sailing, his mission to find the International Date Line, his loves, and his fears.
This is where Eco's superb ability in storytelling turns this novel from something merely interesting into something spellbinding. Described as an Italian medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, literary critic and novelist (He really is just amazing.), the things that Eco is able to do with words are beyond description. If you love words for the sheer beauty that they can create, you absolutely must read this novel. The thing that sets him apart from other word smiths though, is that Eco maintains a compelling story throughout his amazing wordplay. In one short sentence, Eco tells us, through Roberto, the idea that gave life to this novel:

To survive, we must tell stories."

Book 7: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

I first read this novel when I was traveling around the UK several years ago. I literally did not put it down from the time I opened it until I finished it. Reading it the second time around, I found it just as compelling. If you haven't read it yet, I cannot recommend it enough.
The story is fairly dark and twisted. In an alternate version of Japan, middle school students are forced to participate in a murderous version of king-of-the-hill. The children are drugged and transported to an island. When they wake up, they are instructed about the rules of the program and given random weapons. The rules are very simply: kill your classmates, your friends. The last kid standing wins.
What makes this novel so compelling is the insight into the characters. The writing style is simple, even sparse at points. I find that this accentuates the story incredibly well. The writing doesn't get in the way of what is being conveyed, if that makes sense. Takami provides an incredibly clear and in-depth look into the characters, their motivations, their fears, their selves.
Another reason that I find this novel so compelling is that I'm a psych major. The range of reactions that the students have to the situation that they're thrust into is truly fascinating, even if you've only taken Psych 101. There are characters from all walks of life and each of them reacts in a way that makes sense based on their background and the aspects of their personalities that Takami gives them.
The other overarching theme is a political one. Through his characters, Takami discusses government corruption, western influence on eastern cultures, rebellion against an oppressive government, as well as active participation and support of an oppressive government. While this confluence of ideas could bash you in the head, à la Margaret Atwood, Takami's understated style kept me reading instead of rolling my eyes and sighing that "I get it already."