Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reviews: John Dies at the End and The Indian Clerk

Today, I'm finishing up the 2011-12 Chunkster Challenge. I had signed up to read six books of 450 pages or more. I already posted reviews for Angelology, A Discovery of Witches, The Art of Fielding and Sunnyside. Now I'm finishing (we had until January 2012) with two novels I read in 2011: John Dies at the End (480 pages) and The Indian Clerk (496 pages).

John Dies at the End: This novel is really too long for satire, but David Wong (a pseudonym) has a great many exciting and humorous passages laced into the narrative, which began as an online serial novel. David (the narrator) and his friend, John, discover a drug portal into an alternative universe that continually messes with their brains, their lives and civilization as we know it. The two uncover a conspiracy on the part of an alternate universe for an occult-like artificial bio-intelligence to invade and take over our world. Meanwhile, they discover bad things at an abandoned mall, and David undergoes at least a couple of freaky transformations. One character even doesn't really exist. I'm looking forward to whatever sequel the author manages to put together, because I'm fully interested in how this story moves into the future.

The Indian Clerk: David Leavitt's emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating historical novel investigates the life of G.H. Hardy, a willful, brilliant and reclusive Oxford mathematician, as he comes into contact with and eventually befriends (more or less) a self-taught Indian genius named Srinivasa Ramanujan. Leavitt goes into fine detail about the lives of Oxford dons, the outbreak of World War I and its effects on pacifist radicals, and the crushingly foreignness of England for the clerk. Because Leavitt chooses to focus on Hardy rather than Ramanujan, the latter remains something of a mystery. But Hardy, who is seen both at the time of Ramanujan's stay and Oxford and several years later during a lecture at Harvard) is a very strong character, and we get glimpses of well-known historical figures, including D.H. Lawrence (hilariously homophobic), Bertrand Russell (a self-promoting pacifist) and librarian-diety S.R. Ranganathan. In fact, Leavitt's depiction of the milieu of Britain right before and during World War I, encompassing such issues as women's rights and gay rights, may be the best part of the novel -- more comprehensible for me than the discussion of the behavior of primes. (Although I know what primes are, thank you.) Leavitt remains one of my favorite authors, both for his prose style and the fact he's my age.

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