Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, because she is wild, dreamy, flinty, and if her novels are to be believed, sensibly unafraid of all peopl...moreTove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, because she is wild, dreamy, flinty, and if her novels are to be believed, sensibly unafraid of all people, and completely unconcerned about their thoughts and judgements. She seems to be a mad, sweet loner, a people-watching misanthrope, who loved and tried to understand the individuals who bothered to approach her.
Jansson was a Fenno-Swede, meaning she was part of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. White on white in a translucent wonderland, right?
Regardless of whether subtle distinctions inform her work, she's most well-known for her children's novels and comics about a family of hippopotamus-like creatures called Moomins, which is an international cartoon brand on par with Barapapa.
Later in life, Jansson wrote a series of novels, ostensibly for adults. I like these more, since her singular voice, full of gentle harshness, is more direct. It is the same voice, but without a gloss for children. In her adult novels, she calmly observes more absurdity, more madness, and more people behaving in very irrational but typical modes, unmediated by the sweetness of cartoon figments.
Sun City centers around a retirement home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Of all places, a Fenno-swede decided to write about my university town! I knew it was a book about the elderly, but the setting really surprised me. At the liberal arts school I attended, there were retirement homes and senior condominiums nearby, some with overlapping economic interests, board members, and nebulous but vaguely shady though clearly contractual links to the college. Certain famous though obscure people retired to these places. I remember Peter Handke's name adorned plaques and symposia materials around the college. Though I never did see him in person, it was clear that he was a resident nearby, and to stave off boredom, he occasionally came over to participate in academic matters as some sort of unofficial writer emeritus. In another such exchange, a friend and I had dinner with a retired Broadway actress. She'd married old money and settled nearby and liked to regale college students with stories of transatlantic New York City, using "cookie" as a term of endearment for everyone.
Sun City reminded me of these strange but genuine undercurrents that run between the main population of retirees and everyone else in Florida coastal towns. How the Florida coast is God's waiting room. How all sorts of people from everywhere shed their once-glamorous skins or sell off their businesses, and since they can't afford California living or are just too weird for that other sunny state, they rock in rocking chairs, passing the rest of their time in Florida. The book is a collection of some such retirees, living together, and gently tormenting one another with their opposing quirks. There's even a once-famous character, much like the old Broadway star, milling among the philistines of his generation, polite, patient, and completely forgotten. Did Jansson at one time occupy this role as a strange, wild-eyed Nordic retiree who did something vaguely fantastic but obscure, known to no one in a land of sunny forgetfulness? Or maybe she was a tourist, visiting friends. Either way, she accurately captures this milieu.(less)
A slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is no...moreA slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is not that she helps my feeble mind recall the 90s: when airfare was cheap, globalism was novel, and being in a city with as much diversity and cultural incongruity as possible was the transcosmopolitan goal ("I was hanging out with this half-Jewish Jamaican guy last night. He's from Brazil, Sikh by choice, disclaims his birthright, vegan. We were smoking and listening to Russian rap online via Radio 3 Switzerland until 4am"). That's her big theme: interesting Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Africans living together in the dirty part of London in a country formerly only of boring white people. And the local colour is always more interesting for all their hard luck.
She always hooks me with incidental details. Half-faded decals of cartoon characters in a children's hospital. Her characters' use of smartphones and how the phones complicate social interactions, i.e. people using phones when they are with their friends, signalling they are bored, lonely, distracted. The mould that grows on the ceilings of unventilated apartments of people from hot countries who crank the heat in mid-winter. Seeing the wave of your friends have children, who then email you photo attachments of exhausted mother and child, in which the mothers look more sweaty, dishevelled, and alien to you than you've ever seen before. People's rooms being an expression of their inner states of mind.
I love her for these details alone, because I've been in these rooms and situations too many times. But she also fleshes out 4 fully realized people: Irish social worker, young black mechanic, professional black lady barrister, and a homeless guy (I've definitely met the lawyer). These characters, their lovers, parents, and dependants roam through Smith's old council estate, Willesden, and around to other similar neghbourhoods, causing drama, suffering, and struggling with the actual problems and non-problems of their late 20s and 30s.
Smith is still crap at endings. Her endings are abrupt, and always leave me flipping casually back through the book to see if the build-up warranted that kind of trailing off. I finally re-read the end, the beginning, shrug, and go on with my life. For her, it's the details and characters that matter.
Smith is maturing. NW is my favourite so far. (less)
2.5 stars rounded up to 3. Middle of the pack meta-Murakami:
Lonely people doing chores and eating simple meals while listening to obscure classical m...more2.5 stars rounded up to 3. Middle of the pack meta-Murakami:
Lonely people doing chores and eating simple meals while listening to obscure classical music. Then, some weird things happen, which are never explained. This is normal in the murakami-verse. What's new in this novel is that these events are painstakingly narrated by Murakami from a step-by-step process point-of-view. Characters sweep their floor or make food and the reader is informed exactly how these tasks are performed, moment by tedious moment. Further, one of the characters is a writer who writes and talks about writing just like Murakami has previously talked about writing in interviews. So meta. Let me contain my excitement in this post-modern hall of mirrors.
Also, 1Q84 is simile porn. There are many unnecessary, extended similes per page. However, speaking of porn, the sex scenes are well written and plentiful, which is a small saving grace.
1Q84 reminds me of Medulla by Björk. You know, the album where she repeatedly sampled her voice until her voice could be substituted for instruments, which she then sang over. Her singing was made to sound like instruments, which she then sung over. So when you listen to a song from Medulla, it sounds like other Björk songs. But in reality, you are listening to her sing 50 times, and all that singing is shaped into one person singing over instruments. After Medulla, mostly everyone stopped listening to Björk, because they either didn't understand what she was doing or the experiment was too obscure and had little of the qualities that previously attracted her audience. She made at least two more albums after Medulla that people usually don't know about and certainly can't name without googling.
There is a point where artists get so big, they attempt something too large/obscure and lose their audience. It is also probably the point where editors/producers back way off a star, because they don't want to harm the star's power. But the star is jumping the shark because s/he didn't have the grounding and constraints to struggle against that s/he had prior to stardom. 1Q84 is Murakami's Medulla moment.(less)
I agree with Brian G (though he was discussing Wild at Heart's sequel/side-quel). This is the dick-lit version of Weetzie Bat: a road-trip catalogue...moreI agree with Brian G (though he was discussing Wild at Heart's sequel/side-quel). This is the dick-lit version of Weetzie Bat: a road-trip catalogue of stuff men (are supposed to) like, featuring two young, dumb kids in love. I remember liking Weetzie Bat better, because at least it attempted to be something more than "Aren't tacos and cold beer and jazz the best? Aren't other combos of stuff like menthol cigarettes and gum and tattoos and car magazines SO GOOD? Isn't tough white trash and amorally-treated-but-factually-correct racism in the deep South used as an accent to all the hipness going on in this book SO EDGY?" Wild at Heart is marketing for cigarettes, cars, and cheesecake pin-ups presented as fiction. Watch the David Lynch-Gifford film instead, if not solely for the hybrid Elvis-Brando, noir, and Wizard of Oz references. The film adequately covers the material of, and manages to seem more interesting than this flimsy book of big type and 3-page chapters. The film also succeeds in being the twisted adult cartoon that the novella aspires to be.(less)
First off, China Mieville is very brainy and gives good vocabulary. I can see why Ceridwen is dating him as a literary boyfriend.
The plot revolves aro...moreFirst off, China Mieville is very brainy and gives good vocabulary. I can see why Ceridwen is dating him as a literary boyfriend.
The plot revolves around a detective investigating a murder in a city shared by two distinct nations. One society, Ul-Ooma, seems to be Turkish, Middle Eastern, Chinese, or North African. The other society, Besel, seems gray, depressive, and borrows words that are vaguely slavic. So, maybe Besel is council estate England and Bulgaria.
The two cultures share exactly the same space, but each culture deliberately, and under threat, pretends that it is a solo sovereign nation that does not share the same space. Does the threat come from aliens? Shadow societies? Invisible espionage operatives? Secret police? Giant squinty chickens? Read and find out.
The dual city concept is clever in its construction, and the reason I started this as my first Mieville. I liked his multi-use and multicultural spaces, and how the shared-but-not-shared sense of alienation & diversity in Mieville's city exaggerates the way diverse communities settle within an urban mosaic. Mieville writes as if Chinatown and Little Italy shared the exact same, cramped neighborhood, and the Chinese and Italians spend the bulk of their respective free-time studiously pretending the other culture does not exist under threat of disappearance.
However, the social mannerisms of both peoples having to "unsee the other" become tedious rather quickly. Unseeing becomes a game of manners that has to be replayed ad absurdum. Unseeing is supposed to seem tedious; but it happens so often, it bogs down the plot. Mieville could have shaved 50 pages with a short treatise on how tiresome unseeing is for these poor souls, instead of having them do it in each paragraph like an obsessive tic. I realize it was supposed to be an obsessive tic, but now I'm reading other books without a similar tic and their lack of needlessly ritualistic repetition bothers me. Like a faraway, all-day car alarm suddenly silenced BOTHERS me.
Mieville's larger point, if he has one, is that social and political boundaries can be taken too far, and often are, where national sovereignty and immigration are concerned, but the plot requires that this is proved often and heavily.
It is also clear where Mieville's political sympathy lies. He loves the Left, goths, academics, and clever nerds like himself. He tries to be objective, but despite his clever handling of some of the book's mysteries, he plays favorites and his polarized characters conform mostly to stereotype.
I admire the attempt to blend policier and sci-fi in a seamless and clever way (Blade Runner [director's cut], the crowning example of this blend, has been my favorite film since before I understood that the film was a genre blend).
The book is a policier, which is characterized by data collection, polarizations, and moral vacuums. Typically, a detective-protagonist (and readers) can't possibly put the data together into a coherent theory of the case, until the protagonist stumbles upon a key piece of data that reshuffles the detective's (and the readers') interpretation of the data and events.
This is where Mieville stumbles. Late in the book, on a single page, the detective posits a theory, pulls out several premises that do not exist apart from the detective speaking them outloud. Then he frantically runs through the last 35 pages of the book. BLAMMO! Case finished. There is no reinterpretation. The data fits, but my gripe is that the detective didn't stumble on new data; he just spoke "AHA! These things happened, because I just said them into the plot of the book!"
It reminded me of watching Sunshine by Danny Boyle. Theoretically, that should be a good film. Sunshine is high tech, big budget, pretty, Danny Boyle, sci-fi, and yet it sucks because the plotting takes a sharp genre turn and ends up lame.
Mieville gets 3 stars for the structure, the exploration of dual sovereignty, the absurdism of enforced customs, and for keeping me interested enough to finish. But he needs to work on his policier plotting. The obsessive unseeing tic plagued the entire book, but having the theory of the case portion flubbed felt like watching a ship in a sealed bottle spontaneously collapse.
The problem with this book is the chief problem with being clever. If you aren't clever, maybe you can still do one thing well. Your task well performed meets expectations and makes someone happy. If you are clever, and you attempt to do many things at once, people are only happy if you do each thing well. You up the ante by taking on more and still have to pull off each task well in order to satisfy people. Being clever only raises expectations to meet the same response. (less)