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Sep 14, 2008
Jan 05, 2009
If I were a teenager or recommending this to a teen, I might give it 3*; as an adult, I give it 2*.
It's a potentially exciting but gruesome story,...more If I were a teenager or recommending this to a teen, I might give it 3*; as an adult, I give it 2*.
It's a potentially exciting but gruesome story, but most of the characters were rather flat, much of the plot was predictable (it's not hugely original; in particular, it is VERY similar to the Japanese "Battle Royale"), and there were too many flaws in the plot. I fail to understand its very high ratings.
Post-apocalyptic America (Panem) is divided into a wealthy and technologically advanced Capitol and twelve subsidiary districts of oppressed people who exist in dire poverty, with inadequate food, housing, and health care and hardly any technology. To reinforce the power of the Capitol by instilling fear in the population, once a year, two children from each region are selected by lots to fight to the death in a reality show. If that were not bad enough, the whole thing is utterly corrupt in multiple ways, plus the public bet on the outcome, and sponsors can sway the results. Did I mention these are children? (Some are as young as 12, though the narrator is 16.) A compulsory full-body wax on a teen seems rather pervy and who would want to bet on, let alone sponsor a child-killing tournament, even if it's by helping one of the contestants? As the book keeps reminding readers, one person's survival is only possible by the death of all the others.
CRUELTY TO CHILDREN
I realise that horrendous things are done to children around the world every day (extreme poverty, child soldiers, sexual assault, genital mutilation etc), but in none of those cases is the sole intention that all but one child dies, and nor is it organised by the government for a sick combination of sport, entertainment, punishment and profit.
Humans often lack compassion, but I was never convinced by Collins' world - especially the fact this outrage has continued for three generations (it's the 74th games), apparently without the Capitol even needing to invoke gods or supernatural powers to justify their cruelty! Could a barbaric annual tournament really be such a powerful incentive not to rise up in all that time? (I don't think so.)
Nevertheless, it tackles some big themes that are particularly pertinent to teens: the nature of friendship; divided loyalties; the difference between love and friendship; who to trust; whether the ends justify the means; the need to repay favours; the danger of power, wealth and celebrity; the corrupting influence of reality TV; the need for independence, and whether you can trust a parent who abandons you.
It all feels rather laboured to me, but it might not if I were a teen, which only reinforces my puzzlement at the number of adults who have enjoyed it. I must be missing something.
Nearly half the book is backstory and preparation for the games; the remainder is a tale of hunter and hunted. I predicted the main plot twist less than a quarter of the way in (and the fact that Katniss is telling the story limits the possible outcomes), but the suspense was broken when it was made explicit way before the end. There are some other twists between then and the final page, but by then I was rather annoyed with the whole thing.
IMPLAUSIBILITY AND INCONSISTENCIES
If I'd enjoyed the book more, I would have found it easier to suspend my disbelief, but as it was, I was constantly irked by questions and inconsistencies.
* The contestants (and their parents and grandparents) have been forced to watch the games every year of their lives. I suppose they had become inured to it, but on the other hand, that meant they knew the horror of it. I just didn't believe there was as little fear in them as there appeared to be - given that they are children.
* Participants don't want other participants to know where they are, yet sponsor gifts occasionally drop out of the sky, via silver parachute; not a risk, apparently.
* It's all filmed by numerous invisible floating cameras (I can buy that), but that somehow includes filming inside a cave that is virtually sealed (I can't).
* How (and why) would any of these participants be able to measure time to within half hour intervals?
* How big is Panem? It can only be a tiny part of the USA because each district specialises in only one thing (coal mining, agriculture etc) and has just one town square that can accommodate everyone (8,000 people in District 12) and yet it's a day's train journey from District 12 to the Capitol. It doesn't seem like a very plausible settlement pattern in a post-disaster world, even given the totalitarian regime (concentrating people in a few centres makes it easier to observe and perhaps control them, but it also creates more opportunities for opposition movements to develop).
COMPARED WITH LORD OF THE FLIES
There are some similarities with "Lord of the Flies" (my review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), but although "The Hunger Games" is likely to have more appeal to modern teens, I think there are (at least) two crucial differences:
* In LotF one person's survival is not necessarily at the cost of everyone else's. (It is even possible that they could all survive.)
* LotF has much more depth and symbolism: it tackles original sin; the mystical "Beast"; leadership, tribal allegiance and group dynamics (including bullying and attitudes to difference and minor disability) and the importance of ritual and belief.
The second point is what makes LotF a better book, in my opinion.
Of course, there are other, more obvious, parallels with extreme "reality" shows such as "Survivor" and "I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here", but the fundamental differences are not just that contestants in those shows do not fear for their lives, but that they are adults who have chosen to enter.
I TRIED TO ENJOY IT!
Any fans who read this will now hate me. I wanted to enjoy this book, and I read it all the way through, making notes as usual, but to no avail. Sorry.
Notes are private!
Jun 17, 2011
Jun 20, 2011
Jun 17, 2011
Jan 01, 1997
How to review an infamous book about which so much has already been said? By avoiding reading others’ thoughts until I’ve written mine.
There are horro...more How to review an infamous book about which so much has already been said? By avoiding reading others’ thoughts until I’ve written mine.
There are horrors in this book, but there is beauty too, and so much to think about. The ends of the book justify the means of its execution, even if the same is not true of what happens in the story.
BOOK vs FILM
I saw the film first, and read the book shortly afterwards. Usually a bad idea, but in this case, being familiar with the plot and the Nadsat slang made it easier to relax (if that's an appropriate word, given some of the horrors to come) into the book. The film is less hypnotic and far more shocking than the book, because it is more visual and because it ignores the more optimistic final chapter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clockwor...).
PLOT AND STRUCTURE
It is a short novel, comprising three sections of seven chapters, told by “your humble narrator”, Alex. In the first section, Alex and his teenage gang indulge in “ultra-violence” (including sexual assault of young girls); in the middle section, Alex is in prison and then undergoes a horrific new treatment (a sort of aversion therapy); the final section follows him back in the real world, rejected by his parents, now the puppet of opposing political factions. The whole thing is set in a slightly dystopian, very near future and explores issues of original sin, punishment and revenge, free will, and the nature of evil.
One awful incident involves breaking in to a writer’s house and gang raping his wife, who later dies. A similar incident happened to Burgess’ first wife (though he wasn’t there at the time). Writing a fictionalised account from the point of view of the perpetrator is extraordinary: charitable, cathartic, or a more complex mixture?
Why is Alex as he is? “What I do I do because I like to do”, and perhaps there is no more that can be said. As Alex ponders, “this biting of their toe-nails over what is the CAUSE of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of GOODNESS… badness is of the self… and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty”.
So, can people like Alex be cured, and if so, how? Imprisonment, police brutality, fire and brimstone don’t work. Enter the Ludovico Technique, whereby Alex is injected with emetics before being strapped, with his eyelids held open, to watch videos of extreme physical and sexual violence. He becomes conditioned to be unable to commit such acts, or even to watch or think about them. This raises more questions than it solves. The prison governor prefers the old “eye for an eye”, but has to give in to the new idea of making bad people good. “The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within… Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” The chaplain has doubts, too, “Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” On the other hand, by consenting to the treatment, Alex is, in an indirect way, choosing to be good.
The technique (or torture) is promoted as making Alex “sane” and “healthy” so that he can be “a free man”, but although he is released from prison, he remains imprisoned by the power of the technique, even to the extent that the music he loves now makes him sick (because it was playing in the background) and his inability to defend himself means he becomes a victim.
But do the ends justify the means? Dr Brodsky thinks so: “We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are only concerned with cutting down crime.” However, if it wears off, it will all have been for nothing.
The final chapter (omitted from US editions of the book until 1986, and also the film) feels incongruously optimistic in some ways, but by suggesting the true answer as to what will cure delinquency is… maturity, it might be thought the most pessimistic chapter. Is teen violence an inevitable cycle: something people grow into, and then out of when they start to see their place in the bigger picture? And if so, is that acceptable to society?
The possibility of redemption is a common thread, reaching its peak in this final chapter. Burgess was raised as a Catholic, educated in Catholic schools, but lost his faith aged sixteen. He continued to have profound interest in religious ideas, though, as explained here: http://www.anthonyburgess.org/burgess....
LANGUAGE – AND NADSAT SLANG
A distinctive feature of the book is the Nadsat slang that Alex and his droogs use (“nadsat” is the Russian suffix for “teen” – see http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/20...). Burgess invented it from Russian with a bit of Cockney rhyming slang and Malay, because real teen slang is so ephemeral, the book would quickly seem dated otherwise. He wanted the book published without a glossary, and it is written so carefully, that the meaning is usually clear, and becomes progressively so, as you become accustomed to it: “a bottle of beer frothing its gulliver off and a horrorshow rookerful of like plum cake” and “There’s only one veshch I require… having my malenky bit of fun with real droogs”. Where an English word is used literally and metaphorically, the Nadsat one is too; for example, “viddy” is used to see with one’s eyes and to understand someone’s point.
The skill of carefully used context makes Russian-based Nadsat much easier to follow than the dialect of Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), even though the latter is based on mishearings of English. (To be fair, the whole of Riddley Walker is written in dialect, whereas in Clockwork Orange, it's conventional English with a generous smattering of slang.)
Where the meaning isn't immediately obvious or is merely vague, you go with the flow until it seeps into your consciousness (much as would happen if you were dropped into an environment where you had no language in common with anyone else). It's another way of sucking the reader into Alex's world and his gang.
Nadsat lends a mesmerising and poetic aspect to the text that is in sharp contrast to the revulsion invoked by some of the things Alex does: tolchocking a starry veck doesn’t sound nearly as bad as beating an old man into a pulp - Nadsat acts as a protective veil. In the film, this effect is somewhat diluted because you SEE these acts.
The book was like published in 1962 and Alex frequently uses “like” as an interjection as I did earlier in this sentence – something that has become quite a common feature of youth speak in recent times. What happened in between, I wonder?
Other than that, much of what Alex says has echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible: “Come, gloopy bastard thou art. Think thou not on them” and “If fear thou hast in thy heart, o brother, pray banish it forthwith” and “Fear not. He canst taketh care of himself, verily”. There is always the painful contrast of beautiful language describing unpleasant and horrific things.
Similarly, the repetition of a few phrases is almost liturgical. Alex addresses his readers as “oh my brothers”, which is unsettling: if I’m one of his brothers, am I in some way complicit, or at least condoning, what he does? Another recurring phrase is, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” It is the opening phrase of each section and used several times in the first chapter of each section.
Burgess was a composer, as well as a writer, and Alex has a passion for classical music, especially “Ludwig van”. This may be partly a ploy to make the book more ageless than if he loved, for example, Buddy Holly, but more importantly, it’s another way of creating dissonance: a deep appreciation of great art is not “supposed” to coexist with mindless delinquency.
Alex has lots of small speakers around his room, so “I was like netted and meshed in the orchestra”, and the music is his deepest joy: “Oh bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling… sloshing the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.” The treatment destroys this pleasure- with dramatic results.
Ultimately, I think Alex is sympathetic villain: he has a seductive exuberance and charm and although he does horrific things, when awful things are done to him, sympathy flows.
Yes, there are horrors in this book, but there is beauty too, and so much to think about. The ends of the book justify the means of its execution, even if the same is not true of what happens in the story. Brilliant.(less)
Notes are private!
Jun 28, 2012
Jul 06, 2012
May 24, 2012
Nov 02, 2013
Nov 02, 2013
Note that this is not currently available on Lulu, but you can still get - free, and legally - here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/7aqkiun0mef...
(If you w...more Note that this is not currently available on Lulu, but you can still get - free, and legally - here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/7aqkiun0mef...
(If you want to know why, see Manny's review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...)
Sad that this had to be written, but in the circumstances, good that it was.
It describes the background and response to GoodRead's sudden change of policy which resulted in some reviewers having allegedly "off-topic" reviews deleted without notice. It's a better read than it sounds!
It's written with love, sadness and humour, rather than the bile, paranoia and hyperbole that triggered the problem being written about.
I'm also glad to see it has a thorough and hyperlinked index, with nested entries. ;)
I've voted for it in the GoodReads Choice awards in the non-fiction and debut author categories: https://www.goodreads.com/choiceaward... (I did wonder if Humor and Horror might have been more apt!).
However, as well as actual nominations, it also needs ratings, so please consider adding the book to your shelves and rating it.
And if you review it, you will have the ego-massage of LOTS of likes in a short space of time. (It won't push you up the rankings, as everyone else gets lots of likes for reviewing it, but no matter.)
As a direct consequence of all this, I am now copying all my reviews to a new account at BookLikes: http://cecily.booklikes.com/. For now, I plan to update both, but in the future... who knows?
A Salon article on the subject from October 2013: http://www.salon.com/2013/10/23/how_a...(less)
Notes are private!
Nov 07, 2013
Nov 07, 2013
Nov 04, 2013
Feb 04, 2003
Child neglect, near death, a dash of magical realism, the power of love, the powerlessness of the poor, sexual rivalry, mystery, madness and more. It...more Child neglect, near death, a dash of magical realism, the power of love, the powerlessness of the poor, sexual rivalry, mystery, madness and more. It is as powerful as ever - but is it really a love story, given Rochester's Svengali-tendencies? His downfall and her inheritance make them more equal, but is it really love on his part? I'm not sure, which is what makes it such a good book (just not necessarily a love story). I also like the tension between it being very Victorian in some obvious ways, and yet controversially modern in others: an immoral hero, a fiercely independent and assertive heroine, and some very unpleasant Christians (it's not that I think Christians are bad or like seeing them portrayed in a nasty way - it's Bronte's courage in writing such characters I admire).
About the first quarter of the book concerns the tremendous hardship and abuse that Jane suffers growing up. It's often heavily cut from film, TV and stage adaptations, but despite the fluff about this being a great love story, I think there is merit in paying attention to her formative years as an essential element of explaining what makes Jane the person she becomes.
The Red Room, where young Jane is banished shortly before being sent to Lowood, is a very short episode in the book, but its significance is probably greater than its brevity implies. The trauma of the Red Room is not just because Mr Reed died there, but because of the associations of red = blood = death, compounded by cold, silence, blinds that are always closed and a bed like a sacrificial altar. Is it also some sort of reference to Bertha's attic?
Jane endures dreadful hardships: she is orphaned; her aunt says she is "less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep" and invokes the wrath of God who "might strike her dead in the midst of one of her tantrums"; she endures injustice as she strives to be good, but is always condemned, while the faults of her cousins are indulged or ignored. So, she is sent to Lowood, where she sees the hypocritical tyranny of Brocklehurst, survives cold and near starvation and witnesses her best friend's death. Nevertheless, "I would not have exchanged Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries." There is a dreadful irony in the fact that the first time a relative demonstrates any interest in her (John Eyre), it seems to ruin everything.
VILLAINS AND CHRISTIANITY
Who is the worst villain: John Reed, Aunt Reed, Mr Brocklehurst, Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers or even Rochester?
Christianity gets a very mixed press in the book: Mr Brocklehurst is cruel and comically hypocritical (curly hair is evil vanity in poor girls, who "must not conform to nature", but fine for his pampered daughters); St John Rivers thinks his devoutness selfless, but is actually cold and selfish (his motive being to gain glory in Heaven for himself); Helen Burns is a redemptive Christ figure who accepts her punishments as deserved, helps Jane tame herself ("Helen had calmed me") and, of course, dies.
Jane's own beliefs (or lack) are always somewhat vague (though she's very moral) and controversially feisty. When, as a small girl, the nasty Brocklehurst asks her what she should do to avoid going to Hell, she replies, "I must keep in good health, and not die"!
Aspects the way Christianity is portrayed may make it more accessible to modern readers from more secular backgrounds, but might have been shocking to devout Victorians. Perhaps they were placated by the fact that despite the cruelty, Jane forgives Aunt Reed for trying to improve her errant niece, even though "it was in her nature to wound me cruelly".
MALE POWER, FEMINISM, AND RELEVANCE TODAY
Men had most of the power and respect in Bronte's time and often Jane has to go along with that. However, Bronte does subvert that to some extent by making Jane so assertive, determined and independent.
The story of Jane Eyre has parallels with the story of Bluebeard, albeit with a very different ending, in which the woman takes charge of her own destiny. Bluebeard was well-known in Victorian fables as a rich and swarthy man who locked discarded wives in an attic (though he killed them first). He took a new young wife and when she discovered her predecessors, he was about to kill her, but she was rescued by her brothers, rather as Mason wants to rescue Bertha. Jane even likens an attic corridor to one in "some Bluebeard's castle", so Bronte clearly knew the story and assumed he readers did too. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebear....
Despite her minimal contact with men, right from the outset Jane instinctively knows how to respond to the man she describes as "changeful and abrupt". When they first meet in the house and he is quizzing her, she consciously mirrors his tone ("I, speaking as seriously as he had done") and "His changes of mood did not offend me because I saw I had nothing to do with their alteration". Like many bullies, he enjoys a bit of a fight, rather than the nervous, prompt and unquestioning obedience his manner normally elicits, and Jane isn't afraid to answer him back and speak her mind. It isn't long before she can say "I knew the pleasure of vexing him and soothing him by turns". When Blanche arrives, Jane realises "he had not given her his love" and that "she could not charm him" (as she could). At this point, she realises her self-delusions in overlooking his faults and merely considering them as "keen condiments".
What should modern women make of this book? Bronte is radical in that neither Jane nor Rochester is conventionally attractive (it is personality that matters) and Jane is fiercely independent and assertive, even when she gives the impression of being submissive. She even says, "Women are supposed to feel very calm, generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint... precisely as men would suffer." On the other hand, Rochester's treatment of Jane, Bertha, Blanche and Céline is hard to justify (other than the fact he keeps Bertha alive - why not kill her?). Does disappointment and disability truly changed him, and does that, coupled with her independent wealth make them equals? Will they live happily ever after?
What were Rochester's plans and motives for his relationship with Jane? Why does he insist that Jane appears in the drawing room every evening while Blanche and friends are staying, even though he fully understands and comments on how depressed it makes Jane? And would Rochester have married Blanche if Mason hadn't turned up, making a big society wedding impossible? If so, was Jane always in his mind as a mistress and backup in case marriage to Blanche was not possible, or did he only decide to marry her much later? What sort of basis for a happy marriage is that, and can the equalising effect of his later disability and her inheritance really conquer it? It's true that Rochester tells Jane "I feigned courtship of Miss Ingram, because I wished to render you as madly in love with me as I was with you", but that is after Mason's visit, so is it true?
In a society which condemns divorce and cohabitation, is Rochester's planned bigamy justifiable? As Rochester hints to Jane early on, "Unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules". He also knows that Jane's integrity means she must be unaware of the details if he is to be with her (he says that if he asked her to do something bad, she would say "no sir... I cannot do it, because it is wrong"), though in fact there is a bigger tussle between her head and heart than he might have expected. Later, he ponders the fact that she is alone in the world as being some sort of justification, "It will atone" and extends to the more blasphemous and deluded "I know my Maker sanctions what I do. For the world's judgement - I wash my hands thereof."
Jane's bond with St John is very different, and she realise it, "I daily wished more to please him; but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature". His proposal is positively alarming, "You are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary's wife you must - shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you - not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign's service"!
The strangest element is the small but hugely significant ethereal message from Rochester that might now be called magical realism. It sits oddly with the rest of the book, but I can never decide whether this is it a strength or a weakness.
WHO KNOWS WHAT?
A constant theme is "who knows what?". Is Aunt Reed ignorant of how awful Lowood is and has she truly convinced herself that her treatment of Jane is appropriate? How much does Mrs Fairfax know (and tell) about Rochester's wives, current and intended? Does Rochester know whether or not Adele is really his daughter, and what does Jane believe? Blanche appears to know very little, but is she only seeing what she wants to see?
Overall, there is so much in this book, it is well worth rereading, but I am not convinced that it is a love story. It is the easiest label to apply, and although Jane certainly finds love, I am not sure that love finds her.
Incidentally, I first read this book at school (a naive mid-teen enjoys and appreciates it for very different reasons than an adult). One day, we were at a point when Jane was with the Rivers and possibly being courted by St John. We were told to read to page x for homework, so I turned to that page to mark it and saw the famous words (not that I knew they were), "Reader, I married him" and was shocked to assume it referred to St John.
Jane's Place in My Life
(This section was added after an epiphany, which prompted me to make my reviews more personal.)
Like many, I first read this at school. I was captivated from the outset. Jane was wild, and brave, and rebellious - all things we weren't supposed to be, and yet we had to read and write about her. I vaguely knew about the wedding scene, but everything about her time with the Rivers was new and unexpected. For all that I had doubts about Rochester, I felt (in a naive, teenage way) I shared a passion for him. When I thought Jane would end up with St John, I was devastated. The actual ending was a happy relief - all the more so because it had been unexpected.
I thought I understood the book, and got good marks for essays about it (apart from the injustice of being deducted marks for a comment a teacher refused to believe I hadn't copied from Brodie's Notes - a brand I'd never actually seen!).
But like all great works of art, it speaks differently on each encounter, and the more I've read it, aided by a bit of maturity along the way, and now discussions with GR friends, the more I've seen in it.
I finally read Jean Rhys' prequel "Wide Sargasso Sea", reviewed here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...(less)
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2011
May 30, 2008
May 18, 2004
First person tale of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism and a talent for maths, who writes a book (th...more First person tale of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism and a talent for maths, who writes a book (this one - sort of - very post modern) about his investigations of the murder of a neighbour's dog. He loves Sherlock Holmes and is amazingly observant of tiny details, but his lack of insight into other people's emotional lives hampers his investigation. Nevertheless, he has to overcome some of his deepest habits and fears, and he also uncovers some unexpected secrets.
It is primarily a YA book, but there is more than enough to it to make it a worthwhile adult read as well. It is also quite funny at times, usually arising from Christopher's naive misunderstandings of situations and the conflict between his lack of embarrassment and desire to be unnoticed by unfamiliar people.
The structure of the book (chapter numbers are all primes; inclusion of maths puzzles and diagrams) and narrative style (attention to detail, excessive logic, avoidance of metaphor) reflect Christopher's mindset and way of viewing life. It is peppered with snippets of maths and explanations of his condition: how it affects him, and what coping strategies he adopts. The effect is plausibly stilted and occasionally breathless, which is reminiscent of people I know who are on the autistic spectrum and tallies with my limited reading about the condition. (Note that neither autism nor Asperger's is mentioned by name in the book, although in my first edition, neurologist Oliver Sacks does mention it in a quote on the front cover.)
Christopher's condition makes him very literal - something he is aware of. He can analyse a joke, but still not "get" it. Truth is paramount, so he hates situations where he can't tell the truth (e.g. for politeness) and indeed the fact that "everything you tell is a white lie" because you can never give a fully comprehensive answer to anything. He also hates metaphors (even "the word metaphor is a metaphor", meaning "carrying something from one place to another"), but he doesn't mind similes because they are not untrue. Christopher's feelings about metaphors are highly pertinent to a very different book, China Mieville's wonderful "Embassytown" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which is about how minds shape language and how language shapes minds, and focuses on the relationship between similes, truth and lies.
Many novels are about uncovering what is true, but Christopher's quest takes the idea to a deeper level, and even though we know this narrator is almost pathologically truthful, his condition means his observations sometimes miss the real truth of a situation.
Christopher loves maths because it is safe, straightforward and has a definite answer, unlike life. He's also good at explaining some aspects, ending an explanation of calculating primes with "Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away".
His apparent deviations from logic are justified with ingenious logic. For example, having favourite and hated colours reduces choice and thus stress, counteracting the effect of his inability to filter or prioritise: he notices (and remembers) every detail of everything, and can rewind it at will, whereas other people's brains are filled with imaginary stuff. He is a little like his hero Sherlock Holmes, who is quoted saying "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance observes". Similarly, defining a good or bad day on the basis of how many red or yellow cars is no more illogical than an office-bound person's mood being dictated by the weather.
All of this means animals are a better bet than humans: "I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking - it has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk". People are more of a mystery: when having a conversation, people look at him to understand what he's thinking, but Christopher can't do likewise. For him "it's like being in a room with a one-way mirror in a spy film". Love is even more unfathomable: "Loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father [does lots of things for me]... which means that he loves me".
I reread this during a rather stressful journey, including the passages when Christopher is making a stressful journey. It helped me empathise with him - to the extent that it exacerbated my own stress!
It's worth comparing this with Iris Murdoch's The Word Child (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), whose main character has tacit Asperger's tendencies, and The Housekeeper and the Professor (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which is also about finding number patterns in everyday life, and involves a protagonist whose brain does not work like other people's. (less)
Notes are private!
May 30, 2008
Sep 30, 2004
I don't know if my appreciation of this should be tempered by the fact I was about three quarters of the way through before I realised I'd read it bef...more I don't know if my appreciation of this should be tempered by the fact I was about three quarters of the way through before I realised I'd read it before (though I think it was many years ago)!
It is (mostly) set in Long Island in summer of 1922, amongst the young, idle, amoral rich, playing fast and loose with their own lives and indeed, those of others. All very glamorous, self-centred, and shallow, but the possibility of darker things lurking holds interest and tension.
Even if you like celebrity parties, there are no good, pleasant characters; it may start off glamourising such lives, but things are very different by the end. "They were careless people... they smashed up things and creations and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness... and let other people clean up the mess they had made." (This even applies to children: only one is ever mentioned, but is then oddly forgotten, perhaps reflecting the sadness of how irrelevant she is to everyone.)
Nick, the narrator, is the odd one out in that he actually has to work for a living; he is also the most honest and honourable one (or perhaps the least dishonest and dishonourable, though the fact he explicitly mentions his reputation for honesty (more than once) does bring Lady Macbeth to mind). He reconnects with his cousin, Daisy, who is married to Tom, and dips his toe in their social set. Always the outsider, yet somehow inside, and thus surely culpable for things that happen, at least to some extent.
Daisy is perhaps the main character, though more words are written about others. Her name is unlikely to be a coincidence: daisies are robust and wild; they don't need or want hothouse pampering - despite appearances to the contrary.
The host with the most is the mysterious Jay Gatsby, who throws lavish parties for people he barely knows (albeit with an ulterior motive). Like all the main characters, he is a westerner who moved east. Nick (and therefore Fitzgerald) seems to think this is significant, though as a Brit, it is somewhat lost on me.
Some people see through the artifice: "She was appalled by West Egg [the village], this unprecedented 'place' that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village - appalled by its raw vigour that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing."
Americans often have strong feelings about this book because of the way it explores (and, initially at least, admires) The American Dream. However, as a modern Brit, with no emotional attachment to the concept, it still feels relevant.
The message is about the power - and danger - of chasing dreams, without giving thought to the wider ramifications. Extravagance and superficiality lose their lustre after a while. Perhaps the "celebrities" who currently fill the pages of glossy magazines such as Hello and OK should take note: there are many similarities.
Or maybe it's about the overwhelming force of love - its costs and consequences - and the pain that hope bestows.
Can you be true to yourself, or one you love, if you are dishonest in other realms?
There are some wonderful descriptions and images:
* One such couple "drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together".
* At times, it is almost Wildean, "I drove... to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all" and "I like large parties. they're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."
* "It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again."
* Chat that "was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire".
* "The last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face... then the glow faded, each light deserting her with a lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."
* "Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face."
* "trousers of a nebulous hue"
* "the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor"
* "Drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace... these reveries... were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing."
* Regarding a college, "dismayed at its ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny".
* "his eyes leaking isolated and unpunctual tears"
There were also a couple of startlingly awkward phrases, one on the first page. No one is perfect, but given how much Fitzgerald is lauded for the perfection of his writing, they surprised me:
* "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
* "A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in an informal gesture of farewell."
Also, is "the day... was pouring rain" (not "with rain") common in American English?(less)
Notes are private!
Aug 11, 2012
Aug 19, 2012
Aug 11, 2012
Aug 17, 2004
This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which has s...more This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which has significant echoes of this.
Imagine six very different short books, each open at roughly the middle, then pile them up - and that is the structure of Cloud Atlas (story 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6, 5b, 4b, 3b, 2b, 1b). The structure is echoed in this clever and very brief review: http://www.fromnought2sixty.com/final....
(The structure of the film is entirely different: it cuts between all six stories repeatedly, which emphasises the parallels in the different stories. In the medium of film, I think it works quite well - if you already know the stories.)
Each story is a separate and self-contained tale, told in a different format, voice and even dialect, but with similarities in theme and some overlapping characters.
There are many themes. Connectedness (and possibly reincarnation) are perhaps the most obvious - and the themes themselves are often connected with other themes. In addition to connectedness, themes include: victim/predator/leech, journeys, escape, transformation, falling/ascending (both literal and metaphorical or spiritual).
I think the overriding theme is the many, varied, but perhaps inevitable ways that humans exploit each other through power, money, knowledge, brute force, religion or whatever: “The world IS wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’… One fine day, a purely predatory world SHALL consume itself.”
There are also connections between characters and events, and, less subtly (completely unnecessarily, imo), someone in each has a birth mark that looks like a comet.
(Connectedness is much the strongest theme in the film, partly through rapid switching between stories to emphasize the parallels, and also because the same actors are used in multiple stories.)
1a THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING
The opening tale concerns a voyage, and immediately draws the reader in with echoes of Crusoe, “Beyond the Indian hamlet, on a forlorn strand, I happened upon a trail of recent footprints”. Adam is a wide-eyed and honourable young American lawyer in 1850 (somewhat reminiscent of Jacob de Zoet in Mitchell’s latest novel: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), on his way to the Chatham Isles to trace the beneficiaries of a will. He struggles with the politics of the ship’s crew and issues of colonialism, slavery, genocide (Maori of Moriori) and then… it breaks off mid sentence!
This story has particular parallels with Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...): a voyage between colonies, with a theme of exploitation.
2a LETTERS FROM ZEDELGHEM
This is a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a penniless young English composer, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, written in 1931 (quite a lot of sixes in this book). He has a wealthy and educated background, but has been cut off from his family, so is in Belgium (Edinburgh, in the film!), searching for the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, where he hopes to gain a position as amanuensis and collaborator: the journey involves literal travel, but also the seeking of fame and fortune. This section opens with a visceral passion for music, which infuses this whole section; Frobisher hears music in every event: dreaming of breaking china, “an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats”. Frobisher is an unscrupulous opportunist (very unlike Adam Ewing), but not without talent. The latter enables him to wheedle his way into the complex lives of the Ayrs/Crommelynck household (the latter cropping up in other Mitchell books).
3a HALF LIVES: THE FIRST LUISA REY MYSTERY
It’s 1975 and Dr Rufus Sixsmith is now 66. He is broke and either in trouble with mysterious forces or paranoid. This one’s a thriller, involving a would-be-investigative-journalist, Luisa Rey. Mitchell inserts a caveat via Sixsmith, “all thrillers would wither without contrivance”, though actually much of this story is obscure until the second half.
4a THE GHASTLY ORDEAL OF TIMOTHY CAVENDISH
This is contemporary comedy: Cavendish is a vanity publisher with an unexpected best-seller on his hands (memoirs of a murderer). Like Sixsmith, he ends up broke and fleeing enemies, though this one is more of a farce, with echoes of Jonathan Coe’s “What a Carve Up” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
5a AN ORISON OF SOMNI-251
This is set in 22nd century Korea, which is an extreme corpocracy (corporate capitalism taken to its logical conclusion – which even affects the language (see below)). Purebloods are “a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor” and it is a crime to fail to meet one’s monthly spending target. (In the film, this section looks stunning, but the underlying philosophy is largely ignored.)
The format is an interrogation of Somni-251, a fabricant (humanoid clone), who is a monastic server of fast food at Papa Song’s – which just happens to have golden arches as its logo (the film plays safe and is not so obviously McDonald's). She is knowledgeable and opinionated, though it’s not immediately clear what, if anything, else she’s done wrong. There are plenty of nods to Orwell, Huxley and others – even to the extent that Somni mentions reading them. The ideas of ascension, heaven, an afterlife and so on that are suggested in many sections are explicit in this one; it’s where the themes of the book really begin to come together. What it means to be human, exemplified by the relative positions of purebloods and fabricants, are reminiscent of the slavery that Adam Ewing considers: the idea that fabricants lack a personality is a “fallacy propagated for the comfort of purebloods”. She has a distinctively poetic voice, which lends beauty to the section of the book, but causes problems for her: a fabricant that is as eloquent as a pureblood creates unease.
6 SLOOSHA’S CROSSIN’ AN’ EV’RYTHIN’ AFTER
The only section told, unbroken, from start to finish, which is ironic given that it’s set in a very broken future world. Even the language has disintegrated to some extent, much as in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, to which Mitchell acknowledges a debt in this article:
See below for specific linguistic quirks, and here for my review of RW: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....
Zachry is explaining his life, beliefs and practices, though it isn’t clear who he is addressing (or why). He talks of “The Fall” and “flashbangin” which were the end of “Civ’lize Days”, though some “Prescients” survived on a ship which visits and barter at regular interval, but never leave anything “more smart” than what is already there. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too” – even though Malthus was revered as a prophet by that earlier civilisation.
Then one of the Prescient, Meronym, comes to stay for six months. She wants to learn and observe, but many of the islanders fear her motives. Zachry is keen to explain himself and to learn from her. His language can make him sound simple, but he’s actually quite prescient: “There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”, which is perhaps the message of the book. The deeper question in this section is who is exploiting whom (there is also a warfaring tribe, the Kona)?
5b AN ORISON OF SOMNI-251
Somni’s story starts to make more sense, particularly the meaning and method of ascension and her story’s connections with Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6).
4b THE GHASTLY ORDEAL OF TIMOTHY CAVENDISH
Imprisoned in a most unlikely place, Timothy hatches an extraordinary and comical bid for freedom. (It’s not quite The Great Escape.)
3b HALF LIVES: THE FIRST LUISA REY MYSTERY
There is real excitement in this, though some may find it slightly confusing. When one character writes notes comparing the real and virtual past (p392-393), the levels of stories-within-stories and boundaries of fact and fiction are well and truly blurred, which is part of what this whole book is about. (Is Luisa "real" in the context of the book? She doesn't always feel it, but there is a direct link between her and another character.):
“The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming… in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”
“Power seeks + is the right to ‘landscape’ the virtual past.”
“One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments” – something this book is often likened to.
“The uncreated and the dead exist solely in our actual and virtual pasts. Now the bifurcation of these two pasts will begin.”
2b LETTERS FROM ZEDELGHEM
Will Frobisher make good – or even be good? “We do not stay dead for long… My birth next time…”
1b THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING
Adam lands on an island where white Christian missionaries appear to be doing good work. However, the relationship between blacks and whites (and even between man and wife) exemplify the unequal power relationships that are common to all the stories. Adam dreams of a more utopian world, though.
The two futuristic sections are notable for their language. Some people seem to dislike or struggle with this aspect, but I think it adds depth, interest and plausibility.
The corporate world of Somni-451 (5) means that many former brand names have become common nouns (as hoover, kleenex and sellotape already have): ford (car), fordjam, sony (PC), kodak (photo), nikes (any shoes), disney (any film/movie), starbuck (coffee).
There are neologisms, too: facescaping (extreme cosmetic surgery), upstrata (posh), dijied (digitised).
Perhaps more surprisingly, a few words have simplified spelling: xactly, xpose, fritened, lite (mind you, that is already quite common), thruway.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6), the dialect is a mix of childish mishearings and misspellings, very similar to that in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (see links in the section about Sloosha, above): I telled him, hurrycane.
At times, it’s very poetic: “Watery dark it was inside. Wax’n’ teak-oil’n’time was its smell… An’ then we heard a sort o’ roaring underneath the silence, made o’ mil’yuns o’ whisp’rin’s like the ocean.” More graphically, “We’d get a feverish hornyin’ for each other… I was slurpyin’ her lustsome mangoes an’ moistly fig”!
LINKS BETWEEN SECTIONS
Adam Ewing’s journal (1) is found by Robert Frobisher (2).
The recipient of Robert Frobisher’s (2) letters is Rufus Sixsmith (2, 3).
The letters from Frobisher (2) to Sixsmith are sent via Sixsmith (2, 3) to Luisa Rey (3). Rey ponders, “Are molecules of Zedelghem Chateau, of Robert Frobisher’s hand, dormant in this paper for forty-four years, now swirling in my lungs, in my blood?”
Ayrs/Frobishers’s (2) music is heard by Luisa Rey (3), and she has a sense of deja audio.
Luisa Rey’s (3) manuscript is sent to Timothy Cavendish (4).
Apparently, Luisa (3) sees Ewing's (1) ship, The Prophetess, in a marina, but I read that after I'd read the book.
A film about Timothy Cavendish (4) is watched by Somni-451 (5).
Somni-451 (5) is prayed to by those in Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6) and a recording of her interview is watched by Zachry. She also has a memory of a car crash (perhaps like Luisa 93)?) (hide spoiler)]
Kazuo Ishiguro tries something slightly similar and less ambitious in his short story collection, Nocturnes
Who has comet birthmarks:
(view spoiler)[(1) No one
(2) Robert Frobisher
(3) Luisa Rey
(4) Timothy Cavendish
(6) Meronym - but in the film, it's Zachry (why??)
Mind you, the first time I read it, I expected it to be Zachry who had it.
There is also a character in Ghostwritten (see below) with such a birthmark.
See discussion here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/8...
SOME LINKS WITH HIS OTHER WORKS
Katy Forbes in Ghostwritten has a comet-shaped birthmark.
Adam Ewing (1)'s ship is seen in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (see 1.30 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpwR...)
Luisa Rey (3) and Timothy Cavendish (4) appear in Ghostwritten.
Vyvyan Ayrs (2)'s daughter is an old woman in Black Swan Green.
* I love the bathos of “cancerous suburbs, tedious farmland, spoiled Sussex… versified cliffs [Dover] as romantic as my arse in a similar hue.”
* “Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction.”
* “I felt Nietzche was reading me, not I him.”
* “Most cities are nouns, but New York is a verb.” Attributed (in the book) to JFK.
* "Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.'"
* “The room bubbles with sentences more spoken than listened to.”
* “A predawn ocean breeze makes vague promises.”
* “Time is the speed at which the past decays, but disneys [films] enable a brief resurrection.”
* “Lite [sic] from the coming day defined the world more clearly now.”
* “Sunlite [sic] bent around the world, lending fragile colour to wild flowers.”
* “We [over 60s] commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly… Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori.”
* “Once any tyranny becomes accepted as ordinary… its victory is assured.”
* “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”
* “As dear old Kilvert notes, nothing is more tiresome than being told what to admire.”
* “Her contempt… if bottled, could have been vended as rat poison… I heard male indignation trampled by female scorn.”
* “The colour of monotony is blue.”
My review from early 2000s...
A novel comprising six interlocking tales on the theme of connectedness and predacity (few likeable characters, though certainly some interesting and amusing ones).
The idea is that souls drift through time and space (and bodies), like clouds across the sky. As one character learns the story of another, the layers of fiction meld: which are "fact" within the overall fiction?
Each story has a totally different style, appropriate to its time, genre and supposed authorship. The two futuristic ones use two different versions of English: etymologically logical, but lots of made up words; the capitalist Korean one hints at the political/corporate philosophy underlying the society (as in Orwell's 1984) and the primitive Hawaiian one has more shades of Caribbean/Pidgin and a very similar feel to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). One crucial but evil corporation is a fast food place with a golden arches logo - I hope Mitchell's lawyers checked that was OK!
Somewhat incestuously, a couple of main characters had a mention in his first novel, Ghostwritten (Louisa Rey & the Cavendish brothers, the latter having echoes of Coe's What a Carve Up) and the composer's daughter from this book appears in the later Black Swan Green.
Much as I enjoyed this, and think the Russian-doll, nested story structure is clever, I preferred the more subtle and less gimmicky approach he uses in Ghostwritten (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
Three good pieces about this on Guardian Bookclub:
* The importance of interruption: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...
* Connections: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...
Notes are private!
Oct 31, 2012
Nov 29, 2012
May 30, 2008
May 17, 2011
How can a novel about language leave one speechless? In a good way, I hasten to add!
This was the third Mieville I’ve read, and they are all very diffe...more How can a novel about language leave one speechless? In a good way, I hasten to add!
This was the third Mieville I’ve read, and they are all very different in style, content and my liking (or not).
The core idea of this one is language: how minds shape language and how language shapes minds. Wonderful as it was, I can see reasons why some people would hate it, or find it too weird, or just not sci-fi enough. If you don’t delight in polysemy and are not interested in the difference between simile and metaphor, this is unlikely to be the book for you.
Because of the tantalising style of storytelling, drip-feeding the reader snippets about things from the trivial to the fundamental, it’s definitely a book worth rereading, and that is especially true on the subject of language, to which I’ve devoted a whole section of this review (which I will doubtless need to rewrite after a reread!).
The plot is to some extent secondary, but it is the reminiscences (going back to childhood) of a woman from Embassytown who travels, comes back and becomes enmeshed in the extraordinary Language (capital letter) of the alien Hosts.
The first section left me exhilarated but reeling. It was so vague and yet specific, nearly familiar, yet also strangely different, and in such an enticing way. It hints at all sorts of weirdness that I couldn't quite put my finger on (odd units of time and some odd typography in the pages ahead) and others that I couldn’t even get my head around (what are “alien colours”- related to Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo, a “super intelligent shade of the colour blue”?). Even the names and numbers of the sections were hard to fathom, making the reader as disoriented as an ambassador in an alien land.
This teasing bafflement continues throughout most of the book: Mieville doesn’t pad with early exposition, so the reader is fed occasional snippets about what things mean. Sometimes I wondered if I’d missed something, particularly things that were clearly fundamental to the book (e.g. what was special about the Ambassadors, what the Hosts looked like, and what being/performing a simile means) but as I read on, and gradually learned more, I realised that was just part of the style of the book.
Having just read Mieville’s The City & The City (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), I was also struck by parallels: there is lots about borders, separation, boundaries, outsiders, the strange duality of the city ("the Host city, where the streets changed their looks... not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt, a gaseous transition.") and one character is "cleaved", when cleavage is a significant aspect of TC&TC.
SENSE OF PLACE
Embassytown is a trading outpost used by humans from Bremen and Earth (Terre) in the future. It is on a planet inhabited by the Ariekei, more respectfully known as Hosts. They have a unique Language (view spoiler)[that requires two simultaneous voices from one mind (hide spoiler)], and the Ambassadors are the translators. The Hosts are also experts at biorigging, so many aspects of the city and its technology are appealingly bizarre, giving a very strong sense of place, even though some aspects are left to the reader’s imagination.
The immer is more amorphous concept of space or outer space, and Avice’s first experience of it is “impossible to describe”. “There are currents and storm fronts in the immer” as well as borders, but the usual laws of physics, and even direction, don’t apply. For instance, “in the first one [universe]… light was about twice as fast as it is here now” and some places are closer together in the immer than in the everyday. “The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation.” Also, “People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace.”
Avice is an immerser (traveller of and in the immer). She isn't a fluffy, girly sort of woman, but I would have little interest in reading about her if she was. Even so, she came across as plausibly female to me, which is not something all male writers can achieve.
She wasn’t especially endearing, and in the middle of the book she was often faffing around, trying to find out what was going on, but not actually achieving much. In particular, there are some key plot points where she relies on hearsay (“I wasn’t there but that’s how I was told it happened”), which is brave decision on Mieville’s part, though I think he just about retains her credibility. Despite those instances, she is central to the story, mainly in her childhood, and then towards the end of the book.
Given that the Host’s Language is thought and literal truth, the most obvious theme is the nature of truth and lies and the question of whether we make language or language makes us. See the section on Language, below.
I don't think we're meant to have a clear idea what the Hosts look like: it's all about language/Language, rather than judging by outward appearance. Mieville drops little clues throughout the book, but it takes a long time to build up a picture, which remains somewhat fuzzy, but utterly alien. When newly arrived crew stare, unashamedly, at the Hosts, Avice recounts a theory that “no matter how travelled people are… they can’t be insouciant at the first sight of any exot race… our bodies know we should not ever see [them]” (Of course, the vagueness is also a teasing tactic, which entices the reader to keep reading, and avoids distracting from the main force of the story.)
Related to that is Ehrsul: an autom who is Avice’s friend, albeit they rely on “all the exaggerated intimacies of our friendship”. Scyle can never quite think of her as human enough to be friends with her, whereas Avice pushes any doubts to the back of her mind. Maybe an autom who is TOO realistic is more unsettling than one that is clearly not human? On the other hand, “She only ever used one corpus, according to some Terrephile sense of politesse or accommodation… having to relate to someone variably physically incarnate would trouble us [humans]” and her apartment is decorated with pictures on the wall, so that visitors feel relaxed and at home. Would Ehrsul pass the Turing Test? The fact she runs on Turingware suggests she would, but perhaps it would depend who tested her, which then questions the whole nature of the test itself.
Other aspects of what it is to be human touch more on Brave New World, and Soylent Green. In the latter case, the Hosts’ natural “last incarnation was as a food store for the young.” Having given that up, they “respectfully shepherd the ambulatory corpses until they fall apart”, despite their “dignified mindlessness”. The former (view spoiler)[ relates to the way Ambassadors are bred: identical twins, raised to be able to think, act and, crucially, speak, as one, as that is the only way to be understood by the Hosts (hide spoiler)].
Colonialism and all the socio-political and practical issues around it are central, though not my main area of interest. I saw many echoes of (view spoiler)[the Opium Wars, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_wars) (hide spoiler)] a particularly shameful episode in British colonial history. I suppose the main difference is (view spoiler)[that the Language Ariekei were addicted to (albeit a corrupted form) was something previously regarded as unequivocally good. Does that change the ethics of addiction, drug-pushing, treatment (“they might not be addicted any more but they’re not cured; they’re changed”), and do the means justify the ends? (hide spoiler)]
IDEAS ABOUT LANGUAGE
This is the heart of the book, but so hard to do justice to, but I’ll attempt it.
The Hosts’ language (called Language) is the most important to the story, and it is wonderfully strange: it must be spoken simultaneously in two voices by a single mind: “The sounds aren’t where the meaning lies… it needs a mind behind it”. The Hosts themselves have two means of vocal output (cut and turn), but it’s more of a challenge for humans to utter it in a way that the Hosts even register as speech, let alone understand.
The other distinctive feature of Language is that it is an utterly concrete and literal language: lies and multiple meanings are not possible: “For Hosts, speech was thought” and “Words don’t signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language?”
Side-effects of the strangeness of Language are that the Hosts have no system of gestures nor of writing (Mieville accommodates the duality by writing simultaneous words above each other, like fractions).
However, it’s not quite so straightforward or static as that sounds…
The Hosts use similes to express things that are not literally true – the catch being that the similes themselves must be concrete and must continue to be true. (“The man who swims with fishes every week” has to swim with fishes every week. If only the simile had been in the past tense, his life would be much easier.)
Avice was a simile (“You speak Language. I am it”), but others were examples and topics, and later, Avice declares, “I don’t want to be a simile any more. I want to be a metaphor”.
One puzzle is how the Hosts know they need a simile, let alone define it, before they have it in Language?
Similes are the thin end of the wedge where truth is concerned: “Similes start… transgressions. Because we can refer to anything. Even though in Language, everything’s literal… but I can be like… anything… Similes are a way out. A route from reference to signifying.” It’s a relatively small step from “You are like x” to “You are x”. A metaphor is a step further: a lie that is the truth.
The Hosts can understand lies, and they also have a Festival of Lies, where they entertain each other by trying to lie. I was reminded Lister, in the comedy sci-fi, Red Dwarf, trying to teach the mechanoid, Kryten, to lie –using fruit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oB-NnV...).
There are several tactics to lying; they tend to be incremental and often use similes: collaborative, going slow, going fast.
But does lying have a moral cost – does it inevitably lead to evil? And what is “evil” in a non-religious place where some barely have a concept of the word?
The ideas of Sapir-Whorf underlie much of this: “Without language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them”, with “hardly” being the crucial get-out. What about Hosts who lose the power of speech? “If they can’t speak, can they think? Language for Ariekei was speech and thought at once.”
Do we make language or does language make us? As the book progresses, some Hosts have a strong desire for the former: “We want to decide what to hear, how to live, what to say, what to speak, how to mean, what to obey. We want Language to put to our use.” Avice realises “Their longtime striving for lies [was] to make Language mean what they wanted”.
Another way of looking at it is whether “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means”, as one character claims, or whether it’s cooperation, as another claims.
OTHER LANGUAGE-RELATED IDEAS
Other odd languages are fleetingly mentioned, such as Homash: “They speak by regurgitation. Pellets embedded with enzymes… which their interlocutors eat”. There is also mention of “Tactile languages, bioluminescent words… Dialects comprehensible only as palimpsests [a favourite word of Mieville’s] of references to everything already said, or in which adjectives are rude and verbs unholy.”
The quirks of Language affect the writing of the book. In particular, are Ambassadors singular or plural? The answer is both, even in a single sentence, for example, “Ambassador JasMin was in earshot and I made a point of asking them…”. This makes sense, the more you understand about them.
The vagueness of some things, and the neologisms (see below) only added to the appeal for me: maybe I became a little addicted to Language?
There is a wonderful passage describing the joy of a Helen Keller moment, when one who lacked the power of communication suddenly “got it”.
A trivial surprise was that in a largely non-religious future society Christian-based swearing continues in recognisable form, “Jesus Pharoahtekton Christ”, whereas I’d expect the words to have morphed a little (like “crikey”).
Finally, I’m not enough of a linguist to be sure of the truth of this, but it’s thought-provoking: “Sometimes translation stops you understanding.”
Most of the coinages are thrown at the reader early on, and there is no glossary (this isn’t one either). However, the meanings are usually clear from context and common-sense etymology:
Shiftparents, voidcraft, exoterre, biorigged, immerser (versus landstuck), plastone, bookware, newsware, alt reality, sidereal, monthling, basilisking (I love that one), oratee, augmens, datchip
Floaking: “the life technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah”.
Trid: This seemed to cover quite a lot of things, but all involved a video player/display.
Miab: An acronym (view spoiler)[ Message In A Bottle, i.e. cargo from afar. (hide spoiler)]
Floak is my favourite, and I think Mieville is fully aware of its appeal and the perils of overuse: ‘”Did they tell you I can floak?” I said. “I wish I’d never told them that fucking word… they just want the opportunity to say ‘floak’.”’
I also like the fact that "exot", which refers to exo-terre (of or from Earth) conjures strong implications of "exotic".
• “Like all children we mapped our hometown carefully, urgently and idiosyncratically.”
• “Its surface sheened with the saft that evanesced out from its crystal shielding in threads that degraded to nothing.”
• “It was an insinuation at first, composing itself of angles and shadows. It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient. [Things] spilled toward and into the swimming thing, against physics. They substanced it. Houses were unroofed as their slates slipped sideways into a presence growing every moment more physical, more suited to this realness.”
• Someone flirting was “using augmens to make his face provocative, according to local aesthetics.”
• “the gluttony of the architecture… the frantic eavesdropping of the walls.”
• Because the building are biorigged, and thus alive, when demolition happens “construction site like combined slaughterhouses, puppy farms and quarries”!
I read this in part because of Betsey's review, focusing on the fact it's about language: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
An interesting Q&A with China, here on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/5...
And here is a video of him talking about the book:
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Feb 13, 2013
Mar 05, 2013
Aug 20, 2012
Mar 02, 2006
Very disappointing, despite a promising opening. It is a ridiculous story that is increasingly badly told. If you don't want to know the key plot poin...more Very disappointing, despite a promising opening. It is a ridiculous story that is increasingly badly told. If you don't want to know the key plot point, beware of reading the back cover of some editions. :(
Although often classed as sci-fi, I think that's more because dystopian fiction is often categorised that way, rather than anything inherently sci-fi in the book itself. In fact, it doesn't even feel dystopian for a while. In many ways, it's more of coming-of-age novel: coping with loss of innocence and accepting responsibilities.
The narration is very conversational (which is fine).
SETTING AND PLOT
It is initially set in a co-educational English boarding school, in a country house. There are the usual friendships and fallings out, and it has children as young as 5 (maybe younger), but in many ways it seems quite idyllic. However, there is an understated menace from the outset, and the school is oddly obsessed with creativity.
The pupils' vagueness about their eventual fate perhaps shadows that of the reader. Mention is made early on about (view spoiler)[carers and donors and they are told of "people who shudder at the very thought of you - of how you were brought into the world and why" (hide spoiler)], but it's only towards the end that the details are made explicit. I think I might have enjoyed the book slightly more if I'd had to work it out for myself (rather than read it on the cover).
The middle section is set in "the cottages" where the leavers go to live for a couple of years or so, and the story narrows to be more specifically about Kathy (the narrator), Ruth and Tommy. This exaggerates the contrast of the first part: they can indulge their hobbies (reading and sex, mostly), living comfortably without the need to work, but they are increasingly aware that soon things will change.
The final section follows the three of them when they leave, and this is where the book completely lost any trace of believability for me. The underlying story is too full of holes, even within its own dystopian world. I just do not believe anyone would have the means to go to such extraordinary lengths when there are far simpler, quicker and cheaper solutions. I was reminded of this when I read Under the Skin, which is also set in an apparently normal contemporary world, but has a similarly far-fetched, overly complex, expensive and time-consuming way of solving a problem.
Also, why have carers travelling round the country to be with different donors, rather than each carer being based in one location? That is implausible and not even necessary for the story!
I was also a little surprised that they were as accepting as seemed to be the case (view spoiler)[(not totally accepting, but pretty much), but I suppose being born and raised in what was effectively a brainwashing cult is very powerful means of making people accept their fate. Any that did successfully and permanently break away would be hushed up and not necessarily mentioned in the novel (hide spoiler)].
Finally, it goes from bad to worse, with the cheap James Bond/Blofeld trick of having one character near the end explaining everything in a rush.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
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Oct 02, 2011
Oct 04, 2011
Oct 02, 2011
Jan 01, 2006
Apr 07, 2009
Phew. This is a brilliant, bleak, beautiful book, but an emotionally harrowing one, albeit with uplifting aspects (they always cling to a sliver of ho...more Phew. This is a brilliant, bleak, beautiful book, but an emotionally harrowing one, albeit with uplifting aspects (they always cling to a sliver of hope, however tenuous).
There isn't much. But that's fine by me. In the near future, a man and his son traipse south, across a cold, barren, ash-ridden and abandoned land, pushing all their worldly goods in a wonky shopping trolley. They scavenge to survive and are ever-fearful of attack, especially as some of the few survivors have resorted to cannibalism.
Much of the time almost nothing happens, yet that makes it all the more compelling.
The boy is very imaginative, empathetic, moral and scared - a difficult combination in the circumstances. There is a deep love and care between man and boy, each projecting their own survival instinct on to the other. In their anxiety, aspects of their relationship take on a ritualistic tone, and some of their conversations are almost liturgical, invariably ending with an assurance that they're the "good guys" and things will be "okay", yet without becoming banal.
Sometimes they are more wary of being seen than others, and at one point I wondered how much was "real" and how much might be imagined or paranoia, but that doubt passed. Whatever disaster caused the destruction (it is never explained) was some years before and the father realises that despite their closeness, in some ways "to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed."
Very distinctive and controversial. It is written in a sparse, somewhat poetic style ("cold autistic dark"), often detached (the characters are never named) and fragmented, to match the setting of the book. Even quotation marks and apostrophes are almost absent (used only where their absence might create ambiguity, e.g. we're and were).
Initially, I found this pared down language and especially punctuation distracting and infuriating, but when I let go of that, treated it as more of a poem, the minimalism became integral to my appreciation. In fact, it somehow enhances the impact of the story, rather than distracting from it.
If it were typset as a prose poem, it might raise fewer hackles. In fact I think I think one reason some people don't "get" this book is that they read it as a novel that hasn't been proofread, rather than immersing themselves in it as a prose poem.
Much has been made of the intriguingly odd phrase "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall", which leapt off the page at me and is also discussed on Language Log: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/....
A film is coming out in the autumn. It could be excellent, but if they try to make it too cheerful, it would lose its purpose.
UPDATE: I saw the film, and was impressed (and surprised), but still prefer the book.
WARNING: Having enjoyed this, I had high hopes for Outer Dark (my review here http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), but unfortunately I really didn't like that. I'm unsure whether to read more Cormac McCarthy now.(less)
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Jul 25, 2009
Jul 21, 2009
Nov 01, 1986
The Christmas classic that everyone knows – even if they haven’t read it. It's quite short, and at some levels quite an easy read, but there is plenty...more The Christmas classic that everyone knows – even if they haven’t read it. It's quite short, and at some levels quite an easy read, but there is plenty of depth, so I think it's worth reading it in a thoughtful and slightly leisurely way.
It is a simple tale of how a normal man turns cold-hearted and mean and how, when confronted with memories of his past and the possible outcomes of his actions and inactions, he is redeemed by making positive changes to his life and thus that of others.
Typical Victoriana or not?
The book opens with wonderful bathos, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” So right from the outset it is clear it is not a straightforward factual tale. Apart from the famous ghosts (of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come), which were not unusual in literature of the time, it has time travel and parallel worlds, where each significant choice leads to a branching of reality, which is a staple of much great sci fi. Not such a typical Victorian novel after all.
Whilst it is a book whose unhurried and detailed descriptions of Christmas are the epitome of the season (“apoplectic opulence”), it is a book of great contrasts: humbug/festivities, hot/cold, company/solitude, poverty/wealth, worthy poor/wastrels, past/future etc.
Corruption and redemption
Scrooge’s name has become synonymous with meanness and sociopathy, which is unfair. Quite apart from the fact that the whole point of the book is that he changes for the better, right from the start there are hints that he wasn’t and isn’t irredeemably bad. For example, he never removed Marley’s name from the sign above his office. I don’t think the reason was solely parsimony because during and after the ghostly encounters, we see different aspects of Scrooge, surely exposed by the ghosts, not actually created by them. So maybe part of the reason for leaving the name was a fondness for the memory of his partner - a link to happier times. Certainly Scrooge had sunk to nasty depths, and maybe "It was all the same to him" reflects Scrooge's conscious and observable attitude, rather than the deeper, painful mix of happy and sad memories that he tried so hard to suppress, even though Scrooge would have denied it and believed his denial.
Charity is shown to be not merely financial, but personal too (being pleasant, complimentary, thinking creatively about what to do). A counterpoint to that is that regret is pointless and self-indulgent: the way to overcome it is through reparation – which takes us back to charity.
The ghostly visitors are not of the Christian kind, but ghost stories were popular in Victorian England. Each ghost is very distinctive in appearance and manner. The first is pale, shadowy (long forgotten?) and “like a child; yet not so like a child as an old man” (the child is father of the man?); the second is a convivial festive spirit wanting to share joy and the third is dark, solemn and scary, reflecting Scrooge’s fears of death and also the sadness that will emanate from him if he does not change, but also with an indistinct face and shape, perhaps suggesting the potential malleability of the future.
Christian or Secular?
It has been suggested that it is a surprisingly secular book, but we live in a less religious society and so don’t always notice religious symbolism and allegories unless they’re spelt out. The whole story is a parallel of the Christian gospel, and the fact it’s set at Christmas emphasises that. The main message of Christianity is that no sinner is beyond salvation if they genuinely repent, and that is also the story of Scrooge.
There are other links too: three people profiting from the spoils of the dead man (like the Roman soldiers at the cross, albeit they cast lots to decide who got what) and Peter Cratchit reading from the Bible in Christmas yet to come.
In those days, religion was so much part of quotidian life for most people that it almost fades into the background at times, like having a wash. Dickens had no need say the quotation is from the Bible or to talk about baby Jesus being part of Christmas because all his readers would know that and most of them would believe it. In our secular times, perhaps that makes the story more powerful now than when it was written?(less)
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Dec 09, 2009
Jun 09, 2008
Jul 05, 2007
I read this many years ago and gave it 4 stars. I've just reread it for my Goodreads bookgroup's February read and upgraded it to 5 stars.
A wonderful...more I read this many years ago and gave it 4 stars. I've just reread it for my Goodreads bookgroup's February read and upgraded it to 5 stars.
A wonderful hybrid: a book that is eminently readable, but packed with fascinating and thought-provoking ideas and symbolism.
It's set in the near future in a dystopian totalitarian theocratic state where pollution has rendered many infertile, so there has been a backlash against permissiveness and women are subjugated to the point where they are not even allowed to read (even shop signs are just icons).
Offred tells the story of how she became a handmaid, assigned to one of the elite, purely for breeding purposes.
TRUER THAN YOU WANT TO THINK
All the many and varied restrictions, practices, divisions and penalties imposed by the regime have really been applied somewhere in the world, albeit not all at the same time and place. One of the things that stops the book being gloomy is the resilience of the human spirit: there is a resistance movement among the lower classes and even amongst the elite, illicit things go on. The fear of being caught creates a good sense of tension.
FAITH and RITUAL
Faith and ritual are important, both to the regime as a means of control and to individuals as a way of making life bearable.
The symbolism is rich, especially tulips and the colour red. The handmaids' sole purpose is procreation, their cycles are closely monitored, everything they wear is red and other important red items (such as a path) are pointed out. Whilst the shape of tulip flowers clearly echoes genitalia, they are also likened to a wound and teeth, and they and other flowers are described in different ways to indicated fertility or sterility. Serena Joy's knitting is a compulsive form of reproduction with sinister echoes of Dickens' Madame Defarge in "A Tale of Two Cities".
The big questions are around ownership of oneself and one's body.
The state is patriarchal, but an army of matriarchal "aunts" enforce rituals and build a hive mentality to support each other and hence the regime. Are the handmaids prostitutes (is Nick too)? They sell their bodies (though not for cash), but the aim is procreation, not anyone's pleasure (the wife is always present), and it is for the survival of them as individuals and of the human race.
Do the ends justify the means, and should the handmaids accept some responsibility for going along with it? And if "context is all", what is truth? I suspect you could read this several times and never come up with exactly the same answer.
Reading Fahrenheit 451 is a good follow-on.
But I suggest you avoid When She Woke, despite its many parallels with this.(less)
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Feb 04, 2009
Jun 07, 2008
Nov 01, 1991
How to review this weird and wonderful book? The setting, characters and plot etc are extraordinary, but it is the language that is utterly bewitching...more How to review this weird and wonderful book? The setting, characters and plot etc are extraordinary, but it is the language that is utterly bewitching. The fact Peake was also an artist is evident in the special care with which he describes light (or absence of), skin and textures.
It is usually classed as fantasy, but it is more like historical fiction, with an occasional dash of the supernatural - magical realism set in the past. Or is it? This first volume has a profound sense of place (Gormenghast castle is arguably the main character and its inhabitants “could not imagine a world outside it”) but a very vague sense of time. They have got to the 77th earl, but electricity, motor vehicles and even guns are unknown.
There are similarities with Dickens (characterisation and odd names for people), Kafka (insignificant individual subsumed by tradition and procedure; also hard to locate the historical period), and Tolkein is often mentioned though I can't see much of a similarity. Conversely, it might perhaps be a minor influence for Paul Stewart's Edge Chronicles for children.
It is whimsical, detailed, leisurely, poignant, vivid, gothic, with caricatures (but believable, not surreal) and Peake sometimes meanders along lengthy diversions (e.g. when likening the cracks in plaster to an ancient map, he goes on to imagine journeys across such a landscape) and conjure strange metaphors, "clean she was... in the sense of a rasher of bacon"!
The title relates to the birth of Titus, a male heir to the ancient house of Groan. However, it is really a richly imagined story of an enclosed world, suffocating under the weight of detailed and largely pointless arcane ritual: “If, for instance, his Lordship... had been three inches shorter, the costumes, gestures and even the routes would have differed from those described in the first tome” and “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held... but the formality was no less sacred for it being unintelligible”.
It explains how a clever upstart, Steerpike, quickly goes from rebel to opportunist to schemer, plotting his rise to power and influence. There is also a sub plot concerning Keda, a woman from the mud huts outside the castle where the skilled Bright Carvers live.
It is always a page-turner though at times the plot is slow because the descriptions are so rich. It will certainly improve your vocabulary, though even the unfamiliar words are used so carefully that you can get the gist if you don’t have a dictionary to hand. At other times, Peake conveys a great deal in relatively few words: “Lord Sepulchrave walked with slow strides, his head bowed. Fuchsia mouched. Doctor Prunesquallor minced. The twins propelled themselves forward vacantly. Flay spidered his path. Swelter wallowed his.” which tells you most of what you need to know about almost all the main characters.
There are macabre episodes (Peake is not afraid to kill off significant characters in nasty ways), but also moments of wonder (the sky pavement), mystery (the death owl) and humour (a comic cat-and-mouse fight in almost total darkness, except for occasional flashes of lightning). In a crucial scene, one character throws a cat, with consequences that affect everyone for many years. It was possibly inspired by Peake's favourite Dickens, "Bleak House", which he illustrated. According to Peter Winnington's excellent biography of Peake (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), an irate character says, "I should like to throw a cat at you".
You can tell that Peake was also an artist because many of the descriptions are so vividly visual, especially, skin, masonry and candle wax (“His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues.”). Perhaps that is also why carvings are such a big deal in Gormenghast: the annual competition is explained near the beginning of the novel, rivalries are fierce and the carvers’ skill is the only reason the “dwellers” are tolerated so near the castle.
For a few chapters, the narrative switches to the present tense, for no obvious reason (“A Change of Colour” to the end of “Here and There”) and Peake is oddly and confusingly inconsistent in how he refers to some people (The Earl of Groan and Lord Sepulchrave are one and the same and his sisters are indeed his sisters, even though they are also referred to as his daughter’s mother’s cousins and his daughter’s cousins).
I love the second volume as well (Gormenghast), but be warned that the third (Titus Alone), is totally different and not nearly as good – but which I have reviewed.
Nevertheless, I still think this is one of the best-written books I know and, like all great works, only improves with each rereading.
And here is some of what China Miéville says about it:
"The dislocation and fascination we feel, the intoxication, is testimony to the success of his simple certainty. Our wonder is not disbelief but belief, culture-shock at this vast, strange place. We submit to this reality that the book asserts even as it purports not to."
"What faces us is not a radical and violent estrangement so much as a sustained sense of almost-familiarity, of not-quite-familiarity, a strong but wrong recognition."
"It is in the names, above all, perhaps, that Peake's strategy of simultaneous familiarising and defamiliarising reaches its zenith; Rottcodd, Muzzlehatch, Sourdust, Crabcalf, Gormenghast itself... such names are so overburdened with semiotic freight, stagger under such a profusion of meanings, that they end up as opaque as if they had none. 'Prunesquallor' is a glorious and giddying synthesis, and one that sprays images – but their portent remains unclear."
Here's the whole article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011...
A selection of my favourite quotes are here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf:
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Dec 31, 2009
May 30, 2008
Jan 01, 2010
Sep 13, 2010
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?
This seems to be a real Marmite book (love it or loathe it, with no fence-sitting), so I'm going to mix my metaphors:...more THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?
This seems to be a real Marmite book (love it or loathe it, with no fence-sitting), so I'm going to mix my metaphors: I bit the bullet, to see which way the wind was blowing and was surprised to find myself sitting on the empty fence. I was very undecided about stars, but there are many much better books I've given 3*, so this gets 2*, even though there was, on reflection, more to it than I first thought. The quality of the writing is not sufficient for 3*.
Overall, I think it’s poorly written (exacerbated by the way Donoghue tries to use unusual language for specific effect), but it is something of a page-turner, it’s quite a quick read (unless you overempathise, get depressed, and need a break) and it does contain some interesting ideas, especially in the second half about aspects of coping with “freedom” (though I am unsure how many are taken directly from news reports and interviews with former captives, and how many are her own).
The situation is well-known: a twenty six year old woman, “Ma”, is living with her five year old son, Jack, in a tiny locked room. She has been there since she was abducted aged nineteen, and the story is narrated by Jack. They have daily visits from their captor, who brings meagre supplies, though they do have a TV and half a dozen books. Jack thinks reality is everything in their room, and that everything “in TV” is pretend.
The first half of the book is set in Room (yes, with a capital letter and no article (“a” or “the”), like most of the few objects in their lives), and the second half is on the outside. It is clearly influenced by the recent news stories of Natasha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Duggard etc, and that potentially prurient aspect did hold me back from reading this book for a long time.
LANGUAGE AND WRITING
Right from the start, I found the narration annoying - not because it's by a 5-year old, but because he's such an unconvincing 5-year old. For example, he has a very good vocabulary for his age (fair enough), and yet there are a few really basic words that he seems not to know (instead of "a man" or "the woman" he refers to "a he" and "the she" - except on one occasion when he unaccountably gets it right), and he often gets irregular past tenses and word order wrong, in the way that children younger than five often do (“I winned”, “we knowed”, “I brung”, “why you don’t like” and to a driver, “may you go us please to…”). Furthermore, he repeatedly makes these errors despite his mother's diligence in correcting his grammar and the fact he watches TV.
It’s almost as if you can see Donoghue weighing up the need for Jack to be intelligent and insightful enough to tell the story in an engaging way (which, to a large extent, he does) with the need to tick certain boxes to make it clear he is just a small child. Similarly, we’re expected to believe that Jack points out “a dog crossing a road with a human on a rope” and thinks someone lighting up is trying to set himself on fire, even though he’s had TV and a mother who has tried to teach him about the (fictitious) world.
The fact Jack is still breastfed is not surprising: it’s comforting for both of them. What is surprising though is that the word itself seems to be taboo (instead, he talks about “having some”, without ever saying what), and yet he’s happy to use the words “penis” and “vagina”, and is open about bathing with his mother. That may sound like nit-picking, but it’s an example of the sort of thing that frustrated me. I just didn’t feel Donoghue had really thought it through thoroughly. If you’re going to play with language to make your point, you need to be able to do so convincingly.
The book is in five sections, though really it falls more naturally into two: inside and outside.
The relationship between mother and son is touching and the book opens by establishing the routines and rituals of their restricted life, including the almost liturgical way they say “good night” to all their (few) possessions: “Good night, Room… good night, Rug” etc. The creativity required to raise a child in a confined space with such limited resources are impressive, too (they blow their eggs, so the whole shells can be threaded to make a snake, and do PE using their limited furniture as gym props).
Initially, and in some ways, their life doesn’t seem as bad as you might expect, and even the first appearance of their captor (“Old Nick”) is relatively benign. That reflects the way Ma is raising Jack in the most positive way she can. Of course, we know something of the real horrors of the story, and they are discussed, though never in graphic detail, in part because Jack’s comprehension is limited, and in part because of Ma's success in shielding him from the nature of the situation.
I thought the escape was badly done, but much better is the when, leading up to it, Ma has to explain to Jack that what he’s seen “in TV” is real. They go through a confusing process of “unlying” as she tries to prepare him for what might follow an escape.
Once outside, it’s superficially about the practicalities of adjusting to the real world, but really it’s questioning the nature and price of freedom. I found this part had more interesting ideas, but contained more implausibility of plot (though I’m no expert in such matters) and very flat new characters. In particular, the method and speed with which the police locate Room was absurd, and also some of the logistics, practicalities and oversights of those charged with their care and settlement on the outside were dodgy, such as the first planned trip for these traumatised celebrities being to a museum with an uncle whom Jack had only met once!
WHAT IS FREEDOM?
The reader roots for Ma and Jack to escape, and they do (no spoiler – the book blurb tells you). Hooray! But of course they soon discover a new form of captivity: medical/psychiatric, hiding from fame, and so on. And this is where it gets interesting and starts to feel more plausible. Jack’s only knowledge of outside is from occasional TV programmes, and Ma’s is from seven years ago, when she was a carefree student, rather than a traumatised mother. Jack has to discover the world, and Ma has to (re)discover a new version of herself; she tells Jack, “I know you need me to be your ma but I’m having to remember how to be me as well”, to which he replies, “But I thought the her and the Ma were the same”. Similarly, having more, can leave one feeling impoverished: Jack is puzzled when Ma cautions him to be careful of something her brother gave to her, “I didn’t know it was hers-not-mine. In Room everything was ours.”
Some of the things they struggle to cope with are not ones that would initially have occurred to me (germs, sunburn, stairs), and one effect is to make it almost as if Jack has acquired Asperger’s syndrome: he can’t filter the multiple stimuli of a busy world; doesn’t understand social conventions, etiquette, and privacy; is confused by relationships and pronouns (“The ‘you’ means Ma, not me, I’m getting good at telling”); takes common idioms literally (such as “I’m afraid so” and “get his act together”, but surely some cropped up from Ma and TV?); doesn’t like being touched or having to wear shoes; is borderline agoraphobic; increases his counting-his-teeth stress-relieving tactic; is uncoordinated from poor spatial perception; and feels insecure without routine. Jack asks, “But what’s the rule?”, to which he is told “There is no rule.” That’s a liberating idea to Ma, but scary to Jack. He misses Room and his few possessions because it’s all he’d ever known; Ma, understandably, wants to leave it all behind both literally and in even from conversation and memory. When he has nightmares, the doctor says “Now you’re safe, it’s [the brain] gathering up all those scary thoughts you don’t need any more, and throwing them out”, but Jack disagrees, “actually he’s got it backwards. In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.”
Another aspect is how Ma’s family react. The girl they knew – and thought dead – has been replaced by someone similar, but different, and they have Jack to contend with. Ma loves him unconditionally, despite his parentage, but if you were her mother or father, how would you feel about this constant reminder of what happened?
To sum up, this wasn’t as prurient as I feared, and it was very thought-provoking, but it could have been SO much better.
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Sep 12, 2012
Sep 20, 2012
Sep 12, 2012
Feb 03, 2000
Impossible to rate as it's an awful subject, but very well written. The skill of the book (and what makes it most disturbing for me), is that it isn't...more Impossible to rate as it's an awful subject, but very well written. The skill of the book (and what makes it most disturbing for me), is that it isn't a clear-cut story of innocent child and predatory adult (which is not to excuse Humbert's actions), and it's only told from one - very biased - point of view.
Since writing this review, I've discovered that Nabokov was a synaesthete. If I (re)read him, I'll have to bear that in mind. See: http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/201... .
This book raises many intriguing and troubling questions, balanced out by beautiful writing. Some see it as a love story, but I see no love - not even self love. The subject is appalling, but it’s not explicit, which has the disturbing effect of making the reader complicit in Humbert’s fantasies and later, his actions.
* Some minor spoilers below (but the story is well-known) *
It is written as the supposedly honest confession of a paedophile, with overtones of necrophilia (initially he intends to drug her to rape her) and incest (when he is Lolita’s (step)father and even fantasises about her bearing him a child to replace her in his sexual affections). It mixes psychological self-analysis, wry humour, literary flourishes and endless excuses and justifications, though at other times he relishes his debauchery. Mostly he writes in a detached way, especially early on, occasionally slipping into the third person for himself.
Although it’s meant to be “true”, I couldn’t see why Lolita stuck with Humbert once the initial excitement had worn off, even allowing for the fact she enjoyed manipulating him for gifts and money (her loose morals, he said) and there was no one obvious for her to turn to. Nor was there any explanation as to why she was so sexually precocious (it seems to predate her fling at summer camp), which is odd, as it could have provided further justification for Humbert. Also, the bit where the headmistress of Beardsley School tells Humbert that she is “morbidly uninterested in sexual matters” was bizarrely implausible.
Humbert gives plenty reasons why he should not feel guilty (“nymphets” are demoniac; it’s a natural urge; other societies allow such relationships; if she was drugged she’d never know; it’s not as bad as murder; he’s generous and indulgent), but Nabokov muddies it further by the fact that Lolita is not a virgin and actually takes the initiative in their first sexual encounter and at least one subsequent one, even though she doesn’t appear to enjoy it. That's enough justification for Humbert (hopefully not Nabakov), and leaves the reader unsettled and unconvinced.
The second half of the book is more muddled and, at times manic, reflecting Humbert’s own decline. After all the dreadful things he does, his final downfall is a literal but relatively trivial crossing of the line: a gloriously ironic way to end such a troubling novel.
Would such a book be published today, now society is more paranoid about paedophiles? Zoe Heller wrote Notes on a Scandal (called What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal A Novel in the US), but that was an older woman with a teenage boy. What does the writing of such a book say about Nabokov and, more troublingly, what does the reading of it say about me?
(My review of Notes on a Scandal is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....)(less)
Notes are private!
Jan 04, 2009
A powerful concept, but very poorly written (even allowing for the young adult target audience) - and the only book I can think of that was better in...more A powerful concept, but very poorly written (even allowing for the young adult target audience) - and the only book I can think of that was better in the film version.
Bruno is 9 and lives in Berlin in 1943 with his parents and 12 year old sister. They are wealthy and his father is an important soldier who is promoted to be the Commandant at Auschwitz. The trick of the story is that Bruno doesn't realise the horror of what goes on behind the barbed wire, where everyone wears striped pyjamas, even when he befriends a boy of the same age at a corner of the camp.
Although his father can be strict and distant, Bruno is unfailing in his trust in the goodness of his father. In the film, there was at least a gradual, if reluctant, dawning of doubt about his father and all he stood for, but that doesn't happen in the book; the themes of family, friendship and trust are barely touched on.
The main problem is that it's told from Bruno's viewpoint, but the dialog doesn't ring true and Bruno is implausibly ignorant (extremely so) for a boy of his age, class and education. Not knowing, and not wanting to know, the horror of what was happening is entirely understandable (especially when a parent is involved). However, he hasn't heard of "the Fatherland", thinks the Fuhrer is called The Fury (throughout), that Auschwitz is called "Out With" and that "Heil Hitler" means "goodbye"! Yet we're meant to believe that he's the 9 year old son of a senior Nazi (and the puns wouldn't work in German, anyway)! His father had clearly been neglecting his duty to train the next generation of Hitler youth.
But there are plenty of other flaws:
* Surely some aspects of Schmuel's plight would have been glaringly obvious (emaciated, shorn hair, possibly lice-ridden, ragged clothes etc)?
* There are several stock phrases that are trotted out annoyingly often ("a Hopeless Case", "mouth in the shape of an O", "if he was honest as he always tried to be").
* They talk of miles not kilometres and feet not centimetres, which might not matter were the rest of it more realistic.
* Just occasionally, and completely out of character, Bruno talks in an unnaturally adult way ("If you ask me we're all in the same boat. And it's leaking", and a nasty person who "always looked as if he wanted to cut someone out of his will").
It might have worked better if Bruno had been 5 or 6, but I suppose the target audience would have been less willing to read it, so the result is a book that isn't really suitable for any age group. What a waste.
Postscript, arising from Kelly Hawkins' review:
Elsewhere, he is quoted as saying that naivety and complacency were two of the main reasons the Holocaust occurred (http://yareviews.wikispaces.com/The+B...).
I find that a very unsatisfying defence. It answers why people don't want to know the horrors (which I fully acknowledge), but does not begin to tackle Bruno's specific ignorance of common words related to the Third Reich. (less)
Notes are private!
Sep 14, 2009
Sep 11, 2009
A strange and intriguing book that I found very hard to rate: a mixture of wartime memoir and sci fi - occasionally harrowing, sometimes funny and oth...more A strange and intriguing book that I found very hard to rate: a mixture of wartime memoir and sci fi - occasionally harrowing, sometimes funny and other times thought-provoking.
It is the episodic story of Billy Pilgrim, a small town American boy, who is a POW in the second world war, later becomes a successful optometrist and who occasionally and accidentally travels in time to other periods of his life, so he has "memories of the future". Oh, he also gets abducted by aliens, along with some furniture. "So it goes." (That is the catchphrase of the book, and I found rather annoying after the umpteenth time. It's used in Philip K Dick's "Ubik" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which I assumed was a nod to Vonnegut, until I discovered both were published in the same year).
It starts with an old man reminiscing about his life. He is asked about the point of writing an anti-war book, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?" After that, it jumps about, much as Billy does, "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time... he is in a constant state of stage fright".
The most thought-provoking bits for me were Billy's mother who tried "to construct a life that makes sense from things she found in gift shops", the bathos with which some war events were described (e.g. being executed for stealing a teapot), and the alien Tralfamadorian's multi-dimensional and multi-sexual world. For instance, they have five sexes, but their differences were in the fourth dimension and they couldn't imagine how time looks to Billy (they also told him that seven sexes were essential for human reproduction!).
A main message is surprisingly positive: if we could only see or feel the fourth dimension, we would realise that "when a person dies he only appears to die. He is very much alive in the past".
Spoons are mentioned oddly often, as a description of how people lie (lovers or fallen soldiers). Then, near the end, actual spoons are briefly important. I have no idea whether this is significant.
It has strong links with several other books: as it's Vonnegut, the "fictitious" sci fi writer, Kilgore Trout, gets several mentions.
The mode of time travel clearly influenced Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
When he watches a WW2 film in reverse, it's very like Amis's "Time's Arrow" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
It also left me wanting to read a Tralfamadorian book with its simultaneous threads, "no beginning, no middle, no end... What we love in our books are the depths of many marvellous moments seen all at one time", which is surely what Vonnegut was trying to create for mere human readers.(less)
Notes are private!
Nov 07, 2010
Nov 07, 2010
Jan 01, 2011
Aug 04, 2011
This is an exploration of memory, exquisitely written as the thoughts of an old man, looking back on his life - good enough to merit 5*, despite the s...more This is an exploration of memory, exquisitely written as the thoughts of an old man, looking back on his life - good enough to merit 5*, despite the somewhat contrived ending (ironic, given the title).
It opens with six images (an unexpected word in several of them makes them more vivid), each of which form part of the story:
“I remember, in no particular order:
- a shiny inner wrist;
- steam rising from a wet sink as a frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torch beams;
- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
- bath water long gone cold behind a locked door.”
Tony and his three friends were somewhat pretentious teenagers, from moderately privileged backgrounds (“one of those suburbs which has stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since, smugly claimed rural status”). They are on the cusp of going to university. As they go their separate ways, they stay in touch to greater or lesser extents, but events of their youth echo across the years, and as he approaches retirement, Tony tries to draw the threads together and make sense of his life. Very self-absorbed (and not especially likeable), but if anything, I think that makes the book more interesting.
In particular, there are two rather unbalanced relationships that left their mark: with Adrian (who joined school later than the others) and his first proper girlfriend, Veronica. He suffers “pre-guilt: the expectation that she was going to say something that would make me feel properly guilty”.
Despite this, and a couple of shocking incidents, Tony is not unhappy, though he is not entirely happy either. His reference to the “small pleasures and large dullnesses of home” is apt. Although he was at university in the sixties, “Most people didn’t experience the sixties until the seventies”, though he experienced a confusing mix of the two. Nostalgia doesn’t help, “the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives”. Can you reverse remorse to guilt and forgiveness?
The recurring theme is the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of memory, coupled with the effects of time. Tony is forever musing on memory, history and truth. Revelations prompt further re-evaluation and interpretation. Maybe none of this is true (some elements of the plot and the behaviour of key characters are implausible, or at least, not adequately explained), but does it matter anyway? Surely that is the point Barnes is making.
Tony is honest about his dishonesty as a narrator (except that he constantly says his relationship with his daughter is closer than it seems from what he describes), and constantly ponders on it:
* “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed.”
* “If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left.”
* It gets harder with age: “As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been”, and “memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches”.
* “When we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
* “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.”
* “History is that certainty produce at the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.”
* “Mental states can be inferred from actions… Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true: that you can infer past actions from current mental states.” Similarly, X “thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us… do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it”.
* “It takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”
In the end, the meaning of life is “to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”!
Some people dislike Tony so much that that it taints their enjoyment of the entire book, but to some extent Tony is everyman and we are all Tony, which leads me to wonder if the dislikers are TOO like Tony for their own comfort!
Much as I enjoyed and thought I'd understood this, Petra nails the crux of its skill in the final paragraph of her short, but perfectly formed, review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
This is SO much better than another of his multi-decade life stories, dating from 25 years earlier, Staring at the Sun (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
Another short book in which a grumpy aging man reflects on his life makes an interesting contrast with this - though Yasmina Reza's "Desolation" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) doesn't come out of the comparison favourable (only 2*).(less)
Notes are private!
Apr 09, 2012
Apr 20, 2012
Apr 09, 2012
This is a powerful story about women's relationships with each other, and how they are affected by race (and class), told from the viewpoints of three...more This is a powerful story about women's relationships with each other, and how they are affected by race (and class), told from the viewpoints of three women (two black maids and a young white woman). It is set in segregated Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962-64, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, but it's local and domestic, rather than looking at the big picture.
The first third of the book establishes the main characters and their situation and relationships; the rest of it revolves around a dangerous plan to write about their lives: it ends up reading as if it's a book about how this book was created (though the notes at the end make it clear that it isn't).
It is a novel about individuals, and makes no pretence of being a history of the civil rights movement, but given the subject matter, it arouses strong feelings (see below, including comments, for some of the reasons). Passions run high in those with direct experience or detailed knowledge of racial issues in the US. My comments are the reaction of a fairly ignorant outsider.
IT'S ABOUT MOTHERING AND AWAKENING AS MUCH AS RACE
Although it might appear that the main relationships are between employer and help, mothering and displaced mothering is in many ways a stronger theme. It's also about other relationships, especially between women: bitchy cliques, friendships made and broken, fear versus collusion. Husbands don't generally come out of it well.
There is an awkward pact involved for white mothers: letting your children be raised by members of a race you despise versus raising the children of your oppressors. As Skeeter says, "They raise a white child and then 20 years later the child becomes the employer. It's that irony that we love them and they love us, yet we don't even allow them to use the toilet in the house". There are opportunities to sway young minds (and Aibileen tries especially hard), whilst thinking, "Baby Girl, who I know, deep down, I can't keep from turning out like her mama".
The maids' jobs and colour also have a negative effect on their own mothering. Not only do some of the white children feel the help loves them more than their own mothers; in some cases they are right, and that causes other tensions and problems. Yet firing the help is not always an option: "the help always know" all the secrets.
The three main characters are very strong women, and each gradually finds the strength to follow her conscience, despite the personal risks, to the point where Skeeter realises "I no longer feel protected because I am white". They learn, grow, awaken, and take some control over the future.
However, if I were an African-American, or raised in the deep south, I'm sure these aspects would seem much less significant in comparison to the race theme.
When I read this, I had no idea how accurate any of it is (I have subsequently learned of many doubts), but in terms of individual relationships, it rings true to this Brit, especially the different voices through which the story is told.
It was also interesting that the maids were so used to "the lines", that they disliked it when they were crossed, e.g. by an employer who was too friendly: "She just don't see 'em. The Lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly". Yet the maids train their own children into subjugation by teaching the rules "for working for a white lady". This has strange effects: "I don't know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain't saying it. And I know she ain't saying what she want a say either and it's a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation".
On the other hand, it seems improbable that all the powerful white women in the town are only in their mid 20s. I presume that was necessary because they needed to be contemporaries of Skeeter, and she needed to be young, but it still made me question the story in broader terms.
One expects to have strong sympathies for the maids, but a couple of the white women (including Skeeter) have a hard time (not as hard as the maids, though): material privilege, but they don't fit into either world. That creates a tension in the reader that is quite powerful.
The saddest white person is the little girl Aibileen cares for; she is a misfit in her own home, because her mother never bonded with her, "She like one a them baby chickens that get confused and follow the ducks around instead". Aibileen tries hard to compensate, particularly by repeating the mantra "You kind, you smart, you important". Mind you, she also sows the seeds future disagreement with her parents by telling secret stories about a kind alien visitor called Martian Luther King who thinks all people are the same, and by wrapping identical sweets in different coloured wrappers to make the same point. "I want to stop that moment from coming - and it comes in ever white child's life - when they start to think that coloured folks ain't as good as whites."
Although the book fits with some stereotypes (e.g. the hideous contradiction of raising money for starving Africans whilst campaigning for outside loos in all white homes, lest the owners catch black diseases), it certainly confounds others, both in the minds of some of the characters and, to a lesser extent, to the readers (e.g. many of the maids are more educated than might be expected and Aibileen is an keen and excellent writer).
As Skeeter says, "The dichotomy of love and disdain living side by side is what surprises me", and that was the core of the book for me.
LANGUAGE, DIALECT and DIFFERENT VOICES
From the very first sentence, you are aware of Aibileen's voice and dialect, "on a early Sunday". She is an ageing maid who cares for white children when they are young, then moves on. Her own son died in an industrial accident at 24 and from then "A bitter seed was planted inside me. And I just didn't feel so accepting any more".
Is this dialect accurate, patronising appropriation, or both?
Minny is the other black voice: a maid and church friend of Aibileen's, but with a young family and violent husband. She speaks her mind, so has often been fired.
The final voice is Skeeter, the daughter of a plantation owner who has returned from college and is shocked to discover that the beloved maid who raised her has gone, and no one will tell her why.
* My knowledge of US history is scanty and I didn't know when it was set until page 22, though even then I was only able to work it out by looking up Stevie Wonder's year of birth.
* Despite being initially vague about the date, some subsequent mentions of period detail seem rather forced, e.g. "To Kill a Mockingbird", Rosa Parks and Bob Dylan. It should have been possible to mention them in a more natural way.
* Did anyone say they needed "space" and "time" away from a relationship in Mississippi in 1963?(less)
Notes are private!
Jul 18, 2011
Jul 31, 2011
Jul 18, 2011
A hard book to rate as although its well written and is very thought provoking, the content gets unpleasantly graphic and some aspects are awkwardly d...more A hard book to rate as although its well written and is very thought provoking, the content gets unpleasantly graphic and some aspects are awkwardly dated (eg the assumption the British boys should be jolly good chaps - “we’re not savages, we’re English”).
It starts off as a conventional adventure: a mixed group of boys (some know each other; many who don’t) survive a plane crash on a desert island and struggle to survive. It is somewhat confused and confusing at first – perhaps to make the reader empathise with the boys’ confusion.
From the outset there are issues of priorities (Jack’s instant gratification of hunting or Ralph’s long term need for shelter and maintaining a fire signal) and leadership and it’s inevitable that standards of “civilization” will slip.
There is also an infectious fear of “the beast”, although whether one interprets it as animal, airman, hallucination, or symbolic may vary at different points in the story. Certainly the tone of the book changes after Simon’s first encounter with Lord of the Flies.
Eventually the boys split into two groups: hunters who become ever more “savage” in appearance and behaviour, and the remainder who want to retain order, safety, common sense – and their lives. Why do the obedient and angelic choir turn to savagery - does the fact they have an identified leader, who isn't the overall leader once they're on the island, contribute? One also wonders how the story might be different if it was a mixed sex group, or even an all girl group. Very different, certainly, and I suppose it would provide a distraction to what Golding was trying to say about human (or just male?) nature.
It illustrates how petty bullying can be condoned and encouraged within groups (exacerbated by rituals, chanting, body markings etc) and how it can escalate to much worse. Nevertheless, one of the main victims, Piggy, is proud of his differences, demonstrates knowledge and intelligence and actually grows in confidence as his leader loses his.
MILGRAM, ZIMBARDO, CHRISTIANITY...
It questions whether it is power or the environment that makes some of the boys so bad (echoes of Zimbardo’s prison experiments and Milgram’s obedience experiments - if a book can echo things which came after it was written).
The more Christian concept of original sin runs through it, which was probably Golding's intention (his editor made him make Simon less Jesus-like), along with other Christian analogies relating to snakes, devils (aka Lord of the Flies), self sacrifice, and redemption/rescue.
And then there are the conch and fire as symbols of order and god, respectively, in total contrast to the warpaint etc of the warriors.
Lots to think about, but more the stuff of nightmares than dreams.
COMPARED WITH "THE HUNGER GAMES"
It's interesting to compare this with The Hunger Games, which modern teens probably find much easier to relate to (my review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
I think one problem Lord of the Flies has is that the period is tricky: too far from the present to seem "relevant" (though I think it is), but not long enough ago to be properly historical. (less)
Notes are private!
Feb 27, 2009
Feb 23, 2009
Aug 01, 2011
See 2013's Great Gormenghast Read: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/1...
A thing of beauty, like the words it contains: beautifully bound, with sump...more See 2013's Great Gormenghast Read: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/1...
A thing of beauty, like the words it contains: beautifully bound, with sumptuous illustrations. I'm often wary of illustrations in adult books, but Peake was an artist and illustrator as well as a writer, so I make an exception in this case.
Two of my three favourite books (and a third that I like) in one volume, with an excellent introduction by China Mieville (and Sebastian Peake's note about the illustrations).
The content is covered in separate reviews:
Titus Groan: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
Titus Alone: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
And all my Peake/Gormenghast reviews (including biographies/memoirs) now have their own shelf:
These books are in many ways uncategorisable: often classed as fantasy, the first two have the feel of historical fiction, but with a twist of magical realism. (Confusingly, the third volume has futuristic aspects.) What is perhaps more surprising is that in the decades since Titus Groan was first published, there haven't been any successful books in the same uncategorisable category.
Miscellaneous quotes from Titus Groan
• “Lord Sepulchrave walked with slow strides, his head bowed. Fuchsia mouched. Doctor Prunesquallor minced. The twins propelled themselves forward vacantly. Flay spidered his path. Swelter wallowed his.”
• Swelter’s voice is “like the warm, sick notes of some prodigious mouldering bell”.
• Cracks in the wall “A thousand imaginary journeys might be made along the banks of these rivers of an unexplored world”. (A similar idea in Boy in Darkness, when Titus looks at a mildewed spot on the ceiling.)
• The Countess’s room was “untidy to the extent of being a shambles. Everything had the appearance of being put aside for the moment.”
• “His [Sourdust] face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues.”
• The Earl’s life, and to some extent everyone else’s, is governed by detailed and largely pointless arcane ritual. “The second tome was full of blank pages and was entirely symbolic... If, for instance, his Lordship.. had been three inches shorter, the costumes, gestures and even the routes would have differed from those described in the first tome.” “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held... but the formality was no less sacred for it being unintelligible”.
• “She [Fuchisa] appeared to inhabit, rather than to wear her clothes.”
• “as empty as an unremembered heart” (the “stage” in Fuchsia’s attic).
• The twins’ faces “were quite expressionless, as though they were preliminary layouts for faces and were waiting for sentience to be injected”.
• An extraordinary metaphor at the end of this one about Irma Prunesquallor: “more the appearance of having been plucked and peeled than of cleanliness, though clean she was... in the sense of a rasher of bacon”!
• “Treading in a pool of his own midnight”.
• “We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.”
• Burned books are “the corpses of thought”.
• “lambent darkness” is a good oxymoron.
• Lightning is, “a light like razors. It not only showed to the least minutiae the anatomy of masonry, pillars and towers, trees, grass-blades and pebbles, it conjured these things, it constructed them from nothing... then a creation reigned in a blinding and ghastly glory as a torrent of electric fire coursed across the heavens.”
• “The outpouring of a continent of sky had incarcerated and given a weird hyper-reality of closeness to those who were shielded from all but the sound of the storm.”
Miscellaneous quotes from Gormenghast
• “porous shadow-land... not so much a darkness... as something starved for moonbeams.”
• “There is nowhere else... you will only tread a circle... everything comes to Gormenghast.”
• “suckled on shadows, weaned as it were on webs of ritual”
• “He was pure symbol... even the ingenious system of delegation whereon his greatness rested was itself worked out by another”
• He “had once made a point of being at least one mental hour ahead of his class... but who had long since decided to pursue knowledge on an equal footing”.
• “a smile she was concocting, a smile more ambitious than she had so far dared to invent. Every muscle in her face was pulling its weight. Not all of them knew in which direction to pull, but their common enthusiasm was formidable.”
• words that are “proud with surrender”.
• “Their presence and the presence of their few belongings... seemed to reinforce the vacancy of their solitude.”
• “A window let in the light and, sometimes, the sun itself, whose beams made of this silent, forgotten landing a cosmos, a firmament of moving motes, brilliantly illumined, an astral and at the same time solar province. Where the sunbeams struck, the floor would flower like a rose, a wall break out in crocus-light, and the banisters would flame like rings of coloured snakes.”
• “the very lack of ghosts... was in itself unnerving”
• It’s positively Wodehousian in places, “made one wonder how this man [Fluke] could share the self-same world with hyacinths and damsels” and his [Perch Prism’s] “eyes with enough rings around them to lasso and strangle at birth any idea that he was under 50”.
• Around the lake “trees arose with a peculiar authority” an one spinney was “in an irritable state”, another “in a condition of suspended excitement” while other trees were variously aloof, mournful, gesticulating, exultant and asleep.
• The boys changed ammunition to paper pellets only after the THIRD death and “a deal of confusion in the hiding of the bodies”!
• “A cloud of starlings moved like a migraine across the upper air”
• “A symbol of something the significance of which had long been lost to the records”
• “Countless candles dribbled with hot wax, and their flames, like little flags, fluttered in the uncharted currents of air.”
• The wick of an enormous oil lamp was “as wide as a sheep’s tongue”!
• “the long drawn hiss of reptilian rain”
• In the snow, “the terrain bulged with the submerged features of a landscape half-remembered”
• “as empty as tongueless bells”
• “as a withered spinster might kiss a spaniel’s nose”
Miscellaneous quotes from Titus Alone
• “The very essence of his vocation was ‘removedness’... He was a symbol. He was the law”. (Magistrate)
• “sham nobility of his countenance” (Old Crime)
• “a light to strangle infants by”
• The “merest wisp of a man... his presence was a kind of subtraction. He was nondescript to the point of embarrassment”. (Scientist)
• “a man of the wilds. Of the wilds within himself and the wilds without; there was no beggar alive who could look so ragged and yet... so like a king” (Muzzlehatch)
• “What lights had begun to appear were sucked in by the quenching effect of the darkness.”
• “A flight of sunbeams, traversing the warm, dark air, forced a pool of light on the pillow.”
• “The sun sank with a sob and darkness waded in”
• “What light there was seeped into the great glass buildings as though ashamed.”
• “The old and the worn, who evolved out of the shades like beings spun from darkness.”
• “his responses to her magnetism grew vaguer... he longed to be alone again... alone to wander listless through the sunbeams.”
• “that he abhorred her brain seemed almost to add to his lust for her body”
• “He was no longer entangled in a maze of moods.” (Titus)
• “Head after head in long lines, thick and multitudinous and cohesive as grains of honey-coloured sugar, each grain a face... a delirium of heads: an endless profligacy.”
• “I don’t like this place one little bit. My thighs are as wet as turbots.”!
• “a loquacious river”.
• A floating spy cam is a “petty snooper, prying on man and child, sucking information as a bat sucks blood.”
• “a voice of curds and whey”
• Brief but unexpected sexual references ("scrotum tightening", "his cock trembled like a harp string") and when he first regains consciousness and sees Cheeta, his greeting is "let me suck on your breasts, like little apples, and play upon your nipples with my tongue"
• Cormorant fishing – as in China!
• “they were riding on the wings of a cliché”
From Mieville's introduction to this edition
With its first word the work declares itself, establishes its setting and has us abruptly there, in the castle and the stone. There is no slow entry, no rabbit-hole down which to fall, no backless wardrobe, no door in the wall. To open the first book is not to enter but to be already in Mervyn Peake's astonishing creation. So taken for granted, indeed, is this impossible place, that we commence with qualification. "Gormenghast," Peake starts, "that is, the main massing of the original stone," as if, in response to that opening name, we had interrupted him with a request for clarification. We did not say "What is Gormenghast?" but "Gormenghast? Which bit?"
It is a sly and brilliant move. Asserting the specificity of a part, he better takes as given the whole - of which, of course, we are in awe. This faux matter-of-fact method makes Gormenghast, its Hall of Bright Carvings, its Tower of Flints, its roofscapes, ivy-shaggy walls, its muddy environs and hellish kitchens, so much more present and real than if it had been breathlessly explained. From this start, Peake acts as if the totality of his invented place could not be in dispute. The dislocation and fascination we feel, the intoxication, is testimony to the success of his simple certainty. Our wonder is not disbelief but belief, culture-shock at this vast, strange place. We submit to this reality that the book asserts even as it purports not to.
It is in the names, above all, perhaps, that Peake's strategy of simultaneous familiarising and defamiliarising reaches its zenith; Rottcodd, Muzzlehatch, Sourdust, Crabcalf, Gormenghast itself... such names are so overburdened with semiotic freight, stagger under such a profusion of meanings, that they end up as opaque as if they had none. 'Prunesquallor' is a glorious and giddying synthesis, and one that sprays images – but their portent remains unclear.
Mieville on fantasy and Peake's relationship with it (thanks to Traveller for this quotation):
"Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious - you can't ignore it, so don't even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there's a lot to dislike - his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien's clichés - elves 'n' dwarfs 'n' magic rings - have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps - via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on - the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations."
- China Mieville
Mieville comparing Tolkien and Peake
"Peake is just incomparably better. His writing is textured and lush, his ideas are complex, his characters defy pigeonholes. The politics embedded in the Gormenghast trilogy are sometimes tragic, and never simplistic. Peake is one of the few writers of fantasy that mainstream critics treat with respect. It’s true that Peake doesn’t fit neatly into the genre – though he’s revered by fantasy fans – and didn’t have the sense of writing in a genre tradition, unlike most fantasy writers. He’s inside and outside fantasy at the same time.
I think that’s what gave his writing such a sense of uniqueness – it’s hard to trace influences on Peake (in genre and out). And although his influence has been very strong, it’s been quite diffuse and nebulous. It’s nowhere near as strong, for example, as Lord of the Rings, which was easily and totally assimilated into the genre of fantasy.
The nicest thing anyone ever said about Perdido Street Station was that it read like a fantasy book written in an alternate world where the Gormenghast trilogy rather than Lord of the Rings was the most influential work in the genre."
"... The madness is illusory, and control never falters. It is, if you like, a rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect to just the right temperature. There is no really close relative to it in all our prose literature. It is uniquely brilliant, and we are right to call it a modern classic."
- Anthony Burgess, in his 1988 introduction to Titus Groan
A richly-illustrated article about Peake from the Paris Review:
And the official Gormenghast site:
Notes are private!
Jun 16, 2013
Aug 08, 2014
Apr 11, 2012
Jan 01, 2011
Mar 06, 2012
This is the truer, grittier, more analytical version of "Oranges are Not the Only Fruit" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), with an update of...more This is the truer, grittier, more analytical version of "Oranges are Not the Only Fruit" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), with an update of Winterson's very recent attempts to trace her birth mother, and interspersed with thoughts on words, writing, literature and a dash of politics of family, class, feminism and sexuality. It is better if you are familiar with Oranges, but not essential. There also seem to be significant autobiographical aspects to "Lighthousekeeping", as explained in my review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).
NOT "MISERY LIT"
When I read Oranges many years ago, it was before the vogue for "misery lit", a genre I have avoided. However, reading this, I realise that despite the erudition and humour, both books are perhaps in that category. Don't let that put you off. Much of Winterson's upbringing was awful: neglect, psychological bullying, deceit and most importantly, lack of love, and yet she comes through it all the stronger and even when she has a major breakdown in later life, still realises that her pain has made her who she is.
The story is now well-known, but to recap, Jeanette was adopted by a poor, middle aged, dysfunctional couple who belonged to a Pentecostal church. Most of the time, they all act as if their quirks and cruelty are entirely normal. She escaped into forbidden books and grammar school (an academically-focused school), but fell foul of her family when she fell in love with a girl.
PARENTS = MRS WINTERSON and DAD
Her mother is almost entirely referred to as "Mrs Winterson" (just occasionally "my mum", but never just "Mum"), whereas her father is "Dad" and mostly in the background until old age. Mrs W is the far more vividly drawn character: "a flamboyant depressive", “I think Mrs Winterson was afraid of happiness”. She was also hypocritical (a supposedly secret smoker who neither believed not practised all the teachings of her chosen church) and who had unexplained disappearances, whereas Dad is just weak, or perhaps too peaceful to stand up to her, who "hated him - not in an angry way, but with a toxic submissive resentment". “My father was unhappy. My mother was disordered. We were like refugees in our own life.” “There was a barrier between us, transparent but real.” “She was her own Enigma code and me and my dad were not Bletchley Park”. And specifically about Mrs W, “Our conversations were like two people using phrase books to say things neither understands”. But despite all the pain, as a middle aged woman, Winterson notes “I hate Ann criticising Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster”.
The undercurrent of the book and Winterson’s life is abandonment: given up by her birth mother, unloved and abused by her adopted mother, and abandoned by her first lover as soon as they were caught. In her troublesome teens, she wonders “were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were – she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing”. As an adult, “I have never felt wanted… And I have loved most extravagantly where my love could not be returned… but I did not know how to love”.
LOVE OF LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
One of the aspects of this book that I most enjoyed was Winterson's feel and passion for language and literature, enhanced by the lengths she had to go to to enjoy them. "She [Mrs W] knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn't go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house." The perverse exception was murder mysteries, "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late". But for Winterson, literature "isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place... She was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere... Do you come back?" She was not a high flier at school, and yet, “I knew how words worked in the way that some boys knew how engines worked”. The best thing about Oxford University was “its seriousness of purpose and the unquestioned belief that the life of the mind was at the heart of civilised life… It was like living in a library and that was where I had always been happiest”.
Writing is even more powerful, and there are two kinds: "the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous." The other side of that coin is that at her lowest point, which is brutally and bravely documented, “language left me”. Terrifying for anyone, let alone a writer. And not for the first time, it is poetry that rescues her, “All that poetry I learned when I had to keep my library inside me now offered a rescue rope… If poetry was a rope, then the books themselves were rafts. At my most precarious I balanced on a book, and the books rafted me over the tides of feelings that left me soaked and shattered”. “The poem finds the word that finds the feeling.”
Winterson also analyses the narrative of her own life, "Adopted children are self-invented... adoption drops you into the story after it has started". Regarding Mrs W's reaction to Oranges, "What you leave out says as much as those things you include... Mrs W objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story's silent twin." And both twins change when she traces her birth mother. Until then, “My whole identity was built around being an orphan – and an only child”. The meeting is visceral, traumatic, comic, but ultimately somewhat unresolved.
“I would rather be this me… than the me I might have become without books, without education” and that education comes to the fore towards the end, in a short chapter called “The Wound” where she compares lots of myths about wounds (literal and metaphorical), adoption, mistaken identity etc. It’s a powerful and erudite exploration of some of the themes in the book, but doesn’t quite fit in style.
There is understandable bitterness towards Mrs W, but despite rejecting the church, she is also grateful to it in some ways. Belief in God helped her when she was small (“God made sense of uncertainty”) and she saw many working class people "living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church... Bible study worked their brains". An unintended consequence being that familiarity with the 1611 Bible and daily use of thee and thou in their own speech, made Shakespeare was relatively accessible. She documents the contradictions of her church (some unpleasant, some merely comical) with a degree of fondness. When homeless and living in a car, she observes, “I was lucky in one way because our church had always emphasised how important it is to concentrate on good things”! In a similar vein, "The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection"! I’m not sure that would be benefit enough to appease a social worker.
PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
Her life is about the pursuit of happiness, "life-long, and it is not goal-centred". She says that as a child, she always wanted to escape her life, as did Mrs W in a different way (every night she prayed "Lord, let me die"). However, she also says, “I don’t know anyone, including me, who felt trapped and hopeless”, albeit more in terms of church putting poverty into perspective. Applying to Oxford was apparently not so much about escape but “because it was the most impossible thing I could do”. In working class areas of the north in the 1970s, men were still in charge, and women undervalued, “My world was full of strong able women who were ‘housewives’ and had to defer to their men”. The result of this strange and traumatic upbringing is that “The things that I regret in life are not errors of judgement but failures of feeling.”
TYPES OF ENDING
It would be easy to summarise the book in the lines, “She longed for me to be free and did everything she could to make sure it never happened” and "All she ever wanted was for me to go away. And when I did she never forgave me." However, that would do it a disservice, because it is really far more about the necessity of love – understanding it and fully experiencing it.
Winterson herself categorises three types of ending: revenge, tragedy and forgiveness; this book contains all three. (less)
Notes are private!
May 19, 2012
May 19, 2012
Jan 01, 2011
Jul 04, 2011
This tells a riveting and complex saga with profound insight, plenty of intrigue and dashes of wit. From the first dozen pages, even the first few sen...more This tells a riveting and complex saga with profound insight, plenty of intrigue and dashes of wit. From the first dozen pages, even the first few sentences, I was drawn into a love affair with the writing of this book. I read large chunks more than once because the writing is breathtaking, but leisurely: I wanted to capture the craft and jot down many quotes (see the end of this for a long selection).
Having finished, I still love it, even though the quality was not quite maintained. It is a story told in five parts and spanning a century. The first two parts are superb (and have echoes of Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) and Byatt's "The Children's Book" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...)); the third is good, and the last two are too different to fit well with what’s gone before, and the ending is unsatisfyingly abrupt. It's not so much that the later sections are bad as the fact they just didn't "fit" the rest of the book and suffer in comparison with what precedes them. It almost felt as if they were there to bang home the themes of truth, memories, aging, changing mores etc, just in case we didn't notice them in the earlier sections. It's another way in which it resembles "The Children's Book": the best aspects are stunning, but it is also very flawed
Although Hollinghurst is well known as a gay writer (both himself, and his books), and this does feature gay relationships and illustrate how attitudes have changed over the last hundred years, it felt like a family saga, rather than a gay book.
The key character appears to be a budding poet, Cecil Valence. He enters the story in 1913 as the wealthy university friend of middle class George Sawle. All the characters in the coming hundred years and 500+ pages have some sort of connection with him, but really it is George’s sister Daphne who is the pivot of the tangled stories. And they are tangled: there is a web of relationships, with lies, suppressed longings, and secrets, so one is often unsure who fancies who and who knows what about whom.
Subsequent sections are in the mid 1920s, mid 1960s, around 1990 and the present day (2011/12). The first two sections have a strong sense of place: the Sawle’s suburban home, Two Acres, and then the Valence’s enormous Victorian estate, Corley Court. These sections have strong echoes of “Brideshead”, yet don’t feel plagiarised. In later sections, the characters and plot are rather more adrift.
I enjoyed the deliberate obfuscation of the sudden time jumps at the start of each section, e.g. not being immediately sure who labels such as "husband" and "dead brother" applied to, or who “Mrs Jacobs” was (not always the most obvious one). I just didn't enjoy the characters, style and milieu of the later parts quite as much.
The Valences and Sawles are the main characters – along with their respective homes (again, like Brideshead). A new wife “felt she wouldn’t have chosen it, felt it had in a way chosen her”.
The changing zeitgeist and the aging and maturing of the characters are generally very good: insightful, amusing and plausible.
The opening word (“she”) refers to Daphne, a central character throughout, though not always the most important. As she says of herself in old age, “I never pretended to be a wonderful writer, but I have known some very interesting people.”
The contrasts between what people say, feel, mean and are thought to mean by others are clearly but delicately marked, especially in the first section, when Daphne is juggling sibling rivalry with the first stirrings of attraction, whilst still very naïve about such things. Other characters have things to hide (relationships, drink, money problems). Daphne often “felt again she was missing something, but was carried along by the excitement of making [adult] conversation”.
Class difference, deference, aspiration and the consequences of social mobility (up and down) are obvious themes that affect all the characters. Is “unthinking social confidence” the same as being a snob? One woman had “a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted” (so much summed up in that pithy sentence) and another “hadn’t been born into [X’s] world, even though she now wore its lacquered carapace”. At the other end of the spectrum, a humble bank clerk feels socially awkward from knowing, via people’s financial circumstances, that they may not be all that they seem.
TRUTH and WRITING
More importantly, several characters write (poetry, biography, memoirs, criticism). Questions of “what is the truth?”, “who knows what?” and the way we edit our own and other people’s histories weave through the book and are pertinent to all the main characters, especially those burdened with secrets (whether their own or those of others). Memoirs are “not fiction… but a sort of poetical reconstruction”. Are such edits usually unconscious, and if not, are they justifiable? They certainly make it hard for biographers, one of whom complains, “People wouldn’t tell you things, and they then blamed you for not knowing them.” Then he realised “The writer of a life didn’t only write about the past, and that the secrets he dealt in might have all kinds of consequences in other lives, in years to come” – and this aspect is perhaps the dominant theme of the book, creating a Russian-doll like structure of nested histories.
The subtle dynamics of covert relationships are carefully drawn, especially early on, managing to create a degree of ambiguity and at the same time, giving the reader the feeling of being “in the know”. Later on, there is additional dramatic tension from the characters’ own doubts about some things, and even the reader’s doubts about which characters know what: George was “amused by its [a poem] having a secret and sadly reassured by the fact it could never be told.”
I feel as if this ought to be a major theme, and possibly Hollinghurst would like it to be, but it never felt like a big deal to me. Yes, several characters are gay or bisexual, and some are secretive about their desires, but the desire and the secrecy seemed more pertinent than the sex of the people they were attracted to. Having sections set in different periods does illustrate how society has become more accepting, but maybe that's just society growing up?
AGING and MATURITY
The main characters span a variety of ages, which presents a challenge that Hollinghurst rises to. In particular, the Edwardian Daphne’s teenage desires and anxieties are wonderfully done. When offered a cigar, “She really didn’t want the cigar, but she was worried by the thought of missing a chance at it. It was something none of her friends had done, she was pretty sure of that.” So she took it “with a feeling of shame and duty and regret”. Whether it was a cigar or something else, I’m sure we can all empathise with Daphne’s mixed emotions. Similarly, being in on (partial) adult knowledge isn’t always what one wants or expects, “the joy of discovery was shadowed by the sense of being left behind”. Pondering her first kiss, she “savoured the shock of it properly… With each retelling, the story… made her heart race a fraction less… and her reasonable relief at this gradual change was coloured with a tinge of indignation”.
Several characters drink too much, though some are more aware of it than others: “the tray of bottles, some friendly, some over-familiar, one or two to be avoided”.
The opening chapter is particularly entrancing: it captures the anticipation of the forthcoming evening, coupled with the evening light, in a series of subtly beautiful images about relationships, awkwardness, and ease, presaging all that is to come. There are wonderful images and great insight throughout. It might be thought to be overwritten, but I enjoyed the detail.
Who is the eponymous "stranger's child"? For a while that question niggled (it's a phrase from Tennyson), and there are one or two candidates, but later I felt it didn't really matter, and was perhaps just a metaphor for each child's uniqueness, and, in some respects, their unknowability.
• “Something of the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked… It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely… seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.”
• “The slight asperity that gave even her nicest remarks an air of sarcasm.”
• Jonah was only 15, had never acted as a valet (or even observed one) and was told to “unpack… and arrange the contents ‘convincingly’. This was the word, enormous but elusive, that Jonah had had on his mind all day… gripping him again with a subtle horror.” Later, he had “The strange feeling of being intimate with someone who was simultaneously unaware of him.”
• Even the legitimate offspring of a respectable dead father can feel it a social handicap in Edwardian times: “He felt a twinge of shame and regret at having no father, and for ever having to make do.”
• Outrageous letters were like “Pompeiian obscenities, hiding just out of view behind the curtains and in the shadows of the inglenook.”
• “Records were indeed marvels, but they were only tiny helpings of the ocean of music.”
• A 16-year old “picked up her glass and drained it with a complicated feeling of sadness and satisfaction that was thoroughly endorsed by Wagner’s restless ballad.”
• For some reason, this tickled me, “… said Daphne experimentally”.
• A couple had “their little myth of origins, its artificiality part of its erotic charm”.
• “The remark [a compliment] seemed to have curved in the air, to have set out towards some more obvious and perhaps deserving target, and then swooped wonderfully home.”
• “His feelings absorbed him so completely that he seemed to float towards them, weak with excitement, across a purely symbolic landscape.”
• A woodland pond was “a loose ellipse of water”.
• He had “a very particular way of looking at her… of holding her eye at moments in their talk, so that another unspoken conversation seemed also to be going on… She felt a certain thrilled complacency at the choice he had secretly made.”
• “moaning with a lover’s pangs, as well as with a certain sulky relief at this tragic postponement.”
• “spread some butter on her toast, though really her smothered anxiety had squeezed up her appetite to nothing.”
• Of a somewhat back-handed compliment: “her involuntary German air of meaning rather more.”
• She “held back, with a thin fixed smile, in which various doubts and questions were tightly hidden.”
• A dining room “with its gaudy décor, its mirrors and gilding” was “like some funereal fairground”!
• People who had loved and feuded came together to share memories of someone who had died, “submissively clutching their contributions. A dispiriting odour of false piety and dutiful suppression seemed to rise from the table and hang like cabbage-smells in the jelly-mould domes of the ceiling”.
• Tact required a “courteous saunter around an unmentionable truth” and “a mist of delicacy had obscured the subject”.
• “The dark oak door of the chapel loomed, seemed to summon and dishearten the visitor with the same black stare… Chapel silence, with its faint penumbra of excluded sounds.”
• They “looked more like colleagues than a couple” because “their hands seemed somehow locked away from any mutual use”.
• “Bland evasiveness had slowly assumed the appearance of natural forgiveness.”
• He “turned to her with that unstable mixture of indulgence and polite bewilderment and mocking distaste that she had come to know and dread and furiously resent.”
• After one character’s boorish outburst at a children’s party “a collective effort at repair had been made”, one couple “having an ideally boring conversation about shooting to show that things were under control”!
• After dinner, there was “talk of a game. Those who were keen half smothered their interest, and those who weren’t pretended blandly that they didn’t mind.”
• “It was the most unapproachable room in the house… dark with prohibitions. His father’s anger… had withdrawn into it, like a dragon to its lair.”
• “His features seemed rather small and provisional.”
• “The front door was wide open, as though the house had surrendered itself to the sunny day.”
• “At this indefinable time of day… The time, like the light, seemed somehow viscous.”
• A lodger’s room: “Nothing went with anything else. They had the air of things not wanted elsewhere in the house… the brown wool rug made by Mr Marsh himself at what must have been a low moment.”
• The PE teacher “dressed in sports kit at improbable times of day, he was adored by many of the boys, and instinctively avoided by others.”
• “In the deepening shadows between pools of candlelight, the guests… conversations stretching and breaking, in an amiable jostle… like a flickering frieze, unknowable faces all bending willingly to something perhaps none of them individually would have chosen to do.”
• “eagerness struggling with some entrenched habit of disappointment.”
• Daphne’s copious bag had “the family trait of being shapelessly bulky – too bulky, really, to count as a handbag. It admitted as much in its helpless slump.”
• “The upstairs windows seemed to ponder blankly on the reflections of clouds.”
• “The perfect but impersonal dentures that gave their own helpless eagerness to an old man’s face” – the same man with “the eagerness and charm, the smile confidently friendly but not hilarious, the note of respect with a hint of conspiracy.”
• “Her sense of humour is really no more than an irritable suspicion that someone else might find something funny.”
• A house heaving with clutter creates “a worrying sense of the temporary grown permanent” (a lesson for me).
• “The air of mildly offended blankness, which is the default expression of any congregation.”
• “X and his computer lived together in intense co-dependency, as if they shared a brain, his arcane undiscriminating memory backed up on the machine and perpetually enlarged by it.”(less)
Notes are private!
Jul 31, 2012
Aug 11, 2012
Jul 31, 2012
Rewritten after rereading in July 2012.
This darkly humorous satire starts with a world financial crisis in 1986 (hopefully that’s where the similarity...more
Rewritten after rereading in July 2012.
This darkly humorous satire starts with a world financial crisis in 1986 (hopefully that’s where the similarity with current times ends), leading to WW3 – though it’s not really about either: it’s fundamentally about adaptation.
A million years in the future, the only “humans” left on Earth are the descendants of a small but diverse group of survivors of a Galapagos islands cruise, and they are more like seals than 20th century humans. Most of the story is set between the run up to the cruise and the passengers’ first few years on the island, but it is certainly not a Robinson Crusoe type story; it is far more provocative than that, raising issues of fate/independence, the meaning and importance of intelligence and ultimately, what makes us human.
Like all good dystopias (if that's not an oxymoron), the individual steps to it don't really stretch credulity (few of them are very original), but the final destination is more startling - and even somewhat positive.
The story arc is fundamentally chronological, but with an enormous number of tiny jumps ahead: right from the start, Vonnegut sprinkles the story with so many snippets about what will happen to everyone, why and how, that you don’t know if there will be anything left by the time the main narrative catches up. He even prefixes the names of those about to die with an asterisk, at which point I went with the flow and stopped worrying about "spoilers" (on rereading, this aspect became pure comedy). The final chapter, which I would have deleted, fills in a few random gaps that didn’t really need filling.
The narrator is Leon Trout, a long-dead man who helped build the cruise ship. He reminded me a little of Snowman in "Oryx and Crake" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), so if you liked that, consider this. (Kilgore Trout, the father of Leon, is a recurring character in Vonnegut: a prolific but not very successful writer of sci fi. This book mentions his “The Era of Hopeful Monsters”, with a plot that echoes this.)
The book also has random quotes from Mandarax, a hand-held computer and translator that is a little like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They are either bizarrely obscure, like the Oracle at Delphi, or comically inappropriate.
The main premise is that humans have evolved badly, though the reasons for this are never explained, which is odd, given how much weight is given to subsequent natural selection in the story.
Most significantly, our “big brains” are the cause of all our troubles: they lie (so we don’t trust them or other people), we can’t switch them off, they confuse us with too much information, distract us from the important matters of life and death (though often causing death, e.g. by fighting or suicide), and ultimately cause global financial collapse because the value of so many assets is only maintained by belief in virtual money whizzing around. Accepting the idea that our big brains are a handicap is a bit of a challenge, which Vonnegut backs up with typical bathos by suggesting alcohol is just a way to relax with a (temporarily) smaller brain.
Our long, protected childhoods accustom us to the idea of an omniscient carer and hence account for belief in god, whilst wealth makes us blasé about our doom.
Full stomachs are part of the problem, too: a full belly puts people off-guard and all the powerful people are well-fed, so don’t worry about impending disaster.
Outsourcing our skills and knowledge by developing machines to take over many brain tasks reduces the need for big brains, and indeed, for people.
No wonder humans, in their twenty-first century form, are doomed – even at a comical level: a million years hence, “evolution hasn’t made teeth more durable. It has simply cut the average human lifespan down to about thirty years”!
By contrast, animals are happy to survive, feed and reproduce, and once stranded on an island, natural selection leads to humanity being reduced and enhanced to such basics, “everybody is exactly what he or she seems to be” and “everyone is so innocent and relaxed now". No more lies or deceit, and no hands to use for evil – it sounds positively Utopian.
In addition to the above, it also touches on the nature of intelligence, eugenics (voluntary and not), consent, disability, incest, contraception, mate selection, truth, marriage and alternatives to it, and all sorts of other things. You could make a whole PSHE curriculum from this!
Amongst all the big issues and ideas the book explicitly raises, there is one that is always assumed, but never questioned or defended: in what sense are the "humans" on Santa Rosalia in a million years’ time actually human (and by extension, what does it mean to BE human)? And if they are human, then surely we should call ourselves apes, or even fish.
And fish and fishing, literal and metaphorical, are recurring themes: many of the characters are "fishers of men", albeit not in a good way, and we’re reminded that “so much depends on fish”; even the narrator’s surname is Trout.
I would hesitate to impose a New Testament analogy on a secular novel by a secular writer, but there are many Biblical allusions: creation, flood, an ark, Adam and Eve, the danger of knowledge, the power of belief, the existence of God, David and Goliath, souls, redemption, and… fish.
Vonnegut toys with why we are as we are and clearly doesn't think it's brain size or capacity that makes us human (which is surely good, as otherwise, what would be the implication for those with learning difficulties and brain damage etc?), but he leaves the reader to decide what “human” means.
FATE AND PURPOSE
Throughout the book, Vonnegut keeps reminding us of the significance of random and apparently trivial events, whilst at the same time implying the apparent opposite: the inevitability of the outcome for humanity (the butterfly effect versus fate). There is a clear message that most people are irrelevant; we can't know who the few important ones are, but they're probably the ones we least expect. Trout admits his prolonged observation was pointless: he was addicted to the soap opera qualities of the story, but accumulated knowledge rather than understanding.
The world ends up a happier place, because of the power of natural selection, echoing the very upbeat quote from Anne Frank on the title page, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
Yet, given his ideas about fate, is Vonnegut suggesting the book is pointless too (not that I would agree with that), is he actually trying to make a point (if so, what?) or just entertaining us? Mostly the latter, I think
If Leon Trout is reading this, or any other discussion of the book, he is doubtless chuckling at how seriously people are taking it. Mind you, as a pretentious late teen/early twentysomething, I would have had a field day of profundity!
Overall, not a long book, but one to savour, ponder, chuckle over and reread.
• “Mere opinions… were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be.”
• “It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinion of paper wealth.”
• Big brains make marriage hard because “That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions” and switch between them so quickly “that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up light a fight between blindfolded people wearing roller skates”.
• “Typical of the management of so many organisations one million years ago, with the nominal leader specialising in social balderdash, and with the supposed second in command burdened with the responsibility of understanding how things really worked.”
Notes are private!
May 28, 2009
May 23, 2009
This is my first Proulx, so I didn't know if the unusual writing style is typical, or specially chosen for this particular story. I hope it's the latt...more This is my first Proulx, so I didn't know if the unusual writing style is typical, or specially chosen for this particular story. I hope it's the latter, as it works very well. Update: I've now read Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other stories (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), which use similar language, but somewhat toned down.
It covers a couple of years (plus some backstory) in the life of thirty-something Quoyle: a big, lonely, awkward and unattractive man, always having or doing the wrong thing. He is a not very successful journalist in New York, who ends up moving, with his young daughters (Bunny and Sunshine) and aunt, to a small, somewhat inbred, community in Newfoundland where the aunt and his late father grew up. Somehow Proulx keeps the reader on the fence: he isn't especially lovable, and yet he elicits more sympathy than mockery in this reader.
I think one weakness is that the mother of the girls is too horrible, and the manner of her departure from their lives stretched my credulity somewhat.
The narrative style is the first thing to hit. It is very distinctive, continues throughout the book, and could be infuriating, though I didn't find it so. It is telegraphic and observational, reflecting Quoyle's job. There are staccato sentence fragments, and some overworked analogies, some of which are wonderfully vivid, and a few of which are laughably awful. Grammar sticklers may struggle to enjoy this book, but it's their loss - context is all, and in this context, I think it works.
If I were as clever and witty as some of my GR friends (you know who you are), I would have written this review in the style of the book.
Anyway, some typical examples:
This is the entire opening paragraph of a chapter:
"The aunt in her woolen coat when Quoyle came into the motel room. Tin profile with a glass eye. A bundle on the floor under the window. Wrapped in a bed sheet, tied with net twine."
Another whole paragraph:
"Near the window a man listened to a radio. His buttery hair swept behind ears. Eyes pinched close, a mustache. A packet of imported dates on his desk. He stood up to shake Quoyle's hand. Gangled. Plaid bow tie and ratty pullover. The British accent strained through his splayed nose."
* "eyes the color of plastic"
* "the sullen bay rubbed with thumbs of fog"
* "On the horizon icebergs like white prisons. The immense blue fabric of the sea, rumpled and creased."
* "parenthesis around her mouth set like clamps. Impossible to know if she was listening to Nutbeem or flying over the Himalayas"
* "In a way he could not explain she seized his attention; because she seemed sprung from wet stones, the stench of fish and tide."
* "eyes like a thorn bush, stabbing everything at once"
* The ghost of his wife, "Petal's essence riding under his skin like an injected vaccine against the plague of love"
* "Fingernails like the bowls of souvenir spoons." (That's the whole sentence.)
THE TOWN AND COMMUNITY
Aspects of the town and its characters remind me of David Lynch's 1980s TV series "Twin Peaks": strange characters, often with impairments of mind, body or emotions, slightly strange names, odd superstitions, and dark secrets (murder, incest, rape, insurance fraud).
The town of Killick Claw isn't prosperous, and the environment is still harsh, but it's better than when the aunt grew up there: "The forces of fate weakened by unemployment insurance, a flaring hope in offshore oil money."
The Gammy Bird is the local paper, and it's like no other: lots of adverts (many of them fake), deliberate typos and Malapropisms, libelous gossip (including a regular catalogue of sex abuse cases!), shipping news and "we run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not". Poor Quoyle is bemused and has the uneasy and familiar feeling "of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn't know".
Knots are the most obvious one. Each chapter opens with a quotation pertinent to what it contains, and many are from Ashley Book of Knots, which Proulx found second-hand, and gave her the inspiration and structure she sought. Knots feature in the plot metaphorically (in terms of being bound or adrift), in a more literal and superstitious sense. We also learn that Quoyle's name means "coil of rope", and I suppose he is pretty tightly coiled for the first half of the book.
Shipping is obvious, too, not just from the title, but because Quoyle ends up writing the eponymous shipping news in the local paper, in a community where everyone needs a boat. Most of the introductory quotes that are not from Ashley Book of Knots are from a Mariner's Dictionary. I confess there were times when the quantity and level of detail slightly exceeded my interest, but I'm glad I stuck with it.
The book is riddled with pain, rejection, estrangement and mentions of abusive relationships (never graphic); many are haunted by ghosts of past events and relationships gone wrong. But although it is sometimes bleak, it is rarely depressing, and sometimes it's funny. Even close and fond relationships often have an element of awkwardness and distance; for instance, Quoyle always refers to "the aunt", rather than "my aunt". Even after living with her for a while, "It came to him he knew nearly nothing of the aunt's life. And hadn't missed the knowledge."
Ultimately, it's at least as much about (re)birth and healing as death and doom. One character slowly realises it may be possible to recover from a broken relationship: "was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once?"
OTHER MISCELLANEOUS QUOTATIONS
* "a failure of normal appearance" - if you can't even achieve that, what hope is there?
* "believed in silent suffering, didn't see that it goaded"
* In a shop, "the man's fingers dropped cold dimes"
* "fog shuddered against their faces"
* "the house was garlanded with wind"
* In such a harsh environment, "The wood, hardened by time and corroding weather, clenched the nails fast"
* "a few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets" (I think I'd prefer that one without the fish)
* "the woman in the perpetual freeze of sorrow, afloat on the rise and fall of tattered billows"
* a babysitter "doing overtime in a trance of electronic color and simulated life, smoking cigarettes and not wondering. The floor around her strewn with hairless dolls."
From The Ashley Book of Knots:
"To prevent slipping, a knot depends on friction, and to provide friction there must be pressure of some sort."(less)
Notes are private!
Aug 07, 2013
Sep 04, 2013
Aug 07, 2013
Whatever else Don Quixote may be, I never found it boring. Parts of it were very funny, others had wonderful similarities with Shakespeare, some bits...more Whatever else Don Quixote may be, I never found it boring. Parts of it were very funny, others had wonderful similarities with Shakespeare, some bits were more serious: it's like a mini library in a single volume. Wonderful.
Overall, it has quite a Shakespearean feel - more in the plotting and tales within tales (eg The Man Who was Recklessly Curious, stolen by Mozart for Cosi fan Tutte) than the language. In fact, the story of Cardenio is thought to be the basis for Shakespeare's lost play of the same name.
Very funny - slapstick, toilet and more subtle humour, with lots of factual historical and chivalric detail as well, but it doesn't feel especially Spanish to me. Certainly long, but I don't understand why, supposedly, so few people manage to finish it. Some of DQ's delusions hurt only himself (tilting at windmills), but others lead to suffering for his "squire" Sancho Panza (tossed in a blanket) or reluctant beneficiaries of his salvation (the beaten servant, beaten even more once DQ departs) and bemuse people (mistaking inns for castles, sheep for enemy armies and ordinary women as princesses) and are used to justify theft (the golden "helmet"/bowl) and non-payment to inn-keepers. His resolute optimism in the face of severe pain and disaster is extraordinary. Meanwhile, Sancho wavers between credulity (wishfully thinking the promise of an island for him to rule will come true) and pragmatism.
Part II starts with Cervantes' response to the unknown writer of an unofficial sequel to part 1, though DQ, Sancho and others also critique it in early chapters. The following story presumes that part 1 is true, and shows how DQ's resulting fame affects his subsequent adventures. A very modern mix of "fact" and fiction. Some characters doubt his exploits, others pander to them, especially the duke and duchess who go to great lengths to treat him in knightly/chivalric manner, and provide new adventures (for their amusement, at the painful expense of DQ and Sancho). Sancho gets rather more scope for lengthy meanderings of jumbled and largely irrelevant proverbs. Less slapstick and more pontificating than part I - both DQ's advice to Sancho on how to govern his promised insula and when Sancho has intriguing disputes to resolve.
What Don Q Means to Me
(This section was added after an epiphany, which prompted me to make my reviews more personal.)
I was wary of this book for many years; I feared it was too heavy in ounces and themes/plot/language, but only the former is true, and that can be obviated by a comfy chair (or an ebook).
I plucked up the courage to read it shortly after joining GR, partly through encouragement from others. It was a revelation, both in terms of the power of GR friends to enrich my life and my own confidence as a reader.
My enjoyment was heightened by reading it whilst my son and his friend who was staying (both aged ~10) repeatedly watched and quoted Monty Python's Holy Grail - very appropriate!
Notes are private!
May 30, 2008
Jan 01, 2009
May 06, 2011
Mieville is the sort of author I expect and want to like, but I didn't feel the love with "The Scar" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). This...more Mieville is the sort of author I expect and want to like, but I didn't feel the love with "The Scar" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). This second foray into his works was far more rewarding, and my third, Embassytown, was even more so (there are some interesting parallels, too, which I've outlined in my review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
I enjoyed the concept, the wordplay, and the impossibility of categorisation: it's a detective story, but it's set in a world that is not exactly dystopian or futuristic or fantastic - but it isn't quite realistic either!
One of the characters sums it up nicely, "There's a series of random and implausible crises that make no sense other than if you believe the most dramatic possible shit. And there's a dead girl." It is self-referential in another way: a book called "Between The City and The City" is mentioned several times. Very meta. ;)
The title relates to a divided city that operates as separate cities, but it's not like Berlin, Budapest, Belfast or Jerusalem because (view spoiler)[the two cities (Beszel and Ul Qoma) occupy the same geographical space. Instead, the separation is psychological and sensorial: citizens of each learn to unsee, unhear and even unsmell anything from the other city. If they don't, they invoke the vague but terrifying wrath of Breach. There is also the mythical secret place/power of Orciny. (hide spoiler)] It is this brilliantly weird central premise that makes the book so good. If you don't know about it when you start reading it, the clues are gradually built up, but knowing it, as I did, didn't spoil my enjoyment.
Ultimately, the division is maintained by consent, like the Emperor's New Clothes: "It's not just us keeping them apart. It's everyone in Beszel and Ul Qoma... It works because you don't blink. (view spoiler)[That's why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn't work. So if you don't admit it, it does. (hide spoiler)]" Mind you, there is very limited political freedom in either city (UQ is a one-party state and in Besz, dissident groups are monitored - and both cities are under the mysterious power of Breach), so the idea of consent is somewhat moot.
MURDER MYSTERY & THEMES
This situation creates a variety of intriguing and sometimes amusing complications and paradoxes which hamper police operations. The impetus of the story is the discovery and subsequent investigation of a woman's body, and uncertainty about which domain the crime occurred in. There are disputed zones - shades of Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" and even when authority is agreed, the normal difficulties of solving a crime are compounded by the complexity of the two cities. (view spoiler)[It's difficult to get witness statements from people who are used to unseeing people and things, and who are ever fearful of accidentally seeing what they should not. There are even "Places that no one can see because they think they're in the other city". Chasing criminals without breaching is comical, but crucial. (hide spoiler)] "Smuggling itself is not breach, though most breach is committed in order to smuggle."
These issues raise all sorts of questions about the nature and power of the state and its police (one of the cities - maybe both? - allows only one political party), and particularly about the relevance of intent in determining whether something is a crime. "Because you may not see the justice of what we do doesn't mean it's unjust" (neither does it mean it is just).
COP DRAMA TROPES
I'm not really a follower of detective stories, either on the page or on screen, but Mieville tips a hat to many of the clichés of the genre: good cop (Borlu)/bad cop (various, fluctuating, minor), the sparky relationship between partners (Borlu with Corwi and later with Dhatt), following hunches, breaking the rules for the greater good, messy love life, a few car chases and so on.
The chapters are mostly short and punchy, and each ends with a revelation or cliff-hanger (or both). Yet it doesn't feel hackneyed, perhaps because the setting is so startlingly original. In fact, Mieville confronts the risk of cliché head-on, saying of one character "His fidelity to the cliché transcended the necessity to communicate".
WORDPLAY AND WRITING STYLE
Mieville has fun with neologisms and a few existing but esoteric words. At times he explicitly defines them when context and etymology make that unnecessary (e.g. gudcop and mectec), which is irksome, but nevertheless, some of the words are good. For example:
* Grosstopically: (view spoiler)[Two locations, each in a different city, but occupying the same geographical space in other terms. (hide spoiler)]
* Topolganger: (view spoiler)[When grosstopical places look alike. (hide spoiler)]
* Alterity: (view spoiler)[Alternative, a grosstopically equivalent place, "A Besz dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach". (hide spoiler)]
* Insiles: Sort of the opposite of exiles.
* Glasnostroika: Glasnost + Perestroika, and the cities have echoes of central and eastern Europe.
* Gallimaufrians are mentioned: perhaps a nod to Dr Who?
* Cleavage: The reason for there being two cities - in both senses of the word: "was it schism or conjoining"... "split or convergence"?
* Crosshatching: A whole new meaning to a familiar word.
As in The Scar, there are a few awkward or ugly sentences that I had to reread, but far fewer. A couple of examples (for my own reference more than anything else):
"He came to UQ, from where he went to B, managed I do not know how to go between the two of them - legally I assure you - several times, and he claimed..." Just adding a single comma would make all the difference.
"Unlike for my distance viewing of the night, up close the walls blocked off the site from watchers."
There are others that are convoluted in a clever and amusing way, though: "I couldn't help fail to completely unsee"!
I think my only quibble with the story-telling is the quantity of rushed explanation and exposition towards the end, rather as Goldfinger or another James Bond baddie would do.
* A dead body: "skin smooth that cold morning, unbroken by gooseflesh... like someone playing at dead insect, her limbs crooked, rocking on her spine... Her face was set in a startled strain. She was endlessly surprised by herself."
(view spoiler)[* "Architecture broken by alterity... The local buildings are taller... so Besz juts up semi regularly and the roof-scape is almost a machicolation... laced by the shadows of girded towers that would loom over it if they were there." (hide spoiler)]
* "Those most dedicated to the perforation of the boundary... had to observe it most carefully."
* At an archaeological site, "Security guards, keeping safe these forgotten then remembered memories".
* "the explosive percussion of the bullet into the wall... Architecture sprayed."
* There is an unreal, almost supernatural quality of Breach (and their forces have a distinctive and intimidating gait): "The soundlessness was enervating... he was a cutout of darkness, a lack... clothes as vague as my own... Their faces were without anything approaching expressions. They looked like people-shaped clay in the moments before God breathed out." And yet it turns out that Breach uses cameras to watch the fringes (shades of Peake's "Titus Alone"), when I was expecting something less tangible.
* "Students might stand, scandalously, touching distance from a foreign power, a pornography of separation."
* A helicopter is "percussion in the otherwise empty locked-down sky".
* "Schroedinger's pedestrian... That gait... rootless and untethered, purposeful and without a country... He.. strode with pathological neutrality."
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE CITIES
I didn't get hung up on which real world cities might have inspired this (I doubt there would be a simple answer). However, I was interested in the ways in which they apparently differed, the "intense learning of cues" required of all children (and the few tourists). "We pick up on styles of clothing, permissible colours, ways of walking and holding oneself." Some colours are actually illegal in one city, and one is more diverse (view spoiler)[(UQ has more Asians, Africans and Arabs, and it has spicier food, whereas Beszel has a more potato-based diet) (hide spoiler)].
As a reader, one has to learn these cues very gradually. Even half way through I didn't have a very clear picture of the different appearance, culture or politics, other than that (view spoiler)[UQ was somewhat richer, more technologically advanced and with better archaeological sites (hide spoiler)].
Their languages use different alphabets and it is heretical to say they are the same, and yet they are mutually intelligible.
Borlu, the hero and from whose point of view the story is told, is from Beszel, but I would rather live in UQ.
MISSED A TRICK
The book mentions fracturedcity.org - twice - but it just redirects to http://www.randomhouse.com/!
GOOD BOOK TO PAIR THIS WITH
I read this in the middle of reading Alistair Reynolds' "Century Rain" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). Neither is typical of the author's works, but both are noirish detective thrillers, featuring archaeologists and set in two versions of a city, albeit a very different sort of separation. Reading one enhances enjoyment of the other.
An interesting Q&A with China, here on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/5..., including references to TC&TC.
Notes are private!
Jan 17, 2013
Jan 30, 2013
Aug 20, 2012
Jan 01, 2002
Sep 11, 2003
"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them." From that captivating opening (echoed several times later on), you are a voyeur, on a...more "Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them." From that captivating opening (echoed several times later on), you are a voyeur, on an extraordinarily vivid journey. I was enthralled from the start, raced through the 800+ pages at every opportunity, and remain in awe of the way the story is told. Regularly addressing the reader in conspiratorial tones, lends an air of intimacy that suits the subject.
The central character is Sugar, a young prostitute who is uncommonly intelligent and well-read, but not conventionally attractive (she has psoriasis and doesn't really hide it), though she will famously do anything. During the dramatic turns of the story, we learn much about her, and yet she remains something of an enigma: once out of the brothel and engaged as a (somewhat unconventional) governess, her motives are often unclear, creating a growing sense of doubt that echoes those that others have about her.
However, in many ways, six-year-old Sophie is at least as important, partly because her existence is barely acknowledged for much of the time. She is a very sorry figure with "the air of a domestic pet bought for a child who has since died" and "the defeated look of an impounded animal". A tatty rag doll is one of her few toys, and "Sophie handles him tenderly, with a hint of sadness, as if conceding he's ever-so-slightly less alive than she'd like to think he is". Nevertheless, Sophie's vulnerability and trust has a powerful effect, "Sugar feels something she would never have guessed she could feel: the thrill of flesh against unfamiliar flesh, She who has been fingered by a thousand strangers." Ultimately, this is the key relationship in the book. I think the only weakness is, later on, when Sophie's thoughts are implausibly adult and perceptive for one so inexperienced in life and with people.
The main male character is William Rackham, who runs a perfumery and soap business. This is in sharp contrast to the dirtier aspects of the book (literal and metaphorical), though the analogy is never laboured. More powerful is Sugar's hatred of cut flowers, "The flowers she can tolerate... die firmly on their stems, in one piece to the last".
Being set in the 1870s, religion is relevant theme, along with how and if to help the poor and fallen. Drama and humour comes from three very different Christian characters: Agnes is a superstitious Roman Catholic, dabbling in other supernatural areas; Henry is traditional, idealistic, upstanding and uptight C of E, and Mrs Fox is pragmatic and radical - putting needs before doctrine, "a dissenter within a wider certainty", and not afraid to give her opinion (e.g. not believing the virgin birth!).
Mrs Fox and Henry try, in very different ways, to help the destitute, but Sugar's intentions to do likewise come to naught. "When Sugar was poor, she always fancied that if she ever became rich, she'd help all the poor women in her profession, or at least all those she knew personally", but she doesn't, not even through her writing. "The stench of charity is as real as the horse-shit on her shoes." When visiting an old friend, she is uncomfortably aware that "Nothing I say comes from my heart" and she is "ashamed this time of feeling ashamed". She feels powerless to help.
THE DESIRE TO WRITE
An ultimately futile passion for writing is a key experience for many of the characters (William, Agnes, Sugar, Bodley and Ashwell, even perhaps, Sophie). Sugar's motives are strong and honourable, thinking of prostitutes, she ponders, "I am their voice... Who understands and cares more?". None of the writers change anything, yet somehow, the book is exciting more than depressing (though there is plenty of cause for misery).
Describing this as "dirty Dickens" sounds pejorative, but I think it encapsulates it rather well.
There are many echoes of Dickens in some of the names, the milieu and the exposition of social ills (and something about Mrs Castaway's obsessive scrapbooking reminds me of Madame Defarge); you could link to Jane Eyre (mad wife and husband in claiming to be love with the governess, though it's not certain whether he really is), though that is more tenuous.
The last quarter of the book is a little flabby, but it's not bad, and what has gone before is so strong, that I forgive it that.
It ends abruptly, leaving the reader with many questions:
* If Agnes had stayed in her room, could William and Sugar have been happy?
* Is Sugar's concern for Agnes genuine, and if so, is she right to help her in the way she does?
* Can Sugar's final action be justified? (Is William really that monstrous?)
* Why doesn't Sugar do more to help those less fortunate - and is she wrong not to do so?
* Does the bond between Sophie and Sugar convince, and is it strong enough?
Don't be tempted to read "The Apple" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) for answers; there will be a few, but they're most unsatisfying. The original incompleteness works better. On the other hand, a completely separate collection of short stories, "Some Rain Must Fall", shows this novel isn't a one-off in terms of his writing (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
* "She slipped out of the room, like a pretty moth emerging from a husk of dried slime."
* "The stagnant contraceptive bouillon... the germs of another man's offspring."
* Even shops can be sexualised "having unlocked the chastity of shutters and doors, they can't see the point of maintaining any shred of modesty."
* "It was they [husband and son] who used to make her life a story... Nowadays her life is more like a newspaper: aimless, up-to-date, full of meaningless events."
* Shops "have expanded in celebration of the crinoline's demise. The modern woman has been streamlined to permit her to spend freely."
* "Superstitious atheist christian... believes in a God who, while he may no longer be responsible for the sun rising, the saving of the Queen or the provision of daily bread, is still the prime suspect when anything goes wrong."
* A breakfast laden with awkward silence, "small morsels of time are consumed, with an indigestible eternity remaining."
* "Letty greets them so avidly, as if a fresh coat of obsequiousness has just been applied to her."
* "The sepulchral stillness of suburbia."
* "That peculiar mixture of feline resentment and canine respect" when workers see a lady.
* "She's so weary of stealth... she wishes only to be a member of the family... cosily welcome, forever."(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 21, 2011
Jan 03, 2012
Dec 21, 2011
Feb 07, 2002
I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat...more I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat, #4", but it works as a standalone story, albeit an intriguingly odd one. In conjures exciting unease and bafflement. It is a book of paradoxes and uncertainty, leaving me satisfied with being left, in some ways, unsatisfied.
What sort of story?
Genre labels can be useful, but can also be an irrelevant distraction. However, with this book, I found myself repeatedly wondering what type of story it was. By the end, I was still unsure, but glad of the tension caused by doubt.
At various times, this was magical-realism, murder mystery, sci-fi, political thriller, romance (not too much, thankfully!), Kafkaesque, premature mid-life crisis story, surrealist, spiritual allegory, horror/ghost story, hints of Lolita, and the narrator likens a high-tech hotel to something out of Star Wars... It might have been easier to consider what it was not.
Quirk of the '80s
It's a strange time to read a book like this: it was published, and apparently set, in 1988, which is recent enough that it feels more or less contemporary. However, that was just before Google, laptops, mobile phones etc, which means the protagonists do not have the opportunities one now takes for granted.
Set it now, and the plot would need tweaking, but in 50 years, it will be historical enough for no one to notice. Reading it now, gave it an intriguing edge that added to the general sense of shifting reality.
Connectedness and (un)reality
Connectedness is the clearest theme of the book (and one that links it to David Mitchell, a known fan of Murakami, especially Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas).
There is perhaps unintended (or prescient?) irony in the fact that a novel that is all about connectness was written and set just before the world became dramatically more connected.
Ambiguity about what is real is the other thread: we assume the narrator is reliable (he's a journalist), but there are visions of various kinds, films, vague memories, a bit of mind reading. What is real, and what is not? As things get really weird, the narrator asks, "was the sickness in here or out there?"
Plot and Meaning
The unnamed narrator is a divorced man in his mid-30s; a freelance journalist, mostly writing restaurant reviews - a job he describes as "Shovelling snow. You know, cultural snow."
It opens with him talking about The Dolphin Hotel, and how he often dreams of it after a previous girlfriend, Kiki, took him there, then disappeared. It was a strange place: "The Dolphin Hotel was conceptually sorry... Normalness it lacked... Its corners caked with unfulfilled dreams." Four years on, he feels as if she's calling him to return, so he does. In its place, he finds the swish new Hotel Dauphin.
Dabbling in his past brings him into contact with Gotunda, a high school class mate, who is now a successful (but unfulfilled, divorced and working to pay debts and alimony) actor. They become close friends, which they hadn't been at school. Other key characters are Yumiyoshi, a pretty hotel receptionist, and Yuki, a bright thirteen year old rich drop-out, largely ignored by her divorced parents.
Characters, plot lines and reality twist and tangle, aided by dream-like visions, a portal to another dimension of reality, and a character with mild psychic abilities.
The title relates to an instruction given to the narrator quite early and that seems as if it will be the key to everything, or at least something, but nothing really comes of it (more details in spoiler).
All the way through, and especially towards the end, the narrator is musing on fate and destiny, and looking for meaning in all this - as is the reader. It never really comes, but I think that's rather the point. Had Murakami tied it all together with some ghastly homily, I think it would have ruined the book. After all, a recurring line is " What was that all about?", uttered by Kiki in a much-watched film.
In more detail: (view spoiler)[
Yumi and then the narrator accidentally (and separately) find themselves in a parallel world, in the Old Dolphin Hotel, where they meet the old owner, who the narrator nicknames Sheep Man because of all the pictures and books about sheep. He resisted selling up, and only gave in on condition the new hotel retained the name. He tells the narrator "Thisisyourplace. It'sthenkot. It'stiedtoeverything. Thisisyourworld" and that he (Sheep Man) works hard "Tokeepthings - fromfalllingapart. Tokeepyoufromforgetting." He stresses, "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays." It is not the place of the dead, and it is real, "Butit'snottheonlyreality."
As well as being drawn to Kiki and wondering what happened to her, he fancies Yumi. He also discovers that Kiki had a bit part in a film of Gotunda's ("Unrequited Love", that the narrator watches obsessively) because Gotunda was a client and Kiki was one of the call girls at a secretive and very high-end agency.
Through Yumi, the narrator gets to know Yuki, whose flighty photographer mother had left behind at the hotel to travel abroad! He took back to her home in Tokyo and keeps a (mostly) paternal eye on her. Their relationship ought to be creepy, especially when he comments how pretty she is, but it's actually rather sweet and innocent. Even her parents think so, as they each (separately) get him to take more charge of her.
Yuki has also seen Sheep Man, though by some sort of mental connection to the narrator, rather than going through the portal.
Gotunda calls the agency to get a couple of girls for him and the narrator. The latter has Mei, who he quizzes about the missing Kiki, but she knows nothing useful. A few days later, he is arrested for her murder and interrogated in a most unorthodox way, slightly reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial, which he had been reading the night before. He denies ever having met her, not wanting to tarnish Gotunda's reputation.
Yuki's rich father (Makimura) pulls strings to get the narrator released from interrogation and suggests he takes Yuki to visit her mother (Amé), currently in Hawaii with her new partner (Dick).
In one dip to the other world, Kiki shows the narrator a room with six skeletons, one of which has a single arm. Later, when a one-armed man he knows dies, he realises they represent people close to him who have died, and fears for the lives of Gotunda, Yuki and Yumi. Another death seems to confirm his theory, though we never know who the sixth is (maybe the narrator himself).
While in Hawaii, another prostitute turns up (June), sent from the same agency, but by Makimura. However, when Gotunda later enquires about her, he's told she'd disappeared three months earlier.
Yuki gets spookily sick when they borrow Gotunda's Maserati, and when she sees him and Kiki in the film, is so unwell, she has to leave the cinema. (view spoiler)[She says that the actor (Gotunda) killed the actress (Kiki) in real life and that she "saw" it. Later, when the narrator asks Gotunda if he killed Kiki or Mei, Gotunda is unsure about Kiki (he's not certain which reality it might have been in), but says he did kill Mei because she asked him to) - yet the narrator overlooks this and plans a trip together! (hide spoiler)].
More visions, more possible deaths, more crossings over and shadows, finally get round to visiting Yumi again, and reality more blurred than ever. The end!
Surprisingly few, for me:
* "Financial dealings have practically become a religious activity."
* "You can now enjoy hybrid styles of morality."
* "You leave things to an interior designer and it ends up looking like this. Something you want to photograph, not live in."
* "Reality receded until you can't tell who's sane and who' not."
* "Amé didn't give anything. She only took. She consumed those around her to sustain herself... Her talent was manifested in a powerful gravitational pull."
* "The passage of time wasn't a practical component in her life."
* "Her ears had special power. They were like some great whirlpool of fate sucking me in."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Jan 01, 2010
Mar 01, 2011
A good, and exhaustively researched historical novel, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as any of Mitchell's others, despite a life-and-death openi...more A good, and exhaustively researched historical novel, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as any of Mitchell's others, despite a life-and-death opening. Indeed, life and death is a continuing theme, both of individuals (a major character is a midwife) and of culture and empire.
Jacob de Zoet is an ambitious and upstanding young clerk. In 1799, he arrives in Dejima, the Dutch concession in Japan, and the only port which traded with the rest of the world. He has five years to prove himself an acceptable son-in-law and is honourable, empathetic, clever and keen to learn. However, he has to negotiate the complexities of Japanese etiquette and Dutch-Japanese relations, as well as plots, embezzlement and love, whilst retaining his principles and furthering his ambitions. Mitchell's knowledge of and love for Japan shines through (he lived there for several years, and his wife is Japanese).
The sights, sounds, smells and whole atmosphere of Dejima are very vivid, but I found the much shorter passages set in a mountain shrine/convent more compelling plot-wise. However, that is more of a reflection of my tastes than Mitchell's writing.
I love the importance Mitchell attaches to language, both by demonstrating powerful imagery and more explicit praise of the power of the written word, such as "An ink-brush... is a skeleton key for a prisoner's mind". The book also explores issues of translation: the mischief to be had, along with the difficulties it can present.
Another fascinating digression was a chapter as a first-person but unsentimental examination of the problems of being a slave (damned if you do and damned if you don't). He owns nothing except for his thoughts, and even then can cause problems. "The word 'my' brings pleasure. The word 'my' brings pain. These are true words for masters as well as slaves."
"A cacophony of frogs detonates."
"Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall. A hairy beggar kneeling over a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog."
"The yeasty moon is caged in his half Japanese half Dutch window... glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust."
"Light bleeds in around the casements: Jacob navigates the archipelago of stains across the low wooden ceiling."
Someone "savours his victory under an ill-fitting mask of empathy."
"An Oriental typhoon possesses a sentience and menace. Daylight is bruised."
"Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging."
"The weaverless loom of fortune" - is that godless predestination?
Someone's "face speaks of fatherlessness, name-calling and resilience".
"A face like his belongs on a cathedral gutter."
"The Oriental rain is fine as lace on the sailors' leathern faces."
LINKS WITH OTHER BOOKS
I have read all Mitchell's books and I thought this was the only one that does not have any explicit links to any of the others. The nearest I spotted was perhaps a nod at the title of his best-known work, "West to East, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds" and the fact that Jacob is somewhat similar character to Adam Ewing in "Cloud Atlas" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
However, in this interview about the book, Mitchell points out (1:30) "at least four" links to his other books, including that Adam Ewing's ship (from Cloud Atlas) is seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpwR...
Notes are private!
May 19, 2011
Jun 09, 2011
May 19, 2011