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Feb 28, 1996
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collect I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the third, published in 1944.
“He admired verse in drama because it does not allow the spectator to forget unreality, which is a condition of art.”
I’m really getting a feel for Borges now. He doesn’t get easier - he retains his compelling elusiveness – but there’s comfort in familiar themes and a pleasing feeling of glimpses of enlightenment. This is entirely appropriate, given Borges’ recurring themes of… recursion, and struggling through confusing labyrinths of identical rooms, compounded by mirrors and shifting perceptions of reality.
The descriptions of individual stories below do include minor spoilers, but only to provide context. I don’t think they’ll actually spoil anything, but if in doubt, scroll down to the Quotes section at the end.
Funes, His Memory
If you could recall each day in perfect detail, and you spend a day recalling a previous day, what would your memory of the more recent day be? Nested layers of reality.
Funes is a teenager with the strange ability to know the exact time – until he has a fall that leaves him paralysed, but with a new talent. Paralysis is “a small price to pay now his perception and memory were perfect”. Really, truly and utterly perfect. Which is, of course, far from perfect.
He learned Latin in a few days from a book, but his powers go far beyond mere remembering. Where you or I would see a glass of wine, Funes “perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard… Every visual image is linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on”. He even remembers his remembering.
Bedbound, his mind works furiously. He can’t generalise and has a visceral hatred of ambiguity and polysemy: he wants a unique word for everything – and every part of every number (is there a synaesthetic aspect?). He even wants a different word for the same dog at different times of the same day.
“ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum”, which apparently translates as “so that nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words”.
In a tragic way, this new brilliance is really just another disability. “To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalise, to abstract”, which he cannot do. Nor will he ever be able to reduce, categorise and number every one of his infinite memories.
The Shape of the Sword
A man with a mysterious scar tells Borges how he came by it, by way of “perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers”, ending with a paradoxical twist.
There’s a justification of the Fall and the Crucifixion: “Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it”.
The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero
“The idea that history might have copied history is mind-boggling enough; that history should copy literature is inconceivable.”
This is a brilliant story in which the narrator imagines a scenario where life is designed to imitate art (specifically Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth), using a huge cast, mostly unaware of their roles, for political ends. I was reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s remarkable film Synecdoche, New York.
Death and the Compass
A quadrilateral, circular story. A multiple-murder mystery, with a gloriously OTT opening sentence:
“Of the many problems on which Lonnrot’s reckless perspicacity was exercised, none was so strange – so rigorously strange, one might say – as the periodic series of bloody deeds that culminated at the Villa Triste-le-Roy amid the perpetual fragrance of the eucalyptus.”
First, a rabbi is found stabbed in a hotel room, with a sheet of paper in a typewriter saying “The first letter of the Name has been written”. This sets the detective investigating Jewish mystical lore about the many (and secret) names of God.
There are more murders, more messages, an anonymous phone call, some harlequins, and a neat (though not entirely surprising) denouement.
The Secret Miracle
We all know the conundrum "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". Does something similar apply to art or other work that is unseen, unknown, by anyone other than its creator?
A Jewish writer is arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad in a few days’ time. He torments himself by imagining hundreds of variants of his death, exacerbated by his despair at his unfinished work. But is it?
Three Versions of Judas
This is a fairly straightforward, some would say blasphemous, Bible study (verses and all) about the role of Judas in enabling Jesus to accomplish God’s mission to redeem mankind. Authors more recent than Borges have courted controversy with such sentiments, though they’ve taken far more words to do so.
The writer that Borges describes is in some ways a mirror of Judas, in that his investigations simultaneously “justified and destroyed his life”. And Judas is described as a reflection of Jesus, because he made a sacrifice of equal worth to that of Jesus, having “renounced honor, goodness, peace, the kingdom of heaven” and “chosen sins unvisited by any virtue”.
I’m detached from religious belief, but the idea of the damnable Judas being altruistic is intriguing, and the reflections of him in Jesus and the author, add complexity.
(If you’re wondering about “sins unvisited by any virtue”, they’re “abuse of confidence… and betrayal”. In contrast, “In adultery, tenderness and abnegation often play a role; in homicide, courage; in blasphemy and profanation, a certain satanic zeal”. Worth bearing in mind if you want to pick and choose your sins!)
A story of knife-fighters, derived from the ending of a well-known Argentinian story, according to the translator’s notes. Maybe you have to be Argentinian to appreciate it, because apart from a couple of beautiful sentences (in the Quotes section), it didn’t speak to me.
The Cult of the Phoenix
United by difference and secrets, we’re all the same?
If you could choose your death, what would you choose? The passive victim of a surgeon’s knife of the active victim of a knife fight?
This is about the magical power of stories, specifically, The Arabian Knights (not for the first time in Borges), and the mysterious power of knowing someone’s name.
• Chased “through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo”.
• “Some secret shape of time, a pattern of repeating lines.”
• A hotel tower “notorious for uniting in itself the abhorrent whiteness of a sanatorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison, and the general appearance of a house of ill repute”.
• A suburb where “the city crumbled away; the sky expanded, and now houses held less and less import”.
• “He measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measured him by what he planned someday to do.”
• “From learning to pity the misfortunes of the heroes of our novels, we wind up feeling too much pity for our own.” The opposite of perceived wisdom?
• “The plains, in the last rays of the sun, were almost abstract, as though seen in a dream.”
• “Though blind to guilt, fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions.”
• “Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms.”
• “He and the cat were separated as by a pane of glass, because man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”
Notes are private!
May 24, 2015
May 26, 2015
May 24, 2015
Aug 01, 2000
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collect I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is one of the the longer stories in The Garden of Forking Paths, published in 1941.
“For a book to exist, it is sufficient that it is possible. Only the impossible is excluded.”
This allegory has aspects of The Blind Watchmaker, and especially DNA.
The universe is an infinite Library. Maybe the universe is the internet? But Borges’ library is more beautiful: an endless series of connecting, identical, hexagons, and it has - and will - exist for eternity.
Each vestibule has “a mirror which faithfully duplicates appearances”, leading men to infer that the Library is not infinite, otherwise “what need would there be for that illusory replication?”
But it is infinite: the books contain “all that is able to be expressed, in every language”, composed of the same alphabetic elements, and each is unique.
Most of the books are indecipherable, and “trying to find sense in books” is “a vain and superstitious habit”, likened to palmistry and numerology. Surely that doesn’t apply to this, or does it? (Recursion, again.)
“You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?”
“Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or malevolent demiurges; the universe… can only be the work of a god.” That’s “a god”, not “God”.
Who or what made me? Am I real, or just making marks on one of an infinite number of pages that may never be read?
Notes are private!
May 19, 2015
May 19, 2015
Oct 15, 1982
Oct 15, 1982
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collect I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the the longest story in The Garden of Forking Paths, and deservedly so, published in 1941.
This is very post-modern, meta, or whatever such term you like, with references to Spinoza and Russell. It’s a first-person narration, mentioning real people, telling of a presumably fictitious group of people who plant clues about an imaginary world in authoritative sources (Orbis Tertius being a more comprehensive work in progress). Nowadays, con-langers or believers in Sherlock Holmes might do the same sort of thing on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet. Alternatively, conspiracy theorists would latch on to every snippet and claim the almost total lack of further evidence was proof of a sinister cover-up by malign and powerful forces.
“Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind.” This is paraphrased in "Hakim, The Masked Dyer of Merv", which is in the previous volume, A Universal History of Iniquity, and is the starting point here. It’s allegedly a saying from Uqbar, but investigation finds no mention of such a place – except in one (and only one) copy of an encyclopaedia, which has several pages about its geography, climate, culture and language. The fact (I use the word advisedly) they have “stone mirrors” and a “literature of fantasy” is pertinent.
“Tlon may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”
Furthermore, the idea and language of Tlon has infiltrated the real world (or rather, the real world within this piece of fiction penned by Borges), so what is real now? “A fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain.” Is life imitating art, and Earth becoming Tlon?
The final challenge to reality is the “postscript” dated 1947, several years AFTER it was published.
Time and Language
This fascinating aspect has since been echoed by many, including perhaps Alan Lightman in Einstein’s Dreams. Add two-way ref to Einstein’s Dreams.
Tlon is a planet in Uqbar’s mythology: “the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial” and about actions, not objects, so their language is based on verbs, not nouns (examples are given). Some “deny the existence of time… the present is undefined and indefinite, the future has no reality except as present hope, and the past has no reality except as present recollection” (or even false memories of the past).
Even the maths is different; “the act of counting can modify the amount, turning indefinites into definites”, and they have two types of geometry, “tactile geometry” (like ours) and the more important “visual geometry”, which “is based on the surface, not the point; it has no parallel lines… as one’s body moves through space, it modifies the shapes that surround it”.
These philosophical beliefs mean “their fiction has but a single plot, with every imaginable permutation”.
Notes are private!
May 17, 2015
May 19, 2015
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collect I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the second, published in 1941, and this is where Borges starts to blow my mind.
“The basest of art’s temptations: the temptation to be a genius” (from The Approach to Al-Mu’tasm). In this collection, Borges proves that he succumbed. And I’m very glad he did.
These stories are quite heavy going, but they’re also short and SO worthwhile: with each one, I read it once, then immediately reread it. For me, that’s the only way to gain sufficient understanding.
• The first time is gloriously disorienting, almost as it’s in a subtly different dialect from my own; it creates a hypnotic desire to understand.
• The second time, a switch has been flipped, I have the key to the kingdom, and the ideas slot into place, whilst retaining a pleasing degree of elusiveness.
“There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless” (from Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, below). I don’t think Borges himself believed that, and these remarkable stories are a justification of such exercises.
The descriptions of individual stories below do include minor spoilers, but only to provide context. I don’t think they’ll actually spoil anything, but if in doubt, scroll down to the Quotes section at the end.
Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
This is the longest and has its own review, here.
The Approach to Al-Mu’tasm
A review of a non-existent book (unless someone has since written it), that even notes the differences between the first and second editions. This piece allegedly had one of Borges’ friends try to order a copy from a bookshop.
The book is described as the “first detective novel written by a native of Bombay” and is an epic, sweeping across India, with a huge case, but an “uncomfortable amalgam” of overwrought Islamic allegorical poems and European detective fiction.
The story though, is a recursive meditation on the duality of good and evil. “The object of the pilgrimage was itself a pilgrimage.”
A law student rejects his Islamic faith and end up among the poor, where he “perceives some mitigation of the evil: a moment of tenderness, of exaltation, of silence, in one of the abominable men”. He divines that the goodness must be a reflection from an external source, and sets off to find ever purer connections, via a series of connected rooms: “the insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections this soul has left in others”.
Each of us is like a stone cast in a lake: those nearest us are most affected, but even far away, there are ripples of who and what and how we are.
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
A self-referential exploration of the paradoxes of original composition, and the “new technique… of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution”. The last of those is a recurring habit of Borges himself, including in this story, which purports to be about a real writer.
This is a short essay about the great, but unfinished work, of a writer, who “did not want to compose another Quixote” but “the Quixote” by combining the don and Sancho into a single character and by, in some sense, becoming Cervantes. His tactic is to “learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor and the Turk” and forget everything that happened after Cervantes published.
Menard’s other writings are listed, but it’s made clear that Quixote is his only important work, “perhaps the most significant writing of our time”, even though, over the course of his life, he only manages to write just over two chapters! A futile quest, perhaps, like Don Quixote’s own?
It becomes stranger as the reviewer describes Menard’s work as being “word for word” the same as Cervantes’, but also “more subtle” and “almost infinitely richer”, and yet different as well, because it “overlooks – or banishes – local colour” and many other incidents. So is it the same, or different? Is the Emperor naked or clothed?
The Circular Ruins
A circular story about dreaming reality. Pinocchio meets Inception and The Matrix, in Plato’s cave?
A man arrives at an abandoned temple to “dead, incinerated gods” with a strange purpose. “The goal that led him on was not impossible, though it was clearly supernatural: He wanted to dream a man… to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality.” I misread the final phrase, and thought reality would be imposed about the man conjured by dreams. Both ideas are relevant.
It’s a strange and difficult task: “molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake… much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind”.
I’ve never quite had a lucid dream, but this describes something tantalisingly like it: “in the dreaming man’s dream, the dreamed man awoke”. Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy, and the dreaming man wants the same for his “son”. He gradually accustoms him to reality, and erases his early memory because he “feared that his son… [would] somehow discover that he was a mere simulacrum… the projection of another man’s dream” – and what could be worse than that? Seriously, what could be worse?
The Lottery in Babylon
This opens with disorienting paradoxes about the narrator who has led a life of opposites, but also “known that thing the Greeks knew not – uncertainty”. The language and ideas were even more reminiscent of Kafka than some of the other pieces.
“The Lottery is an intensification of chance into the order of the universe… chance should intervene in every aspect.”
We are all subject to the whims of fate, nature versus nurture, chaos and order, faith, justice, and chance. But in Babylon, actual lotteries are involved – to an absurd and alarming degree. Conventional ones lost their appeal, “they had not moral force”, so unlucky draws were added to the positive wins. But gradually the people needed a more powerful hit than that. The Company that runs it becomes increasingly powerful (and secretive - Lottery is drawn in a labyrinth) as every aspect of life, and indeed the draw, is decided by draw.
Although “the number of drawings is infinite”, an infinite amount of time is not required, but rather, “infinitely subdivisible time”.
Does the Company exist – now or in the past – and does it matter?
The Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain
Here, Borges is name-dropping philosophers and writing an amusingly catty review of life and works of a fictitious author, starting by noting the “necrological pieties” in the very short obituary in the Times Literary Supplement. He goes on to say that his first book, The God of the Labyrinth, was good except for “somewhat careless plotting and the hollow, frigid stiltedness of certain descriptions of the sea”! Fortunately Borges was able to salvage one of Quain’s works and turn it into the far superior The Circle of Ruins (see above) – so recursion, about a circle. Neat.
The Library of Babel
This has its own review, here.
The Garden of Forking Paths
“All things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now.”
Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said about this. But for the record, it’s the confession of a Chinese man, spying for the Germans, and trying to send a crucial message by… thinking out of the box, to use a bit of jargon that is often ghastly, but seems apt here. The ending was a shock!
In the middle of that, is a more philosophical piece about The Garden of Forking Paths, splits in time, rather than space, so that all possible outcomes occur.
• “No one saw him step from the boat in the unanimous night.”
• “The mirror hovered, shadowing us.”
• “In life… he was afflicted with unreality, as so many Englishmen are.”
• “Those close English friendships… that begin by excluding confidences and soon eliminate conversation.”
• “The aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment.”
• “To speak is to commit tautologies.”
• “He who is to perform a horrendous act should imagine to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”
• “A keen and vaguely syllabic song, blurred by leaves and distance, came and went on the gentle gusts of breeze.”
• He “did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times.”
Notes are private!
May 14, 2015
May 19, 2015
May 14, 2015
Jul 27, 2004
I have the Complete Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collecte I have the Complete Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the first, published in 1935.
I had read several profound and passionate reviews by friends, and felt the building lure of Borges, aided by a growing awareness of how influential he was to many other writers. I came to Borges with high expectations.
I'm glad I had dipped into several pieces from later volumes (thanks for the suggestions, Steve) before reading these. Although I give this only 3*, I'm assured of greater (much greater) things to come.
This is a collection of semi-fictionalised, but mostly straightforward accounts of exotic and infamous criminals around the world, plus one story that is not based on fact. Borges describes them as Baroque exercises, bordering on self-parody, and partially inspired by G K Chesterton. He defines Baroque as "the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources". They're well-written, and quite original in many ways, but crime fiction and biography are not favourite genres of mine. Yet that feels harsh, given the closing words to the preface of the first edition, "Reading... is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual".
The Cruel Redeemer of Lazarus Morell
Morell is a poor white man, with a scam to help slaves escape plantations to freedom.
I know that labyrinths recur throughout Borges' work, and the first mention is on the second page, in relation to the Mississippi delta.
The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro
This story reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr Ripley. Tom is an opportunist, who with the encouragement of a friend, presents himself as the long-lost son of a titled lady. Part of the plan is that he looks SO unlike the other man, he couldn't possibly be an impostor. "In a few days she had recaptured the recollections her son had invoked."
The Widow Ching - Pirate
Early Chinese girl power and a pirate code (based on a real one) that prohibits rape. Plausible pseudo-history - then dragons (which turn out to be kites).
Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities
A New York gangster, with eventual connections to the Kelly Gang, via "labyrinthine sewers".
The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan
Billy the Kid frequents labyrinths and by 14, kills for mindless thrills (and sometimes other rewards). "He never fully measured up to the legend of himself."
The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kotsuké no Suké
For Samuri, honour can mean being "granted the privilege of suicide".
Hakim, The Masked Dyer of Merv
"The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it." (This is paraphrased in the truly wonderful "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", which is the first story of the next volume.)
Man on Pink Corner
This is a first-person story of knife fighters, not based on on a real person, and the translator's notes point out that the "pink" of the title refers to a rough area of Buenos Aires, and the lack of definite pronoun conjures a painting (perhaps Edward Hopper). In the final sentence, the unnamed narrator makes it clear he's telling the story to Borges - an early nod to the way Borges later blends levels of reality.
This section contains even shorter pieces, some of which probably presage later works:
A Theologian In Death
A theologian in a mysterious and unfamilar house of many rooms is in denial of his own death. Maybe.
The Chamber of Statues
A fairytale-like allegory of death, via series of locked rooms, from 1000 nights.
The Story of the Two Dreamers
The power of dreams.
The Wizard that was Made to Wait
Fairytale repetition: a wizard teaches magic to a priest on the promise of reward for his son, perpetually postponed.
The Mirror of Ink
Visions in a different sort of mirror. Rorschach might approve.
Lots of them! In the light of Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, I'm not sure this would go unchallenged if published for the first time now.
Index of Sources
Another layer of fiction, or at least blurring the boundaries.
• “Onto an alluvium of beastlike hopelessness and African fear there had sifted the words of the Scripture.”
• "The female soil, worn and haggard from bearing that impatient culture's get, was left barren."
• Facial "features of an infinite vagueness".
• Writing "free of any scruples as to the way words ought to be spelled".
• Kosher "calves whose throats had been slit with righteousness".
• "History (which, like a certain motion picture director, tells its story in discontinuous images)"
• Leaving a bar "in the drunken dizziness of the tango, like they were drowning in that tango".
Notes are private!
May 11, 2015
May 13, 2015
May 11, 2015
Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "a Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "a masterpiece". I'm baffled.
The prose is plodding - even though it's portraying a poet. I found the characters, setting and plot hard to imagine, care about or believe in - even though it's based on real life. I forced myself to finish it, thinking there must be something worthwhile to come. I failed to find it. I was just bored. And irritated.
This is a fictionalised account, but it seems to be fairly close to the facts, and some of the diary entries quoted here, are genuine historical documents.
It's set in a noble, pious, Protestant family in Germany, in the late 1700s. It concerns Fritz, who later became a famous romantic and philosophical poet known as Novalis. This book covers the slightly earlier period, around the time he succumbed to a coup de foudre over twelve-year old Sophie. Given the period, it's all very chaste; nothing like Lolita, which is a far more disturbing book, but is beautifully written, and hence powerful and compelling. So no, nothing like this.
Fritz attends university in several towns, studying a variety of subjects and dabbling in philosophy. He meets various people.
Afterwards, he trains to be a salt mine inspector like his father. He meets more people, including Sophie's family. He is welcomed, and spends a lot of time there. It's another large family, but utterly different from his own. Goethe makes an appearance and gives his opinion on the relationship.
The French Revolution is going on in the background. Some are slightly fearful; others vaguely support it.
The brief afterword made me laugh: it was like a satirical summary of a typical operatic plot.
The Blue Flower
What a pretty image. It's the title of a novel Fritz starts to write, apparently for one woman, about "unspeakable longings" for such a flower. Then he reads it to Sophie, as if it's for her. The "test" for both is to understand its deep meaning.
Sophie is puzzled:"'Do you not know yourself?' she asked doubtfully." to which he says "Sometimes I think I do".
The two people who are claimed to understand it are Sophie's doctor, and Fritz's younger, precocious brother, The Bernhard, though I can't say I agreed with The Bernhard's interpretation.
The Christmas Reckoning
This was an intriguing and slightly alarming idea. "The mother spoke to her daughters, the father to his sons, and told them first what had displeased, then what had pleased most in their conduct during the past year. In addition, the young Hardenbergs were asked to make a clean breast of anything that they should have told their parents, but had not."
Believabality and Inconsistency
Love is not rational, and sudden infatuation even less so, but if a poet cannot convey the reasons for his passion for child who is not especially pretty, intelligent or interested, how can the reader believe it?
Fritz's family is large and noble, but poor (nobility are banned from many jobs). Later on, money seems less tight, it's not clear how or why.
He was a sickly and apparently backward child, but then turned into a genius, though there's little evidence of that, in his poetry or vague philosophical musings. He does call Sophie "my Philosophy", though, and also "my spirit's guide".
We're told that as a the child of a large family he keeps a diary rather than talk to himself, then ten pages later... he's talking to himself a lot.
The number and ages of children didn't stack up (Fritz's mother is said to have given birth eight times and later to have eleven children, but no mention of twins, and The Bernhard starts off aged six but is almost adult a few short years later).
Despite the generally leaden prose, there are some nice turns of phrase:
• A shy matriarch “seeming of less substance even than the shadows... no more than a shred.”
• “a short, unfinished young man.”
• “How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility.”
• A man still feels his older brother “appeared to have been sent into the world primarily to irritate him”.
• “Earth and air were often indistinguishable in the autumn mist, and morning seemed to pass into afternoon without discernible mid-day.”
• “Erasmus would... enroll in the school of forestry, a wholesome open-air life for which so far he had shown no inclination whatsoever.”
• “Jollity is as relentless as piety.”
• “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”
• At the fair, “A fine young woman still, what a pity she has no affianced to treat her to a pig's nostril!"
• Mining “is not a violation of Nature's secrets, but a release.”
• In a music room, “the airy space faithfully carried every note, balanced it, and let it fall reluctantly.”
• “the remorseless perseverance of the truly pleasure-loving.”
• “Even in his garden-house, melancholy caught him by the sleeve.”
A quirk, which was unfamiliar to me, was the naming. Sophie is often called Sophgen, Fritz's parents as the Freifrau and the Freiherr, and many others are referred to as "the [something]". When many of the characters are thin, an extra veil doesn't help.
Notes are private!
May 10, 2015
May 23, 2015
May 10, 2015
Aug 28, 2001
“All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Atwood doesn’t write sentimental drivel (and I don’t read it), and there are sever “All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Atwood doesn’t write sentimental drivel (and I don’t read it), and there are several wolves in this stunning book. This is my tenth Atwood, and it’s even better than any of the others I’ve enjoyed. The scope and variety of her work is impressive, but here, she accomplishes that within the covers of a single book: it should be shelved as historical fiction, memoir, espionage/thriller, and sci-fi.
It grabs the reader in the first brief chapter (less than three pages), which would work as a short story: so much is implied, but so little stated, you can’t help but read on, eagerly. This also sets a pattern of foreshadowing: you know many key events long before they “happen”, but have to wait and think to find out how and why.
The pacing is perfect, too. I guessed some crucial elements well before they were revealed, but there was enticing uncertainty, and always another conundrum in the pipeline. This creates a pleasing balance of satisfaction and doubt in the reader.
Matryoshka – stories within stories
The analogy with a nest of Russian dolls applies far more to this than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The different layers constantly switch, but it’s never confusing:
1. Iris, the narrator, is an elderly woman, describing her daily life, with a backdrop of weather, seasons, and fear of losing independence. It's painfully poignant, lightened with waspish and often self-deprecating humour.
2. Iris also tells the story of her life and that of her sister (Laura), from childhood to the “present” day, with a backdrop of two world wars, the Depression, and political/union unrest. Born to wealth and respectability, but lacking parental love, their lives – and relationship with each other - take many turns. This is the main bulk of the story: historical fiction, sweeping most of the 20th century, set in SE Canada.
3. As a young woman, Laura drives off a bridge (not a spoiler; it’s in the first sentence of the book), and a few years later, after going through Laura’s papers, Iris publishes her novel “The Blind Assassin”, excerpts of which are in this book of the same name. It’s the story of a pair of covert lovers, each with secrets and something to lose. He is short of money, constantly on the move. Clandestine meetings in a series of seedy bedsits and borrowed rooms are hard to arrange. The vague politics of this overlap with the specific labour unrest in the main story.
4. Within that novel, the nameless man, a writer of pulp sci-fi, tells stories of planet Zyrcon to the nameless woman. The title of both books comes from the fact that slave children are trained to create beautiful carpets – to the point at which they go blind. Some then go into the sex trade, and some become assassins. This then, is a pastiche, of a "lowbrow" genre, rather than the speculative fiction Atwood often writes, and is meant to echo the politics of its fictional author (are you still following this?).
5. The world of Zyrcon has its own myths, some of which are told. There are parallels with ancient cultures on Earth.
In addition, there are occasional newspaper reports, and the odd letter from a school or doctor.
This is a brave format that could alienate readers who like one style/genre and dislike another, but I think it worked very well, in part because most chapters are short, so you never feel trapped in a style that is not your favourite. I paid a little less attention to the details of what happened on Zycron, but that was mainly because I was so anxious to know what happened to Iris and Laura. On a reread, I would study Zycron more closely, to see the parallels with the stories around it.
Warning to Apatt: Some of the sections use quotation marks and some don’t (it didn’t bother me, though).
Iris is a wonderful creation: old, cranky, lonely, feisty, sharp, and something of an outsider all her life, even from her own family. She grudgingly accepts a modicum of help from Myra and Walter: “I am what makes her so good in the eyes of others”; Iris carries her laundry like Little Red Riding Hood “except that I myself am Granny, and I contain my own bad wolf”. Nevertheless, she resists as much as she can, while painfully noting the effects of time on her body.
“I feel like a letter – deposited here, collected there. But a letter addressed to no one.”
“I yearn for sleep… yet it flutters ahead of me like a sooty curtain.”
“After having imposed itself on us like the egomaniac it is… [the body’s] final trick is simply to absent itself.”
For all that Iris cultivates curmudgeonliness, it’s largely a carapace, and sometimes for entertainment (sarcastic letters to fans of The Blind Assassin, wanting to interview her about Laura); the really nasty piece of work is her arriviste sister-in-law, Winifred.
Laura doesn’t live to be old. She’s an enigma as a child, and more so after death – to Iris and the reader. “Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead… Nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them.”
Iris assembles a series of impressions, but you can never quite grasp her – which is entirely appropriate: Laura was “interested in forms” and “wanted essences”, but not in facts and logic – and yet she was a literalist with “a heightened capacity for belief”.
“Being Laura was like being tone deaf: the music played and you heard something, but it wasn’t what everyone else heard.”
She was “too cozy with strangers… It wasn’t that she flouted rules: she simply forgot about them.” Hence, she “had only the haziest notions of ownership”. She “was not selfless… she was skinless”. Unlike Iris, she had the courage of her (decidedly odd) convictions and didn’t care what other people thought.
There is an essay to be written on what Laura and Iris share - and what they don't. It's not just the obvious things.
Class: Winifred and Richard
Snobbery, especially looking down on new money, is not just a British ailment. Iris and Laura were the granddaughters of a wealthy industrialist who married above himself, gaining respectability for the family.
Iris’s husband, Richard, is very new money. His ghastly sister runs his life (as well as lots of charity committees) and then moulds and controls young, newlywed Iris. “Her [teaching] method was one of hint, suggestion.” So “I seemed to myself erased, featureless, like an avalanche of used soap, or the moon on the wane”.
As Iris matures, she increasingly sees through this and resists or retaliates, and of course she’s telling it with the wisdom of old age. It’s amusingly, but painfully catty. “You could be charming… with a little effort”.
“Avilion [the family home] had once had an air of stability that amounted to intransigence”, but after Winifred and Richard refurbish it, “it no longer had the courage of its pretensions”. Overdoing it somewhat, Atwood adds between those two phrases, “a large, dumpy boulder plunked [sic] down in the stream of time, refusing to be moved for anybody – but now it was dog-eared, apologetic, as if it were about to collapse in on itself”!
Richard is a shadowy (in every sense) figure – something Iris/Atwood acknowledges. “As the days went by I felt I knew Richard less and less… I myself however was taking shape – the shape intended for me, by him… coloured in.” Later, “I’ve failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense… He’s blurred, like the face in some wet, discarded newspaper.”
In their marriage, “Placidity and order… with a decorous and sanctioned violence… underneath” because he “preferred conquest to cooperation in every area of life”. Chillingly, “It was remarkable how easily I bruised, said Richard, smiling.”
Alex Thomas is classless: his background, even if you believe his own account (child refugee of unknown family) gives no clue. That might enable him to fit in anywhere, but really, he's alien everywhere (not in a literal, lizardy sense).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, red is a recurring colour. Here, it’s green, often for clothing, and occasionally in conjunction with the colour watermelon. However, the symbolism isn’t as clear here as in Handmaid; it’s usually related to coldness, rather than jealousy. A few examples (out of more than twenty!):
• “Her slip is the chill green of shore ice, broken ice.”
• “Sober colours… hospital-corridor green” (Laura’s typical attire).
• Richard chose an emerald engagement ring (though his sister, Winifred, overruled that, so he proffered a diamond).
• Just before a tornado, “the sky had turned a baleful shade of green”.
• A bombe desert at dinner was “bright green” and honeymoon salad “tasted like pale-green water… Like frost”.
Quotes – truth, secrets, memory, writing
After years of negligible education, the girls have a fierce new tutor, “We did learn, in a spirit of vengefulness… What we really learned from him was how to cheat” as well as “silent resistance… and not getting caught”. Useful skills.
• “It’s not the lying that counts, it’s evading the necessity for it.”
• “The best way to keep a secret is to pretend there isn’t one.”
• Secret lovers “proclaiming love, withholding the particulars”.
• “It was an effort for me now to recall the details of my grief – the exact forms it had taken – although at will I could summon up an echo of it.”
• “Is what I remember the same things as what actually happened?”
• “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read… not even by yourself.”
• Looking back at her wedding photo, “I don’t recall having been present… I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome… I can see her… but she can’t see me.”
Quotes – weather, seasons, nature
• “The light like melted butter… trees with exhausted leaves.”
• In a park, “disregarded corners… leggy dandelions stretching towards the light”.
• “Light filtered through the net curtain, hanging suspended in the air, sediment in a pond.”
• When hot and humid, “The words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth”.
• “The sky was a hazy grey, the sun low in the sky, a wan pinkish colour, like fish blood. Icicles… as if suspended in the act of falling.”
• “Wild geese… creaking like anguished hinges.”
• “Grudging intimations of spring.”
Quotes - other
• “Only the blind are free.” A blind assassin “sees through the girl’s clothing with the inner eye that is the bliss of solitude”.
• “There’s nothing like a shovelful of dirt to encourage literacy”. I guess EL James proves that.
• Tourist trinkets: “History… was never this winsome, and especially not this clean”.
• “The other side of selflessness is tyranny.” and “He can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy.”
• The mother of a difficult baby “lost altitude… lost resilience”, so the sibling found “silence, helpfulness the only way to fit in”.
• “She has a soft dense mouth like a waterlogged velvet cushion and tapered fingers deft as a fish.”
• “Children believe that everything bad that happens is their fault…but they also believe in happy endings.”
• “Dowdy to the point of pain.”
• “A black dress, simply cut but voraciously elegant.”
• “Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
• On a virgin’s bed, “The arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity.”
• “Touch comes before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
• A flashy lawyer's office has “an abstract painting compose of pricey smudges… they bill by the minute… just like the cheaper whores.”
• Shaving and plucking to create “A topography like wet clay, a surface the hands would glide over.”
• Downtrodden people are “Broken verbs.”
• The kettle “began its lullaby of steam”.
• In a seedy hotel, “wallpaper, no longer any colour”.
• “He killed things by chewing off their roots.”
• “Unshed tears can turn you rancid.”
Notes are private!
Apr 30, 2015
May 08, 2015
Apr 23, 2015
Jan 01, 2014
Sep 25, 2014
I read this for a mixture of rather weak reasons:
1. I was out for the day and unexpectedly finished the book I had with me, so went to a second-hand I read this for a mixture of rather weak reasons:
1. I was out for the day and unexpectedly finished the book I had with me, so went to a second-hand charity bookshop.
2. I didn't want to start a novel, as I had a meaty one waiting at home; short stories seemed ideal.
3. I relished the shock of my mother when I told her what I was reading.
It was a reasonably varied and diverting collection, but I won't be rushing to read another Mantel. A couple have dashes of magical realism, and there's a nod to the vogue for vampires. A couple would be more exciting and rewarding with titles that weren't spoilers.
Although I don't share my mother's visceral horror at the title of the collection, the overwhelming feeling was one of unpleasantness. In particular, there were many snide asides about class and race. In some cases, they were perhaps appropriate for the time, place and characters who uttered them, but that doesn't apply to "How Shall I Know You?". Overall, for stories published in 2014, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth.
SHATTERED AND UNSEEING; UNINVITED GUESTS
Every one of the ten stories features something that is not seen or should not be seen (I've included a quote for each), and most had glass shattered in a dramatic way.
The first and last stories have a woman alone in a flat, who has an unexpected and potentially sinister visitor. (And a character in another story is Mr Simister!).
I could get profound about this, but I didn't really care enough to go beyond noticing these recurring ideas.
Sorry to Disturb
Set in Saudi Arabia in 1983 and apparently somewhat autobiographical. An expat wife has "been made helpless by the society around me", so is effectively confined to her housing block, making it hard to close the door on the persistent, but not entirely welcome Pakistani man, of uncertain motives. She's on medication that causes occasional hallucinations: the title refers to the doorbell, but also her state of mind. "Even after all this time it's hard to grasp exactly what happened."
As a woman "one was always observed... without precisely being seen." Invisibility was a sign of respect.
The eight year old narrator, and forbidden friend, Mary (aged 10 and from a less respectable family) go exploring in a lazy hot summer. In particular, there is a rich family's house with a secret. The final page has a flurry of gratuitous punctuation analogies to match the title.
Hiding in a bush, she "looked straight at us, but did not see."
The Long QT
This opens, "He was forty-five when his marriage ended, decisively", and he's at a party, snogging a neighbour. But the marriage doesn't end the way you might expect.
"her eyes had already glazed."
A controlling husband, very anti-children, takes an annual winter holiday with his wife. This has a twist, but it's flagged rather too obviously for my taste.
A taxi driver, turning to reverse the car, "stared past her unseeing."
Narrated by a disaffected meeter and greeter at a Harley Street clinic, it was like a sub-Alan Bennett monologue.
Patients "look right through me", but "when the patients come in I seem to see straight though them to the bone."
Offences Against the Person
A teenager is working at her father's law firm - alongside his mistress. Dull.
"His eyes passed over me, but he didn't seem to see me."
How Shall I Know You?
This seems heavily autobiographical. An author reluctantly accepts an invitation to speak at a small literary society in the 1990s. She doesn't have a good word to say about anywhere or anyone, observing her audience: "many had beards including the women". She prefers to go without an evening meal than risk an additional encounter with literary society members.
She repeatedly comments on the yellow skin of a girl who works at the guest house, and mentions three female authors for no obvious reasons (Rowling, Byatt and Brookner).
On a lighter note, when asked about her literary influences, "I replied with my usual list of obscure , indeed non-existent Russians" and another time. "invented a Portuguese writer".
"I didn't look her in the face", embarrassed about giving a generous tip.
The Heart Fails Without Warning
Sisters aged 11 and 14, the elder of whom has anorexia. "The whole household... enmeshed in multiple deception": a father who busies himself with work and "was no more than a shadow in their lives", a mother who thinks a full-length mirror will help, a sister jealous of the attention, and a school who wants her to stay away because it "has a competitive ethos" and fears "mass fatalities if the [other] girls decide to compete".
"When she looks in a mirror God knows what she sees."
"I saw my dead father on a train" is a good opening. After that, it's dull, despite potentially intriguing questions: "is experience always in the past?"
"I had happened to see a thing I should never have seen" and "his look was turning inwards."
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
This tries to be provocative, profound and funny, with thoughts of alternative history and alternative reality. "History could always have been otherwise." It didn't really deliver for me.
"He had not looked at me before, not to see me."
"When she comes out [of the eye hospital] will she be able to see?"
""Neither in nor out of the house, visible, but not seen."
* "I closed the door discretely, and melted into the oppressive hush."
* "I spent two hours with my neighbour... widening the cultural gap."
* "I admired these diaspora Asians, their polyglot enterprise, the way they withstood rebuffs, and I wanted to see if she was more Western or Eastern or what."
* "Eating out was more a gesture than a pleasure... without wine and its rituals there was nothing to slow it."
* "Furniture is frolicking in the dark."
* "The hottest summer... that... bleached adults of their purpose... each day a sun like a child's painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat. Laundry hung like flags of surrender from washing lines."
* "Her face, in early middle age, had become indefinite, like wax; waiting for a pinch and a twist to make its shape."
* "She did not like parties that involved open doors... Strangers might come in, wasps... It was too easy to stand on the threshold... neither here nor there."
* "A tiny chime hung in the air as the glasses shivered in her fingers... the glass exploded... She sunk into the shards as smoothly as if they were satin, as if they were snow, and the limestone gleamed around her, an ice field, each tile with its swollen pillowed edge, each with a shadow pattern faint as breath."
* "We dress for the weather we want, as if to bully it, even though we've seen the forecast."
* "He drove very fast, treating each serve of the road as a personal insult."
* "She could feel Phil's opinions backing up behind his teeth."
* "A bed of geraniums so scarlet, as if the earth had bled through the pavements; I saw Guardsmen wilting in symmetry."
* "Having been a brittle person, she became flexible" by taking up yoga when her husband left.
* An area "where the dustbins had wheels but the cars were stacked on bricks."
* "A face of feral sweetness."
* A polytechnic is "for those who were bright enough to say 'affinity', but still wore cheap nylon coats." ...more
Notes are private!
Apr 04, 2015
Apr 05, 2015
Apr 04, 2015
“Nose and knees and knees and nose” – part of a prophecy about the unborn narrator. A few days after reading this, I was fortunate to be in the Acropo “Nose and knees and knees and nose” – part of a prophecy about the unborn narrator. A few days after reading this, I was fortunate to be in the Acropolis Museum, and was struck by a collection of three bas-reliefs that were just of knees. Coupled with the relative lack of whole noses on some of the statues, I was transported back to this book.
This was my first adult Rushdie, following soon after his gorgeous children’s/YA novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
My initial reaction to this was “The language is lush and sensuous, seasoned with a little wit. But I feel hampered by my vague knowledge of Indian history, culture and mythology”. I thought much same at the end, although I also realised it’s a powerful and entrancing book at any level.
“I am the sum total of everything that went before me… To understand me you’ll have to swallow the world.” But not just him, “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”
WHAT AND FOR WHO(M)?
A knowledge of 20th century Indian history is clearly an advantage but, given the complexity and length of the story, it might be a slight distraction as well. Perhaps a timeline of key events would be a useful appendix.
In the preface, Rushdie observes that Indians treat it as historical fiction and westerners as fantasy. I think it’s a hybrid, with the mystical, magical, surreal aspects increasing towards the end.
It’s a curious, disorienting book that has passages of conventional narrative interspersed with rambling passages of history, allegory, philosophical reverie, and recaps and foreshadowing of plot. It’s worth keeping a few notes, as many characters change name and/or turn out not to be who you were first told they were.
Reading it was a strange sensation: it was so far removed from anything familiar to me that it could almost have been sci-fi (I know that sounds weird). I loved some of the language, and appreciated the craft of the author, but I could not quite love it in the way I wanted and expected to. Straight after this, I turned to Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which is another long and multi-layered novel, but where the desire to read just a little bit more was a deeper compulsion, with no parallel sense of… worthiness (not the right word, but I’m not sure what is).
Rushdie delivered, but I fell short. The book deserves all its awards and a full 5*, but my own experience was 4*.
The plot is both simple and complex (duality and opposites are recurring themes).
Saleem (the narrator)’s mother visits a soothsayer when pregnant, and his bizarre and seemingly contradictory conundrums sum up events, including: the knees and nose (above), “two heads – but you shall see only one… cobra will creep… Washing will hide him – voices will guide him… Blood will betray him” mentions of doctors, spittoons, jungle, wizards and soldiers, ending “He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old! And he will die. . . before he his dead!”
Saleem is born at midnight on the day India becomes independent, and raised in a wealthy Indian family. As a child, he becomes aware of a telepathic link to other Indian children born that night: Midnight’s Children, each of whom has at least one special power. “Thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mystically handcuffed to history”.
The events he tells, from his grandparent’s meeting onwards, are many and varied, but with common themes, woven in to a kaleidoscopic story that stays just short of confusing.
Early on, the idea of something being revealed in fragments is introduced, and later, Saleem says “the ghostly echo of that perforated sheet… condemned me to see my own life – its meanings, its structures – in fragments also.” Midnight’s Children are fragmented across the country; Saleem is their only connection. Hence, it seems appropriate to conjure impressions of the book from its many disparate, but intertwined, themes. As for assembling all these fragments…? That’s where I feel I failed slightly.
• Fragments and holes, versus wholeness
When Dr Aadam Aziz (Saleem’s grandfather) found himself “unable to worship a god in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve”, it “made a hole in him… leaving him vulnerable to women and history.” There are many mentions of that hole (and others): “Sometimes, through a trick of the light, Amina thought she saw, in the centre of her father’s body, a dark shadow like a hole.”
The original perforated sheet is used to examine a young female patient, seeing only what he needs to see. After many different ailments, he had a “badly-fitting collage of her severally-inspected parts” that filled up the hole inside him, even though he had never seen her face. It is sensitively and sensuously written.
Loving in fragments is harder, especially when the subject is “now unified and transmuted into a formidable figure”, but more than one character attempts it.
A descendant uses a different piece of perforated fabric to maintain modesty and anonymity while pursuing a singing career.
• Duality, pairs and opposites
There are so many instances and aspects of these concepts, that there is no need to list or expand on them. Perhaps the most significant are Saleem and his “destructive, violent alter-ego”, leading opposite lives, and The Widow (Mrs Gandhi) with her centre parting giving her a white side and black side.
• Snakes (and ladders), hence reversal
As prophesised, snakes are important, both real and imaginary. Cobra venom cures typhoid, and from Snakes and Ladders (“perfect balance of rewards and penalties”), Saleem has “an early awareness of the ambiguity of snakes” and encounters plenty of ups and downs. This is an area where knowledge of Indian mythology would help.
Biological and metaphorical impotence, permanent and temporary, affects several characters (quite apart from mention of high-pressure sterilisation campaigns), including the nation of India itself.
• Confused parentage, gaining parents
“Once again a child was to be born to a father who was not his father, although by a terrible irony the child would be the true grandchild of his father’s parents.”
Not everyone is the biological child of who they are thought to be, not just from illicit relationships, but also, in incident at the heart of the book, by the deliberate act of a third party. Furthermore, Saleem develops a habit of acquiring a string of fathers and father figures.
Some characters are known by nicknames (Saleem’s grandmother is Reverend Mother and his sister The Brass Monkey), and others change their name – especially women, to have children (his grandmother, mother and wife). This probably resonates with Indian mythology and culture in ways I don’t know.
• Storytelling, truth, memory, reality, and free speech
“What’s real and what’s true are not necessarily the same.”
“Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems.” Just as a cinema screen looks real until you’re so close you can see the pixels.
“Memory’s truth… in the end it creates its own reality.”
“What actually happens is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.”
This was written years before the fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding (and which is reflected in Haroun; see my review, linked at the top). However, a punishment in this is to “seal our lips”, like the "Sign of the Zipped Lips" in Haroun. One character here is voluntarily mute for three years, as a protest, and another is very late learning to speak.
All the Midnight’s Children have a power. Saleem considers his telepathic and telegraphic skills to be the most powerful (“the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men”), with those born less close to midnight having progressively weaker skills. But others can become invisible, step in and out of mirrors, multiply fish, change sex at will, inflict physical pain with words, have perfect memory, heal, do alchemy, time travel, speak all languages, prophesy and more. Appropriately, the child of two Midnight’s Children is mute for three years, then his first word is Abracadabra.
There is also a little numerology: 420 = fraud, 1001 = magic, 555 = evil.
Several characters disappear for a time, or permanently: oblivion via the Djinn bottle, magical invisibility, running away, death, and two who apparently have vitiligo.
• Time and preservation
The time of birth is key to Saleem’s life and self-appointed mission to rescue his country. He ends up (no spoiler – he says this early on) as a pickle-maker and a writer: “I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks.” This reminded me of one of the few other Indian books I’ve read, The God of Small Things, in which the family has a pickle factory.
• Smell and other senses
Saleem has a huge nose, and at different times has no sense of smell and a very powerful, magical one that can detect safety, danger, the “glutinous reek of hypocrisy” and “the fatalistic hopelessness of the slum dwellers and the smug defensiveness of the rich”. “The perfume of her sad hopefulness permeates her.”
Emotions can be transferred via sewing and cooking: “the curries and meatballs of intransigence… fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination” and clothes “into whose seams she had sewn her old maid’s bile… the baby-things of bitterness, then the rompers of resentment… the starch of jealousy… our wardrobe was binding us into the webs of her revenge.”
Blood was in the prophecy in a specific way, but it crops up in many other ways and there are a couple of paragraphs where Saleem rattles them off.
• Spittoon and Anglepoise
A silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli is important, as are spittoons in general. I felt the cultural gap here.
Trivial (or maybe not), but within the first hundred pages, I’d noted at least three variants of “Anglepoised pool of light”. Having spotted it, it was almost more distracting to find only two more in the remaining 500+ pages.
I'm not the only person to have noticed:
Salman Rushdie and Translation:
"the Anglepoise lamp, a uniquely individualistic type of lighting which lights up only the small, restricted area of desk or writing materials in its scope. The phrase also seems to imply Anglophone or Anglophile literary writing alongside the notion of writing by lamplight."
Salman Rushdie: Critical Essays volume 1:
"The trope of the Anglepoise light... suggests the divided sensibility in Saleem, a child born in post-colonial India, not post-Independence India."
AND THE MORAL IS?
I’m not sure there is one. The subject is raised obliquely a few times, but somehow feels lacking. I’m puzzled that I wrote that: I don’t seek out morality tales, but as I compile this review, I realise this felt like the sort of book that had, or ought to have, such a thread, and yet I lost it in the rich tapestry.
The Midnight Children “found it easy to be brilliant, [but] we were always confused about being good”, just as Saleem used his powers to cheat in class in an attempt to gain parental approval.
Another gap was precisely WHY Mary Pereira does the thing she does. A reason is given, but it doesn’t really make sense to me, and the implications and effects are so huge, I wanted to understand. Related to that, why did those who found out, not try to investigate and find?
“For what reason you’re rich and I’m poor?”
• “His face was a sculpture of wind and water: ripples made of hide.”
• “Most of what happens in our lives happens in our absence.”
• “Even in his moments of triumph, there hung the stink of future failure.”
• “Poverty eats away at the tarmac like a drought, where people live their invisible lives.”
• “He had eyes like road-drills, hard and full of ratatat.”
• “An apartment of such supernatural untidiness.”
• “Blurred the edges of himself by drink.”
• "I have become, it seems to me, the apex of an isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild god of memory and the lotus-goddess of the present... but must I now be reconciled to the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line?"
• “Uncreated lives rotting in her womb.”
• “We could hear the creaks and groans of a rustling, decayed imagination.”
• Army recruits “were so young, and had not had time to acquire the type of memories which give men a firm hold on reality.”
• When invisible, “I hung in a sphere of absence”.
• “A girl who followed him with eyes moistened with accusation.”
• “The widow’s finest, most delicate joke: instead of torturing us, she gave us hope. Which meant she had something… to take away.”
• “Soft, amorous susurrations, like the couplings of velvet mice.”
• “The quinquesyllabic monotony of the wheels.”
• Apparently, Lady Mountbatten “ate chicken breasts secretly behind a locked lavatory door.” It is strange if true, and even stranger to mention it.
There were also a few multi-tense strings, which were quite effective in context: “we were are shall be the gods you never had” and he ”will be is already more cautious.”
Notes are private!
Apr 13, 2015
Apr 28, 2015
Apr 03, 2015
Sep 01, 1990
" What's the use of stories that aren't even true? "
I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (it's a children's book, and my "child" was 21 last week - " What's the use of stories that aren't even true? "
I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (it's a children's book, and my "child" was 21 last week - perhaps I'm hankering for times past), but I'm glad I did. It has the powerful mythical feel of traditional fairy tales, with plenty of nods to classics, and a political undercurrent that tells of the time he wrote it.
It would be perfect to read to a child of around 7 to 10, over a couple of weeks (twelve equal chapters), but as a solo adult, I enjoyed the wistfulness of a childish read, coupled with something much more profound.
Before you start
I vaguely knew this was dedicated to his son, but didn't notice the actual dedication or consider the timeline. However, I wasn't far into the book before I felt compelled to check. It was published the year after the fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding (though he'd long since split from his wife). His son, Zafar, was 10 or 11. In that context, the dedication is heartbreaking:
Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu:
All our dream-worlds may come true.
Fairy lands are fearsome too.
As I wander far from view
Read, and bring me home to you.
I also wish I'd noticed the pages at the back that explain the names of many of the characters, most of which are derived from Hindustani [sic].
The key message is the power and importance of stories, even if, or particularly because, they are not true. (You see the link to the fatwa?)
Haroun is the son of a great storyteller who loses the power of storytelling. The story is a quest to turn on the storywater tap. It is set in an "other" world, with a child as the hero. If this were an adult novel, it would be classed as magic realism. It has an old-fashioned and Indian feel, but also features robotic birds and passing mention of aliens, UFOs and moons.
I won't summarise the plot, but it has all the elements you want and expect from a book like this: fantastical creatures; enigmatic lyrical characters juxtaposed with logical prosaic ones; dashes of humour; a maze of corridors; mistaken identity; occasional puns and Malapropisms (pussy-collar-jee = psychology); love; betrayal; impossible dilemma; princess rescue; disorientation; lucid dreaming?; a battle; time dilation; derring-do; funny names; telepathy; wishes; a baddie who explains his plan to the captured hero; magic; a gadget (complete with arbitrary timeout).
Free speech - Je suis Haroun
This is about the fun of stories and the importance of believing even what you can't see, but it's not just about that. There is a clear message about the right to speak. The arch-enemy of all stories is also the arch-enemy of language itself - to the extent his followers have their lips stitched up. What could be a more powerful symbol of censorship that the "Sign of the Zipped Lips"?
" Is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full? "
Not forgetting this is a children's book, the example is a general who accepts insults and insubordination. The risk to those in power is that "inside every single story... there lies a world... that I cannot Rule."
But the importance of free speech doesn't mean one should always speak, unthinkingly. Haroun realises that "Silence has its own grace and beauty (just as speech can be graceless and ugly)... Actions could be as noble as words." As in so many things, we need discernment.
One of the problems Haroun encounters is the deliberate poisoning of the storywaters by dark forces. You can put an ecological spin on that, but it's not the main message.
Even a non-baddie has had some stories changed to make him the hero. Who owns our heritage? Can we rewrite it?
"The magic of the story can restore spirits."
Note: Although this was written in the aftermath of the fatwa, it's an issue Rushdie covered (less obviously) in his earlier novel Midnight's Children.
These ones I spotted (there may well be others). It's only now I collate them that I realise quite how many I found; I may be guilty of over-analysing:
• Douglas Adams
People always trust Rashid the storyteller "because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue". Unlike the politicians who want him to speak at their rallies. This logical inversion is slightly like Wonko the Sane from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
There is also P2C2E - a Process Too Complicated To Explain, which summoned H2G2 to mind.
• Graham Green
On discovering his mother had left, Haroun's reaction was the rather tangential destruction of his clock. I was reminded of a short story called "A Shocking Accident" in which a boy, on learning his father was killed by a falling pig, asks what happened to the pig.
• The Beatles
There are eggheads and a character called Walrus, but I didn't spot the carpenter.
The Floating Gardeners look rather like amphibious ents.
The Plentimaw Fishes are described as Hunger Artists (they swallow stories and then "create new stories in their digestive systems"). See A Hunger Artist.
The Shadow Warrior's first, spluttered utterances are "Googogol" and "Kafkafka".
I've not read Gogol, but he gets a mention alongside Kafka (above).
A boy page is actually a girl in disguise.
• Lewis Carroll
The pages dressed like pages (rather than playing cards) and associated trumpets brought Wonderland to mind, as did the logical illogicality of organisations.
One character asks Haroun "Why make a fuss about this particular impossible thing?" The Red Queen famously "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast".
• Jonathan Swift
The antagonism between the Guppees and Chupwalas has echoes of that between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.
• Mary Tourtel et al
The Plentimaw Fishes talk in rhyming couplets, like the captions underneath each picture in Rupert Bear stories.
• Philip Pullman
In the dark world, shadows can be separated from their owners - rather like Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon.
• Monty Python or JM Barrie
A knight fighting his own shadow made me think of the dark knight in The Holy Grail, but given that he's not fighting his shadow, I suppose Peter Pan is the more obvious connection.
• One Thousand and One Nights
There's a houseboat called Arabian Nights Plus One.
The Water Genie has a magic wrench, which Haroun takes, so the genie follows him round, helping him out, trying to get it back.
• Joseph Conrad
The evil one "sits at the heart of darkness". (I might be trying too hard with that one; it's a common enough phrase.)
• The Duchess of York (aka Sarah Ferguson)!
Pollution of the storywaters includes "an outbreak of talking helicopter anecdotes" and Budgie the Little Helicopter was published the year before this.
• The sad city, that had forgotten its name "stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue."
• The Ocean of the Streams of Story: "because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories; so that unlike a library of books... [it] was not dead but alive."
• The Floating Gardeners do "maintenance... Untwisting twisted story streams. Also unlooping same. Weeding." They're also like hairdressers, because the longer stories are, the more likely they are to be tangled.
• "Pouring out of the portholes came darkness... [they] had invented artificial darkness." Shades(?) of the satrical Dark Sucker Theory: https://astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/d...
Notes are private!
Mar 27, 2015
Apr 02, 2015
Mar 27, 2015
Apr 29, 2002
This is a fascinating book about why languages - all of them - matter. It's the other side of his book, English as a Global Language (which I haven't This is a fascinating book about why languages - all of them - matter. It's the other side of his book, English as a Global Language (which I haven't read). Update: I've just read a review of Experimenting in Tongues: Studies in Science and Language, which is a new publication, about how English has triumphed as the language of science in recent years.
David Crystal is eminently readable (as well as eminent) and it is quite short, so although it's written mainly for serious linguists, it's accessible to the general reader with an interest in language. This review is a summary of key points.
"Language is the most massive and inclusive art, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations." Edward Sapir.
"Languages are the pedigree of nations." Dr Johnson.
What's the problem?
Languages have always died, but Crystal fears the process is accelerating, and explains the difficulties in assessing the truth of that fear.
How do you define a language? If two languages are mutually intelligible, they are generally treated as variants of the same language, except for the exceptions (generally political, e.g. Serbo-Croat is now Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, though there is little change to the actual language(s)).
The recognition of minorities could mitigate the tide of language death: English may be swamping the world as a second/additional language, but it may splinter into regional variants that are more distinct than currently. "No one owns English now", which I think is broadly good. On the other hand, I have no problem understanding American or Indian English, but how would I feel if that ceased to be the case?!
At what point does a language become endangered? One used by a small but stable community may have a surer future than one spoken by tens of thousands, but where it's swamped by a language perceived as having more power and prestige.
Why does it matter?
1. Diversity is good, and languages are a delicate, connected ecosystem.
2. Language is part of identity.
3. Languages are a repository of history (etymology, but also differences of vocabulary and style).
4. Any loss of knowledge is a loss. Preservation isn't about communication (there are other languages), but identity and uniqueness.
5. Languages are inherently interesting (e.g kinship vocabulary, reflecting different social structures).
Why do languages die?
1. The people are in physical danger (war, plague, tsunami).
2. Cultural change or assimilation:
2a. Pressure to use the dominant language (political, social, economic).
2b. Emerging bilingualism.
2c. Younger generations favouring the new language, so becoming monolingual in that.
What can be done about it?
The final chapter is aimed more at professional linguists, but even before that, Crystal considers how and if outsiders should support languages at risk, especially if the speakers don't care about saving it.
Community involvement is vital, and language isolates should be prioritised.
The main tools are raising the prestige and visibility of minority languages. He saw the internet as a cheap, easy and non-geographically bound way for minority languages to have a presence. However, I suspect that since he wrote, any such advantage has been diluted by the spread of English.
He notes that literacy is no guarantee of survival, but that it does make it easier to pass a language across generations (and continents) and even to resurrect dead ones. However, where a language does not have a writing system, great sensitivity is required: which dialect should be encoded in writing (will others die as a result), and are there political implications of picking Roman over Arabic script, for example?
For languages that are likely to die, it's important to store data in a variety of mediums: not just writing, but audio too, and covering as wide a range of contexts and registers as possible. The rhythm of oral traditions cannot be fully conveyed on a printed page.
Crystal has many ideas of what to do and not do, and why, but for all that I say I care about language, as an outsider (rather than a field linguist) who is fluent in only one language and can get by as a tourist in three others, I'm left feeling alert to the issues, appreciative of what I have, but ultimately helpless.
Shame on me and many of my compatriots. Bilingualism is the norm for most people across the world.
For all the idealism of Esperanto or attempts to spread English even further, he cites The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the Babel fish "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
More seriously, two languages need not be in conflict within a community: typically, one is about identity (inward-looking), and the other is for communicating with other groups (external).
Eskimo snow myth
Even in 2000, this was old hat. One of the reasons is down to lexemes (semantic units): flowerpot, flower-pot and flower pot are a single unit, as are take, takes, taken, taking, took. It's similar with snow words. And of course, there are quite a few snow-related words in English: snow, slush, sleet, mogul, flurry, whiteout. More here: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~kmuldrew/c...
Showing its age?
This is fifteen years old (published in 2000) and frequently cites research and publications from the late '90s. Most of the issues are general and enduring, so it's only a few examples where it's relevant. In particular:
* The year before this was published, it became compulsory to teach Welsh in all state funded schools in Wales. Hence, Crystal hadn't seen the effects, which is a shame, as it's a language he has a particular interest in.
* Crystal refers to the ubiquity of English in the US, without any mention of Spanish, which is increasingly widely spoken, though predictions of trends vary: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/.... It might even fall, as those from Spanish-speaking backgrounds stop speaking Spanish at home!
* He saw the power of the internet, but didn't foresee how it would increase the spread of English.
* He also saw HIV/AIDS as a bigger long-term threat than seems to be the case.
At the time of writing, 96% of the world had a first language that was one of only 20 languages (out of around 6000 languages).
The most spoken first languages were: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. I know Brazil is big, but I was surprised Portuguese was so high (and indeed English), and although Mandarin and Russian are compulsory across vast nations, I thought they were second/additional languages for many. And no Arabic.
The New Yorker article Emir and Ted mention in comments #1 and #2 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...), from 30 March 2015, has these numbers, putting Arabic at #5:
"The mother tongue of more than three billion people is one of twenty, which are, in order of their current predominance: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Wu Chinese, Korean, French, Telugu, Marathi, Turkish, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Urdu. English is the lingua franca of the digital age, and those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions."
I wonder if they're lumping together different varieties of Arabic that Crystal's stats counted separately.
Descriptivism and prescriptivism
Crystal is a descriptivist: he sees language change as inevitable, healthy and interesting.
In contrast, here's a satirical piece from Speculative Grammarian titled "Saving Endangered Languages with Prescriptivism":
Notes are private!
Mar 22, 2015
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Aug 30, 2010
A detailed but informal look at the pervasive power of gender stereotypes, backed by science. Sounds good, doesn't it? Not for me, though. My reading A detailed but informal look at the pervasive power of gender stereotypes, backed by science. Sounds good, doesn't it? Not for me, though. My reading of this included International Women's Day; that wasn't intentional, but it felt like undeserved penance for such a day.
The 2* rating indicates how interesting and enjoyable this book was for me.
Were I rating in purely objective terms, it would be a solid 3* (maybe even 4*).
IN A NUTSHELL
Fine debunks the deterministic views of gender that are often based on brain structure and organisation. She seems to believe there are NO innate differences between the sexes, which is a bit of a stretch to me. However, she clearly shows the impossibility of investigating possible brain differences without overestimating the multiple, and often subtle, effects of culture. You can't raise or measure children in a societal vacuum. She ridicules poorly designed experiments that assume too much from too little, but presents less in her own defence.
It was better at giving concrete examples of how research can be misinterpreted (examples below) than it was at revealing anything much about gender.
PROBLEMS I HAD WITH THIS BOOK
* It doesn't know what it is: it's too self-consciously jokey for a serious text, but with 100 (of ~350) pages being notes, bibliography and index, it's more thorough than one expects in pop-sci. The jovial tone makes it a quick casual read, but the exhaustive references would be more suited to following up with one's own investigation.
* It is painfully repetitive. Fine makes good and important points, but she makes the sames ones again and again and again. I've summarised them below.
* Fine is angry about bad and misinterpreted research. Such things need pointing out, but sometimes she picks very easy targets (papers by 18th century doctors, for instance), or lays into one or two individuals at excessive length - principally Simon Baron-Cohen and Louann Brizendine.
* Conversely, she is utterly sure of her own rightness, even when using anecdotal cases, rather than proper studies to back up her points. She criticises others for lazy stereotyping and in the next sentence suggests that men are not so keen on attending male-dominated conferences because there's less opportunity for sex. I am left unsure how much I trust her or those she criticises. The important points she makes got lost in the haze of my mounting irritation.
* It is narrowly about male/female gender roles, rather than the broad spectrum of gender identity, which is what I am more interested in. However, that's a fault of my expectations, rather than the book itself.
* I don't feel I learned much. I read plenty of examples of experiments and studies and how to judge their validity, but people like Ben Goldacre have long covered that ground very well. The gender angle was the context of the debunking, but largely confirmed what I already believed.
Most of these are probably familiar to the sort of people who read a book like this:
* Stereotypes: they're pervasive and powerful. Even more so than you think. They start before birth and imbue our life, as self-fulfilling prophesies, however much we try to go against them. Even pre-schoolers extrapolate beyond what they've been told, seeing pointy shapes as inherently more masculine than more rounded ones (like the bouba/kiki effect often used in synaesthesia studies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/ki...). Gender matters to them, because it's the main social grouping they have, other than adult/child (no geeks, sporty types, arty divisions yet).
* Context is all. This applies to most things in life (a crucial consideration in angry online grammar debates!). Where gender is concerned, if we prime people to think of gender (e.g. a maths exam that has a M/F tick box), people are more likely to conform strongly to gendered expectations.
* Neuroplasticity: very little behaviour is "hard-wired" in our brains. Even if something is typical, that doesn't mean it's necessary or inevitable.
* Look carefully at psychology research:
** Is it testing what it claims to test?
Comparisons based on different levels of foetal testosterone use a variety of proxies, of dubious accuracy (the amount found in amniotic fluid, mother's blood, baby's digit length).
** Is there unconscious bias or knowledge in the testers?
If testers know the sex of a baby (as they usually will), that may skew how they interact.
** Are the results borne out by the numbers?
Just under 50% of women have what Baron-Cohen classes as a female brain.
** Are the assumptions fallacious?
When testing toy choice, are the toys really gendered the way the testers assume? Why is a pan "feminine" to a monkey?
** Reporting bias: it's more interesting to report a difference.
Studies that fail to find one may not be published.
** Various sorts of brain imaging are sexy.
They use expensive equipment to produce scientific pictures. But they don't necessarily show what we think they do.
** Beware of using biology as a fall-back explanation.
If a little girl loves pink despite her parents' best efforts to the contrary, surely huge marketing hype and peer pressure are at least as much of a factor as hormones? As for the mother who couldn't understand why her daughter swaddled, cuddled and put to bed her toy hammer - perhaps the reason was that it was always her mother, and never her father, that put her to bed.
* Gender-neutral parenting is almost impossible to achieve. Yet until a century ago, it was normal for all under-5s to be dressed similarly (white dresses), and when colours became common, it was strong red or pink for boys and pretty blue for girls. When we read picture books, we tend to use male pronouns for all the unspecified characters, human or animal. Female leads are remarkably rare in junior fiction (none in 42 Dr Seuss!), but although there are occasional tomboys, you never get a "sissy" boy.
* There's a glass ceiling for ambitious women, and a glass escalator for men in traditionally female-dominated jobs.
* Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: "When are a few dirty cups a symbol of the exertion of male privilege, and when are they merely unwashed dishes?"
* "Having it all never meant doing it all." Gloria Steinem.
* Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus. We're probably all from the moon.
Some have enjoyed the humour of this. It certainly raised a couple of smiles for me, but most of the witty asides struck me as rather sarcastic, or just cheap uses of the sort of stereotypes she purports to hate. For instance, when pointing out that the widespread use of strip clubs in corporate hospitality excludes women from important networking, she weakens her outrage imo, by suggesting that female colleagues fake a headache and stay home.
I want to end on a positive note, so here are the two best ones:
* In a passage explaining that after about 7, children tend to become slightly more flexible in their thinking about gender, she adds that those who don't, end up with successful careers writing books based on rigid gender stereotypes - with a footnote! The footnote says, "This is a joke, rather than a scientific fact." Yep, that really was the second-best one, imo.
* Following on from caveats about over-reliance on neuroimaging, Fine cites an empathy study... performed on salmon... that were dead. It produced pretty pictures of brain activity, though!
Notes are private!
Mar 04, 2015
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May 03, 2012
Poetic twists on the paradoxes of time.
The quotidian becomes extraordinary and unsettling.
Time travel needn't involve machines or blue boxes (sorry, A Poetic twists on the paradoxes of time.
The quotidian becomes extraordinary and unsettling.
Time travel needn't involve machines or blue boxes (sorry, Apatt!): Lightman makes it leap off the page and into your mind, leaving you questioning the very root of reality.
Now that I am reading Borges, I assume Lightman was influenced by him (and maybe others), in particular, the short story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
There are about 30 very short chapters (typically, three pages of well-spaced text). Each uses an artist's palette to conjure ordinary scenes of human interaction in a small Swiss Germanic town.
Everyman, everyday, anytown - except that the unique way time operates in each place creates a uniquely alien culture.
It's full of dilemmas and paradoxes, and the book itself is a paradox: it's so little and light, but it contains SO much of weight. (There, Apatt, I've squeezed in a TARDIS.)
"Each time is true, but the truths are not the same."
WHO IS THIS FOR?
It's for anyone who likes to play with ideas and appreciates beautiful writing. I know real physicists who have enjoyed this, but you certainly don't need any esoteric knowledge to be transported by it.
I appreciated the lyricism as I read it, but mainly noted down the ideas.
* There are many series of single-sentence, seemingly unrelated, vignettes, especially on page 58-60: "Footprints in snow on a winter island. A boat on the water at night, its lights dim in the distance... A locked cabinet of pills. A leaf on the ground in autumn, red and gold and brown, delicate... A mother on her bed, weeping, the smell of basil in the air... Sunlight, in long angles through the window in late afternoon... A worn book lying on a table beside a dim lamp."
* Sunrise: "Ten minutes past six by the invisible clock on the wall. Minute by minute, new objects gain form."
* "Hypothetically, time might be smooth or rough, prickly or silky, hard or soft. But in this world, the texture of time happens to be sticky."
* "In a world where time is a sense... a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random." Here, "the time-deaf are unable to speak what they know. For speech needs a sequence of words, spoken in time."
* "Where time stands still... Raindrops hang motionless in the air. Pendulums... float mid-swing. Dogs raise the muzzles in silent howls... The aromas of dates, mangoes, coriander, cumin are suspended in space."
* Time can be measured by things other than clocks: "by the changes in heavenly bodies... by heartbeats... the duration of loneliness."
HOW TO BE HAPPY
This is a book of hypotheses, not solutions. It isn't theological or prescriptive, but its exposition of adaptation and happiness spoke to me.
In most of the worlds, some people have coping strategies that bring happiness, or at least contentment, whereas others are mired in misery. In many cases, that means going to great, even ridiculous, lengths to gain just a little bit more time. In those respects, these worlds are like our own.
In some of the worlds, predestination or inevitability breeds recklessness, "free to do as he pleases, free in a world without freedom."
In another, it's suggested that "a world where time is absolute is a world of consolation" because time is predictable. I'm not sure about that one; people are still unpredictable. Lightman is also very upbeat about a world where people have no memories: every night is the first night, and people live in the present - but they could just as easily be reckless, not being able to learn from experience.
Should we live for the moment, the past, or the future (echoes of A Christmas Carol?)? Would you "rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly, mounted in a case"?
There is no single answer, but I believe we are responsible creating the framework for our own happiness. We may need help (especially if saddled with depression or grim circumstances), but ultimately, peace can only come from within. How one achieves that is trickier - rather like the solution for travelling safely through a black hole that starts, "First, build a time machine..." (or maybe the way to build a time machine is to first find the black hole?).
WEIRD WAYS TIME COULD WORK - Spoilerish?
Some examples of worlds described in the book. For each, the implications of understanding and ignorance of the nature of time is different, and almost all could be the basis for a whole novel:
* "Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly."
* "Time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze.... People caught in the branching tributaries find themselves suddenly carried to the past."
* A stop/start world where time is "seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up."
* "Time has three dimensions, like space... an object may participate in three perpendicular futures."
* "Time is like the light between two mirrors... a world of countless copies."
* "There is mechanical time and there is body time." One is "rigid and metallic", the other "squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay... Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment."
* "Time flows more slowly the farther from the centre of the earth." Or the converse: "The centre of time" from which "time travels outward in concentric circles", getting faster as one is further away. Where time is a local phenomenon, passing at a different rate, each town has to become a self-sufficient island, and no traveller can ever return home, being "cut off in time, as well as space".
* "Time is visible in all places. A vast scaffold of time, stretching across the universe." And "Time is a visible dimension... one may choose his motion along the axis of time." Which way would you go?
* "Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic... each act is an island in time." Scientists are helpless, but artists love it.
* "A world without a future... Time is a line that terminates at the present, both in reality and in the mind."
* What about a world where everyone knows it will end in a month? Lightman sees it "a world of equality", but I think that's optimistic. Or where people are like mayflies and live for only a day each.
* What about a world where people live forever? Does infinite time and infinite possibility send you to a frenzy of business, experiencing everything you can imagine, or does it take the pressure off, so you sit around, doing nothing just yet?
* "The passage of time brings increasing order." In spring, people create mess and chaos.
* "Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images." I can't really get my head round that one, but it's the most beautiful one.
* "Time is not a quantity but a quality... Time exists, but it cannot be measured... Events are triggered by other events, not by time."
* "Time flows not evenly, but fitfully and... as a consequence, people receive fitful glimpses of the future." (Shades of Flashforward.) Here, "Those who have seen the future do not need to take risks, and those who have not yet seen the future wait for their vision without taking risks."
* "Time passes more slowly for people in motion." The converse would have possibilities too.
* There's a backward-flowing time, but Kurt Vonnegut, Martin Amis (and others) have done that in Slaughterhouse Five and Time's Arrow respectively.
Perhaps we should try to ignore time. One world has only just discovered objective measurement of it. The clock "was magical... unbearable... outside natural law" but it could not be ignored, so they worshipped it. "They have been trapped by their own inventiveness and audacity. And they must pay with their lives."
The alternative time chapters are interspersed with occasional ones describing Einstein as a young patent clerk, working on this theories of time. I found these an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction.
HOW TO READ IT
You could easily sit and read this book in one short session, but although you would imbibe the beauty and the tangling of time, I wanted to digest and ponder a few worlds at a... time. I might choose differently on a reread, though.
TO MY FRIENDS - yes, you!
This is another wonderful book that I discovered purely because of the enticing reviews of several friends on GR. Thank you.
To my other friends, I redirect the favour by recommending this book to you. ...more
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Feb 25, 2015
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Dec 02, 2014
A rich and delicious snack that defies categorisation.
It has elements of Kafka, Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc and Tim Burton, with a dash of Orwell (but A rich and delicious snack that defies categorisation.
It has elements of Kafka, Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc and Tim Burton, with a dash of Orwell (but one digit out). It looks like a beautifully designed and illustrated children's book, though it's rather dark for small children, and YA feels wrong as well.
I think it's a book for adults who like slightly sinister tales and want to recapture a taste of the frisson of fear they relished when young.
The story is a fairly simple fable: a boy goes to the public library because he was idly wondering about the Ottoman tax collection system, and his mother always said, "If you don't know something, go to the library to look it up". He knows the place well, but on this occasion, he's sent to a reading room, via an enormous underground labyrinth, escorted by a sinister old man. It's not just the corridors that take a worrying turn, and he tries to quell his fears by rationalising the improbability of a public body being able to afford so much secret space. Is it magical, a hallucination, real in a parallel world? Will he live or die?
The story is set pre-Google, and it should probably be read as if Kindles and audio books don't exist either.
This is a book you need to hold, touch, and smell. My edition (illustrated at the top of this review) has an old-fashioned library card wallet glued to the outside front cover.
The illustrations are beautiful, very varied, only loosely related to the text, and mostly copied from books in the ancient London Library (http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/). I recently attended a friend's birthday dinner there; it was a strange juxtaposition of enjoyments.
Knowledge is good - but maybe dangerous, too?
I just hope this book doesn't put anyone off seeking knowledge, either in general, or by visiting their local library. It has that effect on the narrator, but that is partly because the punishment prescribed for him failing to acquire specific knowledge in a limited time was so grim - yet also somewhat clichéd.
Kafka and other parallels
Minor spoilers - but no more than in the book's own blurb.
The boy meets a/the sheep man, a character in other Murakami books.
There are several references to birds, but I haven't read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, so I don't know how tenuous that is.
Room 107 has similarities with Room 101.
Theseus comes to mind, mainly towards the end, though navigating by licking the wall was novel!
For genuinely child-oriented illustrated tales in a similar, but poetic, vein, see Belloc's "Cautionary Tales"; for something between those and this, see Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.
However, Kafka was the strongest parallel for me: surreal, incomprehensible situation, unfair punishment without recourse to defence, and sustenance (food, flirting and, in Kafka, more) from a woman who may or may not be real. ...more
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Jan 26, 2015
Jan 26, 2015
Jan 01, 2015
I'm joining the bandwagon of Fionnuala's idea for looking back at my reading over the last year. The result is to crystalise my joy at what I've read, I'm joining the bandwagon of Fionnuala's idea for looking back at my reading over the last year. The result is to crystalise my joy at what I've read, and appreciation of my friends here on GR.
Overall, I've read some wonderful things this year, and the very best was last: Stoner, but I immediately started rereading, so it's still flagged as "currently reading", and awaiting a review.
I read in my usual, undirected way: it was mostly fiction, and mostly novels, but there was no overriding theme, and I have no specific plans as to what to read in 2015.
I rated more than half of my readings as 4*, which is high for me, and only one was 1*: When She Woke (good concept, lousily executed).
Of my nine 5* reads, all but one were either rereads or recommendations from GR friends. I like that balance of old friends and new. Discussions with GR friends have also made me see new aspects and gain greater understanding of many books. This is what I love about my GR friends.
Fiction Highlights of 2014
"Stoner". A 5* rating is far less than it deserves. It is the most painfully exquisite book I have read; I'm still processing it, as I reread it. It is utterly wonderful. A huge "thank you" to Steve, whose review was the main reason I read it. My only worry now is whether I dare read anything else by Williams, as it surely can't be as good.
Steve also prompted me to take The God of Small Things off my shelf and actually read it. That was another 5* read, and I had some wonderful conversations with people about the book, and about a culture and setting of which I know very little.
"The Bone Clocks"... This is David Mitchell's new book, and turned out to be a sort of sequel to 4* The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I reread afterwards. I had very mixed feelings. It wasn't what I expected or, really, wanted, but it was compelling, and the more I wrote about it and discussed it with GR friends, the richer I realised it was, despite it not being quite to my taste. Nevertheless, my ambivalence, coupled with an inability to be brief, meant I wrote two reviews with different ratings: The Bone Clocks 3* detailed and The Bone Clocks 4* spoiler-free.
Although I generally prefer the sustenance of a novel, I was struck by the powerful punch of three, very different, 4* short stories:
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a haunting parable by Ursula Le Guin about the price we pay for happiness.
The Egg by Andy Weir is only a couple of pages, but is about the purpose of life - and the answer is not 42.
Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market is a hypnotic and sensuous poem about temptation, with fairytale qualities.
I cemented my love for China Mieville (a relationship that got off to a VERY rocky start a few years ago) with the epic 5* Perdido Street Station.
I read my first Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance, and saw the links with David Mitchell, giving it 4*.
Angela Carter was a name I knew, but now I love. I read a riot of a novel, Wise Children 4* and some luscious adult fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber 5* as well as her short telling of Bluebeard 4* to tie in with Jane Eyre 5*. And now I realise my reading was not quite as "undirected" as I first said, because those led me to Vonnegut's utterly different Bluebeard 4* about US abstract expressionism, and because I'd read Jean Rhys' prequel to Jane Eyre, at the end of 2013, I read her semi-autobiographical Voyage in the Dark 3*.
I love the cold beauty and contrasting humour of Kafka, but had neglected him. I returned to Metamorphosis and other Stories and remain in awe of the man's range and insight.
Annie Proulx was known to me from reading The Shipping News in 2013 and via the film of Brokeback Mountain, but in 2014, I finally read it, along with the shamefully overlooked 4* novel, Postcards .
I reread Middlesex 4* and, six years after I first read it, saw the deeper truths. It's about transitions - of every kind. It is powerful and relevant to all. Including me. Change is afoot.
There were a couple of other 5* reads:
One was Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It captured a strange and fascinating community of boat dwellers in 1960s London. Like Middlesex, it was all about change.
The other was by Arnold Bennett, who is one of my favourite authors: Anna of the Five Towns is a little gem that encapsulates a singular woman in difficult circumstances.
There was of course, some Mervyn Peake. I reread Gormenghast and saw a stage production of it. I also enjoyed a trio of his children's books: A Book of Nonsense and Captain Slaughterboard and Figures of Speech, as well as some of his art: Writings and Drawings and Sketches from Bleak House.
I reminded myself why I should read at least one Iris Murdoch a year with 4* An Unofficial Rose. I love the machinations of her cast.
I also reacquainted myself with two authors of whom I'd only read one (excellent) book previously:
Rebecca West's beautifully written 4* coming of age novel set at the cusp of WW1, This Real Night.
Marghanita Laski's chilling psychological 4* drama The Victorian Chaise Longue.
Creepy in an entirely different way was Michel Faber's 3* Under the Skin. Very different in genre, style, tone and my liking from his utterly wonderful The Crimson Petal and the White.
2015 will feature the first birthday that I've had mixed feelings about, so reading Julian Barnes' collection The Lemon Table was perhaps a poor choice, as the stories all concern aspects of ageing - not in an especially negative way, and they're beautifully written, but I'm not sure I want to be reminded of such things.
My small dose of non-fiction was more diverse:
I was thrilled and amused and touched by the memoirs of a friend, Blown Like a Leaf 4*, and I shamelessly commend it to you.
E O Parrott's 4* How to Become Ridiculously Well-read in One Evening is a wonderful comic literary diversion for dipping into, though contrary to the title, you need to be reasonably well read in the first place to appreciate it.
The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records was fascinating, not just for the Chinese history, much of which was broadly familiar, but for the novel attitude to history itself: "official" history related as anecdotes, parables, opinion, dialogue, political ideology.
"The Bone Clocks" might have been, but definitely wasn't.
However, other tried and tested authors were: I've given up on Ishiguro after reading Nocturnes.
Atwood's final episode of the trilogy that started so well with Oryx and Crake wasn't really worth the time or paper (MaddAddam).
I'm not sure if I've changed or Updike has, but the misogyny and homophobia of A Month of Sundays was unsavoury.
I also read the well-reviewed Marriage Material on the basis that it was a good reworking of Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives' Tale; it wasn't.
Looking ahead to 2015
There's plenty on my TBR pile, and positions on it will change, partly at the prompting of people reading this. The only thing I know for sure is that when I finish rereading and reviewing Stoner, I will go to something old - specifically, Trollope's Orley Farm. Other than that, I'll see what takes my fancy and when, but it's likely to include a second Murakami.
I do wonder if I should strive to write more succinct reviews in 2015 - if only to leave more time for reading. But then again, I'm reminded of the old chestnut, attributed to many writers, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time"! I suspect I have to accept that brevity is not my strong point.
I've just noticed that this is my 500th review on GR. It seems a suitable one for such a milestone. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 31, 2014
Jan 03, 2015
Nov 26, 2014
A very short story (two pages of A4: http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/thee...) by the author of The Martian (which I have yet to read).
It's too short A very short story (two pages of A4: http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/thee...) by the author of The Martian (which I have yet to read).
It's too short to risk any spoilers, but it starts with a dead man's encounter with God, and follows their conversation, as the dead man asks what happens next, what the meaning of life is, etc. The answer is simple and complex, trivial and profound, religious and blasphemous (YMMV).
I'm not sure if I'm unsettled or uplifted.
Notes are private!
Dec 23, 2014
Dec 23, 2014
This is the first chapter of Kafka's novel that is usually titled Amerika (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but it was published as a standa This is the first chapter of Kafka's novel that is usually titled Amerika (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but it was published as a standalone short story and is also included in some copies of The Metamorphosis.
It opens with a description of a city, country and continent Kafka never saw: "New York looked at Karl with the hundred thousand windows of its skyscrapers." The ship, too, has windows (of course), but there are more references to them than one might expect in such a few pages.
Karl is only 16 and has been sent, alone, to escape the shame of being seduced by an older maid who bore his son (sexually assertive women are common in his works - and there is a very flirty kitchen maid on the ship as well). He travelled steerage, where there is "a glimmer of murky light, long since stale from its use in the decks above", and is due to meet a slightly wealthier uncle in New York.
He disembarks, then remembers he has left something behind, so leaves his trunk on shore (in the care of an acquaintance) and becomes disoriented in the labyrinth of the ship. He is befriended by the stoker who overs vague help, but really wants someone to listen to his grievances. During the voyage, Karl had protected his trunk obsessively, but now he seems not to care, and instead, takes the stoker's case to the captain.
There is enough of a resolution that it works as a short story, yet it doesn't quite work overall. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
Sep 01, 1998
This collection of very short pieces is sometimes called Meditation, and under that name, is sometimes included in Metamorphosis.
These pieces are gene This collection of very short pieces is sometimes called Meditation, and under that name, is sometimes included in Metamorphosis.
These pieces are generally lighter than many of his works, though the recurring themes of loneliness, unease, judgement and watching are all present.
This review is really a collection of jottings for reference; don't expect great insights!
Children on a Country Road
A charming picture of carefree children, playing and exploring. Not at all Kafkaesque.
Unmasking a Confidence Trickster
Oppression, manners, unease.
But "the groundless devotion on the servants' faces rejoyced my heart".
The Sudden Walk
Almost a whole page in a single sentence: breaking out of routine by one decisive act.
A short and painful description of a slough of depression: resolving to do something about it, then thinking it would be futile. The ending is startlingly bathetic, humourous, even.
The Excursion into the Mountains
An apparently gloomy plan for a lonely trip, with unexpected levity ("It goes without saying that they all wear evening dress").
The Fate of the Bachelor
Not what Kafka wanted (he was engaged three times to two different women), but certainly what he feared. He died a bachelor and probably childless (there is some debate about the latter, but little evidence), but young enough that had he lived, he may yet have married.
Left behind; everyone else who matters has gone to America (prescient re his novel, Amerika?).
Beauty too: "The banisters of the staircase float down past the panes of frosted glass like a waterfall."
Stray Glance from the Window
A little prose poem that might be sinister...
The Way Home
Another window, but this character is a fortunate man, who is even aware of the fact.
The Men Running Past
Fear of following and of intervening (the latter echoing In The Penal Colony and Jackals and Arabs).
Existential angst, being "entirely uncertain as to my place in this world". But a pretty girl can transform thoughts.
No window this time, but a slightly voyeuristic appreciation of women's clothes, coupled with pragmatic concerns about the practicality of pleats.
The narrator imagines all the reasons a girl might ignore a request for a date, by comparing himself with an unrealistic ideal. Self-fulfilling prophesy?
For the Consideration of Amateur Jockeys
Counter-intuitive musings: surely no one would want to be a winner because winning divides friends and makes you look ridiculous to women "because he's swelling with pride" etc! "And finally from the now overcast sky it even begins to rain." Maybe something got lost in translation.
The Window on the Street
The importance of a window to stave off loneliness and to rejuvenate: "the horses down below will drag him into the train of their wagons and their tumult so in the end towards the harmony of man".
Longing to be a Red Indian
Dreams of America, again. But very brief.
In total; make of it what you will:
"For we are like the trunks of trees in the snow. Apparently they rest smoothly on the surface and with a gentle push we should be able to shift them. No, that one cannot, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But see, that too is only apparent."
Misery in one's room, haunted by a child (ghost, imagined or, in some sense, real?) but, once again, "found relief in a glance to the window". The child expected but also not expected; reality shifts:
"How can my not believing help me?... The real fear is the fear of what caused the apparition."
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
This very short story has been published on its own, as a chapter in his novel The Trial (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and in the collect This very short story has been published on its own, as a chapter in his novel The Trial (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and in the collection The Country Doctor.
It's a short, allegorical tale on one of Kafka's key themes: judgement. (He studied law at university, and went on to work in insurance, investigating personal injury claims.)
"The law... should be accessible to everyone and at all times."
A man comes seeking justice (the reason is not stated), and the door to justice is open, but the doorkeeper won't let him pass. There is never an outright "no", nor any reason given, just prevarication and the implication (and it is only an implication) that one day it might be possible. The man waits, and waits. The doorkeeper takes bribes, just "so you won't feel there isn't anything you haven't tried." You can probably guess the outcome more-or-less.
Some of Kafka's stories have humour; this is not really one of them. Cold and haunting beauty, with an eerie familiarity (even the first time I read it) are the tone here.
You can read the whole thing here (two pages):
Notes are private!
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 28, 2014
Kafka wrote this short story in a single night and dedicated it to Felice Bauer, a new friend, to whom he was engaged for a while. It might be thought Kafka wrote this short story in a single night and dedicated it to Felice Bauer, a new friend, to whom he was engaged for a while. It might be thought a rather odd dedication, given that it's a chilling story of Georg's relationship with his disappointed father (as Herman Kafka apparently was with Franz).
As with many of Kafka's writings, windows feature. It starts with a man gazing out of a window, remembering his friend who emigrated to Russia three years earlier. In contrast, his father's window is firmly shut.
Georg is trying to write to his friend, and this is tricky because he is worried that his friend's life has stalled, so is reluctant to recount his own happy news, most particularly his forthcoming marriage (he assumes his friend has lost all chance of marriage).
Instead, he reports random gossip, but even this causes problems:
"Thus it happened that three times in three quite widely separated letters Georg had announced the engagement of some indifferent man to some equally indifferent girl, until quite contrary to his intentions his friend began to develop an interest in this notable occurrence."
Thus far, it is a realistic story of an earnest young man, unsure of what is the right thing to do, with a dash of dry humour, but then it becomes more unsettling.
The father questions Georg's sanity and whether his friend exists. There is a confusing row during which the father lists his many disappointments with his son, and the reader is left uncertain of the truth and which, if any, of the characters, is sane.
It culminates with the father passing a terrible judgement on his son. And most shockingly of all, the son unquestioningly acquiesces.
You can read the full story here (9 pages):
Notes are private!
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 28, 2014
Oct 01, 1997
The Country Doctor is the title of one of the stories published in a collection of the same name. They are also included in some versions of The Metam The Country Doctor is the title of one of the stories published in a collection of the same name. They are also included in some versions of The Metamorphosis.
The New Advocate
A short, surreal animal story: a war horse gives up war to become a lawyer!
A Country Doctor
A disturbing story, with nightmarish unreality (magical realism, even?), coupled with sinister snow (as in The Castle) and a suffering child.
The doctor has to get to the child, but the snow is heavy and he is without a horse. Yet somehow, horses and groom appear in his disused pigsty and he arrives at the child's house unnaturally fast. Once there, he is tormented by fears that the groom will assault his maid, and confusion about whether the child is healthy or dying (or in his imagination), and the strange behaviour and expectations of the family. Grim, uneasy doom. And snow.
You can read the full story here (5 pages):
Up in the Gallery
This perhaps better belongs in The Hunger Artist collection (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) of performance-related stories. It's an observation of a young woman, riding a circus horse.
You can read the whole page of it here:
A Leaf from an Old Manuscript
Timely when he wrote it and sadly so today. It's about fear and revulsion of immigrants and difference. Those who dislike them, portray them as violent, dirty, liars, robbers, who can't communicate properly, and "even their horses eat meat". The emperor is effectively trapped in his palace, gazing (like many Kafka characters) out of his window.
Before the Law
A chillingly allegorical, often published on its own, and reviewed here, with a link to the full text:
Jackals and Arabs
Back to immigrants, but with a more mythical feel. A traveller is greeted by jackals who treat him as a saviour from, or at least a mediator with, the Arabs, with whom they have an ancient blood feud. (The traveller registers no surprise that the jackals can speak.) It's not clear who is in the right, as as with the traveller In The Penal Colony (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), it raises the question of what an outsider can or should do to change things.
You can read the full story here (3 pages):
A Visit to the Mine
This has similarities with In The Penal Colony (but is more real, and lacking in gore) and the descriptions of the individual quirks of each of the ten engineers is rather like a more comical version of Eleven Sons (below). For one "responsibility has hollowed his eyes", and "while the gentlemen... have long since shed any trace of arrogance, the attendant seem to have accumulated it all in his own person."
The Next Village
Doom in a single, short paragraph.
A Message from the Emperor
A short insight into futility, and gazing through a window.
You can read the full story here (one page):
A Problem for the Father of the Family aka Odradek
One of Kafka's most surreal snippets, Odradek is a sort of cotton reel, but he moves and talks. His very existence hints at creationism ("one might be tempted to suppose that this object had once been designed") and issues of mortality: "the idea that he might also outlive me I find almost painful", a fear Kafka might well have had about friends and family. But what is the meaning of life anyway? "Everything that dies has previously had some kind of goal" - with the possible exception of the mysterious Odradek.
This is an especially sad (though occasionally humorous) but pertinently perceptive description of a man's 11 sons, and the different ways each has disappointed him. Several have acknowledged good qualities, but they are always balanced or exceeded by faults.
One has a minor eye problem, and also, his father thinks, "a slight irregularity of the spirit that somehow corresponds to it". Another is "good-looking" but "not the kind of good looks that I admire". As for the sixth son, who many praise, the father dislikes this because "it really seems to make praise a little too easy if one bestows it on someone so obviously praiseworthy."
Knowing of the fraught relationship between Kafka and his own father (Kafka was his only surviving son), I assumed that each was a facet of the author. However, the introduction to my copy says they were intended as the basis for eleven separate stories (which does not preclude them being based on himself, and some have very close parallels).
A murder weapon is "superfluous blood-stained ballast"!
Well, a nightmare. Who hasn't contemplated their own mortality, wondered what would be said about them when they are gone, and maybe even imagined their burial?
Report to the Academy
This is is an amusingly surreal slant on Jewish integration, reminiscent of Gerald the gorilla in the 1980s comedy show, Not the Nine O'clock News.
Red Peter tells of "my past life as an ape", but reminds his audience that they are not far removed from that state themselves. He was wild, captured, and eventually made a conscious choice, "I would cease to be an ape", because he realised "the way out was not to run away" but to act like a human. So he did - for purely utilitarian reasons, not because he had a desire to be human. Nevertheless, he has now "attained the cultural level of the average European".
All very impressive; the tricky aspect is that he keeps a chimpanzee for sex, but only for that, because "she has that wild, confused look of the trained animal in her eye". That seems painfully hypocritical, but those who assimilate or transition are sometimes accused of such things. Red Peter though, explicitly does not want judgement - something few Kafka characters escape.
Read the whole story here (8 pages):
See my review of the stage adaptation, Kafka's Monkey:
Notes are private!
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 28, 2014
Jan 01, 1973
"we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only ev "we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist"
I read these half-dozen pages a couple of days ago, and it haunts me still.
(Read it here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dun....)
A strange, disturbing and very thought-provoking short story.
There's something indefinably odd and slightly, chillingly, distant about the language from the start. That creates a suitably disconcerting contrast with the happy festival in an apparently Utopian town that it's describing. It sounds too good to be true, so the mysterious narrator (one of "the ones who walk away"?) makes suggestions directly to the reader as to how to make it more believable. That gives it a more allegorical feel.
It's unusual in a short story to spend so long on scene-setting, though true to the form, it takes an unexpected turn, which in this one, is rather grim and Biblical and/or Faustian:
What price happiness?
Who can and should sacrifice what for the greater good?
Do individual actions matter, or does going with the flow absolve individual blame?
Would you walk away from a familiar and comfortable life if you thought the price that others had to pay was too high?
But if walking way changes nothing, is it any worse than staying (and not changing things)?
Do we routinely ignore the true cost of our own comforts? Buying "fairtrade" products is maybe more of a salve to our conscience than those who toil in poor conditions, for little reward.
Who are my scapegoats and will I atone?
With the new Band Aid single in the news, I'm reminded of the horrific schadenfreude of the lyrics in the original 1984 version:
"Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you."
This story provides lots to think about from few words.
It fits so well with my currently rereading of some Kafka short stories that I've included it on my Kafka shelf.
Thanks to Apatt for pointing me to this.
Notes are private!
Nov 21, 2014
Nov 21, 2014
Jun 20, 2006
After 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately star After 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately started rereading - something I have only previously done with children’s picture books.
It is, without question, my joint favourite book ever. (Titus Groan/Gormenghast is the other, in a very different way.) For that reason, I’ve really struggled with this review: it’s hard to explain its mesmerising power in a way that does it justice. In a departure from my usual technique, what follows is from the heart, with very little reference to my copious notes, though I intend to come back to them at some stage so that I can add quotes.
WHAT SORT OF STORY?
It opens with a page of downbeat, but carefully crafted spoilers, rather like an obituary, after which, the story is told straightforwardly and chronologically, from William Stoner’s last days at school and on his parents’ farm, to life as a university student, then university faculty member, marriage, parenthood, affair, and finally his death. His main joy is literature, and the university that enables him to share that love with others, reflected in simple but heartfelt words on his retirement, “Thank you all for letting me teach”.
It sounds dull, banal or both, but it's not. It's heartbreakingly beautiful, without being sentimental, and because Stoner is never without hope, I didn't find it a depressing.
CONTRASTS: ELOQUENCE and INARTICULACY, STRONG and WEAK, SUCCESS and FAILURE, GAIN and LOSS
It’s a book about language and literature, and yet inarticulacy is a recurring theme: it is the direct cause of most of the pain, but also the trigger for his main happiness: in a compulsory literature review, it is his inability to understand, or perhaps to explain his understanding of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 that triggers a life-long passion and career. This reticence or inability to talk about innermost thoughts is perhaps one reason why the causes of Edith's behaviour are only hinted at: anything more explicit would set the wrong tone (and might not have been appropriate when published).
Almost all Stoner’s dreams come true, but happiness is always elusive and ephemeral. The good things are lost or, worse still, taken away by someone he had hoped would be his love or friend (Edith and Lomax, respectively). Both antagonists are sensitive, damaged people (as is Stoner) and Lomax even shares his love of literature for similar reasons (escape).
One message of the book is “carpe diem” (seize the day, or in youth speak: YOLO), which is also reflected in Sonnet 73’s focus on decay, death, and enjoying what we have while we can.
Stoner can be brave, such as swapping from an agricultural degree course with its predictable future to an English literature degree, inspired by a sonnet he struggled to explain – and yet he doesn’t have the courage to tell his parents until after they’ve attended his graduation.
WHAT SORT OF MAN?
Some see Stoner as passive and weak. Certainly there are many times when I wanted him to act differently, or just to act at all - in particular, to stand up for his daughter and his lover.
Instead, he is quietly stoical, which is apt, given his areas of interest include classical Greek literature. His quiet stoicism, born of parental fortitude and nurtured by habit and habitat runs too deep for him to act as others would.
He loses everything he values (even the rapport with his students and the ability to enjoy his books) and in many respects, he is a failure as son, husband, father, lover, even scholar – but he keeps going, never bearing a grudge, trying his best. So sad, and yet curiously inspirational.
TIME AND PLACE
Unlike some readers, I find Stoner entirely believable, especially when you consider the much higher social cost of divorce back then.
Would the story be any happier if it were set today? It would certainly be different, but flawed people raise flawed people. Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and that would be just as true of one unhappy family transplanted from one period in history to another.
In a contemporary setting, even if he had married Edith (unlikely?), she would surely have got help (bi-polar abuse survivor?), though maybe too late to fend off divorce. Either way, matters would turn out better for Katherine and Grace, and Lomax and Walker would probably not have got away with as much as they did. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Williams set it more than a generation earlier than the time he was writing.
SPEAKING TO ME
Why did this book move me in such a direct and personal way? I'm not a man, not American, wasn't born at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries and have never been a farmer or a professor. But I do love books, I do need escape sometimes, and I did spend much of my childhood on a family farm, though there was never any expectation that I would be a farmer.
The farm is part of it though: in some ways, Stoner reminds me of my beloved grandfather, who died when I was 14. Although he had a happier life than Stoner, he had the same quiet but dogged resilience, and always tried to make the best of what life or wife threw at him.
The other aspect that poured from the pages, especially second time round, was the emotional damage caused by bad parenting (albeit sometimes with good intentions), caused or exacerbated by poor communication. I was repeatedly reminded of Larkin’s famous lines “They fuck you up your mum and dad… But they were fucked up in their turn” (see below). Although I had a largely happy childhood, there were odd, complex and problematic aspects that have left their mark on the sort of adult and parent I am, and although I’m the mother of a wonderful 20 year old, I’m very conscious of things my husband and I could, and perhaps should, have done differently. (I think we’re doing better than the Stoners, though.)
Soil. Stoner is a son of the soil and there are many allusions to its power to spread and bind, whether seeping through the floorboards or being ingrained in the skin or mind. Soil chemistry is the only agricultural course mentioned by name, and Stoner enjoyed it – until he discovered his greater love: literature. He is transplanted from the countryside to the university, where he puts down roots, and stays – no matter what.
The university is the setting for almost all of the novel and arguably a character in its own right. Early on, one of the characters muses whether it is a path to self-fulfillment, an instrument for social good, or just an asylum. The novel quietly demonstrates that it is all three.
“Lust and learning… that’s really all there is” says one character, but both of those need an outlet. The insularity of most of the main characters and their unwillingness or inability to discuss or even show their feelings means they are lonely outsiders who can’t relish life. That aloneness exerts a high price that manifests itself in different ways; the saddest outcome is for Grace, Stoner’s daughter. We need to reach out to each other, communicate, and seize the day.
At times, Stoner is like Don Quixote, with Gordon Finch as a brighter and more influential sidekick than Sancho. This friendship is the one enduring human relationship. Finch repeatedly takes risks to help his friend, and yet it is a very understated friendship, that is not especially close. An area to explore further on a reread?
There are three troubling aspects, but that conflict is part of what makes the book compelling:
• Two characters are self-described “cripples”. Times and vocabulary have changed, so that’s not the issue. What is harder is the fact that both characters are unpleasant and both use their disability to make false and malicious claims of prejudice to their own advantage.
• What are the issues around consent for sleep-sex, given that the other party won’t countenance it when fully conscious, but is, at some level, vaguely aware of it when nearly asleep?
• The emotional abuse and manipulation of children is ghastly – but sadly credible. Edith is a victim who inflicts even worse damage on her daughter, but I was shocked that Stoner felt so helpless to protect Grace, and there were a couple of passages where he seemed to care more about his lover than his daughter.
Another issue that may be controversial is whether some of Edith’s behaviour is indicative of her being bi-polar. Such a term is never used, and I’m no expert, but her regular alternation between extreme business and prolonged periods of being helpless and bedridden for no outwardly visible reason suggest something like that to me. Or maybe her problems are entirely due to her cold and repressive childhood. (After her father’s suicide, she destroys everything connected with him; is this just anger at his death, or something more sinister? I suspect the latter.) So it comes back to Larkin.
Apart from Larkin, aspects of this brought to mind:
• Ian McEwan’s honeymoon novella On Chesil Beach: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
• Any of the Richard Yates novels I’ve read: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list....
• The paintings of Edward Hopper such as Room in New York: http://www.artexpress.ws/painting-img....
To be added…
THIS BE THE VERSE, by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
(For the record, I endorse the truth of the first two verses, but do not advocate the third, which is a decision only you can make.)
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
Jan 06, 2015
Nov 17, 2014
Dec 01, 2004
Dec 01, 2004
Today, we visited this delightful, beautiful and VERY quirky house. That style is reflected in the guide book, written by the owner, the Marquis de Pi Today, we visited this delightful, beautiful and VERY quirky house. That style is reflected in the guide book, written by the owner, the Marquis de Piro.
It has a fascinating history, going back a long way, and the house is cluttered in the best possible way, with very varied trinkets (great works of art to low-level bric-a-brac), reflecting the family history and connections. Excellent taste was demonstrated in the many bookshelves. ;)
Here's the website for the house: http://www.casaroccapiccola.com/
This was one of my two favourite things in Malta (along with the incredibly ancient Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni).
(I wouldn't normally review a guide book, but I was charmed by the place and the book, was awaiting delivery of a cocktail, and was sad to see than not one of de Piro's books had a single rating.)
Notes are private!
Oct 07, 2014
Oct 07, 2014
Oct 07, 2014
Jan 01, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoile This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoiler”.
I have a briefer, spoiler-free, and very different, review here (different * rating, too): https://www.goodreads.com/review/show..., which is more about my feelings for the book. It also includes a selection of favourite quotes and links to interviews. The difference in star rating is deliberate: I couldn't decide.
LINKS AND THEMES
This book, perhaps more than any of his others, cannot be viewed in isolation. In particular, it is closely tied to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
I’ve read all Mitchell’s previous books (four of them twice): connectedness is the most overarching theme, within and between books.
All (except Black Swan Green?) muse on (im)mortality, specifically souls moving from one body to another, but not in a spooky paranormal way; it’s more matter-of-fact than that. The sometimes uneasy host/guest/invader relationship is mirrored in wider themes about power, exploitation and survival of the fittest. Music often features, as do islands, rescue vessels (literal and metaphorical), and survival despite societal collapse. Here, there is no sudden, total apocalypse and it happens without a glittering high-tech future in between.
Most famously, characters from one book make fleeting appearances in another. This is fun,
I like the idea that just as his novels (including this) are often built up of connected stories in different styles, those novels have a similar relationship to each other: stories within stories within stories, creating a whole world of connections: immortality by transferring from one vessel to another.
“Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. That makes it less surprising that his next five novels are “planned to some degree”. One will be the final volume of the Marinus trilogy.
The Thousand Autumns had seemed to be a fairly conventional historical novel with fewer connections than Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks changes that, exposing overlaps and hidden fantasy:
• Marinus, a significant character in The Thousand Autumns, is a major character in this.
• Marinus mentions Arie Grote from his life in Dejima in Thousand Autumns.
• The immortality-seeking baby-eating cult in Thousand Autumns is presumably an early grouping of Anchorites.
• We glimpse Prescience, precursors of the Prescients from Cloud Atlas.
• Hugo Lamb’s cousin is Jason Taylor, the main character in Black Swan Green (who was in turn, heavily based on Mitchell).
• Ed Brubeck writes for Spyglass magazine, as did Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas.
• Elijah D’Arnoq is a reincarnation or descendant of a D’Arnoq that Adam Ewing encounters in The Chatham Islands in Cloud Atlas.
• Dwight Silverwind from Ghostwritten makes a small but significant appearance.
• Mo Muntervary has small important roles here and in Ghostwritten.
• There is a mention of a battle in a sunken garden, the title of the opera Mitchell recently wrote the libretto for.
• Holly’s family get takeaways from The Thousand Autumns Restaurant (though it’s Chinese, not Japanese).
• Soleil Moore: she’s an Asian-American poet who is really important, then drops out of the narrative completely. I’m guessing she’ll feature prominently in a future book.
There are also characters apparently based on real characters: Lord Roger Brittan is a minor character, rather like Lord (Alan) Sugar; more obviously, Crispin Hershey is remarkably like Martin Amis (see below).
The book even references itself: Hershey bases one of his characters on Holly’s husband, and Soleil Moore accuses him of having written about Anchorites.
There is an enormous cast, and some characters live in multiple bodies and so go by different names. Those peripheral in one section are often significant in later one.
I don’t need to like the protagonists of a book, which is just as well. Holly isn’t unlikeable, but I found her voice annoying and trying too hard to sound teenage, yet not always believable. (In particular, endless abbreviations: “Ed Brubeck’ll be”, “Mam will’ve told Dad… ‘bout why”, and the apostrophe-esses that weren’t possessive were easy to stumble over).
Other characters are highly unpleasant, yet somehow lacking the glamour of a really good baddie.
Many have accents in their names, which was a little distracting: Zoe, Anais, Eilish, Oshima, Immaculee – but not Aoife.
Hershey, Amis, Mitchell?
Critics have seen close parallels between Martin Amis and former “Wild Child of British Letters”, Crispin Hershey: in terms of life events, writing style, personality, and book titles (Hershey’s successful Desiccated Embryos and another called Red Monkey compared with Amis’ Dead Babies and Yellow Dog). Martin's father, Kingsley, is even quoted, saying a bad review might spoil breakfast, but he wouldn’t let it spoil lunch.
Mitchell has repeatedly denied any conscious link. Instead, he claims Hershey is “not just my worst aspect, he’s my fears. He’s what I might turn into if I’m not careful” and he "is all the worst parts of me, amplified and smooshed together" and in this section "I got to have a lot of fun spoofing people like me". Hershey’s most successful novel has a symmetrical structure, like Cloud Atlas.
Most literary critics are sceptical. The Guardian wondered whether “buried deep within this scrupulously polite and unassuming writer, a revenge fantasist [is] just waiting to punish the reviewers who dismiss him” or if he’d “belatedly woken up to the fact that taking a pop at his literary elders is not necessarily the smartest career move”.
I’ve only read one Amis novel, and nothing else by him; I wonder if he has Crispin’s quirk of alternating between first and third person for himself – even in a single sentence!
META – MUSINGS ON WRITING
Mitchell sees each collection of related novellas as part of a greater work: echoes and foreshadowing abound, Hershey’s failed book has “Echo” in the title, and elsewhere, we’re told the mysterious “Script” “loves to foreshadow”.
In this, he explicitly muses on fiction, writing, and lit crit, and pre-empts some potential criticisms of this book. The bad review that kill Hershey's sales, includes, “Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower… The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretentions, I cannot bear to look… What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Later, “A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.”
After the second deus ex machina moment, Mitchell has one of the characters declare it as such, just so you know he knows.
In some ways, Hershey is very unlike Mitchell, observing that “in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre” – something Mitchell makes a speciality of. He also makes prescriptive judgements on writing that I doubt Mitchell subscribes to in blanket terms: “Double-negatives are truth smugglers” and “Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose”.
“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synaesthesia and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardise your relationships and distend your life.”
At one point, Hugo observes, “such narrative arcs make great movies, but shitty lives”; he neglects to say what sort of books they make.
This is deceptively straightforward for Mitchell: a chronological story of one woman’s life, told in six, first-person parts:
1984 “A Hot Spell”
Illustrated with a disintegrating clock, narrated by Holly, a fifteen-year old who heard voices as a child, and now runs away after bust ups with parents and boyfriend. It is not Orwellian.
(view spoiler)[From aged 7, Holly occasionally heard voices she called “The Radio People” – “not a ghost… but a visitor to your mind”. One night, one of them (Miss Constantin) appeared in her room, and afterwards, a bully Holly mentioned is hit by a van! Shortly after that, a psychiatrist (Dr Marinus) gets rid of the voices. Now, aged 15, after a row with her parents, she runs away to be with her boyfriend. Just before she goes, her brilliant but weird younger brother, Jacko, gives her a labyrinth he’s drawn and stresses the importance of her memorising it. She finds boyfriend Vinny in bed with best friend Stella, so heads off on her own. She meets a strange old woman who knows her name and says she may ask for asylum. She thinks she glimpses Jacko in an underpass, but it can’t possibly be him and then it turns into a more muddled multi-sensory hallucination. Later, she’s staying with a couple who are suddenly dead, apparently by the power (or maybe just poison) of a strange and sinister visitor who rambles about all sorts of stuff neither she nor the reader understand. There is a bizarre, rather filmic fight, but she escapes and has her memory of it wiped. How is she narrating what was wiped? And a few pages later, she muses, “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”. She heads for a fruit farm and dreams she is pregnant (we later discover she was, and had an abortion). Ed Brubeck turns up and tells her Jacko is missing. (hide spoiler)]
1991 “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume”
Illustrated with Holly’s labyrinth, told by Hugo Lamb, a conscience-free, money-loving Cambridge student, not quite as aristo as his equally obnoxious friends. Far more important than it first seems.
(view spoiler)[Hugo loves music (shades of Alex in Clockwork Orange, for more reasons than that: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), and in a crucial scene, he’s approached by beautiful Immacule Constantin, who asks him about power. He gives a pompous student answer. Her reply includes “Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed… Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul… Power’s comings and goings from host to host… are the plot of history… Power itself is amoral… Power is watching you.” She offers him “perpetual deferral of death”, but doesn’t explain, and next thing he knows, it’s an hour later and she’s gone. Reading to an old family friend with Alzheimer’s, exposes Hugo’s fears (“Whatever I do with my life… I, too, will end up like this vile old man… I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself”). A train ride prompts other musings, “’I am the system you have to beat’ clacks the carriage… Another train on a parallel track… glimpse the young City worker I’ll have turned into this time next year… but his train sways away down a different track.” Hugo is a nasty piece of work: apart from fleecing old Brigadier Philby of his valuable stamps, he sets up a friend(!) to lose heavily in a card game so that the friend will be forced to sell a vintage car that Hugo will take a cut of, and when the victim drives it over a cliff, Hugo’s only thought is “I could weep. All that money.” He’s never been in love and realises “Nothing throws the chasm between me and Normals into starker relief than grief and bereavement.” He meets Holly in a Swiss ski resort, where she’s a barmaid, and although she seems immune to his charms, they have a fling and he (maybe) falls in love. Elijah D’Arnoq, who tried to recruit him to a student shooting club called the Anchorites wants him to take a leap of faith to find out what it’s all about. Hugo realises he’s being offered a Faustian pact and that “tends not to have a happy ending”. (hide spoiler)]
2004 “The Wedding Bash”
Illustrated with a crystal ball showing the Middle East, told by Ed Brubeck. Two very contrasting aspects: the excitement of a family wedding and life (and constant risk of death) as a reporter in Iraq.
(view spoiler)[ Ed is back from reporting in Iraq for Holly’s sister’s wedding; he sees himself as “an archivist for the future”, which is one way of assuaging the guilt of being away so much: “Aoife’s childhood is a book. I’m flicking through instead of reading properly”. When he’s out with Aoife, Immacule turns up, saying she’s a friend of Holly’s and checks the six year old for an “invisible eye”. Aoife wants to go to the fortune teller (Dwight Silverwind), but Ed refuses. Great Aunt Eilish describes Jacko (who was never found) as a changeling: he was ordinary until he caught meningitis aged five. Eighteen months later, he was different and knew too much for his age, but “It wasn’t Jacko’s brain that changed… it was his soul.” He even told her he was “a well-intentioned visitor”. She had to tell Ed this because it’s in the Script, and he should “Believe her [Holly], even if you don’t believe in it”. Ed and Aoife have a nap and when he wakes, she’s gone. He assumes she’s gone to Dwight; she hasn’t, but he helps look for her, telling Ed “I’m scripted to stay with you until the end”. Holly faints, says “ten fifteen” and drops her labyrinth pendant; Dwight realises it means room 1015, which is where she is. It’s as if Holly was one of the Radio People. (hide spoiler)]
2015 “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”
Illustrated with a spider and web, told by Crispin, an amoral, formerly successful, novelist.
(view spoiler)[See notes about Amis, and Meta, above. Hershey was the “Wild Child of British Letters”, having had a very successful book (Desiccated Embryos) but a later one (Echo Must Die ) savagely reviewed by a uni friend of Hugo’s called Richard Cheeseman. Hershey blames Cheeseman for ruining his career. He takes revenge. The repercussions are far worse than expected, but he’s not overburdened with guilt, seeing Cheeseman as a thief, he “committed the action. I am the reaction.” Meanwhile, widowed Holly has written a bestselling memoir called “The Radio People”, and they keep running into each other at book festivals around the world. He hates all the psychobabble, but, they form a friendship. Although Holly no longer hears The Radio People, she does get occasional premonitions, “I’d be mugged by a bunch of facts that hadn’t happened yet” and she has a specific recurring vision related to him, of “a spider, a spiral and a one-eyed man”. All three feature, loosely, in his sudden death at the hands of Soleil Moore, who thinks that killing him is the only way to make the world read her poems (that he had not) and so learn about the Anchorites. (hide spoiler)]
2025 “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”
Illustrated with an apple, narrated by Marinus. It becomes full-on YA fantasy here. It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. If I’d read any Dan Brown, I might spot parallels there.
Plotwise, it could have ended at the end of this, but my rating would have been lower, as I found this section increasingly silly.
(view spoiler)[This is where the bulk of the strange vocab occurs (see below). There is much backstory of Marinus (in his 36th body), and especially the long-standing war between Horologists (good) and Anchorites (bad). Repeated lives, coupled with premonitions is almost like time travel (people sending messages to their future selves via complex routes, for instance), people swap body/sex//country/name, and there’s plenty of crossing and double-crossing. Anchorites are predators: they kill engifted children at regular intervals to maintain immortality and after that, they don’t age and can... teleport! “They are addicts and their drug is artificial longevity.” Horologists are “born” as such, and when one body dies, they pass harmlessly to another random body, sometimes sharing a body with another soul. The Horologists have a complicated plan to destroy the Anchorites (a previous one failed): multiple body swaps, life and death, fighting, transporting, borderline magic… exciting, or just silly? It was the latter for me: the incantations sounded like Harry Potter spells, someone is bludgeoned with a rolling pin, and the writing goes crazy, “hidden by a Deep Stream cloak… got to you with a quantum totem” and “a crack in the fabric of the Chapel of the Dusk” – bring me Lyra’s Subtle Knife and be done! Anchorites see things rather differently: “Horology is a club for immortals who prevent others from attaining their own privileges”, which conveniently overlooks all the killing. The end of this chapter was a foregone conclusion for me, albeit not in the details, with a deus ex machina. (hide spoiler)]
2048 “Sheep’s Head”
Illustrated with a running fox silhouetted against an ominously large moon, told by Holly, who is old, and struggling to raise two children, as a slow-burn apocalypse approaches. There is irony the fact this increasingly desperate situation is utterly plausible and grounded in current and possible events. The fantasy battles of the previous chapter seems irrelevant – especially as connectedness is the most fundamental thing to collapse (“the commodity we’re most in need of is news”).
(view spoiler)[Holly has survived cancer, but is old, living in rural Ireland, raising Aoife’s daughter and a young boy refugee. It is The Endarkment: global power shortages, barely any internet, rising sea levels, food (and everything else) is rationed, a nuclear power station is leaking, gangs roam, and the Chinese dominate the economy (mail order brides now go from Europe to the East) and have concession in Ireland. The prognosis is decline, “For most of my life, the world shrank and technology progressed” but she now realises that “’the natural order of things’ is entirely man-made.” She lives in an area protected by government forces, but is all too aware that as life gets harder, that may not be sustainable: “Civilization’s like the economy… if people stop believing it’s real, it dies”. Painfully real, basic survival is in sharp contrast to the preceding section. There’s another deus ex - and this time the characters themselves recognise it as such (another pre-emptive strike by Mitchell). In its defence, it does tie up with Cloud Atlas. (hide spoiler)]
The vocab list for anyone interested in horology became somewhat ludicrous. Here’s a sample:
Scansion, Incorporeals, Atemporals, Sojourners (go straight from one body to another, usually of the same sex), Returnee (“each resurrection is a lottery of longitudes, latitudes and demography”, usually alternating gender, with a 49 day gap), subtalk, the Script, Aperture, Shaded Way, psychovoltaic, “hiatus freezes [someone], suasion forces [them]”, oubliette, psychosoterica, carnivorous psycho-decanter, animacides, soul thieves, chakra-latent, dreamseed, metalife, transversing.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
Mitchell quotes mostly from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/p...), and http://www.theguardian.com/books/book.... Also interviews on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club, and Radio 4’s Front Row (that I can’t find online any more).
All my Mitchell reviews are here:
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 27, 2014
Jan 01, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do two: this is the short, spoiler-free, initial thoughts one. The much longer, and very different, one is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... (it has spoilers, but they're hidden).
Two reviews allows two ratings, but by the time I'd finished this, I realised even with its faults, it's not 2*, so it will be 3* and 4* from me.
Narrative Structure and Plot
It's a relatively straightforward narrative for Michell: a chronological story of one life. However, like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, it is also a collection of related stories, in different styles and genres (like CA, it's in six parts). In this case, the first and last sections are narrated by the central character (Holly), and the other four, by those playing a key role during that episode of her life.
In Mitchell’s own words (jotted down almost verbatim) in an interview on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club:
A murderous feud between two circles of pseudo immortals: one benign and one decidedly predatory. It erupts every ten years or so. Holly moves from pawn to decisive weapon, as she develops from being primarily a daughter, through lover, to mother, improbable and reluctant bestselling writer, (he missed out the fifth one, but I’d say confused combatant), and finally, battle-scarred grandmother. It’s about mortality, and several characters are offered a Faustian pact: keep your youth in return for having your conscience amputated. (Mind you, there’s at least one character who rather lacking in the conscience department, even without such a pact.)
But although it's ostensibly about a woman, it's always in relation to the men she encounters, and most of them are pretty unpleasant. So really, it's about men. There's no reason why it shouldn't be, but I think it's only fair to point out a potential wrong expectation.
It could easily and satisfactorily have ended after the fifth section, but didn’t, which I’m glad about, despite the sharp contrast.
I’ve described the key features of each section in my detailed review.
As with all Mitchell's books, this one features characters from and references to his other works. Most have a peripheral role here (there's no need to be familiar with their other appearances), but one major character was significant in The Thousand Autumns (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), making that book seem much less of a straightforward historical novel than it appeared at the time.
In Mitchell’s own words, “Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. It started out as fun, but "I’m building a coherent, megalomaniac's, large-scale world of an uber-novel".
Very recently, he said:
“I think I have recently discovered I am basically not a novelist, I am a novella writer. If you put novella A next to novella B then they – interact isn’t right – smack off each other, they glint at each other. They possibly echo or reflect each other, and make a third thing.”
Mitchell's favoured themes of power, predacity, exploitation, contrasted with sacrifice, mortality, islands, lifeboats (in a loose sense) and refuge are strong. Migrating souls are central, and there are other touchpoints, such as music, and life approaching or after societal collapse.
There's a comprehensive list my other review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Mixed Genres and Age Groups
The early sections have a few incidents that might be paranormal or just psychological, but it's all broadly realistic. Only later does it turn overtly fantastical (at which point you begin to realise some of the foreshadowing in earlier sections) and it's more like something by Philip Pullman (or perhaps Dan Brown, who I haven't read).
Swapping genres is a trick Mitchell has pulled off well before, but this feels like switching age groups, which may be why it feels more jarring. The contrast between the very realistic (I assume) sections set in the Iraq war and the more YA fantastical war in the later parts is a powerful disconnect. Is that a strength or a weakness? I'm not sure.
What Price Immortality?
This question is never explicitly asked, but it screams from the pages. Would I want to live forever, even if such an ability was benignly acquired? Probably not (what about friends and family?), and yet, there’s always one more enticing experience. Mitchell himself says he chose the motivation for the evil protagonists based on what would tempt him: not money or sex, but "never having to stop... never having to end... not having to say "goodbye" to this world".
Even one who has lived through many lives fears “Will I die without ever reading Ulysses to the end?”. I haven’t even started that! Then again, as one mortal says, “We sort of live on, as long as there are people to live on in”, meaning grandchildren, whether biological or just a younger generation one has influenced.
Wouldn’t it be nice to erase bad memories, as could be done by some in this book? If you’ve seen “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”, you may be less sure. But without the bad, the good would seem less good, and our lives would lack colour and contrast. Also, what if you knew something had been erased? “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?” And “If you can’t trust your mind any more, you’re mentally homeless.” I think for most of us, we’re probably better off keeping most of our memories.
Quite a few, I’m afraid:
Some of the narrators were annoying: teenage Holly didn’t ring true (and used odd abbreviations) and Crispin Hershey alternates between first and third person for himself.
One of the irritations is how knowing this book is: Mitchell pre-empts some of the more obvious criticisms by applying them to a book that (like this) jumps oddly into fantasy, and having a character acknowledging a deus ex machina by that label. There’s a lot more about these aspects in my lengthier review.
Conversely, lack of knowing is an issue: on at least two occasions a narrator has a memory wiped – and yet they’re able to describe before, during and after.
Spotting cross-overs with his other books can be fun, and it creates a broader canvas for an uber-book or universe, but occasionally it feels like gratuitous showing-off. However, one can never be certain there isn't a good reason, yet to be revealed, so I end up forgiving him.
The sections describing reporting from a war zone are very well done, but there was just too much of it for my taste –and most of it wasn’t very relevant for this book (but who knows about future ones?).
A trivial but (for me) distracting feature was the excessive use of names with all manner of accents, even for English characters. Just because computer typesetting makes it easy, doesn't make it desirable.
He even throws in the most famous line from Game of Thrones (it must be famous, as I've neither read nor watched it) - or maybe that was just co-incidence.
Strength – So Much
And yet... and yet... even though I didn't care enough about any of the characters until the very end (which is not the same as liking them, which is not something I need to enjoy a book) I was keen to keep reading at every opportunity, and am glad I did. And now that I've finished, I find I have SO much to mull over, I realise what a powerful book it is.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
• A bone clock “whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.”
• “There’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff.”
• “What if heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason… Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches.”
• “Whatever’s slowing down isn’t inside me… it’s time slowing up or gravity pulling harder, or air changing to water.”
• “a low-tide sort of face” (of a man in his sixties).
• “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”
• “King’s College choir’s sixteen bat-eared choristers, bereft of hair styles.”
• Music “chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists… [it] binds your quivery soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity.”
• “I let Piccadilly Circus tube station suck me down into its vortex of body odour and bad breath… commuters sway likes sides of beef, and slump like corpses.”
• “Persuasion is not about force: it’s about showing a person a door, and making him or her desperate to open it.”
• “A wealthy upbringing compounds stupidity while a hard-scrabble childhood dilutes it… This is why the elite need a prophylactic barrier of shitty state schools.”
• “Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object.
• “The morning cold is a plunging cold; but the blue sky’s blue as Earth from space, and the warmth from the sun’s a lover’s breath; and icicles drip drops of bright in steep-sloped streets from story books whose passers-by have mountain souls.”
• “The impossible is negotiable. What is possible is malleable.”
• “Like all belongers, the Sykeses and Webbers don’t notice how easily they slip into groups.”
• “Clouds curdled pink in the narrow sky above the blast barriers lining the highway into Baghdad.”
• “The stranger absorbs Hershey’s withering stare like a man in his prime with nothing to fear, notwithstanding the damage that Time the Vandal has done to his face.”
• The US president has “orthodontically majestic sons”.
• “Modesty is vanity’s craftier step-brother.”
• The soul is “a spiritual memory-stick in search of a corporeal hard-drive; and as a placebo we generate to cure our dread of mortality.”
• “Esther enfolded my soul in hers so I could spirit walk much further and faster than I was otherwise able. When she scansioned me I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to Shakespeare. When I scansioned her I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea”.
• “The sun’s sunk behind the [mountain], so the greens are stewing to greys and browns. Leaves and twigs are losing their three-dimensionality… The glass of dusk is filling.”
• “She walks as if distrustful of floors, and sits down as if she’s had some bad experiences with chairs too.”
• “’What lives one day must die’ can, in rare circumstances, be renegotiated… Atemporality, with terms and conditions applied.”
• “There are days when New York strikes me as a conjuring trick. All great cities do and must revert to jungle… Today, however, New York’s here-ness is incontestible, as if time is subject to it, not it subject to time…. Welded girders, inhabited sidewalks and more bricks than there are stars. Who could ever have predicted these vertical upthrusts and squally canyons?”
• Paraphrasing Arthur C Clarke, “Some magic is normality you’re not yet used to.”
• “If you could reason with religious people, there wouldn’t be any religious people.” (It’s rather missing the point of faith, but is true nevertheless.)
• “The sound of waves dies and gives birth to the sound of waves, for ever and ever.”
* A presentation to librarians, in which Mitchell talks initially in general terms and then, from 11:45, The Bone Clocks specifically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxq-F...
* Q&A with HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09...
* Interview that includes a chart of cross-over characters: http://www.vulture.com/2014/08/david-...
* Barnes and Noble interview, including much about Marinus in both this and Thousand Autumns, as well as the importance of music: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/...
* LA Review of Books, general lit crit of Mitchell's uber-novel, but mainly in relation to The Bone Clocks: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/ad...
All my Mitchell reviews are here:
Notes are private!
Sep 03, 2014
Sep 23, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Jul 01, 2008
A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observe A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observer and writer of the small-scale aspects that make life real and characters spring to life. He's also pretty good at writing female characters. In fact, by far the weakest character is male: the faultless Henry Mynors.
In many ways, my life is utterly different from Anna's, but in some key ways, I can identify with her more than I might wish to.
This book is rather like a factory Anna visits: "No stage of the manufacture was incredible by itself, but the result was incredible."
This isn't one of his lightly humorous books (The Grand Babylon Hotel and The Card).
Instead, it features a profoundly nasty man, who never lays a finger on anyone or commits any crime.
Setting and Plot
It's as simple as it says on the back of the book: it's set in the English potteries district, in the early 20th century. Anna Tellwright is about to come of age, and lives with her wealthy, miserly, twice-widowed father (Ephraim) and young half sister (Agnes) in a Methodist-dominated town. Ephraim "existed within himself, unrevealed" even to Anna.
Anna is dutiful, naive, lonely: "the peculiarity of her position... awe and pity were equally mingled" and unfamiliarity with social situations mean she is not "a facile talker".
She inherits money, is taken under the wing of the Suttons, is courted by up-and-coming Henry Mynors, still cares about the fate of the less fortunate (Titus Price and his adult son, Willie), and is very unsure of herself. When invited to a sewing party, she is baffled by the etiquette: "Should she arrive early, in which case she would have to talk more, or late, in which case there would be the ordeal of entering a crowded room?" Who of us has not felt a similar dilemma, even with more experience?
However, she is not mistress of her own destiny, and that is where the tension springs from.
What is love?
Anna's stirrings of love, her excitement and uncertainty ring very true: "the main whose arm she could have touched... She had felt happy and perturbed in being so near him... already she knew his face by heart."
She is afraid and excited, and everything looks different, "She saw how miserably narrow, tepid and trickling the stream of her life had been.. Now it gushed forth warm, impetuous and full." She is even tempted to neglect her duty to her family (only in trivial ways).
Henry calms many of her fears: he's wonderful with Agnes, and even with her father - teasing the former, and braving the latter (even daring to ask for more beef).
However, just when she should be happiest, she feels "no ineffable rapture, not ecstatic bliss." Despite her yearnings, Anna lacks passion, whether for a man or for God (see the Revival section, below). She tries to live as if she has it for both, hoping it will become true.
I also questioned Henry's love for Anna: he seems too perfect and, given his strong religious faith, oddly unperturbed by her lack of conviction (though her dedication is admirable).
Anna's love of her sister is unquestioned and unquestioning, but her feelings about her manipulative father are more complex: "The worst tyrannies of her father never dulled the sense of her duty to him."
Ephraim Tellwright is a former Methodist preacher, but he's a very un-Christian emotional bully. The love of money is perhaps the root of his evil. He is a canny investor, a harsh landlord, and spends almost nothing, so his wealth has accumulated, and he's very proud of how well he's managed Anna's inheritance before she came of age.
He is shrewd and crafty. He simultaneously minimises his donation to the Sunday school and entraps his indebted tenant by promising to match the tenant's donation. He will also "promise repairs [only] in change for payment of arrears which he knew would never be paid". When he hands Anna's inheritance over, he really does no such thing. He makes her pay cheques in, forces her to write letters against her will, and ensures she daren't ask for a penny for herself. When she wants her cheque book, so she can buy a few clothes to go on holiday with the Suttons, he refuses.
Anna's own attitude to money is very different: she makes all her own clothes, has no servant or carriage, and uses nothing on her hair. "The arrival of money out of space, unearned, unasked, was a disturbing experience." "She wanted to test the actuality of this apparent dream by handling a coin and causing it to vanish over counters." The trouble is, she's now too rich to ask her father for any of his money, but she can't use her own, as he's tied her into a business agreement with someone. On holiday with the Suttons, she is startled by their "amazing habit of always buying the best of everything."
It's not only money that makes him mean. Anna and Agnes live in fear of his temper. His "terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart." The mindset behing his bullying misogyny are chillingly exposed: "The women of the household were the natural victims of their master" who had "certain rights over the self-respect, the happiness, the peace of the defenceless souls set under him." When she is engaged, he claims her suitor is only after her money.
Anna has been raised a Methodist and teaches in Sunday School, but feels like an outsider as she's never had a conversion experience. Guilt is not just a prerogative of Roman Catholics.
There is excitement at the prospect of a campaign, featuring a famous preacher with an "ineffably wicked" past: "the faint rumour of that dead wickedness clung to his name like a piquant odour".
In preparation, Anna visits the families of Sunday School children and "found joy in the uncongenial and ill-performed task", both as a penance and because Henry asked her to do it.
In the service, he "had two audiences: God and the congregation". The mesmerising techniques, Biblical exhortations, emotional pressure, guilt, and concern are carefully described: I didn't quite believe (in) him, but wasn't certain that he was a charlatan either: "he had an extraordinary histrionic gift and he used it with imagination".
Poor Anna "was in despair at her own predicament and the sense of sin was not more strong than the sense of being confused and publicly shamed... She heaped up all the wickedness of a lifetime... and found horrid pleasure in the exaggeration... She had never doubted... Jesus died on the cross to save her soul... What then was lacking?" She is tormented by whether to go forward as a penitent, and more, by the knowledge she can't.
When she most needs faith, it fails her. She can't turn to Henry, because he is too pure
I have been Anna. I know all those services, techniques and
feelings. I am now free (despite a painful glimpse back, via this book), and I wanted her to be too.
The key part of the plot is a factory, now owned by Anna, that is rented by Titus Price, a feckless man, deep in debt, with a sweet but ineffectual son, Willie.
Ephraim is keen for Anna to keep squeezing them for the rent arrears - a task Anna is not comfortable with. Worse still, (view spoiler)[Ephraim adds further pressure and threats behind her back. When Titus commits suicide, Anna blames her father and herself - even though the inquest finds other factors, such as embezzling church money. (hide spoiler)] From this, everything in Anna's life is jeopardised.
Gasp! I didn't expect or want a clichéd happy ending or a shockingly tragic one, but I wasn't expecting this, and I'm not sure how I'd describe it (a bit of both?), so I won't!
Anna believes "A woman's life is always a renunciation" (not necessarily of what the reader expects). I don't think Arnold Bennett believes it should be, though. He was a man ahead of his time.
The men (some shirtless) working alongside women in the pottery works was a surprise. More surprising still, was good Christians deliberately providing opportunity for a couple (not even engaged) to spend time alone together. Mind you, she did wear a "skirt which showed three inches of ankle"!
Maybe my history is at fault, though; this was published in 1902, so it just sneaks into the Edwardian, rather than Victorian category.
Quotes - Scenery and Atmosphere
Most of Bennett's books are set in the area he knew well. He portrays small town politics, industry, rivalries, and even makes factories seem beautiful.
"Burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence... unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime... enchanted air... a romantic scene"!
The towns are "forbidding of aspect - sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys had soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country" to a "gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms". This then segues into something rather different: "embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre... this disfigurement is merely an episode in the unending warfare of man and nature and calls for no contrition... Nature is repaid for some of her notorious cruelties."
Factories can be cruel, though. The women paintresses, a few "die of lead poisoning - a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm. One paints nothing but circles, the "summit of monotony... stupendous phenomenon of absolute sameness."
Of those visiting a new park, "people going up to criticize and enjoy this latest outcome of municipal enterprise... housewives whose pale faces, as of prisoners free only for a while, showed a naive and timorous pleasure in this unusual diversion; young women made glorious by richly coloured stuffs and carrying themselves with the defiant independence of good wages... a small well-dressed group whose studious repudiation of the crowd betrayed a conscious eminence of rank."
* Leaving Sunday School, the teachers "gradually dropping the pedagogic pose, and happy in the virtual sensation of a duty accomplished."
* An ageing and charitable woman's "bodily frame long ago proved inadequate to the ceaseless demands of a spirit of indefatigably altruistic, and her continuance in activity was notable illustration of the dominion of mind over matter."
* A young woman of 20 "had the lenient curves of absolute maturity."
* A man of 30 had "the elasticity of youth with the firm wisdom of age."
* A spinster "was lovable, but had never been loved... found compensation for the rigour of destiny in gossip, as innocent as indiscreet."
* "It seemed a face for the cloister... resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment."
* "unconsciously-acquired arrogance of one who had always been accustomed to deference."
* "the quiet enchantment of reverie. Her mind... ranged voluptuously free."
* An old dresser: "Seventy years of continuous polishing by a dynasty of priestesses of cleanliness" looked "as though it had never been new."
* "The double happiness of present and anticipated pleasure."
* Bad news spreads: "All knew of the calamity, and had received from it a new interest in life."
Old fashioned spellings:
Notes are private!
Aug 18, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Aug 18, 2014
Aug 01, 2009
An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes ir An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes irrevocably.
Flux, Transition, Contrast, Stagnation
"Reality seemed to have lost its accustomed hold, just as the day wavered uncertainly between night and morning."
Everyone lives between land and water, but each is also caught in some other dichotomy: childhood or adulthood; togetherness or separation; comfort or poverty; in or out of love; life or death; artistry or manual labour; dreams or cold reality.
"Decision is torment for anyone with imagination" because "you multiply the things you might have done and now never can". But that can lead to paralysis.
Parallels in my Life
I don't relate to the specific circumstances, but the paralysis of indecision, when torn between two thoughts or situations is something I often struggle with. Sometimes it leads to an impulsive decision (which I may or may not regret), other times I try to pass the decision to someone else, or just avoid making it altogether. I feel I should be able to learn from this beautiful book, but it suggests diagnosis (which I'd already worked out), but no prescription. And that's fine.
Setting and Atmosphere
It is set in "the Reach", a small community of barge-dwellers in London, around 1962. The houseboats are permanently moored; their movement is limited to bobbing up and down on the tide.
The residents are very much a community, and yet they have almost nothing in common, other than the fact they are all adrift (even the cat), living in a never-world between land and water - literally, and in a more profound, psychological sense.
"The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water would have liked to be more respectable than they were... but a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up."
It vividly conjures the vicissitudes of the sights and sounds of the water and weather, aided by a splattering of boaty jargon. "The river's most elusive hours, when darkness lifts off darkness, and from one minute to another the shadows declare themselves as houses or craft at anchor."
All the characters are Characters. As are the five boats. In fact, tradition dictates that owners are addressed by the name of their boat, though that doesn't happen all the time, and one owner thwarts it by changing the name of his boat to match his own name.
The main characters are Nenna (only 32, but with daughters Martha, 12, and Tilda, 6); Maurice, a young gay man making ends meet as a prostitute; Willis, an old marine painter, whose boat is in need of sprucing up; boat-proud Woodrow (Woodie); and Richard, a natural leader, ex-navy, now working in insurance, with the biggest, smartest boat.
All have troubles of some sort, though Nenna's are most evident. She's depressed and probably has other mental health issues: when she's alone, her thoughts "took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrates' hearing", perpetually having to defend her action and inaction regarding her marriage. Meanwhile, she is over-reliant on her daughters, who no longer attend school. Her "character was faulty, but she had an instinct to see what made other people unhappy".
"Was there not, on the whole of Battersea Reach, a couple, married or unmarried, living together in the ordinary way?"
Tilda is perhaps the least convincing character, which is a shame, as it could be fixed by making her 10, rather than 6. Growing up in the Reach, she is understandably fascinated by and knowledgeable about the river; she "had the air of something aquatic, a demon from the depths", and "respected the water and knew that one could die within sight of the Embankment". But her language and insight don't always sound right: "Do you think Ma's mind is weakening?" "It's not the kind who inherit the earth... They get kicked in the teeth".
In contrast, Martha is "armed at all points against the possible disappointments of her life, conscious of the responsibilities of protecting her mother and sister, worried a the gaps in her education... she had forgotten for some time the necessity for personal happiness."
(view spoiler)[Nenna often chats long into the night with Maurice, but there is a frisson between her and Richard. Willis' barge (Dreadnaught) sinks, though he escapes, and is put up by Woodie. Eventually, Nenna plucks up courage to visit her husband, Edward. He's a wastrel, recently returned from a failed attempt to make money in South America, and won't come to the boat. (Meanwhile, Martha gets friendly with a 16-year old German, Heinrich, staying for 24 hours, as a friend of a friend of Nenna's sister.) She hoped to spend the night and win him back, but things don't go well, and she walks home, where Richard is waiting (his wife, Laura, has recently left him properly) and takes her out in a dinghy, before returning to the Reach. We later discover they did go into a cabin together. Meanwhile, Laura's wealthy sister is over from Canada, and wants to take her and the girls to start a new life there. But Richard is attacked by Harry, an acquaintance of Maurice (who uses Maurice's boat to store stolen goods) and is severely injured. His wife comes back to take care of him. Meanwhile, Edward comes looking for Nenna, but ends up drinking with Maurice, before trying to board Nenna's barge (she's not in, because of the storm) and possibly falling into the cold and turbulent waters.
Then it ends! I like untidy, open endings, but this was SO open, I was aghast. Do Edward and Maurice survive? Does Richard stay with Laura? Do Nenna and the girls go to Canada, and if not, do she and Richard have a chance, or even she and Edward? Will Harry be caught, and if so, what are the implications for Maurice (if he lived)? What about the homeless and penniless Willis - he surely can't go on living with Woodie? (hide spoiler)]
* "That crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are."
* The advantages of youth, "Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness." Also, "Her heart didn't rule her memory... she was spared that inconvenience."
* A petty criminal "had no expression, as though expressions were surplus to requirements."
* "Tenderly responsive to the self-deception of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own."
* "Martha bruised so easily. A princess, unknown to all about her, she awaited the moment when these bruises would reveal her heritage."
* "Many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other."
* A man, propositioning a woman on a street, "smelled of loneliness".
* "The kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning."
* "She would go with him to the end of the world if his outboard motor was always going to start like that." ;)
* A young German (ex) aristocrat had "an upbringing designed to carry him through changes of regime and frontier, possible loss of every worldly possession... had made him totally self-contained and able with the sunny smile and formal handshake of the gymnast to set almost anybody at their ease."
* "The ship's cat was in every way appropriate for the Reach. She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl... Through years of attempting to lick herself clean, for she had never quite lost her self-respect, Stripey had become as thickly coated with mud inside as out. She was in a perpetual process of readjustment... to tides and seasons... The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable."
Given how much I loved this, I was excited to pick up The Blue Flower. It couldn't have been more different. I had to force myself to finish it. Nevertheless, this was so good, I will give Fitzgerald another chance. One day. ["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"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Aug 08, 2014
Aug 17, 2014
Aug 08, 2014
May 01, 2005
A disparate collection of short stories, connected by considerations of ageing, though the settings (geographical and historical) and style vary consi A disparate collection of short stories, connected by considerations of ageing, though the settings (geographical and historical) and style vary considerably. The other common themes are secrecy, lies and self-delusion.
Some contrast different life stages, whereas others focus on someone already getting on. It's not exactly uplifting, but it's not gloomy either.
Why this, why now?
My book acquisition is largely accidental, or rather, I browse second-hand bookshops for authors that I want to read, books I've heard of, or titles that catch my eye. Having bought a book, it might be days, weeks or years until I read it, triggered by a mix of what I've just read (whether I want something similar or contrasting) and what I've seen here on GR.
When I came across this book, I had read a recent Barnes that I loved (The Sense of An Ending, reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and a very early one that showed promise, but was not great (Staring at the Sun, reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). However, the fact I picked this, when short stories are not my usual fare, rather than one of several of his novels at the same stall, was perhaps a subconscious acknowledgement of my looming half-century. Turning 30 and 40 meant nothing much, but much as I hate to admit it, I think 50 may feel a bit different. These stories are more about old age than middle age, but they chimed somewhat for me.
A Short History of Hairdressing
The stages of a contemporary British boy/man's life, encapsulated in his different experiences and thoughts about having his hair cut. It's subtle and poignant, and the thoughts of the child are particularly convincing, such as musing that "Things you didn't know about, or weren't meant to know about, usually turned out to be rude".
On the cusp of puberty, he makes his first solo trip to the barber. He is scared of perverts, and, to some extent, the barber: "He didn't like not being allowed to be afraid" (in contrast to the dentist) and is anxious because "you were never sure of the rules", even though he's confident that boys aren't expected to tip. He's also worried about being electrocuted by the clippers, but is reassured when he notices the barber's rubber shoes. "He submitted to the cold smoothness of the scissors - always cold even when they weren't."
As a young adult, Gregory's anxieties are different. He still doesn't tip, but now it's because "He thought it a reinforcement of the deferential society". Rather than thinking the barber's pole "rude", he's fully aware of the history of surgeon-barbers. When he accedes to "buy something for the weekend", he is "complicit at last with the hairdresser".
As an old man, "He still... couldn't slide easily into the posture", but "He could do this stuff, customer banter... It had only taken him 25 years to get the right tone". (view spoiler)[He is relaxed (and prepared for) tipping and finally has the confidence to decline to see the rear view of his haircut. (hide spoiler)]
The Story of Mats Israelson
The social structure of a small, remote, nineteenth century Swedish town is delightfully and wryly described. People gossip about nothing, but when there IS something, "Gossip noted... Gossip suggested... Gossip wondered... Gossip decided that the worse interpretation of events was usually the safest and, in the end, the truest."
In church, some pews are "reserved from generation to generation, regardless of merit", whereas the horse stalls outside cannot be bequeathed and are "for the six most important men in the neighbourhood". The stalls bear not labels, "but even so, we know our places. There is no other life.".
So it's no surprise that this is a story of forbidden longing and lost opportunity for happiness, lived out by the protagonists, but paralleled in the mythologised story of Mats. A woman is "divided between not loving a man who deserved it, and loving one who did not... Though she took no account of legends, she had allowed herself to spend half her life in a frivolous dream."
(view spoiler)[Anders Boden manages the sawmill, has a horrid, sarcastic wife, and falls in love with an incomer. She is drawn to him, but falls pregnant by her husband, and realises she is stuck with him. They occasionally meet on a ferry and, knowing she prefers true stories (she says she has no imagination) he polishes the story of Mats Israelson,so he can take her to the mine where it happened. When she says she'd like to go there one day it "had been a much more dangerous remark than 'At night I dream of Venice'.") Years later, she is summoned to his deathbed near the mine. They misunderstand each other, all their planned words are unsaid, and both are hurt. (hide spoiler)]
The Things You Know
Set in contemporary USA, two elderly ladies chat at their monthly meetup in a restaurant. One "talked far too much about getting old" and had undyed hair "so natural it looked false". The other's hair "was an improbably bright straw, and seemed not to care that it was unconvincing". Each silently criticises the other and avoids saying what she really means: it's almost two separate conversations, with each woman quietly trying to outdo or undermine her fellow diner
Each knows a secret about the other, that the one affected does not. (view spoiler)[Merril does not know, or is in denial about, her late husband being the "campus groper", and Janice does not know that hers was gay. (hide spoiler)] "Knowing this gave Merril a sense of superiority, but not of power."
Are they really friends, or just allies?
Back to 20th century Britain and a retired soldier says goodbye to his wife to go on his annual trip to London for a regimental dinner, organised like a military campaign and (view spoiler)[a rendezvous with his mistress (hide spoiler)]. He considers his life and gradually changing abilities in a detached way.
(view spoiler)[When he turns up at his mistress' house, he discovers she was a prostitute and has died. He can't perform with the substitute As he had given money to his "mistress", coupled with some of the things she'd said, he surely knew - at some level. (hide spoiler)]
An old playwright is surprised when his once-banned play is about to be staged. A young actress is the driving force, but she wants to play one of the minor characters.
Gradually, he feels the actress really IS the very embodiment of his creation (view spoiler)[and falls in love with her (hide spoiler)].
However, the story is cloudy. The unnamed narrator is unsure of the facts, saying "letters have not survived" and "his diary was later burned" - not that they'd have helped because apparently they weren't accurate anyway!
"He was a connoisseur of the if-only. So they did not travel. They travelled in the past conditional." Time does not always heal pain, but "a trip back in the painless past conditional... anaesthetizes pain." His final gift is "a false memory".
This first-person narrator could almost be one of Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads".
He has always enjoyed going to London concerts, but now his pleasure comes from getting angry with noisy or unappreciative audience members, so that his partner will no longer come too. Incidents escalate in a rather comical way.
The balance is that (view spoiler)[his partner is a cyclist who takes similar pleasure at berating bad car drivers (hide spoiler)].
A wealthy French man who is a gambler and food-lover gives up gambling, and he and his wife get fat. She chokes on her food, he feels guilty, and loses interest in life.
He is rejuvenated by a fundraising scheme to build public baths in which the last survivor of the 40 original donors gets a good pension. The gambling instinct kicks in, and he takes great care of his own health (diet of fruit and bark), and a morbid interest in the declining health of the others - even though many are friends. But "what is the reason for living if it is only to outlive others?"
There is a cycle of fate and revenge: (view spoiler)[he pays for weekly sex sessions with a young woman at the baths, allegedly for his health. He tells a friend, who tells him to break it off, but not why. It turns out, she is the friend's illegitimate daughter, but she is now pregnant, with her own illegitimate child. (hide spoiler)]
A strangely self-referential story: in 1986, and old woman writes a series of letters to Julian Barnes about co-incidences and literature.
She also writes about the tyranny of living in an old people's home, where everyone else is mad, deaf or both. Looking forward, rather than back, gets harder as you age.
We never see his replies, though she refers to them. When she dies, he asks for his letters to be returned, but is told they've already been disposed of. Is this pure or partial fiction, and does it matter?
A terminally ill dentist with dementia is read cookery books by his second wife. It's almost erotic, but really to trigger related memories. He makes occasional uncharacteristic crude sexual demands, but she doesn't take it personally, quietly loving him and easing his passing for them both.
The Fruit Cage
A middle aged son airs his worries about his parents. Their health seems OK, but their are tensions in their relationship.
It turns out to be a story about (view spoiler)[an adult coping with parents splitting up, in part, because one has been having an affair. But this echoes back to awkwardness about their relationship, going back many years. She has been abusing him for years, and even after he moves in with his mistress, she still has the power. A final assault leaves him brain damaged. The women visit on alternate days, and he seems to think each is his wife. (hide spoiler)]
Back to Sweden at the custom of the 19th and 20th centuries, for the memories of an old composer who knew all the greats of classical music, but was not himself a great. He is lonely and confused, "Nowadays, when my friends desert me, I can no longer tell whether it is because of my success or my failure."
"Music begins where words cease. What happens when music ceases? Silence." Yet his wife and five daughters are banned from making music at home. "My music is molten ice. In its movement you may detect its frozen beginnings, in its sonorities you may detect its initial silence."
Meaning of the title
According to one of the stories, "Among the Chinese, the lemon is the symbol of death", and a character ends up "calling for a lemon" when he's had enough of life.
* "A glutinous whine from the radio."
* Unattainable love, "She was unprepared for the constant, silent, secret pain."
* "Were you as young as you felt, or as old as you looked?"
* "Pleasures not as strong as they had once been... so you drank less, enjoyed it more."
* "Every love... is a real disaster when you give yourself over to it entirely."
* "After the age of forty... the basis of life: Renunciation." and then talks about "the voluptuousness of renunciation".
* "If we [21st century] know more about sex, they [20th?] know more about love."
* "The village shop is 'good for essentials' which means that people use it to stop it closing down."
* "The Four Last Things of Modern Life: making a will, planning for old age, facing death, and not being able to believe in an afterlife."
* "A brisk woman... who gave off a quiet reek of high principle."
* "Geese would be beautiful if cranes did not exist."
Worst, and lastly, "Cheer up! Death is round the corner."["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"]>["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"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 22, 2014
Aug 08, 2014
Jul 22, 2014
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 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"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Jul 04, 2014