Lots of pluses: Unique and compelling voice of a child protagonist. If you liked Oskar (of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Christopher (of ThLots of pluses: Unique and compelling voice of a child protagonist. If you liked Oskar (of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Christopher (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, you’ll probably love Jack. Treads a little too close to preciousness in some spots, but Donohoe uncovers the themes of parenting, trauma, psychological resilience; and the triumph of imagination, the inner world and the bond between mother and child over horror bit by bit and convincingly. Some of the minor characters are flat and ‘caricaturish’—a flaw that is easily forgiven by how well-plotted and original it is. Doesn't feel exploitative. Book club bait, and that's okay.
This book is just devastating ... and devastatingly good. I've just finished it, and had a little cry on the balcony in the bright sunshine, thinkingThis book is just devastating ... and devastatingly good. I've just finished it, and had a little cry on the balcony in the bright sunshine, thinking about my mom and motherhood and blame, self-recrimination, guilt and remorse and parental love and the painfully ambiguous, sometimes tortured complexity of it all.
And that is underselling it.
Suffice for now to say, you might not enjoy this if:
- You believe that a lack of maternal instinct or feeling is a character flaw or a moral failing; - You come out soundly on the nurture either side of the nature/nurture continuum; - You believe parents always, at some point and for most things, need to be held accountable for their child's behaviour; - You seek the anxiety-quelling solace that pat sociological and psychological theories and labels offer: post-partum depression, sociopathy, unconditional positive regard.
This novel should, I hope, blast through any of those preconceptions--some of which, at some times in my life, I've believed.
Shriver turns all of this on its ear, and twists some literary and plot conventions to her own purposes at the same time. She is steadfast and clear-eyed in her determination to dismantle the 'blame the parents' catechism that passes for analysis and explanation of that which is inexplicable, in this case a school shooting and the lives, events and choices that led to it.
To do so, she creates characters who are unlikeable, sometimes deeply so, but oh-so-human: even Kevin. Unless you're a sociopath, which I think is one of her points, you cannot help but empathize with each of them at times; hate them at others; give them the benefit of the doubt frequently, too frequently perhaps, which is another.
Whether or not you are a parent (I am not), you cannot help but feel that you've been given a rare insight into someone's worst nightmare, because you have -- whatever angle you are viewing from -- and there is nowhere to go to depersonalize or escape it.
Shriver sidles up to her characters, cycling through the subjectivity of a first-person narrative from a defense into a self-flagellation into an exposition. Though the jig was up half-way through for me in terms of one of the last plot twists, it didn't matter and didn't detract from the facility with which the author employed the epistolary style, and the emotional punch it levelled.
Eva's retrospective self-analysis, through a lens tinged by tragedy, guilt and shame, gives us a perspective into events and motivations both in hindsight and as they unfold, retaining the immediacy and intensity that only a first-person account can provide. It happened but it is never past, because the telling makes it happen in perpetuity, which is exactly how trauma works.
Because of who she is, Eva is able to present with alarming clarity that which is unambiguously evil, and therefore that which remains ambiguous is doubly so. Shriver does not let anyone off the hook--these characters are so complex in their humanity, and yet they are also Boomer-upper middle-class shallow, which is never reduced to a cliche. She also never fails to produce horror--infused with the dark comedy to which only its victims or observers from a comfortable distance are entitled (and we are neither)--from sometimes mundane domestic details (an "eviscerated" 3-yr old's birthday cake. An exotic pet, a clogged drain and a shaver with an inordinately large amount of hair in it. A glass-eyed antique doll given as a Christmas present.) Kevin's rampage, like Shriver's prose, is revealed in poetic detail.
I was sometimes shaking with anger while reading. I would have smashed the water pistol a half-dozen pages earlier, yet when Eva finally did, her remorse at her ink-stained yellow shoe left the justification for the act coloured with her materialistic shallowness and hypocrisy. This scene, one of so many, revealed character in a way that only an absolutely top-notch novelist can ever produce.
Have I said? The writing is brilliant. God is in the details in this novel, in which every page needs, probably, to be read a dozen times (not that I could bear it).
And there is substance to go with that style: Eva's agoraphobic mother's offer to fly to her after Thursday reduced me to tears, as one mother's unconditional love and courage reflected on the other's--in a mirror, or in relief? Hard to say.
There are no easy answers here, for Eva or for us. There is no clear truth or explanation why, a matter on which all sides, including the reader, must--against our human desire for explanation, order-out-of-chaos, resolution--reluctantly come to agree.
This review, now, is an incoherent ramble--unlike Eva's self-confessional, bibliotherapeutic letters and the novel itself. It is still a fresh wound for me, and I will need to come back later when I've stanched the flow a bit. ...more
It's been a long time since I've stayed up late into the night, reading just another chapter ... and then another ... and so what if it's 3 a.m., andIt's been a long time since I've stayed up late into the night, reading just another chapter ... and then another ... and so what if it's 3 a.m., and tears are streaming down my cheeks, and all that's left to read are the acknowledgements at the end and I do, because I'm as unwilling to let these characters go as they are to let each other go.
The themes of this novel are as complex as you want to make them: freewill versus determinism; genetic abnormalities, relativity and evolutionary theory; memories, love, death, loss and our relationship to time. But aside from the themes that lend the story depth, this novel is first and foremost a powerful love story.
The science fiction premise of time travelling is dramatic and effective to keep the story moving along (albeit in a disconcertingly non-linear--and occasionally confusing--fashion) and to illuminate the themes. I found myself interested in how the conceit was working and trying to sort out the internal logic of both the time travel and of Henry's chromosomal disability. But that quickly took second fiddle (!) to the main story arc. (Glossing over the inconsistencies in the logic of Henry's time travel is important to preserve the 'believability' of the rest of the story. Niffenegger has a less-than-adequate mastery of the time travel conceit. She would do well to study Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation time-space continuum rift narratives if she chooses to continue in a sci-fi vein for her second novel).
Regardless, time travelling serves primarily here as a device to illustrate how people, and in particular Clare and Henry, find each other and how their individual stories and the events of their lives become interwoven into an "us" that is both inevitable and random.
If we reject the science fiction premise as poorly executed or too science fiction-ey to be believable--especially as nested within this story that is otherwise so very 'normal'--we can still look on the bouncing around through time and space as being an apt analogy for memory, and we can all relate to that. We reminisce about the happy times, reliving them again and again to sustain us in times of difficulty. We ruminate about past hurts and traumas, unable to let them go. Both the good and the bad memories shape us into the people we are. Henry is frustrated by knowing what is going to happen but is unable, because he didn't the first time around, to change the outcome. Often, we wish we could go back in time and change things, recognizing all the while that--whether for good or for ill--every experience we've had has made us into who we are.
Niffenegger is clever in showing us how our place in time--the music we listen to, the books we read, the clothes we wear--do more than just define us at any given age: they carry forward into the people we become. Niffenberger plays with the theme of time travel in myriad ways, some subtle and some ironic, but all with the intention of looking at time, place, space and memory from every possible angle. As Clare looks down at the dance floor at the Violent Femmes' concert, she notes the audience is in their teens, 20s, 30s and "even some older." Henry and his younger self travel backwards in time from the 19th, to the 18th, to the 17th Centuries as they stroll through successive rooms in the museum. On a trip from Chicago to Michigan, Clare and Henry remark on how strange it is to skip ahead an hour moving from Central to Eastern timezone.
These images reinforce the much larger question of how we are shaped by the times in which we live. Henry's affinity for punk music gives him a certain identity in his 20s, but is no less important at defining him in his late-30s. The opportunity Henry has to re-experience events at different ages and stages, as a child, then as a young adult, then in middle-age, give him an enviable omniscience. The implication is that Henry gains a perspective and wisdom that we lesser-evolved lifeforms never have: he occupies some realm between human and angel. (Clare's fascination for angels and birds; and her lapsed Catholicism--none of which are overtly explored in any heavy-handed way--resonate when played off of the spiritual connotations of Henry's uniqueness).
But the bottom line, the consistent theme and the anchor point for the story is the love between these two characters. Henry is a planet revolving around Clare, his sun. She gives his life shape, direction and purpose. And the sun is nothing without having something to shine upon: Clare needs Henry as much as he needs her. Thankfully, the story doesn't degenerate into some saccharine cliché -- although I now hear it is being made into a movie starring Rachel McAdams, and if anyone can make a rich, complex and powerful love story into a trite chick-flick, it would be her. ...more
**spoiler alert** This is good story-telling, and for me, a welcome relief from much of the po-mo fare that takes itself too seriously and sacrifices**spoiler alert** This is good story-telling, and for me, a welcome relief from much of the po-mo fare that takes itself too seriously and sacrifices plot for technique. I know that Chabon has been criticized for being too expositional, but I never found his lengthy explanations off-putting, nor did they slow the story down at all. If anything, there was too much plot in the plot -- not extra detail, not description -- but a story that deviated from its original strong premise and wandered off down paths that ultimately led nowhere.
I perhaps started this with expectations that were too high, so the following might be overcritical.
At the core, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a story about people who are, themselves, creating story and attempting to bring legitimacy to a new art form, i.e. comic books. This is an interesting, artful and original premise. Joe and Sammy are fighting evil vicariously through the comic book heroes they create, while simultaneously confronting and attempting to escape from their own real-life demons.
Meticulously researched, Chabon enlists real-life characters of the time (Salvador Dali, Harry Houdini, Orson Welles) and creates composites (Sammy and Joe are said to loosely be based on Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster of Superman fame) to tell his story. The dialogue sparkles, and leaves me scratching my head as to why they haven't made a movie of this one yet (I read that the project has stopped and started several times).
Sticking with the positives: the dialogue is compelling; the characters even more so. Chabon even creates footnotes to allude to the real-life basis upon which The Escapist is built--I was never sure if these were fact or fiction. All of it comes together giving an epic feel to the story, and rooting it in a particular time-and-place, New York City in 1939, at the genesis of our now well-known comic book superheroes. Very evocatively rendered.
Another thing that works well is the way the story is told: traditionally, with foreshadowing and flash-backs that are well-placed and neatly inserted into a plot that moves steadily forward for the first half of the novel. I enjoyed those chapters that described one or another of the comic book scenes that Joe/Sammy were creating, layered on top of the story and illuminating different aspects and themes.
The language and, especially, the sentence structure are unnecessarily complicated at times. Nice for building vocabulary, but some of Chabon's Dickensian sentences felt like stepping off an escalator a little too early. This book should come with a machete for hacking your way through some of those paragraph-long clunkers.
300 pages in, this story was well in 5-star territory for me. It felt reminiscent of two other novels, which happen to sandwich it in the Pulitzer line-up: The Hours, for its underlying tone of anxiety and impending doom; and Middlesex, for its historical scope and galloping story line. But as it went on, my enthusiasm flagged, mostly because the doom never really happened.
Huge chunks of the action are almost stories within the story but ultimately, I wondered what they added and whether they were necessary. Sammy's sexuality and the beach-house scene seemed pivotal--but to what end? Joe's Antarctic experience was similarly obtuse--what was it for? What element of character, plot or theme did it reveal that we didn't already know? Both of these scenes seemed designed to create a reason or add resonance to scenes that came later--Sammy's testimony and questioning at the Senate Sub-Committee Hearing, which reveals his "shameful secret"; Joe's long absence and then return, and his disconnection and inability to reconnect with Sammy, Rosa and especially, his surrogate little brother/son, Tommy.
These scenes seemed to waylay the original conflict, i.e., Joe's desire to get his family out of Prague while simultaneously using the development of The Escapist character and comic book as a metaphor for fighting the evil Nazis.
At the beginning, the premise was set up beautifully: Joe's schooling as a magician and escape artist and his real-life drama of escaping from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia inside the coffin of the golem--itself a symbol of magic and an avenging protector. The lightness and romance--even tawdryness--of the comic books Sammy and Joe were creating played off nicely against the dark and dangerous backdrop of the beginning of WW II. The central conflict and character motivations are established well.
As Joe and Sammy are developing story lines, there's an important exchange between them about "what is the why?":
"Why is he doing it?" "Doing what?" "Dressing up like a monkey or an ice cube or a can of fucking corn." "To fight the crime, isn't it?" "Well, yes, to fight crime. To fight evil. But that's all any of these guys are doing. That's as far as they ever go. They just...you know, it's the right thing to do, so they do it. How interesting is that?" "I see." "Only Batman, you know...see, yeah, that's good. That's what makes Batman good, and not dull at all, even though he's just a guy who dresses up like a bat and beats people up." "What is the reason for Batman? The why?" "His parents were killed, see? In cold blood. Right in front of his eyes, when he was a kid. By a robber." "It's revenge." "That's interesting," Sammy said. "See?"
Chabon loses the why for Joe when he lets us know the fate of Joe's brother, Thomas, and from then on, the plot loses focus. It becomes less about escape from evil, and more about the rise and fall of the comic book industry. Ironically enough, it loses the "why" that made the story interesting. Despite the contrivance of any number of set-pieces--including the Antarctic scene--it seems to limp to its final conclusion. The most dramatic moments were foreshadowed and then underplayed, sapping them of any energy or tension. Turning points in the plot--Bacon's departure; Joe's return to NYC; the revelation to Tommy of his father's identity--felt listless. Lots happened, some of it quasi-dramatic, but none of it seemed relevant or heading anywhere important.
The conclusion, when it finally comes, with its suggestion of domestic bliss and happily-ever-after, is as predictable and boring as the suburban setting in which it takes place. The arrival of the golem, now a pile of dirt inside a pine box, seems incongruous and even beside the point. It's a sad denouement to a story that started off with such a bang and then turned to dust.
5 stars for the first half, the beautiful language, the galloping plot and premise 3 stars for the second half and the ending that started in the middle and fizzled out altogether about 150 pages too late Being generous, averaging it out at 4.
This is an excellent overview, written for the layperson. Extremely well-researched (once I figured out the endnote section!!) without being ponderousThis is an excellent overview, written for the layperson. Extremely well-researched (once I figured out the endnote section!!) without being ponderous. Kelly's anecdotal, story-telling style--which does take his interpretation a little far beyond the facts (see comments)--is like a spoonful of sugar, which is not to say that he's making the Plague more palatable, but he is bringing energy and momentum into what could have become a truly mind-numbing set of statistics.
A couple of things I really appreciated:
- he devotes the last chapter to debunking the theories of modern Plague Deniers: that the Black Death was not bubonic plague, but anthrax, Ebola, something else. He carefully details then counters the current controversies. Then, he presents new evidence (DNA samples from the teeth of 14th C plague victims compared to those of the third and last plague pandemic in India, which confirm it was the same bacteria that caused both). I've seen synopses of this book where it makes it appear as though this book supports the Plague Deniers' position. It does not.
- yes, he anthropomorphizes the y. pestis bacteria. He follows it on its journey from its origins to its final destination, likening it to an army, a military campaign, a terrorist attack. This is remarkably effective at 'humanizing' not just the disease, but its effects on individuals and on societies. Most of all, it is an organizing device that provides never-flagging momentum, and helps him avoid repetition and backtracking. I have almost zero tolerance for most non-fiction but here, while there was a little repetition, overall Kelly was able to synethesize a whack o' information without (in my view) becoming too pedantic.
Couple of things to brace yourself for (other than the obvious gruesomeness):
- where he does not have direct evidence, he uses comparisons from later events as proof points. I can give him the benefit of the doubt when he compares 14th C Black Death plague in London to 17th C plague in London. But comparing the effects of Nagasaki/Hiroshima to those of 1347 Italy? The post WWI Lost Generation to 1352 Western Europe? It's a bit of a stretch.
- I sniffed a sexist Anglophile in places. The British response to Plague was portrayed with a lighter hand; their behaviour presented as slightly more heroic. Why introduce Monica, St. Augustine's overbearing mother, along with Churchill's? Some other places too, more egregious. I've blocked them from my memory now.
- he often drops major fact bombs, draws a conclusion, but doesn't tell the whole story. Checking the endnotes, there IS more of a story to tell. The little girl, named Ryke ('wild bird"), who was the sole survivor of a Nordic village found months later by a rescue party. OMG. Can you imagine? Details, I want details.
- typos, typos, typos. Where the hell are the copy editors/proofreaders these days!? I'm available, and my rates are reasonable.
a) I liked it better than Mrs. Dalloway (purely subjectively/emotionally, which would seem to be the best way to take inAll I know right now is that:
a) I liked it better than Mrs. Dalloway (purely subjectively/emotionally, which would seem to be the best way to take in and then respond to this work), and b) my trick of using Atwood as a lever to catapult me into the depths of Woolf seems to have worked, at least partially, for some strange reason.
In trying to come up with points of comparison (see comments below) between Woolf and Atwood while reading this, I first of all could only find contrast, but secondly came to appreciate BOTH authors more. My esteem for Atwood was already high; mine for Woolf has now risen (like the tide? ouch, I promised not to do that).
I struggle with Woolf -- I still struggle with her. But I'm finding the struggle more enjoyable -- perhaps like the peace that is said to come upon one as one freezes to death (I would have said drowning, but I don't think drowning is a peaceful death, and I've vowed to avoid water metaphors here. How am I doing so far?).
I need to let her be what she is, let the halo of intimidation that still surrounds her work fade to a dull glow and allow myself to be ... immersed ... in her prose.
I will say, she doesn't *last* for me. I don't go to bed, after reading, mulling over what I've read. As deeply immersed (there is no other word) as I am when the book is open, as soon as I close it and look up, I am dry. Powerful as she is when I'm reading, with those startling insights and the pace of those revolving point-of-view scenes (the dinner party in this one is extraordinary!), and as much as I admire her craft, I find -- perhaps because she is only, or primarily, engaging me at an emotional level? -- that I can't hold on to those insights and process them once I close the book and look up, leaving her internal landscape and re-entering my own.
Some of this is because I truly can't identify with her characters -- not that she's much for rich characterization, or plot -- and perhaps that is my number one issue with stream-of-consciousness overall. Mrs. Ramsay seems like a version of Mrs. Dallaway to me, neither one of whom seems much like me. Their thoughts are not my thoughts. More importantly, they're not much like anyone I'd want to spend much time with.
For here it is: if I had to spend much time with someone that navel-gazing, that flighty, that emotionally labile, that ... needy, I would -- I swear to God -- have to slap them silly.
I'm sorry, so sorry. I realize that brands me as a certain kind of person, with a certain lack of sympathy/empathy for a certain kind of female character -- a female character (or characters) and an author who speaks deeply and eloquently and compellingly to many of you. But she doesn't to me. She doesn't 'get' me, and I don't 'get' her. We do not occupy the same emotional landscape, and as a result, there is a wall between us that -- no matter my attempt at empathy -- I can't seem to scale with her.
That is the nub of the Woolf/Atwood parallel for me. I don't get Woolf's characters, and her characters don't get me. The insights, the remarkable -- truly remarkable -- honing in on the deepest, most core, most raw and unvarnished thought or emotion of one character in response to another, that reads like foreign ground to me in Woolf -- whereas in Atwood, it matches *my* emotional terrain so precisely, that the resonance for me is multi-sensual (hence, my Atwood synesthesia, which I've written about here before).
So and but! Although there's still a wall between Woolf, her characters, and me, I'm still interested in exploring it. I'm heading to The Waves, next. ...more
I'm not quite finished yet, but tThis appears to be one ginormous "Metaphor" stretched like canvas to the ripping point over the rickety frame of a chI'm not quite finished yet, but tThis appears to be one ginormous "Metaphor" stretched like canvas to the ripping point over the rickety frame of a character portrait. A portrait, that is, of the artist as a pathologically egocentric, arrogant, callous youth who, despite his dawning self-awareness as he approaches death, appears to have lots of regrets but little remorse.
Unless something unbelievable happens in the next 40 pages (which given the pace so far would be shocking indeed), I'm not sure he's going to redeem himself. ETA Aug 1/09: It didn't.
Is Jane Urquhart one of the more overrated Canadian writers, or am I just excessively grumpy these days?
I do recall liking The Stone Carvers but right now, couldn't tell you why. I also think I've read this one before, but it obviously left no impression on me. Not sure why I seem to feel drawn to this author, but I come away with no lasting memory of any of her novels. Does this happen to anyone else, or am I just a really lazy reader?!?
First off, I find the whole notion of the monarchy - any monarchy - absurd. And also, despite being a citizen of a Commonwealth nation with Her RoyalFirst off, I find the whole notion of the monarchy - any monarchy - absurd. And also, despite being a citizen of a Commonwealth nation with Her Royal Majesty's mug plastered all over my bills and coins, the Union Jack incorporated into my provincial flag, and a mom who dragged me out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch Lady Diana, Princess of Wales walk to her doom - err, groom - I am not, nor have I ever been, a monarchist.
I honestly don't remember what kind of history I was taught in school, but the Royal Lineage (aren't you supposed to capitalize everything to do with Them? or is that just God?) wasn't, as I recall, on the curriculum or more likely, I wasn't paying attention if it was.
So - entering this book - tea-soaked brain and lover of the superfluous 'u' in labour, favour, rigour, honour aside - I was a blank slate. All I know of Henry VIII is that he had and had killed a lot of wives and you need a big ole' turkey leg as a prop if you're planning a Hallowe'en costume.
I loved Wolf Hall. And, I'm going to talk about why, but let me start with the caveat that Simon E's review (which convinced me to read this) and also Clif H's and David G's will give you more and better insights into a lot of what makes this book so fabulous, i.e., the nuance and energy of the writing, the detail and precision of it, and - in short - what it's about.
'Coz all that is important, but while I cared about it (and especially, the knotty problem of the non-specific third-person, which I *will* comment on shortly), that's not what mattered to me.
Thomas Cromwell mattered (matters) to me.
So I'm going to talk about character - and specifically Thomas Cromwell - and that's pretty much all I'm going to talk about because for me: he was the book; the book was him. It's as though Mantel had to wrestle him onto the page, he's so big. I totally understand - as pointed out in The Atlantic's recent blurb about Bring Up The Bodies - why she decided to extend this book into a series - and ended up needing three books to get through his life.
She can't leave the guy. And I didn't want to, either.
Now - here's where my lack of English history comes in: I have no idea who he is, who he really is (does anyone?) nor have I read anything else about him, biographical or fictional. Although I was provoked to learn more about him at about the point where Mantel started to hint around at him getting remarried and I wondered, to whom? among the lucky dames swirling about him, all of whom seemed eager to get a piece of the mighty fine Mr. Cromwell, even though he "looks like a murderer."
Mantel portrays him as a man of massive charisma, a 16th-century James Bond, smooth, suave, eminently capable and a little dangerous, his vast knowledge stemming from sources unknown but slightly shady. Cromwell can judge the quality of a Turkish rug, spatchcock a songbird, and kill a man with a single knife twist all before cocktail hour and without breaking a sweat.
In terms of seeking more in the way of biography (with some need to reconcile Mantel's portrayal with reality - but, I now think, why?) I only went as far as wikipedia. There, I learned with some sadness what eventually became of him. Ceridwen said somewhere about reading books about The Plague that it's always so horrible because you know how it's going to end, that everyone is going to die, but it still hits you like a ton of bricks when they do.
But Cromwell doesn’t die here, nor does Boleyn, although a lot of other people do – and in some pretty horrifying ways. Burning, disembowelling – Mantel doesn’t flinch when presenting the many and gruesome deaths – and more to the point, she has her readers contemplate them in the same way that the condemned are: showing us scenes of anticipation and preparation that are gut-wrenching (e.g., the fellow - I forget his name, starts with a B - and the candle in the Tower), but which are also necessary to put us in the middle of this world, and feel for these characters deeply; to understand how a thoughtless word, a loyalty held too long, a momentary lapse in correctly sensing the shift in weather and whim can lead to ruin.
And, in the process, making Cromwell’s accomplishments all the more stunning.
With the single exception, perhaps, of Cromwell (who sticks out like a sore thumb; he's somehow different than the rest of these people; more 'modern'), it doesn't matter who you are, how hard you work, or what natural abilities you possess. None of these bears a direct correlation to fame, fortunes or outcome. It only matters who you are born to, whose favour you curry or attract, and what role the powerful want you to play in their chess game.
What Mantel is showing us is the rise and fall from power of each of the most significant characters during this volatile time. The opportunities seized, alliances forged, compromises made on the way up – and how they unravel on the way down.
Politics. Whether power is obtained by divine right or democracy, the humans at the heart of it – across time – are the same creatures, with lusts, greed, principles and passions for money, for sex, for respect, for domination.
This is politics and history lifting off the page through the most extraordinary characterization – humanization, really. This is absolutely the best that historical fiction can be.
Let me also talk about dialogue just a bit: it, too, is almost anachronistically modern. It’s especially so when it comes out of Cromwell's mouth. It's modern in the sense that it is dry, ironic, sarcastic, humorous and most of all egalitarian. When Thomas has a conversation with someone – but especially his wife and children – he is listening. He is listening with his heart and head wide open to other people’s feelings and desires, and with an empathy born out of his own abusive past. That is if not the key, certainly a key to understanding his personality.
He has a psychotherapist’s ability to understand motivation: what people want, why they want it, how far they’ll go to get it. And then, he has an opportunist’s ability to insert himself in exactly the place he needs to be to help them do it.
This dual- (tri, quadri-?) sided, chameleon-like personality – will the real Thomas Cromwell please stand up? – is Mantel’s incredible, extraordinary accomplishment here.
He made me nervous. I had my sociopath-sniffer on full alert. He reminded me, at times, of personalities I’ve encountered in the corporate world: snakes in suits. All charm and manipulation and laser-like, greed-headed, power-seeking opportunism. They disguise their lust for power behind facile arguments about “win-win-win” and “trickle-down” scenarios and "their employees being their greatest assets," when really, they'd sell their own mothers for a shot at a C-level title and all the accoutrements that come with. They manage up and abuse down.
But Cromwell – largely by virtue of the brain-busting non-specific third person POV that Mantel uses to bring us inside his head – is not a sociopath. Yep – he’s an opportunist. Yep – he’s a manipulator. But he’s not cruel. He does not use his extrasensory perception about people without compassion or kindness. Mantel shows us a Cromwell trying to get everyone what they need, help them position themselves appropriately - but some can't be saved. Some are going to be casualties of the bigger shift he sees coming.
Also: he loves - really loves - children and animals (showing him with all those little dogs named Bella is not accidental).
When Cromwell wins, it actually is true that a whole bunch of other people win – and those who don’t (Thomas More, e.g.), are not just on the wrong side of the power elite, but on the wrong side of the wave that is about to swamp this society: a reformation of manners, morality and social structure that will, eventually, triumph. As Cromwell envisions.
There is a clear, strong sense here that Cromwell does not do what he does for personal gain (or at least, not primarily for that – that’s a happy artifact), but because he’s pursuing that vision of a meritocratic democracy in which beat-up little boys and used-and-abused little girls can grow up and get a share of the nation’s massive wealth (throughout much of his own lifetime, held by the Church).
Ok, maybe that’s overstating it. His own vision, while expansive, while prescient, may not have been that progressive. But ... then again ... in both subtle and overt ways, we see Cromwell who is a man out of his own time, a notion that Mantel deliberately heightens through his style of dialogue, and his very thoughts which we are privy to via that third-person POV.
He wanted to wrest the wealth away from the Church so the King could have it – but he ALSO realized that transferring the full weight of power previously held by the Church onto the King would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Instead, he wanted the power of the King to be supported by the will of the people. He foresaw not only the religious reformation that had to occur, but the political one: that together, these were the seeds of a constitutional monarchy that would rule only through the political will of the people.
It is as though Mantel reverse-engineered the guy. I feel she must have said to herself: what kind of man would be able to engineer a precedent-shattering divorce for Henry VIII, the English Reformation – oh, and while we’re at it, the beginning of the English Parliamentary system? She knew it wasn’t Henry VIII himself – that someone else must have been the man behind the curtain, and that someone was Thomas Cromwell.
So she built him – layer by layer, scene by scene. Starting on the first page, where the first paragraph shows him being beaten viciously by his father.
We start with Thomas Cromwell as an abused child.
I cannot emphasize this enough. He is an abused child who grows up to have deep compassion and exhibit remarkable kindness in a world that is, to our modern eyes, inconceivably cruel. The psychology of that can play out in any number of ways, but the horrific abuse and abandonment that Cromwell experienced is the crucible out of which his personality and all his later acts were forged.
He is a man deeply in love with his first (and only?) wife, whom he treats as an equal.
He is a tradesman, a businessman and a believer that, like him, all men have within them the same abilities. And so he is also a mentor and a teacher to them. (There is an extraordinary scene of him with a young boy that Thomas More had horrifically abused, breaking down with Cromwell. It is brilliant. I forget the character’s name now, maybe he was someone who went on to do something great in history. Or maybe he wasn’t; doesn't matter. It is Cromwell's connection with him that matters.) How many young men, pseudo-sons, does he take under his wing - orphans, ruffians, of low birth just like him?
He’s a self-made man whose lack of rank in this society presents a constant hurdle but also offers him the ability to see an alternate reality.
He’s an accountant, a lawyer, a biblical scholar. He follows the money, he makes the laws and he outreasons the priests and bishops with superior knowledge not only of scripture, but of how to use it to galvanize the masses. Calling him a ‘renaissance man’ – a descriptor Henry VIII claimed for himself – would be underselling him.
What he is not: a liar, a bully, a thief, or a sociopath.
And also what he is not is principled: he really doesn’t have any of his own. Loyalty, maybe; but not at the cost of his own skin or fortunes. He was absolutely tortured by the downfall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsley, but he also cold-bloodedly extricated himself from going down with him despite the personal trauma it caused him.
And that is where Thomas Cromwell differs from most of us: he serves whichever master will enable him to execute his own vision, almost entirely BECAUSE he has no dogma of his own (Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”) He is surprised when, twice, he offers condemned traitors (including Thomas More) a way out, and they don’t take it – standing firm on their own dogmatic allegiance to principle. This is Cromwell’s biggest blindspot – also, the thing that enables him to survive.
I have Bring Up The Bodies sitting right in front of me. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to delight in the anticipation and delay my gratification.
Historical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-tHistorical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-to-be and her manipulative, astonishing mother, written as though it was speculative fiction.
If you think there’s a lot to unpack in that first sentence, you ain’t read Hild yet.
Politics, war, and the very early Christian conversion attempts by Roman priests in 7th Century Britain.
Women. Spinning, weaving, plotting, planning, making the world go 'round.
A plucky, promiscuous slave-maid. A kind, prescient slave-priest. A brother by another mother.
Avaricious bishops. Cruel kings who condemn with a smile and kill with the flick of a ring.
More plot threads, family trees, shifting alliances, and linking symbolism (most based on the natural world or women’s never-ending work of weaving) than you can stab a sword at. Patterns, patterns everywhere. And Hild the primary pattern seer, oracle and omen reader – reader and writer, she’s literate (taught by the aforementioned slave-priest) – and pattern weaver for her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria.
Hild looks for the patterns, deciphers them, feeds them back to those who can act on them – and predicts the future to save her own life, to save (view spoiler)[her half-brother (hide spoiler)]Cian, to save her household, her gemaecceBegu (think pagan BFFs! with benefits!) and her maid Gwyladus (does the laundry! does Hild!).
Mostly, to make a place for herself in the weave of this world.
A book about power and greed and the feuding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that would eventually shape-shift into the Plantagenets and Tudors and the royal lines that remain today – so there is that connection with the modern world, the common strand that links their past with our present. Mud and blood, oaths and omens, wool and mead … and ways of thinking and being that are at once foreign and familiar.
Griffith provides a geneology and a map at the front, a glossary at the back – only the glossary is truly helpful; the rest I totally gave up trying to figure out. Who ruled who and where and why. Whew.
It matters – the colour of your hair and eyes, revealing your bloodline; the scop’s songs lauding your ancestry back to Woden. As soon as you’re conquered, though, you immediately convert to a new allegiance. Ding dong the king is dead, long live the king. For the peasants, living in their wattled huts with their pigs, it doesn’t matter at all.
Don’t think for a second that in this cold, wet, cruel, harsh world Griffith is going to be staking a social justice claim. N’uh unh.
The natural world, the political world, the spiritual world and how an early, pagan/pre-Christian culture understood it and survived within it – that’s the world of Hild.
Utterly convincing landscapes in every sense, psychological and physical, other and ourselves in equal measure.
Also: this book is all about women - these particular women and how they think, how they organize themselves, what their true power is in a society that values them only for whom they can be married off to (peaceweaving), or for the [boy] babies they can produce.
Hild, the character, is both of the woman's world and also of the men's – she goes into battle, she’s a fierce and fearless fighter, who takes a certain amount of delight in killing, it seems – but really, she’s of neither. She is the ultimate political strategist, and does what she has to do to maintain her credibility with Edwin and fulfill the ‘wyrd’ – fate – she’s been born into.
She listens, watches, waits – and freaks everyone out as she does so, gathering power around her like a blanket, wrapping those she can in its comfort, but never feeling safe herself.
Trouble meant they had to listen, not fight.
Yet, though her isolation and impact as "the light of the world", the king's seer, is the central focus, she is also in many ways one of the less interesting things about this Celtic knot of a novel. Which says more about how many other things are interesting, than it does about Hild, the character.
The easiest comparison is to Mantel's Cromwell/Tudor England. There is the same rich detail and world-creating, and the same sense that each plucked a figure out of the din of history and reverse-engineered them to try to figure out how and who they were. But where Mantel's focus is on the character, Griffith's is on the setting. All that she – or any of us – know about Hild is that she began life as the second daughter of widowed Queen Breguswith and became a key member of King Edwin’s court and later, Saint Hilda of Whitby.
All the stuff in between, Griffith is delighted to tell us, she ‘made up.’ As Mantel did, too – but Mantel stayed mostly in Cromwell’s head, developing his psychology and creating him from the inside out with a lot more detail known of his setting and context; whereas Griffith creates Hild from the outside in with very little known about her historical context.
The world she builds, and the men who rule it, are jaw-droppingly cruel and capricious – ”we’ll eat the horse”, says Edwin as instruction to lop off a bad-tidings-bearing messenger’s head; the phrase crops up repeatedly as short-hand for Edwin’s murderous omnipotence, the moment-to-moment variability of the king’s favour, and the need to constantly be on guard to curry it.
In the meantime, the women glide in and out and around stroking that ego, influencing, manipulating, managing. It’s completely convincing – and if not quite ‘real’, in the historically accurate sense, real enough. A really good story – as real as it needs to be.
Hild the character is an enormous achievement, but it's the world that Griffith has created that steals the show.
Things I loved: - Hild’s focus on the natural world and how Griffith describes it. The novel is extremely sensual: sights, sounds, smells are vital not only to bring the world to life, but because these are what Hild relies on to ‘see the pattern.’ - The gorgeous writing. - The importance of communicating: not only reading and writing, but listening and understanding, in multiple languages. It marks Hild as different, and gives her a survival skill. It’s another clue, another strand in this story, that bridges the middle ages with the modern. - Hild’s mother: what a portrait! Part mama bear; part viper. She’s worth a novel of her own. I wanted to see more of her; she disappeared in the middle, and then re-entered. Breguswith lit up every scene she was in. - The baptism scenes and the way Griffith reveals the underlying greed and lust for power that motivated the early conversions to Christianity. How religious conversion and the goals of Rome played into the Anglo-Saxon power dynamics that led to the rise of some and downfall of other kings. How transient, superficial, artificial these conversions were - yet obviously, they 'took'. Merry Christmas.
Things I still can’t wrap my mind around, quite:
The fluid sexuality throughout the novel was one of the key elements that moves this from historical into speculative fiction for me – and I’m not quite sure what Griffith was getting at here beyond just wanting to give her characters fully-dimensional lives. It’s a major part of the book and sits as counterpoint to the heterosexual sex-and-marriage that is political, versus the sex that people do for fun (and therapy, in Gwyladus’s and Hild’s case).
For me, it’s a decorative detail not a central story element that I need to disentangle.
But, it stands in stark contrast to (view spoiler)[Cian and Hild and the incest. I think I’ve sorted through why Edwin married them off to each other, which I’ve concluded was both consolidating and limiting threats to his power, as well as meting out punishment to Hild and Cian for, in the former case, failing to predict Cadwallon’s aggression and in the latter, failing to successfully defend Edwin’s interests against it.
The sexual tension between Cian and Hild – although seeded from the very beginning, beautifully plotted and described – is purposeful in a way that Hild’s bisexual relationships are not. Maybe I’m just struggling because incest, ewwww.
I’m also not entirely clear about what motivated Hild’s killing sprees, especially the one in the last third where she and her gesith hounds (hehe) became the Butcher Birds. I know that was important to set up what turned out to be her downfall in Edwin’s eyes. But I don’t know what that kind of violence was intended to add to Hild’s psychology, or mean as a part of character. (hide spoiler)]
I’m hoping the sequel will make it all a little bit clearer.
This novel gets the early nod for the 2013 EccentricMuse Skippy Dies Award (a novel starring adolescent males that I’m completely surprised I enjoyeThis novel gets the early nod for the 2013 EccentricMuse Skippy Dies Award (a novel starring adolescent males that I’m completely surprised I enjoyed as much as I did).
Coady balances gritty realism with literary flourish to carve a portrait of a young man who grows up to become something other than everyone thought he would; and one who excavates his past in a series of emails spurred on by reading a former friend's novel in which he plays either a major or a minor role (it's not clear which; it doesn't matter).
In telling Gord Rankin Jr.'s story ("Rank" - a hockey-scholarship-earning/bouncer/enforcer who seems fated for a life of "innate criminality"), Coady creates a beautifully nuanced portrait of an adolescent boy who's endured traumas and been pigeon-holed by, among other things, his size - his sheer physical presence, or maybe just his presence itself - into a life he doesn't fit but doesn't seem able to escape. But she does a whole lot of other things, too, including painting an introspective, mid-life musing on identity - the shaping of it; the truth of self-fulfilling prophecies and the falsehood of fate; the early patterns and events that seem to lead inevitably in one direction and then, just as inevitably, veer off in another.
It's a novel about tragic, random events that seem like omens - at least, to 20-year-old Rank; conclusions that seem foregone but aren't, as it takes a series of unanswered emails and and additional 20 years to reveal to him. It's a novel about how stories can seem to be our own, how stories are important, but how stories never tell the whole story. It's a novel of deep feeling, of friendships and how fragile they are - like a human heart, Rank! - of adolescent boys inside of grown-up bodies, and how fragile they are.
The immensely powerful lessons and themes at the core of each of these seemingly simple, but carefully constructed stories is what takes this collectiThe immensely powerful lessons and themes at the core of each of these seemingly simple, but carefully constructed stories is what takes this collection from 4 into solid 5-star range for me. Each one encloses a fragile heart that beats with emotional truth. Each is tightly focused on a brief moment in time, a key turning point or choice, a scene or relationship, sometimes in just 2 or 3 pages, and without exception each packs an enormous emotional and intellectual wallop.
Case in point: Bowker's circling the lake for hours in "Speaking of Courage," ruminating on the past, the futility of expressing his pain, and then carrying that to its logical extreme. Bowker becomes the archetypical post-Vietnam vet in his isolation and inability to (re-)connect with life and those who love him after returning home. He carries the past with him as an anchor, and it eventually weighs him down. The quiet desperation of his individual struggle is palpable and paints in relief society's failure to nurture and reintegrate the many soldiers who fought in such an unpopular, and unjust, war. It took many platoons of Bowkers for us to realize what we had to do to lessen the pain of future generations of soldiers--starting with being able to hold simultaneously two previously irreconcilable beliefs: that we can be anti-war without being anti-soldier.
The nebulous, shape-shifting middle-ground that O'Brien carves out between real truth and fictional or emotional truth is aided by his 'break through the fourth wall' technique of naming a central character Tim O'Brien, while being explicit that it is not the author. But it is the author--kind of. It is the author as everyman, as the unknown soldier, as a part of our collective unconscious. Blurring the lines between truth and fiction transforms the stories from a memoirist's reminiscences to a morality play that resonates with every reader, not just those who wore/wear a uniform. And this is important, because too often war stories, even the most powerful ones, alienate the average reader by creating a closed society of pain, horror and shared experience that those who have not lived through a war first-hand cannot enter. And if we all can't share the horror and bear the burden equally, then we cannot heal and we cannot learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating them.
There is no such artificial barrier here in this collection of short stories that so evocatively describe the small and large cruelties of war, and the soul-destroying but also life-affirming possibilities inherent in facing random, unexpected death while fighting a war that neither the soldiers nor the general population believed in. O'Brien's explorations of courage and cowardice; camaraderie and cruelty; the friendships created and betrayed during war and after it are accessible to all. Where there is ambiguity of purpose, and lies to create a false justification for killing, there is apathy, depression and psychological damage. Character and integrity, or the lack of it--or in other words, human nature--is revealed.
I've not read anything else O'Brien has written (although I will be adding the rest of his work to my 'to-read' list), and so I may be wrong on this, but it is my sense that this is exactly the kind of writing about Vietnam that let a nation so badly scarred by the conflict begin the process of healing. There is a set of books and movies that escalated that process, and I suspect that this one--published in 1990--was among the most important.
In 2008, as the U.S. fights on in Iraq, these lessons will need to be re-taught and the healing will need to begin ... again. ...more
An astonishing book, and the first piece of non-fiction that I've read in quite some time that has had the emotional power of a novel. The first commeAn astonishing book, and the first piece of non-fiction that I've read in quite some time that has had the emotional power of a novel. The first comment I'll make has to do with that: Weisman's voice is a powerful one. He knows how to marshall the facts but also how to keep the story moving, and most importantly, get the reader engaged at an emotional as well as intellectual level.
Weisman's research seemed incredibly solid, but the book never felt plodding or laden down with eye-glazing data, as is so often the case with environmental treatises where the (defensive) author feels compelled to justify his or her conclusions against the nay-sayers with endless reams of facts and figures. Instead, Weisman uses the device of the "thought experiment": what would happen to the planet if humans *poof* simply disappeared. How long would it take to revert to a natural state, recovering from the damage we've done to our home planet? What would live, what would die, and would we be "remembered"?
The enormity of the problem--climate change and global warming, deforestation and species extinction, the unsolved issues of nuclear waste, carbon emissions and ozone depletion--can so easily overwhelm us. Weisman tells the story by jumping from topic to topic; era to era; location to location. Since we’re often dealing in geologic time, it could have been disorienting. Instead, it forces the reader to seek patterns in trends and events across time and invest them with meaning that might not occur if she was led down a straight, chronological path. There is much that is new to learn, and even what we already know (or think we know) is shown in a new light.
In short, it was a very, very effective way to let the complexities of the problem reveal themselves through the various scenarios, all well-documented, presented. Weisman leads us where he wants us to go: not merely to an acknowledgement that environmental destruction is occurring by our own hands, but to a renewed sense of commitment to what might be done to stop it.
If I have any trouble with the book, it is: a) in the premise that sets it up; and b) in the final conclusion.
Weisman overtly says that the premise is not to speculate on what ends humanity, only that it ends quickly and completely–-all at once, everywhere. Unfortunately, I couldn't get my head round the fact that it won't actually happen that way, will it? Even a massive asteroid hit, a broadscale nuclear war, biological warfare or the outbreak of a world-wide plague will have human life petering out slowly, unevenly, inconsistently. There will be no quiet overtaking of our cities by kudzu, birch and aspen. Instead, as human beings slowly and agonizingly die off, those small bands of survivors who’re left will not go gently into that good night. As resources dwindle, as infrastructure fails, as hope fades...human nature and, never mind that, our basic will to survive, will remain intact and grow ever more desperate. The will to survive is an individual, not collective, one. People will fight for the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter. Civilization, government, order and what we construe as morality and humanity will cease to exist to any meaningful degree.
It won’t be pretty.
Perhaps I am a pessimist about human nature, informed by my study of social psychology, and more recently, my reading of The Road and Blindness, which foretell gruesome, cruel and barbaric acts perpetrated by humans on humans in the face of just such doomsday scenarios. There has never been a situation where–especially in the face of annihilation–those with power and resources have not wielded them to their own advantage, to the extent of overtaking and enslaving those without.
So, I struggled with the premise, and before humans are wiped from the face of the earth, I wonder how much more damage we will do, not just to each other but to our home planet. And if preventing more damage requires universal cooperation, as it surely does, I despair that we have the individual or collective will to achieve it.
The conclusion and suggestion Weisman leaves us with, that we should limit reproduction to one child per woman, is laughably simplistic not to mention politically impractical. It's not that I was looking for an "answer" from the book, but far better to leave the questions it raises unanswered, I think, than to undermine the careful and detailed picture drawn of the problem by offering a poorly conceived solution. Better instead to send people off, galvanized into action and inspired by hope in what might be possible, to seek those solutions. Which (in my more optimistic hours), is exactly what I think this book can do and likely has done.
This is animal behavioural science, not dog whispering, and it should be required reading for everyone who has a dog, is thinking of getting a dog, orThis is animal behavioural science, not dog whispering, and it should be required reading for everyone who has a dog, is thinking of getting a dog, or is at all interested in dogs. It's a necessary antidote or at least counterpoint to the "wolf pack/dominance" school of dog training.
The book is structured to compare and contrast primate (including human) behaviours and their underlying meaning with canine (wolf and dog) behaviours. McConnell itemizes and then analyzes the natural behaviours that people, as primates, exhibit and how these are sometimes at odds with those of dogs, sometimes lead to exactly the opposite response one is trying to achieve, and sometimes are downright cruel.
Everything from hugging, to looking at, to talking to your dog -- behavours that are so ubiquitous and natural among humans, but which are often utterly confusing or even off-putting to your canine friend.
Read the book just for this, and you will have many a-ha insights.
But it is the discussion of dominance - status - aggression that I hope people pay most attention to. The theme runs throughout most of the book, and the topic is covered in detail in several chapters. McConnell does a good, diplomatic but thorough, job in dismantling the au courant pack leadership dog training ideology, and explains how its underlying premise is flawed, fundamentally mislabelling dogs as wolves. She then persuades us of the stronger, kinder, evidence-based and more effective value of positive training (reinforcement/reward).
And, she doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater - which is important. Like the behaviourist she is, she gently corrects and provides alternative, well-reasoned approaches that have a better chance at being effective.
The problem with training based on dogs-as-wolves stems from they deeply flawed theory that because dogs are descended directly from wolves (true), they therefore behave like wolves (not true; or at least, not true in some very specific and important ways). The dogs-as-wolves theory goes on make a lot of assumptions about what dominance is, how it is dislayed in wolf packs, how dominance (or rather, status) is achieved in wolf packs and most precisely, how adult wolves correct their pups. The gap between these already erroneous beliefs is then further widened when the assumptions are transposed to dogs, and becomes actually dangerous (McConnell uses the term "violent") when these assumptions are used to derive training practices for dogs.
McConnell does an outstanding job here at peeling back the layers of misconceptions - including the pervasive ones that relate to how wolves discipline their young (fact: by very sharp, quick nips at their muzzles as a last resort after ignoring them hasn't worked; fiction: by pinning them or by shaking them by the scruff of their neck) and how so-called pack leaders behave (even, who pack leaders are and what that really means).
She acknowledges the controversy within the dog training world about these issues, right down to terminology: dominance, aggression, status, discipline -- now an unholy mess of poor and misunderstood definitions and assumptions, no longer having much to do with the evolutionary biological facts and causing not just confusion, but out-and-out harm to animals.
Dominance-aggression? Incredibly rare, she says; a misapplication of two terms that are already poorly defined to a wide range of behaviours that may not be either (i.e., a dominance display or an aggressive one). Not only does she acknowledge the high-profile controversies, but she examines both sides of some of the practices that have emerged, including for example the "dogs shouldn't walk through the door first" principle that many hold as sacrosanct. (On this, she says there is some relevance to dogs of who goes through the door first, but it's not about who is the pack leader.)
The chapters looking at pack leadership versus benevolent leadership are insightful, well-articulated and - I would hope - eye-opening to those whose only frame of reference for the role that humans play in their dogs' lives is shaped by TV celebrities and trainers telling us we must assume the role of pack leader.
She details some truly tragic cases where owners have received training advice, applied it blindly not knowing any better, and ended up with incredibly damaged dogs, some of whom simply could not be rehabilitated. But she also tells heartwarming, beautiful and inspiring stories of where a simple readjustment based on a more complete understanding of the behaviour has resulted in a strengthened human-canine bond and - most importantly - happy, healthy dogs and people.
She talks a lot about her own dogs - Border Collies and Great Pyrenees. You will fall in love with them.
She outlines why behaviour is the primary and most important consideration in selecting a dog that's right for you - and not necessarily breed.
She recognizes individual differences, even - and especially - within breeds. At the same time, she understands the intricate, inextricable link between genetics and environment in creating behaviour. She uses a great simile to explain it that will stick with me: "Asking if the behaviour of either one of us is "genetic" or "environmental" is like asking if bread is formed by the ingredients or by the process by which you put them together."
McConnell is a scientist - rigorous, analytical - and an unabashed dog lover who admits to spending long nights, every night, spooning with her dogs. She loves them unreservedly. That is what leaps off this page, like a Border Collie in a field of sheep: her intellect and her emotion, well-balanced and devoted to supporting the healthy, happy human-canine bond....more
It's been about 2 weeks now since I've finished The Good Terrorist, and so I'm in that place where I feel most compelled but least capable of writingIt's been about 2 weeks now since I've finished The Good Terrorist, and so I'm in that place where I feel most compelled but least capable of writing a review. Since that's never stopped me before, here goes.
I must applaud Lessing for her skill at creating characters, Alice in particular, who are utterly annoying, petulant, stupid, dangerously immature, and appallingly destructive. These characters wrap their fundamental laziness and selfishness in a cloak of ignorant, misguided, sociopathological ideology, and revel in their victimhood while blaming everyone but themselves for their pathetic lot in life. If I met these people in real life, my inner school-marm would, I know, come blazing forth and I would give them each a right tongue-lashing, berating them for being the spoilt children they are. Okay, I would probably do that later, in the car on the way home, after I thought of something pithy and eviscerating to say without needing to fear any comeback or comeuppance at the hands of these dangerously half-witted revolutionaries.
My most damning vitriol I would reserve for Alice, who--unlike the others--does NOT lack for redeeming qualities. She will work tremendously hard to make life better for herself and others (although her efforts are not the least altruistic or selfless). Alice is clever and spooky-smart about people, capable of seeing through them to their real motivations, and then using that--without compunction--to manipulate them and steal from them. She wields her resourcefulness and acuity as tools to 'beat the system' rather than effect constructive change, and so she lost my sympathy about 35 pages in. But Lessing has painted such a remarkable portrait, that despite my distaste for each and every one of the characters, I couldn't help but to keep reading. Oh yes, she hooked me, she did.
I spent the remainder of the book searching for some way in to Alice's psyche, to understand her and to excuse her abhorrent, ultimately criminal, actions. I couldn't. Lessing provided proof points to discount every possible reason why the 36-year-old Alice, living in a squat with a closeted gay boyfriend who frequently abandons and abuses her, is everybody's doormat. Mental illness, generational poverty, lack of education, childhood abuse or neglect--none of these likely suspects bore fruit as a logical explanation for Alice's behaviour.
So by the end, when Alice's full stupidity and cowardice were revealed--with no reasonable explanation available--I felt both frustrated and horrified. But...I'm questioning myself because smart people, not the least of whom the author herself, seem to think she was "quite mad" (as Lessing says in the The Languages We Use afterword). I certainly saw emotional volatility, odd outbursts, strange behaviour (possibly even delusional), and a definite anti-social inclination without any moral centre. But hell, Alice seemed the sanest of the lot! I therefore didn't see mental illness in Alice. Faye, yes. But not Alice. And, this is Lessing's major accomplishment: as she says, "if a mad person is in a political setting, or a religious one, a lot of people won't even notice he or she is mad."
Otherwise, I'd have to question what Lessing was trying to do here--was she trying to show how banal and commonplace evil really is? How easily we can overlook or misapprehend the looming dangers all around us? Specifically, how short a distance it is from armchair Communist (or any other ideological or religious zealotry) and petty thief to cold-blooded terrorist, bomb-maker and killer? Maybe this book was a little ahead of its time, but from the vantage point of 2009, these themes almost seem... oh, I don't know...quaintly simplistic, I guess.
The greater accomplishment was the extremely compelling dynamic between the unpleasantness of the characters, the stupidity and hypocrisy of their minor acts of vandalism and thievery and their own petty conflicts with each other versus the stumbling but inexorable march, despite being barely capable of getting themselves arrested along the way, to the final, bloody conclusion.
I found the black humour throughout extremely satisfying--visible only now, with some distance and thinking back on what Lessing's true achievement was here. There is not a shred of sympathy for the plight of these characters: they are shown to be hypocritical fools and incompetents, and downright cruel--behaviour that belies the more lofty principles they spout. Lessing was, in effect, putting her own politics under the magnifying glass. A clever feat, and worthy of a solid 4-stars (I'm upping my rating) even though, by the end, I still felt a little tricked into having spent so much time with such unpleasant people. ...more
**spoiler alert** Horrifying. The ending is particularly gruesome, and worse than what I imagined despite the foreshadowing.
I don't know whether to gi**spoiler alert** Horrifying. The ending is particularly gruesome, and worse than what I imagined despite the foreshadowing.
I don't know whether to give it 1 or 5 stars. Not 5, as the characters were too one-dimensional and stereotypical -- with the exception of Sandoz, whom I loved, and the priests hearing his story: Vince, John, Ed, Voelker. Although these latter characters were less well-drawn, they were more complex.
The flaws are many, but the damn thing grabbed me by the short-and-curlies and didn't let go. So first, the downside:
The entire first contact party I could take or leave, so I didn't much care as they were picked off one by one. They were only there to throw Emilio's psychology and conflict(s) into relief, and they served that purpose well. As I mentioned in one of my status updates, the expositional dialogue was aggravating. The likelihood of a group of friends, each of them schooled in a different but vital academic discipline, becoming the first crew sent to make first contact with an alien race -- well, it defies all credibility. It was all so obviously designed to provide the backdrop for Emilio's crisis of faith, it was just plain silly. And prevented any attachment forming.
I found Anne's voice particularly annoying (and note with some amusement that the author considers her to be autobiographical). The characterizations of D.W., the Winchester-toting, ex-fighter pilot gay Texan and Marc, the hockey-loving French-Canadian artist priest were laughable--and insulting--stereotypes, although none of the others were immune from this type of typecasting.
HOWEVER .... (here's the good stuff):
The deepest questions of faith and belief vied with the intriguing premise of the first contact scenario and the anthropology of the two Rakhat races to hold my attention throughout. For these themes, unfolding carefully and deftly through two parallel story and timelines, the book gets very high marks.
I adored the Runa (as I was meant to), which meant that their ultimate disposition just about totalled me (as it was meant to). I pictured them as some kind of cross between a horse and a kangaroo, and kept thinking of Swift's Houyhnhnms. The irony of the anthropomorphism I take note of now, only in retrospect. Shame on me.
By about page 200, I was thoroughly hooked by the story and by the mystery of Emilio, and looking forward to finishing the book off on a short vacation I was about to take. Imagine my distress when I found upon arrival that I had forgotten to pack it. It was worth a one-hour round trip to the nearest town with a Chapters (unfortunately, not in stock). It was not worth a six-hour drive home, however. So that means -- 4 stars.
Very unlike most of what I usually read, and I look forward to the sequel. I only hope Russell has gained some mastery of characterization. __________________________________________
ETA (Jul 27/09): damn this book. I should've stuck with my very first reaction--which was 1 star--based on a logic I saw Jo use on here once for A Fine Balance: you can't love a book that is this sad.
This book kept me up, tossing fitfully, last night. The violence of the images is truly disturbing and, I wonder, what is the point? Did it HAVE to be this gruesome? Really???? I feel sure the author has an axe to grind here, the dialogue was so pedantic and the plot so contrived to lead the reader where she wants you to go. But where is that, exactly? It would seem that we are to side with Emilio, and agree that we are alone in a Godless universe. (I have no problem with that as a rule, but the journey the Jesuit took to get there was heartwrenching and soul-destroying--for him certainly, and on a much lesser scale, for me as a reader. Compelling psychological and I suppose theological journey, but I don't need to read or watch Emilio's torture to get to that same destination. It seemed so gratuitous ... and Russell then undermines it completely! She backs off the conclusion by allowing the Father General to claim that Emilio's questioning of the meaning of what has occurred to him is proof that he has not lost God.
A random set of notes on this book, in descending date order. And everyone must read this book. Resistance is NOT futile. I may be low RWA, but I'll bA random set of notes on this book, in descending date order. And everyone must read this book. Resistance is NOT futile. I may be low RWA, but I'll be damned if I'll go down without a fight.
I have to stop reading now. Now, it's personal. Now, it's my country, my democracy that is under direct attack by Double High Religious Right-wingers who -- incidentally -- have been insidiously, directly, deliberately advised by GW Bush strategists.
Less than 40% of less than 60% elected the current government in Canada. But the mandate, as Altemeyer noted with Bush, doesn't matter to a Double High elected leader. It's power and domination at all costs.
I MUST MOVE TO NORWAY. NOWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!!!
OH. MY. GOD. Canadian politics, in 2006 when Altemeyer published (likely, the RWA scores and party affiliation stuff remains true, it's just who's in power that has changed and the INCREDIBLE polarization that has emerged - both on party and RWA lines, it is clear - out of the 2011 federal election. This is INCREDIBLE. (my emphases):
"If you look at just the New Democrats’ and the conservatives’ scores on the RWA scale, party affiliation correlated .82 on the average with authoritarianism, which is one of the strongest relationships ever found in the social sciences. The RWA scale divides these two groups almost as cleanly as a vote in the legislature would. Nothing else, so far as I know, correlates so highly with left-wing versus right-wing politics, anywhere. In Canada at least, when you are talking about the “left-to-right” political dimension among politicians, you are talking about the personality trait measured by the RWA scale."
And NOW what we have is that polarization all the clearer and more oppositional, now that there is no centrist party remaining in Canada. The Liberals are gone. It is left against right; low RWA versus high RWA in Canada. To me, the only question is - will the NDP be strong enough (esp. since they've *never* been in official Opposition power before) to exert a moderating influence? Or, will their lack of experience and, frankly, credibility enable the RWA/Right to stomp all over them - and the rest of us?
June 10/11: Aye, and now we come to it. The key differences between authoritarian despots and their followers:
"huge differences exist between these two parts of an authoritarian system in (1) their desire for power, (2) their religiousness, (3) the roots of their aggression, and (4) their thinking processes." (p. 162)
The Exploitive Manipulative Amoral Dishonesty Scale (p. 166) (hey! I had three, count 'em, three bosses like that!) -- still not sure what the difference is here with psychopathy.
"social dominators might incite authoritarian followers to commit a hate crime, but the dominators and followers probably launch the attack for different reasons: the dominator out of meanness, as an act of intimidation and control; the follower out of fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority." (p. 169)
Correlation is not causation. But it doesn't have to be the direct influence of a dominator that inspires hate crimes. I think it can happen almost by osmosis - by a general loosening up of the constraints on intolerance that leak out from, in this case, Parliament Hill. This is not a stat to be taken lightly.
He just missed an opportunity to explore the role of bullying in producing high social dominators. He's not a clinical or personality psychologist, so I forgive him. But I would have liked a quick detour into the research on how being bullied turns one into a bully within the context of his "social dominance" construct.
And there's my answer on the relationship between psychopathy (which he calls sociopathy - the two notions are commonly treated as synonyms, but there are differences in the clinical definitions) and high social dominator authoritarians:
"There even seems to be a whiff of the sociopath about the social dominator. Somebody do the studies and see if any of these hunches is right." (p. 180)
June 9/11: Religious fundamentalism correlates highly with authoritarianism - but its chicken-and-egg. On the diffs between US & Cdn religious fundamentalists:
"... how much [do] Christian fundamentalists in Canada differ from American fundamentalists.... Both modern nations were founded by Christian immigrants from Western Europe. But Protestants settled almost all of the thirteen original colonies, whereas in Canada two Christianities took root from the start, Catholicism and Protestantism. Some Christian fundamentalists came directly to Canada from Europe ... but a lot also came up from the United States, and the biggest difference between fundamentalists in the two countries today may not involve theology or brand names, but strength. A much greater percentage of Americans than Canadians could be called Christian fundamentalists." (p. 143)
This is only marginally comforting to me. Most of them live and/or are from the western provinces - AB, SK, MB, including our illustrious PM Harper, who is a card-carryin', gun-totin', bible-thumpin' member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
June 8/11: "No other group comes close to being as zealous [as religious fundamentalists]. Feminists usually come in second in my studies, but way behind the religious fundamentalists, and one finds far, far fewer of them." (p. 132)
I don't know whether I should be more upset that there are far, far fewer feminists than fundamentalists, or that they come in second in the zealotry sweepstakes. ______________________
June 7/11: Explaining why high RWAs are so easily led because they do not evaluate ulterior motives if they already agree with the person:
"So (to foreshadow later chapters a little) suppose you are a completely unethical, dishonest, power-hungry, dirt-bag, scum-bucket politician who will say whatever he has to say to get elected. (I apologize for putting you in this role, but it will only last for one more sentence.) Whom are you going to try to lead, high RWAs or low RWAs? Isn’t it obvious? The easy-sell high RWAs will open up their arms and wallets to you if you just sing their song, however poor your credibility."
Right - and this is what makes the high RWAs - even though they are a very small minority - such a powerful (and threatening) political force. Probably also explains to some extent the Liberal implosion in Canada's May 2011 federal election. (although obviously there was much more to it than that.) _______________________
June 6/11: I'm going to capture some bits and pieces here that particularly resonate with me. Doing it in the status updates seems cumbersome.
So, logical reasoning capacity of RWAs:
"In both studies high RWAs went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:
All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, sharks are fish.
The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, “Because sharks are fish.” In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don’t “get it” that the reasoning matters--especially on a reasoning test."
I just keep gasping out loud at this stuff, thinking of high RWAs I know and how this explains exactly how their minds work. You know it, when you talk to them. But it's nice to have it confirmed with empirical data.
I'm still not sure having an explanation for it is ultimately going to make me feel any better or make my brain less likely to explode while engaged in these conversations, though. ...more
I start with a quotation and a musical backtrack that seem somehow fitting, and because I have to start somewhere. In A Mercy, all homes are temporary and dangerous; the most devoted act of familial love is a mother's greatest sacrifice, perceived as an abandonment. There is--in the end--no place to go, no home left and no one at all to provide comfort or shelter to these characters. They are, all, abandoned and isolated in the most profound way.
In this novel, the arc of human connection and family begins in isolation and fear, and ends in isolation and despair. No human relationship--not the unusually happy bond between man and woman that Rebekka and Jacob enjoyed; not the unlikely bond of friendship between Rebekka and Lina; nor the quasi-mother/daughter one between Lina and Florens; and certainly not that between Florens and the blacksmith, survives. Some are torn apart by disease and death; some by all-consuming, intolerant Christianity; some by being unable to survive the social and legal structures of the time that gave so many (Indians, Africans, women) the status of property with the same rights, meaning none, as animals. (Morrison is so clever when she starts by showing us Jacob's kindness toward animals: the trapped raccoon; the horse being beaten. This is how we know, although Florens doesn't, that the kindness Florens' minha mãe sees in him is justified; her act one of mercy and not abandonment.)
In each character, Morrison shows us the impact that loss of family, lack of love, isolation, slavery and indentured servitude has upon human beings. The effects of trauma are clearly visible through the lens of our current understanding of psychology. Lina becomes obsessively jealous and ultimately murderous in defending those she loves. Sorrow dissociates and finds comfort, security and a source of emotional stability in an alterego whom she calls Twin (and who calls her by her real name--whatever that is). Rebekka seeks blind comfort in the promise of religious salvation--it is likely, although not clear, that she becomes a religious zealot following the example of many of her neighbours, which she formerly scorned. Florens' personality disintegrates into catatonia, where her last act of self-expression is to scratch out her (self-described) confession on the walls of Jacob's unfinished house.
Everyone, simply every single character, is defined by their place within a hierarchy based on the degree to which they can be bought and sold. Even Jacob Vaark, near the top of that ladder, is required to subjugate himself before Senhor and negotiate a business deal by transgressing his class status, at great risk to his own life. Though Jacob claws his way to the top, he ultimately succumbs to an unexpected death (symbolically and ironically, when building a monument to his own status), which then devastates everyone who depends upon him for their own livelihood and safety.
How have we developed into a more compassionate, just society from these beginnings? (surely we have)
Morrison shows us, with remarkable conciseness and the most riveting and rich symbolism and imagery, how crucial are human bonds to our survival as individuals, as families, as communities.
By its close, the novel leaves us with some shreds of faint hope: Sorrow, made Complete, and her daughter; Willard and Scully who seem likely to succeed, or at least, survive relatively unscathed. These characters--the ones who have the best chance of survival in this harsh world--have such because they have each other. The rest will not fare as well, we know.
At the centre of the story is Florens: the one "given away", the one who cleaves to anyone and anything that might provide her with the love she needs to survive. The one sent on an errand to save her Mistress' life, whose own motivation is used by her Mistress and Lina to assure the mission's success, but which comes to destroy Florens herself.
Florens is the feeler, the sensitive one, the reader and writer, the poet. All raw emotion and need. Every other character has some kind of protective husk or shell atop their personality, born of trauma but nonetheless, one that shelters them from the cruelty and harshness that surrounds them. Florens does not--in the end, she is stripped of all comforts, all sense of belonging, and even her precious shoes.
Florens yearns for and will respond to the simplest things--she reads the absence of cruelty as love (hence her devotion to the blacksmith--although it is more complex than that). She finally becomes, in the words of the prescient and intuitive Scully, untouchable: "if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others. Clearly, from the look of her now, that was no longer true. The instant he saw her marching down the road--whether ghost or soldier--he knew she had become untouchable." (p. 152)
She has not evolved to a more resilient state; rather, what we are seeing is Florens shutting down with grief and despair. She becomes almost catatonic after the blacksmith's rejection of her--this second abandonment is her final undoing. She withdraws into a primal emotional state, where she finally gains a defense; but loses whatever is left of her sanity.
Morrison writes Florens' chapters using a primitive, barely literate voice, giving her an extreme authenticity and also showing her as the poet she is: "Night is thick no stars anyplace but sudden the moon moves. The chafe of needles is too much hurt and there is no resting there at all. I get down and look for a better place. By moonlight I am happy to find a hollow log, but it is wavy with ants." (p. 67)
In the novel itself, it is Florens' chapters that show Morrison as a genius story-teller and writer. There is much more, of course, but these chapters--Florens' incredible voice and telling of her story--mark A Mercy as a novel of astonishing and profound substance and quality.
The final chapter, in which Florens' minha mãe returns to summarize what she has done and why, is a gorgeous denouement. But, I cannot say, a hopeful or optimistic one. Despite that, read this book. It has left me awed, inspired, moved and ... strangely enough ... grateful. ...more
**spoiler alert** First, I loved this book. I would head towards a five-star rating, but I haven't figured out whether this will be "desert island" ma**spoiler alert** First, I loved this book. I would head towards a five-star rating, but I haven't figured out whether this will be "desert island" material.
Second, I read this on a kindle-style e-reader on a plane, and as a result, I couldn't access the footnotes -- still haven't, although I will go back and see what they add to the experience, if anything. Couldn't write in the margins (so this review will be devoid of any specific quotations). Don't know any Spanish, and didn't have access to a translator -- didn't matter; got the clues from the context and my limited French. Also, know nothing about comic books or the Fantastic 4--can't contribute to the character mapping on that front. I don't like literal analogies or allusions anyway; and can't imagine that a comic book--or, err, pardon me "graphic novel" as they seem to be called these days--could or should add much in the way of illuminating these characters or defining the plot.
All that said, my experience of the novel is perhaps missing many layers that would add richness and complexity; or perhaps confusion and points of annoyance. But my extremely narrow reading experience did let me focus on the characters, their stories, their relationships with each other and their culture, socialization and politics, and the plot.
LOVED: the fukú and zafa, the magic realism, and the depiction of DR culture and politics as structures to build the plot and move the story along. Thought that the clear presentation of good and evil in DR politics contrasted nicely with the more ambiguous presentation in the main characters, where acts of goodness and those of evil (especially, Beli's) were much less clear. And there is a theme here--sounds trite to write it out--of not judging a book by its cover, or an individual by their looks, or even in some cases, by their acts.
LOVED: the extraordinary portrayal of all these vulnerable, hurt, abused and suffering characters, how they got that way and how they saw each other and themselves, mashed up together in a culture that, evidently, can be crushing in terms of the strictness of the standards one needs to meet to find love, study hard, do good work, experience life and basically just survive.
LOVED: The theme of self-determination and the possibility of change, the classic fate-versus-freewill struggle: does the fukú shape your fate, or can you define your own trajectory separate from it?
Oscar (the book and the character) was, for me, a deeply felt, complex portrait of the angst and tragic beauty of the misfit, the social outcast, the self-delusional, self-ascribed genius who--bereft of 'normal' social interaction and life experiences--acts on his own frustrated desires, dreams and wishes as though they are reality, makes tragic life choices that lead to a cycle of despair and ongoing dorkery. He obsessively dwells in a fantasy world created by others--through his comics, anime and sci-fi--and then creates fantasy worlds for himself through his ruminations, writing and unrequited desires.
(view spoiler)[These both protect him and further isolate him and in fact, lead to his demise through what he believes is a grand romantic gesture, one which can be read as Oscar finally taking his own fate into his own hands, but which was a completely foolish, stupid and unnecessary act born of yet another unfulfilled and delusional romantic fantasy. And the psychoanalyst in me says, also a suicide. (hide spoiler)]
Another thing I love about Oscar--as a character and as a story--is its feeling of inevitability. Not only because we are told from the cover onwards that he'll be dead by the end of the story, but also because Oscar can't change. Absolutely can't change, no matter how miserable, how lonely, or how much everyone around him--his sister, Yunior, La Inca, even Beli, in her own way--try to help him change. And even at the end, when he seems to have convinced himself that he HAS changed, he really hasn't--his final act, his return to the DR despite his knowledge of the danger he is in, is not an act of bravery (nor of cowardice) ... it is simply the inevitable playing out of the fukú, or if you don't believe that, the inevitable conclusion to a sad and pathetic life.
Oscar is, in fact, probably that part of all of us that we rage against, are repulsed by, flee from and are terrified that we were, are or will become. I wonder if responses to this book are more positive among those of us who identify and therefore sympathize with Oscar? Oscar is easy to pity, on the surface, and I bet many of us have pitied the Oscars of the world: and yet, in that pity is contained both mockery and guilt and a shameful, buried self-identification.
This is the brilliance of what Junot has created in Yunior (who IS the central character here, I wonder?), who displays that simultaneous attraction and repulsion, pity for and identification with Oscar. To me, Yunior is Diaz’s crowning achievement here (and if you buy that Yunior is Diaz, then you can probably analyze the arrogance and conceit that is in that, but let that not detract from the genius of his creation). Yunior, in depicting Oscar as a nerd who uses big words inappropriately and socializes strangely and alarmingly in general, but especially with girls and women, repeatedly lets slip his own insecurities and similarities to Oscar.
I am always very attracted to stories that hinge on choices deliberately made, and their opposite, random chance, and the influence that each of these has on characters’ lives. Oscar is resonant with all of these themes.
I really enjoyed the display of technique that Diaz shows in starting the story from the third-person omniscient narrator POV, and then us realizing that this is Yunior, then switching it up to tell the story from Lola’s first-person POV. Et cetera.
And finally, the relationship between Oscar and Lola, his older sister and ultimate protector/defender, and Oscar's own depression so exquisitely rendered by Diaz, with again that feeling of inevitability and despair, rang home loud and clear for me, and often brought me to tears on the plane as I was flipping electronically through the pages of these lives. ["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
The central character and narrator of this novel -- Balram, the "White Tiger" -- is like an Indian Raskolnikov without the guilt. Unlike Dostoevsky'sThe central character and narrator of this novel -- Balram, the "White Tiger" -- is like an Indian Raskolnikov without the guilt. Unlike Dostoevsky's prototypical anti-hero, however, Balram's crime is founded on a morality and world view we can actually root for (well, maybe that's my own morality and world view showing through. Still.)
This novel is at once heart-wrenching, disgust-provoking and deeply satirical (also very, very funny). It seethes with anger and conveys well -- primarily through a scathing irony -- the injustice that has so rightfully led to the anger in a way that every slave narrative should. For this is how I would characterize it: this is a book about the economic and social structures that enslave huge segments of the world's population and that demand, may even require, nothing short of human sacrifice to redress.
Adiga's India rivals Rohinton Mistry's in A Fine Balance in terms of the horrific descriptions of the living conditions of the impoverished in India, but the character arc is in the opposite direction. Also, Adiga goes further in making his book entirely about what it actually takes for a rooster to escape the coop, or the tiger to escape the cage (I enjoyed the humans-as-beasts symbolism, which is powerful and prevalent, used to illustrate the effects of entrapment and servitude from a number of perspectives). Where A Fine Balance achieved its thematic goal by leaving the reader feeling oppressed and hopeless, The White Tiger achieves a very similar goal by leaving us enraged and discomfited. There is more hope here, I think, but it is a bleak sense of optimism founded upon a reality so gritty, and a protagonist so flawed, that it might better be described as numbed collusion. Progress is inevitable, but so is the corruption that lies at the heart of it. In A Fine Balance, we were worn down and broken by the injustice portrayed; here we are co-opted and made complicit in it.
The White Tiger has an immediacy and sense of modernity that A Fine Balance lacks, although the latter precedes it by just 15 years. The high-tech entrepreneurialism upon which Balram's success is founded is also India's and marks the difference between the stage of industrialization at the heart of each novel. AWT's contemporary globalism is reinforced through the highly effective framing device of Balram's seven-day (are we meant to draw a biblical parallel?) letter to the visiting Chinese Premier, which provides an up-to-the-minute context for the politics and economics.
At the risk of taking the comparison too far, I was able to put A Fine Balance down and retain some sense of distance from its sadness, desperation and filth -- it was describing, after all, caste-on-caste subjugation. Shameful as this is to admit, I felt one step removed. It remained a story about a place I've never been, and one that didn't seem to influence my life. As I sit here typing a book review to be distributed over the Internet on my Dell computer using Microsoft software, for which I've occasionally needed to call a 1-800 number for service (all of these companies, among others, are identified by name in AWT), that distance has evaporated along with my sense of comfort and complacency.
Ashiga, educated at Columbia and Oxford and living now in Mumbai according to the jacket blurb, offers a controlled but relentless satire that lets no one off the hook: not any of his characters, nor any of his readers no matter what part of the globe you call home.
This one took what seemed like forever to read (but since it spans the onset of the Enlightenment through to today, that's perhaps to be expected). IThis one took what seemed like forever to read (but since it spans the onset of the Enlightenment through to today, that's perhaps to be expected). I dipped in here and there, reading a section--a chapter--an hourglass at a time (if you've read it, that will make sense). The black humour, the delightfully anachronistic voice, the historical characterizations...I found it all utterly charming and compelling and altogether unique.
It's tempting to draw comparisons to Vonnegut and Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume springs to mind, in particular), not just in the whimsy of the prose and unlikelihood of the story's events, but also Morrow's ability to combine sardonic humour with a deep rational humanism. But mostly, Morrow's voice appears to be solely his own and the parallels exist primarily in an ability to condemn religious hypocrisy, ignorance, injustice, and brutality all the while painting scenes rich with humour, complex characters and quirky details.
Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the device of the narrator--Newton's Principia Mathematica--cleverly deployed to timeshift the reader through historical events and keep the story galloping along. It's a book written by a book that pays the deepest respect to booklovers and the pursuit of knowledge. (The book war thing--silverfish? egyptian moths? a vacant lot in NYC?--seemed a bit unnecessary and odd, but that was just one off-note in nearly 600 pages of otherwise exhuberantly solid writing.)
The whole thing requires the suspension of disbelief on more than a few occasions, but it's truly remarkable how well the story holds together and makes sense, despite its more outlandish plot twists and turns. Mostly, I think this has to do with the grounding provided by Jennet Stearne's life's mission and her single-minded desire to avenge her Aunt's horrific death by proving, through scientific enquiry, logic and evidence, the fallacy of witchcraft, and the hypocrisy and unspeakable cruelty of the witchhunters. The courtroom scenes are simultaneously gripping and jaw-clenchingly angering, exactly as they should be. Despite Morrow's lilting prose and wide ranging topics (law, government, the founding of America, the laws of physics, the slave trade, Newton, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Ben Franklin ... you name it, it's in here), never does he stray too far from the tragic, real-life events that inspire the novel and its heroine.
And let me finally comment on the ending--a more satisfying one I've not encountered in a novel in some time. Not only is the plot tied up neatly and justice served, but it provides a satisfying denouement, and never seems too neat or contrived.
Beautiful book. Surprising in many ways - the poetry of it; the poetry in it (a lot of Emily Dickinson). Wide-ranging, introspective: from the failureBeautiful book. Surprising in many ways - the poetry of it; the poetry in it (a lot of Emily Dickinson). Wide-ranging, introspective: from the failure and futility of language as a way to understand another being (leave it to a poet to point out language's short-comings); to the power of love and art to keep us tethered and grounded and here, and to give us the meaning we need to stick around and to rise above grief and despair - the ever-present human condition.
(view spoiler)[Thus, in the face of all the dangers, in what may seem a godless region, we move forward through the agencies of love and art.(hide spoiler)].
Not a lot of laughs - it's not that kind of book; but the sadness ultimately felt real. Not manipulative. Necessary and cleansing, I'd say. Reconciliatory. Is that a word? It should be.
I love that Doty is unashamedly sentimental, but not saccharine or anthropomorphic as with so many dog stories. I love how tactile he is. I love that he puts his relationships with his dogs on an equal basis with that of his humans. I love how much this book honours them all.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I swear by all that's (un)holy, I didn't deliberately choose to read this book (which I finished last night at precisely 10.36 pm Eastern) timed to thI swear by all that's (un)holy, I didn't deliberately choose to read this book (which I finished last night at precisely 10.36 pm Eastern) timed to the coming Apocalypse. But how delightful a coincidence, huh?
This is broad-strokes, high-farce, slapstick-laden, Monty Python-esque humour, with at its core (of the apple of Knowledge, get it?), a tart sweetness. Some of the jokes and puns are broad enough to be groaners, but it works because it is anchored by Pratchett and Gaiman's dead(!)pan humour grounded in the inescapable, ineffable, both direct and parodied, angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin philosophical conundrum: freewill or destiny?
Freewheeling and careening in parts, with a pink-helmeted psychic, a 17th-Century book of prophecies, and the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse caricatured and modernized deliciously (Pestilence was here renamed Pollution; my fave was War, personified as a--natch--war correspondent for a sleazy, Virgin-Mary-appears-in-the-toast tabloid) and mirrored for a short while by four trivia-playing Hell's Angels (our categories: Pop Music, Current Events, Famine and War - hah!) and four 11-yr-olds, busy filling their days with the stuff that children fill their days with, headed up by our hero (or anti-hero, aye - there's the rub), Adam Young.
The humour can't truly be called black -- its absurdities were light and fanciful, not dark and discomforting. And in this, Pratchett and Gaiman achieve the somewhat delicate balance required to tip this from a 3 to a 4 star book for me: while it was silly in parts, it was also at times deeply poignant, especially the rare spot of prose where they slowed it down:
If you took the world away and just left the electricity, it would look like the most exquisite filigree ever made -- a ball of twinkling silver lines with the occasional coruscating spike of a satellite beam. Even the dark areas would glow with radar and commercial radio waves. It could be the nervous system of a great beast.
Here and there cities make knots in the web but most of the electricity is, as it were, mere musculature, concerned only with crude work. But for fifty years or so people had been giving electricity brains.
And now it was alive, in the same way that fire is alive.
And they are fundamentally and deeply in love with the world, from six feet under to the height of the ozone layer, and with humanity, flawed humanity.
If you like your apocalyptic fiction served up with high and clever comedy as well as points of poignancy, this one is highly recommended. I'd love to see it made into a movie, directed by Terry Gilliam.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and it turns out (view spoiler)[fine (hide spoiler)].["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more