Eh. I've never found the idea that the universe (and be extension - life) is meaningless particularly troubling. Maybe that is why the title essay did...moreEh. I've never found the idea that the universe (and be extension - life) is meaningless particularly troubling. Maybe that is why the title essay did not resonate with me. I liked the "Other Essays" about Algeria more.
Eight hundred pages later, I don’t know much more about the greater events of the French Revolution, but I know tre...moreThis was originally published here.
Eight hundred pages later, I don’t know much more about the greater events of the French Revolution, but I know tremendously more of the major personalities that drove it.
This novel spans a cacophony of different voices — shifting tenses through the all-powerful third person omniscient point-of-view, through transcripts, quotations, and occasional first person narratives — but chiefly follows three of the major players:
Writer, orator, and “inveterate hell-raiser”, Camille Desmoulins.
The loud, physically-imposing lawyer-leader, Georges-Jacques Danton.
And enigmatic, doctrine-literalist, Maximilien Robespierre.
Mantel examines their complicated relationship with patriotism and revolution juxtaposed with their lust for (respectively) fame, wealth, and… well, it’s not entirely certain what Robespierre lusts for. He seems to be lying to himself and is prone to bouts of hypocrisy for much of his political career. This is most evident in his opposition to the death penalty paired with the enormous amount of citizens he sent to the guillotine.
They’re all bad people. In one way or another. Yet Mantel keeps them sympathetic — not least of all by glossing over or making indistinct the number of deaths they directly or indirectly contributed to. This is good because the greater part of the novel is dialogue and those three spend a lot of time chattering at each other or another member of the prodigious cast. Their physicality is notable. Slight Camille pushing his long hair out of his face or putting his hands to said face; The physical presence and fright of Danton; Robespierre’s mental state tied to facial tics and whether or not his hair is powdered.
Unlike Wolf Hall, this book is more difficult to follow without some knowledge of French history. I only have high school history class at my disposal and suffered at parts. It focuses heavily on a certain of kind of middle class intellectual — the frequenters of the Jacobin clubs of the time and anyone with interpersonal relationships involving the three main protagonists. The common person is rarely more than a fickle element of a volatile mob. Uneducated and requiring society’s elite to guide them. Major events such as the King’s execution are skimmed over or summarized in a single line*. There is also an endless cavalcade of committees, sections, clubs, deputies, ministers, conventions, assemblies, and so on. I could not keep track. Maybe this is the intention. I am sure it was difficult to keep track as a bystander during the time and that might be the point, but I am not certain.
The writing is masterful; not quite as polished as in Wolf Hall and its sequel, but very good. It’s quite funny at times. It oscillates perspective and tense with ease. And it proves that the third person omniscient narrative (narrator knows all characters thoughts at any given time) is not dead in the modern novel and is excellent if used correctly. On the other hand, it really did not have to be so long. There’s a lengthy head scratching sequence following Madame Roland despite her role in the overarching narrative being minimal. It certainly did not need every working day conversation between Danton and Camille, but part of the charm of the novel is that time passes but feels natural rather than the author pressing fast forward on the time remote. It’s not just about the society shattering events, but the day-to-day.
Anyway, like most books about revolution and political upheaval, A Place of Greater Safety asks: When you topple the old regime and overthrow the despot, how do you prevent the new boss form just being as bad as the old boss? It doesn’t attempt an answer. It does leave us with an evocative quote courtesy of the Comte de Mirabeau:
“Liberty is a bitch that likes to be fucked on a mattress of corpses.”
*The line is something like “And Louis, the King, is quicklimed.” I only understood this due to a distant child association of my grandfather gardening. The King has become fertilizer. Intensive googling revealed that I understood very little. Quicklime hastens decomposition, meaning the sentence is literal — the king was killed and some one(s) used a chemical reaction utilized in soil balance to melt his corpse. There’s further meaning behind this, according to this website, the practice was typically used for pauper’s graves. They were shallow so the less you had to bury the better.
I don’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed. (less)
This, the second book of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, is very good. Just not quite as good as Wolf Hall.
Part of this is simply because the excellent p...moreThis, the second book of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, is very good. Just not quite as good as Wolf Hall.
Part of this is simply because the excellent prose and narrative style established in book one is still excellent, but not as fresh as it was when I first experienced it.
Wolf Hall detailed the rise of Thomas Cromwell -- a sprawling, multi-decade epic. Bring up the Bodies is a short, more focused affair -- the few month period that catalogs the devastating fall of Anne Boleyn. I chalk this up to personal preference, but I prefer the epic.
To illustrate what Zadie Smith is good at, what I enjoyed most about these essays, I will begin with what I did not like: th...moreOriginally published here.
To illustrate what Zadie Smith is good at, what I enjoyed most about these essays, I will begin with what I did not like: the personal and the morally / socially critical. Smith has an interesting family — older white father, black mother, rapper and comedian brothers — and she writes a few essays on family, specifically her father. She sketches a serviceable portrait of her father, barely touches on her brothers and her mother is utterly absent. The focus of these essays, the connection between Zadie Smith and her dad feel, for lack of a better word, constructed. Like these are the feelings an overeducated writer should have about her working class father. Not that she didn’t feel these things, but the writing does not convey real poignancy. It feels guarded, sanitized, and frankly dull. Along similar lines follow the Praising Obama essay, which may suffer more from reading five years after writing than any authentic emotional lack.
The latter flaw (social criticism) is exhibited in Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend, a piece that attempts to flay American celebrity worship and the absurd hullabaloo of Oscar weekend. It is written impersonally but implies a morally present writer. The epigraph to this book is by David Foster Wallace. He’s also the subject of perhaps the best essay in the collection. DFW, like Joan Didion who is also namedropped in the Oscar essay, could effortlessly dissect, censure, and simultaneously be deeply disturbed by many aspects of contemporary culture. Smith has these writers in mind while penning this essay, but she cannot pull it off. She isn’t like Wallace and Didion who come off as fragile, vulnerable people. When David Foster Wallace prefaces an article on American cruise culture with “I filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.”, you believe him. Smith is too strong, too confident. She seems above it — not in some snobby English way, but I just can’t see her amongst the people, distraught by the people.
By contrast are the generous amount of film and literary criticism in this collection. When Smith is being serious and specific and the topic is something she clearly loves, the result is stellar. There’s an essay juxtaposing the hardline author focused literary perspective of Vladmir Nabokov versus the free-floating borderless version of Roland Barthes. And it feels important. How much should we interrogate what we read? How important is the author’s intention in this interrogation and analysis? She nails a similar topic again in her longest essay — a moving eulogy of David Foster Wallace via an analytic piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Self, solipsism, our consumption and immersion in media and advertising culture. The voracious reach of capitalism in her (our?) generation. It made me sad for DFW all over again.
This collection has increased by reading list. I feel mildly embarrassed for not having read any Henry James (who expressed similar sentiments to DFW for his time). Smith’s tribute to Zora Neale Hurston as a meditation on how, if it all, we might identify with writers or their protagonists and what this means to the work overall was enough to make me add Their Eyes were Watching God to my to-read pile. I am generally hostile to the notion that one must “identify” with the protagonist due to features like race, gender, class, but I guess that’s easy for me to say when my specifications (white/male/middle) fit the dominant cultural narrative. The film reviews are good too. A paragraph about Grizzly Man saying things I already knew still made me happy.
So wait. I have to rescind my earlier point about a lack of pathos or emotional oomph. When writing about literature and film, Smith nails it, concretely and via personal authorial voice. When she mourns Alyson Flannigan’s fall in her review of Date Movie, and describes feeling disoriented and weepy afterwards, I believe her. The connection and love she has for her father is not communicated nearly as fully or believably as her connection and love for Katherine Hepburn. Or Nora Neale Hurston. It reminds me of all time NBA great Larry Bird, when confronted by a kid telling him he was his (the kid’s) hero, replying when I was a kid, my dad was my hero. I hope I am not coming off as overly sentimental or critical here. I just think it’s funny. I am sure many of us, including myself, would be similar. Does this speak to Smith and Wallace’s distrust of our deep and concupiscent investment with media culture? Maybe. Probably.(less)
This book is all over the place. I finished it a few weeks ago and have been thinking of it off-and-on since. I’ve heard Smith compared to David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushie, and Don Delillo — some of my favorite authors. White Teeth shares some similarities with first two; dysfunctional families, generational conflict, multiculturalism, etc. At it’s best, it is nearly as good as the former writers and in its own style, not aping theirs. It is also a debut novel; I’ve never read DFW’s first novel and don’t really intend too. I don’t know what Rushdie’s and Delillo’s debut novels are even called.
The problem is that it is rarely that good. Actually, I lied. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it is occasionally just bad. Droll. Boring. The first one hundred pages for instance, are banal and painfully unfunny. The book opens with the patriarchs of the two leading families (the working class English/Jamaican Jones’ and the working class Bengali immigrant Iqballs’) and it’s only when the story begins to abandon their wretched storylines and open up to their children that the book becomes legitimately good. Archie Jones might as well be Homer Simpson, he’s such a caricature of the working class family man. An unfunny Homer Simpson. Samad Iqball is an asshole. And not in a compelling or empathetic or interesting or pitiful way. Smith, who is pretty funny at times in the novel, cannot even make these guys amusing.
Even later on in the book, where the novel tries to empathize with these goons, when they sit in a bar they’ve been frequenting for twenty plus years and sort of embrace their love of things they can understand and put out of mind the things they can’t: read, the modern world, their children. No. Screw these guys. They didn’t even try.
Once the Jones and Iqball children are born, the quality of the novel skyrockets, even though we have to suffer through Archie and Samad at times. The Iqball twins (rebel Millat and genius Magid) and the Jones’ daughter, Irie, actually feel like characters and people rather than caricatures. Most of the time. And Smith actually makes them funny.
She even makes me sort of understand, via Millat, protesters burning a book they never read, as the novel, which begins in the early 70s, catches up with the publication of The Satanic Verses and the Rushdie affair. It also lead to the following quote, which is probably going to be lame an utterly contextless if you never read the book, but gave me chills when I read it:
“‘Everyone has to be taught a lesson,’ Alsana had said, lighting the match with heavy heart some hours earlier. ‘Either everything is sacred or nothing is. And if he starts burning other people’s things, then he loses something sacred also. Everyone gets what’s coming sooner or later.’”
The great scenes made the book compelling and worth reading. II will read more Zadie Smith even if parts of White Teeth were dreadful.
Also it just has some awesome quotes:
“It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”(less)
“Moral Ambiguity” often gets thrown around as a plus in great novels, especially in the modern climate (or reflecting on the...moreThis and more at my blog.
“Moral Ambiguity” often gets thrown around as a plus in great novels, especially in the modern climate (or reflecting on the height of the McCarthy era when Oakley Hall wrote this book). The “good guys” have dark secrets, the “bad guys” love their moms, and probably have from some good reasons for being bad besides. Maybe there’s no good or bad guys at all. Warlock does not go this route. It does not take the heroic gunman of western lore and make him a pedophile or smugly make the puerile point that he is just as bad as the villains. Instead, its thesis is that the task of the hero is basically impossible, that justified violence is impossible. The book serves as both an indictment of vigilantism as well as the death penalty. Maybe some people deserve to die, but in the absence of some heavenly father, no one can ever be sure. There is no earthly or final judgement. And maybe you have no choice but to kill someone set on killing you, but the case may be this just leads to more people you have to kill or more people being killed.
This is not just a novel of ideas. It’s a great story too. The rapidly developing frontier-mining town of Warlock, sick of its deputies being run out of town and with the delay in receiving a town patent to legitimize itself, hires renowned gunman Clay Blaisedell to establish order and run out the murderous cowboys who threaten town. Blaisdell is a stand-in for Wyatt Earp and the inciting event plays out like the story of Tombstone Arizona and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, before rapidly diverging from the myth. It examines the ideas of Hero and Villain and the American myth/creation story of the west. It simultaneously asks why Americans need heroes while pointing out how cynically they discard those very same. The setup takes slightly too long to get going and the writing overall is a bit wooden, but
The cast of the novel is not oblivious to the greater, existential themes playing out around them. They’re utterly aware and stagger towards the book’s inevitable conclusion and play out their designated roles, because they have no other options or because they are forced to by the hero-worshipping society surrounding them. Thomas Pynchon calls this book a “novel of abysses” and this a perfect description. The cast is staring into each of their own personal abysses. The town itself seems almost like a literal abyss, eternally dusty and partially surrounded by mountains. The reader is considering his or her own abyss in such an effective way as I have never seen before. I feel like typically you can empathize with a character’s mistakes but wish they had done differently, feel bad for the decisions that doom them, wishing they had done otherwise. Basically the tragic flaw exerting itself. This is not so with Warlock. There really were no outs. No good decisions. Just pointless violence and no way to stop it. And this isn’t just the town of Warlock, it’s life, all violence, all towns.
This feeling is summed up by the sometimes-narrator and general store owner Henry Holmes Goodpasture:
“I feel drained by an over-violent purge to my emotions, that has taken from me part of my manhood, or my humanity. I feel scraped raw in some inner and most precious part. The earth is an ugly place, senseless, brutal, cruel, and ruthlessly bent only upon the destruction of men’s souls. The God of the Old Testament rules a world not worth His trouble, and He is more violent, more jealous, more terrible with the years. We are only those poor, bare, forked animals Lear saw upon his dismal heath, in pursuit of death, pursued by death.”
Goodpasture appeals to a violent God, but strange for both a Western and a novel written in the 50’s, most of the characters, and especially the primary POV character (John Gannon), are atheists. With no God to appeal to, some try to play up The Law as a solution worthy of worship. Or unions, democracy, civilization. But none of them really believe it for long. In fact, the book overall has an incredibly detached and reflective feel to it. It seems as if all the characters are philosophers. It works though.
Warlock does not offer a solution, or an answer. It flirts with the idea of love as the answer, and ends with a bewildering and ill-advised X-years later epilogue. Towards the end, on of the more memorable side characters, one-legged, alcoholic Judge Holloway, offers us this opinion:
“Yes, learn your lessons as they come your way,” the judge said. “And when you have learned them all they can stick red-hot pokers in your wife and babies and you will only laugh to see it. Because you will know by then that people don’t matter a damn. Men are like corn growing. The sun burns them up and the rain washes them out and the winter freezes them, and the cavalry tramps them down, but somehow they keep growing. And none of it matters a damn so long as the whisky holds out.”
The premise of this book is that every single problem we face, from climate change to world hunger to disease to resource scarcity to overpopulation, can be solved through human ingenuity and innovation. He makes a fairly good case that the free market repeatedly rewards innovators that solve or greatly diminish serious Earth-spanning problems. World hunger has been drastically reduced in the past 30-40 years despite farm area and energy consumption barely rising at all, and in many cases decreasing. Technology has vastly increased the yield per acre of land and Naam identifies the root of this as profit motive rather than any moral goodness in the people designing said technology.
The market has holes of course — specifically pollution and destroying the commons. If there is not incentive to not pollute, then people will pollute if it improves the bottom line even while killing the planet / their future. Intelligent government programs and mandates can create incentive to stop pollution without any doomsday economic scenarios that many conservative groups declare when they are proposed. Naam repeatedly returns to the example of the ozone layer — the ozone hole is repairing itself now and CFC usage have basically been reduced to zero in the past 20-30 years. This was largely because of legislation signed by Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. Another one of Naam’s points is that environmentalism and our response to climate change need not be a political (left) concern and he hammers this home by pointing out that one of the greatest planet-wide threats we’ve ever faced (ozone depletion) was solved in a timely and effective fashion by republican presidents. Partisan polarization is such a negative force that An Inconvenient Truth may have done more harm than good, simply because it was attached to Al Gore.
The ozone topic was startling to think about. I remember being in elementary and middle school and hearing how awful ozone depletion was — how it will take years and years to eliminate CFCs in our appliances/cooling systems and how we’d have to make great sacrifices in using inferior technologies. It would be decades until the ozone hole could begin repair. CFCs have actually been eliminated way before schedule, the ozone hole is repairing itself, and no one even noticed the change. Naam argues the same can be done for climate change, which is actually a lesser threat than ozone destruction, and on a much cheaper and faster scale than many experts predict. So long as we act soon, anyway.
Naam’s optimism is infectious, but he occasionally makes me dubious when he glosses over important topics. When he’s being a cheerleader for capitalism he does address some its sleazy elements. And he is not always convincing. He blames growing income disparity entirely on education. People with degrees do better and even post-economic repression, they are doing better than they did in the past. I think the implication is that higher paying jobs have become more specialized and require more education, though I can’t remember Naam going right out and saying that. His solution is privatized education — essentially using the competition of the open market to improve schools and force them to be better. Yet, is that honestly going to help people living in poorer areas of the country? It seems to me that it’s a no-brainer that the better privatized schools would end up in wealthier, middle class areas by default. And blaming income disparity entirely on education in the first place is much too simple and hard to believe.
He also suggests greatly increasing the incentives for high school students to go into science and technology fields and disincentivizing liberal arts fields. They’d end up with higher paying jobs and maybe be able to pay back their mountainous debt. This is sort of laughable, given the book begins by quoting A Tale of Two Cities and the implication that science/tech is more important is stupid. How about actually treating the root of the problem — horrendous debt accumulation and forcing 17 year olds to make gigantic life-altering and financial decisions — instead of sticking disingenuous band-aids on top?
He also urges us to look beyond Monsanto and giant corporations when we look at the ultimate good of genetically modified organisms. I think he’s right. There is nothing wrong with genetically modifying seeds (and humans have been doing it for thousands of years anyway…) and it can help people in developing countries immensely . And yes, Monsanto’s patents are running out. But you can’t hand-wave the enormous amount of negative factors thrown into the mix by giant malevolent corporations. Putting Vitamin A in rice? Great! Putting this in the hands of corporate entities and patenting life? Ehhh, need to actually discuss the downsides of the market here too.
All in all it was a pretty good book and I am glad I read it. It’s definitely a mode of thought I have not been introduced to in such detail and it also reminds me I need to read more non-fiction books written in the current year. I am 28 — possibly around a third of my lifetime — and thinking how drastically different the world was in 1985 is sort of shocking. Were there even cellphones yet? How did a supercomputer compare to a modern iPhone? No internet, of course. Like Naam, I’m optimistic and also sort of anxious for what the future holds.(less)
(I won this book from goodreads first-reads giveaway.)
This is the first David Sedaris book I have ever read. Due to this, it took some time for me to get into and enjoy these essays. They are stories of the author’s life and your enjoyment of them is tied to the notion that you like David Sedaris. The first few essays were frankly boring and I was afraid this was going to be a slog, but as I got to know the author, his style and persona, it vastly improved.
While I did like some of these stories, I rarely felt they were as laugh-out-loud funny as many of his fans purport. The writing is best when he is being insightful, touching, or reflective rather than funny. And the humor works much better when it is secondary then when it is the focus. Some of the best essays were one about missed romantic opportunities on trains and another about capturing wild sea turtles and trying to feed them hamburger. Insightful and melancholy but when they’re funny, the humor is far better than a lot of the “funny man” pieces. And the less said about the book’s fictional monologue pieces, the better.
There’s also cases where I am not even certain if a story is supposed to be funny or not — for instance the antics of his parents, especially his father are not really wacky or funny, usually they are just straight-up awful. I found myself bewildered and wondering does his father read his books? How are they even still talking? If his dad isn’t blaming his sister for being assaulted on her walk home from the grocery store, he’s going on and on about how much better at swimming/school/life another boy in his son’s class is than David himself. In the latter example, I kept expecting the punchline to be how David was mistaken or his dad suddenly realizes he praises some random kid more than his son, and does something about it. But no! There is no punchline. His dad really did just like the other kid more.
I shouldn’t harp on the humor too hard. There are some legitimately funny pieces. The essay on taxidermy and owls (that does not reference diabetes at all, I have no idea why the book is titled as such) and the one about book tours are both funny, just not side-splittingly so. I think more than anything else, I’m ambivalent about the book. I didn’t hate. In fact, I think I enjoyed it. I just don’t feel much about it. Forgettable you might say. Eh.(less)
File it under the surprising books that suddenly remind you why you read, or at least what you are looking for in the best books. It came out of nowhere. Prior to this book I had near zero interest in the Tudors — I only picked up it because I was intrigued that Mantel was the first woman to ever win the Booker Prize twice and that both prizes were for two books in the same series. Now I’m hooked. I wanted to run out and grab the next book about my man Tom Cromwell, but had to force myself to go to my to-read pile instead.
The story follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith/brewer whom eventually becomes a close confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. My lack of knowledge on English history, especially of this time period does do me a disservice. I understand that Cromwell is often cast as a villain or at least not much of a hero, so the contrast of making him the sympathetic lead does not strike me as important. Though now I feel if I ever read/watch any adaptations of this story by other authors, I will be firmly on Cromwell’s side and annoyed at any negative portrayals.
It’s a slow story. Despite much happening during the decade or so the story encompasses, the narration is usually a slow, detached view of events to mirror the measured and calm demeanor of its protagonist. But this all works because the writing is excellent. It’s written in third person present tense, however, Mantel uses this weird POV quirk where most of the time she writes “He”, she means Cromwell. It’s sort of like first person with “I” replaced with “he”. It gives it the intimacy of a first person story while also giving her the freedom to narrate events that Cromwell himself is not present for.
It’s also occasionally incredibly confusing and at odds with how we normally read books in the English language. Consider the following sentence:
“Bob crossed the street. He thought about his meeting with Jane this morning.”
In Wolf Hall, the “He” could mean either Bob or Cromwell. Even when you get the hang of it, it can be confusing. I see some other reviewers have hated this, but I think it is absolutely worth the price of a new and effective take on writing point of view.
The story is largely about Cromwell becoming Dad to all England. After losing his family to the plague, he builds an amalgam of relatives, orphans, wards, and friends into a family at his ever-expanding estate. He also seems to be the father figure of all the nobility of the English court, calmly navigating their petty whims and doling out advice. Yet somehow, this is a pageturner. I read its very dense 600 pages quickly.
I’m in awe here. I need to read a lot more Mantel. Soon.(less)
Disregarding plot character etc for a moment, this book succeeds as an amazing piece of descriptive writing. The rural Canadian village and island cabin of the nameless protagonist’s youth is well realized and vivid. The air feels wet, the mosquitoes buzz. I was equal parts eager to visit, and creeped out by the place. There is a sinister bent that runs through the novel’s setting.
The plot is simple: Late 20s, unreliable narrator returns to her childhood home with her pathetic friends in search of the missing father she has not seen in many years. The setup is reminiscent of Winter’s Bone (the movie, never read the book), but the plot is secondary to the main character’s increasing confusion/disillusionment with her city life and friends and delusive reflection on her ex-husband. Also madness. A disproportionate amount of books I have read by a woman about a woman seem to involve madness.
I spent a significant chunk of this book thinking the protagonist was too smart to hang around these stupid men. The last fourth or so of the book clears this up a little, or makes it more believable as the narrator unravels, but no one is particularly sympathetic in this book and her boyfriend and the accompanying couple are terrible, to themselves and each other. It’s clever because it feels vaguely over the top yet they are still believable and useful to the societal and gender issues key to the books thematic exploration. But anyway, it’s not just thematic. Plot wise, the main character needs to be a victim before she can self-actualize and realize that purposely making herself powerless is just an excuse she uses to pretend her actions can’t hurt anyone.
That’s the key takeaway from the novel, I think; not that running away from a banal, self-and-other destructive society to a primal, unspoiled retreat would be swell, but that the former is a pointless gesture and probably not much less (if any) harmful than the former. And as evidenced by the “stupid Americans” of the novel, the latter does not exist anyway.
This is the second Atwood novel I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale was the first, and I wasn’t blown away there. I liked Surfacing much more and thought the writing was excellent. Atwood’s detached, cold writing really shines here with her detached, cold protagonist in her detached, cold setting. (less)
“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic...moreOriginally published here.
“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports onself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.”
- Marguerite Yourcenar on writing Memoirs of Hadrian
Most authors have a style. They have tells and techniques and tics and quirks and words they overuse. Endless sentences interspersed with commas or short and terse with reverence for economy of language. Often this is a conscious choice. They want you to know. Others choose to present a character free of all authorial voice and rarely succeed. Seldom can a writer so totally subsume herself into the identity of a character or person as Marguerite Yourcenar does to the emperor Hadrian. Surely, this is not a novel written by a contemporary writer, but the actual memoirs of a 2nd century Roman emperor, composed as he succumbed to illness?
Hadrian, one of the “good” emperors, settled several of Rome’s economic and territorial woes whilst being certain of the empire’s eventual dissolution, regardless of his stabilizing acts. Casting aside the ascetic virtues of his time, he was more of a hedonist. And a searcher. Gods, good works, his next lover (non-discriminating w/r/t gender, but not to age…). The occasional self-aggrandizing tone of the book reveals that he sort of loved himself. He was a forward thinker in some areas — he detested slavery and created some laws to obviate its worst abuses — but not all; He was of the Greco-Roman pederast tradition and his “great love” was a 15 year old he met when he was like 40*. When the boy kills himself just shy of 20, ostensibly for the benefit of Hadrian, the great emperor has to perform some mental gymnastics to believe that it is not his fault. He continues to mourn the boy for the rest of his lift, as he solidified his reign, reluctantly crushes Judea, and chooses his successor — the book is addressed to Marcus Aurelius.
My feeling reading this book was that it was very impressive. Well written and incredibly well researched. But not exactly something I was dying to return to or filled me with wonder I still think this, though the author’s notes on writing it at the end of the book greatly enhanced the preceding text. Hadrian’s philosophical cogitations on the passing nature of civilization, man’s penchant for destruction (though not totally without hope) has a greater urgency and context when you know the words were written by a woman who lived through two world wars as an adult.
Also while reading her notes, I kept thinking “She writes like Hadrian!” which is yet another testament to her skill in transmitting, through the centuries, the Emperor’s Voice.
*It’s a common thought to look into the past and think of people partaking in acts we now deem immoral and excuse them as a “man/woman of their times”. This is true of course. But it generally ignores the fact that even in their times (and before), there was critics and dissenters to these societally approved acts. Not all Greeks and Romans (including Plato!) were so comfortable with man-boy sexual relationships.
Likewise, we already partially excuse moderate racism/homophobia/sexism in early-mid 20th century people — especially writers we like. This does a disservice to the many men and women of their times who did not think as they did, and already knew many widely accepted notions were wrong.(less)
Alan Moore loves this book. His praise is all over the front and back covers and it begins with a few page introduction where he raves about how fantastic the Vorrh is — how it is the best fantasy novel of this century thus far, how it enlivens a stale genre full of wizards and dragons, how superbly written it is, etc etc. These sort of introductions are always problematic, especially for unproven novels, as they heighten expectations and when they don’t live up to them, you feel let down rather than surprised a book you never heard of was actually pretty good. The Vorrh isn’t bad, but it’s not nearly as excellent or groundbreaking as Moore claims and fantasy hasn’t been merely about wizards and dragons in a very long time though it is frustratingly limited at times.
The Vorrh is a massive, primal forest in Africa (unfortunately described as a single monolithic entity and not a large multi-culture continent here) that apparently originates in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and may or may not contain the Garden of Eden amongst other things. The novel itself follows several disparate threads / characters that slowly begin to converge within the titular forest during the middle and last thirds of the novel, though they do not come fully together and some threads barely meet at all all.
I don’t mind this sort of structure, a great plot is not essential, and some of my favorite novels follow it. It does require two things however:
1. An author who is a skilled craftsperson at the prose-level. They can write.
2. Compelling and interesting characters that the reader enjoys following even if the overarching plot is sparse.
For the first requirement, Catling largely succeeds. His writing isn’t quite the caliber Alan Moore describes, but it is still better-than-genre-average and he does creeping horror very well. The best parts of the book include a side-story involving stillborn babies and the doctor who first diagnosed anorexia. The descriptions of The Vorrh itself are also stellar. Additionally, the book has that difficult to analyze page-turner quality. I read it pretty quick for a big, bulky 500 page novel.
The problem comes with number 2. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Some of this is by design. The real life photographer Edweard Muybridge is the best character, and also a total prick. But for the most part, none of them are very compelling. The cyclops, Ishmael, is the worst. He is bland as all hell, and his storyline is boring for a significant chunk of the book. The rest are largely forgettable and some of the fates they meet are sort of bewildering (not in the good way) or shrug-worthy.
On top of that, the women are all miserable characters and all the noteworthy ones have sex with the main male characters. And having sex with them is why they are important to the plot. In fact, the only real point-of-view women in the novel have sex with same male character. And the only black woman (remember this takes place in Africa…) who gets any characterization at all is both mute and like, savagely sexual.
So ultimately, it has its moments and isn’t terribly written but I’d only recommend it with major reservations. It’s part of a trilogy and I am not sure if I would read future installments.
Thanks to Green Apple Books in San Francisco for stocking this. Even if I did not love it, it was interesting and somewhat unique and it’s good to support independent presses.(less)
The journal of an unhappy book keeper in 1920s-30s Lisbon that alternates between insightful, pathetic, insufferable, fascinating. More the sort of bo...moreThe journal of an unhappy book keeper in 1920s-30s Lisbon that alternates between insightful, pathetic, insufferable, fascinating. More the sort of book that you appreciate rather than enjoy, but the language sure is beautiful. (less)
This book is Bad. The characters and plot are stupid. The faux-Jacobean English writing is stupid*. The fact that this is considered a seminal fantasy...moreThis book is Bad. The characters and plot are stupid. The faux-Jacobean English writing is stupid*. The fact that this is considered a seminal fantasy classic is vaguely embarrassing (and also stupid). It's not even that weird which it is supposed to be and could have been its saving grace.
There is an intro written by a "scholar", Brian Attebery, who should be utterly ashamed of himself for praising this book. He quotes the author, Eddison, on why he loves (fetishizes) Iceland and the Nordic countries:
"first, on the political field -- aristocratic individualism of an uncompromising kind; secondly, in its broad outlook on human life and destiny -- paganism; and thirdly, in art -- a peculiar and in itself highly perfect form of prose narrative."
Listen to this jerk. "Scholar" Attebery goes on to comment:
"This emphasis on Nordic ancestry, combined with his disdain for commoners, cowards, foreigners, and other lesser breeds, occasionally sounds an ominous note in Eddison's fantasies; some of his pronouncements verge on a British version of fascism."
So, Eddison is not only a bad writer, he's a classist, racist, backward-yearning fascist.