It poses a question of form: when a book is sort of middling, a bit boring at tThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
This book was alright.
It poses a question of form: when a book is sort of middling, a bit boring at times but never quite bad, certainly not in any funny or remarkable way, how do you review it without affecting the same feelings in the reader of the review?
My solution: Keep it brief.
Once Upon a Time is an overview of the history of fairy tales — the major players, the major theories, the major events. From the early, sinister folktales and the men and women that recorded them, to the shift to Victorian children tales, their places in Freud and other psychoanalyst’s oeuvre, to their deep examination by 20th century feminists, and then their reclamation of darkness and adulthood in the literature and films of the present day*.
It is very general. I would call it shallow. It rarely delves. There’s a handful of interesting facts — for instance, Wilhelm Grimm ardently defended the violent lessons of fairy tales as necessary for children, while at the same time changing them to be as patronizing as possible to women and girls — but not enough to carry the book. The author is clearly passionate about the topic, but the passion does not translate to and infuse the text.
And that is easily all it takes to move a non-fiction book from engrossing and memorable to serviceable.
*I give this book points for mentioning Blancanieves, a seriously fantastic film retelling Snow White. It reimagines without diluting....more
Peter Leigh, an English preacher, travels billions of miles from Earth to the newfound desert planet,This was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
Peter Leigh, an English preacher, travels billions of miles from Earth to the newfound desert planet, Oasis. His mission: to bring the word of Christ to the alien inhabitants. Yet he is not beset by your average challenges for missionaries — mistrust, lack of communication, customs. Indeed, the oasans are incredibly receptive to the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things.
Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Bea is sending letters describing increasing worldwide catastrophe occurring back on Earth…
This book is fantastic. I was invested in Peter, the eminently hopeful, kind of weak, kind of bumbling protagonist, even while groaning through his boneheaded mistakes (generally involving communication with his wife). I loved the people of Oasis, both its native inhabitants and its hodgepodge group of damaged human immigrants. The people are colorful, as they should be. It’s a baldy science-fiction book that will be marketed as straight literature or ‘genre-defying’. I guess the genre defying part is smart character study and stellar prose. Which reinforces exclusion of sci-fi as unserious, but whatever.
Faber’s sentence-level craft is superb. His character work subtly reveals much without smashing you over the head — he understands the difference between the main point-of-view character’s perception of another character, and how that character actually is. The plot is smooth, moving between nail-biting tension and balmy contemplation. There was a point in the book where I knew something bad had happened to Peter’s wife, and as a careful reader, I had a good idea of what had happened — I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, and I’m usually proven right — but no, Faber was in complete control and knew what I was thinking and actually it was a different bad thing that was set up just as well. The dialogue sounds like real people. The epistolary relationship between Peter and Bea reads like a separated couple unused to separation (“The cat misses you!”) and not like the astounding wordsmithery that often permeates letter-correspondence in novels. OK, at least Possession had the excuse that the letter-writers were poets. Peter and Bea’s letters are warm, chilling, tense, not boring as they might have been in lesser hands.
The planet of Oasis, bland at outside appearance, is richly described. It’s very easy and comfortable to feel like you’re there, amidst the green swirling rain and flat horizon. The fleshy-headed, berobed natives, who I feel guilty calling ‘aliens’ even for the purpose of this review (instead of what they are: people), go from strange and off-putting to almost unbearably endearing. They fulfill their sci-fi ascribed role as a foil for humans, while remaining their own distinct entity, who will be living amongst the stars on faraway Oasis long after the book is closed.
It’s rare in science fiction, indeed rare in anything but Christian fiction, that a book intelligently integrates faith into its narrative. Typically religion is a boogeyman or otherwise The Answer To All Things. Peter is devout, but not hardline in his beliefs. The Bible is open to interpretation. Other beliefs should be respected. The novel itself does not lend final credence or doubt to religion, though it does leave me wishing God were real, if not for humans, at least for the oasan’s sake. Instead, it is concerned with major Christian tenets that concern everyone. Notions of mercy, and forgiveness, and redemption. Regardless of faith, as humans we must realize people are capable of terrible, cruel things and just as capable of turning their life around and doing wonderful and compassionate things. The question is how to live with these people, how to forgive or understand them, or conversely how to live with yourself if you are one. God is an answer, but not the only one. And even in the absence of God, it’s worth investigating why singing Amazing Grace in unison is powerful.
(Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for hooking me up! This advanced-reader-copy thing is working out for me lately.)...more
graetings raeder, this bocc was a thryll, i saes to thu, a triewe thryll.
This is the story of our herThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
graetings raeder, this bocc was a thryll, i saes to thu, a triewe thryll.
This is the story of our hero, buccmaster of holland, a man displaced in the year 1066 by the arrival of kyng geeyome and his french cronies, and buccmaster’s travels across an England all aflame.
It is fantastic. It succeeds on three different, but entwined levels:
1. The language
Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.
Kingsnorth has created a hodgepodge language (a ‘shadow tongue’) of old english, modern english, and hybrid-y made-up words. It’s not as difficult as it sounds; most words can be simply sounded out (folc = folk, blaec = black, wifeman = woman) and are clear by context. Others took me a while to puzzle out (sawol = soul, deoful = devil) and there’s a few words like esol and ingenga that are just old or made up words but near-immediately clear from context as to what they mean.
I know some readers despise having to learn a dialect, espousing the notion that good writing conducts these qualities without linguistic hijinx. And that an activity used for entertainment should not require work. I couldn’t disagree with this notion more. As Kingswolf articulates in the quote above — you cannot truly understand a people until you delve closely into the way they think, which exists within the sphere of their language. It’s also why no matter how great a translation from one language to a next is, it will still always be imperfect.
2. Our hero
i is buccmaster of holland i is a socman a man of the wapentac i has three oxgangs and this is my werod. this is my werod and this is my sweord and those wolde leaf with this fuccan preost go now go north go to sec thy earols and beorn lic the landwaster did in northern fyr
buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs, is a goddamn asshole. He’s a petty, violent, coward obsessed with his own greatness. He thinks he’s the only real englishman left in England. Literally the only positive quality he sees in other people is obeisance to him. He has the voices of ‘eald anglisc gods’ in his head, which are actually originally the norse gods, telling him he’s weak and urging him to fight (making this the 2nd historical fiction book I’ve read featuring a mad englishman with a voice in his head in as many months).
And you spend the entire novel intimate with this scoundrel, amidst the muddled and contradictory fear and hate that make up his thought processes. It’s litany of 11th century hate, for everything — foreigners, his countrymen, his family, society, religion, the young, the old. Yet despite that you could easily see the same type of man reflected in a present day ultra-conservative pining for days bygone, thinking themselves the only real American (insert your country), lamenting giving women any rights or utterly opposed to any change whatsoever.
And he’s one of the best written protagonists I’ve followed in years. I can hear the fucker muttering his greatness in my sleep. Even after he does something bafflingly cruel and brutal, I can’t help but chuckle when he again uses as his justification the fact that he’s a a triewe anglisc man, buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs. He’s just so bitter, so full of rage. And also pathetic and devoid of self awareness. His wife and sons are murdered and he whines about the inconvenience to him.
3. The history
Laughably, the blurb for this book states:
Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next…
I guess ‘everyone’ in this context means some englishpeople and historians. Real quick primer: The french rapidly conquered England, and burned, raped, and siphoned the wealth of the good people across England. But in this era of history, England was massively decentralized and underpopulated. The numbers were very small. So a few men escaping the sack of their village (a ‘ham’ of a handful of houses) could hide in the fen or forest, a place the foreign-born french could not pursue them and pick off the invaders in guerilla combat.
It was less a war than pure colonization. The french despised the english and had no problem quashing their customs and ways.The modern english we know today are a combo of french and english from the time. The old gods were already on their way out in favor of ‘the hwit crist’, but the french greatly accelerated the Christianizing of England. Hereditary monarchy and land ownership transmitting through first born sons are old french constructs, not english. Following the events of The Wake, there was not another king who spoke english as a first language for a good 250 years! Contrary to the book blurb’s ‘everyone…’, I knew nothing about this era of history and found it fascinating. I would have guessed old english gods were celtic, not norse.
we is men of the hidden places of our own places and our worc is to stand for the lands we cnawan and cum from to cepe our folc free. and when there is enough of us angland will not be ham for no ingenga and none will stand to be here for none can lif if the treows the ground the hylls them selfs is waepened agan all comers
Hilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writeThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
Hilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writer. This means the inevitable: Collect bits of flotsam and jetsam, short pieces from individual assignments over the last 25 years, and publish them in one honestly sparse volume and cash in on that book of short stories.
She’s a good enough writer that it’s still a pleasure to read. The stories are generally about women amidst divorce, ennui, writing, yearning. Only one, about a writer caught in a depressive cycle of speaking engagements, is unsatisfactory. The highlight was a subtle piece that begins innocently with a person lamenting their job working at a doctor’s office, before going off into stranger territory.
The eponymous final story did not do much for me. Perhaps you need to be English to feel the true impact. I thought The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was going to be an ironic title, but it is quite literal — a woman has an assassin enter her house whilst Thatcher is at an eye doctor nearby, and he assassinates her. It boils down to musing how events might have gone differently:
History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near a bypass.
A MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remainsThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
A MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remains inimitable. Bizarre, grotesque, monotonous, true. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and this is remarkable to everyone but his own self, because as the overworked and under-appreciated breadwinner of his family, he already lives like one. His initial trials involve trying to get out of bed (he’s stuck on his back carapace and hasn’t managed to control his multitude of tiny fluttering legs yet) and trying to open doors. What follows, as his family begins to ostracize him, is a black humor-laced* depiction of how some families treat the terminally ill among them.
The stories maintain a striking relevance. The Penal Colony is a story about the failed maintenance of the once great ‘apparatus’, an impossible steampunk device that writes a victim’s crimes in their own skin until they run out of blood and it (the apparatus) tosses them into a bottomless desert pit. It is a political tale of capital punishment and changing opinions tied to changing regimes. It could have been written today, which is sort of depressing in its resonance.
There’s fragments and meditations. Short recursive pieces where characters sunk in pathos consider and reconsider their life and emotions mark Kafka as a very direct antecedent to David Foster Wallace’s short fiction. There’s dark fairy tales and sardonic observations of social interaction and weird, coincidence laden tales of ship crews where no one acts or responds as they should. Why does that kid love the awkward crewman (‘the stoker’) like a father after knowing him for five minutes, why??
But yes, more Kafka. I intend read his entire oeuvre, which isn’t terribly long, but I’d do the same if it were much longer.
*I never realized the horror-trope of a man covering his mouth with his hands and slowly backpedaling away had its roots in Kafka. I do now, thanks to Gregor’s jerk boss coming to the Samsa house to lecture him on the requirements of showing up to work before he opens the door and sees roach-Gregor and reacts accordingly....more
When I was a kid, I liked books that took me on an adventure. Many did. They laid down a few rules, iThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
When I was a kid, I liked books that took me on an adventure. Many did. They laid down a few rules, introduced our hero, and off we went, through twisting, perilous journeys and transformative loves. This stopped happening at some point. The YA novels became rote. Sure, there was adult novels containing adventure aplenty, but the essential, magical piece was missing.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going here: The Bone Clocks took me on that adventure, again.
It’s 1984 and fifteen year old Holly Sykes is running away from home for typical reasons — fights with mother, questionable decisions w/r/t much older boyfriend, general familial/societal misunderstanding. Like many teenagers, Holly is the only one who has ever felt these feelings before, ever. Mitchell shows care and empathy for adolescents even when we know they are being ridiculous. Holly’s plight ratchets up a few notches beyond mere teen angst when it’s revealed she had a series of odd, possibly supernatural events happen to her as a child (labeled Holly Sykes and the weird shit part 1, part 2, etc.) and the adumbral personages from this period of her life start surfacing in the present day (of 1984).
And as we turn the page on Holly’s final, self-shocking revelation, we see the date has changed from 1984 to 1991 and we are are in the first-person-I head of a completely different person, bereft of Holly’s resolution. This is how the book flows — time jumps and character swaps.
It’s not an uncommon technique in literature to leap large swathes of time in a single turn of the page. But, The Bone Clocks limits the chapters to such discreet, episodic moments in time. This, combined with the changing points of views, means that you’ll be embroiled in a character’s immediate problems and then swap twenty years to another character and come to see the first character’s turmoil as a distant blip, long resolved. It makes a single life seem really quite short. This helps set up the appeal of the villains — the soul sucking Anchorites that live forever and owe no small debt to Anne Rice’s vampires. The moral failings of living forever, especially when they require some of cost (‘decanting’ innocents!), have been affirmed as verboten ad nauseum. It takes a skilled writer to breath life into why immortality can be so appealing. The villains really are jerks though.
The physical design of the book itself is a continuation of the time theme. A clock in the top right of the page literally ticks down. It’s a fascinating mechanism and a sell for the singular experience of reading a physical book. I read this in paper but I recently bought an eReader and the comparison between the two has been on my mind of late.
David Mitchell, as always, is a superb writer of prose. He slips into the voice of each character and each time period, though there is a trademark, Mitchellian turn of phrase that remains regardless of the chapter. He’s the sort of writer who could write anything and I’d read it. I’d read his grocery lists, no joke.
The novel isn’t flawless. It’s long and the pacing isn’t entirely perfect. The fantastic and realist elements don’t always mesh as well as they could, especially when compared to Mitchell’s masterful Cloud Atlas. But these are minor detractors to an excellent book. So much so, I am reading non-fiction next to avoid being disappointed by the next novel I pick up....more
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.
These chilling lines always aThis was originally published on The Scrying Orb.
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.
These chilling lines always appear on lists of the greatest first lines in literature, and always piqued my interest, but for some reason never led me to pick up Paradise. Until now. Which is a shame because it is really freakin good.
The all-black town of Ruby exists for reasons of virtue. Work ethic, godliness, community. Its founders, following the collapse of Reconstruction, were reduced from governors to street sweepers. Fleeing the abstract, omnipresent violence of whites and turned away from other black towns for being too black, they continued their Biblical journey to settle in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie. A generation later, their descendants are continuing their legacy, but failing to create their own; events in the real world are pulling their children away. A die-hard devotion to the old ways reveals the flaws in their patriarchal wisdom, and frustrated at the erosion of their status and control, they direct their ire outward, at undeserving targets, and yes, you guessed it, the oppressed become the oppressors.
Outside of Ruby lies the ‘Convent’, formerly a wealthy embezzler’s estate, then a re-education religious school for native girls, it has now become a home for lost women, fleeing predatory life situations and, though they don’t know it, desperately in need of the company of other women. These are the subjects of the first lines of the book, targeted for their free approach to sex and dress, paganism, and especially their independence from men. Their names mark the chapters of the book. These relate their their stories and how they arrived at the Convent, and are interspersed with the history and points of view of the citizens of Ruby, as unrest builds toward the shootout at the Convent — related in the first and penultimate chapters.
The themes of Paradise – the contagion of oppression, violence against women, the pursuit of utopia, the conflict on interpretation of religion — are obvious but deftly told. Morrison has a wonderful way of getting in a character’s head and asking you to empathize with them, then switching viewpoints to another character who just does not care or rejects the principles the first character held. As I mentioned in my review of Ancillary Justice, the difference between approaching current topics of human rights and politics by a lesser skilled writer who takes you out of the narrative and a master who just makes you angry on behalf of the characters is immense. Toni Morrison is the master here. I was enveloped by the plot and characters, not distantly pondering topics of feminism and civil rights. Or I was, but they were entwined. No academic detachment.
The sentence level writing is stellar. Toni Morrison is often described as lyrical and I guess she is, but that word is kind of vague and imprecise. The language in Paradise alternates between personal and biblical. The dialogue feels like it could be spoken aloud. The characters have depth but are familiar — they have traits you see in those around you. Then there are moral proclamations that strike to the bone. Fire and brimstone seem right around the corner. There feels like there is much more at stake than a few lives, or even an entire town.Taken together, it all reminds me deeply of a western — there’s something intensely hopeless about it all, similar to Warlock, another tale of biblical-American destruction....more
Joan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-poiThis was originally published on The Scrying Orb.
Joan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-point what a book will contain:
- A detached heroine, probably in her thirties. A woman becoming unhinged. - Cruel men in positions of power over the heroine, who have jobs that give them financial and social clout that allow them to be 100% assholes without much consequence (lawyers, producers, etc). The men may be just as detached as the women, but they exude at least the appearance of control. - A lost child. - A stomach churning body horror scene, probably relating to the above bullet point, involving a botched abortion or miscarriage or horrifying birth. - Actually it doesn’t have to be tied to birth. Vaginal blood, arriving in one way or another, and being integral to at least one crucial scene and maybe one shock scene. Maybe they’re the same scene. In A Book of Common Prayer, a bomb goes off outside a birth control clinic and a doctor jumps in fright while inserting an IUD and punctures his patient’s uterus. Meanwhile, the protagonist (who is working at the clinic) is on her period and this is important. - A disorienting disconnect between how much money the characters are spending and how much money they can possibly have/make; it’s not merely like those sorts of books where seemingly everyone is rich. In A Book of Common Prayer, the protagonist has left her husband and has no job, and is somehow jumping from airport to airport with ease. - Sex is scary and bizarre, but also understated. When it happens, it is mentioned casually or in a scene much later than when it actually happened. It’s generally inexplicable why the heroine is having sex with whomever she is having sex with. - Depression and depravity are omnipresent. Everyone is sad or an asshole, but probably both. Hope or escape is generally represented in the (lost) child. - Physical and spiritual despoilment in fictional third world countries, mirroring the protagonist’s own fall/state of mind/ennui. - A cold, detached narrator who is not so cold and detached as her self image had her believe before the plight of the subject/protagonist came to pass before her very eyes. - Just enough hope or possible freedom to make the utter dashing of said hope/freedom sting (but you knew it was coming anyway).
Yet. The writing is so good, so biting and sharp and uniquely Joan Didion that I keep on reading, even as the books become indistinguishable. Plus, they’re really short and move at breakneck speed, so there’s not enough time to get bored.
(Also while looking for the cover image online, I discovered this book, written in 1977, is suddenly going to have a movie adaptation starring Christina Hendricks come out this year???)...more
The incestuous tribal peace-lovers. Otherwise known as Dhai. The maThis was originally published on The Scrying Orb.
Let me explain.
The incestuous tribal peace-lovers. Otherwise known as Dhai. The majority of the main characters are Dhai, though much of the story happens elsewhere. The have big, polyamorous family structures, their wizards are sworn to pacifism, and they seem to be enslaved anywhere else not-Dhai. While seeming egalitarian, they practice hereditary rule and draconian rule enforcement.
The militaristic kill all men fascists. Otherwise known as Dorinah. Martial woman who fight and enslave for kicks and who happen to kill all the men they don’t need for breed/status-marriages, invoking their own version of Darwinism/(u)natural selection by killing off all but the smaller, pretty ones. I’m not sure what their wizards do. Act as deus ex machina maybe.
The empire that lives in the cold and acts like assholes for no clear reason (maybe they’re cold). Otherwise known as Saiduan. They’re very stern and cold (in demeanor!) and harsh, just like… the wintry land they inhabit. Their wizards are assassins.
Unlike the final version, the advance copy of this book is missing a map. For most of the novel, I was picturing these three countries as amorphous island blobs floating near each other. Turns out, this is not the case.
The good peoples above are busy being their own nationalistic-defined selves when Saiduan (cold-assholes) are invaded by mysterious enemies dropping out of rifts in the sky. Said enemies happen to look just like the Dhai (tribal-incest). Turns out there are other worlds, and in one world in particular, a few decisions made differently were all it took for the pacifism-loving Dhai to become terrible imperialistic conquerors.
Other worlds. Mirror worlds. Mirror Empires. The gates between worlds have rules associated with them; you cannot cross over to a world if your other-world-self still lives, and they are difficult to open. Indeed, they can snap shut and slice you right in half and this will not be the only instance you are reminded of The Wheel of Time series, even if you got bored halfway through it. Like 10 years ago.
This book moves quickly. It’s well paced. Every chapter is a contained moment of action that moves the plot along and sets up the next piece. While not essential in all works (I do love a slow burn), this is essential for The Mirror Empire, for reasons mentioned below in ‘The bad’. Much is communicated with few words and the tell-tale sluggishness and over description of most epic fantasy is absent. It’s almost baffling when a room or scene is described in detail — I’d scrutinize the wall texture for plot significance.
These traits are encapsulated in The Mirror Empire’s standout character, a Dorinah (KAM-fascists) general named Zezili. Zezili, in addition to being a spousal abuser and all-around curmudgeonly asshole, spends much of the book committing genocide on slave camps scattered across her country. Yet, you can’t help but want her to succeed.
(at halting the villains, not genocide)
She can get away with mass murder, because in The Mirror Empire, life is cheap. Murder, genocide, slavery are casually mentioned, rarely described. A character having mud and blood on her boots is an expository tell that a whole lot of people just died. While the numbers of people in any given scene are small, the amount that casually get offed is out-of-scale enormous. History is laden with genocide. There’s a disproportionate amount of slaves. Sometimes people are mentioned as dying offhand, and I’m not even sure what was around to kill them. It may be that this was supposed to point out the cheapness of life in the real world, the commonplace of genocide, how rote killing becomes when it’s all you know. But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels more like a Franz Kafka short where no one reacts as you’d expect them to. Murder is just totally fine in Mirrorempireland. Normal, even.
Despite the walking trees and killer plant life that suffuse the world, despite the mirror worlds and wacky magic, despite the avoidance of traditional-patriarchal-conservative structures, this still feels like just another fantasy world. Dhai has five genders but I have no idea what any of them mean — they seem pretty average fantasy-tribal-religious society. The cultures and people just don’t feel solid, or believable. They’re groups of traits.
This extends to the characters and language. You have reluctant man with small concerns and tragic past thrust into Leader of the People. Youth searching for a lost parent and coming of age (+superpowers). There’s a bunch of generic martial badasses. And while I’m utterly opposed to the thesis of Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie — that fantasy requires some sort of mythic-grandiose language — it actually kind of applies here. The language, and especially the dialogue of The Mirror Empire is incredibly modern. Why are the people of this killer-tree, super magic, casual murder, pre-industrial, multivalent gender planet speaking like Americans in 2014?
P.S. Fiction and blog writers alike, I hate when you overuse the word ‘Well’ to start a sentence.
The wizards (and a refusal to adhere to a Serge Leone ascribed trichotomy)
In this world, some kind of moon-like satellite things rise and fall every few years. These satellites give the magic-users of the world their powers. It’s a pretty cool concept. Someone with their satellite in power in their early-mid teens may be a more confident youth and this will alter their life beyond just mastering powerful magic. And no doubt have a second effect once their power begins to wane. One place fantasy often fails is when you ask the question, ‘why don’t wizards rule the world?’ This books fails here too. The magic users are super powerful; they can heal almost anything, blow shit up en masse, etc. It’s not a major flaw but it’s there.
The actual magic system is weaving patterns and speaking litanies and the biggest conjuror of Wheel of Time memories. You have to grasp the magic source, maintain concentration etc. This wasn’t a negative. It made me nostalgic. I felt this often during The Mirror Empire and it is not merely because I’ve started reading more fantasy again after abstaining for years. Hurley conceived of this originally as a teenager and it feels like that. There are some magic assassins that have swords attached to their arms that glow and literally eat souls. Been there, wrote that, killed that World of Warcraft boss. In fact, I felt like I was in a video game often. Mass Effect in particular.
This review is all over the place. Sorry. Suffice to say: I liked it. I’ll read the next.
I requested this book from Netgalley as I’m a fan of Kameron Hurley’s blog. Then I failed to download it in the required time. The publisher hooked me up anyway. Thanks Angry Robot!...more
I began this book in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and finished it on the 38L bus in San Francisco. Kind of like Pi’s jourOriginally published here.
I began this book in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and finished it on the 38L bus in San Francisco. Kind of like Pi’s journey, sans malnutrition and 450 lb. Bengal tiger.
This book, while entertaining, suffers from a not uncommon phenomenon. It’s been out for 13 years, just had a major movie release, and is part of our societal consciousness. As a result, I knew it was about boy in a boat with a tiger. So when the novel itself spends the first hundred pages in southern India, detailing Pi Patel’s life and entering into both a theological treatise on the multivalence of religion as well as a stalwart defense of zoo ethics, and it’s even further, a full 150 pages (about halfway) before the premise — boy + boat + tiger — is realized, I could not help but be figuratively tapping my foot in impatience.
The religion bits made me want to debate the authorial voice purporting them. Conflating atheism with faith drives me up a wall and the novel paints atheists and theists as similar belief-based stances. It also has a hilarious and unnecessarily antagonistic take on agnosticism, condemning doubt as wishy-washy and cowardly; this, instead of the essential element of theology and science alike that doubt actually is. The zoo defense squad sections follow along similar lines. Martel omits crucial elements of anti-zoo activist’s arguments. His exhortation that the difference between wild habitat and zoo enclosure is arbitrary, and that the animals appreciate the safety and reliability of food does not reconcile with my own childhood memories of Major the polar bear ceaselessly pacing back and forth in his room temperature pen in the Stone Zoo.
I was also under the impression that this was going to be a fantastical story. Maybe it was the tiger. In actually, the tale is played almost* entirely straight. While a Bengal tiger on a lifeboat is extraordinary, the story is otherwise how a person stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean might try and survive. There’s interminable descriptions of knot tying, the structure of the boat, the current status of the tiger, the position of the tarpaulin, the direction of the winds, the ferocity or calmness of the waves. All the sort of repetitive practical details that make castaway stories a bit of a bore and all of which make me suspect this story may work better in a visual medium (I have yet to see the movie).
The book improves for the final fourth. The end of the journey is the best and the last bit where Pi makes landfall is somewhat clever. There’s meta discussion on what fiction actually means — if a ship sinks and everyone dies and there is only a sole survivor, does it honestly matter what happened to him afterward? It’s total philosophy 101: What is truth? Is it relative? It’s not especially profound but it’s contextually sound and makes an otherwise dull book shine. Briefly.
*The scene that makes me say almost instead of entirely — a mysterious living island — is my favorite in the novel....more
It has been entirely too long since I read a great fantasy novel.
Premise: The Emperor, and all of his heirs saOriginally published on The Scrying Orb.
It has been entirely too long since I read a great fantasy novel.
Premise: The Emperor, and all of his heirs save one, die in a fiery zeppelin crash. His estranged halfbreed son, relegated to a secluded lodge and shackled with an abusive overseer, is suddenly thrust on to the throne. This all happens in the first three pages — you’re not left with your hands in your pockets wondering when the blurb on the back of the book will actually come to pass.
Emperor Edrahasivar VII (known as Maia to his buddies / readers) struggles with the questionable legacy of his father, ancient political and territorial disputes, attempts at his life and the building of literal and figurative bridges. He’s unprepared, timid, and plagued by stress headaches. But he is determined to do right by his people.
Sci-fi and fantasy are so often reflections of the times we live in. We live in cynical times. Naturally, our fantasy has taken a turn for the grim(dark). This is hardly secluded to fantasy of course. From The Wire to Breaking Bad to American Hustle, our dramas are obsessed with the abyss. Thus it seems almost radical to read a story surrounding a politician-hero who is honestly good, does not become privy to corruption, nor made an example of by a contemptuous phantom narrator who demands retribution for goodworks and cannot abide that a good person making good decisions could maintain control.
(don’t get me wrong, I like tragic, difficult stories too)
The Goblin Emperor is suffused in a fantasy world with accompanying lingo and vague technology-magic. it succeeds where many of its type fail, however, in that it does not get bogged down in itself. It uses familiar genre arcana as touchstones rather than subjects for lengthy elucidation. There’s steampunk elements — an airship for example — but not steampunk porn. We, the reader, know what an airship is. We don’t need the painstaking minutiae of why it stays aloft. Similarly, all the main characters are elves and goblins, but they don’t need to be described to conjure the correct imagery. Nor do we need to know why there is racial strife between them. It’s a staple*.
Potential cons: Some of the jargon works better than others. The changing dialect and fluctuations between singular and plural, formal and casual may seem daunting when summarized here but they flow naturally. The honorifics and suffixes and affixes do become a bit much though, especially since most of the cast have generic fantasy names. They can be very hard to keep track of. But it’s a minor complaint. A bit worse is the pacing — it’s not a typically paced novel and it occasionally drags. It has maybe thirty pages too many.
But that should not detract. It’s an excellent book.
*And it’s a staple for a reason. Obvious real-world reasons that can’t be any more apparent when we have a half-black, half-white president. Modern social issues abound in this book. Another strike against the notion that stories need to be violent and shocking to be relevant....more
The disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the herOriginally published on The Scrying Orb.
The disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.
I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.
The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.
Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.
Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.
I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.
*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own....more
What’s this book about, eh? Let’s check the back cover blurb:
“Its narrator is Moaes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, a ‘high-born crossbreed’Originally published here.
What’s this book about, eh? Let’s check the back cover blurb:
“Its narrator is Moaes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, a ‘high-born crossbreed’ who is the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords. Moor is a compulsive storyteller and an exile. And as he travels a route that takes him from India to Spain, he leaves behind a labyrinthine tale of mad passions and volcanic family hatreds, of titanic matriarchs and their mesmerized offspring, of premature deaths and curses that strike beyond the grave.”
Moor does indeed journey to Spain from India. In an airplane. In the last 20 pages of the novel.
Baldly misleading summaries are hardly rare; what is interesting here is what whomever wrote the above chose to omit and why.
Because what the The Moor’s Last Sigh is about is this: a man, near death due a supernatural ailment, tells the story of his entire family from great grandparents to himself, tying them to the tumultuous history of India. The exact same setup as that of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel, Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers.
The same setup. Not nearly as good.
It’s not a total retread. Simply chronicling a different family in a different region of India changes the story greatly. But neither novel has a gripping plot — they are appealing due to Rushdie’s wordy, imaginative prose and the history he intends to capture. Moor’s origin is a collision between Christian and Jewish tradition. The locus of the story, and the Zogoiby-De Gama family, is Moor’s mother, Aurora. All roads, past and present lead back to Aurora. She is the magnetic core drawing all others in, both in-narrative and as external-reader. When the story focuses on Moor, it’s dull by comparison — which makes a sort of narrative sense but does not make the book any less bland when his mother exists center stage.
Rushdie’s writing does make it all worth reading. The man can turn a phrase. And perhaps if it didn’t feel like somewhat of a regurgitation of a greater work, I would have enjoyed it more. Nonetheless, I found it wanting....more
Sad to say, since I received this for free from Goodreads, but this is just not a very good book. The characters arThis was originally published here.
Sad to say, since I received this for free from Goodreads, but this is just not a very good book. The characters are two-bit stereotypes, the sense of place and setting is unconvincing, the writing is dull, and I came to find myself zoning out on the bus, listening in to other peoples’ conversations — addiction, rental prices, who’s dating who — rather than return to this novel’s overpowering blandness.
Tooly, an American running a nigh-insolvent bookstore in rural Wales, is suddenly thrust back into the mystery of her past, which involved several irresponsible adult caretakers she was on a first-name basis with as a ten year old, and no “Mom” nor “Dad” in sight. The novel is split between 1988, 1999, and 2011, across Wales, New York City, Bangkok, Greece, and a few other minor locales, all of which are largely indistinguishable (but more on that later).
Tooly ends up searching for an explanation of her real parents, and for another character from her convoluted past: a predatory Canadian hipster named “Venn”. Venn has been transparently playing and manipulating Tooly since her childhood, though she is oblivious to this and worships the ground he walks on. Here is where the poor characterization takes hold. Incredibly charismatic but terribly manipulative people do exist — and thrive. But Venn, with all his high-minded speeches and beard-splitting grins, is entirely unconvincing. We have to rely on Rachman to tell, instead of show, how charming Venn is. The result is that we find Tooly foolish to trust him since there’s no reason for us to find Venn particularly compelling.
The Tooly-Venn relationship also ties into a troubling theme that runs through the novel; there’s multiple women who seem to be staying with/pursuing men who are awful to, or terrible for them. This includes a college professor whose boyfriend and later husband happens to be a student whose every element of description is used to accentuate how much of a giant asshole he is. Which is a problem unto itself. And a common one at that — several characters are just types, not people. The overworked lawyer who ignores his family. The washed up cougar who now hates young women prettier than she. The unbelievably cruel principal who authenticates our protagonist as true outsider.
The thing about these globetrotting novels, even the ones that don’t even get the locations right, is that they need a stellar handle on setting. You need to feel like you’re there. Or at least be awed or fearful of this strange locale. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers fails spectacularly. Each city is dull and flavorless and might as well be the same blank urban void. Bangkok has prostitutes, I guess*. And Wales has horses. New York city is established by name dropping locations everyone knows (Oh look, it’s the Empire State Building!). Minor details are misses as well. Describing the squalor of a college boy’s NYC apartment, it’s mentioned that the roommates avoid the shower and wash in the “basin”, which is an immediate tell that the author is not American, and it’s kind of baffling that this wasn’t caught in editing**. For any non-American wondering, we call it a sink.
Towards the very end, I did get somewhat invested in the story and came to care for Tooly, which is why this is two stars and not one. And by “the very end”, I mean the last 20-30 pages and not the last page itself which involved an unfortunate and silly change of perspective.
The writing itself is unremarkable and tedious. Despite the crux of the novel being a mystery, the prose might as well be breaking into your house and drawing maps on your face for how little it leaves to the imagination. It does not even allow you to come to the most basic conclusions by yourself. In 2011, we are told Tooly is in her 30s and when the chapter swaps to 1999, we have to be told she is 21, and then again in 1988, that her exact age is 10. No basic math for you. There is a character that starts or ends every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. Despite the fact that this speech tic is itself obvious, Rachman has to laboriously explain to the reader that this character, Fogg, likes to pre-empt or end every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. This may sound like mere pedantry on my part, but it permeates the entire novel. The prose is how we are communicated this story, after all. When the basic sentence structure is so uninspiring and flat, it is no surprise when the book itself turns out to be so.
*Blogger Requireshate has mentioned in the past that when white people write of Thailand, if you look at the acknowledgements, the people thanked for Thailand-specific info on that section will inevitably have Anglo-sounding names (in other words, they’re expats) instead of any Thai names. I checked and this is indeed the case for Tom Rachman’s acknowledgements.
**The advanced reader copy warns: “THESE ARE UNCORRECTED PROOFS. PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL YOU CHECK YOUR COPY AGAINST THE FINISHED BOOK”. So I suppose you ought to take this part with a grain of salt....more
George Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, toOriginally published here.
George Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, to paint a picture of an American social institution come adrift and unbound. The old social contract has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden. The worst part of the 2008 recession was not the recession itself but the missing high-profile arrests, new laws, and checks that failed to materialize afterwards. And not for lack of evidence or persuasiveness.
The Unwinding follows many people, but three “average” and unknown Americans get several chapters devoted to their stories. One is Tammy Thomas, an assembly line worker coming of age during the collapse of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy watches as her community implodes, jobs disappear, gentrification and white flight run rampant only for her to lose her job herself. In the past, a combination of industry barons and the unions had protected their own; they were no saints and the jobs were often unsafe, unhealthy and did not include stellar pay, but they were stable. They paid enough to feed your family, had safeguards for injury, and took care of retirement. Packer is careful not to turn the early-mid century into a halcyon golden age — the terrible racism is reinforced. In fact, the industrial collapse was even worse for the rising black middle class since their time was so short and they were hit the hardest in many of the industry towns as they were coming in as the whites were coming out (at least for the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs).
Next comes Dean Price, an entrepreneur and green economy evangelist whose story spans the Piedmont Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Shocked by the notion of peak oil and hyped up on self-help books, Dean starts a southern crusade to employ various combinations of crops or waste products to replace diesel fuel (a major dependency of the sprawling, decentralized, crop-run south). The plan is to make farming useful again and get the locals back to work. Shrink business and put the means of production back in the hands of the community. His businesses fail. Due to a combination of ignorance, petty infighting, political games, shifting economics (once gas prices stabilized, green fuel became too expensive), and poor financial sense (on Dean’s part). But he keeps on trying. A friendly politician tells him to stop using words like “sustainability” and “green energy” as they tend to scare the populace. Dean himself, despite his strict adherence to peak oil, rejects speaking of climate change as “too partisan”. The book paints a picture of an economically devastated south, entire industries wiped out with whole towns employed and shopping at Walmart. Plus a disdain leveled upon them by the richer cities (of which I reside!). But still, it’s hard to sympathize when massive global crisis is present but ignored or decried as partisan and when you hear what the most common word that Dean’s fellows have to describe Obama is (hint: it begins with an n).
Lastly is Jeff Conaughton, a “Biden-guy”* with joint careers in Washington and Wall Street. Jeff’s story is largely an affirmation that the former is still in the latter’s pocket. His eventual departure from both involves him being unable to get an important audience with a politician as a Washington insider while his friends in a financial firm command eighty minute meetings. Meanwhile, the Republican party is now run on spite**. The democrats are largely ineffectual or just as bad. There’s a chapter profiling Elizabeth Warren that points out she espouses the same sort of views as Barrack Obama but seems determined to actually fulfill them without some kind of buddy-buddy ho ho let’s make a deal, guys schtick (Packer: “She actually seemed to hate the banks”). As a result, she was despised by members of both parties while in Washington. While probably the compelling personal story, Jeff Conaughton’s is the one with the most obvious and dire consequences. The highest levels of this country are a mess.
Interspersed between these three paths are exposés on famous people and three tumultuous locales — Wall Street during Occupy, Silicon Valley and its elite, and the housing crisis as it builds and smashes Tampa Bay. The character portraits are fascinating, Packer adopts a voice and language that fits the person he is writing about. Military based Colin Powell’s chapter uses high falutin language (glory, comrade, etc) with short sentences and an epic bent. Oprah’s uses more spiritual and floaty language. With the conspicuous exception of Elizabeth Warren, they generally have something negative to say. Oprah’s magical thinking ties wealth to goodness. Alice Waters inability to compromise has greatly assisted in what Americans eat being defined along class lines. Jay-Z is selling a cheap and false notion of rebellion. Raymond Carver was a pathetic, drunk asshole (not sure how that one ties into the greater narrative to be honest).
The Wall Street and Silicon Valley segments were interesting, but the implosion of Tampa and its environs was perhaps the best told and most harrowing section of the book. The real estate doomtrain and its inevitable derailment. The scrabbling at the ruins and the honest attempts to keep a house. The foreclosure machine in action — obfuscation of what is actually owed and to whom; three minute court hearings without the bank present. The fear and anger that led the Tea Party to emerge***. The Republican National Conference literally blockading the citizens of Tampa out of their own city. It feels like the setup to a dystopian fiction.
Packer’s America is one that has lost faith in itself, its people afraid of the future. Each chapter is preceded by a year and series of quotes, song lyrics, movies lines evoking that year. The last one, 2012, quotes the premise of The Hunger Games. The children of the starving and oppressed poor forced to fight to the death for the novelty of the extreme wealth. If Sci-fi represents how we view the future and fantasy how we dream, then we have become incredible cynics. Our Sci-fi/fantasy worlds are ones of decay, lands ruined by social upheaval and environmental disaster. It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is so successful, in novel and television form. It’s the story of a corrupt elite repeatedly abusing the trust of their representative peoples, while they ignore a supernatural threat that comes literally from the glacial poles and negatively affects the weather.
*Jeff got into politics following a rousing speech that Joe Biden gave to his high school; it made an immediate impact on young Jeff and moved him to pursue politics. Later, he comes to learn that Biden is actually kind of a prick.
**a sad-but-funny chapter details the Republican National Convention. Romney is purposely not named — he’s merely the Nominee — and whenever major conservative figures are asked “Why him?”, they inevitably say something negative about Obama as a response.
***Again, the fear and anger is sad and understandable. The paradoxical self destructive behavior might even be. But the singular aim with which they smashed legitimate attempts to heal the economy is not. Just because the people got utterly hosed does not give them license to hurt others....more
The existence of this book is, quite frankly, bizarre.
The preface introduces Pierre Mac Orlan — an influential but neglectedOriginally published here.
The existence of this book is, quite frankly, bizarre.
The preface introduces Pierre Mac Orlan — an influential but neglected French writer of the early twentieth century. A writer of absurdist tales and adventure novels, personal essays and accordion songs. Under pseudonym, an abundance of flagellation novels. Some of these novels were made into films including the semi-famous Port of Shadows. Yet almost none of his work was translated into English and that which was is all but impossible to find.
All of this is well and good, and the intro writer does a good job of conjuring curiosity and intrigue on the subject of Pierre Mac Orlan. I was ready. Give me the adventure. The flagellation and absurd.
So it came as a surprise that after all this hype, the book the publisher chose to translate was a pamphlet* steeped in a literary-philosophical conflict not of our time and filled with a constant slew of literary recommendations for novels and writers that would be incredibly difficult to track down, if they had ever been translated into English in the first place. The book was written in 1920 after all. There’s endnotes explaining each now-obscure point of reference or writer that contains nearly as many words as the main text itself!
Mac Orlan defines two different sorts of adventurers:
The active adventurer — The person (always a man, women are set pieces — more on this later) who goes off and has some adventure somewhere. He’s probably a sailor and quick with a sabre and off to lands unknown. Impetuous and with a low regard for personal safety, the book even comes with a list of traits these fellows show in childhood.
The passive adventurer — The one who does not travel anywhere farther than the local tavern (mythologized in loving detail), the one who coaxes the gullible active adventure on some perilous mission upon the high-seas and then writes a novel about it afterward. Their defining features are their voracious appetite for reading, their parasitic relationship to the active adventure, and their desire to put it all into writing.
Mac Orlan praises the passive adventurer as one who can write tales about lands he has never been to, who lives by reading and finds all the “research” he may need by familiarity with the great writers of his time (or, again, The Tavern). The introduction makes the comparison to Marcel Proust composing his opus without ever really leaving his bedroom. I would disagree with Mac Orlan, and surely that sort of attitude might explain the cringe-worthy books written by westerners of that time period (and now) about other countries that are hilariously inaccurate and probably racist. But I wasn’t really engaging with this argument because I can never tell when Pierre Mac Orlan is serious.
For he is always dry and mordant, and while he seems to be praising the passive adventurer and determining the active as foolish, there is also a World War I reactionary bent throughout. Is he applauding the passive adventurer or embarking upon a biting satirical take of the governments involved in the Great War — passive adventurers who gladly sent their captive active adventurers to their deaths en masse? The passive adventurer’s manipulation of (human) subject is stressed and at the end, Mac Orlan even warns that the active adventurer, should he survive his sojourn, occasionally comes back to beat the passive adventurer senseless.
This is a constant of the book. It’s impossible to tell if the man is being serious. Everything is written in a deadpan, deliberate tone. In one sentence, he is being a homophobe:
“An adventurer should never be made a homosexual, so as not to break with the prejudice that decrees that an individual with effeminate manners cannot act courageously.”
Then in the same breath, he contradicts his own edict:
“However, this vice has nothing to do with physical courage, which always leads to scorning death.”
Similarly, he refers to women as objects to be inserted into adventure stories like other “props”. His prime example involves comparing types of women to the accoutrements of a ship. Does he really mean it? I don’t know!
I’m still fascinated and Mac Orlan’s sentence-level writing is calculated wit and fun to read, so maybe this choice for translation was smart after all. Certainly it was cheaper than translating a full-length novel. I would like one of those.
*And pamphlet it is. Goodreads lists it as one hundred and one pages but there is an immensity of white space and blank pages. Seriously — there are five blank pages placed at the end of the book for no real reason other than to pad the sizing. The pages themselves are thicker than normal. It takes all of thirty minutes to read....more
The best parts of this book are about the king– the King in Yellow!
The worst parts of this book are everything else. Which iOriginally published here.
The best parts of this book are about the king– the King in Yellow!
The worst parts of this book are everything else. Which is, unfortunately, most of it.
The lead story is a solid piece of weird horror-sci fi*. In the near future of 1920 — the book was written in 1895 — New York City celebrates the inception of its first Lethal Chamber, a little piece of political futura legalizing and enabling suicide, in part because it is ‘believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst’. It is implied that suicides have greatly increased in the intervening years due to the promulgation of a mysterious book, the eponymous play — The King in Yellow. Banned in theocratic and secular states alike, reading the play generally leads to misery, self harm, insanity, and worse.
In fact, our protagonist, Hildred, has just been released from incarceration from an asylum following his reading of the The King in Yellow. His release is questionable as he is clearly quite mad and the story relates his ascension to the crown of King. The result is frightfully bizarre, though quaint in its antiquity. A collection full of stories such as these would have been welcome. The following three tales relate to the King at least in part and vary in quality. They offer epigraphs from the real-fictional play itself.
CAMILLA: You sir, should unmask. STRANGER: Indeed? CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you. STRANGER: I wear no mask. CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No Mask! THE KING IN YELLOW: Act 1-Scene 2.d
See? Delightful and creepy in an old fashioned, gothic aspect.
But following the King stories are some middling supernatural tales followed by a nosedive into poor-grade literary fiction. I’m thrilled by the idea of a writer oscillating between pulpy genre fic and realist pieces, but this is dreck. The lengthy, penultimate story’s plot revolves around a troupe of free spirited Parisian artists being joined by a pure and innocent religious boy. A loose woman then finds she can go from impure to pure via our little man of God (and love — real chaste love, not that smoky pre-marital sex kind!!). You’d maybe think this could be fascinating as an artifact of the fiction of yesteryear. Moldy and archaic like an archeology dig.
It’s an interminable slog. I was two pages into the final story, which revealed itself to be much of the same, even so far as sharing some of the same cast, when I closed the book for good.
*I picked this book up because I knew that, in part, it inspired the plot of the HBO series True Detective. I wanted to read it before I watched the show. I would guess that it is merely the overarching idea of the The King (a book that drives people crazy) and bits of pieces of the first story that influence the show. While still very cool that an obscure, old cult favorite resurfaced over a hundred years post publication in a major television series, it’s still a bit disappointing. Maybe I’ll change my tune after I watch the show....more
Let us try to decipher this strange, dense book. Roberto Calasso takes on Greek mythology.
But what is Greek mythology? Capricious gods. Adulterous heroes. Many headed monsters. Irony. Hubris.
Calasso explains the difference between narrative and myth: A myth has several different versions, different retellings, but the thrust is often the same — there’s always a labyrinth and a monster and a hero and princess but how they got there, who they were, just how the plot played itself out must change. This is the essence of the myth. A narrative is a singular, crafted story. When a mythical tale is pared down to a single interpretation, specific plot-characters-theme, when its variants are lost, it is no longer a myth.
But what is Greek mythology? A panoply of sexual assault and women hanging from trees.
But what is Greek mythology? Duality. Phantoms. Twins.
“There are two strands to the story of the Pelopids: the tale of a king’s descendants, a succession of atrocities, each worse than the one before; and the tale of a series of talismans, each taking over from another in silence, each deciding the fate of men.”
Meanwhile, the Helen who launched the Trojan War, may have only been a phantom twin, swapped out when she was initially journeying to Troy (a point Calasso delights in returning to the whole book long). Athena finds her childhood playmate looked exactly like her and this is why Zeus tricked Athena into killing her. There should only be one Athena.
The heroes of ancient Greece all have godly-antecedents. Theseus, the Minotaur(bull) slayer, becomes a bull in the end, his stories all mirroring earlier feats of Dionysus, often depicted as a bull. The tale of Ariadne can be drawn back to multiple different goddesses. The warrior women of the time fall back to Artemis or Athena. Echoes.
But they all fall short. Achilles’ life is so brief because of how close he is to the gods.
But what is this book? Occasionally a straight retelling of many Greek myths, both popular and obscure and seemingly with an emphasis on rape and abduction. Laced with thematic analysis, historical conjecture, and anecdote, Calasso rewrites the ancient tales of gods and heroes, often multiple times with different results. He sounds kind of smug about it.
But what is this book? Fascinating symbolism extraction mixed with metaphysical nonsense. An unintended duality, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony vacillates between wholly engaging and hopelessly monotonous. One chapter, we are following Calasso down an engrossing tangent, as he introduces a king from Ancient Greece whose entire history and character has been lost to time, save for one repeated trait: hospitality. A very hospitable king. That’s all we know. Hospitable. Calasso then extrapolates this to mean that actually, this king was the king of the dead, the most hospitable king of all, as he welcomes all. Calasso fills in all this backstory and conjecture to make this somehow make sense.
Follow this into another chapter about the birth of ‘necessity’ and the goddesses who commanded such and how they can never be cowed and lord over gods and men alike except that one time when one of them got tricked and impregnated by Zeus as a goose (it rhymes!) and what this means is that man’s relationship with necessity displays its overarching conflict with beauty and Zzzzz.
But what is this book? Eh, it’s okay I guess.
“What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.”...more
K. is trying to get to the castle. The surrounding town’s streets are always deserted. It’s often snowing, often dark, and tOriginally published here.
K. is trying to get to the castle. The surrounding town’s streets are always deserted. It’s often snowing, often dark, and time starts to lose reason and constancy. Mystifying supernatural events occur without explanation — divide two youthful twins, and now they are individually old and grizzled, unable to split their combined age between them. The town has its own internal rhythm and customs and idiosyncrasies, or so it would seem. What is devastatingly obvious w/r/t to social etiquette and procedure to the villagers is inexplicable to K., and to the reader. K. is often compared to a child in how little he understands adult affairs. There are lengthy monologues, personal histories, and bureaucratic minutia explained page after page by one character, only to be contradicted in the same fashion by another character.
This is the meaning of Kafkaesque. Nightmarish, bureaucratic monotony.
I remember reading the Phantom Tollbooth as a kid. And all of Roald Dahl’s works, one by one from the school library’s bottom shelf. I was enchanted and found them entirely natural in their grim absurdity, peopled by heroic albeit vindictive heroes. They often lacked a cogent moral lesson and horrible things happened, both to the protagonists and as a result of their actions. All this I loved and felt was proper. This is a child’s version of maturity, but important nonetheless, since its absence in other age-appropriate works is obviously felt by children.
Much later, as an adult I read analyses of why Juster and Dahl are so popular with kids. They spoke to the fear and bedevilment and chaos and cruelty that are all inescapable components of everyday childhood life, rather than endless summer afternoons amidst the dandelion fuzz like adults like to wistfully recall.
This implies one of two things:
1. The bedeviled nonsensical world is merely one of children, and as we become adults, things make more sense even if it is a somber kind of sense.
2. As adults, we gain some sort of pathos or maturity that allows us to handle the bedeviled world in some fashion.
Franz Kafka proves both of these false. The adult world is just as baffling, nonsensical, insoluble, and unfathomable. There is a reason that K. is constantly compared to a child. Except, unlike childhood and its apposite stories, there is no logical end, however fraught. Alienation in perpetuity. There is death, which is the conclusion Kafka apparently had in mind for K. had he lived to finish The Castle. Darkly ironic, but still no conscious end.
(I’m on a bend of great authors posthumously published great works lately. See The Pale King.)...more