When you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging throuWhen you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging through old books and cataloging them. When you note this blurb describes her as ‘mousy’. Yes, when you take these things and you read the sentence they sneak in at the end about this being one of Canada’s most controversial novels, I believe that like me, you can only come to one conclusion about what this mousy librarian does with that bear.
What is with Canadian women going wild on remote northern islands? This happened in Surfacing by Margaret Atwood too. Sans the beastiality, but with plenty of dirt and madness. But who am I to complain? I liked both these novels a good deal.
Engel has a pleasant, readable style. The pathos of the protagonist is real. It’s easy to get into her head even as she constantly reveals deeper layers that unveil a very different character by the end of the book. The descriptions of the wilderness — from the very specific feel of the cold morning air to the shape of the mushrooms — is immersive and well done.
So I guess we should spend some time doing some analysis on bearsex. What our librarian (who is not actually a librarian, she’s an archivist), Lou, comes to find out in the wilderness is not any particular useful bit of sexual or personal discovery. I read reviews or descriptions that attest to that and I’m confused. It’s more like she affirms what she already knew: that being an intelligent woman in the so-called liberating 70s was still to face stifling, society-wide misogyny on a daily basis. Lou can’t find love but she desperately wants a man: emotionally and sexually. It’s this sort of yearning I can match to 60’s/70s lit (The Golden Notebook for sure), but I see it much less in contemporary texts. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps it’s just disempowering to say that out loud.
Here’s where the bear comes in: with his musk and his enormous masculine presence and his phallus-like tongue, he’s the physical embodiment of strength/protection/power/etc that men are supposed to be. But he’s also impotent and can’t reciprocate Lou’s love. Bear is like the polar (ha!) opposite of the over-intellectualized but useless human men she encounters. Lou imprints a personality on the bear only to find it empty and wrong. It’s just a bear. Wilderness retreats, regardless of what taboos they break, can’t fix society or human relationships.
The taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the mosThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.
The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.
Ol’ Boy wore:
High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.
Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.
“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.
But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.
Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.
Check out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed pageThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
Check out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed page edges. A brick of mass market paperback in that unmistakable font that used to signify A BOOK to me before trade paperbacks took over and the construction of the book itself became stylized. Along with the funny title, these are the reasons I picked this up for three dollars (more than its original sale price) and took it home.
Do you ever stop to contemplate a physical book that is older than you? This book is about a decade older than me. While I was busy being born and learning to read and playing super mario brothers and being bored at school and entering the workforce and getting married and whatever else up until the present moment, this copy of The Milagro Beanfield War was out there, somewhere. Maybe having adventures and being read by all sorts of people (there was an old receipt stuffed between the pages of the book from a now defunct airline). Or maybe it was just read once and stuffed in a trunk before being sold to a used book store many years later.
Anyway, enough musing. Review time.
This is a political book. The war of the title is not a joke nor a bloody battle, but a sort of Cold War between the inhabitants of Milagro and a combination of the wealthy landowners and government forces seeking to abscond with their ancestral lands to create a golf course and surrounding tourist amenities. It’s a story of rich versus poor, old versus new, white versus brown, tradition versus capitalism.
The chicano subsistence farmers of Milagro, New Mexico have lived and died there for hundreds of years. They were there before the US won the Spanish-American War and they’ve been there since. Never really gaining anything in the way of wealth, they’ve survived OK off the land, taking joy in beers on the front porch, mariachi music, and hunting and swimming around the gorgeous and serene mountain lakes that frame Milagro. But for the past several decades, trouble has been brewing and the working class farming community has slowly morphed to true hopeless poverty. Milagro’s inhabitants are all in danger of losing their lands. Indeed, many already have. They’re pushed into service jobs in faraway cities and a huge portion of them are on food stamps.
What happened? Bureaucratic water laws driven by interests far from Milagro, with dead eye sights on economic growth, out of state tourism and the March Forth of Progress. It almost does not need to be said that the poor farmers of Milagro whose land is the fuel for this endeavor will never see any of profit.
This leads to the events of the novel: Joe Mondragon, fed up with the directionless path his life has taken, heads out to his late parents dusty property and diverts a stream to irrigate a paltry beanfield. A simple gesture, but a seriously illegal one with major political implications that Joe himself, a fiesty hot-head, doesn’t even consider. Government agents, water rights goons, local businessman, and a slew of other interests converge on Milagro, plotting how best to dispose of Joe and his beanfield without blowing the whole delicate political situation like a powder keg. The community of Milagro, slowly, through various means both violent and peaceful, starts to unify in response.
While the paragraph above outlines the plot, it’s not truly the focus of the novel and it falls into the background for many pages at a time. Joe himself will disappear from the narrative for large swathes, heard only of in rumor, and some of his most important deeds occur off screen. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent elaborating on the exploits and histories of its large cast of characters, from old men like the ancient, possibly immortal Amorante Cordova and one-armed Onofre Martinez (his other arm was eaten by butterflies), to the whites who found themselves in Milagro for various reasons, like Charlie Bloom, a Harvard lawyer who desperately sought to escape his own culture but has a love-hate relationship with the new one that adopted him.
This is simultaneously The Milagro Beanfield War’s defining strength and distracting flaw. While it’s essential to get to know the town to truly feel immersed in the politics and get behind the plight of not just one unique main character, but a whole slew of them, it’s also digressive and meandering to the point of madness. Every character gets a backstory, even ones who appear for a mere scene or two. Luckily it’s funny and engaging and also relevant 40 years later, where the axis of wealth and the exploitation of the poor continues....more
McCarthy's style is impersonal, narratively detached, and highly descriptive. Technically fine, but I couldn't stand it. I want to be immersed. WhetheMcCarthy's style is impersonal, narratively detached, and highly descriptive. Technically fine, but I couldn't stand it. I want to be immersed. Whether that be into character or narrative passion.
I gave up around page 50 but I knew it was hopeless around page 5....more
Violence and conspiracy in 70s Jamaica as several characters encircle the little known assassination attempt of Bob Marley. The lengthy, smart dialoguViolence and conspiracy in 70s Jamaica as several characters encircle the little known assassination attempt of Bob Marley. The lengthy, smart dialogue matched up with the stream of consciousness point of view, coupled with the long and shifting list of characters gives you the feeling that The Wire, Quentin Tarantino and William Faulkner were placed in a blender.
It’s good, but too long. Some characters bleed into eachother, some chapters seem completely unnecessary....more
Pop Quiz: Name a country in Africa that notes Portuguese as an official language.
Think about it…
Answer: There’s actually six. Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea.
A General Theory of Oblivion is about Angola. Its bloody revolution, booting out the Portuguese colonials, and later its civil war, conflicts of capitalism and communism. But mostly it’s about a cadre of individual characters, criss-crossing over the 30-40 years leading to the present. Chief among them is Ludo, a portuguese agoraphobe who moved from Lisbon to Luanda to be with her sister and brother and law. When the wealthy portuguese fled Angola on the eve of Revolution, this family stayed a bit too long, sister and brother in law disappeared, and Ludo was left to brick herself into her apartment and spend the next three decades in isolation. The other leads include military police, imprisoned dissidents, men unsure whether they’re portuguese or angolan.
Agualusa, a man of portuguese descent born in Angola, initially wrote this story as a screenplay, and it shows. It’s extremely short. I read it on my kindle, but goodreads lists the hardcover as 256 pages. It must be like 24 point font with 3 inch margins to stretch that long. The length is actually perfect, because I found the book pleasant but lacking in depth and feel my good will would have evaporated had it gone on much longer.
As a country’s history, it does not delve deeply. I barely know any more about Angola than I did when I started (which can be summed up as: nothing). And since the details revealed are minimalist, the book short, and the character list long, I never got the sense of most of the characters. As a book describing agoraphobia, it fails completely when stacked up against classics like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Where it succeeds is in capturing a feeling. I get the sense of Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the various zeitgeists that flowed through it from Independence until today. I didn’t grow attached to the many characters, partly due to the clinical narrative style detailing them, but I found that same style of writing very readable. It didn’t ask much of me and I got more than I expected in return. The blurbs compare it to Kafka which is frankly laughable, but I don’t regret reading it....more
I just finished this novel a few minutes ago. Damn. It’s been awhile since I read a book so completelThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
I just finished this novel a few minutes ago. Damn. It’s been awhile since I read a book so completely absorbing.
Casi is a young, all-star defense attorney in New York City. The plot, insofar as there is one, is Casi’s detachment with the system and seduction by the perfect crime, which he plans with some characters who begin to trigger suspicions of a very Fight Club-type twist. But the plot is totally secondary to the thematic weight of this dense novel. It’s a book of musings, of internal investigation of self. Primarily, this is a book of conversations. People talking to each other. The author talking to the reader. Casi talking to judge and jury.
They’re not the types of conversations that real people have, but the kind of big picture what-is-life type discussions that use vocabulary that even the most over-educated real people don’t regularly use. Characters jabber back and forth in 1-5 word phrases, in almost slapstick comedy fashion of mispronounced words and misunderstandings, and then launch into a several page soliloquy on the meaning of life, law, justice, existence, life after death, the universe. I’m not positive what makes this work, but I’d hazard it takes a specific kind of immensely witty & intelligent writer who understands deeply the way human conversations function and flow.
A Naked Singularity owes an extremely heavy debt to David Foster Wallace. Most remarkably is not just how unbelievably in love with Infinite Jest this book is, but how often De La Pava succeeds at what DFW succeeded at. Many writers have tried and almost all have failed. It’s actually uncanny how similar they seem at times. There’s a sequence where Casi overhears two men having a conversation at a diner about how shitty they are to women that is the exact set-up as the stories in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wallace isn’t the only major influence, Delillo is as well. And it wouldn’t be a good law-room novel if it did not hearken to Kafka’s The Trial.
Indeed, A Naked Singularity is at its best when it’s in the courtroom or its environs (prisons, law offices, etc). There’s a real moral force behind Casi as he tries to represent people society has collectively discarded. A plot line later on delves into the baffling cruelty of the death penalty and it pierces, both Casi and the reader. When the book is focusing on family or media absorption (there’s a cadre of roommates obsessed with Television and philosophizing on entertainment), it’s not quite as good. In fact, I think De La Pava cheats a little bit here: The novel ostensibly takes place in modern day but the technology isn’t quite right — everyone is obsessed with Television and news stations and the internet, etc doesn’t quite exist. Events that would surely occur online or tasks people would fulfill with smartphones (which no one has) just… don’t. Even though the internet is occasionally mentioned. This was written in 2012, (not 1996 like Infinite Jest!). So yeah, De La Pava’s notes on television are cogent and interesting but it’s trodden ground and I wonder why he didn’t take on the same kind of issues with modern tech.
De La Pava also deploys employs another DFW staple (or I guess to go further back, a Miguel De Cervantes staple): characters telling stories to each other that become as engrossing as the main narrative itself. One of Casi’s clients opts to become a criminal informant and launches into a thirty page long story of how he came into the drug trade. It’s completely absorbing — I experienced an almost physical jolt when he finished the tale and the book returned to the main narrative thread. Similarly, boxing is to A Naked Singularity as tennis is to Infinite Jest. At several points in the book, Casi purposely abandons his conscious thoughts and relates the story of boxer Wilfred Benitez, in scintillating detail. It’s a thread that runs the entire length of this lengthy book and it’s completely absorbing, like just about everything else written here....more
Backstory: While in India, I was frequently asked —
What are you planning to buy and take back home? WThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
Backstory: While in India, I was frequently asked —
What are you planning to buy and take back home? We have excellent fabrics!
Some jewelry for my wife.
And for yourself?
I don’t know. A book? What’s the best bookstore in Bangalore?
Oh. The bookstores are shutting down… nowadays everyone is getting them electronically. The shops are shutting down; no business.
Several people told me this! I was not asking the right people. To be fair, I’m sure if you asked my American co-workers who either don’t read or can’t see beyond the plastic enclosure of their Kindle, they would say the same, even within a city full of great bookstores. I eventually asked the right people (the readers; of paper) and discovered that Bangalore has at least one awesome bookstore.
Blossom — 3 storeys of floor to ceiling shelves, bowing under the weight of vertically stacked mountains of books, the scent of bookdust filling the air as you precariously shift a column to reach a tome at the bottom. Which brings me to this quote for The White Tiger:
There was a foul taste of book in my mouth — as if I had inhaled so much particulated old paper from the air. Strange thoughts brew in your heart when you spend too much time with old books.
Anyway, I bought a few books, including The White Tiger. Everyone I talked to had either read it and thought it was a great book or had not read it but absorbed it so completely via cultural osmosis that they thought it was a great book.
And indeed, it was a pretty good book.
* * *
Central to this book are two animals:
The White Tiger: What is the white tiger but the rarest animal in all the jungle? Metaphor for an Indian who actually manages to escape his caste for good.
The Rooster (and his coop): Rows upon rows of chickens stuffed in tiny cages in the Delhi market, crawling and shitting over eachother, unable to leave even if the door lay open before them. All of the people in the servant class, stuck there permanently because the rich will literally murder their entire extended family if they fly the coop.
That’s because we have the coop.
Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent — as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way — to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.
There’s a second dichotomy explained in the novel: The borders of India, especially places touching water are The Light. The Darkness is everywhere else — where the majority is extremely poor, crushed under the thumb of the rich, equipped with schools that don’t teach, rigged elections, no running water or functional hospitals, and a constant threat of violence.
If it’s not clear from the quote above, let me tell you: Aravind Adiga is angry. This text excoriates the Indian government and its stratified society. The novel follows Balram Halwai*, a poor man born in The Darkness near to the village where Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree. His family is cripplingly poor, as is all his neighbors; there’s almost zero chance to change their fortune and everyone in the village is subservient to a cadre of thuggish landlords. The most comfortable creature in the family is their water buffalo. From his boyhood, Balram dreams of something better. After lucking into the role of driver for one of the landlord families, he becomes a hired driver and launches his meteoric rise into the streets of Delhi, where murder and entrepreneurship follow.
Balram is supposedly an intrepid but ignorant villager, whose education stopped somewhere mid-gradeschool. But the story, with its witty voice and descriptive prose, oscillating between disgusting descriptions of squalor and beautiful descriptions of nature and humanity takes a backseat to Adiga and how pissed off he is. Early on, Balram mentions how a singular phrase in english transcends language and simply cannot be said any other way. That phrase is:
What a fucking a joke.
As in (Balram speaking on police corruption):
Being called a murderer: fine, I have no objection to that. It’s a fact. I am a sinner, a fallen human. But to be called murderer by the police!
What a fucking joke
(As an aside: as an ignorant westerner visiting Bangalore and Mysore, two places well outside The Darkness, the crushing poverty and class divide wasn’t terribly striking beyond what I see in the US; but something that was immediately obvious was the way people discussed police corruption and the constant casual joking about being sick of paying off the cops)
Balram’s country-yokel ignorance is played off as jokes. His thoughts on the curative power of virgins, his wonder over roads in China. But the narrative voice of Adiga shines through. For instance, Balram is nominally religious and prays to Hindu gods (or in a few scenes, uses some Kali magnets in his car as good luck), but the narrative voice is clearly secular and says it outright by the end. It works because the voice of the novel is so absorbing. But it also has its problems. Women are not treated kindly in this novel and there is no narrative overture to allow us to feel the author is critical of this. Actually, there’s a scene that I swear happened almost exactly in a Rushdie novel: a pack of familial women physically attacking a man who comes home from a lengthy period of hard labor to take all his money. Women are yet another obstacle for the revolutionary and entrepreneurial man of India to overcome.
While I enjoyed the novel, I’m not entirely sure what Adiga has to tell us. Murder our boss, abandon home and run off to a city with a booming economy? Certainly I’ve done a version that — albeit not so extreme, with no murder and less drama. But it’s hardly a universal solution, especially for such an angry book. For all Adiga’s righteous anger, he leaves us with nothing much beyond a promise of the rich being incrementally less corrupt. Maybe.
*Halwai means sweetmaker, Balram’s family’s caste prior to the the supposed abolition of castes. Adiga makes a point that after the British dusted castes and left, India went from a multitude of very specific castes to just two: those with small bellies and those with big bellies (the rich).
One thing I find interesting is that I think those of us from the west, or at least me anyway, simplify castes down to a version akin to Medieval Europe — peasant, merchant, priest, noble — but India clarified it down to the most precise element of society. When I was listening to a tour in Mysore castle, I beheld the palanquin of the old Indian royalty and had it explained to me that there was a specific caste of people just to carry the palanquins....more
Slade House begins in 1977, in the first-person viewpoint of a thirteThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
A short review for a short book.
Slade House begins in 1977, in the first-person viewpoint of a thirteen year old autistic boy who stumbles into an unfortunate encounter with soul sucking vampires living in the eponymous house, which exists in a semi-magical bubble frozen at an exact moment some time around the second world war.
The next chapter begins nine years later in 1986 following a different first person character, a crass copper this time, who also comes upon Slade House and… if you’re experiencing deja vu by this point it’s because Slade House follows a very similar tract to that of David Mitchell’s recently published novel: The Bone Clocks. Indeed, it takes place in the same universe. Mentally, I referred to the books as the same title. As in, ‘I need to put down The Bone Clocks and go to sleep’.
And really, if you want to know what I think of Slade House, you can just read my Bone Clocks review. It’s exactly the same thing, with the same successes and shortcomings, on a much smaller scale. The sci-fi-hocus-pocus technobabble is a maybe a little bit too much in Slade House: one entire chapter (of a total of five) is spent on the villain’s backstory and how they created Slade House and we honestly didn’t need to know more about them beyond ‘We eat souls!’. But this is countered by the otherwise swift pacing — with the shorter, twitter-inspired chapters, Mitchell has no choice but to jump right into the story and he does not waste a word.
And, more Bone Clocks? Great! Two David Mitchell novels in one year? Even better....more
Cipriano’s plan could not have been simpler. He would go down a service elevator as far as floor zero five and then abandon himself to fate and to chance.
Starting this book, especially after reading the back cover blurb, you’d think this a dystopia story — a 1984-esque warning against materialism. You’re immediately introduced to The Center, the shadowy bureaucracy / super mall that rules the novel’s world. Police and security are everywhere. Oppression of common folk confined to shantytowns, vegetables grown in malevolent greenhouses.
But it’s not, not really. It’s a story about family (and pottery). An old man, his daughter, her husband, and their dog. Cipriano Algor, a 60ish potter whose father was a potter and whose grandfather was a potter and whose great-grandfather was probably a potter, suddenly finds his pottery business in great danger. People don’t buy handmade pottery anymore. They can buy plastic at the store and it’s cheaper and less likely to break. Cipriano hatches innovative pottery plans with his daughter Marta to reinvigorate the business while his son-in-law, Marcal, works as a security guard at The Center, a gigantic mall that has everything you could possibly want to buy or experience but is decidedly sinister to both Cipriano and the reader.
This is the plot for 250 of the novel’s 300 pages. The dangers of small business pottery. The love of family. The philosophical musings of Saramago’s working man protagonist as well as the very active presence of Saramago himself, in the form of an omniscient narrator who occasionally deems to speak directly to the reader. There’s meditations on class and love and the relationship between humans and dogs. It’s sentimental without between cloying and if the tone ever starts getting a little syrupy, you don’t even notice because by that point you’ve already become so attached to this small family.
This paragraph is dedicated to a dog. His name is Found (I bet this sounds like a better dog name in Saramago’s native portuguese) and he is the best written dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. The novel will swap to Found’s point of view as he ponders the incomprehensible workings of human activity. Or such serious dog-level concerns as: who to comfort first if two of the family are both sad and need a dog’s love? As Found becomes confused by his masters’ actions while showing them nothing but absolute love, you come to the conclusion that the absolute worst case scenario that could happen in this story is for Found to be separated from his family.
Saramago has a unique, streaming form or prose. Paragraph breaks barely exist and periods are rare. Phrases are strung along like locomotives, commas acting as railway couplings between them as they snake between hills. There are no quotation marks or pauses for dialogue; a capital letter signals that a different character is talking and the reader has to intuit who. Sometimes you lose track. It’s a perfect, dreamy style for this story and these characters who are continuously dreaming and pondering their lives whilst living in a nameless world steeped in metaphor.
Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.
OK, I’m done. I will no longer be suckered into buying unheralded classics from various points in theThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
OK, I’m done. I will no longer be suckered into buying unheralded classics from various points in the 20th century that happened to be suffering in obscurity until, just now, a small press managed the painstaking task of reviving it and translating it into english.
The inside flap of The Creator says
Mentioned in his day in the same breath as Kafka, Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a–
Let’s stop here for a second with this wonderfully ambiguous sentence. Mentioned in the same breath as Kafka? I’m sure such breaths were:
Salomo Friedlaender and Franz Kafka are both writers.
Salomo Friedlaender is not nearly as good a writer as Franz Kafka.
Anyway, on with the blurb:
Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a perfectly functioning split personality: a serious philosopher by day and a literary absurdist by night.
A serious 19th century German philosopher who wrote satirical fantasy tales by night? Sounds fun! But this Jekyll &Hyde description is pure fraud. The Creator is barely fiction — it’s just a short tale to promote the philosophy of a Kant disciple named Ernst Marcus. To wit, here’s a monologue from one of the professor characters in the story:
Consider the work of the Kantian Ernst Marcus! This estimable epistemological theorist proves with convincing acuity that sensory perception does not only ensue as a consequence of the inward-directed affect of external objects on our brain, but also emanates with equal force from the brain outward toward those objects. An ethereal sensory stream surges from our body, our brain, and in particular, from our optical nerve center, outward into the world around us, all the way to the Sun, thus also to the reflected Sun in the mirror.
So our brains are beaming sensory perception back at the sun. Okay. This could be an interesting philosophy to explore in a novella. But here it is not.
The actual plot has a solitary man meet a much younger woman and start dreaming of each other and this turns out to involve some mad-scientist-like old man (the woman’s uncle/father) who espouses the above philosophy, and has a magic mirror ready to demonstrate it (poorly). It’s boring, not particularly well written, and without charm. Then the story repeats. The Creator wraps up and there’s a second short story following it that tells almost exactly the same story. Younger woman, misunderstood man, old man with a magic mirror. Kant/Ernst Marcus monologue. Both stories have the exact same conclusion — man and woman merge into some pure non-sexual angelic being. It’s baffling....more
Way back in highschool, Tsukuru Tazaki was the fifth person in an inseparable group of friends. AfterThis was originally published on The Scrying Orb.
Way back in highschool, Tsukuru Tazaki was the fifth person in an inseparable group of friends. After meeting in a volunteer program, they did everything together as a pentagonal unit. Then, suddenly, after Tsukuru left their provincial hometown to go to engineering school in Tokyo, he was cut off. His hitherto steadfast friends stopped answering his calls and one of them phoned to explain that none of them ever wanted to be contacted by or see Tsukuru ever again. Utterly baffled by this turn of events, he fell into a depressive void at college that he barely survived and went on to have a fairly unremarkable life. Tsukuru rarely got close to another person ever again.
Now thirty six years old and finally dating someone he actually might love, said date tells him that he clearly still has emotional baggage lingering from his friend breakup. Thus, Tsukuru Tazaki sets off to locate each of his friends and discover what happened to cause his severance.
OK, it’s true. You can play Murakami Bingo. He has a set of tropes that repeat in all of his novels. Mysterious women. Alter egos. Cats. Dream sex. Name brand whiskey. When I first read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I was blown away. Then I read a few more of his novels and became progressively let down that so much of it repeats. But now I’ve come around, come to terms with the recycling. There’s nothing terribly wrong with utilizing the same ideas, rearranging the same story or reusing the same hero with slight differences. I think as a reader you just have to be prepared for it (and only read the guy every few years).
I am not sure how much of the above realization fed into my enjoyment of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, but it was my favorite Murakami novel since Wind Up Bird. The central mystery — why Tsukuru was kicked out of the group — is intriguing, and when half-way through the book, the mystery is partially revealed, only more questions arise. That very little of them are answered doesn’t matter.
Murakami’s style is withdrawn and subdued. No one ever seems to act with passion (indeed, part of Tsukuru’s character arc is learning to make bold, passionate moves). Characters hardly react to world-shaking events or emotional trauma. There’s a peculiar cadence that marks the characters and the dialogue itself. Everyone talks in the same measured tone, punctuated by commas. They answer each other in complete sentences:
Reader, would you like fries with that?
Yes writer, I honestly would like fries with that, thank you for asking.
It sort of feels like Murakami is in the room with you, sipping whiskey at measured intervals and speaking in an entirely monotone voice. Also, you are blindfolded. Half-asleep. But it’s pleasant enough....more
Raymond Carver is magic. Enchantment. His prose is sorcery. A handful of common words somehow revealThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
Raymond Carver is magic. Enchantment. His prose is sorcery. A handful of common words somehow reveal the depths of working class anxiety. It goes beyond minimalism or technique, beyond literary dissection.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood and the setting these stories evoke is familiar. Milkweed and cattails, an obsession with catching bass. Why bass?? I didn’t understand fishing then and I do not now. Old, wind-reddened men with inexplicable nicknames reminiscent of Disney characters like Dimmy or Smiley. Rusted cars on cinderblocks. My parents were married and I was born while they were teenagers, a predicament identical to most of Carver’s characters.
What I didn’t see as a pre-teen, before moving out to a more middle class neighborhood, was anything unordinary about the physical grind, the hopeless-hopeful conflict, and the booze and drug excess were only just becoming clear. Nor, of course, the love, drooping and hardy like weeds pinned between pavement, that is incredibly clear in retrospect and the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The doomed romance of alcoholism and dashed hopes. And, just as unique and strange as the magic of Carver’s writing itself, is that despite love being probably the most common topic in all art — literature, film, songs, you name it — the sentiment here, the impetus behind the most memorable quote that I’ve appended to the end of this review, somehow feels unique, barely touched, new.
The best short story collections build on each other; they are not isolated occurrences. It’s hard to even isolate this collection as individual stories and not just facets of the same chiseled granite. It’s like people having the same conversations over and over, circling the same filthy drain.
There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me....more
In the near future, an epidemic breaks out in eastern Europe — a deadly, highly contagious flu that rapidly kills off most of the population of earth.In the near future, an epidemic breaks out in eastern Europe — a deadly, highly contagious flu that rapidly kills off most of the population of earth. Survivors scrounge by, holed up in airports and Walmarts. It’s not a terribly innovative premise as far as fiction goes. Yet it feels both comfortable and fresh.
This is in large part because the collapse and subsequent dystopia are not really the focus, or at least not the only focus. Shortly before the flu destroyed North America, an aging actor named Arthur Leander had a heart attack and died on stage while playing the titular role in King Lear. The book weaves back and forth, prior to the virus, after the virus, during the virus, following Arthur or, more often, people with some connection to him. His ex-wives, best friend, minor acquaintances like co-actors and paparazzi. A series of narrative-supported coincidences led several of them to survive the collapse and cluster around Michigan.
The time-shifts and the way the point of view shifts reveal different facets of the story is the meat of the book and feels almost David Mitchell-lite. The character study isn’t exactly deep. Many of the characters aren’t fully realized entities but they are treated kindly by the author and all serve to further the ‘feel’ of the novel. It’s a pleasant feeling, despite the loss of most of mankind. The human legacy that survives the apocalypse is Shakespeare — some of the main characters belong to a traveling symphony show that regularly perform his plays. Quoting Star Trek: Survival is insufficient is the main theme of the survivors. The story is more about hope than it is about the depravity humans sink to when resources are scarce. There’s wonder and loss for the magical technology of the past as well as awe for the star-speckled sky in a world with no light pollution.
I really enjoyed this book as I was reading it. And I read it very quickly. I still feel like it’s a good book, but I’m a little less plussed having finished it. The pacing/momentum of the story is one of its greatest strengths. So when the end sort of peters out, without any real oomph or narrative glow, it’s a little disappointing. And due to the shallow characters, I feel like I’m already forgetting the book!
Actually, I think this would make a fantastic TV show. About 60% of the way through the book, I was thinking of Station Eleven as a solid first episode: introduce the characters, their world, their plight. But I knew it wasn’t a series and became doubtful it could close satisfactorily (and this was borne out)....more
The great triumph of this novel: Franzen takes a family of reprehensible goons, who do little more thThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
The great triumph of this novel: Franzen takes a family of reprehensible goons, who do little more than hurt each other or themselves or anyone who has the misfortune of being around them, and makes them both compelling and sort of sympathetic. Everyone is awkward. Everyone is lost. By the end, I wanted them all to succeed.
Alfred and Enid, the progenitors of the Lambert clan, seem never to have had a happy marriage. Even its inception was dubious. Enid, your midwestern mom obsessed with maximizing status and minimizing shame, could have been satisfied if Alfred had acted differently, perhaps shown some actual physical love and affection or exploited the easily exploited stock market. But Alfred was never that person. A consummate workaholic, he spent the prime of his life working at a railroad, baffled by people who took unpaid coffee breaks, who used phrases like ‘take it easy’, who yearned for sexual intimacy. Now, in their elder years, Alfred has Parkinson’s disease and is largely unable to take care of himself. Enid is as miserable and nagging as ever, convinced Alfred needs merely to try and many of his physical woes will disappear.
Oldest son Gary, who is probably the biggest prick of the lot, ties his existence to being more successful than average people, especially average midwesterners. He fled to Philadelphia to work in finance and marry a pilates-bodied blonde woman and beget 3 children. Gary is a condescending tightwad. He has little-to-no relationship with his children. He’s clinically depressed and the only way his viewpoint even works is that he has such a heinous, manipulative wife that portions of Gary’s chapters actually turn my stomach and give me no choice but to side with him. He has the least satisfying character arc, and I’m not totally sure he adds that much to the novel.
Youngest daughter Denise, an ultra-perfectionist chef, will probably try and sleep with your husband, or your wife, while maintaining the fiction that if she does not make the first move, she is being totally honorable and not responsible for the fallout. Clearly the marriage egg timer was up and it was gonna happen anyway. She has an ironclad set of defenses that govern her relationships with family, generally involving not getting too close whilst desperately wanting to. Denise also has absolutely no idea what she really wants, which is the crux of her character arc. Honestly, this I-Don’t-Actually-Know-What-I-Want problem is characteristic of all the Lamberts but the rest of the family have some fictive ideal that they at least think they want.
The middle child Chip is obsessed with the corruption and moral vacuity of capitalism, while also being head-over-heels immersed in it (much of his plot involves money). He laments objectification of women in media, especially after his sister poses in a magazine to promote her restaurant, and then flips through a Victoria’s Secret magazine to get off. Hypocrisy defines him. And he knows it. After losing his job at a university for sleeping with a student and then failing to write a decent avant-garde screenplay, Chip finds himself amongst Lithuathian gangsters, writing internet copy for their e-scams. He kind of skews golden child a bit, having the happiest emotional arc in the book. His major philosophical conflicts feel like an author-insert of Franzen’s own internal turmoil.
The story lives in in the late 90s, a time of American excess that feels fantastical by today’s standards. Enid feels like everyone around her is getting rich and it’s her life’s great frustration that Alfred wasn’t up to the task of making them the same. Everyone is investing in something. Finance seminars on cruise boats.The goblet of public confidence is overflowing and splashing on the floor. While all of this is building up to the rdecline that begins around the time of The Corrections publication (2001), the tone/time feels alien to someone like myself who was too young to interpret business/finance as it was happening.
Franzen is a pretty slick writer. All of the Lamberts are realized splendidly and his clever metaphors only occasionally fall flat. The writing, tone, and pacing are consistent the whole way through and I found it the sort of book I could open on a holiday flight and read straight through. It’s funny, but not that funny. And it probably could have been cut like 30-50 pages. Like the family it encapsulates, it’s often awkward. I am glad I read it....more
OK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is aThis was originally published on The Scrying Orb
OK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is actually well written. Handler can write a character sketch and spin a phrase.There’s even an effective twist that I still found fun/surprising at the end of the novel when I no longer cared about anything and just wanted to finish. He just can’t write a believable plot or acknowledge the reader can only spend so much time with blandly reprehensible characters.
Pirates alternates between fourteen year old Gwen Needle and her dad, Phil. At first, this seems like it is going to be a tale of oblivious father and teen angsty daughter at odds that eventually bond/appreciate each other. But it is quickly revealed that Phil is actually a passive misogynist prick who thinks the world is owed to him and cares very little of his family beyond the happiness / convenience they can supply him*. Gwen has more than average teen angst when the reader realizes that she actually does have shitty parents. Unfortunately, the sympathy this garners Gwen morphs to baffled disbelief when it turns out she basically has the psychosis of a school shooter and she starts knifing fools with impunity.
Back to Phil: The book spends a lot of words on this asshole. As his sliminess is further revealed, as his terrible outlook on women is explored, as his martyr complex deepens whilst he remains oblivious to his privilege… it’s too much. There’s only so much undeserved self pity I can handle. Whine whine whine. He never learns and his plotline is pointless and could be excised almost entirely from this already slim book.
And back to Gwen: As punishment for shoplifting, our heroine is forced to volunteer at an old folks home. She starts hanging out with a dementia-riddled old navyman and after borrowing all his old seafaring books, starts harboring fantasies of piracy…
…and assembles a ‘crew’.
…and steals a ship.
…and launches a revenge-crusade upon all that have wronged her by pillaging the San Francisco bay.
This is completely ridiculous.
She’s fourteen, not eight. The Bay** is tiny, what are you actually going to get away with? Why did anyone, other than the old man and best friend, possibly join her? Why is she suddenly capable of remorseless, senseless murder? Note to all readers, children, writers: Having a passive, non-dad does not make it okay to kill, nor is it reason enough to maintain reader empathy with a stone-cold killer.
And here lies the crux of the book, and why it does not succeed.
*There’s a sort of murky almost-theme about people being emotional pirates — pillaging other people’s feelings for their own gain. It’s not well explored but kind of vomited up by Phil’s POV towards the end of the book.
**While it was pleasantly meta reading a book taking place on the 38 bus while riding the 38 bus, the novel does not do a good job of realizing San Francisco. Phil drives from LA to SF… and crosses the Bay Bridge (for plot convenience), which is in the east, not south. Despite living on the Embarcadero, Gwen does not know of the sea lions on Pier 39 until events in the book. Even Geary Street, the road that the 38 travels down is poorly described — Handler makes it quiet and seedy, and while it’s kind-of-maybe-slightly seedy at a few points, it’s bustling almost from beginning to end. Not quiet....more
This book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amountsThis was originally published at The Scrying Orb.
This book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amounts to nothing, the only real interesting point of discussion occurs in the last twenty percent of the book and thus this review will contain some spoilers.
A great catastrophe occurs in humanity’s near future. Later titled WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the details are lost as history, indeed any recollection of the past, is forbidden. Technology is frozen, and in some cases gone backwards. Internet and mobile phones are banned. Censorship has restricted all but the most empty and vapid of books, music. Movies seem to have disappeared. All this government-ordained. As a result, people have become rote and boring. They’ve settled for petty antagonism and widespread misogyny instead of their past industriousness. It’s an off-putting and honestly strange thought that the first sign of deterioration in this tightly controlled culture is men hitting women.
Fortysomething year old Kevern, a peevish and indifferent man with OCD tendencies meets and falls in love with ninteen year old Ailinn, whose defining characteristics seems to be a Moby Dick metaphor (she insists she is the white whale and Ahab is on her trail) and her unconvincing fondness for Kevern. The characters are all unlikeable and banal, except for Ailinn, who is merely banal. They’re self-aware and even have a conversation about their own meta-banality. They’re a sort of bland-distasteful unlikeable that does not evoke much genuine feeling. You’d hurry by them in the street or avoid them at work, not curse their name. Not the best anchors for a novel.
As I mentioned, the plot meanders for most of the book. Characters are introduced and have lengthy chapters dedicated to their point-of-view only to end with irrelevant or complete lack of denouement. There’s a serial killer plot that goes no where. The town the story takes place in is featureless, which could be intentional, but like the intentionally bland characters, intent doesn’t make it any less boring. And then, and then, and then, after slogging through all this, the novel’s crux is revealed: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED most definitely did happen, and what happened was some kind of mega-holocaust that almost entirely wiped out the jewish people. It turns out that Kevern and Ailinn are some of the very last descendents of the bare few survivors of WHAT HAPPENED. Not only that, they’ve only met due to some government agent’s scheming, and said agents have plans for them — make fruitful and reproduce, revive the jews. It’s an elaborate strategy to reinvigorate society, but altruism this is not.The plan is to return the jews to public consciousness to give people a target they can unify in hating once again.
High concept dystopian literature have clear themes, 1984 gave us Big Brother. Brave New World warned of consumption, escapism, technology. Even something like The Hunger Games elicits a clear and thoughtful point on entertainment and class.
J’s central dystopian thrust is this: society cannot function without xenophobia. Without some Other-group to hate, people become listless, beat their wives, seek pointless extramarital thrills. This is a weak thrust, but maybe defensible as part of a general philosophical notion people sometimes hold: that conflict is essential to human progress and happiness. But narrowing it down to hate is unconvincing. Especially in this world where society is bereft of basic happiness luxuries — technology, travel, history, literature, music, heirlooms, family, spirituality, identity, craft. Is hate really more valuable than self expression? Did no one think, maybe it’s the tyrannical censorship that is making people unhappy?
But what is much more unsettling and infuriating is that it is not any Others that people must hate. No, Jacobson’s horror-future exists, because it is specifically jews that the world needs to hate to function. The shadowy-government entities behind the novels plot have picked out Kevern and Ailinn to reproduce because they are some of the last living people descended from Jewish bloodlines. Bloodlines, a subject the books accepts uncritically and attributes great veracity.
Ailinn is dark-skinned; There’s a district in the Capital with Middle Eastern immigrants; Classism seems largely defunct; while the only mention of non-hetero sexuality is a father accusing his daughter of being a lesbian (negatively), there’s nothing else to indicate the world is particularly hostile to gays. All of the above peoples have traditionally served as scapegoats, objects of derision, someone to pointlessly hate or blame. But it is the Jews who need to be revived specifically to be hated to allow society to run again, for the happiness of all. It’s completely nonsensical in the narrative-built universe (and on real-planet-earth). It reminds me of the end of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the novel completely abandons all internal logic and characterization and cause-effect consistency just to make an ill-conceived point....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
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
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
The astounding part of Possession — affirmed by all who read it — is its attention to detail. A good portion of the novel coOriginally published here.
The astounding part of Possession — affirmed by all who read it — is its attention to detail. A good portion of the novel consists of the love letters of fictional Victorian poets, poems written by these poets, and various journals and biography excerpts of past and present made-up authors. These are convincing. So convincing, that the reader does not spend time considering how convincing they are, but accepts them outright as real poets with a real passion and correspondence. Byatt’s research (and vocabulary) and her ability to integrate these into a novel is impressive and flawless.
Passive, life-mired Roland Mitchell discovers a forgotten love letter from great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (based on a combo of Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson) to another poet, Cristabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti). This launches Roland on a quest to track the movements of Ash and onto a blossoming love affair of his own with Maud Bailey, a scholar and descendent of LaMotte herself. Roland and Maud are combated by a host of antagonists — realized people that also fit convenient stereotypes — a shady American pederast who feels he “owns” the legacy of Randolph Ash, a blonde bully-bro who outperforms Roland in job promotions and once had a brief tryst with Maude, a near-robotic Ash devotee/academic who lacks passion and thus cannot understand the great poet.
The characters all fit a type, and as everyone converges on each other towards the end, the plot feels a ludicrous mirror of a Scooby Doo episode. One could expect villain Mortimer Cropper to exclaim “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddlesome kids/literary scholars!” Byatt is a strong enough writer that the story continues to work, and the characters are well drawn enough to not take the the reader out of the story. Beyond that, though, the plot is absolutely littered with coincidences. Disparate characters run into each other just because they happened to be in the same town, convenient side characters enter the story who just happen to have the ideal profession (i.e. solicitor/lawyer) the heroes require at just this time. That aspect of the novel did start to draw me out of the story. Coincidence-heavy plotting is definitely an irritance of mine.
And while I really enjoyed the second half of the novel, the first half is severely lacking. I considered this was simply because it was setting up the excellent second portion, but I just don’t think so. The pace is stolid, the romance of the Ash and LaMotte restrained. The writing, while still good, is quite dry. Roland is a passive nice-guy with no real drive and Muad is a distant ice-queen. Contrast that to part two where Roland has become a man adrift and Muad is a developed and sympathetic character who probably should have been the primary viewpoint.
But, really, if one half of a book has to be much better than the other, it ought to be the second half, right? As the characters are developed, the Victorian era storyline heats up, and the cast moves to the North English coast and Brittany in such vividly described detail that I’d consider moving my honeymoon there and at the very least, putting it on the must-visit list, it feels like a completely different novel. The mystery, the quest to untangle the poet’s love affair and muse-like inspiration they provided each other comes to feel urgent, even to someone like myself who does not find literary scholarship and academia exactly exciting.
There’s themes about love and sex prevalent in the novel. It seems to be celebrating the notion of waiting for sex like the Victorians did, that something is to be gained by not jumping right into it. The notion feels dated because it is clearly in combat with some sex-politics of the publication age (1990) that does not seems as relevant today. The present-day characters are lamenting the lack of romance and dissection of love into its constituent, sterilized bits, much like Ash and LaMotte had concerns about a world suddenly encountering Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and the absence of a purposeful and romantically inclined God. It’s interesting in the context of the novel, but the idea that sex is just hormones feels eye-roll worthy to me; it’s hard to take it seriously like the novel’s characters do since it feels so passé.
There’s also some straw-men “feminists” referenced in the book, and Byatt sort of highlights Muad as a near-exceptional woman who is not caught up in a sort of frivolous re-writing of literary history like so many of her feminist contemporaries. It’s less of a strike to in-story literary scholarship that Randolph Ash had an affair than it is that Cristabel LaMotte was not a patriarchy-crushing lesbian. Muad is a sort of “exceptional woman” in this framework. It is interesting in the context that Byatt herself has rejected her work being submitted for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction, going so far as to call it a sexist award. That’s certainly a topic for discussion in of itself (and sort of personal since I know my own mother has turned down minority-based promotions in her line of work). But anyway: Possession — it’s pretty good....more
The dull and overwrought title, the fuzzy monochrome cover art dominated by letters, not to mention the plot and published dOriginally published here.
The dull and overwrought title, the fuzzy monochrome cover art dominated by letters, not to mention the plot and published date (1996) delineates this book as a certain kind of novel, native to the late 80s and 90s. The political-thriller involving shady arms deals and some person or persons just caught in-between. The American government is corrupt. Parts of it anyway. But it’s a sophisticated hands-off puppetmaster corruption. Bad things happen. People in third world countries die. American power and its politicians’ personal wealth increases.*
Yet, this story is hardly rote or typical. Joan Didion wrote it. The writing, as always, is superb. Even through the cynical lense of 2013, the events of 1984 as translated through 1996 are truly abominable. That the topic feels slightly dated may not be because it is a conception of American imperialism circa 1996, but that we have seen the process played out so often in the interim that it has become obvious and everyday.
The writing itself, told through a framing story of a reporter putting together the story many years later, is sparse and enamored with repetition. Didion observes the doublespeak and murky insubstantiality of political speak in interviews and speeches. Then repeats segments of it, over and over. She may go a little overboard, but the effect and pacing gives the novel a recursive feel. All of this has happened / is happening / will happen. Again and again.
Like Play it as it Lays, and, I suspect, most-if-not-all of Didion’s novels, the protagonist, Elena McMahon, is a woman becoming unhinged. The writing conveys an overpowering anxiety, whilst Elena maintains an aura of perfect control. Didion uses tricks like telling us when she (Elena) has stopped crying without ever telling us she had began. Or giving us a running record of how many hours it has been since she has last eaten. Again, like Play it as it Lays, the protagonist confronts a personal emptiness; they try to invoke meaningfulness through their family, their daughter, their ex-husband. Largely unsuccessfully. They have become too isolated by society, too absorbed with the abyss.
*As the novel’s central scandal is the Iran-Contra affair, this isn’t just cheap drama but an affirmation of the truth — There were virtually no consequences to all involved, and least of all to those in the highest positions....more
I won this in a goodreads giveaway. Originally published here.
J.M. Coetzee is a master at creating allegorical worlds that feel grounded and real, whiI won this in a goodreads giveaway. Originally published here.
J.M. Coetzee is a master at creating allegorical worlds that feel grounded and real, while remaining ethereal and dreamlike. Here in Novilla, everyone speaks Spanish, but it is never their native tongue. Bread is the course du jour, and every other meal. Everyone is polite and benevolent but spiritless and fleeting. And the government will give you a house, but it will be spartan and drear.
To this world, which may be heaven or purgatory or simply another world in an endless stretch of possible worlds our soul travels through, our protagonist, Simón, and his adoptive child, David, arrive after their refugee ship sinks. For the first half of this novel, as Simón searches for David’s mother and the characters explore the bland and frankly sinister world, the novel is pretty good. Coetzee is an excellent writer. Most of the book is dialogue. I was invested in the mystery of what was going on — were Simon and David dead? Was David’s “mother” abusive? Why is Simón seemingly the only character in the novel who can feel sexual attraction? Where is this book going with its endless prattle on the importance of mothers versus fathers?
Then I reached the point where I was far enough in the book that I became certain none of the mysteries would be unveiled nor many questions answered. This is perfectly acceptable in some novels. Sometimes, the writing is stellar and the novel is constructed, either thematically or structurally, in such a way as no conclusion or denouement is necessary. While the writing is indeed good, The Childhood of Jesus is otherwise not that kind of novel. The symbolism is murky, the connection to the biblical title tenuous at best. Honestly, I’m not sure what Coetzee is trying to say. There’s a philosophical streak running through the book that wonders what is real? How do we know two plus two really equals four? But it’s basic and amounts to very little. The narrative begins to flounder about two thirds in and the novel becomes nearly as bland as the world it describes....more
So Charles Darwin’s brother-in-law, Tom Clarke, travels to Argentina in search of the ‘Legibrerian Hare’, which apparently flies (or might be a priceless diamond, or a metaphysical quandary). He sets off for the pampas with a guide, a teenage painter, and an extraordinary horse gifted to him by the country’s dictator and instantly becomes embroiled in the local indigenous people’s politics. The denouement of which involves an enormous amount of coincidences that go far beyond unrealistic into a sort of nostalgic absurdity that reminds me of children’s books where every detail and character mentioned in the story must be tied together in the end.
The story is meandering, the lead is inconsistent, the secondary characters one dimensional, and the novel is most probably racist*. Events don’t make much sense with some regularity. The prose is sparse. Usually. Complex events will be summed up in a paragraph, but characters will also chatter on about nothing, exchanging pleasantries. Or ponder philosophy. Aira apparently has some wacky writing methods involving lack of revision, constantly pushing forward, and proclaiming a philosophic and literary bent to the former. Wikipedia tells me:
"He frequently refuses to conform to generic expectations for how a novel ought to end, leaving many of his fictions quite open-ended."
Open ended conclusions. How avant-garde.
He also appears to disdain long form novels. If it’s not clear yet, I am finding César Aira insufferable.
That said, there is something compelling about his writing, about this odd, likely racist* book. The writing and setting is unique in a way I find difficult to describe. The carefully articulated absurdity and irrationality the characters espouse. The random nonsense that appears without explanation (see — man-sized ducks ritually birthing giant eggs to slide into the ocean). The nonsensical actions the characters take, or the impossible fluctuations of time and space.
And either Aira, or his translator, Nick Caistor, has a stellar vocabulary. This book was the impetus for me to start a google doc of new words I’ve learned. Now I am trying to use circumlocution in common speech and am sort of amazed usufruct is a word.
*I know next to nothing about the Mapuche people, but it does not take much e-research to see that they have a problematic and troubled relationship with their European-descended colonizers like everyone else in the Americas… or anywhere. The Hare portrays them with much of the bloodthirst and absence of hygiene v. the white cast visible typical to media portraying native Americans. They are philosophers of the irrational and the silliness of the book only slightly takes the edge off. One groups lives underground in caves and sleeps most hours of the day. There’s a sequence where Clarke and friends strip naked and grease up and go native.
Okay, the above is the most probably racist element of this novel. Here’s the unquestionably racist part: There is a character present in Clarke’s backstory, a black Chilean (there’s some quote along the lines of ‘never trust a black Chilean’). He covets Clarke’s white lover and kidnaps her. He’s compared to a hulking ape. There is repeated emphasis on his blackness. There is a mandingo joke.
Googling these issues bring up almost nothing. If you just read the Goodreads reviews for instance, you’d never know. All I could find was this bit at the end of a gushing NPR review:
“The novel is not without its flaws — I’m sad to report that both its major villains are “black as an African,” and its overt equation of the Indian with the irrational makes my conscience queasy. But if you can set such quandaries aside, you’ll find there are few adventures more outrageous, and more unsettling, than this cowboy chase through the pampas in search of the white rabbit.”
I can’t set such quandaries aside. This isn’t some stupid aside, or hiccup. It’s the setting of the entire novel....more