[4.5] This is so cool! The idea I'd always had of Halo Jones was a female Arthur Dent but very competent and more serious. Not quite... She comes not[4.5] This is so cool! The idea I'd always had of Halo Jones was a female Arthur Dent but very competent and more serious. Not quite... She comes not from cosy middle England but from a working class / underclass dystopia with language as inventive as A Clockwork Orange. The writing is very witty but in a different way from Douglas Adams. I was completely surprised by part 1 about Halo and her housemates and their dog, great fun but never squealy, brilliant combination of budget flatshare scenario with gritty futuristic SF. Despite extraordinary circumstances, the sense of the grind of daily life is never lost, working on spaceships or fighting in a hopeless war. (As too often in modern history, young people without money, qualifications or connections have few work options but to join the army.)
She's a character type I still see too rarely – a restless female loner, who's seen many places and jobs and friends, can be melancholy about what is gone but has some essential drive to go ever onward. The male equivalent is familiar enough, you might find him sitting in a bar in a Tom Waits song, but for women I can think of fewer fictional examples in any form than real ones I've met. (The only other who readily springs to mind is in the film Wendy and Lucy.) It's great that there isn't a big romantic plotline. (view spoiler)[- Halo just sometimes fancies people but it doesn't go anywhere because there's too much else to deal with in life. And I do like the bit at the end which basically goes “yeah, I can see you're bad news but I like you, and hey, I'm not exactly great news myself.” But when he turns out to be just too bad, the thing to do is travel off on her own, not throw herself at some alternative bloke because she has to have one (hide spoiler)]
It must be because I first heard of Halo Jones in the 90s – can't for the life of me remember where (I also didn't connect the name with Alan Moore until recently) – so I assumed she was from the 90s too. But no, she was written in the mid-80s. Her character and look reminded me of my theory that Britain in the 80s was a great time as a kid to see fewer traditional stereotypes of girls and women than before or since (I once wrote, but never finished, a long blog post about this which included examples like Bananarama videos and Supergran).
There's so much online discussion about representation of women in comics; okay, I don't exactly read tons of them so what I see of it is mostly covers on Goodreads and stuff on websites. Being very visual and not 100% straight I'm far from offended and enjoy seeing many of these on some level – but the porn-star-in-cutaway-swimsuit type of body and costume still looks silly and comical considering what the characters are meant to be doing, and anyway I'm not really into a pneumatic pumped-up appearance in male or female. Halo Jones is a great example of a character contrary to all that: she looks like a real size 10-12 with a good figure and no extra plastic bits, she has short hair that enemies aren't likely to grab, and she and her friends have that layered, angular 80s fashion style that looks cool without showing much flesh. Yeah, she ends up in a bunny girl type costume for a while but there's still quite a lot of it and plenty of determined women in her situation would take a job like that. The only daft bit is the army trousers that are occasionally shaded at the back so it looks like she's wearing a thong.
The only drawbacks: it's in black-and-white; sometimes the storyline gets jerked around too much and stupid stuff happens because it was written for a short-form a few pages a week release; and there's not enough of it. I don't know that story but it looks like the series was cancelled way too early. Shame!
--------- The post below is from when I tried to read it in December. Since then I decided just to get the few comics I'd been wanting to read for the best part of ten years or more, and which I haven't seen as films. (I've heard about way too many since joining Goodreads.) Turns out they're nearly all Gaiman or Moore.
The biggest obstacle to my reading more graphic novels has, as I've posted before, always been price. Especially price v. reading time. So when I saw this in the Kindle sale for £1.29 [a)thanks to Blair for the blog post mentioning the sale; b)unfortunately I still use Amazon for major bargains, e.g. under £2] I was quite gleeful. I'd forgotten about Halo Jones recently though in the 90s she seemed to be everywhere and was one I - then - always meant to read.
But it doesn't work, dammit. The panels are displayed too small to read on the Kindle machine, and for no obvious good technical reason comics can't be opened on the desktop app. (They just want you to buy / assume comic-reading geeks will already have fancier machines.) I was so looking forward to it!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Oxford World's Classics edition translated by Margaret Mauldon
I finally read this properly in one go... Though when I say in one go, that was over a fOxford World's Classics edition translated by Margaret Mauldon
I finally read this properly in one go... Though when I say in one go, that was over a few days: I found it like the richest, most gorgeous cake imaginable. I could hardly imagine anything more wonderful whilst I was reading it, but every now and again I paused, and the pause turned into hours or a day or two as I realised retrospectively a feeling of sensory overload. Perhaps not unlike that des Esseintes experiences when confronted with the noise and bustle of Paris.
Several years ago I started the Penguin translation of À rebours but was devastated by its dry-dullness. This didn't feel like the book which meant so much to Oscar Wilde and numerous others, which I'd been hearing about and been a little intimidated by since I was 14 or 15. I was confused, disappointed and embarrassed. The Mauldon translation doesn't have such good reviews but I found it hypnotic from the first page, as the book should be.
des Esseintes is a man who defines himself by taste, and in that I found this perhaps the most modern book of its age I've ever read. So long as they've been around (so for me really only since the early to mid 2000's), I've always loved internet profiles full of great long lists of people's tastes in everything. On the rare-ish occasion when I found someone who'd posted really fascinating things I would return to it repeatedly, look the unknown things up, start reading/listening/watching stuff myself. À rebours provides details of his thoughts on the authors, information about them so it provides that experience of doing a search, of clicking through to the blog posts, on the same page.
It was many years before I realised it consciously, but as far as my favourite people are concerned I often have at least as strong a relationship with their cultural stuff as with them as a friend, and in some cases it's the artefacts that have been constant, when people moved on. (I think this began because it wasn't until I was 19 that I got to know anyone in real life who shared a lot of my taste and whose own likings inspired me; having spent so long waiting, having or having had such things within reach became completely compelling. And whilst I am, thank goodness, not so impossibly fussy as d'E, I can certainly hear my younger self - or myself as I might be if trapped for too long in the wrong place - in his elitist frustrations "Did he know one man capable of appreciating...?"
To the more detached reader, all these lists of stuff and misanthropy will be redolent of Patrick Bateman - and I daresay they were an influence on Bret Easton Ellis. But although I hadn't read it properly, À rebours and many of the things it mentions have been part of my world for more than half my life. So it is completely different: it feels like home.
Even in its less beautiful attributes, which I'd long forgotten about and was initially saddened by. With his sneering isolationism, extreme sureness of taste and cruel streak, never mind the home full of fascinating things, (and Schopenhauer fandom) the protagonist reminds me a great deal of an ex from seven years ago. I remember on first seeing his flat struggling to describe how amazed I was and that it was like something I'd always tried to imagine, actually brought to life ... Now I would simply say "you're des Esseintes on a budget, aren't you?
Even in some of its more abstruse ways the book is comfortable: having been to a Catholic school and then studied medieval and Renaissance history the lengthy discussion of theologians was hardly alienating. (Initially it was unexpected but really it fits very well here: with the modern view of the church as corrupt, with its fondness for decoration, and the imposition of requirements so particular that very few fulfil them.) And the chapter on perfume. A neglected art with only niche enthusiasts because it is a) so fleeting and b) completely dominated by commercialism. The closest you can get to an art gallery of perfume is a wander in Liberty's fragrance hall (or similar in other major world cities) but things are always there for the purpose of being sold. (I'm not a very good perfumista though because I'm too much of a serial monogamist: after a short phase of transition and trying, one fragrance soon feels like part of me and I stick loyally with it for several years. On the offchance anyone else who cares about such things is reading, the previous one was Bvlgari Black, and the current one is L'air de Rien. Which must be terribly dependent on skin chemistry because many reviews make it sound utterly foul, yet to me it's lovely if perhaps dreamy and impractical. "incense, vintage shops and sex" is how I would describe it. Rather suits this book in fact.)
And I am so so glad I didn't read this book in my teens. I have a feeling it could have ended up on the small list of things I wish I had left till later not because their content was any more shocking than countless other things I read at the time, but because something in them chimed too deeply with me and I took them wrongly as prescriptive (Nicola Six in London Fields) or descriptive of just about everyone (Alfie the film) and they thus dramatically affected the course of my life more than most people would suppose. Though I was already sick of being told to stay in and be careful of my strange health problems... and I had reasonable years of fun and adventures and work before stuff got too bad. So my axis is basically opposite to that of des Esseintes: better health resulting from staying in, when I would, temperamentally, like to be out there doing stuff. He does show that staying at home doesn't have to be boring (though the richer you are the better in that respect). But he also shows unsurprisingly that it's a damn sight more enjoyable for those who are natural misanthropes and recluses.
I am not sure it's worth trying to analyse him scientifically because he's a symbol not a case study: though he doesn't appear to have a physical adverse reaction or allergy to anything in the city, his personality traits mean he is very annoyed and therefore stressed by it: a little autistic and a little narcissistic if you like labels. Stress probably isn't very good for the complex set of genetic diseases he has got from generations of inbreeding. And his being recommended to throw himself totally into city life - rather than a more likely prescription such as to try and get a bit of fresh air and find a few friends to chat to - is part of the decadence of absolute contrasts with which Huysmans was opposing the Naturalist school of writers.
I didn't plan specifically to finish the book today, but curiously this is one year, minus one day, after the last start date I entered on Goodreads....more
Some Hope undoubtedly feels like the third of the trilogy the Patrick Melrose series was intended to be on its publication back in 1994. It mirrors thSome Hope undoubtedly feels like the third of the trilogy the Patrick Melrose series was intended to be on its publication back in 1994. It mirrors the events of Never Mind as the clans gather again twenty-six years later, this time for a huge house-party in Gloucestershire. (This is set in February 1991, Bad News took place in 1982 with a 22-year-old Patrick, but Never Mind used references of the late 60's and early 70's although he was 5 in the book, which would have been 1965.)
Certain events are effectively replayed with more satisfying conclusions, yet without overshadowing the plain differences brought by the passage of time. (I'll forgive one unlikely coincidence in an otherwise very satisfying novel.) And I love the arch reference in putting feathers on the cover.
For the first time in the series, there is a feeling of genuine friendship and human connection between characters, that which creates the hope: Patrick and Johnny Hall, both now recovering addicts, the former angrier than his friend. And Anne, probably the most empathic person in the earlier books, finally gets to say what she hoped to all along.
What stays the same is how awful most of the other characters are: "Hard dull people who appeared quite sophisticated but were in fact as ignorant as swans". Are swans notably stupid? I'm not sure, but in this phrase St. Aubyn captures everything I'd been struggling to describe succinctly about his people.
A quote from the New Yorker: "Perhaps because he is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh ... [St Aubyn] retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing." I am rather fond of that tone myself and remember the cold-shower shock when my own romanticised reflections on a summer residential course at a boarding school (mostly about wandering alone in the early-morning misty grounds or talking all night in obscure rooms with one new found best friend)opened an unmapped crevasse for a few minutes in conversation with someone who'd had horrendous experiences as an insider and is not much younger than the author. (Though the loathesomeness of dorms, even when the inhabitants are fairly benign, was agreed upon by both.) St. Aubyn shows the clear coldness of so much of that world ... he does still like some of the physical surroundings and the vocab, I feel, but quite damns the inhumanity.
I struggle to remember (well, I struggle to remember a few things these days...) when, if ever, I last devoured a series like this. The instant availability of online purchasing makes it possible to gorge myself like a kid who's found a huge box of biscuits hidden in a cupboard, when once there would have at least had to be repeated trips to libraries or bookshops, or waits for deliveries. Having read a few reviews by people who've read the books one-a-day, it seems that for the susceptible, they have an addictiveness of their own.
[Nope, I was too upset by the first chapter of Mother's Milk so I may leave it for a while, if I ever read it.]...more
The events of the synopsis and back cover blurb don't actually take place until the sixth and final chapter. The rest of the novel is the story of theThe events of the synopsis and back cover blurb don't actually take place until the sixth and final chapter. The rest of the novel is the story of the day-to-day life of a tight-knit community where typical characters abound. Much of it wouldn't be out of place on Sunday night television such as "Hamish Macbeth", though there are some more sinister moments.
I'd had the book for about six and a half years before reading it as I was rarely in the mood for what I thought it would be. I was braced for a fairly tough story all the way through. But instead I found something different which I'd long sought: peaceful accounts of day to day work that were involving and very readable (not brain-stretching like David Foster Wallace's chronicles of the mundane). And what's more these are set in a beautiful place. The first 200 pages of the book is calm, entertaining and thoughtful, but with sinister interpolations that stop it being impossibly chocolate box (or maybe shortbread-tin) perfect.
The synopsis no doubt stops the wrong people picking it up, as readers seeking only the initial story would find the ending acutely upsetting and quite out of keeping with what they expected. It certainly isn't fun to read, but things do turn out ok for some characters; it's not a holocaust as I had suspected it would be. It's simply that if you read only the inside of the book with no prior information about its contents, you would expect a story of its type to have a happy ending - but it doesn't.
Just as a few films and TV series have certain scenes or episodes I watch several times a year, whilst the rest of the story isn't so much to my taste, I think I'll be coming back again and again to the first part of Greenvoe as it's vivid evocation of a simple existence to which I often wish I could escape. ...more
This is a particularly nice one because all the crosswords have themes that, the introduction explains, are connected to a Peter Greenaway film, The TThis is a particularly nice one because all the crosswords have themes that, the introduction explains, are connected to a Peter Greenaway film, The Tulse Luper Suitcases. It's not the sort of thing I feel up to watching at the moment, but I found it unexpectedly when browsing a long list of films on [US] Netflix earlier today.
Dec 2014. The joy of the steppe, the joy of music and the joy of childhood always coexisted in Yerzhan with the anticipation of that inescapable, terriDec 2014. The joy of the steppe, the joy of music and the joy of childhood always coexisted in Yerzhan with the anticipation of that inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came as a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling , sweeping tornado from the Zone.
Two families still living the ways of ancient Kazakh culture coexist alongside Soviet nuclear testing, one son a musical prodigy; I found the themes and the telling enthralling, and this is by far the best of the Peirene novellas I've read.
The others, to one extent or another, had that bloodless brittleness of style characteristic of much Eng lang literary fiction, and although they are pretty good, took many times longer to read than the concept "two hour books to be devoured in a single sitting" which is one of the press's ad straplines. By contrast, The Dead Lake feels expansive and relaxed. Dissident authors have acquired, among some readers, a reputation for being dreary (Ismailov's work is banned in Uzbekistan; he now works for the BBC World Service) but this was like being told a fascinating secret.
Or rather a traveller's tale from a place few Brits ever go. This takes the form of a nested narrative, the narrator meeting the violinist Yerzhan as he sells local ayran, a yoghurt drink, on his train. Yerzhan still looks like a twelve year old boy although he is 27... he stopped growing and ageing after he walked into a lake near the nuclear testing facility.
But the book is not only the story of that, it is of his life from birth. Modernity is always present in a way, for he lives with his grandfather who is the guard of a rural railway point, but the grandmothers, as their predecessors must have done for thousands of years, groom children for lice and tell stories of Central Asian folklore, such as Gesar. Horses are an essential part of every day life. Events such as nuclear explosions are framed in a subtly mythological way, which gives the feeling of a folkloric explanation, yet does not explicitly exclude the scientific. nightmares of little silver planes suddenly turning into iron eagles and diving at him as if he were a fox cub, running across the steppe, unable to find a burrow or any kind of refuge from the rumbling, or the darkening sky, or the new sun rising in the black sky, or the mushroom
The story of Yerzhan's musical genius also addresses in detail a wondering I had (mentioned in this review of The Kalevala) about how things may have been for those of exceptional talent in both ancient and remote rural communities, and modern less-developed areas. Of his own accord, as little more than a toddler, he picks up his grandfather's dombra and copies what he's heard. His talent doesn't preclude his later being a fan of pop stars like 'Red Elvis' Dean Reed, whom he only hears about via his violin teacher, a dodgy Bulgarian who's been exiled to a building site some miles distant.
The account of how cut off from his peers he feels due to his failure to grow was beautifully told and lump-in-the-throat sad.
The final chapter includes a metafictional playing with different endings, but it never feels forced. It is simply the narrator wondering about gaps in Yerzhan's story (told "like a traditional steppe bard"), just as you might speculate about an interesting person you'd met briefly.
There are, if you wish, allegories evidently to be found here - but if you like a folk-influenced story that does not spare the grit, this is a wonderful book on its own merits....more
[5.8/6] … It was that wonderful, so much more than any other book I've read in I can't remember how long. Though not without a human amount of imperfe[5.8/6] … It was that wonderful, so much more than any other book I've read in I can't remember how long. Though not without a human amount of imperfections.
I hadn't read Pynchon before, and this isn't the usual place to start. However (i) I'd loved the sound of this book ever since I saw press reviews for it, and I got a copy not long after it was released in paperback. (Yup, I – and various removal men – have been carting the thing around for fifteen years. And by god it was worth it. The opening pages are as magical a beginning as any I can think of, as good as Bleak House, and every time I thought of getting rid of the book I'd look at them and knew it absolutely had to stay. Besides, I'm ever so glad I've got this cover of lovely antique ampersands, and not the headache-inducing bastard which is now the default for the same ISBN. ) However (ii) If you're comfortable with eighteenth century British and a bit of American history, with reading the accent and dialect of north-east England, and have a smattering or more of knowledge about geography, astronomy, as well as * whisper* superstitious esoterica like feng shui and astrology, it might well be the right place to start. (I've read a few quotes from Bleeding Edge and seeing the author of this marvel writing about hipsters' jeans and how difficult it is to find your way out of Ikea, my heart sinks... Yup, M&D probably was the right book for me. Also, I disagree about the Ikea thing: it's simply a matter of ignoring the stuff on sale, and if you want to be even quicker, ignoring the designated routes and keeping moving.)
I find it easy to get disillusioned with present-day settings, but go far enough back with historical fiction and I start picking holes in it too. A book like Jim Crace's Harvest deftly sidesteps us pedants with a vaguely timeless setting and details from different eras; the amazing Mason & Dixon goes several better with meticulous arcana of its time and a proliferation of postmodern, knowing and quite often funny deliberate anachronisms. And in so doing, it's also terribly, terribly eighteenth century. The Pynchon blend of science and hippiedom suits the times perfectly too, the era of Religion and the Decline of Magic where one man could be both a mathematician and a rural wizard.
From that very conceptual level right down to a plethora of puns erudite and/ or filthy Pynchon is a master of layered recursion. (Why did no-one ever say to me, 'With that username, I bet you'd love Pynchon'? He generates the sort of wordplay once every goddamn page that these days, especially without someone to bounce off, I feel lucky to think of a few times a year.)
Ideas of modern and postmodern are just indications of popularity, not first occurrence: the very first novels were full of them and the eighteenth century could be postmodern and dirty-minded in a way that feels far more contemporary than the Victorians. (This is probably why I've always thought III works best out of all the Blackadder series. Though it doesn't hurt that the costumes of the era were so good they even managed to make Rowan Atkinson look slightly attractive.)
Even after a week to settle, I still just want to say about Mason & Dixon, “it's so everything. Wise and funny and moving yadda yadda yadda and all those adjectives cover quotes use. But this one really is. A great big exhilarating book that gives you the feeling of having lived the span of a life – two very interesting lives lived over three continents – and with much joy and fun and interestingness as well as terrible things witnessed all over the world. There's even room for pets. Most of all, it's an epic friendship with a warmth that initially surprised, found amid lots of left-brain cleverness and odd bursts of Carry On humour. Something that brought to mind the glow associated with those very few people who, almost as soon as your first conversation started, finding so much understanding yet a world's worth of contrast, you felt you didn't ever want to stop and you knew you wanted them around somewhere or other for the rest of your life. It was always exciting to pick up and read Mason & Dixon; some days I read a bit less but I never needed to space a short book in the middle. Nothing else would be as good, I was sure of it. (And in this project of reading some of the 1001 books I already own, I'm finding that not a lot of modern classics contain so much joy and fun as this one.)
But whatever could be wrong with this formidable feat of literature? Really not much at all. Getting near the end of part II some long stories-within-a-story were taking the piss a bit. Though one of those was the second time in a month I'd read a re-telling of the Lambton Worm (previously in Alice in Sunderland, which I thought told it better). Also a Sadeian yet picturesque detail from a serial in a scandalous magazine - this was another of my odd more-than-one-gender responses, for a while from an outside view I found it quite erotic and then later had a female-bodied response in which I was left me with the woman's equivalent of when a man, seeing a scene in which a protagonist gets kicked (or worse) in the balls, grimaces and cringes, and part of me was dissatisfied with the absence of mention of pain and its effects in the text.
But, bah, such a tiny tiny fraction of the book, a book which is very humane about the abuses of its times – useful for that having a hero who's a Quaker! And one which I might hazard had something to do with the generation of steampunk, shortly before it came to be called steampunk let alone the proliferation of names for its equivalent in other centuries: fantastical machinery (Vaucanson's mechanical duck takes flight, and more), and a scene in which one of our heroes decides to go a bit superhero which made me look up the publication date of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - a few years later. I started off thinking the whole thing was “very 90's”: the musical numbers, the fantasy sequences, just like some of the great American TV series were doing at the time. But nope, I read more background: this is just Pynchon, he'd been doing that for aaaages. (The size and detail of the book also reminded me of a recent interview with Eleanor Catton in which she said the 21st century trend for doorstop novels was the book equivalent of the rise of the TV series box set.)
Yes, reading background. It does need notes and a dictionary. Quiet countryside is a pretty good place to read a great big cosy attention-devouring novel (even if its framing device is set in Advent, whilst there are so many swifts, swallows and house martins wheeling above you it's almost like being divebombed). But if you've got no dictionary, a Kindle with no charge and no cable, and mobile broadband of a speed that would make anyone long for a modem from the year of this book's publication, then you just have to make do with not looking up every weird word. There are a few sets of notes kicking around the internet which I managed to have a look at. Most of them were pretty unsatisfactory if you have a little relevant knowledge, not telling me many of the things I did want to know, so I'd given up on them by about p.100. By far the best was the Pynchon wiki, which I stuck with, though too many of the later entries are just intros and links to wikipedia entries without succinct explanation – would have been more interesting with a connection fast enough for all the click throughs - and glossing of words that you'd surely know already if you're reading a book like this (e.g. 'ubiquitous'). I've got a few extra bits and pieces I might email them once I have better internet and if I remember. In the meantime, in shorthand: p.390, Scarlet Pimpernel; that was probably my best spot. (Sorry, I probably sound a bit up m'self in this post; guess I'm just proud to have finished this book when I'd long thought I might never be up to it again.)
This was just such a wonderful book and if you think you might be relatively comfortable enough with the subjects (I know I'd have found it too much hard work if it was about a subject I knew very little of) then I would very very much recommend it. And I've no doubt it will reward re-reading too......more
[4.5] A very interesting book. And not at all what I expected from Joseph O'Neill, whom I'd taken for American fiction's Mr Boring - on the strength o[4.5] A very interesting book. And not at all what I expected from Joseph O'Neill, whom I'd taken for American fiction's Mr Boring - on the strength of Zadie Smith's famous essay Two Paths for the Novel, even if the piece's essential idea did seem over-simplified. Some paragraphs in The Dog must count as Lyrical Realism, but almost none of this book is 'blah litfic', the gut response via which I usually label Lyrical Realism.
O'Neill isn't quite what he seems either: says an article, the longlist contains so many white men, white people generally... He's actually half Turkish and if his name were too, he would probably be classified differently by commentators. Like the narrator if he removes his unused unusual first name, he is "completely camouflaged by [his] name's commonness". The Dog is full of a sense of not entirely belonging anywhere whilst on the surface all strives to be correct, sometimes trying to adhere to the values of opposing forces simultaneously. A more subtle and powerful evocation of the immigrant, or half-immigrant, condition than a lot of first-generation family sagas.
It's predominantly written in a style associated with office work, rather than any floweriness of literature; although it doesn't use actual legal jargon it's from a mind - narrator and author - for which legalistic writing is routine. It's a meticulous examination of internal thought processes, contemporary middle-class ethics, and the inevitability of compromise and falling short. An up-to-the-minute existentialism. A critique of capitalism and the modern condition that, because it's more realistic and hardly ever violent, is way sharper than American Psycho. And a realistic updating of the disgruntled not-quite-middle-aged single male narrator for a point in time when men of my background and generation are less likely to say with marginal emarrassment that they sometimes identified with Portnoy, than to write about their project of reading more female writers (and honestly seem to mean it, although I still see a suppression of intrinsic human interest and enjoyment in favour of brow-beatenness, sheepish adherence to the viral internet and a state of being both more patronising towards and patronised by women than previously).
Reviews of O'Neill's Netherland point out the significant drawback for many readers of the main character being a highly-paid 1%-er. The narrator of The Dog isn't quite there, but he is working for them and would be a higher rate taxpayer in the UK. Following a horrendous breakup with a New York colleague, he takes a job in Dubai as a "family officer", a kind of financial manager, for a family of shady shipping multimillionaires, one of whom was once his university flatmate. He lives in a modern luxury complex which is a typical part of an entire city which has the temporary, air-cushioned vacuum feeling of chain hotels (only with an absurd level of amenities). The absurdly narcissistic ads for the building and others like it, followed by the hubris of the recession-frozen construction sites, and in the finished complexes more workaday residents than once envisaged - is the same trajectory as that of many recent warehouse and factory conversions in British cities.
His the kind of post and lifestyle which makes him easy to bracket with wanker-bankers - though his thoughts are more burdened with guilt and thoughts of ethics than most of his peers (a set of ethics which online is frequently termed 'social justice' by hundreds of thousands of people who've never been near volunteering in a soup kitchen or any other social justice work as the term used to mean before the internet mangled it into the war cry of Twitter mobs).
His guilt has only has a marginal effect on his actions at work. But whilst there is a difference of degrees in terms of the actual impact of a person's job, the same trains of thought, the same ethical cheese-paring and boundary-drawing, and having to follow policies you don't think are right, are universal. They also occur in charity and public sector jobs which sound like the most socially useful things you could earn money from. (Or not earn it - they apply in volunteering too.) You can never help everybody, and you can't even help that one person with everything. You always have to set the boundaries somewhere although to do so inevitably feels ruthless to both sides. (Some people try not to - a former colleague told me how when she was younger she'd got into debt because she was giving so much money to charity... and then ended paying more in interest than originally to the charities.) I sometimes wondered to what extent it was weak to want the day to day gratification of helping people directly and a job title that sounded nice, and if it might even be more useful, if only I'd been sufficiently healthy, to have a high-powered City job and donate most of one's salary, enough to fund several of my own charity post. I've been through variants of many of the thought-processes in The Dog, never seen them so closely rendered on paper, and I admire the way O'Neill has pinned these ideas so exactly (whilst making them sound 'real', with the occasional word-error and formidable bracket overuse). He applies similar precision to his description of how to do Sudoku, a procedure it was rather amazing to see verbalised.
The narrator is not a fan of the growing social media of 2007-11 (his years of employment) but he does spend a lot of time on the internet: forums, Google, Wikipedia, and porn (until he's so shocked by unexpectedly violent porn that he stops dead). Much of life is him on his own, or him and the computer. His social isolation in Dubai probably makes more pronounced his use of professional status and connection as a primary way of describing himself and others. It's quite a cold, cerebral narrative; whilst there's humour and methodical consideration of others' experiences, there isn't substantial fun or warmth here (which is why I've tentatively rounded my 4.5 down not up) - although I only tended to feel something missing when I surfaced from the book, because whilst reading I was buzzing with its resonance both personal and general.
'Dog' has multiple meanings: a dogsbody (he is one, and he in turn employs one of his own), wanting a dog for a pet but not being allowed, being dogged by guilt no matter where he goes, the state of guilt and shame "being in the doghouse" in his former relationship and generally - all subtly augmented by the unclean status of dogs in Arab culture. A sense that whatever you do, you can't help being to some extent bad. I felt the central question of the book to be: At what level does one stop trying and/or self-flagellating and become resigned to things?
(I became aware that I may be more forgiving to this narrator's professional situation than some readers would be because, being so tired, I empathise very readily with inertia and a sense of stuckness even when the subject might actually have the wherewithal to do something about it. But anyway, these days, at the other end of the economic scale from this chap, there are a lot of people doing jobs with a negative social impact, e.g. aggressive telesales, who really have no choice. So although his earnings are many times theirs, similar, yet really more urgent and difficult, dilemmas still occur.)
There is a huge amount to say about The Dog. I have a hunch that critics will be calling this an Important Book. Another thing I've not gone into yet is the religious theme which plays out in the denoument, more obvious when added to the narrator's probable Christian name. Although it's only 240 pages, this book has enough substance to launch a thousand essays. However I am not sure that average undergrads would get so much out of it: it speaks very much to and of the sense of loserishness that hits in the second half of one's thirties if adrift without an intact long-term partnership and / or offspring, or at the very least an actual divorce. And its intricate prison of work and consumerist dilemmas is most vivid with a good few years of different jobs and experiences under the belt, and having heard and thought these things over and over to the paradoxical point of boredom-yet-knowing-they-still-matter. ...more
[4.5] I've always wanted historical fiction written like this. To feel like I was reading something of another, older world, but not hard work like Ch[4.5] I've always wanted historical fiction written like this. To feel like I was reading something of another, older world, but not hard work like Chaucer or Beowulf.
So I'd probably have read The Wake anyway, regardless of the Booker Prize - it's just that I only heard of it a day or two before the longlist announcement, via, I think, a Guardian comment from book blogger John Self (who has since reviewed the novel for The Times - behind paywall, haven't read it). At that point, when I looked at the Goodreads book page, I was delighted to see an average rating of 4.28 and several reviews: clearly the book was already being found by the right people... And as I expected, with it being longlisted, people who don't like it and can't read it are now trying it and giving 1 and 2 stars - it surprises me how many people don't read a few pages before buying a book. (But is it better to have a grateful niche audience and less money, or higher sales including people who [noisily] don't appreciate a work plus a few extra fans?)
That "not hard work"... As mentioned in a few other reviews, I generally just don't bother with fiction where specialist knowledge helps if I haven't got it. Things that helped here included: knowledge of the relevant history including pre-Christian religions, familiarity with accents and dialects of Northern England and southern Scotland, ("beornin" heard in an old Durham accent made sense instantly) understanding of the general patterns of Old English without actually knowing the language. (Germanic languages would help a lot too.) And a thing which must have a proper name, switching gears where language is concerned and understanding it through feeling and sound more than thinking: this felt the same as reading paragraphs of text speak and youth slang, except that I was more interested. (I've always had a knack for silently working out slang based on context and instinct, which is very useful if you're an easily embarrassed kid who doesn't want people to know you're easily embarrassed.)
The Wake is best read in big chunks - and when fairly awake - so you stay inside its idiom and remember the vocab; it gets faster as you go along. Also, read the afterwords first, and if you're on an e-reader, print out the glossary (unless your OE / German / Dutch / Scandinavian is good enough that you won't need it).
Having been vaguely interested in Paul Kingsnorth's non-fiction already, it maybe wasn't so surprising to find a writer with views I'm very sympathetic to. (Have recently read several of the articles on his website.) He also had mystical feelings about landscape from an early age, and studied history, someone who likewise hankers for a vivid felt sense of the past whilst having come to understand that we can really only see it through ourselves and our own time. The "shadow-tongue" in which The Wake is written panders skilfully to the feeling of "what it was like", but it's not authentic, it's a twenty-first century constructed pidgin of modern and Old English - although nearly all of the words are of Anglo-Saxon origin. This combination of ancient and modern shares the ethos of neo-paganism. Pedants familiar with Old English may find it annoying, but knowing OE wouldn't necessarily preclude a reader from enjoying the writer's creative games with language.
Likewise, there are contradictory layers to the narrator, Buccmaster, and his story. This is a "post-apocalyptic historical novel" - whose phrase that was I can't remember - and Kingsnorth mentions in his afterword that few British people know how awful the aftermath of the Norman Conquest was. (He points out the effects on land ownership and the class system - but the Harrowing of the North still has its effects today in the North-South economic divide.) A cheesy, obviously didactic historical novel would set out to show this using sympathetic characters. Buccmaster pre-Hastings is a self-important Lincolnshire sokeman, or yeoman farmer, easy to imagine as a burly Daily Mail reader, forever complaining about taxes and red tape, always expecting something to be done about things without contribution from him and his perfectly able household - and also something of a Walter Mitty dreamer, all talk and little, sporadic, action. He's not exactly central casting's budding rebel outlaw type, nor does he experience a chrysalid transmutation of personality at his country's hour of need.
No sensible reader would expect a man of the eleventh century to be PC and peaceful, but he's more unusual among his contemporaries for being, essentially, pagan. His grandfather remained secretly loyal to the old gods and was a great inspiration to Buccmaster. The narrator's conversations with Weland and visions of Woden echo Robin of Sherwood's relationship with Herne the Hunter - given Kingsnorth's age I'd bet he watched the series as a kid / teenager. (There are various other echoes such as Lincoln[shire] green [men], a Little John-like giant etc.) I'm deeply sympathetic to this pagan aspect and viewed it as a positive side of Buccmaster's character. (I also rooted for the Wicker Man people... I don't like violence but it was some kind of satisfying counterbalance to all the conversion and martyrdom stories from a Catholic perspective I read as a child.) I'd guess the author has pagan leanings too. But the book is well-constructed such that a more negative interpretation of this side of the character is equally possible; as his contemporaries do, a reader could also see Buccmaster's paganism as inevitably connected with his episodes of madness. Whereas I consider his main problem is egotism and tyranny, and that as far as the old gods are concerned, he's merely guilty from time to time of that very English fault to find, taking things a bit too far. (One has to also take into account that the supernatural was an accepted part of every day life before the age of reason - although that doesn't mean that all dreams and visions were automatically accepted, as the reception of Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc indicate.)
Alongside the moments of too-modern religious doubt (of all religions), this story of the once well-established man become an outlaw on the run is a common motif in several of this year's Booker longlisted titles, a comment on creeping authoritarian aspects of contemporary life. Kingsnorth, a former road protestor and environmental journalist, evidently means something along those lines, also re. globalisation. (He may be another white middle class man as many have said there are too many of on the list, and an Oxbridge one to boot, but he seems the sort who seriously mucks in and sees how it is, perhaps not quite in so much depth as Orwell, but same ethos.) But he is circumspect enough to consider in his narrative why resistance seems futile, or even harmful, to some. And hidden under Buccmaster's veneration of the old gods and concept of pre-Norman, pre-Christian England as somehow the real deal - a popular idea at least since the Victorians - is the knowledge that before the Anglo-Saxons there were the wealsc - now inhabiting the far west - whom the Germanic invaders conquered, and that there were other people before the wealsc too. He is outraged that people like himself are made thralls; the geburs and thralls his own people held are mentioned, made obvious and human to the reader, but to Buccmaster they remain beneath him. Love of the English countryside and history is abundant in the writing, but not without knowledge of the potential for xenophobia within these sentiments. I admire the sense of balance in this novel, that it passionately understands why something is worth fighting for, but simultaneously what might be wrong about that or about the way it's done - and that any one time is just part of a long cycle of takeovers and oppressions, and the mythical past of perfect freedom always was mythical, even if certain aspects of life were or are better at one time or another. It combines the historian's long view with the political activist's immediate outlook - and seriously creative use of language as rarely found in books of that sort.
translated by Edna St. Vincent Millay & George Dillon
It's outrageous that this wonderful translation is out of print. After looking at many versiotranslated by Edna St. Vincent Millay & George Dillon
It's outrageous that this wonderful translation is out of print. After looking at many versions (including Richard Howard, James McGowan, and Cyril Scott who was my second favourite) this was the only one with truly good poems which replicated the original structures and had the glittering night-magic of Baudelaire's sensual, sinister, romantic, gothic wonderland. Which would of course have something to do with one of the translators herself being a distinguished poet.
These are poetic translations rather than ones designed to reproduce the exact meanings line-by-line, but for the non-academic reader I think they are by far the most satisfying as poetry.
Female characters seem stronger than in other translations, undoubtedly Millay's work. One commentator in a source I now can't find says that in her translation of Baudelaire's women - often passive in the original - she finds a powerful active voice she only rarely displayed in her own poems.
I've taken a long time to finish Les Fleurs du Mal but this was largely because I despaired of how to describe Baudelaire's verse, something quite beyond my powers, and kept being distracted from reading by trying to find (im)possible phrases.
Some of the translations from this edition can be found here, with a bit of patience, clicking and scrolling....more
I'm not quite as much of a Tara fan as I used to be, so the rating is retrospective. I seem to want more visual depth and shading or something now. BuI'm not quite as much of a Tara fan as I used to be, so the rating is retrospective. I seem to want more visual depth and shading or something now. But the three-painting comic-panel sequence 'Dream a Little Dream' is still more eloquent than words could be about life with heartbreak and grief. Warning: contains emo-ness one (you can get there by pressing Next, but anyway) two three ...more
Absolutely beautiful. The narrator and his sister Miruna listen to their ancient grandfather's stories of his remote Carpathian village and their foreAbsolutely beautiful. The narrator and his sister Miruna listen to their ancient grandfather's stories of his remote Carpathian village and their forebears. If only it had been five times its 140-odd pages, with space to hear about more family members. (It concentrates on the great-grandfather, phrasing his story as if he were a hero of epic myth, and the grandfather himself.) The narrative's eye for detail is as if hearing one articulate villager's contribution to a microhistory like Montaillou, whilst time swirls with enchantments and stories emerge from and fade back into the mists. Hardships and attitudes of the past are not idealised - although there is no domestic violence, and some characters live to be a couple of hundred years old - but the writing is always exquisite. It's hard to know what to quote without pasting half the book, but here is something seasonal:
A harsh winter followed, one of those winters that consumes whole cartloads of wood in the stove, with cruel frosts, with snows that hid all the land and every last trace of the work of human hands, a winter that plunged the world back into its primordial state. In Evil Vale, humans were not yet entirely master. There were only a handful of houses. In winter, wolf tracks dotted the snow in the village itself, wild boars rooted in the gardens not two paces away from folks, and lynxes prowled over the roofs. The villagers understood nature as hostile and inimical to them, and they did not rise up against it, for you would need to drink your brains away to rise against something so overwhelming. They all knew Evil Vale was a place in thrall to the forest, a place where human laws held no sway, where the laws of the wilderness governed.
And this most of all is a world where magic is real, or was until very recently: folk magic of fae worlds and old wives and diviners, where there were more than thirty cunning-folk in a settlement of 2000.
The author is rather impressively polymathic: he is a mathematics professor in the US, having emigrated there in the 1990s, and has also written five novels in Romanian. His afterword shows a delight in folklore of both poet and historian. He goes into his own family history that inspired this: a grandmother who lived in a region too mountainous to have its culture obliterated by collective farming under communism. describes some research in a Mircea Eliade book showing how a fairytale with supernatural elements originated in real events in a Romanian village decades earlier. And the book is the most meticulously footnoted translation of contemporary fiction I've seen. (The extra information left me craving maps and pictures though.) Not many people are so flexible as to be able to set aside one of their major subjects like this: Numbers are in fact of no use to anyone, because nothing ever changes. Evil Vale is always the same. The ages of man are not like the ages of trees, for they are not measured in the same way.
I'd read one previous translation by Alistair Blyth, Mircea Cărtărescu's short story collection Why We Love Women. That barely scraped 3 stars. After seeing the sterling work in Miruna, (and seeing the differing ratings for the two books in Romanian) this is a translator I trust to put across the quality of the original.
The family setting of Miruna could, in lesser hands, have been syrupy. They're a fairly happy family. And it's hinted from the outset that the old man feels he doesn't have much time left and, whilst he still can, wants to pass on his stories to the grandchildren who connect with them best. But it is simply very lovely in as simple and magical a manner as - something that probably comes to mind because of the time of year - Raymond Briggs picture books....more
This is not a review. They are notes (and rants) made as I read / a draft
So far: - Is this just a soap with a lot of literary references (at least 50%This is not a review. They are notes (and rants) made as I read / a draft
So far: - Is this just a soap with a lot of literary references (at least 50% of them made up)? But there are still daft coincidences. [Hece subtitle, " a romance". Reminds me why I don't read romances.] - Nope not quite, I think there's a rejoinder to separatist feminism saying that men can inspire women in the same way as women can inspire men or anyone of any gender can inspire someone, that there isn't something inherently demeaning about it. (A favourite idea of mine which I may be grafting on.) Fundamentally conservative but in a way I agree with. Like more moderate & human Paglia. - Also that modern scholars try to twist the words & meanings of women from the past because they want them to mean what they hoped they would have meant if they lived in the present, rather than accepting them as a) individuals and b) part of their own time. - I love the tales of 80's impoverished bohemiana - personally I find this the most romantic. For reasons obvious only to one or two friends. - I love the way the book conveys a sense of academic obsession. - And I do just like Ash & LaMotte so far. - Too wordy and descriptive at times - and I usually love description - makes me long for the economy of poetry. Sometimes it's like a Victorian sitting room: too many ornaments, too much detail. Need to tidy up. - Best factoid so far: Petrarch's Laura was probably an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. - She's at least heard of Dallas & Dynasty so why the fuck does she name Prf. Blackadder as she does? Rolnd is poss something to do with Song Of but we will see as the book progresses. - Need to find better source on Victorian colour symboism for Maud & all that green. Preliminary indications are aliveness & nature. (contrast with Val). But what about green-sickness & angry feminism? - Book seems more impressively learned given that it was pre-internet. This sort of thing would be much easier to pull off with half the knowledge and a broadband connection now. Ridiculous quote from Cosmo about Byatt being the most intellectual female novelist since George Eliot. Okay, you can't expect Cosmo to have heard of everything but surely in 1990 they at least knew of Iris Murdoch? This is mostly reference-spouting and the odd tricksy bit of imagery stuck on a soap opera. (Which doesn't mean I don't like it, it's just not quite such an intellectual feat. Especially once you've noticed how many people you know can write quite decent poetry. The sort of thing numerous oxbridge grads and their equals could pull off.) - Looking like 4 stars. - Name choices make Byatt look ivory-tower. David Lodge might have used them and had characters teased about them - would have been much better. - Only a couple of years later (after first reading about half of this) I was reading Paglia and would have understood a lot more about the Women's Studies expansion / landgrab and revival of ignored / second-rate-but-still interesting female poets. Wonder if I'd read the book later if it would have mitigated my annoyance with such stuff that made me unpopular with Eng teachers & tutors in 6th form & uni. - Byatt drew me in the first time - and again now - to sympathise with Val via the first paragraphs about her and I can see she was another bad influence character whom I grew a terrible fear of turning into (not that there was really any hope for me not to be sucked in by such models with complete absence of RL examples) - Re-reading is always a psychological experience about how the reader has changed [film article] and here I notice a) how much more I just feel, how much emotional sense was missing from me then and b) how much life experience of people generally and of relationships makes this book more interesting.
- I had liked Ash before the letters but during them he became absurd, like some over-perfect romantic novel hero, laughable and somewhat irritating. Mid-nineteenth century poet is New Man in disguise. Lolz. J.S. Mill was progressive but this just seems silly. - Swammerdam does not rhyme. I'd like to know what scholars of the period think of it. I can't imagine Byatt publishing something inaccurate but with my limited knowledge it doesn't sound right, like it should be from c.50 yrs later. - pp.194-5 "I cannot let you burn me up. I cannot... You see Sir I say nothing of Honour or Morality - though they are weighty matters. I go to the Core, which renders much disquisition on these matters superflouous. The core is my solitude that is threatened, that you threaten, without which I am nothing... You will argue for a monitored and limited combustion - a fire-grate with bars and formal boundaries and brassy finials - ne progredietur ultra - But I say your glowing salamander is a Firedrake. And there will be - Conflagration ... No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed... I have known - Incandescence - and must decline to sample it further." - p.230 about sleep - curious that no-one else labels this LGBT when two of the central characters are bi women - Prefer David Lodge as satire of academia, who has covered most of the same points earlier, but this is still one of the few books about academics I like - because it focuses on the work, on really geeking out, whereas many authors just use academics so they can have an articulate character who they can use as a mouthpiece for ideas. -Effective characters. Very much like Christabel & usually Maud. Roland is sort of an everyman, the reader's eyes. Leonora, urgh,,, shudder. - I love the way it has episodes in areas I rarely think about but which are fascinating: Lincolnshire, Brittany....more
"...the kind of excitement that palaeontologists felt on discovering a live coelacanth". Exactly! I'm not oneOUP edition, translated by Keith Bosley
"...the kind of excitement that palaeontologists felt on discovering a live coelacanth". Exactly! I'm not one of the scholars of early European epic Bosley is talking about in that paragraph of his wonderful introduction, just someone who once did a dissertation type thing on "pagan survivals" in late medieval (English) religion and sadly had to conclude that there was very little evidence for anything beyond the odd motif. But in Finland, there was an ancient mythological poetic oral tradition alive well into the nineteenth century, whence it was written down and synthesised by Lönnrot. I only found out about it a couple of years after graduation, browsing the Classics section of a bookshop: this great thick Oxford World's Classics spine and I've never even heard of it? Once I knew what the book was, I wasn't leaving without it. It has the magic not only of being an oxymoronic living fossil, also the mist-shrouded obscurity of the curious Finno-Ugric languages near in geography and so far linguistically, and gods and heroes still European yet not of any tradition known to me: not the famed Viking pantheon, not the Slavic ones I used to read about in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a kid, lately returned to a little fame by Neil Gaiman in American Gods.
When reading translated poetry recently, I was quite bothered about the idea of authenticity, of being able to get as close to the original as possible, in my frustration at not knowing French well enough to understand all of Baudelaire, Verlaine or Rimbaud in the originals. But with The Kalevala, you can't, with the oral tradition, you can't. Authenticity, the obsession with authorship and the auteur - and along with it artistic copyright - is rather a modern idea. I found myself thinking back to a conversation in which I was told by a very talented musician (who had no personal need to defend "unoriginality") to ditch the phrase and concept of 'cover version' from my thinking. Quite, yes, I thought as a pathway opened up, I realised ... like music hall, like all those 50's and 60's girl groups and quiffed rock 'n' roll singers and Depression jazz or blues artists who recorded the same songs and it didn't matter who did it first. Victorians who had to play and sing their own versions because they had no recordings. Before Dylan and folk rock and the singer-songwriter obsession. Reading about The Kalevala I remembered just what a tiny few decades have been fixated on this idea, as the camera panned out. For most of human history songs and stories have been handed down patchworked, originating who knows where, originating with no one place or person. We know who we are hearing it from and they know one, possibly two earlier, but that's it.
Local storytellers and bards, re-telling and embellishing old poems, some renowned for many miles around, entering and some winning competitions ... in impoverished non-literate cultures this is what some of the most brilliant people were doing, people whose names we will never know although I'm sure they were just as interesting as many of those we do. Ever since I was 12 or 13 when a teacher made a quite erroneous remark that Beethoven had genetic diseases which meant some modern parents wouldn't have allowed him to survive following scans (it was a Catholic school) I've liked to wonder about geniuses and talented people "lost" to history not for that reason, but just because we don't know about them, because they did things we don't remember today, or they died young of some plague, or they didn't want to be renowned (like the medieval craftsmen who didn't sign their work), or they never had the opportunity to do what they would have excelled at, and most of all the ones who were stuck in some primitive or peasant community worked into the ground, but they did matter to those who knew them, because they told good stories or did medicine or generally worked out solutions. (And like the free-thinking Menocchio of The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Millersome were a bit too clever for their own good.) And The Kalevala is the cumulative work of people like these. But more accessible, and more exciting because of its exoticism, than reading a bunch of Old English.
It is also, though, a work of the nineteenth century Romantic nationalist era: Romantics valued these wild, woolly obscure things I love, but The Kalevala as it stands is a deliberately created Finnish epic to fuel the independence and self definition of a country which had been ruled by other nations - with elites speaking other languages - since the 12th century. Elias Lönnrot, in this cause, stitched some unrelated folk poems he had collected into the larger Kalevala that he refined and published. It has enough uneven-ness though to feel like folklore collected. (On a literary basis I wasn't sure about giving the poem 5 stars rather than 4 or 4.5, but the introduction swung it.)
And yes, what of the poem itself? (Hello if you're still reading! :) ) Readjusting to a world of fairytale proportions, of seven leagues high and humans born from bird-eggs, bees who can carry eight pots and a smith who can weld metallic wonders from wool, milk and grain. The translator makes very frequent use of a few words that are relatively uncommon in modern English - "lulled" "billow" and "fellow" especially, with the first given some odd meanings - this got on my nerves a little but, with other archaisms interpolated into readable language, they also gave an appropriate otherness. For something of over 600 pages, I found it a very fast read. It has fewer words per page, of course, being poetry, but even then, it flows. With the repetition characteristic of ancient epic. With a sense of place and time often made of nouns: landscape, old buildings and tools and most of all wildlife. (As an adult I haven't often used all the knowledge about identifying birds and animals I learnt from my mother and her books, but here it was nice to know the appearance and context for a capercaillie or a scaup.) You can feel how sparsely populated and how dominated by nature the world of The Kalevala is. (Very satisfying for my daydream of escaping to some northern Nordic wild for a few years and working outdoors away from computers.)
There are strata of cultures here. Names unmistakeably Finnish; figures who seem quite unrelated to those of other myths; a culture more land-bound than the Vikings, all forests and farms and ice, with voyages on lakes and rivers; an ancient bear-cult in which killing the object of worship was not antithetical as it may seem now. Heroes are Väinämöinen, a shaman and singer, Ilmarinen, a smith and Lemminkäinen, a seducer; all can and do fight but this isn't like other epics which star career-warriors: the society seems to have different concerns. (Though whether that's Lönnrot's choice, or a modification that happened later, who knows. But the subsistence lifestyle and sparse population likely meant there were different priorities: the Mediterranean cultures' wars and the Viking voyages were partly driven by growing populations greedy for more space.)
Wikipedia states about the tragedy of traumatised, aggressive Kullervo who survives repeated attempts to kill him in childhood: "The story of Kullervo is unique among ancient myths in its realistic depiction of the effects of child abuse." However, having noted in the introduction that the Kullervo cycle was an episode which had a particularly high degree of input and synthesis from Lonnrot, I think it is possible that the Wiki writer may be too quick to idealise, and that the conclusion to the Kullervo tale was at least in part based on Lonnrot's observations as a nineteenth century doctor or the wisdom of relatively recent bards - and not that the ancient Finnish culture was necessarily more wise to the effects of savagery than other more obviously brutal epic-making societies.
The Kalevala also has features recognisable from other traditions: an Orpheus strand; the heroes' trials like Hercules; the Sampo, a cornucopia or grail; and according to the introduction verse forms heavily influenced by those of the Baltic states. In some cantos Christian influences are evident - though it's surprising how few. The final canto is a reluctant handing-over from Pagan to Christian culture: the priggish, fragile Marian figure Marjatta (such a contrast with the earthy, capable women earlier in the poem) has a son by immaculate conception, and he banishes Väinämöinen.
Reading the introduction after the poem, I was surprised to learn how little of it was collected from female storytellers. There are many episodes lamenting the misery of marriage which sound as if they are the work of generations of worn out middle-aged women. I can't think of any other ancient stories or fairytale tradition in which women want to avoid marriage so much. In The Kalevala they set their suitors impossible trials, they get themselves out of bargains, one - or is it two - even kills herself to avoid marrying an ugly old man, and there are long verses about hard work, being bossed around by the in-laws, husbands who beat, and that it's better to stay with your own family. The only female character who does get married during the story turns into a harridan and meets an unpleasant fate. And the talk of subordination is only in the narrative: female characters when they speak sound as strong-willed as the men and are never criticised for it.
Apparently The Kalevala was a major influence on Tolkien. Can't say I found myself ever thinking about hobbits whilst reading it, but then I was never a major fan. It was, though, an amazing journey into another culture and mythology. One which also got me thinking about epics and tales from other less prominent countries such as these....more