No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

#49: Jhegaala -- Steven Brust

I didn't think my people -- humans -- would be a serious threat. There is an entire family dead because I didn't start asking the right questions soon enough. I have to live with that. You think I'm bad because I killed those responsible. I think I'm bad because I didn't kill them earlier. (p. 295)

Jhegaala is the eleventh Vlad Taltos novel: chronologically, it comes after Phoenix and before Athyra. Vlad is on the run and heads east to the land of his ancestors (Fenario, setting of Brust's standalone novel Brokedown Palace), initially seeking his mother's family. He tracks them to the odorous paper-mill town of Burz, but whenever he mentions his mother's maiden name -- Merss -- people react oddly, either professing ignorance or reacting as though he's threatened them. (Since Vlad is a professional assassin and crime-lord, generally armed as well as being accompanied by two flying reptilian familiars, one can hardly blame them).

Then an entire family is murdered, burnt alive: and, despite the fact that the Jhereg organisation is tracking Vlad for a bloodthirsty vengeance, he decides to stick around and uncover the truth behind the deaths of his (probable) relatives. In the process, some pretty bad things happen to him: well, you do things and there are consequences; I ought to know. I can live with consequences. (p. 221)

Brust fans won't be surprised that there are seventeen chapters (plus a prologue) or that the chapters are headed by quotations from a play called 'Six Parts Water', apparently a comic murder mystery staged over several days; each section of the book is also introduced with an excerpt from a natural history text describing the life-cycle of the jhegaala, which is -- sadly -- as close as we get to seeing either the actual animal (a venomous winged toad-like amphibian) or any Dragaerans of that House. However, the jhegaala's decidedly unusual life-cycle makes an excellent Structural Metaphor for the development of the plot. ... as is the case with all organisms, it is never so much itself as when under intense pressure (p. 175)

I didn't enjoy this novel as much as some of the other Vlad Taltos books, and I think it's because Vlad is a stranger in a strange land: everyone looks odd to him, and that's because they're humans like Vlad himself, rather than Dragaerans (i.e. elves). None of the recurring characters from the other books make an appearance, save for Vlad's familiars, Loiosh and Rocza: much of the humour and character development is provided by Vlad's interaction with Loiosh (who thinks Vlad's 'pretty smart, for a mammal'). Perhaps I'm more fascinated by the Dragaerans, and Dragaeran society (an intriguing blend of courtly and sordid) than by Vlad himself, despite his edge and depth and instinct for survival, and his black humour. Without the Dragaerans to give context to the tale of a man living, surviving, thriving where he doesn't belong, Jhegaala seems just another thriller-with-magic.

Yes, there is Deverra.

#48: The Book of Atrix Wolfe -- Patricia McKillip

He saw the wood again in two worlds: one lifeless, dark, blanched with winter, the other drenched with light, green leaves trembling in a sweet soundless wind, and both on the edge of Hunter's Field. (p.132)

McKillip blends myth, fairytale and history in a tale of the aftermath of magical war: the eponymous mage Wolfe, under pressure from a king, uses magic to end war in Pelucir, but conjures a Hunter darker and more terrifying -- and more persistent -- than anything he could have imagined. From the wood on the hill, the Queen of the Wood watches with her consort and their child: Atrix Wolfe's magic whirls wide to include them too.

Fast-forward twenty years. The King is dead, killed on Hunter's Field, and his son Burne rules in Pelucir: Burne's younger brother, bespectacled Talis, is studying magic in Chaumenard when -- during a game of magical hide-and-seek -- he discovers a spellbook in a broom-cupboard. Returning to Pelucir, his forays into the book wreak domestic havoc, as when a spell to extinguish candles breaks all the mirrors in the castle: 'Words don't seem to mean themselves ... the spell in the book dealt with mirrors. But it said candles. And fire. So I was confused.'.

Then Talis falls from his horse, meets a woman in the wood on the hill:
"... she let me see her face. She was very -- she was more beautiful than --"
[Burne] grunted. "They always are."
(p89)
And within days, Talis has disappeared in a sliver of moonlight, and Burne turns to the mages while Talis tries to reach back through to his own green world.

Meanwhile, in the kitchens, a mute girl scrubs pots and watches passively as creative, indulgent and mouth-watering feasts -- very much in the medieval style, pastry in bird-shapes, birds stuffed with other birds, mulled wine and cold meats -- are prepared for King and Court. When the black cauldron is empty of pots, she sees visions in the water ...

I'd reread the Riddlemaster trilogy (my very favourite novels when I was about 15: they've stood the test of time pretty well) and started wondering why I hadn't really connected with McKillip's later works. The Book of Atrix Wolfe is beautifully-written, and I love the central conceit that if one's writing of one thing but thinking of another, that other will flavour the writing; it doesn't move me as the Riddlemaster books did, and yet I admire the construction of the plot, shiver at the Hunter with the black moon between his antlers, am caught up in the poetry of the wood: and, yes, had to eat, and eat, while I read the kitchen scenes.

#47: The Way We Are -- Margaret Visser

In our consumer culture, we are constantly confronted with crowds of objects and with changing fashions in behaviour. The simulaneity and repetitiousness of the bombardment, the multiplicity of the things and the speed with which they reach their targets, serve to make them inscrutable to us, and exhausting in their apparent self-sufficiency and dynamism ... My project is to grab some of them as they hurtle by. I seize one of them at a time, hold it still, and look at it closely to see where it comes from and what it might be hiding. (p. xix)

Visser's Much Depends on Dinner -- subtitled 'The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal' -- is one of those books that I regularly give as a gift: her blend of history, sociology, anthropology and cookery, leavened with dry wit, engages me. In The Way We Are, a selection of her columns for Saturday Night magazine, she turns her attention to the paraphernalia of everyday life. Father Christmas ('he is obviously phallic, dressed in red, coming down the chimney, leaving a present in the stocking. Some analysts have suspected that he is, at the same time, pregnant'); the psychology of the blush; the fashion for stripes, whether vertical or horizontal, and the visual effects these produce; the avocado ('Indian claims for aphrodisiac powers in the fruit were hotly denied when it was first introduced ... the reputation is no longer thought by the industry to be a liability'); the history of the umbrella, which made me sad; synaesthesia; a discussion of Eskimo words for snow, and their usefulness; baths versus showers ...

Everything's footnoted: Visser (a classicist by profession, I believe) is not afraid to indulge her scholarly side, and -- for example -- discuss Seneca's satire Apocolocyntosis, in which the Emperor Claudius turns into a gourd, whilst examining the cultural history of the pumpkin. She writes about the enculturation of objects: that is, the ways in which, beginning as utalitarian items, they acquire meaning and a burden of folklore. And there's an immediacy to these articles, a sense of engagement: she invites us to examine our own clothing, our own habits; our laughing flinch at 'Bright-Eyed, Bushy-Tailed, Serves Six' (a discussion of why we don't eat squirrels) or the last time we blushed (at someone else's 'exposure') or the cloth we're wearing.

Fascinating, erudite and funny; the article format makes this the perfect book for dipping into, which is what I've been doing for months.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

#46: The Company -- K J Parker

... as long as 'A' Company was still alive and together, as long as the five of them were together, the war could never end. It was part of them, their core, their reason, what they were for; they kept it alive and it kept them alive, which was why it, they, had lasted so long, against all the odds. 'A' Company could no more die in war than a fish could drown in the sea. (p. 344)

Parker's first stand-alone novel -- previously s/he (the publicity material indicates a female author, but there is something masculine about the style) has committed the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies -- is distinctly Parker and yet oddly disappointing.

The war is over. General Teuche Kunessin ('the most devastating fighting man on either side of the war') returns to his homeland, intent on reuniting his comrades and fulfilling the dream that kept them alive: the colonisation of an abandoned island, which he's ensured will not be of interest to the military. There'd been six of them, but one died right at the end of the war. (The Company is, as much as anything, a thriller about how the sixth man, Nuctos, died.) The remaining veterans, despite their arguments and objections, all leap at the opportunity. Supplies (including wives) are acquired. Sphoe is colonised: and turns out to have rather more resources than they'd been expecting.

As ever, Parker's eye for the gritty realities of a (pseudo)medieval society is impressive. When Kunessin was a boy, his family fell on hard times, because a battle was fought on their field, leaving a harvest of corpses: we can't bury them all, not in time. Can't burn them: there's not enough timber in the valley to fire this lot ... They'll start to rot, and they'll breed worms and flukes: the stock'll pick them up and they'll die. ... It'll be three years, soonest, before this land's fit to be grazed again. (p. 63) And Parker's a master at showing what's said and what's not -- the male characters, in particular, are masterfully drawn as men who'd sooner die than talk out loud about emotions, but nevertheless very clearly have and are driven by said emotions -- and at showing us the world through an individual's eyes, slanted and skewed with their perspective. Kunessin sees the sun 'slanting down over the roofs ... like a shower of pitched-up arrows'. Aidi analyses the profit and loss of each transaction. Menin has a sharp eye for nature's bounty.

In a series of flashbacks, we slowly discover how Kunessin amassed the fortune that enabled him to buy Sphoe, a ship, supplies. There are other flashbacks, illuminating the pasts of the other colonists: early on we discover that a couple of the wives have secrets in their pasts. All rumour and conjecture of course, nothing ever proved. And -- in a quintessentially and aggravatingly Parker twist -- there's an account of the betrayal of Nuctos, carefully crafted using only the third-person pronoun. It's several hundred pages before we can put a name to the viewpoint character of that section, and I cannot help but feel that this is cheating.

'A' Company ('the biggest bunch of underachievers the world had ever seen') are connected by more than chance: they've survived years of war together, and the sense of 'us against the rest of the world' -- something darker and more codependent than mere camaraderie -- is one of the strongest threads in the novel. Given that focus, the finale is successful, but it feels hasty and unfinished, as though there might be more going on than a bunch of soldiers surviving against all odds.

Overall: very much enjoyed, not least for Parker's dry humour and the careful construction of plot and backstory, and for another fantasy in which there's no magic, no music and beauty only in the eye of the beholders.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

#43-45: The Riddlemaster trilogy -- Patricia McKillip (rereads)

He dropped into the wild current of the Cwill, let it whirl him, now as a fish, now a dead branch, through deep, churning waters, down rapids and thundering falls until he lost all sense of time, direction, light. The current jarred him over endless rapids before it loosed him finally in a slow, green pool. He spun awhile, a piece of water-soaked wood, aware of nothing but a fibrous darkness. The gentle current edged him toward the shore into a snarl of dead leaves and branches. He pulled himself onto the snag finally, a wet, bedraggled muskrat, and picked his way across the branches onto the shore. (Harpist in the Wind, p.133)

I discovered McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy in my teens -- I have a vivid memory of reading the books instead of studying for 'O' levels -- and have reread the books several times over the intervening ~30 years. Remembering the intensity with which I used to immerse myself in favourite books, I'm not really surprised that I can remember whole paragraphs almost word for word. These were a quick reread, because so much of the text is set in memory!

I love the rich tapestry colours and the vivid visual descriptions; the blend of Celtic and Scandinavian myth; the elements of archetype, legend, emblem (I hadn't read Campbell's The Hero's Journey when I first read McKillip). The whole 'riddle' framework -- where history and a kind of spirituality are conveyed within fables that remind me of Sufi parables as much as of the Mabinogion -- appeals intellectually. I'm fascinated by the openness of the characters: even when they have hidden secrets, there's a level of emotional honesty (and complexity) that's (or that was) rare in genre fantasy. And I like the characters -- though now they mostly seem very young to me.

I admire McKillip's other novels, though increasingly I've found them subtle, multi-layered, allusive and elusive: by comparison, the Riddlemaster trilogy reads like -- and is now, I believe, published as -- young adult fiction. It's a more straightforward tale, a hero's coming-of-age, not quite a quest fantasy but with a great deal of travelling as the protagonists learn the Realm.

And I'm starting to wonder, half-frivolously, if it could be read as science fantasy, comparable to McCaffrey's Pern books: those are 'obviously' fantasy at first, what with the dragons and Holds and feudal society, but increasingly sfnal with allusions to colonisation, genetic engineering and the like. McKillip's Realm, ruled by a High One, formerly the domain of the Earth-Masters, riddled with wizards and ghosts and shapechangers: clearly a fantasy world, and yet there's talk of the years of Settlement (that is, the current occupants arrived there from elsewhere). And if one's going to seize on tiny details*, how about 'the old moon with a lost star drifting between its horns'? (Heir of Sea and Fire, p.158) That, to me, implies something shiny between moon and viewpoint: too close to be a star or a planet, but just right for an artificial satellite ...

Anyway: always worth a reread for me, always comforting, always something new: the best kind of favourite book!

*as elsewhere, for example, a capital 'c' on the word 'culture', or a reference to a 'falling star', might serve as key to unlock a novel by Banks or Fowler ... just sayin'.

#42: Under an English Heaven -- Robert Radcliffe

...there was another, much bigger, much closer, ear-poppingly loud. He felt its shock, its heat pass right through him, like a wave, the ground shuddering beneath his feet. At the same instant, a house at the end of the street jumped between its neighbours, sprang upwards and outwards amid a huge cloud of blood-red dust and smoke. The cloud rose, lifting into the sky before him. There it hung like a vast filthy curtain, before sinking slowly to the rubble-strewn ground where it spread, rolling, wave-like, down the road towards him. He saw that the bombed house had gone. Vanished. Even though its neighbours appeared untouched. (p. 233)

I picked this up from a stack of free books in a local church hall, mostly as atmosphere-research for a writing project set immediately after WW2. (See also A World to Build).

Under an English Heaven is a well-paced and evocative novel of life on and near a USAF base in East Anglia in 1943. Radcliffe is a pilot, and he knows his military history: there's a heartfelt critique of some ill-advised command decisions here. But mostly it's the story of various lost souls searching for meaning, home, a sense of belonging: Billy Street, the London evacuee, who knows how to make the most of his new home; John Hooper, sole survivor of one bomber crew, leading another; schoolteacher Heather Garrett, whose husband is missing in Burma ... The secondary characters are as vividly drawn as the protagonists, and their experiences are exceptionally vivid: the cloud of orange brick-dust hanging where a bombed house stood, the prostitutes in Piccadilly, the cramped and icy conditions on board a B17 bomber, the children asking "Got any gum, chum?" of every American serviceman they meet.

And Radcliffe shows the birth of a team, the strengthening bonds between the crew of Misbehavin' Martha: the war-weariness, the camaraderie, the affection. Radcliffe's descriptions of aerial combat have a real immediacy, and his evocative descriptions of still, misty East Anglian mornings remind me of home. But Hooper's care for his crew (and his 'plane), and their mutual respect, made this more than just another war novel. Hooper, the broken hero trying to do his duty as well as what's right, sick of war but in love with the sky, may be a type: but he's a very real and rounded character, and I cared what happened to him.

Not all the endings are happy, but they are Right.

Radcliffe's second novel, Upon Dark Waters (Royal Navy, WW2), is on its way to me ...

He sits, relaxed and comfortable in his seat at the top of his empty aeroplane. They are both spent, both finished. Spiritually, mechanically, it is the same thing. But they have accomplished with dignity that which has been asked of them, and are now free to travel the last few miles together ... Unencumbered is how he pleases, suddenly. Empty. Stripped bare. He pulls the headphones from his head. (p. 410)

#41: Much Ado About Something: A History of the Othona Community -- Norman Motley

There is no doubt that Bradwell is what some call a 'holy place'. There is a silence and a stillness. Even in midsummer one can walk in a southerly direction along the sea wall without meeting another soul and with only the wail of the seagulls overhead. The great skyscapes and the spread of the saltings bring an immense degree of peace to mind and heart. (p.19)

The Othona community is an open Christian community, founded just after WWII by former RAF chaplain Norman Motley. I've been aware of the original Bradwell community since my childhood: it's located right out on the east coast of the Dengie peninsula, next to St Peter's Chapel (built by St Cedd in 654, most recently restored in the 1920s) which is partly constructed from the ruins of the Roman fort Othona. It's a wonderfully silent, bleak, peaceful place. (Robert Macfarlane writes wonderfully about it here.)

I hadn't really paid much attention to the Othona community until a visit this year, when my companion pointed out that it'd been founded just after the end of the war, and that several similar communities were founded by ex-servicemen. That intrigued me, so I sent off for the book.

Motley writes briefly of his time as a curate in Spitalfields (then a slum and ethnic melting-pot) before the war, and of his wartime experiences, providing a sense of community and a forum for discussion of the 'fearful equation' of a loving God and a genocidal war. One gets the sense that he trod on a few toes by refusing to confine his work to the RAF and / or to Anglicans.

After the war, Motley's wife mentioned 'a chapel in the marshes' and -- after the first visit, the day that the field in front of the chapel had been cleared of mines -- Motley realised that this was an excellent location for the community he wanted to found. Initially, there were weekend meetings and a summer camp, attracting a wide range of attendees: German POWs who hadn't yet been repatriated, refugees, members of the International Voluntary Service for Peace, local parishioners, Borstal girls ... Motley's account of the tribulations faced by the proto-community (conflict with the neighbouring farmer, the lack of a mains water supply, building the community from Nissen huts and tents, paying the rent) is entertaining and without recrimination, though it must have been an extremely frustrating period.

The common desire of the survivors of both wars was for a fuller personal understanding between people, an understanding so strong that if manifest on a large enough scale -- at home and internationally -- would at least contribute to a climate in which further war would be unthinkable and in which society within the nation could grow without rancour and violence. Such was the hope. (p. 28)

After some years the community founded a second site at Burton Bradstock in Dorset. Both sites operated on the same principles: forcing people to live on their own resources ('transistors and televisions are not available or encouraged') and providing a space for them to engage in meaningful worship, good discussion and spiritual refreshment. There's a good deal of outreach, within Britain and abroad, and the community runs 'family weekends' which combine rural / wildlife pursuits with more spiritual activities. Motley died in 1980, but Othona continues to thrive and to attract those of all faiths and none.

I'm not a Christian and I haven't attended any of the events at Othona, but I was struck by the strength of Motley's mission, his vocation: I have nothing but admiration for his achievement, and I am comforted that a community like Othona has endured and grown for so long.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#40: A World to Build: Austerity Britain 1945-48 -- David Kynaston

Bought for research: this is a period I remember my parents talking about, but I realised I didn't know much about daily life in the immediate post-war period. Kynaston is an engaging writer (which didn't stop me skipping some of the political analysis): he presents a social history peppered with anecdotes and recollections, from people's diaries and memoirs as well as from newspapers, magazines and Mass Observation.

I hadn't really been aware of the Mass Observation project and it strikes me as slightly creepy: I have an image of people in pubs, queues, buses, surreptitiously jotting down overheard conversations, tagged with social class identifiers.

"I've been queuing ever since eight o'clock this morning, what with one thing and another," says F40D. "I'm about done for. I'd like to take that Atlee and all the rest of them and put them on top of a bonfire in Hyde Park and BURN them." "And I'd 'elp yer," says F65D." (p. 115)

There's a lot about rationing, about the sense of relief from oppression and about the social ills (housing shortage leading to the rise of the squatting movement; the cost of medical care just pre-NHS) besetting a nation of survivors. I learnt about the way that ex-servicemen were treated with suspicion, and about the thriving black market ("My husband insists that anything one gets over and above the ration is morally a black market transaction. I prefer to call it grey ...")

Yes, there's a sense of a world to build, but that world is already under the shadow of the atomic bomb ("it's to do with redirecting the energy from the sun, or something") and has a whole new set of problems -- loss of community, agricultural reform, newly independent females -- to contend with. By contemporary standards, the vast majority of people lived in poverty: from the accounts in this book, there was considerably more interest and involvement in politics than there is now.

A good snapshot of a period of massive change.