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

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

#56: The Electric Telepath -- Jan Mark

"Telepathy," said Elijah. "What is the still small voice if not telepathy -- the exchange of feeling -- not thought," he added. God forbid that they should believe that anything so profane as a thought had crossed their minds. (p. 92)

The Electric Telepath is set in 1894. Elijah Briggs has grown up in a small English town under the benevolent rule of the Congregation of Mount Horeb, a strict but kindly Christian sect. His father is an Elder of the Horebites, and much of Elijah's time is spent spreading the word to the inhabitants of the Trident, a demographically mixed area of the town. Elijah asks them to listen for the still small voice but he's never heard it himself, and his ambitions are scientific rather than religious. He's inspired by Faraday, Maxwell and Lodge, and he's determined to replicate and build upon their work. Unfortunately, the Horebites value faith and feeling over science and thought: Rationalism is the enemy of faith ...

When Elijah's secret project is discovered, he manages to persuade the Elders that it's a work of faith, designed to transmit holy thoughts via electromagnetic waves. Like many lies, this one grows grander and more complex very quickly, and Elijah finds himself praying for the failure of his experiment.

The Electric Telepath has a simple plot: more complicated, and more intriguing, are the character interactions, with minor characters (the bellicose Aubreys, Lily Roper who Elijah's helplessly attracted to, the widow Mrs Gilstrap) as richly drawn as Elijah and his family. I wasn't quite convinced by the finale: it seemed rushed. And I didn't enjoy this nearly as much as Mark's previous novel, Useful Idiots. Overall, though, it's an unsensational, unjudgemental examination of the tension between religion and science, with a wealth of affectionate observation.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

#55: The Pirate's Daughter -- Margaret Cezair-Thompson

She was conscious of the poetry of it all and wished she had the ability to write something that would capture what was in and around her: the eyeless, surging sea, the tree-cutter's stare, the blue skirt, and the strain of her unfulfilled hopes. In his letter Errol hinted at a muddle of lies. Let that be his portion, then. She had her child. (p. 169)

The Pirate's Daughter is the story of two Jamaican women, Ida -- who at sixteen has an affair with Errol Flynn -- and her daughter May. Both are light-skinned, mixed-race, beautiful and unwise. Ida loves Flynn much more, and for much longer, than he loves her: May takes up with a variety of unsuitable men, older or married or unmarriageable. Around them, Jamaica is changing: independence, change of government, rioting and racial tension.

I'd have liked this novel much more if there'd been more first-person narration: Ida's letters from New York to friends and family, and later May's letters from Switzerland, were the most compelling sections of the book, each woman having a distinctive voice. The rest of the prose is understated and occasionally clumsy: there's too much told rather than shown, for instance when a friend's son takes up music lessons and Ida spends a paragraph remembering how he's always been musical. Flynn's portrayed as a rather unlikeable character -- which I find credible at that stage in his life -- but there's little of the famous charm and wit as balance, and the scenes from his point of view are lacklustre: perhaps fair for a man who's bored, vain, fears ageing and is constantly on the lookout for new thrills, but it felt superficial.

Much of the novel is set on Navy Island, a small isle just off the coast of Jamaica, formerly home to Captain Bligh (of Bounty fame) and then to Flynn. Inspired by her father's films and by pirate lore, May starts writing the story of Sabine, the daughter of pirates, abandoned when young and eventually walking the island as a ghost. I Sabine will tell you how I came to be on this desolate island ... I'd have liked more of May's writing, more of the coded story she tells.

Though there's plenty of coded story in the novel. Ida's friends name-drop 'Noel' -- Ida knew they were talking about the writer Noel Coward, who lived not far from there along the coast. (p.76) -- but 'Nigel Fletcher', author of a series of best-selling thrillers featuring secret agent Jack Blaze, is surely based on Ian Fleming.

Ida's grandmother Oni remembers her African heritage, warns her daughter against pirates (like Flynn, well-known for The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood) and tells May she's 'a real African'. Her influence is the most visible aspect of the women's liminal state, neither white (they both think of themselves as coloured) nor black (they're both accepted as white and become part of white society). The racial discrimination they encounter varies: Ida loses a restaurant job in New York because she doesn't recognise the segregation around her, and doesn't realise that telling her boss she's coloured can do her any harm. A generation later, in Switzerland, May is perturbed to be called 'une negresse' and uncomfortable with others' insistence that she recognises the racism and exploitation in her own family:
One day when he saw me putting sugar in my coffee he asked me if sugar didn't remind me of the cane fields where my white ancestors forced my slave ancestors to work. (p. 373)

The Pirate's Daughter is an increasingly compelling read -- the scenes between May and her stepfather near the end of the book, when secrets are revealed and identities remade, are immensely powerful -- but left me wanting more connections, more emphasis on echoes and parallels, more tying up of loose threads. Who's the ghost who walks Bella Vista? Errol Flynn, Captain Bligh, Sabine, Ian? What influence does Oni have? How does Ida know when people die? Is there gold, are there shipwrecks, where Karl's been searching?

Fascinating, readable but it was on the verge of being so much better!

Monday, July 13, 2009

#54: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- Jonathan Safran Foer

I thought about all the things that everyone ever says to one another, and how everyone is going to die, whether it's in a millisecond, or days, or months, or 76.5 years if you were just born. Everything that's born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they're all on fire, and we're all trapped. (p.245)

Oskar Schell is a precocious nine-year old boy dealing with the loss of his father in the 9/11 bombing, and with the emotional withdrawal of his mother. Finding a mysterious key (labelled 'Black') in his father's closet, he resolves to unravel the mystery -- which of New York's 162 million locks does it open? -- and he plans to do this by visiting every Black in the New York phone book in alphabetical order. (No, he does not seem to have heard of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. Or Winston Churchill.)

Oskar's father is an absence at the centre of this novel -- a blank space, a man who does nothing but whose absence affects a surprising number of people. His wife and son, obviously; his mother, who lives across the street. But also the father who fled New York before he was born, and Black, to whom the key belonged ...

The novel's not only very readable (Oskar is precocious but not incredibly so: he reminds me of Louis Drax) but typographically innovative: there are pages that replicate the paper pads on which art-shop customers test pens, pages where the text gets more and more cramped til it's just an intense inky blur, pages where the crackle of static in a cellphone conversation becomes white space ... pages where Oskar's grandfather's daybook (Oskar's grandfather doesn't speak, hasn't since he came to America from Dresden: he writes everything down in notebooks) has been edited with a cold emotionless red pen ... (Also, vexingly, two and a half pages entirely in 'phone-dial' code -- 2 for A B or C, 3 for D E or F ... I don't mind decoding a couple of sentences but nooooo. But! Does the author expect the reader to decode? Or is this a way of hiding more narrative -- or, given the circumstances, more honest, predictable, human communication -- in the heart of a written novel?)

Oskar thinks it's all about him, and he does have a terrible secret which he's unable to tell to his counsellor or his mother or his grandmother. But his simple self-centred observations (I use the adjectives descriptively not perjoratively) sometimes miss the hidden truth of the situation.

There's plenty in here about saying goodbye, about always telling the people you love that you love them: about the instant unpredictable destruction of bombing, whether Dresden (the paper made the house burn better ... descriptions of that bombing moved me more than reportage of 9/11, which I watched as it happened) or the Twin Towers: about how we all die and we never know when ...

Why didn't I learn to treat everything like it was the last time, my greatest regret is how much I believed in the future ... (p.281)

NB: Oskar is full of Facts. The one about '230 years of peace in the last 3500 years' (p.161) seems credible though I am unable to trace the actual calculation (would be grateful for more detail). I am, however, unconvinced by 'more people alive now than have died in all of human history'. (p. 3): I think it's the other way round by a large margin. ... Just saying!

#53: The Angel's Cut -- Elizabeth Knox

It was cold and dark under the water. Far away the ships' propellers whined like bees caught behind a curtain. Xas hung beneath the surface and looked up through murky transparency at that surface in reverse -- the gleam of light on the backs of the waves. After a moment he saw the ragged star of Lucifer's form pass above him. The sea turned momentarily smooth in the downblast of the angel's wings. Then Lucifer banked and drove upward ... (p.7)

Sequel to The Vintner's Luck, which I adore and am now eager to reread: not yet sure if I love this one as much but it's taken up residence in the back of my mind. The Angel's Cut, unlike the earlier novel, is told predominantly from the point of view of unwinged angel Xas (though there are other, more human and equally compelling narrators), and Xas is distinctly different, preternatural, strange. The multiple voices triangulate Xas's experience of the world, showing us the strangeness of his everyday behaviour (walking like a drunkard, each step a caught fall) and the invisibility of his inner turmoil.

Sobran, Xas's true love, is long-dead, and Xas -- following a brief career as navigator on a German airship in World War I -- winds up in California, in the nascent Hollywood film industry. He's drawn to fascinatingly broken people: to eccentric producer and aviator Conrad Cole (perhaps modelled on Howard Hughes); to Flora MacLeod who's survived a horrific accident and endures chronic pain with grace and style; to Millie Cotton, woman of colour and stunt pilot who has a sense of which jobs to take and which to leave.

Xas is also pursued by his nemesis / brother Lucifer, who needs him: the nature of the compact between Xas, Lucifer and God is explored more thoroughly, and Xas's unique state explained.

The Angel's Cut is a term relating to winemaking; it refers to the portion of a barrel of wine that evaporates during ageing. The novel, though, is firmly grounded in the world of film, with discussions of the difference between conversation and dialogue, the inadequacy of flashbacks as a method of character development, the shape of a story. Flora's a film editor, and she's constantly looking for the flow, the shape of her own story: perhaps she also helps to give shape to Xas's history.

And Xas has some hard lessons to learn: about the nature of love, about speech and silence, about broken souls. He loves a lot -- Cole, Flora, his captain Hintersee, Alison -- and he's fearlessly submissive, ready to give everything and still suspecting that it's not enough, that it -- that he -- is irrelevant to human life. Is there anything that can bring him closer to being human, to being 'people'?
... harm or homage, he deserved both. He let it happen. He'd think about what it meant some other time... He took what hurt but couldn't harm him. It was better than being dropped out of a plane into the sea. It was more personal. And afterwards they weren't so far apart. (p.290)

This novel made me cry (O'Brien) and laugh and marvel at Knox's use of language -- though some especially resonant sentences take a surprising amount of unravelling.

#52: Tampa Burn -- Randy Wayne White

I sometimes wonder if focussing on marine biology as a life's work isn't a way of justifying, or at least validating, a specific and unsentimental view of existence. From biology's elemental view, human beings ... are not only guided by the tenets of natural selection, we are mandated. In such a world, eliminating enemies or behavorial anomalies isn't a decision to be made. It is a necessary process.
I've participated in that process. I can do it again if required. (p.119)

Rather later in the series, and rather darker than the others I've read lately. Doc Ford's past comes barrelling into his present: his long-lost love Pilar reappears, appalled by the revelation (from an anonymous party) that Ford was once a political assassin, but nevertheless demanding his help in rescuing their son from Incendario, a kidnapper with a taste for torture.

A twisty plot with plenty of reversals. Ford doesn't behave very well to his friends or family -- but then few of those closest to him are wholly as he believes them to be. His friend Tomlinson's amnesia is clearing just enough to reveal tantalising hints of past events. His girlfriend Dewey is not at all impressed with Pilar's presence. Ford's son Lake is mature and capable for his years, possibly the most likeable character in the book though he's got a couple of surprises for Ford too.

Ford (or possibly the author) is somewhat sexist -- thinks women can't get satisfaction from a career or life's work the way a man can, but only from having children. Bah.

Good pacy read with some excellent scenic description and interesting insights into carnie life: but I'm less eager to read more than I have been after the last few Doc Ford novels. Luckily there are plenty left.