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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

#3: House of Many Ways -- Diana Wynne Jones

It's not that I'm lazy or stupid. I just haven't bothered to look round the edges of Mother's way of doing things. (p. 176)

Read when I was ill and couldn't deal with the sheer weight of Anathem!

This is a sequel to How's Moving Castle (still one of my favourite Jones books) and Castle in the Air. Charmain is deputed to look after Great-Uncle William's house while he's away being healed by the Elves: her task is somewhat complicated by the fact that 'Great-Uncle William' is the powerful Wizard Norland, and Charmain knows nothing about magic. It's further complicated by the arrival of Peter, Wizard Norland's new apprentice; by Waif, a stray dog that the wizard seems to have adopted; by a sulky and rebellious set of kobolds; by the fearsome lubbock she meets on the cliff; and by the fascinatingly non-Euclidian topography of the wizard's house.

Luckily Charmain ("she never has her nose out of a book, never does a hand's turn in the house and is treated like a sacred object by both her parents") is a resourceful type, and Peter is eminently practical. Charmain ends up helping the King and his elderly daughter to catalogue the royal library -- discovering in the process that High Norland is being systematically robbed -- and encounters some very strange people, including a fire demon, a colourless gentleman, and Sophie Pendragon with not one but two small boys in tow. Also, there are a lot of rocking horses.

The book takes a while to get going, but the first half is entertaining (albeit slightly repetitious with the Sorcerer's Apprentice-style catalogue of mishaps and magical accidents) and there are plenty of questions, hints and clues that are all neatly wrapped up in the finale. Charmain is a likeable heroine: bookish, clever, gawky and not prone to romance. (I've a feeling she's meant to be rather younger than she seems at times, but it's hard to tell if she and Peter are supposed to be the same age.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

#2: Life of Pi -- Yann Martel

Our encounters always leave me weary of the glum contentment that characterises my life. What were those words he used that struck me? Ah, yes: 'dry, yeastless factuality', 'the better story'. (p.63)

This review contains major spoilers for the novel. (And is rather disjointed, a collection of thoughts and opinions rather than a fluent review. Never mind!)

In which a boy and a tiger cross the Pacific. Or not.

This was a reread, for bookclub: I remembered a lot of the plot, but had forgotten how much else was in there: long descriptions of changing sea and sky, the practicalities of survival at sea, the role of religion, the wealth of detail about animal behaviour and physiology. (I now have a name for the snort/sneeze which tigers, and my cat, produce: prusten.) Pi's fascination with imaginary ecologies -- the lifeboat, the island -- and his boyish enthusiasm for 'who'd win in a fight between X and Y' (toger v. shark, hyena v. orang-utan) is a product of his upbringing as the privileged son of a zoo-keeper. I'm less convinced by his faith, or lack thereof: before leaving India, he's fascinated by religion and participates in Islamic, Christian and Hindu practices, but on the lifeboat he only really seems to rediscover God after he's left the terrible island. Wouldn't he rely more strongly on his faith throughout his ordeal? Or does he feel abandoned by God? Or does he feel that his actions have damned him somehow?

There's some masterful storytelling here -- the way that we don't find out until a third of the way through the book that 'Richard Parker' is actually a Bengal tiger. (Probably significant that 'Richard Parker' is also the name of the cabin boy murdered and eaten (1884) by survivors of the wreck of the Mignonette, resulting in a famous court case described in The Custom of the Sea by Neil Hanson).

Life of Pi is occasionally self-indulgent and self-conscious, for instance when Pi muses 'could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less?'(p.285) Yes, yes you can -- especially if some of your chapters are a couple of words while others are pages long -- very clever, have a gold star. The novel's framed as a story the author heard from its protagonist, but it's not clear whether said protagonist, Pi Patel, is aware that the author knows the alternate version (as described on the tapes provided by the Japanese marine investigators). And I'd forgotten that right at the end of the first section -- Pi's childhood, punctuated by the author's interaction with adult Pi -- there's the reassurance: "this story has a happy ending". We need that. And we need the reminder at the end of the book that any story, told, is partly interpretation and belief: 'the world isn't just the way it is, it's the way we understand it'. (p. 302)

The story fits together better than I'd remembered: as a child, Pi's father decides to show his sons how fearsome the animals in the zoo can be. There's a gruesome staged tiger-feeding episode that clearly resonates with Pi, not least because his brother keeps taunting him 'you're the next goat'. The whole story can be read as his refusal to be the next goat, the next victim: his determination to be the super-alpha, to train aggressors to submit to him. (The circus-style 'training' of Richard Parker can be read as an exercise in conquering one's own savage impulses, or as a metaphor for standing up to the cook.) That first section also discusses the evils of anthropomorphism, which throws the shipwreck narrative into a harsher light.

It's also important that Pi, pre- and post-shipwreck, is a lifelong vegetarian: Life of Pi can be read as a study on the evils of a carnivorous (and cannibalistic) diet. Once he's tasted meat, once he's killed for it -- perhaps even once he's eaten ship's biscuit that contains animal fat -- he's altered, beginning a descent into 'a level of savagery I never imagined possible'. (p.197)

The account Pi gives to the marine investigators -- a story of murder and cannibalism, rather than of one boy and his tiger -- is a gruesome one: it's an act of mercy for the investigators to believe his initial account, rather than the 'truth' that Pi stood by as his mother was murdered, and then killed and ate her murderer.

This was the terrible cost of Richard Parker. He gave me a life, my own, but at the expense of taking one ... Something in me died then that has never come back to life. (p. 255)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

#1: Tanglewreck -- Jeannette Winterson

The River Thames at Limehouse bows away from the City. The river glitters darkly. The river reflects the starless London sky. The river flows on to the sea. The river flows in one direction, but Time does not. Time's river carries our spent days out to sea and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours. Time's flow is not even, and there are snags underwater, hesitations in Time where the clock sticks. A minute on Earth is not the same length as a minute on Jupiter. A minute on Earth is sometimes a different length all by itself. (p.95)

Tanglewreck is a vastly entertaining romp of a novel: it's marketed as a children's book but adults will probably get more out of the frequent references to history, physics and popular culture.

It's the 21st century: a series of Time Tornadoes has struck London, whirling away a bus-load of schoolchildren, people in cars ... anyone caught in the Tornado's path. A woolly mammoth walks along the Embankment. There are demonstrations in the streets, and the Government doesn't know what to do.

Somewhere in the North of England, the Tudor mansion of Tanglewreck is home to eleven-year-old Silver River (descended from pirates: her family's surname was originally Rover); her nasty aunt Mrs Rokabye 'who would rather have lain face-down under the floorboards than done anything to please Silver'; and Mrs Rokabye's pet rabbit, a thuggish brute named Bigamist. Silver's parents disappeared years ago, taking a valuable and mysterious device called the Timekeeper to London to show it to a man named Abel Drinkwater. Now Silver's on her way to London too, courtesy of Mr Drinkwater: on her travels she will meet the Throwbacks (who live beneath London); Regalia Mason, née Maria Prophetessa; a cat named Dinger, who's 'rather eccentric after years of being the most famous animal experiment in physics'; and a complete set of Popes, three of them women. She will travel to the Einstein Line where those displaced in Time are deported back to their point of origin (or so the guards claim); to Aldgate West tube station; to a showdown between the last of the alchemists and an immortal scientist; to the brink of a black hole.

At times the novel reads like a show-and-tell of quantum physics. Multiple realities are compared to radio stations -- "everyone knows that all the radio stations are playing at the same time, but we only tune in to one at a time. Why did they not understand that reality was just the same?" -- and the perennial question, of why we haven't encountered time travellers if time travel is possible, is answered in a slightly handwavy but logical manner ("of course it's happened, we just don't let it happen before time travel was invented"). Regalia Mason's company, Quanta, is in the business of commercialising Time ("taking Time from people who had too much of it"): Quanta has also developed an interesting application for the twin problem. Cameo roles for Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Susan Greenfield, Sir Martin Rees -- and, from history, Newton, Hooke, John Dee, Pope Gregory XIII.

The plot's fast-paced and occasionally feels a little patchy, held together by its own momentum. Winterson's prose is poetic and clear, though, and often very funny. Tanglewreck reminds me, in places, of Pullman's His Dark Materials, not least because of Silver, and the moral choices she must make: I'm also reminded of Diana Wynne Jones and Neal Stephenson, albeit a bowdlerised and more concise Stephenson.

I'd be interested in the reactions of an actual child ...