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

Monday, September 24, 2012

2012/46: Boneland -- Alan Garner

"...it’s not so much deep space that concerns me as deep place. Once place is lost, you fall into history."
"And there’s no way out?"
"There’s no way out." [location 1385]

Colin knows too much and understands too little. He can recite, verbatim, pages from ornithology texts, and tell you what he was doing, thinking, feeling at any point in the last thirty years or so: but he can't remember anything from before he was thirteen.

Colin is broken after the events of the earlier books, and the final climactic thing that happened when he was twelve. His story, here, is about discovering his own past, step by step, guided by his psychiatrist Meg. (Perhaps she knows more than is feasible. Perhaps there's a reason for that.) Piece by piece it falls together. Perhaps if Garner had returned to the world of those earlier books sooner, he'd have written a novel that ended with Colin's catastrophic loss of memory. Instead, he's written a novel where that event is in the past, colouring and scorching everything that remains.

My stream-of-consciousness scrawl includes comparisons to Robert Holdstock's deep myth; resonances with the strong sense of place in Red Shift; Garner's playfulness -- Colin's dwarfs are not the dwarfs we met in Weirdstone, but astronomical anomalies; holly everywhere, and crows; Bert in his High Castle; Meg as one of Three; Susan's fate, the Pleiades; motorways (Red Shift again: and again with 'blue, silver, blue silver') ... I want to read through the nameless shaman's narrative again, undistracted by Colin's epiphanies, and root myself in that story of isolation and duty: I suspect it ties in with some of my recent non-fiction reading.

Like many of Garner's readers, I first encountered Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: I returned to that earlier book (and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath) in order to understand this one. It's still ... opaque. I believe I understand most of the actual events in the novel, but there are levels of allusion that I've missed. Maureen Kincaid Speller's preliminary notes helped me make the connection to Gawain and the Green Knight (I knew there was something about the phrase 'governor of this gang' that rang a bell). There are some exceptionally insightful comments (and some familiar names <g>) on the Guardian reading group page. I suspect I shall be reading and rereading and cogitating for a long time yet.

2012/45: Herland -- Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But they look — why, this is a CIVILIZED country!” I protested. “There must be men.” (p.11)
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I'd never read Herland before, though it's a classic of feminist SF, and was pleasantly surprised to find it less fervent than some later novels exploring the 'society of women' theme. The premise is simple, and strangely reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: but instead of an isolated South American plateau inhabited by dinosaurs, our intrepid explorers discover an isolated South American plateau inhabited by, well, females.

Herland's populace has been exclusively female for the last two thousand years: the women, descendants of an isolated harem, reproduce parthogenetically and have a thriving society. They react to the Explorers Three -- Jeff who idealises women, Terry the 'ladies' man', and Van the sociologist -- with amusement, interest and curiosity. Yet every utopia has a dark side, and the women of Herland are not as delightful as idealistic Jeff, in particular, at first imagines. (It certainly makes sense, in a monosexual parthogenetic society, to discourage those with strong sexual urges from reproduction; but why cripple a cat's nature by preventing it from hunting birds?)

Herland is peppered with wit and satire, though some of the observations are too dark -- and too pertinent, even a century after the novel's publication -- for wholehearted amusement.

I wrote about rape culture in Herland and A Princess of Mars for my Coursera essay: you can read it here.

2012/44: A Princess of Mars -- Edgar Rice Burroughs

I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I actually don't think I've ever read Burroughs' 'John Carter' books before, though I'm familiar with the basic premise and with some of the criticism. That strong sense of familiarity that I experienced must come from having read so many books influenced by Burroughs' Mars.

(I've also been trying to track down a short story I remember reading years ago, in which John Carter wakes up -- naked, of course -- in modern-day America, possibly hallucinating, yelling about 'the cry of a distant thoat' and so on. Narrated by an observer. Any answers? I have a vague feeling it was Sturgeon but Google cannot confirm.)

A Princess of Mars displays the common prejudices of its time. Dejah Thoris is beautiful and helpless; Mars is dry, with ancient canals criss-crossing the desert; John Carter is braver / stronger / more honourable than any Martian, etc. It's an enjoyable romp and a fascinating fragment of SF history -- though really it's more science fantasy, in that the mechanism of Carter's interplanetary trip is never explained. Swords and not-quite-sorcery-honest-just-telepathy!

I wrote about rape culture in A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkin Gilman's Herland for my Coursera essay:

Sexual desire is atavistic in both Herland and the Martian societies encountered by John Carter in A Princess of Mars. In Herland, 'sex-feeling' has been deliberately bred out of the descendants of an oppressed harem. "[t]hose who had at times manifested it as atavistic exceptions were often, by that very fact, denied motherhood". On Mars, the rationale for the weakened sexual urge is not explicitly discussed, though a connection with environmental factors is implied: "the waning demands for procreation upon their dying planet". Although these societies continue to produce progeny, reproduction is driven more by 'community interest' than the combination of physical desire and emotional attachment -- 'sex-love', as Herland's narrator puts it -- that the male protagonists of these novels have been socialised to regard as natural.

The responses of those protagonists demonstrate different aspects of masculinity. When John Carter is told that Dejah Thoris is likely to be raped by Tal Hajus, he breaks into a cold sweat of revulsion, comparing Dejah's predicament with "those brave frontier women of my lost land, who took their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the Indian braves." Carter's role is that of the 'white knight', rescuing the helpless princess from a traditional 'fate worse than death'.

In Herland, by contrast, Terry attempts to rape Alina, and is violently rejected. "Terry put in practice his pet conviction that a woman loves to be mastered, and by sheer brute force, in all the pride and passion of his intense masculinity, he tried to master this woman ... it did not work." In contrast with Dejah Thoris' passivity, Alina rescues herself.

Gilman's Alina repulses Terry, who believes he has the right to have sex with her: Burrough's Dejah is a helpless pawn who needs the protection of John Carter to save her from sexual violence at the hands of an enemy. In both instances, sexual desire is a 'brutish' masculine instinct that threatens the female characters, who are unmoved by any comparable urge.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

2012/43: The Island of Doctor Moreau -- H G Wells

Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau — and for what?
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course. I first read this novel as a teenager and found it depressing and unpleasant. This response hasn't changed. I dislike the characters; am distressed by Moreau's experiments; and I read between the lines.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a powerful novel: another condemnation of vivisection, and some vivid descriptions of what it's like to be hunted, and to hunt. It's much more of an adventure novel -- exotic location, heroic actions, violence etc -- than The Invisible Man, which I read immediately before it.

Here's the essay I wrote for Coursera, which achieved my highest score to date (thus demonstrating the randomness of the peer-review grading: it's far from my best).

The Island of Doctor Moreau can be read as an exploration of what it means to be human. When Prendrick discovers the nature of Moreau's work, the Doctor mocks his scruples, and tells him that 'So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick... you are an animal'. In this respect, Moreau and his assistant Montgomery are the only humans on the island.

Prendrick develops his own criteria of humanity. He notes that the beast-people cannot laugh; later, he writes bitterly that 'it takes a real man to tell a lie'. An abstainer himself, he berates a drunken Montgomery for making a beast of himself, and condemns him for offering brandy to the beast-people.

Prendrick asserts his humanity with every mention of his 'revulsion' at the 'grotesqueness' of Moreau's creations. Yet there are signs that he is gradually becoming more bestial. When the Leopard-man is hunted, Prendrick joins the chase, 'one of a tumultuous shouting crowd'. Only when the 'quarry' is cornered does Prendrick's humanity return: he administers a mercy killing.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Prendrick's gradual dehumanisation is his reaction to the females of the beast-people. '[G]lancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils'. His revulsion supersedes, but does not erase, the unvoiced desire implicit in 'lithe' and 'daring'.

Later, Prendrick mentions that the females, in particular, have begun to 'disregard the injunction of decency' and adds 'I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.' Is there self-censorship at work here? Does Prendrick, in his ten months alone with the beast-people, overcome his revulsion sufficiently to copulate with one of the females? Perhaps even the urge to do so would suffice to convince him of his own inhumanity.

2012/42: The Invisible Man -- H G Wells

"...giving drugs to a cat is no joke, Kemp! And the process failed [...] These were the claws and the pigment stuff, what is it? — at the back of the eye in a cat. You know?"
"Tapetum."
"Yes, the tapetum. It didn’t go. [...]gave the beast opium, and put her and the pillow she was sleeping on, on the apparatus. And after all the rest had faded and vanished, there remained two little ghosts of her eyes." [chapter 20]
Read, like several other recent rereads, for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I'd forgotten how enjoyable Wells is as a writer, especially when he's focussed on the (Victorian) English and their habits. And I'd forgotten how very unpleasant Griffin, the Invisible Man, turns out to be. He's arrogant and elitist, both socially and intellectually; he steals from his aged father and doesn't mourn the old man's subsequent death; he is short-tempered and prone to violence; he displays a casual disregard for others, human or otherwise (on burning down a house, 'no doubt it was insured': on leaving a man tied up, 'I suppose he untied himself'); and he leaves an invisible cat wandering the streets of London. ("It’s very probably been killed".)

Wells writes excellent comic dialogue (his Sussex 'yokels' are individuated, realistic and an excellent contrast to the intellectual elite as represented by Griffin and Kemp). The Invisible Man is quietly humorous, from Griffin's initial experiments (catching a cold, sleeping in a department store) to Marvel's foiled ambitions: it also presents and explores some important themes, from vivisection to intellectual arrogance to the mechanics of invisibility. (I'm not quite sure at what point food becomes 'assimilated' but Marvel can see that Griffin dined on bread and cheese.)

I preferred Lewis Carroll's grin without a cat to Wells' eyes without a cat. And I was very tempted to write the story of Griffin's experimental subject: an invisible cat having adventures, taunting dogs who can smell but not see her, and finally finding comfort and affection with a blind human.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

2012/41.5: various short stories by Hawthorne and Poe

Week 5 reading for the Coursera fantasy and SF course consisted of various short stories by Hawthorne and Poe.
I read Hawthorne's short fiction in, more or less, one fell swoop a few years ago, and wasn't especially hooked: however, reading a small selection of his tales, and alternating with selected Poe (all familiar from long ago, though I'd forgotten how utterly insane some of his protagonists are), was a more rewarding and pleasant experience. For my essay, I ended up comparing two stories with similar motifs ...


The Birth-mark' and 'The Oval Portrait' concern gifted men who bring about the deaths of their wives through their own knowledge and skill. There are obvious similarities between the two stories. Both Aylmer and the painter are married to their vocations (science in Aylmer's case, art in the painter's) until they wed beautiful young women. Each man shuts his wife away from the sunlight in order to remove or immortalise the 'tint' of her cheek.

The impact of each story depends on its perspective, or point of view. At the core of 'The Oval Portrait' is a brief, anonymous account of an unnamed painter and his beautiful young bride. This account is framed by the first-person narrative of a wounded man who has taken shelter in a deserted chateau. The story takes place in the single moment of the narrator's comprehension, when he realises that the subject of the oval portrait died at the moment the picture was completed. He neither knows nor speculates about the story he has read. The focus of the story is upon the narrator's reaction, not the events that provoked it.

'The Birth-mark', in contrast, is told from an omniscient point of view. Over a period of several months, the growth of Aylmer's obsession—which Georgiana comes to share—is illustrated bydetails: Georgiana's growing hatred of her birthmark, the servant Aminadab's asides, Aylmer's failed experiments. The omniscient viewpoint allows Hawthorne to reveal his protagonists' thoughts and feelings. Thus, we see that (unlike Poe's 'humble and obedient' heroine) Georgiana chooses to be the subject of her husband's ambitious experiment. And, unlike Poe's passive, oblivious painter (who 'would not see' his wife's decline), Aylmer's devotion to his wife is evident. Hawthorne's choice of viewpoint makes 'The Birth-mark' a tragedy, contrasting with the Gothic melodrama of 'The Oval Portrait'.

2012/41: (Re)Cycler -- Lauren McLaughlin

...my girlfriend is cheating on me, my alter ego is playing tongue lacrosse with the dregs of Brooklyn, and her gay boyfriend is trying to be my pal ... [p.89]
Sequel to Cycler, this novel takes up the story some months after Jill's (and Jack's) less-than-perfect prom. Jill is determined to leave the small Massachussetts town where she's grown up, but she's on the horns of a dilemma. Option one is to move to New York with her best friend Ramie, who also happens to be Jack's girlfriend and who has a place at a prestigious fashion and design college. Option two is to head off with Tommy Knutsen, Jill's own more-or-less boyfriend, on a cross-country roadtrip.

It's not an easy decision because Jill (who turns into Jack for four days a month, making common-or-garden PMS seem tame) is basically making the choice for both herself and Jack: "I have to decide which one of us gets a sex life" (p. 5). As it happens, Jill hasn't got around to sex yet. Jack, on the other hand, is determined to make the very most of his four-twenty-eighths of a life ...

New York is enough of a culture shock for Jill, who's a small-town girl at heart: Jack, on the other hand, has only recently experienced anything beyond the confines of Jill's bedroom, where he was locked up with peanut-butter sandwiches and porn for all his phases. He doesn't exactly go wild, but he does meet some young men his own age, who proudly show him their Girl Chart, on which intimate details of various hook-ups are plotted. 'Glad I'm not like that,' thinks Jack blithely.

All isn't sweetness and light with Ramie, who seems to be turning against both Jill (who she thinks is selfish) and Jack (who keeps holding her back) in favour of her new fashion-mentor, Marguerite. Jill is heartbroken over Tommy's departure, and does her best to get over him by flirting with someone of whom Jack very strongly does not approve. And Jack? Jack starts to learn the difference between love and sex, and between ego and liking oneself.

I didn't find this novel as satisfactory as Cycler: there are a lot of interesting sub-plots (Jill's cycle becoming less regular, Jack's relationship with their parents, Ramie's withdrawal) but no real conclusion. Though Jack's starting to grow up -- as Jill points out, he never had to go through childhood, which explains quite a bit of his character -- he has a long way to go. I'd like to read more of their story.

2012/40: Frankenstein -- Mary Shelley

Were we among the tamer scenes of nature I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature...

Another novel read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course. I know I've read this cover to cover before (it was one of the novels I studied as an undergraduate) but I'd forgotten a great deal of it, and found it much more poignant and profound than I'd expected.

Also, Victor Frankenstein is an arrogant twit who lacks empathy.

Now I am finally ready to read The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd's fanfic riff on Shelley's original.

My Coursera essay:

Frankenstein's three narrators -- Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and Frankenstein's nameless creation -- are lonely. Walton writes to his sister 'I bitterly feel the want of a friend' and believes he has found that friend in Frankenstein. Frankenstein is deeply affected by the death of his friend Henry Clerval, 'the most noble of human creatures'. The Creature yearns for 'compassion and friendship' -- at first from humans that he encounters, then from his creator, and finally from the companion that he entreats Frankenstein to create for him.

These friendships seldom have happy consequences. Frankenstein wishes to create a 'new species [who] would bless me as its creator and source': perhaps he also hopes that his creation will become his friend. Instead, at the moment of the Creature's awakening, Frankenstein turns from his 'dream' in disgust and horror. The Creature's subsequent jealousy and rage lead to the death of the two people most dear to Frankenstein: his bride Elizabeth, and his friend Clerval.

The Creature's overtures of friendship inspire only fear and violence in those he meets. The De Lacey family flee their home. Little William rejects the 'hideous monster', and is killed. Worst of all, the man who brought the Creature to life turns from him. Though Victor Frankenstein admits that his duty to his creation is 'to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being', he refuses the Creature his friendship and affection, and destroys the half-made companion that would have been the Creature's bride.

Walton alone is not destroyed by his brief friendship with Frankenstein. However, his friendship is not enough to save Frankenstein: 'I would reconcile him to life, but he repulses the idea'. He cannot even fulfil Frankenstein's dying wish: his 'curiosity and compassion' prevent him from destroying the Creature. He sails for England, consoled only by the prospect of reunion with his sister, mourning a friend he barely knew.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

2012/39: The Book of Lies -- Mary Horlock

...hate or anger is passed down from one person to another, and you never hit the right target because you always aim too late. [loc. 3231]
Set on Guernsey, The Book of Lies comprises two narrative threads: that of teenage Catherine in the 1980s, who begins her story by telling us she killed her friend Nicolette; and that of her Uncle Charles, who -- looking back from the 1960s -- records his perspective on the events of his own teenage years, during the German Occupation.

Catherine -- Cat -- and Charles are very different people, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that they also share certain traits and circumstances. Both have lost their fathers (and perhaps blame themselves); both are desperate to escape the island. Both are liars, whose stories spiral out of their control with disastrous consequences. Both are bullied and tormented until they snap. And more concrete concordances gradually emerge: a house, a name, a particular spot on the cliffs ...

The mood is claustrophobic: Cat is trapped in the tangled web of small-town society, Charles is living under martial law. Of course things were at once simpler and more dangerous in wartime, but the urge to escape -- if not physically, then into the bottle or into imagination -- is a constant, whether the peril is mortal or simply monotonous.

I found Charles' account, with its evocation of wartime life and its frequent interpolations of patois (‘Si nous pale du guiabye nous est saure d’l’y’vais les caurnes’ … ‘Speak of the devil and you shall see horns’ [loc 320]) interesting and credible, but for me it lacked immediacy. Cat, though, was compelling: clever, precocious, unpopular, eaten up with rage and grief but lacking the tools to identify or temper them. (Her mother's emotionally distant: but then she, too, is grieving. And lying.)

The only note that didn't quite ring true is the lack of music. I can't imagine a teenager in the mid-Eighties being completely oblivious to music ...
... or perhaps I'm projecting.

Anyway: highly recommended, well-researched and taut with emotional conviction.

Monday, September 03, 2012

2012/38: A Room Full of Bones -- Elly Griffiths

"...a group calling themselves the Elginists. They demanded the return of the skulls. Said they should go back to Australia and be buried in their ancestral ground ... said they needed to enter Dreamtime, or some such rubbish. I gave them short shrift. Those heads belonged to my great-grandfather. They’re very rare. One’s been turned into a water carrier." (loc. 803)

The fourth in the Ruth Galloway series, and for me, I'm afraid, the least satisfactory.

Ruth has a one-year-old daughter, whose father refuses to see either of them; a new next-door neighbour, Aboriginal poet Bob Woonunga; and some doubts concerning the sudden deaths of a museum curator and then the museum's owner, wealthy racehorse owner Lord Smith. What she doesn't have, in this novel, is any involvement in the crime-solving process. She doesn't even do archaeology, unless you count visiting a museum, which I don't.

There are some intriguing ideas in A Room Full of Bones. Much of the interest, though, comes from the developing relationships -- positive and negative -- between the characters. Nelson isn't well; DC Judy Johnson is apparently having pre-wedding nerves; Cathbad has a new lover; Lord Smith's widow has an unexpected alter ego. Yet it all feels ... generic, without the sparkle or the intellectual background of the previous three novels. Perhaps Ruth's passion for archaeology was her defining feature: as a single mum, she's clearly frustrated -- but also frustrating.