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

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2012/68: An Atlas of Impossible Longing -- Anuradha Roy

[Kananbala] started to babble, worried. "Slut, whore, daughter of the devil, syphilitic hen."
"Pity we can't understand each other!" Mrs Barnum said, "We'd have such a jolly time."[location 1322]
The story begins in 1907, when Amulya moves with his wife and child from Calcutta to the small town of Songarh, and establishes a herbal medicine factory. His wife Kananbala hates the countryside; she is discontent even before their son Nirmal marries the lovely Shanti. Forced to share the house and its management with her daughter-in-law, she becomes prone to outbursts of obscenity, and is locked away. (Though it doesn't stop her witnessing a murder.)

Nirmal and Shanti have a daughter, Bakul: then Shanti dies in childbirth, and Nirmal takes in an orphan boy who his father Amulya has been supporting (for sentimental reasons, rather than through any sense of obligation). The orphan Mukunda grows up with Bakul, though he's not treated as her equal: nevertheless, they become very close, which worries Nirmal. He sends Mukunda away to school in the city, away from everything and everyone he knows.

Years later, after India's independence, Mukunda -- now a married man with a child of his own -- travels back to Songarh for work, and finds himself in a position to save Nirmal and Bakul from ruin. But can the past be set aside?

That's a very superficial summary of An Atlas of Impossible Longing: there's a great deal more to the book. But at the heart of it all -- though he isn't present at the beginning -- is Mukunda, who I confess I found an unlikeable and destructive character. His first-person narration forms the last third of the novel, but even before that there's a sense that people who don't matter to Mukunda are unimportant. They often die 'off-stage', off-page, mentioned in passing or absent by inference; they are seldom mourned.

It's a love story, and a story about the immense changes undergone by India, and Indian society, over a fifty-year period. Roy is evocative when she writes about the physical world -- especially the decaying glories of Songarh, an important archaeological site -- but less convincing when she focusses on characters. And there's a dreadful sense of inevitability to it all: a sense that Mukunda, never mind his humble origins, will get what he wants simply because he is unfettered by family, caste or convention.

2012/67: The Invisible Circus -- Jennifer Egan

Phoebe thought, Faith died young and I’ve done nothing but admire her for it, but I don’t want to die – I don’t want to! Her thoughts pounding away like machine-gun fire: I don’t want to die I don’t want to die I want everything back the way it was before I hate this please God if I can just come down please God if I can just have back what I had before. But that’s exactly what you didn’t want, said a different voice, you’ve spent your life longing to throw it away. And Phoebe knew this was so. [location 2939]
Jennifer Egan's first novel was published in 1995, and recently reissued as a result of A Visit from the Goon Squad winning the Pulitzer Prize.

The Invisible Circus, set in 1978, has three parts. In the first, Phoebe is living with her mother in San Francisco, mourning her dead sister Faith (who fell from rocks at an Italian beauty spot: accidentally?) and her dead failed-artist father, still feeling second-best. It's as though the deaths of the two people closest to her have frozen her somehow.

The middle part of the novel concerns Phoebe's trip to Europe. Using Faith's postcards as an itinerary, Phoebe attempts to retrace her sister's last months. She still feels she's living in her sister's shadow, and embarks on a series of reckless encounters; tripping out in Paris, escaping a drug-den in Amsterdam, wandering around London high on insomnia.

In the final third of the novel, an exhausted Phoebe unexpectedly encounters Faith's ex-boyfriend Wolf, now engaged to a nice German woman. They take her in, and Wolf -- who now, since it's no longer the Sixties, goes by his real name of Sebastian -- ends up accompanying Phoebe to the place where her sister died. Faced with Phoebe's naivete, he can't help but reveal the truth about the last few months of Faith's life. (One gets the sense that it's a relief for him to finally be able to talk to someone about the events of 1970.)

Part of Phoebe's innocence comes from living in a pre-9/11 world, in which terrorism was something that happened to other people, in other places. I wonder how differently Egan would treat the story -- assuming the dates stayed the same -- if she was writing it now?

The Invisible Circus is a twisted love-song to the 1960s. I found Wolf's description of hippie idealism more vibrant than Phoebe's washed-out life and craving for excitement. She does find excitement: there are some nauseatingly evocative episodes during her Grand Tour. (Also at least one niggling error: we didn't have pound coins in the UK in 1978 ['the coins are heavy like real gold', loc. 2025]). Certainly by the time she flies back to the States she's no longer the pallid child she was at the beginning of the novel: she's starting to discover who she wants to be, and she's on her way to becoming that woman.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012/66: A Game of Thrones -- George R. R. Martin

"You are the gentle sex," said Lord Karstark, with the lines of grief fresh on his face. "A man has a need for vengeance."
"Give me Cersei Lannister, Lord Karstark, and you would see how gentle a woman can be," Catelyn replied.[location 14060]
What to say about A Game of Thrones? I doubt I can add much to the screeds that have been written about it in the last (eep) seventeen years.

This is not feel-good fantasy, at least not yet. There's plenty of brutality, and not just amongst the 'barbarians': there is war, and treachery, and cruelty. A Game of Thrones a complex, densely-plotted epic, with a large cast of rounded characters and a coherent world that differs from our own in ways that, in this first volume, are unclear. The seasons, for a start, are longer -- 'winter is coming' -- which makes it peculiarly difficult to get a sense of the passage of time. And while I'm being critical: one drawback of having multiple narrators, in a book this length, is that Martin can keep the reader on tenterhooks for a long time after ending a chapter at a critical moment.

I liked it, but I didn't love it. I think I found the tone too level, the humour lacking. (Though I did laugh out loud at the singer named Marillion. US readers will probably not find this as entertaining as will UK readers, especially those of a certain age.) After finishing this book, I mentioned online that I preferred K J Parker, and I maintain that Parker's novels are just as complex and a heck of a lot wittier.

That said, Martin has some truly splendid female characters (I wonder if this was more remarkable in the 1990s than it is now?) and some intriguing hints at the larger story, which I believe is still unfolding. I shall keep an eye out for cheap copies of the other books in the series, but don't currently feel inclined to pay a fiver a time for Kindle e-books, and don't believe my wrists are up to reading the dead-tree versions. (Excellent holiday reading, though -- truly immersive!)

Question: would I enjoy the book more, or less, if I had also watched the TV series? (Managed one episode. Everyone was improbably good-looking.)

2012/65: Dead Water -- Simon Ings

They have no idea where they are, or when, but they are beginning to grasp that geography matters less to them than it matters to the living. They make their own journeys with the stories they tell. They fashion – somehow, they don’t yet know how – their own escapes. They survived a barren and virtually unpeopled Arctic: they’ll make a story of this place too. Stories are their breath. Their food. Their blood. And they’re getting stronger. [location 795]
The term 'dead water' refers to the phenomenon of a ship making no headway through waters of different densities and temperatures. It also, in this novel, encodes a global conspiracy involving shipping containers and a mad magnate. The plot of Dead Water -- Simon Ings' best novel yet, I believe; certainly the one I've enjoyed most -- reels from the wreck of the airship Italia in the Arctic (1928) to a nightmarishly-detailed train crash in India (1995), to the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, to a private satellite network run from a grimy Soho office, to dodgy deals done in Dubai, to a ship seized by pirates off Sri Lanka. In range, cast and complexity it's reminiscent of Ian McDonald (India! djinni!) or Neal Stephenson (a long game of vengeance); the structure calls to mind Cloud Atlas, though Dead Water is not a nested narrative. It's also marvellously poetic, and often blackly humorous.

It's bloody hard to write about. <g>

This is a dense novel, a great deal of observation and examination shoehorned in around the plot(s). It's to Ings' credit that his excursions into side-story don't feel forced; the pace seldom slackens, and when it does it's necessary respite. But everything within Dead Water is connected, though some connections are more tenuous than others.

I learnt a lot from this novel. A lot about shipping containers, obviously: but also about the unique problems of building skyscrapers in the desert; forgery techniques in Mumbai; the biological origin of ambergris; fluid dynamics, in smoke as well as water; the impact of 9/11 on the global shipping industry; how to evade bureaucracy when sailing from Darwin to Timor ...

I was fascinated by the boys Abhik and Kaneer, whose life existence is changed by the sudden appearance of a Moyse shipping container; by Eric Moyse, reclusive shipping magnate with a vision (and an excellent retirement plan); by Vibeke Dunfjeld, whose physicist sweetheart -- Eric Moyse's protege -- dies in the Italia crash; by Roopa, daughter of a heroic policeman, and her implacable quest for vengeance. But most of all by the boys, unlimited by space and time, eager for stories and for vengeance of their own.

A few plot threads seemed unresolved, but in a novel of this scope it isn't essential to tie up all the loose ends, and the story as a whole is complete.

After the concert he retires to the penthouse suite, orders all light bulbs removed from the apartment, and behind bespoke blackout curtains that utterly extinguish the desert sun he writes a string of clumsy, blindhanded memos giving his staff explicit instructions not to look at him or speak to him unless they’re spoken to. For six months he subsists entirely on black tea, chocolate and pemmican: Arctic rations.[location 3005]

2012/64: The Drowning Season -- Alice Hoffman

Phillip had not wanted to kill himself, and he truly felt sorry about ruining the hound’s-tooth jacket. He wanted only to be left alone. Alone, so that he could merge with the water. He believed any water was beautiful, whether for its dark waves or for its slow-moving currents. He wanted to be a part of that beauty, traveling at a natural speed through the waves, without effort.
[location 1358]

Esther the White is a Russian emigre with a complex and sometimes treacherous past, living in an isolated seaside property on Long Island. She is vaguely fond of her husband Mischa, though she has no interest in sharing his bed; determined to control her apparently-suicidal son Philip, whose summertime urge towards the water gives the novel its title; and enraged that Philip named his own daughter -- known as Esther the Black -- after Esther the White. You don't use a living person's name for a child.

The person she doesn't know what to do with is Cohen, a landscape artist whom she chose a quarter of a century ago to guard Philip against himself. Cohen knows a great deal about Esther the White, was present at many of her worst moments: he also happens to be in love with her, though she doesn't necessarily recognise this.

There's another tide, the tide of development threatening their peaceful enclave and the community in which they live. Esther the White is going to have to learn to let go of a lot of things -- and by doing so, perhaps bring herself closer to her granddaughter, and to the one person whose loyalty is unquestionable. And pretty much everyone in the novel is going to have to start telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Alice Hoffman's writing is always clear, evocative, precise: The Drowning Season is no different, yet it didn't move me as profoundly as some of her other novels. It's possible to read Esther the White as a witch, exerting preternatural control over her family; it's possible to read Philip as not quite human. But these are no more than suggestions. The supernatural, the magical, is less present (or too subtle) in this novel than in, for instance, The Blue Diary.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012/63: Throne of Glass -- Sarah J Maas

where was that writhing darkness? Why didn’t it show itself so he could just throw her into the dungeon and call off this ridiculous competition? There was something great and deadly concealed within her, and he didn’t like it. [loc. 1788]

First in a YA fantasy series, featuring Celaena Sardothien. Celaena is eighteen, and (of course) beautiful, witty and tough. An infamous assassin who made the mistake of getting caught, she's spent the last year in the grim salt mines of Endovier. Then the captain of the guard shows up with an offer she'd be daft to refuse -- her freedom (eventually). To earn her liberty, though, she has to be the Prince's champion in a lethal tournament: her opponents will be the most experienced and ruthless warriors, fighters and thieves in the land.

Celaena, not over-burdened with humility, does not foresee a problem with this. But gradually she realises that she's starting to develop -- oh no! -- emotions, for both the handsome but laconic Chaol (the captain who recruited her) and the dashing Prince Dorian in whose name she's fighting. And that's not her only worry. The King, Dorian's father, rules with an iron fist: he's outlawed magic and Fae so thoroughly that 'even those who had magic in their blood almost believed it had never really existed, Celaena herself being one of them' [loc 586].

Magic, of course, doesn't take kindly to being suppressed, and the depths of the glass castle hold not only dungeons but ancient secrets. And then there's Nehemia, a princess from a conquered land, who seems to have an agenda all of her own. Can Celaena trust her?

Throne of Glass is definitely aimed at a young-adult audience. It's a pleasant romantic fantasy, with characters who occasionally rise above their stereotypes (strong-but-silent, dashing-and-debauched, gorgeous-and-gifted). There's some witty dialogue, and Celaena's training and fighting scenes are sweaty and believable. But Celaena herself is just a little too arrogant -- and bombproof -- to be a likeable heroine. (Not only does she escape sexual abuse in the salt mines, she also manages to survive her climactic duel without any permanent damage: her face is unmarred.) Clearly 'Celaena' is a pseudonym: she was born Mary Sue ...

2012/62: All My Friends are Superheroes -- Andrew Kaufman

"I don't remember a single monster before I met you," he'd told the Amphibian. "Now they seem to be all over the place."
"You mean there wasn't anything you were afraid of?" the Amphibian had asked him.
"What did they look like?"
It was a funny question. "They didn't look like anything. They were ideas," Tom told him. "Like not being able to pay rent, or being lonely."
"That's the most terrifying thing I've ever heard," the Amphibian replied. [location 447]

All My Friends are Superheroes is a short (108-page), sweet book about love, with a last line of utter perfection. Kaufman's writing is philosophical, plain-spoken and precise. And the title is completely accurate: all Tom's friends are superheroes. There's Someday ('she had red hair, a compact frame and two superpowers: an amazing ability to think big and an unlimited capacity to procrastinate'); the Ticker, whose superpower is her amazing potential; the Clock, the Broken Heart, the Ear, the Amphibian ... Each is sketched in a flashback scene, and these scenes string together to tell the story of Tom's apparently-doomed marriage.

Tom is married to the Perfectionist, but at their wedding she was hypnotised (by Hypno, of course: he happens to be an ex of hers). Now she can't see (or feel, or hear) Tom. The entire novel takes place on a plane trip to Vancouver, with Tom desperately trying to make himself visible before the Perfectionist swans off to a perfect new life.

Try it, right now; boil down your personality and abilities to a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already. Part of the problem with finding your superhero name is that it may refer to something you don’t like about yourself. It may actually be the part of yourself you hate the most, would pay money to get rid of. [location 826]

2012/61: Mr Fox -- Helen Oyeyemi

"What you're doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, 'Yes, he is talking about things that really happen," and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You're explaining things that can't be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre – but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door, it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day's scraping and bowing at work, it was because she was irritating and stupid, it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him, it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense, it was because 'nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman', it was because of this, it was because of that. It's obscene to make such things reasonable." [location 1515]

Helen Oyeyemi riffs on the folktale of Reynardine (a man, who may also sometimes be a fox, given to seducing and abandoning / murdering young women) and on the notion of the writer's Muse. (I was reminded repeatedly of Robert Graves' assertion that 'Woman is not a poet: she is either muse or she is nothing', though I think he qualifies this by saying that a female poet is her own muse.)

Mr Fox opens with an encounter between Mr Fox, a successful writer, and his muse Mary Foxe. No relation, except that he invented her -- or believes that he did. She accuses him of killing off his female characters: he tells her that it's ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction. She counters with a challenge, says it's her turn now. And the rest of the novel twists through the tales they tell one another, from literary New York in 1938, to a spinster in an attic, to a boys' school in London, to an African village, to a European forest where a woman rescues a fox ...

Threaded through these variations are recurring themes: violence against women, misogyny, infidelity, betrayal. There are also at least two love stories. Mr Fox is in love (and lust) with Mary: but Mary would 'like not to disappear when you're not thinking about me' [loc 2317]. To complicate matters, Mr Fox is married, and his wife Daphne suspects the involvement of another woman. It scarcely seems relevant that Mary is an invention. She's eaten up Mr Fox's attention.

The end of Mr Fox is not especially cheerful -- unsurprising, considering the beheadings, poisonings, stabbings etc that have occurred -- but, nevertheless, there are happy endings aplenty.

I think this would make a very good film, though personally I gain more pleasure from reading Oyeyemi's fluid, flexible prose than I'd get from watching the threads unspool outside my head.

And I'm hoping that the book Mr Fox picks up, with a steamboat on the cover and 'Vampires in the Deep South', is Fevre Dream rather than one of Anne Rice's ...

Afterthought: I may be wrong, but though there's a lot of violence in the novel, I don't believe there's any sexual assault; also, much of the violence -- at least in my recollection -- is inflicted with knives or swords. Please let this not be Freudian. Though I fear that it is.

Friday, January 11, 2013

2012/60: Angelica Lost and Found -- Russell Hoban

"Dum spiro, spero, baby, if I may speak classical and modern at the same time."
"Gimme an asterisk."
"'While I breathe, I hope.'" [location 1026]

He's a pictorial representation of an imaginary beast in a Renaissance oil painting. She's the eternal heroine of an epic poem, currently incarnate in San Francisco. Their love is ... complicated.

This is Hoban at his most playful, with a voice that reminds me of R. A. Lafferty -- I'm not sure why -- or, on occasion, John Crowley. This short novel strays from the sublime (Emma Kirkby singing Monteverdi) to the ridiculous (Volatore's ejection from Vassily's body), via hairdressing salons, art galleries, and a rock on the isle of Ebuda.

Volatore is the hitherto-nameless hippogriff ridden by Ruggiero in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. With the help of an intimidated sorcerer, he manages to turn up in contemporary San Francisco. Volatore doesn't stick to one form, either, switching between idea and human and animal. This leads to some touching scenes of (technically) bestiality, and a rather nasty revenge on the aforementioned Vassily.

Angelica Lost and Found doesn't have the wordplay, let alone the mythic resonance, of Riddley Walker: but it's a rollicking read, with undercurrents of profundity and a po-mo self-awareness. ("I was an ontological outlaw" [loc. 974]). There are weird resonances (a painting of 'tiny, tiny dancing giants in the dim red caverns of sleep', the description of which surfaces, variously mangled, from time to time; the voice of Emma Kirkby; the power of placebos) and a continuo regarding the importance of being based in the right reality. Magic realism? Literary fanfiction? Whatever it's filed under, Angelica Lost and Found is vastly inventive.

2012/59: The Siren -- Alison Bruce

... she’d always swum in deep waters, murky in some places, fast-flowing in others, but she’d never seen the danger. That had emerged organically, as a series of developments that had rippled over one another and ultimately carried her too far out of her depth. She was no longer convinced that she could reach the shore, nor even had any idea whether the tide was in ebb or flow.
[location 2998]

I enjoyed Bruce's first Cambridge-based police procedural, Cambridge Blue, not least for its sense of place. The Siren is centred on Mill Road Cemetary, and namechecks plenty of Cambridge geography -- the Reality Checkpoint, Gwydir Street, Parkside Pools ...

DC Goodhew is investigating the disappearance of Kimberly Guyver's baby son, and the death of Kimberley's best friend Rachel. Could it be connected to the time the two girls spent working in Spain, years ago? Is the past buried (or drowned) deep enough? Or is the villain someone closer to home -- Rachel's rough-edged husband, or her boss, or a relative of Kimberley's dead fiance Nick? And where does Jay, a 'locked-in' patient in a Cambridge nursing home, fit in?

Goodhew has plenty to occupy him without the machinations and misunderstandings of his colleagues at Parkside Police Station. Kincaide, Mel and new recruit Sue Gully (perhaps the most likeable character in The Siren) all have agendas of their own, and Goodhew had better watch his step.

There are some nice extended metaphors (including the title) and some unexpected twists, which are made less predictable by clever narrative -- juxtaposition, red herrings, unattributed speech. I also like the way that Bruce portrays Kimberley and Rachel: though they may be towards the chav end of the scale, they don't think of themselves as disadvantaged, inferior or stupid, and they're not stereotyped.

2012/58: Mythworld 1: The Festival of Bones -- James A. Owen

... the Book of Alberich. Do you understand what this could be? Not a poetic cycle, or a mythologized history. This could be an accounting, perhaps only once or twice removed, of the actual father of Hagen — the very instigator of everything in the Prose Edda, the Nibelunglied, and... Wagner’s Ring. [location 1625]

Read this on a plane, which might have contributed to my fuzziness about the plot and characters. The Festival of Bones is part conspiracy theory, part 'search for lost book containing wisdom of the ancients', part occult thriller. It namechecks Wagner, Alexandra David-Neel, Arthur Pendragon and the myth of the Erl-King. Also, there are zombie students. No, real zombie students, not students who spent last night in the bar.

The Festival of Bones contains some cool and intriguing ideas, but the presentation feels muddled. Actually, the whole novel feels like a fix-up prequel to another work (though it isn't; the second novel in the sequence was published well after the first). The writing is competent at worst, with occasional flashes of excellence, and the excitement ramps up throughout the book. It just didn't click with me, but that might be due to the tired, fraught state in which I read it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

2012/57: Madensky Square -- Eva Ibbotson

At ten o'clock this morning, Frau Hutte-Klopstock, the wife of the City Parks Superintendent, handed me a magazine and said she wanted to look like Karsavina in The Firebird .

"Something diaphanous, I thought," she said. "Shimmering. In flame or orange."

Frau Hutte-Klopstock is healthy, she is muscular; she is sportif and athletic. A small glacier in the High Tatras has been named after her and of this one must be glad. But oh God! Karsavina!

Some of Eva Ibbotson's romantic novels have, I believe, been reissued as 'teen reading'. I wish I'd been able to read them as a teenager, rather than reading the dire bodice-rippers in the local library: but they are not written specifically for teenagers, and there are many shades of grey [haha] in their protagonists' moralities.

Madensky Square was the first of Ibbotson's romances I read, probably in 1998; I recall picking it up in the Holborn branch of Books Etc, reading a random page and being entranced by the heroine's voice. Fourteen years later, reading the newly-released Kindle edition, I'd forgotten almost all of the plot, so it felt like a fresh delight.

Vienna, 1911. Susanna runs a successful dress-making business in a small, neighbourly square. Her lover is a Field-Marshall, but Susanna does not pine over his frequent absences or beg for him to leave his wife. She's far from lonely. Aside from her regular customers (including the Countess von Metz who pays for her dresses in 'antiques'; Magdalena, ethereal bride-to-be of a jovial pork butcher; Leah Cohen, who needs a dress for the races that will also do for planting oranges in Israel...) there are the other inhabitants of the square; Susanna's anarchist assistant Nini, who models clothes for the bourgeoisie with an authentic sneer; and Susanna's dear friend Alice, the only person to know the details of Susanna's personal tragedy.

Alice experiences tragedy of her own: her lover Rudi has a heart attack, and is not expected to live. Alice has no chance of being admitted -- a mistress! -- to the hospital where Rudi's dying, until Susanna steps in with common sense (and an 'in' in the form of Rudi's equally sensible daughter, who'd much rather her father was happy).

And then there's Sigismund, the orphaned ten-year-old prodigy whose piano-playing fills the square like spring. How, in this city of artists and writers and professors and musicians, can he hope to find success?

What I like most about Madensky Square is Susanna's voice: a keen and cutting critique of the society in which she lives ("Frau Hutte-Klopstock is back from the High Tatras. Her sister has been in Paris and says that Poiret is freeing women from the corset. All I can say is that if he was designing for the women of Vienna, he would think again ...") coupled with expansive kindness and a fierce loyalty to those she deems worthy. She's seldom sentimental, eminently practical, and far from flawless, and there is a lyrical clarity to her observations which makes them memorable.

I'm hoping that more of Eva Ibbotson's adult novels will show up on Kindle's Deal of the Day ... I think I still own them all, but it's an excellent excuse to reread!

2012/56: Angelmaker -- Nick Harkaway

He is the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late really to enjoy his mother’s affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever odd revelation was waiting here. He had allowed himself to believe that there might, at last, be a wonder in the world which was intended just for him. [location 1985]

This is a hard novel to review, because there's just so much in it. (Also, I took a very long time to finish it, for a number of reasons: the fact that it's still clear in my mind says more about the book's quality than does that protracted reading.)

Clock-mender Joshua Joseph Spork, known as Joe, is the son of an infamous Sixties London gangster. Though Joe tends towards the legal side of life, he still has many friends and contacts on the shadier side. This comes in useful when he's framed for a murder he didn't commit.

Edie Banister is ninety but far from senile. In her WWII heyday she was a code-breaker, spy and assassin. Old habits die hard, which is fortunate for Joe and his new friend Polly, sister of sardonically fearsome lawyer Mercer Cradle.

The eponymous Angelmaker device, a.k.a. the Apprehension Engine, is 'not just some clockwork toy. It is a scientific advance of ludicrous complexity, so secret that no one who knew about it could understand it and no one who would understand it could be allowed to know about it' [location 3651]. It is made of brass and resides in Lostwithiel. Its function is to provide humans with a different perception of reality.

Combine, add elephants and cryptography and governmental misbehaviour and a quest for immortality. No ninjas, as such, but there are zombies in all but name.

Stir well.

[many many false starts removed here! But really, they all mean 'this is COOL / CLEVER / FUNNY'.]

Harkaway's prose is lighter and more comic than Neal Stephenson's, but similarly strewn with a captivating plethora of detail and plot. His sentences are often elegant and his female characters reassuringly credible. (They tend to pass the Bechdel test, too, given the opportunity.) Angelmaker is very readable, and has a flavour all its own: not quite steampunk, not quite thriller, not quite SF or fantasy. Or romance. Nor is it very much like The Gone-Away World, Harkaway's debut novel. I admire variety in an author, and hope his next novel is as surprising as Angelmaker.

2012/55: Bacchae -- Euripides

Kadmos: Is your soul still quivering?
Agave: I don't understand your words. I have become somehow
sobered, changing from my former state of mind.
Kadmos: Can you hear and respond clearly?
Agave: Yes, for I forget what we said before, father.
Kadmos: To whose house did you come in marriage?
Agave: You gave me, as they say, to Echion, the sown man.
Kadmos: What son did you bear to your husband in the house?
Agave: Pentheus, from my union with his father.
Kadmos: Whose head do you hold in your hands? [lines 1268-1275]
Read, along with several other tragedies (Oedipus Rex, Oresteia, etc), for the Coursera Greek and Roman Mythology course. I've seen a couple of productions of Bacchae, but wasn't familiar with the text.

Gods, it's a nasty story. But also quite funny, if you look at it from Dionysus' point of view. There's a dash of trickster to his character here, though I don't think it softens his punishment of Agave. (Pentheus, on the other hand, is a prick who deserves his fate.)

The essay I wrote is below ...

The Relationships between the Human and the Divine in Euripides' Bacchae

Euripides' Bacchae centres on the conflict between King Pentheus of Thebes, grandson of Kadmos, and the god Dionysus. Pentheus, like many of his countrymen, refuses to acknowledge the divinity of Dionysus: the god exacts a terrible price for this insult, not only causing the death of Pentheus but destroying Kadmos' whole house.

Dionysus' wrath is implacable, but he does not simply strike down the unbelievers. Instead, he assumes the guise of a foreign priest and allows Pentheus' soldiers to capture him. A servant reports that Dionysus 'laughed and allowed us to bind him and lead him away' [440], and Dionysus' attitude towards Pentheus is similarly light-hearted, which infuriates the king. Their banter, and the almost comic nature of Dionysus' escape from captivity, reinforces the god's power. Pentheus is both prey and toy.

Euripides contrasts the playfulness of the god with Pentheus' desire for control: he also draws parallels between the two, depicting them both as prone to anger and motivated by pride. 'You rejoice whenever ... the city extols the name of Pentheus. He too, I think, delights in being honored.' [318-22] Dionysus avenges the Thebans' failure to honour him by driving their king to madness and death, the latter at the hands of his own mother Agave. Kadmos reproaches Dionysus for the severity of the punishment he has inflicted on Thebes, saying that 'Gods should not resemble mortals in their anger' [1348]. Dionysus is at once divine and human, inciting madness and displaying human emotion.

The two sides of Dionysus, 'the most terrible and yet most mild to men' [862], are both apparent in Bacchae. The Chorus sing the praises of the god of wild revelry and wine, and the liberty and freedom he bestows upon his worshippers, while the action of the play moves towards the madness and death of the king who refuses to worship the god in his gentler guise. Those who deny the god are destroyed by him, and even those who worship faithfully -- like Agave -- may find their lives in ruins when they wake from sacred madness.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

2012/54: The Odyssey -- Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

And the ship like a four-horse team careering down the plain,

all breaking as one with the whiplash cracking smartly,

leaping with hoofs high to run the course in no time —

so the stern hove high and plunged with the seething rollers

crashing dark in her wake as on she surged unwavering
[Book XIII, lines 93-7]
I'm not sure I'd ever read The Odyssey from start to finish before: Robert Fagles' translation sings, and made the reading much more enjoyable than it might've been if I'd stuck to one of the older versions available for free on the web! I found myself reading the Odyssey as a gripping narrative of a long journey home, with timeless metaphors and some shrewd observations on human nature. And hindsight kicked in a great deal, making me realise that I'd been exposed to innumerable Odyssey-references in popular culture. (One scribble in my notebook wonders if Zelazny was referencing the Odyssey in the first Amber series.)

The Greek and Roman Mythology course offered by the University of Pennsylvania via Coursera was extremely good. Professor Peter Struck's video lectures were engaging (plus, a great incentive, the weekly quizzes referred back to the lectures :)]. I became thoroughly engaged with the source material (not just the Odyssey, but assorted tragedies, Hesiod's Theogony, a couple of Homeric Hymns, and some Vergil to round it off) and also with the theoretical tools presented in the course: structuralism, functionalism, myth and ritual, euhemerism and Freudianism.

Below is my first essay.

A Structuralist Interpretation of Odysseus' Conversation with Achilles

In book XI of the Odyssey, Odysseus journeys to the underworld to consult with the ghost of the seer Tiresias. Whilst there, he encounters many other ghosts, whose speech and behaviour illustrate the opposition between life and death.

Odysseus' exchange with the ghost of Achilles [Fagles, p. 265] crystallises this opposition. "There's not a man in the world more blest than you," Odysseus tells his fallen comrade. Achilles was honoured as a god during his lifetime, and mourned by his comrades when he died. Now, says Odysseus, "you lord it over the dead in all your power".

But Achilles argues, passionately and bitterly, that he'd "rather slave on earth for another man ... than rule down here over all the breathless dead". This is a reversal of his stance in the Iliad, when he spoke of his desire for a short life and a glorious death. The glory and fame he won at Troy do not compensate for the loss of city, family and identity that death entails. Odysseus, who bemoans that he has "never once set foot on native ground", may have lost these things temporarily, but Achilles' loss is permanent.

Achilles' first words to Odysseus reinforced the latter's kinship ties: "royal son of Laertes". Later, Achilles questions Odysseus about his father Peleus and his son Neoptolemus. He wants to know whether his son became a champion, and yearns to protect his aged father from "all those men who abuse the king with force and wrest away his honor". Achilles is helpless and ignorant, while Odysseus hopes (the gods willing) to be reunited with his own father and son. Indeed, Odysseus will eventually reinstate his own father's honour and laud Telemachus' passage to manhood -- options that are no longer available to the dead Achilles.

The dead are powerless and ignorant: they cannot even speak unless given blood by the living. Yet it is death that makes Achilles appreciate the life and the opportunities that he has lost.

2012/53: Little Brother -- Cory Doctorow

...what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you'd have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you'd be buck naked?
Even if you've got nothing wrong or weird with your body -- and how many of us can say that? -- you'd have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you. [chapter 4]
Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it; Doctorow is of the teenagers'. Never trust anyone over 25? PARADOX, for the author of this novel is definitely too old to be trustworthy.

I felt excluded in a way I hadn't when reading Alice in Wonderland. And, yes, actually my politics are pretty much in line with Marcus's: but I'm of the opinion that a lot of what happens in the world is rooted in appearances.

Or, put it another way: imagine that I am holding something that looks like a bomb, and I refuse to let you near enough to examine it. Over there someone else is holding an apparently-identical something that looks like a bomb, and they also refuse to let you near enough to examine it, and then it blows up.

Am I holding a bomb?

Might you be forgiven for thinking that I was?

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed reading the novel, which was well-paced and full of interesting 3D characters. I found the crypto side fascinating, and I can well believe that this is 'the day after tomorrow' in terms of US civil liberties. (Or UK civil liberties, for that matter.) I am wholly in agreement with the distinction in that quote at the top, between 'shameful' and 'private'. But I did find myself somewhat alienated by Marcus' narrative, and this was an excellent opportunity to write a 'controversial' essay [below] for the finale of the Coursera Fantasy and SF course!

Reading Little Brother feels like an abrupt return to earth after the imaginative, expansive novels we've read in the last nine weeks. I'm perplexed by its inclusion on a course that, until now, has focussed on genre classics. The prose, pitched at a young adult audience, is functional rather than poetic. The happy ending is more teen romance than world-changing epiphany. And it's set in the very near future: indeed, the time it's set in may already have passed.

Is Little Brother science fiction? It's fiction about science -- the science of cryptography -- and on that level it's educational and informative, albeit about crypto software and hardware that already exists. As the author says, "The technology in this book is either real or nearly real" [1]. Marcus' treatment at the hands of the DHS is extreme, but several enforcement agencies are guilty of similar excesses, in the USA and internationally. Little Brother is more extrapolation ('if this goes on') than invention.

Another aspect of the novel that I question is the presentation of older generations. "I know who not to trust: old people. Our parents. Grownups." [2] While this distrust of 'grown-ups' has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s -- 'never trust anyone over 30' -- it's less justified now than it was then. Ange's and Marcus's parents have grown up in turbulent times, and are aware of the abuses perpetrated by corrupt agencies. It's worth noting that Marcus does find trustworthy adults: journalist Barbara Stanford and his own parents. (Though Marcus' Dad does toe the party line until he discovers that his son has been wrongfully imprisoned.)

But in this novel, people my age are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I am the enemy, and I feel excluded in a way that none of the other novels we've studied have made me feel. Maybe that's why I didn't engage with, Little Brother. It wasn't written for me.

Works cited:
Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, 2008: accessed online at
[1] Little Brother, introduction
[2] Ibid, chapter 10. The quote continues: "Grownups. When they think of someone being spied on, they think of someone else, a bad guy. When they think of someone being caught and sent to a secret prison, it's someone else -- someone brown, someone young, someone foreign. They forget what it's like to be our age." Okay, one character's viewpoint: but offensive to me as an activist and libertarian who's (gasp!) over 40.

2012/52: Bareback -- Kit Whitfield

Interrogators are men, usually, men with missing feet, ruined faces, mauled genitals. The worst, the unusables, the ones who'll never be the same again. ... [they] may be missing a kilo of flesh, but it doesn't slow them down. ... They learned a long time ago that however much flesh you take from another man, it'll never replace your own. [p. 250]
Lola is not a lycanthrope: she's a 'non', wholly human, which puts her in the 0.4% non-lyco minority in the nameless (though Londonesque) city where Bareback takes place.

Like all nons, Lola is employed by DORLA, the Department for Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. Every moon-night she and her colleagues police the lycos -- who have, at moonrise, become lunes, not wholly human -- and enforce the curfew. Of course, once a lyco has gone lune they don't necessarily remember why the curfew is a good idea, or why they shouldn't resist being taken to the nearest shelter ...

There is little that is comfortable about Lola's life. Her early experiences, in the creches which shelter non-lyco children on moon-nights, are traumatic and embittering. Her relationship with her lyco sister Becca is strained, though she adores Becca's baby son Leo. She has few friends. And when she meets Paul, a lyco social worker who gives her refuge when she needs it, she's absolutely ready to fall for him.

However, the cases she's working on (a DORLA colleague shot with a silver bullet, a curfew-breaker who claims his car broke down) begin to overlap with one another, and then with other aspects of her life ...

Lola isn't an especially likeable character, but she's easy to empathise with. What I liked most about Bareback, though, was the world-building. The novel is scattered with throwaway detail: UN-enforced moon-night truces between countries at war, the role of rural nons in protecting livestock, the scientific theories about what causes nons to be born abnormal, the black market in used DORLA combat gear. (Hey, it's a fetish.) The lyco / non divide is as stark as -- though not equivalent to -- divisions of class, race, gender in our own world. (I don't recall the race issue coming up in Bareback, though I may simply have forgotten it: class and gender, though, are certainly present, skewed by the wolf in the room.)

The prose is beautiful: full of stark philosophy and the harsh light of Lola's perception of human behaviour. And throughout the book, the unspoken question: would she rather be lyco? And if others had the choice, what would they choose? What would they do, to choose?

I am very much looking forward to reading Kit Whitfield's 'mermaid' novel, In Great Waters.