Bring up the bodies

•July 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

 

The order goes to the Tower, “Bring up the bodies”.

Here we have the adventures of Thomas Cromwell, Hand to the King, part 2. Whatever you loved (or hated) about Wolf Hall you’ll surely find in Bring up the bodies, as Ms. Mantel continues to explore the influence Thomas Cromwell had in Henry VIII’s court and his involvement in Anne Boleyn’s decapitation and thus Henry’s 3rd marriage – with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, pictured as a sympathetic character in the 1st book (intelligent, cunning, subtle, wise and loyal to his own) now has a more obvious harder edge – when Henry decides that Anne will no longer do for him, he seizes the opportunity to score some personal vendettas. After all, they needed guilty men; guilty of what is a whole other issue. The lambs have been butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves and picket their own bones clean – is the only justification he can offer to his choice of condemned parties.

Everyone and their cousin wrote about this book it seems – so I really doubt there is anything left to say. You can google reviews; the book is on the longlist for the Booker & I personally loved it. Maybe less than Wolf Hall, but only because I now knew what to expect and its rhythm was a bit too familiar. I’d like to write a proper review and do it a little justice, but writing feels like a reflex I’m losing more and more with each passing day. All my hopes of getting back to normal are hanging on the magical month of September 🙂

Would you all stop yelling in our apartment! You are ruining moving day for us!

•July 17, 2012 • 1 Comment

OK, so maybe it’s not the best title, but it’s the best I can do after 4 days of moving-related activities. I’m dead tired (and I didn’t do all the heavy lifting) – and, even if I don’t usually write about life…stuff, I thought getting a new house – getting my own house – does warrant a post. It’s about 50% done, but it’s the place I’ll be calling home in the foreseeable future.

And to top it all, last Sunday I saw Pulp @ Bestfest – a concert that meant quite a great deal to me because I never actually thought I’d get to see them live (same as with Suede). There are lots of bands left to see, but with Pulp I think I finally saw all the great musical loves of my adult life. I’m also half way through 2 books – Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (still as fun on the second read) &  Hillary Mantel’s Bring up the bodies (so far, as great as Wolf Hall). Maybe I’ll get back to reading & posting sometimes, now that things are settling a bit.

A short history of nearly everything

•June 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny that it’s true, then they deny that it’s important, finally, they credit the wrong person.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s how the saying goes, right? Well, I rarely do this with books – but a couple of years ago I tried A short history of nearly everything and gave up about less than 1/3 into it. Now I started over – and this time, got all the way through. I guess I’m describing it like a chore – but it’s really not. For a highschooler, it might seem redundant (parts of it, at least) but seeing as how I’ve managed to forget most of what I ever knew of science in the many years since I’ve finished highschool, I can’t say I felt that. The best thing about it is that it puts science in a historical and comparative context – something that school almost never does. Not in my experience, at least. It’s not a dry lesson in geology, paleontology, astronomy, physics, chemistry or anthropology – but more the story of how various achievements in these domains came to be, how they connected and, more shockingly, how unbelievably disconnected they sometimes were. And, as a bonus, if you manage to remember at least half of all the discoveries and people this book goes through, you’d make for a redoubtable adversary in a bar quiz 🙂 The quote at the beginning of this post (by Alexander von Humboldt) is actually a very good summary of many anecdotes in the book – the science medium is very much a dog eat dog kind of environment. What I dislike about Mr. Bryson’s approach (a very well researched one, by the way, if the 20-page bibliography is anything to go by – but not without its faults apparently) is how often he treats his readers like idiots. For example: the universe is big, the atom is small – these 2 points are made through tens of metaphors and comparisons and drilled into your head like you are the kid at the back of the class eating copious amounts of paste. And I’m guessing that kid wouldn’t pick up this book, so why the constant patronizing?

Aside from that, it’s a little unnerving to be reminded that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filed with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws we don’t truly understand. And that’s just the universe at large – but the chapter warningly entitled Dangerous Planet is a lot like rehashing all disaster movie plots – this time with scientific evidence of why any of them can happen at any time: meteorites randomly hitting the Earth or volcanoes erupting and changing the whole climate. And Yellowstone, sitting on a supervolcano? I had no idea. I mean, we could be going the way of dinosaurs any day now 😀 And I have to say, all of a sudden, the fear of volcanoes I had when I was 7 doesn’t seem as silly now.

But all pointless panic aside, the world really is a wondrous place and Mr. Bryson makes the case for that very well.

I’ll leave you with a bit of trivia: did you guys know that the frequency with which a man thinks about sex affects his beard growth? Some people read crap like this on the internet, when they’re bored at work, I had to read a book to find out 🙂

The Heather Blazing / The Howling Miller

•June 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

 It would be nice to say that my writing can’t keep up with all the reading I’m doing – but it would be a lie. Writing is just less and less appealing, so expect more 2in1s in the future – if you, my anonymous reader who wandered here looking for “allison janney gap teeth”, even give a crap. By the way I’ve never written anything on that topic (nor will I ever) so there you go. Disappointment.

Now then – back to the books.

Mr. Toibin is, maybe not a master at describing all range of human emotion, but certainly a master of grief. His portraits are so subtly and gradually built that they catch you unaware – there are no theatrical outbursts, no screams, no wails, just slow-burning sadness and spikes of pain. Eamon witnessing an odd scene in the village and anxiously waiting to share it with his wife, only to be struck by the realization that she’s dead – a moment such as this is so relatable and so heartbreaking.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Heather Blazing has at its center Eamon Redmond, a Judge of the Four Courts who, while nearing retirement, spends his last few summer holidays in Cush (nearby where he grew up) reflecting on his childhood and youth and the many losses he’s had to endure: his mother when he was only a baby, his grandparents, an uncle, his father – all culminating with the death of his wife. We skip through various family vignettes alternating between past and present: his first house, a family dinner followed shortly by his grandfather’s and uncle’s demise, his father’s illness (the stroke that left him with a limp and slurred speech), his first girlfriend, the courtship with his wife, his somewhat distant relationship with his grownup children and, finally, his wife’s illness (mirroring that of his father). Mr. Toibin is very economical with the details, he simply lets the scenes unravel objectively, distantly – allowing you to latch onto whatever detail resonates and this kind of minimal author manipulation is the only thing that will get me involved and invested in a character. In the end, it’s all about the small personal tragedies, the longing, the nostalgia and the regrets of 60 years – or, at least, this is what I’m inclined to see.

Ulvova mylläri (The Howling Miller) reminded me vaguely of the Thoreau back-to-nature ethos or even of a Zorba-like attitude towards work – a purposeful single-mindedness. It’s very possible that both these comparisons are far-fetched, I don’t have much to support them with, they were mostly passing thoughts I had while I was reading the book. Gunnar Huttunen is, still, a very peculiar and memorable hero. He’s a miller (and a very good and dedicated one) who has the odd quirk of howling at the moon (literally) when he feels overwhelmed by any emotion. Proving the age-old cliché that we fear what we don’t understand, his fellow villagers proceed thus to send him to an insane asylum and, when he escapes, they hunt him down, forcing him to live in the woods. There’s a dark humor to this character and absurd moments reminiscent of Catch 22 (or MASH, as one review noted) – but the potentially supernatural tint of the ending seems unfit and spoiled the book for me. But The Guardian and NYTimes have described it better, so you should check out their reviews.

The Book Thief / Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

•May 20, 2012 • 1 Comment

There is no grim skeletal figure with a scythe.

And that quote works nicely for both books – since both deal with death in various shapes, forms, sizes and amusing dispositions.

About The Book Thief there seems to be a whole discussion as to whether it’s more for adults, or more for children. Or maybe not a discussion per se, but I’ve seen the topic mentioned in a couple of reviews and it was odd enough to stick. Personally, I’ve no idea how Mr. Zusak targeted it (or if he even did at all), but I just think I’d appreciate it more if I saw it as YA; there are bits that are too patronizing and too gimmicky to work for an adult and the story itself feels…thin. As far as the gimmicks go, I’d compare it with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close – only less saccharine. The book is narrated by Death (who inserts personal asides and comments in the narration, some of them witty, some of them terribly trite) and has as a central figure young Liesel, the book thief. It’s WWII in Munich, so you know what that means – poverty, bombs, oppression, guilt, Jews being herded through the streets like cattle, sorrow and dust. But Liesel has a childhood to live – and she does, as best she can, together with Mama and Papa (the foster parents she’s sent to after her brother’s death and her mother’s associations with Communism), Rudy (the boy next door) and Max (the Jew hidden in their basement for a few months). It is, of course, a quirky coming of age story with colorful characters – but it feels like it tries too hard. The horrors of war partially understood by a very astute 12-year-old, the kindnesses surrounding her from unlikely sources (Mama – who uses swearwords as endearments, but whose heart really is in the right place or the Mayor’s wife, who’s walked through life like a zombie ever since her son died or even Frau Holtzapfel) – it all fits the script perfectly and that’s why it spoils the experience a bit. A fun book, but nothing more profound than that.

And speaking of fun books, here’s another: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (A Devilishly Thrilling Comic Fantasy). Johannes Cabal is a necromancer (wouldn’t have guessed it, would you?) of a sullen, yet sarcastic disposition who’s given his soul to the devil in an attempt to unveil all the secrets of necromancy. Turns out though that his research actually could benefit from the existence of said soul; and now he wants it back so he challenges the devil to a wager: 100 souls in the span of a year in exchange for his own. And to make things interesting, the devil gives him a carnival to help with the task, our hero being obviously unsuited for it (luckily he has his vampire brother and other undead sidekicks to help). While occasionally long-winded Jonathan Howard’s book is mostly sharp and witty and with such a straightforward plot I’d say makes for a great beach read (but then again, don’t take my word for it, I haven’t actually been to the beach in years 😀 ).

Room

•May 10, 2012 • 1 Comment

Emma Donoghue’s novel was shortlisted for the Booker in 2010 and got so many rave reviews that year that I ended up getting it, despite feeling it wouldn’t exactly be my type. Well, lesson learnt – I should listen to my instincts.

I don’t get the heaps of praise – the subject matter is the ripped-from-the-headlines sort of affair and feels a bit exploitative; while her approach to it is not particularly original or insightful. It maybe poses some questions about the modern world, but does it so heavy-handedly; they end up being practically irrelevant.

We have a kidnapped young woman kept in a shed by her captor for 7 years giving birth to a boy who, once he turns 5, will be instrumental in their escape. The first part of the novel takes place in room, while the second deals with their re-adjustment in the outside world – and both are equally manipulative. Young Jack – through whose eyes we see the whole ordeal – is precocious in some ways (reading, writing) but predictably underdeveloped emotionally and socially. The feelings that Ms. Donoghue tries to pry out of you are so…obvious – sympathy for all involved and a kind of mixture between “awww, how cute” and “poor kid” for Jack (not sure what the exact name is, but it feels patronizing) – that I just can’t go with the flow. And this right here might be why I rejected the book so much: I hate it when someone takes it upon themselves to guide me into feeling something.

I found it cloying, fake and lacking in any subtlety or substance – a very unpopular opinion, considering everywhere I turned I only saw appreciation. But – to each his own, I guess. Maybe we’re all desensitized by the crap on TV & on the internet, but this book doesn’t help empathize with the real victims – it actually does the contrary. As to its literary merits – using the kid as a narrator is a good gimmick and makes for a nice Sunday book club read, but it ensures that you never go beyond the façade, the form.

And there’s also the book site – which I suppose is a marketing initiative, but which I still find creepy to say the least.

Finch

•May 6, 2012 • 2 Comments

The blurb on the front cover of this particular edition says “If HP Lovecraft had collaborated with Raymond Chandler the result might have been something like this”- and it’s one of those rare cases where the blurb is right on the money.

Finch, our main character, is kind of a detective (though reluctantly), a collaborator in a world where humans are an enslaved race to alien masters – spore-based, mushroom-like nightmare creatures made more terrifyingly real by Mr. VanderMeer than any of Mr. Lovecraft’s monsters. He unwillingly gets caught up in the rebels’ plan to get rid of these overlords and he moves from being a tool in the gray caps’ hands to being a tool in the rebels’ hands, never having any actual control and never seeing the full picture, not even right at the end, when the world around him is falling apart (again, as it seems to do so frequently in Ambergris). And while this particular narration might seem familiar, tired even – I have to say it’s anything but. What’s absolutely fantastic about Mr. VanderMeer is the level of detail in which he’s constructed Ambergris and its history, both pre- and post-gray cap invasion: the war between the two ruling houses, the war against the Kalif, the gray caps’ unnoticed arrival and silent rise. Most humans (just as Finch in the beginning) don’t really understand what the gray caps want and simply ascribe human motives to their actions: power, greed, desire for influence – which in the end turns out to be a fairly big mistake. Perhaps if more had stopped to think, had understood, maybe Ambergris could have found a way out of their domination sooner – but then again, that’s not really how it works on Earth either 😉 Signs and solutions are always obvious in hindsight.

Finch’s relationship with Wyte (an accidental “partial” – cross between human and gray cap) is especially profound since they both know eachother’s identities and histories from before the Rising and it ends up being, with all its oddities, the most powerful and meaningful connection of the book – the only one where those involved actually choose to be around eachother and are not just thrown together by fate or randomness.

Mr. VanderMeer’s clipped, short sentences and his fragmented style add a certain urgency to the proceedings – even to his memories of his father – and the interrogation gimmick never lets you forget that there’s something bigger looming just around the corner.  I’d only add that this result is probably even better than that imaginary meet of Lovecraft & Chandler –personally, I had the best time with it. The Guardian also enjoyed it – and probably others too, since it got nominated for a Locus award, but I’m too lazy to google more links.