Archive for November, 2013

November 30, 2013

David Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Slightly shorter version of this piece here. I like a lot of things about Sedaris’s writing–sadly, few of them are in evidence here.

 

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Context is everything. The animal fables that make up David Sedaris’ collection Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk are each accompanied by illustrations that seem rather incongruous in their innocence (though one of them does have a lamb with its eyes gouged out), considering the general tone of much of Sedaris’s work. Then you realise that these illustrations are by Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia books about the adventures of a tiny piglet, and the whole thing becomes deliciously twisted.

Beast fables are, of course, really about humans; this has been the case since Aesop. The characters in these stories may be restricted to animal bodies (this is the point of many of the more famous fables, such as the fox and the stork, or the hare and the tortoise), but the traits they exhibit are familiar to us all. Whether or not they come with a moral attached to the end, what is important to these stories is a sense of recognition. This is particularly clear in Vikram Seth’s wonderful Beastly Tales, in which the familiar stories are retold from a more cynical point of view. Here, the underdog doesn’t triumph merely by winning a race (the hare gains more celebrity from losing than the tortoise from winning), the talentless may prosper over the bodies of the talented (“The Frog and the Nightingale”); these poems are funny because we know the genre they’re riffing off, but also because we see ourselves in them.

And so to Sedaris, who skewers such human traits as self-absorption, self-interest and prejudice in these stories. The title piece has a chipmunk sentence herself to a life of dissatisfaction and mediocrity when she allows her lack of trust for a jazz-loving squirrel to overwhelm their relationship. The baboon of “The Cat and the Baboon” is happy to badmouth her canine friends while grooming a dog-hating cat, because business is business. “The Vigilant Rabbit” is obsessed with maintaining forest security, by means of killing anyone who suggests his system might be flawed. And so forth. In one of the best stories in the collection two storks discuss exactly how much to tell their children about where babies come from—one, the more self-absorbed, stands by scientific fact, yet her child’s life in undone by fiction. Sedaris’ view of humanity is not particularly charitable, and awful things happen here. Beloved pets may eat you, eyes may be gouged out, teeth may be broken, baby animals may die. In combination with the illustrations it ought to be darkly funny. But most of the time it is curiously underwhelming.

Perhaps part of the reason is that the fable requires such a broad brush, dealing in archetypes rather than individuals. It’s hard to do more than roll your eyes when confronted with yet another disenchanted housewife, another pair of “Ugly American” tourists complaining that the locals refuse to learn their language but at least it’s “cheap cheap cheap” (they’re birds), another fundamentalist making an increasingly desperate grab at meaning through religion. Sedaris’ earlier work has often focused (usually with plenty of self-deprecation) on his own experiences, and even when he has dealt in the universal, it has been with a strong sense of the personal and the human.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk contains no flawed individuals (it isn’t meant to), just a parade of flaws and not particularly original ones. As a result the whole is less powerful than it could be—it isn’t really bleak when there’s so little there to feel bleak about, and it relies too often on the overdone stereotype. The occasional brilliant moment (and the clever choice of Falconer as illustrator) aside, the whole thing just feels rather lazy. The least he could have done was to put the whole thing in rhyming couplets.

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November 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Thor: The Dark World

As ever, there are spoilers.

 

  • There’s very little that is new or startling about this movie, but it does have one scene that verges on revolutionary. An early scene is set on Vanaheim, where Thor and co. are bringing peace to the realm by hitting things (Sif is particularly good at hitting things). The battle ends when Thor explodes the biggest of his enemies (you’ve seen this in the trailer); Hogun tells Thor he’s planning to stick around for a while, and as the two men talk they walk past large barrels (urns? baskets?) filled with what look like spices. None of these barrels (tubs?) of produce has been overturned for effect during the battle.
  • No seriously, go back and read that again. I could not believe it.
  • It all begins with the voiceover from Lord of the Rings. We’re told of the evil of Malekith, the power of the aether (we’re not really told much about the aether, other than that it exists and is powerful), over scenes of battle. The Good (probably) guys get the aether, the dark elf army collapses, the good guys decide they can’t destroy this awesomely powerful thing (at which point one of the people I watched it with whispered “cast it back into the fire whence it came!”). It is all very familiar.
  • Other things are also very familiar. Asgard is a bit Rivendell and a lot Star Wars (I suppose this is unavoidable), a mid-credits scene is classic Star Trek.The aliens-crash-into-big-city-and-do-damage scenes are at least recognisably in London rather than some generic city, so that’s nice.
  • As ever, this wholesale destruction of Western cities makes me very glad that aliens rarely choose to stage cosmic battles in Delhi. (Think of all the overturning-things potential of Chandni Chowk though.)
  • arse-guardian“.
  • The whole thing feels rather unfinished. The music sometimes builds up to big climactic moments and sometimes forgets to, some of the dialogue has a distinctly *menacing speech goes here* placeholder-y feel to it.
  • Idris Elba has a tiny action scene where he chases an invisible spaceship and incapacitates it with a sword.
  • I think all this alien technology might not be as impressive as we’re led to believe? The excellence of Elba aside, if your large spaceship can be brought down by a single man with a pointy stick, you need to do better. Likewise, whoever’s responsible for Asgard’s security shield thing needs to ensure that it cannot be broken by someone throwing a punch at the controls. Meanwhile, Earth technology manages to turn an anomaly-detecty-thing into an anomaly-causy-thing in about two minutes, that strikes me as pretty good sciencing.
  • I love the Dark Elves’ armour, particularly the empty-eyed face masks.
  • I also love Christopher Eccleston’s elaborate hair. But this, as my friend Kate points out, raises the entire question of elven haircare–since Malekith probably isn’t doing it himself and most of his people are dead, do the remaining dark elves do one another’s hair? (I would read this comic)
  • As usual, tumblr is right in having the primary romantic relationship be between Jane and science. I’m not sure why Portman’s character has felt so inconsequential to me over these two movies–her badness at dating and sudden moments of science geekery almost made up for it here.
  • And they don’t sexualise her, or Darcy, or Sif, in any of the obvious places. Instead we get random shirtless Thor, which is so clearly put in as a “here you go, ladies”* moment.
  • DARCY.
  • Maybe it’s homesickness but Thor’s cloak (if that’s what it is?) reminds me of the draped shawl of an arty Indian man in a Delhi winter. Note to self: Chris Hemsworth is not a Bengali poet.

 

I’m sure I remember having other thoughts about this film. Hm.

 

*Straight and bi ladies who are into that sort of thing, and also anyone else who is into that sort of thing.

November 23, 2013

Tove Jansson, Fair Play

I’ve been feeling generally unenthused by most of what I’ve read lately; Fair Play made me love it and I feel like myself again. More quiet, queer romances with elderly women, please.

From this weekend’s column.

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I spent a good part of last year rereading Tove Jansson’s Moomin books for the first time in far too long. The Moomins are a family of various-shaped creatures living in a valley in Finland who absorb into their circle anyone who needs to be absorbed, the books themselves are perhaps the most generous-spirited children’s books ever written. Jansson is less well known for her books for adults, though some of them (her novel The Summer Book among them) have been translated into English and are quite as fine as her work for children.

And then there’s Fair Play, which is either a novel or a collection of short stories about two women. Mari and Jonna are both artists, and they live and work on opposite sides of the same building with a long attic between them, except when they are in a tiny house on a remote island, or when they are travelling

It’s easy to read this as at least partly autobiographical—Jansson was an artist and writer herself, and lived for over four decades with her partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä (for Moomin fans, the inspiration behind Too-Ticky. The NYRB Classics edition (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal) reinforces this connection further by choosing for its cover art a portrait of Pietilä by Jansson. At several points during my first read I found myself trying to work out who was who; which character was “meant” to be Jansson and which Pietilä. But I’m not sure that’s a useful way to read this book.

Very little happens, in the conventional sense, in Fair Play. Pictures are rearranged on the walls, arguments are sometimes had, movies are watched and grocery shopping planned, other people enter and exit the lives of these two women and sometimes their coming is an intrusion and at other times it is welcome. But through these quiet tales of ordinary life is built up the picture of a relationship that is real and deep.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of Fair Play is in the way it treats the process of ageing as normal. Women in their seventies speak of the relative youth of women in their fifties; men in their nineties dismiss women in their seventies. Mari and Jonna speak frankly of things of which they are no longer physically capable, and there is no panicked rush to hold onto what they have now.

Ali Smith, in her introduction to the book, speaks of work and love (Jansson designed her own bookplates with the motto Labora et Amare) and the way in which the two are intertwined there. The two women work separately, and when they are working seem almost to live separate lives. Space, both figuratively and literally (that long, empty corridor between their studios) is central to this relationship. “There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone”, says the narrator in “Videomania”. And the collection ends with Jonna’s being offered a studio in Paris and both women genuinely relishing the prospect of time alone. And it is a book about the process of art: of Mari’s photographs and Jonna’s tape recordings, of letters from fans, the valid criticisms of other artists and the frustration of living with a writer whose work isn’t going well.

A book so concerned with the process of producing art, Fair Play is also the result of that process. It grants to its characters the sort of space they grant each other, it leaves things unsaid, and perhaps one reason I’m reluctant to read it purely as biography is that that would be an intrusion.

I spoke above of the Moomin books and the sense of community within them. But beneath that community is a strong sense of individual characters as solitary figures in a vast universe. It’s in its recognition of this solitude, this part of us that is ours alone, that Fair Play becomes one of the finest love stories I’ve read.

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November 16, 2013

Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance

At some point (and we all know this point will never come) I want to turn my notes on the second story in this collection into something longer and more coherent. I’m not sure the People-who-speak-English/People-who-speak-Oriya divide works quite as Desai thinks it does, and while she seems to parody the people who ask questions about things like appropriation, I think these are definitely (in rather rough form) questions that need to be asked. But then the story (and the collection) is so focused on the small and the personal that it is probably in its interest to wish that the world didn’t exist.

This isn’t Desai’s best work, but I’m always interested in artists talking (however indirectly) about art.

 

From last weekend’s column.

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A young civil servant, arriving at the site of his new posting during a power cut, experiences his new quarters by lantern-light and reflects that the experience seems unreal. Like “something by Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins”. There’s something of the Victorian adventure story about “The Museum of Final Journeys”, the first of the triptych of novellas that make up Anita Desai’s The Artist of Disappearance. Almost on cue a visitor arrives with a mysterious story—of a great family’s dwindling fortune and the mysterious heir who went travelling many years ago and has not been seen since but who would periodically send gifts home. His mother collected these gifts, some of them rich and startling, in a private museum, and our narrator’s petitioner has only come to ask that the museum be preserved.

But this is not a Victorian adventure, and our narrator is not going to throw himself into solving the mystery and finding the missing son. The pieces in the museum may be amazing, and he may be moved and unsettled by them, but he is also an ordinary man in a government job and some things may not be worth the bother. We’re not sure how much this man could do to save the museum; he does nothing, and years later continues to feel uncomfortable about his failure.

The concerns of everyday life come up against something special once again in “The Artist of Disappearance”, the story that gives the collection its title. Ravi is a recluse who lives in the hills, speaking to no one and spending all his time beautifying a secluded garden by use of the natural objects (stones, fallen branches) that he finds there. When a documentary film crew stumbles upon the garden they decide it would provide the perfect counterpoint to their movie about illegal mining destroying the beauty of the local landscape. But Ravi disappears and finds a new form of art to which to devote himself; without an artist the garden ceases to be art, and the film crew, who we know to be capable of being moved by Ravi’s garden, are forced to find another sensation for their film.

With their decaying mansions in the hills, “The Museum of Final Journeys” and “The Artist of Disappearance” seem like companion pieces. The first story gives us Srimati Sarita Devi, waiting for her son to come home and carefully preserving the souvenirs he sends. The second has the child Ravi saying his farewells to his parents before their frequent trips abroad; trips that result in astonishing presents that are, once seen, locked up like museum pieces.

The collection’s central piece, then seems at first a complete misfit. Set mostly in Delhi, “Translator Translated” tells of Prema Joshi, who falls in love with the short stories of the Oriya writer Suvarna Devi, and eventually becomes their translator. But in some ways the art of the translator is in disappearing, and here Prema fails. Unable to translate ethically or to write independently (Suvarna Devi’s style shadows Prema’s original work) she returns to the more mundane world, or so the book would seem to suggest, of academia.

“Translator Translated” is in many ways the weakest of these stories, yet it’s interesting that Suvarna Devi, who is rather baffled by all this interest in her work, remains relatively unaffected. She continues to live in the same town, continues to write without much interest in what the wider world thinks of her work. In this she is rather like Ravi who, more proactively, removes himself from the world’s potential interest in his art and makes of it something small, that he can carry about with him safely and allow it to remain untouched.

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I haven’t been doing such a great job of the South Asian Women Writers Challenge since I moved here and left most of my books behind me. But here is one, and I hope there’ll be a couple more before the end of the year.

November 16, 2013

Tina Connolly, Ironskin

Jane Eyre is one of the books that converted me to literary criticism (I probably didn’t need much converting)–there’s so much you can do with it. I suspect this is a big part of why Ironskin felt so underwhelming. Without Jane Eyre it would be a decent, rather light, fantasy-steampunk-thing with a somewhat muddled thesis about beauty; with it, it just seems inconsequential. The sequel, Copperhead, just came out, but I’ll be waiting for other people’s reviews before I pick it up.

From a column published a couple of weeks ago.

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Hit by a fey curse during the Great War, Jane Elliot wears a mask (“ironskin”) over her face to keep in her supernaturally-induced rage. In the wake of the war, England (if it is England; it is never named as such) has lost much of its technological capability (bought from the fey) and with it its prosperity. Jane’s beautiful sister Helen is able to escape (partially) her situation by marrying a wealthy man; Jane chooses to support herself as a teacher.

It’s at this point that Tina Connolly’s Ironskin begins to make clear its literary debts. Jane goes to Silver Birch Hall to be governess to the daughter of Mr Rochart, a child who is herself fey-cursed in weird and unsettling ways. She finds herself falling in love with her employer, despite knowing that there is some awful secret about him and his house. It’s hard to miss the fact that this is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; Jane Elliot is Jane Eyre, Mr Rochart is Mr Rochester. Even minor characters have names that echo those in Brontë’s novel—there’s a “Blance Inglis”, a “Grace”, a “Helen”.

But what of Mr Rochester’s first wife? “[Jane] did not know what she expected—a row of skeletons, a murdered wife, a madwoman with a mysterious laugh? The nameless terror of her nightmares?”

Jane Eyre is not Ironskin’s only intertext. There are references to “the fey story of Bluebeard, you know” (Ironskin’s approach to literary allusion is never particularly subtle) with its young woman instructed not to pry into her beloved’s secrets, and its mysterious former wife or wives whose shadow hangs over the whole—interestingly Brontë refers to the same fairytale. Rochart himself gives Jane other lenses through which to view this story; with a reference to the old Scottish ballad of Tam Lin (“[s]tolen away by the fey, and for his beloved to win him back, she had to hold him as he changed into a variety of loathsome beasts”) he casts himself as straightforwardly a victim in need of rescue. With an earlier allusion to Beauty and the Beast he is again the victim (though of the two of them it is Jane who bears the physical mark of a magical curse).

Done right, alluding to other well-known works within a book can add depth both to the new work and the original. Reading Ironskin is an exercise in frustration because its insistence that we notice its literary references seems to promise that something will be done with them; that the relationship between this book and those others will reveal new layers of meaning in both, or at least in this one. It never happens.

Connolly’s recasting as fantasy of the years following the First World War is cleverly done— while most of the narrative is set outside the major cities, we see enough of the collapse of an economy dependent until now on fey technology, the social upheavals caused by large scale poverty and the loss of almost an entire generation of men, to make this world seem plausible (though the only time empire is mentioned it’s in relation to dress styles). That this new society should place a premium on beauty and luxury after the recent horrors it has endured makes sense, and the book sets up and interesting debate about physical beauty and our personal and social relationships with it.

But the shadow of Jane Eyre, resolutely “poor, obscure, plain and little” looms over this book. Perhaps my frustration with the book has made me cynical but by the end the multiple literary references begin to feel like so many empty signifiers, scattered across a pleasant but quite lightweight book in the hope that the reader will never quite get to the point of asking what it is, exactly, that they’re supposed to signify.

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November 3, 2013

October Reading

I don’t know if at some point I’ll be putting my academic reading in these lists as well–it might be nice to have a record, but so much of it is in the form of essays and chapters and parts of books that I have no idea how to list them. Meanwhile, my regular reading lists grow shorter and fluffier.

 

Shannon Hale, Austenland: This was (mostly) a comfortable evening’s read–and I got a column out of it. But I doubt I’ll be reading more by Hale.

Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor and Park: Apparently a lot of people are very upset about the “obscenity” in this book. If they mean the swearing, I didn’t notice it. If they meant the terrified child who needs someone to stand guard when she’s having a bath in her own house, it was necessary and also viscerally awful. I’m over love stories in which people fall for each other over a shared love of music/literature; despite this I stayed up all night with this, and cried all over it.

Edmund Crispin, Frequent Hearses, Fen Country, Holy Disorders: A sudden need (sudden? a constant need) for smart, cosy crime. I still think Holy Disorders is the weakest of the Gervase Fen mysteries I’ve read. The others were both new to me, and neither struck me as particularly brilliant, but I enjoyed all three books anyway.

Susannah Clapp, A Card From Angela Carter: Inspired a column (here) and an evening of flipping through a collection of Carter’s non-fiction and fangirling quietly.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy: I have a deep love for The Secret Garden, and would probably dislike A Little Princess if it wasn’t such an interesting text with which to think about things like empire and class. Little Lord Fauntleroy is just uninteresting to me, however many awful portraits of children it may have inspired.

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics: I liked a lot of things about this-the school setting of the early chapters, the frequent snark, the sense that characters genuinely enjoy language. But plotwise it felt rather unfinished, like none of these elements added up to a unified whole.

Nicholas Blake, Head of a Traveller: A reread, though all I really remembered of the book was that a sculpture of a head had a lot to do with it. What I’d forgotten was how awkward I found the book’s depiction of rape the first time I read it. On a second read I still think it’s badly done, in ways that probably merit a separate blog post with a lot of quotes. But then, besides Georgia Cavendish, this series of books doesn’t have the most spectacular of track records with its women characters.

Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary: Such a joy just to see a thing done well. Column here.

Rick Riordan, The House of Hades: Hmm. I have a very hazy understanding of the larger plot of this series at this point and the tone can get deeply annoying (as when a character imagines the Fates watching him and going “LOL, NOOB”), but it’s still quite entertaining in a Civilisation-equals-Greek-and-Roman-Gods-and-America sort of way. The element of this particular book that has received most attention seems to be that Riordan has revealed that a particular character is gay and has done an okay job of it. What I really liked (and again, this may need a separate post with quotes) is how it deals with crushes in general and (therefore) with this character’s in particular.

Tina Connolly, Ironskin: I both enjoyed and was annoyed by this urban fantasy-ish, steampunk-ish retelling of Jane Eyre. Column to come soon.