July 2, 2016

June Reading

Is this going to be another of those months where I disapprove of things? (Yes)

 

Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen: I promised a friend I’d attend at least one of her Bailey’s prize shadowing book group sessions, and picked the last one largely because of this book. I’d seen it compared to Karen Joy Fowler’s work (which I love), there was an approving Ursula Le Guin blurb, and various other enthusiastic reviews (including this one from Jeff Vandermeer). It was probably inevitable that I’d be disappointed, and I was, a bit–as a social novel, with lots of exaggeratedly horrible characters, The Portable Veblen is successful; as the sort of thing that KJF does, it is not. I liked its joyous, over-the-top-ness, I liked every moment of Veblen and Paul attempting to figure out how to be those two people in a relationship; reading it against Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (also for the abovementioned book group) I enjoyed the ways in which it was big and sweeping and comic in ways that felt stronger than Rothschild’s own invocation of those things. But at moments where I’d have wanted it to be weird it was twee, I wanted it to do more with its Thorstein Veblen references, and Veblen herself in particular embodies a particular sort of precious, whimsical whiteness that I’m strongly put off by. I feel more kindly disposed towards it than Abigail Nussbaum does here, but the comparison with Where’d You Go Bernadette?, which I hadn’t thought of, rings disappointingly true to me.

Patrick Ness, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here: Many (many) words on this here.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts of Heaven: Many words on this here. Both this and the Ness were a part of my Carnegie shortlist shadowing project.

Garth Nix, Goldenhand: Nix was in my city for a conference and I got to interview him (forthcoming from Strange Horizons!) and also to wheedle an ARC of the next Old Kingdom book out of him–and since I’d just reread the series for the interview, and have been a fan of the Old Kingdom since the 1990s, obviously I stayed up all night and read it immediately. I have many thoughts, but am saving them for a proper review in a couple of months.

Anna Breslaw, Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here: I seem to know a lot of people who deeply loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (which is about a young woman who writes very successful fanfic) and have generally attributed the fact that it does nothing for me to my general lack of engagement with fandom. Breslaw’s book is also about a BNF in a fictional fandom but is so clumsy in its engagement with fan culture that it makes me appreciate Rowell’s book a lot more. Scarlett is a fan of a teenage werewolf drama, which is cancelled at the beginning of the book. Undaunted, Scarlett and her friends in fandom (the most popular writers) decide to keep writing fic set in this universe anyway. Scarlett makes this an excuse to write thinly-/not-at-all disguised versions of her schoolmates into a weird RPF that features a) sexbots and b) no werewolves at all and for some reason, rather than turning away in vague embarrassment the fandom decides to embrace this setting and it grows popular enough for there to be ship wars. Naturally, the principal characters (the Mean Girl who is the basis for the main sexbot, the popular boy Scarlett has a crush on) find out and things blow up.

There are the bones of a good book in this–Scarlett’s initial idolisation of her father’s Cultured-ness (vs her mother’s lack thereof), the ways this maps on to her assumptions about who is and is not culturally valuable, these make for thoughtful, nuanced character portraits, and I think the book is reaching for exactly this. But it’s awkward in its relationship to and unnecessary explanations of fandom (and what on earth is that moment when Scarlett is surprised that a writer of m/m slash is a woman???), trite in its discussion of middle-aged white man fiction (to make me want to defend Jonathan Franzen is quite a feat), just generally unimpressive.

 

June 24, 2016

Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad

I started reading Zen Cho’s collection of short fiction in that ancient past when it was only available as a paperback from Buku Fixi. By the time I actually got around to starting to review it, the ebook, with all its extra material, had come out, and naturally I wanted that as well. I promised Vector a review sometime in late 2014, and only delivered it sometime in 2015; luckily, they decided they’d like to carry it alongside a much more timely review of the author’s novel Sorceror to the Crown. (That review was by Maureen Kincaid Speller, and I’ll be linking to it when it’s available on her blog.)

 

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Cho 1One of the difficulties with reviewing a book that exists in two separate editions is that in some crucial ways you might well be reviewing two different books. Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad is a paperback published in Malaysia by maverick publisher Fixi Novo, consisting of ten short stories divided into sections titled “Here”, “There” and “Elsewhere”. Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad is also an internationally-available ebook consisting of fifteen stories (divided into sections titled “Here”, “There”, “Elsewhere” and “Going Back”), as well as commentary from the author. The second of these is, naturally, the more readily available; the first is the original book, and all that added content in the ebook is classified under “extras”. The ebook as a form is flexible enough to make this possible, of course, and I’ll willingly accept all the fiction Cho is willing to give me, but it’s hard to see this much added material as merely supplementary.

Place is important here, as those section headings show. The three stories that make up “Here” are all set entirely in Malaysia; “There” consists of four stories of Malaysians in the UK. There’s an implicit statement being made about where this book’s cultural centre is, about what is normal and what is strange. It’s a statement that chimes with Fixi Novo’s manifesto, published at the front of the (paper) book, in which they pledge, among other things, that they “will not use italics for non-American, non-English terms. This is because those words are not foreign to a Malaysian audience […] italics are a form of apology.” As the necessity for such a manifesto indicates, globally, English language fiction (including SFF) is still dominated by a sense of the West as cultural centre, so that even for those of us from (or in) other parts of the world, placing ourselves in that position can feel a bit radical. Here, if there’s a culture that needs to explain or justify itself it’s that belonging to England, not Malaysia. (“‘People brought sambal?’ Hui Ann noticed people hastily squirrelling away jars of dark red paste. ‘You brought that all the way from home? Eh, here in England they also got food one, you know or not?’ ‘I don’t like fish and chip,’ said one of the sambal smugglers defiantly.”) More usually, though, Cho draws on both cultural sources, the “here” and the “there”, as do her characters who realistically, because that is what the world is like, inhabit them both. One of my favourite moments in “The House of Aunts” comes when Ah Lee, its protagonist, has revealed her supernatural identity to the boy on whom she has a crush, and asks him “You want to say it? You want to tell me what am I?”  It’s funny because it’s an inversion of a similar scene in Twilight (one of “The House of Aunts”‘ more obvious intertexts); it’s great because so much of what is good about the story rests on the precise differences between “vampire”, the western cultural concept both of these teenagers are relatively comfortable talking about, and “pontianak”, which is what Ah Lee really is.

Two of the stories in the collection have supplementary stories included as ebook extras. “The Persistence of Angela’s Past Life” takes a side character from “Prudence and the Dragon”, Prudence’s best friend Angela, and gives her a back story that not only fleshes out these characters and their history but reframes the original story as well—the reader of “The Persistence of Angela’s Past Life” is reading a different “Prudence and the Dragon” entirely. This may all seem obvious; of course stories exist in relation to one another, and of course increased knowledge of a world/context changes how we read the stories it contains. But all this is also crucial to Cho’s larger project—this opening up of the worlds that we “know” and reminding the reader that other characters, other stories, already exist (have always existed) within them. It’s most evident in her dealing with British history; in Sorcerer to the Crown, in her romance novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, and in this collection in “起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion – The Lion Bows)”, a story about a ghost-busting Lion Dance troupe in England, hired to exorcise a haunted cabinet. The ghost in question turns out to be a small African child, a legacy of British imperial history, whom the troupe choose to adopt, even if it means carrying an unwieldy cabinet around forever after.

cho 2The “Going Back” section of the collection, exclusive to the ebook, rather destabilises the tidy geographical demarcation of the “original” book. If Here, There and Elsewhere are Malaysia, Britain and fantastic (or SFnal) spaces respectively, from where and to where does one return? All three of the stories in this section are set in Malaysia, but they speak of other sorts of return as well. “The Fish Bowl” revisits adolescence, “Balik Kampung” involves a return to the world of the living. (“The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat” revisits myth and Cho’s fanfiction roots, possibly, or may be where this neat reading breaks down). But the theme of homecoming bookends the main body of the book as well—it’s as integral to “The First Witch of Damansara” (which opens Here) as it is to the closing section of “The Four Generations of Chang E” (with which Elsewhere closes). “Balik kampung” (returning to the village), Cho explains in her notes to the story of that name, is a tradition “embedded in the urban Malaysian psyche”; it’s tempting to read this theme of return, the impossibility of return, and the various inconveniences encountered in the attempt, as equally embedded in this collection.

Those same story notes, however, left me conflicted. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that the ebook allows the author to annotate and provide extra information about the stories and their genesis—whether or not that information is particularly helpful. For example I’m not sure “The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote”, which works mainly by being told in a really charming tone, is much improved by the information that it’s Legolas/Gimli slash, as amused as I was by this fact—whereas the revelation that “The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat” is a “five things” story changes everything. Too often, though, the notes take a tone that feels to me contradictory to the joyous, unapologetic spirit of the book—they explain. The presumed reader of the ebook, unlike the presumed reader of the paperback, has to be told what Balik kampung means culturally rather than knowing/inferring/being content in their ignorance; needs to be reminded not to read “Chang E” as “the one true narrative of diaspora”. And if such a reader needs to have it explained to them that “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia”, the best story in the collection with its crotchety, vulnerable old lady protagonist and its deadpan reporting of committee proceedings, is supposed to be funny, then they do not deserve to read it. It’s tempting to read the inclusion of the notes as a reflection of the ebook’s wider audience; in reality, they’re probably just there because the format allowed them to be.

In part because of her constant engagement with earlier literature, Cho has tended to attract the Author X + Author Y sort of review (“Susanna Clarke plus Georgette Heyer–with a soupçon of P.G Wodehouse and infused with the Mitford sister of your choice”). I feel guilty for adding to it, but I’m just going to come out and say it—a good Zen Cho story has the charm and the precision of a good Joan Aiken story. And there are several good Zen Cho stories in this collection.

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June 20, 2016

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (and general remarks on the Carnegie shortlist)

I read The Lie Tree in February and didn’t write about it at the time; I’d hoped to have found the time for a proper reread while discussing and writing about the Carnegie shortlist but when is there ever time for anything? As a result, the book I think might most reward discussion is the one I’m writing about least. It seems unfair.

The Lie Tree opens in a Victorian world similar to but not quite our own–one of the people with whom I discussed the book compared this setting, and its treatment, to that of Joan Aiken’s Wolves books, and that comparison works well for me.

Faith Sunderly and her family are in the middle of a rather hurried move to the channel island of Vane. Faith’s father, a reverend and a natural scientist, is an acknowledged expert in fossils; he has been invited to Vane to help excavate the caves on the island. That’s the official story; Faith knows very well that her father isn’t in the habit of taking his family on these research trips. It soon becomes clear that the Sunderlys have left England for a reason–rumours are flying about the authenticity of the Reverend Sunderly’s research, particularly of one particular fossil. In the newspapers, he is being publicly condemned as a fraud. And when the Reverend is found dead, Faith’s family seems more invested in disguising the possibility that it may have been the result of a suicide than they are in investigating her father’s murder.

The “lie” tree of the title (referred to in the book as “the Mendacity Tree”, a far superior, and Hardinge-y, word) has been brought to the island in secret by the Reverend, and only Faith knows where it is hidden. The tree feeds on lies, absorbing them to produce fruits that give the one who consumes them knowledge. In her quest for the truth, then, Faith finds herself in a horrifying position of power, responsible for a wave of dangerous lies and rumours circulating across the island. In some ways this all feels reminiscent of Hardinge’s last book, the (perfect) Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song, with its protagonist’s growing realisation and acceptance of the fact that people have the power to hurt other people and that we have to know this about ourselves and find ethical ways to live with it–the major difference, I think, is that Cuckoo Song feels a lot more internal to its protagonist’s head than The Lie Tree does. Faith is an outsider and an observer– though she’s less detached than her own narrative suggests.

That detachment is, perhaps, one of the things that contributes to a general sense of lacking nuance–or perhaps it’s simply the fact that this book is middle-grade and set in a period its readers may need to be educated about. This is most present in the book’s treatment of gender–it’s not enough that we see Faith consistently being valued less by the people around her, or see her mother struggling to survive with the only tool she’s allowed (charm), we must have characters who say things like “a girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing. Do you understand?” I don’t wish to suggest that no Victorian (or, indeed, no currently living) person would ever utter those words, but for a writer of Hardinge’s quality they feel disappointingly pat. It’s disappointing too because I am still, by inclination, a Victorianist (I seem to have stumbled into twentieth century literary studies by accident), and there’s so much to play with in a setting like this one, with regard to gender and religion and science. The Reverend Sunderly’s actions have stemmed from his growing panic at the ways in which his scientific discoveries and his religious beliefs don’t match up (I’m amazed and disappointed that no reviewers have chosen to title their pieces on this book “Crisis Of Faith”); there are fossils and accounts of weird nineteenth century travel and lady-explorers and women who are in love with other women, and this fantastic gloomy island and all of this should be the perfect fodder for Hardinge, whose prose is always delicious and off-kilter and yet doesn’t quite sparkle as much here as I expect it to.

It has to be said that the individual character notes and relationships are still done really well. Compared to, say, Fire Colour One, The Lie Tree actually does understand, and signal, the gendered power relations embedded in Faith’s initial idolisation of her father and dismissal of her mother. As Faith’s understanding of her situation grows so does her understanding of Myrtle, who may not be the best or most likeable of people, but makes sense. As far as prose, character, and general goodness go I enjoyed The Lie Tree more than anything else on the Carnegie list. But judging Hardinge by her own other works, as far as I’ve read them, this feels less impressive to me.

 

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I’ve been blogging the whole of the Carnegie shortlist for three years now, and in both previous years, even when I’ve been underwhelmed by the shortlists themselves, I’ve had a clear favourite, a book I think is genuinely brilliant, and that I wholeheartedly support. (Neither Liar & Spy in 2014 or Cuckoo Song in 2015 won, incidentally.) This year, that isn’t the case.

My posts on the individual books on this year’s shortlist are in the tag above, but to recap:

I enjoyed Sarah Crossan’s One but am dissatisfied by Crossan’s refusal to produce characters with some depth to them and by the book’s inability to face up to the questions about voyeurism it seems to want to ask; Nick Lake’s There Will Be Lies is mediocre and hates fat people (but that’s okay, I’m willing to hate it back); Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here is fine I guess (but that’s about it); I found Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the Western Front manipulative and a bit too eager to give me a history lesson (and a lot too willing to leave the empire out of said lesson); Marcus Sedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven is ambitious in plot and form but doesn’t follow through; I think Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves is a good, accomplished book whose flaws unfortunately outweigh its positives; Jenny Valentine’s Fire Colour One just doesn’t hold together and is unthinkingly sexist. I am no fun at parties.

Clearly I should stop doing this, since apparently I just hate all books. But the Carnegie fascinates me; both as a children’s literature academic and as someone who studies empire and national identity. Prizes help make literary culture, and the Carnegie, beginning in 1936, is the British children’s literature canon of the last 80 years, and has fascinating things to say about Postimperial Britain and children’s literature. (And you should absolutely be following Dr Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project, here.)

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

What else? There’s a general trend towards death and despair, but far too much has been written (and far too many pearls have been clutched) on that subject. This is intertwined with a general privileging of young adult narratives over literature for middle-grade or younger readers, which feels like a shame–this has been a really good few years for middle-grade fiction, and it has been barely acknowledged. Issue Books, to use a reductive term, are also rewarded–there have been books on all three shortlists whose presence feels reducible to what they are About.

And finally, what does this suggest about today’s winner? This year’s shortlist has one added factor thrown in–that The Lie Tree, not content with winning the Costa Children’s Book Award (as Five Children on the Western Front did; and The Ghosts of Heaven was nominated as well), has also won the Costa Book of the Year, i.e. critical acclaim among books written for adults; the judges might need to really love something to knock something with that sort of cultural heft off the top spot.

To me The Lie Tree is the best book on this shortlist, yet I find myself reluctant to wholeheartedly champion it. This goes back to the whole awards-create-literary-culture thing; I don’t want a cultural narrative in which The Lie Tree is a more celebrated book than Cuckoo Song because I value the good things about Cuckoo Song more than the good things about The Lie Tree. Still, it is the best book here, and it’s the one I must throw my weight (take that, Nick Lake) behind.

Given my lack of success in predicting the result in previous years, I suspect this means the winner will be Lies We Tell Ourselves.

June 19, 2016

Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The world might be ending. There’s … an alien invasion, or something? They’re called Immortals; and there are pillars of blue light and a mysterious, beautiful boy and a girl with a very special destiny? Her name is Satchel, all her male friends are called Finn.

You’re not supposed to care too much about the whole world-might-be-ending plot, though. Because the teenagers who do not have special destinies or particularly storyable lives are the focus of this book, and they have long accepted that “the indie kids” are going to have the occasional world-saving adventure and that’s their thing, and everyone else may as well devote their energies to the ordinary life struggles over which they have some (though not much) hope of gaining control. For Mikey, those struggles include his probably-unrequited feelings for his friend Henna, the difficulties of being thrust occasionally into the spotlight by a parent who is also a politician, his own mental health, the attractive new kid with whom Henna is spending far too much time.

These concerns are minor compared to those of the indie kids, but they are on the whole treated well. I love that, for example, the book’s emotional climax is a moment between Mikey and his best friend–friendship here is urgent and important and central. Mikey and Mel’s protectiveness of each other and of their younger sister is great, and Mikey’s anxiety (though the sessions with his psychiatrist are necessarily a bit basic) feels well done. I’m less impressed by the treatment of Mel’s anorexia: less because of any direct treatment of it (that’s all fine, the characters are on the whole great about it) than because Ness doesn’t seem to mind contributing to a larger fat shaming culture elsewhere in the book. (In a throwaway line early on, Mikey is working at a restaurant part time and “putting extra slices of cheesy toast on a plate for the really, really fat family at table two”; everyone in the place seems to be eating ridiculous quantities of all-you-can-eat cheesy toast [surely that's not a real thing, America], but still the “really, really fat” are associated with excess.) Meanwhile, there is the slight worry of larger affairs impinging upon this set of concerns (will the indie kids blow up the school, or the world end, before this group of friends can graduate?)

Basically, it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but with YA. That might sound delightful or cringeworthy (for me, I think it’s mostly the latter) but much depends on whether it’s a one-note joke or something fundamental to the structure of the book and how it conceives of fiction. Possibly even more than The Ghosts of Heaven Ness’s book requires you to have some knowledge of its intertexts–a solid grounding in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is useful, as is being familiar enough with the tropes that you can do a quiet “hah” when they pop up here. Each chapter is headed with a short summary of current events in the larger cosmic battle, the contrast between these dramatic events and the relatively mundane lives of our characters is frequently hilarious.

There’s something funny to be said about the ways in which other works of YA (precisely the sorts that this book is spoofing) also position their characters as oppressed underdogs or unlikely heroes. On several counts, Mikey is exactly the sort of person likely to be a hero in fiction–he’s a (we’re told) intelligent, not-fat, middle-class white kid, he doesn’t think he’s particularly attractive but other characters tell us he is, and like every other YA hero ever (I’m exaggerating, but hey) he thinks of himself as shut out of things–both the world-saving shenanigans that are going on elsewhere in the book, and the more immediate dynamics of his particular group of friends. (Of course, Mikey will discover that it’s his own preoccupation with the situation around Henna that has shut him out of some of these dynamics–he’s completely failed to notice, as the rest of the group has, that a close friend is now in a relationship.)

 

The thing is, though, the world might be ending.

 

I mentioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern earlier in this post, and it’s been a decade or so since I read or watched the play so I may be about to say something very ignorant. But the reframing of the narrative to these sidelined characters in that play does interesting things in part because it works both at the levels of narrative (Hamlet!), and of real world power (whose decisions are indicative of power, and who gets caught up in the machinations of more powerful people?).

Questions of power and narrative come into play in interesting ways in the context of YA (and I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations about the genre, but then I’m writing about a book that also necessarily stereotypes the genre, so I absolve myself). There’s much that is ridiculous and unrealistic (in different ways to how vampires and alien invasions are unrealistic) about plucky individual teenagers saving the world, but these books make sense in the context of an audience of teenagers–i.e. people who have ethics and concerns and politics of their own, but lack the power to control their own lives. In some ways, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the realistic counternarrative that acknowledges that most of us lack the power to thwart alien invasions, or even just protect our friends and families from hurt.

But in the process, it also manages to imply that simply not paying attention to huge, worldchanging things that are happening around one is a feasible, even desirable, response. Even at the end of the book, when Mikey and his friends have talked to some indie kids and figured out that they’re actual people with their own concerns and personalities, the implication is still that they have their lives and the normal kids have theirs. We can’t all be special and superpowered, so we’re absolved of the responsibility to participate in these huge events.

One reason this is uncomfortable is that in fiction the special superpowered kids may be the attractive, white, thin, popular Americans with funny names, but in the world the people who aren’t afforded the privilege of looking away … aren’t. I rolled my eyes a bit when I first read this review which compares the indie kids to third world refugees; it seemed to me to be missing the point. But the “point” of the book, or what there is of it, seems to require you to confine it to the world of fiction, where nothing has particular consequences and the emotional lives of a small group of privileged teenagers can have the same weight as the lives of billions of people (and all the other living things on the planet). The Rest Of Us Just Live Here wants you to think it’s so clever and funny with mockery of tropes; it does not want you to examine it too closely. No wonder our characters seem so unconcerned about this week’s apocalypse; it’s not like it means anything.

And the other reason for my discomfort is simply the reinforcement of a dynamic in which, in order to have responsibility one must have power, and to have power one must be a superpowered individual. By which I mean that there’s never any suggestion that collective action of any sort is possible, that the indie kids could work with the other kids (or even with each other–all they seem to do is fall in love with Satchel and die) or that the regular kids without powers could work together in any way. And it’s frustrating because one of the things that Ness does well is to create a sense of community in his characters–there are, for example, really lovely sections in which Mikey and his friends instinctively and unobtrusively accommodate each other’s particular illnesses and vulnerabilities. But then there’s Mikey’s best friend Jared (named after Jared Shurin, which was an amusing and distracting thing to know), who is a descendant of a god of cats and secretly bears an indie kid name. Unlike the others, Jared does have power, or at least the means to access it, and has simply opted out of the indie kid lifestyle. At the end of the book he does embrace his powers to make things better/save lives, but he does so at the cost of this sense of community–he will be turned into a god and thus cut off from his friends.

I enjoyed reading The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and it’s nice to be reading a Carnegie-shortlisted Ness book that isn’t emotionally draining, but beyond that, I’m underwhelmed.

June 17, 2016

Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts Of Heaven

I took The Ghosts of Heaven at its word. The four novellas that comprise the book are, in their published form, arranged chronologically: a prehistoric story, then one set in early modern England, another in early twentieth century America and the final piece set centuries into the future. The author claims that you can read these novellas in any order, that there are “twenty-four possible combinations” in which “the story will work”. (There was a time when I’d have been able to do the maths to confirm this, but I’ll take Sedgwick at his word.) I wanted to test this so went 2, 4, 3, 1 and I don’t think this hindered my enjoyment of the book, but … I’ll come to that.

In the book’s order, then: in “Whispers in the Dark” a young woman in an unidentified prehistoric society longs to be chosen to make magic marks on the walls in a cave to ensure her people’s success in the hunt. She is not chosen, but is pondering the power of the spiral shape and on the verge of inventing writing when disaster strikes. The old man and his apprentice responsible for making the marks have failed, the tribe is slaughtered by a rival tribe.  In “The Witch in the Water” a minister has arrived in a village to replace its dead vicar, and sees devilry everywhere. Appalled to discover the villagers dancing (in a spiral) at a funeral he soon traces the source of evil to an innocent young woman, aided by the willingness of other villagers who are sexually attracted to her, jealous of her or simply scared enough to denounce her. “The Easiest Room in Hell” features Charles Dexter, a poet and a patient in an asylum in Long Island who befriends his naive new doctor and the doctor’s small adopted daughter and for various reasons is terrified of climbing up the spiral staircase at the centre of the building. “The Song of Destiny” features a spaceship carrying hundreds of bodies in suspended animation on their way to an inhabitable planet. Keir Bowman is one of ten sentinels who check the status of the ship yearly–but when he wakes after ten years of sleep he finds certain irregularities that suggest the ship is haunted.

It’s obvious from this summary that these all have very different settings, and it’s probably also obvious that some of them are very clearly pastiches of existing works or genres. To me, this was clearest in the third and fourth stories–”The Easiest Room in Hell”  with its asylum setting and its Things Under The Water would be recognisable as a Lovecraft tribute even if it hadn’t gone and named a major character after one of the author’s most recognisable works; and “Keir Bowman” is equally clearly a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which Keir Dullea plays David Bowman). The first two stories were less obviously linked to existing works for me–they could be any/every witchhunt/prehistory narrative I’ve ever read (they felt familiar, in several ways), or they could be clear references to a reader more immersed in those bodies of literature than me. (Lucy suggested that the first section might be linked to The Clan Of the Cave Bear and I’m not sure she was wrong.) I’m not sure that the intertexts add a great deal to a reading of the book, even assuming its readers have access to them–I only “caught” two references, and I’ve discussed the book with other, widely read and quite nerdy, adults who missed them. What the format does do, though, is provide a spread of styles–beyond obvious differences in shape (the first section is in verse, the third section is a first-person log of events, the second and fourth sections have third-person narrators, but while the earlier narrator appears omniscient the later one is confined in the main to Bowman’s perspective) these are all completely different stories.

Which is both great for showcasing Sedgwick’s range and bad for creating any real sense of cohesion. I said above that the order in which the stories are read made very little difference, and I don’t think that’s so much the result of brilliant, complex trickery as it is of these stories reading as four separate novellas with some themes in common. Too often the spirals are the only obvious link, so that the text has to lay extra stress on pointing out when they’re there–as when Bowman, thinking of the forward movement of his toroidal spaceship, reflects that he is spiralling through space. As a symbol the spirals themselves feel rather underwhelming to me–the book goes into some detail explaining why spirals are interesting, the golden ratio, the fibonacci sequence and (thus) the fibonacci spiral, helixes in our DNA, and yet (perhaps my mind is unreceptive to the wonder and terror of maths?) I’m rather left with a sense of “spirals are everywhere … and?” If there is a fruitful link between the stories, for me, it’s not the spirals themselves but the reactions of the characters to them–each of these main characters is hyper-aware of the hugeness and unknowability of the universe around them; each feels an awe that verges on terror (and in some cases descends entirely into terror), each is compelled towards knowledge nonetheless. Sedgwick’s choice of intertexts, as far as I recognise them, works well here–Lovecraft’s body of work as well as 2001 are both full of the wonder and terror of the vastness of space and time. In each case knowledge and oblivion are closely linked–three of the novellas end with a death. As for Bowman, perhaps he is dead–or perhaps he has dreamed all these novellas during his ten-year nights. Or we accept the ending the novella gives us, in which he arrives on a possibly-inhabitable planet and meets a young woman, much like the woman of that first, prehistoric, novella, who thinks in verse–we’ve circled round to the beginning of the text, except not quite. (Perhaps that’s a spiral too.) It’s possible to think of the whole as a single narrative across deep time, whose protagonist is the human race and our relationship to knowledge. But for that, I suspect, you should read it in chronological order. (Certainly the references between the individual novellas seem to assume that you will do so, Sedgwick’s twenty-four combinations notwithstanding.)

I’m not sure what about the book marks it out as particularly for children or young adults–none of the main characters are children by the standards of the worlds in which they live, and the things in which it expects its readers to take interest (pulp horror writers, maths) don’t seem particularly restricted by age. I’m quite sure that I would have been thrilled by exactly those elements of the book as a teenager, but I don’t know that the category “children’s literature” (insofar as it’s a meaningful category at all) should simply include everything any child anywhere is willing to read.

I’m also aware that my relative lack of enthusiasm for it now is a function of having, in the years since my teenagehood, read several books about space and time and maths and knowing and horror that do more with those things. It seems a strange thing to think about a book as intertextual as this one, but I suspect The Ghosts of Heaven is most successful when read by a naive reader. For a jaded one (me), it evokes grand, ambitious, huge ideas and then seems content not to do them justice.

June 7, 2016

Nick Lake, There Will Be Lies

“Lies” appear to be a theme with this year’s Carnegie shortlist– so far we’ve had The Lie Tree, Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now, unfortunately, There Will Be Lies.

(I frequently feel like a killjoy, both on the internet and in real world conversations about children’s books. Presumably, since this book made it to the shortlist of a major award, there are people who read and liked it; luckily, in my regular group of Carnegie readers, this week the consensus  seemed to be that the book was exactly as bad as I’d thought it was. This feeling, of not being a small, grumpy voice well-actuallying in the wilderness, is rather intoxicating.)

Shelby is nearly eighteen, homeschooled, deaf, and living with her mother Shaylene in Arizona. She has broached the subject of going to university a few times, mostly to be shut down. College is dangerous, the world is dangerous, men are dangerous; Shelby is best off at home, with her mother, without much contact with the outside world beyond weekly trips to the library and what time she can steal for herself on the internet. Clearly something’s very wrong.

Something is wrong, though it takes a while before we know what that something is. The book is structured around the “lies” (two of them, and then a truth, Shelby is told) in the title, and the plot moves forward as Shelby  meets these revelations. When she is hit by a car and has to be hospitalised, so that the hospital now has her mother’s details on record, Shaylene hurriedly takes her daughter and the two women leave town. We watch Shelby ‘learn’ that her father is alive and evil and that her mother’s running away from him; then that her father is dead and her mother’s a notorious killer; then, finally, that Shaylene is not her mother at all, but kidnapped Shelby from a hospital where she was undergoing treatment for burns after an accident. Shaylene is arrested, and Shelby is reunited with her birth family.

All of which might make for a decent thriller. Might, not does, because the narrative hurtles forward as if a series of revelations were the only way that movement was possible: and then and then and then. There’s a lot of plot and very little done with it. The short section towards the end in which Shelby is attempting to adjust and find common ground with her new family is well observed (and comes closer to having actual characters than anything the book has done so far), but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, the not-very-impressive thriller plot is not all there is to Lake’s book. The mysterious hot boy who Shelby meets at the library each week is in fact Coyote in disguise; he’s here to warn and protect Shelby, taking her into “the Dreaming” where she is to fulfil a mysterious quest, save a child, kill a crone and thus save the world.

I have none of the knowledge that I’d need to discuss the specifics of Lake’s use of Native American myths–but I found Debbie Reese’s analysis of the book, here, very useful. What I can talk about are the larger structuring assumptions inherent in this kind of use of myth.

What we have is a narrative in which the main character, coded as white throughout the book, finds herself on a quest accompanied by a mythological figure from a culture that is not her own, but who has made her wellbeing his responsibility. Even assuming that time works differently for mythological beings, Shelby seems like a strange priority for Coyote to have. For much of the quest narrative it’s not clear to Shelby what the quest is, or why she, of all people, should be undertaking this hero’s journey, but the fundamental right of a random white girl to be at the centre of this story is not something that is ever questioned, either by Shelby herself or by the text.

The “child”, most relatively experienced readers will soon figure out, is Shelby herself; the “crone” is Shaylene; the world is not ending, only Shelby’s world (but that’s the same thing, suggests Coyote, inaccurately). There’s the potential here to weasel out of the implications of the book’s use of myth, and claim that this is all taking place in Shelby’s subconscious, so that the blame for anything that may seem poorly researched, or cobbled together (see Reese’s post) can be displaced onto the character. But none of that explains what work the myths are doing here–since the Crone and Child story eventually devolves into a castle-moat-witch scenario that is equal parts European fairytale and video game, it’s hard to see what Lake wants to add to the book with this bit of careless appropriation. Perhaps the point is to create a closer link to the landscape? (Lake clearly thinks Arizona is very pretty.) Whatever it is, it does not work.

With all this, though, the thing I found most unpleasant about the book was Shelby’s deeply-felt disgust at her mother’s fat body. That Shaylene wears “pajama jeans” is so horrifying to her daughter that our attention must be drawn to it several times, including on the first page; she keeps having to “haul” herself around rather than, you know, move (there’s a charming moment a few pages in when Shelby explains that her mother’s not very active but that hey, you-the-reader will have figured that out because she’s told you Shaylene’s fat); her ass ripples in her (yep) pajama jeans; she’s sweaty so that “her hand is clammy around mine, slippery but strong, like being held by a squid”. Later, Shaylene meets, and has sex with a man who has the audacity to also be overweight: “And then an image flashes in my mind of Luke’s double chin and I think UGH again, UGH X 10,000″

 

Ugh x 100,000.

June 5, 2016

Of Interest (5 June, 2016)

I suppose I could have organised this week’s Sunday Reading links by theme, but nah.

 

Two important things by Sara Ahmed this week. First, a piece on her recent resignation from Goldsmiths, sexual harrassment, institutions and the archive. Then from a couple of days earlier, this, on progressive racism and racism as a structuring force in progressive movements.

[Reading the two pieces together is instructive; particularly when Ahmed says, in the piece on progressive racism, “The response to a challenge of diversity of the University takes the form of a statement of how the university promotes diversity.  Indeed, diversity as a form of good practice (One World Week, Black History Month) is used as evidence that there is not a problem with a lack of diversity.” Goldsmiths’ response to the incidents that led to Ahmed’s resignation almost appears to have been written to this guideline; it’s remarkable.]

 

Hannah Black on the workings of “identity politics”.

Carmen Maria Machado watches a stranger maybe write a novel.

Scott Long on the meaning (and elevation, and not) of marriage.

At Strange Horizons, Portia Subran, Kevin Jared Hosein and Brent Ryan Bellamy discuss the works of Nalo Hopkinson.

Muhammad Ali watches Rocky II with Roger Ebert.

I’ll be glad when Game of Thrones thinkpiece season is at an end, but this piece by Lili Loofbourow says some great things about the narrative incoherence of the show when it strays from family drama. [I squeaked with joy at 'we extend these incidents conspiratorial credit ("what happened to Hodor was terribly sad and clearly brilliant — we'll find out why soon").']

Iona Sharma on learning Gaelic and re-learning Hindi. Via about half the people I know (how weird and great to see someone you know in one context being ‘discovered’ by people you know in a different context.)

Camalita Naicker on passing as Indian in India, Africa in the Indian imaginary, and shared forgotten histories.

And while on the subject of anti-African (and anti-black) racism in India, a news story on multiple recent instances of mob violence and another on a forgotten African past in India.

Snigdha Poonam’s great (and terrifying) story on children in Kota IIT-preparation institutes killing themselves. (Avoid the comments unless painfully misguided how-not-to-feel-suicidal advice particularly amuses you.)

Most people have by now read this statement by the woman who was raped by Brock Turner, but it’s powerful and direct and horrifying. (Trigger warning for some graphic, detailed descriptions.)

Siddharth Varadarajan on the aftermath of the Gulberg society massacre.

 

June 1, 2016

May Reading

This month’s reading was awards-shortlist dominated (only two things on it weren’t on a shortlist I was shadowing, and then one of them actually won a completely different award), and largely underwhelming. I complained on twitter that I feel rather like that moment in Mad Max: Fury Road when Immortan Joe drives past, looks upon the violence, and sneers “mediocre”. On the other hand, new Helen Oyeyemi!

 

Sarah Crossan, One: A Carnegie shortlisted book. I’ve written about it here; it’s alright, I suppose. I wish there was more heft to it, but when don’t I wish this?

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves: Another from the Carnegie shortlist. I’ve written about this here; it’s a much more accomplished book, but its strengths can’t outweigh my distaste for some of its most fundamental premises.

Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: I’m still working through my feelings about this book. I linked in an earlier post to Nina Allan and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s reactions to this collection of short stories, and I can sort of see what isn’t working for them, but I also keep wanting to yell “but that’s the  point!”, and haven’t articulated for myself why it is the point. But I think the stories are too wry to truly be whimsical, as Bee suggests they are; and I think there’s a … noncommital (?) tone that feels essential to me. As I say, I’m working through these thoughts, but it feels like exactly the collection I’d have expected/wanted it to be. I suspect I’m going to be in a minority there, though.

Nick Lake, There Will Be Lies: The best thing about this (Carnegie shortlisted) book was going to my reading book and discovering that everyone else liked it about as much as I did. I’ll be writing more about it, when I’ve collected my thoughts; at the moment all I have is NOPE.

Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu: Look, a book I liked! I’ll be writing more about this; it has just won a South Asia Book Award and is about friendship and activism and community and feeds my desire for more good middle-grade fiction.

Jenny Valentine, Fire Colour One: I’ve written about this at some length here. It’s probably one of the stronger books on this Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far. Unfortunately, all that means is that it’s pretty average.

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love: I decided to join the final stages of a friend’s Bailey’s prize book group, mainly as an excuse to read The Portable Veblen (which I’m currently reading). The Improbability of Love was a surprisingly quick read, and I’d absolutely watch the very highly stylised film, but as a book I’m not a huge fan. It begins with an exaggerated comic tone (presumably why it was shortlisted for, and eventually won, the Bollinger-Wodehouse prize), and perhaps wisely realises it’s unable to sustain such a thing and slips back into a more mundane register–which is fair enough, and the thought of reading over 400 pages in the earlier style is rather horrifying. But then the huge cast of characters introduced in that introductory chapter just wanders around disconsolately for most of the rest of the book until called upon to appear at the climactic scene. They don’t work as characters; they might work as hilarious exaggerated stereotypes (not a form of humour I find particularly funny, but still a thing that can work) but the book has moved into a lower-key sort of satire where they no longer fit. A lonely, murderous Russian billionaire named Vladimir is the worst sufferer here, but he’s not the only one. What does work is the deliciously improbable and ludicrously French voice of the titular painting itself, which takes you on a mini tour of the important figures of eighteenth century France. Only because it’s in small doses, spread out through the rest of the text, though; I suspect 400 pages of this too might be intolerable. What really matters, though, is that there now exists a pig named “The Improbability of Love”, which is an excellent name for a beast.

May 29, 2016

Of Interest (29 May, 2016)

 

 

Names:

Kat Chow on outdated terms, identity, and being “Oriental”.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on caste, language, and adding that “Shepherd” to his name.

Kennetta Hammond Perry (whose book I still haven’t read, and need to) on Black Britons and Britishness.

 

Clothes:

Tyler McBrien on the significance of Julius Malema’s sartorial choices.

Fabiola Jean-Louis’s paper gowns, and the history of race in America.

Despite its title, this interview with Yuna doesn’t go particularly deeply into questions of fashion, race or wearing the scarf, but the pictures more than make up for it.  (#CoatsICovet)

 

Books & films &c.:

Sukruti Anah Staneley on Wingstar, Tinkle’s superhero from Mizoram.

This interview with Álvaro Enrigue about/around Sudden Death is so great.

Vajra Chandrasekera on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.

Genuinely the only piece of commentary on Game of Thrones that you need to read. Sorry, all other thinkpieces.

 

May 26, 2016

Jenny Valentine, Fire Colour One

fc1 kleinI rarely say this, but: I think I may honestly be too old to properly enjoy Fire Colour One.

Valentine’s book opens where its story ends, in the gardens of a house in (we don’t know this yet) England, where protagonist Iris has started a huge fire in honour of her father, whose funeral it is. The backstory is filled in gradually–Iris, her mother Hannah and her stepfather Lowell have been living in America, where the two adults are actors and models and Iris herself mooches about, starts fires, and has only one friend, Thurston. A combination of financial difficulties and Iris’s arsonous habits means that the three of them have moved back to England–where Iris’s biological father, Ernest, is dying. It turns out that Hannah’s stories about Ernest have been less than true–he didn’t abandon his daughter, he wants a relationship with Iris, and — this is important — he’s a millionaire who lives in a country mansion and collects famous art.

[Possible/definite spoilers.] Art is obviously important to Fire Colour One–the book is named after Yves Klein’s fc1 (used to illustrate this post because I like it better than the cover; sorry, cover artist). Thurston loves Klein, who “brought art out of the airless studio and back to life”; and who died tragically young. Both Thurston and Iris engage in forms of performance art–Iris describes her firestarting tendencies in artistic terms, and Thurston arranges public spectacles– we’re told about a mock funeral procession involving pigment bombs, a hearse and loud music, and we see him create a sort of shrine to Iris on a sidewalk, so that strangers come by and (assuming the girl in the picture is dead) pay their respects to it–they are somewhat startled to see the living Iris appear. Ernest, it turns out, is a talented artist who also happens to enjoy its performative aspects–the conclusion of the book, in which Ernest manages, from beyond the grave, to thwart Hannah and hand over his vast fortune to Iris, is as much a work of art as any of Ernest’s paintings.

There’s a lot to like about Fire Colour One. Its prose is genuinely good and willing to do more than just tell a story; though it needs to be a little infodumpy to tell the reader about Klein (I knew nothing about him other than that Klein blue was a thing), it doesn’t over-signal its constant return to the subject of art; Iris’s habit of starting fires is cause for concern to the adults around her (apart from Ernest, whose priorities are a bit dubious, really) but the book treats it as merely a part of who she is and never risks turning it into an Issue.

But then there’s Iris-and-Thurston and Iris-and-Ernest.

“I’m glad you know a little about art,” says Ernest, “and the great man”. Iris has just finished telling him (and us) what she knows about Yves Klein. “I know what Thurston taught me,” she shrugs. A shared love of art is what brings Iris and Ernest and Iris and Thurston together, but both relationships seem to take the form of the older, better-informed man “teaching” Iris. I can’t remember a moment when Iris has something to teach these characters–even her explanations of why she starts fires seem to chime with things they’ve already heard before, so that her experience is one of being understood, rather than helping them to understand. At the end of the book we discover that Thurston and Ernest have been speaking, have formed a friendship (bonding over art and Iris, presumably), and one of Ernest’s final acts (apart from the big art thing, and the big tricking Hannah out of the money thing) has been to return Iris’s lost friend to her; to restore Thurston and Iris’s relationship. That relationship may be a romantic one or a very intense platonic one, but the whole thing has for me some of the implications of fathers of the bride handing over their daughters to new designated male protectors.

I don’t think this is merely an unfortunate gender dynamic that has crept into the book, though; I think it’s fundamental to both relationships. I suggest at the beginning of this post that I may be too old to fully appreciate this book, and one of the reasons for that is Thurston. Thurston is a Vonnegut fan–of course he is. Thurston makes art. Thurston is skinny and beautiful and romantically poor. Thurston is full of information about certain sorts of artists and writers, and he loves to share this information with his younger female friend. He’s a slightly cooler version of the time in your teens when you had a crush on the guy who was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. Perhaps a reader in their teens could access some of that attraction; could have it underlay the book. (As an adult, I found myself thinking instead of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley mooching around glumly in American Beauty; I don’t think the book intended this to be as funny to me as it was.) But though I’m thankfully immune at my age to the specific charms of earnest teenage boys who Know About Art, I’m not immune to the larger desire to be approved of by men who know (or think they know, or can make me think they know) more than me. It’s a powerful thing, and it’s a specifically gendered thing.

And Fire Colour One ensures that we know that Iris has the approval and attention and adoration of these two men. Early in the book, when Iris is hurt and upset by Thurston’s fake shrine prank, he explains that the whole point is “You think people don’t see you [...] You think you’re forgettable” and “How come you can’t see how much you’re loved?” Ernest, too, has made his lost daughter the centre of his life even in her absence, and he too demonstrates this through a sort of art installation that has taken over a decade to prepare, and that becomes the climactic, closing scene of the book:

Ernest had laid traps and my mother stumbled right into them. There was something beneath the surface of every painting, written in zinc white, so it would show up under ultra-violet and stop my mother and Lowell dead in their tracks. Their world was about to end, and Thurston had made sure they had an audience. Better than my fire, better than any revenge I could ever have thought of, more than twelve years in the making, a message from Ernest for them and one for me too. Hannah checked every one, running from room to room by the end of it, followed by a stream of witnesses, hysterical, apocalyptic, catastrophic.

The same word on each of the forty-seven canvasses that filled the house. Bigger and bigger each time until it took up the whole space, waiting patiently, screaming out beneath layers of paint.

IRIS.

As I was reading the book I described it to friends as essentially a fantasy about being loved, and this is precisely what it is–about being loved by people whose love is worth something (arty men, within the book’s frame of reference; important men in general),being loved huge, demonstrable, spent-twelve-years-making-the-art-to-prove-it amounts. It’s a little bit ridiculous if it’s not a fantasy you share.

One doesn’t, of course, crave love from lesser beings. One aspect of Fire Colour One that is hard to reconcile with the rest of the book is its presentation of Iris’s mother and stepfather, for whom Iris has nothing but contempt. Which isn’t that surprising–for a teenage girl whose hobbies include Meaningful Conversation About Art and Burning Things to despise adults who seem shallow and interested only in clothes and careers makes sense. But Fire Colour One would have you believe that Lowell and Hannah are exactly as shallow, grasping, and unintelligent as Iris thinks.  If I compared Iris and Thurston to characters in American Beauty, Lowell and Hannah, as parents, seem to come straight out of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. But they become irredeemably bad, rather than comically evil, early on in the book, when rather than protecting their daughter from an attempted rape by the son of a potential employer, they disbelieve and blame her for defending herself.

About halfway through the book some reason is given for Hannah’s grasping nature (by now Lowell has largely slipped out of the plot; he never particularly mattered). We’re told that when Hannah and Ernest met she was starving and homeless and beautiful and he was rich and unable to talk to attractive women except to babble about art and show off his expensive possessions. He asked her to stay; she did.

But by this point Hannah is already irredeemable, and it’s not in the book’s interest to redeem her; to make her in any way sympathetic would undercut the triumph of Ernest’s final victory over her (“[her] world was about to end”). Hannah’s grasping nature, her insistence on the monetary value of Ernest’s art; these aren’t presented to us as the natural reactions of someone who has been poor and desperate, but of someone who Is. Just. Bad.

I don’t know, though. Telling the story of their first meeting, Ernest explains that it was outside an antiques shop, that he’d fallen and hit his head and talked to her about how each of the wine glasses in the window was worth a couple of hundred pounds. “I could live on that for a month,” Hannah says. When Hannah has moved in with Ernest, he buys the wine glasses, and Hannah drops one on the kitchen floor.

“She did it on purpose,” he told me, “because they were hers now, because she could.”