Thursday, August 20, 2015

book one, booker prize longlist 2015: The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
289 pp


"Out of dischord's ashes, harmony will rise."

If ever there was a novel that left me completely torn in my reaction to it, it's this one.  It is written in a unique style that left me floored in a good way, and there were several individual scenes that just blew me away, one in particular that I'll mention briefly.  The other side of that coin is that to me the originality of the writing doesn't really disguise the fact that the plot turned out to be a bit familiar, so much so for me that there came a time where I could already figure out what was going to happen at the end.  And that's such a shame. I was really invested in the story and in the main characters right up until the point where I thought, "well, jeez...I know how this is going to come out."  

The Chimes takes place either well into the future or in an alternative London.  Which ever you'd like to choose,  society there has come to a point where there is no written word (known as code, which can be seen here and there but not understood),  where a group known as "The Order" rules, and where an instrument called "the Carillon" is played every day on a certain schedule.  At Matins the populace hears "Onestory," which the main character understands as the "burden, the constant truth beneath everything," which musically relates how things came to be the way they are because of the "Allbreaking," or the event that created the division between the past and present. Then some time later at Vespers comes "Chimes," the purpose of which I'll leave it to others to discover.  Oh yes. One more thing.  In this London memory, both individual and collective, does not exist; people still have "bodymemory" but the past is lost.  Anything before is "blasphony;"  the Order ensures the lack of past memories so that society functions only in the present.

The Chimes is the story of a teenaged boy named Simon, who leaves his home in Essex because there's something he needs to do in London.  An orphan, he carries with him his bag of memories. Upon his arrival he makes his way to where he thinks is the place to go, but is sent away.  He makes his way to the river where he meets a group known as the Five Rover pact, who prospect for pieces of "mettle" called "The Lady."  The Lady is then sold so that the pact can purchase necessities; from the market it goes to The Order for its own purposes.  Inwardly Simon struggles to remember his past, but in a society where yesterday is totally forgotten each day, it's not easy. He does have his bag of objectmemories, giving him little bits of insight,
"that's where you keep the pictures of what happened, stored in scraps and oddments salvaged from passing days.  When I hold them, the objects, the pictures come up. My whole life is in my bag. Bits of my childhood. Pieces of the last days on the farm. Everything I ever thought important enough to keep."
but the next day starts everything over again.

  It is when he hooks up with this pact that Simon will meet Lucien, who sees something unique in Simon, and a very special friendship develops between the two that will have consequences for the future. That's all I'll say about the plot because in this case, telling is spoiling.  There is one scene that I absolutely loved that really brings the big ideas of this novel to the forefront, taking place after Simon and Lucien leave the city in search of an elderly woman living in an old house overflowing with things people have entrusted to her so that memory is not entirely lost. It turns out to be a very poignant scene, where memories are both good and bad; the woman is one of the few who can recall other people's memories through their objectmemories. 

Obviously the big idea in this novel is the importance of memory, both individually and on a larger, societal basis. In many ways, the themes of memory, harmony, and cohesion reminded me of  Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. Unlike that book, or frankly, any other I've ever read however, the author uses a unique way to tell her story, and that is through the ingenious and original use of music as language, and her use of musical terminology. As just one example,
"Lucien is very still now, but his eyes are moving smoothly. He's looking up and down and to the sides in a way that seems like he's testing them. He blinks: lento, lento, then presto."
Music recalls the paths through the "Under," beats become important for helping to guide the way to and from places; the city itself is "talking in music." The pact has its own musical codes; music is also used by The Order for communication to all, both in terms of the regular routines mentioned above and for signaling to the public, as for example when Simon and Lucien are in hiding and being sought.  It is such an innovative touch and despite what other readers have said about taking a long time to adjust, I had no problem at all -- it was easy for me to settle in pretty much right away. Gimmicky, maybe a bit, but to me, it was a unique form of expression at work here.

If so far it's pretty obvious that this book is very different and in many ways unique, why would I be bothered by it?   It wasn't long past the midpoint of the novel where something clicked  and I realized I've been down this road before not just once, but many times before. It was sort of disappointing because while the writing style was so original, in terms of the much bigger picture the framework of the story was not.  While there's much to be said about the originality of the setting, the characters, the centrality of the emphasis on music and other aspects unique to this novel,  the fact is that as the direction of the story itself started to become clearer, I kept thinking that this was all starting to sound very familiar.   So I'm left torn here: I loved the writing, the overall atmosphere and feel of her London, and I became quite invested in her people.   At  the same time, however,  the feeling of déjà vu and the fact that I knew the barebones of what was coming  was very disconcerting and a bit offputting, to say the least.   I was left thinking that originality of the writing should be matched by an original story framework and well, in my opinion, that just wasn't the case.  

From what I can see, aside from that initial shock of getting past the author's unique, musically-focused writing style, reader responses have been generally positive.  So maybe my issues are just mine, but I walk away with the feeling of  probably not being as quite enthralled with The Chimes as I maybe might have been otherwise. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

*The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Penguin, 1990
351 pp
(originally published 1857)


"Something further may follow of this Masquerade."


That nice little word that describes so much in such a short breath  represents the long and short of how I feel about reading The Confidence-Man.  I had such a good time with the first part of this book, but by the time it was over I was ready to be done with it.  My reasoning behind choosing this novel was that it all took place along the Mississippi River, a setting further west than my reading's taken me to this point.

The action in this book takes place in one day, most notably on April 1, so right at the outset you get the idea that some sort of mayhem might be in store. The setting is a journey from St. Louis to New Orleans aboard a riverboat called Fidèle.  As the introduction states, "The Mississipi is the artery of trade and commerce, the symbol of manifest destiny, as well as the division between slave states and free;" the ship itself, with its landings, embarkations and disembarkations, is a great vehicle for bringing all manner of people together, most of whom are likely never to meet again.   But it also calls our attention to the different types of people on board, the "Anacharsis Cloots congress of that multiform pilgrim species, man," which together with the riverboat, signify the
 "dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide." 
 The first part focuses on a series of encounters between various confidence men and the people who ended up as their victims; the second part (chapter 24 onward) dispenses with the ongoing series of scam artists and centers on just one main character, Frank Goodman, aka "The Cosmopolitan."  However, it is pretty easy to figure out that the confidence-men at work aboard the Fidèle just might be the same man, hence one meaning of the subtitle "His Masquerade." He has several incarnations, including a "grotesque negro cripple" named Guinea, the president and transfer-agent for a coal company, a solicitor of donations for the recently-founded Seminole Widows and Orphans society, an herb doctor who pushes his "Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator;" still another has a grand plan for taxing everyone to support a World Charity as a measure of bringing a "Wall Street spirit" to the act of charity, and the list goes on.  The main thing about this character, despite his many iterations, is that he manages to sucker both trusting and distrusting passengers -- he is saying in effect that if they distrust him, it only goes to prove that they are suspicious toward all other human beings, and that is really no way to exist. Conversely, if they have a trusting nature toward all men, then they must naturally trust him. Distrusters, as Frank Goodman ironically notes, "stab at the very soul of confidence."

A number of contemporary social issues come to the fore in this novel -- slavery, the public's reliance on and confidence placed in patent medicine, man vs. the machine in the growth of industrialization, philanthropic  reforms to help better society's ills, and capitalism, to name a few. The frontier experience is also touched on here, as for example in the story of the "Indian-hater," where it seems that the author expounds on the thin line that separates civilization from "savagery, although I have to say that it's tough to believe any of these stories-within-a-story at face value.  Melville also takes a few digressions away from his story to bring his readers into his thoughts on  fiction writing, most especially about the creation of characters, but perhaps even more important are his ideas regarding truth.     I also get the sense that through the figure of the Confidence-man himself,  the author is trying to show the disconnect between appearance and reality.  Applied to an increasingly-growing nation, this could signify his concerns about the "masquerade" going on in American life.  It might also be that he sees some sort of existential crisis facing the nation as beliefs slip and slide.  The back-cover blurb also gives a clue, saying that The Confidence Man
"finds form for the idea that, if our beliefs are shifting and uncertain, we at least have fiction."
Since I'm not a true Melville aficionado (and to me, that's an okay thing)  I know I didn't even touch the surface of what lays underneath in this novel, so let me point you to a few people who actually know what they're talking about and whose opinions are way better than mine:

Uncredited, "The Confidence-Man" from Columbia University
Zack Friedman, "Prose and Cons

Anyway, when all is said and done, I'm glad I read it, but it's definitely not a favorite. Quite frankly, it was exhausting and I'm still not sure that I came away with any sort of deep understanding.  But I finished it, and that's a major achievement when all I really wanted to do was put it down.  I give myself pats on the back. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

have you seen this cover???

Doing a little research on Melville I came across a NYT Sunday Review article featuring different covers of Moby Dick. I copied this photo from Flavorwire (courtesy of the collection of Bill Pettit), and the photo credit in the NYT article goes to Nathaniel Brooks of the NYT. Bill Pettit collects editions of Moby Dick from all over the world and my eye was caught by this one.

I'm seriously not sure what the high school (college?) basketball star has to do with Moby Dick but I LOVE this cover.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

August: the spouse is away so I can read all day; July wrap-up

I'm not pimping American Airlines here, but it's sort of symbolic of all of the traveling Larry's doing next month (and the next) that gives me loads of free time to read.  I'm still planning on getting through more of Patricia Highsmith's work, plus I have some new and vintage crime novels  that are calling to me, and finally, I've set myself  a goal of reading at least two Booker Prize-nominated books.

Serious reading has pretty much escaped me this summer: It's definitely tough to read novels I have to think about when my brain is really focused here, but I did my best considering the constant pull toward the pool.

No serious reading allowed while in my patio, but I did manage to get through a few good books.

In the nonfiction zone, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, by Emily Bingham. Sometimes it's fun to just pick up a biography of someone I've never heard of before and see what shakes out.  This one I can highly recommend.

Turning to crime, the fourth book in David Mark's ongoing McAvoy series (Taking Pity had me turning pages late into the night.  Then it was Highsmith's turn with her The Blunderer , which had a terrific but wholly unexpected ending.  Ayee!  Moving forward into the modern world, Jan Costin Wagner's The Winter of the Lions brought me back to Scandinavia again with "snow-noir" (??).  How far is this labeling everything as some sort noir going to go? Lillian Jackson Braun -- does she write kitty-noir?  And finally, the crime reads ended with another vintage read in my quest to discover and read the works of obscure crime-writing women, Murder in the Mist  by Zelda Popkin.  If you're thinking "who the hell is Zelda Popkin," well, you aren't alone. I will say that of all of the crime novels I got through in July, I actually enjoyed her book (from 1940) the most. Oh wait! One more -- the only Barbara Vine novel I've ever disliked, No Night is too Long. This isn't the same Barbara Vine who wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye, that's for sure. I'll post about it soon.

Some of my favorite reading this month came from the creepier side, with The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (ed. Robert Aickman), Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn, and Ellen Datlow's forthcoming anthology (which I haven't posted about yet but will here shortly), The Monstrous. With apologies to Tachyon, it's been a choppy, choppy July so I had to grab time as I can find it. 

Last, but by no means least comes the literature reads. After impatiently waiting years for it to be published, I devoured Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire, which as I noted earlier is the perfect ending to Ghosh's perfect Ibis trilogy.  Once again, I had to buy my copy from the UK (it doesn't come out here for nearly another week). If you're into historical fiction that goes way beyond the Phillipa Gregory level (I'm sorry -- I just can't take her writing seriously after reading The Other Boleyn Girl -- which I absolutely hated), and you want something intelligently written that goes well beyond the norm, start with Sea of Poppies and make your way through all three books. Those 600+ pages will fly by.  The only other literary novel I finished was Highsmith's The Price of Salt, another that's sitting on the to-be-posted-about stack next to my desk.  I loved the book -- if they screw up the movie I'll be devastated. It's so good. 

--- the other stuff
  • the book group is on a well-deserved hiatus until the end of September.  It's too hard to be serious in the summer anyway. 
  • Books bought definitely exceeded books leaving the house.  And there are more on order. 
  • currently reading:  The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville. Currently I'm just rounding page 50 but so far, I'm really liking this one. I've also started Highsmith's Deep Water, and I'm planning on reading a book about Italy's Berlusconi, Being Berlusconi, by Michael Day.   

For me a good, easy month -- I suppose getting serious can wait until the fall.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

contemporary interlude #3: Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh -- a perfect ending to a perfect series

John Murray, 2015
616 pp


I think I can honestly say that I have never read a better series of historical fiction novels than Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy. The series starts with opium farmers in India and ends with the gunboat diplomacy that forced China to open its ports to British trade and to accept a series of unequal treaties.  The trilogy as a whole is an amazing critique of colonialism/imperialism, all the while exploring how the financial windfall of the opium trade helped to change individuals, families, communities, nations, diplomacy and international relations and left effects that linger in into our modern world.  To say this trilogy is epic in proportion is no understatement, but it is so compelling that waiting for the publication of the third installment was sheer torture.   I read somewhere that Flood of Fire can be read as a standalone novel, but I have to disagree here -- there is an incredible richness of depth that exists when you read all three novels, plus there are recurring characters whose lives intertwine over the space of all three books.

The Ibis Trilogy
all bought from the UK because I couldn't ever wait for the American releases 
Just to recap, in Sea of Poppies (via the dustjacket blurbs):
"the backdrop to this historical adventure is the Opium Wars, when the British East India Company lured China into a fatal dependency on opium from its Indian territories. Its vast sweep ranges from the wide lush poppy fields of the Ganges to the narrow confines of repressive households, from the rolling high seas to the cramped quarters aboard ship..."
Sea of Poppies is our introduction to the Ibis, once a slave ship but now retooled for transporting indentured labor to the sugar plantations of Mauritius and opium to China. It is on this ship that (continuing with the blurb,)
"...fate has thrown together  a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners...sailors, coolies and convicts ... a bankrupt raja, a Chinese opium addict, a lissom French runaway and a mulatto freedman from Baltimore. As their old family ties are washed away, like their historical counterparts, they come to view themselves as jahah bhais or ship-brothers."
It is that small contingent of people whose stories continue  in River of Smoke that moves most of the action to China where the Emperor is desperately trying to stop the influx of opium. Tensions between the Chinese and the opium traders reach a fever pitch, ending with the confiscation and destruction of all opium from traders and merchants.

 This act sets the scene for the final novel, Flood of Fire, where with so much money at stake and a demand for "free" trade,  the efforts  of one empire to repel another turns into full-blown conflict which ultimately changes the world map.  The smaller  stories that take place within the bigger picture reveal exactly how the lives, loyalties, and fortunes of both men and women changed during this period of time, all told from various perspectives of the characters who lives play out within this very broad sweep of history.

Quite frankly, I have a huge number of pages tabbed with things I wanted to remember, there are so many things I want to say that I could fill an entire notebook.  So I'll limit the rest of this post to just a couple of key ideas. First, during the course of this story,  Ghosh makes the point that the British, in their quest to save the lucrative opium trade by force, spun things so that they became a matter of  "the divine Mission that the Almighty Himself has entrusted to our race and our nation,"
 "freeing a quarter of mankind from tyranny; of bestowing on the people of China the gift of liberty that the British empire has already conferred on all those parts of the globe that it has conquered and subjugated."
and an opportunity to
 "give to the Chinese the gifts that Britain has granted to the countless millions who glory in the rule of our gracious monarch, secure in the knowledge that there is no greater freedom, no greater cause for pride, than to be subjects of the British Empire."
This from a man who will not be involved in the fighting itself, a man who is just trying to save his financial investments, create new ones, and hold on to his wealth.   Second, it is obvious that the author put huge amounts of research into this book and into the other two novels preceding it.  In this book alone we get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of capitalism at work (in the form of futures trading, secret auctions, manipulation of prices, etc.), we see at eye level  the Indian forces that fought alongside the British -- their uniforms, their training, the differences between various fighting units and the camp followers that played an integral role; at the caste/class systems at work, and by no means least, at the Opium Wars themselves.  At the same time, the history never gets overbearing or tedious -- the facts are well woven into the lives of his very realistic, believable characters.

I could go on about this book -- the fun plays with language, the palpable tension that the author manages to evoke,  etc., etc., but I won't. Instead, I'll just say that Flood of Fire is the perfect ending to a perfect series, and as I said, the entire trilogy is simply amazing -- I doubt there has been anything like it before and I know that there will not be anything like it again.  I definitely recommend this book and its predecessors to anyone who enjoys quality historical fiction, excellent writing, and a great story.  I'm so sad to see this series come to an end.  It is absolutely magnificent, superb, and all manner of superlatives. GO READ THESE BOOKS!!

As just a sidebar/FYI thing, the American publication is out August 4th, but the cover art isn't nearly as impressive as the UK publication:

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


it's that time again ... the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist

and without further ado, here they are -- the books that made this year's longlist:

Bill Clegg -- Did you Ever Have a Family
* Laila Lalami -- The Moor's Account
Marilynne Robinson -- Lila
Anne Tyler -- A Spool of Blue Thread
Hanya Yanagihara -- A Little Life

Anuradha Roy -- Sleeping on Jupiter

Anne Enright -- The Green Road

* Marlon James -- A Brief History of Seven Killings 

New Zealand
* Anna Smaill -- The Chimes

Chigozie Obioma -- The Fisherman

Tom McCarthy -- Satin Island
Andrew O'Hagan -- The Illuminations
* Sunjeev Sahota -- The Year of the Runaways

* I have copies of these novels. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

*Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, by Robert Montgomery Bird

NYRB Classics, 2008
originally published 1836
425 pp


Moving back to the 1830s once again,  this has to be one of the more bizarre novels I've come across from the early 1800s, but well worth it if for nothing else, the picaresque adventures of Sheppard Lee as he moves his soul/spirit/self into body after body.  According to Wikipedia, the term "picaresque" derives from the Spanish term "pícaro," or "rascal' " and there is really no better way to describe the star of this novel.  And before I go any further, a lot has been made about the racism in this novel, but the thing is, I wouldn't have expected anything different, considering the author. Robert Montgomery Bird was an anti-abolitionist, and this fact is reflected in the pro-slavery stance taken in this book.  More later on that; for now I'll just say that in Sheppard Lee, Bird manages to find something to say about people in every section of society of the time.

The titular character is a sort of grown-up ne'er do well who is left a prosperous estate upon the death of his father.  Because he is so lazy and doesn't tend to things he needs to do, the long and short of it is that he loses pretty much everything his father had worked so hard for.  Because he wants a quick out, eventually he gets the idea to go and dig up some legendary pirate treasure said to be buried close to his farm. An unfortunate accident while doing so leaves Lee in a sort of a trance; when he awakens, he looks down at
"...that eidolon, or representative, or duplicate of me, that was stretched on the grass" 
and realizes that he's actually looking at his own corpse. Running off in an unsuccessful effort to find help, he returns to the scene and his body has vanished, with only a "torn and bloody" shoe remaining.  As luck would have it, a certain Squire Higginson with whom Lee has had words, has also met his end, setting Lee to thinking:
"Why might I not, that is to say, my spirit, -- deprived by an unhappy accident of its natural dwelling, -- claim, and thus uniting interests together, as two feeble factions unite together in the political world, become a body possessing life, strength and usefulness?"
In short, Lee decides that it would be a good thing to "inhabit" Higginson's body -- and wishes it so. Soon he finds himself in the now-reanimated body of the Squire -- congratulating himself because now he is a "respectable man, with my pockets full of money."  But through a series of adventures, Higginson's body is just the first stop on Lee's soul/self/spirit journey (and I learned a new word to define this concept -- metempsychosis)  -- and along the way he moves into various bodies whose owners all have one big thing in common:  their lives are centered around money, each desiring to improve his own situation either through speculating, credit, expectations of good inheritances, or marrying into a better station.  Lee lives quite a few different lives and in each one, makes a number of discoveries as he seeks out happiness. The novel is a satire and serves to skewer familiar types of the period:  the dandy who plays a great game yet has not even a penny, a moneylender whose miserly qualities are very well known, an abolitionist philanthropist who spends his life trying to help the less fortunate and who does so ultimately at his own expense. What lesson does he ultimately learn? I leave that for the reader to discover.

the author, Robert Montgomery Bird
Now, getting to the modern reader's problematical issue of race in this novel,  here's where knowing even a little about American history can be a good thing. Personally, I look at this section as a sort of reflection of the fears that grabbed hold of many slave owners after the famous Nat Turner's rebellion, and indeed those of Robert Montgomery Bird as well.  Furthermore, as noted above, Bird himself was against abolition, so it's no surprise to me that he wrote this particular section the way he did.  In one book I looked at that made mention of Bird, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture,  the author notes Bird writing in his diary regarding slave uprisings that
"Someday we shall have it...and future generations will perhaps remember the horrors of Haiti as a farce compared with the tragedies of our own happy land." 
 If you look at the time in which this book was written, it had only been five years since the Nat Turner insurrection, which led to
"tightened restrictions on African Americans. Over the course of two days, dozens of whites were killed as Turner's band of insurrectionists, which eventually numbered over fifty, moved systematically from plantation to plantation in Southampton County. Most of the rebels were executed along with countless other African Americans who were suspected, often without cause, of participating in the conspiracy."  [link here]
It also led to false reporting of other slave insurrections that in reality never occurred, and a growing fear among white people that "slaves all over the state were secretly plotting to rebel and kill them."  When Sheppard Lee leaves the body of the abolitionist, he enters into the body of Tom the slave, who lives on a plantation in Virginia. The owner is shown here to be kindly, but he also takes a rather paternalistic point of view toward his slaves, an attitude in which slavery was not viewed as "an institution of brute force, but of responsible dominion over a less fortunate, less evolved people." Indeed, as Tom, things seem to go well, until an abolitionist pamphlet  falls into the hands of his fellow slaves.  Two of them try to figure out the text, but end up pantomiming a picture of other slaves being whipped by their master; this in turn leads to an uprising against Tom's master.  It's not at all pretty, moving into the downright deplorable zone, but I can get where Bird is coming from, given his pro-slavery stance.

All in all, though, as I said, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is a satire that not only takes on various types of people but also takes on the political situation under Jackson.  As was also the case with Hooper's Adventures of Captain Suggs, speculation runs rampant, and this novel reflects nearly each step of  Lee's travels via metempsychosis as a way in which he  plays the speculation game, gambling each time on a better life.

I laughed through a lot of this novel, at least until I reached the part where Lee jumps into Tom's body and things go terribly wrong; the rest of the book is actually quite funny and Sheppard Lee is a character I'll definitely remember.  As I said at the outset, this novel is one of the most bizarre I've read so far as I make my way through early American fiction, and I'd certainly recommend it as one not to miss as yet another  window into America's history via the medium of the novel.