Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

Speaking of authors who write stories that feel like coming home, I am always very excited to get my hands on something new by Robin McKinley. Interestingly, despite my adoration, I haven't actually read Water, the collection that predates Fire, but that will be rectified next time I head into a book store. If Water is anything like Fire, I want to own it.

The lovely thing about Fire is that I've also had an introduction to Peter Dickinson now, an author I have been meaning to try for years. His name keeps cropping up as a must-read speculative fiction author, so it's about time I got on that train.

There are five stories in Fire. None of them are connected by anything except, well, fire, and the fact that they are fantasy. Thematically each is separate, and stylistically it's really interesting to notice just how very different Dickinson and McKinley's voices are. Each has a particularly strong voice, too. I worried a little (because I worry about stuff like this) that one's voice might shine and the other might pale in comparison, but that didn't happen because they're so vastly different.

Dickinson's stories, "Phoenix", "Fireworm" and "Salamander Man" all seem to share a slightly distant, mythological quality. They read like legend, as though Dickinson is a tale-teller, passing these carefully crafted gems of stories to us from one generation to the next. In "Fireworm" he almost seems to reflect himself -- one of the main threads through this story is the power of story, and the unreal quality a tale can take on once it becomes a story versus experience. It's a story explicitly about heroes and perspectives, and though it's not the first story I've read to question what makes a hero, I think it's one of the better ones. I felt a deep-seated discomfort, even sorrow, at the ambiguity, and I was supposed to. With one exception (the main character in "Salamander Man") I didn't get as emotionally invested in Dickinson's characters as I usually like to be in a story. Normally I might count this as a bad thing, but in this case I simply can't. The stories are fascinating, imaginative, and lovely in their complex/simple way. Will be reading more.

McKinley's stories are "Hellhound" which I loved and was likely my favourite of the collection, and the longest story in the book, "First Flight". Both are very McKinley -- her voice is so clear. It's a chatty style, full of detail and sidetracks and information that may not at first glance seem relevant, but boy does it build the world. By the time I'm a page in to either story, I know the main character, and I'm curious about the world, and I'm deeply invested in what happens. The added detail annoys some people, I've found. "Hellhound" is similar in feel to her book Sunshine, which is one of my all-time favourite books, and which tends to be a bit of a polarizing book. Some people love it and some really, really don't. Sunshine is basically one of my ideal books, and because "Hellhound" feels like it I love it too. In both her stories McKinley starts a number of different threads, and ties some up while leaving others dangling at the end of the story -- it's a complete story, but not all the questions are answered; and many of them are unlikely to ever be answered. I'm okay with that, the way she does it. In fact, I think it's one of the things I like best.

Recommended collection for sure, especially for lovers of fantasy. Reading this book made me happy.

Friday, January 29, 2010

*book clubbing* Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

After an insane and sad mix-up involving the internet eating emails, Mandy and I are back at it with reviews and chats about Cory Doctorow's award-winning YA novel Little Brother. Which, incidentally, you can now download for I-kid-you-not free, in addition to checking it out of your local library or buying yourself a hard copy.

My review:

So, Little Brother. There were parts that I really liked, and parts that I didn't like. But overall, my impression is very good: this is an Important Book, one that a lot more people need to be reading. It helps that it's very readable. It occurs to me that most of this review will be about some of the problems I had with the novel, but I want to be clear: I did enjoy it, and I will recommend it. What seem like problems to me actually all stem from the point of view of the narration, and so many will probably not find them as jarring as I did. It's not something Doctorow did wrong, it's that the point of view is completely consistent and strong throughout and sometimes I wanted more.

I would call this is a dystopian novel, although I'm not sure that's quite right. It's really, frighteningly close to what we've already got. There but for the grace of intelligent people like Cory Doctorow go we, my friends. Take a big, devastating terrorist attack and a giant, scary overreaction by the feds, and there are teenagers being disappeared for being teenagers, and privacy being stripped from us all. It doesn't take much to extrapolate from our current situation to get to where Doctorow has put his hero Marcus.

What I didn't like was that some of the villains were a little flat. The big villain, the Department of Homeland Security, is faceless, implacable and terrifying in the way it is supposed to be; but the individuals, the class bully, the obnoxious VP, the sadistic interrogator, all were kind of ... meh. I didn't see them as much but strawmen in a lot of ways, people for Marcus to fight against so that he could win and explain why he was right in the process.

The problem with the flatness of the villains is that it does lend an air of unreality to the big problems Marcus takes on. A number of times I ended up thinking, "really? really, reasonable people would let that sort of thing happen? really, reasonable reporters would gobble up the party line like that?" and I think that can be dangerous, because this book is all about not being complacent. I don't plan to ever get too political on this blog (it would get ranty and unpleasant for all involved), but this is a really political book. It forces one to be political, to think about what's happening in the world, and to be a little more vigilant than most of us have gotten used to being.

The only other problem I had was that occasionally Marcus would go off on tangents about various things related to his interests. Sometimes this is cool, but often it feels a little heavy-handed. That said, I don't think it was outside his character at all. The story is told in first person and Marcus is an earnest, righteously furious and very smart teenager. He wants the reader to understand his motivations, and he shares his various geeky loves with the reader too. So while I
found some of those interludes a little distracting, I don't think it was out of character -- it just took me out of the story.

Otherwise, as an intro to almost-dystopian YA lit, this was a good one. It was thrilling, I rooted for the good guys, some of it was quite original (I love the distraction Marcus came up with towards the end) and this book is absolutely an important one to read. It helps that it's a very readable, very engaging book.

***

This time, Mandy and I tried using Chatzy.com for a slightly different experience. What follows is our entire chat with only minor modifications to improve the flow. Enjoy!


Mandy: I liked your review, it was spot-on.

kiirstin: Thank you! I liked yours as well. You seemed to focus more on the technological aspects than I did. I didn't realize, for example, that gait recognition tech was something people were already working on.

Mandy: I was inspired to do some further reading, which is what I hope people would do after reading the book. My further reading was Google related, but I love that Cory included some fantastic resources at the end of his book for anyone interested.

kiirstin: Absolutely. And the essays by others at the end, I thought that was a neat touch.

Mandy: Gait-recognition technology sounds so silly after reading LB. It makes no sense. I love that LB made me question something that might otherwise seem like an okay technology to develop.

kiirstin: I thought he was very tech neutral, in some ways. Not necessarily saying "this is a bad technology" but "it is stupid to use technology in this way." Also, it made me decide I'd better password protect my cell phone.

Mandy: Many times throughout the book I was like "hunh?" about the techno-talk, but I'm used to that in SciFi. What is so cool about LB, and "mundane SciFi" in general, is that the techno-talk is not techno-babble; terms made up and used for plot purposes in some SciFi.

All of his explanations made perfect sense and were well researched. He also explained things very vividly.

kiirstin: Which all leads to that creepy "um, yeah, this could actually happen. yikes" feeling, because the technology behind the story was so established.

Mandy: Completely. You could see it all happening. LB did make me more paranoid in general--which was a big theme in the book. It also made me want to hack my Xbox with my zero hacker knowledge, but exuberant interest.

kiirstin: I think making you a bit paranoid's exactly what it was supposed to do. Even the times where I felt it might be a bit over the top, part of me was whispering that it wasn't really that over the top.

And then there was that thing on the border with the SciFi author who got the crap kicked out of him by border guards, like, a week after I finished the book.

Mandy: I didn't know about that. Who was the author?

kiirstin: Dr. Peter Watts. The first article I read about it was at Making Light. The comments on that post are really wonderful to read, too. Cory Doctorow was the first one to really break the news about that one. Dr. Watts is a friend of his.

Mandy: Cory is the coolest.

I love that his book was impeccably researched. He really knows his stuff. It's great to see someone who has a real message and gets it across, even in fiction.

Not to denigrate fiction, of course, as I love reading it. A heavy dose of non-fiction is great, though, and a bit of a breath of fresh surveilled air compared to many contemporary YA books.

kiirstin: There's a lot of fluff out there, which of course is wonderful to read too, but LB definitely had meat to it.

He just felt so familiar with the subject material. Although... if I can admit... that was one of the small things that kind of bugged me every once in a while.

Mandy: At times it was too much for me, as well.

kiirstin: It was just sometimes that there was such a clear agenda. While I agree wholeheartedly with the agenda, it was still quite noticeable.

Mandy: I agree. It was a little heavy-handed. I did like how he brings up the question, a few times in the book, how can you tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? Both know how to hack but the good guys are the ones who use it for a "good" purpose. However, who's the judge of that?

He touches on this a few times. I would have liked him to bring this to the fore a little more in the book.

kiirstin: Oh yes! Definitely. I liked what he did with that but I did want a bit more. The thing with Marcus' father was interesting -- I think any parent reading that would understand Marcus' father's perspective perfectly.

He was like the walking question "How much freedom and privacy would you give up to protect your family." And I *know* for many people it would be "all of it" except that without a bigger picture it's hard to recognize that by giving up those things, you're also harming your family.

Mandy: And the question of security was huge in the book. But when does the need for a sense of security become a means to possibly "evil" ends? Can we ever attain the type of security we're so set on keeping?

kiirstin: For example, how far are we willing to go just to catch wankers who decide that putting explosives in their underwear is the ideal way to inspire terror?

At the risk of overloading, there's another great Making Light thread talking about that issue. The point that is made somewhere in there is that there will *always* be outliers that we will never be able to predict.

Mandy: The lengths that we'd HAVE to go, according to LB, would only be "good" for the whole, not the individual and then you get on the slippery slope of means to the end for the greater good, which sometimes bulldozes the individual. And Homeland Security in the book demands that predictability be the norm. Which is crazy to suggest. And desperate to maintain.

kiirstin: Yes, exactly! Actually, something that stuck with me about that even though I didn't write it down was an offhand comment made about a kid who was HIV positive and his parents didn't know. And because of DHS' movement-watching scheme, they flagged his (her?) movements and blew his cover. Which would quite possibly have ruined his life.

Actually, this is something we've started having to deal with in libraries. In the States, there have been a couple of cases where the DHS has wanted libraries to release patron records to see what someone who is suspicious has been checking out of the library.

Mandy: I've heard of the library records cases. Crazy.

I also love the theme of Don't Trust Anyone Over 25 (I want to source this in the book to make sure). Because in the book anyone over 25 doesn't trust them. It's a theme that's interesting; the latter generation doesn't trust the newer generation because they are the next world-makers. What if they aren't right for the job?

"What if we haven't taught them the right way of being in the world and now it will come back to haunt us?" = blanket mistrust.

kiirstin: That whole blanket mistrust is SO PREVALENT though. Even some parents don't trust the kids they've raised to make good decisions. And true, teenagers sometimes make stupid decisions. But adults also often make stupid decisions, and they're the ones with the power.

I really liked that push-back.

***

And that's that! Thanks so much, Mandy! It was awesome chatting with you about Little Brother. Head on over to edge of seventeen and read Mandy's review for a different angle.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Angel's Blood by Nalini Singh

This book has been on my radar for ages, going all the way back to page four of my TBR list. Yes, page four was ages ago. Let's not think about that.

It's a book I had to be in the mood to read, though, and earlier this week was the day. I'd just finished a slog through a non-fiction book that was both enlightening and irritating, and I wanted something completely different, completely engaging, and completely romance novel. Angel's Blood delivered.

In Elena's world, vampires and angels not only exist, they are at the top of the hierarchy. Vampires are Made by angels, and angels are ruled by the ten archangels, beautiful, immortal and very deadly. When a vampire goes rogue, or reneges on his/her Contract -- that is, that in exchange for being Made they must give the first 100 years of their new life to the angel that Made them -- it's the Guild Hunters who are called to bring the vampire back. Elena is the best. So it is Elena who gets the very unusual call from Raphael, the Archangel of New York, when a special job comes up. This isn't a job like any other, and it will very likely be the end of her -- if Raphael isn't the end of her first.

I really enjoyed this book. It's not for the faint-hearted -- there are some rather gruesome scenes, lots of violence -- and it's a tense ride right to the end. This is why I had to be in the mood. But it also has humour, strong lead characters, an interesting premise, and a very interesting alternate modern setting. I liked the way the plot unfolded, not too fast but definitely not too slow, either. And I liked the romance. I know this won't be for everyone, because it's definately one of those "kill you or kiss you" romances. I tend to prefer the "friends to more than" romances, but every once in a while I quite enjoy the "kill you or kiss you" relationship, particularly when the balance here is almost even. Elena is a force to be reckoned with.

One of the things I liked about the book was that though Elena's a typical lone-wolf heroine, she's got a pack that backs her up. She has real friendships and those friends pull her out of scrapes, and she goes to lengths to keep them safe, too. Raphael is the same, although it took longer for me to recognize this. As to the relationship between Raphael and Elena, I thought it sizzled. Again, it's one fraught with danger so some won't enjoy it, but the chemistry was fantastic, and the relationship was complex. Sometimes with books like this you end up wondering how the protagonists could possibly stay together more than a month; here, I didn't end up feeling that way at all. And many of the other characters brought something to the table I'm not used to experiencing or enjoying: uncertainty about their motivations, their morality, and whether or not I should like them. There are a few in the book who I wanted badly to like, but they were unpredictable, and that was deliberate. Angel and vampire politics are byzantine, lethal, and inhuman, which added to both the tension of the plot and the overall atmosphere of the world. In addition to the complexity of the secondary characters, we also have a very complex, hidden-in-plain-sight society opening up before us as the book goes on.

There were a few small things that bothered me; occasionally the expositional dialogue was a little clumsy, and every once in a while something happened that was just this side of my suspension of disbelief, but I was moving through the book so quickly that I ignored these quite handily. The ending was... interesting. I can't say much more than that without giving things away. I spoiled it for myself by reading the summary of the next book in the series, Archangel's Kiss, so just... don't do that. I think I would have enjoyed the ending a lot more if I hadn't known. It's an ending that works well with the reader in the dark, and not as well if the reader knows what's going to happen.

Will I read Archangel's Kiss? Probably -- I'll wait again until I'm in the mood, though. There are a whole pile of loose ends at the end of Angel's Blood, but it does stand on its own as an entire story. No cliffhanger ending, but some rather compelling character and upcoming plot questions. Recommended for adult fans of paranormal/suspense romances, for sure! I'll be keeping an eye out for more Nalini Singh as well.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

FreeVerse: Vowels (Bök)

In honour of my first challenge, here's a poem from Eunoia by Christian Bök, the Canadian experimental poet. I'll be writing more about this book for sure. I thought this poem was appropriate, given that Eunoia as a whole is all about the vowels.

Thanks to Cara for hosting this weekly celebration of poetry at Ooh... Books!

From Eunoia by Christian Bök, published in 2001 by Coach House Press:


Vowels


loveless vessels

we vow
solo love

we see
love solve loss

else we see
love sow woe

selves we woo
we lose

losses we levee
we owe

we sell
loose vows

so we love
less well

so low
so level

wolves evolve


UPDATE: Evan from Coach House posted this in the comments, but I'll do it here, too: there's a Eunoia trailer on YouTube! Check it out, it's wonderful. It will give you a hint of the impressive scale of Bök's undertaking. And also it will likely make you giggle in places.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

clover, bee, and reverie: yes, I am signing up for a challenge

Let's just say that one of my hard-and-fast book blog rules is "no challenges." Thus far, I have been tempted by many, but have always come to the recognition that I am not cut out for book challenges. Too much pressure. I know this about myself and my reading style.

Ah yes, my brain whispers to me. But what about poetry? Haven't you broken your self-imposed, if admittedly soft, "no memes" rule for poetry already?

Damn you, brain.

Okay, so yes. Lu and Jason have come up with a poetry challenge and I am about to join it, due to prodding from brain and a little bit of encouragement from @Nymeth. (By which I mean, she was like, "hey, did you know about this?") It's a new year, time to try new things, I say. But this is it. One challenge. No more challenges.

This is my first challenge, and I'm not sure how it will go, so I'm going to start small. Really small. Smallest, in fact. I am officially aiming for the Couplet level - two books of poetry by the end of December. I have enough books of poetry that I'm excited about reading to aim for Limerick at least, but no pressure, kiirstin. No pressure. If I manage Couplet I can upgrade, right?

The two books I am thinking of are:
  • Eunoia by Christian Bök, which we have had on our shelf for a long time and which, ten years ago, I read parts of but never read completely. Added bonus, he's Canadian.
  • The Autumn Wind: A selection of the poems from Issa, translated by Lewis Mackenzie. Haiku. I am not sure I'm going to be able to get this book, but I'm going to try. I'm also not entirely sure whether or not I can read an entire book of haiku at once, but I've got nearly a year, so that's less than one poem per day of the 250 in the book. That means I will have to buy it, since the library won't let me keep it for 250 days...

Other possibilities include more Michael Ondaatje, if I can get my hands on a collection I haven't read yet; W.H. Auden is also on my radar and would be a new poet to me. Tennyson, perhaps, or Yeats. I have been wanting to read Allan Ginsberg's Howl again -- that was a favourite in my early university days. Perhaps Sylvia Plath or Margaret Atwood, since I notice this list is extremely female-light, or Emily Dickenson, whose work inspired the name of this challenge.

If this is what challenges are supposed to feel like -- really exciting -- then I'm going to be in trouble. 'Cause I'm liking this feeling.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Growing a Reader from Birth by Diane McGuinness

I'm going to have a hard time with this book. Let me say this straight off: I didn't like it. The problem for me now is going to be to explain why in a reasonable way. At first I thought it might just be because McGuinness spends a lot of time refuting other research I have read. It's hard to be told "what you believed is wrong!" (see: Santa) so occasionally my hackles will get up if I read a claim that refutes something I understand to be true, even though my inner academic is rolling her eyes at this unscientific sentiment. However, I think my main problems with this book stem from other things. Her claims have piqued my interest enough that I intend to look into the research myself so as to assure myself that what I understood was correct, or to recognize that I to reevaluate.

I was reading this with professional development in mind. Part of my job involves running baby and toddler sessions at my library, and I tend to be very interested in anything about what is called "pre-literacy" -- that is, the skills that children need to have in place before they can learn how to read. I want to see what I can do to help kids develop those skills.

The premise, which makes a great deal of sense, is that learning to read is a relatively simple matter -- a matter of decoding a code -- if children have the vocabulary, meaning, and understanding of how language works ahead of time. What McGuinness looks at throughout this book is language development in children: how they progress from babies who listen to their mother's voice in utero, recognizing vocal patterns without attaching meaning, to five-year-olds who can carry on a full conversation. Much of this was quite fascinating. Each chapter is set up to explain the concept, the research, and then to offer activities, games and solutions to parents to help their children learn language and learn it well. If you're looking for a book on helping children to read, though, look elsewhere. The information on reading is scanty except for the last chapter, and the last chapter is mostly a damning condemnation of the English-speaking world's education systems when it comes to reading instruction.

It was the way the information was presented that really got under my skin, in two ways. Even if unintentional, these two traits of parenting books are very noticeable and I wish editors would recognize that they're not attractive traits in a book.

First, this is one of those books that can make a person feel a) stupid and b) a bad, bad parent. I got a distinct feeling that if you do not do this right your child will be illiterate for life. I don't even have kids and I was feeling like a bad parent. It's not that she scolds, but there is a very strong "this is the right way, that is the wrong way" dichotomy in the writing. And I don't know how to get around that sort of thing, when she does so clearly believe that there is a right way/wrong way to interact with your children so they learn language. But the feeling I came away with was anxiety; I can't imagine how I would have felt if I was a working mother of two young children who wasn't doing things right. I picture myself throwing the book against the wall, and then locking myself in the bathroom and crying. The how-to suggestions were often vague or unhelpful; very few concrete activities, and lots of "behave this way." I really wanted more.

Second, and this is a huge pet peeve of mine: the caregiver is almost exclusively referred to as "mother." When fathers are included, it's most often parenthetically.

I really, really hate that.

I know it's common. I know that many of the studies are done on biological mothers and their children, and if you're reporting research carefully it makes sense to report on mother-baby relationships. But please, please make it explicit. Say "I can only generalize to mothers because it was only mothers involved in this study." Maybe make an effort to find research on fathers and language learning. If there is none out there, say so.

One of my big goals with my programming as I am moving forward is to get fathers more involved in the literacy lives of their kids. Books like this, where it is assumed that Mom's the one who wants baby to learn how to read well, do not help. It's exclusionary to the extreme. It will not make fathers interested in being involved.

I know the reasons for doing this are to make it easier to read, that having to say "mother and/or father" all the time doesn't work, and I know personally that saying "caregiver" all the time is awkward. There are ways around all this. The major problem I had here aside from the parenthetical dads was that I suspect that in some cases there are times being the biological mother might make a difference, where an adoptive parent or a father might not have the same result. Or, there might be nothing at all different about a biological mom. But I don't know. Everything is mashed together under "mom."

I get riled up about this stuff.

Anyway. So there, in a very large nutshell, are the two big reasons I didn't enjoy this book. They're common problems in parenting books, but I really noticed it here. Then add in the last chapter, which ended up making me wonder how the hell any of us can read at all. I can appreciate that in a society where, at last check, 60% of children have difficulty learning to read, there are problems with the way reading is taught. But 40% of children don't have trouble learning to read and presumably those children are in the same classrooms. Is it because parents teach them at home? Possible. But those 40% who can learn to read easily weren't in evidence at all, so I don't know what the difference is.

I did learn some things that I thought were interesting, particularly about communicating with children and especially about how parents communicate with children. I appreciate now that when the toddlers in my classes speak to me, it's a gift, and something they have had to work hard to do. I'll be treating those interactions as such now.

This book wasn't a complete loss, and I stuck with it for that reason. I think there's good information in it, and I can tell that McGuinness really cares about kids learning to read and become good communicators. I agree with her essential premise, that kids who have the proper language foundation will be literate as opposed to just being able to read. I have a hard time recommending this book, though, because of the issues I had with it. I am probably hyper-sensitive to them. If you're interested in the topic and the issues above don't bother you, go for it.

For the perspective of a mother, check out Rebecca Reid's review. I think she got more out of this book than I did. I'll be getting the second book she mentions in that review if I can find it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 22 and 23 by Rumiko Takahashi

We are, slowly but surely, creeping towards the end of the Ranma 1/2. Don't worry (I know you are as saddened by this as I) there are still over ten volumes left! But we are starting to see a small change in the storylines, if these two volumes are any indication. Actually, the storyline started in Volume 22 reminded me in tone of Inuyasha, Takahashi's post-Ranma serialized manga.

In Volume 22 we have a (by comparison) much darker storyline than in any of the preceding volumes, and it encompasses all of that volume and the first part of the next. By darker, I mean that I think this is the first time I have really felt something at stake, and there are several deadly close calls for our heroes -- and one actually felt that things might not turn out all right. Ranma, Ryoga and Mousse take off after three men who are far stronger than they, in an effort to recover a treasure. This adventure is not optional. And all of them appear to grow up a bit on the journey. I don't want to say too much; no need to spoil for anyone who manages to get this far in the series!

There is still the trademark humour, particularly in the area of the opponents' weaknesses, but overall this story is a lot more about loyalty, friendship and real love than any of the other Ranma stories I've seen so far. It's handled in the same sarcastically ridiculous way as the rest of the series, but it had a little more emotional depth to it. And I really liked it. It is perhaps why I think Inuyasha is the better of the two series, despite having a deep love for this one.

Volume 23 wraps up the storyline from Volume 22 (after a ridiculous cliffhanger, I might add, which would have had me seriously miffed if I hadn't had Volume 23 handy immediately). Then it gets into silliness with a story about a teacher who is definitely not what she seems, and has a mysterious connection to the Anything Goes School. Finally, we're back to a storyline that again appears to have a bit more emotional depth. Maybe. It's hard to tell because we're barely into it, and Volume 24 is going to have to be ILLO'd thanks to someone losing my local library's copy. Akane's in the spotlight on this one, and it's started off surprisingly quietly and thoughtfully. I'm very curious to see where she's going with this one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

FreeVerse: Preludes I (Eliot)

The first piece of theatre I clearly remember going to see was Cats. For those few who may not know, this is a spectacle musical with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics largely taken from T. S. Eliot's poetry, his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. It is about cats. There is a loose storyline, I guess, but largely it's just a giant homage to cats of various types and temperaments, and cats in general. I was eight and an aspiring cat lady; we had seen the commercials on t.v. and I was desperate to go, so my mother, wise woman that she is, took me for my birthday. I can still remember some of the songs and the costumes. And then, some other wise human got me Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and since I have been a confirmed Eliot fan. Sadly, I don't know where that little book has gone, so I won't be posting one of those poems. Maybe sometime in the future when I find it again.

I have a special soft spot for The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock of course. I do recommend that if you haven't read it, you do. One of the favourite segments for quotation is this one:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

And I do love that. But today I have gone a little further afield in Eliot's poetry to bring you one of his Preludes. I love the feeling this one evokes. I also advise whispering it out loud -- it has a sort of rhythm that isn't immediately obvious if not heard on the tongue.

Thanks again to Cara at Ooh... Books! for hosting this weekly celebration of poetry!

From The Waste Land and other poems by T. S. Eliot, this edition published by Faber and Faber originally in 1972:


Preludes

I


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard *guest review by fishy!*

It appears that book blogging is catching. My husband, known here as fishy, asked me if I thought he should review some of the books he's been reading. I was quite excited at the prospect, so here it is -- his first ever review. My nefarious plan is to keep him reviewing after this one too and apparently he is down with that. He might even consider reviewing a thing or two with me. But for now, he has reviewed a science-fiction classic. With footnotes! Enjoy!

***

J. G. Ballard passed away this past spring, and shortly after, Writers and Company1 aired an earlier interview with him, and a reading by him of a short story ("The Enormous Space"). I listened to this as a podcast2 while driving north towards Huntsville, Ontario along highway 11. That route is a mix of natural beauty and beautiful human ruins, an ideal environment for Ballard. The reading put me in such a trance that I became convinced that I was lost, and pulled over to look at a map, only to discover I was in Orillia, right next to the shattered corpse of the Sundial Inn3.

I've been wanting to read his work ever since, and picked up this early novel for a birthday stay-cation this week. The library had very little, but this felt like a perfect introductory work.

The novel opens some 70 years after the beginning of a global environmental collapse. Sun storms have increased global temperatures and blown away the Van Allen Belt, exposing the earth to (you got it) global warming and ozone depletion. Human populations have dwindled and fled north, living in polar regions as rising waters swallowed major cities, rising heat made them uninhabitable, and atmospheric loss made high altitudes impossible.

A small military scout team has spent the last 3 years mapping out flooded cities, cataloguing the new realities of flora and fauna in preparation for an overly wishful future of rehabitation. Working their way north as temperatures continue to rise, the team has spent the last 6 months in some great northern European city: maybe Paris, Berlin or London. Our main character, Dr. Kerans never bothers to find out. He and Dr. Bodkin are the scout biologists, flora and fauna respectively.

The city is submerged, 10 stories deep, the base of operation is in 'the lagoon', a silty swamp surrounded by the crests of hotels, apartment blocks and office buildings. Kerans has commandeered the penthouse of the Ritz, living in a bubble of hermetic luxury in the middle of a primeval lagoon. The staggering temperatures lay a tropical exhaustion over the narrative. Bodkin and Kerans carefully recorded their observations at first, but now the effort feels impossible, and the conclusions clear. The heat and the high levels of solar radiation have the world re-converging on a "Neo-Triassic". Reptiles dominate the lagoon, giant horsetails erupt from the silt, and moss coats the insides and outsides of buildings. The genetic memory of the Triassic has been reawakened and re-expressed in plants and animals; whole swathes of modern species simply die off.

And humans? Colonel Riggs, the commander of the scouting party, jokes that humans will return to the jungles, but continue to dress for dinner. But humans in modern form here are submerged and stuck in a silt amber, living in air conditioned bubbles and increasingly hypnotized by the lagoon. Alarmed by jungle dreams and a primal fear of iguanas, spinal Triassic memory seems to be awakening too.

Ballard's prose could be read and enjoyed for the imagery alone, I think:
Kerans [..] was distracted by his discovery among the clutter of debris on the opposite bank of a small cemetery sloping down into the water, its leaning headstones advancing to the crowns like a party of bathers. He remembered again one ghastly cemetery over which they had moored, its ornate florentine tomb cracked and sprung, corpses floating out in their unravelling winding-sheets in a grim rehearsal of the Day of Judgement.
and I felt myself entranced by the punishing sun setting the lagoon surface on fire. The setting and mood feels real and immediate, but the humans feel uncomfortably cold and unconscious. Civilian hold-out Beatrice seems almost reptilian, solitary and aloof. Characters are compelled and sometimes singularly driven, but without accessible motives.

I suspect this might be a big turn-off for some readers, but it is critical to both the mood and the ideas of the piece. And at least for me, this novel is a work of images and ideas. Characters and plot are well constructed, but minimally constructed, all underlining a well executed thought exercise.

It is tempting as a novice reviewer to launch into a discussion paper about the ideas in this book, and my reflections on them. It's similarly tempting to just say that the book filled me with enough reflections to shovel the driveway and wash two loads of dishes. I'll strike a balance.

A lot of dystopian novels, which I guess this is, depict post-collapse humanity as... well, humanity. Some of those archetypes are here: the tribal scavengers, the lucky recluse, the naval artifact, the survivalist. Kerans even references the surreality of the Crusoe-model of human survival... I think of this as the dystopian Flintstones effect: regressed to the stone age, we can fashion a tea-set from elk bones and retire to the parlour.

But in reality, modern humanity is profoundly environmental, and human desires and motivation suprizingly submerged in our reptile brains. Somewhere perched on that knife-edge between the two is our reality. Ballard's regressing survivors are solitary, selfish and alliances are transient. Like the crocodiles, they are only momentarily agitated when one of their companions meets an end. They clutch loosely to the remnants of civilization, and when they spring from that lingering structure into the jungle, language and identity drift away. It is hard to say whether they descend into the jungles as animals, or flare out as human sparks dispersed into the swamps.

Time is also a concern: at the lagoon there is a transient overlap of human time and evolutionary time. The city has no Friday afternoon rush hour, the hands have fallen off the clock towers, or are locked in place. But the days have their rhythm and presumably the seasons will too.

I enjoyed this book, though in places it did feel like an 'early novel'. Plot periodically was too neat, the science a bit loose. There were moments of magic realism, which stuck out a bit. But with strong imagery and interesting (to me) themes, this was perhaps a book written for me. If you need redemption or rescue, or perseverance of the traditional sort, it should be clear early on in this short work that you will be disappointed. However, it isn't as dark or stringy with the sinister as you might expect. Suprizingly buoyant, rather than cynical. Calling it cheerful would be a stretch.

From the interview referenced at the start of this review, I understand that urban decay and driven but somewhat inaccessible characters are common in his works. That appealed to me, and this work didn't disappoint. Next for me from Ballard will be Vermilion Sands, a collection of short stories he wrote about a decade later with similar themes.

---
1. http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/

2. http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/schedule/may.html
[scroll down, this can be listened to on the page, or if you are nimble at
agent spoofing, downloaded as an mp3]

3. http://urbexbarrie.blogspot.com/2008/02/sundial-inn.html
http://urbexbarrie.blogspot.com/2008/05/sundial-reloaded-1.html
http://urbexbarrie.blogspot.com/2008/05/sundial-reloaded-2.html
http://urbexbarrie.blogspot.com/2008/08/sundial-3.html
[though sadly a dearth of good exterior shots]

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Has anyone else out there ever laughed so hard they cried at a passage in a book that, upon inspection, others do not find so funny? And perhaps, the next morning, you still find amusing, but not that funny? It was a small section that involved Greebo, Nanny Ogg's awesomely awful cat. I have a distinct fondness for Greebo, due to his antics in Witches Abroad, the other Pratchett novel (other than Mort) that I had read previously to my discovering that Pratchett is in fact one of my favourite authors. So perhaps it was that background knowledge I have, or that I had been reading Wyrd Sisters solid for a couple hours and this section set me over the edge, but whatever it was, I could not stop laughing.

I am pleased that my first book of the year shall be a Discworld novel. It fits. Discovering Discworld last year was like discovering a ... well, a whole new world, and every time I open a Discworld novel I feel it enveloping me. It is so rich, and varied, and absurd in a way that shines light on how absurd everything is, really. I am savouring this experience, of reading the Discworld books for the first time, because I know it won't happen again once I'm through them. This is why I'm not blasting through them even though I suspect I really could.

As for Wyrd Sisters, when a book opens like this:
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin.
... I know that I am going to have a good read.

Here we have Pratchett playing with theatre; specifically and most obviously Macbeth, but many other Shakespearean plays make an entrance, not to mention several other dramatic references. The references were fast and furious and I'm certain I didn't get all of them. That did not take away from my enjoyment, however. Here we have comments on the power of theatre, and the power of words to both heal and harm, the power of both to change history. Not in the sense of what actually happened, but because after all those who remember an actual event are gone, it is the words that describe the event that carry it forward into collective memory. If those words change, then the event changes -- history changes.

We are introduced once again, to my delight, to Esme Weatherwax, witch extraordinaire, most respected of the leaders witches don't have. We are also introduced to her cohorts Nanny Ogg (and the aforementioned Greebo) and Magrat Garlick. (Enter three witches.) Granny Weatherwax was really just finding her feet in Equal Rites. Now she's got them, and her broomstick, and she. is. awesome. She is not a perfect person, and the stuff she does one thinks might really not turn out. Sometimes it backfires horribly, not that she would let you know that. But her supreme confidence is refreshing, and things work out often enough that the reader has supreme confidence in her, too.

Overall in this book we have the same strong characterization I'm coming to expect of Pratchett, if not for every character then for most. The duchess, though somewhat 2-dimensional "Evil" is also, through most of the book, probably one of the creepiest and most upsetting Pratchett villains I've come across so far. Her husband, Duke Felmet, is also fascinating -- well drawn and complicated and both somewhat bored and ordinary while also being ambitious and increasingly insane. At the end, the duchess especially takes on some pretty stereotypical characteristics that make her less of a character and more of a caricature, but I can accept that. At that point she was pretty much a sidenote anyways.

The deeper I go into Discworld, the happier I am to be there. Looking forward to Pyramids, up next in my quest to read the whole series.