Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Sitting at the Cat's Table is the least prestigious seat, but the one from which you can see the most. The Captain's table is on display, for others to look at - at the Cat's Table, you have all your time free to watch everything going on about you.

There seems to be an underlying metaphor here for the immigrant experience, although it is certainly not belaboured.

Written in an autobiographical voice, The Cat's Table covers a young man, nicknamed "Mynah," and sharing a name with the author, Michael Ondaatje, during his trip from Ceylon to England to join his mother. Along with two other unaccompanied children, he has the run of the ship during the trip, and they watch everything and everyone, engage in petty crime, childish adventures, and picnics.

Along the way, they watch the prisoner on board take his nightly walks, smuggle a dog on board, and discover, slowly, that there may be more to the adults they meet than their first impressions - a woman named Miss Lasqueti in particular proves full of surprises.

The first half of the book is the children on the ship, and although it was interesting, I was starting to feel that it was dragging a little and not really saying much. Just around that moment, then, it switched gears, and started to integrate this trip and what they experienced with the narrator's later life as an author, and what he knew of the other passengers, one of whose lives ends tragically and too young.

As a whole, it doesn't quite attain the heights of the other two Ondaatjes I've read. It doesn't have the heft of In the Skin of a Lion nor the third act kick in the gut of The English Patient. But I enjoyed reading it, and the clarity of his prose was a relief after the dense text of Proust. He has the ability to paint, with relatively few words, vivid pictures. If you've liked Ondaatje's other works, I suspect you'll like this as well.

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I love the cover of this book. Simply love it. And I'd hoped that I'd be as excited by the words inside the pages. Unfortunately, not so much. It wasn't bad, it just never quite grabbed me, never convinced me of the genius that existed between the covers that caused it to be nominated for so many awards.

If I'd read it without the hype, perhaps my reaction would be different. But I read it when I read it, after seeing it on bestseller lists for most of a year, and my reaction is an overwhelming "meh."

It didn't upset me, or anger me, or frustrate me. It just neither grabbed me, shook me, or entranced me.

The Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie, are hired guns for a mysterious man known only as The Commodore. And that's about all we ever learn about him, either. They have been sent, as they have been sent many times before, to track down a man and kill him. In this case, a man named Herman Warm. They don't know why. They don't care why. Or rather, Charlie doesn't. Of the two, he better fits the definition of cold-blooded psychopath. Eli, on the other hand, has an anger problem, but is also by far the kinder of the two.

On the way, they run into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, prospectors, whores. The men tend to be stupid or cunning, or a strange mix of both. The women are mostly there for Eli to fall unrequitedly in love with.

They find Herman Warm, eventually, and find themselves joining forces for a time. Not with the greatest of outcomes.

I suppose this is a meditation on killing, but it doesn't really seem like it. Eli wants to get out of the business he's been in for so long, but that's about it. A meditation on what men will do for money, of either the cash or glittery variety? Perhaps.

This book has the feel of a fable, that slightly removed from reality gaze that tells you that this is a morality tale of some kind. But there's no real lesson at the end.

The syntax I found more disconcerting than effective. At the beginning, Eli, in particular, doesn't use contractions. But then he does. Sometimes. I spent more time trying to figure out the logic of his grammar than paying attention to what was going on for the first hundred pages, and I'm not really sure that's where you want a reader to be.

Eventually, however, that faded into the background, but it never seemed like it added to the story. It does give it a certain cadence, but it's not consistent enough to drive the rhythms of the prose.

There is some good stuff here, and I don't mind having read it, but as for the something more that it could have been, that just seemed to hang elusively out of my reach.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

I'm trying to find just the right word to describe these stories. Science fables isn't quite right - there isn't a moral at the end of each one. I'm torn between science myths and science legends. I think I'm leaning towards myths, in the sense of "stories that tell how something came to be." Let's go with that.

The Complete Cosmicomics is a collection, then, of science myths. Most stories are prefaced with a little paragraph of science, talking about some aspect of the world and its creation, and then a story of how it happened, mostly to a narrator named Qfwfq, who has been around since the beginning, although the stories keep changing.

They aren't grand stories, which I guess is why I was reticent to call these myths. They are down-to-earth (sometimes even inside it) and wide-reaching (galaxy-spanning, even.) The characters in them have the brief outlines of people as we know them, even when they're camels. Or particles. Or amoeba. And as any part of creation, they follow familiar human patterns. They fall in love. They're jealous. They're petty. They want to leave their mark on a world only in the beginning stages of creation.

Many of the stories revolve either wanting to state I WAS HERE to the universe, or to attract a desirable woman. But in between, they tell the stories of life evolving on earth, on a moon that was once part of Earth's body but was torn away, of a cell deciding to split for the first time. The science is woven through in quite a wonderful way, with the feel of a fairytale.

In the middle though, they drift away from the way they've been fashioned so far, and I never found those stories as interesting as the Qfwfq ones. But then we end up back there, and I enjoyed them again.

These stories are inventive and enchanting. I've never read anything quite like this. And I'm all for the magic of science taking centre stage.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton


I wanted to like this. I did. And I liked parts of it a lot, many of the ideas were fascinating, several of the characters I really dug. But there were other issues that hampered my overall enjoyment, and they can't be ignored.

On a small, barely developed planet, some kind of ancient alien force is unleashed, taking over some of the colonists. And this alien virus spreads, the chance that it will disperse through the known worlds grows as well - and what do these "sequestrated" humans want, anyway?

This is the core of the story. This is the story that is being told. The other stories around it are, well, interesting, but there are too many of them, and it's distracting. We cut away from this emotional core of the book to meander between the stars and be introduced to a myriad of characters, many of whom I enjoyed, even though they were superfluous. One of my favourite characters virtually disappeared from the last third of the story.

The universe Hamilton creates is very interesting, it is, and I enjoyed reading about it - but I'm pretty sure that could have been condensed, instead of explored in exquisite detail. It wasn't bad, per se, but in an 1100 page book, surely some of it could have been put in more concisely?

This book doesn't know where to put its focus, and so it has none. The story is interesting, but doesn't feel like it's told in any planned manner. I like meandering. People who read my reviews know I delight in a good meander. But "good" is the keyword. This was sloppy.

I have two other quibbles. I know this is sounding like I hated the book, and I didn't. But I was disappointed.

One, I really hate cardboard irredeemably-evil characters. I think they're lazy writing. Give me a more complex villain, and I'll read until the cows come home. But when you have a character who is just a psychopath, who just likes raping and torturing and killing, as far as I can figure, the only purpose is to make the reader uncomfortable.

Okay, so you made me uncomfortable in the first 50 pages, Peter F. Hamilton. Now what? Now what are you going to do with him for the next 1050 pages? What stories do you have to tell with him, how can you possibly make him interesting?

To put this in Song of Ice and Fire terms, which was the comparison my husband came up with, I'm not interested in reading the story of The Mountain. I am interested in reading the story of The Hound. And Martin is smart enough to concentrate on the latter.

Hamilton dwells on the cardboard psychopath, and it feels like ugliness for the sake of ugliness, with little contribution to the story after the first ugly scene. Of course, this villain dominates the first third of the book, and then mostly disappears for the rest, to make a brief recurrence about a hundred pages from the end. I'm sure he's still out there, menacing the second book. I'm not sure I care.

That brings me to issue two. Which is really two issues, but they both have to do with sex and sexuality, so we'll call them one.

There is a lot of sexual violence and sexual coercion in this book. There's a lot of sex, period. I'm fine with all the consensual sex. But the amount of rape, suggested rape, and coercing into sex through physical, mental and emotional torture roiled my stomach and made me wonder if I was going to make it through this book. Until the cardboard psychopath disappeared, at least.

This leads to the next problem - the treatment of queer characters. Unless I missed something, the only characters who engage in homosexual activity are the evil, evil Satanists. (I'm not kidding. Literal Satanists.) Many of the Satanists are bi, but the only time we hear about two guys having sex, it's the evil guys.

This could have been fixed so easily, Peter F. Hamilton. Sure, you had a fairly reasonable explanation about why the Adamists still had taboos about homosexuality. (I guess, but still.) They're heavily influenced by Christianity still, and bred out the gay gene. I'll sort of give you that one, even though I don't like it.

But what is your excuse for the Edenists? Here we have the opposing culture, where they are sexually free, non-monogamous, no hang-ups, plenty of sex...and every damn time, it's heterosexual sex. Every time.

So we're left with a universe where the people who are natural and free about sex are all heterosexual, and the only homosexual people are literally Satanists.

I don't remember this kind of upsetting view of sexuality in the other Peter F. Hamilton I've read, but once I noticed that this was going on here, I was just waiting for a gay Edenist character to be introduced, something to make this less icky. And nothing.

So, in the end? There is some good space opera here. The central issue of the novel is compelling and gripping, when he can be bothered to get around to it. But the meandering feels purposeless, and what it does accomplish could happen in half the pages. And the cardboard main villain and issues with sexual violence and homosexuality left a very bad taste in my mouth.

I'm not quite sure I'm at the point where I'll say screw it to the next book in this trilogy, but if I do pick it up, it'll be on a very short leash. I'm not investing another 1000 pages in being disappointed like this.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Deathless by Catherynne Valente

Magic in books often comes in a certain flavour. It has wonder, and awe, and power. It is sometimes threatening, it is sometimes homey, it is sometimes awe-inspiring. I'm not sure I've ever run into magic quite like this before, though.

This is magic that blends with real life, so that when a man in uniform comes with no warning to take you away from your life forever, it might be the secret police, or it might be Koschei the Deathless. The person informing on you within your own house might be the people you share the house with, or it might be the domovoi in their own House Committee. The magic of life might be bloody and cruel and harsh, but the magic of death is worse.

Life isn't just pretty, affirming life is not easy. It's hard and it hurts and causes pain and suffering and regret. It's worth fighting for, but it isn't harmony and living side by side with nature.

Marya Morevna watches as birds fall out of the trees three times and turn into suitors for her sisters' hands. She waits to see if anyone will ever show up for her. While she waits, the Russian state moves more families into her house. Food becomes scarcer. She works in a factory. Her belief in magic causes her to be shunned at school.

And then Koschei shows up for her, the Tsar of Life, and takes her for his bride. And inside the stories of Russian folklore, Marya Morevna has to undergo Baba Yaga's tests to prove her worthiness as his bride, and then help him fight the war against the Tsar of Death, in a Russia in which the bodies are piling up so quickly that their enemy's ranks swell, moment by moment.

And in the end, the story she is living in takes its natural course, although not quite its natural course.

I am coming to realize how much I love books where characters are strung on a web of inevitability, pushed to decisions because there is no other choice. I love the exquisite pain and tension of such moments, rejoice when the characters find a way out of predestination, but enjoy it just as much when inevitability leads to moments that I could not have predicted but are, themselves, implicit in every moment that has come before.

I loved this book, loved the mingling of Russian stories with Russian history, the feeling of horror as the twentieth century takes hold, and the moments where it is clear that, although talking about what Marya experienced was against the party line, and therefore liable to be punished, life persists. It isn't pretty. But it persists.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

The emotional wallop of this book is far out of proportion to its size. At 84 pages, I read it in less than an hour. But that hour was filled with pain and hope and human persistence and human degradation and it hurt to read.

This is the story of a chess tournament on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. A world grandmaster is on board, challenged to play by a consortium of much lesser players. But while they are getting their asses handed to them, a quiet voice starts to tell them what moves to make.

This man knows more about chess that anyone they've ever met, and is possibly more skilled than the grandmaster, but no one has ever heard of him. I'm not going to go into details of how he learned how to play chess so well - suffice it to say it was in the process of being held for extended periods by the Nazis.

But the techniques he used to survive his experiences are now the same ones that keep him captive. He has survived, but he carries his prison with him. In order to survive, he had to become something that cannot simply be left behind or discarded. It will travel with him all the rest of his days, for better or for worse.

As a look at both the fragility and the durability of humanity in the face of overwhelming evil, Chess Story pulls no punches, relies on no technical flourishes. It is told quietly and sparely. And because there is nowhere to hide in this story, there is nowhere to hide from it.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is really a very good book, marred by one gimmick that frustrates me because it's so unnecessary to the story Kate Atkinson is telling.

For the most part, however, I enjoyed this one immensely. Atkinson has a knack for turns of phrase that are amusing and piercing and unexpected, and I loved these in particular. The story is meandering, and weaves back and forth in time, but it was the sort of meander I greatly enjoy.

This is a story about uneasy relationships between daughters and mothers, and husbands and wives. I don't think there's a happy marriage to be seen. Or a mother-daughter relationship that isn't fraught with tension.

The main character, Ruby, starts to narrate her life before she is even born (which the later gimmick makes quite unlikely), and from the very beginning, it is clear that motherhood and housewifery are far from her mother, Bunty's, vocation. We're not really sure what Bunty's vocation might have been, but this isn't it.

Bunty herself has an adversarial relationship with her husband, who she feels trapped her into a life of domestic and retail servitude, and not a close connection to her mother. Her mother, Nell, lost two fiances and a brother in the war, and married shortly thereafter, to a man who was never her first choice. Her own mother, Alice, was never present, and the reasons for that are unveiled slowly through the novel. (This long reveal works. Another doesn't.)

As a look at domestic life, and tension within these British working-class families in the 20th century, this book sparkles. And the characters are rich and vivid. Ruby and her sisters, Gillian and Patricia, are not precious, are not particularly cute, are volatile and crabby and human. They don't act like little girls in books. They are selfish, and loving, and distant, and bossy. At different times, and each sister is memorable.

There are hints, though, of another sister, a twin to Ruby. And this would have been fine if, say Pearl had died as a baby, or before Ruby could remember her, although Ruby's narration of her life before she was born through her birth makes this a bit of a difficult sell. But no, Pearl lived until she was four, and Ruby has amnesia about not only her death, but her entire existence. This I didn't like at all. It felt gimmicky, and most frustratingly of all, unnecessary. This is a damned good book. It didn't need this kind of gimmick. It adds little to the story except a difficulty in the suspension of my disbelief.

This issue aside, though, I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Atkinson's authorial voice, and the book as a whole. I just wish there wasn't this jarring addition to the last third of the novel that was distracting and superfluous.