Monday, 27 March 2017

NW by Zadie Smith

I finished NW last weekend, and I've been trying to get my thoughts in order to sit down and write this review since then. The book continues to stymie me - I liked it, quite a lot, and yet I feel like there are aspects of it that I'm not quite grasping. I think that may be my own fault - reading it was unusually broken up, with a week off while I went away to a convention and then a bunch more days when I was busy coming down from that experience when reading was not on the top of my priority list.

When I got back to it, I flew through the last 140 pages, but it had been long enough between the first and second halves that I'm quite sure Zadie Smith's work was playing to the best audience at that moment.

That being said, let's find out what I do want to mention about the book. I picked it up as one of the last few books I have to read from a 15 book list of "The Best Novels of the 21st Century So Far". It's a good list - I've really enjoyed all the books on it, and when I'm done (I have two or three books left to go) - I'll look to see if the people who put it together have any additions since then.

I don't know if I enjoyed this quite as much as White Teeth or On Beauty, but there are things about it that are very striking. It's an odd connection to make, but there are a few books I can think of recently that link the geography of London, England to narrative in intimate ways that I have quite enjoyed. This is about the northwest corner of the city, where it seems that old council housing is sitting cheek-by-jowl with newly gentrified areas. I don't know enough to know how long it has been that way, but is certainly the case in this book.

In that, the book is broken into three sections, even though the inside of the dust cover says it's about four people. The fourth drifts through each of the other three stories and never quite achieves a story of his own, although others tell his regularly, that of school crush and golden boy turned drug addict.

Each of the three who get a section are negotiating upward mobility of one sort or another, while still feeling how they are rooted in spaces outside the ones they now occupy. Two of the three point-of-view characters are Black, while the third is a white woman who married a Black immigrant from the Caribbean. Leah, the white woman, lives in circumstances that her mother seems to regard as a step-down from how she was raised, although she seems content enough there, while her husband engages in day-trading in an effort to make the money materialize that would allow them to move into a more affluent house.

In contrast, her childhood friend Natalie is a lawyer, married to a rich investment banker, and both Natalie and Leah have suspicions about the marriages of the other, although both marriages are more complex and hiding more than even those in them seem to recognize. Natalie lives a wealthy lifestyle, but when her section comes we see how carefully it and every word she says are curated to have the correct effect.

Indeed, her entire section is itemized, and much of it is about the estrangement of Natalie from herself, and the ways that she secretly acts out when the persona isn't enough.

The sections of the two women are separated by that of Felix, a man raised in communal/squatting housing, was long on the shady side of the market, but with a new relationship, is trying to change himself and his surroundings to fit with the woman he is now with.

The ways these stories fit together is both obvious, in the actual happenings in the plot, and much more intricate, in ways that show dissatisfaction and reaching, belonging and being a misfit, never quite leaving behind the stories and families that comprised their early environments. There were times I wanted to shake nearly every character, while still being fond of them all.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Hidden Family by Charles Stross

I picked up the digital copy of this for free from Tor.com's Book Club, and it included the first book in the series as well. As I was feeling lazy and didn't want to figure out where the middle was, exactly, I reread The Family Trade before going on to read The Hidden Family.

And wow, do I think I was far too kind to The Family Trade the first go round. The second time, the stilted dialogue was even more apparent, the efforts to give Miriam virtually every skill and background annoying. It wasn't unreadable, but I was not impressed. I am very glad I'd read later and better Charles Stross books and could recognize this as relatively early and nowhere near as skilled.


It was with a bit of a wince that I went on to the second book in the first series, with The Hidden Family. And maybe I'd think differently if I went back later to read it again, but it's a definite improvement over The Family Trade. I still don't really buy the depth of the relationship between Miriam and old what's-his-name. (Seriously, I can't remember his name, which may contribute to why I don't really believe she'd fall in such passionate love with him, even while not trusting him. There's just not enough character there for me to believe it.)

In the second installment, Miriam survives some assassination attempts only to realize that there is a third world floating around out there, accessible from the medieval-level world, but not our world, and sits at about the technological level of very early industrial Britain. (The numbering bothered me here, since the world from which you could reach either of the other two was not number two, so the numbers didn't connect in the neat way I wanted them to. This is possibly the most nitpicky of nits I have ever picked.)

With the help of female friends from both the world she grew up on (ours) and the one where she was born (medieval-level), Miriam explores the ramifications of three different economies and the implications of world-travelling on each, with the aid of many beta blockers. While trying to avoid both a murderous lost family in the third world and the police there who are on constant lookout for Levellers and French spies.

There's a lot here about both politics and economics, and while this still isn't sparkling prose, it's a definite step forward. Watching Miriam try to mold the economy and political system of a whole new world is entertaining,

The reveal regarding her adoptive mother was one of those where as a reader, it was fairly evident early in the book, yet Miriam, even though getting the same information, doesn't put it together until it's literally in front of her face. I get why, I guess, but it does seem like a level of obtuseness that doesn't fit that well with the character as she's generally presented to us.

On the whole, this still isn't great fantasy/science fiction. But it's getting more interesting, and as I like Stross in general, I'm sure I'll go on to read more, eventually.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

It's funny when you read a book and it immediately sends you scurrying to read another book. In this case, finishing Lord of Light made me pause and wonder whether or not I was right that there's a one-line reference to Rild as a personal electronic assistant in Spider Robinson's Starmind. I was pretty sure I was right, and that I knew which character had named their AI Rild, and why that was important in the story, because I've read Starmind only about 20 or 30 times. Of course this meant that I had to pick it up off the shelf and read it again because that's just the way my brain works.

By the way, I was right. I maybe know virtually every word Spider Robinson has written just a little too well.

This has me totally off topic, but indulge me for just one more digression, I promise it is the last. I recently got to start a long-term dream of mine, which was to create a directed reading SF/F group - sort of a book club, but with themes that would carry us through four to six months, reading books that had some common thread, so discussions could gradually build on comparisons between the books.

(My husband will not stop telling me that in some circles, this is called an "English class." As I have no training in English beyond one first-year university course, I ignore him steadfastly.)

It's going really well so far, and I'm having so much fun discussing books and I'm excited to make some proposals for the next theme in a month or two. Why this is relevant to Zelazny's books is because I had a half-done list already called "Old Gods, New Clothes" - books that integrated figures from mythology into their science fiction or fantasy. (Fairy tales are an entirely different list, and that's one is done and ready to go. I am having way too much fun making lists.) I think I tentatively had Lord of Light down as a possibility for this collection of books, and now I'm downright sure it would be included.

Now, can we finally get to the damn book, Megan? ....Fine.

As just alluded to, this is about gods in a science fiction setting, sort of. To be more precise, it's about space-faring settlers with amazing powers, possibly technological, possibly innate/magical, who take on the trappings of godhood and elevate themselves over their descendants. It's also about the responsibilities of the gods to their subjects, with many happy to keep humanity a subservient race, with others arguing that the technologies they enjoy should be available to all.

That was not what I expected, but it's so interesting! The latter is promoted by a man who comes to take on the mantle of the Buddha, offering enlightenment to all. Of course, Sam may be just a conman, or maybe sincere, or maybe actually both. He's killed and dispersed into the ether at least once (or achieves Nirvana, see what they did there?) and brought back for one last showdown.

The book bounces around in time a little disconcertingly, and that feels like it's not always under the author's best control. We start as Sam is reincarnated for the most recent/last time, but then go back for most of the book to another life, and the distinction is perhaps not always as clear as I'd like.

Zelazny also almost, almost gets close to doing something interesting with gender and the idea that people can change gender at will, but unfortunately does not really stick the landing here. It's about this close to being something more than a reaffirmation of gender roles, but falls a little flat.

There are demons - the planet's original inhabitants, and that is almost mostly very interesting, although without a lot of deep thought. For all that this is about the clash of philosophies and religions, it's not one with long passages arguing the relative merits of each.

But for what it is, it's very interesting, and I would love to read it and then compare it with other people to American Gods or Brown Girl in the Ring, or if I wanted to extend it to fictional gods, City of Stairs. (The list is actually over 10 books long and would need to be pared down.) Some day!

In other words, this is a book that made me think of other books, and how it compares to/relates to other books, and that's not at all a bad thing.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Week in Stories: Breakout Con Recap, Part One

Oh goodness. It's been a week now, and last week I was too tired or busy or wrung out to manage to sit down and capture my thoughts on my first gaming con. So I'm going to try now, even a week later, although I can already feel small details slipping away. (Luckily a few people have already done extensive recaps of at least two of the games I played!)

First and foremost, I just want to thank the organizers for doing so much work and emotional labour and putting together what was such a great experience! I was nervous going into my first real con, unsure what I'd find, clinging just slightly to the security blanket of having at least one person in each game I already knew. (Some of that was coincidental, but it's the way it turned out.) I had a fabulous time, and came away feeling like not only had I had some great gaming experiences, but also made some new friends, and started to be part of a larger community.

I also came back to London charged up to get back into our gaming, which has been a bit sporadic the last half year. Seems like everyone was feeling the same itch, either caused by the con, or just being ready to get at it, so I'm looking forward to the next few months!

I'd also like to thank all the designers whose games I got to play in, opening up their worlds and showing me and others around, letting us get our paws all over neat mechanics and interesting ideas. It's cool to get to play games in various stages of development.

Since the con, I've been nudging Bill to think about maybe taking his Twin Peaks-inspired RPG there next year to try with players who haven't been at our table extensively, or finally play the game that made him a Game Chef English language Finalist a couple of years ago. Designing may not be my bag, but I like to encourage it in my husband!

Also, the people I got to play with were fantastic! At every table, I found people of kindred spirit, wanting the same kind of deep character play and exploration that I enjoy. I wish all of them were going back to groups as amazing as the one I'm privileged to belong to, and I hope to see them again next year!

On to the games, and the things that stood out to me about each!

Friday night, we played Fraser Simons' The Veil, cyberpunk PbtA, with the central stats being about emotional states. I decided to try out the religious playbook, as I'm often interested in characters with strong beliefs, religious or otherwise. While I was making my playbook choices, Bill mentioned the documentary The Interrupters as a potential source of inspiration, and I went right for that idea like a hungry wolf. (Also, great documentary.)  I decided her religion was based on the idea of intervention, stepping into emotionally charged or perhaps violent confrontations in an effort to defuse them, and convince others her way of non-violence was right.

So then when I had to pick an emotional state as her primary one, Peaceful seemed obvious, but not necessarily that interesting. Walking calmly into danger and taking the consequences is great for serenity, but not necessarily great drama. So I decided to make her primary stat Scared, loving the idea of being terrified every time she intervened in violent situations, but fervent enough in her belief that she still did it.

(I hope it wasn't disconcerting for Fraser that he had a whole table full of people who knew each other. It wasn't on purpose! But Bill and I had been planning on gaming with our friend Matt from Toronto in a game that was cancelled due to illness, and the game that had open slots and was interesting ended up being the one Amanda and Mike were already in.)

The game itself centered around the mystery surrounding the death of a mystical warrior (Matt was the last of the order), the cyborg who had no memory of killing him, but blood on his hands, and the release of the dead man's essence/concentrated computer data, sought after by Amanda's hacker. Bill was a tiger-guy, dying, who I think had worked for the murdered man at least once.

It was a bit squishy for time trying to get everything in, but it was a very fun evening, and at the end, we discovered that although the cyborg may have killed him, it was for very good reasons! In the meantime, I got to be both scared and brave a whole bunch, as well as nearly run over at least once. Also, Fraser does cliffhanger moments very well. Lots of fun!

Saturday morning and early afternoon, we went to a bunch of panels, which were enjoyable and informative.

Saturday afternoon, we played The Watch by Anna Kreider and Andrew Medeiros, run by Anna. I try to explain this game to people and am at least half reduced to earnest hand gestures that cannot possibly capture its awesomeness.

This is because of two things - one, it is an amazingly great game, with meaty mechanics that beautifully support what it's trying to do. Two, Anna Kreider is a kickass GM, with a deft touch pushing at the perfect moments, and sitting back and watching at other points.

I just...it's....SO GOOD.

I was playing the Lioness playbook, so, charismatic, beautiful, and arrogant. I liked the pairing of her being the ranking officer with actually having a -1 to Training - playing on the idea of her having been thrown into an authority position on the basis of charisma and talking well, not necessarily on the merits of having been the best choice for the position.

Bill was playing the Bear, an older trans woman named Dralla, who had lost her lover in the first wave of Shadow attacks. The Bear absolutely seemed to me to be the most stable character at the table, so when the connections went around, I chose for Lanec, my character, to be suspicious of the Bear, because I liked the juxtaposition. In my head, that was because Lanec was mistaking bravado and flash for substance and not seeing the substance that was there in the Bear.

Duan, who played all the Watch games he could get into at the con, and also in the Veronica Mars game I'll get to in a bit, was the Eagle, and in the first round of assigning roles, with the Eagle and the Bear matched for the relevant stat, I chose the less experienced Iomae over Dralla to take point. (We also had a Fox, who was instrumental in everything mystical we needed to get done, and an Owl? (or Spider) who liked to pick away at others.)

Everything went badly, and I suddenly ended up with my Weariness track entirely filled, so we got to see that mechanic in action almost right away, as I had to choose a relationship to attack out of emotional and physical exhaustion. Lanec lashed out at Iomae who hadn't done anything more wrong than be enthusiastically on her side at a time that needed calm consideration. Whoops.

The fight against the Shadow went on, and the pressure rose, culminating in an attack on the camp. Two more (wait, three) moments I want to mention:  Iomae and Lati the Owl sparring, with Lati using verbal jabs and Iomae trying to let off steam, but not, in the end, forgiving Lati's words as mere camaraderie. It was a neat and complex interplay.

The moment that almost brought me to tears involved Treni, our Fox, as she sought to release an elder from the grasp of the Shadow, and the shade of Dralla the Bear's dead lover appeared and sent back one final loving message. (Bill teared up too! My heart!)

And the capper, when Dralla the Bear grabbed Iomae and Lati as the group seemed about to tear itself apart in a bear hug and told them the time for division was past. It was so needed and so perfect at that exact moment.

I can't wait to get my hands on this and run it or play in it for my London group.

Okay, this is getting long, and since I played in four games, there's an obvious break. Check back next Tuesday for Part Two!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Greenglass House by Kate Mitford

This was a rather charming book, definitely for slightly younger than young adult readers, or maybe around early teenage years if they're looking for something cozy. It is pleasantly twisty, without ever really being super tense. I was always pretty sure things would work out, and that is not at all a criticism. Greenglass House is a warm and welcoming book.

Milo, the main character, lives in an inn at the top of a very high hill that is mostly frequented by smugglers. He is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents with no guests at all, until they start showing up, one after another, all with ulterior motives, making his Christmas look very bleak indeed.

The housekeeper and her daughter Meddy show up to help Milo's family accommodate the unexpected guests, and Milo is conscripted by Meddy into investigating what's going on, using the fiction of a roleplaying game. Now, having played a lot of roleplaying games, I both liked this (particularly the idea of intergenerational bonds of playing games together), and was a little...nonplussed.

I'm not sure what roleplaying, specifically, added to what they were doing, that couldn't just be accomplished by having them play Let's Pretend. They were using no mechanics, after all, no real use of a system or virtually anything else, except for labelling certain elements of clothing after artifacts from the game, and certain actions became something Milo would consider doing when he wouldn't before because they were part of his character class.

It's all fine, and I am happy to have my favourite hobby incorporated into a story, and Milo and Meddy create fun characters to inhabit as they explore the house, but is it roleplaying? I mean, more than Let's Pretend? Do kids not play Let's Pretend anymore? Does it have to be dressed up in the guise of a formal game? Because, dude, I organized Let's Pretend games like nobody's business, and I would be very sorry to hear that wasn't a thing anymore.

This is splitting hairs, and again, this is all so warmly done it wasn't a major problem.

Milo finds that what he's discovering has personal resonance, as he starts to find clues about children without families. He had been adopted as a child, and has always wondered about his birth family, a curiosity his loving parents support.

Old stories of smugglers and shootouts and the possibility of hidden treasures in the walls and windows of the house where Milo lives abound, and he and Meddy slowly unravel the puzzle of what brought each person to the house, and closer to the one dangerous truth lurking.

There is never a moment where this is dreadfully tense, but there are still some dramatic scenes as all the pieces fall into place. Definitely a book for older children or young adults in a particular kind of mood, this is charming and worth a read.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Endymion by Dan Simmons

I loved, loved, loved Hyperion. It topped my top ten list the year I read it. I was just blown away by absolutely every part of it. Then I read the second book, and it was much less audacious , but still just so damned good that I was entirely enthralled, and occasionally, creeped out. Now I finally make my slow way to the third book, and now I'm not quite as enthusiastic. It's still good, but it's not as good. It's not the writing or the characters that's the problem, it's the plot.

It isn't that nothing happens, it's that not much moves forward. This book jumps forward a couple hundred years, to a time when a reinvigorated Catholic Church has gained control over the symbiotes that offer resurrection, and instituted a Pax across the galaxies - with force, if persuasion fails. Aenea, Brawne Lamia's daughter who is born at the end of the second book, comes out of the Time Tombs to a battalion of Pax soldiers waiting to capture her. The Shrike interferes to make sure that doesn't happen.

Raul Endymion was a shepherd/hunting guide on Hyperion was supposed to be put to death, but was rescued by an incredibly even older Silenus, who sets him the task of guarding Aenea as she journeys toward whatever she's going to be. She comes through the Time Tombs as a 12-year-old, and goes on the run with Raul and an android, Bettik.

I think my slight dissatisfaction is that I'm not the fondest of stories that are people on the run without any real progression towards either internal development or plot movement. Even if they're well written, when stories are just a journey, then a barrier, then an overcoming, then a journey, then a barrier, etc, etc, I get a little bored.

Authors can do things to mitigate this! Have the real changes in the story and plot be internal, or have that journey mean something, build towards something. I don't feel like Simmons quite achieves that here. Most of the development, the relationship that is promised to come between Endymion and Aenea is off in the future, as is her development into the messiah she's promised to be. This is just and solely, Raul getting her safely to the place where her teacher will be, and he doesn't really change, and neither does she.

There are interesting incidents along the way! The ice planet, the water planet, revelations about the deal the Church made in return for power. And most of all, the use to which the cruciform parasites are put when it comes to interstellar travel is truly and absolutely creepy, a twistiness that Simmons richly deserves to exploit, given how long the ideas about it are set up over the two previous books.

In fact, the Catholic Church and what it's become is the real meat of this book, and I just wish Aenea's story were equally pressing. I'm looking forward to the next book, because this one felt like a pause where not very much changed. But change seems to be on the horizon, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick


People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Kelsey

I saw the movie first, and I'm not entirely sure that that wasn't a mistake. You know when books get made into movies that they're going to be, in some fundamental way, different from the words on the page. Not necessarily in a bad way, but there are things that are easier to capture in words than in movies, And in the same way, you can do different things with visuals than you can with words. But, on a fundamental level, movies often aren't as deep because it's hard to get the complexity of inner thoughts and feelings in their entirety up on the screen.

I have seen adaptations I loved, and adaptations I hated, but there is no case of which I can think where what was on the screen was exactly what was in the book, no more, no less.

Until now. Because what is in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret is almost precisely what we see on screen in Scorsese's movie. There is really nothing in the book that is not in the screen, and in the movie version, Scorsese adds some depth to the background and surroundings that the book lacks. In short, the movie feels richer than the book, and that is so extraordinarily rare.

It isn't that this is a bad book, it's just that there isn't really a lot to it. It's over 500 pages long, so I picked it up around the same time I started The Brothers Karamazov, and expected each to take me quite a while. Then I actually started to read, and found myself buzzing through 200 pages in about 20 minutes. I mean, yes, I read quickly, but what that really means is that only about, say 40 pages of those 200 were text. And even the pages with text often didn't have very much.

The pictures are pretty, but they aren't the type to hold my attention individually for long periods of time. They are like nothing so much as more detailed storyboards for the movies the book loves, and/or preparation for the eventual making of this book into a movie.

It's the story of Hugo, the mechanical man he tries to repair, a girl who snoops around his life, and one of the pioneers of what could be done on film, but who has been largely forgotten. Or, at least, he thinks so. Hugo is an orphan and deserted by his uncle, sneaks around the train station repairing the clocks that his uncle is employed to maintain.

He is also repairing a mechanical man that is one of his last mementos of his father, and I could go on, but I'd just be putting more details on what I've already written, and there really isn't much more to this book than that.

It made a lovely movie, and as a book it is inoffensive, and had I read it first, I might have enjoyed it more. But reading it second, I was hoping for a more filled-out story, the parts that didn't make it to the screen in the interests of time, but that is really not what I found. I found the movie redux, or the movie before the movie, and in a book about the magic of the movies, it's not that that's not an accomplishment. It just doesn't take advantage at any of the things that make a book a different medium.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

There seems to be a small sub-genre of books that straddle the science fiction/fantasy line in a very particular way - post-apocalyptic futures with some forms of magic. Some of them explain the magic away as technology that isn't recognized as such anymore, while others genuinely have supernatural powers afoot in the world, in and amongst the wreckage of computers and other things recognizably late 20th/early 21st century.

Who Fears Death is one of the latter, where the world left behind is recognizably a future version of Africa, but after a general collapse and many many long years in between. We are generations and generations past what we would have known, but remnants remain, mostly forbidden. A sacred book has come to be, and in it, there are descriptions of divinely sanctioned prejudice, the lighter-skinned Nuru put above the darker-skinned Okeke. At first, it's an oppression mostly of work with occasional flashes of violence, but by the start of the book this has morphed into the first excursions of an all-out war of extermination, although some Okeke villages persist in believing the war will never reach them.

Inspired, says the afterword, by a news story about rape as a weapon of war, with the aim of making lighter-skinned babies that will mark out the children and their mothers as victims of heinous crimes in societies that attach extraordinarily negative meanings to those who survived. The main character is one of these children, called Ewu. Shunned both for their appearance and for a constellation of myths that have attached themselves to the Ewu, Onyesonwu has to contend with a world that wishes to deny the crimes that created her, as well as belief that she will inherently be prone to violence.

As she grows, however, it becomes clear that she has access to powers beyond her ken, including shapechanging into animals and abortive attempts to resurrect the dead. She fights to be taught magic by a man who believes women cannot and should not have access to that kind of training. Caught in a web of expectations and prejudices, Onyesonwu fights to find a place, and once she succeeds in being accepted to training, to accept the death she knows is coming.

There is a lot going on in this book! Issues of race, of war, of prejudice, of women, of fate, of power and powerlessness.  And it's all done very well - it's often uncomfortable to read, but Okorafor creates societies that are not monolithic, that have internal as well as external divisions, and which often react in disappointingly human ways to downplay the violence in their midst, whether it is female genital mutilation, rape, or the right of certain people to life or liberty.

Onyesonwu is, similarly, an indelible and complex character. Marked out as violent, she does not respond by becoming passive - she burns angry, deservedly so, and her friendships and family are not immune to betrayals large or small.

I may not be doing a great job of describing this book, but it is extremely powerful, and does not shy away from uncomfortable situations, taking them seriously and from many different angles in such a way that the impact is heightened, not simplified.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff

This is an interesting, complex book that seeks to unsettle and dissatisfy. It asks some pointed questions about what makes a good marriage, and does not necessarily come to the conclusions you think it might.

Two runs at the same story are not a bad way to go, but they often feel like they're looking for a gotcha around the midpoint or end of the book. In this case, the revelations that a second narrative look at some of the same events adds layers, but does not feel like it's there for shock value.

In the end, how much do we really know each other? How much do we need to know each other to have a good marriage? How much secrecy is acceptable? What if happiness comes even without full knowledge of some of the things that are going on (and therefore, lack of consent due to ignorance that consent would even be involved)?

My own personal answers for my own marriage would be very different from the ones that these characters find in this particular book. I would hesitate to extend that difference of opinion to the author - just because she's written this specific story about these specific people does not mean that they are truly representative of how she thinks about marriage, her own or others.

So, while I don't feel the need to know every one of my husband's thoughts, I feel like our marriage is built on a strong respect for each other, mutual sharing of decisions, and an ongoing conversation about anything at all in the world that started the day we got together and hasn't really stopped in any of the intervening years.

That would...not be the foundation of Lotto and Mathilde's marriage.  And yet, we don't quite know it the first time through, which gives the reader Lotto's interpretation of his marriage over many years, his failing career as an actor before he finds a lot of success as a playwright. He is always at the center of his own story, and as the one in the spotlight, the center of a lot of stories, or at least a featured player.

Mathilde, on the other hand, is in the background, and that's part because she has put herself there, and part because it's easy to ignore the less-famous wife of a celebrated man. Exactly how much of her experience is which is, I think, in flux throughout the book. She has poured her life and self into her husband and her husband's work, and that has given her some things she wanted and limited her at the same time.

The second go round, Grossman takes the story as Lotto understood it - their whirlwind romance, marriage, estrangement from his mother, lean years followed by acclaim - and adds how Mathilde understood it and her own role in it. And if Lotto accept acclaim gladly, Mathilde is never kind to herself.

Which puts the character in an interesting position. She certainly acts unilaterally, frequently making decisions and hiding them from everyone, including her husband. And yet, despite her almost constant belief that she herself is cruel, she is not only that. She's also capable of quite a lot of kindness, although it's never recognized. (And Lotto is capable of hurting people without realizing it, although that is almost as rarely recognized.) Neither has a monopoly on the moral high ground, although Mathilde knows that the decisions she makes are perhaps suspect.

And this is where it gets twisty. Given all that - small cruelties and kindnesses and secrets and obfuscation - is this still a marriage? Even, dare we suggest a good one? If both people within it find themselves and are mostly happy with their bargains, how do we judge? And perhaps most importantly, can you ever judge a marriage from the outside?

This isn't to say that everything done is forgivable, but how do you tally things up? In the end, I think this is why I enjoyed the book - there is never a moment of taking the easy way out, of making one a monster or the other the saint, or one the long-suffering one and the other the taker. The layers that are revealed as we see each interpretation of their lives together torn asunder by grief and loss, and that was perhaps even more powerful for me personally.

I am less sure than ever that I can know what goes on within the relationships of those around me, let alone make judgement calls. It seems like such a tricky path, building a life together. But I am very grateful my own marriage is nothing like this.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

How To Be Both by Ali Smith

It's a title that begs a question - how to be both what and what? And the answer, as befits good experimental literary fiction, is more than one thing. How to be both alive and dead. Male and female. Grieving and laughing. In the world and apart from it. Subversive and conventional.

What is best known about this book, perhaps, is the gimmick, and gimmicks always have to work to win me over. In this case, it's that there are two sections of the book, and when bound, half the copies have one first, and the other half have the other first. When we met in my book club last week, it was good to hear that we hadn't all read it the same way, so we could get a little bit of insight into how reading one before the other might change the interpretation or experience.

For me, the section with the Renaissance painter, a woman who dressed as a man to be able to pursue her passion for art (as opposed to, as far as we now, any deep-seated identification with maleness), came first, and it happens both before and after the second section, about a young woman in the present day grappling with the loss of her mother.

The ghost of the painter (perhaps? She doesn't remember dying.) follows George, the young woman, around, and after having read George's section, I could identify that part of when she follows George occurs after the narrative at which George is the centre. I realize this is a bit confusing, and if you need all the answers to be satisfied, this is probably not the book for you.

Which you know Ali Smith knows and is playing with deliberately, from a small conversation in the book about the meaning of the word mystery, both historically and in a literary sense, and how it has moved from denoting something unsolvable and ineffable, to something that must be answered and wrapped up by the time you shut the book. If this book is a mystery, it's not in the sense of ferreting out the solution. It's more about living in the moment in which you find yourself, even when that moment is painful and full of loss.

One book club member said that she'd heard a podcast where everyone there had read George's section first, and probably because of that, they'd come up with quite a different interpretation of the painter's section, one that I can see how you might get there if you read George's first. However, when Francesco's section is first, and to some degree, defined for me the viewpoint and narrative centre of the novel, it's hard to believe. (I also have a small piece of evidence, speaking of ferreting out the truth, as to why Francesco's section is not written by George for a school assignment.)

It's funny that I look for truth that way, when the book is decidedly avoiding definitive answers.

It's also a book about fine details in art getting lost without time and attention paid. To some degree, it seems to be about how attention imbues meaning. In fiction, these can be gleaned both from what the writer writes, and what the reader brings with them to the story. Reading is a collaborative act, and what I get from a book may not be quite the same as what the person beside me does. It's likely there will be similarities, as the writer is certainly more than half the conversation, but my frame of reference will shape how every word affects me.

This book lays that subjectivity a little more bare than usual, and so, in the end, I think the gimmick works. It works because I could have read this without knowing about it, and still enjoyed the book. But knowing it gave me a sense of almost Brechtian distance, as, particularly in the second half of the book, I read with half an eye to trying to spot how I might have read it differently.

It's not a book I'd say I loved. But it was challenging in very good ways, and definitely worth a read. I'm particularly glad it was one I got to discuss with others.