Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

More of a collection of poetry fragments, parables, and clever wordplay than a regular novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers immerses us in the home of a father and his two boys, recently bereft of their wife and mother, and attended by a grief-eating, grief-healing crow. It’s funny and sad. At one hundred pages and less than an hour to read, it seems excessive to spend many words on a review, so instead I will paste this delightful chapter elucidating the psychology of a crow:

Head down, tot-along, looking
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAHH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p-45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could a learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Short books are strange. I’ve read many good ones and forgotten most of them. It seems like like there is some minimum time investment, something reached only by the repeated labor of turning pages, that is personally required for a book to feel like a book, to be shelved mentally between the memories of thousands of others. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

There’s two different kinds of prequels.

The first is most interested in the world of the story it is prequalizing. It will feel familiar in setting and tone, but the plot and events will only be distantly related. The story is self-contained, regardless of what occurs in the chronological future and literary past. I prefer this type.

The second is concerned with the characters and the events that led them to the place they start the original story. It elaborates on missing details of their personality or backstory and in general fills in the gaps. Unlike the first kind, this prequel relies on the reader having first read the original work. 

The Book of Dust, whose plot revolves around the fate of baby Lyra, the child protagonist of the His Dark Materials series, is the second type. While Lyra is not the main character here (she’s an infant), the story is all about answering questions of her past and putting her in the place she’ll eventually start the main series. The reason I like this structure less than the first is that the big important stuff has already happened. Actually, it has yet to happen but I’ve already read it. It makes everything feel like small potatoes as the the plot, regardless of how well written or interesting it might be, is all set-up for the big stuff.

I read the big stuff 20 years ago. His Dark Materials stuck with me as a young teen, as very few young adult books did then or since, which is why I picked this book up as soon as I saw it front-and-center at the book store. Pullman does not insult his reader’s intelligence and his splendid prose was (and is) far better than most authors writing for young people. The language is largely indistinguishable from an adult book and occasionally when he uses an unfamiliar word, Pullman will turn it into a learning experience. For instance, on page 3, you read:

More than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly.

Then a page or two later, Malcolm asks Sister Benedicta what a chasuble is. It’s a clever device. It bonds the reader to Malcolm by acknowledging you were both thinking the same thing and it establishes the narrator as a warm presence who is thoughtful in regards to how the reader is absorbing each individual word.

The Book of Dust, despite being lettered all big on the cover is actually the series’ name. Book 1 is technically called La Belle Sauvage, which is the name of the sturdy canoe of our eleven year old hero, Malcolm Polstead. Far up the Thames from London lies a cozy inn named the Trout, across from an old stone bridge where a Priory full of nuns sells baked goods and provides sanctuary to weary travelers and political dissidents alike. This is Malcolm’s world, as the son of the innkeepers, frequent student of the nuns, and river adventurer atop La Belle Sauvage. The first half of the novel lies entirely within this setting. The nuns take in a particularly unusual guest. Shady figures roam the inn and priory at night. The ever-oppressive Church invades Malcolm’s school. While slow-paced and somewhat uneventful, it’s easy to become absorbed in the day to day drama of the locale. It’s the book’s better half.

The second half of the book is the inevitable adventure awaiting all boys with trusty boats. The Thames floods and Malcolm is whisked away towards London, bearing a precious cargo. The setting shifts here, uneasily from science-based-magic to pure fairy tale. Underwater giants and faerie queens. Magic mirrors and fruit. It’s not a good shift. Pullman dabbles in archetypal stories and is simply not as good at it as he is with other themes, and worse, not as good as good as other writers who have done the same. Everything from impossible waterfalls to phantom villages peopled by ghosts are crucially lacking the enchantment they require. On top of this, the final confrontation with the main antagonist is stupid in like six separate ways. Too bad; he was a good villain. 

The climatic scene wherein we arrive in London is rushed (strange for a book twenty years in the making) and as I closed the back cover, I was left with a general feeling of “huh.” I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much of this was on La Belle Sauvage’s own merits versus the hoary roots of nostalgia sunk deeply in my childhood, but I’ll almost certainly continue on to book two.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes. 

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

golden-notebookTedious but interesting.

Anna, a writer of a one-time bestseller, keeps several notebooks — a journal, a novel, reflections on youth, etc — to maintain her sanity in a world in active opposition to her ideals. The book blurb and title would have you believe she combines all these into a golden notebook, however that only occurs in the final fifty or so pages of this seven hundred page book, which gives you a good idea as to how it’s paced.

Some classics resonate with time. Others are diminished by it. You can guess which I think The Golden Notebook is. In one of the prefaces, Doris Lessing notes that when the novel was first published, protagonist Anna was viewed as extremely “macho”. It’s just about impossible to get that impression nowadays so the effect is lost. Indeed, while heralded as a staple of literary feminism, and touching on misogynist elements of society that persist today, that portion of the novel feels out of touch with modernity. Largely because of how extremely passive Anna is. We recognize her situation sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why she continues to sleep with these awful married men.

And feminism isn’t really the focus anyhow. The bulk of the book is a growing disillusionment of the English communist party in the 50s, as the Soviet dream fell apart and peoples across Europe came to know how terrible Stalin was. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to cold war America, since it was actually possible to openly be a communist without being blacklisted or imprisoned,  the text here is  highly specific and lengthy for a utopian mentality that barely exists* anymore. It didn’t feel necessary to read I guess I’m saying.

I finished it. Despite TEDIOUS being my prime descriptor. The characterization of Anna and the content did keep me going. I doubt I ever need to return to it.

*Yeah, yeah, there’s plenty of Marxists still around, but the specific ideal English communists treasured and its razor sharp focus on the Soviet Union is not the same thing.

Passages by Ann Quin

passagesHe    Are you happy or unhappy?
She   That’s not a very important question

This is a story of depression and annihilation and co-dependence and/but it’s very beautiful.

A man and a woman wander through Mediterranean beach towns, possibly all on the brink of war, searching for the woman’s lost brother, who may or may not be dead, and for themselves, neither of which they can seem to find.

Passages is split into quarters. The first and third are the woman’s point of view, which comes as segments of description prose-poetry and staccato sentences, not unlike A Girl if a Half Formed Thing though far more comprehensible and prettier. She alternates between the first person and the third person describing herself, a trick to modulate her distance from events. The man’s portions are his journals, relating the same events as his lover’s, sprinkled with dreams and self reflection. Mad ramblings on Greek mythology and Talmudic script are scribbled in the margins.

The two spend less time actually looking for the missing brother than they do running from a Kafkaesque squad of secret police they’re convinced are following them. And they spend more time than both of those things having rough sex with strangers, or thinking about doing so. Bondage, sadomasochism, whips, and chains. They both fantasize about rape, and there’s segments where it seems like maybe the man is a rapist or maybe the woman is being raped, but it’s hard to really say if any of that is actually happening; more like being at the mercy of sexual primacy and pushed along by a combination of inertia and the force of others allows someone to avoid the fact of their own agency.

In describing this, I fear I make it sound like this a narrative tale of people doing these things; it’s not. It’s fragments, passages. From one paragraph to the next, there may be little or no thread or correlation at all. It’s mosaic.

I read it on the beach and found it excellent.

The City and The City by China Mieville

city and the cityMieville takes a stab and grab at both the detective mystery genre and the allegorical locale by creating the twin cities of Ul Qoma and Beszel, located somewhere in central or eastern Europe and sitting literally on top of each other but with more strict and terrifying border control than the US/Mexican border. The cities are crosshatched — a building might be half in Ul Qoma and half in Beszel and construction crews would have to work specifically on their side without acknowledging the other. Pedestrians are trained to ‘unsee’ the opposing city, motorists to casually drive around their counterparts while actively not noticing them.

Why all this? The most general, cosmic ‘why’ is never answered but the personal ‘why’ is that if you’re a citizen of one of these city-countries and break the rules, cross over to the other side, then you’re at the mercy of a shadowy organization known only as Breach. People who breach the invisible line are nabbed by Breach and don’t tend to be seen again.

A woman from Ul Qoma turns up dead in an alley in Beszel. And the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case.

Our first-person protagonist, Detective Tyador Borlu, is a pastiche of gruff cop stereotypes. His clinical, largely unemotional demeanor even while the truly baffling is occurring is an anchor or counter to the setting and maybe-magical murder that is afoot. The book has an odd flow as it’s intriguing while we’re introduced to the mechanics of The City and The City, though a bit dry. The middle bits start to drag a bit, but then halfway through, the action picks up and the tale accelerates, not stopping until the murder is solved, the killer unmasked, the supernatural mystery explained.

The premise is excellent and not enough can be said about it. Usually I scoff at setting or ‘systems’ within sci-fi/fantasy as the reason to read it, while pining for great prose or character work. The City and The City has serviceable prose and forgettable characters but the setting is seriously compelling and fun. Mieville gets you to believe, really earnestly accept, something completely ridiculous. I think we’re supposed to laugh at the political drama of the ultra-nationalists or punky, idealistic unificationists of each city, since the boundary between them is so absurd, but it doesn’t take much thought to apply the same analysis on real life versions of the same. The political allegory is present but never laid on thick, and Mieville leaves you to make your conclusions on how these nonsense cities are reflected in the real world.

The actual identity of the killer is disappointing by way of his totally weak and unbelievable motive, but that’s almost a staple of detective fiction itself. The journey, not the destination. That’s what’s important. And for this particular book, the city you’re presently in. Whichever it is.

Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseA short review for a short book.

Slade House begins in 1977, in the first-person viewpoint of a thirteen year old autistic boy who stumbles into an unfortunate encounter with soul sucking vampires living in the eponymous house, which exists in a semi-magical bubble frozen at an exact moment some time around the second world war.

*breath*

The next chapter begins nine years later in 1986 following a different first person character, a crass copper this time, who also comes upon Slade House and… if you’re experiencing deja vu by this point it’s because Slade House follows a very similar tract to that of David Mitchell’s recently published novel: The Bone Clocks. Indeed, it takes place in the same universe. Mentally, I referred to the books as the same title. As in, ‘I need to put down The Bone Clocks and go to sleep’.

And really, if you want to know what I think of Slade House, you can just read my Bone Clocks review. It’s exactly the same thing, with the same successes and shortcomings, on a much smaller scale. The sci-fi-hocus-pocus technobabble is a maybe a little bit too much in Slade House: one entire chapter (of a total of five) is spent on the villain’s backstory and how they created Slade House and we honestly didn’t need to know more about them beyond ‘We eat souls!’. But this is countered by the otherwise swift pacing — with the shorter, twitter-inspired chapters, Mitchell has no choice but to jump right into the story and he does not waste a word.

And, more Bone Clocks? Great! Two David Mitchell novels in one year? Even better.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

the wakegraetings raeder, this bocc was a thryll, i saes to thu, a triewe thryll.

This is the story of our hero, buccmaster of holland, a man displaced in the year 1066 by the arrival of kyng geeyome and his french cronies, and buccmaster’s travels across an England all aflame.

It is fantastic. It succeeds on three different, but entwined levels:

1. The language

Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.

Kingsnorth has created a hodgepodge language (a ‘shadow tongue’) of old english, modern english, and hybrid-y made-up words. It’s not as difficult as it sounds; most words can be simply sounded out (folc = folk, blaec = black, wifeman = woman) and are clear by context. Others took me a while to puzzle out (sawol = soul, deoful = devil) and there’s a few words like esol and ingenga that are just old or made up words but near-immediately clear from context as to what they mean.

I know some readers despise having to learn a dialect, espousing the notion that good writing conducts these qualities without linguistic hijinx. And that an activity used for entertainment should not require work. I couldn’t disagree with this notion more. As Kingswolf articulates in the quote above — you cannot truly understand a people until you delve closely into the way they think, which exists within the sphere of their language. It’s also why no matter how great a translation from one language to a next is, it will still always be imperfect.

2. Our hero

i is buccmaster of holland i is a socman a man of the wapentac i has three oxgangs and this is my werod. this is my werod and this is my sweord and those wolde leaf with this fuccan preost go now go north go to sec thy earols and beorn lic the landwaster did in northern fyr

buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs, is a goddamn asshole. He’s a petty, violent, coward obsessed with his own greatness. He thinks he’s the only real englishman left in England. Literally the only positive quality he sees in other people is obeisance to him. He has the voices of ‘eald anglisc gods’ in his head, which are actually originally the norse gods, telling him he’s weak and urging him to fight  (making this the 2nd historical fiction book I’ve read featuring a mad englishman with a voice in his head in as many months).

And you spend the entire novel intimate with this scoundrel, amidst the muddled and contradictory fear and hate that make up his thought processes. It’s litany of 11th century hate, for everything — foreigners, his countrymen, his family, society, religion, the young, the old. Yet despite that you could easily see the same type of man reflected in a present day ultra-conservative pining for days bygone, thinking themselves the only real American (insert your country), lamenting giving women any rights or utterly opposed to any change whatsoever.

And he’s one of the best written protagonists I’ve followed in years. I can hear the fucker muttering his greatness in my sleep. Even after he does something bafflingly cruel and brutal, I can’t help but chuckle when he again uses as his justification the fact that he’s a a triewe anglisc man, buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs. He’s just so bitter, so full of rage. And also pathetic and devoid of self awareness. His wife and sons are murdered and he whines about the inconvenience to him.

3. The history

Laughably, the blurb for this book states:

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next…

I guess ‘everyone’ in this context means some englishpeople and historians. Real quick primer: The french rapidly conquered England, and burned, raped, and siphoned the wealth of the good people across England. But in this era of history, England was massively decentralized and underpopulated. The numbers were very small. So a few men escaping the sack of their village (a ‘ham’ of a handful of houses) could hide in the fen or forest, a place the foreign-born french could not pursue them and pick off the invaders in guerilla combat.

It was less a war than pure colonization. The french despised the english and had no problem quashing their customs and ways.The modern english we know today are a combo of french and english from the time. The old gods were already on their way out in favor of ‘the hwit crist’, but the french greatly accelerated the Christianizing of England. Hereditary monarchy and land ownership transmitting through first born sons are old french constructs, not english. Following the events of The Wake, there was not another king who spoke english as a first language for a good 250 years! Contrary to the book blurb’s ‘everyone…’, I knew nothing about this era of history and found it fascinating. I would have guessed old english gods were celtic, not norse.

we is men of the hidden places of our own places and our worc is to stand for the lands we cnawan and cum from to cepe our folc free. and when there is enough of us angland will not be ham for no ingenga and none will stand to be here for none can lif if the treows the ground the hylls them selfs is waepened agan all comers


(buccmaster was wrong)

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

asmeatlovessaltThe back of this book claims it to be a psychological thriller about a 17th century englishman, enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s army, who falls in love with a fellow soldier.

This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it’s such a small piece of a dense 600 page brick. Thus I endeavor to better describe the pieces that comprise As Meat Loves Salt.

 

The Servant

We are introduced to our brutish (both physically and morally) first-person hero, Jacob Cullen, while he is dragging a pond in search of a drowned corpse. It is immediately apparent by Jacob’s apprehension that he had something to do with that corpse attaining its present state, lying in the muck at the bottom of a pond. Chronicling the day to day of the servants to a minor lordship, this part of the book is heavy with foreboding. Not least of all because it takes place amidst the calm of indentured servitude, spent polishing silverware and beating rugs, while our protagonist pines after his betrothed (a woman); this, when the reader is certain things must go south, having read the back of the book and its tales of war and romantic soldierly love. On top of this, Jacob Cullen is a guilty, anxious man. A peevish ogre, quick to anger and jealously paranoid. And when everything comes to a head, when his true colors show, the events are even worse than I had imaged. McCann has a knack for describing the violently terrible, in all its wet detail.

But I was afflicted with an ugliness of the soul that no physick could correct

 

The Soldier

Following Jacob’s expansive display of ugliness, he is thrust into the English Civil War. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition — Jacob Cullen, murderer, rapist, all-around shitbag, ends up looking damn near angelic by comparison to the horrific atrocities committed by the army upon those they conquer and pillage. Partly because we can say at least Jacob feels bad after, when he does something outstandingly terrible.

And feel bad he does. Jacob spends much of his time pondering his own damnation, begging forgiveness, making grand plans for restitution. Devout Jacob’s imagination portrays a vivid depiction of Hell, all aflame and in torment. He’s also a wonderful moper. This goes on until his anger gets the better of him once more and he starts bashing a man’s head into a table at the slightest provocation. Then he starts anew. Did I mention he has a Voice in his head, speaking in biblical liturgy, alternating between being his dead father or the devil, commanding him to do ill to his fellows?

 

London

In the army, Jacob meets Christopher Ferris, his eventual lover, and deserts to the latter’s house in London. This section is long; interminable. It drags.

Up until the London episode, reading this novel was akin to being locked in a room with rabid dogs, only to escape and find yourself in a room of rabid wolves. It was incredibly upsetting, unsettling, arresting. I turned pages in fear of what Jacob would do next. There was periods of anxious quiet punctuated by clamorous strings of violent, appalling action. This all committed by a first person narrator, making all manner of excuses for his actions.

Now the pace slows, the love story picks up. Jacob doesn’t so much as love as possess; the gender of his object of ownership is irrelevant. He yearns, he isolates, he loves, his wrath destroys. The fact that this part of the novel goes on so long is the great weakness of As Meat Loves Salt. We know this man is capable of the very worst — hundreds of pages of tranquil setup is much too much.

 

Swords into ploughshares

Drunk on the self determination ideology of the time, Ferris assembles a group of bright-eyed malcontents and sets off to a common green space to establish a farm community. Though loath to leave London, Jacob begrudgingly follows his lover. The ominous tone of the early chapters returns, and a grain-based doomsday clock builds to Armageddon.

And I craved it. I wanted Jacob’s Bad Angel to return because I was bored of the meandering pace of the London chapters. As the narrative scythe prepared its reaping, I realized this book is at its best, it’s most gripping, only when The Worst Possible Things are happening. It’s when a militiaman is violently throwing a newborn to the ground, that I can say this, this is when As Meat Loves Salt is at its best, my stomach rolling all the while.

This book is superbly written. The period dialogue is so effective, I could hear the characters speak, and at times I felt I could fain converse in kind. Even though I ultimately found the entire package only a few notches above okay, I will miss McCann’s handle on prose. It’s alternately beautiful and diabolic.