Thursday, December 31, 2015

Defending poetry

Reading Eternal Enemies, a collection of poems by Adam Zagajewski.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A quivering at the corners of her mouth

In all domestic arguments — as in all fistfights and armed conflicts, for that matter — there comes a moment when both, or one, of the parties can step back and prevent the situation from deteriorating any further. This was that moment. I wondered briefly what it was I was hoping for. As family and table companions, it was our role to intervene, to speak words that would put things into perspective and so allow the parties to be reconciled.

But did I feel like doing that, to be frank? Did we feel like doing that? I looked at Claire, and at the same moment Claire looked at me. Playing around her lips was something outsiders would not have recognized as a smile, but which was in fact a smile. It was to be found in a quivering at the corners of her mouth, invisible to the naked eye. I knew that invisible quiver well. And I knew what it meant: Claire, too, felt absolutely no urge to referee. No more than I did. We were not going to do anything to intervene. On the contrary, we would do everything in our power to enable things to escalate even further. Because that suited us best at this moment.
— from The Dinner, by Herman Koch.

May all your holiday dinners be free of such domestic disputes, and all your knowing glances be loving ones.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Generally swims against the orthodox flow"

Sweet Tooth is my favourite of Ian McEwan's novels that I've read to date. (For the record, I hated Solar, loved Saturday, thought Atonement pretentious and contrived and I still don't understand the acclaim for it, and have gotten on well with most others.) Two aspects in particular stand out for me.

Literature as propaganda.
Serena has been recruited by MI5. In her spare time, she devours paperback novels. The project to which she's been assigned, codename Sweet Tooth, is to handpick some writers, academics, and journalists, finance them, and nurture their craft. There are political motivations for sidestepping the usual national arts funding mechanism. Recipients should be talented enough to become popular and thus hold some sway over public opinion, unknowingly helping to shape MI5-preferred sentiments regarding communism, freedom, and other matters of national interest.
"We're not interested in the decline of the West, or down with progress or any other modish pessimism. [...] We're looking for the sort who might spare a moment for his hard-pressed fellows in the Eastern bloc, travels out there perhaps to lend support or sends books, signs petitions for persecuted writers, engages his mendacious Marxist colleagues here, isn't afraid to talk publicly about writers in prison in Castro's Cuba. Generally swims against the orthodox flow."
This wasn't the first Western strike in the culture war; the CIA had previously none-too-subtly backed a highbrow culture magazine, so obvious it backfired. And as propaganda, without the broad appeal to the masses, it failed.

All this takes place in 1972 England (the Cold War is still going strong, but a new threat has developed: the IRA). Sweet Tooth's chosen writer turns in a prize-winning novel, but it didn't take the Booker.

A cross-check with reality shows that the 1972 Booker Prize was awarded to John Berger for G. Berger donated half his cash prize to the Black Panther Party in Britain and retained half to support his work on the study of migrant workers, both being necessary parts of his political struggle. I'd never heard of him.

Art has always been political. It got me thinking: Could propaganda of this nature actually be alive and well in the West? Are there intelligence-agency puppet masters pulling the strings of pop culture?

A man writing a feminist novel.
Perhaps Sweet Tooth is not so strikingly feminist, only my sensibilities in the last few weeks have primed me to see it so. I read most of Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind, which he calls a feminist novel, but the first two-thirds of which is not really. I read Monica Ali's In the Kitchen, featuring a very dislikeable man with very little regard for women, and tangentially addressing the issue societal expectations of women (oh, and, human trafficking and prostitution). Last but not least, I saw Gloria Steinem speak, and she drove home the point that of course we should all be feminists.

McEwan has an uncanny way of getting inside a woman's head. (My head at least.)
I was beginning to feel a distinctive and unusual kind of pleasure, a sense of being set free. In a portion of mental space, perhaps quite a large portion, I was actually cleverer than Tom. How strange that seemed. What was so very simple for me, for him was apparently beyond comprehension.
No man would ever feel this.

[It's not that the realization of one's cleverness is striking in itself. It's that it's worth noting at all, even by oneself, to oneself. Mid-80s, high-school calculus; I was cleverer than all the boys in the room, and it was mostly boys in the room. And teacher made a point of saying so. If it was a compliment, why did I feel condescended to? Why did he say it if not to shame them and embarrass me?]

The novelist character at one point talks about the need to be a transvestite, figuratively I assume, to fully inhabit his women characters. I wonder what McEwan's method of study is. Did he shag a spy? (I bet he's good in bed.)
I couldn't bear to look at him. I was irritated by the way he conflated his own shifting needs with an impersonal destiny. I want it, therefore... it's in the stars! What was it with men, that they found elementary logic so difficult? I looked along the line of my shoulder towards the hissing gas rings. The kitchen was warming up at last and I loosened my dressing gown at the neck. I pushed my dishevelled hair clear of my face to hep me think clearly. He was waiting for me to make the correct confession, to align my desires with his, to confirm him in his solipsism and join him in it. But perhaps I was being too hard on him. This was a simple misunderstanding. At least, that was how I intended to treat it.
In all McEwan's Serena feels like an accurate rendition of the female psyche. And the novel's portrayal of life for a working woman in 1972 feels pretty authentic too. I bought into it; the novel works for me.

On the other hand, Maureen Corrigan hated Sweet Tooth (warning: her review is ambiguously spoiler-y): "Oh, what fun McEwan has squirting acid over everything simple Serena — clearly, the Common (Female) Reader — enjoys in a novel." Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

London was all belly

In the Kitchen by Monica Ali was not what I expected. I expected something about a kitchen that confirmed everything I'd ever learned about kitchens from watching Chef! and Gordon Ramsay, and, oh yeah, the time I worked in a kitchen where the chef had a temper and ego to vie with that of any televised personality. In the Kitchen was not that book.

In the Kitchen starts with a dead body in the basement, but the book's not about that either.

While I started off rather enjoying it, quite suddenly the protagonist became very unlikeable. I couldn't understand why Ali would do that to her main character, and I spent the rest of the book being befuddled and a little angry about it. I now realize how much of a slow burn this novel is; it's taken a couple weeks for it to properly set in my head.
"My father say, in old days, Soviet days, is easy to tell what is lie. Everything is lie. Now, he says, is more hard. What is truth and what is lie? How we can know?" She pulled her shoulders up by her ears and let them drop. "But he is wrong. There is no truth. Is only a new kind of lie."
Very little of this novel actually takes place in the kitchen. But the kitchen — the idea of "kitchen" — is strongly associated with two things (things Ali has written about before): women and immigrants. Women, of course, belong in the kitchen, but only when that kitchen is a domestic one. It takes a man to run a kitchen like a business, like a well-oiled machine. But it takes the right kind of man, one who stands above the others — the others who work long hours in difficult conditions for slave wages. This kitchen runs thanks to Africans and Eastern Europeans.

It took me a while to see how all the flavours blend together, because I was so caught up in Chef Gabe being a jerk. Maybe I'm overreacting, but no: rescuing the damsel in distress but then allowing yourself to believe that her having sex with you has nothing to do with the power dynamic you've established is a pretty jerk thing to do. And lying to his girlfriend about it. Jerk.

But it's little things too, like in the way he regards his sister:
Gabe held the phone away from his ear. Two years ago — was it three? — he had been affronted when Jenny walked into the kitchen in Plodder Lane and he saw how old she had become, how middle age had enveloped her like the layers of fat on her arms, her legs, her neck. Jenny, who used to wear torn denim miniskirts and a fuck-off glare. Who use to drop one laconic word in the pub and send everyone scurrying to pick it up, frame it, and hand it around. She used so many words now and all of them passed you by.
I wondered how Ali could be so mean to women, letting Gabe get away with crap like that. Shouldn't she be championing the feminist cause? Gabe's girlfriend was made out to have a strong character in life, but be a mere background character in the novel.
Charlie, standing with her back to the kitchen counter, dug her hands into her jeans pockets. Her sweater, samphire green, showcased her curves. Once he had said to her she should be on a tailfin, a mascot for our brave boys as they went to "liberate" whichever godforsaken country they were sent to next. "You mean I've got World War Two hips," she said. He knew by then that she said these things as a parody of female insecurity and also because she was insecure. He said nothing because, confirm or deny, either way it would be taken as attempt to patronize.
But I realized how astute, how true. This is the way the world is. We parody our insecurity while still insecure. Feminism lurks here. Ali's women characters are not the centre of this story — they are side dishes, dessert, a bit of home cooking — they have an awareness of themselves and their fate that Gabe does not have of himself.

So this novel turns out to be much vaster than the midlife drama of a petty and pathetic character. I really don't care how Gabe's little life turns out, and he really unravels at the end, but I am a little more concerned for the world: How real is human trafficking? How does Great Britain really treat its immigrants? How representative is Gabe's father when he bemoans that Great Britain has lost its Britishness.
London wasn't the brains of the country, as people said; it certainly wasn't the heart. London was all belly, its looping intestinal streets constantly at work, digesting, absorbing, excreting, fueling and refueling, shaping the contours of the land.
Ali is a keen observer of human nature. I think Gabe's nature is very true, but sadly it makes him so unlikeable that it gets in the way of a good story.
"But every refugee knows how to tell his story. For him, you understand, his story is a treasured possession. For true, it is the most important thing he owns."
Possibly Ali is making the point that Gabe bears the privilege of not having to treasure his own story (but then why should I?).

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

All I want for Christmas

So I have a little free time* these days, as I'm basically on stress leave** from work, and I'm indulging in a little armchair shopping***.

*If you can call "Christmas is coming and we will be travelling, and oh, we're moving in less than 6 weeks so I should get organized and pack up the household," free time.

**Let's see, in the past year, my husband left me, I've been adjusting to single motherhood and struggling to mitigate the pressure of feeling that I have to be always on, underwent a bathroom renovation, had a vacation which however fantastic it was came with its own set of logistical complications, shopped for a new home and made an offer, endured no end of bureaucratic obstacles in settling the current property with my ex, my brother had brain surgery and died of lung cancer within 2 months of his diagnosis****, my daughter became a teenager, I can't fathom that my ex believes his sum total responsibility toward his daughter is to take her to brunch for an hour on Sunday, I bought some new furniture, and now I'm preparing to move. Plus regular work crap. Last week I went to the hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack. Turns out, it's stress. Basically, you know that checklist of stressful life events, when you go for a massage or whatever? Just check all. 2015, you suck.

***Armchair shopping in this instance should be taken figuratively to mean shopping from the comfort of my home, as opposed to shopping for armchairs, which is something I'm also doing these days, sometimes also from the comfort of my home, albeit without an actual armchair, hence my being in the market for one. I hesitate as to whether I require it to have arms, but, leaving aside the semantic conundrum that poses, what then would I fling my legs over?

****If that sounds flippant — one more item in my litany of otherwise quotidian complaints — it's not meant to. It's heartbreaking. I just don't have the strength to address it any meaningful way.

So I'm checking some of the year-end book lists to see what I could get for others, what I should reserve for myself, and one title jumps out as one I'd registered previously. I don't generally read customer reviews for books on Amazon, but I thought it might jog my memory of what I knew of this novel.

This review (by "James") made my day:
I bought this book because the cover was cool and I was a little drunk. I didn't read it for a few days because someone else called it "a geopolitical fantasy" and that combination of words alone almost put me to sleep. Luckily for me fate intervened and I got stuck on a plane with only this and sky-mall for entertainment and subsequently dug into it. My god it was good. I finished it in under 24 hours and am eagerly awaiting whatever the author puts out next.
The book is The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. This is the book I want***** for Christmas, please. (And also maybe some time to read it.)

*****To be clear, my want is not based solely upon this review, but rather on the general critical and popular reception of this novel. Also, I love the title.

Monday, December 07, 2015

It's Hunger and Run!

I thoroughly enjoyed Slade House by David Mitchell.
I turn round to tell Jonah to stop the game something's wrong, we need a grown-up. Any second now he'll come hurtling round the far corner. The brambles sway like underwater tentacle. I glance back at the garden. There was a sundial but it's gone now, and the damson trees too. Am I going blind? I want Dad to tell me it's fine, I'm not going blind, but Dad's in Rhodesia, so I want Mum. Where's Jonah? What if this dissolving's got him too? Now the lattice tunnel thing's erased. What do you do when you're visiting someone's house and their garden starts vanishing? The blankness is moving closer like a storm-front. Then, at the far end of the brambly side path, Jonah appears, and I relax for a second because he'll know what to do , but as I watch, the running-boy shape gets fuzzier and becomes a growling darkness with darker eyes, eyes that know me, and fangs that'll finish what they started and it's pounding after me in sickening slow motion, big as a catering horse and I'd scream if I could but can't my chest's full of molten panic it's choking me choking it's wolves it's winter it's bones it's cartilage skin liver lungs it's Hunger it's Hunger it's Hunger and Run! I fun toward the steps of Slade House my feet slipping on the pebbles link in dreams but if I fall it's have me, and I've only got moments left and I stumble up the steps and grip the doorknob turn please turn it's stuck no no no it's scratched gold it's stiff it's ridged does it turn yes no yes no twist pull push pull turn twist I'm falling forwards onto a scratchy doormat on black and white tiles and my shriek's like a shriek shrieked into a traffic cone all stifled and muted —
I mean, shriek! Wow, molten panic, Hunger, no, shriek.

Slade House is told in five sections, each relating an encounter at the house, occurring nine years apart. The house is an illusion that requires considerable psychic strength to maintain, and the twins who run the house need to fuel that energy. They do so by luring some particularly dynamic souls into their circle.

This short novel belongs in the world of Mitchell's Bone Clocks, which I have not read, so let me assure you that it stands perfectly well on its own. It does a good job of the haunted house story tradition, with loads of ambiance (the chilling kind) and family secrets. But it doesn't take itself too seriously — there are plenty of skeptical characters to keep things reasonable, if not exactly grounded in reality.

There's creepy yet poetic weirdness:
I find a dead cat lying on the ground at the first corner. It's gray like dust on the moon. I know it's dead because it's as still as a dropped bag, and because big flies are drinking from its eyes. How did it die? There's no bullet wound or fang marks, though its head's at a slumped angle so maybe it was strangled by a cat-strangler. It goes straight into the Top 5 of the Most Beautiful Things I've Ever Seen. Maybe there's a tribe in Papua New Guinea who think the droning of flies is music. Maybe I'd fit in with them.
There's some lovely intense blackness:
It's black, nothing-black, like the gaps between stars.
Blacker than black:
"Try the coffee first. It'll make a man of you." I lift the mug and peer down. Inside's black as oil, as holes in space, as Bibles.
I'd've liked to read Slade House in one sitting upon a dark and stormy night, but circumstances were such that I read it in very small pieces in strange places and over several dark days.
Grief's an amputation, but hope's incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed. Like Schrödinger’s cat inside a box you can never ever open.
Guardian: Slade House by David Mitchell review – like Stephen King in a fever
Huffington Post: David Mitchell has a Halloween present for us
New York Times: David Mitchell's "Slade House" Plunges Into a Battle of Immortals
NPR: It's Coming From Inside The House ... "Slade House," That Is
Wall Street Journal: David Mitchell's Haunted "Slade House"


Recommended for anyone in a witching-hour mood.