Monday, June 30, 2014

Quote: Aquarium Face

…he had a great face half as long again as other faces, with a great nose (quite sharp on the end) stuck into it, two dark eyes like clever bits of coal and two little stubby eyebrows like very small fish swimming bravely in a great sea of face.

Susanna Clarke, from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Little Thoughts: Achievement, Hope, and Beauty

Achievement is the death of hope, the realization that the outcome hoped for is too small a thing to bear the weight of anticipation. No achievement is capable of transforming life into something continually beautiful.

Beauty is a moment lived with awareness.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: The Final Solution

The Final Solution is Michael Chabon’s homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a delightful short novel with a once-famous but never-named sleuth, now an elderly bee-keeper, drawn into a mystery involving a mute Jewish boy and his African Gray Parrot. In Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, almost the whole business is the powerful tidiness of rational deduction, as all the disparate pieces are put together with logic ribbon tied neatly in a bow. In Chabon’s take, the detective is old and diminished, and there is a touch of nostalgia to the story if not the person:

Oh, she thought, what a fine old man this is! Over his bearing, his speech, the tweed suit and tatterdemalion Inverness there hung, like the odor of Turkish shag, all the vanished vigor and rectitude of the empire.

Chabon has been criticized by reviewers for neglecting the tidy logical forms of the mystery, and he has been criticized for letting his prose run away with the story. It is clear, however, that this is a Chabon story and not a Doyle story. Chabon’s incredible talent is in his command of language, and the ineluctable rhythms of a long sentence. He gives us a Holmes finally aware of his limitations, and of the limitations of rationality and logic. He gives us a story with subtle allusions to heavier things yet unknown to England of the day. Only the boy and the bird knows, and it has turned the boy quiet. The bird sings of things it doesn’t understand. And so do we.

Review: The Penelopiad

In The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood gives us a satirical view of the events of The Odyssey. Penelope and her twelve hanged maids speak to us from Hades in our own time, which allows the author to present her work with the convenience of modern perspectives on sex, class, and the gods. The tone remains light and unlabored throughout, even while implicating the patriarchal values of the Homeric world. Penelope speaks from her position as an elite woman, burdened beneath the role her society has forced upon her, while the hanged maids expose the raw inequality suffered by female servants.

That Atwood is a gifted writer is obvious, however The Penelopiad seems a rather short and fast work on these themes. I could imagine them drawn out and explored in much greater detail, though perhaps not while maintaining the lightness of tone. The chorus sections, those of the hanged maids, provide a verse burlesque complimenting and contrasting against the prose of Penelope. These chapters provide a welcome counterpoint, and often heighten the impact of the satire. But the verses, themselves, sometimes seem unpolished and dashed off.

The Penelopiad is an slight novel by a great writer, and perhaps re-reading will reveal the novel as something grander and richer than petite four that it appears to be.

Review: Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation

Initiation, Integration, Immolation, Immersion, Dissolution: so go the stages of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. As much as these chapter titles appear to signify some type of desolation, they seem to represent something like the steps towards catharsis—and possibly derangement, death, or mutation—for the main character who we only know as “biologist.” It is the biologist’s story, one told with the images and language of nightmare.

At times Annihilation succeeds in oozing an uncanny eeriness, while at others there is a sparseness of feeling and atmosphere. This sparseness is not necessarily a fault. It can be effective, like a minimalist staging of a tragic play. What is compelling, however, is always the biologist—her thoughts, her feelings, her state of mind, her experience of her environment. The literal events of the story can be read as a manifestation of her experience of herself, her failures, the result of her inability to navigate the demands of objectivity as a scientist and subjectivity as a human being. Her world is out of control, consuming her, like a will-o-the-wisp which once approached explodes with the energy of collapsing stars.

Review: Men, Women, and Monsters: A Treatise On The Supranatural In Victorian England (Or A Review of Charles Fletcher's The Oversight)

I came to The Oversight during a forced holiday after a long dry spell absent of any fiction. It was just what I needed. This is a playful gothic fantasy that starts in the gas-lit, fog-drenched streets of Victorian-era London, and follows an ages old coterie, now deeply diminished, known officially as the “Free Company for the Regulation and Oversight of Recondite Exigency and Supranatural Lore.” What does this mean? It means magic, but more significantly, it means supernatural monsters, the Sluagh of Irish and Scottish folklore. The supernatural, forgive me, supranatural elements of the story are not overblown, but are rather understated and often lend a tasty eeriness to the story. This is a story with a strong sense of atmosphere and well-handled pacing and complexity, all tied together with capable and often elegant prose.

The characters of The Oversight borrow from a broad range of literary archetypes. This is certainly a plot-driven story, but I find the characters interesting and compelling despite their lack of internal development. These are characters as we find in the best serials, be they comics, penny dreadfuls, or Dickensian tales. And they are bolstered with a sense of authenticity by the summoning of the likes of such real-history characters as John Dee, Rabbi Dr Hayyim Samuel Falk, and the 17th century encylopedist and esotericist Sir Thomas Browne. (The quotes from Browne are real, while Falk’s writings are fictional, and Dee makes a cameo appearance.) Fletcher even appropriates the historical dispute between two 19th century conjurors, Barnardo Eagle and John Henry Anderson. This blending of the real and the imaginative brings depth and life to the story.

The Oversight is the first novel of the Oversight Trilogy, and the second installment, The Drowning Glass, is not due out until May 2015.

I’m waiting impatiently.