Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville

This is a book I picked up because of reviews. I read some very good reviews about it, and then it was on sale. It seemed like fate. (I use this excuse for almost any book that I buy, to be fair.)

It’s based on a true story, the story of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy who is involved with the settling of Australia. He becomes friends with some of the natives, starting to learn their language, and that connection informs the rest of his life and career.

The style is very reflective of the main character, Daniel Rooke. He’s never really felt like he fit in – he has a very mathematical mind and, if he were alive today, would probably be considered to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He doesn’t quite understand most social encounters and relates better to numbers than to people (which, you might imagine, is not too popular at a time when most people didn’t have formal schooling).  He joins the Navy and ultimately the trip to Australia because of his mathematical gifts, his need for rules and structure, and his interest in astronomy. He ultimately makes a few friends – Silk, in particular, whose interest in words and narrative and storytelling mirrors Rooke’s interest in mathematics, astronomy, and order.

His friendship with the natives starts from his interest in rules and order – he hopes to learn and transcribe their language according to the precise rules of grammar, so that others may learn. Of course, language is not that easy, as he learns. Neither are relationships – with the natives, with the Navy, with Silk, with himself.

But I was talking about the style. It’s fairly emotionless for most of the book. We know what Rooke is seeing, doing, and feeling, but it’s very clinical, very straightforward, as Rooke himself is. It is not until we get towards the end, when things at Botany Bay are starting to fall apart, when his relationship with the native girl (a sister-brother type relationship, not that anyone believes him) is starting to conflict with his relationship with the Navy, that you actually feel for Rooke – that there is anything to feel for Rooke. That Rooke really feels anything himself, beyond the satisfaction he’s previously felt at his solitude and star-gazing. By the end, your heart breaks for him, as his is breaking at the events that he is forced to become a part of, and the consequences for him of these conflicting priorities.

It’s an anti-racism book, but not to the point where it gets preachy. Rooke simply presents his observations and the conclusions he draws from them, and the reader is allowed to make up their own mind. (Not that I anticipate that any reader of this book will go, “Ooh, racism is good!”) It’s about the conflict between love (not romantic love) and duty – but again, not to the point of preachiness. But at the same time, it doesn’t really express very many new ideas or new ways of thinking. It’s a nice book; it’s a well-done book. It’s not a groundbreaking book. The information about the Australian natives is interesting and unique in my experience, but the message of the book itself isn’t really anything new.

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The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

This book has been on my vague “Oh, I heard that was good and want to read it” list for ages – since it came out, really. Once his second book came out, I decided that now was as good a time as any to get to it.

It’s an interesting book; hard to categorize. It is, on the surface, about a boy (the “Pi” of the title) who grew up in India, the son of a zookeeper, and who survived a shipwreck during his family’s emigration to Canada. There’s kind of two parts to the book: before the shipwreck and after the shipwreck. The two are sort of nominally connected, through Pi and the animals, but are not really connected in events or themes.

The first half details Pi’s childhood, and especially his  various faiths. He grew up as a Hindu, but over the first section of the book he also becomes a Christian and a Muslim – all three at the same time. There’s also an element of atheism – although scientific rationalism or something like that might be more accurate. Pi definitely believes in God; he just also believes in the validity of evolution. His perspective on religion is that of multiple manifestations. He doesn’t disbelieve most fundamental parts of Christianity and Islam, for example – he believes that Muhammad was the prophet of God, that Jesus died to save the world and then rose again – he just doesn’t ascribe to the part that says “this is the only right way to believe in God.” It’s one of the more troubling aspects of religion in a pluralistic society.

Then the shipwreck happens and, other than a few mentions of God, the religious aspect of the book is completely abandoned, and it becomes about survival. The cargo ship that Pi, his family, and most of their zoo animals are on sinks without a trace. Pi and a few of the animals are the only survivors. There is a hyena, a zebra (quickly dispatched by the hyena), an orangutan (also dispatched by the hyena), and a Bengal tiger (who then kills the hyena). Pi and the tiger (whose name is Richard Parker) sail on in the lifeboat for 227 days before finally landing in Mexico.

The last bit of the book brought up some issues for me. Pi tells his story to some insurance claims agents representing the ship’s company. They don’t believe that he could have survived for so long, especially with a Bengal tiger – so Pi tells them another story that replaces the animal characters with human characters, turning the story that we have just heard into an allegory for the actual, human experiences that he had. There is no way of knowing, for sure, which story is true, and it turns Pi – up until now a fairly reliable narrator or at least not an obviously unreliable narrator – into a blatantly unreliable narrator.  Was there actually a Bengal tiger? The story as it is told seems to say yes. But there are clues scattered throughout that, upon rereading, might point to the human story being the truth and the animal story being Pi’s way of explaining the savagery of the survivors. Clues like those in The Sixth Sense that you take at face value within the story until you know the ending, and then they can easily be read in a different way. I am going to have to reread this book with an eye to these things at some point.

Overall, unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed in this book. I felt like there was a disconnect between the first part of the book (Pi’s religious explorations) and the second (the shipwreck). The twist of Pi as unreliable narrator almost felt like a slap in the face, like a betrayal – I’d trusted him and empathized  with him the whole way through, and I would have liked the chance to do that with the understanding of it as allegory, if it is. Or if it’s not, why pretend that it might be? I don’t know for sure, it just bothered me. And, in a way, it felt like a cheap way to get the reader to read the book again. It put a mystery in at the end, but the solution to the mystery (if there is one) lies before you are aware that there is a mystery to be solved. Maybe it would have been too clichéd or something to flip the book so that the allegorical implication comes at the beginning, but for me it changed the whole tone and idea of the book – after I’d already read through 90% of it with one impression. It doesn’t make the book a lie, but it did feel like a betrayal of my reading experience.

I’m not saying it wasn’t good, though – it was very readable in that “I’m trying to be deep and profound” way that a lot of modern “literary” fiction has. I’m just saying that there were things about it, especially about the structure of it, that I didn’t like.

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The Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker

I am so fascinated by World War I. I’m not sure entirely why (other than Rilla of Ingleside) but I love the stories that come out of those four years. The stories, the poems, the personalities….I don’t know as much, or care as much about the military strategy of it, but I am fascinated by the people involved. So this trilogy, revolving around Dr Rivers, the psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is kind of perfect for me.

Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, I read during my MA. And I devoured it. I loved the style, I loved the people, I felt deeply for each of the patients and the other characters. It made me want to reread everything of Siegfried Sassoon’s that I could find, to read more about Robert Graves, to study Wilfred Owen. At a distance of a year-plus, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember the love.

The Eye in the Door, the second book, is a bit grimmer. I am not sure if ‘grimmer’ is the right word, when the first book is set in a mental hospital, but emotionally, there is less hope in The Eye in the Door. Billy Prior, one of the patients from Craiglockhart, is starting to dissociate, and the disillusionment that is so prevalent in the “war poets” and post-war writing is stronger in this book than in either of the others. Betrayal is an important theme. Memory is an important element – both the loss of memory associated with shell-shock and dissociation, and the juxtaposition of pre-war memory and current events. It’s possible that one reason that I didn’t like this one quite as much as the other two is because it forced Billy’s pre-war memories into the story, in an attempt to preach about the horrors of the home front. And there were horrors on the home front, as there are anywhere that has been affected by war.

The Ghost Road, on the other hand, I loved. It starts with an epigraph from an Edward Thomas poem – Edward Thomas is a ‘war poet’ that I wasn’t familiar with before, but I’m going to investigate him further; apparently he was a friend of Robert Frost, and may have been the impetus for ‘The Road Less Travelled’. And the book integrates more of Rivers into the story, which is something that I found slightly missing from The Eye in the Door. The memories – Rivers’s, this time – fit better with the story; they provided insights and metaphorical connections instead of flat background.

The Ghost Road also has one of the few passages I’ve ever wanted to actually mark in a book. It’s kind of an obvious thing, but coming from Billy Prior, and in the context that it does, it really makes an impact. Billy’s writing a diary, in a way to keep track of his sanity and that of the other soldiers in France, and he comments on the prevalence of writing in the huts: letters, diaries, poems. And then he says,

Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe.

He recognizes the irony, of course – that in war no one is ever safe. And the reader does too – anyone who knows about Wilfred Owen, a prominent figure in this book and one of Billy Prior’s fellow soldiers, knows that he died in battle on Armistice Day. Many of the ‘war poets’ didn’t make it home. Turning yourself into a first-person narrator is not going to give you a magic shield against bullets or gas. But the need is still there. This is one of the reasons that we tell stories; we are trying to keep our own stories going as long as possible, to make some kind of a mark on the world so that people will want to keep knowing about us, to keep ourselves from fading from sight even before death.

This trilogy is, in one way, kind of like a Ron Howard movie. It’s based on true events – many of the characters are real people – so you know what’s going to happen, for the most part. But you can’t stop reading, you can’t stop hoping that it will happen differently this time. They wouldn’t really kill off characters that are so important in the story, would they?  They wouldn’t really be sent into battle in such horrible conditions? Or, even more chillingly, they wouldn’t really let a guy with half his face blown off live that long, would they? But they do, in every case.

(I also will say that one thing that I liked about The Ghost Road was the presence of Henry Head. I found him fascinating during Casualty 1909, where they actually show the beginnings of his nerve regeneration self-experiment, which they bring up in this book, and I like that connection between one thing I love (this trilogy) and another (Casualty 1900s).)

I whipped through the final two books of this trilogy in, essentially, one afternoon/evening. I find the period so captivating, and the characters so captivating, that now all I want to do is read more WWI-set literature. Maybe I’ll do Birdsong next, and mark that off my list too….

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The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke is a fantastic children’s fantasy writer. The Inkheart trilogy was a fairly brilliant double story (the story in Inkheart and the story of Mo and his family), so I was expecting great things from The Thief Lord.

It’s not the tightest story in the world, but for some reason I couldn’t put it down. There are different threads that don’t always quite mesh together, but the kids – the main characters – are wonderful.  The fringe characters are a bit broad, almost to the point of caricature – which was distracting when the first character you really meet is a villain who is so unremittingly bad that I kept expecting her to be revealed as an literal witch or something like that (who then vanishes for most of the book, until she’s needed again to create tension).

Like I said above, there are different threads in the book. There’s the story of the two brothers, Prosper and Bo, who don’t want to be separated. Their thread runs through the whole book. It occasionally is more prominent than at other times, but it is always present. Then there is the story of the gang – a group of homeless, abandoned children (which sounds more pathetic than it is) who are led, in a way, by one who calls himself the Thief Lord. They in turn mix in with the thread of the magical merry-go-round, which is one of the turning points of the book but isn’t even mentioned until at least halfway through. There are also vague subsubthreads that feature the adults – the detective searching for the brothers and the fence who buys the children’s stolen goods. And Scipio, the Thief Lord, has his own thread that appears and weaves in about halfway through as well.

All the threads merge together by the end, sort of, but the book as a whole never quite gels properly – and I kept waiting for it to. The ideas are all there, and all interesting, but because there are so many of them, it bounces back and forth, and I was waiting for things to happen, things to get explained, or things to resolve that never quite did. I think it just suffers from too many stories to tell. The magical merry-go-round was kind of overkill. I know what she was trying to do with it, but I think that was the thread that, for me, pushed the story over the top. There was plenty to deal with in the stories of all the children, who had been abandoned in a variety of ways, without adding the merry-go-round to it, even if the merry-go-round is what tilted the world into fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I think the magical merry-go-round was a fantastic idea; I just think it was overkill in this particular book.

But, at the same time, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what would happen to the kids; if Prosper and Bo would be able to stay together; what the detective was going to do about them. It was a fairly quick read (it took me two days of inconsistent reading to get through – so only a couple of hours, really), and in general I like Cornelia Funke and whoever translates her from the German. It wasn’t as good as the Inkheart trilogy – especially not the first book – but it wasn’t a waste of time, either.

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Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I usually think Christopher Moore is a very funny writer. Lamb made me laugh out loud more than once (as it did my religiously-conservative grandfather, which is pretty impressive given the book’s subject matter). I tend to read Christopher Moore when I want something substantial but not too dense.

Coyote Blue is not really that funny a book, though. It’s about a Crow who has – sort of unwillingly – abandoned his heritage, right up to the point where Coyote, the trickster, comes back to his life and he is dragged back into it. The book still has the relatively light style of the other Christopher Moore books that I’ve read, but the irreverence of books like Lamb or Fluke just isn’t there. It maybe is meant to be, but I couldn’t find it.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad book, it’s just … less funny than I expected from Christopher Moore. I liked Sam, for the most part, but I didn’t really know Calliope as a character, and what I did know I couldn’t really identify with. The storyline got to be a little bit manic, and I’m still not sure why some of the things at the beginning happened, unless the entire motivation was to get Sam’s attention.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It had some of the same themes: ancient, almost forgotten American gods who originated in Africa (spoiler! and actually something which in retrospect kind of bothers me*) forcing their attention onto the human that they have chosen to tell their stories. I like Anansi Boys better; I think it’s a more logical story (within the constructs of the story, at least).

But, again, it’s not a bad book. I did quite like it. It’s just that if you’re looking for something like Lamb, you might be disappointed.

*Why does one of the more common American gods (Coyote) need to have originated in Egypt, to be the brother of Anubis? Why can’t the American gods and the various American cultures have originated in parallel with that of the rest of the world, instead of being an off-shoot of them? It seems like an unnecessary addition. Sam could have gone to “The Spirit World” to bring Calliope back; it didn’t have to have a random Egyptian connection to make it valid. And if you’re going to throw in random lines about Mormonism being valid (I did kind of laugh at Coyote’s reaction to that), why not also play with the idea that the Vikings were the first “white” people to settle in North America, and have it be Valhalla that Sam finds himself in? Having it be Egypt doesn’t really make sense to me, on a number of different levels. I may not know that much about the Crow beliefs, but I dislike the fact that he went outside an American context when the rest of the book is so focused on the Crow and the “Native American” culture. (Yes, I put “Native American” in quotation marks. They’re not a homogenous group.) I think he probably could have – and, in my opinion, should have – found a different path to the same thing, one that didn’t implicitly diminish the value of native American beliefs and cultures.

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A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris

I like the thirteenth century. To be honest, I like the period generally called “The Middle Ages” but especially the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. I know quite a lot about the general events of these few centuries. I am always looking for more, though; it’s the nature of the obsession.

I’ve been wanting to learn more about the Edwards for quite a while, too. Edwards I and III are so pivotal in English history; I felt a little bit guilty that I didn’t know their life stories off by heart. So I got this biography of Edward I a while ago, and picked it up last week.

And I couldn’t put it down. It’s a period that I’m interested in, sure, but the book itself is captivating. Morris takes the narrative chronologically through Edward I’s life, focusing in a big way on his international presence. The Crusades, Scotland, Wales, France, Castile….Edward I was a busy king. His military and financial motivations are described in amazing detail, and you understand the complete justification that he felt about attacking Wales and Scotland.

There are no frustrations with this biography – well, not in what it does present. The frustration that I felt came at the behaviours and mores of the thirteenth century: the xenophobia that led to the difficulties in Ireland (they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use their laws! but they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use our laws! No wonder the politics were messed up for so long), the greed combined with xenophobia that led to the expulsion of the Jews, the tension between family and politics (he’s my cousin/friend, but also my overlord, except that I don’t want him to be, etc.)

The one thing lacking in this book (for me, a romantic and a feminist) is more description of Edward’s personal life. We get quite a lot about Edward’s friends and alliances, but not quite as much as I would have liked about his relationship with Eleanor or with his second wife, Margaret of France. They’re not completely ignored or anything, but for such a passionate relationship (Eleanor) and one of the best-known memorials except for the Taj Mahal (the Eleanor Crosses), there’s not really a lot about Eleanor. And there’s almost nothing about Margaret of France – the alliance where they marry is mentioned, and then she vanishes until “by this time, a child had been born.” Presumably she must have had some presence in his life, for them to have had several children, but she’s essentially invisible in the narrative.

But it’s not really a flaw of the book; it is not pretending to be a comprehensive study of Edward the husband and lover. It does claim to be the story of “The Forging of Britain” – the story of how Britain began to be the political and geographical entity it is today. And the narrative does that. Edward I conquered Wales, took over Scotland (against the will of its current nobility), agreed to hold the first regular Parliaments, held the first Parliaments with commoner – or less high nobility, at least – participation, participated in overseas wars that a different country started (….in the Middle East….couched in pseudo-religious terms……sound familiar?). Almost everything that defines Britain as it is today began in the reign of Edward I, and the book does an exceptionally captivating job of describing it.

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