Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

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“Things were not going well. It was August, and my tree from the previous year’s Christmas still lay in a heap of brown, dead pine needles in my dark, unused dining room. I was ashamed to take it out to the trash, not wanting my neighbors to see how far I’d fallen, how utterly paralyzed I’d become by my years of excess. Eventually, my wife and I would make a heroic effort to dispose of the incriminating object – chopping it up like a dead body and stuffing it in plastic bags before lugging it in the dead of night a few floors down and leaving it near a known coke dealer’s doorway. Let him take the rap, we figured.”

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly

Benjamin Markovits – You don’t have to live like this

The way this book conveys big ideas about race and urban renewal through an unreliable but captivating first person account makes this remarkable and in some ways unlike anything I’ve ever read.

The book cover includes comparisons to The Wire – in fact a relatively accurate description, both in the way the city of Detroit is itself more a character than a setting, and in the way it spans the big social issues while giving an on-the-ground story.

It tells the story of Marney, a Yale graduate in his early 30s, working at Aberystwyth University, who goes back home to the US on for the vacation, meets with his old friend and uber-successful Robert James and ends up moving to Detroit in a new socially liberal scheme Robert is organising to buy up chunks of the real estate and bring in new largely middle class pioneers who can bring jobs, money and community back to Detroit.

Marney manages to make close friends among both the incomers and the mostly African Americans living in Detroit already, particularly the hard and unpredictable Nolan and a teacher, Gloria, with whom he becomes romantically involved, as well Astrid, Tony and others who have come for the cheap property and the idea of creating a new way of life.

In the end, though, the experiment in urban renewal breaks down after a black kid is hit by an incomer’s car,  and then an incomer’s child is taken, it seems, by Nolan. Marney is stuck in the middle, he ending up in court and the neighbourhood in riots.

Beside the balance of the political and personal there are some remarkable elements to the novel.

Marney is an excellent character: subtly flawed in his account of everything that is going because of his indecision, his inability to confront or perhaps even see the reality, and his unwillingness to look beyond himself.

There is a cool simplicity to the prose. It’s in the first person and on the first page Marney explains that he’s already had ‘then this happened, then this happened’ approach to story-telling. It is a device that Markovits uses effectively to allow the story to unfold gradually and to allow Marney to say what he thinks is happening without reflecting more deeply on it.

There is an enormous complexity to the characters in the book. There are lots of people, all with back stories, but despite the number and the scale of the issues dealt with in the book, there are very few stereotypes: the people are multi-layered and realistic.

Robert James is an example of this. A dotcom entrepreneur now wanting to do some good, he thinks bringing in new people and fixing up the Detroit neighbourhoods can change the nature and fortunes of the city. His motivations? Some kind of wild megalomania? Political ambitions? The desire to do good? Probably all of these and more. Throughout the book there is moral ambiguity – events that make you wonder whether something is right or wrong. We glimpse all this, but often from afar, because we are only seeing through the eyes of the self-absorbed Marney – and it is this, the complexity and ambiguity, that makes this such a quality novel.

 

Man Crazy – Joyce Carol Oates

True to form, Joyce Carol Oates’s Man Crazy is a powerful and affecting book. It tells the story of Ingrid, whose father mysteriously chose to leave after involvement in a murder and whose mother lived a needy and unsettled life, largely reliant on a series of men for a mix money and adoration. As Ingrid hits adolescence she experiences the same kinds of neediness as her mother, desperately craving the attention and lust of men.

It ends with her living as a sex slave in a biker – Satanist cult led by the depraved Enoch Skaggs. She exposes the cult, in the end, though it’s not clear entirely to her how that happened. Throughout the book the sheer sadness and desperation of Ingrid’s upbringing and its impact on her personality is so present, so powerful, that at times it’s difficult to continue reading.

The most affecting point is Ingrid’s poetry reading at secondary school. She has won the poetry competition and is to read out her winning poem during the end of year assembly. She cannot believe that anyone would think it worthy of winning and works herself into a state of panic in the run up to the reading. She scratches itches on her face so she is bleeding from her hairline and decides at the last minute to find another poem, by a classic poet, to read instead, which she mumbles through, the teachers and pupils in shock. The build up to the performance, excruciating to read, conveys such a strong insight into her insecure, under-confident and needy character.

Middle Age – Joyce Carol Oates

Middle Age shouldn’t be a good book – a long descriptive novel with a minimalist plot  populated by affluent and unlikable fifty somethings. Yet it grips.

In part this is down to Joyce Carol Oates’ incredible ability to articulate deep feelings and thoughts. She, more than any other writer I’ve read, has a powerful ‘hyper-realist’ style – one that in best articulated by distinguishing from the hyper-realism of crime fiction novels (see my short review of Alex Gray’s Glasgow Kiss for this). Whereas the latter try to connect with the reader by using obvious, everyday and sometimes banal language, Oates’ hyper-realism taps into inner feelings and complexities that we often don’t recognise in ourselves and others until she says it. It’s a hyper-realism of our internal as opposed to our external selves.

Middle Age also has the related theme – that, if you like, there’s always more going on under the surface. It begins when Adam Berendt, a much-loved local artist in affluent Salt Hill in upstate New York dies trying to rescue a drowning girl. And it follows the fall out for a number of individuals in the community. There are affairs (Lionel Hoffman, Augusta Cutler), new children (Roger Cavanagh), complete changes of direction (Marin Troy, Augusta Cutler), fall outs with old children (Abigail de Pres, Roger Cavanagh), car crashes (Abigail de Pres), dog attacks  (Camile and Lionel Hoffman),  and, it transpires, Adam Berendt was far more complex than he seemed, with a hidden difficult upbringing, a string of false identities and an array of shares and investments.

What we find, ultimately, is that they may appear to be the stereotype of upper middle class America but in fact, as Oates digs into their characters, it seems all have complex and evolving inner lives. Middle age, it turns out, is not the sedate resting ground it might appear but is in fact another chapter in life’s constant change and renewal.

Faith of the Faithless – Simon Critchley

Faith of the faithless

Read July 2014 

This is a fascinating book, though in my view it is perhaps overly complicated.

The fascination comes from Critchley’s excellent close readings of a variety of thinkers: Rousseau, Badiou, Zizek, Benjamin, St Paul. I learnt a lot from his readings of each, they were full of insight and he was able to bring alive some of their ideas in compelling and often counter-intuitive ways. His section on his argument with Zizek – which he points out is essentially the ongoing argument between Leninism-Marxism and anarchism – is interesting, and he offers a revealing picture of Zizek’s politics.

The complication comes because Critchley seems to find it difficult to sum up his own arguments. This might be because what he is arguing isn’t just one straightforward thesis, as he says early in the book, or because the full depth of his thought is necessarily complex and can’t be captured in a sentence or two.

Both those points are true. Nevertheless, on my reading there does seem to be a theory that he is advocating which he could have set out more clearly at some point (if only to show me that I’ve not completely misinterpreted him!):

First, because people aren’t ‘rational’ economic actors who contracted to the social order (as for liberals Locke, Rawls etc) people need a civil religion to bind them together – something that people have faith in that is based not in a different world (heaven or wherever) but in the here and now. Strangely perhaps, he refers to US constitutionalism – celebrating the flag, singing the national anthem etc as an example of this.

Second, though, the civil religion shouldn’t come from existing ideas and discourses. People need to clear their minds, to see beyond current hegemonic discourses as far as is possible. The belief that ought to animate people is a demand for something better – what he calls an infinite demand, a demand that is unattainable yet something that the people believe in, even though they don’t know what the outcome will be.

Third, politics occurs when different groups of people, with different interests, look beyond their individual or group interests and form an association based on an infinite demand, through which they challenge the state or capital. It might be in the interstices of power, it might be outright resistance – Occupy, worker co-ops, the Zapatista’s fight for autonomy are all examples of politics.

Fourth, place is important: an association, a civil religion and the infinite demand requires a locality to bind it together, to give it content. In line with much anarchist thought, Critchley says politics needs to be kept local to work: it might be in a workplace (a co-op experiment), in a city (the Occupy movement) or in a region (Zapatista resitance in Chiapas).

It is useful, too, to think about this in terms of the similarities and difference between Critchley’s and Badiou’s politics: for both, what’s required is the people to express fidelity to, or absolute faith in, an impossible demand, the outcome of which cannot be known; but whereas for Badiou this ‘event’ is rare and universal (the Paris Commune), for Critchley it can occur more regularly, when people form an association and find local spaces to resist the power of the state and capital in the name of an infinite demand.

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

RevolutionaryRoad

Read April 2014

This is classic American fiction, telling the story of a couple who think they are remarkable and above normal people but find themselves settling into a conventional suburban existence. He gradually gets into his job, which he originally did in an ironic and detached way, but she can’t bring herself to accept the role of suburban housewife. It draws to a dramatic end when she (April) dies whilst trying perform an abortion on her third child.

The book provides intensely accurate descriptions of work places, feelings people have about themselves and the awkwardness of relationships. I read someone referring to it as an excellent study of self-deception, which it is. Neither character come across well, but the husband (Frank) does seem more sympathetically drawn though – April is depicted as psychologically disturbed as a consequence of her upbringing whereas he is painted as self-deluding and selfish.

Is it saying that it’s better to conform regardless of your views? Maybe, or it could just be drawing to attention the modern inflict between individualism and societal norms.

Elmore Leonard – The Hunted

the hunted

Read May 2014

It’s hard to read Leonard without thinking about interviews with him saying that the reason he writes books is to get a film deal. It spoils it a little, whilst also making you visualise it in the style of Quentin Tarantino. But once you put that behind you – and the fact that it’s no literary revelation – The Hunted, like other books of his, are great: interesting characters; ridiculous, but not too ridiculous, plots; engaging dialogue; very readable. It’s about a guy who had done witness protection being tracked down by people wanting to kill him. They pursue him around Israel, where the book’s set. The guy teams up with an ex US marine and a female ex Israeli Defence Force as they try to defend themselves, all ending of course in a big violent showdown. Utterly gripping at the time; almost instantly forgettable.

AM Homes , May we be Forgiven

may we be forgiven

Read March 2014

A bizarre book – it reads like a series of set pieces connected only by the continuity of the main character, Harry Silver. After sleeping with his sister in law, his brother kills her, resulting in their children living with Harry, who has crisis after crisis before gradually gathering more and more people around him.

There’s a kind of old fashioned morality tale in the book – Harry starts out unfocused, lost, not attached to anything, narcissistic. But over time he becomes a member of a community and finds value in looking after people, ending up surrounded by a strange family he picks up over time.

But the author’s verdict on this is ambiguous. The family aren’t exactly his family – the kids of his dead sister in law, a death he is partly responsible for; another kid whose parents were killed by his brother; the ageing parents of a woman he met in the A&P and had a casual relationship with. Is it wrong that he is surrounded by all these people and that this has given him purpose? Or is it a reflection of the complexity of modern day families and communities?

 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

the-lacuna

Read February 2014

The story of Harrison Shepard, a half US, half Mexican who lives and works as a cook with Frida Kahlo and then with Leon Trotsky. After Trotksy is killed by Stalinists he moves to the backwaters of the US, eventually becoming a successful writer. However, his past working with revolutionaries catches up with him during the Macarthy era and he is persecuted.Eventually he feigns suicide. He does it by visiting a lacuna in a bay, pretending he has drowned, but actually waiting in the lacuna until everyone has gone.

But the lacuna symbolises more than this – there’s a missing journal, and there is something missing from his life. An interesting thing is that the book gets progressively better and better written, presumably because it’s the notes of a young writer at the start, but eventually the notes of an older more experienced one.