Saturday, October 14, 2017

Elmet

Elmet was the dark horse of the Man Booker short list and after reading an intriguing review I found a copy at my library. Side note:  History of Wolves and Exit West were also nominated and I looooved both of those - although so was Lincoln in the Bardo and I swear to God I cannot get through that thing.  Although everyone else is going absolutely nuts over it so who am I to judge? 

"Elmet", it should be known, was the name of the wild country of northern England back in the 5th century and also the subject of an epic poem by Ted Hughes. (Favor a challenge? Read the Wikipedia page on Elmet. Sample sentence: "In the Tribal Hidage the extent of Elmet is described as 600 hides of land, an area slightly more than the total of the wapentakes of Barkston Ash and Skyrack." Whaaaaaaaaaaaa?)

Fiona Mozley is a young, British author and this is her first book. She writes lovingly of a small, odd family composed of "Daddy", Daniel, the narrator, and Cathy, his sister.  They're sort of like squatters and build a house on someone else's land and mostly live off the land, eating wild animals and trading with people in the nearby village.  Daddy occasionally engages in a fist fight for money.  Most of the book is allotted to the almost devotional descriptions of the home and the food eaten in the home.  The family's house build completely by them, covered in moss, evokes a feeling of deep contentment, even despite Daddy's occasional dark periods when Daniel and Cathy retreat to the outdoors to give him some space to expel his demons.  Interspersed throughout the book are very short passages that indicate Daniel is chasing a woman - one can only assume it is his sister - and it is unclear why or how this came about.  As Daniel runs, his narration becomes even more poetic - he is almost animalistic in his single-minded pursuit:
I see bovine silhouettes shift steadily across meadows, hulking their uneasy weight from trough to furrow, and elsewhere, I see the dusk settle on the fleeces of grazing ewes like sparks from flint to tinder. I watch the land glow and the sky burn. And I step through it with a judicious tread.
I pass from Elmet bereft.
Jesus Christ!  Right????  Although, to be honest, I personally do not like the otherwise over-all style of this book which is heavily stylized prose composed of short, Hemingway-esque sentences in the past tense.  It reminded me of Kazuo Isiguro's Never Let Me Go which I really, really hated.  But, he just won the goddamn Nobel Prize for literature, so what do I know? But, I mean, look at this:
We arrived home and Daddy went straight out into the woods with his tools. The shell of our house was sealed tight against the winter but the insides remained rough. Daddy was working on the lining and on the floors. Wood was the material he used as much as he could. It was right there in the copse. Trees of different ages and different kinds.
I mean, honestly.  However, unlike Isiguro's much lauded novel which goes absolutely nowhere, Mozley's book is building to this completely bonkers ending that I am still mildly in shock about several days later.  Also, it cannot be forgotten that what's she's doing is building upon a great literary tradition and drawing connections between people who occupied her country in the 5th century to the way we live today, bringing up important questions like what it means to inhabit a land... what is "home"... the role of collective history and memory, and what is it that composes our very society?

It's pretty much worth reading just for that insane ending, if you enjoy being tortured by literature and then literally shocked out of your senses and... who doesn't, amiright?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow is Fylnn Berry's first novel and a winner of an Edgar Award this year.  It takes
place in England but Berry is an American.  You know I love my British Lady Mystery writers!

Early spoiler and possible trigger warning:  a dog dies.

Nora arrives at her sister's house to find her sister (and her dog) murdered.  She reels.  Actually, a good part of the book is Nora recovering from the shock of discovering the gruesome murder and the loss of her sister.  Nora isn't aware of anyone who would want to harm Rachel - however, her sister was the victim of an attack when she was younger by a stranger.  The police tell Nora that it's statistically unlikely that a woman would be the victim of two attacks by strangers in her lifetime - they look, of course, to old boyfriends and, eventually, to Nora herself.

As a narrator, Nora is a bit unreliable - she forgets things and, though the reader seems privy to her most solitary moments, something like the hotel manager coming to say the other guests are complaining that the noises (presumably her screaming and crying) are disturbing.

Unsurprisingly, Under the Harrow confronts misogyny and violence toward women.  Accusations are levied against Rachel for her behavior, the hour, her clothing in her first attack, and after her death Nora is cautioned to avoid talking to the press lest they expose "the worst parts of her" to the world. The team that was this sisterhood is not the sentimental fluff you might expect from a "sister novel" but a complex, deep relationship. It is fierce and devoted.

Here's a particular passage I related to - on losing her Yorkshire accent during college: I changed my voice the way I would have chewed off my leg to get out of a trap. Every time I heard my cool, even accent, I thought - I've left. I'm gone.

As mystery's go... it's one of those that's virtually impossible to solve yourself, but it's more about the journey that Nora takes to find justice for her sister.  Berry's a really fantastic writer and I love the way she puts her sentences together.  She crafted a great story here that had me skipping back pages to re-read the careful unravelling.  Really quite an amazing first book!

By the way, "under the harrow" is from a CS Lewis book, A Grief Observed.  Even if you don't know what it means, it's evocative.  Berry explains more in this interview.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing is a painful but rewarding novel about a young boy, Jojo, and his family in Mississippi.  Jojo and his baby sister are being raised by his grandparents because his mother is a meth addict and his father is in jail for cooking meth.  His grandparents are loving, gentle people, but his grandmother is dying of cancer and things are falling apart.  Jojo's mother, Leonie, comes in and out of their lives - when she needs something. Her children are, at best, inconsequential to her, and at worst, active sources of resentment.

Leonie's parents practice what I believe is Santaria - her mother is very knowledgeable about herbs and was a midwife and both she and her husband make "gris-gris" bags - small pouches to protect against evil spirits.  The grandmother hears spirits and prays to some kind of sacred feminine.  Ward's goal is not to educate the reader on this religion - it's just part of the rich history of this couple, which makes it all the more agonizing that they have this gifted daughter who turns out to be a terrible mother and makes horrible choices.

Leonie drags her children a long journey to  retrieve her boyfriend from Parchman Prison - a place where her father and uncle also were incarcerated in the early 20th century.  I was horrified to find out this is a real place and is in fact, still an operating prison.  In case you're not aware of this place, for many years it operated as an extension of slavery well after slavery was outlawed in the United States, and black men and women were arrested for minor crimes and then forced to work long days under inhuman conditions.  Anyway, all kinds of crazy shit goes down during this trip, with Leonie desperately trying to use her kids as props in what she imagines will be the joyous reuniting with her boyfriend while entirely ignoring their physical and emotional needs.

What I haven't mentioned is that Leonie and her son also have the gift of sight - what we are to understand from the Grandmother as the ne plus ultra gift, the one that she herself does not have.  Leonie sees her brother, Given, who was killed by white men in his community, and Jojo sees his uncle Richie, who died in unknown circumstances in Parchman.  Both are overwhelmed by these visions and unsure how to deal with them, and neither mention these occurrences to anyone.  What these spirits, or unburied souls, come to exemplify is the literal embodiment of the destroyed black body in our terrible shared history.  Unable to escape this history, which for Leonie and Jojo lurks and the peripheral of their nearly every moment, they remain plagued by the history of violence and heartbreak that wracked their community.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (that title!) has rightly been nominated for the National Book Award and I think will continue to do very well. Ward's lyricism and tight control of these many and various complex themes is so impressive.  I hope you'll give this powerful book your attention.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I knew I finally needed to pick up a copy.  What a wonderful book it is! Simple but thoughtful, post-modern but very approachable.  He makes big ideas, like what it means to travel through time and space, not like Doctor Who but just like humans living, so understandable, and he makes the immigrant experience, particularly the immigrant who escapes horror and harm, as thank god I have not, nevertheless relatable.

Hamid's characters, Nadia and Saeed, are living in a country that suddenly erupts into violence.  They live there as long as they can, but soon discover they need to leave to survive. They immigrate to a refugee camp, where things are in some ways better, some worse; and again, and again. There's a slight magical realism element to the way they travel which reminded me of elements of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez - they approach a door which becomes like a portal.  For a while, they're in a nebulous space, and then they emerge in a new land, sometimes sure of their destination, sometimes not. It's really the only fantastical element of the book and it's beautifully effective and an a spot-on way of capturing not just the immigrant experience but I think most air-travel experiences, honestly.

I came to love both Nadia and Saeed - both of whom continued to defy my expectations - the loving and gentle, religious Saeed who wishes his wife wouldn't wear a full-length black robe. Nadia tells Saeed she wears the gown “so men don’t fuck with me”. She smokes pot and likes living alone.

Hamid also introduces other characters in short vignettes. To me these small asides don't serve much purpose aside from offering hope and showing love in a world that seems overwhelmed with hate.  In one rather remarkable two-page "run-on sentence" a young woman rides a train to stand in a human chain to protect migrants from a militant mob.
... it wasn't until she boarded the train and found herself surrounded by men who looked like her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles, except that they were angry, they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal, and they started to shout at her, and push her, that she left fear, a basic, animal fear, terror, and thought that anything could happen, and then the next station came and she shoved through and off the train, and she worried they might seize her, and stop her, and hurt her, but they didn't, and she made it off, and she stood there after the train had departed, and she was trembling, and she thought for a while, and then she gathered her courage, and she began to walk...
My god! I mean! Could you just!

"We are all migrants through time." Hamid writes this simple sentence near the end of the book, where by then it lands with a thud in your heart, having come by then to think about travelling in a slightly different way. But, it really sunk in for me, the lucky person who's never had to flee her home, during this time where there word "migrant" is loaded with so much controversy.  And it really made me think about how moving forward through time, as most of us experience it, we emulate the migrant experience, sometimes leaving people behind that we love, changing our own goals and aspirations and sometimes modifying what's most important to us.

It was a lovely, lovely book and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Power

In Naomi Alderman's new novel, The Power, young women find they can shoot lightning out of their
fingers.  I had only to read a similar summary before scurrying to Amazon UK to order a copy (it releases in the US in October).  Teen girls get the ability first, and they are able to pass it to older women by showing them how to unlock it in themselves.  Very quickly men everywhere start to panic, desperate to reverse or retard the ability in women, but girls become more and more powerful and the power imbalance begins to shift from men to women.

What's interesting in The Power is that women don't become the benevolent leaders many people (including myself) imagine we would be, but rather take on most of the poor qualities men in power possess.  The women and girls use their power to control men, some torturing men for pleasure, many becoming sexual predators.  It's not unusual for the female characters to be overwhelmingly distracted at the inappropriate moments by desire for men's bodies.  They co-opt history and religion to stake their claim to leadership.
On the morning shows, they bring in experts on human biology and prehistoric images. This carved image found in Honduras, dating back more than six thousand years, doesn't that look like a woman with lightning coming from her hands to you, Professor? Well, of course, these carvings often represent mythical and symbolic behaviours. But it could be historical, that is, could represent something that actually happened. It could, maybe. Did you know, in the oldest text, that the God of the Israelites had a sister, Anath, a teenage girl? Did you know that she was the warrior, that she was invincible, that she spoke with the lightning, that in the oldest texts, she killed her own father and took his place? She liked to bathe her feet in the blood of her enemies.
Some Spoilers

So, the book quickly changes from the initial "girl power" excitement to a handful of women who will do anything to have total control and end up, well, tearing society apart.  Although the book was a real page-turner, it caused me a fair amount of internal anguish because I truly believe that women would be fundamentally better leaders than men. Admittedly, the more I thought hey, #notallwomen, the more a teensy little bit of me thought, "OK, maybe there is something there."  A little something.

Unquestionably, Alderman is an Atwood fan - they actually published a zombie novella together on Wattpad a few years ago called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, and Atwood blurbed The Power with a groan-worthy "Electrifying!"  Alderman bookends her novel in a trĂ©s-Atwood style, fashioning the text as a history submitted to his publisher by Neil Adam Armon (pay close attention to those letters). The publisher, a women, is hilariously patronizing while Neil's obsequious grovelling is painfully familiar.  Throughout the book are illustrations that, at least to me, didn't make sense until the very end.  These game-like elements in the book signal Alderman's other specialty - she's the creator of a very popular app called Zombies, Run! which motivates runners to move because (you guessed it) zombies are chasing them.

The Power has already won The Bailey's Womens Prize for Fiction and I have a feeling will find considerable popularity in the US.  At this moment in history, it's feels like a bit of an odd argument to be making, and undoubtedly this novel is making a strong statement about power and what people (regardless of gender) will do to get it and what they'll do to keep it.  Perhaps when she was writing it under Theresa May, with Clinton running for president and expected to win (it was published in 2016) it was a conversation Alderman wanted more people to confront in the existing zeitgeist. Now, with the bleak politics and masculine posturing between two idiots like Trump and Kim Jong Un making nuclear war seem unbearably possible, I wish more than ever we had more women in power.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Feed, by Mira Grant

Many times reading Mira Grant's novel I thought about how eerily similar the tone was to our current political climate. It doesn't speak well for us that her story of a journalist covering a presidential candidate takes place well into zombie apocalypse.  The year is 2039 and zombies have roamed the earth since approx 2012 - our heroine, Georgia, has known no other reality.  Georgia and her brother, Shaun, are bloggers - more respected than the "traditional" journalists of the day because bloggers were quicker to catch on to the zombie outbreak and provide real tips for survival. They've been chosen (with their partner, Buffy) to follow the favored Republican presidential candidate. I'm curious why she wrote the candidate as a Republican, he doesn't seem to have any particular agenda - although some of his colleagues espouse the politics of the religious right and sorAt of extreme measures when it comes to land management and well... zombie management.  For example, some politicians want to burn and bleach the national parks to rid all infestation of animals (any animal over 40 pounds can carry and pass the virus.)

Grant, the nom de plume of Seanan McGuire, is obviously an epidemiology geek and, I suspect, something of a policy wonk and allows the space in Feed to really dive into the details of what her zombie universe looks like - how the virus developed, how society would change and what kind of laws would exist in such a world.  She goes deep into adaptions in technology to detect the virus, and architectural changes to coral and isolate.  If the idea of delving hard core into the inner workings of the CDC during a zombie apocalypse sounds fascinating to you, my friend, this is Your Book.  There are three books in the "Newsflesh" series.  I'll probably take a pass on the next two, but I was definitely entertained for a few hours with Feed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress is the birthing of a detective.  Easy Rawlins accepts a job to find a woman because he needs the money, and finds that the steps he needs to follow to track her down come naturally to him.  It's a detektivlerroman - a word I possibly just made up, sure, but accurate.

I used to read a lot of Dashiell Hammett but finally got tired of the racism and called it quits. Raymond Chandler is also, basically, unreadable, being ridiculous.  As the attendant reader of the blog knows, my mysteries are British, and written by ladies.  But, I heard this great interview on NPR with Walter Mosley and knew I had to give it a try.


Although first published in 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress takes place in 1948 Los Angeles and Mosley perfectly captures the "hardboiled" style of early detective novels (minus the racism and misogyny!) His hero, Easy, grew up a sharecropper, then entered the army and fought in WWII.  He and his fellow black soldiers were relegated to office jobs well behind the front line ("I was trained how to kill men but white men weren't anxious to see a gun in my hands."); the white soldiers called them cowards so he volunteered for combat. After the war, he managed to buy a very small house, his prized place of security.  The love of domicile allowed him to take a dubious job for a shady white dude.

Actually, there is racism in Mosley's novel - Easy confronts it constantly. He's accosted and abused by the police twice, he talks about the need to walk slowly in the dark, so he won't be considered suspicious. White people he encounters call him "boy" and "son".  And, when he meets a very wealthy white man, he has a slightly different experience.
    "I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man's office, talking to him like we were best friends - even closer. I could tell that he didn't have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me.
    It was a strange experience but I had seen it before. Mr Todd Carter was so rich that he didn't even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.
    It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn't even recognize our difference showed that he didn't care one damn about me."

It really is remarkable that this is Walter Mosley's first novel - it reads like it was penned by a seasoned mystery writer.  I'll be reading a lot more of his work!  What really slayed me while reading Devil in a Blue Dress was how Mosley was hitting all these high notes nearly 20 years ago in his first goddamn book - the things he addresses in this book are so topical today - institutionalized racism, police brutality, identity ... although, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that as a white reader, like many others, I've been blind to that rather obvious signals of pervasive racism that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront.  I'm sorry it's taken us so long to get here.