April 29, 2011

The Magic Toyshop (#108)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

What I said then:

All I really know about her is that many many people have insisted that I read her. I hope they know me well. 

What I say now:
All those people, they know me ... okay.

Melanie, fifteen years old, wakes up in the middle of the night while her parents are on an overseas trip, having left her and her siblings in the care of a nanny. She sneaks into her parents' bedroom, takes out her mother's wedding dress, puts it on, goes out into the moonlit garden and promptly locks herself out of the house. She takes the dress off and, naked, climbs a tree to her second storey window, dragging the dress behind her. When she finally forces her way back inside, the dress is torn to shreds. At that moment, on the other side of the world, her parents die in a plane crash.

Thus runs the first chapter of The Magic Toyshop, and it's an incredible piece of writing. Melanie's disordered thinking as she decides to try the dress on, as though she's trying on the idea of growing into a woman, is rendered with a panache that belies its subtlety. And when Melanie wanders the night-time house, and goes out into the garden, Carter's writing makes everything alive in a way that's nearly impossible to describe. She doesn't write what the stairs, or the lawn, or the nanny's cat look like; she writes what they think. Everything, even inanimate objects, seem to have their own opinions, their own agenda. Simply, there is magic in the air, animating everything. It's a really wonderful chapter, and an amazing start to a book. Unfortunately ...

After her parents' deaths, Melanie, along with her younger brother Jonathan and baby sister Victoria, are sent to live with their uncle and his family in London. Uncle Phillip owns a bizarre toyshop, and makes all his products himself in the basement, but the toys and puppets he crafts are the only thing he loves: he is a cold despot over his household. His Irish wife, Aunt Margaret, was struck dumb on her wedding day, and has never said a word since. Her brothers Francie, a kind man who plays the fiddle, and Finn, a scruffy vagabond with an imp's eyes and roving hands, live with them as well.

And the bulk of the novel consists of Melanie's impressions of her new situation and Finn's attempts to seduce her, which swing from indifferent to passionately sincere. But after we reached the toyshop, it was difficult to really care about anything. Every character but Melanie felt crudely drawn; the curious vividness which animated everything in the first chapter dies away (even though the puppets, Halloween masks and wooden toys that stock the shop should have been easy to bring to life).

The characters don't seem to live their own lives, instead simply going through the motions, pulled hither and thither by the author to suit her needs. Some will argue that's the point, that Carter is making puppets out of her characters because that is what Uncle Phillip (the villain of the piece) is trying to do to those under his thumb. Which is all well and good, and wonderfully clever, but if in trying to do something literary and clever an author causes me to lose interest in their story, I'd say they've got their priorities all wrong.

Carter is clearly an incredible wordsmith, and I'd be interested in reading some of her later (I'm told, maturer) works - The Magic Toyshop was her second published novel - but this one left me cold. Which, after the revelatory first chapter, was a damn shame.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
books to go: 107

April 17, 2011

The Children of Húrin (#109)

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

What I said then:

This smells like a cynical cash-in, but I bought it, so it obviously worked on me.

What I say now:

This might be a heretical notion to a lot of my fellow geeks, but I think Middle-Earth needs hobbits to really work.

The Children of Húrin is a story from far back in the 'history' of Middle-Earth, pre-dating The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by thousands of years in Tolkien's chronology of his imagined world. It tells of one anecdote in the long wars waged by elves and men against Morgoth (an evil fucker who wants to take over the world and enslave everybody and just be generally evil and cover all the lands in darkness and stuff). Húrin, a mortal man, gets captured in battle and is brought before Morgoth, but defies him to his face, so Morgoth curses Húrin's kin.

His son Túrin and daughter Niënor, separated from their earliest childhoods, become pawns in Morgoth's revenge, living their entire lives under the weight of his curse and eventually being destroyed by it, despite their best efforts to defy him. One of Morgoth's lieutenants, a flightless dragon called Glaurung, causes Niënor to forget who she is; when Túrin chances on her wandering in a forest, he rescues her. They fall in love, marry and conceive a child, at which point the dragon releases Niënor from her spell. Túrin kills the dragon, Niënor kills herself in horror at her unwitting incest, then Túrin does the same. It's not exactly a barrel of laughs.

The problem is that Tolkien's elves and 'high' men are characters unidentifiable with us everyday mortals. They are removed from any recognisable human psychology or understandable motivations. The codes of chivalry and honour that they live by make all their actions read as though they are pawns being moved by the author however he requires, rather than full-blooded characters groping towards decisions in their own right.

Which is why the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings are so central to that book's success: being much more down-to-earth folks than the high-faluting, cultured people they meet, the hobbits act as guides and commentators to the audience. They prick the pomposity of what's going on around them. Unfortunately, The Children of rin's pomposity remains unpricked. I found it impossible to feel any connection to what was going on, because all of the characters were so emotionally removed from me.

This is an expansion of a chapter in The Silmarillion and it actually, in my opinion, works better in the shorter form. The Silmarillion is a curious book: rather than being the story of Middle-Earth, it's more like a book written about the history of Middle-Earth, like it's an academic reconstruction of ancient texts or something. The nearest I can come to describing it is that it's like, rather than being a Middle-Earth version of The Iliad or The Odyssey, it's the fictional equivalent of a dry, dull book about greek myths. The Silmarillion is unquestionably a weird reading experience, but I think it's more successful than The Children of rin, because the expanded version of the story, so lacking in emotionality, shouldn't be presented as narrative fiction.

It doesn't help that Christopher Tolkien, in editing The Children of rin together, has 'helpfully' provided a long introduction to sketch out where we're at in Middle-Earth's history at the beginning of the book. This twenty pages is essentially an interminable list of made-up names, and is boring as hell. I was in a bad mood before the story of The Children of rin even kicked in.

And now the geeks of the world will descend and tear me to pieces, I'm sure. Sometimes duty calls ...

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
books to go: 108

April 6, 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (#110)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What I said then: 

A glimpse of the horror of Russia’s gulags.

What I say now:

Well, my Russian kick is officially over: this is the last Russian book I own. And I've sure ended it on a downer.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had first hand experience of the gulag system. He had been fighting for the Russian army in 1945 when he criticised the way Stalin was conducting the war in a letter to his brother. Arrested for treason, he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in Siberia. When those eight years were up, he was not released; instead he was given a life sentence on a new charge. It was only after Stalin's reign ended and Kruschev took control of Russia that he was finally freed.

This experience is obvious in his writing: every moment and every minute detail in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich rings with truth. It is a very simple book, which merely details one day, from waking to sleeping, of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov's term inside a forced labour camp.

There is no story, as such. Nothing really happens that could be considered dramatic. The power of One Day comes from its accumulation of arresting, hideous detail. Every prisoner, at every moment, is on the lookout for a chance to scrounge or steal anything that they can. Every movement is watched by guards, every bit of food or firewood or tobacco is haggled over and contested, and all of it takes place in cold that would, to most people, be unendurable. Allegiances can switch in an instant: a toadie can be hated at one moment, but if he's part of your work team, then he's as close as a brother the next.

One of the most striking sequences of the book has Shukhov's team racing back to the camp from their worksite, the guards running as just as desperately as the prisoners, to try and beat another group from another worksite to the gate: whichever group gets there first will be counted through the gate and get to the mess quicker. In the race through the snow, suddenly the guards and the prisoners are allies, everyone racing to beat the other work team. And yet as soon as they're through the gates, the hostility resumes. Your head reels just thinking about how adaptable those guys needed to be to judge where they stood at every moment, when a single false step would lead to ten days confined in unheated cells, with no work to keep them warm ... which in that climate, was very nearly a death sentence.

But look, there's really not much to say about this book. Its value is less that of a novel, and more that of an important historical document, for without it, the day-to-day reality of the gulags would be less well known. It's not a book to enjoy, but it is a book to appreciate.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
books to go: 109

April 4, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear (#111b)

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

What I said a couple of weeks ago:

It's a big dumb epic fantasy sequel ... and I can't wait!

What I say now:

It's bigger than I ever expected (200 pages longer than Anna Karenina!). And, unfortunately, dumber than I expected.

Legendary magician/lutist/killer/wastrel Kvothe has faked his own death and is now the proprietor of a sleepy pub (with a murderous fairy for an apprentice). After being tracked down by a scribe, Kvothe is convinced to tell the story of his life, which he promises to do over the course of three days. Rothfuss' first book, The Name of the Wind, was day one, in which Kvothe covered his childhood, the murder of his parents by mysterious supernatural beings, his entrance to a University of magic, and his all-round precociousness. The Wise Man's Fear is day two of the story.

I don't ask a heck of a lot from a popular novel like this: all I really want is something with a strong plot that's easy to read, something that goes down smooth. I chose this after Anna Karenina to give my brain a break.

For a guy working in a popular genre like fantasy, Rothfuss can write a hell of a sentence. His prose is elegant, clear and far more imaginative than 99% of his fantasy-writing peers. He draws you in beautifully ... which makes his occasional lapses into first-year-creative-writing-student gauche-ness stand out a mile. I'm willing to forgive a bit of experimentation, but why oh why does that major new character speak with no capital letters in her dialogue? it's utterly pointless. and after a while, really annoying. maybe it's because she's a fairy ... but wait, kvothe's apprentice is a fairy, and his dialogue has capitals. so there's no reason, then? right-o.

And why does Kvothe suddenly get hazy on his details for about fifty pages? Okay, he clearly has the best memory in the world, but whatever, I'm willing to go with that ... then we hit a section that's so vague as to be painful to read, and given the perfect clarity of everything else, it's like I was suddenly reading a very different, and much lesser, book.

But hell, given that the book's 993 pages long, those are relatively minor quibbles. My major quibble is that the vast majority of those 993 pages didn't seem to need to be there! The first 300 pages or so simply re-do a whole bunch of stuff that was included in the first book, to the point that I was getting deja vu. It was all mildly different variations on the exact same themes. The last thing a page-turner should be is dull, and while I was flying through it, I did find myself getting irritated at the sameness of Kvothe's adventures.

Then, when he did leave the University to head off into the wide world, all the troubles he found had very little connection to each other, and didn't join together to create a story. Rothfuss is a talented enough writer that he could keep me interested in whatever given piece of plot was going on at the time, but at the end of the book all the pieces of the plot didn't add up to anything. The book essentially goes like this: "I did that, then I did that, then I did that, then I did that. The end." All of the 'thats' are perfectly fine in and of themselves, but they bear little to no relation to each other. I was left flat and emotionally un-engaged, because nothing ever really seemed to matter, or to affect anything else.

All in all, it was (for the most part) a pleasant enough time-killer, but absolutely nothing more. I'd forgotten most of it before I'd even finished. Oh well.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ... continuing my recent Russian obsession. And it's blessedly short!
books to go: 110