Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “novels”

Saving a tokoloshe and jumping the shark

Tokoloshe SongTokoloshe Song by Andrew Salomon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me quite a while to get into this book, because the characters and their roles in the story are introduced in separate chapters, with no apparent connection between them. Richard Nevis helps out at a shelter for abused tokoloshes. Toby is intimidated by Kras (who appears to be very rich) into stealing something for him. Two midwives wander round in long coats. A bloke is conducting surveillance on someone (who has nothing to do with the story) in Mumbai. Another bad guy has a couple of hangers on who are not midwives.

When the characters come together and you see how they connect, the story starts to move a bit, and eventually moves out of Cape Town to Nieu Bethesda, though it doesn’t stay there for long. What was quite nice about that was that I could actually picture several of the places, having been to some of them, though following the directions in the book will not get you to Nieu Bethesda from Graaff Reinet.

The tokoloshes in the book are not the fairy-like creatures of popular folklore, but rather shy and rare animals that are calmed down by singing, hence the title.

I was enjoying it and was getting ready to give it four stars, but then in the penultimate chapter it jumped the shark, literally as well as figuratively, so I gave it three instead.

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Steinbeck: American or British?

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is a place of fish processing plants, a marine biology lab, a grocery shop and a brothel. Steinbeck describes some of the characters who live there, and the efforts of a group of semi-homeless people to organise a party for the marine biologist who runs the lab, and is regarded as a benefactor by most of the people who live on the street.

It reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is written about the other side of the USA, and may have been inspired by Cannery Row, but this one is much lighter, and there is more humour.

One thing I did find rather annoying, however, is that the edition I read was published in the UK, and the publishers had decided to use their own British house style for spelling and terminology. House style is all very well, but when it is obviously alien to the setting of the book it is distracting. So “curb” has been changed to “kerb” (or has it? Maybe Americans in general, or Steingback in particular, spelt it that way in the 1930s). It made me pause and wonder what other liberties the publishers had taken with the text. Would a bunch of down-and-outs living in California in the 1930s really have filled a truck with petrol? Or would they rather have used gasoline? Or did Americans actually speak of petrol back then, and is gasoline thus a more recent innovation?

In some books this might not be so important, but Cannery Row is mainly about the place and the people who live in it — the plot is pretty sketchy. So inauthentic dialogue is a distraction for the reader.

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On the Eve by Turgenev

On the EveOn the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a lot about Ivan Turgenev, especially in connection with nihilism, but this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read, mainly because it’s the first one I’ve seen. I picked it up from a toss-out box at the Russian Church in Midrand. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

It’s a story about romantic love and romantic nationalism during the build-up to the Crimean War There’s not a breath of nihilism in it that I could discern.

Concerning nationalism, I was once inveigled into joining a web site called Quora, where people ask questions and other people try to answer them, though most of them are quite unanswerable, and if you want examples of “begging the question”, you’ll find plenty on Quora. One of those questions was Why is nationalism bad?. I was tempted to respond with corollary question: Why is imperialism good?.

On the Eve will not answer either question. But what it does do is give a sympathetic portrayal of the nationalist hero, which, I think, shows insight into the mindset of 19th-century romantic nationalists. Though the hero is not a poet, and is in fact rather prosaic, he did remind me of romantic poets like Byron and Shelley who sympathised with nationalist struggles in the Balkans.

Twentieth-century nationalism seems somehow to have been less romantic. There were plenty of nationalist struggles in Africa and elsewhere against imperialist powers, and some of them generated poetry and novels, but nothing, to my knowledge, as overtly romantic as this.

To the person who asked “Why is nationalism bad?” on Quora, I would recommend this book. As I said, it won’t answer the question, but it may show why it is the wrong question to ask. When it comes to the question whether nationalism is good or bad, a brief answer is “It’s complicated”, and I’ve written more about it here Orthodoxy and nationalism and here Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, but that goes a long way beyond Turgenev’s book.

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Falling man

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange book. The title relates to a performance artist, David Janiak, who emulates those who jumped or fell from the World Trade Center when the two towers caught fire after planes crashed into them. Using a safety harness, he hangs himself from various structures around New York. But he gives no explanation of his behaviour.

The protagonist is Keith Neudecker, whose office was below the fire, and so he was able to escape, and instead of going home, he went to the home of his estranged wife, and is reunited with her, and their son Justin, whose age is not mentioned until much later in the book, and it turns out that he is about 7 when his father comes home.

The book follows Keith and his wife Lianne, and to some extent their son Justin over three years. It purports, in the blurb, to show how the events of 11 Septermber 2001 affected American consciousness, but I must be dim, because I didn’t see it. Several of Keith’s poker buddies are dead, so for a while he doesn’t play poker, but then resumes. Lianne continues her work with Alzheimer’s patients, and is rather distressed by their inevitable deterioration. But the fall of the towers seems to have nothing to do with this.

We are told little about their lives before the fall of the World Trade Center, so it is not really possible to see how their lives have been changed. The story is not clear, and it is often difficult to tell whose experience is being described.

In spite of this, however, I found it compelling reading. I wasn’t bored, and read to the end of the book.

If you want to read a better review, try this one Inner Diablog: Falling Man, which I largely agree with. But I didn’t feel I could say much about the book, but rather about some thoughts it provoked in me. One thing that struck me in the book was Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients. She encourages them to write down their memories while they can, and when one of them can no longer do this, they want to wrote about her. That struck me as very sad, but it would have been sad with or without the fall of the World Trade Center.

Another thing that struck me was that within a couple of days of the events, reporting on them stopped. For two days we were saturated with images of planes flying into buildings, the buildings burning and then collapsing, and then it all suddenly stopped. In other such disasters one often find that within a few months a book is published, with stories of witnesses and survivors, explaining what happened. But in this case there was a strange silence. I believe there is now a TV documentary showing, but 16 years later. Kids like Justin in the book would now be 23.

And so I wonder if this silence is why the book about it is a work of fiction, but really what is needed is for survivors to tell their own stories. Perhaps they did, in New York, so maybe I’m missing something that was there all along, but it it seems to me the kind of topic that doesn’t lend itself to fictional treatment.

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Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

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Nauseating words

I’ve occasionally read articles about words that people hate. Apparently one of the most disliked words in the English language is “moist”.

But this article reminded me of two of my least favourite words — 2 New ‘Harry Potter’ Books Are Coming This October:

Harry Potter fans have yet another reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the iconic wizarding franchise: They’re getting two new books this October.

For me two of the most nauseating words are “franchise” and “brands”, but “iconic” comes a pretty close third.

Harry Potter is a fictional character in a series of books. Why call him a “franchise”? Why are so many sports teams called “franchises” nowadays. These words do have proper uses. I have no objection to referring to a fast-food joint like KFC as a “franchise” where it means that they have been licensed to use the KFC brand and logos even though they are independently owned. But call it a franchise when referring to their business model;, not to the stuff they sell (ground up chicken beaks and gizzards called “nuggets”).

But how many authors have been licensed to write Harry Potter books? How many sports teams around the world (or even the UK) have been licensed to call themselves “Manchester United” or “Norwich City”? As far as I know, one and one only in each instance. That doesn’t make them a franchise, or anything remotely like it.

And all this talk about “brands” — are you interested in “brands”? Yes, I’ve seen online questionnaires that ask that. Should I say yes, I’m interested in brands. I really do prefer KFC to Ford, for example. Fried chicken gets me from A to B so much faster than a motor car, Dettol plays much better cricket than the Titans.

But perhaps I’m alone in this. “Brands”, “franchise” and “iconic” don’t seem to have made these lists, no matter how high they are on mine “Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates | Thought Catalog, and 11 Gross-Sounding Words Everyone Hates To Hear, According To Science.

The SAfm radio station has a Sunday morning programme on media, and “brands” feature pretty prominently in it.

Samuel Maverick

It all makes me rather sympathetic to Samuel Maverick, whose name entered the English language because he never branded his cattle. Unbranded cattle that did not belong in the herd were called “mavericks”. Later it came to be applied to people who didn’t follow the herd, like politicians who didn’t toe (or nowadays “tow”) the party line. Like Makhosi Khoza. I suppose that’s why I like to read the Daily Maverick. And why I would like to see Makhosi Khoza as our next president.

So the more talk I hear of “brands”, the more I think of Samuel Maverick. No matter what else he did, he made an important and much-needed contribution to the English language.

Five Children and It (book review)

Five Children and itFive Children and it by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I had heard about, but never seen, until my eye lit on it in the library this week. It’s good bed-time reading, because each chapter is almost a self-contained story.

I suppose coming so late to it, probably many people have had an opportunity to read it before me, and it is too well-known to need much children — four children and their baby brother discover a Psammead, a very ancient sand fairy who grants wishes. And, as I’m sure many others have said, the theme “be careful what you wish for” runs right through the book. In each chapter the children spent most of their time, energy, and, sometimes, money, trying to undo the damage that their wishes have caused.

It is interesting that most of the best books for children that have lasted have been fantasy books. Most of the children’s books from before the First World War have probably been all but forgotten, but many of those that have lasted and been reprinted have been fantasy books.

Another thought is that the children in the story, and therefore many of the first readers of the book, would have been of the generation that fought in the First World War. They grew up in a kind of idyllic world that was to vanish in their generation.

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The mystery of the Solar Wind (book review)

At our literary coffee klatch a couple of weeks ago Tony McGregor brought along a book called The mystery of the Solar Wind, which he said was about pirates in the 22nd century, so when I saw a copy in the library I grabbed it and brought it home to read.

The Mystery of the Solar WindThe Mystery of the Solar Wind by Lyz Russo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a bit conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling reading, an interesting story, of pirates in the world a century in the future. On the other hand, there are too many rough edges, and it feels unfinished, like a rough draft that somehow escaped into the public library. The copy I read has no ISBN and is not listed on GoodReads, and the cover is different from all the editions that are. Its date is 2009, and it reads like a publisher’s proof copy sent to bookshops in advance of publication.

Some of the rough edges may have been smoothed out in a later “proper” edition, but I still wonder why this one was found in the public library.

It is set in a world in which two superpowers, the Unicate, which seems to be a kind of expanded and corrupt Nato, and the Rebellion, based in the south Pacific, are fighting for global dominance, and there is the Southern Free, in Africa, which appears to mind its own business and doesn’t come into the story much. And apart from that there are the pirates, who acknowledge none of the world powers.

The Solar Wind is a pirate ship, whose Hungarian captain seems to have an incongruously Slavic name. It is a wind-powered ship — ships using mineral oil as fuel are a thing of the past — though it does have fuel cell and nuclear auxiliary drives.

The protagonists are the Donegal siblings, Ronan, Paean and Shawn, orphans who joined the ship at Dublin, fleeing from the Unicate after the death of their mother in suspicious circumstances.

But there are puzzling quirks and plot holes. The pirates explain to the Donegals that they are not the bloodthirsty villains of popular perception, and go out of the way to avoid harming their enemies, until there is a sudden and totally unexpected outbreak of gratuitous violence and mass murder, which would certainly in our day be regarded as a war crime. And what kind of person gives a twelve-year-old a rifle to shoot people escaping a sinking ship in a lifeboat? Was it that the Donegals were only beginning to become aware of their real nature of their hosts? No, it seems to have been a turning point when they became loyal to them.

There are mysteries that are never explained, and the reader is simply left hanging. There are strange uses of words, some of which could be explained by language changes over the next century, except that they seem strangely inconsistent. “Anna bottle” can be accepted as a 22nd century expression, but exclaiming “Cor” seems so 1960s London. One sentence spoke of things being connected “by vice of a three-toed print”, and I tried to think of a three toed print holding things together like a vice, but the imagery failed. Perhaps it was meant to be “by the device of a three-toed print”, which would be evidence for my suspicion of its being an uncorrected proof copy that escaped to the library, but even that would make no sense in the context.

Something I also found odd was the reference to female characters by their hair colour — “the redhead”, “the brunette” (with black hair nogal). That seemed to belong to 1936 rather than 2116. And since the male characters weren’t referred to in that way it seemed rather sexist to me. It was also confusing, because there were two female characters with red hair, so one had to work out which one was being referred to.

One of the books we also discussed at the literary coffee klatsch was A high wind in Jamaica, which was also about children and pirates, though the setting was about 250 years earlier than The mystery of the Solar Wind, so I can’t help making comparisons. In A high wind in Jamaica the children (who are mostly younger than those in Solar Wind) are inadvertently captured by pirates, and actually turn out to be considerably more bloodthirsty than the pirates, especially when the pirates are themselves captured and put on trial, and the children are called upon to give evidence at their trial. But the bloodthirstiness of the children as as nothing compared to the imaginations of the adults at the trial, who embroider the evidence given by the children into something utterly remote from the reality.

At the time of writing The mystery of the Solar Wind is  available free on Smashwords.

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The Rule of Four (book review)

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We were rushing off somewhere else when we called at the library to change our books so I grabbed this one off the shelf rather quickly. The blurb compared it with Umberto Eco, but it also compared it with Dan Brown. There was no time to look for another, however, so I just took it and hoped for the best.

When we got home my son, who had worked in a bookshop, recalled that it had been compared a lot with Dan Brown’s books about 12 years ago, so I was prepared for the worst, but was rather pleasantly surprised. Umberto Eco it isn’t. I gave five stars to Foucault’s Pendulum, and one star to The da Vinci code, but i think this one warrants three=and-a-half.

The rule of four is about four friends, final year undergraduates at Princeton University, two of whom are majoring in literature, and one of them, Paul Harris, is studying the Hypnerotomachia while another, the narrator, Tom Sullivan, is the son of a student of the same book, though he himself is working on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It appears that the Hypnerotomachia, is a real book about Poliphilo’s dream struggle for the love of Polia, so it’s not a fictional one like the one mentioned in The da Vinci code, which my son said people kept coming into the book shop to ask for, and would not believe him when he told them it was a fictional work in a work of fiction. Even when I got to the end of this book, however, I found it difficult to pronounce the title.

Paul Harris believes that the Hypnerotomachia contains a secret code, and much of the plot of the book is devoted to discovering what it is, which I suppose accounts for the similarity with The da Vinci code, but it is not nearly as facile as the latter. The plot also involves academic rivalries which lead to murder, and at some points that is rather unconvincing, and the narrative seems to jump about rather inexplicably.

It none the less kept my interest to the end, even though some parts seemed rather implausible. The book has several illustrations in it, and it would have helped if a map of the Princeton campus had been included among them.

I find I rather like books of this genre — books about literary studies of other books, or authors, where there was some mystery about them that needed to be solved. There didn’t seem to be a list for that genre on Good Reads, so I created one, and hope others will add similar books to the list, so I can add them to my to-read list.

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Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons (Swallows and Amazons, #1)Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s almost exactly 50 years since I last read this book, and I’ve given it another star. I think I’ve read it three times, and found it better each time. I tried reading it as a child, and I think I also read Coot Club and Missee Lee as a child, but did not find them particularly good. And after 50 years I had forgotten most of the plot of this one.

So reading it the third time round it was almost like seeing it with fresh eyes, not least because about halfway between my last reading and this one, in 1993, I had read The Life of Arthur Ransome, and found that his life was much more interesting than the books he wrote.

For those who don’t know it, Swallows and Amazons is about four children of the Walker family, aged from 7 up, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who go camping on an island in a lake in Cumbria, and sail there in a boat. I suppose that a book that featured a girl called Titty was one of the things that put me off as a child. And also that a camping holiday that involves going to an island in a boat would be far more interesting to do than to read about. Reading it this time, I realised that Titty was by far the most interesting character in the story.

And thinking about it, it seems to me that children’s books of that era (between the world wars) seem to have been the kind of books that adults think children should like, but adults actually enjoy them more. These children had imaginary adventures in the middle of their rather prosaic and humdrum life. Most children do, I suppose, but would prefer to read about the real adventures of fictional children than imaginary ones, because they already have imaginary adventures of their own.

I had the same problem with the “William” books by Richmal Crompton, which belonged to the same period. I read several of them as a child, but always found them rather unsatisfactory. Some of them were written in war time, and William and his friends would imagine themselves capturing German spies or themselves spying on Quislings, but there usually turned out to be a more prosaic explanation. As a child, however, I did learn the significance of words like “Quisling”.

I once picked up one of the “William” books as an adult, and read a couple of the stories in it, and was initially surprised at the language. Richman Crompton did not write in simplified Enid Blyton language for kids. She wrote adult prose. But I was also struck by the adult view of children. There was a thread of adult amusement at the antics of children running through all the stories. They were laughing at children, not with them.

Arthur Ransome does better than that, but his books still strike me as an adult’s idea of what children like than what children actually like. There are books about children written mainly for adult readers that take that a bit further; Lord of the Flies, for example, which is also about children camping on an island, but viewed somewhat differently.

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