Thursday, April 26, 2012

Recent Reading Roundup 31

As I recently mentioned, one of the effects of scrambling for homeownership has been that I've had very little headspace for anything else.  It's not just writing that has fallen by the wayside but also reading, and often these days I find myself more contented with some cheesy TV at the end of the day than a good book.  Hopefully that will change in the coming weeks, and I'll soon have more substantial things to write about my reading, but here are the few books that I have managed to read this year.
  1. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer - Whenever I chance upon a discussion of Heyer's Regency romances, the impression that forms is of Jane Austen methadone.  This isn't entirely an alluring description--it conjures images of an author who replicates the frothy surface of Austen's novels without dipping into the acid that lies just beneath it.  In my first foray into Heyer's writing late last year, with Cotillion, that is indeed what I found, but Cotillion was also charming, effervescent fun, and its central romance was satisfyingly human and unsentimental, so I marked Heyer as an author worth returning to.  Though it shares some superficial similarities with Cotillion--both novels involve a young woman arriving at the home of her fashionable London relatives, rearranging their lives for the better, and sweeping her dashing cousin off his feet--The Grand Sophy may not have been the ideal next step.  For one thing, the novel is just starting to gear up for its home stretch, as the title character, who has been raised by her rich, eccentric diplomat father to be his hostess and housekeeper and has been shocking her relatives with her strong will and independent habits, starts seriously meddling in her family's affairs and scheming to separate her cousin Charles from the odious, mean-spirited prig he's become engaged to, when an evil Jewish moneylender turns up.  Sophy's confrontation with, and ultimate triumph over, this character (for which read "agglomeration of ugly antisemitic stereotypes"), is one of the most viscerally unpleasant things I've ever read, but even so I might have managed to enjoy the novel around it if were not also at around this point that the novel's central romance begins to teeter.

    One of the things I liked about Cotillion was how firmly it established that its central lovers were made better for knowing each other, and that their relationship brought out the best in both of them.  In The Grand Sophy, however, the romance feels very one-sided.  It's pretty obvious why Charles, who in his determination to tamp down the wild tendencies that have led to his father's dissolution is hacking away at everything passionate and feeling in his personality, would fall in love with Sophy, who offers him the opportunity to express his emotions in an environment safely controlled by her iron will.  It's less obvious why Sophy falls in love with Charles, to the extent that it seems more likely that she has manipulated him into falling in love with her in order to further her aims for his family without feeling much beyond fondness towards him.  Which not only makes Sophy's decision to marry Charles at the end of the novel somewhat puzzling, but makes her seem like a rather unpleasant person.  Add to that the fact that Sophy's vaunted independence is little more than independent wealth--she can do and say as she likes because she has full access to her father's bank accounts, and the only scene in which they have no affect on her ability to carry the day is the aforementioned triumph over the evil Jewish moneylender--and the character becomes even more murky.  There is room, of course, for such characters--for an Unlawful Good figure who uses her wealth and wits to direct the lives of everyone around her, and justifies her interference with the persuasive argument that everyone is happier for her meddling--but as the heroine of a romance she makes for a rather unsatisfying fit.  There's enough in The Grand Sophy of the humor and charm that made Cotillion such a fun read that I'm sure I'll give Heyer another shot, but next time I think I'll have to be more careful about which book I choose.

  2. Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge - Hardinge's Gullstruck Island was one of my most surprisingly excellent reads of 2011, so I was very pleased when the chance to read something else by her came along.  The sequel to Hardinge's 2005 debut Fly By Night (which I haven't read, but which the narrative helpfully summarizes early in the novel), Twilight Robbery (Fly Trap in the US) sees that novel's heroes, orphan Mosca Mye and con artist Eponymous Clent, trying to flee their troubles through the city of Toll, which has adopted a City and the City-esque separation of its citizens.  In the novel's universe, every hour of the day is consecrated to a certain god, and the people of Toll, including its visitors, are separated according to whether the god they were born under is deemed positive or negative.  The former are allowed to roam the city by day, the latter by night.  As that description suggests, Twilight Robbery, like Gullstruck Island, is a novel whose elaborate setting is rooted in traditions and social conventions, and the novel's plot, which sees Mosca and Eponymous sorted into different sides of the city and then embroiled in a crisis that forces the two sides to work together, examines and dismantles those conventions in a way that is both familiar from Gullstruck and that feels almost unique to Hardinge.  It is, however, a novel that skews somewhat younger than Gullstruck Island, and thus spends a little more time than I cared for establishing that it is, in fact, wrong to make moral judgments about people based on their time of birth.  And though the central villain is an interesting character, the path taken to unmasking them was longer than I would have liked.  By its final quarter, Twilight Robbery begins to flag, one too many plot twists having been piled on a message that has already been firmly established.  There's still a lot here worth reading for, mainly Hardinge's skill at worldbuilding and at crafting characters who are both observant about their world and hopelessly immersed in it, but I think that for the time being I will give the Mosca Mye books a rest, and hope that in her forthcoming Face Like Glass Hardinge will skew a little further towards the maturity that made Gullstruck Island such a revelation.

  3. The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers - The thing I love best about the Clarke award is that it points me towards books, like Richard Morgan's Black Man, Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army, and Marcel Theroux's Far North, that I almost certainly wouldn't have read on my own, and that besides being excellent in their own right shine a light on corners of the genre that I don't tend to explore.  Even in years with an underwhelming shortlist--and though I haven't read the entire shortlist, what I have read leads me to join in the general consensus that this is one of those years--there's at least one such book on the Clarke shortlist, and this year that is The Testament of Jessie Lamb.  It's a book that's generated a lot of debate and dispute, and I'm not sure that I could expand, either in summarizing that debate or in adding my own thoughts to it, on Nic Clarke and Dan Hartland's reviews, though for myself I am inclined to side with Nic in finding Jessie Lamb satisfying and thought-provoking.  The novel takes place in an alternate present in which MDS, a bioengineered disease, has rendered pregnancy fatal.  Jessie Lamb is teenage girl already reeling from her growing awareness of the messiness and complexity of the world around her, and the emergence of MDS only further cements her belief that the world she stands to inherit is hopelessly diseased.  When she learns about the Sleeping Beauty program--young women who are impregnated and placed in comas, which allows them to bring their babies, who will be immune to MDS, to term, even as their own brains liquify--Jessie feels that the best thing she can do with her life is to volunteer for it.  When her father finds out, he locks her up, and Jessie's testament is the memoir she writes during this incarceration, explaining her decision.

    What emerges from this memoir--what to my mind is the book's greatest strength and accomplishment--is the twinned and seemingly irreconcilable realization that Jessie is making the decision to become a Sleeping Beauty advisedly and of her own free and unencumbered will, and that she is making it for entirely the wrong reasons.  As Nic writes, Jessie's narrative perfectly captures the self-righteousness of a certain, particularly obnoxious class of teenager, but what underpins it is fear--fear of the world into which she is about to emerge as an independent operator, and fear of the compromises it will demand from her.  Like many teenagers before her, Jessie's response to that fear is to deny the world that has aroused it in her, and the adults who are responsible for it.  MDS gives her the opportunity to take that denial to its furthest, irrevocable extreme.  At the same time, Jessie isn't deluded, insane, or suicidal.  She knows that becoming a Sleeping Beauty will kill her, and unlike many other volunteers she meets she neither wants to die nor craves the attention and adulation that volunteering will grant her and her family.  Over the course of her testament she works through the implications of her choice until all her illusions and fantasies are stripped away, and even in the face of the stark fact that she is volunteering to die her choice remains the same.  It's not an admirable decision--especially as Rogers makes it clear that the Sleeping Beauty program is at least in part a hysterical response to a problem that may soon be solved in less gruesome ways--but it is Jessie's decision.  At the end of the novel, it's impossible not to accept that, and to accept Jessie's right to make it, even as it becomes clear that in a few years' time, if the faint hope held out at the end of the novel for Jessie's survival pans out, she will most likely look back on her testament and shudder.  When I finished Jessie Lamb I felt that it stood neck and neck with Embassytown as my choice for this year's Clarke winner, but the more time has passed, the more interesting and accomplished Rogers's novel has come to seem, and I very much hope to see it take the award next week.

  4. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan - Lanagan's second novel, like her first, is a complicated retelling of a folk tale, this time the story of the selkie, the seal-woman who stays on shore with her male lover so long as he conceals her sealskin from her.  Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US and UK) takes place on a small island community (which gives Lanagan plenty of opportunity for blustery, windswept, seawater-soaked description and fishing-village patois) with a history of taking "sea wives" which has now fallen into myth.  When a woman is born with enough seal heritage to call the sea wives out of their skins, she revives the practice, and the island's community is rocked for generations as its men are placed under the sea wives' spell and its women find themselves displaced.  As the story progresses, it switches between points of view--Misskaella, the witch who avenges herself on a community that mistreated her by exposing its men to the sea wives' enchantment (and growing rich on the money she charges them for her services), a girl whose mother is replaced by a sea wife, a recently engaged young man who comes to the island meaning to sell his parents' house only to fall under a sea wife's spell, and the children of these unions, who are the only ones who may be able to return the community to its rightful footing.  The shifting perspectives help to humanize the story.  Misskaella, who speaks first, is a sympathetic figure for most of her story, terrified by her power and grievously wounded by a community that mocks and discounts her for being unattractive.  Her initial explorations of her power have more to do with wanting to find her own measure of love and companionship than revenge, and the brief taste of them that she gains, only to quickly lose, wounds her deeply.  For the rest of the novel, even as she grows more bitter and as we gain a greater understanding of how her magic destroys her community, it's hard to forget the pain and loss that are at the root of her story.

    For all this, however, Sea Hearts doesn't quite manage to escape from the core difficulty of its underlying myth, the opposition it forces between human and seal women.  The characters who speak draw a stark comparison between the fleshy, imperfect, demanding human wives, and the endlessly yielding, accommodating, and of course eerily beautiful sea wives, and though Lanagan complicates that comparison in the sea wives' case, by showing us their sadness at being trapped on land, she can't quite get around the way the land wives seem earthy and mundane by comparison.  When Dominic Mallett, the young man who returns to the island to sell his parents' house, tells us about his fiancée, he describes her as practical, cautious, clever, and the way that she is filtered through the narrative--especially after he meets "his" sea wife, who is of course ethereal and unearthly--makes these qualities seem dull and plodding.

    Sea Hearts never resolves this opposition.  It's a novel that begins with Misskaella's resentment of other women--her domineering mother, her thoughtless sisters, and the pretty girls of the village who look down on her for not having a husband--and continues with the land wives' resentment of their seal replacements, but rather than an address these feelings of antagonism, the novel drops them.  There is, in fact, barely any interaction between women after the sea wives arrive--it's their male children who are able to return their mothers to the sea (girls born to human/seal pairings are transformed back into seals as infants, another way in which female relationships are done away with in this novel), and when human women return to the island it's these boys that they interact with.  The only relationship between women is Misskaela's adoption of the mainland girl Trudel, who becomes her apprentice.  But this relationship is perhaps the most underserved of the novel, developing fitfully in the background of other stories despite being quite interesting--far from recapitulating Misskaella's unhappy life, Trudel takes human lovers and has a gaggle of illegitimate children, and seems to have an affectionate if abrasive relationship with them and with her mistress.  All of this, however, is mostly unexplored.  We only find out about Trudel's children long after they're born, are not privy to her choice to take lovers or her feelings about that choice, and learn only a little about her life with Misskaella, and that after the older woman has died.  It's a sour note in a novel that otherwise feels almost perfectly formed, progressing from one narrative voice to another in a way that builds the story and its pace seemingly effortlessly.  And it is also a missed opportunity to have given Sea Hearts its missing component, the voices of women speaking to one another, not just about each other.

  5. Rule 34 by Charles Stross - This is only the second Stross novel I've read, and after the tedious, Hugo-nominated Saturn's Children I wasn't exactly eager to give him another try, but some positive responses, and Rule 34's Clarke nomination, convinced me to give it a try.  While I would still qualify Rule 34 as one of the books that weigh down this year's Clarke shortlist, it is a surprisingly enjoyable and at points intriguing read.  Set in Edinburgh in the near future, it parallels the stories of Liz Kavanaugh, a detective who normally investigates internet-related sex crimes but has been attached to the investigation of a bizarre and kinky murder, Anwar Hussein, an ex con trying out get rich schemes who agrees to become the honorary consulate of a just-formed Middle Eastern country, and a nameless fixer for an organized crime cartel who finds his plans in the city constantly waylaid by a series of strange coincidences.  The murder mystery moves at a brisk clip, with the other two characters' stories feeding into it rather quickly, but it soon become clear that neither it nor the characters are Stross's main focus (which isn't porn either, as despite the novel's title internet pornography plays almost no part in the story).  That would be a window on his day after tomorrow future and the role that the internet and constant connectivity play in the smooth running of society, particularly police work.  Liz and her fellow officers use CopSpace, a system that not only records their every interaction with the public to prevent police brutality and corruption, but allows them to crowdsource their investigations and share resources and information quickly and easily.  Stross's ideas about how such a system would work are interesting, but even more so is the way that this new form of policing folds into it the old school attitudes of Liz's older colleagues, neither rejecting their John Wayne fantasies nor embracing them.  This is all very interesting and distracts for a while from the fact that Rule 34's plot is rather perfunctory, to the extent that when, about two thirds into the novel, it becomes blazingly obvious who (or rather, what) the murderer is even as Liz continues to plod towards the solution, one hardly feels annoyed, since the investigation was never the point in the first place.  It does, however, have the effect of making Rule 34 seem rather weightless--neither its character nor its plot linger long in the mind, and without them the novel's worldbuilding feels untethered.  It's a pleasant read, but not one that has stayed with me.

  6. MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman - Twenty years after the publication of the first volume of his groundbreaking, seminal Holocaust comic, Art Spiegelman sits down to answer the questions that Maus continues to elicit--why the Holocaust?  Why mice?  Why comics?  MetaMaus is a book-length interview with Spiegelman about these questions, as well as many other aspects of bringing Maus into existence.  It also contains many of the steps on Maus's path to its finished form--studies for the book's art, the original, three-page Maus strip Spiegelman drew in 1972, photographs of Spiegelman's parents, Vladek and Anya, from their pre-war life in Poland and their post-war years in Sweden and the US, and examples of Spiegelman's other work.  Spiegelman emerges from his interview as a thoughtful, deliberate, detail-oriented artist (if also a bit finicky, and something of a control freak where his work is concerned), and the insight he grants us into the process of bringing Maus into being shows how considered every aspect of the book was, which only serves to enrich the final product.  Just as interesting is Spiegelman's discussion of his parents' lives, both before and after the war, and of his relationship with them (I was particularly intrigued by his observation that the choice to write about Vladek's story of survival was driven by circumstances--by the time Spiegelman sat down with his father to learn and record his story in the early 70s, Anya was dead, and had she lived Spiegelman might have preferred to tell her story rather than his father's).  The richness of the material Spiegelman was working with when creating Maus, and his own keen intelligence, make MetaMaus a window not just on a single family's story, or on a single creative process, but on the Holocaust and the way that depictions of it in popular culture have changed and increased in prominence (Spiegelman makes the sadly convincing argument that we've reached the point where Holocaust stories are hopelessly mired in kitsch, which is something I've felt myself for several years), and on the comics scene at the time of Maus's publication and in the present day.  If you've read Maus, MetaMaus is an invaluable accompaniment that only further brings home the depth of Spiegelman's accomplishment, but I think that even those who are unfamiliar with the comic will find a lot worth reading for here--and hopefully a spur to seek out Maus itself.


Andrea K Höst said...

Try "Frederica" for Heyer.

Raz Greenberg said...

As someone who first read "Maus" at the age of 12 (that's 22 years ago) and still considers it one of the most amazing reading-experiences of his life, "MetaMaus" was an impossible-to-put-down affair for me. The books, by the way, comes with a DVD which contains a digital copy of both volumes of "Maus", with selected panels accompanied by commentary from Spiegelman, several previously-published essays by the author, and most importantly - a chance to hear the original recordings of Spiegelman's father. It's a facinating experience, because more than anything else, it demonstrates just how far Spiegelman's interpretation of his father's story went: as a certain researcher (I don't recall the name at the moment) noted, there's something very misleading about the portrayal of the old man with the broken English whose son must force the story out of him (sometimes violently) that the readers meet in the book. Vladek Spiegelman's English may not be perfect, but his narration of his memories is crystal clear, flowing naturally, powerful enough in its own right without his son's images that accompanied it. That's not to say, of course, the any work done on "Maus" was redundant; just that listening to Vladek Spiegelman's recordings is a superb complementary experience to the graphic novel.
It was equally incredible to learn of Spiegelman's different sources of inspiration, that consisted mostly of commercial (albeit pre-code) American comics and his own work as a commercial artist. But here, I think, is also the weakness of his criticism of other creators' handling of the Holocaust: the belief that "I did all that can be done on the issue, and therefore nobobdy else should" rings loud and ugly in Spiegelman's opinion of other attempts to dramatize Holocaust events. In the end, "Maus" is not very different from (to use the most obvious example) "Schindler's List" - both works use the vocabulary of popular American culture to tell a Holocaust story - because it's the same culture that both Spiegelman and Spielberg grew into and out of. It's a shame that instead of realizing how his work legitimized artistic treatment of the Holocaust, Spiegelman chose to point a finger and critisize other creators in a manner not very different from the criticism that he came under himself.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It sounds like we read Maus around the same time, Raz - and, I suspect, in the same edition. I haven't had the time to sit down with the DVD yet, but I'm intrigued by your comments about Vladek's recordings, since one of Spiegelman's complaints against his original Israeli publishers was that they excised Vladek's broken English (I remember being very confused by the second volume, which I read in English several years after reading the first volume in Hebrew; I couldn't understand Vladek's sudden loss of fluency).

I was also intrigued by Spiegelman's discussion of his inspirations, though more by his observation that at the time he started researching Maus, in the 70s and early 80s, there was very little fiction or nonfiction about the Holocaust available in English. As an Israeli Jew who grew up in the 80s and 90s it seems impossible to imagine a cultural landscape in which the Holocaust is an obscure topic (I wonder whether Maus's lackluster reception in Israel, which Spiegelman attributes to Israel's absence from Vladek's story, isn't actually the result of the book arriving at a market that was, unlike the American one, saturated with Holocaust stories, and therefore less willing to make the leap into Holocaust comics). Perhaps that trailblazing role, combined with the controlling tendency that permeates most of MetaMaus explains Spiegelman's judgmental reactions to other Holocaust fiction, though unlike you I didn't get a sense of blanket dismissal so much as a criticism of recent Holocaust fiction. As Spiegelman writes, the Holocaust has become a trope, a way of engaging the audience, raising the stakes, and gaining instant sympathy, but no one is trying to take us to K. Tzetnik's "other planet" anymore. I can't think of a single work of Holocaust fiction from the last decade that is as essential or as important as Maus or, for that matter, Schindler's List (which, book and movie, is roughly contemporary to Maus), and I can think of many that strike me as sentimental or even exploitative.

Anonymous said...

The first Mosca Mye book skews older than the second.

Anonymous said...

I'd second the recommendation for Heyer's FREDERICA, and add SYLVESTER, A CIVIL CONTRACT, and, well, many others (SPRIG MUSLIN, maybe?) ... THE GRAND SOPHY was never a favorite of mine.

I'd also suggest that you could hardly have done worse by Stross than to begin reading him with SATURN'S CHILDREN, and for that matter RULE 34 was hardly an ideal second choice. (Not your fault, of course!) I'd read the early novels SINGULARITY SKY and IRON SUNRISE, and also of course ACCELERANDO.

As for me, I really need to get to Hardinge soon ...

Rich Horton

Kelly Link said...

I loved Fly by Night -- haven't read the sequel yet. She and Ysabeau Wilce work in the same territory -- can't remember if you've read FLORA SEGUNDA. Oh, and I'd be interested to know what you thought of The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stievfater). I didn't find my way into her earlier books, for what that's worth, but this one is infinitely rewarding. ASHES by Ilsa Bick is also quite good.

If you go back to Heyer, I'd vote for VENETIA, which has one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever: "May the caterpillar devour thine increase") and SYLVESTER. (GRAND SOPHY: yuck.)

Also, congratulations on your move!

Aishwarya said...

So often with Heyer the really great dialogue (I maintain that the scene in which Sophy explains to Charlbury why she shot him is glorious) is eclipsed by dodgy politics and unsatisfactory heroes. I'd second the Venetia suggestion, though. And while the main characters in Friday's Child are intolerable, the secondary characters make up for everything.

Anonymous said...

Several people above have recommended Venetia and Civil Contract, which I see put forward a lot in debates about Heyer as particular favourites, so clearly a lot of people have enjoyed them. They're not my own favourites though. I used to love The Grand Sophy when I was a teenager, but not so much now, and even back then I always felt about the Charles / Sophy romance precisely as you describe above. It just makes me want to go 'Huh?'.

If you don't mind a little bit of adventure or mystery in your Heyer, I have a great fondness for both The Quiet Gentleman and The Unknown Ajax. Cotillion is currently my number 1 favourite, but you've already read that.

Anonymous said...

Your reading round up is, as always, a great source of commentary and recommendations. And I'd like to throw in "Faro's Daughter" to the Heyer pot.

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