Migration

Is anyone still following this blog? After some thought, I decided to switch the blog completely over to a different platform; it was clear that the old format, for various reasons, was no longer working.

Please reset bookmarks, if any, to oldcypress.trois-royaumes.com. Unfortunately, there is no good way to redirect feeds, but here is the new RSS feed.

State of the reading

I finished Unseen Academicals (Indiebound | Powell’s) last week; thoughts to follow soon. I’m currently in the middle of Status Anxiety (Powell’s | Indiebound) and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Powell’s | Indiebound), both by Alain de Botton.

I forgot to mention the used books I bought at Half-Price Books during their Labor Day Sale.

I took a look at the first chapter of Waiting and felt tempted to continue but decided to hold off until I finished other books first.

Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton

In the chapter, “Philosophy”:

Cynics are, in the end, only idealists with awkwardly high standards.

– Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (Powell’s | Indiebound)

De Botton is quite adept at aphorisms.

The chapter on “Art” has convinced me to read Mansfield Park, which I think is the only major Austen novel that I haven’t read yet. Unfortunately, it did not similarly convince me to attempt Middlemarch again.

De Botton very deftly undermines the idea that modern society is a true meritocracy but without explicitly saying whether he believes there is any truth to the assumption at all. He also refrains from saying whether he believes meritocracy is worth pursuing—a question that I’ve been seriously pondering myself—though he does argue that the assumption of meritocracy makes us unhappy. I think I would be happier if he dropped the facade of objective detachment and observation; the whole myth of “American meritocracy” could be explored in all its complexity if de Botton was willing to wade into thornier social issues instead of alluding to them as neutrally as possible. But then his entire premise presupposes the individual perspective rather than the social, and his audience is clearly situated in the middle-to-upper class.

The current chapter I’m reading, “Politics”, does start to address this subject more directly. Interesting though how he manages to sidestep any discussion of Marx so far, even though Marx was quoted in previous chapters.

Bookkeeping

I recently finished Atul Gawande’s Complications (Indiebound | Powell’s), which is one of the four books I ought to finish reading before I head to a fellowship conference in two weeks.

I also bought (and started) the latest Discworld novel from Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals (Indiebound | Powell’s), which is about the Unseen University beginning its own football team. In a way, it’s a sort of birthday present, since I used the gift certificate that K. gave me several weeks ago to purchase it.

A list of ebooks on my work computer, none of which I have even opened yet:

  • Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link
  • Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
  • The Ant King and Other Stories, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t read the last book on the list. I dug up the ebook after reading that Achebe has written new book after twenty years (Reuters).

I also have a copy of Helen DeWitt’s Your Name Here (available for purchase here). I began the book several months ago, but I lost my place in the file and haven’t been able to retrieve it. I suspect I really ought to move it to my home computer, where I can use Stanza.

Reboot

After nearly ten months of failing to update this blog, I decided that it was time for a change. I updated my Wordpress installation, retitled the blog, reorganized the pages and tried to mark them as outdated.

I will continue to blog about the books I read here, but it will be much less structured and formal. Hopefully, in the process, I will also update more often and provide interesting content.

Some books I recently read and enjoyed since June:

I also neurotically reread some Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

I haven’t decided yet whether to replace Amazon links with Powell’s/Indiebound links or merely append them. The reboot of this blog is still a work in progress, I’m afraid.

Love Overcoming Obstacles (Or Not)

The Scar by China Miéville: Miéville has been sweeping the SF/F awards since his debut and I’ve been intending to read him for quite some time now. (In fact, I’ve had a copy of Iron Council for over a year now, still unread.) I’ve been dragging my feet though because from previous skims at the library and bookstore, it’s obvious that Miéville’s writing is dense and baroque, the sort of style that I love to read but also requires the right state of mind to properly appreciate. (It’s a sort of compulsion to read every word and savor it because it seems like such a waste to just gulp the book down. I’m sure wine fanciers have similar hang-ups about guzzling an expensive vintage.)

I was surprised to see The Scar being recommended as a book about “love overcoming obstacles”. Well, to be sure, almost any story involves or mentions love, but I’ve always heard of Miéville as writing dark, gritty, political stories. Still, it meant that I kept a particular eye out for the love story hidden in the plot, and I was rather fascinated by the two characters he created. They weren’t the protagonists of the story by any means, but their dynamic was incredibly interesting.

A quick summary: Terpsichoria, a ship carrying prisoners from New Crobuzon (city-state and major mercantile power in Miéville’s world of Bas-Lag) to the colony of Nova Esperium, gets taken over by pirates, who turn out to belong to the floating city of Armada. Armada is built from stolen ships and boats lashed together and survives by, yes, piracy, while keeping its identity and location hidden by press-ganging the sailors and passengers. These eventually become the new citizens of Armada; the city is a diverse throng of people from every country in Bas-Lag. Many of them are former prisoners who have been Remade, that is, their bodies have been surgically and magically altered with grafted mechanical or biological parts. One of the prisoners on the Terpsichoria for example has two tentacle limbs grafted onto his abdomen. The Remade are former criminals and slaves in New Crobuzon, but in Armada, they are equal citizens. So are other humanoid species, such as the cactaceae, who are pretty much like human cactuses, and vampir, who are “photophobic haemophages”: they can all live openly in Armada where they can’t anywhere else. A city of outcasts, misfits, deserters, criminals…Miéville does a fantastic job with worldbuilding and describes the landscape and cultures of the city.

The novel feels rather steampunkish in that it combines magic with an industrial setting: New Crobuzon seems rather reminiscent of Victorian England, with names like Johannes Tearfly and Bellis Coldwine. The latter is the principal point-of-view character, though we get interludes from other characters as well. She left New Crobuzon unwillingly and out of necessity, and she is horrified to find herself trapped in Armada, from which she will never be allowed to escape. Her love and loyalty to New Crobuzon resonated with me—in her initial depression, she refuses to get to know Armada and believes that it can never compare to her city—since I feel much the same way about my own home city. But she eventually gets caught up in the political changes that are sweeping through Armada, and that’s where the Lovers enter.

Bellis never learns their real names, and neither does the reader, but they are the rulers of Garwater, the largest and most powerful district in Armada. They are always referred to as the Lovers, and they have mirror-image scars covering their faces and bodies. They are always in agreement and continue each other’s sentences as if they were in fact one identical person. The Lovers are ambitious: they have plans to trap an enormous beast, called the avanc, and harness it to make the city mobile. (And it turns out, over the course of the novel, that it’s merely the beginning.)

Bellis becomes involved in the project to summon the avanc, since she is a linguist who specializes in High Kettai, the language used by the only living person to summon one. She ends up learning the meaning behind the Lovers’ scars: initially, the Lover (male) had intended it as a mark of possession, since it was used in his original culture as a way to prevent other men from desiring one’s wife. She however, surprised him by cutting an identical mark on his face, and since then, it has become their ritual of lovemaking. Bellis overhears the Lover (female) at one point cutting herself while she is separated from her Lover. When they reunite, the Lover (male) has an identical fresh cut on his face. As if they were trying to “bleed into each other” to become the same person.

Against all odds, the Lovers succeed in all their plans, but uneasiness grows in the city, and at the moment when the city turns against them, the Lovers’ connection to one another snaps. As one leaves, with a new cut on her face that now marks her as different from the other, it becomes apparent that the illusion of identity was indeed a delusion. The one left behind on Armada continues to rule but remains broken.

I’ve completely glossed over the meat of the storyline here: I haven’t mentioned, for example, how Bellis for all her guarded detachment and defensive walls ends up being manipulated by others, or the still-mysterious character of Uther Doul, who is the Lovers’ bodyguard and was born in a near-mythical zombie city. I haven’t said more about Tanner Sack either, who is the other principal protagonist, although he doesn’t interact very much with Bellis at all, and how he embraces life on Armada by becoming amphibious. I doubt that any review can really cover the richness of details that Miéville embeds in his world—without infodumping either, which means the reader has to work to piece together the picture—or the extensive cast of characters or for that matter, the suspense of the plot, which involves at turns political intrigue and at others high seas adventure. Nor all the allusions and references built into the names, e.g. one ship named the Aronnax, after the captain of the submarine in Jules Verne’s 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea.

It’s an epic book but without the trappings of your typical fantasy epic. I saw a lot of elements of horror fiction as well: Miéville apparently loves inventing monsters, although he doesn’t make any of them really monstrous. (That being said, I did find the descriptions of anophelii women—basically mosquito humanoids—really repelling.) Miéville also experiments a lot with different narrative techniques: he interrupts his limited third-person narrative with first-person “stream of consciousness” and epistolary excerpts. I think he’s better at some than others (I thought the grindylow passages were a little overdone and the first-person interlude from the perspective of the Brucolac read as unnecessarily melodramatic), but I do find it impressive how he manages to supply us with all this information and multiple perspectives but still keep the plot exciting and surprising. The pace took a little time to gain some momentum, but once it did, I couldn’t put the book down at all until I finished.

I’m definitely going to go find Perdido Street Station at the bookstore.

Mary Roach, Vladimir Nabokov, Georgette Heyer

I continue to struggle to find the time to review all the books I read. However, I decided to start over again with a blank slate.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach: I’m not a forensics enthusiast so I hadn’t read Roach’s Stiff despite it being highly recommended to me by several people. However, my curiosity was piqued when I heard that Roach and her husband volunteered to be the first individuals recorded having sexual intercourse by MRI. One always admires a writer for going the full length to do her research—even if the publicity helps her too—and that impression was certainly not diminished as I read the book. Roach adopts a casual, first-person tone: this nonfiction book, while full of interesting trivia as well as valuable information about the physiology of sex, is really a narrative. It’s a story about her investigation into the challenges surrounding the scientific research into sex, as well as the characters of the researchers themselves; she draws compelling portraits of the people she meets. I admit that I’m not used to reading popular nonfiction, so perhaps Roach’s style has become the norm, but I found it very engaging. Similar in approach, although completely different in style from Victoria Finlay’s Color, which I enjoyed for its narrative form. Roach is of course much more chatty and prone to tangents—she uses footnotes enthusisatically—but she never fails to treat her subject seriously, despite her lighthearted tone. I wish I’d made a list of all the “fun facts” I learned while reading the book (am still strangely fascinated, for example, by the account of a woman who can reach orgasm without any physical stimulation but merely by breathing).

The Annotated Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (annot. Alfred Appel): I make a particular point of describing this book as The Annotated Lolita because reading an annotated text is different from reading the text in isolation. And I did make the choice (or was it a mistake?) to read the annotations as I read the story. I doubt that it would have been possible to do that if Nabokov weren’t so obviously a master of his craft; despite my constant mental interruptions, I never felt that I lost the flow of the story. On the other hand, my reading experience was spoiled because the annotations were meant for a reader who had already finished the book. I didn’t realize, for example, that it would have come as a surprise to most readers who Humbert Humbert actually killed; though in retrospect I can appreciate how Nabokov manipulated reader expectations throughout the story. Yet I didn’t directly experience that manipulation, and I wonder if the impact of the story was somehow lessened because of that. I also realized while reading the novel that many paragraphs in it sounded quite familiar—in high school, I had edited a classmate’s rough draft of a term paper on Lolita, and I’ve of course seen quotes and excerpts almost everywhere—and I had the decidedly odd feeling of déjà vu, as if rereading a book that I had not actually read before.

All that being said, the book was completely different than anything I expected. I suppose I was already prepared for the aesthetic pleasure of Nabokov’s prose style (though it’s clear that The Defense, the only other Nabokov novel I’ve read, was one of his earlier ones and didn’t show the same level of mastery that Lolita does). I was not so prepared though for the fact that it doesn’t read at all like a psychological novel; I’ve always assumed that it would somehow feel claustrophobic to read from Humbert Humbert’s “confessional” perspective, but in fact he keeps us at a distance with his wordplay and seemingly flippant tone. The lack of any titillating scenes also made me wonder why it’s so often condemned as a “dirty” book. True, its subject matter is probably as controversial as it gets, but the sexual content is minimal and almost never described explicitly. (I had an amusing conversation with my mother, where she tentatively asked me what Lolita was about—”Isn’t it about a stepfather…with his daughter?”—and why I was reading it. I had to laugh because she had recommended André Gide’s books to me—Gide, who celebrated homosexual pederasty—and I find the implicit sexual relations in The Counterfeiters much more likely to offend my mother’s morals than anything in Lolita.

In any case, I do suspect that reading the annotations made me a little emotionally detached from the novel; much of the pleasure was academic, in following the numerous allusions to Poe, the puns hidden in character names, the sheer control of language that Nabokov exhibits. I think the only moment that really gave me pause was when Humbert Humbert begs Lolita to return with him. Though I do think it isn’t meant to be an emotional novel; there’s too much self-mockery and hidden contempt for the reader in Humbert’s memoir that jerks you away from any attempts at pitying sympathy for the narrator.

What really impresses me over and over is the artifice—in all its nuances—of Nabokov’s writing. He makes no pretense at realism, even when he draws the most incisive portrait of motels in Midwest America. He presents his art as art, not as an imitation of life. Now there are writers who emphasize their writing to the point where they stop engaging the reader and merely indulge in the equivalent of artistic masturbation (I am harsh only because I recognize this failing in myself), but Nabokov makes his writing the centerpiece that communicates with the reader. It’s as if…he makes no attempt to hide the puppet strings, but instead of it being an ugly intrusion on the reader’s consciousness, those very strings are incorporated into the show. Rather like (to use a similarly theatrical example) having visible stagehands change sets during a play as part of the performance. It seems immensely difficult to me, and I am all the more blown away by how Nabokov does it faultlessly. I am watching a virtuoso perform.

Arabella, by Georgette Heyer: I never did get around to logging that Heyer reading spree in which I indulged last fall. I burned out after a while and decided to hold off on reading the last two Heyer novels I had obtained. I finally got around to reading them, and perhaps my dissatisfaction with Heyer’s male romantic interests (with the exception of Freddy from Cotillion, who may never be equaled) has mellowed because I didn’t dislike Mr. Beaumaris at all. I suppose it helped that although he was perilously close to being yet another rake (I dislike rakes immensely, and so many of Heyer’s versions happen to be misogynists at the same time), he managed to show some self-awareness. A cynic, but one with a sense of humor. Also, while his “prank” was irresponsible and could have seriously ruined Arabella’s life, he did his best to make up for it. I guess what also helped the dynamic was that Arabella remained self-possessed and calmly encouraged his meaningless flirtations for her own ends while mostly assuredly not falling in love with him. Actually, I think I mostly liked Arabella, especially with her social justice crusades.

Sylvester, by Georgette Heyer: Well, I didn’t like Sylvester at all, but he didn’t actively annoy me. It took me a while to start liking Phoebe; I still can’t understand how such an unconventional girl could be such a doormat to her stepmother. I mean, I do understand the fear of invoking displeasure or disapproval, but in my experience, those sorts of girls actively try to remain as conventional as possible. I mean, I’m not saying that those personality characteristics are mutually exclusive, but I do wish Heyer had put a little more effort into completing her characterization of Phoebe. She felt like two characters mashed into one. That being said, how delightful is it that Phoebe published a novel parodying the ton! That was what made me like her in the end.

Real People in Historical Fiction

The Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault: I’ve read and enjoyed books by Renault before, so reading The Mask of Apollo felt very much like sinking back into a comfortable armchair: Renault’s style and voice were both familiar to me. I have to say though that The Mask of Apollo now probably ranks as my favorite out of her books.

The narrator is a fictional character, Nikeratos, who was born to the theater and lives his life as a traveling actor. His success is closely linked to Dion of Syracuse, brother-in-law to the tyrant Dionysios and friend to Plato. Dion is charismatic, honorable and educated: to the eyes of Plato and his Academy, as well as Nikeratos himself, he is the embodiment of the philosopher-king ideal. Dion’s chance to implement the principles of Plato’s political philosophy comes when Dionysios dies and his son, Dionysios the Younger, takes the throne. Plato is invited to Syracuse and wins the favor of the young ruler; unfortunately, the intention to influence the tyrant to institute rule of law is sabotaged by power struggles and Dionysios’ own jealousy of Dion.

I emphasize the politics, but what drew me into the story was Nikeratos’ everyday life in the theater. The aesthetics of Greek theater seem rather alien to my modern eyes: there’s a point when Nikeratos and his fellow actors learn that the Etruscans put on performances without wearing any masks, and they think the idea is radical and even a little obscene. Three actors share the burden of multiple roles in the play, with the help of extras (who don’t speak) and the chorus. The actors, while not being considered entirely respectable, do take their profession quite seriously, and performing a play is in a way a religious ritual. The devotion that Nikeratos shows towards theater is his guiding moral code, and his faith in the power and demands of his art is symbolized in the eponymous mask.

As Nikeratos observes the drama that unfolds around Dion, Plato and the young Dionysios, he brings an actor’s psychological insight that these characters lack. Dion, Plato and the other philosophers of the Academy believe in promoting their ideas through rational argument; Nikeratos knows however that the best way to move an audience is through emotional appeal. Plato and Dion debate the morality of an art form that shows gods and men at their worst—as bestial slaves to their passions—while also acknowledging that theater also shows men as heroes, ideals to which the ordinary man can aspire. Nikeratos though knows better: the dualism is at the heart of theater itself, and it is perhaps Plato and Dion’s inability to recognize human weakness that becomes their own downfall in the end.

The tragedy of this novel is also dual. First, there is Dion himself, who as tragic hero succumbs to the fatal flaw of his pride. Then secondly, the perhaps more poignant tragedy comes at the end, when Nikeratos meets Alexander, many years after Plato’s death, and recognizes in the boy the potential for the philosopher-king that Plato hoped for. The novel ends by saying, “No one will ever make a tragedy—and that is as well, for one could not bear it—whose grief is that the principals never met.” And I think indeed, Renault succeeded in writing that tragedy: Plato and Dion as heroes who are undone by the failure of their ideals, bringing personal disaster to them both, with Nikeratos’ role as chorus and commentator.

2003/02/25

Last memory lane post of the day. I kept up with the Chesterton quotes for two more days before I moved on.

[Daylight and Nightmare, by G.K. Chesterton]

From “The Angry Street”:

“And you?” he cried terribly. “What do you think the road thinks of you? Does the road think you are alive? Are you alive! Day after day, year after year, you have gone to Oldgate Station…”

2003/02/24

It’s a testament to her skill as a writer that Byatt always excites such a vehement response from me, no matter what she’s writing. Actually, I still remember scenes from this book quite vividly. Reading this book was not about enjoyment—it means nothing to say that I liked or disliked the book—but about the indelible impression it left on my mind.

My rage at Culvert seems judgmental to me now and perhaps also a little excessive, but I can tell (since these are my own words) that the anger also stems from my resentment towards my adolescent peers who thought that the source of all the problems in the world came from authority and that everything would be solved if we could simply do whatever we wanted.

[Tales of the Long Bow, by G.K. Chesterton]
[Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt]

Also from “The Unobtrusive Traffic of Captain Pierce”:

The over-powering charm which pigs exercise upon us at a certain time of life; when we hear their trotters in our dreams and their little curly tails twine about us like the tendrils of the vine—

Prepare yourselves for an incoherent rant. I’ve been reading Babel Tower and Babbletower, the latter of which is the book-within-a-book inside the former. Culvert, the “visionary” of a utopia where everyone is free and there are no servants or masters and people can pursue their own pleasures, is the most ridiculous and stupid excuse for a sensualist I’ve ever seen. Why not be honest and say directly, “I want to have sex”? Why does he have to say that he’s emancipating mankind from oppression? I mean, do poverty and wretchedness disappear just because this group of rich, spoiled brats have now decided they will do whatever they want without any regard for the rules? I know Byatt wrote it as a criticism, but oh, did she succeed all too well in making me hopping mad.

Culvert proposes (idiot that he is) that they should engage in dramatic performances that represent their “new social order” on a regular schedule. But what if everyone decides to follow their own desires and refuse to put on any play whatsoever? And why doesn’t he just say, “I want to go watch an orgy every week”? And that whole, “let’s preach universal tolerance, but we want to murder the colonel because he has ‘blood on his hands’” incident was even more infuriating. If they are supposed to follow their instincts and live in perfect harmony, what on earth are they supposed to do if they have a secret homicidal maniac in their midst? After all, the would-be murderer only fulfills his desire by cutting someone’s throat. I am not speaking of murder that comes from anger or malice, but the sheer love of violence that is the one instinct of which these inhabitants of La Tour Bruyarde refuse to speak. (I think they all sink into a pit of sadomasochism later in the book. Serves them right.)

I really despise Culvert. I don’t even hate him. He irritates me like a fly I want to squash but can’t because he’s in a book. I hope he ends up miserable and wretched as a beggar rolling in the blood left on the streets of Paris after the Terror. Let him preach his visions there! I could have cheered when Colonel Grim asked who was going to clean out the latrines in the new utopia. For you see, in all these declarations of freedom, the bathroom really is key. I don’t object to your principles, though I may think them ridiculous. What I really object to is your utter neglect of details, the small things that end up making your life a living hell if they go wrong.

For real comfort, you need order and discipline. And all it requires is an occasional temporary delay in self-gratification. Culvert is a blithering idiot, and I hope his Babbletower collapses on him soon.

(Yes, I do realize that my reaction is the entire point of the book, and possibly of the book-within-a-book as well. I’m not supposed to like Culvert. Still, this is supposed to be tempered by a begrudging half-admiration for the man who is constantly described as “intelligent” and “brilliant”. But there is no such ambiguity on my part. I am a fanatic. I despise Culvert and all other fools like him, and I most decidedly disagree with the assessment that he is “brilliant”. He is simply inventing a whole social theory to justify the fact that he’s obsessed with sex, something which is neither original nor impressive. Self-righteous moron.)