Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The English, by Jeremy Paxman

We all have our ideas about the English*, perhaps more so than about any other foreign people. (Unless you yourself are English. In which case, you still probably have more ideas about the English than about any other foreign people.)

And Paxman does a good job trying to explain the thoughts, attitudes, and history behind those ideas. He doesn't fight to modify or correct the common stereotypes about the English; actually, he writes that "Stereotypes are comforting, save us the trouble of fresh thought," and from time to time he is guilty of avoiding much fresh thought. He will sometimes mention that a particular stereotype derives mainly from a certain social class or region of England, and then fail to give a more accurate picture of the English that utilizes a broader base.

But many stereotypes exist simply because of their accuracy. And Paxman addresses many of these perhaps as well as anyone could, especially because it's impossible to give a solid, graspable definition of a people, and especially considering that the book is under three hundred pages (not including the index). This isn't the most gripping book I've read all month. But if you have an inner anthropologist, or are a bit of an Anglophile, it's worth a look.

*I've learned to be careful in distinguishing between "English" and "British," first because of Tolkien and much more lately because of the many people I've met this year from the Anglo-Celtic Isles. But after reading the way Paxman describes "Britain" as a political invention to encompass several nations and peoples under one title, I hope I never use it wrongly again. (For those of you uncertain about the distinction, "Britain" and "British" refer to the land and people of the island of Great Britain, which includes England, Wales, and Scotland -- and apparently some Northern Irish consider themselves British, too, but I'm not clear on that. Whereas "England" and "English" refer to the country and the people of, well, England, which is just one part of Great Britain, but not of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand... you get the idea.)

(For those of you who look at this book on Amazon, it looks like they don't sell the paperback directly. And I'll admit it's not worth the hardback price, unless you're really an Anglophile. But for the used price of some of those copies, it's definitely worth it.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

One Big Damn Puzzler, by John Harding

One plenty damn fine book, really. Harding's work is funny in the right places, has great characters, knows its Shakespeare, and while addressing certain implications of modern society (and going a bit overboard near the final chapters) it takes itself just seriously enough. Even though I had to read it in chunks over a few weeks (this was the book I left behind when I read Neverwhere), One Big Damn Puzzler is one of my better secondhand bookshop acquisitions of late.

But I've got a small bone to pick. Harding is a British author (I can't be more specific, as his book bio and my cursory Internet research turned up nothing) whose main character in the book is an American, and the South Pacific island where this character spends most of the book was, shall we say, graced by the American military in the past. And that's all well and good. But if you're going to write about a culture that's not your own, and especially if what you write will be available in said culture, you ought to keep an eye on where you're stepping. That said, here are my first* Tips for British Authors Writing About Americans:
  • Watch your word usage. We don't call them "trousers." We call them "pants." There's a reason we distinguish between "American English" and "British English."
  • Be careful portraying the Americans as a negative foreign influence on an indigenous population. (I'm looking at you, John Harding.) Yes, we've been guilty of that, probably to a terrifying degree. But suggesting that the British simply wanted to build a hotel and leave the natives in peace kind of ignores a certain long imperial history with a few "whoopsie-daisies" of its own.
I'm as much an Anglophile as anyone. But it's amazing what living abroad (in my case, England and Germany) can do for your pride in your own country. The United States of America is definitely not perfect. But at least get us right, people.
*In time, I'm sure there will be more.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Fourth Hand, by John Irving

Where do you draw the line on what constitutes "you"?

Whatever your stance on the metaphysics of soul* and body, you have an innate sense of what is "you" and what is not. I realize that I cannot speak for everyone, but I think most of us would consider trimmed toenails and cut hair as no longer part of one's self; hell, a lot of people don't think of those growths as part of the self even when they're still attached to the body.

*And by "soul" I mean the non-physical essence of a person. Not getting into anything religious here. Even if you believe that a person's soul/mind/essence/whatever is nothing more than electrical energy in the brain, there is a point at which you distinguish between "you" and "not you." And even if you believe your essence to be completely bound in non-corporeal form, you still have a sense of your physical self being "you" -- or at least "yours."

But where do you draw the line? If I cut off my finger instead of my fingernail, I still call it "my finger" and certainly believe it to be mine. But is it still part of me? If a dog bites my finger while it's attached to me, I exclaim, "That dog bit me!" But if he bites it after it's been severed, I shout (probably among other things, like, "Hey, I just cut my finger off!"), "That dog bit my finger!" And are there differences of degree? If I cut off my hand, or my arm, instead of just a finger, does the removed limb contain more of "me"?

I imagine the answer might be different for different people. As for me, I believe that my self isn't wrapped up in my flesh to the degree that I am less myself if I lose a limb, even though there might be less of me. And thinking ahead a long way here, I know that I do not consider my body to be my self any longer once I die -- which is why I'm able to list myself as an organ donor. If someone can use my heart or my liver, great. I won't be using them any more, and they will no longer be part of who I am.

And all these ideas -- really, I promise -- are what make The Fourth Hand so intriguing. According to Irving's acknowledgments, the whole concept of the book came from his wife asking, after watching a news report about a hand transplant, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?" The what-if in reality would probably entail a whole lot of lawyers and medical ethicists, which Irving addresses without disturbing the inherent intrigue of his story. But an underlying question to Irving's wife's inquiry is, "At what point is the self separated from the body?"

Really, that point probably comes before the body parts are being attached to other people. But for some of us, maybe not. And the question is interesting enough to open up the storytelling possibilities for someone like Irving to run with.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

The fantasy genre really is the Cinderella (of the first half of her story) in the palace of literary types. The other genres look upon it with disdain, because it's not proper literature. It gets relegated to the back rooms, where it's not the window dressing but at least it gets some work done. Harlequin romance might be below fantasy in this muddled metaphor, the singing mouse of the Disneyfied palace, but at least it doesn't try to take itself seriously. But it's just sad to watch dismal fantasy wipe the floors with its paperback mop, dreaming of the day in its imaginary future when it can become queen of the palace.

Of course, many of those who love fantasy books will defend them with passion bordering on religious devotion. And some fantasy -- without getting too much into what, exactly, defines fantasy -- has risen above its humble prospects, even if such examples are still seldom accepted into any literary canon. The Lord of the Rings is the glimmering standard bearer of these books, and its position at the peak of all fantasy writing is more than justified. More than anything, Tolkien illuminated that the genre is capable of greatness. But if even Tolkien's literary masterpiece is scoffed at by many in the literary world, what treatment do other, admittedly very popular, fantasy works receive?

Because I think the fantasy genre struggles for its hold in the literary world, and craves such a place (even if it won't admit it to itself), its literary reception begs the question: What is good fantasy? Before you laugh at my foolishness and presumptuousness, don't think I'm going to tackle that question fully right here. It's far too big for a blog post, and besides, any answer would just be my opinion. And it's not like I'm the first to ask the question -- so who am I to settle the debate?

But the question came to me while I was reading Neverwhere. That I even had the book was a circumstance of events -- I had maybe ten minutes to catch the first train in a six-hour trip, had left my other book behind, and with little time to use in selecting my replacement option I chose this one, thanks to the author's name. I've read Gaiman before, and if you've been reading for a while you might remember how much I liked his Fragile Things collection. Gaiman is a gifted writer, but more so, I believe, a gifted storyteller.

And I enjoyed Neverwhere. It was a good story. But it wasn't a great story, and I think for the same reason I would say it wasn't great fantasy. A large component of fantasy literature deals with world-creation*, and I thought Neverwhere fell flat in this area. Gaiman took an interesting premise -- that there is a world beneath London where those go who have fallen through the cracks of London Above, and that this world has given much of London Above the now-unrecognized sources of its place names -- and strung together a very episodic quest from one place to the next. But instead of developing much in the way of back-story or even utilizing too much creativity** to create a cohesive world for London Below, Neverwhere feels pieced together. It tries to create a tangent world for London, much like C.S. Lewis did for England in The Chronicles of Narnia, but instead of being believable (remember that whole "suspension of disbelief" thing?) it feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon. Jonathan Strange took our world, added magic, and created a seamless wonder; Neverwhere took our world and told an entertaining story that tried, and didn't do terribly well, to give etymological roots for the London Tube stations.

*By "world" I don't mean "planet." I mean the reality in which the book is set. Even if Tolkien's Middle-earth is intended to be set on the very same Earth as our feet, it doesn't intersect with our reality within the pages of the book, so I say it is a different world. However, I would say that Lewis' Narnia books are based in our world, because the England side of the story is meant to be an England we can relate to. Same goes for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and for other stories whose fantasic elements occur, in whole or in part, in what we recognize as our own world.

**Knightsbridge is... a bridge. Of night.

I'm not one for the wholesale segregation of books into the categories of "young adult" and "adult." But maybe this book would fit better in the former category. It's not an exemplar of fantasy as high literature, but for all my complaining it really was a fun story, and I can imagine younger readers finding much more delight in it than I did.

UPDATE: This blog is my place to discuss the thoughts I have on the books I read. But after writing the above, I don't feel like I gave the book a fair shake. I don't think it's great fantasy, and there are plenty of books I would recommend before it. But having said that, there are a couple aspects of the book I really could (and did) appreciate.
  • The villains. Croup and Vandemar have their tag-team dialogue down pat. And they own the smart baddy/dumb baddy routine. Their role in the book really is a performance. It's not that I rooted for them over the heroes of the book... it's just that I enjoyed their parts so much more. I wish Gaiman had focused more on the characters, like these two, than on locations -- and if he wanted to focus on locations, he should have developed more places like the hospital basement these two call home.
  • The set-up and the ending. Gaiman does a great job getting Richard Mayhew sucked into the world of London Below. And while I don't think the book could have ended any other way, given what precedes the conclusion, it was done very, very well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

There's this idea that, if a book hopes to attain a certain elevated status, it has to be full of Deeper Significance for the reader. That there must be some Incredible Insight into the human situation, all the better if it's drawn out in Hidden Meanings, Literary Devices, and Extended Metaphors. And finally, that we must be able to Take Something Away from the book when we're done with it.

Screw all that. The best books are ones that you never want to be done with, that are too short despite being a thousand pages long, that you think about all day and open again the first second you have a chance.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may very well have something to say about the human condition. But I don't care. If it does, it seeped its way into my subconscious, or I will pick it up the second time through (oh, there will be a second time through -- hopefully after I have forgotten enough to be able to rediscover some of the delights of the first time through). This book is a damn fine piece of writing. And that's good enough for me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Postcards from the Edge, by Carrie Fisher

This blog is intended to be, as the sub-header would suggest, a place for me to discuss the ideas, musings, and inner ramblings that come forth when I read a book. And for my experience volunteering with those dealing with mental health and drug addiction issues, among others, I ought to have some unique thoughts that have come from my time with Postcards. And failing any of those, maybe something should come forth on the topic of celebrity-worship in the western world, particularly the United States, especially since such adoration has probably increased in the years since Fisher (a surprisingly adept and nimble writer) wrote this book.

Strangely, nothing. And it's not due to anything lacking in the book. I admit I picked up Postcards on the cheap from an Oxfam in England out of curiosity for Fisher's prose, and because the back of the version I have includes praise from Tom Robbins. And considering those circumstances, it was much, much better than I would have guessed -- insightful, sometimes funny, seldom sardonic but more often witty, with the characters (particularly the main one) a delightful bundle of contradictions and confusions. I enjoyed it greatly. But it also sparked no great inner discourse or diatribe. Does that mean I was feeling particularly un-scholarly, or that this book is no piece of literature? Hardly. It just means that when our paths met, we said hi and shook hands before parting ways. Not every good book can be your dearest friend.

But this blog is also a chance to chronicle, for personal reference more than anything, the books that I've read. So here it is.
Once again, I'm several books behind. I'm going to see how I can do at catching up this week. Any bets?