Friday, May 30, 2014

Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Title: Empire of the Sun
Author: JG Ballard
Publisher: Gollancz (1984)

The bad news is, winter has truly set in for us here in the Southern hemisphere. The good news is, it's perfect reading weather. We actually got some snow on Monday! But then, the high yesterday was 15C (60F) so you just never know. "Four seasons in a day" is a common refrain from Dunedin-ites. The fire is going again tonight, though, so we're back to good reading weather. Despite my love of reading, anyone who wants to send some sunshine my way is more than welcome. This month's pick was actually perfect for me here, a light summer read it is not.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Empire of the Sun

Jim is an 11 year old Shanghai resident born of British parents. When Japanese troops begin the occupation of the International Settlement in Dec 1941, he becomes separated from his family. For several weeks he manages to reside in abandoned suburbs but he is eventually interned at the Lunghua civilian detention center where he will remain until the war is over.

It's immediately apparent that Jim is a clever child with a boundless imagination. He's also cunning, ambitious, vulnerable and supercilious. The point of view is probably best described as third person close and it's used to great effect in that Jim hasn't yet learned to hide (or modify?) certain aspects of his personality. So you meet him, warts and all, at a time when he is still pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable for his particular culture group. At one moment you're appalled by his cruelty and the next heartbroken by his vulnerability. It is an unsettling dichotomy that remains until the final page and, somewhat unexpectedly for this reader, becomes integral to Jim's ability to survive.

Because the point of view is so entwined with Jim's perspective it can be hard to know how reliable his interpretations are. I like to think this was a deliberate choice by Ballard to allow the reader a hint of the daily instability Jim experienced. He is a capable survivor who is always willing to try new strategies to obtain food or allies (transient though they may be). He forms several attachments but, as all his other fragile forms of security, they are tenuous and likely to be abandoned when needs must. And, inevitably, needs must.

This autobiographical novel is presented in four parts but focuses heavily on Jim's experience with other ill prisoners trying to get to Lunghua (where, it is thought, conditions will be better) and his last weeks in Lunghua before the war ends. As such, he and his fellow prisoners are severely ill and/or malnourished. The extraordinary lengths the mind will go to survive horrific experiences are often seen in parallel with the lengths the body will go to accommodate deprivation. It is not a book that is easy to read while eating or before trying to go to sleep.

Parts of his mind and body frequently separated themselves from each other.

Empire of the Sun is the first book in a long time to make me want to read it again even before I had finished. This, I think, is directly related to the unreliable nature of a child's interpretation of what is going on around him. Jim is canny and quick to react to circumstances but he is not always able to parse motives.

...and face up squarely to the present, however uncertain, the one rule that had sustained him through the years of the war.

There are several instances of leaving Jim's perspective. They are as glaring for their oddity as for their departure from what is otherwise a technically superior piece of writing. I eventually got used to them but, if I do end up reading this one again, I'll be paying more attention to when and how they are used. It's hard for me to believe they aren't on purpose. It's just too good of a book for something like this to be accidental.

There are several reasons I can see myself re-reading but two things in particular stick out to me. A British doctor, Dr. Ransome, becomes something of a father figure to Jim in the camp. During several of their interactions there is a tacit recognition of a "hunger" in Jim. It's nothing to do with food but choosing the word "hunger" when "desire" might have worked heightens its importance as something vital to Jim's life. At a glance, it seems to be a hunger for his own death. Even though that was my initial response I quickly discarded it. If anything, he was plagued by his inability to not try to survive. In time, I came to think it was a hunger for any death not his own as he has been forced to see every life in direct, intimate competition with his. I would have liked to quickly discard such an attitude for anyone, much less a young teen, but I never could. War is a fucking nightmare.

Lastly, I was fascinated by Jim being immediately referred to as Jim in the text though his family and friends call him Jamie. It's not until he meets Basie, a sometime ally of Jim's despite Jim's enduring distrust, that he is christened Jim. In less subtle hands the switch from Jamie to Jim might have been used to represent loss of innocence, etc but readers are introduced not to Jamie but to Jim. It's that peculiar mix of cruelty and vulnerability that stretches from beginning to end. It's quite possibly a suggestion that he already had the qualities needed to take him through the war.

He resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war, that people were only too able to adapt to it.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reading Roundup

My oven broke. :(
I discovered this in the middle of prepping my favorite egg/pastry thing. :(

Books are my friends again. :)
(Plus wine is a good alternative to cooking - ha!)

currently reading

The Greatest Traitor by Ian Mortimer
Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (audio, not very committed to listening, will probably take months to get through this at the rate I'm going; especially as a little birdie told me "The Boulton" is recording again:)

Mutuwhenua by Patricia Grace
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
--had one slight nit pick: I wish there had been more about non-French foreigners living in England otherwise very fun way to learn some history (also, I have no idea how I ended up reading so much 14th Century English history stuff at once but there it is)
Kraken by China Mievelle
--too delightfully weird not to recommend

recommended with reservations
The White Queen by Philipa Gregory
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (see here, here and here for details)
The Great Gatsby narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal 
Isabella by Alison Weir (extreme reservations, see here)
Misery by Stephen King

not recommended
The Red Queen by Philipa Gregory
Lives We Leave Behind by Maxine Alterio
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

--interestingly these are all historical fiction. the thing is, there is so much good his. fic. out there that the subpar stuff just can't hold my attention. I should mention that The Name of the Rose has a lot of technical excellence but too little of the actually-want-to-read-it quality.

Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy
The Road from Midnight by Wendyl Nissen

What have you been reading lately?

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic (2010)

I'm pretty sure I'm continuing with these reviews because I am IN LOVE with the covers. Cannot rave enough about how much I love these simple, elegant covers.

Anyway, finished up this trilogy and I remain conflicted. There is so much I like about the trilogy and so much that just irks me no end because it could have been better. This could have been an out of the park kind of story but because of a few things that, to me, seemed like laziness the trilogy ends up being a stunning hook with meh execution. Thankfully, this third installment didn't have any new issues, just more of the same (though not, thank goodness, more of the same in terms of plot. two was a rerun of one but this is definitely a step forward in the action).

I still think the world building is the biggest fault so why don't I pick on that some more? Something I forgot in the first book is that if you're living close to starvation and then you gorge yourself with food, you will be sick. The throwaway line on the train of taking it easy on the food for one day is not enough. And even if you are the kind of person who can bounce back in one day from a lifetime of near starvation, the richness of the food described would be so far beyond what your body could handle without acclimation that you'd still be getting sick.

Also, I have to ask again: why does District 12 exist? Hover crafts and insta-parachutes we have but technology for cheap, automatic coal mining labor we do not? I ask this again because of what happened at the end of book two. SPOILER, highlight if interested: District 12 gets destroyed. As in, IT'S FLATTENED and the people all die or leave. So no one is mining coal in Panem any longer??? Hunh???? You get some announcements of the shortages in the capital but coal is used for a ton of shit, most famously POWER! Are they fully nuclear power? How do they manage this when it turns out District 13 was the center of their nuclear technology and it hasn't been supplying the capital for 75 years? World building matters, people!!!!

Book three gives a pretty good estimate of the total amount of people living in District 12. Turns out it's even higher than I guessed making the idea of only two people hunting in the woods even more ridiculous.

Came by this line: "Patches of my former self gleam white and pale." Doesn't she have olive skin? The line is specifically about skin and that really threw me for a loop. All that business about the distinct looks of the people in District 12 based on their class and then this discrepancy? It's little things like this that time and time again bumped me right out of a narrative I would have preferred to be immersed in.

And maybe that's why I'm so annoyed. There was so much I liked that I wanted to be totally in the moment. I didn't want these things cropping up again and again to ruin a story I was enjoying. With that in mind, I'm going to link to M.'s goodreads review because I think she does a great job of pointing out the best stuff about this final installment. I did want to expand on this point: "the author continues to portray female characters in strong and active ways." To that I would add "when they show up!!!!" I was really excited to see more women in book two (with the potential for even more in book three) but that was not continued into the finale. I'm not talking about the background and peripheral characters (they are nicely peopled with males and females). I'm talking about the characters that really make a difference in Katniss' life. If you list all the characters most important to her and most important for the progression of the plot they are almost all male. The only females I can come up with are her sister and Coin. That's a disappointment.

To sum up: proceed with caution. :)

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, May 25, 2014

For Cat Lovers

Really, there is so much that entertained me in this article but the real question is: do you think your cat has what it takes?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mutuwhenua by Patricia Grace

Title: Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps
Author: Patricia Grace
Publisher: Penguin (1978)
-not sure if Penguin was the original publisher

From the publisher:"This is the story of Ripeka, who leaves her extended family and its traditional lifestyle to marry Graeme, a Pakeha schoolteacher. In the strange world of the city, Ripeka discovers that she cannot make the break with her whanau and that the old ways are too strong. Patricia Grace s first novel is a powerful, moving story of contrasts – between light and darkness, old and new, young and old, and Maori and Pakeha."

I don't have much of a coherent set of thoughts to share on this one. I just really loved it so want to recommend it. This isn't my first Patricia Grace novel but it's certainly my favorite so far in terms of style and structure. I was so drawn in by the writing. It's absolutely gorgeous. You can roll the words and phrases around in your mind and just delight in them.

Ripeka/Linda is a very sheltered young woman who dreams of a life bigger than the one she has (a restlessness almost anyone can relate to). But she is also a young Maori woman struggling to reconcile her identity/heritage, as passed to her from her elders, with her daily experiences and desires. Grace's portrait of Ripeka's journey is immediately accessible and compelling.

I'm still conflicted on the ending though. And by "still" I mean I can't stop thinking about it or determine how I feel about it (that's feeling on a personal level and on a character level). Any details would be huge spoilers but I have hopes of finding another reader of this title for discussion. And you have to appreciate a book that can get in your head like that and not let you go.

On another note: I follow and participate in discussions about representation and equality in media (especially books cuz, you know, bookworm!!!!) and so was really struck by Ripeka's thoughts after an interaction with her boss and the books she reads (another bookworm! yay!).

...And [I] thought of the books I’d read. In the books I’d read there was only one thing that ever happened to us girls. We didn’t become famous or have interesting or extraordinary lives of our own, or even uninteresting and ordinary lives. We either got ourselves into what is known as ‘trouble’ or we lay about giving some bloke hot sex. And that was all. Nothing else. Except sometimes we did ridiculous things in Pakeha kitchens, like ringing the fire-alarm instead of the dinner-gong because we didn’t know the difference.
  And sometimes we were given the romantic treatment. Soft brown eyes, soft mellow voice – like soft in the eyes, soft in the voice, soft in the head. No one ever had speckled eyes like me or a voice that squeaked now and again and sometimes lost itself altogether. Or sang flat, bathed once a day, and wouldn’t touch beer. Mr Neilson often made me think of the books I’d read.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I expect better!

I recently read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (pub. 1984) and was pretty astonished at the language used by a scientist and non-fiction writer regarding individuals with severe mental impairments. (Lucky for me, a friend read it at just about the same time so we were able to vent in a flurry of email exchanges.) Initially, I was only annoyed at the lack of scientific detail. I chalked that up to it being pubbed in the 80s, the scientific literacy of laypersons has increased enormously since then so I can't exactly blame an author/publisher for being aware of the contemporary landscape. But that offensive (and inaccurate!) language was just inexcusable. So, ok, pass on that author and moving on...

And, bam! It happens again!

I just finished Isabella (pub. 2005) and the author was at pains to explain some of the differences between current and 14th Century English (and Welsh, Scottish, French:) cultural norms. She, like many historians, believes that Edward II was gay or bisexual. There's some explanation about how that wasn't an accepted lifestyle at the time (if only it was 100% accepted now! dare to dream!) and its relevance to the events of the book. She later says that he was capable of (or not revolted by?? can't find exact sentence) "normal sex" since he had not only 4 children with his wife but at least 1 extramarital child. Um, "normal" sex? Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

In another instance she describes Isabella as "highly sexed." Hunhhh????? Isabella is thought to have been a woman interested in sex (omg, alert the presses) and so she's "highly" sexed? WTF???? By the author's interpretation, Edward II had two long-term extramarital lovers, a wife with whom he had children (and so, presumably, sex), and numerous (brief) liaisons with lovers before he was married and some after. Where is his description as "highly sexed?" Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

And there's this: "Reginald, a widower, was dark of colouring and character." Some of the main players had their physical descriptions relayed but not over many and certainly not such a minor dude as this one (he was featured in ~4 paragraphs) but, dang, it's fun to lump "dark" coloring in with character because it just sounds great and, hell, there isn't a significant portion of the population that still suffers from stereotypes of "dark" being bad! Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

So, yeah, it appears that 21st Century historians are as likely as 14th Century historians to say that gay/bisexual individuals have "abnormal" sex, women who like sex are unusual*** and to be described differently than other women (and men, natch, who are clearly always up for it), and "dark" characters are bad and match the "dark" color nicely. Ugh! Ugh, ugh, ugh!!!! There goes another author.

The shame about all this is (I mean, other than the obvious), these academics/scientists write on some really interesting topics. I want to know these things. I want to learn these things. However, I am past the point of being willing to sift through offensive garbage to get to the good stuff. It's unacceptable anytime but certainly in works of academic rigor.

Come on, people, I expect better!

***ETA: or more likely in the 21st Century??? Just read a very edifying passage in The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (thanks for that, Beth!) and it seems the flack that Isabella was catching for her behavior was more because she was a queen rather than because she was a woman. (Though they weren't exactly shy with the "woman is the root of all evil" stuff, be she a queen or no.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Science is Cool!

Sadly, I did not see one of these when I was in Australia last week. I did see one of these.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic (2009) 

Technically, this isn't going to be much of a book review. I thought Catching Fire was The Hunger Games again so just check out my review of that. Once it became apparent that the second book was pretty much a plot rerun, I expected to end up not finishing it. Turned out, I kept going and am glad I did. Yeah, it's a rerun, but it's an improvement so it wasn't so bad. Ok, Peeta's backstory still sucks but Katniss is just as AwesomeSauce as ever, has a way better ending and she has more female allies. Yay!

Sadly, the world building is still awkward so that's what this post is about. My nitpicks, in list form:

1. District 12 is constantly described as a low population district with very high starvation rates. To not run out of people, they are going to have to find food. And apparently there are woods with game that can be accessed. Desperate, starving people are going to attempt to scavenge no matter how scary those woods might be. It never felt realistic that only Katniss and Gale would be doing this.

2. Katniss' constant conflation of physical affection with marriage just does not track in a place this desperate. People are starving, dying in the mines, can't afford medical care, etc and marriage as the answer to being attracted to someone just does not seem relevant. Now, if Katniss is not interested in pursuing an intimate relationship with anyone then more power to her, but the immediate jump to 'don't want to get married so can't be intimate' doesn't work. She has a lot more reasonable and topical reasons to not be interested in relationships. Stick to those.

3. How does this place maintain any kind of phenotypically distinct merchant class? Again, small population with practically no money. The merchant class is going to be tiny. Even if you get to marry first cousins its phenotype is not going to last long.

4. The capital has hovercrafts and genetic engineering for large mammals and they can't find a better way to mine coal than with humans? Why does District 12 even exist?

5. Where did Katniss get those excellent boots (pre-Games)? (Hey, I described these at nitpicks.:) How would she have found anything valuable enough to trade for those? Or did she make them herself? It's just weird to relate all these reasons why a family is one bad week's hunting away from starvation and then describe supple, leather boots.

Well, these are all I can think of from memory. I have had to return the books so I can't look up some more of the issues but, oh well. I have moaned enough. Oh, wait. Guess not! My biggest annoyance with these books is Collins' decision to have both Gale and Peeta be in love with Katniss. That entire subplot feels so forced. I just try to ignore it.