Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Chained Bird

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Never have I been so conflicted about a book. Parts of it I loved. Parts of it I hated. Sometimes I wanted to praise it. Other times I wanted to abandon it. 

I'm relieved I've finally finished this novel (771 pages! JFC!) because I can stop debating whether or not to keep reading it.

It's damn difficult to talk about "The Goldfinch" without being spoiler-y, but I shall try. What I appreciated most was the lovely prose -- some sections are truly beautiful. Donna Tartt can write an arresting paragraph, to be sure. Here is one that gave me pause:

"I don't care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence -- of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do -- is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous 'Our Town' nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me -- and I'll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool."

Um, yeah, this book is depressing. The story opens with a young boy, Theo, surviving a tragedy, but his mother died and he feels responsible. Meanwhile, Theo steals a famous painting from a museum, one that shows a goldfinch chained to a perch, because his mother had loved the painting and he wanted to keep it safe. For the rest of the novel, the fate of the painting hangs in the balance. Theo agonizes over how and when to return it, and what crime he'll face. Eventually he ends up in the art underworld, caught in a complex scam.

So the plot is rich and detailed, but my complaint was with the characters: I didn't like Theo, or his dad, or his dad's girlfriend, or his friend Boris, or Boris' girlfriend, etc. And Theo makes so many bad choices throughout the novel that it was difficult for me to care about what happened to him. Spending more than 700 pages without caring about the main character was a bit punishing. (And yet I kept reading! It's like I was that poor goldfinch chained to the book.)

There were also too much written about repairing furniture, and WAY too much coverage of Theo's drug and alcohol abuse. I understand that he had post-traumatic stress disorder and that he was anxious and fearful, but I didn't need to read dozens of pages on how drunk and high he was. I don't think this novel had anything new to say about altered realities or making dumb decisions when you're bombed.

While reading, I frequently made comparisons to Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," a similarly long novel with an unlikable main character who gets caught in a dark web. "Bonfire" was considered the book that defined the '80s decade, and it seems like "The Goldfinch" is poised to be the book that defines the post-9/11 era. I'm glad I've read it, but I'm even more glad I'm done with it.

Journey Into Africa

Looking for Lovedu: A Woman's Journey Through Africa by Ann Jones
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is the classic story of woman meets man, woman wants to travel around Africa, man gets a car and takes over driving, man contracts malaria and woman takes care of him, woman suffers in silence while man is stubborn and refuses to compromise, woman gets fed up and ditches man, woman finds female friends and finally travels around Africa the way she wants. The end.

OK, it might not be a classic story, but it should be. American writer Ann Jones was inspired to visit the Lovedu (pronounced low-BAY-doo) tribe in South Africa because they are ruled by a queen who is known for her peacefulness and her reputed power to control the rain. Jones' first traveling companion is a brash, headstrong and obstinate photographer from England named Kevin Muggleton, who is good at fixing their vehicle but is terrible at being kind. Muggleton wants to make a "Cape to Cairo" kind of trip, meaning driving the length and breadth of the continent. Jones wants to see as much of Africa as she can, and is especially interested in the lives of African women. 

"It's the hard-times Africa you read about: one vast undifferentiated lump of dismal news reports dispatched from dreary expat bars by disaffected Western journalists whose secret woe is that the AIDS epidemic makes it too risky to get laid. I wanted to see the rest of Africa, whatever that might be ... I wanted to meet the common people, who, I imagined, must be very different from the governments that sell them out. I wanted to see the bits and pieces of the continent, so many, so varied, and so complex that they might include a rainmaking queen. Ours would be no great expedition of discovery. But it wouldn't be a Hertz rent-a-weekend either."

The pair start their journey in Morocco, drive down the western coastline, through the Sahara Desert, across central Africa and finally split up in Kenya. As Muggleton predicted, every day they faced challenges. In addition to dodgy political conditions, they were up against extremes of nature: desert, jungle, river valleys, mountains, rain and scorching heat. During their months-long trip together, Muggleton would drive as fast as he could, racing through villages and countries and ignoring every request from Jones to stop. The only time Muggleton slowed down was when the vehicle needed repairs. 

"It dawned on me as I saw in the rearview mirror yet another beautiful watermelon vendor swallowed in the dust behind us that our expedition was split down the middle as surely as if the Senegal River ran straight through the center of the Land Rover, separating Mugggleton from Jones just as it separated north from south... For me the journey had ceased to be a foolhardy adventure and become a sort of quest — not merely for Loveduland, but for Africa. I yearned for the slow pace of African village life, not the forced march of the European barging through the land with conquest in mind. Of course, I wanted to reach Loveduland and see the Queen. Being an aging female, how could I help but be drawn to a community that values aging females, submits to the power of an aging female ruler, recognizes her experience and wisdom, and choose to be guided by her? What could be more natural? But more than that, I wanted to learn from the Africa we were passing through. Today. Now. That would have meant wandering in the streets, lingering in the markets, falling into conversations, and for that Muggleton had no time. Being a young man, he hoped to find himself in adventures that could not come fast enough. He was always throwing his heart before him, someplace down the road."

In Nairobi, Jones meets two women who agree to go with her to South Africa, and the pace of their travel slows down. They enjoy a holiday at the beach, they camp and cook traditional African dishes, and they finally find their way to meet the Queen, who was even more impressive and serene than Jones imagined.

"As women together we were more or less content to accept the world as we found. To Muggleton Africa was a challenge, an obstacle, a battleground, an arena for the performance of exploits that sprang full-blown from his itchy imagination. To us Africa was the home of people we were pleased to meet. We moved through our days more slowly, though we felt our pace was still too fast."

Aside from the interesting power dynamic between Jones and Muggleton, what I especially liked about this travelogue were the details and history of each country they passed through. The differences between the nations could be striking. For example, the roads in Zaire could barely qualify as roads, they were really just giant mud pools in which vehicles frequently got stuck and had to be dug out. But as soon as they crossed into Uganda, which was more politically stable and had better infrastructure, there were paved highways again. It is easy for Westerners to lump all of the countries of Africa together, but this book is excellent at reminding us that no, you cannot do that. 

"The continent is not all of a piece, one entity with no other history than that imposed by its colonizers. It's a great jumble of individual countries, tiny and immense, poor and rich, agrarian and industrialized, home to countless colors, ethnicities, religions, languages, cultures ... Indeed, one of the great discussions among African intellectuals today concerns what it means to be African ... What makes Africa 'dark' is our own ignorance of the place. We don't know its history or much about its present condition either. We've forgotten that it is the homeland of us all."

As you can imagine, when Jones returned to America, she had trouble adapting to the wealth and excess of goods here, and even resented always being shut up in air conditioning. She sold her New York apartment and most of her possessions and headed west to the desert, where she enjoyed living with windows wide open. I enjoyed Jones' writing so much that I plan to read her other books.

I would recommend "Looking for Lovedu" to anyone who likes travelogues or who wants to read more about Africa.

So Sayeth the Crowman: An Interview with Joseph D'Lacey

Today's guest is Joseph D'Lacey, author of The Black Dawn Duology.

How long was the Black Dawn in your head before you put pen to paper? I understand the road to publication was a long one.

Some of the earliest triggers were from my adolescence; studying crows for an art project, in fact. But many other people and experiences contributed to the germination over the years. I began writing in Oct ’09 and finished a year later – both novels were originally written as a single work, incidentally. It then took me a further two years to sell the project. Compared to some of my novels, though, that’s actually not bad!

How did you hook up with Angry Robot?
The novel had been doing the rounds and had received genuine interest from editors at some big publishing houses. Unfortunately, despite being ‘chosen’ the book didn’t make it through subsequent acquisition meetings – you discover all these things much later, of course. Anyway, one evening, very late, I found myself talking to an Angry Robot editor in a bar at a convention and pitched the idea to him. He said he wanted to see it. The rest is history.

What are the big inspirations behind The Black Dawn?
I wanted to write the story of a messiah from birth to martyrdom and I wanted to do that in a ‘contemporary’ setting. I also wanted this particular apocalypse to be an ultimately positive event. I love the idea of ‘light out of darkness’ and tried hard to bring that theme to the work.

Was it hard to shift gears from the horror of your earlier works like Meat when writing Black Feathers and The Book of the Crowman?
I tend to write the-idea-that-won’t-leave-me-alone before all the others. That sometimes means I end up working in a genre that I’m not ‘associated’ with.

When I wrote MEAT, I was utterly consumed by the horrors of slaughter and was hell bent on exploring that, to the maximum, in a fictional setting. But it wasn’t the genre that drove me, it was the theme. The same was true for The Black Dawn books, which are perceived as Fantasy rather than Horror.

What ties many of my individual works together is not genre so much as ecological and environmental themes. I expect that will continue to be the case for some time.

Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons? The Keepers remind me of D&D Druids.
I’ve never tried any role-playing games, however, the Keepers certainly are druidic by nature. They are the healers and shamans of The Bright Day, communing with spirit and nature with every breath.

That said, if anyone ever used any of my characters in RPGs, I’d be nothing but flattered!

What are you reading now?
‘Path of Needles’ by Alison Littlewood – a murder thriller with an edge of the supernatural…

What is your favorite book of all time?
I must have a dozen or more favourite books of all time!

Among them: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series.

What writer would you say is your biggest influence?
Probably Stephen King.

I love his work – particularly his early novellas and short fiction – but I think he also helped me to believe that I could write. By the time On Writing came out, I’d been pursuing ‘the craft’ for a few years but it remains the only book about writing that I’ve read three times and would read again.

Is there a particular book that made you want to be a writer?
Every book I’ve ever read, I think! I loved books and bookshops and libraries from an early age. So when I was reading something – anything – I always aspired to be as good as the great writers and do better than the dreadful ones.

What's next on your plate?
Right now, I’m working on a story for Jurassic London’s A Town Called Pandemonium #2. A bit tricky because it’s set in 1923 and means I’m doing a lot of research.

After that, the next novel is giving me those come-hither looks – more Fantasy, perhaps…

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
  • Write as much as you can, in every possible way and style.
  • Experiment. All the time.
  • Write 1000 uncensored, free-flow words every day – before writing.
  • Read books, do courses, attend lessons, join writing groups, use editors. Leave no ‘educational’ door untried.
  • Discard what doesn’t feel right and live by your hard-won personal writing truths.
  • Allow yourself to make a tankerload of mistakes – you have to fuck up before you can learn anything.
  • Write what you love in order to find your authentic voice.
  • Enjoy the process – it’s an awful process sometimes – because beating yourself up doesn’t help.
  • Persevere. If you quit, you’ll never find out what happens at the end!


HebrewPunkHebrewPunk by Lavie Tidhar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

HebrewPunk is a collection of tales by Lavie Tidhar, tales steeped in Hebrew mysticism.

I first encountered Lavie Tidhar with The Bookman and was eager to see what else he had going on. When I saw this, I was pretty excited. Then I let it sit unread for over a year. Go figure.

Anyway, HebrewPunk is a collection of four tales from Lavie Tidhar, all involving characters or situations influenced by Hebrew lore. You've got a heist story featuring a Rabbi planner, a vampire burglar named Jimmy the Rat, a golem named Goldie and a Frankie the Tzaddik, a wandering Jew, attempting to rob a blood bank, of all things. The other stories are as compelling, like an expedition for a proposed Jewish city-state in the mountains of west Africa, to Jimmy the Rat fighting Nazi Wolfkommandos in World War II Transylvania.

The stories are fairly pulpy and very entertaining. Throughout, I was reminded of Edward Erdelac and his Merkabah Rider series, another Hebrew-themed pulp series. Fine company for a book this good. It's hard to believe this was Tidhar's debut. It's that polished and that well-written.

If I had to gripe about something, it would be that this book wasn't about ten times as large. Four six-pointed stars! I want more HebrewPunk!

View all my reviews