Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Edward Ashton's MICKEY7

There's nothing like a good old-fashioned space colonization story. There's also nothing like a good old cloning story. And when you combine the two, you usually get a cracking good old-fashioned science fiction story. I mean, look what Duncan Jones did with it!

Pretty soon we're going to get to see what Bong-Joon Ho does with it, when he adapts this novel for the big screen. And I, for one, can't wait, because Edward Ashton's Mickey7 is perfect for him. 

Mickey Barnes has grown up in a fairly new human colony on a planet named Midgard, which is pretty habitable after a few generations of danger and effort following a well-established formula that isn't always successful, but is successful enough. More on that in a bit. For now we can just say that Midgard is well-established enough to have room in its society for the occasional fuckup of a person. Mickey Barnes is one of those. So nobody, not even his purported best friend, is surprised when Mickey winds up highly motivated to get the hell off Midgard and joins the next outward expansion of humanity as the one member of a spaceship crew that doesn't have to be the best of the best: the Expendable.

No, I don't know if the Expendable wears a red shirt. It would be fine if they did, although an Expenable isn't just someone who isn't all that important to the larger story arc but whose death can move an episode's plot along; an Expendable is literally the member of the crew, and later of the founding generation of the new colony, whose entire purpose is to die for the rest. Fatal debris strike in flight that'll expose the repairman to fatal doses of radiation in minutes? Send out the Expendable. Unknown if the soil/air/water of the newly settled planet has cooties that will kill a human? Feed it to the Expendable first. But why, then, does a colony ship only carry one Expendable and not many?

Because the one *is* many. Because the tech McGuffin that makes Mikey7 work is a combination of perfected cloning technology and brain scanning/duplication that means, as long as your Expendable has been regular in their "updates" they can die horribly and you can just print up another iteration of that Expendable out of your really fancy 3D printer and the new copy will have all of the prior one's memories right up until their most recent update and will carry on with whatever menial work you have for them until it's time to send them on another suicide mission. As long as you have enough raw materials to keep making new copies of the Expendable, that person is, at least from the perspective of the rest of the crew, functionally immortal with just a few inconvenient but also totally exploitable memory gaps here and there.

And no sneaky making more than one copy; that's strictly taboo after a rich guy once slowly took over an entire planet by making multiple copies of himself, overwhelming all of the other colonists one by one and feeding them back into the printer to make more copies of himself. He was poised to start taking over nearby planets when humanity as a whole came together to forcibly stop him in a disastrously permanent fashion. D'oh!

Which means yes, there are totally people with completely irrational prejudices against Expendables. Do you see why this is perfect Bong-Joon Ho material? I mean, he could have just put in an order for a story like this and wouldn't have gotten a more perfect source from which to make his next exciting, bloody, brutal and socially conscious film!

Meanwhile, it's a great read. Mickey is a perfectly relatable character, and Ashton does a perfect job of making us feel his dilemmas as the missteps of others put him in the very worst position an Expendable on a colony mission could be in: an accidental Multiple. And no, this is not a spoiler; it's in the promo copy for the book. Meanwhile, the new colony planet is even less hospitable than it looked through the telescopes back on Midgard -- and it already looked plenty inhospitable, which is why it's been named Niflheim. Brush up on your Norse mythology if you don't know why that's a hell of a name to give a planet (see what I did there?).

Hurry up with the movie!

Monday, July 4, 2022

Namwali Serpell's THE OLD DRIFT (Narr by Adjoa Andoh, Ricard E. Grant and Kobna Holbrook-Smith) with a brief excursis on Zamrock

Phew! I feel like I just binge-watched like 15 seasons of a top quality family saga/soap opera on a par with, say, the original TV adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, but with more life and color in just one scene than that masterful production had in its whole run, not because The Forsyte Saga was dull or colorless (though the original adaptation was in black and white, tee hee) but because The Old Drift, especially as brought to life by Adjoa Andoh and Kobna Holbrook-Smith*, is so intense, colorful, grand and real that I feel like I've known these characters for years now.

And while the fact that The Old Drift -- the title refers to a part of the Zambizi river that is slightly more navigable for crossing than it is for most of its length, where an early settlement is established around the turn of the last century -- is set in and around Zambia instead of a few neighborhoods in London might give it an unfair advantage in terms of vividness, it's really author Namwali Serpell's intense involvement and intimacy with her characters, given incredible life by the devastatingly talented Adjoa Andoh, showing off a broad range of accents, tones and stylings that make the audio edition a true standout -- and her commitment to sharing that involvement and intimacy with her readers, that sends The Old Drift to a whole 'nother level of storytelling.

Also, it has a Greek chorus of mosquitos. And I'm not going to say that's the best part of the book, though it certainly would be, for me, for most books, because The Old Drift has so many other contenders for "best part" that the mosquito chorus becomes just another astonishing wonder among many.**

The story the mosquitos and the more conventional narrator tell are tremendous in scope -- over a hundred years of Zambian history, from its initial contact with white settler-colonialists through its years as part of that travesty called Rhodesia to its emergence as an independent nation state that once even had a space program and beyond -- but also, as I said before, incredibly intimate. By this I don't just mean you are going to experience a lot of menstrual and pregnancy issues right along with the novel's characters, though of course there is that -- but also that as the generations of three different families keep meeting and interacting in strange ways, the reader comes to feel that she knows them better than they do themselves, because the reader recalls bits of their histories that the characters themselves don't seem to know, to wit...

All of this starts when a British would-be-explorer makes a stupid blunder in a frontier bar, and the blunder's victim's daughter overreacts and does permanent, debilitating injury to a bystander/bar employee. This incident lives in the lore of the three families -- the British guy's, the victim's daughter's, and the bystander's -- for only a generation or so before being forgotten, or at least never mentioned by any of the later generations of characters in the novel's text, but the reader gets to appreciate how the courses of all of these lives bear the mark of this ridiculous incident, and of subsequent ones in later years such as the decision of a honeymooning couple who hit a bicyclist with their car to just leave him where he lays with a pile of money instead of staying to help him, or of a wife still very much in love with her husband to take the necessary steps to go and confront the woman he's sleeping with instead of her.

See where it's so like a soap opera? It's utterly engrossing and unfailingly dramatic but it's also way more grounded in reality than any soap opera I've seen, and beautifully, beautifully told. Namwali Serpell's skill as a poet shines in the mosquito interludes, but her mastery of prose is there for us to admire throughout:

Now, as her baby wept for hunger and as she herself wept distractedly - weeping was just what she did now, who she was - Matha felt that dawning shock that comes when you look at yourself and see a person you once might have pitied.

Which is a pivotal moment in the named character's development,and then there's heart-shattering stuff like this that speaks to and for us all: 

Old like her father was old, a shaggy shambling old, an old where you'd lost the order of things and felt so sad that you simply had to embrace the loss, reassuring yourself with the lie that you hadn't really wanted all that order to begin with.

Time is a bitch. 

There is also a gentle strain of what I can only call magical realism in the novel. One character, Sybella, is born with so much hair that grows so thick and fast that she lives most of her life as a sort of female Cousin It (but still finds a husband and raises a daughter and then grandchildren); another, the Matha of the first pulled quote above, never, ever stops weeping copiously after the moment there depicted, to the baby's endless detriment until that baby grows up into a strong and self-reliant woman who winds up doing incredible business making and selling wigs made from Sybella's hair. Sybella and Matha's lives and fates are united by the Stupid Inciting Incident; Sybella is the daughter of the girl who pushed the bystander and Matha is the granddaughter of the bystander, but neither of them knows this, or that they're destined to meet the bumbling Brit's granddaughter-in-law in a scene that is so dramatic and disastrous and riveting that it doesn't need all of that historical baggage to be a jaw-dropper, but since the reader has it, that Simpsons-racing-to-the-couch moment is utterly unforgettable and deserves to be as famous as the Simpsons scene I referenced.

And that's not all, for The Old Drift is not just a historical family saga with magical realism elements, it is a grand example of speculative fiction in its fullest and most inclusive sense, for as its arcs and family lines approach the present day, its characters are looking toward the future with ambition and purpose, and the three families are each as important to those ambitions and purposes as they are to one another, as children from each family come together to continue the work of one's father -- a physician and medical researcher who has made the conquest of HIV his obsession to the cost of pretty much everything and everyone else in his life -- and to mitigate the harm that father's singleminded pursuit of a cure for AIDS has inflicted on another's mother, who turned out to have a T-cell receptor mutation that showed tremendous promise toward the creation of an eventual HIV vaccine. Meanwhile, that mother's son is obsessed with inventing a mosquito-sized drone, and the daughter of the third family is in the picture, too, as she attends school and learns about activism, Marxism and the art of political protest. Later in adulthood, this trio pools its many talents and resources and hatches a plan that will change Zambia forever. This is African futurism at its very finest and most pointed because...

Zambia, both in the novel and in the real world, is at or near ground zero for investment/meddling by the People's Republic of China, continuing the long tradition of exploiting Africa for extractable resources in a somewhat kinder disguise as Chinese money, immigrants and visiting executives build roads and factories, re-open mines, establish schools and hospitals, projecting Soft Power in a very rigid fashion. Grappling with this reality is the biggest challenge the Millennial generation of Zambians, black, white and brown, face as they continue to work toward nationhood, equity, dignity and strength, hopefully without sacrificing a cultural heritage that predates Cecil Rhodes and David Livingston, for all that they and men like them arrived on the African continent and assumed it had been created for their use and damned whatever inconvenient people got there before them (or, this being Africa, never left in the first place).

I learned a hell of a lot about Zambia in the course of listening to this stunning work, enriched by what little knowledge I did already had, which was entirely and only about the Freedom Rock or "Zamrock" of the 1970s, in which a small but immensely creative and talented group of muscians who had grown up on American and European pop music took up that industry's tools, especially the electric guitar, and made their own thing with it and I am a fan! At least one character in The Old Drift discusses this amazing flowering of musicianship in passing, and several other scenes mention slightly older examples of Zambia's earlier pop music history (OMG, The Dark City Sisters, you guys!), and so of course I'm going to spend a little time sharing some of my favorite examples of this music, including first and foremost, only because this novel begins at the famous location after which a band I really dig named themselves, but they ain't named Victoria Falls, friends, oh no. They are Musi-a-Tunya (the original name of the falls) and just listen to this song by the same name!

In fact, really, you should just go listen to that whole album, Welcome to Zamrock on your streaming service of choice*** as many times as it takes for you to fall in love and then buy the damned album on physical media because you never know when streaming services will fail or have a dispute with the artists or other nonsense. And then listen to the sequel album, Welcome to Zamrock Volume 2. And hunt up other individual tracks by whoever catches your fancy. There's so much goodness out there, you know how it works!

And while you're at it, check out Dark City Sisters because oh my goodness the tight girl group harmonies alone are worth a click or two, here's my favorite of theirs. Thanks for the recommendation, Namwali!

Have another favorite of mine:

But now I'm really digressing and robbing you of the fun of exploring this stuff for yourself. Go, explore! And listen to the 100% pure high grade awesome that is The Old Drift in audio book form. Probably you should plan on listening twice, because this is another one in which the ending reveals a whole 'nother way to interpret what you've been hearing as it also makes you realize that you've been too distracted by the incredible character drama to notice the slow burn infrastructure going on behind it.

This. Is. A. Masterpice!

*Richard E. Grant only appears at the very beginning, which concerns itself with the founding blunder and has a white English colonizer for a protagonist.

**Though the mosquito interludes are where Kobna Holbrook-Smith takes over and makes an absolute meal of the chorus' dramatic lines and strange perspectives and sound effects and the poetic rhythms of their text. I would listen happily to a whole book of just that, but I don't suppose there'd be much of a market for such a thing. I'd sure like to visit the universe next door where everybody clamors for narratives from the point of view of mosquitos delivered like speeches from Sophocles, though!

***Psst. If you actually care about some of your streaming dollars maybe actually making it to artists, or at least to their heirs/copyright holders/sick old grannies/whomever, some services are better than others. I'm only using YouTube here because it's easiest to embed clips on Blogger from it, and it's also a service that you don't have to have an account to enjoy instantly. But otherwise...

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

David Yoon's CITY OF ORANGE

Something I saw on Twitter recently kept coming to mind as I worked to solve the sad mysteries of David Yoon's City of Orange. The tweet said something like, "Hey, white people, racism is just fascism that hasn't caught up to you yet."

There's neither much racism (just a tiny bit; our hero is a Californian of Korean decent and is married to a black woman, but we only see one or two microagressions in the course of the novel) nor much fascism in City of Orange, but the book seems to exist to prove a related point. The apocalypse has already happened for some people, and it's happening to someone new every day. It just probably, if you're reading these lines, hasn't caught up to you yet. 

City of Orange is a clever title that's doing a lot of work in its novel. It is of course a place designation; our hero (who doesn't get a name until late in the book), amnesiac and injured as we join him in the manner of half of the modern day video game industry's output*, is quite possibly in the actual city of Orange, CA, or at least in Orange County, with much of his story taking place in and along the concrete-lined, dry channel of the L.A. River.

But that's not all. The title also refers to a thought experiment our hero vaguely recalls from school at some point, in which he and his classmates were given a writing prompt: "What if the City Were Orange"" with follow up questions like "What Would You Do in an Orange City?" and "Why Would it be Fun?":
Anyway: imagine everything orange, from the sky down to the whites (the oranges?) of your eyeballs. The orange color was beside the point, he'd written In Conclusion. Ann orange world wouldn't be any different from a city of purple or a city of green. The important thing was that everything was in monochrome. In a monochromatic world, you'd have no other colors to compare against. There wouldn't even be a concept of color to begin with. It might as well be all black and white. And did people living in black and white worlds -- like actors in old movies, or dogs -- feel like they were missing out on something? If they didn't even know what color was, did it matter?

Nameless Hero's own world has become monochrome well before our story proper starts, and he wakes up with a severe head injury on the concrete floor of the L.A. River, very much aware that he has forgotten a lot of important things but also aware that he probably doesn't want to remember. Snatches of memory start trickling back anyway as he takes stock of his situation: no other people around, only devastated and ruined houses visible nearby, everything around him in a state of neglect and decay. One of the things he has forgotten, he realizes, is what exactly happened to make the world this way, to cause the End of the World. Orange becomes a color of decay and danger, of rust and of mold and of smoldering embers and raging wildfire, and then, as he begins to remember what he, personally, had before it all went to pot, his emotional color plunges into a monochrome of grief.

Once, he had a beautiful wife he was crazy about and they had a baby daughter. He can't remember their names, only the name of his best friend with whom he first got to know his wife. Nameless Hero's friend Byron was a survivalist type, constantly trying to teach NH about things like edible wild plants and water purification techniques, but NH was too distracted by the wonder that was overtaking his life as love and family came to dominate everything (more emotional monochrome; it isn't always bad, merely a bit unreal).

As NH settles into his new life as a Lone Survivor, more glimpses of his past come, allowing us to share in his joy and wonder at being a husband and then a brand new dad. And this is the other lesson of City of Orange: pay attention to those little moments of happiness and respect their brevity and beauty. My favorite of these comes relatively late in the novel, and takes place on a family trip to a butterfly pavilion, waylaid by the discovery of a big public fountain in which numerous parents and their young children are at play:

Look at how hilarious these toddlers were, careening through arch after arch, sometimes flopping their butts right down onto a gushing nozzle! They only stopped their bumbling stumbling to stare at one another in that dumbfounded kid way.

NH compares his daughter and the other toddlers, even more hilariously, to inebriated adults: "It's like they're drunk, said [REDACTED]. We're born drunk, and the we sober up, and when we're old we get drunk again, because fuck it."

Adding to the poignancy of it all, NH meets a little boy named Clay, who seems so splendidly at home in the ruins of civilization that NH all but makes him into a guru as together they hunt crows and explore applied geometry in the form of a weird contraption of cardboard and fishing line NH has idly constructed to track wind patterns in the apocalyptic L.A. River basin. And NH finally learns his name and gets the truth that he's not exactly sought, but also not felt complete without: he learns what destroyed his world. 
And if what he learns doesn't break your heart, do you even have one?

And so another author gets added to my "Must read whatever they publish" list. And my "I hope I don't ever meet them" list, too, because a lot of the scenes in City of Orange feel really specific and personal and I don't ever want to know how much of this novel is truly made up and how much might be autobiographical.

I certainly hope it's mostly made up and isn't a fictionalization of David Yoon's own experience. Because it's the stuff you don't wish on your worst enemy, no, not even on the Orange Fascist who is still hogging the headlines as I finish this post.

But somebody should make that guy read this. If anyone could use a lesson in how everybody gets their own apocalypse, it's him. But I digress.

*Which, get ready for the video game references. This novel reads like a walkthrough of a high quality but very personal game, from its amnesiac protagonist discovering the world tutorial level to its ever expanding map -- and City of Orange is not coy about its relationship to gaming. As our Nameless Hero comes to grip with his world, he very explicitly compares it to a game, with lots of cute observations like "He wants to smash a toaster to see if it'll give up a rotating heart or a green mushroom or ammo or some kind of goodie."

Friday, June 24, 2022

Dana Schwartz' ANATOMY: A LOVE STORY

Adorable young love positively oozes from every crevice like maggots from a newly-exhumed corpse in podcaster Dana Schwartz' first historical novel. If that seems an unkind, unappealing or unromantic comparison to make, Anatomy: A Love Story might not be for you. But if you're a reader of my blog, that's probably not an issue, is it?

Anyway.

Let's take a moment, first and foremost, to talk about the perfection of this book cover, in which the skirts of our Georgian era heroine are carefully arranged to depict an anatomically accurate-for-being-done-in-textile human heart. Our heroine being a very young woman of the nobility* who wants with all of her (metaphorical) heart to become a surgeon. Not a physician, whose hands are rarely dirtied and who mostly exists to supply different varieties of opium to the well-heeled, but a surgeon. You know, the kind that hacks off diseased limbs and cuts gouty old men for "The Stone" and whatnot. As I said, this book cover is perfection. Chef's kiss. No notes.

Our heroine, Hazel Sinnet, has grown up in an honest-to-goodness Scottish castle, largely unsupervised because she doesn't matter to the family's fortunes so long as she sticks to their plan for her from birth: marry her first cousin, the son of her mother's brother, who is a Viscount. Until then, she's on her own, set to amuse and educate herself. In her father's library. Which is full of old and out-of-date but still fascinating books on medicine and natural history. Well, I mean, really. 

Plus, young Hazel is definitely one of us, as she demonstrates in her reaction to her lady's maid's suggestion that she take a break from her studies and go out and let society see her in a fashionable Edinburgh park, for which she might perhaps take a book. One book!:
One book? One book? Now you're being absurd. What if I finish it? Or what if I find it impossibly dull, what then? What am I supposed to read if I either complete the book I brought or I otherwise discover it to be unreadable? Or what if it no longer holds my attention? Someone could spill tea on it. There. Think of that. Someone could spill tea on my one book, and then I would be marooned. Honestly, Iona, you must use your head.

Life was so different and difficult before ebooks let us tote about a hrair books at all times, was it not? For the record, she ends up taking three books, two medical texts and a brand new novel by an unknown author, simply credited as "A Lady" - Sense and Sensibility. Well, of course it's that one.

But this is a love story. Who is her love? Surely not the cousin she was practically bred for; indeed, he is a boring dandy for all that he's been pretty indulgent about her eccentricities since they were (nobly born, privileged, rich) toddlers naked in the mud together. Who would it be most dramatically inconvenient for a a rich young lady to fall in love with?

How about the guy who procures bodies for Edinburgh Medical College? Who also works all the backdrops and the main curtain at the local theater? That is closed for another bout of Roman Fever (aka malaria) ripping through the city for yet another devastating plague season? And which Hazel fancies she'll be able to cure but only if she gets to study enough bodies of those who have died of it? I mean, how is she not going to fall in love with a Resurrection Man, unless he's really old and ugly and missing bits? Which sturdy young Jack Currer is decidedly not, though few would call him handsome?

Yeah.

But so, the only thing that I didn't completely love about this book was the unnecessary speculative fiction elements tacked on to its ending. A mystery involving the murders of other Resurrection Men and the maiming of various denizens of Edinburgh's scummy, slummy Old Town added quite enough excitement to the plot without [REDACTED], for me, but as ever, your mileage may vary.

Really, I'm pretty delighted that Schwartz, who has made a name for herself condensing the most scandalous or tragic or simply dramatic stories from the lives of the titled nobility of (mostly) Europe, chose to write a book like this instead of just a book version of her podcast. She has employed the skills she honed telling us lurid tales of Elizabeth Bathory and the Mayerling Incident and Sophia Dorotea of Celle to bring us an absolutely charming YA story of frowned-upon young love and the aspirations of a young woman who dares to dream of more than having the best dresses and jewelry to wear at the ball.

 *Ha ha

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Yamen Manai's THE ARDENT SWARM (tr by Lara Vergnand)

Yamen Manai's lovely and tense The Ardent Swarm, the Tunisian author's first novel to be translated into English, has two villains,Vespa madarinia (what we in the US have dubbed Murder Hornets) and a rising political party that is mobilizing the countryside in favor of theocratic authoritarianism. But no, it's not set in the United States! Not everything is about us! For me, as for the novel's hero Sidi, it's all about the bees. 

Sidi is a beekeeper, a fixture in a village so small it doesn't even consider itself to be a village, in the fictional kingdom of Qafar, which is experimenting with democracy but is poised to reap that system's worst fruits as a demogogic fundamentalist "Party of God" is mounting a tremendous effort to convince the illiterate or barely literate citizens of the countryside to vote for them in exchange for gifts of food, clothing and blankets those citizens desperately need and, since they, like the rural poor in most places, don't really care who's in charge in the capital city, this strategy has every chance of working as our story starts.

But back to the bees and the beekeeper. Sidi is so devoted to the denizens of his hives that he refers to them as "his girls" and openly weeps when he finds that something has invaded one of them and brutally destroyed every last worker and drone, and even left the queen lying on her back, feebly kicking her wounded legs in the air before finally expiring. Reader, of course I cried. And immediately suspected, long before the other villain buzzed to the forefront of the novel's conflicts, that it was indeed the Giant Asian Hornet who had done the deed. But Sidi has never heard of such a thing; he's a simple man with profound knowledge and experience in one thing and one thing only, so this mysterious new threat not only to his livelihood but his entire existence is something he takes very seriously and approaches with a combination of deductive reasoning that would do Sherlock Holmes proud and a degree of physical courage that few of us could match.  He mounts a sleepless constant watch over his remaining hives -- he owes his beloved girls no less -- until he spots two of the thumb-length flying reconnaissance over his territory and marking the next hive for destruction with a reeking burst of pheromone attractants.

How did these monsters get here? Sidi's detective skills impress yet again as he discovers a surprising link between these invaders and the disturbing fundamentalists making weird promises to and demanding new levels of cultural and religious subservience from Sidi's friends and neighbors, who nonetheless come gladly to Sidi's aid when he decides that his plight calls for the kind of research he can't do with direct observation and experimentation and the kind of wise and careful, but slow, selective breeding that he has always employed to help his girls overcome previous threats -- fungal, bacterial, arachnoidal -- to their well-being, and this is where that title comes in.

An "Ardent Swarm" is the poetic name for a behavior that most of us who pay attention to things like murder hornets probably already know about, but was surprising new knowledge when Manai was writing this novel: bees who share the murder hornet's natural habitat have evolved a unique and devastatingly effective but costly defense: when one of these horrors lands on their doorstep, hundreds of worker bees pile on and around the invader's body and beat their wings and dance to generate kinetic energy, aka heat. The bees can tolerate higher temperatures than the hornets can, so the bees effectively cook their predator to death before it can do more damage. Of course, many workers get eviscerated by the hornet in the process of achieving the critical mass for an effective Ardent Swarm, but such is hive life. As long as the queen is safe!

The fact that this behavior strongly suggests itself as a metaphor for how Sidi's fellow visitors might respond to the threats posed by the Party of God and splinter groups that are more militant and less patient than the Party is delicately suggested but never explored outright; Manai is not writing a polemic or a guerilla warefare manual, he's writing a beautiful and tenderly observed novel about friendship, between man and bee, and between humans as well, as Sidi finds that his generosity over the years in sharing his knowledge and his honey has not gone unnoticed and will not go unrewarded. This is a strong contender for my best read of 2022.

I sure hope Manai and sound and unflashy translator Lara Vergnand bring more of his work to English language readers very soon. And now excuse me, I'm afraid I've gotten hooked on not one but two different versions of the casual mobile game of Ant Legion. Hymenoptera ahoy!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Vaishnavi Patel's KAIKEYI

In Kaikeyi author Vaishnavi Patel has not only brought a complicated figure from an Indian national epic, the Ramayana, to vivid life in a manner reminiscent of Pauline Gedge or Diana Paxson, but also taught us an incredible lesson on the power and worth of emotional intelligence. 

Kaikeyi, Yuvradni (princess) of a kingdom with a name virtually identical to hers, discovers not long after her father banishes her mother from the kingdom, that she has a certain magical gift: with concentration, she can enter what is called the Binding Plane, upon which she can see visual representations of the emotional bonds between people and, to a certain agree, manipulate those bonds. As a young girl she can only manipulate the bonds between herself and another, as she does when she convinces her twin brother, Crown Prince Yudhajit, to teach her what he's learning from his tutors but is forbidden her by sexist tradition, even after she proves to be the best administrator the kingdom's palace ever had. Thus young Kaikeyi gets to learn how to ride horses, fight with swords, shoot arrows, throw spears and drive a chariot -- skills she will later put to use in addition to her Binding Plane powers to secure herself firmly in the esteem and affection of her eventual husband, Raja Dasharatha of Kosala. While she's already kind of his favorite of his three wives because she's pretty and sure of herself, she rises to Number One in everybody else's estimation (well, almost everybody else; there are some Sages who still scowl at a woman being anything but a brood mare, of course) when she persuades her husband to let her ride out to battle with him, and then by a combination of her martial and Binding Plane skills lands herself with a chance to serve as her husband's charioteer in battle! And then she saves his life! And still manages to make it look like her husband was the real hero, because emotional intelligence isn't just a power she wields on the Binding Plane! This deed wins her his eternal gratitude and esteem, an eventual place on his governing council despite her being a woman, and the promise of two boons, requests that she may make at any time during their lives that he vows to the gods he will fulfill, no matter what she asks for.

I am only now reading the Ramayana, in an old fashioned translation into English verse, but I know that in that story Queen Kaikeyi is pretty close to being a villain (or is an unambiguous villain, if you're a misogynist, which, there's lots of misogyny in this story), so it's nice to see her get a chance at rehabilitation as a whole person with recognizable and relatable motivations and loves and fears. Patel gives Kaikeyi only a tiny chip on her shoulder about ancient India's sexism and a whole heart full of love for her husband (just not in a romantic or sexual way; she tolerates her wifely duties but comes to esteem Dasharatha as a close friend and an honorable man), his other two wives, and all of her husband's children, not just her own son by him, Bharata. This even though one of his sons by his other two wives turns out to be an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu, the Rama that gives the Ramayana its name, and thus turns out to be quite a handful even before he's fully grown. Throughout the novel, though, she shows in word and deed that she considers all four of Dasharatha's sons to be her sons as well, little boys she loves to cuddle and play with and teach, then young men whose futures she plans for carefully despite knowing that they can't happen as everybody expects, for when she became Dasharatha's third wife she extracted a promise from him that whatever the birth order of his children, his first son by Kaikeyi would inherit his throne. This promise, and concerns that arise for Kaikeyi during the boys' childhoods stemming chiefly from a fundamentalist tutor who has persuaded Rama, and therefore all four of the sons, that women like Kaikeyi are an affront to the gods and should keep to their place, and that all the work she has done to help the people of Kosala, and especially the women, has been evil and needs undoing, are what forces her to use her two boons to affect the succession when Dasharatha suddenly decides to abdicate despite still being young and vital.

Dasharatha is totally under Rama's divine (but not necessarily benign, or even conscious) influence, Kaikeyi sees, and furthermore sees that Rama is not remotely ready to wield his divine or royal powers wisely yet, himself being under possibly demonic influence. Her boons are thus to send Rama into exile for ten years, and for Bharata to take the throne. Thus in the novel this is not a matter of her pride or status-panic; it's a sacrifice, of her relationships with everyone she loves, of the esteem her kingdom has held her in, of everything. By the time this inevitable doom befalls her, Patel has made us feel every bit of Kaikeyi's complex emotional world, but has left it all just ambiguous enough to let us wonder, even as we cry with her when her sons turn on her and her husband fades away, if Kaikeyi's understanding of events is actually correct. Sometimes the majority is wrong, but sometimes they're right. Sometimes we get confirmation of which side has the correct perspective, but most of the time we're stuck muddling on through without ever being sure, and that's where good literature comes from.

Kaikeyi is exceptional literature and good storytelling and I can't wait to see what Vaishnai Patel does next.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Toby Ferris' SHORT LIFE IN A STRANGE WORLD: BIRTH TO DEATH IN 42 PANELS (narr by Jot Davies)

Jot Davies is one of those audio book narrators whose name on a project automatically makes that project a likely listen for me, but put him on something like Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels, which turns out to be the answer to "what if John Berger and W.G. Sebald were merged into a literary/art historical Brundlefly (and also freakishly made the same allusions to the same cultural touchstones I'm thinking of right as I think of them!) and wrote a book about Breugel the Elder" and that becomes a dead certainty. 

Author Toby Ferris set about the project that gave rise to Short Life in a Strange World after being seized by a "mania for [Pieter] Breugel" as he mourned his recently dead father. Short narratives from that father's life are intertwined with biographical sketches of the author's trip to all of the museums and private collections that possess  definitively proven works of Breugel, and accounts of what is known of Breugel's own life as Ferris minutely observes Breugel's works and the settings in which they exist circa the early 21st century.

Along the way, Ferris winds up writing both lyrically and informatively (the lyricism greatly enhanced by Jot Davies' precise diction and rich and sonorous intonation) about diverse subjects such as the process by which paintings are restored nowadays versus in the 19th and 20th centuries, the aims and ambitions of medieval alchemists, the economic and cultural realities of life in what was, in Bruegel's time, the Spanish Netherlands, the arrangements of modern museums, the English phonetics pose to native speakers of Asian languages (that must have been particularly fun for Davies to narrate), and the occasional wilderness adventure undertaken in the company of Ferris' brother on the author's extended visit to the United States.*

Entertainingly, each chapter begins with a note about how much of the total "Bruegel Object", as calculated by a spreadsheet the author created as he first began contemplating this odd and lovely project, is discussed in that chapter.** From that starting point, Ferris can go in any direction as the imagery in each painting or group of paintings inspires speculation about the change of the seasons, the medieval understanding of death and new life, the difference between painting on wood versus canvas... anything goes, which is where the book most evokes W.G. "Rings of Saturn" Sebald for me and makes me wish Jot Davies could narrate that book someday.

What really stands out for me, though, is an odd little interval late in the book, the short but arresting 11th chapter, "Singularity." Here Ferris pauses to consider a sliver of the "Breugel Object" that has disappeared from public knowledge after being sold at Christie's early this century. This little roundel was a rather recent attribution after careful study with 21st century technology, this as much for its material faithfulness to Breugel's era as for its image, and so Ferris wrestles a bit with how much it should actually bother him that he has no way of seeing the original (the John Berger bit of the Bergbald Brundlefly). It's not part of the canon of classically-understood-to-be-Breugel, after all, and copies, made by one of Breugel's sons and by an engraver that somewhat altered the depicted image to make it more suitable as an engraving, are publicly held where he can see them. Ultimately, concluding that completism is an unrealistic and undue standard for him and his decidedly not academic approach to Breugel, Ferris decides to just let it be, man. After all, he's not trying to hunt down Breugel's drawings or misattributed works, etc, either. Framing matters. 

I, who have several uncompleted "survey all the things" type projects all over this here blog, respect this decision a whole lot, and take a kind of comfort in it, too. I may not get around to reading all of the Doctor Who novels or ever finish my cheeky and irreverent close study of Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle, but that doesn't mean that what I've competed of these are worthless for not being 100% COMPLETE COMPLETE COMPLETE. I mean, people wouldn't bug me to resume them if they didn't like what I've done of them so far, right?

And so with this book. While Ferris may have drawn the target around where his arrow hit rather than hitting an objectively established mark, what came of his effort is a lovely meditation on life and death and art, on landscape and memory (hey, Simon Schama!), how material objects such as paintings get scattered around the world,  and on how it feels to be in the same room with a famous masterpiece in our age of image reproduction and reduction. 

What a delightful listen! I think, though, that if I were to read it again, I'd want to sit down with a hardcover edition. The audiobook had an accompanying PDF to allow the listener to examine images of the paintings under discussion, and of course there are any number of ways to look at art on the internet,  but looking at them on the tiny screen of my phone was not very satisfying. As with most art books, of which this is certainly one, the luxury of glossy full color reproductions of the art is highly to be preferred.

But hardcovers don't sound like Jot Davies. Decisions, decisions...

*This is how I wound up having an amusing Twitter conversation about bear spray and, er, used bear chow, with narrator Davies (quite forgetting that the author was still included in the reply chain after Davies had clued him in to my early praise of this book as I was getting started with enjoying it). Sometimes the internet is still a boon to mankind, even in this dumb decade.
**The insights he derives from this supremely nerdy creation of his are weird and amusing. For instance, by Ferris' calculations, 74% of the "Breugel Object" contains a depiction of people in crowds. As someone who spent four years taking all my meals with the famous "Timer" of Phish fame, Zyzzyx, keeper of the Phishstatistics page, I can't help loving attempts like this to quantify art's impact on us.