Tag Archives: England

On Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

17 Mar

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ten years have passed since the critically acclaimed, world-renowned author Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel, and the passage of time does interesting things to writers, even those as established as this Man Booker Prize-winner. Lauded for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contributes a fantastic but vastly different addition to his repertoire. The Buried Giant, released to stores March 3, 2015, is a fantastical story of a journey through the land of King Arthur, and were it written by any other author, it would be shelved resolutely in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore, but I guess I should be grateful that this book is both stunning and working toward mainstreaming genre fiction. The next thing you know, Brandon Sanderson will be winning the Pulitzer or something. Watch out, world!

Ishiguro’s long-awaited seventh novel is not the traditional fantasy in the stereotypical sense of the label: unpronounceable made-up words, valiant heroes coming of age, and a fabricated back story longer than could fit in the 1,200 pages of the published product. Ishiguro’s fantasy is, in a handful of ways, much like his other novels: poignantly brief and excruciatingly sorrowful. The Buried Giant begins in a nameless hamlet in England. King Arthur is dead, and the England he united by sword and by law lies in an uneasy balance of Saxon and Briton. The people also lie under the spell of a heavy mist that suppresses the memories–both good and bad–of everyone it touches. The loss of memory transforms everyone into addled, helpless fools. People hunt for a missing child and then forget why they’re wandering through the woods. They set off down a road and 50 yards later can’t remember where they’re headed. Two elderly villagers, Axl and Beatrice, feel the nagging shade of a memory of a son they once had, and they set off to find him, in spite of their frailty and their foggy minds.

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from "Carl Jones")

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from “Carl Jones“)

Traveling from their small village, through cursed woods, over craggy mountains, toward their son’s village, the couple encounters a whole cast of references from Arthurian legend (half of which I’m sure I don’t even get). An ancient and doddering Sir Gawain quests with his equally ancient horse Horace to slay the she-dragon Querig who lives on top of the mountain. A young Saxon warrior quests to do the same, and when he crosses paths with our Axl and Beatrice, the couple is caught up in a story that will test the strength of their love as well as their memory. Before the wild world tears them apart from each, Axl and Beatrice must remember what they mean to one another.

One’s own memory is tricksy enough as it is, but when the topic of collective memory is addressed, history becomes a living entity unto its own. Think of how a nation or a society or even a family develops a collective memory through the retelling of an event or through the media or through trending, crowd-sourced narratives. We are constantly building our story as a group. When the mists of forgetting fall on the people of this story, ties are severed between present and past, between husband and wife. Beatrice is tormented with the idea of an incomplete memory, especially the memories of her son, whose name neither she nor Axl can recall. She and Axl have the opportunity to try and lift the curse, but is it worth remembering the pain of the bad memories just to experience the balm of the good ones?

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from "Swaminathan")

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from “Swaminathan“)

Ishiguro returns again and again to the concept of collective memory in his novels. In The Remains of the Day, especially, he discusses denial and misremembering through an aging butler struggling with memories of his involvement in dark deeds during World War II. The Buried Giant takes advantage of its fantasy genre to make the conversation of memory more blatant by making it more magical. Querig’s cursed breath descends on the land and forces a loss of collective memory for an entire generation. The horrors of that past are veiled in blissful forgetfulness, and the joys of a lifetime are only glimpsed in the corner of a dream. Ishiguro calls out humanity’s tendency to bury great tragedies to spare itself the pain and struggle of resolution. The collateral damage of this denial is that great joys and great accomplishments are also buried. Great loves and great progress are lost beneath the earth. Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son becomes a quest to remember–their son, their past, and their love for each other. In this beautiful novel that is at once lighthearted and tragic, Ishiguro produces a stunning story that is worth every moment of the ten years we waited for it.

“It would be the saddest thing to me, princess. To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.”

Read It: You don’t need to be a fan of Game of Thrones to enjoy this fantasy novel. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses one of his favorite topics: the discrepancies of memory. The fantasy setting is a thin veil for the author’s deeply moving story about the fluidity of narrative, but it is also a deeply moving story, so whether your a scholar coming to study a contemporary master’s work or a casual reader like myself, just looking for an entertaining and skillfully rendered tale of adventure, look no farther than TBG.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to read this novel if dragons killed your parents or you have some blood feud with your Saxon neighbors. This novel doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the fiery political climate of the post-Arthurian era. Then again, and more likely, you may be expecting the Ishiguro of ten years ago, the Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Gone is the subtler artifice of his earlier years, and if you don’t keep an open mind, his new style will turn you off, marvelous though it is.

Similar Books: I honestly can’t compare this novel to Ishiguro’s others, but if this is your first of his novels, please read The Remains of the Day to feel the power of his prose when Ishiguro reached what some would call the pinnacle of his literary career. Aside from this, The Buried Giant reminded me of classical epics like Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. Axl and Beatrice’s travels through the English countryside ring of older tales–tales of hellish paths and overcoming otherworldly challenges. For more reading on modern takes of Arthurian legend, read John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from "English PEN")

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from “English PEN“)

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On Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”

18 Jul

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we're accustomed to hearing.

Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we’re accustomed to hearing.

Even having lived in New England for four years, I rarely thought about how this country was founded. The cobblestone in Providence and the patina-covered historical society plaques on every other building foundation in Boston seemed quaint at the time, but I was more interested in hunting for a decent cup of coffee through the forests of Dunkin’ Donuts than studying landmarks. And what little understanding remained of the development of these United States of America, our Puritan forefathers, and the birth of American culture was handily overturned by Sarah Vowell’s quick-witted, nonfiction history The Wordy Shipmates.

Students in U.S. public schools are used to the story of the pilgrims–some of the first English settlers to emigrate to the shores of New England. In elementary school, I understood the pilgrims to be happy-go-lucky explorers, chowing down on turkey cylindrical hunks of cranberry sauce with Squanto, and I spent six years making hand-traced turkeys on construction paper. In high school, I learned that the pilgrims were bunch of evil, racist land thieves who ruined the best parts of this land. Vowell tells a more balanced story. She rightly points out that we in U.S. live in a world created by Puritans, whether we like it or not, and explores the culture and consequences of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony in a way my third grade teacher and my bland high school text books never could.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a coffin to leave a cesspool of sin (as Winthrop's folks thought of it) for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a vomitty coffin to leave the cesspool of sin that was England for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death. Just another day in the life.

From the beginnings of Puritan unrest in mother England to the voyage of the Arbella, from the seeds of American dissent to the horrors of the Pequot War, Vowell bounces through her research, carried along with her sardonic humor. John Winthrop leaves England for New England on his flagship Arbella, preaching on the long journey across the pond that his people are the modern Israelites, tasked with holy mission of being America’s “city on a hill.” It’s a quote from the Bible, and it’s an image that will follow the U.S. through its history as a nation.

Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was Boston, and the foundation of this colony still influences us today. Vowell’s recognition of this and inclusion of Winthrop’s far reaching touch on American society gives TWS a fun narrative: Winthrop banishes a heretic to Plymouth, and the Reagan administration sells guns in South America; Roger Williams prints some strongly worded pamphlets, and Vowell takes her nephew to a museum; Anne Hutchinson gets tossed out of Boston for leading a Bible study in her home, and JFK becomes the first Catholic elected to the U.S. presidency. Vowell’s begrudging respect for the Puritans is made plain. She identifies with them, she respects them, she finds comfort in their words despite it all:

“… in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.”

It is, in fact, all about words: the Boston charter, Winthrop’s lengthy sermons, the Magna Carta that laid the groundwork for the impending American Revolution, and John Cotton’s pamphlet war with the notorious Roger Williams. The words of the Bible inspired the Puritans, drove them to become the people who they were with such strength that our ears are still ringing with their passionate sermons. Their words and their books founded Harvard and set the precedent for America’s higher education. Their words made peace and made war. It’s the witty words of Sarah Vowell, though, that wrap up everything–all the historical facts and sermon quotes and droll judgments–in the pretty bow of her understanding of current affairs, and it’s this contextualization and personalization that makes TWS a compelling read.

"It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island ... Rhode Island was purchased by love."

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island … Rhode Island was purchased by love.” -Roger Williams, after the Narragansett presented him with the whole state of Rhode Island as a gift.

Read it if … you enjoy nonfiction history, obviously. But also read it if you primarily read fiction, like me, but are looking for something new. Vowell’s snarky prose and winding storytelling keeps TWS interesting throughout, and creates a gently arcing narrative that is easily accessible for novel enthusiasts.

Don’t read it if … you have no interest in early U.S. history. Vowell’s dry humor can only carry one’s interest so far. You may want to steer clear, too, if you’re set on either pedastalizing or demonizing the Puritan settlers. Vowell gives an honest account of their lives and strives to humanize John Winthrop and his constituents. If you are some kind of fervent Calvinist, you may dislike the way Vowell criticizes the Puritan lifestyle of constant fear and self-hatred. If you still hold a multi-generational grudge against the English colonists for ruining everything, you may not like the way Vowell maintains her respect for the Puritans’ resilience, resourcefulness, and occasional compassion.

This book is like … Dean Olsher’s From Square One, a fun exploration of the art of crossword puzzles–both creating them and completing them. While the subject matter is completely different, the execution is fairly similar. And just for kicks, here’s what I wrote in the first line, which apparently still holds true, of my review of Olsher’s nonfiction book that I published in December, 2012:

“I don’t always read non-fiction. But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.”

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR's popular radio series "This American Life." It's no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we're so used to hearing on public radio.

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR’s popular series This American Life. It’s no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we’re so used to hearing on public radio.

What gets you to read nonfiction? Is it your natural state of reading? Do you need inspiration or a gun to your head? Tell me in the comments below!

On Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”

27 Jun

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2003] won the Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and was named Time's best novel of the year. It's no joke.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2003] won the Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and was named Time‘s best novel of the year. It’s no joke.

What do you get when you mix Regency Era social dramedy with magic? A whole lot of parlor tricks, one would think. Susanna Clarke, though, has written an incredible masterpiece of mash-up fiction, combining Jane Austen-esque commentary and witty dialogue with an alternate magical universe. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels  I have ever read and, despite its 1,000+ pages (and the fact that I took a three-year hiatus somewhere around page 500, for reasons completely unrelated to its quality as a book), it flashes by like a raven in flight and leave you wanting more.

On the cusp of war with Napoleon, Regency Era England has become a divisive nation. A mad king has become the puppet of quarreling dukes, lords, and admirals. Armies of young men fight in the muddy fields of foreign countries. The English is industrializing, becoming tamer, losing its wilder, more pagan heritage. Following so far? Everything is pretty text book, all history and common knowledge … and then comes an understated mention of magic (it’s no big thing), and this familiar England is suddenly transformed into Clarke’s alternate history.

In this new universe, England has long been bereft of practical magic. At the start of the novel, magic is a pastime to study in dusty books by councils of bored, old noblemen. But a magician by the name of Mr Norrell appears on the scene, and he has made it his quest to bring practical magic back to England … as long as he’s the only one to practice it. When he takes on a single, brilliant pupil–a young nobleman by the name of Jonathan Strange–tensions rise and an dangerous rivalry is born. It seems England isn’t big enough for two magicians, but neither Jonathan Strange nor Mr Norrell is going to let their motherland go that easily. Through dark spells, enchantments, political intrigue, and war, the two magicians battle for dominance, and both are too absorbed with each other to notice the encroaching doom they face at the hands of something far more powerful than anything imaginable.

Portia Rosenberg's lovely illustrations add to the eerie settings and familiar-yet-bizarre atmosphere.

Portia Rosenberg‘s lovely illustrations add to the eerie settings and “uncanny valley” atmosphere.

Clarke’s attention to detail and world-building skills are as magical as Mr Norrell’s enchantments. She creates a fluid and absolutely believable alternate history that is firmly founded on actual English history and a host of modified mythology. Frequent footnotes refer to fictional books on magical history or citing ancient myths. Clarke’s meticulousness may extend the book to an epic scale (and literal size), but it pays off in grounding a fantastical tale in an understated style that makes JS&MN digestible for every reader.

The magic system Clarke creates is not as elaborate as Gaiman’s or Sanderson’s, and one could point that out as a flaw in her universe. In her defense, magic in the world of JS&MN is dusty, bookish, inscrutable, and an altogether mystery thanks to Mr Norrell’s monopoly of the subject, and with this in mind, I didn’t mind the lack in detail in just exactly how Jonathan Strange can walk through a mirror and into another dimension. The magic Clarke excels in is the magic in creating a compelling alternate universe, complex and conflicted protagonists who are far from perfect (and sometimes far from likable), and a story that makes me want to re-read it immediately. And you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be streaming the BBC miniseries when it comes out.

The Regency Era is one of our most beloved period settings, and you have to attribute that to the tight pants and snug bodices.

The Regency Era is one of our most beloved period settings, and you have to attribute that to the tight pants and snug bodices.

Read it if … you’re looking for a meatier summer read. While entirely entertaining, Clarke’s fantasy novel is more than a romp in the heather with faeries. The depth and breadth of Clarke’s universe, the detail to historical and mythical references, and the devotion to character makes JS&MN one of the most robust fantasy novels I have ever read.

Don’t read it if … you’re intimidated by large books, or you refuse to let go of your misconceptions that period fiction (especially, heaven forbid, anything compared to Jane Austen) is literature lite. JS&MN is a fun read but certainly not frivolous in the context of fantasy novels.

This book is like … Jane Austen, but that’s the totally easy comparison to make, and while Clarke’s novel takes place in the same era, the content is obviously different. Austen tackled social conventions with her subtle wit and dialogue. Clarke’s take on magic and mythology addresses the dangers of polarization, obsession, abuse of power, and a really, really weird bromance, which is all much more in line with a book like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I haven’t yet read the novel The Prestige by Christopher Priest, but the film adaptation [2006] was a thrilling story of two stage magicians whose rivalry builds to an extreme, violent end.

Susanna Clarke looks a little magiciany herself. She's only written one other book besides JS&MN. Maybe she'll pull a Harper Lee and call it good.

Susanna Clarke looks a little magiciany herself. She’s only written one other book besides JS&MN. Maybe she’ll pull a Harper Lee and call it good.

Tell me in the comments below which literary mash-up you would prefer:

  1. Mark Twain meets zombies!
  2. Kazuo Ishiguro meets vampires!
  3. Charles Dickens meets steampunk!

On Kay Kenyon’s “A Thousand Perfect Things”

24 Oct
Get yourself a copy, and you won't be disappointed. A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon combines magic, science, and adventure with a rare talent.

Get yourself a copy, and you won’t be disappointed. A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon combines magic, science, and adventure with a rare talent.

Kay Kenyon is a growing powerhouse in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community, and an even bigger powerhouse in her native Pacific Northwest. She has published eleven books and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award for her novel Maximum Ice. At the SFWA October Reading in the Seattle area last week, Kenyon graced the Wild Rover Pub with a reading from a work in progress, an alternate history of World War II where psychic powers may tip the balance between European powers. I’m sitting there completely enthralled, but who has time to wait for a work in progress? I ended up buying a copy of Kenyon’s 2013 novel A Thousand Perfect Things, her first foray into the fantasy realm.

A Thousand Perfect Things is close to perfection itself, at least as far as entertainment is concerned. It didn’t take me long to feel fully absorbed and invested in this alternate retelling of British imperialism and of the battle between Western “reason” and Easter mysticism, or “magic” as it is in this fantasy novel. In this universe, the scientific Anglics have colonized and extorted the India-like Bharata. Kenyon’s protagonist, the young aspiring botanist Astoria “Tori” Harding, is a well-wrought character with realistic flaws: she’s confident in her scientific prowess, but self-conscious of a limp she’s carried since birth; she’s open-minded for the aristocratic circles she was born into, but she’s undeniably naive in all matters cultural, sexual, and magical. When a series of terrorist attacks (in the form of iron lion statues coming to life and giant snakes made from the Thames’ stinking waters) plague “Londinium,” the upper echelons of Anglic government decide a harder hand is needed with the upstarts in the colonies of Bharata. Tori accompanies her military father to a new post in Poondras, where she encounters a world she couldn’t have imagined and can’t empirically analyze. Kenyon keeps a wonderfully fast pace without mincing on beautiful descriptions of the landscape, exotic (to Tori) clothing, and fantastical wildlife.

Among the fantastical animals are "krakens." Not the giant squids we're used to seeing in fantasy depictions, but more like massive sea snakes that plague the oceans between Anglica and Bharata.

Among the fantastical animals are “krakens.” Not the giant squids we’re used to seeing in fantasy depictions, but more like massive sea snakes that plague the oceans between Anglica and Bharata.

Tori’s journey to Bharata is inspired by one thing: the last quest of her beloved grandpapa to find the Nelumbo aureus, the golden lotus said to emanate magical properties. She’s willing to brave the hostile politics, hostile wildlife, and even more hostile bush priests to prove her grandfather’s theory. She and the characters in this novel are pursuing their hearts’ desires. Many will fall short and many will be surprised at what their hearts truly desired.

The golden lotus of A Thousand Perfect Things is an object of scientific discovery for Tori Harding, but it's an object of spiritual revelation to the people of Bharata.

The golden lotus of A Thousand Perfect Things is an object of scientific discovery for Tori Harding, but it’s an object of spiritual revelation to the people of Bharata. (Pic from NatureProducts.net)

The tale in itself is wonderful. Tori’s goal to redeem her grandfather is inspiring and sympathetic. The political scene of an uneasy colony of a patronizing, militant occupier is familiar enough that I wasn’t lost, but different enough to not read like a carbon copy of our universe’s history books. However, I can’t help coming to books such as this without distinctly feeling my non-whiteness, and while I appreciate Kenyon’s attempt to tackle the difficult issues of colonization and racial discrimination, I’m not quite convinced that an opportunity wasn’t missed here. The fantasy and sci-fi genres allow for new perspectives to be applied to age-old, human controversies like these, but the characters in ATPT seem to still exist in a world where Western thought is considered reasonable and Eastern thought considered mystical. With the exception of two characters, all Bharatis are depicted as bitter, violent malcontents, while the atrocities of the occupying Anglic force are downplayed. Tori eroticizes one of the two sympathetic Bharati characters, using him for sexual experience. The protagonist’s objectification of the exotic Prince Jai slightly sours what was supposed to be a powerful moment of sexual liberation. Granted, the protagonist is Anglican, and therefore her biased perspective is expected, but I was hanging onto the hope that Kenyon would find a way to resolve my feelings of otherness by the end of the book. And by the end (no spoilers, don’t worry) I did feel better about the situation, but this is not a story about Bharata–it is the story of Anglics in Bharata.

On a grand scale, Kenyon succeeded with A Thousand Perfect Things. She created a story that felt new, bettered the genre of alternate histories, and was almost entirely enjoyable. I can’t ignore my own albeit mild frustrations and discomfort regarding race, though, and while that’s my only criticism of this book, it’s a legitimate issue for me and worthy of analysis. That being said, I’ll still be reading more of Kay Kenyon, who is a fabulous storyteller, and A Thousand Perfect Things will still hold a special place on my shelf!

I have a signed thing! It was a joy to meet Kay Kenyon at the SFWA reading, and she graciously autographed my book. Equally joyous was her reading from her novel-in-progress, At the Table of Wolves.

I have a signed thing! It was a joy to meet Kay Kenyon at the SFWA reading, and she graciously autographed my book. Equally joyous was her reading from her novel-in-progress, At the Table of Wolves.

*** MINOR SPOILERS ***

My other disappointment came at the very end of the book. Don’t read this book if you don’t like happy endings. Having just finished the novel, I’m still feeling sore about this, but an ending so neatly wrapped up doesn’t feel right to me, especially after the heart-wrenching, gory climax Kenyon constructs. I felt a little let down.