Posts Tagged ‘China Miéville’

Do a book club, they said!

It’ll be fun, they said!

We’ll call it Addiction to Fiction, they said! Okay, fair enough that’s cool!

It won’t take much time, they said.

Oh. Right. Of course not.

So now, at 3:15 every Thursday a group of book hungry students descends on me. Seriously, it’s fabulous: a group of teenagers asking to read! Fantastic! It is every English teacher’s dream!

So, their choice to kick off was…

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Set in a futuristic and post-apocalyptic world, the book is basically divided into three parts:

1) a depiction of extreme poverty and deprivation in District 12; until

2) Katniss is selected or volunteers to be a tribute at the Hunger Games and her training at the Capitol; until

3) the Hunger Games themselves.

In my opinion, the first section was very strong. The poverty in District 12 was very strongly described: the bare canvas mattress in the opening paragraphs; Katniss’ recollections of being at the point of literal starvation until Peeta throws her a loaf of bread; Katniss’ mother’s breakdown after her husband’s death; Prim’s delicacy, vulnerability and need for protection – her name is Primrose and we first see her cocooned in her mother’s embrace – are all beautifully depicted.

In fact the opening three paragraphs have provided a great resource for an annotation exercise at school.

On a side note… this irked: in the film, how are we meant to accept Jennifer Lawrence who is patently healthy, well fed and somewhat chubby of cheek as a character on the verge of starvation?!

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Anyways…

The contrast between the earthy and natural privations of District 12 and the gaudy artificiality of the Capitol was also great. The ostentation of the genetic manipulation for vanity amongst the population – save for Cinna with whom we latch onto as the sole source of normalcy – and the casual horror of the Avoxes was very effective at alienating us from the Capitol.

The Games themselves I found slightly disappointing. I liked the ambiguity of it being a performance for the sponsors: at various times, Katniss suppressed expressing how she felt because she didn’t want to seem weak; the romance between her and Peeta was nicely judged and balanced between genuine emotion and cynical performance. There was an echo – for me – of the film Starship Troopers where reality and propaganda were spliced together.

But let’s deal with the violence. My Addiction to Fiction group were disappointed – seriously disappointed – that they didn’t see more violence. There were, really, only three of the 22 deaths portrayed: Glimmer, Rue, and Cato’s and there is no real gore in any of them except Glimmer’s. Stung to death by mutated wasps, her corpse is raided by Katniss to obtain the bow who – also stung and hallucinating – seems to see

Her features eradicated, her limbs three times there normal size. The stinger lumps have begun to explode, spewing putrid green liquid…. the flesh disintegrates in my hands.

Rue’s death was genuinely moving and emotional and far better handled by the book than the film.

Cato’s, however, was just tediously dull: being clad on armour and falling amidst genetically mutated dogs (“muttations” was not my favourite neologism in the book!) he took ages and pages to die.

This really is a first class YA book!

The language is nowhere near the language of Philip Reeve or China Miéville but the concept – derived from channel hopping between Survivor and child soldiers in the news – and characters and pace are cracking!

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There are some authors for whom a new book is more than just a new book on the shelves of W H Smith. It’s an event; it’s anticipated; it generates a frisson when you see the spine waiting for you, calling to you, beckoning you.

China Miéville is an author like that for me.

There are also authors whose books echo and resonate and speak to me year upon year, age upon age.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is such a book for me.

To stumble upon Miéville’s Railsea was a genuine moment of excitement in a dreary end-of-term week. A young man, aboard a mole train – what’s a mole train? – seeking a great white mole for his less-than-whole-bodied captain.

Could this book lover resist?

Hell no! He could not!

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What this is not is a re-hash of Moby Dick, despite the obvious similarities. Yes, Captain Abacat Naphi and her philosophy in pursuing the giant white mountain of a mole that is Mocker-Jack is Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick. Sham ap Soorap has touches of both Ishmael and Pip the Cabin-Boy. Miéville’s post-modern, fourth wall breaking – not so much as breaking as shattering and disintegrating the fourth wall – echoes Melville’s own cul-de-sacs and digressions in Moby-Dick.

But Miéville’s world is not derivative. All of Miéville’s books are notable for their world-building whether it be the London of Kraken or the sumptuous world of Bas-Lag within which Perdido Street Station and The Scar and Iron Council breathe. And this is no exception: Railsea inhabits a continent of shifting, inconstant, permeable earth. Cities can only survive on rocky outcrops because the soft soil is home to a range of vast, carnivorous, monstrous beasts: man sized earthworms, antlions, owls, tortoises

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and the various sized moles.

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And atop this shifting surface are rails: not the linear rails we are used to but a snaking, branching, multiplying sea of rails and tracks and sidings and branch lines and rail upon rail upon rail. Miéville rejects the word and in Railsea, relying of the ampersand instead – often starting sentences and paragraphs with an “&” which initially grated but which I quickly accepted. About halfway through, Miéville opines as to the futility of the past’s linear use of “a-n-d” and posits the symbolic nature of the ampersand, it’s curving twisting shape reflecting the nature of the Railsea itself.

I can understand that some readers would be put off by oh-so-self-aware metatextuality of the narrative. Robinson Crusoe is explicitly referred to as well as Moby Dick. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island inform it. Miéville’s own Iron Council is echoed here.

And Miéville ruminates and ponders the narrative itself explicitly. The first half of the book is very much from Sham’s point-of-view aboard the train Medes. Half way through, the narrative splits: Sham and the Medes part company and other trains are introduced as points-of-view. And Miéville explicitly discussing when and where to change point-of-view. Chapter 64 consists of two simple sentences:

Time for the Shroakes?
Not yet.

And Chapter 71 opens with

Now. At last. Surely.
This must be the moment to return to the Shroakes & to their rail. Surely.
It is, in fact, yes, Shroake O’Clock.

As I said, I get that this will irk and put off lots of people. Some will just shrug it off. But I loved this!

I loved how much fun Miéville had with the structure, the voice, the language. I imagine him chuckling to himself as he wrote it – no doubt with a pneumatically enhanced pencil attached to an artificial prosthetic like his Captain Naphi. He uses language like

a gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed up oddness

chthonic

eruchthonous

verspertilian

there was throating & a snarl of tree-sized slaver-spattering tusks & a plunging

These phrases shout to me a joy and a playfulness with language which (I hope) I share in – albeit with a less impressive vocabulary. Miéville’s prose for me shimmers and sparkles and coruscates.

Yes, this is a very writerly readers’ book but that doesn’t distract or detract from a cracking good tale and extremely tautly plotted novel.

The weakest part for me was the final confrontation. Miéville’s politics spills out into the novel here and – whilst I absolutely share his left wing views – it felt just a tad didactic and obvious.

But, what a book!

Absolutely mind blowingly wonderful.

Railsea has been labelled as Young Adult which I worry about: how many children expecting Hunger Games or Twilight would pick this up? How many adults who would love this wouldn’t pick up a YA book?

And as a brief postscript: I now want a daybat … As well as a direwolf!

I am conscious that I haven’t managed to post on here for a while… Primarily because I’ve not managed to finish a book for a while.

Now, there are a number of possible reasons for this…

    1. I am just very very lazy…
    2. I have been doing a lot of work for, well, work…
    3. Olympics
    4. The kids are down and my me-time has dissolved…
    5. Possibly having five or six books on the go at once has diminished my completion rate.

So, these are the books currently being read concurrently on the ereader, depending on mood, tiredness and time!

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And that’s in no particular order and doesn’t include the (re-)reading needed to write schemes of work for school….

Sure I must complete one soon…!

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It is with genuine sadness that I learn of Maurice Sendak’s death today. This man will have the status of icon, myth, legend and inspiration for all time.

I feel it wouldn’t be right, as a reader, not to mark his life in some way. He was the one man whose story, Where The Wild Things Are has stayed with me throughout my life. I remember my mother reading it to me; it was the first book I ever read alone; I remember having to draw the Wild Things in an art lesson at school when I was 10; it was the first book I bought to read to my adopted son and daughter; it was subsequently eaten by my son but quickly replaced; I have taught it in A level English classes and at GCSE.

I do not know enough about Sendak to write an obituary and there will be countless. The first (perhaps) is here

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/books/maurice-sendak-childrens-author-dies-at-83.html

What I can do is explore what Sendak means to me and what he woke in me.

He taught me that language is alive and resonant and beautiful and playful and true. His line that Max “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year” is still one of my favourite lines in all writing! The way the sentence moves from the literal to to symbolic; the interplay of movement through time and space – “in and out of weeks” – is controlled, simple, elegant and just sublime. It is language at its best and reminds us that beauty, depth, poignancy and truth are not limited to long, pretentious, showy language.

Another thing he was the first to teach me was that the creatures and shapes that peopled the inside of my head – and I assume others’ – were valid and real and true in a way that transcended the mundane truths of our banal world. They were parts of me. Contradictory, antagonistic, childish, irritating, unruly, scary and – in it’s richest sense – wild but all parts of me.

He taught me that no one can limit or control human and my own imagination. The limitlessness of the Max sent to his room in which

That very night … a forest grew and grew- and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by

. Yes I know it’s “just” a kids’ book but Max in his room is Mandela on Robbins Island, is every wage slave, is every oppressed individual or group or race. Mandela in fact said, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that it was the book that caused the “prison walls fall down”. Sound familiar? And the vastness of our human imagination: unbounded even by the ocean.

Yet despite his unbounded oceanic imagination, Max returns home to “be where someone loved him best of all” and through this I learnt that we cannot exist in our imagination alone. And as a parent, trying to discipline an unruly (book eating) wild thing of my own, I learnt that discipline does not stop the child loving and feeling loved “best of all” however much he may be screaming that he hates me!

Through Sendak, I learnt that love can be so possessive it becomes destructive. When he leaves, the Wild Things howl “Oh please don’t go- we’ll eat you up- we love you so!”. Watching Jeremy Kyle or recalling the disputes I got involved in as a barrister, other people would have benefitted from learning that too.

I learnt through Sendak that the label of “children’s” or “young adult” books is patronising. I recall Patrick Ness’ sublime A Monster Calls and I wonder about the debt Ness owes Sendak; I read Neil Gaiman and China Miéville and Sendak seems to echo through them. I have no idea whether these people have read or valued Sendak but I hear Max’s spirit in them.

So, Maurice Sendak, dead today at the age of 83, I thank you! You have in a very real sense made me who I am today. And I like who I am!

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