Saturday, November 23, 2013

Geographical cures can do only so much...

... and Maugham was probably sitting in the Malayan jungle when he penned this line.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Hear Them Cry, by Shiho Kishimoto

I downloaded I Hear Them Cry on a whim, knowing nothing whatever about it. Unlike much contemporary Japanese fiction which toes the surrealist line, this book is painfully grounded in reality -- specifically, domestic violence and its impact upon children.

The narrator, Mayu, is a young Japanese painter living in France when the story begins, and the local parish priest, Father Jean, introduces her to Anna, the seven-year old sister of a troubled young man. When she realises that the girl, like her older brother before her, is being brutalised by her drug-addicted mother, Mayu takes a dramatic step to ensure that the court removes the child from her mother's care.

When Anna is safely resettled, Mayu returns to Japan as the wife of Shigeki Tachibana, a wealthy sake merchant whom she met in France. Despite an affluent childhood, Shigeki has his own demons which reveal themselves in sudden tantrums and slaps to Mayu's face.

Bewildered and hurt, Mayu learns some of the family history from her mother-in-law's maid.  Shigeki's mother, Kanako, had been a rebellious teen and, to the horror of her parents (the prominent Tachibana sake-brewing family) ran off with a rock star. She returned home pregnant, and her parents chose a young employee at the brewery, Taichi, to quietly marry her.  When the parents died, however, Taichi became a despot, making life miserable for Kanako and Shigeki.  Years of his abuse left Kanako a cold, distant woman and Shigeki an angry and violent young man. Finally, Taichi disappeared and was presumed lost as sea, though his remains were never found.  His domineering presence, however, still remains; neither Kanako nor Shigeki ever refer to him by his name.

One night, Kanako invites Mayu to join her for a drink.
I let the whiskey burn and numb my throat before saying, "What kind of a person was Father-in-Law?" Kanako met my eyes for the first time and said with a slightly ironic smile, "Well, let's see. He was arrogant, domineering, a womanizer, and above all else, he hated me. He would humiliate me by treating me like a whore, and by demonstrating total control he would reaffirm his place in the world and make a show of his authority and power. That's all he was capable of doing, really, that pathetic nonperson."
Kanako drank her whiskey in one gulp and went on. "That person used to be taciturn, very sincere, and hardworking back when my parents were still alive and well. They were sure fond of him, but I could never tell what was going on in that mind of his. Naturally, they liked him. That wasn't surprising, seeing that they were into anyone who would answer to their beck and call and toil away for them day in, day out, you see..."
Just when we've concluded that Taichi is the villain, Mayu stumbles upon a videotape that he made and left aboard the family yacht, from which he had disappeared.  In it, Taichi tells his side of the story, his report of the marriage into the esteemed Tachibana family. In many ways, he too had been victimised.

These wounds, inflicted by those in power against those under their control, are often hidden, rarely discussed, and in the long term, enormously toxic, breeding the next generation of abusers. I can imagine this novel rattled Japanese readers, where discussion of domestic abuse is only slowly coming into the open.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

And here is the final volume in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which we find Lyra and Will moving between worlds with the aid of his subtle knife, still dodging the evil Mrs. Coulter and an assortment of other foes.

Philip Pullman is clearly a spiritual man and just as obviously on hostile terms with the Catholic Church. In The Amber Spyglass, the battle for ultimate control of all worlds -- both those occupied by the living and the dead, by angels and witches and armor-clad polar bears -- is gearing up, and everyone is aligning with either the Church or with the forces of Lord Asriel.  In some strange way, Lyra and Will seem destined to play significant roles in the ultimate war, although they themselves are unsure what it is.  The Church, however, has declared Lyra a second Eve, whose temptation and downfall will envelop the world in eternal sin, and they are desperate to prevent that. And, as they have historically done, the Church authorities find a way to justify her murder. A specially qualified assassin volunteers for the task.
"I propose to send a man to find her and kill her before she can be tempted."
"Father President," said Father Gomez at once, "I have done preemptive penance every day of my adult life. I have studied, I have trained-- "
The President held up his hand. Preemptive penance and absolution were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed, intense and fervent penance accompanied by scourging and flagellation, so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit. When the penance had reached the appropriate level for a particular sin, the penitent was granted absolution in advance, though he might never be called on to commit the sin. It was sometimes necessary to kill people, for example; and it was so much less troubling for the assassin if he could do so in a state of grace.
Lyra is determined to enter the world of the dead to see if she can redeem her young friend, Tony, who perished in the first book, and Will is keen to see if he can make peace with his father, who died in the second. It is a Chiron-like boatman who agrees to ferry them to the land of the dead, warning them all the while that they will never return.  Most excruciating of all, he forces Lyra to leave Pantalaimon, her daemon, behind.
"Are we dead now?" Will said to the boatman.
"Makes no difference," he said. "There's some that came here never believing they were dead. They insisted all the way that they were alive, it was a mistake, someone would have to pay; made no difference. There's others who longed to be dead when they were alive, poor souls; lives full of pain or misery; killed themselves for a chance of a blessed rest, and found that nothing had changed except for the worse, and this time there was no escape; you can't make yourself alive again."
The world of the dead is a dreary, grey netherworld, guarded by harpies who pounce at the detection of any lies, where shades drift about without aim or hope. Lyra and Will vow to lead them all out of this world and back into the world of the living, where they will simply drift off into the atmosphere in a waft of atoms, just as their daemons did when they died. As they are making the trek out of the world of the dead, however, Will's late father, a shaman, tells them that their practice of moving between worlds will have to stop.  In the long run, he says, we can only live fully in the world that is ours.
"And this is the reason for all those things: your daemon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel's great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere."
In the end, of course, this means that Will and Lyra, now in love, must part ways and return to their own worlds, their own Oxfords, and all openings between worlds must be re-sealed, separating them permanently.  Lyra has mysteriously lost the ability to read the alethiometer (the "golden compass"), but her mentors at Jordan College tell her that she may now undergo the classical training to become an alethiometrist -- she will learn by study and practice what she had once done by intuition. And there is one final signal that her childhood has come to an end:  her daemon, Pantalaimon, begins to settle into his permanent form, and Lyra is at peace with his doing so. I think the question of Pan's final form had been lurking in the back of my mind from the earliest pages of Northern Lights. When Mr. Pullman finally revealed the daemon's permanent shape, I cheered.  I don't think God could have chosen any better.

I thank Mr. Pullman too for a new word in my lexicon.  His world of the dead is choked with mephitic vapors, from Latin mephiticus, or pestilential.

But I'll die trying...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh

I'm forever mixing up Maugham with Waugh, and I got the bright idea that I could cure myself of this by reading most or all of their works. Then, in theory, despite the phonetic similarity of their names, I would remind myself, "Oh, yes -- Maugham is The Razor's Edge, and Waugh is Brideshead Revisited.  Silly me..."  Of course I also confuse E. M. Forster with both of them, and this plan does nothing to address that, and instead of Brideshead, I reached for Waugh's A Handful of Dust. As it reminded me in many ways of The Razor's Edge, it only deepened the muddle.

Usually described as a satire of the British landed gentry, A Handful of Dust is a poignant reminder that satires can be heart-breaking.

The aptly named Tony Last is clinging to his family estate, Hetton Abbey. His wife Brenda, however, is less enamoured of life in the countryside than he is, and her chronic boredom leads her into a lackadaisical affair with a young nobody and social hanger-on, John Beaver. What ensues is the sort of marital farce that could only happen in England.

Brenda takes an apartment in London to carry on her absurd dalliance (she tells Tony she's studying economics), and Tony flounders about Hetton as best he can, pleading with her to come home more often. A friend, Jock, suggests that Tony also come up to London for a night, reasoning that a change of scenery would do him some good. They proceed to get drunk at one of the proper clubs and then make their way to a seedier place to carry on. Throughout the evening, Tony makes increasingly slurred telephone calls to Brenda's apartment on the assumption that she would most certainly expect him to drop in for a visit.  Her torpid and unenthusiastic responses convince him that he and Jock should instead carry on tippling at the Sixty-four.
...the Sixty-four has maintained a solid front against all adversity. It has not been immune from persecution; far from it. Times out of number, magistrates have struck it off, cancelled its licence, condemned its premises; the staff and until her death, the proprietress, have been constantly in and out of prison; there have been questions in the House and committees of enquiry, but whatever Home Secretaries and Commissioners of Police have risen into eminence and retired discredited, the doors of the Sixty-four have always been open from nine in the evening until four at night, and inside there has been an unimpeded flow of dubious, alcoholic preparations. A kindly young lady admitted Tony and Jock to the ramshackle building. "D'you mind signing in?" Tony and Jock inscribed fictitious names at the foot of a form which stated, I have been invited to a Bottle Party at 64 Sink Street given by Mr. Charles Weybridge. "That's five bob each please." It is not an expensive club to run, because none of the staff, except the band, receive any wages; they make what they can by going through the overcoat pockets and giving the wrong change to drunks...
"I like this, joint," said Jock. "What'll we drink?" "Brandy." They had to buy a whole bottle. They filled in an order form to the Montmorency Wine Company and paid two pounds. When it came it had a label saying Very Old Liquor Fine Champagne.
Meanwhile, Brenda admits to a friend that she's a bit worried about Tony's state of mind. They prattle on about finding a woman to interest him in the same vein they might discuss lawn tennis or lepidoptery as potential distractions.
"You know," Brenda confided next day, "I'm not absolutely happy about Tony."
"What's the old boy been up to?" asked Polly.
"Nothing much yet, but I do see it's pretty boring for him at Hetton all this time."
"I shouldn't worry."
"Oh, I'm not worrying. It's only, supposing he took to drink or something. It would make everything very difficult."
"I shouldn't have said that was his thing... We must get him interested in a girl."
"If only we could... Who is there?"
"There's always old Sybil."
"Darling, he's known her all his life."
"Or Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy."
"He isn't his best with Americans."
"Well we'll find him someone."
"The trouble is that I've become such a habit with him-he won't take easily to a new one... ought she to be like me, or quite different?"
"I'd say, different, but it's hard to tell." They discussed this problem in all its aspects.
When Brenda asks Tony for a divorce so she can marry the penniless Mr. Beaver, Tony graciously agrees to stage an adulterous liaison of his own, arranging for investigators to uncover it, so that Brenda will be the aggrieved party in the proceedings.  Alas, the bar-maid from the Sixty-four, who agrees to play the role of Tony's strumpet, brings her small daughter along on the trip. As it happens, this works out to be a blessing in disguise, because when Brenda demands the sale of Hetton to finance her life with Beaver, Tony calls the whole divorce off and relies upon the investigators to testify that his trip to Brighton was a perfectly chaste charade, citing the presence of the little girl.

Tony decides that absence may be the better part of valour, and he leaves the whole unpleasant mess behind. He goes off to Brazil "in search of a city", tagging along to assist Mr. Messinger, who is determined to find the ruins of an ancient fabled city in the thick of the jungle.  Messinger seems even less suited for such an expedition than Scott was for his Antarctic folly, and Tony is far from an intrepid explorer. Delirious with fever, he eventually falls into the hands of a Mr. Todd, a mixed-race Anglophile who has established his own small kingdom in the middle of nowhere.  Mr. Todd has a loyal community (many of whom are related to him by blood), an excellent knowledge of herbal medicine, and a complete collection of Dickens' novels, which he is unable to read. When Tony recovers from his fever, he discovers the depth of his host's passion for Dickens. Todd is happy to listen to Tony reading those novels aloud for... well, for the rest of his days. Or Tony's days, whichever might end first.

Poor Tony.  When their young son dies in a fox-hunting accident -- a young lady loses all control of her excitable horse, which kicks the boy in the head -- Tony repeats like a mantra, "It's no one's fault... No, it's really no one's fault."  Placing blame is simply not something one does in the Lasts' society, and finding fault with Brenda or Beaver would be most unsporting.  A Handful of Dust marks not only the end of a marriage but also the end of a more private and circumspect era. I expect watching Princess Diana discussing her husband's infidelity on the telly would have put Evelyn Waugh into his grave if he hadn't already got there in 1966.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Girl Missing, by Tess Gerritsen

The demand for more Tess Gerritsen at Malaysian Association for the Blind is still high, so I reached for the next in the stack -- Girl Missing. This was one of Dr. Gerritsen's earlier novels, predating the Rizzoli and Isles books. Her very first novels were romances, and she's been making the shift to medical thrillers -- Girl Missing sits in the middle of the two genres:  Attractive and feisty Medical Examiner meets dashing, handsome pharmaceutical company executive, and a string of corpses and nefarious plots throw them into each other's arms.

The ME in this case is Kat Novak, a young doctor who had a rough childhood in the inner-city projects. When corpses begin arrive in the city morgue having overdosed on some new drug that the labs have never seen before, Kat wants the mayor to issue a press release.  Since he's due for re-election, he is reluctant to do so, and besides -- they're only junkies from the projects. Is it really so important?

Enter Adam Quantrell, the flawless and wealthy director of Cygnus Pharmaceuticals.  Things get tangled when Kat discovers that the substance which put the bodies into her morgue is actually a new, experimental drug under development at Cygnus, and more tangled still when romance flares up between them.

The missing girl of the title is Maeve, Adam's troubled step-daughter, who is now living in the projects and has shadowy connections to the dead drug-users.  And, yes, who had worked in the Cygnus R&D lab for some months before disappearing.  Adam wants to find Maeve in an effort to redeem her, Kat wants to find Maeve to learn more about the overdoses, the police want to find Maeve in connection with the murder of her former boss, the research director at Cygnus, and Maeve does not want to be found.

I'm glad Dr. Gerritsen made the choice to move toward the medical thrillers. The Rizzoli and Isles novels show the fruits of more experience, more attention to detail and more emotional and intellectual involvement on her part. Girl Missing just has a few adolescent growing pains.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Fifth Queen, by Ford Madox Ford

My dear English bookworm friend, Mark, recommended this book to me when I paused to catch my breath during an effusive rave about Wolf Hall.  I think he felt that my new-found affection for Thomas Cromwell was in need of tempering.

 Ford Madox Ford is best known for his WWI-era novel The Good Soldier, which has been on my reading list for several years, but on Mark's recommendation, I went ahead with The Fifth Queen. The fifth queen is, of course, Kathryn Howard, who married the nearly 50 year old, obese, gout-ridden and foul-tempered King Henry VIII when she was 19, a mere three weeks after he divorced Anne of Cleves, whose Teutonic stoutness he couldn't abide.

Most historians concur that Kathryn was foolhardy and promiscuous. Unlike the dubious evidence cooked up against her cousin, Anne Boleyn, there seems to have been little question that Kathryn was carrying on an affair under Henry's nose. He was devastated -- he genuinely seemed to revel in her high-spirited company -- but he sent her to the executioner at age 21.

Thomas Cromwell was beheaded not long after the Cleves marriage ended, but he permeates every page of The Fifth Queen, a sinister omnipresence with eyes and ears in every dark corner of the kingdom. Hilary Mantel presents Cromwell as at least a more balanced and reasonable character; Ford joins the legions of authors who present him as evil personified -- a manipulative megalomaniac who, in his cunning power games, cost thousands their lives.  On the other hand, Ford paints Kathryn Howard less as a flighty, frivolous girl and more as a pawn in the ruthless politics of Henry's court.

The Fifth Queen is the first novel in a trilogy: The second is Privy Seal: His Last Venture, and The Fifth Queen Crowned is the third. (They are available for free download from

Cromwell rose to the rank of Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1536, and he managed to stay in this post (one of the five highest in the Court) for four years.  In April 1540, Henry advanced him one step further, to Lord Great Chamberlain.  In June of the same year, he was executed, and Henry married Kathryn Howard in July.

Mantel and Ford share the same gift for finding a narrative voice that is just archaic enough to be consistent and credible without being onerous for the modern reader.  They are both talented story-tellers, but a reader with no background whatever in Tudor history will struggle. Mantel expends most of her energy on her characters; Ford invests a great deal in his setting.

Graham Greene, a faithful admirer, astutely observes Ford's attention to light:  "He tries out the impressionist method...The whole story of the struggle between Katharine and Cromwell for the King seems told in shadows – shadows which flicker with the flames of a log-fire, diminish suddenly as a torch recedes, stand calm awhile in the candlelight of a chapel: a cresset flares and all the shadows leap together. Has a novel ever before been lit as carefully as a stage production?"

And in the warmly lit chamber at Austin Friars, previously an Augustinian friary which fell into Cromwell's hands when the Crown seized all the Church's property, Ford gives us our first and very telling glimpse of the Lord Privy Seal.
His plump hands were behind his back, his long upper lip ceaselessly caressed its fellow, moving as one line of a snake's coil glides above another.
Much like his upper lip, Cromwell's mind is rarely still, even in repose. He is the consummate chessmaster, always plotting potential moves far into the future.  As the novel opens, things look relatively secure for him, no matter how they play out.
With the generosity of his wine and the warmth of his fire, his thoughts went many years ahead. He imagined the King either married to or having repudiated the Lady from Cleves, and then dead. Edward, the Seymour child, was his creature, and would be king or dead. Cleves children would be his creations too. Or if he married the Lady Mary he would still be next the throne.
And then Kathryn Howard appears one day, out of the blue, upon an exhausted mule led by her cousin Culpeper. They've been accosted by angry mobs outside the palace when Henry and Cromwell come upon them. The young and lovely damsel in distress catches the King's attention, and he orders that the weary pair and the mule be given lodgings.  

Kathryn is a niece of the Duke of Norfolk; she is from the north country -- a region that has been slow to give up the Old Faith and which has felt Cromwell's bloody wrath as a consequence.  Kathryn is far from a rustic innocent, however. Although unaccustomed to either the sophistication or the shenanigans at the royal Court, she is a polymath in her own right.  Culpeper, her adoring firebrand cousin, is clearly an albatross around her neck, but he had in many ways taught her to cope with men and their associated aggravations. her all these things had seemed very far away. She had nothing to do but to read books in the learned tongues, to imagine herself holding disquisitions upon the spiritual republic of Plato, to ride, to shoot with the bow, to do needlework, or to chide the maids. Her cousin had loved her passionately; it was true that once, when she had had nothing to her back, he had sold a farm to buy her a gown. But he had menaced her with his knife till she was weary, and the ways of men were troublesome to her; nevertheless she submitted to them with a patient wisdom.
When Kathryn arrives at Henry's Court, Cromwell and one of his lackeys, Viridus, realise all too quickly how bright she is, and how useful that might be to them.  Particularly as Cromwell carries on that endless battle of wills with the Lady Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon -- as long as she is the figurehead to those of the Old Faith, plots are likely to be brewing which would present a threat to Henry's rule. 
[Kathryn's] fair and upright beauty made Viridus acknowledge how excellent a spy upon the Lady Mary she might make. Papistry and a loyal love for the Old Faith seemed to be as strong in her candid eyes as it was implicit in her name. The Lady Mary might trust her for that and talk with her because of her skill in the learned tongues. Then, if they held her in their hands, how splendid a spy she might make, being so trusted! She might well be won for their cause by the offer of liberal rewards, though Privy Seal's hand had been heavy upon all her kinsfolk. These men of Privy Seal's get from him a maxim which he got in turn from his master Macchiavelli: 'Advance therefore those whom it shall profit thee to make thy servants: for men forget sooner the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony' -- and either by threats or by rewards they might make her very useful.
Kathryn is savvy enough to see through many of these men, to see them as the lackeys that they are, but she's also savvy enough to grasp that she, too, is little more than a puppet.
She had been minded to mock him in the beginning of his speech, but his dangerous pale-blue eyes made her feel that if he were ridiculous he was also very powerful, and that she was in the hands of these men.
Bishop Gardiner of Winchester sneaks into Kathryn's quarters at night, well-disguised, to discern for himself how true is her bond to the Old Faith. If it's solid, she could prove a very useful tool to him in his own power struggles with Cromwell.  She convinces him of her Catholic devotion, but whether she will serve him or serve Cromwell is less certain.  
'Why, God keep you,' he moved his fingers in a negligent blessing. 'I believe you are true, though you are of little use.'  ...
He muttered: 'Think you Privy Seal knoweth not the King's taste? I tell you he hath seen an inclination in him towards you. This is a plot, but I have sounded it!' 
She let him talk, and asked, with a malice too fine for him to discern: 'I should not shun the King's presence for my soul's sake?'
'God forbid,' he answered. 'I may use thee to bring down Privy Seal.'
If, by the end of the book, we are horrified on Kathryn's behalf at the extent of the skullduggery, we also realise that Henry is exhausted by it.  He, of course, is unlikely to be the victim of his ministers' plots and schemes, but he is aware that they are jockeying for their own power and advancement and not solely for the good of the realm.  A sobbing Kathryn falls at his feet and pleads with him to let her leave the snake pit of his Court, but Henry looks down and sees a young woman who might provide him much solace.  

'Body of God, Body of God,' he muttered beneath his breath, as they went, 'very soon now I can rid me of these knaves,' and then, suddenly, he blared upon Katharine: 'Thou seest how I am plagued and would'st leave me. Before the Most High God, I swear thou shalt not.'
She fell upon her knees. 'With each that speaks, I find a new traitor to me,' she said. 'Let me begone.'
He threatened her with one hand. 'Wench,' he said, 'I have had better converse with thee than with man or child this several years. Thinkest thou I will let thee go?' She began to sob...
Whether the historical Kathryn was the frivolous young woman that most historians present or the more substantial and erudite character that Ford draws, the result is the same:  for a woman in the Tudor Court, life is never safe. Spies and opponents are everywhere, and the only question is with which party one casts one's lot.  He who is in the King's good graces today may be in the Tower tomorrow, and traitors rarely die alone.  True virtue is all but irrelevant.