I think I was directed to Cynan Jones’s stuff from a best-of list, which always seems to me to feel vaguely like cheating. Still, Everything I Found on the Beach was definitely a worthwhile read, and its focus on white, masculine, working class life felt compelling and real.
- At first I struggled with the coast, as I kept assuming it was Ireland. The coast was actually Wales, although part of the plot comes from Irish drug smugglers hiring Welsh (and immigrants) to bring in drugs.
- It starts with a body on a beach, which turns out to be that of Hold, a Welshmen who loves fishing but has seen his life crumble financially with the death of his best friend Danny.
- Hold also takes on Danny’s wife and child in a non-spousal kind of way, adding a bit of depth to his character.
- We also follow Grzegorz, a recent Polish immigrant who thought that England offered he and his family a way off of his grandfather’s declining farm.
- Grzegorz’s family is also prominently described in ways that both helped me understand EU migration and gave me a better feel for the misery that can accompany these kinds of moves and uprootings.
- The novel is locked clearly into a capitalist structure – Grzegorz wants to leave the slaughterhouse at which he works, someone hired there because no one else will take the job, Hold wouldn’t have to worry about anything except fishing and hunting except for Danny’s sister who wants to be out of the house that Danny’s family lives in after his death, and the Irish mobsters are working the black market selling cocaine.
- Jones sympathizes with the working class status of the three men, helping us understand why they can’t go forward due to financial barriers that they all seek to leap with illegal activities that promise rich rewards. Only one of the three survives (the Big Man, who murders Hold after Hold tries to sell them the cocaine he found when he found Grzegorz’s boat).
- There are no real villains – we get inside the head of the murderer, who is along just for muscle, and the other small-time mobster is caught up in his own struggles as well. And there are no easy stereotypes – Danny dies of some sort of cancer, his sister-in-law makes sense wanting to buy the family out fo the house because she needs the money, Grzegorz’s ambition makes sense, just as the customs of his new country don’t. The biggest villain might be the large companies that dominate the new EU, but even their presence is not all that clear. Grzegorz’s family move is at least partially driven by the inability of the small family farm to compete, but the pastoral paradise of that farm, one in which his grandparents controlled their own production even if they didn’t make much outside money, is portrayed as almost utopian to Grzegorz and his family after they are stuck in England for a few years.
- I found the scenes of the Polish families particularly powerful. The families band together in the best ways possible, but they get in trouble for using pieces of the animals that the slaughterhouse is just going to throw away, and they miss their customs. Their sense of comfort is not helped by the “POLES OUT” graffiti they see across the street, either.
- The simple desire to just live their lives keeps screaming from these pages. Hold can make a living fishing and hunting, and he clearly enjoys being on the sea. He’s painted as a very sympathetic person, someone who wants to be a masculine presence in Danny’s son’s life, and we hear in his head the ways in which he tries to prevent rabbits from feeling pain as he shoots them. His connections to the land are traditional (as are Grzegorz’s grandparents’), and thus doomed.
- Jones also writes in a style that moved the novel along. He provided lots of description of the environment, and of his characters’ internal monologue, and little of interactions between people. The inability to articulate feelings is a key element of the masculine inheritance of these characters.
I look forward to reading more of Cynan Jones’s work.
I finished The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson a couple of weeks ago (it’s been a busy reading summer), and, as always, comments:
- It’s non-fiction, balancing between the story of a serial killer who killed quite a few visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair and the development of the fair itself. I’m not sure that the connection is as obvious as Larson wants us to believe, but the advent of serial killers and urban spaces that feel lawless (Jack the Ripper does his business in 1888, the first serial killer to become highly sensationalized) are definitely a historical fact of the time.
- I had this recommended to me by several folks, both academic and not. It was a fascinating and quick read, and gave some interesting insights into Chicago and American politics at the turn of the last century.
- Larson notes how many people visiting Chicago simply disappeared, and his research feels solid if a bit anecdotal.
- I have found the fair fascinating since I read David Nye’s American Technological Sublime, and this sort of story that idealizes the architects and designers who made this event happen (‘they thought they could never pull it off!’ is about the least hyperbolic way to document Larson’s narrative) added some life to folks I had read about.
- That being said, Larson doesn’t spend much time worrying about the implications of the fair itself outside of its impact on Chicago and the perceptions of Chicago in the rest of the country. I get that, but the academic in me loved how Nye connected the Fair to the larger American cultural narrative about technological development.
I just finished Leviathan Wakes, the first of the Expanse series by the pseudonyonmous tag team known as James Corey. I’m usually not a space opera fan – it seemed so clearly empirical and alpha male even its latest iterations that I couldn’t take it seriously except as an example of a cultural anxieties and cultural work in action (thanks Cawelti and Tompkins) – and I’m not sure that this series will be different, although I had high hopes.
Still, some notes:
- the context – the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter has been settled, but humanity can’t go any farther – is especially promising as it feels geopolitically realistic. Mars and Earth treat the Belters like second class citizens, a different race, one designed simply to serve as a fount of natural resources, mostly minerals.
- This leads to tension between all three, and the first book (and first year of the tv series on syfy) uses that tension to put the three in a warm war.
- Pretty quickly, though, Corey goes where all space opera goes – the true threat is from way beyond the stars. I’m not sure why I keep looking for that piece of fiction that will solve all of our problems, but I do…
- About that…
- The action quickly changes when they find a protogen molecule sent from outer space. A bit too suddenly humanity realizes that – drum roll please – the future of the human race is at stake, and we turn like the Greeks at Salamis Bay.
- The alien feels a lot like Greg Bear’s Blood Music, in that the molecule isn’t necessarily intelligent or focused like an individual entity but that instead it follows its protocols to utilize biomass and distribute its processing. As such, it’s capable of powerful re-engineering that turns, for instance, a space station at Eros into a huge spaceship that can generate its own atmosphere.
- I loved Blood Music, and this alien force doesn’t quite match that one, in that the noocytes create what is essentially a utopia even though to all appearances they have killed all humans on the planet. This molecule isn’t that conscious or focused.
- For all my complaining, the empathy the creators have for Belters as a misunderstood race is pretty cool – the Belt is settled by those who have no options on a ridiculously overcrowded earth and don’t like the structure of Martian society (a democracy, but sort of Athenian in its focus on sacrifice and discipline). They note just how different folks growing up in this type of environment will be, to the way that gestures that we take for granted (shoulder shrugs, eye rolls) have to be performed with the hands because of the proximity of always living in a space suit.
- And, despite my complaints, I will keep reading.
I got to go to Italia again, and that place never gets old…er…
Some impressions this time:
- The team was a joy, for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important was that I didn’t have to worry about group-building responsibilities. What few issues there were taken care of by team members themselves, they remained engaged even on tiring days, they were genuinely happy to be there, they were eager and enthusiastic and got out a bunch, they took care of each other, and hell, they were even fit.
- Insert your standard Rome-is-hot take here. Where we stayed, though, had air conditioning, and as long as we took care of ourselves the heat wasn’t a problem.
- women’s basketball in Rome felt like watching Euros from the 90s play in the NBA – clever and innovative with the ball, capable of scoring in creative ways, uninterested in defense once their man got past them, and not nearly as fit, athletic, or physical as Americans.
- had an interesting exchange with a drunk street guy after the game, and it made me realize how different I am in protector mode. I was pissed at him and wanted to hit him, when usually I’m pretty good with crazy street people who are essentially harmless.
- I also wondered about that famous Italian non-tolerance for public drunkenness. He’s still one of the few folks I’ve seen in Italy stumbling around, and that followed our time at the Irish festival last week in which we saw several drunk americans stumbling around. Do we think of this as a police matter and ignore it? Is the reaction I’m seeing a city-vs.-suburbs thing?
- Is the non-tolerance due to a recognition of what the responsibilities are when folks live very closely together? Maybe there’s some sort of personal conservatism at work, in a Canadian sense – Italian men at least do not dress in ways that I would consider flashy, for the most part. Maybe the impetus comes from a need to remain in urban camouflage…and maybe it just means I haven’t been in cities enough lately…and Cleveland doesn’t count (although Cavs gear seems to be the camouflage du jour).
- Finally, I got a view of my own reliance on specific narratives in my own head – the usual suspects, power, ritual, sacred, the divine, primal origins – and I hope to keep working on expanding those neurocognitive lines as I try to keep my brain active…
Big words on coming back from multiple trips, words that keep circulating in my neocortex…
- Possibility (of all sorts)
- Redemption (for what, exactly, I do not know)
- Shame (the power of cultural emotions and how to utilize them)
- Discipline (self as well as that imposed from outside)
- Honor (the struggles thereof, and a
- Slavery (spent time in a place that had no bones talking about – and keeping visible reminders of it up – a slave past)
Word that didn’t come up:
Need more of that one, I think…
I’m also reading the Book of the Malazan Fallen series, and while I don’t completely understand my attraction it’s been a needed cleansing from my disappointment over the closure of the ASOIAF series, especially as it’s played out through HBO. I’ve had to look at my love of these types of series through the lens of ritual, I’m guessing, and that’s made me realize just how much I consistently revert back to fantasy/scifi when I am looking for reading materials. I can pat myself on the back a bit, I guess, because I seek out genre-bending series, but I’m not exactly sure that that’s a win.
Finally, as to that disappointment, I’m not sure why I expect life-changing epiphanies from fantasy series. I guess that I should know why I do, but the power I place in the transformative nature of these types of text is almost always personal, and I had hoped that ASOIAF was going to blow the doors off fantasy (and fiction) by advocating for the placement of humans in balance in the ecosystem of the world of ASOIAF. This sort of balance would entail far fewer of us, and dragons and WWs teaming up with wargs to place humans back into a Malthusian cycle or some other sort of holistic place in our environment.
I can’t imagine GRRM will go there, but maybe the HBO series has freed him up to write what he wants. I can’t help but think that the elaborate plot diffusions in DoD were not planned but were sort of his attempts to write himself someplace more interesting.
Ending in a way that doesn’t involve Tyrion, John Snow, and Danerys Targaryen on dragons would be a beautiful thing. He’s left so many possibilities that I guess that he can go in a bunch of different ways…and here’s hoping he provides that magic moment (rethinking the advent of science and technology, rethinking the triumph of rationality) that I think is sitting out there…
Redemption of sorts, eh?