Archive for December, 2009

Book review: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

“I was born twice.” It’s an epic beginning for a novel, which is in itself epic in its twists and turns. Middlesex is the story of Cal Stephanides, a forty-year-old man who was born a girl called Callope; at the age of sixteen, his hermaphroditism was discovered. A second birth, as he explains it, and a large chunk of the novel is the story of Calliope’s trials and tribulations as she’s socialised into a gender that doesn’t quite fit.

But to get to that point, we have the story of the previous two generations of the Stephanides family, Greek-Americans living in Detroit by way of a tiny village in Asia Minor. It’s also the story of how Cal came to have the requisite genetic condition and surrounding circumstances for such a transformation. It’s a long story, entwined with a great deal of history: the Turks’ burning of Smyrna, the Second World War, the 1967 race riots, the Nation of Islam, all forming a backdrop and context to the family’s story. They move through the burning of the harbour, speakeasies and hot dog stands, moving to the suburbs, and I recognise the greater narrative, the story of an immigrant family and their identity, their homesickness and their difference, their gradual assmilation, and finally, their loss of what’s left behind.

There are discordant notes in this grand tapestry, of course – sometimes the inner life of the teenage girl isn’t particularly well rendered, and occasionally things get a little too soap-operatic – but on the whole, it’s an achievement. I could have done with a little more about Cal’s life post-“second birth”, actually – a little more on how he deals with a life lived male, and how he deals with the family secrets he inherits, but as it is, it’s a substantial, solid achievement – a warm bath of a novel, just the right level of comedic, and full of insight into identity.

Security theatre strikes again

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

With the exception of two brief trips this past year, I’ve not been overseas since 2004. (2006 if you count literally overseas and include, er, Belfast). It’s not that I dislike going places – I enjoy it a lot – it’s just that I loathe flying. Being in the air is lovely; getting there is not.

I mean, flying as I remember it in the past isn’t much fun. I’m 6’2″, tall enough that short legroom is more of an annoyance than usual, and there’s always a lot of stress around airports – if you miss a connection, you have a lot less leeway for “oh, I’ll get on the next one” than you do with trains. You get stale food and lukewarm coffee, and you spend a lot of time in terminals at the mercy of overpriced concessions selling… well, stale food and lukewarm coffee.

But flying these days, of course, it’s all a bit more grim. Bags checked, shoes off, shoes on, bags checked again, seemingly random restrictions on what that bag can contain, etc etc, all of which largely spurious and done for the sake of looking secure rather than providing any significant benefit.

Not the sort of thing to make you look forward to the experience, all in all; I manage the rest of my life quite well without being treated like a criminal, and I don’t particularly want to pay for the privilege if I can avoid it. So, when I read today:

Among other steps being imposed, passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. … In effect, the restrictions mean that passengers on flights of 90 minutes or less would most likely not be able to leave their seats at all, since airlines do not allow passengers to walk around the cabin while a plane is climbing to its cruising altitude.
[New York Times]

…yeah. Any remaining desire I had to fly, I can feel just flowing out of me.

I mean, even were it a meaningful security step it would make it unpleasant enough to be a deterrent; as it is, the new system… wouldn’t even have prevented yesterday’s incident.

Mr Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for about 20 minutes before the incident, court documents say.
When he got back to his seat, he said he had an upset stomach and he pulled a blanket over himself, the affidavit continues.
“Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odour, and some observed Abdulmutallab’s pants, leg and the wall of the airplane on fire,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
[BBC News]

Imagine this rule was in place. What’d you have done, wanting to get around it? You’d have gone to the bathroom earlier, secreted the stuff about your person, and sat down. Wear a long loose shirt, say; you can manipulate stuff inside that easily enough, and I don’t see people patrolling the aisles, nursery-teacher style, to check your hands are neatly folded in your laps. Not exactly rocket science, really.

We have a security system, one that works well; people being alert and reacting when something goes wrong. You couldn’t manage a September 11th style hijacking any more, not because you’re not allowed knives on board but because people won’t be deterred by knives any more. And… that’s what happened here.

Bombs, they’re another kettle of fish. In the long run, you can’t stop people detonating them once they have them – not without tranquilising everyone and sealing them in glass boxes – because it’s an arms race, and there will always be a new method. You have to stop them being there to detonate, and normal security systems are – mostly – good at that. When they’re not, when people can still turn up carrying explosives, you need to think about that problem, not about what people are and aren’t allowed to do with their hands.

Film novels

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Way back in the mists of time, Jurassic Park was released. I was… let me see, ten. It should not be surprising that I loved it uncritically. Move forward fifteen years, and I happened to watch it again; it was still a pretty good film, even if parts began to look faintly dated. I ferreted out a copy of the novel and, all in all, not bad. Not quite my thing, a little heavy on the Clever Scientific Concepts – I like my fiction without detours into chaos theory – but it was enjoyable and rattled along nicely for an afternoon.

Yesterday, feeling particularly cold, I ducked into a charity shop; the only thing on the shelf that looked even vaguely interesting was, unexpectedly, a copy of the sequel, The Lost World. So, I paid a pound for it, and went back out into the snow to catch my bus home.

All I knew about this novel was that it was a sequel, it was somewhat hastily written to respond to the ravening demand for one, and that it would have been written with the expectation of being turned into a film. So, you’d expect a bit of sloppiness in the plotting, a few sections in need of editorial help, the usual signs of a book that did not quite get the attention it deserved. And we had them; moments where the plot leapt ahead without quite making logical connections, a character who seems entirely unsurprised to run into someone he thought he’d murdered three chapters earlier, and a Big Clever Scientific Explanation near the end which doesn’t quite make sense. (The entire plot doesn’t make sense in the context of the previous book’s events, either, come to think of it – but I can let that one slide.)

Despite this, it’s the film aspect that really leapt out. There are chase scenes in this; passages which don’t really work, seeming fast and clumsy, but when you re-read them you realise they’d look impressive on camera. Exposition is done in monologues in preference to narrative text. Characters are flat and hard to distinguish from their written speech alone. An obligatory pair of annoyingly competent children are shoehorned in, without any real attempt to explain how or why or if it makes sense. It all feels very forced, very much an attempt to make it punchier and more glossy at the expense of what plot there was before.

(It could have been worse, of course. Wikipedia notes, with what seems to be restrained amusement, that “the novel does not feature an adult Tyrannosaurus rampaging in San Diego, unlike in the film.”)

It’s a pity, really; it’s easy to dismiss this sort of quasi-tie-in novel as going to be terrible anyway, but we can see from the previous iteration that there was scope for something decent here. I wonder if it holds for other such sequels? The only example I can think of offhand is 2001 – where the first novel was written almost simultaneously with the film – but that’s such an odd case it’d be hard to draw any conclusions from it. 2010 was invariably going to seem brasher and punchier than 2001, because so would virtually anything else…

A new planet

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

It’s strange that I go on holiday and promptly fail to have enough time to do anything, but there you go. Haven’t posted in weeks.

So, moving on, today’s (yesterdays?) news. A research team in the US has identified a planet orbiting the red dwarf GJ 1214. What makes this particularly interesting – by comparison to the long line of extrasolar planets discovered in the past ten years – is two things:

  • Its characteristics. It’s quite small – six and a half earth masses, and about twice the diameter – but it’s also quite light. This indicates an unusual composition; it’s probably composed of ice and a small core, with a thick atmosphere, rather than rock. It’s hot, though – not as hot as Venus, but certainly hotter than we’d like – and so that ice is probably in some exotic form.
  • …and the way it was discovered. This wasn’t identified as the result of a high-powered orbital mission, or of extensive searching on one of the major telescopes; it was a small group of researchers, cherry-picking likely targets, for a total cost probably under half a million dollars. We can hope to see quite a few more…

We’re about four centuries – give or take three weeks – from Galileo discovering the first icy worlds, little satellites in orbit around Jupiter. This new object – a super-Ganymede as much as a super-Earth – seems a pretty triumphant discovery to mark the anniversary.

Book review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

In the winter of 1939, Josef Kavalier stumbles into his cousin Sammy’s cramped bedroom in New York City, having escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague. They share a cigarette, and something begins: a friendship, and a partnership,that will last years. Between them they create the Escapist, a superhero who can escape from anyone and anything, who travels the world as an agent of the League of the Golden Key, helping others to escape from oppression and tyranny.

The theme could be predictable and hamfisted: in America, Josef becomes Joe, and Sammy Klayman has already become Sam Clay; they escape from their Jewish backgrounds into the mainstream American middle classes just as Joe has already escaped Prague. But escape in itself isn’t the only theme – it’s also the failures that surround it, the way Joe and Sammy, in a way very reminscent of Angels in America, fail to be anything but their Jewish, troubled selves. Sammy can’t escape from his own sexuality, Joe can’t escape from anything he’s left behind. And as a counterpoint to the escapes, there are the absences left behind: the absence of Sammy’s father, Joe living with the daily absence of his family, and later, the absence of Joe.

The language is lyrical and indulgently expansive, the moods perfectly evoked, but interestingly, there is nevertheless an appopriate comic-book aspect to the way the novel is written: events have a ka-pow! quality, especially in the earlier part of the novel. Joe bounces through a young lady’s window, to screaming, Sammy kisses his his first love on the roof of a building with thunderstorms exploding around them, and later, Joe’s adventures in the Antarctic cold, complete with grim madmen and sudden death have the overblown comic-book feel.

What to say, in the end? I wasn’t sure what to take away from this novel. It is too heavy and sad to read once, but there’s something beautiful and altering in it, and something compelling about the way history and religion are threaded masterfully throughout. It stays with you, with all its weight.