Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

Posts Tagged ‘book

Animal Agency

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dog and bookJudging by its cover, who else thinks ‘A Dog About Town’ looks like an unforgiveably appalling read? As I was briefly searching the net to see what kind of books have been written from the perspective of animals (for New Year 2010 Book Challenge), I came across this article on academics considering the way animals have been agents in history. I was wondering whether more and more authors will be writing about animals from a way which is not childlike, fanciful or cringe-worthy. Of course I know that this has been achieved, most famously by George Orwell in ‘Animal Farm’. Also what would ‘Life of Pi’ be without the unforgettable interaction between Tiger, Hyena, Zebra, Monkey and boy? These books use animals as clear metaphors for humans behaviour and characteristics, so in effect they can be treated as human characters. In Life of Pi, we are left uncertain whether they were in fact animals at all or just the workings of an unhinged, dehydrated imagination. But neither do I consider the kind of book above as the ‘answer’ to representing animals in books. This is an animal which is personified as subtly as a bowling ball.

In contrast, in ‘Two Caravans’ by Marina Lewycka the dog gets it’s own voice:

‘I AM DOG I RUN I RUN FROM BAD MAN CAGE I HEAR DOGS BARK ANGRY DOGS GROWL ANGRY DOGS BARK THEY WILL FIGHT THEY WILL KILL I SMELL DOG-SWEAT MAN-RAGE MAN OPENS CAGE MAN PULLS COLLAR MEN SIT SMOKE TALK DOGS BARK LIGHT TOO BRIGHT BIG ANGRY DOG SNARLS SHOWS TEETH HAIRS BRISTLE ON HIS BACK HE WILL KILL I AM NOT FIGHTING DOG I AM RUNNING DOG I JUMP I RUN I RUN TWO DAYS I EAT NO MEAT HUNGER PAINS IN BELLY MAKE ME MAD I FEEL HUNGER I FEEL FEAR I RUN I RUN I AM DOG’

Lewycka creates a dog as a key character in the story with agency which makes the dog different from either the animals in Animal Farm or in Life of Pi. Lewycka has been criticised for giving Dog a voice,

‘She risks our forbearance giving voice to a mongrel dog, whose thoughts, printed in all-capitalized text, are as welcome as a hairball.’

Why so cynical? I don’t believe Lewycka created Dog as a doting pet-owner who want to make their pet more human, simply there to make others laugh or Aw. Dog is a character, and without a voice, his actions in the last few chapters would be seen as a coincidence or, tediously, a metaphor for some kind of human action. As it is, Dog is a DOG and his actions, not of any human, save the day.

Interaction between humans and animals is a powerful force across cultures and times, animals have affected human lives as much as we have affected theirs. We have been caught up too much in establishing why animals are so different to make us feel superior. The last line of this article sticks with me:

“…we can learn more about humans by understanding what they claimed they were not: animals.”

Does anyone else have any examples of animals in books (except Children’s) which are not one big extended metaphor or personified beyond having a voice?

The Island at the End of the World

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One of the best books I have read in a long time but still feel that it doesn’t quite cut it. Who doesn’t love to be whisked away to a almost-deserted idyllic island?…set in the near future, this island inhabited only by a family of four: a pious Dad and his three curious and feisty children Alice, Finn and Daisy. And there are big tantalising mysteries right from the get-go:

  1. How did these people get to this island?
  2. Was there really a flood which wiped out the rest of the human race?
  3. What happened to the mother?

 We see the world through the Father and Finn’s eyes for most of the book then in Part Two it is Alice’s turn. The use of language is very original to set apart the three characters. The father speaks like this:

‘And the Father said to Alice, WHAT IS THIS THAT THOU HAST DONE?’

He is obviously using language which he has learnt from the Bible (according to him one of the three books worth reading along with Shakespeare and Fairy Tales), he refers to himself in the third person which makes him sound self-important and a little bit mad. I find the father’s voice is affected and although the character is indeed dangerously off-his-trolley his sanctimonious huffing and puffing generally sounds ridiculous. Having recently read ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ I have had enough of the constant references to Genesis, temptation and sexual knowledge to last me a couple of years and Kingsolver’s mastery makes this book seem like a poor cousin of the thematic genre.

What I did enjoy about  The Island at the End of the World and what makes it an outstanding read is Finn’s use of language. It took me by surprise that I had to make an effort to understand what he was saying, and some misspellings have a touch of genius. For example, cuddling is pronounced ‘culling’ which inverts the connotations of the word completely. This new pigeon English makes me look at language from a new perspective and shapes this new world as strange and refreshing.

The second thing I like about this book is Snowy, the cat which I think could be seen as the animal version of Jesus. Being murdered within the first couple of chapters, we only ever know about Snowy through Finn’s memory of his beloved pet and companion. The author creates a character void in killing off this animal as well as the unexplained absence of the mother which makes this island seems very empty and unsettling undermining its lush and beautiful appearance. Why is the cat called Snowy? Purity and transience come to mind but also a kind of untouchable-ness, as snow is cold and melts away. Also the book opens in the winter as the spring and summer come, Alice’s sexuality awakens echoing the fertility and heat around her.

There is enough to study in this book to last at least a dissertation….having its fair share of extended metaphors: island, sunflowers,ark,swimming,trees. I highly recommend the read.

Written by bookinglass

December 6, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Offshore – feeling the change

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185px-OffshoreI have just eaten a paddy’s worth of rice cakes (Tesco’s own brand, salt and vinegar = non-calorific love) and I have trawled through my jewellery box for the perfect first-day-at-work accessories. So now I am a bit prepared for one of the biggest changes in my life, i.e. the uni to work transition, in the form of satisfying my fluttering stomach and bare skin. But no closer to be able to sleep.

I am taking this opportunity to write about the passage I was attempting to read whilst travelling to this job interview for DBM Group.

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, feels like reading a play rather than a novel. The characters come up with some very surprising, jarring statements, which don’t so much comprise a conversation as give a feeling of a stilted juxtaposition of different lives in the same place. It’s like the characters aren’t really listening to each other, almost a stream of consciousness, but missing out the vital links between one thought and the next. I keep asking myself ‘why are they saying this? Do they mean to say this aloud?’

‘I can’t do things that women can’t do,’ she said. I can’t turn over The Times so that the pages lie flat, I can’t fold up a map in the right creases, I can’t draw corks, I can’t drive in nails straight, I can’t go into a bar and order a drink without wondering what everyone’s thinking about it, and I can’t strike matches towards myself..’ (p.12)

This is probably one the longest things that anyone has spoken yet in the book! It is so honest, with so much taste of truth despite myself I can’t help but laugh. Why we are introduced to the character, a mother living without her husband with two young girls on a houseboat on the Thames, in this way beats me. No one admits their faults in such a direct and eloquent way.

But I was meaning to write about a passage describing the moment between ebb and flow of the tidal river, when the boats start to begin to float again. For me starting work (now two weeks in and still haven’t finished this post!) is one of those life tidal changes, I am now going in a different direction than before but still feel run aground as I get used to the suddeness of it all.

Written by bookinglass

September 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

Sea of Poppies – sense of the Unclean

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IMG_0548On the tube (reading place par excellence) I was engrossed in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and smiling. Not because it was an amusing, fun, happy or enlightening part but because the scene was so…well, DISGUSTING that I wondered what my neighbour would make of me if they decided to take a peek at my page over my shoulder. But peek away now though at a particularly juicy bit of description. To set the scene, in the dark depths of an 19th century Calcutta prison, a formerly high ranked man, Neel, who has lived a life of luxury and pernickity traditions is put into a cell with an afeemkhor, an opium addict, who is being ravaged by the withdrawl effects of being denied this drug. Neel has taken on the task of cleaning the cell, and now, the addict himself.

‘Neel looked over the barber’s shoulder at his cell-mate’s scalp: even as the razor was shaving it clean, the bared skin was sprouting a new growth – a film that moved and shimmered like mercury. It was a swarming horde of lice, and as the matted hair tumbled off, the insects could be seen falling to the ground in showers.’ (p. 341)

The way that Ghosh compares the lice to liquid mercury conveys the physical thickness of the infestation. It is really interesting because it might be referring to the nature of the lice and possibly hinting at the personality of addict himself as volatile, changeable and lively (as we would descibe someone as mercurial) or even dangerous like the element Mercury. Hm, I will have to wait to find out later on in the book as all the addict is doing at the moment is writhing around in his own filth, his character is still a big mystery.

One of the biggest themes of the book is the sense of ‘unclean’, highlighted in the passage above and the necessity for Neel to overcome his extreme aversion to the worst of human grime. Another example is the way that Paulette the orphan taken in by the rich, self-made merchant Mr Burnham after her father dies,  takes daily washes in secret as Mrs Burnham sees women washing themselves as ‘unseemly, even perverse.’ (p. 130) Both Paulette and Neel feel the strong need for physical cleanness even if this means that they are perhaps regarded as socially unsavory in higher circles. I think that this is to do with the other big theme, that of being released from the rigid social expectations of the Caste system. I feel that I need to know a lot more about this though to comment further.

It is enough perhaps to note that it is quite fitting that Ghosh’s notions of social uncleaniness were revealed to me in the tube where people of all different backgrounds, cultures and ‘class’ (in a very general sense) are being mixed in an germy environment (with the adverts for swine flu on the side how could one forget). In fact perhaps the tube is the same kind of democratising place as that of the Ibis, the ship in the book where all the different characters in the story are brought together.

Written by bookinglass

August 30, 2009 at 7:02 pm