Posts Tagged ‘book review’

WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProFinally getting around to reviewing one of the books I picked up in Sweden a couple summers ago–Havsmannen, or The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren. Already translated into English, alas–I would have liked to take it on myself.

“Havsmannen” means “the merman” in Swedish, hence the English title. Regular followers of this blog may remember that a couple years back I reviewed two fantasy short stories about sea-folk, Alyssa Wong’s intense but powerful “The Fisher Queen” and JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt”, itself actually more rooted in Scandinavian “merman” and “draug” traditions than Vallgren’s novel–Havsmannen only references the general Western tradition of mermaids (even if we have a man rather than a maid here), rather than specifically Scandinavian traditions of people living in the sea. Incidentally, both Alyssa and JY are rising forces in the world of speculative short fiction, and I heartily recommend following their work.


Not a scene from the book–just one of my earlier mermaid pics. 🙂

Vallgren is no slouch either, of course. I first encountered him through his prize winning novel Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia (literally “The story of monstrous love”), in English as The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Both that novel and Havsmannen are great examples of a “literary” or “mainstream” author making use of the tropes of speculative fiction, something that seems to happen more often in Scandinavia (or perhaps these are just the stories I pay attention to), where the sci-fi and fantasy market is fairly anemic when it comes to native genre authors, but the related tropes find their way into “respectable” literature often enough (including, for example, Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s epic space poem Aniara). A Danish review of the book cited on the inside cover describes Vallgren as blending “hyperrealism” with the supernatural element of the merman–as is often the case with the trope of “realism”, we can take this as referring to the novel’s close, “unvarnished” view of the lives of some of the most vulnerable. I assume this is an element in much of Vallgren’s work–I still haven’t finished Barefoot because I couldn’t get myself to read further once the madame of the brothel the main character grows up in decides it is time to put his very underage playmate “on the market.” Havsmannen has some tough stuff to read as well, and it is very worth a trigger warning–if you have abuse in your past, or just know that you would not be able to read through accounts of severe abuse/bullying of children, then this book is not for you. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the comparisons to Stephen King (I don’t know whether I would call Havsmannen horror per-se, but there is a definite family resemblance). Speaking of horror, this novel also reminds me very much of Sweden’s biggest writer of philosophical horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead, and others. I don’t know to what extent the rest of Vallgren’s oeuvre lines up with these sensibilities, but in my mind I have them grouped together as a particular way in which the supernatural shows up in contemporary Swedish literature (for a slightly different [and Finnish] realistic take on that theme, see Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll).

So once more: Trigger Warning for graphic accounts of the abuse and bullying of children (and no, I don’t mean “he pushed me” type bullying), and Spoiler Alert for my final comments below.

The narrator of the story and the main protagonist is Nella, the protective older sister of Robert. Their parents are a mess (drunks, addicts, criminals, whom they can’t help but love at the same time their parents continually betray and abandon them), Robert has a learning disability, and throughout the story they are plagued by the increasingly serious persecution of Gerard, initially a school bully but much much more as we proceed through the book. The merman doesn’t come “on screen,” so to speak, until relatively late, though, knowing the title of the novel, we guess early on that he is the secret held in a boat shed by the mildly criminal brothers of Nella’s friend Tommy. To an extent the merman is incidental to the central action: Nella’s efforts to preserve her life and Robert’s, escape as much bullying as possible, and keep the two of them together. The desperation of their situation and Nella’s willingness to sacrifice herself and others for Robert is at the heart of everything that happens, though we do catch a nice blend of ecocritical and social themes, as the abuse and plotted exploitation of the merman (as well as the bloody business of the mink farm, where the merman is later kept) is at the hands of down-and-out working class men grasping at whatever they can to get by, or, preferably, to get-rich-quick–it saves us a bit from creating too easy an ecological villain, instead showing a messier reality “on the ground” as it were.

Perhaps as part of its “hyper-realism,” the story, or at least Nella’s narration, gestures towards a lack of narrative coherence in the “real-world.” The novel opens with Nella saying “There is no beginning and there is no ending. I know that now. For others perhaps there are stories that lead someplace, but not mine.” (my translation) Of course, the novel does actually have a narrative arc, and when we reach the end we know we have reached the end–but of course, we get to walk away. In the prologue that opens with the quoted lines, we discover that for Nella stories are what she uses to soothe Robert with the promise of a brighter future. We also know that she is aware that her “victory conditions” are likely impossible, in particular staying with Robert if they are taken away from/abandoned by their parents. This drives her distrust of adult authorities (who, to be honest, are often revealed to be incapable of resolving many of the at times quite horrific predicaments the children find themselves in), in turn prolonging the conflicts revolving around Gerard and the Merman. I find it a realistic portrayal of the reality for many children in this situation–surrounded by horrors and adults who are either untrustworthy or incompetent (or simply bound by the often problematic rules and aims of the adult world). Fulfilling the potential of speculative fiction as a genre or narrative practice, the irruption of the otherworldly merman into this perhaps too-familiar world serves to draw out these complications and make them visible in a new way. The epilogue shows the two children separated, though back in touch again–Nella’s key victory condition of staying with Robert (who is now safe, but not in the friendliest of foster care situations) has not been met, and so this story has not fulfilled the function she has for stories. No beginning and no ending, only the ongoing tension regarding Robert’s well-being. This is a story of trauma, and insofar as trauma entails a lifetime of working-through, we are certainly not meant to hold this gloomy perspective against Nella.

There are nevertheless spots of hope and positive momentum in the narrative–not the sort of nice-and-tidy happy endings of the stories Nella tells Robert (which, we must be honest, are the stories you need when you are in the position of our two protagonists–is there a sense in which their story cannot be a story “for” them? I suppose that is the case with any story about kids but written for adults…), but sacrificial love shines bright throughout, even if caught up in all the horror and impossible choices that confront our protagonists specifically as well as any neglected and vulnerable children. The merman, in addition to the thematic functions addressed above, also comes in to the semiotic system of Nella’s relationship with Robert and their parents, and his disruption of this system (or resolution of the underlying tension) is the arc and closure this story provides, even if, being a story of trauma, we must agree with Nella that in an important sense there is “no beginning and no ending.” Initially the merman is just another victim–not even one Nella is related to, and so a potentially dangerous distraction from her efforts to ensure her own and Robert’s survival. But Nella is compelled to help him, at increasingly great risk to herself. So initially the merman’s victim position reinforces Nella’s usual position of surrogate parent, stepping in where the actual adults have abused or neglected the victim. But from there the relationship is complicated, breaking up the fixed positions of Surrogate (Nella) Victim (Robert) and Adults (incompetents). The telepathic merman is physically adult (and dangerously so in spite of his weakened condition), but must be cared for. As the story progresses he uses his telepathic connection with Nella not only to request help, but to reassure and comfort–where Nella was the one to tell Robert comforting stories in which everything ends up all right, now it is Nella’s turn to be told all will be well. Can an adult promise that? No, and Nella will be more aware of that than most–but she has personally gone to great lengths to back up her reassurances, at significant cost to herself and others, and at the end, just as she is doing the same, she is finally displaced from her position as surrogate adult and gets to benefit along with her brother from the sacrificial action of the merman.

I will have to finish up here–forgive my lengthy notes at the end, this was my first opportunity to “think out loud” about the book. This novel would fit in perfectly with my “Nordic Otherworlds” course, and I was going to assign it (while I was still reading it myself) last time I taught Reading and Composition–but on realizing how graphic and intense some of the abuse was (no, it is not like that constantly–just some high points) I decided to put it off for the time being. I haven’t read the English translation, but I’m sure it is fine. I recommend it, with all the reservations I mentioned above. No shame in deciding it is too much for you.

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My poor amateur watercolor skillz… A practice sketch, inspired by Leckie’s series, though done a while after reading, so I won’t claim it matches the universe of the books… Apologies for the bad scan, can’t seem to manage a good photograph or scan of my watercolors, and my photoediting options are rudimentary at the moment.


Since news of the first book came out, I’d been looking forward to reading Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. From the beautiful (if generically sci-fi rather than plot-specific) covers by John Harris to the buzz over the protagonist’s confusion over gender grammatical and otherwise (an anthropological touch that I found very well done), it seemed like just the sort of sci-fi I would like. Took me way too long to get to it though–I always have way too many books going at once (there are some many I started over a decade ago in the chaos of grad school that I haven’t been able to finish yet…), and between fun reading and work reading I just always have too much to cover–so Audible has been a Godsend lately, and I finally caught the series as an audio-book. I had a different narrator for the first book than for the other two–looks like you can get the same narrator for all three, so look into that if you go the audio route.

I am going to try to avoid a very in-depth review, since there are surely plenty of those already, and I don’t want to overdo the spoilers. I suppose my elevator-summary would be that this is a great far-future space opera, escapist fun at the same time that it brings intelligence and (let’s say) anthropological nuance to its world-building, plot, and character development. Some have pointed out a sort of kinship with Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though we should note that Leckie has stated that she had not read Banks until after her own work was well developed. The comparison occurred to myself as well, but it is a matter of family resemblance (late 20th/early 21st century New Space Opera), rather than clear and direct inspiration–far future cultures, prominent if not main characters who are the AIs for spaceships, politics dirty, idealistic, and otherwise at scales ranging from hyper-local to galactic, the complications inherent in dealing with alien species, etc. There are significant differences as well, in particular in the political settings for the stories. Banks’ Culture is a sort of Utopian projection of liberal ideals into a post-scarcity future and the problems the Culture encounters when interacting with those very different from it, whereas Leckie’s story is set in a militant, religious autocracy that dominates the human population of the galaxy, but has run up against some very strange aliens that far outstrip them in abilities. Leckie suggests reading the work of CJ Cherryh for a more accurate precedent, and regardless whether you find them similar or not I heartily second her recommendation.

The books follow Breq, the assumed name of the last remaining ancillary (human body integrated into the consciousness and control of the AI of a ship) of the troop carrier Justice of Toren (slight spoiler, but not much–this all becomes clear fairly early). The first book is woven of two threads, Breq’s present (and the contemporary storyline of the whole series) and past (the events that resulted in Breq being the last survivor), and I felt like this was very nicely done–I was a believer by the end of the book, at any rate. The two sequels are entirely rooted in the “present” and are a bit more connected as far as plot causality goes, so you could almost think of the trilogy as two books, the second one in two volumes (but don’t worry, the middle book has a complete plot arc).

Feminine pronouns are used throughout, regardless of gender, as the Radchaai (the culture Justice of Toren belongs to) does not distinguish between male and female either grammatically or socially. I felt this was believable and well-done, and a welcome bit of social speculation added to the far-future prognostication–and it proves an interesting bit of color for plot and character development when Breq is forced to deal with cultures that do distinguish (think of a “grammar-heavy” language like Icelandic, where the forms you use must change according to the gender of the person referred to). The gender-play of the book also ties in to the central plot points of Radchaai imperialism and the question of the personhood of AIs (check out this recent article at Strange Horizons for more on that as well on the ways the term “gender” is used with expanded range in contemporary discourse on the topic–though I suggest you wait till you’ve finished the trilogy). I can’t get into these threads too much without spoilers, but I will say that I liked how Breq’s development as/insistence on being a person and not a thing is done in a way that nicely emphasizes the intersubjectivity of personhood, with Breq’s own (somewhat deeply hidden and often grudging–Breq is BAMF AF) love and compassion infecting those around her (and incidentally, the ship AIs provide a nice opportunity to bring both BAMF and rather maternal characteristics together). The divided self, recognized as itself an inescapable part of subjectivity since at least Freud, if not the Apostle Paul, is also productively exploited, as the sheer complexity and extent of the transhuman intelligences in the story entails the possibility of more obviously divided selves–and this in turn provides opportunities to explore the ways in which the “self” is more an artifact of one’s place in a social network than it is some mystical singularity out of nowhere–and all this in ways that are essential to the plot and which make the whole thing more interesting.

It’s been a decade since I’ve read CS Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, but I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to gesture towards the interests of later Reception and Reader-Response theory. In particular he argues that there are two types of reading–reading that transforms us, and reading that is purely escapist and “fun.” Neither is necessarily morally superior to the other, and he suggests that this is more a factor of the way in which we come to a book, rather than something inherent to the book itself. But of course, the text is not absent–it is as much a part of the process as the reader (otherwise we are just projecting onto a blank screen), and a person will find some texts more challenging and difficult because they demand more of you (what texts work this way can vary depending on the person, of course), while others seem tailor-made for escapism (escapism not in-and-of itself a bad thing, in moderation–but I would suggest this is also where we tend to become more prone to masturbatory power-fantasies). Science fiction and fantasy at their best can sustain the tension between these two ways of reading quite well, and Leckie’s books, as well as many others I’ve reviewed here (Zen Cho, Lois McMaster Bujold, and short fiction from Rose Lemberg, Alyssa Wong, JY Yang, and others) do very well on this count. Highly recommended. 🙂

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Snorra Edda

The medieval copies of the Eddas are generally not illustrated (after all, shouldn’t a good Christian save the expensive pictures for the Bible or Kingly exploits?)–but here we have the frame of Gylfaginning (which, incidentally, highlights the nature of the myths recounted as “lies,” in case the medieval audience were to be tempted from orthodoxy), in the Codex Upsaliensis manuscript (c. 1300, if I remember correctly). I like this illustration as an example of the problems of Christian remembering of Pagan material in Medieval Iceland.

I recently had my review of Mikhael Gronas’ Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory published in Cultural Analysis, a journal on culture and folklore (in a fairly broad sense), covering all sorts of “expressive and everyday culture” (I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary efforts like this, and even more a fan of the fact that the journal is available for free online, and is supplied for free in print form to academic institutions–those of us who write the material for these journals don’t make any money, after all…)  You can find the review here, but you will have to scroll down a bit, as all the book reviews are on the same page (a PDF of the page can be downloaded here). The book takes Russian literature as its case-in-point for its larger theoretical argument, so I got to enjoy learning a bit about Russian lit and history while working through the theoretical material (the latter being my main interest in the book).

Cultural Memory‘s relevance as a theoretical framework for the study of Old Norse literature and Religion has been my main research interest (though not my only one) since filing my dissertation (if you want something more than the wikipedia explanation, check out the introduction to this book; I’ve also found this book to be an easy to read exercise in Cultural Memory studies). I mostly take the term Cultural Memory from the work of Jan and Aleida Assmann (especially this book), where it is roughly equated with concepts such as Derrida’s Archive, among others, and in particular is associated with the sort of collective remembering made possible by the technology of literacy, where, in contrast to oral cultures, the “out of the way” and peripheral (like, say, pagan myths in Christian society) may still be preserved (but yes, things are still a bit more complicated with the Old Norse myths, given that we have an apparent gap of 200+ years after the conversion before the pagan material was written down). I gave a paper with some of my thoughts on the relevance of Cultural Memory theory for the study of Old Norse lit (esp. the mythology) at the 2012 conference of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies, but there has been plenty of work by other (senior) scholars on related topics, so if you are interested in reading up on the topic (I still have some more reading to do myself), here are some of the works I referenced in my paper (or have found otherwise pertinent to my research–this is just a selection though, so please don’t treat it as a comprehensive bibliography!):

Assmann, Jan and John Czaplicka 1995: “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German Critique 65, 125-133.

Assmann, Jan 2006: Religion and Cultural Memory. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bauman, Richard and Charles Briggs 1990: “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19, 59-88.

Byock, Jesse 2004: “Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of ‘Egils Saga.'” Scandinavian Studies 76:3, 299-316.

Derrida, Jacques 1998: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Fortier, Ted and Jeanette Rodríguez 2007: Cultural memory: Resistance, Faith, and Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gísli Sigurðsson 2004: The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Publications of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature no. 2. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Glauser, Jürg 2000: “Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) and þættir as the literary representation of a new social space.” Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Ed. Margaret Clunies Ross. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 42. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 203-20.

Glauser, Jürg 2007: “The Speaking Bodies of Saga Texts.” Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World. Ed. Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe vol. 18. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 13-26.

Gronas, Mikhail 2010: Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory: Russian Literary Mnemonics. New York: Routledge.

Halbwachs, Maurice 1992: On Collective Memory. New York: Harper.

Hastrup, Kirsten 1985: Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An anthropological analysis of structure and change. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hastrup, Kirsten 1990: Island of Anthropology: Studies in past and present Iceland. Viborg: Odense University Press.

Hastrup, Kirsten 2009: “Northern Barbarians: Icelandic Canons of Civilization.” Gripla 20, 109-136.

Hermann, Pernille 2010: “Founding Narratives and the Representation of Memory in Saga Literature.” ARV Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 66, 69-87.

Jesch, Judith 2008: “Myth and Cultural Memory in the Viking Diaspora.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 4, 221-226.

Kaplan, Merrill 2000: “Prefiguration and the Writing of History in ‘Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls.'” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99:3, 379-394.

McKinnell, John 2007: “Why Did Christians Continue to Find Pagan Myths Useful?” Reflections on Old Norse Myths Ed. Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen. Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1, 33-52.

Torfi Tulinius 2009: “The Self as Other: Iceland and the Culture of Southern Europe in the Middle Ages.” Gripla 20, 199-216.

Viðar Pálsson 2008: “Pagan Mythology in Christian Society.” Gripla 19, 123-159.

Ward, Elisabeth 2012: “Nested Narrative:Þórðar Saga Hreðu and Material Engagement.” UC Berkeley (dissertation)

Wellendorf, Jonas 2010: “The Interplay of Pagan and Christian Traditions in Icelandic Settlement Myths.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 109:1, 1-21.

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