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The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (Book Review)

The Crossing, the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s the Border trilogy, continues the trend of self-reflection in the aftermath of grief. All 3 books may be depressing in some instances, but this also gives them room to engage in lots of soul-searching reflection on the meaning of life.

In All the Pretty Horses we followed a young love struck protagonist into Mexico and marvelled as he made wrong decision after wrong decision as he allowed his boyish impulses guide him. For most our years of teenage rebellion pass with nothing more serious than the occasional telling off by an adult, but for John Grady his adventures lead him from prison to a stint as an outlaw trying to outrun the Mexican authorities. He is made to pay for every wrong turn instigated by his obstreperousness.

In the Crossing, however, we have a new cowboy in the shape of Billy Parham. Parham is as different from Grady as oil is from water. Both are cowboys, a dying breed in their times (around the Second World War), but where Grady only thinks with his heart and passions Parham on the contrary seems to be the level headed one, a characteristic perplexingly lost to him at the early stage of the novel when he makes a decision to go into Mexico.

Let’s backtrack for a moment and start from the beginning of the story: Billy is with his younger brother Boyd, who is more like Grady in that he is headstrong and capricious, when they meet a mysterious Indian on their way home – a humble homestead where their dad keeps horses. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Great Expectations, the Indian asks for some food but then starts to dig for information on the family, do they have dogs out at night at their home etc. Billy is dubious but polite to the man and promises to bring him something to eat.

Meanwhile, the livestock starts to suffer when a pregnant wolf starts hunting them. Billy and his father set out to hunt the wolf with traps, but the wolf, smart as it is, evades all their attempts to catch her. Soon enough Billy goes out by himself in the middle of winter to try and eventually nabs her only to then feel pity for the animal.
It’s at this stage that he doesn’t think with his head, as I suggested earlier. Inexplicably, Billy decides to return the wolf to her home country and starts off on his journey to Mexico, crossing the border and continuing on toward the distant snow-capped mountains.
On his journey he meets with a country devastated by war where he as a white man is immediately conspicuous and is by turns both marvelled at and despised, especially by those who’ve taken up arms. On the other hand he will find with the ordinary citizenry, who’ve often found themselves displaced by all the fighting – he’ll find kindness and people who share what little food and shelter they have happily.

It’s this contrast of kindness and wickedness through his journey that makes for such a riveting story. Billy is still a teenager but has for all intents and purposes he’s adopted his captured wolf and is strongly attached to it and is highly motivated to return her to the wilderness.

He makes for a striking figure, this cowboy on a horse and leading a wolf by a rope, and then he meets with some armed men who want to buy the wolf off him. Billy refuses. By and by the wolf is stolen and Billy, still feeling a strong sense of responsibility toward the animal goes out in search for it and finds her being used roughly to entertain the locals in dogfights. The scene is brutal and Billy is helpless in the face of such callousness.

Finally he returns to America and finds his home desolate. Knowing a great tragedy has occurred he goes out in search for answers. Boyd is staying with some neighbours and he finds out that they were robbed and both his parents were killed, most likely by the Indian he and Boyd met with at the start.

Both orphans now decide to go after their father’s stolen horses. They cross the border, now Billy’s second time, and consequently come upon their horses and manage to take them back after a gunfight. Then as they start heading for home they come upon a beautiful young girl who is obviously in trouble.

Boyd convinces Billy to rescue her and together all 3 continue on. But while Boyd, recalcitrant and difficult to reason with, is enamoured by the girl, who is a revolutionary in the war, Billy is left to watch helplessly as his brother falls in love with her despite his warnings against it. Boyd is then shot through the chest by pursuing gunmen, leaving Billy to carry his dying brother on his horse in an attempt to get away.

He comes upon labourers in a truck, and when it seems his pursuers will not let up with their quest to capture he and Boyd, Billy hands over his brother to the men and rides in a different direction to lead off the gunmen.

After he shakes off their pursuers Billy comes upon a cabin where he meets a blind man and his wife. They talk about the nature of misfortune. The wife tells the story of her husband and how he came to be blinded by a vicious attack while in custody as a Prisoner of War. She goes on to say he wandered in his new darkness and came to a town where he met her, recently enduring her own misfortune and grieving for her father and brothers who were executed along with all the men in her village in a war where so many of the locals have lost so much.

She then goes on to tell of meeting a priest at the cemetery where she’s come to pay her respects and this priest discusses the unfairness of life. Just like the author of Ecclesiastes he reflects on how the wicked seemingly prosper in their wickedness, and, contrary to what is expected, also live long lives, while others die young. The priest advises her to keep her dead family in her memory for in her heart is where they should reside.

Her blind husband then speaks, and says that he believes the priest doesn’t see the whole picture and therefore his judgement is incomplete. He advises that life instead, rather than have you hold on to misfortune, actually demands you start over again. “For the world to survive it must be replenished daily. This man will be required to begin again whether he wishes to or not.”
In his third crossing over the border Billy, now fully rested from his ordeal in Mexico, goes back to look for his brother. He finds that Boyd recovered from his gunshot wound but then went on to join the revolutionary, the girl they’d rescued before, and was consequently shot dead.

Billy goes for his brother’s remains but again finds it impossible in a country much different from what he has been used to, for the locals have adopted Boyd, who they see as a freedom fighter, as their own and won’t allow his bones to be removed. In other words he now belongs to the people.

Billy, refusing to leave Boyd alone to rest in a foreign land, steals the bones from the graveyard, but is then tracked by locals who stab his horse in the chest. Here he meets kindness again in the form of a local healer who nurses the horse back to some semblance of health.
Billy returns to the United States, broken and destitute with no family and no money to speak of. It’s a different place from where he’s just come from. Now he needs money for basics where as in Mexico he was welcomed into any home, no matter how poor, to share what little they had to offer. But it’s also much safer from violent men and revolutionaries, and even as he reflects on his misfortune, probably considering the words of the blind man, whether to carry the dead in his heart or start over as life demands, he sees a dog, beat up, and not unlike the wolf that started his adventures not so long ago.

Billy shoos the dog away and is mean to it. He’s apparently changed – he will not help this poor creature like he did the wolf and be drawn into something he’ll have no control over. But change is hard and certainly in this situation not called for. He realises he’s wrong and goes out to look for the wounded dog to make amends. Upon not finding it he finally breaks down and weeps.

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (Book Review)

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Outer Dark, a Cormac McCarthy Novel

The second novel in a distinguished career, Outer Dark was published in 1968 and is everything you’d expect from a Cormac McCarthy novel. The language used in the dialogue is rural and laidback – something I can appreciate being Igbo myself and from a pastoral part of the world with similar tastes in linguistic wit and poetry.

The scenes of the novel I also recognise: rustic, placid, somnolent fields at times, wild, untamed, eerie woodlands at others. There’s also that trademark violence that appears jauntily in scenes, seemingly at home in otherwise ordinary settings. This lends something of the unexpected to the story.

For me the pacing of the novel was faultless and the violence kept to a minimum, unlike in his other novel Blood Meridian where someone seems to die every other page or so.

 

Outer Dark by Cormac MacCarthy
Outer Dark by Cormac MacCarthy

Like Hemingway Mr McCarthy doesn’t waste words, no needless adjectives here. There’s economy albeit rich in complexity, the ease of the language of the American South sitting in stark contrast with his seductive prose.

McCarthy opts for showing his characters not through their thoughts or by describing their characteristics, but by their habits and their dialogue. Often with fiction a writer can find himself stuck on facial expressions having nothing left in a steadily depleting repertoire of phrases like “he smiled” or “she frowned” and so forth, but Mr McCarthy isn’t deficient in his understanding and use of gestures, something borne, no doubt, out of practised observation of his fellow man. Like Mr Guy Davenport said in his article in the New York Times (29 September 1968):

“…Mr. McCarthy waste a single word on his character’s thoughts. With total objectivity he describes what they do and records their speech. Such discipline comes not only from mastery over words but from an understanding wise enough and compassionate enough to dare tell so abysmally dark a story.”

From Tennessee, Georgia himself Mr McCarthy succeeds in capturing the allure of the Deep South in his style. Indeed there are few novelists who’ve managed to capture the contradictions of the land as successfully as he has, right down to the showing of wickedness living right next to religiosity.  As in one scene where the protagonist Culla Holme is wrongly accused of murder. A preacher appears as tensions rise in the mob, but he isn’t the source of succour one would expect from one of his profession, and instead he engages in an inane debate over the right way to dispose of Holme for his perceived crimes.

The theme of religion resonates throughout the entire novel. Guy Davenport again:

“Though it pays its homage to Faulkner’s rhetoric and imagery, it is not a Faulknerian novel. It is much leaner, closer in pace and spareness of line to the Gothic masters Gertrud Le Fort and her disciple Isak Dinesen, and lacks Faulkner’s sociological dimension. Mr. McCarthy is unashamedly an allegorist. His responsibility as a storyteller includes believing with his characters in the devil, or at least in the absolute destructiveness of evil.”

There’s no escaping that the protagonists are being judged for their sins. And while Culla has a hard time of it right from the start, his sister Rinthy seems to be treated more kindly by people until she meets the tinker, a spectral eldritch character who took her baby, and has to face her own transgressions. 

Plot Summary

Culla Holme of Jackson County in Appalachia has a baby boy with his sister Rinthy. Ashamed of his incest and afraid of how the world will judge him Culla takes the baby as soon as it’s born and steals away in the middle of the night while his sister recovers from childbirth and lays the child out in the woods. A mysterious tinker has been following him through the dark and takes up the child.

Rinthy wakes up and asks for her baby and doesn’t believe her brother when he informs her of the child’s death. Rinthy goes looking for the grave and digs it to find it empty. She then sets out on a journey to recover the babe after confronting her brother for his actions.

Her journey will lead her to many dangerous eerie places where she meets weird locals, but they all treat her well and offer her food and board, unlike her brother, who sets out on his own journey after her: Culla finds bad luck everywhere he goes. His arrested, and at one point threatened with a lynching. And through it all he’s stalked by 3 mysterious otherworldly men who in the end will pronounce a terrifying judgement on him for his sin and bring the story to its unsettling conclusion.

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Sources

 

 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Summary: It’s another end of the world story in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds sang and the only solution for the human race is to embrace the science of cloning. But will this new technology solve all their problems?

Image from andscifi.com

 

WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG by HUGO WINNER KATE WILHELM

It’s the end of the world in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Bird’s Sang. Grandfather Wilson is patriarch of the large and rich Sumner family and sees that man’s only hope of avoiding extinction amidst the disease, pollution, wars, climatic trauma, and most importantly, the sterility he faces is to start cloning.

 

THE STORY OF WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG

He entrusts his estate to his heirs: grandson David Sumner, and his own son Walt Sumner. Both start to work feverishly to perfect the cloning process and succeed in cloning animals and members of their family. But they soon find that the clones are not human in the strictest sense. They clones soon ostracise their creators in favour of a new community of clones, one that abandons the old ideas of the dead human world and think to start a new one where individuality is killed by embracing the homogeneous group instead as a functioning singular unit.

 

Things take a turn for the worse, though, when the community runs out of supplies and is forced to forage in the old dead world. They send out an expedition to the ruined city of Washington to scavenge for replacement parts for their ageing machinery. It’s during this time that the group, separated from the influence of their community of fellow clones, begin to witness for the first time their own uniqueness and individuality.

 

Thinking it a disease, they reject this call, deep within them, to singular identity. All of them except Molly, the only female in the group. She slowly begins to accept her uniqueness and passes this knowledge, this idea of the power of the individual, on to her child, Mark, just before she’s finally banished from the community.

 

The novel then follows Mark as he grows up and proves the inadequacies of a community that, in spite of its dependency on the old world’s technology, has chosen to despise the philosophies of their human ancestors and instead have opted for a new, brittle world of group consciousness where everyone shares every other person’s thoughts and ideas, and nothing is new, nothing is created. In this new world the ability to use one’s skills to think outside the box has been lost, and there is only the mindless conformity with what has been learned in the group. Mark then leaves and establishes a new community, one that can think for itself, survive on its own, and one that will create new technology to face the complexities of a post-apocalyptic world.

 

THE IDEAS OF WHERE LATE THE SWEEET BIRDS SANG

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about aloneness – even the recluse Mark admits to not wanting to be alone during a solitary expedition. It’s about community, about individualism and the special abilities that may, albeit unknown to the community, benefit it in the end. Many books have dealt with the individual Vs the group, the fact that Kate Wilhelm won a Hugo for this effort shows that this ranks up there with the best of them.

 

The book does have its shortcomings, though: vegetation tends to thrive even though animals and insects – the main agents of pollination – have become extinct. There is a pseudo-spiritual idea of trees talking and having consciousness that is incongruous with the rest of the story, because the idea doesn’t quite lead anywhere. Also most of the characters do not have enough depth, and while this may have been done purposely to show the emotional shallowness of the clones it’s also partly due to the author jumping from one generation to the next at a pace too fast to thoroughly connect with any of them. Still don’t let these few misgivings put you off a story that, if not all the time compelling, is at the very least entirely thought provoking.

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THE CITY AND THE CITY

A Tale of Two Cities

Recent history is not unaccustomed to cities existing rather inharmoniously side by side – just think of the Berlin wall before its fall, dividing East from West Germany, or the still ongoing feud between Israel and Palestine. In The City & The City two city-states exist together in the same physical topography, but are 2 entirely separate entities with their own governments, their own security forces (one called the policzai and the other the communist-style militsya), and their own citizens – all who exist side-by side but who cannot risk the fury of Breach by acknowledging the other.

 

China Miéville’s Existential Dystopian Cities

In The City & The City China Miéville’s Inspector Tyador Borlú is a policzai detective in the Extreme Crime Squad division of the city of Besźel, one of the two cities. The novel starts by a body having been discovered and the Inspector going in for what he assumes will be a routine investigation. It soon turns out that it isn’t as it’s discovered that though the body may have been found in Besźel, the victim may actually have been killed in the second city of Ul Qoma, which introduces a host of jurisdictional issues. Inspector Borlú, while co-operating with his counterpart in the militsya, Senior Detective Dhatt, soon finds that the case is much bigger than imagined and a third security force may need to be invoked, one that everyone fears but understands is a necessity for the existence of both cities. It’s here that we’re introduced to the force that is Breach.

 

Sci-fi?

The book follows the ususal detective crime fiction model (even with the complicated geographical setting and politics) until we start to grapple with the concept of the Breach. Just what is Breach? Put simply – and it’s anything but – Breach is a policing force that has jurisdiction in both the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Their main occupation is to ensure no interaction between the two cities. This immediately introduces problems, considering both cities are in the same geographical location, with locations that sometimes overlap. The author overcomes the contradiction of 2 people who may not be too far away spatially but nevertheless are in different states and who risk transgression by acknowledging the other’s presence by introducing the concepts of unseeing and unhearing. Needless to say then that while this may be an interesting idea the author never quite manages to convice how this would work in reality so that asinine scenarios often present themselves (like having to unhear a dog bark in another city, or having to unsee a car coming down the street if that part of the street is in the opposite country.) Miéville never quite fully convinces the reader to believe this world and he never quite establishes whether this policing force is alien in nature, and therefore power, or just a completely human construct. In fact on this issue there are many gaps that tend to draw one’s concentration from what should be an engaging read.

 

Pros & Cons, Anyone?

And this, in my opinion, is where the book falters: it tries to deal with too many complicated things. For one the setting of the story whist imaginative is too complex, and even though this is not a problem the author never quite develops his world past superficial stages. Then there’s the problem of the players involved: security forces from two very different cities; political entities in both cities, each with different agendas, each with different reasons for wanting to kill the victim – whether it’s the nationalists who want to maintain the sovereignty of each city or the unionists who want to join them together. Finally the culture of both cities in unseeing and unhearing that necessitaties the prescence of the entity that is Breach in some places brought about scenes that were just fatuous. All in all what started out as a promising story just ended up being rather convoluted because it was trying to wrestle with a tangle of ideas.

 

You can find reviews of The City The City in the Guardian and the Telegraph. In the end this is an ambitious book with big ideas, one of them being string theory as the Guardian points out, but one that I think would have benefitted from a little more tweaking to iron out its less fine points. But maybe this is China Miéville’s method – that he does not mind experimenting and does not mind making the reader uncomfortable, wondering just what’s going on. I say, make up your own mind and read it. It’s well worth a look.

 

Source: First published in 2009 by Macmillan. This edition published in 2011 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishing Limited

GAME OF THRONES

George R.R. Martin

Author of 5-book epic, A song of Ice and Fire, George R.R Martin was named in Time’s 2011 list of 100 most influential people in the world. It isn’t difficult to see why since his fantasy series has taken the literary world by storm, his books selling in the millions.

The first book was recently made into the HBO series Game of Thrones and follows the characters of Westeros – a fantasy world set in medieval times. Martin’s depiction of this harsh continent his characters inhabit is unbelievably detailed and matched only by the well-rounded characters the author skilfully pens to ensure the reader’s emotional investment.

Plot of Game of Thrones

Winter is coming are the wise words of the Starks, an ancient family that governs the north of the unified kingdoms of Westeros. Eddard Stark is head of the Starks after his brother’s death and he’s helped his friend Robert Baratheon to the Iron Throne where he rules uncertainly with few friends and many enemies around him.

After the death of Jon Arryn, the King’s Hand, the king decides he needs his closest friend and ally and invites Eddard to take up the post of the hand, left by Arryn. Eddard reluctantly accepts his new position and soon discovers the dangers that go along with the occupation of the Iron Throne, as he unearths plots to undermine the king that soon endanger not only Robert but Eddard’s own family.

 Characters In Game of Thrones

EDDARD STARK is Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell. Descended from the First Men the Starks have ruled the North from Winterfell, their capital and stronghold, for thousands of years. Eddard, known to his closest friends as Ned, helped King Robert Baratheon ascend his throne, when, together with Jon Arryn, they wrestled the kingdom from Aerys II, killing Aerys’ heir, the crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen, in the process. The banner of the Starks is a grey direwolf on an ice-white field and their words are Winter is coming. Eddard is married to Lady Catelyn of the house of Tully and they have 5 children.

KING ROBERT BARATHEON won the throne after defeating Aerys II of the House of Targaryen. Robert went to war to avenge Eddard Stark’s sister Lyanna who was raped by Aerys’ heir, crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Robert, once a great warrior and hunter, has now grown fat and is disinterested with the affairs of his kingdom, even surprising his best friend, the stoic Eddard Stark, with his insouciance. Robert has 2 brothers, Stannis and Renly, and is married to Queen Cersei of the Lannisters. He has 3 children from Cersei (and many illegitimates scattered around his kingdom) including his heir, 12-year-old Prince Joffrey. The banner of the Baratheons is a crowned stag and their words are Ours is the Fury.

JON ARRYN is friend to both Eddard Stark and King Robert. He helped them take Robert’s throne from the Targaryens. For his role Robert rewarded him with the most prestigious position in his court: that of the king’s Hand. Apart from being the Hand, the king’s most trusted adviser, Jon has lands of his own. He is Lord of the Eyrie and is Warden of the East (just as his friend Eddard is Warden of the North.)  He is married to Lady Lysa of the Tullys. Lysa is Lady Catelyn’s sister. When Jon dies under mysterious circumstances, King Robert names Eddard successor to the position of the Hand of the King, and Jon’s sickly 6-year-old son Robert Arryn inherits his father’s position as Warden of the East.

THE LANNISTERS are a very powerful and ambitious family. Queen Cersei is from this family and has 2 brothers: Ser Jaime Lannister, also called Kingslayer, and Tyrion Lannister who is also called the Imp, as he’s a dwarf. Their father is Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, and is Warden of the West. The Lannisters are a proud family and often marry brother to sister to keep their line pure. Their banner is a golden lion upon a crimson field and their words are Hear Me Roar!

THE TULLYS have never reigned as kings but are still a very influential and powerful family with daughters married to powerful lords: Lady Catelyn is married to Eddard Stark, Warden of the North, and Lady Lysa is married to Jon Arryn, Warden of the East. The Tullys’ stronghold is in Riverrun and their dominion spans the riverlands whose lords have pledged fealty to Catelyn’s father Hoster Tully, Lord of Riverrun.

THE TYRELLS are stewards of the Kings of the Reach and hold the south. Mace Tyrell is the Warden of the South and is married to Lady Alerie of House Hightower of Oldtown. Their youngest son is Ser Loras, Knight of Flowers, an ostentatious youth who hopes to make a name for himself in the King’s Tournament. The Tyrell banner is a golden rose on a grass-green field and their words are Growing Strong.

THE TARGARYENS are an ancient family and have the blood of the dragon. Aegon the Dragon’s ancestors resettled on Dragonstone, a rocky island in the narrow sea, after escaping from their original home the Dome of Valyria.

From Dragonstone Aegon set sail to conquer the Seven Kingdoms, eventually uniting the fragmented lands into one domain and ruling on the Iron Throne from the capital King’s Landing. Aerys II is a descendant from Aegon and is killed by Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, during the Sack of King’s Landing. His heir, Prince Rhaegar, is slain by Robert who then ascends the Iron Throne.

Prince Rhaegar has 4 children, 2 of whom are killed, along with his wife, Princess Elia, during the sacking of King’s Landing. But 2 children survive and escape Robert’s fury: Prince Viserys and his sister Princess Daenerys. The Targaryen banner is a three-headed dragon, the 3 heads representing Aegon and his sisters, 2 of whom he married, according to Targaryen custom. The Targaryen words are Fire and Blood.

The Game of Thrones television series is now available on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom.

Also See

Game of Thrones is the first of the series. The other books in A Song of Ice and Fire are: A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast of Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

John Grisham

john grisham the racketeer2OK, so I hate to write anything without editing at least a few hundred times, which would explain why I’ve never really been good at blogging. Typically I make a few blogs a year, maybe 12 in total. But it’s good to try new things right?

So here goes… my first post on the fly with nothing more rigorous than a precursory read through. So what to write, what to write – there’s the fact my home just got engulfed in a fire and i haven’t written in 2 months. Then there’s I haven’t been reading sci-fi for a while. Why? Don’t know. Just thought I’d give Philip K. Dick a rest for a while and date other people, you know. So checking out Grisham. Dude ain’t half bad.

So in the last 2 months I’ve been through the Litigators, one Theodore Boone book, the Accused, and the Racketeer. The Theodore one was for Young Adults, I think. No one told me until I was like 10 pages in. Anyway, if you don’t have the stomach for YA, famous five-ish type stories you may want to give this a pass. Me, I just kept thinking why no one blew this pesky kid away with a hand grenade. Again it’s YA so he does the Hardy Boys thing and saves the day. Still, an OK read for adults.

I’ve just ordered a Time to Kill from amazon.

While I await my next Grisham I’ve (shock) gone back to my first love. Nothing overly big for now, just a collection of short stories. But who by? Well, it’s by the one and only Walter M Miller, of course. let me just say at this point that his book, a Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the best books I’ve read. So Grisham will get his day again – this dalliance with legal crime fiction seems to persist at this point, but there is still only one true love – those stories that allow us to reach out and touch the stars, to visit foreign cultures that will surreptitiously gain us insight into our own human attitudes, and stories that remain inexorably, and firmly epic in scale and unapologetic in weirdness – it’s Science Fiction, folks. And it’s what I do.

Uzor Chinukwue, 2013