Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer - Finch

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch, Corvus, 2009.

This is the final novel in VanderMeer's Ambergris series. I received this book without having read the previous novels, so this review reflects the reaction of a newcomer to the setting. My conclusion was that the book can be read alone, but that reading the others first might have provided additional depth.

The setting, and one of the main characters, is the city of Ambergris. It seems to have reached a twentieth-century level of technology, with items such as telephones, typewriters, guns and tanks, and to have been involved in wars with neighbouring cities and civil wars, before being occupied by an alien race called the gray caps, who have risen up from caves beneath the city. This species uses various types of fungus, and they have been changing the face of the city and its population. Many humans have simply disappeared, and a few collaborators have become hybrids. These are known as Partials. Some of the humans have become addicted to certain types of fungus.

The protagonist is John Finch, employed as a detective by the occupying force. As the story starts, he is called in to investigate a crime scene, where a human and a gray cap have been found dead. As he proceeds with this case, he finds the background more complicated and interesting than a simple crime. We encounter his partner, who has been infected by fungus; his gray cap boss; his mysterious lover; his book-collecting neighbour; and discover things about his hidden past. Eventually we learn about some surprising technology, and more about the city's history (which might be more familiar to readers of the previous novels).

This is the story of living under foreign occupation. What are you willing to do in order to survive? How far would you collaborate with the enemy? How much would you risk to become involved in the resistance? Who can you trust? All these issues paint a dark picture, and the future seems dim. The novel paints a vivid picture of the struggle to maintain a sense of human dignity and authenticity in an ever-changing world. As I read it, I found it hard to feel any hope for the future in such a dystopia. This made for an uncomfortable experience, and required some perseverance to overcome the pervasive sense of despair.

The novel is in the noir detective genre, which blends well into the fantasy setting. The style sometimes reflects the genre, using short sentence fragments. The author managed to create a reasonable balance between a more normal, descriptive style, and the choppy, blunt fragments that added to the overall feel and atmosphere of the story.

The story reaches a dramatic climax, providing a satisfying conclusion that was not the sort of taken-for-granted happy ending seen in many series. The character of Finch goes through a difficult journey, both in his experiences and in coming to terms with his past.

This was an interesting, well-written and dark novel, and I may read the other stories set in this world.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Being you own boss

This idea started when I was thinking about my work duties as a self-employed professional, and then I realized it is also applicable to every aspect of life.

I see individuals as being their own bosses. This means they are responsible for deciding what needs to be done, motivating themselves to do these things, providing quality control and feedback, and rewarding themselves for successes.

Have you ever thought, “If I were my boss, I would fire myself”? This sort of disappointment in one’s performance often results from things like procrastination or doing something with less than one’s full attention.

Imagine the sort of boss you would like to have. This person would be responsible, sensitive, fair, and would provide appropriate, constructive feedback. You would like your boss to take all aspects of your life into consideration, be aware that apart from work you also have a family, friends, hobbies, and your own personal needs. At the same time, your boss needs to help you keep your priorities straight. A good boss doesn’t accept excuses, and is aware of the difference between genuine reasons for avoiding doing something and the avoidance that results from “just not wanting” to do it.

Now, imagine the sort of employee you would like to have. This employee has a clear set of priorities, does what is most important first, takes responsibility, manages time efficiently, and is honest.

In our lives, we have both these roles. We are our own bosses and our own employees in living our lives. To function well, we have to take responsibility for all our actions, thoughts, and feelings. We have to decide what is important at each given moment, and act accordingly.

For example, what started me thinking along these tracks is a particular piece of work I have been procrastinating about. I find myself sitting down and doing other things instead of starting working. I know that I need to finish it and get it out of the way. I know I am capable of doing it well. I also know that I don’t particularly enjoy it, and so I find myself avoiding it. So I started imagining a boss observing my actions.

Self-employed people can benefit from imagining they have a boss standing behind them. This will encourage them to spend more time working and less time engaging in the sort of avoidance activities that have become so common: checking email, visiting social networking sites, reading online news sites and blogs, and so on.

Extending this metaphor from the work arena to the management of our entire lives, we can think about ourselves as having bosses watching over us at all times, motivating us to do what we know is important. We can be benevolent bosses to ourselves, balancing what we need to do with what we want to do. This should help both productivity and happiness, as avoiding the things we need to do but don’t want to ultimately leads to pressure, guilt, and stress.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Audrey Niffenegger - Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry, Vintage, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

I enjoyed the author's previous novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, so I was looking forward to reading this book. As I expected, it contains the same combination of present day realism, detailed characterization, and a less convincing supernatural element.

The story takes place in a house adjacent to Highgate Cemetery in London (which sounds like a wonderful place to visit), and tells the story of the occupants of the building's three flats (apartments) following the death of one of them.

From the beginning it is clear that this is a ghost story, with Elspeth Noblin dying and becoming a ghost. The ghost element is not clearly explained, reflecting the inconsistent portrayal of ghosts in popular culture. The ghost seems to be energy rather than matter, but with time she learns to move physical matter and to manifest and become visible to some people. Also, it is not entirely clear why she is confined to her flat (not the place of her death), unless this is related to the psychological reason for her afterlife. The characters encountering Elspeth's ghost, and the readers, cannot infer from her existence that everyone becomes a ghost upon dying, or that all ghosts are confined to their former place of residence.

The main characters are Elspeth, her lover Robert, who lives in the flat below her, her American twin nieces Julia and Valentina, who inherit her flat and move in, and Martin, who lives upstairs. Their stories become intertwined, as the twins, rather predictably, form complicated relationships with Robert and Martin. There are also hints of secret between Elspeth and her twin sister Edie, which explains why Elspeth chose Edie's daughters as her heirs.

Robert is writing a history of the cemetery, and gives guided tours of it. Valentina starts a relationship with him, which is overshadowed by his grief for her aunt, Elspeth. Martin writes cryptic crosswords, and suffers from OCD, which is depicted very well. His wife moves out, and eventually Julia tries to help him recover.

The relationship between Julia and Valentina is described in great detail. Julia, the elder, is more outgoing and confident, but also overprotective and possessive about Valentina, who wants independence. Identical twins have always been interesting characters in fiction, sometimes because their similarity enables swaps and mistaken identities, and sometimes because their closeness is something most of us never experience. Much has been said about people's fear of the other, the different. I think there is also a deep-seated fear of the identical, which explains people's discomfort with the idea of clones or of humanoid robots. The phrase "you all look the same to me" is never a compliment. Twins have not only the greatest possible degree of physical similarity, they also have an intimacy grown out of shared experiences that in many cases seems to inhibit the development of their individuality. In this case, Julia and Valentina still dress in identical clothes at 21, and have yet to embark on career paths or have boyfriends, mainly because this would separate them from each other. As the story progresses, Valentina starts expressing her separate identity. This leads to inevitable and painful conflict. It made me grateful that I'm not a twin, and I wonder how many twin readers will identify with this sort of situation.

The supernatural story-line involving the ghost develops mainly in the second half of the book. It was very clear to me quite early on what would happen, so one of the main plot events was no surprise to me. I personally found it hard to accept, but readers who more easily suspend their disbelief might find it satisfying. The long-kept secret is revealed, and many loose ends are tied up in a way that gives relatively happy endings for most of the characters.

The writing is good, both in the descriptions and in the dialogue, where the author often conveys the personalities of the different speakers through their words. In some places there were turns of phrase that distinguished American and British characters and indicated their age and social class, something that many authors fail to achieve.

This novel is worth reading for the characters' interactions and development, even for readers like me who find the idea of ghosts difficult to accept.