The Rampage of Haruhi Suzimiya

Monday, 30 April 2012

A quick note on this for any new blog readers: Haruhi Suzimiya is a Japanese schoolgirl unaware of her ability to alter reality. She runs a school club, the SOS Brigade, whose members are secretly dedicated to preventing her unconscious desires rewriting the world.

The Rampage of Haruhi Suzimiya
Nagaru Tanigawa
(Little Brown, 2011)

The next volume of Haruhi Suzimiya short stories is a mixed bag.

The first story, Endless Eight, made me groan. Anyone who has watched season 2 of the anime will understand the fear at “Summer’s almost over…”. Thankfully, the short story doesn’t have the same structure and was a lot more enjoyable than I expected. The big problem was with my own over-awareness of the plot. Suzimiya wants to have a fun-filled summer holiday, and the rest of the SOS brigade have to make it happen.

The next story, Day of Sagittarius 3, was my least favourite. I struggle to engage with stories that involve descriptions of battles – either actual ones or cyberfights – and this was no different. There’s too little emotional content, and too much dry description.

The final story, Snowy Mountain Syndrome, is exactly what I want in Haruhi. Mirroring their summer expedition to a Remote Island, the Brigade go to a ski lodge and get caught in a blizzard. This story delighted for several reasons, one of which is that it was the only one not yet adapted into anime. It was the most playful, and saucy, and made me remember why I started reading Haruhi to start with.

Notes on a Scandal

Thursday, 26 April 2012

When I was tidying up last week I found this overlooked book that should have been in the review roundup.

Notes on a Scandal
Zoe Heller
(Penguin, 2004)

A teacher, Barbara Covett, gets drawn in when a colleague, Sheba Hart, is accused of having sex with a pupil.

This novella is in the first person singular, and is delightfully creepy. The waspish comments of the narrator, a frustrated history teacher approaching retirement, are entertainingly prim. The range of teachers at an inner city comprehensive are recognizable stereotypes that she precisely lampoons.

As the plot unfurls, Barbara’s obsession with ‘protecting’ Sheba becomes more unhealthy than Sheba’s madness in having an affair with a pupil. Her desperate desire for a special friend mirrors that of the teenage girls she teaches, although she would never demean herself with such a comparison. The hints of a backstory, involving a private school in Scotland and a previous scandal that meant Barbara had to move to a North London comprehensive, evoke The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In another echo, Sheba doesn’t realise who betrays her.

The prose is crisp, sharply capturing a neat, waspish and thoroughly nasty mind. It makes you collude with Barbara by drawing you in with wit and humour at the start. So when the cracks start, the disgust you feel is all the stronger for having liked her.

Thoroughly recommended.

Slaves of New York

Monday, 9 January 2012

A series of interconnected stories of life and sex in the city, predating Bushnell by a decade.

Slaves of New York
Tama Janowitz
(Picador, 1987)

I tried to read this short story collection before, but put it down as the first one seemed to be trying too hard. All “look at me, talking about dicks!”. Whatever. On a second attempt, I realized this was a set of stories about dreams and realities in New York. The recurring characters are, for the most part, now recognizable as hipsters: urban artists, bands who never quite break through, etc.

Jewelry designer Eleanor recurs the most. She’s a small-town Pollyanna, desperate to believe she and her boyfriend are on the cusp of success. She’s just so…wet. Though the description of her work at the end made me think of this stuff by Margaux Lange (hattip to Kelly Hale). Are we meant to read her as deluded? Or does the upbeat end of her story mean she is really going somewhere?

Janowitz’s jagged, brusque prose sometimes seems like her characters: pushing so hard to be edgy that it becomes all style and no substance. It’s a style that suits short stories, but can make them disengaging. The collection’s seems laid out to reinforce that.

Midnight’s Children

Saturday, 7 January 2012

A boy born at the moment India became independent again, Saleem Sinai, acts as a symbol of his country’s character: at times magical, venal, banal and violent.

Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie
(Jonathan Cape, 1981 – I read the Picador paperback)

Salman Rushdie’s Booker winner got a hard time recently, as Fresh Meat‘s Vod laid into it. Clearly not a fan of magical realism. I loved the stories within stories and the fantastical elements, such as Saleem being able to telepathically link together all of the children born at the moment of independence.

I do think the novel loses its way somewhat – like the amnesiac Saleem – in the forests of the 70s. That may be a side-effect of making a single person carry the narrative symbolism of an entire country’s history. Or it may be because the earlier historical sections are granted more context whereas the sections set during the Emergency are so contemporaneous to publication that Rushdie – through Saleem – doesn’t think it necessary. Or in part it could be that my own knowledge of 1940s history is more rounded than that of the 1970s: I was previously unaware of the Bangladesh Liberation War, for example.

Overall, a book I wish I’d read sooner, when its magical tricks were fresh and new to me.


Monday, 7 November 2011

In which Scarlett O’Hara attempts to win back Rhett Butler. Because Scarlett learning her lesson at the end of Gone With the Wind by being denied her soulmate is just too gloomy.

Alexandra Ripley
(Pan Books, 1991)

Perhaps the most annoying element of this brick of a book is the “so it is” portrayal of the Irish. The romanticisation of the Deep South in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 original can be excused as nostalgia for a long-vanished age. I’m not sure even that justifies its reactionary views, but at least Mitchell packed in the action, and had a stunning set piece at its mid-point.

Scarlett lacks such a background, and crosses the Atlantic in search of an equivalent. Scarlett herself promptly forgot the lesson she learnt in the fog in Atlanta, and goes after Rhett just as she went after Ashley. The portrayal of Ireland in the 1870s is just a bundle of laughable clichés, covering every possible stereotype of the Irish. And it shows a political naivety by treating the fight for an independent Ireland – a fight that was still killing people in 1991 when she wrote this book – as equivalent to Mitchell’s romanticised Deep South.

I liked it as a bodice-ripper, but it left an uncomfortable impression.

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