A very surprising book. I was expecting a grotesque horror story, and I got nothing of the sort.
In “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” Dexter Palmer takes a historical event and greatly expounds upon it to create a clever and subtle work of fiction which is at times breathtaking in its endeavours. This is a bildungsroman, it’s a tale of mastery and apprenticeship, it’s a love story, and most of all its a story about truth, fiction, and the complexity and variety of what lies between the two, and what defines them. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, yet, Palmer says, look how dark and fragile that enlightenment was, and look and tremble at how dark and fragile our current age is. For the tale of Mary Toft in the 18th century is also the tale of flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, “Fake News” current West civilization, and it’s also the same tale of women who’s voices aren’t heard, who are abused, ignored, deemed “cow-like” and only good enough for breeding, who cry in pain in a room full of doctors that not once ask her how she’s feeling.
So why 4 stars and not 5? Because there’s a tremendously cruel and grotesque bit in the London part of the novel that I understand why Palmer brought in, yet I still wish he hadn’t. After a line or two I skipped the part, and my reading wasn’t spoiled for it. So: 1. Once the bull shows up in the arena, skip to the end of the chapter. 2. If I could skip the horror and not miss a bit, then Palmer could have done without it.
A very interesting, clever and subtle tale, worth reading and contemplating upon.
I read this novel as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, which is fortunate, because otherwise I wouldn’t have even heard about it. It’s going up against Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”.
In late 2014 I visited the wonderful Mora Stylos in Paris, France. I was there to buy a pen. A specific pen. One that had made a buzz in the pen world the moment it came out. The Visconti Homo Sapiens:
There are dozens of Visconti Homo Sapiens reviews out there, and so I wasn’t planning on reviewing this pen. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, it has a satisfying heft to it, the material feels amazing to the touch, the nib has some delightful springiness to it, and did I mention that it’s a hulking large, beautiful pen?
It’s also a very, very expensive one. It was the most expensive pen I had purchased until then, and since then only three other pens in my collection have come close to it in price (my Nakaya, my Henry Simpole Silver Overlay Conway Stewart, and my Oldwin).
I remember spending a lot of time in that store, holding the pen (it’s large and I have tiny hands), trying out the nib (I bought an Extra Fine. Today I would have gone for something broader), debating the price of pen.
In the end I liked the aesthetics, the nib, the unique filling mechanism, and the story around the pen enough to buy it. As I bought it from Mora Stylos, it was customized with my initials on the finial. This made the pen even more special and precious to me.
I got home and I couldn’t get enough out of just looking at this pen, this piece of art that looked like it belonged in a museum.
Who would want to sully this with ink, right? I could accidentally drop it or something.
But I forced myself to fill it and try using it, if only at my desk at home. I loved writing with it. It’s truly a joyous pen to write with, especially if you have a light touch. The nib is something else, comparable to my Nakaya in terms of feel.
But then I had to clean it out. And that was an absolute nightmare that took ages and ages. The filling mechanism was great to use, but terrible to fully flush out. Who has the time for that, especially for a pen that I daren’t carry with me at all times?
So over the past 5 years I’ve used my Visconti Homo Sapiens a grand total of three (!) times. It stands to reason I should sell it and let someone else enjoy it. Yet I can’t bring myself to do that. Why?
You see, I’ve grown lazy in my fountain pen use over the years, and this pen was one of the turning points. Fountain pens require effort. They have always had. That’s why people moved to ballpoints the moment they were a semi viable substitution. Fountain pens can be messy. They need filling and cleaning, and care during use and storage and while cleaning them out. You don’t use them for convenience, you use them because they bring you joy.
I’ve lost touch of that, just as I’ve lost touch with the joy of playing around with various inks. My pen usage has fallen into a rut of mostly easy to clean inexpensive cartridge-converters or TWSBI pens filled with easy to clean inks.
It has taken me a while to realize that. As I was building my goals for 2020 the realization that I’ve stopped actually enjoying my pens and ink dawned on me, and I’ve decided to see if I can’t change that.
So I filled my gorgeous Visconti Homo Sapiens, and I actually carried it with me in my bag (the skies haven’t fallen yet and the pen is OK), and I’m thoroughly enjoying using it. And I dusted off my beloved Diamine Denim, one of my favourite blue-black inks and previously one of my favourite inks that has seen absolutely no use over the past two years, and I’m giving it a spin. It’s as richly delightful as it ever was. There’s no sparkle or sheen to it, and not much shading to speak of, and yet I still love it. Diamine Denim is just a very good blue-black ink period.
So, who knows what the future holds, but I hope that this pen that does so much to evoke humanity’s past will get me interested again in my fountain pen future.
Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” could have been a great novel. All the ingredients are there. And I mean ALL of the ingredients are there. There’s a solid and enticing plot. There are potentially interesting an unique characters. There’s an obviously intelligent and accomplished author behind the scenes. There’s a hauntingly beautiful (and at times chilling) setting.
And it all falls flat.
Like an artist that doesn’t know when to stop painting, or a baker that doesn’t know when to stop embellishing, or a designer that has to add “just one more frill”, “Lost Children Archive” is extremely overworked. The result is at times barely readable, and at all times airless, stodgy, bloated. There are too many references layered onto a plot that would have been excellent if it had only been given a chance to flow freely. The characters, potentially excellent, become so iconic they are no longer relatable, realistic, living human beings.
This is such a tremendous shame, because all the ingredients are there, and with a little bit of tweaking and pruning this could have been a powerful novel about migrant children, families falling apart, genocide, memory, loss. As it is, it’s reads like an overly worked “New Yorker” piece – so cerebral it’s lost all its heart and momentum.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020contest, where it’s up against the phenomenal “Girl, Woman, Other,” and I will be stunned if Evaristo’s book will not trounce it. Read this only for the potential.
After reading Bernadine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other“, I have to say that Atwood’s “The Testaments” better be a flawless novel to justify giving it the joint Booker prize with this masterpiece.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is a perfect gem. She manages to pull off one of the most daring tightrope acts in modern literature:
Create a unique narrative in a unique narrative voice that oftentimes flows into poetry, yet still remains very readable.
Give voice to those who are rarely, if ever, heard, yet not turn them into iconic stand-ins, but let them be individuals. And oh what an ensemble of glorious individuals they are.
Render a plot that is packed full of fascinating, realistic action, and yet that is non-linear, tying disparate characters from widely varying backgrounds and generations in a web of past-present-future reality. A plot that brings the historic and iconic with the present and personal, the petty with the epic, and brings them all together under the title of “life”.
Bring slices of everyday London, the UK, Africa and the US to life in a way that makes each character grounded in their background and yet also universally relatable. A school is this particular school, but it’s also all high-schools everywhere.
Talk about the darkest parts of the human experience, the worst deeds, the worst mindsets, and yet retain a measure of hope, empathy, understanding for those who experienced the worst and those that inflicted it.
Back in 2016 I purchased the 2016 Anniversary edition of the Karas Kustoms EDK. It was a Parker refill machined pen (i.e. relatively short) that came with a Schmidt P2186 rollerball refill (and a Rickshaw bag pouch with a notebook which I won’t review here).
You can see that pen on the right, with it’s grey red finish and its Karas logo with the year 2016 engraved into the barrel:
The 2019Anniversary Retrakt is the pen on the left, and when I first saw it during Karas end of the year sale I fell in love with the sleek design. The 2019 anniversary Retrakt fits a Pilot G2 refill (astrix. We’ll get to that later), comes in a matt finish with a black click mechanism and clip, and a “fluted” grip. Unlike the 2016 edition, it’s completely unbranded.
Both pens have a distinctive and attractive industrial design, and both are built like tanks. The anodization is fantastic, and both the clip and click mechanism are rock solid. The pens are fairly priced for the quality you get, they have good heft and balance, and are a joy to use. I personally found the fluted grip slightly less comfortable for use in long writing sessions than the regular grip, but I have a tendency to go “grip of death” sometimes. The fluted grip just reminds me to let go a bit, the pen isn’t going anywhere without me.
This brings us to the refill situation on the 2019 Anniversary Retrakt. As soon as I got it I took out the Pilot G2 refill it came with and tried to replace it with my favourite G2 compatible refill, the Uni-ball UMR-85. It’s something that I do automatically with every G2 compatible machined pen. The click mechanism wouldn’t engage. The plunger went down but didn’t stay down, the tip of the refill never saw the light of day. This has never happened to me with a G2 compatible pen before, so I grabbed the original refill and placed it side by side with the Uni-ball one:
This was when I realized that the Retrakt V2 must have somehow been designed to accommodate the Pilot G2 tip configuration and only the Pilot G2 tip configuration (unless you purchase a Parker style conversion kit from Karas). This was a big disappointment to me.
I probably wouldn’t have purchased this pen had I known this going in. I don’t hate the Pilot G2 refills, but I’m also not a huge fan of their tendency to be globby or stop working while they’re still half full. This means that I’ll be trying to hack a Uni-ball refill into this pen one way or another. Here’s hoping that I succeed because this the 2019 Anniversary Retrakt is a handsome and well made pen that I would really like to have in my rotation.
Writing a satire that is also “good high fiction” (i.e. not trite, full of one dimensional characters, in a world lacking verisimilitude) verges on the impossible, partially because of the demands of the genre.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin comes damn close to achieving the impossible in “We Cast a Shadow“. The nameless main character, a black father obsessed with demelanating his son in an extremely racist “post-racial” American South, is a stand-in for desperate black parents tormented by the responsibility of raising a child in a world so hostile to them. Yet he’s also a fully realized character, in inadvertent “monster” created out of good intentions, love, trauma, despair, and an attempt to navigate that which can’t be navigated. If you don’t understand his fears, acknowledge your privilege and read the news. If you think demelanization isn’t a thing, listen to Tan France speak up against it.
The plot is where “We Cast a Shadow” shows its rough edges. Most of it is excellent, some of it gets carried away in the need to find literary legitimacy by pulling in references. There’s a noticeable amount of literary callback in the writing as well. Some of it is called for, some of it just pulls you out of the narrative. “We Cast a Shadow” lacks the polish and flow of “The Sellout” (and it’s not nearly as funny), which is why I think it got less attention from the public and the press. It’s still an accomplished, good book, well worth the read.
Unlike “The Sellout”, in “We Cast a Shadow” Ruffin doesn’t set a clownish character in motion in a contemporary setting. His is a dystopian near future, one that may very well be realized. For the sake of the Nigels and Pennys of the world, let’s hope it doesn’t.
I read “We Cast a Shadow” as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s in the play-in round against “Golden State” and “Oval“, two other 2019 dystopian novels. While “We Cast a Shadow” is the least speculative of the three, it’s my opinion that it’s the best.