Sunday, 31 January 2016

Body of Glass - Marge Piercy

Having found an image of this book in the list of photos of book covers in my file of pics for this blog, I've clearly planned to write about this book for some time - it just hasn't happened. Until now!
Marge Piercy is one of my favourite writers. She's known as a feminist writer and the books reflect that. That there is also a strong Jewish flavour and, often, theme to her books is another attraction for me. Body of Glass, also published as He, She and It, is one of two books that use time slip structures, in this case, a post apocalyptic time in the future, and 16th century Prague. The other, which I must re-read - and write about - Woman on the Edge of Time, switches between current time and the future. The rest of Piercy's fiction deals with women's politics, historically and at the time of writing. 

Body of Glass runs two story lines. In the future time, set in east coast America, everyone is on the Net, but not everyone is equal. Society is divided into those in the corporate multis (educated, financially comfortable, but ruled by the culture and hierarchies of their particular multi, down to things like clothes and hair styles), the free towns (independent of the multi structures, but always at risk of being taken over for the products they create) and the rest, who populate 'the glop' - a dangerous and unpredictable environment along the east cost, largely underground due to UV radiation dangers. Most food is vat-produced from various algae, as arable land is now scarce and 'real' food is a luxury. The entire population has access to the Net and online espionage is a real threat to the free towns. Artificial intelligence is a feature of every day living, with smart houses that interact with their inhabitants, programmable vehicles,  and robots for various menial jobs. Artificial organs are the norm when people's own fail, so there is a black market for real organs and pirates that prey on people to 'harvest' them for sale.

Shira Shipman, the central character, is a mid level tech in a multi. When she loses custody of her son after her divorce, she returns to her home town - the free town of Tikva, known for the quality of its online security systems. She is offered work with Avram, father of the boy she once loved and never got over. Avram's project is a clandestine and illegal one - the creation of a cyborg that can help protect Tivka online and in real space. It's his life work, and he has collaborated with Shira's grandmother, Malkah, on the latest version, which has resulted in his first viable cyborg, Yod. Shira's job is to socialise Yod. Shira is torn between being fascinated by her work, and trying to work out ways to retrieve her son. As it becomes apparent that Tivka is under siege from the multis, her work with Yod becomes critical, and her mother - who handed her over to Malkah as a baby and is a mysterious character who is also being hunted by the multis - appears, which creates a new lot of tensions, and also a way to go after Ari, her son.

The other story line centres around the chief rabbi of Prague in the 1500s, Rabbi Judah Loew, also known as The Maharal. He was a real man, known as a Talmudic sage and secular scholar, but also as a famous Kabbalist, and legend has it that he created a golem. It was a time of rising anti semitism, and the Jews of Prague - confined to a ghetto - were at constant risk of attacks. The Maharal takes two of his fellow scholars out of the ghetto in the dead of night to create the golem, Joseph, which he has to teach how to act so as to pass him off as a real man, so as to allow him access to the whole of the ghetto precinct, as well as the wider town, in order to listen and watch, and hopefully prevent attacks. In the future time, Malkah tells Yod the story of Joseph, equating the cyborg with his 16th century Kabbalistic counterpart.

The links between the past and future times can get quite thought provoking, and I find myself looking for equivalents in our own times - the questions we are all asking now as the pace of technology outpaces our understanding of many of the ethical issues that can arise. In Yod's time, there has long been a prohibition of creating artificial life to the level Avram achieves with Yod - an individual who is part robot and part sentient being with wants and needs of his own. Yet, he has been created with one basic idea in mind - he is a weapon, created to protect Tivka and its people from the Joseph, the man of clay was created to protect the people of the Prague ghetto. Both are under control of their masters - Avram and The Maharal - who have the ability to destroy them should they step out of line.

Yod achieves far more autonomy than Joseph ever does - in the progressive environment of Tivka, he is 'outed' for what he is, and the town is prepared to consider his case for independent living and status. However, time is running short and the risks from the multis is growing. It becomes clear, the more Yod and the others penetrate the inner workings of the multis, that the upper echelons of those communities know about Yod and what he is, and they want him. They are prepared to go to great lengths to get him, and Avram's files. To what level must the citizens of Tikva be prepared to go, and how can Yod help them achieve lasting freedom?

There are FAR more complexities to this book than the outline I've given here. There are stories within stories and it's a great big read! Piercy's ability to hold together a highly complicated story that operates on many levels is impressive, and I continue to find myself gripped by this book regardless of the number of times I've read it. I don't think it's in print any more, and I have no idea if it's available for e-readers. I did spot a few secondhand copies on both eBay and Amazon at a range of prices. Well worth seeking out.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop - Nina George

Although DB and I haven't managed to get away properly for some time, due to the pressures of work and finances, we had a very brief trip to Melbourne just after New Year for a dear friend's birthday - which, because we flew, offered me an opportunity to shop in the airport bookshops. I have no idea what it is about airport bookshops over regular ones. They abound in bestsellers and pot boilers, obviously, and yet I nearly always manage to find an unexpected gem. The Little Paris Bookshop was one of those gems.
I, wrongly, assumed from the blurb, that it was just going to be one of those easy, pleasant reads that I'd enjoy on the plane, and then pass on to the next person looking for something new to read. It didn't take very long before I realised I had an unexpected treasure in my hands, and to slow down and enjoy, rather than gobble it up...! 
The central character, Jean Perdu, runs a bookshop on a restored barge on the River Seine in Paris called the Literary Apothecary. Gifted with a sense that understands which books will soothe the souls of his customers, Jean, more often than not, refuses to sell particular books, suggesting alternatives instead, that will heal them rather than contribute to their angst. Unfortunately, he can't seem to do that for himself, and is emotionally crippled from the loss of his great love when she left him to return to her husband. 
It's been twenty years since she left, and his life has shrunk to the barge and his apartment - stripped of everything but the barest necessities, and with the room where she told him she'd be leaving sealed up. Forced, when his concierge prevails on him to assist a fellow tenant refurnish after her marriage breakup, to reopen the room and extract the table his neighbour needs, he rediscovers the letter Manon left him that he never opened. In his pain and rage at her departure, he shoved it in a drawer of the table, refusing to read it, assuming that it was a missive of 'typical' excuses and pleas for friendship after the relationship... He couldn't have been more wrong. 

Manon, by the time he reads the letter, has been dead for twenty years. She was dying when she left him, but in the letter begs him - as she couldn't to his face - to come to her before she dies, and tells him that her husband knows and is prepared for him to come.
Manon is an elusive character in the book. We learn of her via the rare snippets of Jean's memories of her that he allows to surface, or is forced to deal with when they're triggered by events, and well into the book, entries from her diary. The letter triggers an emotional crisis, the like of which he's refused to allow in the twenty years since Manon left, and he abandons his neighbour in her crisis, flees to the barge and casts off, heading south. With him is another misfit, a young author, Max, surprised by the notoriety and fame of his first novel, in the grip of writers block for the demanded second book. Later on they collect another misfit, Salvatore Cuneo, who joins them after a fracas in a riverside dance hall. The ill assorted trio, all plagued by their own ghosts, travel the rivers and canals, still heading south, ostensibly for Jean to find Manon - he doesn't tell the other two she is dead...

The book is a story of intensely personal journeys, growth that comes from embracing the pain and challenges of life rather than running from them, and the joy that can come from the unexpected. Haunted by Manon's loss, Jean's life has all but stopped for twenty years at the point where he finally reads her letter. His flight from what his life had become to the unpredictable life that grows on Frances waterways in close companionship with the other two men exposes him not only to their vulnerabilities and flaws, but to his own. He is forced to acknowledge that much of what his life became after Manon was not, in fact, due to her desertion, but to his own response, and what that means for him in terms of honouring her memory and beginning to live again. 

While the overall idea that runs through the book is simple - it's very much a story of redemption - the details are complex and unexpected. Writing a full review and explaining what happens would result in a condensed version of the novel if I were to attempt to not create untold confusion, and that would mean far too many spoilers. There is nothing maudlin or mawkish about the narrative, rather it is refreshing and quirky, with much that is amusing. I hope that what I have set out in this post is enough to entice people to give the book a go - especially if heading away from home, as it's the perfect book to enjoy on a break.