Friday, February 11, 2011

The Terror

Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Year: 2007
Genre: Historical fiction/thriller
Rating: 1

What a gripping, compelling piece of literature. Dan Simmons is a masterful word-weaver, and he shines his brightest in the pages of The Terror.
The Terror is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books- which is saying something for me. This is my second time through it, and I enjoyed it just as much if not more, re-reading every line with the full backdrop of the story in mind. It is a little complicated, so knowing the general outlines before going back for the details really helped in filling in the images and indeterminacies in my mind.
Terror follows the factual Lost Franklin Expedition to discover the Northwest Passage in 1845, which was lost and never recovered. Simmons creates incredibly colorful and human characters from the true historical faces of the sailors and officers. Told in alternating viewpoints as the chapters change, we hear from mostly Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, Captain of HMS Terror, Dr. Goodsir, the surgeon's assistant aboard Erebus, Sir John Franklin himself, and John Irving, a young third lieutenant on Terror (Irving is my personal favorite). Although the first chapter occurs in 1847, the rest of the story is told in a series of flashbacks in different viewpoints. In Simmons' traditional style of not holding back a single detail, we cringe at the terrible conditions of the icy north, the death of many of the various officers and seamen, and the terrible creature that holds all of the men in bondage in the terrible wasteland of white. The story moves forward, and it seems as though there is no misfortune which does not befall the two ships. And then, as if in a dream, we see the end coming.
Simmons is a master of foreshadowing. In only the second chapter, he begins foreshadowing the conditions which would eventually befall Franklin's men in the extremes of their fight to survive. Through their trials and hardships, we see the darkest in them come out- the darkness of taking the weak way out to survive, surrendering their humanity to retain their vitality. It's heartbreaking to watch men that we became close to give up hope and either die of debilitating scurvy, poison, or give up their humanity and take the weak way out.
Despite the change of perspective, time, and location between chapters, I found that the telling was masterful and beautiful. Often when writers attempt that kind of T.S. Eliot-like shifting, I find it jarring, but not here. The changes play out like a movie's shifting in camera angle rather than a change in scenery. Crozier becomes as close to me as someone I know personally, someone who has taken a much darker angle on life. He is incredibly human and touching, his flashbacks memorable and vivid.
Simmons also does something rather unique- he blends Esquimaux (I'm going to stay with the traditional French spelling) mythology and language with the history of exploration of northern Canada and the search for the Northwest Passage, even pulling some of their monsters and gods into the physical fabric of the story. As I progressed through the later part of the story, I found myself almost learning the ancient Esquimaux language, the words resonating as I read the story and echoing through my head as familiar terms, almost as easy as their English meanings.
One of the best parts of the book is that it is so easy to follow. The plot itself, while convoluted and twisting, is understandable for two main reasons: Simmons' excellent word choice and arrangements, and the fact that he restates information often. The first is a necessary quality of any good writers; the second is, while sometimes droll and redundant, amazingly helpful in The Terror. Simmons restates the names of the men and their positions often enough to make them seem human and to help the reader easily remember who they are. He also restates what happens to the men later in the book as Crozier is taking a death count in his head- writing name, occupation, age, and cause of death, even if we knew the character fairly well.
Altogether, this a heartbreaking and enthralling piece of literature. Read it as soon as possible. I do have to warn you that some of the scenes depicting the violence done by the Thing on the Ice is not for the fainthearted or squeamish (Simmons excludes no details- I cried in several circumstances where my favored characters died), you should be able to handle it as 'showing, not telling'. The hardback copies (which I recommend you get- it's a beautiful printing) run on the expensive side- $26.00 from the Hatchette Book Group USA- and the eBook is a little pricier at $15. It is a nearly 900 page book- that tends to happen. I was really fortunate and picked this one up in a used pile for $5.00 (:D). But if your library has it, that's pretty good. I will warn you that you may be borrowing it again, though.
That's all for today. Happy reading, my pageturners!
"Winter follows summer.
Two halves.
Light and darkness complete one another.
Life and death complete one another.
You and I complete one another.
Outside, the Tuunbaq walks in night.
Where we touch,
there is light.

Everything is in balance."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Someone Knows My Name

Title: Someone Knows My Name
Author: Lawrence Hill
Year: 2007
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 1

Oh, 2007. What a good year for the literary world.
Told in stunning and heartbreaking detail, Someone Knows My Name is a beautiful story of a young African woman ripped from her homeland and forced into slavery. Although this topic is a common enough one, Lawrence Hill takes a different angle: Aminata, or Meena, is a Black Loyalist. Hill portrays a beautiful story in an impeccably written format, giving us a treasure to enjoy no matter how many times we read it.
The story begins in the tiny African village of Bayo, where Aminata lived with her parents happily. She is the daughter of two different tribes, and because her parents learned different languages, Aminata is able to speak both Fula and Bamanankan. She often accompanies her mother to different villages in her profession of midwifery, and on one such occasion, tragedy struck. Aminata is kidnapped and taken to the coast in a long, horror-filled march.
She boards a boat for the terrible crossing to America, the description of which is covered in mud, darkness, blood, and despair. During this time, we see Aminata's gentle innocence slowly disappear, and she speaks with a clear, mature voice throughout the entire book. Aminata is greatly wronged throughout the story; her first child is stolen and sold after only a few months of nursing, and her husband is perpetually lost to her, always working on a different plantation. Her second child is stolen by a white couple and is lost to her. She is beaten, nearly raped, and always being abused. But she keeps her mind and her intelligence.
The story follows Aminata from Bayo to Canada, her story always resonating in beautiful descriptions. Her character changes throughout the book, but as her father says in the beginning of the book, "Strength stays forever." The strength that her parents passed to her remains, and even if she weeps in despair, she always stands back up. She is a heroine truly worth knowing. Even when she escapes to the north, she knows that she is not safe, and must always fight for her freedom. And we weep in grief or cheer in triumph as her story unfolds.
The boo runs a little lengthy at 470 pages, but the entire story relates a true world. With many books, there are too many emotional descriptions and not enough about the setting, but Someone Knows My Name does not fall into that category. The world of the Americas in the 18th century becomes clear and real to us, and we see enough of it to feel as if we are actually there alongside Aminata. Hill creates a beautiful cast of characters, from Chekura's determined nature to Georgia's mothering knowledge to Solomon Lindo's mercurial disposition. They feel real, as if one can really reach out and touch them.
All the while, I longed for Aminata to return to Bayo and her innocent childhood, just as she did. However, my mind tracked with hers; when she discovered that even by returning to her homeland, she could never regain the world with her parents she had known, I felt a dull aching in my heart. A longing unfulfilled. For when we want something, we want it the way we picture it, not the way it will actually be.
Because it's the winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Someone Knows My Name should be available in most places. It is on eBooks, and I don't know how much it costs on the Kindle, but on the nook, it's very affordable. In paper copy, which is what I am fortunate enough to possess (:D), it is about $15.00, but I got it for $10.00 because it was on sale. But you should get your hands on this book as soon as you can; it's really amazing to read and experience.
That's it for today, ladies and gentlemen. Happy reading, my pageturners!
So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
--Jonathan Swift

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Water for Elephants

Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Year: 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2

A five-list bestseller, Water for Elephants has been on the lips of many readers around the world for about five years now. Previously almost unknown, Sara Gruen is now one of the world's top authors, propelled to the front of her field with her gritty, tasteful research in her compelling piece about the traveling circuses of the 30's. From beginning to end, her perspective through the eyes of her characters shows us a world behind the brightly colored circus tops that we all thought we knew.
Beginning in 1931 at Cornell University, we follow Jacob Jankowski, a young veterinarian who loses his parents to a brutal automobile accident. He wanders off along the train tracks and manages to hop aboard what he abruptly discovers as the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth- a train circus. Through Jacob's eyes, we find the dark world behind the canvas and the animals, showing us the gruesome and heaving underworkings of circus, from the unscrupulous Uncle Al to the aggravating August to the entertaining Kinko. Jacob becomes deeply involved in the circus as its veterinarian, and eventually the collapse of the circus itself.
The story of the Benzini Brothers is interspersed with a frame story, which involves the ninety (or ninety-three) year old Jacob in his nursing home, waiting for his family to take him to the circus that is in town and having all kinds of amusing interactions with the nurses and other ancient inmates. However, I found myself hurrying through those sections to get back to the real story, where Jacob eventually meets Rosie. Who's Rosie? Well, look at the title of the book and surmise.
Water for Elephants not only engrosses us in a world that we are all fascinated with, it engrosses us into its characters. At the beginning of the book, Jacob spends paragraphs whining about how he is probably "the oldest male virgin on the face of the earth." However, as the story progresses, we start to see him grow up before our very eyes, changing into the mature man that we all want him to be. Not to mention the other characters- Uncle Al's fascination with freaks, August's strange mood swings, Marlena's personality quirks, and Kinko's guarded personality. Every single one of them not only becomes present and active, but very, very human.
There are some sections of the book that I wouldn't hesitate to term as awkward, if not outright uncomfortable. Water for Elephants is definitely not a book for children under fifteen, especially boys- it requires a certain level of maturity to read. However, I concur with Gruen's descriptions of what occurs; it helps to develop Jacob's character into maturity, if a little awkwardly. There are a few scenes that made me squirm, just because I am a visual reader, and any descriptive words immediately leap into my mind as images. Let's not talk about Barbara, though.
There is a movie coming out soon that should be fairly PG-13, though, so if a fifteen year old wants to know the story, that should be pretty clean (I'm pretty disappointed about who they picked for Marlena, though. I like Reese Witherspoon, but she doesn't fit the description at all), and I am actually looking forward to seeing Robert Pattinson actually act. It comes out on April 22, 2011.
Water for Elephants, as I mentioned before, is a really, really popular book, so almost any book store should have it. If not, it should be available online for fairly cheap. I'm actually going to call paperback on this one; the paperback copies are surprisingly durable. They're actually running for around $14.00, too, so that's just a bonus.
Anyway, that's it for me today. Happy reading, my dear pageturners!