Monday, December 31, 2012

Catching Fire

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Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year: 2009
Genre: Teen/thriller/popular
Rating: 2

The second installment of a trilogy is almost always the best of the three. Take for example The Two Towers, which captures the soul of the whole story, or The Empire Strikes Back of Star Wars. Because the central story doesn't have to introduce strangers into a brand new world or say goodbye, it nearly writes itself. The tension strings the two together, and the book can act like the climax of the whole.
Catching Fire, the second novel of the acclaimed Hunger Games series, acts like the first. After the choppy, rushed introduction of the first book, the second flows much more naturally and freely.
Suzanne Collins brings us back into her futuristic country of Panem, where Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have returned to their home district and prepare for their forced tour of the districts. Their relationship is forced and awkward now that the games are over and they must go back to their original, simpler lives. However, the world has changed since Katniss's explosive presence on the Hunger Games. The twelve districts are on the brink of revolution, and the remarkably revolting President Snow approaches Katniss to enlist her to defuse the rebellions steadily growing in the country.
But Katniss has other problems. And as her personal life spins out of control, so does the feeling in the country.
Collins has clearly realized that in the face of the immense popularity of The Hunger Games, she needs to refine her writing for a larger audience. The syntax of this novel is much cleaner and more mature, and the characters think in much more logical, mature manner. Peeta, who was borderline childish for large sections of the first novel, is suddenly an adult and full of much more relatable pain. Gale, who was pointless and flat, suddenly folds out like origami into something far more complicated and able to stand on his own. He remains a little cliche in places, but his interactions with the citizens of District 12 glow far more than those with Katniss.
Better yet is the unpredictability of the novel. While The Hunger Games is both somewhat predictable and even a touch corny at times, Catching Fire pitches a continuation of the story in a familiar direction with the touches of Suzanne's overall goal for the story. Katniss, Haymitch, and Peeta are pitched into a sort of dysfunctional family relationships because of their one horrid commonality-- they were forced to kill their peers for the entertainment of those around them.
And yet, despite the improvement of the entire novel, there is a hollowness, as if Collins has written the body of the story but sucked the marrow out of the bones. It has a skeleton, but the bones are empty and there's no blood in its body. She tried to make up for it with the gratuitous amount of violence, but this does not stop us from feeling a certain emptiness for a true meaning in the story. One of the themes that screams to be explored is also the most obvious: what does it mean to kill another person? What has to change inside of us to be able to face someone just like us and kill them to save our own life?
Sadly, Collins skirts these great questions for the entertainment value. Not that it is lacking-- the story is fast-paced, gripping, and tear-jerking in places. Great new characters are introduced, and the relationship between Katniss and Peeta changes into a form both more complicated and more simple. Katniss does all she can just to survive, even when that means hurting the people she thinks she might love.
The title is a double entendre and refers to the first Games, which takes about half the book to figure out. However, the scene in which she fulfills it is strikingly unforgettable; even if she is no Dickens, she has the visuals of a master.
Altogether, though, Suzanne Collins has done that thing that authors dream of: writing a sequel that improves on the original. Available for $5.99 on the Kindle or $9.87 for the hardback on Amazon, Catching Fire is worth the read for anyone, but read the original first, because otherwise confusion is inevitable.
The film is due out in September 2013, with a much larger cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee). Look for the long line of screaming teenage girls outside the movie theatres.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

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Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year: 2008
Genre: Sci-fi/thriller/teen
Rating: 2

Action! Danger! Tragedy! Oppression! Romance!
You couldn't ask for more on a movie poster. Perhaps, in fact, if any book could have skipped the written phase and gone straight to film, it would be The Hunger Games. Rapid-paced action and visceral imagery make this book a top-notch story, and even if the language leaves something to be desired, it hits its target crowd exceptionally well. After all, sometimes all we need is a good story, right?
Suzanne Collins is an experienced children's writer; she has written multiple episodes for 1990s TV shows like Little Bear, Oswald, and Clarissa Explains It All. She has also written a five-book series for children known as The Underland Chronicles, which are an interpretation of the classic Alice in Wonderland.
However, with The Hunger Games, she takes a step into the gritter world of teen fiction, leaving behind squeaky-clean genres for a heftier tale. The novel tells the story of 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen, a poor girl living in the 12th District of a post-apocalyptic North American country called Panem. She is content to lead a quiet, meager existence by illegally poaching off of government land to feed her family until her younger sister, Primrose, is called out to be a participant in the bloody gladitorial contest known as the Hunger Games. In desperation to save her sister's life, Katniss volunteers to take her place, sealing her fate to kill or be killed.
To make matters more complicated, a boy that Katniss owes her life to, Peeta Mellark, is named as the other participant, obliging her to kill someone that she feels indebted to. Thus, she explains, is the horror of the Games: in order to survive, you must give up all your dignity, which is the government's aim. As the book progresses, the relationship between Katniss and Peeta becomes much muddier and more complicated, and even she is not sure how she feels about the boy who saved her life, the boy she is obliged to kill.
Told in the first person, the book places the readers firmly inside Katniss's mind. We hear her thoughts, her gut reactions to things, and see the grossly unfair world of Panem as she sees it. Grammar fanatics will squirm and squawk as they read turns of phrase (think high school language, written down) and the truncated fragments of thoughts are jarring, but the argument stands that they do place you into the mind of a coarse teenager.
Collins has created a marvelously dark, creative world replete with extensive details and logical, ordinary, yet beautiful characters. Although some of the people we meet are rather two-dimensional (Prim and Effie are exceptionally flat, and Cato runs a close third) Katniss and Peeta are fully fleshed out, and blend together beautifully. As time progresses, we understand more of the darkness and complete victory that the Games are to the Capitol, dehumanizing their victims and their audience in one blow.
The story is a thinly veiled allegory for the evils of socialism, what with the rigid rule controls on each district's product and the omnipotence and omniscience of the government. Katniss and Peeta represent the young capitalists defying the shackles of governmental regulation, shaking off the social expectations of submission and fear. Collins has essentially created a effective propaganda piece for republicanism with a action-packed, fast-paced, driven plot filled with believable people and graphic imagery.
The target audience is most definitely teenagers and young adults. The language is easy and flows much like an average American talks, and there are few moments without some sort of action or plot-centric exchange. Collins draws in a female audience with the sweet, innocent romance between Peeta and Katniss and the male audience with the sheer horror of the Games that she describes. (Cato's death is particularly horrifying, and will shock anyone with a visual imagination.) Intuitively weaving all of her different articles together to create one enormous, lumpy tapestry, Collins introduces us to a plot that we can love and remember, cheer and grieve for, and step easily into with the tightly-woven words she has written.
Because it is told in first person, the book stays with Katniss nearly every waking moment for a few weeks, but at just over 300 pages is surprisingly short. While that style necessitates some dull moments, some of the scenes are exceptionally poignant, such as the reaping (where the participants, known as "tributes," are named) when Katniss throws herself forward to save her sister. Rife with passionate language and the impulsive nature of the action, we are gripped throughout the telling and tied tightly to the brave girl as she sacrifices herself for love of family. Because it is told in the present tense, the readers experience the events in hypothetical "real time," which places us even more inside the mind of Katniss, lending us her emotions and distractions. Perhaps it is because we nearly become her, but our heroine is one of the most complete characters in popular literature.
The film, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, came out in March 2012 and drew an enormous audience for its extended run. Catching Fire, the next film, is expected in September 2013.
The Hunger Games is available for a meager $5.00 on the Kindle (it's free if you join Amazon Prime), or $10.89 in hardback. The entire trilogy, which includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay, is available for $18.99 on the Kindle or $29.50 in hardback. Because of the popularity and timeliness of these books, they are probably taken out of most libraries most of the time; if you can't borrow them, they're worth the purchase. Mine were given to me by some wonderful people as a Christmas gift, and I profusely thank them. It's taken me a really long time to jump on the bandwagon.
Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope you got or gave at least one book today. Enjoy your break and keep reading!

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Reenchanted World

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Title: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship With Nature
Author: James William Gibson
Year: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction/environmental/sociology
Rating: 3

Tree-huggers have a negative connotation in today's culture. Somehow, they've acquired this stereotype of long-haired, smelly, poor, bleeding-heart liberals, and we look down on them as a handicap to progress. They strap themselves to bulldozers for the sake of a few trees, and that's ridiculous, right? Why defend a few trees?
It's more than the trees. It's a kinship with nature itself, according to James William Gibson's book A Reenchanted World. With detailed journalism and observations on sociology, Gibson explores the modern yearning for a connection with nature amidst the expanding suburban world of chain-link fences and asphalt. While he does address the whole world, he mostly focuses on America, which deserves all the discussion it gets.
The book begins with the story of John Quigley, who received national attention for his two-month-long tree-sit in California in 2002. The local developers wanted to tear down the tree in order to expand a road into a subdivision, and the local environmentalists howled in protest. Quigley climbed into the tree and refused to move, much to the chagrin of the developers, and was supported by other environmentalists in the LA area. "Old Glory," as he named the tree, remained standing.
This fierce love for nature is not new to the world, but it's new to us, according to Gibson. For nearly 200 years, Americans have been recklessly and aggressively taking hold of the New World, blazing fields and drilling oil rigs in the name of progress, and the victims have been endangered species, our natural environment, and the climate. Odd, considering that the Native Americans are some of the most naturally-connected people on the planet, and it is from this that Gibson draws his beginning.
Native Americans believe in the spirituality of nature, and the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s stemmed mostly from a revival in tribal traditions amongst Native American chieftains. As we know, it spread quickly through the youth because of the anti-war sentiments at the time, taking the world in great strides with movements like "flower power" and Greenpeace. Yet, despite all the positive effects that a more natural environment has been proven to have, these hippies have been blacklisted by modern society as radical, liberal, and dangerous.
Gibson takes this movement in hand and explains the desire for a connection with nature in both scientific and spiritual terms. The very title refers to attaching a holiness to the natural world, which seems ridiculous to us. But if you look at it, we do anyway. Gibson's primary example is our reverence for whales. People come from around the world to the great oceans to take a cruise liner out into the middle of the sea just to see whales surface for a moment, and it changes them. This doesn't just apply to biologists or whale experts; ordinary people have been reduced to tears by simply watching a whale surface out of the water for a moment, blow water at them, and disappear majestically once more. Any whale stranded on a beach makes national news as hundreds of people rush to its rescue, and there was recently a film entitled Big Miracle based on the true story of the drastic attempts to rescue a whale family marooned in the ice. Shamoo, the performing whale at SeaWorld, is more famous than many humans.
Gibson's point is not that we are coming back to nature worship, or that people will soon revert to worshiping ants or grass. No, instead, he outlines the reasons that we are still attached deeply to our world, and that environmentalism is merely an expression of the love and responsibility that we must bear for our planet.
This book was remarkably similar in topic to The World Without Us, which I reviewed earlier this year. However, Gibson doesn't have Weisman's writing charisma, and A Reenchanted World reads like a scientific article. The facts and points are well laid-out, the theme is relevant, and the ideas that he shares are true and thought-provoking, but it still feels dry. Scattered with words like "dispensationalism" and "counterculture," Gibson might have reached a wider audience by simplifying his ideas into layman's terms.
Addressing environmentalism's place in politics is necessary for any ecology book, but because of the stiff relations between the two, the discussion can become awkward. Gibson devotes two chapters for politics and religion, and while they make excellent points, they both feel a bit like rants against the right wing and conservatism. Although the men he refers to are radicals and usually known as such, he does not address the moderate right wing, nor the average American view of environmentalism, which leaves a big gap in our ideology. It is easy to pick out the red threads in the weave, but all the ones that blend together make the big picture and are equally important.
Altogether, this book makes an important contribution to the picture of today's environmentalism: it's not just a sense of misplaced duty, but a pure connection to the world that motivates us to save it. Rife with excellent examples and pithy quotes, Gibson has provided us with a guidebook for why we love nature and how to responsibly go about conserving it as long as we can. There are more details about the book on his website.
The book is only two years old, so it's available for $9.99 from the Kindle store or $10.80 in hardback from Amazon. The library might have a copy, so check there first, but do read this. Even if you're not an environmentalist, it can't hurt to understand what drives them, and it might help to make you understand our world and its people a little better.

Monday, December 10, 2012

We, the Drowned

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Title: We, the Drowned
Author: Carsten Jensen
Year: 2010 (English)
Genre: Historical, exploration
Rating: 1

What do we base our identities on? Does the shape of the whole define the shape of each individual, or the other way round? Perhaps both.
W.B. Yeats once wrote, 
              The finished man among his enemies? 
                    How in the name of heaven can he escape
        that defiling and disfigured shape
 the mirror of malicious eyes 
          casts upon his his eyes until at last 
                 he thinks that shape must be his shape?
                            And how in the name of heaven can he escape
            if honor find him in a wintry blast? 
--A Dialogue of Self and Soul
  Carsten Jensen's seafaring novel We, the Drowned not only explores the ending days of sailing ships and the Danish world, but also delves into the heart of those questions that purse us every time that something ends. Where do we go from here? What am I without it? 
Told from the perspective of no particular character, only the we of the town, the novel tells the story of a Danish seafaring town called Marstal off the northeastern coast of Denmark. For generations, men and their sons and their grandsons have gone to school until confirmation, then taken to the decks of ships to sail around the world, only returning once every two years or so. Those left behind, the mothers and children and parents, wonder if they will ever see their sons again, but have to learn to live around it-- Marstal is a seafaring town. The men take pride in it, and don't care if they drown. To them, that's just collateral damage in their line of work.
The book tells the story of Marstal from 1848 until the end of World War II, sharing the lives and adventures of several people along the way, but never from their perspective. It is always the townspeople sharing the story from the outside, as if they were reading diary entries or sharing the tales over beer in a pub. We begin with Laurids Madsen, the heart of Marstal seafaring, a man who trusted nothing save his own skills and his sea boots. He disappears into the South Pacific, and fifteen years later, his abandoned son Albert goes looking for him to give his family some closure. We trace Albert's life from beginning to end, and we meet Knud Erik, a boy who was denied the sea by his mother, and wanted the adventure with his whole heart. Dozens of other names float by, like acquaintances we only knew a little, living their lives and passing away as time goes by.
The first chapter is a bid muddled, as you are walking in on a complex world that you know very little of, but everything soon falls into place. The crew is the "we" in this case, and they tell the stories of the legendary Laurids Madsen, like a hero that they all knew, who did nothing more than survive. That is the legacy of Marstal-- those who survive are the heroes.
The greatest majority of the book, though, involves Albert. After becoming a hero for sailing the South Pacific and returning with tales of cannibals and shrunken heads, Albert watches his friends die and his town grow old, and he can do nothing to stop it. He watches his own life drift idly by after he comes ashore, constantly longing for the danger of the sea, and conflicted by his own desire. After all, who is he without the sea? He is a sailor, and if he no longer sails, he's drifting.
Knud Erik, too, is an vividly living character, full of latent desire, suppression, and longing, pursued by his own dreams. He was shaped from a young age to love the sea and sailing, and once he reaches it, it's so different than his expectations that he's not sure what to do. His whole life has been about sailing, and when his desires change as he ages, he falls stagnant, trapped by his achievement.
Jensen is brilliant. Even though We, the Drowned has been translated from the Danish, it reads smoothly and beautifully in English, even the idioms and quotes falling into place. He clearly has a passion for this town and its history, and as he grew up there, he understands the dreams of the people and the things lost. Marstal comes to life in its biography, fraught with danger and very real characters.
The novel is gritty, dark, and gruesome where it needs to be, but no more so than necessary to be real. Many times adventure novels become romanticized, and while this book has its fictional elements, the core of it is so deeply human and real that even the words of the characters come to life. Every Marstaller walks the streets, warm with the blood of their ancestors that we knew, full of the dreams that they know will never come true.
The core is all about identity. We all know that nothing lasts forever, even if we hope it will, and life is all about learning to say goodbye and change ourselves. Marstal faces the extinction of its way of life, and even though the men are the greatest sailors in the world, they cannot stop the end of the sailing ship as they had known it for centuries. Laurids' identity is in his thirst for adventure, and it ruins him; Albert's identity is in his skill and experience as a sailor, and once he retires, he is forced to change himself. Knud Erik's identity is in his dreams and ambitions as a sailor and defiance of his mother. There is a drawing point where each man must face failure or change, and some do, but some fade away.
The second chapter is the most strikingly poignant. We are placed amongst the schoolboys of Marstal, tortured by Isager, the abusive schoolteacher. He teaches them to accept pointless abuse, because that is what they will get aboard ships their whole lives, and the readers recoil against it. And rightly so-- it is horrific, but real. In the middle of the chapter, the boys have a quiet moment, and they say poignantly,  "We committed appalling acts and only realized the horror of what we'd done when we stood gathered around the evidence of our atrocity. Violence was like a drug that we couldn't relinquish. He planted a thirst for blood in us. One that could never be quenched."
In addition to the brilliant main characters, every side character is unique and colorful. Jensen has painted a full picture of a town, leaving no one out and nothing corrected. For example, Lorentz, a contemporary of Albert, is constantly seeking acceptance and only learns to accept himself by years of rejection. Another striking character that is nearly impossible to sort out is Herman, a darkly suspicious man who does what he will, but he is still a Marstaller and therefore "one of us."
At 678 pages, We, the Drowned is a hefty novel, but it wastes no time on unnecessary moments. Capturing the very real parts of life is the challenge to the novelist, but Jensen has done it so poignantly that his work will survive amidst names like Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Odyssey.
Available for just $9.32 from the Kindle store, We, the Drowned is one of the best books I've ever read. I have a deep fondness in my bones for seafaring novels (stemming from a childhood copy of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch) but this one goes even deeper. Because of its raw emotion and beauty, this novel will live forever in the hearts of those who quest for adventure and identity. We all want to know who we are, and we belong to each other just as much as everyone belongs to us.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

To the End of the Earth

Title: To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson
Author: Tom Avery
Year: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir/history
Rating: 2

Foolhardiness often overlaps with bravery. Oftentimes, it's not until after the success that we dub it as brave; the most famous accomplishments were often accused of being ludicrous when they were first proposed. From the top of Everest to the bottom of the ocean's trenches, we are constantly encroaching on that legendary phrase-- "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
Tom Avery has dedicated his life to doing just that. In his young life, Avery has made expeditions to both poles, in the Andes, to a remote mountain range in Kyrgystan (don't ask me to find that one on a map) and various other places on earth. What's most interesting about these trips is not that he has done so many, but that he survived them at all. Some people might call him an adrenaline junkie for his numerous, at times reckless, brushes with death. In his 2009 memoir To The Ends of the Earth, Avery recounts dozens of moments where he thought he might have just missed the mark and sentenced his team to death on his daring expedition to the North Pole.
The adventure wasn't a passing fancy. After returning from his 2002 pursuit to the South Pole, Avery was surprised by an offer of sponsorship for his next trek, which he decided on the spot would be to the North Pole. Over the next two years before the actual trip took place, he would discover how monumental that idea actually was. The simple reason is that the North Pole is in the middle of an enormous, malevolent, frozen ocean, and Avery wanted to sled there. On foot.
The subtitle of the book alludes to a 100 year old mystery, the voyage of Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole by dogsled in 37 days. Upon his return, his claim was decried by the arctic exploration community as ridiculous, impossible, and false. For a man who had forever held aspirations of reaching the Pole, this was a crushing blow, and to this day Peary's assertion is doubted.
 With his 2005 expedition, Avery's goal was to prove once and for all that Peary was telling the truth. The most difficult part of organizing the mission was to recreate Peary's exploration team, composed of the nearly-extinct Eskimo dog (no, not a husky, an Eskimo dog) and two turn-of-the-century sleds. Not only did he want to do this whole 413-mile trek with 5 people and 16 dogs, he wanted to make the entire run in 37 days. To any onlooker, Avery was asking for death.
His memoir of the trip is gripping, with an expert's wry sense of humor. Readers come to know each of the dogs' names as well as the explorers do, to laugh at the little anecdotes of their antics, and to feel their pain as they struggle for life on the hostile plains of the Arctic. The explorers themselves keep a friendly, co-dependent dynamic, companions in this strange world where no man has ever lived.
We also come to know the landscape as well as Avery did, with his ardent descriptions of what could only be described as an icy wasteland. To him, it is a wonderland, and that love is communicated in his writing. As the book progresses and the conditions grow more desperate, we see that love grow briefer and more passing, but never entirely fades: here is a man obsessed, and come face to face with his deepest passion. No matter the hardships, Tom Avery pursues the poles, and that in itself is admirable, albeit the daredevil nature of his exploits.
Structurally, To the End of the Earth flows very easily, the history intermittent with the narrative, creating one cohesive story, in the purest sense of the word. Avery has even reconstructed dialogue between himself and his companions, which lends the book a feeling of personality rather than a dry historical memoir to be logged away at the Royal Geographical Society.
Taking another step back, the sheer topic of the book is incredible. So few men make the trip to the North Pole and live to tell the tale, let alone on foot, that the idea of it is incredible. Avery deserves applause for his incredible bravery and ambition for taking on a task that so many have failed to do, and for increasing our true knowledge of the planet that, day by day, it becomes apparent that we know very little about.
Because it's such a specific book and not of wide interest, To the End of the Earth is available in paperback for as little as $6.36 from Amazon, and $7.99 on the Kindle. However, even if you are not familiar with the story of the Arctic, take a look at this one. Avery's website gives a little more information on the background of the book if you are interested, and gives a list of his expeditions as well.

Monday, November 19, 2012

American Rust

Title: American Rust
Author: Philipp Meyer
Year: 2009
Genre: Crime/drama
Rating: 4

Okay, we get it. America has no jobs, the Rust Belt felt the worst of it, our youth is flailing without a direction, and we need to reach inside ourselves to find a future. Anyone who has lived in America for the past five years knows that, and while the situation in the old industry centers is pitiable, we need to move on now, kay? Thanks.
Philipp Meyer's novel American Rust attempts absolutely nothing daring. Novels of the times are all too common, and it's not like any of us don't know what's happening in the factories and mills of the old production towns. We've all stepped inside what it means to be an American in these times, when the American Dream is dead and we need to find a new dream to pursue. Meyer is not touching any new ground here; in fact, he may even be wallowing in the past, depending on how you look at it.
The novel runs like the ripples in a pond-- a story of aftereffects. At the very beginning of the story, twenty year-old genius Isaac English has already stolen $4,000 in cash from his crippled father and strikes out into the dark with his best friend, Billy Poe, to make their way out of their economically crippled Pennsylvania town of Buell. However, a run-in and subsequent fight with some homeless men leaves one dead, and the two boys must face how that small act of desperate, poorly considered violence will change their lives forever.
Poe's mother Grace, police chief Bud Harris, and Isaac's sister Lee also tell chunks of the story from their perspective, but all speak from the same voice: stagnant hopelessness. Even Lee, who has escaped from Buell and married into a rich family in Connecticut, has little direction and feels trapped by her past. Grace has slid into her present with little ambition, and now regrets her choices, and Bud has tried his hardest to prevent Poe's inevitable time in prison. The novel plays out in bad choice after bad choice, all of which make sense at the time, but have negative consequences in the long run.
Shadows of the Great Depression are nearly tangible throughout the novel. The most omnipresent wound in Buell's wallet is the closure of the steel mills in the 80s, which shut down the entire Valley where the town is located. Poe, Isaac, and Lee often comment on how beautiful the landscape is despite the heavy air of economic suffering on the town, but they talk about little else. Meyer certainly understands what it's like to have little money and no job, but he doesn't seem to understand much else.
The one interesting facet of this novel is writing style. Told in stream-of-consciousness, the style is evocative of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In fact, Meyer is probably a Joyce fan, as he slips in a subtle mention of the author in one of Lee's segments. The format lends the novel an element of sensitivity, like stepping inside the minds of the characters, bringing them to the human level the reader sitting in their heated home with enough to eat and an alarm system.
However, that is the only humanizing thing about American Rust. Very little of it seems real, and the author may argue that that's how it really is, but having lived in America all my life, this seems rather romanticized and farfetched. None of the characters is relatable, or even realistic: Isaac the genius, removed from society, Poe the jailbait, Lee the nostalgic rebel, and Grace the regretful waiting mother. All of them neatly fit into stereotypes that we expect in a novel about a crumbling society, and though they may exist somewhere in the world, people tend to be a great deal more complicated than Meyer makes them out to be.
Bud Harris the only interesting bright spot. He is conflicted about his life, stagnated, and unsure of why he does what he does. His chapters, rife with a kind of sadness about the state that both his country and his life are in, bristle with a resigned anger, and that is the only unique thing about this book. If the whole novel had been about Bud, it would have been time better spent.
American Rust is available for the Kindle for $11.99, or $10.20 in paperback from Amazon. It's three years old now and 367 pages long, so skip buying it if you can and check your library. Overall, a pretty dull read, and dragged out far longer than it should have, but the writing style is worth a shot if you want something simple and gritty to get you through your Thanksgiving break.
On that note, happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Read a book. If you're looking for some good ones, try An Imperfect God, or if you're in a fiction mood, The Whiskey Rebels is fantastic. Or, I've heard The Jefferson Lies is great, but I haven't gotten my hands on it yet. Enjoy your break!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

River of Darkness

Title: River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon
Author: Buddy Levy
Year: 2011
Genre: History
Rating: 4

Few people know that the name of the Amazon is actually Greek in origin. Most of the time, the Amazon is automatically associated with the enormous river commanding the northern part of South America, with a possible secondary association with the mythical all-female colony hidden deep in the thick jungles. If the person is really well versed in Greek literature, they might come up with Hippolyta, Euripides's fictional queen of the Greek Amazons. But isn't it odd how disparate the two are? The faraway women sequestered in ancient Greece and the indomitable tropical river.
That's the air of Buddy Levy's new book on the conquest of the Amazon, River of Darkness. Though he pours thick, vivid details in, constructing a true story of an incredible event, it seems marginalized by the structure of the book and the writing style. In fact, the topic of the book feels like it just doesn't belong.
 Despite the scale of Francisco Orellana's fame in the 16th century, he seems to have slipped away from conquistador canon in favor of characters like Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes, who toppled empires and killed thousands. Levy brings his journey back to us, though the telling leaves something to be desired.
The book opens with a gritty, visual narrative of the moment Francisco Orellana embarked on his fateful journey down the Amazon, destined to make him the first man to cross the entire continent of South America. Orellana originally came with the youngest Pizarro (fun fact: there were five Pizarro brothers, all notoriously cruel and effective conquerors) to the new Spanish land of Peru and began an expedition to find El Dorado and the Cinnamon Valley, two myths common throughout conquistador lore. Unfortunately for Pizarro, the intended conquest goes as wrong as possible, and he is forced to split from his trusted captain, Francisco Orellana.
Orellana takes the group's boat and goes in search of food for a great distance down the river, and rather than return, he continues down the river to explore and reach the sea on the other end. For a poorly outfitted, uninformed, and unprepared group of men, the journey has often been greeted with incredulity and accolade, for the dangers of the Amazon are legendary. Orellana managed to avoid poisonous fish and plants, enormous snakes, hostile natives, and tricky rivers to guide his men back to civilization on two islands north of modern-day Venezuela.
Levy relates the tale with remarkable amounts of research and commendable detail. He has unearthed the narrative of a priest who accompanied Orellana and made notes along the way, relating the man's remarkably diplomatic approach to the natives of the area. Most conquistadors would rather slash and burn their way into kingdoms, but Orellana had a gift for linguistics and managed to learn the rudimentary parts of the local language and even secured a month's room and board for his men with a local tribe.
Levy relates all these details with the cool, academic air of a historian, which turns the book into a dry pile of incongruous dust. It's horribly unfortunate, because such a remarkable piece of obscure history could be told in such a gripping way. The Amazon captures all our imaginations with the vivid beauty of a nearly untouched world, and Orellana was seeing it for the first time. Levy, however, take the clinical approach of not stepping into the captain's shoes and relies solely on documents. His purist attitude is admirable, but boring.
What's more, the book claims to be the story of Francisco Orellana, but spends much of its time telling the general history of the conquest of Peru. At 250 pages, Levy is short on space for this huge topic, and chooses to spend much of it talking about Gonzalo Pizarro and what happened after Orellana succeeded rather than the actual journey. In fact, only a little more than half the book is actually spent on its topic, which is bitterly disappointing. There is so much to discuss and so much to research, and Levy chooses only to scratch the surface. Perhaps he should have instead written a book about the Spanish conquest of South America-- he would have had more to talk about.
Altogether, the story is interesting, but very superficial. After reading Levy's book, readers who are interested will have to go out and pick up another book on the same subject for more detail.
Because it's only about a year old, River of Darkness is $13.99 on the Kindle and $17.82 for the hardback from Amazon. My library had a copy, so if you live in a city, yours might too; if not, skip this one. It's tantalizing, but there have got to be better books out there on this same subject that delve more deeply into Orellana's fascinating, groundbreaking journey.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Beekeeper's Apprentice

Title: The Beekeeper's Apprentice
Author: Laurie R. King
Year: 1994
Genre: Fiction/crime/mystery
Rating: 1

The felt cap, the magnifying glass, the pipe. The sharp nose, the serious grey eyes, the angular cheekbones, the thin long legs. Quick with words, sharper with action, hardly sleeps, always works, and keeps his associates in the dark. In other words, Sherlock Holmes.
Over the century since Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries were first published in the Strand, hundreds of adaptations of his character have appeared on stage, film, print, and music. Many of these adaptations have taken considerable liberties with the original detective so beloved to millions worldwide, resulting in interesting if non-canon stories. Doyle expressed distaste for his detective, hoping in the end that Holmes would not be his legacy, and unfortunately for him, that is the end of the story. His other works, including The Lost World, are excellent, but all pale in comparison to the astute and acidic observations of the Baker Street resident.
Few authors are ever praised for being uncreative, but Laurie R. King deserves a medal for doing just that: sticking to the original character. Far too many adaptation authors take liberties and alter the characters to their whims, betraying the original fans, but King has taken Holmes delicately into her hands and shaped him as Doyle might have, aging and retiring but by no means ordinary. The Beekeeper's Apprentice offers readers a look forward into the Holmes's later years on the Sussex Downs, patterned carefully after the original stories but with an air of progress.
The novel is narrated by a young girl named Mary Russell, who has just relocated to a family-owned farm on the downs and literally stumbles into Holmes on her walk one day. He is intrigued by her sharp, cynical mind, so very much like his own, and a casual friendship develops between them. There is no partnership between them, however, until Mary takes on a case of thievery on her own initiative, and Holmes sees that she has a capable mind "for a female." They forge a stronger friendship as the story progresses with the kidnapping of an American senator's daughter and a plot against Holmes, and they are tested both as individuals and as a pair.
Mary stands up to Watson in caliber, endearment, and appropriateness, but outshines him for intellect. Many an author's mistake is to "fangirl:" to place their character in a position where the adapted main character either becomes best friends or falls in love with them, often awkwardly. Not so in this case: Mary is a woman pulled vividly from the early 20th century, representing a shift to modern thought, and Holmes is fascinated with her both for her traditional education and intellect and modern scorn of propriety. Not only does this make her interesting for readers, it makes their relationship plausible, possible, and even likely. Despite being a Victorian gentleman, Holmes has always had a flavor of the unorthodox about him.
King has also been careful about her language. Writing the entire novel in Doyle's dense Victorian prose might be difficult for modern readers, but abandoning it entirely would be a betrayal to the dignity of the stories and take away from Mary's voice. Instead, she has struck a balance that works well, with a strong feeling of education and poetry but still captivating and understandable to her audiences.
Seeing Holmes at the age of 54, retired with beehives on the Sussex Downs, seems somewhat inglorious for the fans of his wild days as a London detective. Conducting experiments in his basement and walking to the village with honey alone hardly seems like the cocaine-addled, rapid-fire mind that we know, and at first we protest, "This can't be right! Where's the running and the hunting and 'the game's afoot'?" (by the way, that line belongs to Shakespeare anyway). However, King gently reminds us that people change, even the most rigid and machine-like of people. Mary tells us this in the beginning of the novel, that the Holmes she knew was different than the one she had read of.
After adapting to the first jolt, this older, quieter version of the detective is just as maddeningly endearing as his younger counterpart, perhaps even more so. Because this story does not focus entirely on Holmes and the crimes he solves, we see more of the man and the quick, methodical reasoning that plays a part in his life. The engine of his mind has struck a balance with his body, and Mary describes an aging Holmes that draws out a new flavor: bittersweet. For even this man, so permanent and implacable, is mortal.
The relationship between Mary and Holmes develops well as the story progresses, and if it errs a bit into over-sentimentality, it only lends to the idea that maybe Holmes is human after all. King uses a pair of intellectual equals to explore how they can spur each other to explore the gaps in themselves, progressing beyond just the salving stage of relationships and into a place where they literally shape each other, making each other better people. Surprisingly vivid and touching, we see the lonely lost orphan girl adopt the broken, stiff old man and fill him with life as he fills her with wisdom, each completing one another in small ways.
Conspicuously, Watson is largely absent, though this is only the first of many Mary Russell novels that King has written. Perhaps Watson (whom Mary refers to as "Uncle John") will make a larger appearance in the later books.
Having taken a nearly sacred figure in hand, King has woven him deftly into a story that not only stays true to the originals, but develops him even more into the man that he became after his years in London ended. Avid Holmes fans will find plenty to love, and newcomers will meet a spectacular set of characters, sure to live in the hearts of readers in all generations.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice is eighteen years old now, so it's available in most libraries, but for only $9.99 on the Kindle or $10.20 in paperback, it's affordable and worth the purchase. Rather than a sweeping story of epic proportions, King has woven a deep, moving tale with just a few pages and words, quiet and complex, to press gently into our hearts and stay.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

House of Rain

Title: House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest
Author: Craig Childs
Year: 2006
Genre: Non-fiction/history/archaeology
Rating: 2

Rain and the desert: polar opposites, at least to most people. Say the word desert in a crowd of people from a temperate climate, and immediately images of saguaro catci, bleached cow skulls, rattlesnakes, sand dunes, and sombreros come to mind. Dig a little deeper, and some people might think of the distant Native Americans, guiltily mumbling about how white people forced them onto godforsaken spits of land that nobody else wanted. What might surprise the average observer is that those people (the Apache, the Navajo, the Hopi, the Zuni, and many others) have lived in those lands for thousands of years and love it like their own blood. It may be harsh land, but it's their heritage.
Craig Childs's expose on the world of the Anasazi (or, more properly, the ancestral Puebloans) dispels many of the cliche tourist assumptions that Americans may have about the previous owners of our land. With a slow, respectful voice in deference to the secrets of the world around him, Childs quietly follows in the footsteps of a people who left their worlds behind them as a manner of living, tracing their history through only broken pots and tumbled walls.
House of Rain is a bifurcated novel: the main "story" follows Childs's physical pilgrimage across the migratory trails of the pre-Columbian Anasazi, and as he uncovers ruins and artifacts, he divulges his wealth of accumulated archaeological research. He begins in the New Mexican Chaco Canyon, where a great religious and commercial civilization flourished over a thousand years ago. He introduces us slowly to the terminology and basic architecture that these people used, then moves on to the next site at Fajada Butte, taking us along a journey that has long been misread, dusted over and ignored in favor of a more mysterious, though ultimately incorrect, theory.
According to popular mythology, the Anasazi were a people that lived in the Four Corners area of southwest Colorado and northeastern Arizona, constructing the impressive sites of Mesa Verde and Kayenta. On a visit to Mesa Verde, an ordinary tourist will be taken down into some of the breathtakingly complete and preserved cliff dwellings, leaning down into kivas and beholding intact wooden ladders from the 13th century. A tour guide will tell them that these people took refuge in the cliffs from an unknown enemy, possibly the Apache or the Navajo, and only occupied these dwellings for 80 to 100 years before suddenly vanishing without a trace. The guides cite the presence of full baskets of food, personal effects, and ceremonial artifacts as evidence that the people had no chance to collect themselves before disappearing.
This is not the truth, according to Childs. His research and experience have shown him time and time again that the Anasazi were a migratory people, who regularly used a pattern of abandoning structures and following the rain and drought cycle to preserve their way of life.
With extensive research and remarkable personal physical effort, the author takes us on a visceral, sensitive walk along a road that people traveled long ago, tracing the footsteps of a people not entirely gone. Along the way, he makes the point that there still are descendents of the ancestral Puebloans along this road: the Hopi still occupy their ancestral lands, the Navajo are linked to the mountains of their reservation, and people in the Paqime region of northern Mexico are familiar with the migrants' history. They are not gone, Childs concludes; they are simply dusted over with the passage of time.
His own journey drives this point home. Childs is no droll scientist sashaying into writing: his voice is clear, piercing, and in some places moving, bringing to life the dusty places that he stands. His passion for archaeology and the American Southwest pervades the novel, imbuing the words with a meaning other than simple information. That is the true beauty of this book: it is not just a dry recitation of facts. By throwing himself completely into his work, Childs has brought a possibly boring topic to life, enabling his findings to draw in even casually interested readers into a long-lost tale of a people long forgotten.
Although he does stray into sometimes long and dull passages rife with tangential information, the author never loses track of where he stands. One interesting and possibly unintentional beauty of the book is the fact that he brings his wife Regan and toddler son Jasper with him on parts of the adventure. Perhaps it was practical and coincidental, but by bringing such vivid pictures of life into these places long dead, he illustrates a point: the cycle goes on. Even if a civilization vanishes, life has not ended, and there will always be people chasing the rain, adjusting their lives to what is given.
Fascinating, comprehensive, and understandable even for a stranger to archaeology, House of Rain's 445 pages are a fantastic trip through a land that few modern Americans see: the bare deserts of the central Southwest. This book is available for $9.99 on the Kindle or $10.87 in paperback from Amazon, but because it's about five years old, it might be available in your local library. Go and take a look, because dispelling rumors is one of the most valuable things that an author can do. Sharing the truth is a great facet of history.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Winter Vault

Title: The Winter Vault
Author: Anne Michaels
Year: 2009
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Rating: 4

Everyone knows that one guy that's just too articulate. You know, the guy who uses phrases like "his soul is courage," or maybe "it rolled out like a papyrus scroll in my palm." After awhile, it crosses the line from pleasantly odd to creepy to just plain annoying, no matter if he's right or wrong. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate those people-- they spice up life, give me something to think about when we're chatting across the table. But that kind of wording just doesn't really belong there, even if it is creative.
That is exactly the problem with Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault-- something about it is just off. The words all go together in beautiful order, lining up and falling into place with imagery that makes sense, but when compiled only make an enormous pile of pretty phrases. Not entirely unexpected for a poet, but still disappointing.
The novel follows the story of Avery and Jean, a Canadian newlywed couple come to the Nile valley to help with the relocation of Abu Simbel in order to build the Great Aswan Dam. Avery is an engineer and a "machine worshipper," whose mind works in a whirl of cogs and gears into a perfectly oiled machine. Jean, on the other hand, is a botanist, interested only in the growth of the exotic plants of the Egyptian river valley and the destruction that the dam is going to do to them. Tragedy unfolds and pulls the couple apart as they go back to the cold north, where Jean becomes involved with a Polish immigrant named Lucjan and Avery tries to get on with his life. Instead, they find that they're still caught up irretrievably in one another.
Unfortunately, the novel is not told nearly so cleanly. First, Michaels does away with all that "chapter" rubbish that us readers have been clinging to since the Dark Ages, replacing it with short sections that have no notation of time. This might have been fine if they didn't attempt T.S. Eliot-style time jumps, lurching back and forth between the past so suddenly that the reader is left seasick before twenty pages are past.
Avery and Jean's relationship, while soft and gentle in some places, is eyebrow-raisingly strange in others. For one, they always seem to end up talking about their parents in their spare seconds between cuddles, and is constantly interrupted by poetic epiphanies. From my experiences in the real world, poetry is the last thing that comes to my mind when I'm on a date.
The biggest, greyest, most awkward elephant in the room here is the language. Now, I'm pretty lenient about poetry in fiction-- after all, Homer and Shakespeare were both great novelists and poets-- but this book crosses the line into illegibility after awhile. Drowned in turns of phrase and tropes, the real thoughts of the characters become lost in the prose, and they become mere red blood cells for the oxygen of Michaels poetic thought. She ought to stick to poetry if she wants to make points about life without developing characters into human beings that her readers can relate to.
Not to say that the poetry is not breathtaking; Michaels clearly has talent as a writer. There are phrases and paragraphs that are deeply moving, thought provoking, and memorable, each clearly meditated and contemplatively written. Too bad they're just in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong book.
(On an unrelated note, ever read a novel by a Canadian? Americans with a penchant for foreign dialects will enjoy the Joyce-style quotations and the spellings of words like "tonne" and "colour.")
Some of the greatest books known to bibliophiles are those rife with beautiful phrasing, flowing with the deepest thoughts of their writers. And yet, they still create between those words the characters that have taken root so deeply in our hearts that they become inseparable from our very souls-- in other words, they are a part of us. That is the mark of truly good fiction: as Mr. Nabokov says, "the merging of the precision of poetry with the intuition of science."
The Winter Vault is available on the Kindle for $11.99, or $14.50 in hardback from Amazon. A copy was logged away in the back shelves of my local library, so unless your local branch has one, I wouldn't advise going and looking for it. The language is worth a glance, but no more than if you pick it up on the coffee table and read a page or two.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The World Without Us

Title: The World Without Us
Author: Alan Weisman
Year: 2007
Genre: Science, environmental
Rating: 3

Ever feel guilty about being a human?
Sometimes I have spurts of self-consciousness, and I start recycling for a week, or I make an honest attempt to use as little electricity as possible. I even pick up other people's trash off the street and apologize to seagulls about polluting their lake and taking their swamp to build a huge city on. But then, life gets back to me, and I'm busy being a person again, and by the time I remember my environmentally friendly aspirations, it's many months later.
In his hypothetical experiment The World Without Us, American journalist Alan Weisman poses the question of what would happen to the Earth if we all instantly vanished. If every human either kicked the bucket or was abducted to some extraterrestrial zoo in the space of an instant, what would happen to the great cities and monuments we've built? What would become of the blue planet that we call home?
Weisman begins with our cities and suburbs. With exquisite detachment, Weisman chats about falling roofs, dirt-filled swimming pools, cracked pavement, and crumpling houses as if he is discussing the weather over a cup of coffee. Nothing in our drywall-and-plexiglass neighborhoods will last more than a decade (except for the ceramic bathroom tiles, but those will be buried by sediment before long). The step-by-step breakdown of the towns and houses we feel so safe in today is a little bit unnerving, if methodically and casually told.
Next he addresses our cities. Nature will make short work of those, Weisman says-- cracked pavement, invading trees, crumbling stone facades, collapsing subways, and so on-- and before long, islands like Manhattan will be close to the natural woodlands that they were before the Dutch ever set foot there. Of course, some things will be different, but these are just projections from one of the humans that will be long gone by the time the Empire State Building is rubble.
However, once Weisman shifts into the next part of the book (the one about the environment) the feeling of wonder ceases. The tone of casual detachment vanishes for one vaguely tinged with accusation and derision, and the guilt sets in. One must wonder if Weisman is a self-hater, for all the negative voice that he directs at mankind, even if the facts are straight.
The guilt keeps pouring on throughout the rest of the book, and by the time you reach the chapter about polymers, you're begging for good news about yourself. Maybe there's one thing that humans have done to benefit this planet, you hope desperately. And sure enough, there is a chapter about creatures that would miss us. Bad news: they're cockroaches, lice, and bacteria. The cute creatures might or might have a party when we disappear.
On top of being an enormous guilt trip, the book is really strangely organized. The beginning flows neatly, the pieces lining up into a fluid narrative of a world after humanity, the story growing like the trees that it describes. After that, however, it falls apart into a chapter-by-chapter non-cohesive blurb of information, all of which is indelibly researched and sound, but poorly set up. Disappointing for such a good beginning, the readers sigh in relief by the time they reach the end.
Altogether, though, Weisman poses an interesting question. What are we doing to protect the earth that we love? The resources may be there for our benefit, but are we being good stewards of what we have? Management is just as important as productivity. Maybe if we all think a little harder about what we use, what we buy, and especially what we throw away, the Earth would miss us a little more on the day we disappear.
The History Channel is running  an interesting series about the same topic, titled "Life After People." It's not affiliated with the book, but it just goes to show that now that the question has been raised, that nasty human attribute called curiosity has to explore it to its bitter end.
The World Without Us is available on the Kindle for $10.00, or in paperback for $10.20. After spending 26 straight weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list, this book is available in most libraries, but if not, see if a friend has it. It's not one of those books you read for fun on the weekends, but it's definitely worth it for the thought that it provokes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

An Imperfect God

Title: An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America
Author: Henry Wiencek
Year: 2003
Genre: History
Rating: 3

Think back on your elementary school history lessons. Other than the colorful (and notably bloodless) pictures of Gettysburg and the clean, proper descriptions of the Continental Congress, what do you know about our Founding Fathers as people? Most of the things we think about them are fiction, or glorified attributes. The truth of the matter is that they were tradesmen, farmers, philanderers, rebels, subversives, and, most notably, slave owners.
Most elementary school teachers somehow skip that one.
In An Imperfect God, historian Henry Wiencek stops to look closer at the life and occupation of perhaps the most mythologized man in American history: George Washington. With no royalty to idolize, Americans have generation upon generation lifted up the stories of the man with the wooden teeth (they were actually ivory and extracted teeth) who chopped down the cherry tree and had to tell the truth (a composite tale that's only partially true). In fact, the man that George Washington was has been somewhat buried in time and a whirlwind of events, and Wiencek seeks to bring it starkly to light.
The main point of the book is the irony of America: a state based on the purported ideals of freedom while maintaining slavery with a fist of iron. The Constitution "solidified the institution," Wiencek writes. Although the title and face of the book focus on Washington, the real heart of it is to convey the depth of slavery in young America and the double standard that the Founding Fathers lived by.
The book begins in the year of Washington's death, where he decides to make an addendum to his will where all of his own slaves would receive their emancipation upon his death, a shocking breach of protocol for a Virginian plantation owner at the time. By following Washington's meticulous diaries, Wiencek shows us firsthand the struggle that our first president went through within his own rigid moral barriers, trying to reconcile the ideas of the Enlightenment with a creaky, superstitious, inhuman institution like slavery. And yet, his life, his world was centered around it, and one could not pull the rafters from a building and not expect it to collapse. This was the dilemma that Washington faced, and this is the conflict that the book presents us with.
Unfortunately, it's not extremely well organized. The author is in such a rush to present us with his painstakingly researched data that he begins to gush in the very first chapter, bursting at the seams with stories and histories and connections and context. The whole book follows in this theme, sort of like a scatter plot. Washington's life is the median trend of the plot, following him from beginning to end, with bits and pieces of history, culture, and new anecdotes on slavery scattered about. The effect is somewhat confusing, but in the end it conglomerates into a big picture: division.
For the pure purpose of education, An Imperfect God is enlightening, clearing away the cobwebs of myth and idolizing with a proliferation of primary source documents. Washington kept detailed journals and books of finances, down to what he spent on gambling on nights in Williamsburg. He also kept yearly diaries with the markedly unromantic title "Where and How My Time is Spent." No one could accuse him of being flowery. However, Wiencek doesn't just leave it there, with his subject; he has scoured the annals at Mount Vernon and other depositories for letters, records, journals, and exchanges on a host of other subjects, some of which include barely literate slaves who worked at Mount Vernon. Scarcely a paragraph passes without a reference to some obscure historical character, backed up by extensive documentation.
Wiencek is a fine historian, and his work is sure to last, if only for the motivated. An Imperfect God is not written for the passive reader, only cursorily interested-- no, the dense writing and blob-like organization don't make this a golden work of the literature world. But as a historical document, it stands. Raw facts are hard to memorize; people like stories.
Maybe we ought to tell our elementary school kids the truth sometimes, even if it's hard to hear.
This book isn't available on Kindle, which is alright-- I snagged my copy from a dusty corner of the library. You can purchase it from Amazon for as low as $10.50 in the hardback, which is a lovely edition with a group of paintings in the center (including one remarkable one of Washington's cook, Hercules) that I had never seen before. Worth a read if you've got the time, worth a summary if you haven't.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Year: 2010
Genre: Historical fiction/conspiracy
Rating: 2

Places and times can capture our souls. A wise man once told me that we spend ten percent of our lives making new happiness and ninety percent trying to stay there rather than trying to find new ways to be happy. Have we not all felt that tug of nostalgia for a day long gone, perhaps a golden afternoon from childhood or the memory of a young love?
In David Mitchell's newest novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he explores the bittersweet realities of losing your heart to something you can never have. With the light-fingered writing that he first showcased in 2004's Cloud Atlas, Mitchell draws us in again, this time to a far more grounded story of how enchantments really do exist.
When we first meet the titular character, he has just had his nose broken by a cheating former official of the Dutch East India Company. Jacob de Zoet is a humble clerk, hoping to earn the hand of the woman he loves back in the Netherlands by serving at the Company's Japanese port, Dejima, for the next five years. Little does he know that the land will change him and his life so drastically that he will never be the same. He quickly meets a number of fascinating characters, both Dutch and Japanese, but none so mysterious and deep as the burned girl Orito Aibigawa, the only female ever allowed to study medicine. With his utmost effort, he finally forges a hesitant friendship with her, attracted by her reticence and her quiet nature.
However, things are changing in isolationist Japan. As the story moves on, the characters disperse to their various fates, unable to fight the march of time and ambition, each wronged in a way that maroons them without a ship to carry them back.
Mitchell makes use of the factual Japanese law against foreigners not just to push the story along but to make a point: if we know a land and its people inside and out, we can still be strangers. It takes more than knowledge and familiarity to be welcome in a world. That is the heartbreaking core of the novel-- Jacob can never belong. He has a name given to him by the people, respect, money, status, and can still never be one of them.
The organization of this novel is a little disconcerting for traditional readers. Mitchell reeducated us with Cloud Atlas; by comparison, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a little gentler. We see parts of the story through the eyes of nearly every character at some point or another, which definitely throws the story around like dice in a cup, but lends a full feeling, like a blind man feeling the walls. Every perspective, every attitude, and every voice chips something in to make the tale the most it could be-- a time, a place, a people.
On an interesting historical side note, the end of the Dutch East India Company is an incredibly important and surprisingly overlooked moment in time. At one time, the Company was so powerful that it was basically an independent country, with its own flags and fleet of ships. Its ships traded from Batavia to Japan to Malaysia to the Netherlands and back. And yet, at the end of the 18th century, it imploded suddenly and violently, leaving an enormous economic gap in Southeast Asia, which in turn affected Europe. Mitchell does an excellent job of depicting this confusion and ambiguity in the novel, thorough for his readers but accurate to the sense at the time.
Despite the beauty of this novel, the construction is a little unbalanced. All the symbolic power is packed at the end, finishing on a terribly serious note, but many parts of the first half give a light-hearted air that belie the undertones of the story. This does appropriately endear us to the characters quickly, and we certainly know Jacob and Orito well by the end of the story, but the amount of ground that Mitchell covers in 477 pages just doesn't give us enough time to probe to the bottom of such interesting personalities.
And yet, the simplicity lends to the air of the novel. The last chapter is heart rending, breathtakingly beautiful, and quiet, just like the end of life-- as T.S. Eliot said, "this is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper." Jacob de Zoet, our brave and awkward hero, cannot change his world, because he's just a man that doesn't belong, but in doing that he has changed the world for good. People pass in and out of our lives for brief moments, their presence and their absence alike leaving marks.
Two years old, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is available on the Kindle for $12.00 or in paperback for as low as $10.20 from Amazon. Some libraries may have a copy, but small ones won't, and this book is definitely worth the time you spend reading it and the hours you'll devote to thinking about it afterward. Quiet and beautiful, just like the land it is set in, this novel flows like a quiet stream through your heart and leaves a coolness in its wake that aches for understanding, for belonging.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Last Prince of Ireland

Title: The Last Prince of Ireland
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Year: 1992
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3

Anyone who's been reading this blog for awhile knows that I've got a penchant for history. My grandfather was a professor of history, my sister is a history teacher, my father was a history buff, and my favorite classes in school were always history. In the American school system, we usually focus on the "usual" docket of historical events, meaning European history and American history, with a sprinkling of ancient history thrown in. But what about those parts of the world that we've completely passed over? Those are my passion, my curiosity, my real love of history-- there are so many stories out there, each more fraught with passion and fear than the last. It is our privilege and our duty to learn and share them, to gain a fuller understanding of this wonderful world we live in.
But enough of my ranting, and on to the book of the day-- The Last Prince of Ireland, by Morgan Llywelyn (pronounced a bit like hly-WE-lin).
Based in Ireland during the end of the Elizabethan era, this book follows the journey of Donal Cam O'Sullivan and his thousand followers on their long, hungry, cold march out of the district of Munster, fleeing the wrath of his former friends and kinsmen. Although it takes place over just fifteen days (each chapter covers one day), the story seems much longer than that-- more like a slow fall into ruin and decay. Each day, the ragged survivors lose more friends, more animals, more dignity and more hope, and we can't help but wonder if it would be more of a mercy to let them just give in somewhere along the way. Donal Cam, the commander of his bedraggled and wretched army, wonders the same while struggling to lead them to life.
And yet, we see hope growing between the cracks of despair. From the earliest pages we see a lovestruck Niall spy Maire Ni Driscoll and attempt to win her heart with kindness rather than bravado, even in the depths of starvation and fear. Joan Ni Sweney and her husband, Dermod O'Sullivan, provide a wry sense of humor and determination, struggling onward and depending on one another more and more as their provisions and strength run out. And Orla Ni Donoghue, a strong woman married to Rory O'Sullivan, struggles with the past and her faith as she fights for life and fierce loyalty to her leader.
Although the novel is protracted and somewhat basic in its choice of words, the burning passion of the writer is obvious. He sees Ireland itself in these pathetic survivors, relics of a noble and strong past being exterminated by the betrayal of the modern world. This is the time when Ireland finally succumbs to the rule of the expanding British, whose influence will change and shape Irish culture for the next four hundred years. Llywelyn, while recognizing this force, clearly believes that there is a deep individuality and strength within the Irish people that cannot be extinguished by oppression.
This, too, can be extended to the human soul in general. The factual march of Donal Cam and his survivors is a tribute to that, but Llywelyn's narrative of the horrific suffering and losses of those people in their struggle for that most basic of human rights-- freedom-- is heart wrenching. As the readers, we find ourselves growing more and more attached to characters we know are considered traitors and are sentenced to death, as if that bright glimmer of light just before it goes out is the most beautiful thing that a person can ever be. And despite the fact that they are bony, dirty, and desperate, these people are beautiful, if only for the sheer strength of will that carries them forward.
The whole novel feels like a slow decline into ruin, which may be intentional, but definitely detracts from the book's readability. There is no clear climax, only a long, drawn-out journey to the end. While the story is character-based, this can only carry on to a certain extent before it become dry and-- dare I say it?-- boring. Every tale needs some sort of arc, some sort of rising action, and while this one doesn't lack for battle scenes, it just seems like disaster after disaster before long.
But in the end, The Last Prince of Ireland is still a tale that needs to be told and understood in its fullest, for the true tragedy it is-- a betrayal of trust, and a shift in patriotism. Most of the princes of the island gave up in order to save their houses, which seems pathetic and selfish, but the motives are understandable. While practically foolish, Donal Cam's protest and subsequent rebellion are noble and contain a spirit of pride; we treasure that kind of national pride and look for it in our leaders, which makes Donal Cam a truly full, admirable, nearly tangible character.
Not exactly a best seller or common, I pulled this book off the shelf by pure happenstance and enjoyed it-- it's not a long read at 364 pages. It's actually fairly difficult to find on Amazon, but if you live in a city with a good library, they should have it. You can get a copy from Amazon for $15.00, but the next lowest price was nearly $40. Go figure on obscure books.
History is vital to understanding the present, even if it is obscure history. Every story weaves together to make the present, which makes it vital to appreciate the past before we move toward the future.

The Whiskey Rebels

Title: The Whiskey Rebels
 Author: David Liss
Year: 2008
Genre: Historical fiction/Thriller
Rating: 1

We all believe that we know what America is, don't we? After living here our whole lives and being so saturated with the ideas, values, concepts, and freedoms of this grand experiment of a country, we think we know what constitutes our society and freedoms. But that's just the trouble-- when we think we know what is right, what happens when a dilemma comes from within? If we must adapt our values, how do we adjust afterwards?
These are the questions that David Liss addresses in his finest novel yet, The Whiskey Rebels. Deeply American in conception and execution, we see in its pages a wrenching question of patriotism versus justice: if the country that nurtured you is unjust, is it our duty to rebel and right the wrongs? Or does that simply fall under the category of revenge? In a gritty story woven with masterfully tangled threads, Liss explores the conflict and is brave enough not to offer an absolute answer.
Split into two intertwining narratives, the book follows the tale of the disgraced Captain Ethan Saunders, an alcohol-sodden ex-spy destitute in Philadelphia, and that of Joan Maycott, a grievously wronged pioneer on the western border of Pennsylvania. We pick up the story in early 1792, an era of tangled politics and tenuous economics, ruled by veterans and strongly opposed idealists like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Saunders, by all appearances a disreputable, philandering ruin of a man, soon becomes caught up in a complicated web of events involving the disappearance of a former love's husband, mysterious strangers, and the fragile Bank of the United States. Someone threatens the Bank, and despite warnings from Hamilton and several agents, he gets deeper and deeper into the threats against it-- and him.
The parallel story is one of tragedy, deception, and failed dreams-- and vaguely reminiscent of the tales of unemployment, foreclosure, and woe from today. Told in the format of a memoir, we meet Joan Maycott when she is just a child and follow her from her family's farm in rural New York through her marriage to Andrew Maycott, their removal to New York City (which Liss evokes in all its glorious 18th century squalor and improvement upheaval), and to the barren, hopeless land west of Pittsburgh. There, she and her husband are beset by difficulty, oppression, and before long it is all that they can take before being inspired to rebellion.
Liss has clearly improved as a writer since his bestsellers A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader. Here his characters are deeper, more complex, and passionate, both in writing and in action, without losing that lighthearted charm that the author is so well known for. Ethan Saunders is a marvelous conundrum of a character, a murky mixture of honorable patriotism with nefarious lechery with a sprinkle of alcohol addiction thrown in. He is universally despised for being a scoundrel by his peers, but is simultaneously respected for his skill as a spy and honor for participation in the Revolutionary War.
One of the things that makes The Whiskey Rebels so fascinating is its particular focus on the post-Revolutionary America. Where the end of the 18th century was a period of enlightenment, bettering education, and expanding scientific horizons in Europe, it was a dismal, confusing tangle in the brand-new United States, and no one knew if this enormous experiment was going to succeed or collapse into shards of anarchy. Oftentimes, the two decades following the Revolution are skipped in the study of history, which is surprising-- during those twenty years, our Constitution was written, the economics of our country shook but stood firm, and the Whiskey Rebellion rose and was put down. Many important events that shaped us happened quickly after the Revolution, and Liss has finally opened up those years in this brilliant novel.
Another interesting relationship is that of Saunders with his slave, Leonidas. Most often, the master-slave relationship is exploitative, cruel, and abusive, but there were exceptions-- those more akin to a friendship. Sure enough, they were rare, but there are exceptions to every rule, and Liss has portrayed a fascinating co-dependency between Leonidas, a well-educated Americanized African, and Saunders, a gruff, lonely military fellow who won Leonidas in a game of cards. We spend the whole book guessing at whether he hates Saunders, disrespects him, or grudgingly likes him, and there are plenty of laughs along the way.
But perhaps the most important feature of The Whiskey Rebels is the questions that it raises about patriotism. Most of us regard ourselves as patriots if we support our troops, sing the national anthem, and raise a toast on Independence Day-- but what does it really mean to be a patriot? Is it just loyalty to one's country, or is it also an innate sense of responsibility, of holding one's government in check? And if the people are wronged, is it the patriot's duty to change the government to right those wrongs?
This masterful, thoroughly American work is available on Amazon for $10.20 in paperback, or on the Kindle for $12.00. In this day and age of questions and the changing American social landscape, it's important to understand our past and our duty as a people to our country. Novels may be fiction, but there are important truths buried even in the most fanciful of stories, and there are momentously important ones here.
On that note, happy election season!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Emperor of All Maladies

Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Year: 2010
Genre: Non-fiction/Medicine
Rating: 1

When you believe that you know someone well, you can look into their eyes and understand what it is they're going to think, say, and do. You know what buttons to push to make them mad, and what stirs their passions and makes them angry. You understand them, and even if they confuse you, you know who and what they are.
 Siddhartha Mukherjee describes his Pulitzer Prize-winning work in the foreword as a biography rather than a documentary because of the way that cancer behaves: more like a malicious, unpredictable person than a disease. The more we get to know it, the more it becomes an enigma, a presence, a personality. The Emperor of All Maladies (quite possibly the most fascinating and useful title I've ever heard for a book) reads like a morose biography, chronicling the 4000 year life of something that kills.
Cancer itself is a dark word in our culture, and doctors are the Spanish Inquisition in white coats. We intrinsically fear them because being in the presence of one means illness. Mukherjee, an oncologist from Boston, is acutely aware of the patient side of the medical process-- before the first chapter, he gives the projected mortality rate for cancer in 2010. At regular intervals in the book, he reminds us how unpredictable, volatile, and fragile our health is; at the slightest provocation, we can erupt into broken chains that lead us to death.
Mukherjee reminds us over and over of his deep connection to his patients, beginning and ending the story with cases of those cancer patients who have changed his profession. Weaving them neatly into the long tale of the disease, he moves back and forth from the overall clinical diagnosis of the pathology of cancer and the human face of it. Despite the thick medical terminology and complicated concepts, we never stray far from the real cost of medicine, chemotherapy, cancer wards, and cures.
On the note of medical terminology, Mukherjee's writing talent shines. Even the most medically inept layperson soon becomes familiar with words like metastasize, benign, leukemia, and remission; acronyms like ALL, VAMP, MOPP, and NCA are all distinct, organized, and used at appropriate intervals. The author's care for his readers shows clearly; despite the fact that he is obviously outstandingly intelligent, he never leaves his audience in the dust of his very complicated, convoluted topic.
This book is not excessively linear, although it does follow a central plot-- the development of modern cancer therapy. The history that Mukerjee follows is fascinating and well-organized, the pieces placed together in both systemic studies and chronological, committing to both the logical and psychotic behavior of cancer. Each scientist that we meet spends his life and career desperately trying to understand the disease eating their patients alive, and each one dies with one piece of the puzzle, trying to save just one life. And sometimes, they succeed in great flashes of genius, and sometimes, they save a few patients.
Understanding the disease of our time is crucial. This book is an excellent documentation of the plague that is merely "a distorted version of our normal selves." Even with the scads of published information about the group of diseases we call cancer, the detailed information rarely leaves the medical field, and the general population only gets the trickling facts from cancer patients or those who are curious enough to read the dense language of the medical field. With an accessible work like this, the proverbial hand is open; oncologists should enter the ward to patients who understand what they are about to be told.
Cancer behaves like a human being. We've spent 4000 years trying to understand it, from the Greeks who called it onkos to the men who tried desperately to cut it from the body in the mid-19th century, but like a pariah, it refuses to be put into our box. Common and still hushed-up, cancer is a specter of death that we all hope will skip over us. Only by studying its habits, its life, its very breath, can we ever hope to escape its grip.
The Emperor of All Maladies is still fairly recent and relevant, but you can get the Kindle edition for $13.99 or the paperback for $12.50 from Amazon. Informative, engaging, horrifying and enlightening, this book is bound to be a seminal work on the disease from beginning to end-- only with the full picture can we understand its purpose and its design.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Help

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Year: 2009
Genre: Historical fiction, social issues
Rating: 2

Self-examining fiction is always an interesting endeavor: a song about writing a song, a film about making a film, a book about writing a book. Obviously, as the author is a professional book-writer, the idea of writing is something dear to their heart and familiar, which makes the description of the process very real and accurate. What The Help attempts, in contrast, is to show the power of reaching people with your voice without them seeing your face.
All the evidence of today, despite America's creed of acceptance and tolerance, leads one to believe that racism is not dead, but buried under a thin sheet. We are so acutely aware of one another's color in our attempts to ignore it that any violation of this throws us into a tizzy of denials of racism and passing anti-hate crime laws and all sorts of nonsense. Kathryn Stockett takes on the heart of the most oppressive environment for African-Americans-- Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-- to show the true subtlety of the separations in "one nation under God."
Told from three perspectives, The Help follows the lives of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, two black maids and best friends, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a white college graduate and aspiring journalist. Aibileen's job is to look after two-year-old Mae Mobley Leefolt, whose mother doesn't want to be near her child. Minny, who "has a mouth on her," is fired at the beginning of the book from working for Mrs. Walters, the mother of the malicious Hilly Holbrook. Both of them think darkly of their white mistresses, but stuff down their opinions in order to keep their jobs-- one misstep could cost them their livelihoods and safety.
Skeeter Phelan, on the other hand, is a wealthy white girl whose parents own a cotton farm on the edge of Jackson-- and has been best friends with Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt since college. She gets a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper and enlists Aibileen's help, as she has never cleaned a day in her life and her own maid, Constantine, disappeared without explanation from Skeeter's very controlling mother. After coming to know Aibileen a little better, Skeeter is compelled to write about a book about what it's really like to work for a white woman as a maid in Jackson.
Stockett's first novel, The Help is a creative, enveloping read about a topic that was not well-known outside of the South. She draws from her own experiences of a maid close to her family when she was young to create the characters of the maids around Jackson, and is keenly aware of the social climate of a city like Jackson. The struggles of housewives to raise their children in the 1960s pales in comparison to the struggles of the black families to raise their children on dirt-low wages and poor working conditions-- little better than slavery in practicality, despite being a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
And yet, for all the activist intentions, Stockett does not make the African-American people into a heroic race. There is doubt, cruelty, spite, bitterness, and pettiness juxtaposed with the courage, longsuffering, and beauty. Minny's husband is abusive and alcoholic, and Aibileen's husband left her for another black woman with no warning. With all their achievements and failures thrown together into the facts, Stockett does what many novels fighting racism fail to do: make their heroes human.
Skeeter and her mother are a classical dichotomy: a rebellious child of the 1960s, questioning the standing laws, with a mother who treats the African-Americans who work for them as little better than mentally handicapped animals. Her mother, Charlotte, is prim and proper and constantly hounding Skeeter about how to dress and do her hair and act in public, while Skeeter would let her frizzy hair go and her clothes be mismatched. By the end of the novel, their love-hate relationship is also extremely, pulsingly human, making one wonder whether Stockett has drawn from her relationship with her own mother.
Aibileen, too, is a wonderfully deep and conflicted character. She clearly loves the white children she raises as her own, while nursing a bitterness that her own son was killed three years before the story takes place because of the negligence of a white man. Every time she holds Mae Mobley, it is clear how much more she loves this little girl than her prim and proper white mother, but we realize with heartbreak that Mae Mobley will grow up to be exactly the same as the other white housewives. Aibileen's voice is carefully hardened to protect herself, but we see the pain that she knows daily as she watches this little girl grow up in a world that tells her that the woman who raised her is dirty, diseased, stupid.
Many interesting insights regarding racism come forward in this novel, but nothing that we haven't seen or thought of before. Although the actual physical topic of the book is rather novel, the underlying themes of racism have all been dealt with in books that are, frankly, better-- like To Kill a Mockingbird. Understanding racism in the 1960s is important for our culture, but perhaps what we need more is a novel to help us understand the racism so prevalent today-- the more dangerous idea of pretending that racism is dead.
Altogether, The Help is an educating, entertaining, and fascinating read. Stockett masters the voices and accents of Minny and Aibileen, but still slips in literary turns of phrase that captivate. The organization and pace of the novel leave something to be desired, but overall the story sticks and is memorable.
And Hilly is a hilarious, ridiculous, malignant character that seems overdramatic and fictional but is unfortunately all too real.
Available for $10.00 in both Kindle and paperback, this book is very accessible and affordable, and should be available in most libraries. The movie, starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, is an excellent reproduction, but the book holds more of the voice and power that the author intended. Somehow, reading always does.