8.31.2012

The List, 2011-2012

I'm calling it. Here are the books I've read in the last twelve months:

  1. Swan Song, by Robert McCammon
  2. Pirate King, by Laurie R. King
  3. The Magician King, by Lev Grossman
  4. The Tears of the Sun, by S.M. Stirling
  5. Green, by Jay Lake
  6. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
  7. The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes
  8. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
  9. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, by Christopher Moore
  10. Snuff, by Terry Pratchett
  11. The Affair, by Lee Child
  12. Fables (Deluxe Volume 1)
  13. Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
  14. Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett
  15. This Book is Overdue!, by Marilyn Johnson
  16. Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett
  17. The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
  18. A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
  19. Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
  20. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett
  21. Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett
  22. Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett
  23. The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson
  24. Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett
  25. Explosive Eighteen, by Janet Evanovich
  26. Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon
  27. The Snowman, by Jo Nesbø
  28. Saints Astray, by Jacqueline Carey
  29. The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman
  30. Aloha from Hell, by Richard Kadrey
  31. Road to Bedlam, by Mike Shevdon
  32. Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø
  33. Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø
  34. The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
  35. The Devil’s Star, by Jo Nesbø
  36. We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
  37. From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
  38. When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan
  39. Killing Rites, by M.L.N. Hanover
  40. The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin
  41. Unnatural Issue, by Mercedes Lackey
  42. The Leopard, by Jo Nesbø
  43. Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, by Mark Hodder
  44. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
  45. Mortal Fear, by Greg Iles
  46. Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson
  47. A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge
  48. The Angel of Darkness, by Caleb Carr
  49. Freedom’s Landing, by Anne McCaffrey
  50. Freedom’s Choice, by Anne McCaffrey
  51. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
  52. Feed, by Mira Grant
  53. Household Gods, by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove
  54. Deadline, by Mira Grant
  55. A Perfect Blood, by Kim Harrison
  56. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
  57. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
  58. Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin
  59. Freedom’s Challenge, by Anne McCaffrey
  60. Freedom’ Ransom, by Anne McCaffrey
  61. The Demi-Monde: Winter, by Rod Rees
  62. Timeless, by Gail Carriger
  63. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  64. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  65. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  66. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
  67. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
  68. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
  69. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  70. Ganymede, by Cherie Priest
  71. The Radleys, by Matt Haig
  72. Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
  73. Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore
  74. Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory
  75. The Buntline Special, by Mike Resnick
  76. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome
  77. Agatha H. and the Airship City, by Phil and Kaja Foglio
  78. Map of Time, by Felix J. Palma
  79. Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman
  80. The Midnight Mayor, by Kate Griffin
  81. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
  82. The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy
  83. Deadlocked, by Charlaine Harris
  84. The Bloody Red Baron, by Kim Newman
  85. Poison Study, by Maria V. Snyder
  86. Magic Study, by Maria V. Snyder
  87. Blackout, by Mira Grant
  88. Costume Not Included, by Matthew Hughes
  89. Strangeness and Charm, by Mike Shevdon
  90. Liminal States, by Zack Parsons
  91. Pride and Prejudice: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Seth Hockensmith
  92. Bohemian Girl, by Therese Svoboda
  93. The Mirage, by Matt Ruff
  94. The Gates of Sleep, by Mercedes Lackey
  95. City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry
  96. The Neon Court, by Kate Griffen
  97. Reserved for the Cat, by Mercedes Lackey
  98. The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon
  99. The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen
  100. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
  101. The Wizard of London, by Mercedes Lackey
  102. Garment of Shadows, by Laurie R. King
  103. Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness
  104. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? By Christopher Buckley
  105. Supreme Courtship, by Christopher Buckley
  106. The Unwritten, Book I, by Mike Carey
  107. Preacher, Book II, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
  108. The Walking Dead, Book VII, by Robert Kirkman
  109. The Minority Council, by Kate Griffen
  110. Pride and Prejudice: Dreadfully Ever After, by Seth Hockensmith
  111. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  112. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
  113. Heart of Iron, by Ekaterina Sedia
  114. Pariah, by Bob Fingerman
  115. The Butterfly Cabinet, by Bernie McGill
  116. The First Days, by Rhiannon Frater
  117. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  118. Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James
  119. The Fallen Angel, by Daniel Silva
  120. Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith
  121. The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tabor
  122. A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
  123. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  124. Making History, by Stephen Fry
  125. Nine Layers of Sky, by Liz Williams
  126. Mockingbird, by Chuck Wendig
This is a new personal record for me. I'm not sure if I can top this next year. But then, it's good to have goals.

8.25.2012

Making History, by Stephen Fry

Making History
I think the second most frequently asked question about time travel (after the question about accidentally killing a grandparent) is how would you change history. And I think the most popular answer is probably: go back and kill Hitler. Stephen Fry's Making History write about just that answer in a way I've often wondered about myself. What if taking out Hitler means that things turn out worse? Not that I'm saying I wouldn't take a crack at it myself if I had a time machine handy, but part of the fun of asking what if is thinking about the really outrageous possibilities.

The other thing that makes Making History such a fun read is that it was written by Stephen Fry, the Stephen Fry. So this book is a torrent of words that you can't help but read with Fry's voice in your head. If you watch the video posted below, you'll get a very good idea of what reading a book by Fry is like:


Back to the book: Michael Young is a doctoral student studying history at Cambridge. He's just finished drafting his thesis about the early life of Adolf Hitler when he bumps into a physics professor who has ties to the Holocaust. This professor has discovered a method for looking into the past. It takes some more work, but they work out a way to send things back, too. Michael hatches a plan to release a super-contraceptive pill--that renders men sterile for the rest of their lives--in the well in Brunau-am-Inn where Hitler's parents live before the future Führer can be conceived. When they actually manage to succeed, Michael is whisked into an alternate history that is worse than the history he left. Michael and the professor then struggle to put things back the way they were.

I love reading time travel novels because they all have to wrestle with this question. Can you meddle with history? Should you meddle with history? Some of them take the tack of non-interference (as much as one can). One of my favorite series actually has a group of characters who are responsible for maintaining historical integrity. It takes a lot of chutzpah to write a book like Making History, where the plot revolves around annihilating and then restoring Hitler.

Fry does a great job of rewriting history from the point of divergence Michael created. The changes start small, but the new Hitler turns out to be a lot more crafty than the real one. Instead of World War II, we get a tense cold war between Europe and the United States. Germany has the bomb and that's not the worst thing about this new history. There are no more Jews in Europe. This rewriting always makes me wonder if this is the way history was meant to roll out. Could it be better? I know it could be worse. And then I wonder some more about alternate universes. And then I have to spend some time on Wikipedia relearning what really happened.

It's more fun than it sounds. Honest.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand
of Darkness
Great books ask big what if questions. And Ursula Le Guin asks a doozy in The Left Hand of Darkness: What if gender wasn't permanent? If you really think about it, a lot of the way a person behaves and is treated by others comes down to their gender because there are so many unspoken expectations about what gender means. Le Guin's Gethenians turn that on it's head, because they don't have gender as we know it. Between their biology and their environment, the Gethenians are the most alien humanoids I've encountered in science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet aptly named Winter. They're in the middle of what appears to be an Ice Age. (If it turns out their in an interglacial period, nothing will survive when that Ice Age does come back.) An envoy from the intergalactic Ekumen alliance landed on Winter two years before the book opens, but Genly Ai hasn't made much progress. The king of the country he landed in is very suspicious of Ai and might actually be insane. Ai has an ally in Estraven, the current prime minister, but things quickly go to pot when Estraven is fired and exiled. Ai decided to try his luck in the neighboring country, Orgoreyn. Estraven has also taken shelter there. Orgoreyn is very different from the medieval society Ai and Estraven left behind. In fact, it reminds one of Stalinist Russia, even down to the secret police and the gulags. When Estraven's replacement, Tibe, tries to start a war between the two nations, things get even more tense.

While the plot is interesting, and I could actually recommend the book on that score alone, what's most interesting thing about this book is the way that Le Guin explores her primary question. The people of Winter think that the envoy, Ai, is a pervert because he is capable of sex pretty much all the time. The people of Winter are only capable at certain times of the month, when their hormones make them more female or male depending on a variety of circumstances. The rest of the time, they are effectively neuter. Without the biological drives we have, the Gethenians are generally a placid people. There is some violence, but there has never been a large scale war. They are reserved, concerned about preserving face. Their environment also helps keep things tamped down as the Gethenians have to spend most of their time and energy just staying alive. The book is interspersed with stories and reports that shed a bit more light on the Winter lifestyle, though they remain fairly mysterious.

Psychologists--especially Freud--will point out what a large role sex plays in adult life. But this book really makes me wonder if Le Guin's version of things is really how a society would be if sex were taken out of the equation. I don't know if I entirely agree, possibly because I have such a dim view of humanity most of the time that I don't think anything would get rid of war. But I do appreciate the equality in a genderless society. There's no automatic prejudice about what a person can and can't do with their life. This doesn't mean that everyone gets to be President (so to speak), class and opportunity and experience, etc., still play a big part. But parts of the world are not closed off based on biology.

The Left Hand of Darkness is completely fascinating. So fascinating, that there were parts where I wanted to set down the book and just ponder it for a while. I don't think that's ever happened to me before.

A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres
Even after three readings, I still love Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and I still get so much out of it. It's a powerful story of children and their parents, men and women, bad decisions and repercussions. It's a retelling of King Lear, set on a Midwestern farm in the 1980s. It might seem like a bit of a come down for Lear, from king to farmer, but it works. In fact, I think it works better than the original Lear. I never understood why Lear would give up his kingdom, but I can understand the motives of Larry Cook in dividing up his farm among his children.

After the farm is divided, the plot of A Thousand Acres follows King Lear fairly closely, even down to the ranting in the storm scene. But instead of getting the story from Lear's perspective, we get the story from the eldest daughter's perspective. Smiley transforms Goneril into Ginny Cook. At the beginning of the novel, Ginny avoid conflict. She pacifies her father as much anyone can a man who is sliding ungracefully into dementia. She tries to keep her family from fighting. But there are old wounds that no amount of soothing are going to heal. But in pondering the narrator switch, I again realized how much who your narrator is matters when it comes to getting the reader's sympathy. I'll admit that I never gave Lear much sympathy, because I thought he was an idiot. But when I got the story from his perspective, his two eldest daughters were truly horrible creatures. When I got the story from Ginny's (Goneril's) perspective, I could see how stuck the eldest daughters were. It's hard to tell a parent they're making a bad choice, especially when they can't take criticism. And Larry definitely can't take criticism. He screams and rants and insults when he gets even a whiff of criticism or contradiction.

The other thing that struck me about this book was how hard it is to apportion blame. And when you don't know who to blame, how can you put such a fantastic screw up behind you and move on? After the farm is divided, Larry's dementia (or whatever it is) gets worse. The farm goes into debt modernizing. A neighbor stirs up bad feeling. And a revelation about just how badly Larry treated his eldest daughters complicates the whole picture. After the storm scene, Larry moves off the farm and the youngest daughter Caroline (Cordelia), a practicing lawyer, comes in to try and get the farm back for him. I thought that all the major characters and a good number of the minor ones all carry a piece of the blame. Reading closely, I could also see how important perspective is to even the characters. Everyone has their own version of events. Those who line up on Ginny and Rose's (Reagan's) side have a clear understanding of Larry's mental state and what's really happening on the farm. Those who line up on Larry's side are only getting his story. It's almost like watching King Lear inverted, like the story we're used to getting is being shown to a different audience somewhere and we get to see what happens between all the scene breaks or hear monologues for these characters that weren't really written.

This is an amazing book.

8.23.2012

The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar

The Barbarian Nurseries
After I finished reading Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, I spent some time pondering the Great American Novel. It's a bit of a cliche in book circles (at least to my way of thinking). But when you actually come across one, it renews your faith that writers can write something that speaks to who we are as a country. This book brilliantly shows the divides in our country between rich and poor, white and Hispanic, citizen and immigrant. I haven't seen a story like this in a long time, one that really captures us.

The book switches perspective between Araceli, a maid, and her bosses, Maureen and Scott. For the most part, we get the story from Araceli's perspective. She's a former art student from Mexico City, illegally in the United States. She's a hard worker, but she spends a lot of time studying her employers and their way of life. She's stuck in her position because of her status and her thwarted dreams of being an artist are starting to make her bitter. As for Maureen and Scott, they are stuck in their lives, too. The recession has hit them hard, though Maureen doesn't seem to realize how bad it all is given the amount she spends on everything. Scott wants to return to being a game programmer, but I think he realizes that his days of innovation are behind him. In order to save money, Scott and Maureen dismiss their gardener and nanny. Without asking if she's willing to take on even more work for no extra money, Scott and Maureen dump extra duties on Araceli. Because she's so dependable and never gives voice to her complaints, they assume that Araceli won't mind.

The fragile situation reaches a breaking point and, in a stunningly selfish moment, Maureen leaves with the baby for a long weekend and Scott goes home with a coworker for a weekend of pizza, soda, and gaming. They didn't mean to, but they left their two older children home alone with Araceli, who has no experience with childcare. Araceli calls all the numbers on the emergency contact list repeatedly, but can't get a hold of anyone. In a moment of panic, Araceli decides to try and find the boys' grandfather in Los Angeles. The wisest thing to do would have been to call the police, but with her immigration status a mark against her, that's not an option. The middle section of the book shows Araceli and the boys' quest to track down the grandfather while Maureen and Scott try to get a grip on themselves.

Everything breaks wide open when Maureen and Scott finally come home (after four days) to find their boys missing. It's this last part where the book really starts to shine because what started as small domestic drama quickly becomes a national controversy. Araceli faces threats of deportation and vehement racism. Maureen and Scott face withering criticism about their fitness as parents. In the third act, things really start to get out of control as Araceli, Scott, and Maureen are advised and occasionally manipulated by other players. But the resolution is a thing of beauty when Tobar pulls it off.

Aside from the race and language issues, what really interested me about this book was what Tobar wrote about the class divides in Los Angeles. Araceli isn't paid much for the phenomenal amount of work she does and since she can't get a better paying job, she's stuck. Even though Scott has made some efforts at downsizing their life, they're still living much, much better than most Americans. They think having to let go of two domestic workers is a hardship--which I suppose it is when you're used to having a lot of help around the house. They live such insulated lives that they really have no idea what life is like outside of their gated community. And Scott and Maureen's isolation has led them to become fairly stunningly selfish. They don't mean to be; they just don't take other people into account when they do things like take off for a long weekend without telling anyone.

The third act also brings in another aspect of American life: the media. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum and journalists looking for a big story help turn this misunderstanding into a national controversy. It's well known that people gravitate to the news narratives they agree with. We see characters latch on to the story, dividing themselves into camps that support either Araceli or the parents depending on their political leanings. The few facts in the case get lost in all the posturing. But I think this is a great depiction of the real thing.

There's more to talk about with this book, but Tobar wove these issues and more together in such an elegant way that I worry about selling this book short. This book is amazing. Read it.

Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

Unholy Night
I'm still a little puzzled about what Seth Grahame-Smith's Unholy Night is meant to be. On the one hand, it starts out as historical fiction and we get the story of the gospels from the perspective of a thief named Balthazar. But at about the halfway point of the book, a magus is introduced and the book turns into a horror story. And then there's the violence. Grahame-Smith's characters are injured and die in horrible ways--but in the middle of it, there's a famous infant. So, your guess is as good as mine about what this book is. I had a good time reading this book though. After years of the standard story, it was interesting to see a little more historical realism (apart from the magus, of course).

The book opens with a chase across the desert. Balthazar has ripped off a local roman official and is now running for his life from the Judean Army. His camel dies and he is apprehended and hauled off to Herod's dungeon. In short order, he meets Gaspar and Melchyor. If you don't recognize the names, they are the names given to the three wise men. In Grahame-Smith's version, Gaspar is another thief and Melchyor is the greatest swordsman in the known world. In fact, they actually turn out to be pretty good bodyguards for the famous child when Herod goes on his horrific spree. The Sunday school lessons did pay off while reading this book, but Grahame-Smith brings those old stories to grim life. Herod is a ghastly villain and the rest of the cast have foibles that make the story fairly believable, apart from the supernatural elements.

I couldn't help but compare this book to Christopher Moore's Lamb. That book had a lot of soul to it, on top of the humor and warped history/gospel plot. I wouldn't say that Unholy Night has soul, but it does have some heart. What I mean by that is, towards the end, when Balthazar's internal conflicts come to the fore, you see the tragedy that drives him. This book isn't about larger truths about faith, like I think Lamb is. But this book does talk about personal peace and vengeance. So while the book puzzles me, I enjoyed it because I love stories about vengeance--especially the kind that dig beneath the surface to ask what will really bring someone peace.

The Fallen Angel, by Daniel Silva

The Fallen Angel
After a few disappointing books in his Gabriel Allon series, I think Daniel Silva's The Fallen Angel might be a return to form. I was completely hooked once Silva started peeling away the layers of conspiracy between a murder at St. Peter's Basilica and a terrifyingly audacious terrorist plot. I couldn't predict anything that was going to happen next, which makes a wonderful change from the most recent books in the series.

The mystery begins when the Pope's personal secretary asks the legendary spy to investigate what appears, at the first cursory glance, to be a suicide right in St. Peter's. But it doesn't take long for the secretary and Gabriel to realize that the victim, a Vatican curator, was murdered for discovering that numerous works of art and antiquities have gone missing from the Vatican's collections. After some more digging, Gabriel finds that these missing works have been used to fund Hezbollah. From there, a small but interesting mystery develops into a wild ride to stop a massive terrorist plot. I can't give away any more details, because it would give away a brilliant plot twist.

But the plot twist does bring up an interesting--but probably unsolvable question--will there ever be peace in Israel? Eddie Izzard once asked, in jest of course, why three major religions couldn't have spread out their holy sites a bit more? Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all squabbling over the same turf in violation of tenets they profess to uphold (like loving thy neighbor among others). Instead,we get conflicts like the the Immovable Ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Read it. It's hilarious.) And that's just Christian sects fighting with each other, not separate religions. I'm sure I won't see peace in Israel in my lifetime.

I wonder how many more of these there will be. Throughout the book, there are references to Gabriel's age. He's been active since 1972 and all of his adventures since then have been extremely dangerous and taxing. He's been close to death so many times I've lost count; he's left blood all over Europe and the Middle East. So not only do I wonder how many times Silva can come up with inventive twists, but also how long it will be plausible for Gabriel to be dodging bullets.

8.20.2012

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley
There are so many sequels to Pride and Prejudice and so many of them are of variable quality, that it takes something special to get me interested in reading an story based on Austen’s work written by a different author. In this case, it’s Dame P.D. James writing a sequel that includes a murder mystery. Death Comes to Pemberley is set about six years after the end of Pride and Prejudice. Jane and Elizabeth and living in wedded bliss with children. Lydia and Wickham are still bouncing around the country trying to find a living and being obnoxious. The status quo changes the night before a ball when Lydia arrives in Pemberley in hysterics. The hysterics are normal for Lydia, but the reason is a bit out of the ordinary. Her husband just chased their friend Captain Denny into the woods. Denny’s body is found shortly thereafter, with Wickham holding him and confessing that he’s responsible.

This is a fast paced book—though it might have seemed that way because I read it in one day. It isn’t long before Wickham is committed to stand trial at the inquest, then taken to London for the trial. There are hints along the way, however, that show that we’re not getting the whole story. We don’t get the whole story until near the end of the book. It’s a satisfying conclusion, but I wonder if James couldn’t have gone farther with this idea. Then again, she also has to work within the constraints of what Austen set up for her (Austen’s) characters.

What struck me about this book, more than anything else, was that Death Comes to Pemberley is really a chance to deal with some of the lingering issues and questions from Pride and Prejudice. The way this book presents it, Darcy has a lot to apologize for. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, but that’s because I really didn’t like George Wickham. But I admire the way James used Austen’s plot to create this new one. These books join together almost seamlessly. (There are a few anachronisms of speech here and there, but not enough to drive me nuts.)

I think there have been so many sequels to Pride and Prejudice because we love the characters so much. The sequels are a way to spend more time with them, even if it’s an ersatz experience. The only lingering disappointment I have from Death Comes to Pemberley is that I didn’t get to see Darcy and Elizabeth together that much. My favorite moments from the original story were when those two were together and the verbal sparks were flying. I will be honest and say that Darcy and Elizabeth spend a lot of time apart from each other in this book. But James does capture some of Austen’s wit. There are snarky observations all over the place to help to liven up the book.

It’s not the same, of course. But Death Comes to Pemberley is head and shoulders above its competition.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder plays out, for me, like an extended ethics scenario. There are so many questions she asks, and the questions are so big, that you could spend years thinking about your answer. There are dilemmas everywhere and none of the options are particularly appealing, but considering them along with the characters is a lot of fun. At least it was for me, but I’m the sort of person who likes to think about impossible questions.

The protagonist, Marina Singh, researches cholesterol and statins for a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. When word comes that her fellow researcher, Anders Erickson, died in the Amazon while trying to check up on yet another researcher that is developing a fertility drug. This researcher, Dr. Swenson, stopped sending in reports about her progress. So when word comes of Erickson’s death, they decide the situation is critical enough that Marina has to go and find out what happened. Marina, though she spent summers in India, is not at all prepared for the heat, the humidity, the insects, and the generally unhygienic conditions. Most of all, she’s not prepared for Dr. Swenson. Swenson, now 73, has been coming to the Amazon for fifty years to research the remarkable fertility of the Lakashi women—who seem to be able to have babies all the way into their seventies. Swenson is fiercely private and resents every intrusion by her bosses into finding out what she’s up to. It takes a long time for Marina to even get to Swenson’s remote lab at the Lakashi village.

A lot of the book is a meandering meditation about life in the jungle, about anthropology, about medical ethics, about interference, and much more. There is a lot to absorb about this book, but I think that State of Wonder asks two very important questions. First, should we interfere in the lives of others if it means that they may become dependent on us? Second, if you had a secret that needed to be protected, how high a price would you be willing to pay?

So, to the first question. Dr. Swenson is fiercely anti-interference. She is resistant to treating the members of the tribe because she wants, as much as possible, to keep things the way they would have been if she wasn’t there. Personally, I think this is because she hates to make relationships with anyone, since the ones she’s had ended up fairly disastrous. But I would think, if you can do some good, you should interfere. Swenson is also reluctant to interfere because she wants to preserve the Lakashis’ traditional way of life. Here’s where the question gets trickier. On the one hand, cultures are worth preserving. But on the other hand, if you know that going to the shaman means that a child will die of an easily treatable illness…?

And the second question. I can’t say what the question actually is without giving away a big part of the story, I will say that it balances saving an untold number of people against defrauding a pharmaceutical company. The Robin Hood in me would say, “Defraud away!” But the law abiding part of me would own up to the truth.

After a couple of hundred pages of meandering, the plot speeds up. I’m not sure why Patchett decides to change the pace at this point because it makes the action at the end seem like an afterthought, only needed to wrap up the stories loose ends. This part of the book doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the story. It’s really the only criticism I have of State of Wonder. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like Patchett got bored and was in a hurry to finish.

I’d recommend State of Wonder anyway, because there are so few books that ask really tough but meaningful questions the way that this book does. It does one good to ponder big questions every now and then.

8.12.2012

Pariah, by Bob Fingerman

Pariah
Most of the zombie novel's I've read look at how the survivors, well, survive and how they set about rebuilding society. Bob Fingerman, however, looks at what happens when you strip away civilization and the survivors are just waiting to die. Pariah is an extremely bleak book because of this.

This might seem unrelated, but I have a point to his digression. Earlier today I was listening to RadioWest's show about online comments. The host and his various guests were trying to work out why comments are so vulgar/racist/sexist/stupid, etc. etc. My personal theory is that online comments do the same thing that Fingerman's zombies did. They strip away the veneers of civilization. If you don't have a reason to keep your worst ideas under control, then you won't. Online, no one knows who you are even if you sign your posts. In Pariah, there's no one to impress and it would be inhuman to turn someone out even if they turned out to be a truly awful human being and it would probably be safer to do so.

Pariah moves back and forth between "then" and "now," spending most of the time in the characters' present. (If that makes sense. It's tricky when the author uses the then/now chronology.) The narrative also bounced around among a slight handful of survivors who have holed up in a barricaded apartment building. They are entirely surrounded by zombies and entirely alone. They are slowly starving and dehydrating to death. It's too dangerous to make a break for it, even though there's a grocery store cruelly within view. Their numbers are slowly being whittled down by misfortune. The more I got to listen into one particular character's thoughts, I kept hoping he'd be the next one to go because he was an absolute bastard.

When a girl who appears to be immune to the zombies strolls down the road one day, the characters start to see some hope--not a lot, just that their lot might improve with fresh supplies. But once they stop starving, the utter bastard starts to get dangerous again. You just know that things are not going to end well.

This is a tough, challenging book to read primarily because you get to hear the worst of their thoughts, their jealousies, their lusts, their violent mental revenges, and all the rest of the thoughts that belong locked away deep in one's subconscious. But I think it was a worthwhile reason exactly because Fingerman shows you these things. As I said, no other zombie book that I've read has gone in this direction before. I think Pariah might actually be a more accurate depiction of what would happen if zombies were real.

The Butterfly Cabinet, by Bernie McGill

The Butterfly Cabinet
I'll admit that I wasn't expecting all that much when I started reading Bernie McGill's The Butterfly Cabinet. It starts with a letter, then a rambling introduction by a woman in a rest home who announces that the time has come to tell the letter writer, Anna, the truth about her grandmother. Then the narrative shifts to the prison diary of that grandmother. It takes her a bit to warm up, but when McGill gets going, this book gets very, very good.

In a sense, this book sort of reminds me of Caleb Carr's The Angel of Darkness because it centers (sort of) on the same question: what's the right way to parent? While the antagonist in that book was deeply disturbed and sociopathic, the main character here--the grandmother, Harriet Ormond--wrestles with a lot of the same issues as Libby Hatch. They are pressured to be perfect Victorian mothers, to raise perfect children. And their children "let them down," so to speak. Anyone who's spent any time around kids knows that the behaviors Harriet and Libby feel the need to crack down on is perfectly normal behavior. Everyone around Harriet feels that she deals too harshly with the children, but they don't interfere apart from showing Harriet's children kindness when the opportunity arises. In fact, it's one of Harriet's punishments gone terribly awry that lands her in prison.

One could argue that there might not be one right way to parent, but there are a hell of a lot of ways not to parent. It's a corollary to Tolstoy's maxim about happy and unhappy families. What Harriet puts her children through is definitely one of the wrong ways. Even her Victorian co-characters admit that. But when they put Harriet on trial and convict her, you have to wonder if it really was her fault or if it was just an awful accident. More and more of the truth about what happens comes out as Harriet and Maddie, the old woman in the rest home, take turns narrating the story. Interestingly, they trade places as villain and victim until the final facts fall into place. It's very graceful the way McGill writes it, and I didn't see it coming until the characters made their revelations.

We also learn more about what made Harriet the harsh mother she was. I can't give away the biggest reason because that would spoil it, but I can say that her own childhood would have warped anyone. Harriet's mother tried to mold her into the perfect lady (figuratively and literally). Harriet's diary reveals that she would have liked nothing better than to be out of doors, catching butterflies and riding her horses. Being the mother she thought she needed to be meant she was trapped inside all the time. I think, even now, it's hard to admit that a mother would feel resentful of her children. We still have ideas about what a mother should and shouldn't be that are very hard to shake, I think.

8.09.2012

Heart of Iron, by Ekaterina Sedia

Heart of Iron
I can't believe I actually finished this book. The plot was so preposterous that I should have stopped reading it and went and found something better. But I finished Ekaterina Sedia's Heart of Iron anyway, most likely because her other book, The Secret History of Moscow, was so good. But Heart of Iron actually got worse the further into it I got.

Heart of Iron has a promising start. Our heroine, Sasha Trubetskaya, lives in an alternate Russia where the Decembrist Revolution succeeded and the serfs were freed. Engineering and science are on the rise, leading to an early technological revolution as well. Sasha is a lighthearted girl for the first few chapters, but when she gets the opportunity to go to university she seizes it with both hands. She makes friends with Chinese students and a mysterious English student. So far, so good--except that the plot makes a left turn at this point and starts heading into WTF territory.

The Chinese students start disappearing. I could go along with that. What I couldn't go along with was Sasha's self-appointed diplomatic mission to China with her English friend, Jack, in tow. For some reason, Sasha thinks that if she can arrange an alliance between China and Russia, her friends will be released from prison. Sasha never questions why her mission might fail. It never occurs to her that as the daughter of a minor noble who has only just made her social debut she has zero political clout. It's fun to watch her disguise herself as a hussar and travel across Russia by train and airship, but there was always the question in my mind about who would listen to her if she actually made it to her destination. Not only that, but in any reasonable book, Sasha would run a fair risk of getting killed because Sedia decided to complicate matters by sending her heroine right into the middle of the Taiping Rebellion. It's just absurdity piled onto absurdity at this point. I couldn't even enjoy the steampunk elements because I was having too much trouble suspending my disbelief about everything else.

I don't often say it, but I can't think of anyone who could really enjoy this book.

Fun Home, by, Alison Bechdel

Fun Home
It took me a few chapters for me to figure out what Bechdel's biography Fun Home reminded me of. It reminds me of the comparative literature papers I would write when I was an undergraduate. There were few things I enjoyed about my major more than finding the links between stories. As I read Fun Home, I started to see that Bechdel was drawing links between her life, her father's life, and novels as diverse as James Joyce's Ulysses and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu). It might seem pretentious at first glance, but it really fits. Fun Home is recursive, jumping around in time to link and explicate events in the Bechdels' life. This is a fantastic book. From the plain, rough illustrations (this book is told as a graphic novel), you might expect a simple story. Fun Home is anything but. And if the story itself doesn't get you, the ending certainly will. It's shattering.

Fun Home is as much about secrets as it is about memory. Because she came of age in the 1980s, Bechdel was able to be up front about her sexuality. Her father couldn't. As Alison circles around her childhood and her father's life, you pick up on the fact that Bechdel the elder is desperately unhappy. He spends all his free time perfecting the family home, turning it into a Victorian showpiece. He makes a few abortive attempts to make "friends" with younger men, but they never turn out well. Because he lives in a small town and because he's locked himself into the role of mid-century pater familias, Father Bechdel lives out his life of quiet desperation. Well, I say "lives out" but there is some question about whether the circumstances of his death were entirely accidental. Alison writes that her support system of friends and family (to some extent) was what let her come out. Her father, she writes, never felt that. I can't imagine what it would feel like to learn that a family member felt that they had to live with such a big secret, rather than being their natural self.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven
Have you ever played the game where you thought up what you would wish if you somehow found a genie in a lamp? Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven reminds me of that game because I used to spend an awful lot of my wishful thinking (so to speak) trying to work out clauses that would mitigate any of the side effects of my wishes. The difference between my youthful thought experiments and The Lathe of Heaven is that not only is Le Guin much more eloquent than I was, but this book centers around a man who finds that his dream can change reality. And, not only can George Orr make things different by dreaming, but he can make it so that his new version is actually the way things have always been.

We meet George when he's very down on his luck. In order to stop his dreams, he has been taking every drug he can get his hands on. When he's caught, he's sentenced to "voluntary" therapy for his presumed drug addiction. At first, his psychiatrist doesn't believe him. But when Dr. Haber does start to believe him, the doctor uses hypnosis to turn George's dreams to his own advantage. George tries to use his dreams to make Dr. Haber more than an opportunist, but things get even more sinister after Haber starts using George's dreams to make things better.

Which brings me back to the wish game. In the genie stories, there are always unintended consequences. After Haber suggests that Orr's anxiety stems from overpopulation, from being constantly crowded by other people, George dreams of a plague that kills six billion people. When Haber suggests that George dream of world peace, George instead dreams up invaders from outer space. There is world peace, but only because the humans banded together against the aliens. (I took no small amount of cynical delight in this.) Haber only wanted to do good (after his own alteration), but the consequences may be too high a price to pay.

If you had the power to make these sweeping changes, either through a wish or a dream, would you? For me, knowing about the possible consequences is enough to steer me away. But it's a very interesting question. What if you really could make things better?

The Lathe of Heaven is short, but it raises so many questions (aside from the one I just posed) that it would reward many readings. To me, that's the sign of a genuinely great book.

Moving back...

So after five years over at Wordpress, I'm moving back to blogger in an attempt to shrink my efootprint. (I have far too many accounts.) I'll be in the process of moving content for a long time. All new content will be published here, instead of over at my old blog, Textual Frigate. (Also, that name? What the hell was I thinking?