Monday, March 30, 2009
Neil Gaiman is one of those authors where I never quite understood the big hype. I read Stardust and thought it was cute but not necessarily the most original thing ever - after all, rewriting fairy tales has been kind of a fad in recent years. I really enjoyed the first half of Good Omens and thought the fact that they'd misplaced the Anti-Christ was rather funny, but the ending just didn't seem to quite live up to the beginning. That being said, I really like how Gaiman just kind of deflates things at the end of his novels, and doesn't give his readers the expected show down. For example, the fact that at the end of Stardust, the witch just kind of gives up, saying that the star had already given her heart away, was great. I was disappointed that they actually had a big battle at the end of the movie but I guess films can't always be as dry and matter of fact.
After reading American Gods, I think I understand the appeal of Gaiman a little bit more. The basic premise is of course that gods really exist, and human belief both created them and gives them their power. As part of his cast of characters Gaiman uses a variety of gods from all religions who were brought over from their countries of origin due to their followers' faith in them. After a few years and generations in America, however, many of them became mere after thoughts and funny stories that no one actually believed in. Some of the more modern and powerful gods in the story include the gods of television, money and the internet/technology. Some of the ancient gods are more recognizable and famous than others - for example, the Egyptian gods Ibis and Anubis make appearances as well as some that are much more obscure.
As the novel begins, Shadow, a mere mortal, becomes involved in the world of the gods after he is released fom prison two days early due to his wife's death. Shadow is a rather quiet character - he is large, and most of the people mistake him for dumb due to his size. He doesn't ask many questions and after the initial surprise that Wednesday was able to locate him twice, he doesn't ask many questions. As his dead wife (there's gods in the novel, naturally the dead might rise as well) later tells him, he's not dead but he's not exactly alive, either. In addition to the main narrative, Gaiman includes background stories about some immigrants arriving in country with their gods and various other minor supernatural beings in tow. Many of the twists were easy to guess at (one or two possibly because I need to stop watching Supernatural) but they weren't overly obvious, and guessing them didn't ruin the novel. Much of the enjoyment was from Gaiman's writing and his sense of humor. Additionally, he is very sympathetic and forgiving to his characters as a writer and refuses to place much judgment on any of them even if some of their actions are questionable.
So now that I'm willing to jump on the Gaiman bandwagon, I'm curious which novel would be best suited for follow up? I'm kind of interested in Neverwhere, but it seems like Anansi Boys might be distantly connected to this one.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Hole - Celebrity Skin
For Jaime. She knows why. I don't actually own any Hole or Courtney Love albums but I enjoy a few of their/her songs, and even though she's kind of completely crazy, I've always had a soft spot for her. All those current pop chicks with a punk or rock edge, this is how it's really done.
I've made the comment before that I'm occasionally hesitant to read novels like Memoirs of Geisha nowadays because even if someone is fascinated by a subject, there is still the risk of taking another culture and making it more exotic. After all, after Memoirs of a Geisha was published, there were complaints about how inaccurate it was (a white author narrating as a Japanese woman - even with the best of intentions, surely there are things the guy can miss). The reason I picked this up is that the author chose to use a French-American woman who grew up in Japan as her main character - yes, it's still Western-centric in a way, but at least, this way the author isn't pretending to be an expert on anything. Instead, she is observing and relating, occasionally drawing conclusions and analyzing, but for the most part she never claims to completely understand everything even after twenty years.
Aurelia travels to Japan with her Jesuit uncle in 1866, and after a house fire, runs away. Yukako and her family take her under their care (although this more or less means they take her in as a servant), treating her as a slow and slightly deformed Japanese girl rather than a foreigner. Yukako's family are tea masters and train several men in the art of the tea ceremony. The gradual influence of the West and political changes lead to major cultural changes in Japan. Yukako has the most business acumen of anyone in her family, including her father and husband, who is set in the old ways. As Yukako becomes more involved in the business, especially after her father's death, she assures her familiy's survival with the changing times. Aurelia stays with the family for over twenty five years, and in that time, the tea ceremony evolves from a ceremony for samurai to something taught primarily to women to enrich the home life. Yukako doesn't necessarily approve of all the changes but does everything she needs to do to keep up with times.
There are also various romantic subplots and geisha running throughout the story. Aurelia becomes close friends with a girl named Inko, but for the most part, she is focused on Yukako and absolutely adores her. As the years progress, Aurelia helps Yukako with her interactions with the foreigners, but she also begins to feel less important and more like she is simply a servant rather than a trusted friend (when she first arrives at the home, Yukako tells her to call her "older sister").
The novel was very detailed, and witnessed several changes in Japanese culture and history. Avery also notes the arrogance some of the Americans and other foreigners had towards the culture, barely bothering to learn Japanese yet wanting to turn them into proper Christians and so forth. It was a bit slow at times and I guess when it comes down to it, I'm really not that interested in the tea ceremony but the ways the two cultures interacted and influenced each other were interesting.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Fledgling is Octavia Butler's approach to the vampire novel (I feel like I've read way too many vampire novels this year by the way). When the story begins, the narrator awakens alone and hurt in a cave with no memory of her life. She soon meets Wright, a man in his mid-twenties who helps her. She soon discovers her father, and discovers her name, Shoshi as well as more about herself. Although 53 years old, she is still a juvenile in the Ina (vampire) world, and looks like a 11 year old girl. Unlike most vampire legends, the Ina don't actually kill humans to survive, but instead live with a group of about 7 or 8 humans with whom they form a symbiotic relationship. Butler has explored symbiotic relationships in other novels, perhaps most notably the series that has been combined in the book Lilith's Brood. Wright will be the first of Shoshi's new dependents. She lives off his blood while he gains extra strength, health and longevity through his interactions with her. Shoshi also learns from her father that she is an experiment of sorts, and that her eldermothers (grandmothers, basically) combined Ina and human strains of DNA to create an Ina that would be able to function in the day. That is the reason she survived the assault on her mothers' community that caused her amnesia. Before she can learn much more, her father's community is also destroyed, and Shoshi must find other Ina who can be her allies.
Once Shoshi finds these allies, Shoshi sets the events in motion for an Ina trial. Butler uses this to explore more of Ina culture and ideas. Most of the Ina were excited about the success of the Shoshi experiment but there are those that view humans as less than they and hate the idea of the mixed DNA (since Ina and humans are different species they cannot reproduce but they can have sex; in addition to her seven or eight humans, Shoshi would eventually have an Ina husband(s) ). Additionally, all the other vampires in the area appear to be white (other Ina explain to her that there are Ina in all the world, including Africa so I don't know if they are black or not, but at least in the States, whiteness seems to be the norm), and some of them have very strong opinions about her blackness. Butler uses her science fiction to explore racial and gender issues without becoming overly preachy. In Lilith's Brood, for example, there were humans that decided to continue with their racial prejudices in a post-apocalyptic world when there were only tiny communities left. It just makes these people seem incredibly stupid but the fact is, Butler is correct that people will hold on to their ideas even when it hurts them.
As usual, as much as I enjoy Butler's ideas, the sex scenes were disturbing. They don't tend to be overly graphic, but in Lilith's Brood (I guess that series reminded me the most of this), there was interspecies coupling between odd looking aliens and humans. In this one, Shoshi has sex with Wright. Not a huge deal, except that Shoshi looks like an 11 year old girl, and is still considered a juvenile by her people though human/Ina interactions are very different (there is never a point when Shoshi is not in charge). So it's alright according to their customs but still very disturbing.
A lot of this book actually seems like set up, and since basically everything else I've read by Butler has been a series or at least had one sequel to it, it is definitely not hard to imagine that this was intended as the first of a few books. After all, we are told time and again, that Shoshi is still young and will be incredibly powerful once she is a full grown adult. Unfortunately, Butler died in 2006, so she never got around to turning this novel into a series. While she does set up places for potential sequels, the novel doesn't leave any huge unanswered questions so I wasn't frustrated with the way it ended or anything.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ended up with a cabin of middle schoolers on my flight home - well, in Vienna I arrived at my hotel for check in right behind a bus load of Italian teenagers. The lobby was tiny, they were loud and took forever. Fortunately, they were in a different section of the hotel but naturally, they chose to check out at the exact same time as me and beat me to the punch. It's probably a sign that I've been in the Army too long when my first reaction to a loud and noisy crowd of people is the desire to take them outside and form them up. I could just imagine myself as a tour guide.
In a way, once you've been to one European city, you've been to all of them. They all have beautiful churches, art galleries, palaces etc. Despite that, I really enjoyed Vienna. I only went into about three or four churches, and of those, the one that had an entry fee was the least exciting - the Karlskirche. Beautiful and different on the outside, totally not worth it on the inside.
I also saw paintings by Gustave Klimt - I'd heard of him before but don't remember seeing anything of his before, at least, nothing that made an impression. I actually really liked his art work, and discovered Alphonse Mucha as well in a special exhibition. Apparently he has a museum in Prague so I have even more of a reason to return there now. Mucha has that whole vintage poster art look going for him, and I've been wanting to hang up vintage travel posters in my apartment for a while now but haven't gotten around to getting any of my prints framed (not to mention that my walls aren't exactly conducive to having nails hammered in). Naturally, I was drawn to his style, and will probably order a few things of his now to compliment that theme.
Gustave Klimt - Pallas Athene
Pallas Athene Fountain in front of Parliament in Vienna
What can I say, ever since I got my tattoo two years ago, I tend to notice Athena related things more.
I was so incredibly disappointed with this book. I stumbled upon it at Barnes and Noble last week on one of their display tables, and ended up getting it because it was about the Impressionists, and more intriguingly, a woman artist. When I got home and googled Berthe Morisot, I discovered that she was actually the artist behind one of the paintings at the Chicago Art Institute that I'd always liked a lot. Naturally, that got me even more interested in reading a historical fiction novel based on her life.
Unfortunately, the book was just kind of boring. The back cover did say that it would be partially about Morisot's love affair with Manet (which may or may not have actually occurred), but I figured there would also be a lot about Morisot herself. While she was the narrator, most of the novel was about Manet and his paintings and their interactions and his thoughts, etc. She described more of Manet's paintings than her own! In fact, based on the novel, I got the impression she only painted about two important pieces during that whole period, and for the rest of the time either copied famous paintings at the Louvre, painted flowers for practice in her studio or posed for Manet. Since I don't know much about the artist (which is why this book was supposed to help enlighten me), I'm not sure if she painted most of her significant work after the affair, or if Robards just didn't think any of it was worth mentioning. Also, Morisot was in love with Manet for years despite his marriage to someone else, but I was never really convinced as to what was so special about Manet. His character was flat and didn't seem charming at all. If I wasn't going to learn much about Morisot, at least the love story could have been exciting and passionate, but it seemed like a failure even in that regard. I had no clue why these two people were interested in each other.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Now that I'm on leave, I'm not sure if I'll have more or less time to read, but I have actually been able to go to real life book store! Much like last year, I now have a huge stack of books, and I have no clue if any of them will be any good but I was just excited about the choices.
I've realized one thing in the past few months, though. As much as I like going places to travel, it also really irritates me. Since I tend to go sightseeing, I run into a lot of other tourists, and god, those people can get annoying (obviously, I'm not). During my flight to the States, I shared a cabin with a class of middle schoolers - teenagers/pre-teens are kind of loud. And ditzy. Like, really.
Of all of Russell's novels so far, this one is probably my least favorite. It's also the first of hers that's had a first person narrator. It was still a very enjoyable novel but given the author I just had incredibly high expectations. Also, this one was less epic than her other novels, and focused on a much smaller canvas. It's mainly the story of Agnes Shanklin who after being the lone survivor of the flu epidemic following World War I decides to go on a trip to Egypt. While there, she somehow becomes temporarily part of the circle of people that are deciding the fate of the Middle East region: T.E. Lawrence, Churchill and a few others. While there are significant historical actions going on and Agnes is aware of them, it is just as much if not more about Agnes's coming of age and liberation from conventions.
Agnes, the narrator, is actually dead and tells her story from the afterlife. In the last part of the story, she explains a bit more about her afterlife and the other dead people she's been interacting with, some of which is rather entertaining (I especially enjoyed an exchange between Napoleon and McClellan). While Agnes had suggested in life that perhaps Churchill and his colleagues should ask the natives of the countries they were creating what they wanted, it is only in the afterlife that she really notices how much of a backdrop the locals were during her visit to the area. It was their country, and yet the whites and Westerners treated them as local scenery rather than real humans with desires and motivations.
In the attached interview, Russell said that she is working on a novel about Doc Holliday which should be incredibly interesting. Unfortunately, Russell seems to take her time between novels since she does so much research. Of course this is part of the reason they are so good, but I don't want to wait that long for her next one.
I saw this book at the PX a few times before I finally decided to get it, and the main reason I decided in its favor is because one of the author's other novels, Miracle at St. Anna, had been made into a movie. I know, great reasoning.
I just couldn't get into this. It took me almost two weeks, and various other novels as interruptions to finish it. And I don't really know why. It wasn't badly written, the story per se wasn't bad - runaway slave with a slave catcher in pursuit, as well as slave kidnappers and various other characters. Honestly, I think some of the characters were just too over the top for me so most of them never seemed real enough to get invested in. There were also touches of magic realism and Liz, the runaway slave, has the ability to dream the future but it just didn't work for me. There'd be parts that I got interested in but then the narrative would shift to a different character, and I would lose interest.
I've been reading more Holocaust/World War II books lately, and I don't know why. I guess I picked up Sarah's Key, and it recommended this one, and here we go. This novel, as seems to be the trend lately, is also told from two different perspectives and two different times. The novel tells the story from Trudi's view in the mid-90s, but also goes back in time to her mother's life in Nazi Germany.
Anna, Trudi's mother, is the strong, silent type. and has never told her daughter much about her life in Germany. All Trudi knows is that she was three years old when they left to come to the States with Jack Schlemmer, an American Anna met and married at the end of the war. While Anna keeps her daughter at a distance, it is still hard to really like or sympathize with Trudi. She puts her mother in a home after there is a fire at the farm house, instead of considering an alternate option like assisted living or simply a smaller apartment, and she also keeps her mother at a distance - as she mentions later in the novel when she invites her mother to live with her, she had only invited her mother to her home once in twenty or thirty years when she first moved in. After Trudi's friend, who is also the head of Holocaust Studies receives a grant to interview Jewish survivors, Trudi is inspired to do her own interviews of Germans who lived in Germany under the Reich. Trudi is still on a quest to get to know her mother and understand how normal Germans could have let everything happen. Mainly she is afraid to discover what her mom did, especially since there is a picture of her mother, herself and a German SS officer that was her mother's only keepsake from her former life.
While this is what Trudi knows about her mother, the readers know early on that things aren't that simple, and that there must be an involved story to how Anna ended up with an SS officer. When the novel begins, Anna has just met a Jewish doctor that is almost twice her age, but whom she is very interested in. She eventually hides him in her attic, and even becomes pregnant before her father, a loyal party member discovers and turns him in. Angry at her father, she leaves home and helps the local baker with small gestures of resistance but soon finds herself involved with the SS officer to save her life.
Even though Anna did more than some of her fellow people, she still feels guilty and confused about how she survived the war since her relationship with the officer actually gave her certain benefits. She does not feel like a hero, and while it may be wrong to not let her daughter know about her roots, she doesn't want any false glory. and chooses not to discuss it.
As I said, I definitely preferred Anna to Trudi. One of the characters in the novel raises the question whether or not the Germans have the right to discuss their war experience or try to excuse themselves because of their willful ignoral of events. While it may seem odd to hear Germans talk about how difficult the times were and the invasion, it's still important to know from a historical and psychological perspective as to how group mentality can work.
This novel is the sequel to Russell's The Sparrow, and begins almost immediately after the occurences of the previous novel. Emilio Sandoz is slowly trying to put his life back together, and as part of that, has decided that he must part from the church. He actually meets someone, and his interactions with her help him slowly heal. This narrative flashes back with the events on Rakhat immediately after Sandoz's departure (thanks to time travel, the events on Rakhat take place over almost forty years, while for Sandoz, only a two or three years pass). The first surprise is that Sophia is still alive and had only been badly injured but not killed. Supaari, who had been a character in the first novel with questionable intentions, also is a major player in the Rakhat narrative, and it turns out that he had been well-intentioned all along but had seemed like a bad person due to cultural misunderstandings.
When the Jesuits decide to go on another mission, Sandoz agrees to train the new crew but refuses to go along. He is forced on the mission, and when he returns to Rakhat, he finds a very different planet than the one he left. Supaari and Sophia have rallied the Runa, and changed the life on the planet drastically. Children of God is in ways a darker novel as the planet Rakhat becomes involved in a violent civil war, leading to the near annihilation and extinction of an entire species and way of life. It also has a more hopeful ending than The Sparrow, however.
I preferred The Sparrow but Children of God was still a very good novel. A few of the characters in Children of God seemed a little random, but the Jesuits had to get the expedition to Rakhat financed somehow. Russell is great at developing characters in all of her novels, but I preferred the more intimate setting of explorers interacting and misunderstanding a new culture and society to the massive civil war back drop. However, as usual, her writing was excellent, and she shows very well how the good guys can become the villains, and how what seems right and moral can easily slide into grey areas.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris
All Together Dead by Charlaine Harris
I was kind of in the mood for some light reading this weekend so I finished off the rest of the novels from the Sookie Stackhouse Boxed Set. While I was complaining about the novels in the middle of the series, these were actually a lot of fun. Yes, there are times when the writing seems a little simple, the men are all incredibly possessive and old-fashioned, and occasionally Sookie bugs me, but at least Sookie also generally resents all these men being possessive and saves them just as often as they save her.
One minor problem with the novels might be the fact that it seems like everyone that meets Sookie who is slightly supernatural instantly falls for her and wants to be involved with her, but Harris seemed to notice that this might be a weakness, and actually more or less got rid of two of Sookie's admirers in Definitely Dead, even though she also added a new one. Another good thing was that there wasn't too much of Bill in these novels. I really don't like him.
One thing I liked is that Harris keeps referring to things from previous novels and fleshing out on them such as the Fellowship of the Sun. She also threw in a few complications about Bill's motivations - anything that will get rid of him makes me happy. Generally the books end with huge battles which I don't really need, but at least I can usually scan through them rather quickly - descriptions of people running around frantically don't do it for me, but I like how Harris is also exploring the politics of the supernatural world more.
Saturday, March 07, 2009
This novel was definitely a litte bit different than I expected. The novel parallels the events of the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion and was inspired by the Three Wives Collaborative Commentary, a commentary written on the opera by three wives. Peony in Love is narrated from the perspective of Peony, the first of the three wives, who is actually dead for two thirds of the novel. While I've read ghost stories before, I wasn't actually familiar with many of the rules that are special to Chinese culture.
I still don't know quite how ghosts in China work but apparently they can be very powerful yet subtle. Peony made many comments about convincing and making people do things although I'm not really sure how or with what powers. Since it took me a while to adjust to Peony's powers as a ghost, I enjoyed the first part and the last part of the novel best.
On her sixteenth birthday, Peony meets and falls in love with a young man in her parents' gardens. Given her society, it is highly improper for her to be speaking to a strange man, and she never learns his name. Already betrothed, and scheduled to be married in five months, Peony dreads the day of her marriage now that she has met this young poet, and pours herself into writing a commentary on The Peony Pavilion, her favorite play and a love story. In her obsession with her project, she neglects to eat, and starves herself to death, discovering too late that her husband to be was the same man she met in the gardens.
Eventually her betrothed marries someone else, and Peony, who as a hungry ghost is trapped on Earth, takes up residence in Wu Ren's household, inspiring/creating the same obsession with the play that she possesses in his new wife. The novel covers a span of thirty years, and also discusses the Manchu invasion. Like in her novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan, See uses her fiction to explore women's roles in Chinese society which were actually changing somewhat in the period she selected for her novel. After a period of greater freedom, women are once again becoming more restricted in their movements. Some scenes were a little out there due to the cultural differences, but See once again creates a very well-drawn main character who even dead continues to learn about herself and her family. I really enjoy See's writing style and the themes she explores in the two novels I've read by her.
I thought the premise of the book sounded interesting, but when comes right down to it, I didn't like the novel very much. The characters were just way too over the top for me, especially Monica and Bits. I started out liking Bits a lot, but as the novel went on, she just got a little bit too out of control for me. Ash also just seemed too naive and rigid, especially in his interactions with Monica. It seemed like if he'd just told the truth to people, things would have worked better for him rather than trying to be as secretive as he was. Their mother was the most relatable and understandable character, as she falls under the thrall of a con-artist after being alone for years.
Apparently I'm the only person that reacted to the novel this way. I picked it up after seeing it highly recommended on another book blog, but I just couldn't really get over the annoyingness of the characters to find their good sides. As far as novels that deal with families falling apart as a result of a tragic incident, such as the disappearance of a child, I much preferred The Lovely Bones.
For some odd reason, I've read quite a few intersecting stories lately. Sarah's Key shifts back and forth between 2002, the 60th anniversary of the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup in Paris, and 1942, when the round up actually happened. Julia Jarmond, a journalist and American living in Paris, narrates the modern day part of the story. Her magazine/paper assigns her to write a story about the round up, and its upcoming memorial celebration. The first half of the novel shifts back and forth between Julia and Sarah, a ten year old Jewish girl who was gathered up along with her parents as part of the round up. Not knowing what would happen, Sarah hides her four year old brother in a cupboard and locks him in, believing the French police will only have them in custody temporarily.
As Julia does research for her story, she becomes more and more obsessed with the events, and shocked that she knew nothing about them despite having lived in Paris for 25 years. Her French husband is less than happy about her interest, believing that the past is best left in peace. In the beginning of the novel, Julia and Bertrand are planning on moving into his grandmother's old apartment, and naturally, this new apartment becomes a link to the past since it turns out that Bertrand's grandparents moved into this apartment in the end of July, only weeks after Sarah's family had been arrested from the same apartment. As the novel progresses, Julia learns more about Paris and her family's past, and her interest helps some of her relationships develop in unpredicted new ways. She also finally begins really questioning her husband's behavior and treatment of her.
As Sarah experiences the horror of the round up, and then the French labor camp which holds her family before the trains take them to Auschwitz, her one obsession is her brother. Through it all, she still believes she can return to the apartment and save him while also struggling with the guilt of having left him behind, locked up in the cupboard.
While I thought the story sounded interesting when I ordered it, I was also a little doubtful since the back cover states that "Julia stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah, and to questions about her own romantic future." The description almost makes it sound like the author was using the backdrop of the Holocaust to write a romance novel or love story, and this certainly is not the case. Overall, I liked hearing Sarah's side of the story best, but I also liked Julia, though I kept wondering why she was with her husband to begin with. While I of course knew about the French involvement with the Nazis after the occupation I wasn't familiar with this specific event. When I was in France, I actually went to the Memorial for the unknown Jewish martyr, but since I was too close to closing time, they only let me see the memorial itself and not the display inside with all the history. There is also a memorial for the Velodrome d'Hiver, but since I didn't know about it, I obviously didn't go to see it.