Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book 39: The Buffalo Soldier

The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian

I first discoverd Bohjalian due to his World War II era novel, Skeletons at the Feast, which is still my favorite of his.  He chooses an entirely different topic for each novel he writes, and these have ranged from a ghost story, a literary look into obsession and behavioral health, a murder-suicide in a small town, and foster parents and adoption in this one.  He has a knack for developing sympathetic yet flawed characters.

The majority of the novel takes place two years after a flood that killed Laura and Terry Sheldon's twin daughters.  They have decided to take in a foster child, and I think they are both a bit surprised when Alfred, a ten year old African American boy, comes to their house.  Alfred is hesitant, but begins to form a bond with his elderly neighbor, first bonding over the story of the buffalo soldiers and then over the horse Paul purchases to take care of during his retirement.  Laura and Alfred also start to slowly bond while Alfred's presence causes doubts in Terry, leading to him having an affair.

As the novel progresses, Bohjalian explores the ideas of family and grief.  In the beginning, Terry seems to think that Lauren is more broken by her grief than he is, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that she has dealt with her loss and is more open to the idea of incorporating Alfred into their family, and moving on.  I quite enjoyed this when I read the novel, and the way Bohjalian juxtaposed Lauren and Terry's reactions to Alfred and some of his habits as a foster child.  It has a been a while since I read this, however, and I'm a bit blurry on some of the specifics.  It is mostly a character driven novel, and like in his other novels, Bohjalian did a very good job of developing their personalities in this quiet story.

Book 38: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I don't tend to gravitate towards YA fiction but I'm also not that much of a snob to avoid the genre.  In general, if I notice a lot of discussion about a particular book, I'll pick it up, and this especially tends to be the case with YA - I won't seek it out on my own but usually look forward to good recommendations: after all, I loved the Harry Potter series, His Dark Materials trilogy, and more recently The Hunger Games.  Even though I was still a bit skeptical about this one since it seemed to be marketed as fantasy/romance, enough people whose opinions I trust loved this book for me to give it a shot.  I'm so glad I did.  I ended up sitting in Panera for hours until I finished the novel, and then went and picked up the sequel immediately before going home to read it.  And I'm pretty sure I had productive plans for that day, too.

There were so many things I loved about this novel, beginning with the setting - Karou, the heroine, lives in Prague; its rather frank acknowledgement of sexuality (no, there aren't any graphic scenes, but Taylor acknowledges that teens have sex - I don't know why, but for some reason I thought YA novels gloss over that fact; I'll just blame Twilight); the creativity of her world; and the fact that the love story doesn't start to develop till much later and that Karou has very strong motivations for what she does, unrelated to romance.

As the novel begins, Karou, an art student in Prague, is being harrassed by her ex-boyfriend and juggling her life as a student in Prague, and as an errand runner/messenger for a demon named Brimstone.  Brimstone trades in teeth and wishes, ie people bring him teeth and he gives them wishes of different strengths.  Karou occasionally gets irritated with running errands, and also disapproves of the tooth trade (many of the hunters and teeth traders kill animals already on the endangered list).  While she was raised in Brimstone's shop and sees him and his assistants as family, she is also beginning to realize how little she knows and is starting to have more questions.

After being called on an errand prematurely because Brimstone's tooth supply is running low, Karou gets into a fight with an angel while in Morrocco, and notices that the doors to Brimstone's shop in several cities have handprints on them.  As she soon realizes, there is some type of war going on and she is about to be caught up in the middle of it as her family becomes endangered and she is unable to reach or contact them.

The war is between angels and demons, and while the demons have had an entrance into the world for a long time (the gates for the teeth trade), the angels have only recently rediscovered the portals back to the human world.  According to this series, the human ideas of angels come from some random sightings of angels thousands of years ago, but are not very factual.  The demons against whom they are at war are chimera, or several different species of chimera that have bonded together against a common enemy.  Brimstone and his assistants are mixtures of human and animal features, such as Issa, who is part snake/part human.  I'm assuming Taylor drew on Egyptian and Indian traditons for her ideas but the way she puts them together is very original.

While Taylor builds an exciting supernatural world, she also makes sure to give Karou ties to the human world, including a best friend named Zuzana.  In fact, I really liked the fact that Taylor focused almost as much on developing a best friend for Karou as she did the love interest.  As far as the love story goes, in ways, it felt like the weakest part of the story until a reveal towards the end which added a very poignant piece to the story.  While Akiva's motivations and fascination are explored more deeply, it seemed like Karou's feelings and interest in him arose rather quickly.  However, that really was the novel's only possible flaw, and since the novel had so many other strengths, it was hardly noticeable.

Anyway, the novel is incredibly well-written and detailed.  I would love to go into it more but especially when it comes to the angels, I'm a bit hazy on what I learned in this novel vs what I learned in the sequel.  I highly recommend this one - it's an incredibly engaging and creative story.  Just be prepared to start counting down for the third still unpublished novel.

Book 37: The Greatest Show on Earth

To start out, I am an atheist, and I believe in evolution. Even when I still was religious, I never really saw a conflict between the idea of God and science - I think it helps that I don't think I ever really took the Bible completely literally, especially when it came to the creation story - instead, I reconciled the two ideas with "God has a different concept of time, and evolution is how he intended things to happen."  As a result, it has always been a surprise to me how many people argue against evolution because it goes against the Bible rather than any real factual reasons.  Or why people would have a problem with teaching science in school, and religion at home.  So in ways, you could say that Dawkins was preaching to the choir in this book, but unlike The God Delusion he isn't making an argument against God in this one, just an argument for evolution, and it's a good one.  Even though I believe in evolution (it's science, it's fact, how could you not - actually I think the word "believe" is wrong here since evolution isn't a matter of faith - I don't believe that 1+1=2 nor do I believe in gravity; they simply are), I feel like sometimes I have forgotten all the exact arguments so it's good to read these type of books to refresh my memory so I can say more than simply "no one is saying we are descended from apes, only that we have a common ancestor."
For example, very early in the book, Dawkins reminded me of the definition of the word theory as it used in science.  People like to argue against evolution because it still carries the title "theory of evolution" but I had forgotten that when the general population uses the word theory, they are actually using it the same way that scientists would use the word hypothesis.  In science, theory has a much stronger meaning, and is as close as you can get to fact, though it could still theoretically be disproved - even gravity is still a theory in these terms, after all.
Dawkins begins his book with a simple discussion of natural selection and cites several rather recent experiments that show how species adapt to their surroundings as well as using artificial selection on the part of humans to show how certain traits can be bred for in agricultural crops and dog breeds, for example.  There really isn't much to argue about when it comes to natural selection, and from here, Dawkins can branch out to wider topics, showing how natural selection would lead to the development of different species in different areas with the occasional mutation thrown in.  He also cites several examples that disprove the idea of intelligent design that I found rather interesting.  For example, there is a vein or muscle or something that goes from place in the neck to another - except it passes by it and loops back around.  Dawkins argues that if this had been the result of intelligent design this would be a design flaw but with evolution it makes much more sense.  Another example were testicles.  At one point, testicles were inside the body, and at some point dropped outside (this didn't happen overnight).  This is easily seen because the tubing connecting the testicles and the penis have a round about way of connecting instead of taking the straight route.
While he does occasionally harp on a point a bit longer than necessary, it really was a great book explaining all the scientific evidence behind evolution.  As he explains, the fossils, which are some of the things creationists argue with the most, are really just the icing on the cake.  Seeing how similar bone structures are across species, the similarity in DNA structure and how elegantly the idea of natural selection works are actually more than enough to prove evolution.  If anything, the fossils give creationist a red herring to wave around, asking "where's the missing link?"  In fact, every fossil is a link of some type.
One thing I have noticed is that whenever I read books like A Short History of Nearly Everything or The Greatest Show on Earth, I tend to get a little depressed - I realize that species have always gone extinct but reading these books about nature and the world just make it all the more obvious how much humans have screwed with the ecosystem, speeding up extinction for many species.  It makes me wonder what would have happened if humans hadn't evolved the way they had and remained a part of nature, or if we had never evolved at all.  As much as I hate to say this, it seems like maybe the world would have been better off.  Still as long as one avoids existentialist thoughts, this is a great book to learn more about evolution and the scientific facts as well as a nice refresher for when one might need to argue one's stance.

Book 36: The Rook

After seeing several reviews of this novel on other CBR IV blogs, I decided to give it a shot.  I mostly enjoyed the novel though I think parts of the middle dragged a little bit or went one or two tangents more than necessary.  In that way, I think the author may have a few similiarities to Jasper Fforde.  I quite liked The Eyre Affair but felt that one or two novels into the series the books had too much quirk for the sake of quirk.  I could see where O'Malley, too, could fall into this trap but since everyone but me loves the Thursday Next series, that probably wouldn't be a bad thing for him.
As the novel begins, a woman wakes up in a park surrounded by bodies and with no idea who she is.  She finds a letter in her pocket written by herself directing her to get to safety before opening a second letter with a longer explanation.  She is Myfanwy Thomas (rhymes with Tiffany), and right now has a choice - she can go to a bank, open one of two security boxes and disappear forever, or she can open the other box, find out enough about her former life to continue to live it and find out why she is being targeted.  All set to embark on the escape, she is once again attacked, leading Myfanwy to impersonating herself as she must figure out who attacked her and why.
By choosing the second option, Myfanwy discovers that she is the Rook in a supernatural government organization for people with super powers, that she has super powers which she had already noticed during the second attack (she can control other people's bodies - the original Myfanwy could only do it when touching people, but the new version can do it just by being near them - having no memories, she isn't repressing her powers in the same way that Myfanwy appears to have subconsciously done), and that she is such a good administrator that she was promoted ahead of her peers despite her lack of combat skills.  It also meant that she was great at planning for her eventual memory loss after being forewarned from several prophecies and fortune tellers.  As a result, Myfanwy and the reader have a huge reference guide and series of letters explaining the agency and this world to them.  I think it worked great as a way to catch readers up on the world he has created without seeming too much like an information dump.  While Myfanwy learns that her former self was very quiet and a pushover, her letters also reveal quite a sarcastic and acerbic wit, even if she kept those thoughts to herself.  In comparison, the current Myfanwy is a lot more forceful, though she discovers that she shares the organizational skills.
On her first day back to the office, Myfanwy and her agency discover that one of their oldest enemies, long thought vanquished and extinct, are still around and appear to be planning some type of revenge.  Now Myfanwy is facing this extreme threat while also having to discover the mole in her agency that has already targeted her once.  Overall, I thought this was a very engaging story with just the right amount of humor, and I quite liked getting to know both versions of Myfanwy as well as the supporting characters and their powers.  My only complaint is that I enjoyed all the background and the actual work stuff so much that I was a bit distracted by a subplot with Myfanwy's personal life.  Personally, I felt it could have waited till later in the series since it is obvious that this is going to be the first of several novels.  I understand the author's reasoning, I just wasn't a huge fan of the character introduced since I didn't feel like she added much to the plot.  Still, I am definitely looking forward to reading more about the agency, especially since the novel ends in a way that could lead to some major changes in its structure.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book 35: Someone Knows My Name

Spanning several decades and continents, this novel begins in early 19th century England as Aminata Diallo takes a look back on her life.  Born in an West African village, she was a priviledged only child until she was kidnapped by slavers at the age of 11, and sold in South Carolina.  Her mother had been the village's midwife, and fortunately for Aminata, her mother had already started training her before her kidnapping.  Once she reveals these skills to her master, she gains a certain amount of freedom of movement, and gains the attention of a few others in the community as well.  Her second master even allows her to hire herself out as a midwife and continues to teach her to read (an overseer had already taken an interest in her education) so she can maintain his books.  Eventually, she ends up in New York, and works for the British during the Revolutionary War given their promise to free any slaves that work for them.  The British lose the war, and she along with many other freed men and women are given the opportunity to set up a life in Nova Scotia.  Unfortunately, the whites aren't exactly welcoming, and life is incredibly difficult in that colony so once Aminata meets a prominent British abolitionist, she decides to join him in his venture to begin a colony in Sierra Leone.
That is basically the threadbare plot of the novel, but the story is incredibly moving as it chronicles Aminata's life, losses and occasional triumphs.  She loses her parents, is separated from her husband and child, raped by one of her masters and experiences many hardships and yet, she still seems better off than many others - her role as midwife gives her a certain amount of value, so she doesn't experience as many beatings as some others, and doesn't experience quite the same physical hardships as others.  The author uses Aminata's life to showcase many important events that took place during slavery and the evolution of the abolitionist movement, such as her voyage on the middle passage, a slave rebellion, the colonies in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, neither of which was incredibly successful due to a certain lack of resources and the fact that both those places weren't exactly good land for English crops.  I actually read this book a long time ago (it was part of an African American history month display), shortly after finishing Bury the Chains, a nonfiction account of the British abolition movement.  The two pieces are really perfect companion pieces.  While one gives the facts, this novel takes those facts and uses one life to illustrate them.  It is especially interesting because it doesn't just follow the usual slave narrative accounts, but illustrates other parts of history that Americans especially may be less familiar with.  I'd highly recommend this one.

Book 34: The Kitchen House

I feel like I'd looked at this novel and put it back down at least a dozen time over the past year during Barnes and Noble visits.  I guess I felt like it would probably be a good book, but given the subject matter, I also may have felt that it would be retreading familiar territory.  One could argue that telling the novel from the perspective of the Irish indentured servant orphan would put a fresh spin on things but instead it made me think "oh look, another novel about slavery told from the white person's perspective."  I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, while I became very disappointed and irritated with the turn Lavinia's character took in the later half.  I liked most of the characters, though many could fit into certain stereotypes and stock roles.  With one exception, people tend to be good or bad with very little grey.
The novel alternates between Lavinia, the Irish white girl, and Belle, a house slave and daughter of the master, as the narrators, though Belle's chapters are only two or three pages usually, while Lavinia's are much longer.  After Lavinia's parents die on the passage from Ireland to America, Lavinia is separated from her parents, and the man that had the contract for her parents' indentured service takes her and places her in the kitchen house of his plantation.  She basically becomes part of a black family but as she gets older, her skin color starts drawing her more attention from the members of the big house.  Lavinia is intelligent, and the lady of the house takes a certain amount of interest in her, eventually taking her to Philadelphia to live with her sister and niece.  Since Lavinia is a link to his childhood and his home, Marshall, the plantation owner's son who will become the master once he is of a age, takes a certain amount of interest in Lavinia.
Overall, the novel started out good but there were quite a few issues that could have been resolved if the characters had simply talked to each other.  Due to a certain amount of innocence and naivete on Lavinia's part, she doesn't realize a rather crucial piece of information regarding Marshal, Belle and another love interest until almost the end of the novel.  A simple conversation with most of the people in the novel could have cleared it right up.  Another problem is that Lavinia simply doesn't understand the racial issues of the time or her surroundings, and her desire to still treat her black family as family ends up drawing scrutiny on them.  Instead of learning to use her position to help others, she relies on them, lashes out at others, and basically gives up for a large part of the novel.  She was in a bad situation but the few decisions she does make in those times are irritatingly bad, putting others at risk for her.  Another part of the story that is never completely explained is Belle's position on the plantation.  All the slaves know that she is the captain's daughter, but for some reason his wife and his son Marshall believe that Belle is his mistress, resulting in quite a bit of tension and ill treatment for Belle.  I honestly don't know if her treatment would have been worse if they had known that she was his daughter rather than his mistress but it certainly never made sense to me why this misconception was never cleared up, since it certainly would have saved his wife some grief (certainly, I think for the wife knowing someone had a daughter from before they met you would be more bearable than believing they were cheating on you during the marriage).
While for the most part, the bad characters are bad (drunks, child abusers, misogynists) and the good characters are good, Marshall had the potential to be a more complex character.  He certainly had many bad traits, but as the novel progresses it is easy to see how he fell under the bad influences he did, partially due to how his parents neglected him.  Unfortunately by the end, he, too, becomes just stereotypically bad and there is no real opportunity to see anything more complex.  The novel certainly had a promising start, but the last half wasn't nearly as good as the novel deteriorates into a stereotypical soap opera, with the evil husband, the abusive overseer, the crazy Southern woman, and the opium abusing wife.  It's not that I expect novels to have happy endings, but when all the bad things ever happen in a novel, it can become melodramatic.  In this case it certainly took away from the novel because I had a hard time reconciling the Lavinia of the first half of the novel with the one of the second half.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book 33: How to Be an American Housewife

The novel begins as Shoko, an elderly Japanese woman married to an American, reflects on her life, her relationship with her Japanese family members, and her daughter.  Having had a huge falling out with her brother, Shoko now dreams of returning to Japan, and making peace, especially given her current worsening heart problems.  Due to Shoko's illness, her daughter Sue goes in her place and meets the family she never knew.  The first half is narrated by Shoko until Sue takes up the narrative and describes her trip to Japan.  When it comes to these types of dual narratives, I always tend to prefer the older generation to the younger generation.  I don't know if that's because the older generation tends to get to speak first or if the younger characters are just genuinely boring.  Certainly when the reader knows all about their mother, and then reads about the daughter whining about how cold the mom is, it is hard to feel much sympathy.  I think that Those Who Save Us actually started from the perspective of the daughter and I still preferred the mother.  Maybe it's just that there is something about the time periods discussed that make it seem like the older generation actually faced challenges and hardship, while it is hard to feel sympathetic for someone that is simply struggling with day to day life - at least when they are set up as a parallel to someone who faced larger challenges.  Anyway, it was especially pronounced in this case.
While Shoko's story wasn't anything new, and seems to be rather typical of narratives involving Asian women assimilating to the West in general, I quite enjoyed her story.  Her life in the United States ended up being a bit disappointing and simple given the promise she had shown in the beginning and the opportunities she thought she had.  Still, she doesn't seem to have any complaints, but has accepted her life, and also knows that whatever her husband's shortcomings may be (lack of ambition), he is kind, loving and forgiving.  There is certainly a generation gap between her and her children; basically it's all the normal stuff that shows up in these narratives but Shoko still comes off as a sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, her daughter's side of the story adds little. Her daughter, a precocious tween, is annoying and loud while Sue is timid and stuck in a job she dislikes.  Their trip to Japan just reads as unrealistic and ludicrous.  Helena is loud and obnoxious for most of the trip, Sue apparently doesn't know how airports work, and their plan seemed to have been to go to the last known address of one realitve and track them down from there (Shoko and her now deceased sister had stayed in touch - I would figure somebody could have made a phone call at some point).  It just all seemed too nicely wrapped up, everybody spoke English so Sue didn't even have to rely on her broken Japanese, and they all get along.  I guess this could count as a spoiler, but really the last half of the book was just not well written, and it's not like people read these books for the surprise - they are books about relationships.  Even the "secret" the backcover alludes to is revealed in the first half of the book, or earlier.
Basically, if this had just been Shoko's story, I would have enjoyed this novel though it was similar to many other coming to America stories/mother-daughter stories.  However, the last half written from Sue's perspective soured me on the novel.  There was no drama once she took over, and she and her daughter were not appealing characters.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Book 32: So Much For That

I really enjoyed Shriver's previous novels, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, though enjoyed is probably not the right word to describe Kevin given the subject matter.  Her characters are not easy to like, but generally their motivations and actions are rather understandable.  I really loved The Post-Birthday World which has a similar concept as the film Sliding Doors, looking at two different routes a life could have taken based on one action or decision.  The main character of So Much for That is Shep Knacker, a man that has long dreamed of leaving the rat race, and using his nest egg to live in luxury in a third world country.  After pushing it off for years, he has decided it is time to stop delaying because he is afraid if he keeps waiting, he will never do it.  After confronting his wife Glynis with his decision, she tells him that she has been diagnosed with a very rare cancer, mesothelioma, generally caused by exposure to asbestos.  Shep, of course, feels like he has no choice but to stay behind and care for his wife during her treatment, and due to the cheap medical insurance he has through work, he watches his nest egg dwindle over the course of his wife's treatment.
Being a character in a Lionel Shriver novel, Glynis is not very likable - she is hard, she is demanding and unforgiving.  Her terminal illness doesn't make her any easier; she doesn't suddenly become this sweet person that wants to make amends with everyone.  Part of this is because Glynis firmly believes she will beat this cancer, that she can survive, and she refuses to look at the prognosis, not that her doctor gives her one beyond low, instead tending to focus on the positives.  Many of the other characters aren't much more likeable, such as Shep's sister Beryl, an entitled documentary maker who expects everyone else, ie her brother, to support her.  Shriver makes several good points about the Catch 22s people find themselves in when it comes to health care, retirement and other large systems and institutions.  While I don't completely agree with many of the characters' points, they are definitely a good starting point for discussions.  The other thing I quite enjoyed, and is something that has come up in other articles as well, is her discussion of cancer.  Cancer isn't framed as a regular disease - it is framed as something that is battled, and people that recover are labeled survivors - as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in "Welcome to Cancerland", using that type of language makes it seem like a failure on the part of the sufferer when they don't survive, not as the sometimes inevitable fate when faced with mortal illness.  Even Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses this in The Emperor of Maladies - there have been cases in the past, and presumably present, when treatment was given not because there was any real expectation that it would work, but because it would make it feel like they (the doctors and the patient) were still fighting it.  However, it is hard to ask the question - how much is a life worth?  Where is the limit, and for what?  Are a few months longer worth millions of dollars in treatment, especially when those months are spent suffering the side effects of chemo?  As a society, we seem unable to face death, and do not even know how to interact with it.  Glynis and Shep's friends all dwindle and become scarce despite grand declarations and offers to help because as Shep later hypothesizes they aren't prepared for a long, slow death.  After grand statements and attempts to set things right, there is nothing left to say even if the friend may still be alive for several months.
Besides the Knackers, the other main characters are the Burdina couple, Jackson and Carol.  The Burdinas have long been dealing with the complexities of the health care system and insurance due to their oldest daughter's degnerative genetic condition.  It actually took me a while to really get into this novel, and it wasn't because the characters were somewhat dislikable - I was expecting that.  There were a few times, especially in the beginning where I felt the novel was too preachy.  For a large part of the novel, the characters felt less like people and more like mouthpieces and types.  Jackson especially would go on repeated page long rants about the moochers (obviously people benefitting from others' work) and the mugs (the people dumb enough to work and support the moochers), and it made the novel a bit tiring at first.  However, as I said, some interesting discussion points where raised, especially later in the novel, when the novel stopped having the large rants, and instead showed small moments and short conversations between characters.  Basically, it's a rough start, but I'd still recommend it - however, if someone hasn't read this author before, this isn't the novel to start with.  Having recently read The Emperor of Maladies, I also thought this worked as a follow up, showing the topic from an entirely different point of view.