In this lovely cross-genre debut, Yangsze Choo creates a haunting world of her own between paranormal YA, historical, and multicultural fiction. If I...moreIn this lovely cross-genre debut, Yangsze Choo creates a haunting world of her own between paranormal YA, historical, and multicultural fiction. If I hadn't discovered the book through a recommendation, I would have eventually found it on the Indie Next list, the Goodreads author feature, B&N's Discover Great New Writers selection . . . In short, it's everywhere, and there couldn't be a more deserving novel.
Teenager Li Lan is presented with an usual marriage proposal: to wed Lim Tian Ching, a dead man. It's 19th century Malaysia, on the rocky fault-line between superstition and science, and Li Lan is much more interested in his handsome (and alive) cousin, Tian Bai. Both young men are from a wealthy family to whom Li Lan's father owes a debt, and when Lim Tian Ching's ghost starts to invade Li Lan's dreams, accusing Tian Bai of murdering him, her fate seems increasingly bound to his family's. She tries fending the ghost off with spirit remedies, but overdoses, and winds up with one foot in the world of the living and one in the Plains of the Dead. Driven to find her own deceased mother and understand the true circumstances of Lim Tian's Ching's death, Li Lan finds herself allied to a powerful creature of the underworld--and soon, deciding between loyalty to her family's traditions and an uncharted future full of magic and adventure.
The writing really excels. Like all good magical realism, the Plains of the Dead and its otherworldly atmosphere are at once totally inventive and utterly tangible, from its corrupt bureaucracy, to its strange colors and textures, to the faceless paper servants that populate its cities. I found myself invested in the debts, obsessions, and agendas of the spirits that surround Li Lan, and really, this is why I read: to be so convinced that the impossible exists that I'm opening a book in the grocery store line, in bed at 1 a.m., or while riding my bike (on the trainer; safety first).
This was a fast, satisfying story, with an atmosphere that ends up being the most impressive aspect of an already formidable debut. I can't wait to read what follows.(less)
Not all novels are good at meandering. I suppose this has something to do with your expectations when you begin to read. But with The Plague of Doves,...moreNot all novels are good at meandering. I suppose this has something to do with your expectations when you begin to read. But with The Plague of Doves, which pinwheels around a generation-ago murder on a Ojibwe reservation, its many points of view work as living artifacts to reconstruct not only generations of poverty and racism, but the entire settlement history of Pluto, North Dakota. I've wanted to read Erdrich for a long while, and I finally began with this one because it was a Pulitzer finalist; my only expectation was to take my time and enjoy the writing, and I was delighted to find it entertaining and sometimes outright funny despite its seriousness.
The most important characters are Evelina, an adolescent girl whose father owns one of the most valuable stamp collections in the world; her grandfather Mooshum, the only survivor of a vigilante hanging who is in love with the once-kidnapped, thrice-married editor of the town's historical newsletter; her great-uncle Shamengwa, whose violin has an ethereal history; Judge Coutts, a descendent of the town's first settlers. Erdrich makes the most of relics in this novel--the stamps, violin, a pair of old shoes, Coutt's storied house--but it's the characters themselves who are Pluto's true artifacts.
Much of the book was written and published as standalone short stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere, which partially accounts for its many-jointed narrative. Yet it's not a disjointed one: In such a large story space (i.e., four generations on and around a complicated family tree) the independent tales pace it and give it structure. The murder holds them together, sometimes from the distant background, allowing itself to be solved--by the reader and lone survivor only--piece by piece. Even so, the only real resolution we're offered is the certainty of loss, and that all that's precious will return to dust.
And I'm not sure you can write about Native American history without ending up there.(less)
As a debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is an intriguing magical realist-historical crossover novel about New York immigrants at the turn of the twe...moreAs a debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is an intriguing magical realist-historical crossover novel about New York immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. The concept is easy to love: A bound Jinni, Ahmad, is freed from his copper flask in a Syrian tinsmith's shop in Lower Manhattan, while in a Jewish neighborhood nearby, a golem, Chava, finds herself master-less and alone. The two meet and form a troubled companionship, unaware that the only person on Earth who knows both their natures has trailed them to New York and intends to use their power for his own gain.
Despite the simplicity of the central story--two immigrants meet in a new place and try to make a go of it--the novel is rich with historical detail and uses many points of view to encompass a layered storyline and large cast of characters. The story is sometimes unwieldy, and the many POVs bog down the climax and denouement, but it's hard to imagine how else the story could handle the sheer volume of world-building it has to do: Besides reconstructing turn-of-the-century Manhattan, it builds the world of the jinn, as well as the Kabbalistic magic that creates and controls the golem. The novel comes out to be a tome, but most of it is dynamically plotted and engrossing.
Part of me hoped for a deeper dive into the novel's potentially beautiful thematic territory--anything from the depth of the respective Jewish and Arabic cultures to the deep sense of displacement, beyond simple homesickness, that comes from emigration. These are present in the novel, but don't resonate as much as they might have. The Golem and the Jinni is a relatively straightforward story that covers a lot of ground, showing us a slice of Arab and Jewish history before the intense politicization of 1948 and beyond, when both communities were still fleeing Old World masters to face the same hardships and hopes in the New World.
I'd give it four stars except for the few places where the plot felt labored; for the most part, though, I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to more from Helene Wecker. For another inventive (but considerably more baroque) novel about turn-of-the-century New York, check out Mark Halprin's Winter's Tale.(less)
In spirit, Gaiman's new novel is an elegy for the forgotten swaths of childhood, but it reads like an unexpurgated fairytale. The first-person narrato...moreIn spirit, Gaiman's new novel is an elegy for the forgotten swaths of childhood, but it reads like an unexpurgated fairytale. The first-person narrator returns almost by accident to a farm in the English countryside, a place he believes he hasn't visited since childhood, and the sight of its pond releases a memory of a grotesque but magical childhood adventure involving a creature from another universe that wants to give all adults on the lane what they want: money or sex. The entire novel is a flashback, but the adult narrator adds depth to what the seven-year-old protagonist doesn't understand about the grownups' world.
What I love about Neil Gaiman is that he is unafraid of following his imagination, and in a story like this, it makes the young protagonist's experience ring with authenticity. Kids aren't afraid to throw their whole selves into a made-up world, and neither is Gaiman. The protagonist befriends an eleven-year-old (but possibly immortal) girl whose magical powers are peculiar but almost limitless, and as the friends gather what they need to fight the creature, Gaiman evokes that particularly young feeling of following the known world to its boundary and crossing into the unknown--full of wonder and terror.
As I read, I often found myself wondering why the book was written for adults and why it wouldn't be suitable for much younger readers. But the young protagonist's encounters with the creature are probably too disturbing for middle grade. Disguised as a beautiful nanny, the creature forces the protagonist to remain at his house, away from the help of his friend. Gaiman does such a spot-on job of capturing the feeling of no escape that it's hard not to read a deeper meaning into it, something about the layers of manipulation, violation, and hurt that children suffer at the hands of adults.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a very fast read, and while it's engrossing in the way that the Narnia Chronicles and Pullman's His Dark Materials series is, there is a dark under-layer that resonates with some more mature truths about what it means to be a child.
The only reason I gave it three stars instead of four is that I'm comparing it against his complex masterpiece, American Gods.(less)
Ramadan Sky tells the story of a brief and inevitably ill-fated cross-cultural love triangle set in Jakarta. Against the city's backdrop of poverty an...moreRamadan Sky tells the story of a brief and inevitably ill-fated cross-cultural love triangle set in Jakarta. Against the city's backdrop of poverty and corruption, the story unfolds over most of a year as Vic, an Australian English teacher, falls for her much younger and hot-tempered ojek driver, Fajar. He has an on-again, off-again engagement to a girl in his neighborhood, Aryanti, the kind of good Muslim girl he can marry, but will never quite love.
The novel makes graceful use of three (or really four) different narrators: each character in the triangle, plus Vic's journal. This is a feat for such a short novel, but the choice gives us useful access to what is most important in this particular story--economic strangulation that narrows young people's futures to a few unattractive options, and the expatriate loneliness behind Vic's financial patronage, which adds an uncomfortable element of dependence to her relationship with Fajar. We get a layered portrait of a Westerner's experience in an economically crippled city, a deceptively simple love story shaded with a dark history of neo-colonialism.
What I love about these kinds of stories (I'm also thinking of Linda Horowitz's While the Sands Whisper, which I edited last year), is that they depict the impossible complexities of a normal human relationship when it gets hung up on the rocks of money, history, culture, and need. We've all fallen for someone we hesitate to bring home to meet the fam, and it's here, through this lens, that we're also given a sidelong but rich glimpse into a different world. I'm a sucker for stories about Islam, and though Ramadan Sky could be told using almost any set of traditions that chafe their younger generation, this was my first encounter with Indonesia in fiction. The setting details are rich, and thanks to Vic's droll sense of humor, the portraits of expats are funny.
I give the book four stars--pretty much my highest rating for everything short of Atwood and Tolkien.(less)
**spoiler alert** Oh, if it weren't for the last chapter! I fell in love Kevin Brockmeier's writing for its sensitive existentialism (incidentally the...more**spoiler alert** Oh, if it weren't for the last chapter! I fell in love Kevin Brockmeier's writing for its sensitive existentialism (incidentally the same reason I admire Jane McCafferty's First You Try Everything: A Novel). I enjoyed his deft handling of what could be a plodding trope in the hands of a more sensationalist writer: wounds that are rendered into light. He explores his concept with the thoroughness of a genre writer, but follows a literary sensibility through a series of interconnected short stories to show the fine resonance between love and pain.
The novel breaks down in its final chapter, however. His POV character has what seems (to me) to be an unfounded ability to read minds, and the narrator jumps without warning into the heads of passersby. I found the transition irritating, but could have dismissed it as an editorial oversight had the *entire blasted novel* not ended on one of these jumps: There, all the deliciously textured mystery of love and pain is reduced to a scientific observation in the mind of a random academic who is walking down the street. In the final lines, Brockmeier forces an explanation of his concept onto us--perhaps not realizing that when we embraced his magical realist concept in the first pages, we dismissed the need to understand, to compartmentalize, to qualify.
The flaw is so blatant, however, and the rest of the novel so brilliant, that we might still embrace it because of its shortcomings. The disappointment of a bad ending is minimal, too, because the novel is a series of stories; really, it is only one story that fails. Too bad it's the last one, but the others make for a fine journey. And as they say, it's the journey, not the destination.(less)
I give Habibi five stars for the art, and one or two for the story. As a beautiful mess of a narrative to think about, it earns a solid three. Most of...moreI give Habibi five stars for the art, and one or two for the story. As a beautiful mess of a narrative to think about, it earns a solid three. Most of the other mixed reviews on Goodreads make similar points, dinging Thompson's story for its cliched depiction of the sultan's harem and its sexualization of rape.
I'll assume that both are innocent, or at least ignorant, errors. As an artist and writer myself, I can think of many other ways to portray a intelligent female character whose life is shaped by sexualization, ways that don't include repeated depictions of her body that bring hillbilly mudflaps to mind. Because this transgression of taste seems obvious, however, I'd rather give the most space to a more detailed discussion of Thompson's use of Orientalist elements in the story.
First, let's start with what he does right in his depiction of the Middle East. He doesn't blame Islam. The relationship between women and religious authority is long and complex enough in both Christian and Muslim history that equating Islam to misogyny is problematic, yet this conflation is one of the most common modern stereotypes in Western depictions of Muslim life. Thompson avoids it. The extent of his treatment of Islamic elements is a kind of artistic gnosticism, and he seems more interested in the roots it shares with Christianity. He gets a lot of artistic currency from this choice, and it ends up being one of the novel's strongest elements.
On the other hand, he draws a bit too heavily on Ottoman history in his depiction of the sultan's harem. It's all right to criticize an extinct institution for exploiting women. The historical sultanate did so, after all, collecting attractive girls from the farthest reaches of its territory to remind everyone who was boss; the feudal European practices of prima nocta and droit de seigneur are similar. Yet Thompson's sultan isn't a political creature at all--he's a lustful little troll, and his harem is a caricature. Given the novel's otherwise contemporary setting (dams, tires, bottles, pollution), a more serious and interesting choice would be to replace the whole sultan-harem-Orientalist element with something closer to the Saudi monarchy, and see what happens. Along these lines, late in the novel, Thompson has a character who appears to be a Western(ized?) businessman point out that the kingdom is being exploited for its resources. Saudi oil, anyone? A more contemporary choice of a problematic society would have avoided an Orientalist cliche, an artifact which seems to have puzzled other reviewers besides me.
There is another important omission in Thompson's treatment of Arab women. He doesn't make the mistake of blaming Islam for objectifying women, and in fact, steers away from a discussion of women in Islamic society. Yet it's kind of an elephant in the room. The reader is neither encouraged nor discouraged from believing that Muslim women are chattel (as I said earlier, kudos to Thompson for not explicitly perpetuating a stereotype). But here we are, in a Middle Eastern-looking place, and women are bought, sold, and abused. It's an uncomfortable simplification, and I would have liked to have seen more of the traditional Arab ambivalence toward femininity: on one hand, holding Woman to a saintly standard of purity, while on the other, tolerating or outright denying violence toward women. It's a problem of both power and Arab tradition more than one of religion, and for a novel that is so deeply interested in the Arabic language, and which uses violence against women as a major plot element, it avoids acknowledging this key cultural dichotomy.
Even though these problems make easy targets, it's worth understanding and talking about them so that we can evaluate our own ideas about the Middle East. I have no problem with Thompson, as a Westerner, taking on a story like this--as Margaret Atwood said in an essay, the logical conclusion of the statement, "Only people of a culture should write about that culture," is, "The only story I can tell is my own." The difficulty in Habibi, however, may simply be a sticky moral one that is separate from the actual story. In an era of thorny conflict between the United States and violent, self-proclaimed "Islamic" organizations, is it a good idea to use outdated depictions of the Muslim world just to add a sense of danger and adventure to a tale? How should authors pick and choose what nuances of another culture to portray? What responsibilities does the author have in these choices? And taking this idea even further, what responsibilities, if any, does art have to life?
If this book is an entryway into your continued interest in books about the Arab world, I encourage you to visit Goodreads' group for Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) literature for a long list of nuanced novels by and about that part of the world. Happy reading!(less)
Angela Carter is easy to love--but her evil wit makes for slow reading, as I found myself stopping to read lines aloud to whomever was in the room wit...moreAngela Carter is easy to love--but her evil wit makes for slow reading, as I found myself stopping to read lines aloud to whomever was in the room with me. Yet she lost me after Part 1. Setting and time shifts are difficult to handle in a story without losing your reader, and I suppose I need to return to the novel in a more serious frame of mind; I picked it up as light reading, and after the solemn shift to Europe and a new cast of characters, I drifted.
More important, however, I turned to Carter's writing after disaffection with "The Night Circus," and found "Nights at the Circus" so much more energetic, playful, and effortlessly intelligent than its American progeny. (less)
Here's the scoop: Cover up Beck's name and read the book. He's not actually the author, anyway. The woman whose name appears as a ghostwriter conceive...moreHere's the scoop: Cover up Beck's name and read the book. He's not actually the author, anyway. The woman whose name appears as a ghostwriter conceived of and wrote the book herself.
If you don’t happen to be an urban planner, here’s a crash course on the novel’s eponymous UN Agenda 21. It’s a forty-chapter behemoth written in 1993. It lays out non-binding guidelines for promoting economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality. Basically, it is a recipe for living within our means today, so that we do not pass along to our children a degraded economy, environment, and society. It addresses topics as various as toxic waste, biotechnology, conservation, and green transportation, all with the goal of helping poor countries develop economies—in large part, by encouraging wealthy countries to dial back in sensible ways on their consumption of resources. Today, city and regional planners support the concepts that underpin Agenda 21, because they translate the big picture to local efforts to save people time and money as their communities adapt to change over time.
Glenn Beck and fellow pundits hate Agenda 21, however, because they interpret a few lines from Chapter 4 out of context. Their scare tactic is to say it’s the narrow end of a wedge that will insert global UN authority over American towns and cities, allow the government to confiscate private land, reallocate resources by force, and evict people from their single-family homes. Never mind that the law of the land is the United States Constitution and that our relationship with the UN can hardly be described as lockstep. Moreover, the United States has no land use laws at the federal level, whatsoever. All land use decision-making authority in the United States lies with the states, who delegate authority to local governments. Relatively speaking, the United States has some of the strictest protections for private property in the world.
Agenda 21 is simply a non-binding, unenforceable menu of guidelines that exists to help any town or city that signs on to it. But when removed from all sensible context and cast forward into a dystopian future, Agenda 21 becomes the novel Agenda 21, which tells the story of a post-American settlement where people are forced to ride bikes and walk on treadmills to generate electricity, told whom to marry, raised in communal kibbutz-like nurseries, and forced to swear allegiance to a scary green one-world socialist entity.
I argue that if the book had been published under Ms. Parke’s name alone, it would remain an entertaining dystopian novel. The writing is capable, the story compelling, and most of its values are to be respected—family, localness, and a good education in history (Beck, and his publishing house, ought to take note of that, by the way). It would be marketed and sold to readers of speculative fiction, which are typically a brainy crowd. Maybe some among them would hold it up as a negative vision of a radical environmental agenda run amok, albeit in a world without Exxon Mobil or Wal-Mart—in fact, one without any wealthy corporations at all, who historically pitch their vast financial resources against environmental regulations.
Publishing Agenda 21 under Glenn Beck’s name transforms it, at least temporarily. Glenn Beck is more than just the nice guy whose publishing house is bringing Ms. Parke’s work to a national audience. He’s also a professional ideologue whose establishment confers the full force of its intellectually and morally irresponsible franchise on a novel that distorts the truth about Agenda 21, which is doing good work in the world. Glenn Beck is not writing as an artist, bound by the conventions of his art, plying his craft on the willing human imagination. Hell, he’s not writing at all. He is a brand, with a budget, and with an agenda of his own. Ultimately, by assigning his brand to the novel Agenda 21, Beck turns a form of entertainment into a political lie, a tool for politicizing people.
As a genre, speculative fiction keeps one eye on politics, but its goal is not to preach. It’s to make up an entertaining version of reality—an augmentation of social truth, which is not the truth itself. A novel’s vision can scare us, inspire us, affirm our emotions, and articulate our fears. It shouldn’t, however, serve as a primary political agenda any more than Paul Ryan should be waving Atlas Shrugged around on the House floor. In the same way, Agenda 21 is being delivered as propaganda, and by buying the right to call himself its author, Glenn Beck is diminishing a work of fiction to nothing more than a cheap appeal directed at an uncritical audience.(less)
I'll be back to finish it later. I suppose "The Road" spoiled me a bit; it's a novel whose keen love between father and son is powerful enough to pull...moreI'll be back to finish it later. I suppose "The Road" spoiled me a bit; it's a novel whose keen love between father and son is powerful enough to pull us through McCarthy's baroque accounts of life on the run. Not so, "Blood Meridian." While masterful--at least an equal of "The Road," if not its better--this one lost me halfway through. McCarthy gives the reader so much to savor, I began to feel overfed, overwhelmed, and somewhat lost in his stark, masculine world. Moreover, as a writer, I find it hard to read McCarthy without starting to mimic his style.
An old writing teacher, Stevan Allred, once called McCarthy "the loudest voice in fiction." No kidding.(less)
I felt as though I'd gotten enough of the flavor of this world after 450 pages that I set the story aside in favor of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," a...moreI felt as though I'd gotten enough of the flavor of this world after 450 pages that I set the story aside in favor of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," and didn't return. It's hard to admit, but I think BFFs (Big Fat Fantasies) no longer sweep me away. Goodkind, Jordan, Kay, and Williams will always hold a place in my heart, but in coming late to Martin, I needed the care for language---and even the occasional sense of humor---that I found in Gaiman's writing.(less)
I wanted an escapist summer fling. But I got halfway through George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and found myself tempted to cheat on it; normall...moreI wanted an escapist summer fling. But I got halfway through George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, and found myself tempted to cheat on it; normally I'm such a monogamous reader, made patient by years of editing manuscripts. But when Neil Gaiman beckoned from the shelves of Books, Inc. on San Francisco's Chestnut Street, well, I might have to break Martin's heart. It's not you, George, it's me--but we had a good 450 (of 800) pages together.
A quick summary: After three years in prison, strongman Shadow learns that his wife has been killed in a car accident. Not only that, she was cheating on him with his best friend. Left with nothing, a down-at-the-heels Odin proposes that Shadow become his assistant as he gathers other Old World gods to fight on American soil in a coming battle with the new gods: media, movie stars, cars, and gadgets. Shadow finds a new depth of loyalty in himself, and begins to untangle the obscure threads of his parentage.
Gaiman is a storyteller--ambitious, sensitive to language, irreverent (especially in a story called American Gods), and seasoned by years of practicing his trade. I imagine he gives as much tortured attention to the flow of his prose as, say, authors with a gloomier and more serious-looking flap photo--one especially severe one of Mary Gaitskill comes to mind--but what I love about Gaiman's writing is that the final result is so guileless and unpretentious. Yet fluff, it's not: American Gods is an ode to the road, a celebration of our immigrant history, and an ambitious warning against short cultural memory.(less)