Max Brooks’ World War Z is fiction for the Discovery Channel / NatGeo junkie, that special breed of people who regard Shark Week as a red-letter holidMax Brooks’ World War Z is fiction for the Discovery Channel / NatGeo junkie, that special breed of people who regard Shark Week as a red-letter holiday. Masquerading as a collection of interviews from survivors of a global zombie apocalypse, the book succeeds in taking a ludicrous premise and making the reader take it seriously.
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expAmrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expecting a hybrid of introspective contemporary women's fiction and mundane surrealism, a mixture of Lorrie Moore's Self Help, Melissa Banks' A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and (yes) Haruki Murakami's fiction.
Ultimately, the novel aimed to do a bit of those things while failing at all of them simultaneously. The book stumbles at its attempt to dish out pieces of faux-philosophical faux-wisdom, while the romance-inflected "modern girl's quest for self-actualization" angle started at vaguely interesting and careened towards stultifying.
Narrated by a Tokyo office girl named Sakumi, the premise starts promisingly enough, as she details the life of a household that has recently experience tragedy. Sakumi's sister, a model and actress named Mayu, died of suicide before the novel begins and this loss hangs not only around her, but also around her mother and pre-adolescent brother. On top of that, Sakumi gets into a serious accident that causes her to temporarily lose large chunks of her memory. Her quest to piece bag fragments of her life becomes more complicated by the surprise arrive of Ryuichiro, a writer who used to be Mayu's boyfriend before she died.
The plot meanders sedately from that point on, eventually ending up with Ryuichiro and Sakumi having a relationship, in a series of event which I found frankly creepy. Sakumi's younger brother Yoshio is revealed to have clairvoyance, telepathy, and the ability to sense aliens. Sakumi, Ryuichiro, and Sakumi go on vacation to Saipan, where they encounter hippie vacationeers and the ghosts of World War II soldiers. All these events are narrated with such an infuriatingly flat affect. In the beginning I chalked up this flatness to Sakumi's brain injury and how her slowly reknitting memories make her feel removed from the world. But even conversations or events that would make other people's emotions spike at the very least seem to just flow over her like water.
On top of there's this weird thread of philosophizing throughout Amrita, about things that have been written about better by more insightful writers. Yes, life is short and must be lived to the fullest. Yes, family is important. Yes, love feels good. At one point Sakumi writes Ryuichiro a letter that spans eight pages and the main takeaway was: "In order to feel such a simple thing, apparently it's good for one to fall down and knock the memory from her head then struggle to retrieve it." She just summarized a 360-page novel.
It's entirely possible that I simply didn't Get It. But I'd like to believe that I picked this novel in good faith and was broken down by the plodding narration and uninteresting, one-dimensional characters. I'm also willing to to say that the problem may have been the narration because some people have apparently enjoyed Yoshimoto's previous novels and liked this one less. However, I don't feel inclined to pick another book from her until the far future. You led me astray this time, Michiko Kakutani blurb!
Let's get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbeOriginally posted on my blog.
Let's get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.
There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.
But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets' Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.
Also woven into the narrative is the theme of father-son relationships. Within the rarefied confines of academia, both Tom and Paul are ultimately seeking validation from father figures that seem to only convey their affection as it is related to history. I'm all about tender masculine relationships so those parts were really up my alley.
The authorial decision to structure the novel as a thriller, I think, ultimately hurt the story. Had Caldwell and Thomason emphasized the coming-of-age and nerdy mystery aspects while softening the mortal peril, it could have been a more satisfying read. It's in books like these that you can really detect the bald commerce of the book publishing industry. The Rule of Four clearly earned a lot of money my attaching its name onto Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (published one year before) but it also suffered when it comes to cultural esteem because of it. If it had been edited and marketed as, say, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, it could have attracted the kind of readers who are interested in atmosphere and academic scholarship, rather than readers looking for zippy thrillers with Vatican conspiracies.
I guess I like the idea of it more than its reality, which happens often enough. The Rule of Four has acute things to say about the futility and nobility of scholarship which really hit home for me and my own college experience. During those short years, you are put into this very unnatural environment where a missed term paper feels like the end of your life. It's a time when all the learning opportunities are there for the taking and you have all the time in the world to pursue all that you want to know. But of course, youth is wasted on the young....more
I approve of this book in principle, but this book delved too much into the minutiae of pedagogy for my taste. It remains, however, a compelling argumI approve of this book in principle, but this book delved too much into the minutiae of pedagogy for my taste. It remains, however, a compelling argument for reexamining history, especially the kind that is promoted by the state as justification for foreign relation and domestic policies....more