Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, a girl growing up in Africa - Sudan is implied - after an unnamed apocalyptic event. Onyesonwu is not just any girl, though - she is an Ewu, a child born of rape between an Okeke (black) mother and a Nuru (white) man. Her pale skin and freckles act as an indicator of her outsider status, and she and her mother are pariahs within their desert community of Jwahir.
As far back as anyone can remember, the Okeke have always been poor and bound to serve the Nuru. So it says in the Great Book, which claims that the Okekes' pride and greed caused the world's original collapse, and that the Nurus are the ones tasked with reversing this grave error. This devotion to the Great Book has turned deadly, though, as a series of coordinated attacks by Nuru people (led by one powerful Nuru sorceror in particular) have led to entire Okeke villages being slaughtered, and to the systematic rape of Okeke women.
As Onyesonwu grows up, she realizes that she has special powers - another trademark of being Ewu - including shapeshifting and communing with supernatural spirits. Eventually, she realizes that it is her destiny to end the war that the Nuru people are waging on the Okeke. Also, in the ultimate example of the political becoming the personal, she learns that the Nuru man who raped her mother is none other than the sorcerer leading the Nurus' campaign of genocide.
Part of why I dislike the book is that being an outsider is one of Onyesonwu's few defining character traits. In Jwahir, Ewu children like her are outcasts, and the elders of the city refuse to teach her about magic because she is a woman. In addition, in an attempt to become accepted by within her community, she undergoes a ritual clitoridectomy only to find out later that the knives used to cut her flesh were bespelled so that she and other women would be unable to enjoy sexual pleasure outside of marriage.
So, she's hated because of her dubious parentage, she's kept in ignorance because of her gender, and she's prevented from exercising her sexual agency. This is a trifecta of things guaranteed to piss off a Women's Studies major like me - but the fact that it's there is just a tad too on-the-nose. As I read the book, I kept on thinking I get it, Onyesonwu is an embodiment of epistemic privilege. Can you stop now and finish with the righteous outrage, please?.
The thing that's really confusing about her enforced ignorance is that her tutors know she's the central figure in a great prophecy to change the world. Why refuse to teach her, then, if so much depends on her mastery of magic? What's more, it turns out that the prophecy is well-known, although most others think that the central figure it refers to is a Nuru man, not an Ewu woman. Why exactly her tutors know the truth when few others do - and then refuse to act on this knowledge - is a huge plot hole that's never fully explained.
On top of that, the pacing in this novel is incredibly off. Onyesonwu journeys across the desert with a small group of friends to fulfill her destiny and stop her father's genocide. However, the journey itself doesn't start until nearly halfway through the book, and its salient feature is the sexual frustration her friends feel. Conveniently, Onyesonwu has the ability to grow back her cut-off flesh because she's a shapeshifter. Even more conveniently, her failed attempt to heal a severely deformed woman (somehow?) imbues her with the knowledge to restore the cut-off flesh of her friends. Because obviously, the most important problem to solve in the midst of genocidal ruin is making sure your companions don't get bitchy because they can't have sex.
As the book's fractious friendships, arguments, convenient revelations (Oh, so it turns out that Onyesonwu's mother was also a sorceress? You don't say!), and shifting sexual liaisons continued, the final page kept drawing closer and closer, and I had no idea how there would be enough room for a satisfying showdown between father and daughter.
Long version: She meets with her father and attacks him, but doesn't manage to kill him. She then manipulates her body in such a way that the resulting magic kills all of the men and impregnates all of the women in the surrounding environs. She then finds the master copy of the Great Book whose teachings are the source of the Nurus' hatred for the Okekes, and magically rewrites it to prevent that hatred from ever forming. She then gets stoned to death by the remaining Nuru populace for her trouble.
If there was ever a literary embodiment of "nasty, brutish, and short", the ending of Who Fears Death is it.
Throughout, I never felt a sense of wonder or awe when I read this book. I fail to think of a single sentence, image, or paragraph that stopped me cold with its eloquence, or sent shivers up my spine with its beauty. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the single most damning thing I can say in this review.
I really wanted to like Who Fears Death. For one, it's written by a woman of colour featuring a female protagonist who is also of colour. I'm aware of the ways in which speculative fiction has marginalized non-white, non-male voices, so I've been making an effort to counteract that in my reading choices. Besides that, it tackles a variety of topics that our society either doesn't talk about or tries hard to avoid discussing, including female genital cutting, genocide, and rape as a weapon of war.
Ultimately, though, I have to admit that I didn't enjoy Who Fears Death, and read it mainly because I wanted to be a Good Feminist and assuage some of my White Liberal Guilt by reading about something depressing but politically important. Depressing as the subject matter was, I still hoped for at least a little bit of grace, but never found it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I originally posted this review on the website of ECW press, the book's publisher, but thought it would be of use here as well:
That this is Stuart R...moreI originally posted this review on the website of ECW press, the book's publisher, but thought it would be of use here as well:
That this is Stuart Ross' first novel after a history of writing short stories shows up very plainly in the text - the chapters are short, and for the most part, disconnected.
The book's heart is a memory unearthed (dreamed?) by Ben, the protagonist, about his mother assassinating a Neo-Nazi when he was a young boy. However, I say this because this is the incident that the back cover of the book focuses on the most. In the book itself, the significance of the event is given little weight, and Ben does very little to confirm whether his memory is truth or fiction. The novel takes place across several time periods, but Ben explicitly mentions doing a piece of performance art in the days immediately following 9/11 - surely in that day and age, he could have done a quick internet search to reveal whether his mother really killed another man?
Ben is a curiously passive character throughout the novel, especially considering his chosen path as a performance artist. Most people in that line of work tend to be provocateurs and relentlessly critical, but Ben still thinks like a child.
Other episodes and people come and go throughout his novel - his brother, living in a mental institution after an unexplained medical episode; a brief interlude watching George Chuvalo show off his boxing skills in cottage country; his relationship with his brother's girlfriend after the former's breakdown - all of these events, and more, are described, but given little narrative weight or connective tissue.
Perhaps the fault lies with me in that I am unused to surrealism in literature. But I found that the novel attempted to discuss matters of great import - love, loss, the Holocaust - with too light a touch. (less)
I bought this book about a week before the official release date because the author took part in Toronto's Word on the Street festival. Her reading of...moreI bought this book about a week before the official release date because the author took part in Toronto's Word on the Street festival. Her reading of some of the opening text in conjunction with her explanation of how, after writing children's books for many years, she realized she was a closet dystopian fiction junkie sold me on the book.
Max is a gifted but rambunctious teenager living in one of the few safe havens after an unspecified economic and ecologic collapse in the 20th Century. Now, most men are infertile, phrases like "going the extra mile" are outmoded because gasoline is so sparse, and most people live in squalor outside of a few cities that act as corporate enclaves. Like his peers, Max acts rowdy in class, wisecracks, and generally has a feeling of entitlement because of his education and class background, although he feels insecure about his mother's lowly status as a nurse for the infirm at a giant retirement home.
However, something strange happens. All of the children in his town begin to change. They are now lifeless. Dull. Grey. Obedient. It's all because of a "motivational learning" technique called the New Education Support Treatment, or "nesting" for short. As Max sees the consequences of this, he realizes he must find a way to save his family and friends from this fate.
One of this novel's greatest strengths is that it creates a plausible and problematic vision of the future and finds a way out that is equally plausible. You won't get the violence and improbable underground revolution of Katniss and co. from the "Hunger Games" trilogy. But you will get something more insidious. Also, while I found the first-person present-tense point of view in the "Hunger Games" trilogy to be grating and distracting, the same style of narration is used to much better, and more seamless, effect in "All Good Children."
A final note: this book is well-produced and packaged. The cover uses a colour scheme that is simultaneously intriguing and forboding, and the choice of that elongated and spindly typeface for the title, back cover pull quote, and chapter headings really nails down the emotions inside the book - the children are so drugged into submission that even their handwriting becomes both elegant and menacing.(less)
About the book: This was one of the books, if not the book, that launched the self-help genre. The title pretty much says it all. However, the subject...moreAbout the book: This was one of the books, if not the book, that launched the self-help genre. The title pretty much says it all. However, the subject matter is deeper than the title suggests, as it also talks about effective leadership skills, and talks about interpersonal skills in greater context.
What I liked: I liked the sense of Dale Carnegie’s voice that shone through the text. Yes, the tone is a tad fusty (the book itself is over 75 years old), but I got a more authentic sense of the author’s voice here than I did when reading other famous self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Getting Things Done.
Those other books sounded fake because the anecdotes used to illustrate key concepts were so heavily paraphrased that they ended up sounding like the authors themselves. They also packed a lot of fluff – GTD, in particular, could have been just as useful at half the length. In contrast, How to Win’s chapters were succinct, and the letters and anecdotes that Carnegie quoted really did sound like they were written by other people.
I also liked that this book had such practical information; it contained little jargon or technical-sounding acronyms. Instead, there was just good, old-fashioned psychological insight, the most important of which can be boiled down into five words: people like to feel important.
What I disliked: Yes, the book explicitly states on the cover that it’s all about how to influence people, but I was still uncomfortable with some of the pieces of advice offered – they felt downright manipulative. On top of that, I’m unsure whether the now-dated references to celebrities and captains of industry detract from, or add to, the book’s charm.
The verdict: I liked it, and felt that a lot of the book’s suggestions were practical and easy to implement. It says a lot of true things about human nature, even if the book’s method of attack is flowery and old-fashioned.(less)
Empire State by Adam Christopher will no doubt please some readers, but I am not one of them.
About the book: It’s New York in the 1930′s, and a catast...moreEmpire State by Adam Christopher will no doubt please some readers, but I am not one of them.
About the book: It’s New York in the 1930′s, and a catastrophic fight between two superhero-like figures has inadvertently caused a rift in space-time. This rift begets a parallel version of New York known as the Empire State. The Empire State is grey, gloomy, rainy, and isolated, perpetually dealing with rations due to a never-ending war with a nameless, faceless Enemy.
However, private detective Rad Bradbury has stumbled into what could be a lucrative case – a girl whose disappearance the police won’t investigate. Things become even more puzzling when her body turns up and the police still refuse to get involved. Combine this with an unusual occurence at the docks – a ship has returned from a fight with the Enemy for the first time ever – and Rad finds out that he’s stumbled upon the most important case of his career: one that could lead to the destruction of the Empire State itself.
Note: The spoilers start here.
(view spoiler)[What I liked: The sci-fi elements were intriguing, but the only standout passage I can recall is the sequence where Rad, our protagonist, comes face-to-face with the fissure connecting New York to the Empire State. The interdimensional rift and its surrounding mechanical paraphernalia were the only part in the book where I felt awe and wonder at the proceedings. Everything else was a wash.
What I disliked: Here’s the “everything else” I’m talking about. There were so many problems that I had with this book that it’s hard to enumerate them all. Take it as a very telling sign that it took me a full week to read this book, and almost another full week to write this review. However, in the interest of being thorough, I will go through some of the problems I perceived:
1. The rift-causing cataclysmic fight between the two superheroes occurred at the very beginning of the book, but the one person who saw one of the superheroes survive is mentioned in the first two chapters and then dropped completely (as is all mention of the original NYC) for the following 10 or so chapters. Talk about whiplash.
2. It is revealed that the Empire State occupies a pocket universe. Fair enough. But on top of that, the pocket universe and the rift that connects it to the original New York already existed in unrealized form, and it was already occupied by the faceless force that the Empire State calls the Enemy. It turns out that the Enemy is somehow both a reflection of both New York and the Empire State. Because what the hell, why have a single parallel universe when you can have two, right?
3. All of the people in the Empire State are copies of people in New York, except for the prime villain behind it all. Instead, both he and his double occupy the Empire State within the same body, and the hosting body manifests split personalities. How is this possible, you ask? Why, because the villain (an influential judge in New York) somehow managed to enter the pocket universe before the Empire State was even created, and seize control of it at its moment of birth. No explanation is given for how he was able to find the rift and not be subsumed by the Enemy in the intervening period.
4. The rift (also known as the Fissure) has time dilation properties. This provides a rather handy excuse for people who wander into it to go missing for 19 years. Despite all this, there are people on the New York side of the Fissure who can predict the events of the Empire State timeline; this makes it incredibly easy for people to pop in and out of the action when a daring rescue is most convenient.
The case that Rad is asked to solve goes off the rails immediately and becomes tied to something much larger – the potential destruction of Empire State as other characters attempt to merge it back into the prime reality. So far, so good. But the final 50 pages are non-stop action of a bewildering sort, as everyone and everything moves, people get repeatedly injured, and characters change allegiances like a person with OCD washes hands (Captain Carson, I’m looking at you).
Speaking of flip-flopping, it’s never truly clear what will happen if the Fissure is tampered with. Some characters believe it will result in the two realities merging. Others believe that it will result in annihilation – a meeting of matter and antimatter writ large. Of course, when the Fissure actually is tampered with, it results in the tenuous connection between the two realities being strengthened, not diminished. This, along with almost all of the other phenomena the Fissure exhibits, is casually explained by the excuse that the Fissure is so unusual, almost anything is possible.
The verdict: This novel was a strange and frustrating beast. The noir/crime elements of the story – missing girls, corpses, down-on-their-luck detectives, crusading journalists, and lots of both booze and beatings – were so haphazardly blended with the later sci-fi elements that I was left scratching my head.
I gave this book 2 out of 5 stars. It frustrated me because a lot of the time it felt like the author was breaking the rules of his world whenever he thought it convenient – it felt like I was reading a less egregious version of the book described in this article from the Onion. I really wanted to like this book considering all of the effort publisher has spent building buzz around it, but I just couldn’t overlook its flaws. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Although it contained writing prompts and useful information about writing, revising, and finding support from other...moreThis book was not what I expected.
Although it contained writing prompts and useful information about writing, revising, and finding support from other writers, these things can be found in almost any book about writing. That information is redundant here.
What I really wanted was for the author to focus more on the mindset and discipline required to balance writing with other forms of work. There were a few chapters that addressed this, but not enough to justify the title, which alone was the reason I bought this book - I figured it would help me figure out my own writing/career balance. This book really had a chance to inhabit a niche that isn't occupied by other books, but instead the information within it felt basic - simplistic, even.
Furthermore, it contained several typos, and the variety of designs and headings used to differentiate types of content within the book were jarring and distracting. I felt that the various page designs were at odds with each other. Taken in conjunction with the content, this book doesn't feel like it was thought through.(less)
**spoiler alert** It's a fun book with an interesting combination of fantasy and historical fiction. I had the privilege of seeing the author do a liv...more**spoiler alert** It's a fun book with an interesting combination of fantasy and historical fiction. I had the privilege of seeing the author do a live reading from a passage of this book, and her enthusiasm won me over. She's a hilarious person!
However, I had a number of issues with this book:
- The dialogue: The main characters (Clare, Al, and Milo) talk to each other in a such an exaggerated, "hip" way that it gets grating. Think "Juno" but with lots of nerd references.
- The Climax/Denouement: The last 80 or so pages are a mad hash of action and time travel set pieces and there's just too much going on: multiple trips back in time, "spirit paths" into a tomb, possessions by ghosts, reanimated corpses, and of course, the inevitable romantic reunion(s). Oh, and it's got one of those twist ending things where it turns out that the real mastermind behind it all is not the person you thought it was, and several half-hearted mentions towards a decades-old spiritual ritual gone wrong. Waaay too many things happening at once to be enjoyable.
- Inconsistent characterization: I found that the romantic tension between Connal and Clare bloomed too quickly to be realistic, and was there just to manufacture tension. It seemed really out of character for Connal to be making moves on Clare at the time at which he made them.(less)
Nikola Tesla was a scientific pioneer whose inventions and predictions about the future of technological development were derided in his day by his co...moreNikola Tesla was a scientific pioneer whose inventions and predictions about the future of technological development were derided in his day by his contemporaries. Tyler Hamilton's book attempts to find current-day equivalents to Tesla working in the clean energy industry - people who have ideas that sound crazy at first, but end up being surprisingly plausible.
And boy, does he know how to pick his subjects. We've got in-depth discussions about perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, biomimicry, ethanol production via algae (pond scum), and tornado power. And that's barely half the list.
Some of the techniques proposed - such as the man who wants to generate power by creating a stationary tornado or the company that is researching the possibility of building solar panels in space to collect solar energy and beam the stored energy to Earth via microwave beams - are wacky, to say the least.
However, some of the other innovations in the book sound more viable, like the people attempting to increase energy efficiency through biomimicry or create vast quantities of ethanol using genetically modified cyanobacteria. In these cases, the main thing holding these companies back is institutional inertia, which is quite depressing.
Parts of the book make reference to extremely recent events, such as the hurricanes that happened in Joplin earlier in 2011 or the reactor meltdown at Fukushima after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The timeliness and quick turnaround are striking, but I fear that such topicality could date the book extremely quickly.(less)
About the book: Carmen Aguirre was born in Chile, and lived there with her family until Pinochet's coup in 1973. After the coup, they fled to Vancouver and supported Chile's resistance movement from afar. A few years after entering Canada, however, Aguirre's parents split and her mother started a relationship with a Canadian political activist.
Ultimately, Aguirre, her sister, and her stepfather left Vancouver (and Aguirre's father) behind and returned to Latin America, travelling between Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina to support the movement against Pinochet. Something Fierce documents the reality of living a double life - bourgeois importers and teachers on one hand, and underground revolutionaries on the other - as Aguirre shuttles back and forth between Canada and Latin America and lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
What I liked: This book provides a rare and detailed glimpse into the life of being an underground revolutionary, and the stresses that such a life entails. Imagine being tailed by a government operative - how do you move around in a supermarket so as to avoid suspicion and evade capture? Suppose that your parents have been absent from your hotel room for over 24 hours, and you have to notify the other members in your underground cell by dialing a phone number you don't know, speaking a strange code, burning all evidence of the paper the number was written down on, flushing the ashes down the toilet, and waiting for your rescuer to pick you up - could you remember what to do or say?
Aguirre doesn't flinch from discussing the hazards of underground life, like wallpapering a safe house in newspaper so that any revolutionaries detained by the police wouldn't be able to give a meaningful description of what it looked like inside. The riotous life and colour in La Paz, and Aguirre's happiness to be there, are thoroughly evoked. Amazingly, Aguirre doesn't play the my-childhood-was-miserable game that so many other memoirists do. I was constantly surprised by how little anger she directed towards her family for dragging her into a world so full of danger, violence, and fear.
What I disliked: Despite the vivid detail Aguirre includes about the demands of being a revolutionary and the excitement of living in Latin America, I still never got a sense of who the characters were as people. Aguirre mentions several times that Bob Everton, her stepfather, had a temper that could flare up at a moment's notice, but this is described rather than experienced, and his outbursts are never explained - was he a naturally angry man, or was he reacting to the stress of living a double life?
In addition, I also wanted to know more about Aguille's sister, Ale. It's hinted throughout Something Fierce that Ale wasn't nearly as accepting of the family's political activities as Aguirre was. The author acknowledges at the end of the book that Ale wanted her story to remain private; Aguirre does her best to fulfill her sister's wishes, but that comes at the expense of sidelining her. I think it would have been interesting to see more clearly how Ale's opinions and desires dissented from those of the rest of her family.
Other pivotal events in the story were discussed, but felt underdeveloped and glossed over. These include Aguirre meeting and marrying her compañero Alejandro, the revelation that that her seemingly pro-Pinochet grandmother was also part of the resistance movement, and the family's subsequent decision to alternate routinely between living in Vancouver and living in Latin America.
Finally, because this is a book about Latin American politics, it contains a lot of information needed to get the reader up to speed. If you know a lot about 20th-Century Latin American history already, you'll breeze through the summaries Aguirre inserts, but otherwise, it gets a bit infodump-y.
The verdict: Although there were flaws, I enjoyed Something Fierce. Its strengths lie in evoking a time and a place and in describing the various subterfuges needed to participate in an underground resistance while living a "normal" life to avoid suspicion. I have a profound respect for Aguirre's tenacity and her continued love for her family despite the danger that her mother and stepfather exposed her to.(less)
I, being the kind of university student, who, you know, actually wrote all my papers myself, was shocked at this suggestion, and dismissed it out of hand. Now I have Dave Tomar to thank for showing me what a world of frustration, indignation, and heartbreak I've avoided.
The Shadow Scholar is an in-depth look at what it's like to be a writer for a paper mill, and what circumstances drove Tomar to, and kept him in, the industry. Student debt. A lacklustre education that left him with few marketable skills. (Incidentally, this book is the second story I've come across that makes Rutgers University sound like an absolute shithole.) A bad economy.
It's also a portrait of desperation, as well as an exposé of how truly messed-up the modern education system is. However, despite the sense of crusading against corruption that his book exudes, Tomar himself doesn't come out looking like the best of people. He hates his job and the toll it takes on his body. He has contempt for his clients. He uses drugs to either keep himself alert or to dull the meaninglessness of his existence. He also gets into long digressions about his on-again, off-again relationship with his future wife, which lends an unnecessary whiff of soap-opera drama to the proceedings.
This brings me to the heart of The Shadow Scholar's problem: its author. Most people assume that the paper mill business a seedy one, and so it makes sense that Tomar himself is more than a little seedy - who else but a cynical opportunist would take this sort of job on? But a large part of the book's focus is spent on arguing exactly how and why America's higher education system needs to change. This in and of itself is a respectable goal, but Tomar tries very hard to make himself out as a tortured, Charles-Bukowski-like figure - in short, exactly the kind of person whom it would be best not to take advice from. Tomar's paper mill career already turns him into an unsympathetic narrator - he just makes it harder for himself by sounding like a self-absorbed jackass.(less)
I first heard about Nancy Fulda’s work through Escape Pod‘s recording of her short story “Movement.” It was a haunting, sad piece with such an expressive reading that I was awestruck. It appears that others agree since the story was recently nominated for a Nebula award.
Dead Men Don’t Cry is an anthology of her short stories. I’ll discuss each story individually and then provide an overview.
Pastry Run: I’m a sucker for funny stories, so this was a pleasant opener to the collection. Space travel is normally treated with such solemnity in science fiction that it’s nice to see Fulda popping the balloon and showing us the more mundane possibilities it offers. Like, say, a daily run delivering fresh pastries to the moon. The space travel technology described is fairly standard, but the absurdity of it all is polished to a high sheen when you add elements like traffic jams and impatient old French ladies.
Dead Men Don’t Cry: Political intrigue abounds between extra-terrestrial colonies and Earth, now an aggressive home world. An assassination attempt has been made on an ambassador from Earth on the eve of a controversial peace treaty. However, the would-be assassin’s protege, a high-ranking bureaucrat, believes in his now-dead mentor’s innocence and has been tasked with uncovering the truth. It’s not a bad story, but I felt like I was being introduced to too many characters and too much information too quickly.
Blue Ink: Jason is a 6-year-old boy nervous about being cloned. Is the procedure painful? Will people forget about him in the cloning chamber? Most importantly, will his clone be happy doing all of the menial tasks that he won’t have to do himself? All Jason wants is to meet his clone and talk to him. But when Jason wakes up from the cloning procedure, things aren’t quite as he expected… This is a good short story with a realistic-sounding main character, interesting technology, and more than a smidgen of class commentary.
Backlash: Is changing the events of the past ever justified? In this story, the main character is (unsuccessfully) hijacked by his older self from 40 years in the future to prevent a terrorist attack and the eventual collapse of the United States. This story was the weakest of the collection – it contained too much technobabble about the technology that would make this type of time travel possible and too much action for me to feel fully immersed in it. It might have worked better if it had been given room to breathe in novella form.
Monument: A very short but evocative piece about how the human race destroyed its first – and so far only – chance of contact with an alien species. This story displays a great depth of emotion despite its length.
Tammi’s Garden: Tamela is a young girl in a lush garden. Tammi is a young girl in a warren of subterranean caverns. Tamela lives in an intellectual world without deprivation or emotion. Tammi lives in a world where the walls are crumbling and poisonous gas is leaking in, but at least she has her mother’s love. Tammi/Tamela has to choose which world she ultimately wants to live in. An interesting story, but I’m still not quite sure whether the memories Tammi/Tamela experiences are of other worlds, the future vs the past, alternate timelines, or wishes from the subconscious, which I think was Fulda’s intent.
All Praise to the Dreamer: Earth has been invaded by the Zollners, a sentient species with the ability to detect psychic echoes and a painful aversion to the psychic residue caused by death. They offer stability and security in exchange for the souls of children destined for greatness – such children are taken from their families and given to the Dreamer so that the Dreamer may shape the future. Sharon is one of the people who first acquiesced to the Zollners upon their arrival, but now that they have come for her child, she finds she must make the ultimate sacrifice to protect him. This story is short and sharp, with an ending that makes sense in context, but is shocking nonetheless.
The Breath of Heaven: The Three Laws of Robotics are turned on their head in this story of a group of robots that kill a human settlement not because of flaws in their programming, but flaws in the directives which they’ve been given – flaws which now manifest in their quest for an ideal human operator. The protagonist robot, Sacia, now has to reconcile her newfound sense of awareness and self-preservation with her search for an ideal operator. Think of HAL 9000, but with an appreciation of beauty, movement, and the subtleties of reincarnation. This is one of, if not the, strongest stories in the collection, and presages Fulda’s growing skill – reading this story, it is not surprising to see the connections between its strong and elegant prose style and that of “Movement.”
Ghost Chimes: In Alicia’s world, death is not an impediment towards getting involved in the affairs of others – especially if they are those of your orphaned but now adult daughter. Alicia’s mother, a devout Catholic, gave up her chance on the Afterlife by undergoing a neural procedure that would allow her to remain on this earthly plane after she died. When she was 10, Alicia needed her mother’s care, but now that she’s all grown up, she resents her mother’s constant intrusions, and has to figure out how to gain her independence. This story has an interesting concept, but it rang hollow to me – I lost my own dad when I was young, and I’d leap even now, as an adult, at the chance to see and talk to him. This story mines a very strange vein of humour that I felt was at odds with the character’s circumstances.
The Man Who Murdered Himself: This story examines the central element of “Blue Ink” – human replication – but inverts one of the circumstances of the first story. In “Blue Ink,” clones were imperfect replicas of a perfectly normal person. But here, the person being replicated is already imperfect – a man with a painful infliction who is hoping to use cutting-edge technology to reform his misshapen body. Based on the title, though, I’m sure you can guess the ending. This one is just as sad as “Blue Ink,” but for entirely different reasons.
A New Kind of Sunrise: Fulda takes us to a planet with dramatically lengthened day and night cycles – it rotates so slowly that the land bakes to a crisp in the sun, and is deathly cold at nighttime. The only habitable portion of the planet is the thin band of clouds that rotates across it as twilight approaches, bringing rainfall and rejuvenation.
Mikaena is a nomad travelling with her tribe underneath the planet’s rotating band of cloud cover when she finds a young man near death on her tribe’s caravan route. He claims to be from the northern polar region of the planet, where a great Brotherhood protects the ancient scientific secrets of its original colonizers. However, this Brotherhood has forsaken its duty of helping all of the planet’s inhabitants, and it is the young man’s goal to make a new settlement – to Colonize the Day – and spread the Brotherhood’s knowledge far and wide. Mikaena finds herself drawn to the young man and his new ideas, but accepting them means moving beyond the practices of her tribe and facing her father’s disapproval.
This is the longest story in the collection, and one that is ripe for a full-length novel treatment. The characters themselves are a tad too familiar – the young man who disrupts the status quo, the young woman torn between love and tradition, the stern and unaccepting father, the wise healer woman – but the physical characteristics of the world itself are so fascinating that I want to hear more.
Overview: Now that I think about it, one of the themes that plays throughout the stories – most evident in “All Praise to the Dreamer” but also visible in almost every other story – is the conflict between freedom and security.
Throughout, these stories ask us what price we’re willing to pay for our safety. That alien ship may be full of unknown biological threats, but is it really worth it to destroy our only chance of interacting with another form of sentient life? What risks do we entertain when we try to change the events of the past? Should we sacrifice the souls of a small number of our children to ensure the stability of the future? Is it worth it to live in a world of intellectual pursuit when you can’t feel love or fear?
This is a great story collection full of clear yet thoughtful prose. The stories within range from humorous to poignant to macabre, with side stops to analytical and hopeful in between. While this collection rarely reaches the heights of emotion offered by “Movement,” these stories bring up a host of meaningful questions and ideas.(less)
Note: I downloaded my copy of Carnacki the Ghost Finder from Project Gutenberg. The edition I read contained only 6 stories, not 9.
This is the second anthology that I read this year, but it probably won’t be the last. All of the stories in it revolve around cases of supernatural occurrences that the main character, Carnacki, has been asked to examine, so they’re a neat mix of paranormal horror and Holmsian mystery. I was first introduced to Carnacki through Podcastle‘s production of “The Gateway of the Monster” and read the anthology on the strength of that story. Unfortunately, “Gateway” is the strongest work in it, and establishes a template that the subsequent stories follow very closely:
- Carnacki invites his friends over for dinner, and they wait in anticipation for him to talk of his latest escapade. He starts speaking only after he’s had his meal, and entertains no mention of the topic beforehand. He then starts talking, and this monologue forms the body of the story. - He describes both the opening circumstances of the case in great detail and his firsthand experiences of the strange phenomena he’s been asked to investigate. - He examines the physical surroundings of the location and remains stumped. - He then sets up his equipment and faces the strange occurrences head-on, but those experiences generally put him in danger. - His equipment proves instrumental in saving his life and providing a crack in the case, as more often than not, he discovers a small but telling detail that allows him to solve the mystery at hand. - Carnacki’s narrative returns to the present day, where he answers any remaining questions his guests have and then sends them home.
Notable in all of the stories is Carnacki’s constant use of the word “queer” to describe things (sometimes as frequently as three times on a single page) and the rhetorical questions he repeatedly asks his listeners in order to make them empathize with him. Questions like “Do you see?” and “Can you understand that?” are liberally deployed in order to make his listeners comprehend the fear he felt during his investigations. Despite these tics, the stories hold up remarkably well in terms of pacing.
However, I was mightily disappointed by the fact that the majority of the mysteries ended up having a non-supernatural basis. There are six stories in total. In two of them, it turns out that while there are ghosts haunting the house in question, it is actually other people who are behind the supernatural situation Carnacki has been asked to investigate. In another two, it turns out that there are no ghosts at all.
All of this makes the “Ghost Finder” part of the title a sham. The collection was marred by the predictability of the routine mentioned above, and by the Scooby-Doo-like nature of the non-ghost stories. Of the six works included in Carnacki the Ghost Finder, I enjoyed “The Gateway of the Monster” and “The Whistling Room” the most and would place “The Searcher of the End House” in the “honourable mention” category, but the other three were frustrating.(less)
I've read only a few Stephen King books, but I'm consistently surprised by the lack of attention this book receives in comparison to the rest of his b...moreI've read only a few Stephen King books, but I'm consistently surprised by the lack of attention this book receives in comparison to the rest of his body of work. It's not the best novel he's written, but it's got some surprisingly vivid plot points (including a nightmare-inducing stinger in the opening), and really creepy phenomena. It's hard to look at a mass of sparrows the same way again.
Again, I'm surprised that this book gets so little attention in comparison to others he's written, especially in light of the fact that this book was adapted into a film within a few years of publication.(less)
About the book: In the mid-90s, Bidini’s band, The Rheostatics, was the opening act for The Tragically Hip on their “Trouble at the Henhouse” tour. On a Cold Road is Bidini’s memoir of the tour, compiled from the journal entries he wrote during it. However, the book also aims to serve as a collective history of touring across Canada, and includes anecdotes and recollections from Canadian musicians from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
What I liked: In this book, Bidini captured the allure of travelling and performing on the road, and made it comprehensible to us non-musicians. He made me feel the urge to pack up, get in a van, and drive across the country to visit all of the little hole-in-the-wall places that I could – despite the fact that I still don’t have a driver’s license.
His emotions became my own. I felt the frustration he did when The Rheostatics kept on encountering the rising popularity of The Tragically Hip in unexpected places and comparing it to their own lower level of success. I felt the sadness and alienation he did when he thought he became friends with Joey Ramone, only to meet Ramone at an autograph signing and find out that the other musician looked worn out and didn’t remember him at all. His realization made a cold wave of sadness wash over my stomach: “He had no idea who I was. I left the store. Outside, the rain felt like spiders.” Is there anything else one can say after that?
What I disliked: The book’s structure was disjointed, and the anecdotes provided by other Canadian musicians about the growth of the Canadian music scene in the 50s, 60s, and 70s didn’t mesh with the framework provided by Bidini’s own writing. The stories that the other rockers provided were grouped together by theme, but I often found it hard to detect a throughline between what everyone else was talking about compared to Bidini’s narrative frame.
More egregious, though, was the huge gender imbalance between the number of male musicians that were quoted compared to female musicians. Given the context (Canadian rock in the mid-20th Century) I understand that there probably weren’t a lot of women in the industry. But the number of times that women musicians were quoted or mentioned absolutely pales in comparison to the number of men. I bet that Greg Godovitz had more space in the book devoted to him than all of the women in it combined.
On top of that, most of the men who did mention women in music in any sort of context talked about the wonderfulness of having groupies. I didn’t need to know about how some musician in the 60s got a tongue bath from a willing groupie, or how some lovely angel of a young woman rehabilitated some hapless rocker by taking him in and doing his laundry. Women as sex objects? Rock on! Women as maternal caregivers bringing hope and cleanliness? Great! Women as equals and musicians in their own right? Meh.
The verdict: Bidini is obviously skilled with words, and some stories he captures, like the experience of performing at Maple Leaf Gardens, are imbued with magic. It also helps that I’m a huge Tragically Hip fan, and that I have a copy of “Live Between Us,” their live album made from the same tour that Bidini was part of. However, On a Cold Road still didn’t “spark” to me very much. While I was reading this book, I had some money in my iTunes account, and it never occurred to me to buy a Rheostatics album with it – instead, I spent the money on some Neko Case music. I think that’s pretty representative of my stance towards the book – interesting enough, but not so interesting as to encourage further investigation.(less)
About the book: Paama has a knack for making the best out of bad situations. After returning to her family, she manages to break off her marriage to her gluttonous husband with considerable tact and aplomb. Her actions attract the attention of supernatural beings who think that she is uniquely suited to control something far more dangerous than a fool with a mountainous appetite: the Chaos Stick. However, the original wielder of the power of Chaos wants his rightful property back...
What I liked: Good god. The whole story sounds like you're hearing a storyteller in a courtyard. There's a spider-shaped trickster spirit. There's a prideful demon-spirit with indigo skin and eyes. There's an order of women who have the ability to control dreams. There's a poet, true love, secret identities, and magic. There's a woman who, through the sheer simple force of her dignity and compassion for others, teaches the indigo-skinned demon-spirit about the value of duty. There's delicious-sounding food. In short, what on earth didn't I like?
What I disliked: I think this was a problem with my eBook copy, but the introductory chapter to the book was not listed in its table of contents. As such, I didn't read it, so when some information came to light at the end of the fourth (or is it fifth?) chapter, and the Chaos Stick was mentioned by name, I nearly chucked my Kobo in frustration. Here I was, reading a lovely series of anecdotes about a resourceful woman and her foolish husband, and then the Chaos Stick showed up - an object with such a ridiculously portentous name that it sounded like it was ripped straight from a comic book. How on earth could something as cosmic as that fit in with what I had read of a woman trying to avoid scandal in a small town?
Then, of course, the spirits and magical women and tricksters showed up. This disconnect is part of why I enjoyed the book so much - it didn't turn into a cheesy comic-book story, like I worried it would. However, I don't think the title Redemption in Indigo prepares readers for what the story is about. Yes, the villain is a spirit with indigo skin who redeems himself, but compared to the heart of the story, the title is oblique at best.
The verdict: The characters are relatable and human - even the ones who aren't human. In Redemption in Indigo, pride gives way to humility, and the force that changes the world, that melts the proudest heart and fills it with understanding, is dignity. All talk of morals aside, it's reassuring to find a book with such a humane message - to have a villain who isn't evil, but just bitter and tired, and to have a heroine who isn't brave or plucky, but stable as an oak. The emotional state of each character changes subtly but realistically from chapter to chapter, like a river flowing. It's wonderful to read something so assured and understanding of the human condition. I can't recommend it highly enough.(less)
Overview: Author Nancy Kress identifies three types of writers and their respective weaknesses: Those who have trouble writing beginnings, those who have trouble writing middles, and those who have trouble writing endings. The book is broken up into three sections and analyzes the types of problems each writer faces during the process of crafting a story.
What I liked: I recognized myself throughout the book. In each section, when Kress described a problem that writers encounter in the process of working on a story, I thought “that’s me!” to myself over and over again .For each problem she provides a hypothetical plot that exemplifies it and suggests several solutions. She never categorically states that a solution “must” or “will” work – just that it has proven useful to others. In addition, she provides examples of existing published stories that have already overcome the same structural problems. On top of this, the book extensively discusses the different problems that short stories face in comparison to novels, and vice versa. I found her acknowledgement of the structural problems inherent to each format to be reassuring.
What I disliked: Almost nothing. I originally gave this book 4 stars out of 5, but I bumped it up to 5 when I realized that I couldn’t name any major problems with it. If anything, it’s overwhelming in its bounty of good writing advice. There’s only one thing I’d change about the book, and that’s a small passage at the end that contains an interview with the author. In the interview, Kress states that the best piece of writing advice she’d ever received was from Gene Wolfe, who told her to “have two different things go on a story and then at the end have the two things impact each other.” Since the book doesn’t go much into the intricacies of subplots, I think it would have been helpful to include this tidbit in the body of the book rather than in an extra at the end, but this is a small quibble at best.
The verdict: If you have the chance to buy Beginnings, Middles and Ends, take advantage of it. The book contains lots of solid, useful advice, dispensed in a clear, engaging manner; Nancy Kress is full of empathy for her readers, and it shows. The structure of the book is natural and intuitive, and the recommendations within it are exhaustive. This book is a keeper – I can certainly see myself referring to it as I progress with my own narrative writing.(less)
Like any well-adjusted nerd, I grew up with Star Wars as a healthy part of my cinematic diet. I didn't know it then, but Star Wars belonged to the sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. Despite my exposure to the original trilogy I still haven't read much in the way of space opera, so Leviathan Wakes was as good an introduction as any. I read it because it was one of this year's Hugo Award nominees.
From what I gather, Leviathan Wakes uses many of the elements common to space operas: a diaspora of humans spread across several colonies within the solar system, space stations, and asteroid mining. However, it also includes science fiction concerns that are more contemporary, like sociopathic corporations, terrestrial ecological limits, and the proper use of military power.
It all starts with Juliette Andromeda Mao, the scion of a lunar corporation who rejected her affluent upbringing to join the Belters - the restless, entrepreneurial, and hardscrabble people who have abandoned life on Earth and Mars to make a go of it in the asteroid belt. Julie's gone missing, and it's fallen to Detective Miller - a cop on Ceres - to do a cursory investigation for his employer, a security agency partially owned by Julie's family.
James Holden, the commanding officer of of an ice freighter, has found an abandoned ship in the middle of space and is captaining a small shuttle to investigate it. However, when his home ship is destroyed by a third party attempting to protect the abandoned vessel from interference, he sends out a distress signal that inadvertently shatters the fragile balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Ultimately, Holden's search for answers and for safe harbour dovetails with Miller's search for Julie Mao, which leads them both to the discovery of an alien life form that poses a threat to all three factions.
First off, there are several things that Leviathan Wakes does right. In particular, I appreciated the effort that went into imagining what a non-terrestrial form of human society would look like. Corey came up with subtle but effective touches, like imagining the resinous scent of air that's been scrubbed through machine filters for generations, or how Belters would come up with an exaggerated set of gestures to convey information despite the bulkiness of space suits.
Less successful, but still interesting, was the inbuilt antagonism that Belters had for Earthers. Early in the book, Miller is partnered with Havelock, a detective from Earth. Later on this is revealed as an attempt by his supervisor to isolate both men; since no other Belter detective wants to work with an Earther, she decides to saddle him with Miller, a lonely has-been cop downtrodden by alcoholism and a messy divorce.
Havelock's presence is meant to highlight the mutual distrust that those from Earth, Mars, and the Belt have for each other, but this fell flat, as all of the animosity was one-way - although Miller's peers were antagonistic towards Havelock, Havelock didn't respond in kind. This left me wondering where exactly the focus of class/privilege in the book resided. Did Belters feel naturally superior to Earthers? Did Earthers feel naturally superior to Belters? It makes sense for the latter to be true in context, but all of the Earthers present in the story were either neutral or supportive of Belter politics.
Such is the case with Holden, who gets caught up trying to find his way out of the web of Martian armies, Belter rebels, and corporate interests that he's gotten himself tangled up in. He's such an upstanding person, always willing to do what is right, that in the end he's as distinctive as a slice of bread. This points to one of my biggest problems with the book - the lack of nuanced characterization. Miller's a depressed alcoholic trying to solve his Big Case so that he can Make Things Right and restore his self-respect. James Holden is an honest man who grew up on a farm/commune, of all places.
However, sad-sack cops and forthright farmboys have nothing on the real villain: a corporation that has discovered an engineered parasite created by another species and wants to reverse-engineer it so that it can genetically modify humans for intergalactic travel.
This is where the space zombies come in.
You heard me right. Space zombies. As in, people infected by said parasite, who die, reanimate, and then dissolve into some sort of fleshy goo that coalesces into a giant sentient hive-mind.
One one level, this is is pretty cool. Zombies have been popular for a while now, and this twist on the genre is gonzo enough to work. But the book already contains enough interesting speculation on intrastellar life and politics that adding mutagenic zombie parasites into the mix seems a tad garish.
Despite this, I still enjoyed the climax, where Miller finally does meet up with Julie - or what's left of her after she gets infected. Throughout the novel, Miller's focus on Julie Mao has taken hold of him so thoroughly that his conscience eventually transforms into her likeness. When he finally meets her in person and talks to her, and she understands what he's saying and asking her to do - when she realizes that she's become the index case of the infestation she tried to escape, and that she has to sacrifice herself to prevent others from meeting the same fate - it's a moment of sadness and beauty. (hide spoiler)]
Did I enjoy Leviathan Wakes? Yes. It had some intriguing sociological insights, and some lovely images and events going on, especially at the climax. Would I be interested in reading the sequels when they are released? Sure. However, do I think that this book is worthy of the Hugo Award? No.
I'll discuss the merits of the Hugo nominees in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that I was looking for a book that made me go "wow" - and this book was not it. It was workman-like and competent, but it didn't have the radical political commentary of The Disposessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, the intricate thoroughness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the sheer holy-crap-this-is-amazing-ness of American Gods. In other words, it broke absolutely no new territory - and if anything, I think the best science fiction or fantasy book of the year should do at least that much. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It probably won't surprise you to know that I'm an introvert. Hell, I work in editing and content management, and I write lots of book reviews online. My life is focused around technology and words - it would be a surprise if I weren't an introvert!
However, I can become social and extroverted when the need arises, like when I attended this year's World Fantasy Convention or WCDR breakfasts. The only problem is that exciting as these types of events are, I need a period to recharge afterwards.
One of the best aspects of Susan Cain's Quiet is that it pays ample attention to this phenomenon, and the social and personal needs of introverts in general. I get overwhelmed in crowds when I don't have a specific reason for being there, or don't know a lot of people in attendance. Either that, or when I am in a crowd I'm comfortable with, I enjoy myself there and feel really tired afterwards at home. My idea of a well-spent weekend is to clean the house and write on this blog, or to generally get my life in order. Susan Cain, being an introvert herself and having done extensive research on how introverts process social situations and react to risk, gets that.
Cain brings together a fascinating collection of studies and anecdotes (many of them retellings of her own personal experiences) to analyze how introverts differ from extroverts. For example, the two types process dopamine differently, with extroverts exhibiting a greater response to it. As a result, they are often more likely to do riskier things in search of greater rewards, while introverts are more likely to analyze the results of their actions and avoid risky activities.
Likewise, introverts react more strongly to new stimuli than extroverts do. (Note: although this sounds like it contradicts the information in the previous paragraph, remember that dopamine is part of the brain's reward system. There are several other types of stimuli besides rewards.) Despite being counterintuitive, this discovery makes sense: reacting strongly to new stimuli requires vigilance. If you're vigilant, you're wary, which means that you're probably going to be subdued in situations that expose you to lots of new stimuli, like, say, meeting a whole bunch of new people at once.
Ultimately, Cain uses this research to argue that the skills of introverts, which have been consistently undervalued, are extremely valuable to society. In fact, she brings up How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book I reviewed this year, as an example of the vaunting of extroverts that she says has been damaging to our culture. Instead of always focusing on who is the most confident, why don't we focus on those who can produce the best ideas? Instead of valuing group work in classes, why don't we value independence and intense focus?
Considering I preferred to work by myself in school, it's a question I've thought about more than once, though never fully articulated.
Before I get into introverts-are-special-little-flowers-who-are-totally-misunderstood territory, though, I also want to highlight that Quiet is not perfect. In her quest to show how valuable introversion is, Cain invokes the idea of "introvert cultures" and "extrovert cultures" and then proceeds to uphold a host of massive culture-based stereotypes: "Western" society, especially American society, is an extrovert culture, but "Asian" society is an introvert culture.
What's bad is that she devotes only one chapter to exploring this thesis in detail. What's worse is that she treats "Asian" culture as a single monolithic idea. In addition, introversion and extroversion are only discussed in relation to Asia, North America, and Europe; all other parts of the world are mentioned only in passing, at best. Even more frustrating, she says that people often unconsciously associate fair hair and blue eyes with introversion, conveniently forgetting the fact that those physical traits just don't show up in a massive majority of the world's population.
All that aside, in many other ways the book's information makes sense. Many times throughout, I felt a sense of identification with Cain's descriptions of introvert life, and felt that she was able to discuss a variety of pressures I've felt about living within my society but was unable to explain, In other words, her book felt incredibly validating. Some people might find that self-indulgent, perhaps, but I think that in this case, I can live with it.(less)
As good as this book may be for others, as life-affirming and encouraging they may find it, in comparison to "On Writing" by Stephen King, I found "Bird by Bird" maddening. At best, I can say that perhaps it did not reach me at the stage in my writing career when I would be most receptive to it. In general, though, I found it full of contradictory or abstract recommendations and fluffy new-age speak.
First off, let’s address one of those recommendations. Lamott advocates the value of letting story elements grow organically and allowing you, the writer, to have space to breathe, to think, and to accept changes as they come. However, she chooses the most laboured and unintuitive metaphors to illustrate this. Here’s a quote from her chapter on characterization:
One image that helps me begin to know the people in my fiction is something a friend once told me. She said that every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own… And as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all…By the same token, each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways. One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in? This knowledge may not show up per se in what you write, but the point is that you need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with. (Pages 44-45)
Here’s another, a few pages further in:
Think of the basket of each character’s life: what holds the ectoplasm together – what are this person’s routines, beliefs? What little thing would your characters write in their journals…This is all the stuff that tethers them to the earth and to other people, all the stuff that makes each character think that life sort of makes sense. (Page 48)
At the core, I agree with this message: I’m all for taking the time to figure out who my characters are. But the other elements of this message rely on odd metaphors. Emotional acres? Baskets containing ectoplasm that tether you to the earth? Seriously?
Another thing that annoyed me about this book was how flippantly she discussed a potentially important writing tool: the plot treatment. The story goes that she was writing a novel and had finally worked it up into what she thought was publishable shape. When she delivered it to her editor, he told her that it wasn’t ready for publication yet – that it didn’t work, and that he couldn’t give her the remainder of her advance.
She confronted him the next day, explaining who all of the characters were, what relationships they had, and all of the backstory she hadn’t bothered to fill in for the sake of being subtle. When she was done, he told her the book she just described to him was not the same one that she had written, and that she needed to go back and write a plot treatment of the book in detail. She describes her plot treatment as follows:
I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. I quoted directly from the manuscript sometimes, using some of the best lines to instill confidence in both me and my editor, and I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream. The treatment was forty pages long. (Pages 91-92)
In other words, she outlined her novel, which she has led us to believe is not something she normally does. Sure, she thinks about her characters and plots before she writes them down – we all do. But she has taken great pains to express the importance of remaining open to ideas as they come during the act of writing. Here are some representative quotes on the subject…
…On the climax of your plot:
In order to have this sense of inevitability, the climax of your story will probably only reveal itself to you slowly and over time. You make think that you know what this moment contains – and it makes sense to aim for something – but I recommend that you not fix too hard on what it will be. (Page 61)
You need your broccoli in order to write well. Otherwise you’re going to sit down in the morning and have only your rational mind to guide you. Then, if you’re having a bad day, you’re going to crash and burn within half an hour. (Page 111)
Long story short, Lamott sounds like she likes writing without a map. The crazy thing is that when her extensively-mapped-out book was released, it was her most successful one yet. Her reaction to this success is one of pride, but also of slight bemusement:
Whenever I tell this story to my students, they want to see the actual manuscript of the plot treatment. When I bring it in, they pore over it like it is some sort of Rosetta stone. (Page 92)
Now, here’s what I don’t understand:
1. Anne Lamott turned an unsuccessful draft into a successful one by writing a plot treatment – by applying a level of linearity and rigor to her own work that the reader senses is unusual compared to her typical writing process. 2. This effort resulted in this book being her most successful one yet. 3. Despite this, she does not tell her readers how to write a plot treatment themselves. She mentions that even her own students repeatedly ask to see the plot treatment she wrote, which sounds to me like she hasn’t shown them how to write their own treatments.
I don’t get it – what value lies in telling your readers about a useful writing tool, but not showing them what that tool looks like? Doesn’t that invalidate the whole point of a book about the craft of writing?
I found "Bird by Bird" promised a lot but didn’t deliver. I gave this book 3 out of 5 in recognition of its influence on other writers, but I have to wonder: What exactly am I missing?(less)
Russian folklore is not an aspect of Western/European mythology you come across much in modern fantasy - the only other example I can think of is a side story in Neil Gaiman's Sandman - so it's nice to see Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless getting their due.
Deathless is a modern retelling of the myth of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna set during the turmoils of Russia during the first half of the 20th century. The opening chapter enchanted me with its fairy-tale-like repetition, and the writing style throughout reminded me of Silently and Very Fast, another work of Valente's that I've enjoyed.
This is mere no fairy-tale, though, as it recasts Koschei - typically an antagonist in Russian folklore - into a flawed hero fighting a futile war against death itself. Marya Morevna, originally his beautiful young conquest, becomes his bride, and eventually a general in the battle against Viy, the Tsar of Death.
Wise readers will note that the crux of this war takes place at the beginning of World War II before and during the siege of Leningrad, and even wiser readers than I may speculate that the entire story could stand as a metaphor for the ideological changes that Russia underwent both before and after the war. However, as I am not an authority on Russian politics, I will have to settle for Baba Yaga and house imps reciting socialist political theory instead.
One of the book's key themes is the idea of control or rulership - specifically, can a mortal woman like Marya gain the upper hand as the wife of Koschei, who is immortal? Ultimately, she can and does by adopting his methods and becoming as casually cruel as he - but such growth takes a long time to occur in the novel, and until then she remains frustratingly passive. I get the sense that this is deliberate on Valente's part though; in one pivotal scene, Marya attempts to seduce another man using food the way Koschei seduced her, and the man in question doesn't submit as easily to her overtures as she did to Koschei's. Sometimes, you just have to be quiet and let a starving man eat.
Marya's passivity is more than made up for by the other female characters in Deathless. I loved Baba Yaga and Madame Lebedeva, a magician who forms part of Marya's coterie upon her entry into Kochei's realm. Both women are intelligent and calculating, and understand how to wield power properly. Lebedeva in particular is a delight because she combines her magical skill with theatricality and refinement, yet manages to do so without becoming the insufferable sort of Mean Girl we expect of a beautiful woman who places great import on her appearance. Read the scene of Lebedeva and Marya in a magical cafe where Lebedeva holds court while very ostentatiously not eating the meal she has ordered, and you'll realize you're in the presence of a master storyteller.
Other images in Deathless are similarly vivid. Great attention is paid to colour and form, especially where Lebedeva is concerned. But beyond that there is the silver gleam that symbolizes the land of Death, and the deep red of garnets and pickled beets, and the gold and black of butter and caviar slathered upon fresh bread. Like Marya, Deathless casts its readers into a world of unexpected depth and luxury.(less)
About the book: The title pretty much says it all. It's a non-fiction account of the ways in which our quest for salt - to mine it, refine it, trade it, tax it, and more - has shaped economics, politics, and culture throughout the world.
What I liked: There's just so much to talk about when it comes to salt. Forget well-worn stuff like the gabelle, France's much-loathed salt tax. Instead, think about the saltworks in China that invented a percussive drill to reach deep aquifers of brine, and in the process became the first place in the world to use natural gas as a heat source. Think instead of a giant mountain composed of nothing but salt in Cordona, Spain. Stuff like that is the stuff of marvels. In particular I was fascinated by the segment of the book where Kurlansky discussed the intersections between Basque fishermen, the newly-discovered North Atlantic cod fishing grounds, and salt trading. I think this passage is the heart of the book, as Kurlansky has written books of a similar nature about both the Basque peoples and cod - it combines and distills the ideas and events that interest him the most.
What I disliked: For a book that claims to deal with "world" history, there are a lot of geographical regions that Kurlansky doesn't discuss. There are several chapters devoted to salt production and trade in the context of Europe, North America, and China, and at least one good-sized chapter on Ghandi's salt march, but not much attention devoted to salt in the context of Africa. Hell, I bet the sections on northern European cod fishing alone outweighed all of what the author wrote about Africa. I can't even remember at this point if South America and Australia were mentioned, but considering what else I remember from this book, I doubt it. As such, I think the "world history" part of the title is a misnomer.
The verdict: This was a very dry book (puns definitely intended). I could tell that Kurlansky knew a lot about salt, as the connections he drew between different peoples, places, and events were often fascinating. However, I didn't feel the joy or passion in his writing that I've felt when reading other books about food, like Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner. In the end, I began to treat Salt like homework the same way I did when reading The Terror: I set myself a quota of reading 50 pages during each commute to and from work. In general, this is not a sign that a book is going well. However, as I hate to leave things half-read, I persevered and finished it.(less)
One of the genres that I've often had trouble "getting" is that of the crime/procedural (which was why I had problems with both Zoo City and Empire State). In terms of my reading habits, then, my enjoyment of Robert Rotenberg's books is an outlier.
Old City Hall was Rotenberg's debut, and The Guilty Plea picks up right where it left off, with many of the same characters. The premise here is similar to that of the first book: someone has been found murdered, and the various characters work together to push the case through the city's legal system - the cops gather evidence and the lawyers pore over said evidence to bolster their arguments in the courtroom.
In this case, the victim is Terrance Wyler, the youngest son of a prominent family who owns a successful grocery store chain. When Samantha Wyler - the woman whom he was in the process of divorcing at the time of his death - shows up at her lawyer's office with the murder weapon wrapped up in a kitchen towel, the case looks all but solved. However, the detectives and lawyers we met in Old City Hall - Greene, Kennicott, Summers, Raglan, and more - aren't content to sit on their laurels and let the obvious conclusion do all their work for them. Papers still have to be filed, and people still have to be questioned.
This attention to process is a great part of why I like Rotenberg's books. In essence, they are about more than just The Law or The Case: they are about competent people doing difficult tasks, and doing those tasks well. Rotenberg also delves into the psychology of people who become involved in a criminal case. In the trials, his lawyers analyze how witnesses gain and lose credibility in the courtroom; during the investigations, his cops pick up on subtle cues like people using rhetorical questions to respond to interrogations.
Within The Guilty Plea, specifically, I was impressed by the care which Rotenberg took to reintroduce the reader to characters from the first book, remind us of what they did, and place them in the context of who they interacted with. It served not only as a refresher course for the cast list, but also prepared me for the shifting perspectives across the book. On top of that, expert attention was paid to reintroducing the city of Toronto as a character as well - the streets and highways and neighbourhoods of the city reflect as much upon the plot of Rotenberg's books as the people do. This focus on the city serves as one heck of an ego boost for a lifelong Torontonian like myself.
Despite these strengths, this book is not perfect. Like Old City Hall, it ended with the person on trial being innocent despite overwhelming evidence against them, with the real killer being suddenly revealed in the final pages. I understand that this is meant to increase the tension, but I don't think that "whodunit" is the point of Rotenberg's books.
Instead, I think the point is showing the process behind a criminal investigation, and the psychology behind preparing for trial. I want to hear more about the considerations that come into play when jurors are selected. I want to hear about the small things that affect the credibility of people testifying in court - things like witnesses not knowing where to place their coats, or being engulfed by the sheer size of the witness box. In Rotenberg's world the courtroom is a psychological tango, and dammit, I want to understand the footwork involved! Last minute revelations of this sort cheapen the reading experience.
On top of that, some of the plot developments were poorly thought out. During the trial, Samantha was revealed to have had an extensive secret correspondence with Terrance's brother Jason, her brother-in-law. This is the sort of thing upon which trials turn on a dime, but I was incredulous that 1) Samantha would have hidden this information from her own defense lawyer, especially when it could have bolstered her claims of innocence, and 2) so little follow-up research of email transcripts and phone records was done afterwards. Furthermore, although a noticeable portion of the novel was spent explaining what happened to the murder weapon, nowhere was it ever stated (unless I didn't notice, which would be odd), that the damn thing was dusted for fingerprints. Isn't that Rule #1 of murder investigations - to thoroughly examine the murder weapon once its location is confirmed? Why didn't that happen here?
Finally, I wish that Rotenberg would set his books so that they could take place across all of Toronto, and not just the downtown core. Speaking as a frustrated suburbanite, it would be really nice to see a book that actually paid attention to the part of town that I live in, instead of the same litany of major downtown locations and corridors.
The thing about The Guilty Plea is that it follows in the footsteps of its predecessor closely, for good or ill. I hope that in subsequent installments, the strengths (good characters, good psychological insights, detailed settings) will increase and the flaws (downtown-centric focus, convenient revelation near the end of the book that the obvious suspect is not the real murderer) will diminish.(less)
About the book: Alison Bechdel's father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family. However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students.
Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce - and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck.
Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply.
What I liked: Bechdel's analysis of her and her father's lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile's distance of each other. The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel's depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals - nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless.
What I disliked: I don't know if this trait was also visible in her long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" but Fun Home's authorial voice was depressingly distant. The language Bechdel used to describe her family, her thoughts, and her experiences was detached and clinical. I understand that this is supposed to reflect her own experience of growing up within such a singular household - indeed, Bechdel herself is quite aware of how distant she sounds - but it still left me uneasy. On top of that, all of the interwoven references to the canon of Western literature were so dense that without the author's explanations on how these stories fit into her own life I would have been lost.
The verdict:Fun Home genuinely challenged me in a way unlike nearly any other book I've read so far in 2012. Part of me was grateful that my family was never that repressed and dysfunctional. Part of me couldn't fathom how another person could feel so detached from their father's death. But another part of me was acutely aware of how little I knew and understood about classical literature. I was intimidated when I read it, because it felt chock full of references both visual and textual that were extremely cultured and beyond my comprehension. This was the first book I read this year where I put it down feeling that I needed to read it over again to truly understand it.(less)
The plot: Zinzi December is a disgraced pop journalist with a Sloth on her shoulder who pays off the debts she incurred as a junkie by writing 419 sca...moreThe plot: Zinzi December is a disgraced pop journalist with a Sloth on her shoulder who pays off the debts she incurred as a junkie by writing 419 scam emails. Like all residents of “Zoo City,” a slum in Johannesburg, she’s been “animalled” – that is, she’s done something so awful that she’s now been spiritually conjoined with an animal familiar.
Like all “zoos,” her animal has also given her a unique power, or mashavi. Normally, while Zinzi uses her mashavi of finding lost things to earn some money on the side, she refuses to find lost people. However, the shady associates of a music producer have asked her to find a missing teeny-bop starlet, and the payment for doing so is too great to turn down. When she digs deeper into the girl’s disappearance, she gets tangled up in a world of drugs, lies, and black magic…
What I liked: I loved the merging of fantasy aspects with real world ones. No one knows what first caused the mysterious “zoo plague,” but interstitial chapters within the book flesh out the world of Zoo City by providing snippets of academic and pop culture material written about the “zoo” phenomenon. Cleverly, one of those snippets contains a citation to an academic article reinterpreting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in light of the zoo plague.
On top of that, the setting of Johannesburg is both familiar (in that it’s wonderfully textured and realized) and strange (in that the only other major spec-fic story I can think of set in Johannesburg is District 9). Finally, Zinzi December is a marvelous character. She’s smart, tough, self-serving, and able to think on her feet. She’s hard to like but easy to admire, and I take my hat off to Lauren Beukes for writing a main character that is so complicated. I wouldn’t want Zinzi to be my friend, but I would want her to have my back.
What I disliked: I feel that the book’s chief misstep was the mystery itself. Of course, as with many crime/detective stories, nothing is as it seems and the people asking Zinzi to take on the job have ulterior motives.
Ultimately, the resolution of the story – involving murders, kidnappings, blackmail, and a heck of a lot of black magic – seems too bloated and frenetic to appreciate. Although I’ve muddled my way through some of the unspoken motives of the perpetrators, now that I’ve finished the book I feel that there are a lot of plot holes I still can’t patch over.
The verdict: I liked it, but not as much as I had hoped to. I came to this book with high expectations based on some interviews with the author that I listened to and on the book’s surprise win of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. However, I’ve never been a big fan of detective fiction, and the book’s melding of it with speculative fiction/magical realism left an odd taste in my mouth. I wanted to see more of the slums of Johannesburg, hear more South African slang, and read more about how zoo people have become a new global underclass. I also wanted to see more of Zinzi’s backstory, which I think has been left too much to the imagination. Instead, I got a detective story mixed into all of it, and it dampened my enjoyment of the book.(less)
Darrin's life has taken an awful turn: Within the space of one month, he lost his job, his car, and his girlfriend, Bridget, who walked out of his life with no explanation. Six months later while wandering aimlessly around San Francisco, he encounters Bridget for the first time since she left him - only to see her jump to her death off the Golden Gate bridge.
In his search to find out why Bridget killed herself, he gets caught up in the web of connections surrounding the briarpatch, an interdimensional labyrinth that connects all worlds probable and improbable. And it turns out that among the the people who help or hinder his quest - his own traitorous best friend, an immortal man who wields the power of despair, a man with no sense of taste or smell, an earthy psychopath with a taste for chrome shotguns, and a man who drives the world's most unusual car - Darrin may be most improbable visitor to the briarpatch yet.
The best thing about Briarpatch is the worldbuilding. Imagine a bar that serves vampires, or a world of sentient bees that cooperate with beekeepers to produce hallucinogenic honey. That's the kind of imagery that this book delivers with regularity. There are bridges of moonlight that could lead to paradise, and there are supernatural creatures in the shape of cars that show up just where they need to be. There are immortal people who involuntarily teleport in order to prevent themselves from being killed, and there are insane humans who shape-shift into bears.
The way the briarpatch and its effects on people are described, the more I want to visit it myself. There are moments of love and joy and despair, like the immortal man who wanted to be on the moonlit bridge so much that he nearly starved to death basking in its reflected glory - only to have his body become desperate enough to teleport him away to a riverbed so that he could avoid dying of dehydration.
However, in many cases, the plot has serious problems with exposition. The scheme of the main antagonist, Ismael Plenty, is byzantine at best: Ismael is immortal and wants to die, and feels that the only way he can do so is to enter a distant, hard-to-reach part of the briarpatch that shimmers with the light of Heaven. He is convinced that only Darrin can lead the way, because Darrin - like Ismael - is a pure, spontaneous manifestation of the briarpatch itself. Yet he's also convinced that the only way Darrin can enter the briarpatch is to feel intense despair - which is why Ismael has orchestrated the collapse of his life. When Darrin reaches the brink of despair, Ismael plans to swoop in and offer entry to the briarpatch as the solution to his problems.
However, this plan flies in the face of Ismael's interactions with other characters: Before he meets Darrin, he introduces not one, not two, but three of his friends to it, and they all agree, either knowingly or unknowingly, to be part of Ismael's despair-inducing plan. If it's so easy for him to convince Darrin's friends about the importance of the briarpatch, why not approach Darrin himself honestly? I just don't get it.
On top of that, there was one scene that stopped the action in its tracks, where several of the main characters met up and explained everything they knew to each other. In turn, they described in detail their interactions with Ismael and Darrin, and what Ismael promised each of them for their involvement. I understand that this scene needed to happen, but its placement in the book is disorienting: It's in the middle, and a similar all-is-revealed scene happens right near the end. Having a climactic scene like that repeated alters the flow of the book and reduces the impact of the second version near the end.
Finally, while several of the characters are relatable or interesting to read about - Bridget, who is always yearning for new experiences; Orville, the aforementioned man without taste or smell; Arturo, who drives a supernatural being in the shape of a car with trance-inducing headlights - Darrin himself is not very memorable. He's a reasonable, friendly every-man who likes to tool around San Fran taking unusual photographs. Yet he seems too bland and normal - not other-worldly enough - to be taken seriously as an avatar of such a surreal place as the briarpatch. (hide spoiler)]
I liked Briarpatch, but I don't think it's as enjoyable as other stories of Pratt's that I've encountered, like The Ghost of Christmas Possible or Cup and Table.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The Tufa are a community of people who have lived in what is now east Tennessee for hundreds of years - they were there before the arrival of Europeans to North America, yet they aren't Native American. No one knows quite what they are, actually, but the Tufa keep to themselves, and do what they do best: play music. Their music is more than just music, though. They use it to encourage the crops to grow. They use it to heal from injury. They also use it travel the skies along the night wind.
Bronwyn Hyatt is a prodigal Tufa daughter who has returned home to Cloud County, Tennessee, from Iraq after becoming a war hero. Bronwyn was a wild child growing up and joined the army to escape the pressures of home, like her good-for-nothing ex and the obligations of being the First Daughter of a Tufa family. However, now that she's returned, those problems seem more pressing than ever - especially since signs and omens have been showing up marking her mother for death.
Now Bronwyn must heal from her war wounds and regain her lost musical skill in time to inherit her mother's music before she dies.
One of the best things about The Hum and the Shiver is the care with which the Tufa people have been created. Bledsoe has found some particularly ingenious uses for the Tufa's magic - for that's really what their music is, at heart. For example, to discourage reporters from hounding Bronwyn, her family bakes a batch of brownies and distributes them among the press scrum. The brownies, being somehow magically enhanced by Tufa music, fill the reporters with shame and empathy, and encourage them to disperse.
One reporter escapes the shame-by-brownie route, however, and his story forms a compelling sublplot to Bronwyn's. Don Swayback is a has-been journalist whose apathy has caused him to slowly descend the corporate ladder. He also happens to be part Tufa, and his employer sees this fact as the perfect gambit to secure an exclusive interview with Bronwyn upon her return to Cloud County. Now Don has been given an ultimatum: interview Bronwyn, or find a new job. In his attempts to enter the Tufa community and gain Bronwyn's family's trust, he learns more about his previously buried heritage. It's during a key exchange with an outsider (who provides a convenient infodump) that he learns the truth about what the Tufa really are.
Honest to God.
The Tufa (a corrupted pronunciation of tuatha) were a splinter group of fairies who travelled across the ocean and settled in Cloud County hundreds of years ago. Their music is a manifestation of their power, which, aside from making shame-brownies, also allows them to grow wings and travel along the wind. One of the best scenes of the book is when Don and Bronwyn both do this, albeit separately, and regain crucial lost parts of their identities.
Fairy-flight aside, though, things are not perfect. This being eastern Tennessee, highlighting the insularity of the Tufa community requires the insertion of some casual racism into the mix. In this case, it comes from Bob Pafford, the local state trooper.
This particular highway patroller and Bronwyn's ex-boyfriend, Dwayne, are the closest things this book has to antagonists, and while they fulfill those thankless roles well enough, they're a bit too one-dimensional to work. Pafford is a despot lording over his little fiefdom of the back roads, while Dwayne is your typical redneck/sociopath. Ultimately, both are disposed of in one fell swoop in an event that seems a little too pat.
This points to one of the biggest problems I had with the book: the way it handles the deaths of the major characters. As it turns out, the signs and omens of death surrounding Bronwyn's family pertain not to her mother, but to her older brother, Kell.
However, not only does Kell's death happen off-screen (so to speak), but he actually doesn't die at first - Bronwyn has a chance to hear he's injured and see him at the hospital, whereupon he tells her that he feels perfectly fine. It's only after she leaves the hospital to confront his attacker - I'll give you two guesses as to who - that he dies of sudden internal bleeding. While this gives Bledsoe a chance to insert some lovely lyrics of Tufa mourning into the mix, it also feels like a huge cop-out.
Despite this, the entire concept of fairy magic and music in the southern US seems mighty interesting. This is the first book in an entire series about the Tufa - the next one, titled Wisp of a Thing, will be released in 2013.
I'm going to keep my eye out for the rest and see how Bledsoe juggles the other narrative balls he's thrown into the air, like the rest of Bronwyn's family, the Methodist preacher who's fallen in love with her, and even a very special painting in a local library. There's a lot of ornamentation around the edge of The Hum and the Shiver, and it will be interesting to see how Bledsoe fills everything else in.(less)
About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King's career as an author with more personal facets of his life....moreAbout the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King's career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing - arguably the biggest draw - are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King's childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.
What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King's been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, "OK, it's time to put the book down now." And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.
Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn't fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It's a hole that I'm only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.
A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can't expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child - one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.
In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a "writers' toolbox" and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace - know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc - but they're relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a "before and after" sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.
Besides all that, look at the cover. It's got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.
What I disliked: The length - it's too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie, his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it's not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.
The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?(less)
About the book: Hieronymous Falk was a gifted trumpet player in 1930s Berlin. However, he was also a mischling - a person of mixed German and African descent. Fellow jazz musician Sid Griffiths was the last person to see him alive before he was arrested by German forces in a Paris cafe. Now, more than 50 years later, the arrival of a mysterious letter has forced Sid to re-examine his role in Hiero's life - and in Hiero's disappearance.
What I liked: Sometimes, it takes only a small turn of phrase to make me fall in love with a book. Here's the passage near the book's opening when I gave in:
See, thing about the kid - he so majestically bony and so damn grave that with his look of a starving child, it felt well nigh impossible to deny him anything. Take Chip. Used to be the kid annoyed him something awful. Now he so protective of him he become like a second mother. So watching the kid slip into his raggedy old tramp's hat and step out, I thought, What I done got myself into. I supposed to be the older responsible one. But here I was trotting after the kid like a little purse dog. Hell. Delilah was going to cut my head off.
"Majestically bony" was when I gave in and let the book's voice wash over me. Half Blood Blues is full of similarly deft images, like Sid comparing a theatre building to "a slab of cheddar, that lustrous colour and all them angles." I was amazed with how Edugyan managed to write in an extremely slangy and "non-standard" way without reducing Sid or his colleagues into caricatures. Her facility with jazz slang and with voice is amazing.
What I disliked: At one point, Louis Armstrong walks up to the main character as he's sitting on a bench in Paris. The old master consoles Sid by saying that his gift may not necessarily be musical - instead, it is the ability to make others feel like family. While the other musicians he plays with certainly do feel that way about Sid, I remain hard-pressed to explain why: he's not a likeable person. Throughout the novel, Sid is selfish and displays a considerable inability read other people - but those same people welcome, understand, and trust him, sometimes to their own detriment. While this is a brave choice on Edugyan's part, it's also at odds with how the other characters interact with him.
The verdict: It took me a while to sort out how I felt about Half Blood Blues. Initially, Sid was so unpleasant that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book, but, I soon realized that it without a splash of bitterness, it would have had no heart. Ultimately, I found the pacing, characterization, and use of slang to evoke a specific time and place so precise that I respected it in the end.(less)
How would you react if you were told that cells taken from your mother were being used for important scientific research?
How would you react if your m...moreHow would you react if you were told that cells taken from your mother were being used for important scientific research?
How would you react if your mother had been dead for decades when you found out?
And if you found out that these cells were taken without your mother’s consent, and that biotechnology companies were reproducing them for profit, what then?
These questions are at the heart of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the first book by Rebecca Skloot. The premise – that a poor black woman’s cells became the basis for revolutionary (and lucrative) scientific research – seems like science fiction. However, it is science fact, and Skloot skillfully outlines what little we know of Henrietta’s life and death, and how her lifeafter death benefited the scientific community, even as her own family did not know that her malignant cells existed in petri dishes across the country.
Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who had little formal education, and picked tobacco in the same fields as her slave ancestors. In 1951, she died of cancer which originated in her cervix but spread voraciously through her body, covering her liver, kidneys, and bladder. During her first round of radiation treatment for cancer at Johns Hopkins, her doctor cut two dime-sized pieces of tissue from her cervix – one from her tumour, and one from healthy cervical tissue – without her knowledge or consent. Her tissue was then taken to the laboratory of Dr. George Gey, who, like many doctors at the time, was attempting to culture live cells in labs for research purposes. Like almost every other cell sample, Henrietta’s normal cells died after a few days in the culture. However, her malignant cells did not – they grew and thrived, so much so that other doctors, upon learning of their “immortality,” were freely given samples of her cultures for their own research projects.
These cells – now called HeLa, after portions of Henrietta’s name – grew steadily and rapidly, and were remarkably sensitive to contamination by viruses. HeLa cells were instrumental in tests ensuring the viability of Salk’s polio vaccine. They were used in tests examining the effects of radiation on human tissues. They even went into space, being included in the Discoverer XVIII satellite. What’s more, they were incredibly robust, so much so that contamination of other supposedly “pure” cell lines by HeLa became a cause for controversy in scientific communities.
All the while, Henrietta’s family – her siblings, husband, children, and grandchildren – never knew of the importance of her cells to scientific research until 1973, more than twenty years after her death. They didn’t learn about the monetary value of HeLa cells to the scientific community until 1975, when an article was written about them inRolling Stone. Since then, members of Lacks’ family have been convinced that they deserve part of the profits derived from HeLa cells.
Skoot painfully details the Lacks family’s circumstances before and after they learn about the HeLa cells, including the abuse of Henrietta’s children after her death, her youngest son’s encounters with the justice system, her youngest daughter’s fears about her own medical safety, and the effect of the cycle of poverty. By the time Skloot made contact with the Lacks family, its members were deeply suspicious of her motives and worried about another white person trying to profit off of their experiences: even though HeLa cells are worth millions and kept in labs around the world, Henrietta’s own children live on welfare and can’t afford health insurance. Skloot’s descriptions of her encounters with Henrietta’s family are factual and not melodramatic, yet deeply caring and full of respect.
This book, then, is not just about the value of one little-known woman’s contribution to science. It is also about the rights we have to our own bodies when our tissues are kept in labs, the changing nature of informed consent, and how families deal with a potentially devastating legacy. While the ethical implications of HeLa research are staggering, Skloot writes about them with a remarkable even-handedness, and about Henrietta’s family with warmth and care. (less)