In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regul...more~*~ For this review and others, visit the EditorialEyes Blog. ~*~ 4 out of 5
In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regular, law-abiding citizens are kept safe from the criminals, who have all been animalled.
That’s the premise of Lauren Beukes’ brilliantly conceived Zoo City. For reasons no one quite understands, when someone commits a heinous crime (it has to involve murder, it seems), their guilt manifests in the appearance of an animal companion. The human and animal share a link, and the human also derives a special power, or shavi, from this connection. Animals can range from butterflies to tapirs, penguins to panthers. Our main character, the feisty Zinzi December, has been animalled for a few years now because of her role in the death of her beloved brother. Her animal, Sloth, hangs from ropes in her squatter’s tenement when he isn’t draped around her neck, trying to keep her out of trouble.
An ex-journalist and ex–drug addict, Zinzi is out of prison and trying to pay off her substantial debts through various not-always-legal means. For starters, she and Sloth use Zinzi’s shavi, a gift for finding lost things. Zinzi can see psychic threads that connect people to their lost objects, and for a small fee she will crawl down into sewers to retrieve lost rings. But the real money is in the job she loathes: writing scripts for e-mail 419 scams, and occasionally acting the part of the rescued Nigerian princess or savvy South African business partner when the poor suckers being scammed out of their life savings show up in Johannesburg. When Zinzi is hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the missing twin sister in his youthful pop group sensation iJusi, she finds herself thrust back into her shiny, celebrity- and drug-centred old life while she also explores the criminal underbelly of her new world, and it isn’t entirely clear which part is worse, or more dangerous.
Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or “zoos.” No one knows why these people experience intense pain if physically separated from their animal, or why, if the animal dies before the human, the very shadows come to life and swallow the hapless individual whole: the so-called Undertow, which destroys a person entirely, and which seems to be kept at bay by the animal companion. Beukes gives us glimpses into this world through back cover copy of documentaries on the phenomena, Internet message board posts on the subject, physics paper abstracts, religious tracts, and magazine articles. We are just as unclear about how and what is happening as the characters in the book are.
Zinzi is a fantastically realized character, the very definition of spunk, often biting and cruel, just as often sympathetic: she’s in a terrible position but she’s trying to do her best for herself and for the people she cares about. Whether menaced by the people who hire her, whom she refers to by their animal companions as the Maltese and the Marabou; bewildered by her feelings for her married but loving boyfriend Benoit; or conflicted about her place in the world, in this interstice between old life and new, you find yourself cheering her on. She and Sloth are a synergistic and wily team, and though the odds are stacked against them, you want them to win the day.
The writing is sharp, witty and evocative. Descriptions, such as the reclusive record producer’s house smelling like old vase water, Zinzi experiencing a headache “that could rip off the worst hangover’s head and piss down its neck,” or a particularly irritating problem as being akin to a public hair stuck between your teeth, each scene and each bit of dialogue is bang on, and the writing is a joy throughout.
Beukes was born in Johannesburg and currently lives in Cape Town, and Zoo City’s South African setting makes the read all the more interesting and atypical than if it were set in New York City or London. The use of traditional African religious motifs and medicine markets, along with religious and psychological frameworks that are thrust upon zoos, show what a mess the world is. What is shavi, what does it mean to be a zoo, what is Hell’s Undertow, really? All great questions, though it would have been interesting if Beukes had also explored questions of Apartheid or AIDS through the allegory of the animalled in a more overt way. It’s obvious, for example, that the trendy new night club is challenging a taboo when it hires animalled exotic dancers, but it isn’t clear how big a taboo, or how international. The subtext is there, to be sure, but over all the story is more focused on its neo-noir mystery.
Too, it isn’t clear if the ghettos where the zoos are ostracized into living occur all over the world, or if this is unique to the South African experience. Perhaps Beukes wanted to be oblique about these obvious issues or didn’t want to focus her urban fantasy on these problems—not every book set in Africa needs to be Cry, the Beloved Country. Part of the book’s strength is that it doesn’t offer too many details about the zoo phenomenon, but it is also a weakness, because there is so much more that I’d like to see and know about. It leaves the reader feeling a bit frustrated and wanting.
The ending, too, is rushed a bit, changing tacks from where we think we’re going and becoming something else entirely. The pacing could be a bit more even, and the introduction of characters such as Inspector Tshabalala could play a larger role in the story or not be introduced in the first place. The setting, the ontological “shift,” and the first half the world-building story are more interesting than the ultimate finale and the resolution to the mystery Zinzi is trying to solve.
Despite these minor criticisms, however, Zoo City is a fun, enthralling, dangerous read. Nodding to Phillip Pullman and as unique and creative as Oryx & Crake, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and The Quantum Thief, this is a work of immense scope, well-crafted characters, and great intrigue. I can only hope that Lauren Beukes is planning a second installment in this world. It’s too good a sandbox not to want to play in again.(less)
From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel.The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.
Then one day, Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker named Queenie Hennessy who is writing to say goodbye because she has cancer and is dying. Harold is knocked off-kilter: he hasn’t spoken to Queenie in 20 years. When he goes to mail his response, he feels it’s not enough. After a random encounter with a girl who works in a garage, Harold comes to a decision, or a realization, that is somewhat startling for him: if he keeps walking, and believes that Queenie will be waiting for him at the end of that walk, then Queenie will keep living. He calls her hospice and asks them to pass along the message that he will be walking to her, from Kingsbridge in the south to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north, over 500 miles. She must keep living as long as he keeps walking, he insists, and off he goes.
The premise is simple, and a bit illogical, and the protagonist is fully aware that his journey doesn’t make rational sense. His wife can’t understand what he’s doing at first, and as the story unfolds we see that Harold and Maureen don’t understand a lot about each other anymore. As Harold walks, he fills his time with remembrances of memories he has cherished, avoided, and repressed. Maureen, finding herself just as alone at home, all but abandoned and without any real support, remembers too. Harold has no map, no compass, no proper shoes, no food or water. He’s forgotten his mobile at home. And yet, he believes. It’s not a religious belief, and indeed Harold isn’t a religious fellow. His is a journey of a different kind of faith, reflected in the way he phrases his missions “I am walking so Queenie must live.” That quite little “must” encapsulates the whole pilgrimage.
The prose is straightforward in the best possible way: Joyce is a storyteller and doesn’t get bogged down with too-clever or heavy-handed writing. I had a chance to meet her, and she spoke about how carefully she planned out Harold’s walk, knowing exactly where Harold was every day of his journey. This comes across in the splendid details about where Harold stops and what he sees. it sets the tone for the books deep authenticity of her characters, plot, and underscoring emotions. She also teases out the mystery of what happened twenty years ago. I was always curious to discover what happened, and genuinely surprised by the final reveal.
Joyce does an excellent job of creating lonely, fully realized characters. As Harold walks, we learn more about him, almost as he is learning more about himself–and about others. At first, Harold doesn’t talk much to anyone, and hasn’t done throughout his life. He had a terrible childhood, which has caused him to fold in on himself, blocking out life and love. He and Maureen have avoided the neighbours, the office Christmas parties, and over the last twenty years each other. And yet Harold finds himself being helped in a moment of need, or sharing a table with someone who starts to talk to him. The chapter headings are charming: “Harold and the Hotel Guests”; Maureen and the Publicist.” Suggestive of children’s stories, there is a childlike, innocent quality to the narrative. In one of my favourite early encounters (“Harold and the Silver-Haired Gentleman”), a dapper businessman whom Harold feels a bit intimidated by shares a teacake with him, listens to Harold’s story about walking to Queenie, and opens up about a deeply personal problem. And Harold realizes how deceiving appearances can be. This gentleman carries just as much pain, however different it might be from his own, as he and Maureen do.
Maureen undergoes as much of a transformation as Harold does. She starts off not quite as a villain but certainly as a formidable woman who does not share any sort of emotional connection with Harold. As she goes about her day-to-day life she comes to understand how much she misses him, not just since he left but for the past twenty years. At first, there’s no one to mutter to about how she’s the one doing all the bedmaking and laundry; then she thinks about how they stopped laughing together, how she blames him for the problems with David, how she stopped gardening. All the little things that make a marriage and a life. The small changes in her demeanour and attitude add up, and her stationary journey is as important as Harold’s one-foot-in-front-of-the other journey.
The story is at its best when the focus is on these small realizations and encounters, when it’s just Harold or Maureen and their remembrances, or Harold’s encounters with strangers along his path and Maureen’s new friendship with the next-door neighbour. Harold is somewhat derailed in the latter third of the book as his story spreads and a variety of people decide to join him. As Harold is derailed, the narrative is somewhat put off course too, threatening to become a bit preachy and a bit too much of a parable about the perils of groupthink. Still, it’s interesting how well Harold gets along with the individuals he meets along the way and how difficult things become when a number of people form a group with accompanying goals and hierarchies.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about the little things, About Harold accepting the kindness of strangers, and learning what sheep sound like in the night, and not carrying quite so much baggage (physical and otherwise) in order to reach the end of his pilgrimage (a word that he never uses himself). There’s an almost Zenlike quality to his approach. He’s a lovely, shy, broken, healing man. It’s about rediscovering the love that was always there, and about friendship old and new. This book is a bit sentimental, and that’s not a bad thing. Though woven with pain and sadness from the past, it’s a hopeful narrative, filled with a gentle positivity about life in the face of difficulties great and small. There were a few moments throughout where I found myself genuinely teary, and I don’t tend to cry when I read. This story offers a deep, authentic emotional resonance.
Rachel Joyce referred to her surprise at seeing her “little boat” of a book in bestseller lists with “big cruise ships” like Jeffrey Archer. Harold Fry deserves the recognition it’s receiving. It’s a beautiful read, and one that I will certainly reread as the years go by.(less)
Remembrance and forgetting guide the multilayered narratives of Tan Twan Eng's luminous...more5/5. Read this and other reviews at EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
Remembrance and forgetting guide the multilayered narratives of Tan Twan Eng's luminous, Booker Prize nominated The Garden of Evening Mists. So important are they that they're personified as statues of twin goddesses within the titular Japanese-style garden that is found high in the mountains of Malaya. Teoh Yun Ling, a senior judge retiring from the Malaysian bench, is caught between different periods of her life, of remembering and forgetting.
Yun Ling has kept the reason for her retirement, and her subsequent return to the Cameron Highlands, secret from all but a few people: she has been diagnosed with aphasia, which means she will slowly lose her memories and her ability to process the meaning of words at all. Terrified but determined, she flees to the tea estate that once belonged to Aritomo Nakamura, a Japanese expatriate fabled for being the disgraced gardener of the Japanese emperor. This is not the first time she has made this journey. When she was 19, she and her sister Yung Hong were captured by the Japanese. The more attractive Yung Hong was pressed into service as a "comfort girl" for the soldiers. Ironically, her only escape came in the form of daydreams about Japanese gardens, an art form she fell in love with when the family visited Japan years earlier.
Yung Ling makes it out alive, but her sister does not, and she tries to cleanse her memory and her survivor's guilt by using her law degree to go after war criminals. Later, at the time of the Malayan Emergency, she goes in search of the emperor's gardener. Though she hates the Japanese for everything done to her, her sister, and her country, she seeks to heal her trauma and commemorate her sister by hiring Aritomo to create the garden of Yung Hong's fantasies. He refuses, instead offering a compromise: he will take Yung Ling on as an apprentice so that she can make the garden herself.
Now retired, Yun Ling relates these two periods of her life in her memoirs, and in her discussions with another Japanese professional: Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, who is interested in Aritomo's other artistic pursuits, namely ukiyo-e (wood-block prints) and horimono (masterful full-body tattoos). As she tells of the dire political state of Malaya in the 1950s, her work in the garden, her studies in Zen archery, and her unfolding love affair with Aritomo, she underscores it all with the horrors she endured and of the acts she participated in afterward in the name of vengeance. She begins to revisit stories and memories she has long worked to forget, and she finds herself drawing new lines of connection that unearth surprising mysteries and consequences.
Art, tea, guerilla warfare, politics, colonialism. Archery, tattooing, gardening, torture. Families torn apart, freedoms won and lost. . . so much happens across the decades of this quietly epic book. Tan evokes times, places, and pieces of history I had absolutely no idea about or understanding of and makes them come to life. Even as Yung Ling tries to hide her scars, physical and mental, after the war, she sees echoes of them in Magnus, her host, who was taken by the British during the Boer War and still harbours deep resentment and pain. As she remembers the pain she and her sister endured, she also remembers the war criminals she helped put to death. Layers of history and sorrow, of remembering and forgetting, come together to form an exquisitely sad work of art.
The writing in this book is just beautiful, wrapping the reader in the lush, misty green serenity of the Cameron Highlands while offering on a platter the atrocities humans are capable of. “Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds," Yung Ling observes as she casts her eye back over her life. "Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again” (p. 294). Tan jumps effortlessly between the three major time periods of the tale, employing past and present tense to differentiate, and creating distinct voices for Yung Ling, now bitter and filled with hatred, now serene but filled with sadness. The juxtaposition of opposites throughout the novel works in a similar way: the city of Kuala Lumpur versus the country of the Cameron Highlands; colonial versus national interests; heated rainforests versus cool mountains. Remembrance versus forgetting.
Aritomo is a fascinating character, full of surprising angles and well-drawn flaws and strengths. His absence is as important in the "present" narrative as his presence is in the past. The art professor Yoshikawa apologizes to Yun Ling for what his people did to her all those years ago, and she dismisses the apology as meaningless. What she appreciates most about her time with Aritomo is that he never once asked for forgiveness of his people. Instead, he showed her his humanity through his actions and his lessons, and through the intuitive love that springs between them.
A major lesson Aritomo teaches Yun Ling in the art of Japanese gardening is that of shakkei, or borrowed scenery, "taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation" (p. 25). From the reflection of the sky in a pond to a mountain in the distance framed in the garden by vines, shakkei also takes on a deeper meaning: Yung Ling suggests that the exiled Aritomo's memories of his life in Japan are a form of borrowed scenery, brought into his Japanese-style garden in the mountains of Malaya but never truly enough to bring him back to Japan. The same might be said of Yung Ling's memories: the ways in which she must order them in the present, the ways her suppression of them have ordered her life up until this point.
I read The Garden of Evening Mists on vacation, and as I sat on the sun-drenched, postcard-perfect beach, I wept openly during the final chapter. This book of tragedy and healing, trauma and forgiveness, and forgetting and remembrance, is exquisite. It is, perhaps, my favourite book of 2012, and I urge you to pick up a copy.(less)
In this spare, moving graphic novel, Tom Gauld approaches the familiar tale of David and Goliath from an unfamiliar point of view: Goliath’s. Playing with the idea that we only know the victor’s side of history, Gauld creates a deeply human Goliath who is sweet, quiet, and unassuming. Goliath just happens to be quite a bit bigger than the average soldier. He’s not a monster, a warrior, or even an expert fighter. He’s the “fifth worst swordsman” in his unit. But visually, he’s intimidating.
Meanwhile, the king of the Philistines is presented with an idea, a way to end the stalemate wih the Israelites at a cost of only one or two Philistine lives. The king okays it without a second thought, and before poor Goliath knows it, he’s being measured for impressive-looking but shoddily made armour and is pulled off admin duty, which he quite enjoys. He’s sent into a valley and given a script to shout out to the opposing army.
With him is the nine-year-old shield-bearer who has been assigned to him. Day after day they wait in the valley. Goliath shouts the script that his commander has given him, and he and the boy talk. Goliath is an introspective, quiet sort, and contrary to the rumours that the boy asks him to confirm, he doesn’t eat rocks or burn things just by staring at them. In many ways, Goliath is quite childlike, and giving him a child sidekick subtly emphasizes his innocence. The shield-bearer’s loyalty and their quiet friendship is moving, and heartbreaking, because of course we as readers know the ending of this story.
And that’s where a lot of the genius lies here. Gauld knows we know how Goliath meets his end, and he inlays his entire narrative with the tragedy of it. At the beginning, Goliath picks up a huge rock, which is nothing more than a pebble to him. He ponders it quietly. We know that a rock will play an important part in his story, but he doesn’t. His ceremonial armour is falling apart. We know it’s not good news for him…the built-in foreshadowing creates a sorrowful, beautiful palette that Gauld paints on.
And speaking of palettes, the warm earthy browns that form the spectrum for this story, along with the simplicity of the line drawings, are both pleasing to the eye and make for a gentle storytelling style. The choice of different typefaces to differentiate biblical quotes from day-to-day dialogue is wonderful. Gauld’s style speaks to children’s stories while addressing adult themes such as perception, bureaucracy, sacrifice, and the place of a soldier as a cog within a war machine. So much is happening beneath this quiet surface and this simple story.
Much of the story takes place in the stillness of the panels, the waiting for some imminent, awful event to occur. There is a deep emotional resonance here. In making an utterly sympathetic Goliath and inverting the story to show David as a bloodthirsty villain, Gauld has created a timeless and timely tale.(less)
This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? The task...more5/5. This and other reviews available at EditorialEyes Book Blog ~*~
This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? The task is akin to being an art critic who looks at the Mona Lisa in order to write a review—only this is a brand new work, not an age-old classic.
I’m always a bit twitchy when a new work comes out from an author I love. What if it doesn’t live up to my expectations? (See, for example, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I may review that book here if I ever force myself to finish slogging through it.) I needn’t have worried, though. In her latest collection, Dear Life, Munro surpasses herself. This is a gathering of stories set mostly in rural Ontario (“Munroland”), mostly in the not-too-distant past, that are as much about what is remembered by the narrator as what isn’t, as much about what is left out of the story as what is brought into it. This book is a work about the shifting nature of memory and the way we build and rebuild our own narratives.
The book begins with “To Reach Japan,” a story that lets us enter Ontario by starting in Vancouver. As Greta and her young daughter Katy board a train, it’s more than just her husband they’re bidding farewell to for a few months. Greta is letting go of long-held fears, social awkwardness, and prescribed roles, turning her back on social mores, and all based on a chance encounter and a shocking explosion of emotion. But of course it isn’t that easy, and unexpected dangers result. The very imminent threat and fear near the end is so palpable, the reader has to remind herself to breathe.
Munro’s characters live in a concrete but liminal world, in spaces that are absolutely familiar and mundane, and yet that operate on the boarders of society: a train, a sanatorium, the outskirts of town by a gravel pit, the inside of her own head when she was a young girl. Each story is utterly independent of the others, even as they share certain themes and certain settings. Fundamental to these stories are a sense of the strange within the familiar, an inversion or left-turn in the last quarter of the story that takes the reader completely by surprise. Themes of religion and of faith (not always the same thing), and how religious or societal conservatism can inform and constrain an individual or a group thread throughout many of the stories.
Guiding the stories, which are by turn playful and remorseful, light and dark, are questions of memory. Many of the narratives are admittedly incomplete, missing key points that a child couldn’t understand or that have been lost to the narrator as the years go by. Consider “Gravel,” told by an adult narrator looking back at childhood memories. ”I barely remember that life,” she says, “that is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture. All that I retain in my head of the house in town is the wallpaper with teddy bears in my old room” (pp. 91–2). Later, recalling the main incident the story outlines, the narrator tells us as much as she can in a fragmentary way and then gives up: “Beyond that I have no details” (p. 104). Many of the stories play with this question of memory, are framed by absences of backstory or of characters explaining their pasts. These tales exist within the bubbles of the small worlds in which their characters operate.
In “Leaving Maverley,” which is set in a small community in the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town” (p. 67), a cop named Ray finds himself in charge of escorting an introverted teenage girl from an almost cult-like and closed-in family home from her job at the cinema each Saturday night. She takes tickets but is forbidden by her strict father from watching the films. Ray coaxes her to speak on their walks by explaining movie plots, makeup, and special effects to her. The growing but barely narrated consternation his wife feels over his strange attachment to the girl, and his own sense of betrayal when the teen leaves, is breathtaking, and is turned on its head by the second half of the story. Later in the book, in “Dolly,” an older couple’s quiet life together is thrown into chaos by a blast from one of their pasts, while in “Corrie,” a wealthy, single woman and her married lover are being blackmailed, a situation that leads Corrie to a discovery that is totally unexpected to both her and the reader, but which somehow deepens her relationship.
Munro does an excellent job of pairing these shocking (but always entirely believable) turns with timeless stories. In “Train,” I read the first few pages several times to see if I was missing something, but again, the story is created by its absences and lack of information (which becomes more apparent as the story progresses). One character’s choice and life’s path in the latter third took me completely by surprise. In “Amundsen,” a young teacher goes to work in a tuberculosis sanatorium and falls in love with the head doctor. Their story progresses in a way that is both exciting and inevitable. The ending, abrupt and cool, feels like the only possible finale for these characters.
Dear Life ends with a quartet of almost-biographical sketches, which Munro prefaces by saying, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life” (p. 255). These are so gripping in their feeling of truthfulness, and in the tension they hold with the first set of wholly fictional pieces, which are themselves informed by unreliable narrators and gaps in memory.
I can’t recommend these masterful stories enough. I can’t even choose a favourite, though the final quartet must be read by anyone interested in storytelling and in Canadian fiction. No one does it like Alice Munro. And Munro herself just gets better with every new publication.(less)
5/5. This and other reviews available at EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ Will Schwalbe’s mom, Mary Anne, is a human rights activist, a champion of refugees...more5/5. This and other reviews available at EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ Will Schwalbe’s mom, Mary Anne, is a human rights activist, a champion of refugees and of world literacy. She loves her grandchildren, and theatre, and Vero Beach. She has traveled throughout Africa, to Pakistan and Afghanistan and Burma, to Geneva and London, and many other ports of call. She is a formidable fundraiser, an excellent listener, and a voracious reader. And she has been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
In this simple and moving memoir, Schwalbe details the last two years of his mother’s life, with sidetrips into the experiences of people Mary Anne has influenced or been influenced by. Returning home from a humanitarian trip to Afghanistan, Mary Anne becomes quite sick, and doctors diagnose her with a rare form of hepatitis, not surprising given where she’d come from. But as her condition worsens, the diagnosis changes: cancer, the kind that tends to kill in a matter of months. But while Mary Anne’s cancer isn’t curable, it is treatable. As Will and his mom sit in endless waiting rooms together, in sessions of chemo and waiting for scans and before speaking with doctors, they find themselves asking each other what they’re reading, and Will proposes a very special book club: why don’t they read the same books at the same time and discuss them?
This framework supports the memoir, giving it structure. A different book’s title lends itself to each chapter heading: “Too Much Happiness,” “The Hobbit,” “The Lizard Cage,” “People of the Book.” Will and Mary Anne read widely, including classics, contemporary releases, memoirs, religious and philosophical works, and poetry. Fiction dominates their reading list. Schwalbe never delivers major revelations or pieces of advice in his own words, instead picking a beautifully curated selection of quotes from the books he and his mom reads, quotes about the importance of reading, about death, about dying, about living. These quotes draw a unifying story between the experiences of the Schwalbe family and the world all around them.
And through this list of books and the ensuing discussions, Will tells the story of his family, and in particular of his mom. The books prompt all sorts of other conversations, bringing an already close mother and son even closer, strengthening their deep bond and, perhaps, showing each who the other is not just as a family member, but as an adult friend, too. We also hear about the lives of those around the Schwalbe family: dear friends, refugees helped by Mary Anne’s work, others struggling with cancer.
We learn about Mary Anne’s summers spent acting, the friends she made, her choice to work after she was married and had children, first in education and then as the founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. We see marriage and children and grandchildren. We get a picture of an absolutely remarkable and tireless woman who fought on behalf of refugees all over the world and was also there for her family. But Schwalbe doesn’t just paint her with the brush of a saint and leave it at that. Mary Anne’s refusal to see doctors or to put herself first sometimes is evident, and I enjoyed a touching moment of motherly passive aggression at the beginning: Will informs her he’ll be coming in on an afternoon instead of a morning flight and she tells him all the ways that’s messed up her day but promises that she’ll work it out somehow. It’s a wonderfully human moment.
Over the course of two years, we see Mary Anne’s many treatments and tests, her “good days” and her “not so good days,” wedding anniversaries and birthdays, fundraising events and family visits. This isn’t just the story of a death, but of all the day-to-day moments, all of the life lived in the meantime. Mary Anne has been firm about her DNR orders, and that she values quality over quantity of life in the end. While Will in the narrative struggles to come to grips with the fact that one day soon his mom won’t be there, Schwalbe the author is unblinking but respectful as he shows all of the ways that cancer, and the side effects of the treatments, affects a person’s life, and all of the ways that Mary Anne does her best to keep living however much life she has left.
The inevitability of Mary Anne’s death is with you from the title onward, but the book itself is never maudlin or grim. Indeed, it’s an inspiring read. Religion plays a big part in Mary Anne’s life, too, and Schwalbe presents his mother’s beliefs respectfully, even though he doesn’t share them. They also read books of Buddhist philosophy and apply what they learn to the difficult situation they find themselves in. Schwalbe touches on some big themes and topics in his chronicling of his mother’s life and their conversations, from the desperate circumstances in war-torn parts of the world to the need for health care reform in America. The importance of helping others is a major thread running throughout Mary Anne’s life and the memoir; she tells her son, “The important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that’s all you can do. . . .There’s never a good excuse for not doing anything—even if it’s just to sign something, or send a small contribution, or invite a newly settled refugee family over for Thanksgiving” (p. 255).
The importance of books shades the whole narrative: books bring Will and Mary Anne together, yes, but the Schwalbes are also adamant about the importance of reading in the world, of books as a way to bring people into the human conversation, as a way to see places, to understand the lives and situations and histories of others and of ourselves, to bring the gifts of education and connection and imagination. Mary Anne’s last major charity work is the creation of a library in Afghanistan. Her dream is to see young people in Kabul with books in their hands, reading and growing.
Elegantly written, The End of your Life Book Club is emotional without ever being emotionally manipulative. Schwalbe’s is a genuine voice, the story he tells a moving tribute to his remarkable mom, and to the importance of reading. This is a beautiful memoir, one that is as much about a particular family’s experiences as it is about the human experience.(less)
What do you get when you cross a high-stakes quest, an age-old mystery that must be solved by solvin...more4/5. Review to come on EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
What do you get when you cross a high-stakes quest, an age-old mystery that must be solved by solving puzzles, a secret society, references to Dungeons & Dragons, the plight of late-twentysomethings still looking for their path, and all of the computing power at Google HQ? Why, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, of course. Robin Sloane's debut is frothy and nerdy, adventurous and romantic, and, much like Mr. Penumbra's titular store, houses more than is at first evident.
Clay Jannon is something of a slacker. After losing his first job out of graphic design school due to recession woes, he's spending a lot of time on the couch, unemployed, ignoring the budding romance between his roommates. He's waiting for something to happen, an amiable, aimless guy who is meandering through life. As he wanders the streets of San Francisco he finds an extraordinary bookstore: open 24 hours a day, Mr. Penumbra's is a store with "regular" books up front and strange tomes shelved way up into the storeys-high rafters. And he's looking to hire. Clay applies and lands the job as the sole night clerk, mainly because he tells Mr. Penumbra that the books that have most influenced him are the (fictional) Dragon-Song Chronicles. Right answer, evidently. He begins work, and is tasked with the odd assignment of recording as much personal detail as possible about everyone who enters the store—and strangest of all, he is forbidden from reading any of the books. So of course, at the urging of old friends and his new love interest, Kat Potente (who has a giant brain and boundless energy, and works for Google), Clay opens the books and discover that they're encoded.
Mr. Penumbra's is, in a couple of words, really damned fun. Clay is a genial first person narrator, one I never wanted to smack for his lackadaisical manner. He is the Gen Y everyman, caught in a world where the promises that his education would give him a rich life aren't yeilding any real job prospects. The plot is tense, fast, and delightful, rife with geek-chic references and an age-old struggle between tradition versus progress. "Old books are a big problem for us," a Google employee tells Clay earnestly. This "old knowledge" makes up for most of the world's knowledge, whereas most of the Internet has come about in the last five years and accounts for only a tiny fraction of human knowledge. Google wants to scan every book, account for every bit of traditional knowledge, and, among various Googlers' pet projects, discover the secret of immortality.
It just so happens that that's what the secret society of book readers are looking for in Mr. Penumbra's store and other book depositories like it. The two worlds collide when Clay solves the society's secret introductory puzzle in a matter of hours by using his computer, a task that some society members don't accomplish in a lifetime of decoding books. Clay suddenly finds himself on a Dragon-Song-worthy adventure, applying the logic of the game he and his trusty best friend Neel have played together their entire lives, Rockets & Warlocks: "Kat raises an eyebrow and I explain quietly, 'He's the warrior, you're the wizard, I'm the rogue. This conversation never happened.'" He doesn't for a moment believe in the mystical powers Mr. Penumbra's society attributes to their quest, but he finds himself drawn into the politics of their group and he wants answers, no matter whether they're mystical or mundane.
The high adventure never takes itself too seriously. Even the descriptions of Dragon-Song Chronicles is lovingly tongue-in-cheek, celebrating and gently mocking the genre movies and books twenty-and-thirtysomethings grew up with. Unlike Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, to which Penumbra's is oft-compared, this book offers much more plot and more character depth. I disliked Cline's novel because it was little more than a jumble of random 80s nerd references ("Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones, Atari, Back to the Future, Pacman!" was how it read to me). Instead, Clay and his friends are easy to identify with, characters who genuinely care about their fannish passions and single-minded academic pursuits, and who made me care about the outcome of their quest.
At times the story does run a bit thin, relying heavily on humour and geek references to support the one major story arc that all the characters feed into, with a fairly pat ending that leaves the book feeling more like a fairy tale than anything. Further, I'm not sure how well it will hold up over time. This was a great, fun read in 2012, but the references are so "now" that it may feel archaic or even unreadable five, ten, or twenty years into the future—or like nothing so much as the museum artifacts that Clay must at one point track down.
Still, there's a lot more depth to this story than it may at first seem. Sure, on the surface it's all about an adventure to solve an age-old riddle while outrunning a secret society. But underneath, the book addresses a specific problem faced by many of us in our late twenties and thirties: in a postmodern world, after we've spent years and tens of thousands of dollars on degrees that may not get us where we were promised we would go, and when baby boomers aren't retiring and making room for the next generation, what's the next step? Amongst the trappings of Google HQ and the inner workings of museum networks and the secret world of typeface design is a narrative about being caught in between stages of life and figuring out what the next chapter will be.
From the war between new progress and tradition, between new technology versus time-honoured ways, to the twists and turns of Clay's quest, this is a lightning-quick, incredibly fun read. Whether it will stand the test of time remains to be seen.(less)