Monday, October 28, 2013

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton

What Changes Everything is a sentimental novel describing a sampling of the multitude of heartbreaking effects war and violence can have, specifically in the instance of this particular novel, the United States' war in Afghanistan. Hamilton's novel features an ensemble cast of parents, children, siblings, and friends, illustrating the subtle ways by which such a variety of individuals are pulled together by global crisis.

When Clarissa Barbery gets word that her aid working husband Todd has been kidnapped by terrorists while on assignment in Afghanistan, her life is turned upside down. In an odd turn of events, she meets Danil, the street-artist brother of a soldier killed in action while deployed to Afghanistan. Danil remains estranged from his mother due to the nature of his brother's death and her inability to come to terms with the shocking reality.

Clarissa is recommended by her husband's Afghan contact Amin to forgo a military strike on the suspected terrorist safe house that hides her husband for the sake of diplomacy; Amin believes that he can work the system of Afghan familial respect and honor to negotiate for Todd's release. Todd's daughter Ruby seeks the immediate solution of a military strike, preferring to believe that the U.S. military can bring her father home safely, and tensions are heightened by the difference of approach between Ruby and Clarissa.

Amin, former assistant to Afghanistan's former Communist leader Mohammad Najibullah, has spent decades disturbed by his failure in securing Najibullah's release from imprisonment in 1996, when Najibullah was assassinated. He seeks to redeem himself from his previous failings by bringing about the peaceful release of Todd Barbery, despite the danger he puts himself into by aiding an American.

It is Mohammad Najibullah's letters to his family, written during the time of his four year imprisonment, that give this novel a critical historical context, reminding American readers that while we entered into this war in 2001, Afghanistan has suffered from the effects of violence and struggle for much longer. Sadly, Amin's connection to Najibullah, and Todd's limited narration of his experience with his kidnappers are the widest range of the Afghan experience that we are given in this novel, a fact that I personally had a large problem with.

Obviously the situations represented are tense and complicated, not just by sociopolitical differences between Americans and Afghans, but by each characters histories, loyalties, and morals. However gritty the subject matter could have been, though, Hamilton's novel glosses over violent incidents and takes a much more sentimental stand. The novel felt a bit cliche in its dialogue, and characters were unrealistically unambiguous in their good intentions. A novel that's book jacket features politically charged graffiti is expected to have more edge, at least by this particular reader. It is however a very quick read that could appeal to a very wide readership, in that it does not seek to bother the ever flammable opinions of partisan politics.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Circle, Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Circle, imagines a company that has combined and successfully monopolized elements of Kickstarter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter, to name a few. It's reach among young citizens the world over is unparalleled, and it is seen as the most exciting company to work for. Mae Holland is hired in with the assistance of her former college roommate Annie, who has been climbing up The Circle ranks for a number of years. Starting in the Customer Experience department, Mae learns the ropes, and sees that working for The Circle is an understatement; employees are expected to participate within it's social network and community as much as they are responsible for performing their work duties.

The universal operating system that is The Circle has increased online efficiency in an unprecedented way. All purchasing, banking information, personal data, anything attributed to an online presence has been unified in a system that forbids anonymity, seemingly taking the drama out of internet interactions by making the individual accountable for any and all web deeds. Without anonymity, no one can escape responsibility for nasty comments and identity theft, or so goes the theory.

Indeed, privacy is seen by the Three Wise Men (as the three tops of the company are referred to) as selfish; every piece of information and experience should be made accessible to all citizens the world over. They imagine a Utopia of data sharing, where nothing is off limits and class structures are erased by the power of information sharing.

The skeptical reader will raise an eyebrow when Mae is called into human resources for problem mitigating because she didn't attend a party she was invited to online and her dedication to the company is questioned; or when Mae's health stats become a part of her online presence, viewable by all Circle account holders; and when The Circle produces webcams that are cheap enough to put in just about any location, and enable live feeds from every camera to be accessible to all Circle members. The level of surveillance and transparency The Circle aspires to is terrifying.


Mae's success within the company skyrockets when she agrees to go fully transparent, wearing a camera around her neck and providing a live feed of every move she makes, only stopping the feed's audio when she uses the bathroom, and only going offline after 10:00pm if she's going to sleep. Thousands watch her day to day around The Circle campus, as she participates in massive parties, has access to unreleased products to test and rate online, and witnesses The Circle digest the brainchild of countless young thinkers, dying to have their products/concepts manufactured and marketed by the omnipotent Circle.

The Circle is not without it's naysayers though; an enigmatic man habitually questions Mae, and begins to demand that she use her online presence to warn the masses of the dangers inherent in dedicating so much of their lives to their Circle accounts. Mae's family is given free health care, taking a monumental financial load off of her father, who has been struggling with MS. The cost, however, is that they live with these webcams all over their home. The Circle feels that they should want to share their experiences with others who deal with the disease, but they quickly cover the cameras with fabric, attempting to maintain some privacy.

Mae's ex boyfriend, still a presence in her parents' lives, also takes issue with The Circle, believing that it dehumanizes and belittles actual one-on-one interaction. Indeed, Mae is so busy on her phone "smiling" or "frowning" at her followers' comments that she can barely participate in dinner conversation. Sound familiar?

 Mae's naivete and oftentimes vapid outlook make her a very difficult protagonist to read. There are so many situations where her ambition and need for authentication via The Circle's social sphere lead her down a very shortsighted, selfish path. Inevitably it is that very naivete and selfishness that drive the novel right into the frightening territory Eggers' wishes to suggest our web-obsessed culture is doomed to take us.

While I certainly appreciate what this novel seeks to accomplish, the metaphors are so obvious it feels awkward. There just wasn't much finesse to how the novel was imagined. It doesn't really delve into any great depths, so much as offer a summary of the varying problems such a monopolizing, totalitarian social network could have on humanity. One is left at the end of the novel at the foothills of the mountain that is Singularity, vaguely aware that an internet creation so all-encompassing can have no other direction in sight.

It's a very straight forward telling of some very complex questions that need to become a part of everyone's discourse. Eggers' true achievement in this novel is that it is imagined only a few years out from what we are currently living. What he's created isn't much of a creative leap, so much as a surreal foreshadowing.

“We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

Harvest, Jim Crace

Jim Crace turns a pastoral idyll upside down, with the most breathtaking descriptions I have read in a long time. The rhythm is mesmerizing, creating a fearless poetic landscape not simply of the farmlands Walter Thirsk has inhabited with his fellow villagers, but of the human heart. It may not have won the Man Booker, but this shortlister was well worth the read!

Thirsk came to the unnamed village at an unknown moment in history, to be estimated as anywhere between the 1770s, and the 1880s. This is when the Houses of Parliament were tweaking their fifteen or so varying Enclosure Acts, giving landowners the power to take what had been unfenced common fields, and close them off as sheep herding land. He is not born of the lands he has found himself on, but considers himself a vital part of the community, having been married to one of the locals before her unexpected passing. The simultaneous discovery of foreigners on the outskirts of the villagers' realm, as well as the setting of the barn fire the day after harvest, sets the community to wondering and finger pointing, making even the recently widowed Thirsk's place within the group uncertain.

“There's not a season set aside for pondering and reveries. It will not let us hesitate or rest; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it. It has no time to listen to our song. It only asks us not to tire in our hard work. It wants to see us leathery, our necks and fore-arms burnt as black as chimney oak; it wants to leave us thinned and sinewy from work. It taxes us from dawn to dusk, and torments us at night; that is the taxing that the thrush complains about. Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools.”

To make matters far more tense, Thirsk and his neighbors have noticed another stranger in their midst during harvest. They come to call this one Mr. Quill, as he is mapping out the details of their village. Mr. Quill is clearly working with the support of their landowner Master Kent, a childhood friend of Thirsk's despite class differences, and also a widower. Sadly, Kent is about to be overturned by a direct inheritor of the land; despite years of gently ruling his country neighbors and sharing the labor of planting and harvest. Kent is to be usurped for having no male heir, by his brother in law who will enclose the lands for sheep, scattering the great majority of the villages' population to the winds.

“The mood has changed. It's heavier. We were liquid; now we're stones."

Of course all of these issues culminate into violence; the villagers assume the worst of the new faces on their lands and throw the menfolk of the group in the stocks with a week's sentence for the barn fire. Despite Thirsk's suspicion that a handful of local troublemakers were actually to blame, he keeps quiet.

An accidental death, the spilled secret of what is to be done to the common land, and a grisly attack on the landowner's horse launch all the inhabitants of the village into action, be it for self preservation, or to maintain some semblance of control on the violence. A couple women, and even a small girl are rounded up for questioning, and abused until they confess to witchcraft. The villagers close in upon themselves, labeling Thirsk and the foreigners as enemies.

Our narrator was far from perfect, despite his habit of romanticizing the village and his work. He is pushed and tested to his absolute limits, and Crace sort of shocks the reader with how far even Thirsk was willing to go; this seemingly mild mannered introvert becomes a daring witness to both sides of the village's fall, trusted by Master Kent with the scope of the problems as more than just another farm laborer.

Yet this is not a novel red with blood or loaded with violence; it is tastefully wrought, more of a major catalyst for how the villagers will never be able to recover what they had as the novel opened. Harvest is a brilliant novel about change, survival, and xenophobia, and could not possibly be more timely. So much changes in our own landscape, and Crace's novel asks us: are we too busy being afraid of what we don't know, to notice that what could truly damage us was right under our noses?

Monday, October 7, 2013

We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names is an exemplary piece of post colonial fiction; but even that understates its personality. It eloquently questions how we develop concepts of home, when the country we knew is not only far away, but unbelievably unfamiliar within a new cultural experience. This wonderful strangeness of foreign viewpoints is magnified by the narrators' youth  in Bulawayo's vibrant debut novel.

Starting in Zimbabwe as a young girl, Darling traverses her territory with street smarts from having experienced too much political upheaval and bloodshed, accompanied by her gang of friends that, however different their geography, would resemble any gang of children anywhere in the world. The novel sees her through immigrating to America, to a place her friends back home only know as "Destroyedmichygen," where Darling believes her life will be full of Lamborghinis and Kim Kardashian.

Despite a landscape marred by decades of post colonial political unrest and AIDS, the novel begins with the camaraderie  of Darling's friends scavenging for guavas. They naively mock foreign affairs and international power structures with their "Country Game," aware that countries like the United States or France mean strength to the international community, whereas their own country is broken and poor. They innocently hope that getting rid of Chipo's stomach means she will no longer be pregnant at an age when American children would be attending middle school; a pregnancy brought upon her by her own grandfather. Readers experience the sadness of watching children stealing guavas from neighborhoods where food is thrown away in large quantities, political groups destroy an entire community's housing, clothing falls apart to the point of no longer being functional, and children tend to parents ravaged by AIDS. Yet Darling's gang perseveres, dreaming of sports cars and Lady Gaga.

The youthful misunderstandings of English and pop culture bring another layer of wry commentary and linguistic brilliance on the part of Bulawayo, creating humorous anecdotes amidst despair. "The problem with English," for herself and many Africans, Darling says is that, "when we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men."

It is when Darling moves to Detroit to be with her aunt that the pigeoning begins to be buffed out as she learns how out of her depth she is, her dreams of Hollywood personalities and iPods tempered by snow and gang violence on the streets. She dreads relaying the truth of life in America to her mother and friends back home.  The gap that was once just geography widens with experiences they cannot share with Darling as she comes of age in Michigan, with President Obama's campaign and earlier years in Office, Internet pornography, and shopping malls.

Yet not even in this new country does she feel that she belongs, constantly belittled by strangers whose ignorance of African politics and diversity confuses and alienates Darling. At a wedding, she is needlessly questioned about the state of things in the Congo, as if being of the African continent make her an emissary of all countries, and perhaps worse, a young girl would want to chit chat about the violence and chaos that made her virtually a refugee with a total stranger. Her boss at the grocery store she clerks at during high school joins in with the patronizing talk; "I know you've seen all sorts of crazy shit over there." Bulawayo captures the frustration of trying to fit in with great authenticity.

Darling brims with strength and dignity, and NoViolet Bulawayo's debut unfolds intelligently, ushering in a youthful perspective on the modern trials that face immigrants coming to America. This is a novel that proves that while we may live in a world that seems smaller thanks to Skype, international phones, and enhanced communications, we can still be separated by immense barriers, and typically have far more to learn from the rest of the world than we may be conscious of. Thankfully, here is a fierce, sharp author happy to remind us, who I am thrilled to see short listed for the 2013 Man Booker!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin's most recent novella is absolutely not short on feeling. It's an emotional triumph, blazing with regret and sadness. In a rather secular take on Mary, the mother of Jesus, The Testament of Mary portrays her as a solitary older woman, spending her final days telling her stark story of bitterness and blood to two of his followers, whose agenda is to change the world. 

A note to review readers: this is fiction. Don't allow for Toibin's representation of Mary and/or final days of Jesus Christ to be spoiled because of your spirituality. When viewed simply as a fictitious account of a world renowned historical figure, this novella becomes profound in its imaginative powers for being able to take something incredibly familiar, and still be insightful.  Having said this, Im sure some may find Toibin's interpretation jarring because of changes to the Biblical story. 

Mary journeys to Cana for a wedding, and also to see for herself what many are saying her son has done: he has resurrected Lazarus. She is not portrayed as a heartfelt believer in her son, merely a mother begging him to return home with her, to be safe from the Romans and Jewish leaders whose power swells with their anger and fear. 

Mary simply remembers the baby she birthed, remembers how "the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined." Upon meeting her son, however, Mary finds him who was once "delicate and awash with needs," grown into something shockingly changed.

 "There was nothing delicate about him now, he was all displayed manliness, utterly confident and radiant, yes, radiant like light is radiant, so that there was nothing we could have spoken of then in those hours, it would have been like speaking to the stars or the full moon."

The story of the crucifixion is familiar to us, yet it is the mother's narrative that forces us to view the violence and despair with new eyes: "I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but it was so contorted in agony and covered in blood that I saw no one I recognized." 

It is grief and memory layered upon a bitter twist to the end of events that drives Toibin's novella into a new imagining, as Mary decides to flee the scene of her son's death to save her own life, rather than wait to care for his remains and be arrested as one of his followers, a decision that will haunt her until her own demise:

"I have dreamed I was there. I have dreamed that I held my broken son in my arms when he was all bloody and then again when he was washed, that I had him back for that time,that I touched his flesh and put my hands on his face, which had grown beautiful and gaunt now that his suffering was over."

No matter your affiliation or beliefs, I feel confident that there exists an immense achievement in this novel. It concisely evokes a searingly painful moment of mother love, daring to ask how it may have felt for the world famous Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, to simply be a protective mother. Look at it this way... if you are concerned the differences from the Bible may make you  uncomfortable, it isn't a massive undertaking at 81 pages. 

This is the third of the Man Bookers short listed for 2013's award that I have reviewed, and I am honestly not convinced that this particular one is up to par, should you ask for my personal opinion. It is brave and emotive, yes, but almost too simple, too concise, hindered by its brevity.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer I would consider to be very subtle with her emotional insight. In her fourth novel, The Lowland, she ambitiously exposes readers to a complex moment in India's history, the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, and the ever painful aftermath revolutionary violence can have upon a family.

Brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra are only separated by fifteen months, and have always been mistaken for one another desptie Subhash, the eldest, being so reserved and cautious, while Udayan the youngest, is the more precocious counterpart. Both brilliant in school, it is during their twenties that Udayan grows frustrated with post-colonial politics, and slowly becomes involved with the Naxalites of Calcutta. While always aware of their differences, it is Udayan's political zeal that slowly pushes the brothers apart, especially once Subhash leaves India to study in Rhode Island. 

Impulsive and passionate, Udayan falls for quiet philosophy student Gauri, and is unceremoniously married to her, in spite of his parents wishes. Despite the hope typically implicit in expanding a family, the Mitra family grows segmented and cold with one another. Udayan crosses the line from political activist to enemy of the government, and begins to live a double life of secrets and unexplained absences, afraid even to confide in Subhash, whose temporary visa status as a student in the United States could be jeopardized. Tragedy strikes early in the novel, and the Mitra family as it remains shatters into both large and breathtakingly small pieces.

The novel is propelled forward by the amazing contrast between careful Subhash and daring Udayan; indeed, their early relationship with each other creates a lovely mirror for the two incredibly powerful ways that nations are either changed, or left to stagnate. The whole family must move on from unbelievable tragedy, and at first Subhash and Gauri believe that the only way to escape their grief is to flee India. They slowly come to realize that Udayan's absence can only eat at their hearts even more over time, especially while they struggle to make a place for themselves in the stark landscape of coastal Rhode Island.

I have always admired the truly beautiful way that Lahiri describes the powerful isolation inherent in leaving ones' home country behind, or in grieving. The Lowland is powerfully ambitious because it shows the multi-generational effects these massive life events can have upon identity. The loss of country as well as family rolls from one generation to the next, leaving empty rooms, empty houses, empty furniture, and broken hearts.

It's a beautiful novel, full of loss and emotion, brave in it's handling of three generations' differences and grieving. Lahiri calls all possible different familial roles into question, fearlessly discussing the ways we can fail others, even as we fail ourselves. It is a very sad book, but one I'm eager to recommend as it is so wonderfully crafted. It became available today, and don't forget that it is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize of 2013! If you haven't read my review for Ruth Ozeki's shortlisted novel A Tale For the Time Being, make sure you check it out.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

"Bring up the bodies!" the famous cry to bring the accused of London's Tower to stand trial, words uttered the days of Anne Boleyn's trial, as well as the cases of those accused of treason alongside her. Hilary Mantel won a second Man Booker in 2011 for this novel, steeping even greater anticipation upon a novel retelling such a dramatic turn of events; Henry VIII can not divorce a second wife yet would be rid of the tempestuous Anne Boleyn, despite the great lengths he resorted to in making her Queen of England. I will spare you more back story; yet Mantel breathes furious energy into a histoical moment that has become 'old hat' in modern fiction.

Mantel's characterizations are even more important in the follow up novel to Wolf Hall, as Anne's fiery personality goes under the microscope as the mousy Jane Seymour attracts the King's attentions. And so Thomas Cromwell is called in again, to make legal the parade of women it may take Henry to get a son, an heir to the throne. Tensions burn even hotter in this novel, and the pacing increases as Mantel tells this particular story with even more dialogue, relishing in the various personalities and their power-mongering ways. It makes for a more accessible read than Wolf Hall did, with less background and slow simmering, but all of the elegance in phrasing of the 
Master Cromwell shows his first signs of fear, as he knows that his loyalty to the King will not protect him from all of the ambitious courtiers, especially when he moves to put the grasping Anne aside the only resounding way possible: execution. 

The political witch hunt as Mantel portrays it may not have every last historical detail. It's an overwhelming chess board of names and titles, and I personally don't believe that Mantel's fiction loses any power or integrity by dropping some subtle elements of the history. Better to pace it just so, flesh out wholly what is represented, than become tedious, especially as so many have commented that they found Wolf Hall such work. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood

What a thrill for me, to have an opportunity so early in the existance of this blog to share an author I have never written about yet truly enjoy, with the release of her most recent book! Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer, who has truly changed the way I read. She effortlessly creates such complete dystopias, from the classic stand-alone novel The Handmaid's Tale, to the trilogy that Maddaddam finishes.

“There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

Maddaddam is a spellbindingly deep dystopia. The world has been ravaged by a devastating virus created by the mastermind Crake, wiping out humanity with a flood-like efficiency to clear the way for Crake's newest bio-engineered creation, the dangerously naive "Crakers." The few human survivors of the plague are a ragtag ensemble of former bio-engineers, God's-Gardiners (a farming co-op that takes the idea of hippy culture to an almost Jainist level), and Pleeblanders. Threatened by the violence and untrustworthiness of other potential survivors and their weaponry, as well as the dangers of wildlife, including bioengineered creatures like liobams and Pigoons, the group of survivors that came together in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are left trying to protect themselves and the Crakers, whose simplicity and youthfulness makes them such easy targets.

This installment is a delicious ode to the power of storytelling, as former Gardiner Toby regales the Crakers with the histories of the plague, as well as their own creation, continuing from where Oryx and Crake's Snowman left off. She is bound by their deeply religious understanding of how the world as they know it came to be, as well as their painful reverence of Crake and Oryx. How to tell them the damage Crake's machinations truly created, without upsetting their sensibilities? How to tell them anything, when they were created without concepts like ownership, writing, or even sexual control. The story telling becomes very mythological and darkly comic, as Toby is intermittently offering poignant reasonings for the very things we take so for granted as parts of 'human nature.'

There is so much beauty in the interactions between the survivors of the plague and the Crakers; even within the dark end-of-the-world circumstances, the community that has come together shares food, shelter, and attempts to move forward with love. Couples bond, women become pregnant, and despite a narrative delving so deep into such a tragic past, the tone of this trilogy's conclusion is one of bittersweet hope.

Margaret Atwood has concocted an incredibly full future setting, bursting with creative nunaces and details. Atwood's acknowledgements at the end of the novel include the following:

"Although ‘MaddAddam’ is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory.”

Now isn't that terrifying! This novel is set within our own century, and if that doens't make you savor every fine detail of this trilogy, nothing will. When fiction can participate in conversations about future technologies and bio-engineering ethics so insightfully, it is our responsibility to take note, especially when presented to us so respectfully by the prolific Margaret Atwood!

Atwood is always razor sharp, but in Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam, her darkly comic insights pack the pages, offering so much for discussion. Maybe you'll think twice about what's in that wrinkle preventative skin cream you use nightly, or read more about the preservatives in your food. Not to be too morbid, but this is the effect good fiction should have. Techies, science enthusiasts, literature lovers, all can unite in this brilliant dystopia creation!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

I dearly appreciate the book recommendations my friends share with me, and that is what led me to Kate Atkinson's newest novel, where Ursula Todd dies, and gets multiple chances to relive her life in its entirety.

Born into an upper middle class family in 1910, in a well romanticized English countryside, Ursula experiences her first reincarnation almost immediately, as she is born strangled by her own cord. Immediately the birthing scene begins anew, but this time Ursula survives the birth. As her life continues, she dies again. After multiple restarts on her own chronology, the child Ursula begins to feel imminent threats to her core, the vibrations of where her previous life lead her to her death, attempting to guide her away.

It's a very interesting concept. Ursula is seemingly the agent of most of the changes that either extend her own, or her family members' lives. Atkinson's novel never offers a reason for Ursula's reincarnations. It's an interesting use of magical realism to show the drama within the seemingly simple choices we make, and how they can effect our nearest and dearest. There is wisdom and economy in the various tellings of this family's experiences as they navigate The Great War, coming of age, abuse, and World War II.

Atkinson paints a fabulously sentimental picture of English country life, family love, and the Civil Defense during The Blitz. It's a lovely novel, but not perfect. There's a certain climactic moment where it crosses into alternate history, and this felt cliche. Ursula's changes were so focused onto the Todd's chronology, their survival specifically. It felt overly dramatic to suddenly have Ursula trying to change the course of global history, when her siblings are born again and again into the same jobs, the same marriages. It just didn't seem consistent with the nature of the other changes that Ursula puts into motion during her reincarnations.

Some incarnations follow up with some characters, and others leave their lives hanging, seeking only to resolve an issue brought up by the most recently ended "life". In this manner, I can understand why certain reviewers are comparing the novel to our childhood 'choose your own adventure' reads. Atkinson panders to our consumptive tendencies to seek out stories that have very clearly defined resolution (ie, Ursula manages to avoid the man she had married and whom subjects her to domestic violence in a previous incarnation).

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed reading about the Todds; Atkinson really beautifully plays with the different dynamics their relationships (as siblings, parents and children) could evolve into throughout each new incarnation Ursula experiences. The narrative does not suffer from a feeling of repetition, either. Every new start just added a new layer of familiarity and emotional connectivity to the family.

I feel like Life After Life is a very approachable novel due to its historical content and sensitivity for family relationships, and would be an enjoyable read for book club discussion. It just betrayed itself by stepping a little too far into the realm of alternate history.

Friday, August 23, 2013

That's Not A Feeling, Dan Josefson

Dan Josefson's debut novel is an odd piece of fiction set in a darkly wrought juvenile camp for troubled children in upstate New York. Benjamin has been abandoned at Roaring Orchards by his parents and narrates his immersion into the strange community that is made up of unreliable, neurotic adults serving as counselors, and their delinquent young charges. These adults are hinted to have just as serious personal problems plaguing them as the kids at the camp, and multiple even dislike the techniques and structure that make Roaring Orchards so different.

The novel is populated by such a large cast of adults and teens that you don't really get a strong sense of any personalities, even our oddly omnipotent narrator Benjamin, who inexplicably describes scenes he didn't witness. Indeed, the character most likely to encourage connection with a reader is Tidbit, who is the closest thing Benjamin has to a friend, and also a compulsive liar. Tidbit's experience with the camp sets the scene, but again oddly enough, as narrated by Benjamin. It's an uncomfortable structure that muddied the waters for me. I kept waiting for Benjamin to have meaningful moments with counselors like Aaron and Doris, who he offers incredibly intimate insights on, but my waiting never offered up any fruit in that case

There really isn't a slow build up to any particular climax, but more the meandering nonsense of day to day antics and outbursts of the kids, paired with the ineffectual and oftentimes laughable pseudo-psychology of the camps' staff, as headed by the elusive and charismatic Aubrey.

The kids are routinely ostracized and manipulated, and sinister enough in their desperation to manipulate right back. That is where Josefson truly shines; you absolutely believe them capable of the haphazard chaos they create within and around themselves. There's a shamelessness in the drama that is life within this dry, sometimes bleak place that Josefson evokes consistently throughout this novel.

Aside from those bursts of action supplied by trouble making kids, the novel doesn't build directly upwards into a climax. It can be a bit dry at times, and chillingly unpredictable. The drawback is that it didn't encourage me to read on from chapter to chapter; it really felt like work. The humor is quiet, and bittersweet. You'll laugh as you flinch at the awkwardness of the shunning and other absurd counseling techniques. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Habibi, Craig Thompson

I fell in love with comics at a young age, but it took a more educated, experienced mind to appreciate the emotional depths that graphic novels and comics can evoke with their combination of literary story telling and breathtaking illustrations. Craig Thompson, as the author of multiple graphic novels including the award winner Blankets, weaves an ambitious web of art and myth in his 2011 publication, Habibi.

Habibi tells the story of an escaped slave girl, Dodola, who escapes with another slave's baby, Zam, and raises him in poverty with the stories of Islamic and Eastern lore. Their love and devotion to each other is tested by their various shared and individual experiences, as sex, power, and racial identity threaten to tear them apart.

Indeed, Habibi features some intense instances of violence, racism, and sexual savagery. There's quite a lot to be said about this novel in terms of its mature content. For the sake of not trying to lead anybody's personal reading experience, all I will say is that this is a work to be celebrated for it's dramatic imagery, and complex amalgamation of language scripts, iconography, and Eastern art.

The intertwining of Dodola and Zam's histories with stories and myths make for a complex, earthy reading experience, massive in scope. I don't recommend reading this novel as any sort of depiction of modern Arabic culture, but rather as it's own narrative, enhanced by the rich story telling tradition of the Middle East.

Maybe reviewing this graphic novel as my first feature from that medium is a bit like shoving a non swimmer straight into the deep end of the swimming pool. I was extremely excited by the visual feast that Thompson has constructed, and eager to put together a post! If you're new to graphic novels, definitely check out Blankets (see right), his earlier Eisner Award winning graphic novel. It's a darling coming of age story about love and opening up to your own spiritual identity that I also heartily recommend! Blankets is admittedly a bit more user friendly, but not a bit less beautiful than the epic of Habibi.

I certainly plan on reviewing more graphic novels. It makes up a pretty good chunk of my reading these days, and thankfully I constantly have friends recommending new titles!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Man Booker vs. Me

Well, Wolf Hall was only the second Man Booker Prize winning novel to be read in the year 2013. What can I say, I've been slacking.

I talk a lot about these award winning novels, post to my Facebook account the longlist announcements (ya, nerd) and keep up with the whole process as best I can via the news feeds at! I personally find the whole thing super exciting!

It's not that I assume that the books that win this, the Orange Prize, or the Pulitzer Prize are legitimately going to be my favorite new releases. It's just that working my way through the award winners of these prizes has introduced me to authors, topics, and themes that I may not have experienced without the guidance these lists supplied me with.

So, where in the scope of the Man Booker list is this blogger? Well, let's see!

1969 P. H. Newby Something to Answer For Not Read  United Kingdom
1970 Bernice Rubens The Elected Member Not Read United Kingdom
1970 J. G. Farrell Troubles Not Read United Kingdom
1971 V. S. Naipaul In a Free State Not Read  United Kingdom
 Trinidad and Tobago
1972 John Berger G. Not Read  United Kingdom
1973 J. G. Farrell The Siege of Krishnapur Not Read  United Kingdom
1974 Nadine Gordimer The Conservationist Not Read South Africa South Africa
Stanley Middleton Holiday Not Read  United Kingdom
1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Heat and Dust Not Read  United Kingdom
1976 David Storey Saville Not Read  United Kingdom
1977 Paul Scott Staying On Not Read  United Kingdom
1978 Iris Murdoch The Sea, the Sea Not Read  Ireland
 United Kingdom
1979 Penelope Fitzgerald Offshore Not Read  United Kingdom
1980 William Golding Rites of Passage Not Read  United Kingdom
1981 Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children Not Read  United Kingdom
1982 Thomas Keneally Schindler's Ark Not Read  Australia
1983 J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K Not Read South Africa South Africa
1984 Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac Read  United Kingdom
1985 Keri Hulme The Bone People Not Read  New Zealand
1986 Kingsley Amis The Old Devils Not Read  United Kingdom
1987 Penelope Lively Moon Tiger Read  United Kingdom
1988 Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda Not Read  Australia
1989 Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day Read  United Kingdom
1990 A. S. Byatt Possession Read  United Kingdom
1991 Ben Okri The Famished Road Not Read  Nigeria
1992 Michael Ondaatje The English Patient Not Read  Canada
Barry Unsworth Sacred Hunger Not Read  United Kingdom
1993 Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha Not Read  Ireland
1994 James Kelman How Late It Was, How Late Not Read  United Kingdom
1995 Pat Barker The Ghost Road Not Read  United Kingdom
1996 Graham Swift Last Orders Not Read  United Kingdom
1997 Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things Read  India
1998 Ian McEwan Amsterdam Read  United Kingdom
1999 J. M. Coetzee Disgrace Not Read  South Africa
2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin Read  Canada
2001 Peter Carey True History of the Kelly Gang Not Read  Australia
2002 Yann Martel Life of Pi Read  Canada
2003 DBC Pierre Vernon God Little Read  Australia
2004 Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty Read  United Kingdom
2005 John Banville The Sea Not Read  Ireland
2006 Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss Not Read  India
2007 Anne Enright The Gathering Not Read  Ireland
2008 Aravind Adiga The White Tiger Not Read  India
2009 Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall Read  United Kingdom
2010 Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question Read  United Kingdom
2011 Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending Read  United Kingdom
2012 Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies Not Read  United Kingdom

So, out of forty four years of awards... I've read thirteen. Yikes. Curse that tie in 1974!! I've got some work to do! That's the glorious thing about this plan of mine, though. I've got a lifetime of both global and homegrown literary treasures to go to. Have you subjected yourself to any awesome book challenges?

Also, has anyone read any of the novels selected for the Man Booker's 2013 longlist? Check out my review of one of the selections, A Tale For the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki! Is it a coincidence, or some literary foresight yours truly is privy to? Yah... let's not get delusional!

**Thanks to Wikipedia for this absurdly informative chart. Anyone else notice that there are no winners from a South American nation, nor any from countries on the Asian continent, except India?