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.