May 5, 2016

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, by Dave Eggers

I partly don't know what to think of this experimental novel, and partly really enjoyed it. The experimental bit is because it is a novel entirely made of dialogue. There is no description, no narration of any kind. Just two people talking. It sounds rather boring, except when you learn that the two people talking are a kidnapper and the kidnapped. He doesn't want to harm anyone, just wants to talk. He's been writing letters but no one's been answering, and this seemed the only logical way to get his questions heard. I won't say anything more about the story itself since that would ruin it, and I do think this is a book worth picking up. The lack of narration and description allow the reader to build a picture in her own mind of what's happening, and to focus intensely on the emotion and nuance of the dialogue. We have to; there's nothing else to focus on. It's a very quick read (haven't you ever noticed that reading dense, descriptive sections takes much longer than reading the dialogue?) and very hard to put down. And while I don't know that I'd read too many other novels written in a similar fashion, I thoroughly enjoyed this experiment and recommend others try it as well.

May 1, 2016

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin

Picking up this memoir of a white man born and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I expected something similar to Alexandra Fuller's Don't Lets Go To the Dogs Tonight. This is an altogether different beast, not at all like Fuller's remembrance of her African childhood. Instead, this is a stirring and disturbing account of Zimbabwe's shockingly fast decline under the notorious dictator Robert Mugabe. Ravaged by AIDS - in 1980 the life expectancy was 54 while at the time of publishing (2006), it was a depressing 34 - and decimated by hyperinflation, Zimbabwe's "free democracy" obliterates the middle class and improverishes even further the already poor, both black and white. And Mugabe's anti-white rhetoric, after years of relatively peaceful existence, stirred up a well-armed (and military-supported) mob to threaten white farmers with violence if they didn't hand over their farms to black Zimbabweans. Farmers and their families are run off, robbed, and murdered, and since the men who seize their farms know nothing of farming, crops lie rotting in fields and never get replanted, contributing to the food shortage, rampant inflation, and healthy black market.

In the middle of all this, Godwin's parents are aging and their health is fading. His father has a heart attack, his mother needs a hip replacement, his father is in constant pain due to gangrene in his feet. The book starts with his father's funeral pyre and ends with the same, and in the middle we learn much about the Rhodesia that was, the Zimbabwe that briefly was, and the Zimbabwe that is now (at least in 2006). And through all this, Godwin's father offers a startling piece of personal history: he isn't actually the proper British gentleman he'd always presented himself as. George Godwin was born in Poland to a Jewish family and was sent to England to study when he was fourteen. The outbreak of World War II prevented him ever returning to Poland, from ever seeing his family again, and leaving his mother and sister victims of the Treblinka gas chambers

The writing is very good, powerful and passionate and helpless at the same time, as Godwin watches his country and parents fall apart. While the parts about his father's heritage and Godwin's research into his family's fate during the war are fantastic, they do seem a bit out of place in a memoir ostensibly about Africa. He ties the themes together nicely, but I couldn't help feeling that Godwin really had two books here, one about Africa and one about discovering his Jewish identity. My only other complaint would be the persistent use of the present tense throughout the book. It makes sense for his trips back home and the narration of his current life, but doesn't really work for the flashbacks to his parents' history or the history of Zimbabwe. Reading about something you know happened in the past but that's written about in the present tense, just like the stuff that is actually happening in the present, is jarring and confusing. It's a small problem in an otherwise fantastic book, a heartbreaking look at a once-promising nation that languishes under a dictator one can only call evil with no sense of irony or hyperbole. It's well-worth reading, and certainly inspires me to look into the state of Zimbabwe now, ten years after its publication.

This Too Shall Pass, by Milena Busquets

It's hard to dislike a book once you've met its author, assuming she or he was pleasant. This slim, powerful novella came from a slim, powerful native of Barcelona who was charming as heck and such fun to talk with, much like her main character, Blanca. Written after the death of Busquets' much beloved mother, This Too Shall Pass follows Blanca for a few days about a month after her own formidable mother's painful and drawn out passing. Forty-years-old with two sons by two fathers, Blanca acknowledges that she has much love in her life but is bereft at losing, as Busquets put it herself, the mother who was really the love of her life. Her friends, lovers, and children orbit the globe of her grief as she learns to let go of her mother's last painful months and grasp again the things in life that had given them both joy. The emotion is raw and the setting irresistibly Mediterranean, a heady combination successfully navigated by Busquets.

Apr 25, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins

This is an incredible book, one that pulled me in so deeply that I had trouble removing my brain from the Gold Fame Citrus headspace. California, along with the entire Southwest, is in such serious drought that most of its denizens have been evacuated, all but a few foolhardy, freedom-loving people. Water and food are the only real commodities, we quickly learn, as we follow Luz and her boyfriend Ray around "the starlet's" house, in which they are squatting. Luz wears Hermes scarves and designer dresses left behind by the starlet, while Ray digs latrines and scrounges up food for them. On a trip to a bonfire, they come across a toddler, a little girl whose people Luz finds incredibly untrustworthy. On an instinct and a whim, Ray and Luz take the girl home with them, and then decide to brave the many risks of fleeing the area for the unaffected parts of the country. To do so, they must pass through the Amargosa, a massive, ever-growing, ever-moving dune sea that is swallowing the Southwest.

This very brief summary does no justice to the writing, which is utterly unique and visceral. Flashes of Luz's past as an underage model haunt her, Ray's inadequacies as a man and caregiver threaten to destroy them all, and the Amargosa, silent and deadly and beautiful, looms over all. The world is different enough to be shocking, similar enough to be uncomfortably familiar. I finished this book on a plane across the country and found it difficult to look down upon the earth and see anything other than the world Watkins describes. She is young and her talent is formidable. I look forward to seeing what work she produces in the future.

The Rose Society, by Marie Lu

This is the sequel to the dark, brutal young adult fantasy novel, The Young Elites, and it is even darker and more brutal. Adelina, cast out and betrayed by everyone she's ever cared about, seeks to gain power and protect other malfettos by gathering together her own group of Elites. These are a dangerous group of young people, themselves rejected by the Young Elites or disdaining to ever join up in a common cause. And Adelina's hallucinations are getting out of control, to the point where her mind is creating them without her even knowing it. Her need for vengeance is fierce and threatens all around her, and when she finally gets what she wants, the victory is hollow. What will Adelina do now?

I'm not sure I'll be reading the next (and presumably, last) installment of this series. It really is terrifically dark, to the point where I wonder if it's all that appropriate for its teenage audience. The writing and story are easy enough to follow, but Adelina's darkness only seems to grow until she pushes everyone she loves away from her. Perhaps the lesson will be learned in the third book, but even so, I question Lu's decision to delve so deeply into a wounded soul. Bullied teenagers might find Adelina's actions inspiring, rather than horrifying.

Apr 12, 2016

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

I probably wouldn't have picked up this book had I known it was about suicide; had that been the case, I would have sorely missed out on a literary treasure. Yolandi and her older sister Elfrieda grew up in a tiny Mennonite town near Winnipeg. Elf goes on to become a world renowned pianist while Yoli writes young adult rodeo books. Elf, as many great artists seem to be, is burdened by extreme depression. With some flashbacks to their childhood, Yoli narrates Elf's most recent suicide attempt and the affects on their family. This book is devastating and stunningly beautiful, and as I finished it last night I felt as though my heart had been gently cut from my chest and pulled into little bite-sized pieces, to be patched up again with masking tape. This is not an easy book to read, not at all, but it's well worth the effort.

Apr 2, 2016

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is one of the top hard science fiction writers working today, and Aurora is another fine example of his work, though it didn't grab me quite as much as his Red Mars trilogy or 2312
The most interesting thing about this book is that the narrator is the ship. Through conversation with a couple key colonists and with the help of a quantum computer, the ship's various artificial processes are able to achieve, over the course of several hundred years, something very close to (if not actually) sentience. As such, seeing the humans through the ship's eyes provides the reader with a unique narrative experience, albeit heavy on the science and technology (which is Robinson's fan base anyways, and therefore quite appropriate). The last part is especially beautifully written, and I am once again impressed with Robinson's skill as a scientific as well as narrative writer.