Nov 19, 2014

Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller

I rarely read memoirs, but this one as well as Tom Robbins' has got me thinking maybe I should do so more often. Fuller grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Africa, Rhodesia to start, then Malawi and Zambia. It's a life that's utterly foreign to me, not just because it's Africa, but because of her family's (and the other white people's) very real and comfortable racism. Her mother does not mince words when talking about the revolutionary wars in Africa, making it abundantly clear that they were cheated out of their land and the Africans don't deserve to be in power. But coupled with her daily clinic for the surrounding natives and more than one story about her saving a servant's life, I'm a bit confused about her attitude. Her reassurances to her children that they would never drink out of the same cups that Africans have mixed with her obvious love of Africa make for a complex woman. Not to mention her three dead children and the manic depression she is finally diagnosed with. I also find it really hard to understand parents who chose to raise children in such incredibly dangerous, unsafe places. They move to a farm in Rhodesia that is practically on the border of Mozambique and are constantly around rebels (terrorists, in their terminology). Fuller mentions quite often that she and her sister had worms half the time. Her parents seem to be constantly drunk, but that doesn't stop them from driving (on roads littered with landmines, no less). She and her sister start smoking and drinking pretty much as soon as they hit double digits. It's a life that I have no context for, it's completely incomprehensible to me; perhaps this is why I found the book so enthralling. It's told both in vignettes and with a larger overarching sense of structure and a more or less chronological nature. Fuller vacillates between child-like language when describing her own emotions and actions and rich, vivid descriptions of the people and the land. It's a fascinating book, and a fascinating life. I'm just glad I wasn't my own.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This is a haunting work of speculative fiction that has taken me a couple of days to digest. Peter is a pastor and lives with his wife, Bea, in England. Bea is a nurse, and saved Peter from a life as a drug addict and alcoholic when he both fell in love with her and became a Christian at her encouraging. Peter, but not Bea, is chosen by the amorphous American corporation USIC to visit the alien planet Oasis and minister to the natives. It's a dream job, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread the news of Jesus's love, but it means months without seeing each other with the only mode of communication being something akin to e-mail. Much to his surprise, Peter finds the Oasans very eager to hear his preaching, and he quickly begins to feel at home on the balmy, stark planet. The only thing interrupting his happiness is the increasingly upsetting messages he receives from his wife - things on Earth aren't looking so great, she's having a really hard time without him, and his lackadaisical and frankly self-righteous messages back to her aren't helping.

So what is this book about? The foreign-ness of an alien world and people? The end of the world? Marriage? Normal human interaction? It's about all of these things, and each reader will perhaps zero in on the message that most speaks to them. Personally, I believe it is about the loss of faith and regaining of a different kind of self-worth, one that encompasses not just yourself but the people who are around you. Meaning can be found in a bible or in oneself or in each other; for each of us it's different, and the struggle to figure out which is most important to you is sometimes Herculean.

The writing is wonderful, saturated and descriptive despite Oasis's lack of geological interest. As a science fiction fan, I appreciate Faber's measured, intelligent Oasans, and am impressed by the comprehensive species and culture he built. There is plenty here to satisfy dedicated sci fi readers as well as more mainstream ones. And I almost never note this, but the book itself (hardcover) is just beautiful. Amazing cover and fantastic gold edges. This is a book I'll keep on my shelf and lend out often.

Nov 15, 2014

Atlantia, by Ally Condie

I started off loving this newest YA fantasy/science fiction offering from Ally Condie, who wrote the very popular "Matched" series. Cool concept: humans poisoned the world, and had to Divide the population between those who'd live short, sick lives Above and the loved ones they sent to live safely Below. The Below depends on the Above for food and maintenance, and the two societies share a religion that encourages continued assistance from the Above. Rio, our protagonist, has just lost her mother (to a suspicious death) and sister (who chose to go Above, even though they had both decided to stay Below). The double loss is almost more than Rio can take, and the added pressure of concealing her true nature as a siren - one whose voice has the power to sway people's thoughts and emotions - eats away at her self-control. She immediately begins hatching a plan to escape to the Above and find her sister.

Like I said, it's a cool concept, but the writing leaves something to be desired. Important plot-jumps are made very suddenly and with little sense. Rio and True fall in love, but only because YA novels dictate there has to be a love interest; there's nothing in their interactions that indicate they even care for each other as more than colleagues, let alone love each other. And the reveal of the villain's secret was similarly sudden, described as pieces falling into place that were completely unforeseeable to the reader. Crazy plot twists are no good if they're totally out of the blue. Readers like to feel smart, like they might be able to guess what's coming, even if they can't. These things happen without warning, and so there's little tension generated in the story. It's choppy and threadless, and I'm disappointed that such a great idea falls so flat.

Nov 7, 2014

NUM8ERS, by Rachel Ward

This is a British young adult book about a 15-year-old girl in foster care who can see the date of a person's death as soon as she looks them in the eyes. Jem is sullen and withdrawn, placed in a special ed class for troublemakers which she attends only sporadically. Partly, this is because of her difficult life, but also because avoidance is the best way for her to deal with her knowledge of others ' death-dates. But then she is befriended by Spider, a gangly black boy with a number only a few months into the future, and starts to enjoy her first real friendship. That is, until the numbers she sees of a group of people near the London Eye all show the same date, today - she forces Spider to run away with her just as a bomb explodes on the Eye, and the two teens quickly become the top witnesses/suspects.

It's a clever plot-line, but the writing isn't spectacular. It's a bit difficult getting through the London slang, and since it's written in the first person and Jem isn't exactly the nicest of people, you kind of want to punch her in the face half the time. That being said, I like that Ward is trying to bring attention to an often-overlooked class of people. Still, I doubt I would recommend this to many people.

Stiff, by Mary Roach

I was unable to eat while reading this book, but it was still awesome. Written about ten years ago, Mary Roach tackles the nasty, disgusting, smelly, ugly, helpful, and interesting life after death: what happens to the human body after the soul has left the building? What happens when you will your body to science? What's the best way to dispose of a dead body? Just how gross is rotting human flesh? Roach courageously, and hilariously, seeks to answer these questions and address the fascinating history of anatomy as well as our evolving social mores. It's a subject that could only have been dealt with properly by the likes of Roach, with equal amounts humor, empathy, and gumption. Only today did a customer, in reference to Gawande's new book, "Being Mortal," mention that our discomfort talking about death needs to end, if we are to care for the dying with dignity. She's right, as was Roach - we need to move past the way our own fear of death prevents us from helping others through it; reading Roach's book is a good start.

Nov 3, 2014

Four Spirits, by Sena Jeter Naslund

Another book club book, and a powerful one at that. Naslund grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, which is what this book is about. Taking place over two years, from the infamous fire hose-doused nonviolent protests of Spring 1963 to New Years' 1965, "Four Spirits" chronicles such horrific incidents as the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls, and Kennedy's assassination. Bombingham, as it was called then, experienced the struggle for civil rights violently, with beatings, lynchings, bombings, fire hoses, and dogs, a beautiful city ripped apart by racial prejudice and fear.

The book is broken up into very short chapters, each from a different character's perspective, but with young Stella Silver at its core. Stella's parents and two siblings were killed in a car accident when she was 5 (another iteration of the four innocent dead) and her aunts raised her. Engaged twice throughout the course of the book, and with love and sex close to her mind at all times, Stella is also uniquely unprejudiced - perhaps due to a Jewish mother - and takes a volunteer job teaching night school at the local black college for black high school drop outs. There is animosity on both sides, but the black and white teachers slowly become friends, amidst the despicable atrocities committed by Klan-supported white men. There were some parts that got a little too introspective for me, but then each section was so short that none of these parts were long enough to cause any real boredom or annoyance. It's a beautiful, powerful novel, and I eagerly look forward to the discussion our book club will have.

Nov 1, 2014

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

A short one, this Discworld novel is about a wizard mistakenly passing on his power to a baby girl, when he thought it was a baby boy. The local witch is horrified - women can only be witches, not wizards! It's the wrong kind of magic entirely. But the wizard's staff seems permanently connected to young Eske, and at last the witch is forced to concede that the girl must be taught wizard magic by wizards, who are themselves loathe to welcome a female amidst their ranks. Fun and funny, as always, this story also injects a bit of darkness into the Discworld, with the introduction of shadowy beings who are attracted to a powerful young wizard and have evil intentions.