Sep 23, 2015

Nightfall, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski

I return to young adult fiction with a newly released horror novel, a tale of friendship, family, betrayal, and very large creatures that like to kill people. Fourteen-year-old Marin, her twin Kana, and their friend Line - whose growing interest in Marin has rather alienated Kana - live in Bliss, a perfectly formed town on a beautiful island. Day lasts for fourteen years, as does Night, and when it comes, the entire town packs up and heads south to the desert. Curious about the rituals surrounding their departure and exasperated by her brother's sudden indifference to her, Marin nevertheless packs up with everyone else when the tide turns and the furrier's boats arrive to take them away. Except that Line has disappeared, probably to go find a necklace Marin lost several months back, and as the boarding of the boats becomes more frenzied, she convinces Kana to go back and find Line. They're pretty sure they can get back in time to catch the boats...but they don't. Left alone on an island made suddenly unfamiliar with the onset of Night, the three adolescents must keep each other alive and try to escape the terrors that lurk in the woods.

The scary bits are done pretty well, enough to make the book a page turner and definitely enough to pump adrenaline into the teenager reading it. I wasn't as thrilled with the character development; moods tend to shift suddenly and without warning, and while teens are known to be hormone-crazy, the shifts are abrupt and awkward. It's written a bit like a movie, or like the authors intended it to be immediately bought for movie rights, which is one of my pet peeves. But the idea is very cool (it reminds me of the movie Pitch Black) and the good parts are enough to carry the bad parts. Predictable to me but probably not so much to a teen, it should make a fun read for those who need a little adrenaline in their lives.

Sep 22, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is an incredible work of erudition, all the more wonderful for how amazingly comprehensible it is. Non-fiction buffs have been raving about this book to me since it came out, and it did not disappoint in the least. Harari is a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the breadth of his knowledge and insight is truly remarkable. What starts out as pure archaeology and history slowly morphs into a frank philosophical discussion about what it means to be human and how that might evolve in the future. The scope of Sapiens follows the development of homo sapiens from merely one among many human species, through the Cultural (organizing ourselves into social groups bound together by gossip), Agricultural, Scientific, and Industrial Revolutions, within which we still find ourselves. And all of this is written in easily understandable, utterly engaging language. There is also no bias (other than the purely scientific), with many different viewpoints explained along with their strengths and weaknesses. Harari acknowledges that there is so much we don't know, but does his best with the tools at our disposal to synthesize as many different fields as possible into a coherent, ordered and logical presentation of our past - distant and recent - and our possible futures. This very brief review cannot hope to do justice to a splendid piece of scholarship that also happens to be tremendously readable. Bravo, Dr. Harari!

Sep 7, 2015

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories, by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Short stories are consistently underestimated; they can pack a huge emotional punch due to their truncated nature, but there is often no "pay off," in the sense that there is rarely a nice little denouement for the reader to enjoy. Bergman's stories are all like this - they are snapshots in people's lives, sometimes at pivotal moments and sometimes as a window into another person's existence. There are strong animal and motherhood themes (Bergman is a mother and her husband is a veterinarian) and the stories all take place in the northern Southern states (e.g. North Carolina) or New England (Bergman's birthplace and current home, respectively).

These stories are quietly lyrical, and the animals are described especially lovingly. A consistent theme seems to be that the caretaking love of a mother (for either child or animal) is a stronger tie than the romantic love between two people. The eponymous story is especially good, and reminds us, along with the penultimate story, that children often become caretakers in turn. Bergman is a wonderful writer and these are wonderful stories, and I would be interested to read any longer fiction she writes to see how she works with these themes in long-form.

Sep 5, 2015

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book, quietly released a few months ago, has enjoyed a resurgence very recently, and rightly so. America's longstanding reluctance to acknowledge continuing racism and racial inequities is slowly melting away against the onslaught of media attention finally being directed to the killings of black men and women, particularly by the police force. It's becoming clearer that we can no longer be complacent about this latent anti-black sentiment that seems to pervade American policies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist, but this is not a work of journalism; it is a work of the heart. "Between the World and Me" is a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, who, though he is growing up in a very different world from his father's projects of Baltimore, is nonetheless witness and subject to the racial violence that plagues our nation. The most important aspect of this slim book is that it positions the problem in a very different light than has been the norm. This is not a scholarly piece, and the audience is a teenage boy, so Coates frames it in bare, understandable terms: What the black person fears, throughout his or her entire life, is losing control of his body. From day one, cradle to the grave, black men and women are in danger of violence being acted upon their bodies by their parents, their neighbors in the ghetto, their police officers, even total strangers (Trayvon Martin). Assault, rape, guns, even the seemingly unthinking act of a white woman pushing Coates' four-year-old son out of the way are indications of the danger to a black person's body. Incarcerated at rates magnitudes higher than whites, far more often victims of police brutality, inheritors of a people enslaved, beaten, raped, and owned - Coates has hit the nail on the head. I'm not black, but I am a woman, and so I feel I understand what he means. There is a sense that at any time, any place, someone could take advantage of their physical superiority over me and hurt my body. For black men, the reality that someone physically inferior could do the same is, I'm sure, even more psychologically damaging.

The other main point Coates makes is that the racial problem is created by people who think they are, and need to be, "white." I have a bit more trouble understanding this argument, for the obvious reason that I am ostensibly a member of this category. Even so, I think I see what he means. It's the age-old dance of us vs. them; to make us feel better and safer, we have to define ourselves against something else. America's history of black slavery has left black people in this perpetual underclass, even those who are financially successful. Coates inveighs against the American Dream, that mostly unattainable life of white picket fences and Ivy League schools and yachts. This Dream, he argues, does not apply to black people. It is a soporific that tricks Americans of all colors into accepting the current situation as the status quo. This is a point I wish Coates would have discussed a bit more fully, because I think he's onto something but don't have enough to really understand it. I hope that as the popularity of "Between the World and Me" grows and our national conversation about race continues to evolve, he will build upon this incredibly important work.