May 19, 2016

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Silly subtitle aside, this is a wonderfully original piece of fantasy-like science fiction. One of my favorite experiences in reading is to be dumped unceremoniously into a world that looks very little like our own and then to piece out a comprehensive understanding of that world's society, culture, and history. Schoen does a fantastic job of dropping us into his world and then slowly unraveling bits of it until we become immersed in it ourselves, unaware that something we knew nothing of fifty pages ago now seems familiar. The expressive qualities of elephant ears and trunks become just another descriptor of mood. All the characters are anthropomorphized mammals, and a very select few of these beings are able to ingest a drug that lets them call upon the personalities/souls/ghosts of the dead and converse with them. This is a world of prophecy and telepathy, but also one of science and politics.

My only complaint with the writing is that some plot twists are a mite predictable, and there's a bit too much telling rather than showing. It's very difficult to explain a vast and complicated social system, or history, or religion, and the best writers are able to do so without seeming like they are doing so. Schoen doesn't quite manage this, making some sections a bit on the pedantic side. Otherwise, it's a fantastic story, a fully realized world that is a pleasure to delve into. I look forward to more inventive work by this author.

May 12, 2016

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's writing style is so distinctive, flat of affect yet descriptive in its own way, it's easy to see why his work continues to be read today and why it made such a splash upon its publication. Plus it really, really makes me want to move to France.

Jake is a newspaper writer living in Paris, socializing in a milieu of other English-speaking ex-pats of various kinds. The narrative centers around a small group of his friends: Bill, visiting from out of town; Cohn, hot off the successful publication of his first novel but struggling with the second; Lady Brett Ashley, with whom Jake has a complicated past and is probably still in love; and her bankrupt fiance, Mike. Different combinations of the group make their way to Pamplona for the infamous running of the bulls and the bull-fights, described in lush, explicit detail.

The decadence of ex-pat life, even a bankrupt one, cannot help but be alluring. I wonder if anyone has tallied up how much alcohol the group consumes in the story, as it seems each meal is accompanied by multiple bottles of something or other. Cafes, cobbled streets, black jazz bands, fishing in the Pyrenees, and overnight trains, with only the complexities of interpersonal relationships to get in the way. It's a heady life Hemingway describes, and it is quick to catch the American suburban imagination. A classic, indeed.

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.