Apr 26, 2017

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

This is a great idea. A fantastic idea, a really, truly, interesting and cool idea. Too bad the writing sucks.

Extrapolating the next leap forward of social development, Wilson gives us the Affinities: 22 types of people, grouped by some intangible biomechanical features. Not every person qualifies for an Affinity; about half of humanity falls into one of these groupings, with five being the largest. Members of the groups feel an...affinity...for each other. A deep, instant understanding that allows for incredible collaboration and cooperation, and mutual trust that leads to fulfilling, meaningful relationships, often to the exclusion of others, i.e. the families they were born into. These groups start to become much more than simple social clubs, and when things get political, relations between the Affinities get hairy.

Unfortunately, Wilson doesn't do the idea justice. Perhaps it's the first person narrator, but the story is told so flatly that I just couldn't get invested. The plot pulled me through and I read it quickly, but Adam isn't a particularly likable character and the twists are pretty predictable. Adam is merely a reporter, with hardly any strong emotion to speak of. He's annoyed at his strict, racist Republican dad, feels bad for the girl he was supposed to marry but didn't, pities people who don't have an Affinity, loves the pretty girl but not enough to stand up for her against the asshole father. It's lazy storytelling, letting the idea free and simply recording the logical next steps rather than molding it into an original, surprising tale that teaches us about human nature. Or something. Anything. I could see this being a fun TV show on TNT Tuesday nights, Prime Time! But it's only a mediocre book.

Apr 21, 2017

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

It took me far too long to pick up this companion novel to Atkinson's wonderful Life After Life, which I read years ago. That innovative novel followed the many iterations of protagonist Ursula's life, as she dies and is reborn as the same person over and over again. Teddy, the main character of A God in Ruins, is her younger brother, a bomber pilot who perishes in World War II. The unique nature of the previous book allowed Atkinson to write of Teddy's life as if he had survived the war, which only half of those pilots did. It's her way of humanizing the vast numbers of the dead, showing us how many lives just one life affects and now if that's not heartbreaking enough for you, multiply that by several million. It's a powerful message.

I'm a well-known Anglophile and am partial to Atkinson's very British, albeit contemporary, writing. Dry humor lies beneath every page, even in the darkest of moments. My one complaint would be that the characters other than Teddy come off as more caricatures than real people. His daughter is absolutely atrocious, even given some leeway because her mother died very young. It's hard to believe any normal person with a loving parent could be quite so horrible, and we seem to have to endure her just so we can witness her epiphany and reversal at the very end. I loved the way we skipped through time, though not the fact that Atkinson tends to draw our attention to it - "But that was yet to come, the future, and we are in the present, now." It's a bit much; perhaps she felt it necessary to keep the reader grounded as the time jumps occur quite often. Neither criticism detracts from the beauty of the whole, a really wonderful story about a horrible thing that had a lot of consequences, sometimes even good ones. The two books are a playful, powerful pair, and I'm so glad to have read them.

Apr 12, 2017

Textbook, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Beloved children's (and more) author Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away recently of cancer, about six months after the hardcover release of this book. It's interactive stream of consciousness, with a built-in texting feature that links to a website, www.textbookamykr.com. I know I should have, but I couldn't bear to text the phone number, knowing Rosenthal has passed. Is someone still monitoring it? Are stories and pictures and rainbows still added to the website?

The book can be read in a quick hour; it's mostly empty space with a little bit of text per page and the occasional picture. Anecdotes, challenges, memories - each new page brings something unexpected. This is the author's attempt to universalize our humanity, to point to an uncomfortable or subconscious event and say, "hey, I do this too, I'm normal, you're normal, we're all totally weird and totally normal in being weird." It's sweet, but not saccharine, relate-able yet extraordinary in its ability to disarm. It makes one wonder why we always tend to lose too soon talents such as this; but then, Rosenthal would probably protest, maybe it's just because we know their names. We lose people all the time, famous or not, and there is no greater or lesser tragedy in any of these deaths. Goodbye, Amy.

Apr 11, 2017

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

The stresses of moving house prevented me from reading this fantastic Iranian farcical novel as quickly as I would have liked, though it provided a welcome respite from the anxieties of the last two weeks. Our first person narrator is a teenage boy, hopelessly in love with his cousin, daughter of the fearsome yet ridiculous personage referred to as Dear Uncle Napoleon due to his obsession with Napoleon and hatred of the British. This is a doomed love; Layli is more or less promised to their other cousin Puri, a sycophantic young man the two lovers despise. Each relative represents an aspect of Persian culture in hyperbolic fashion: the auntie obsessed with death and funerals, the doctor who stubbornly sticks to an obviously incorrect diagnosis just because it's different from the other doctor's opinion, the devoted servant who feeds his master's fantasies of being a war hero, the lecherous uncle who cannot help but meddle in the affairs of others in order to make a joke of them. These caricatures interact in uproarious, hilarious fashion, as tense situations go from bad to worse with more than one participant stirring the pot into a violent froth.

Published in 1973 then later banned by the Islamic Republic for its politically subversive overtones, My Uncle Napoleon takes aim at the tendency of even intellectual Iranians to blame the British for every ill and misfortune. Underneath this is the more personal tragedy faced by lovers unable to break out of the strictures of marital customs. As a work of Iranian literature, it shines a much-needed light on the culture of Iran before the revolution, and its highly comical nature makes it a joyful, fun read. This is a must for any reader looking to expand their non-Western repetoire.