Friday, 29 July 2016

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen


What I thought of this book changed dramatically every time I sat down to read it. One time, I'd be utterly charmed by the characters and the small town, but then the next we'd have characters who seemed to be operating from such bizarre premises that I would get irritated with them beyond measure. I went back and forth, and it never stayed the same. In the end, I enjoyed it more than the main characters bothered me.

Part of what bothered me was this: neither of the main characters, two sisters, have anyone they talk honestly to. Not one. I get that you're trying to show they're isolated, but seriously, not one? Given the fairly tame level of "eccentricity," that alone strains belief. Because they don't have a single solitary person they talk to honestly, neither of them has someone to say to them "hey, you know how you think X-Y-Z with absolutely no proof? Maybe you're not right?" The characters wouldn't have to necessarily listen to the reality check, but if the reality check was there, at least I would know the author doesn't think this is perfectly normal behaviour.

If she does, I'd be a little terrified.

So, you have two sisters. Their mother was a erratic and died fairly young, so they were brought up by their grandmother, who by all accounts was stable and loving, even if regarded as a little eccentric in her town. (For eccentric, read charmingly magical.)  Despite this stable influence, both sisters are fucked up in a way that seems disproportionate. I'm not saying having an unsettled childhood until you're six doesn't leave some scars, but there just seems to be no sense of proportion.

The older sister was jealous of the younger, as she seemed to be the reason she and her mother stopped living in cars and homeless shelters. During her teenage years, she was not very nice to her sister, although we're given no really concrete examples. Again, I get that that can leave some wounds, but ones this big?

The older sister has grown up in the town by herself, her sister left long ago, and her life is entirely isolated from everyone around her. She had zero friends in high school, no friends at any point afterwards, no one she has much point of connection to, even though she's a sought-after caterer because her meals are literally magic. She's so closed down about people leaving her and needing stability she's practically non-functional.

Now, I get that. But as a reaction to what she's actually been through? 

Okay, fine. But seriously, I kept wondering how exactly she got THIS fucked-up. I would have happily have accepted a level of fucked up that was that she didn't want relationships, but otherwise had a friend or two. It didn't ring true with how the character was written, which was as a charming young woman who was a little fussy. I know people who are afraid of being rejected or people leaving them. They may have difficulty doing so, but they all reach out to someone.

The younger sister wanted to be more like her mother, ran away from home as a teenager, and got into an abusive marriage. She runs away with her daughter, and similarly, makes all these assumptions about her sister without ever once checking in with reality to see if they are anywhere close to true.

Okay, yes, as the book goes on, they start to trust each other and open up, and it's lovely and heartwarming. I just...I can't help feeling you could have that without the extreme emotional level of the assumptions they were making about each other. It rang so false that it was hard to read the reconciliation as true.

Still, there are very charming bits of this book, a couple of sweet love stories. I would like it if that sweetness were paired with real difficulties, not ones that feel like they were made up just to create barriers between people trusting each other. Everything, at the ends, dissolves so easily into happiness it shows how artificial it was to begin with.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear


There are a lot of books that I have had rough relationships with the past little while. Those I struggled with partially liking, and partially being upset by. Books that didn't live up to their promise, and didn't surprise and amuse or challenge me. And then there's Karen Memory, which was so utterly delightful that I think I was only fifty pages in or so before I started telling people how much fun I was having reading this book.

It was hard to explain why without it sounding just a little odd. "It's about steampunk prostitutes! With a really diverse cast of characters! And...it's just so much fun!" But that makes it sound like someone checking boxes, hoping for cookies, or like I liked this book because I feel somehow like I was supposed to like it. But on the contrary, the diversity that comes across in the book just feels as natural to the world Bear is creating as breathing. It's not the point of the plot, but it is a very enjoyable backdrop to it. 

Why shouldn't we have a lesbian main character? Why shouldn't there be a transgender prostitute in the house where Karen works, and why shouldn't that be perfectly fine by everyone who lives and works there? Why shouldn't the book take into consideration the prostitutes who live in terrible working conditions, and the ways in which those places might be more likely to prey on non-white women brought over for the purposes of trafficking? Why can't we deal with all these issues like adults, letting them be complex?

And then why can't we include airships, submarines, and steampunk sewing machine/mechs all at the same time? No reason, that's why. And it's because Bear has mashed all these disparate elements together so elegantly that I kept being happy that I was reading this book. Happy to be reading something that, although the prostitutes are in danger from the asshole who runs the worst cribs in town, didn't center around extreme descriptions or threats of sexual violence. (Interestingly, although the prostitutes are in grave danger from a serial killer stalking the streets, it's their lives that are being threatened. We don't get a rape threat in there to make sure we know that the psychopathic killer is really a bad guy.)

The storyline can be a little heavy, but it doesn't read that way. Even when Karen and Priya (the lead and her love interest) are in very deep danger, it's the kind of adventure story that is still entertaining. Karen's narrative voice (and she's very self-consciously the writer and shaper of this story) isn't doom and gloom. It's matter-of-fact, often funny and wry.

For a book about prostitutes with a very sweet love story at its core, there's remarkably little sex in here, and while I kind of wanted some, it was also perfectly in keeping with the tone of the book. 

I haven't connected strongly with steampunk before, often because a lot of it seems to want to have all the fun stylistic features of Victoriana with none of the unpleasant social context. I am delighted to find a book that is a lot of fun while not minimizing inequalities and oppressions. 

Plus, sewing machine mechs. I mean, come on. I don't know how you couldn't love that.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Red Rising by Pierce Brown



I was extremely aggravated by the first part of this book, to the point where I was already ranting about it on Facebook. Then, after an extremely rocky beginning, it settled down and became a not bad entry in the genre of YA dystopias. I know I've written about this before, when I reviewed Divergent, but this is going to be more a review of how this fits into that genre than how it fares objectively as a book.

It's not bad, although it doesn't really feel like an innovation. On the level of the tropes of this particular genre, Brown does it fairly well, and the different groups battling is an interesting take on it, even if it doesn't feel entirely fresh.

So what is this book? It would help if I described it before comparing it to every other book out there. Well, if teenage dystopias often center around young people being streamed into different groups depending on aptitude, and then gradually discovering that the world is not meant to be so neatly partitioned and there's rot at the core, then this book reverses the usual order.

It starts with discovery of the rot, as the main character is a "Red," and yes, in this book, the various segments of society are divided by colour - although, as we'll discover, the highest caste, the Golds, has a further warrior caste divided by aptitude, symbolized by Roman gods. The Reds are miners on Mars, told they are preparing the world for the coming of everyone else. They're downtrodden, turned against each other. And then the main character, Darrow, discovers that, actually, Mars has been terraformed for a very long time, and they're just a slave caste, kept ignorant to head off rebellion.

I think some of my issues with the early part of this book have to do with when it starts. If it had started later, and we gradually got Darrow's backstory, the fridging of his wife would have been irritating but not as enraging as it actually was. Because we start before that, we're given a long period where we're shown how his wife is smarter, kinder, more perceptive and more radical politically than he is, and so it is an authorial choice to kill her off dramatically for the sole purpose of putting a fire in Darrow's belly. Why not have it be the other way around? Why make her more awesome, just to gut her? It's irritating, partly because it's done so fucking much.

So, we have a world where she is executed and not saved, and he is executed and saved. (Drugged, appeared to be dead, saved. They want to remake his body to make him appear to be a Gold, to go to the Gold academy and infiltrate the highest levels. Sure, he's physically adept as a miner, but given that they're entirely remaking his body from the ground up anyway, and the academy is equally open to men and women, why pick him and not her? The answer here is solely that there has to be a Chosen One, and it's him.)

I am, I suppose, not saying that they should make the wife weak. Just that it's incredibly annoying to find yet again, a kickass woman who is way more interesting than the main character, but is killed off/sidelined so he can discover his destiny. If you're going to do it, be skillful than this. My husband and anyone who happened to be around me while I was reading this section can attest to the fact that it was done so ham-handedly that I ranted about it for days straight.

From there, the book got better. It's still never going to be up there on my "must recommend it to friends" list, but it becomes enjoyable enough I'd read the second. Darrow does make it to the Gold academy of course, and of course he's so good he outGolds the Golds, even if he isn't as restrained as he needs to be. At the Academy, the Golds are divided into twelve houses, and at that point, each of them has to kill another one of the applicants. (As in, they're put into deathmatches with someone else, and only one person comes out alive.)

From there, they're plunked down in a grand arena (shades of The Hunger Games,), and forced to battle each other, although mostly not to the death. Darrow vies for leadership of Mars, but eventually builds cross-god collaboration and fights to win the whole game and graduate to become someone important in the growing Gold empire. Along the way, he realizes not all these Golds are evil. But still needs to bring the system down.

It's really not revolutionary. There is some reordering of the way these tropes often appear, but nothing that really shatters the genre or brings something entirely new to it. However, once I stopped being really annoyed at this book, I had to concede that the author tells his story well and the emphasis on the corruption behind the system is not new, but done with particular verve.

But, oh yeah, for those tracking how irritated I've been this year with how many rapes there have been in the books I've read (I think we're somewhere between better than 1 in 4 or 1 in 3.) There are a lot of rapes in this book. Not up close and personal, but all over the fucking place.

Find. Another. Way. To. Show. Us. Villainy.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

G. by John Berger



This has been a hard review to get started on. And I wrote that sentence only to pause and wonder what else to write. Maybe going to get some coffee will help.

And now it's the next day. This review is really stymying me. (Of course, that could be because I'm trying to write my thesis conclusion and that's being difficult as well. All writing is feeling a little difficult this week.) I'll press on, though, to at least get this done and out.

I'm having difficulty because this book is pretty much about a guy who has a lot of sex. Who defines himself in relation to his relationships with women. (Not with the women themselves, if that distinction makes any sense.) He is born at the end of the 19th century to an unwed mother who has more than enough money to support him, and is bohemian enough that it doesn't bother her. His father is a wealthy Italian manufacturer.

He is brought up on a farm, where eventually he is seduced by his aunt. From there, he goes on to try to sleep with many married women (and a few unmarried), more interested in the chase and what these relationships say about him instead of  a collaboration.

That's...sort of most of it. Men around him have other interests, are committed to other things, including breaking world flying records, and overthrowing governments, while the Great War looms ever closer. Because he is half-Italian, he is sent as a spy by the British government, but isn't that interested in being a spy. In fact, he'll only be a spy in as much as it will gain him access to his current intended conquest, the wife of a wealthy man.

There is little to mark him in the world, and when he dies, few will remember him. There are no monuments left behind. No women who will profoundly mourn. There are simply those he met briefly, and, if they were women, consummated the affairs. Most of the affairs seem to be about taking the women away from their husbands instead of being about the women.

Not a very likeable main character, I guess I'm saying. And I don't think he's supposed to be - this is a chronicle of a life that would make barely a ripple, and many people live such, although probably without the wealth G. has behind him. People push him to want more, do more, commit to a cause, even if it is self-aggrandizement.

He does not. Some of the writing here is very good and worth reading, but it is another one of those books that revels in distance, that shows us a character closely without really letting it be intimate. One of those books where I walk away thinking it was a worthy read, but not really feeling any strong emotional reaction to it.

There, review finally written! Hopefully I'm back on track, and conclusion, here I come.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet


I discovered my ability to get on to NoveList through my local library, and have been having a lot of fun exploring it. So, I thought I'd add that as a way that I picked books - to be precise, I took one of my favourite books from last year, looked it up, and took out the first book on the "ReadAlike" list that popped up on the side.

So, can you guess which book The Murdstone Trilogy was a read-along for? It's about an author of young adult books about tortured young men, whose oeuvre has gone out of oeuv. His agent convinces him that what needs to be written is a work of High Phantasy, a quest tale for the ages, or at least for the next few months. Murdstone hates the idea with a fiery passion, but has no money or other marketable skills, so what's an author to do?

Well, apparently an author is to get very drunk and pass out in a circle of standing stones, where he is put into connection with another realm, and into contact with a Greme (I thought of this as a dwarf, but I might have missed a description) who writes a novel for him, propelling Murdstone into fame, fortune and a million-dollar advance for what it supposed to be the second book in a trilogy.

Murdstone gets crazier, weird things happen when he writes, and his audience doesn't care if he's flirting with the powers of darkness as long as they get invited on the date. 

So, what book did this get connected with? It makes a certain amount of sense that it was the first book mentioned when I was on the page for Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which was my second favourite book of last year. Do I agree with the comparison? Yes and no.

Yes, they both deal with the bleedover of magic into the seemingly real, the connection of rich preexisting fictional worlds with ones closer to our own. Grossman is hearkening back to Harry Potter and Narnia, while Peet is much more looking at the Tolkien/Robert Jordan type of fantasy. From a subject matter angle, sure, this recommendation makes sense.

But yet, they both approach their subject matter in such different ways. The Magicians has such obvious love for Narnia and Harry Potter, and the ideas Grossman's riffing on from those books have such deep affection and connection underlying them. Mal Peet's book, though, is fairly contemptuous of modern fantasy, lumping it all together under the (admittedly overdone) quest/magic kingdom trope, more or less calling it artistically bankrupt.

And sure, I am tired of those quest stories too. I am tired of the young man who is more than he seems setting off on a quest and finding beautiful women along the way and falling into darkness and yadda yadda yadda. Much of it does seem of a muchness. But there's also some truly astoundingly good fantasy being written by people who are pushing the boundaries of the stories that have been told into startling new places.

You know what it is, though? I guess I feel justified in criticizing what I see as trends in fantasy (and science fiction) because I consider myself part of the family. These are my genres, just like they are the genres of many other people, and we should be engaging with them critically and openly and arguing and discussing and disagreeing. But this feels like someone outside the family, someone who doesn't even know my family that well, has run into the most annoying cousin casually and thinks that describes the whole family.

That may not be fair. I haven't read Mal Peet's before. But his take on fantasy as it stands in the world struck me very much as the view of someone who has not delved deeply into it. My hackles are slightly raised.

But for all that contempt for the genre, The Murdstone Trilogy is entertaining. It's not as deep and complex as The Magicians. It's far more of a romp through the evils of the publishing industry being infiltrated by an evil necromancer from beyond. I didn't mind reading it, but it had none of the deep connection to its sources that I was hoping for.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I've now read two Chimamanda Adichie novels in the last month or so. Before that, she was an author entirely new to me. I'm now in an awkward position where I liked this book a lot better than Half of a Yellow Sun, on a level of pure enjoyment, but probably think Half of a Yellow Sun is a more important book.

The comparison that occurs is with Tolstoy. Bear with me. I slogged my way through War and Peace, and although I recognized it was an Important Book in every sense of the word, it's hard to say I enjoyed the process of reading it. Then I read Anna Karenina, and enjoyed it so much more. It was all of the society stuff I had enjoyed about War and Peace without the long sections on war, which I found boring.

That is pretty much what's happening here. Half of a Yellow Sun was a similarly Important Book (capitalization and all), but I found the sections on war between Biafra and Nigeria draining and difficult. It felt like a book I had to read, but also one that I found difficult to relish. I don't do well when books deal with brutality in detail, even though I fully acknowledge such things happen, and should be grappled with. 

But when I opened this book, and it was apparent it wasn't going to be about war in the same way, I relaxed and enjoyed myself a whole lot more. Which may be a little odd, given that a lot of this book is about race and identity and the difficult intersections between nationality, perceived racial identity and recent North American society juxtaposed with Nigeria.

Honestly, though, this is what I'm eager to read about, and Adichie is merciless in dragging out issues of race in ways that delve into the complexity of racial identities that may be presumed to be universal, but are also nationally dependent. The main character, Ifemelu, moves from Nigeria to the United States, and writes a very success blog about being a non-American Black woman in the U.S. There is some really interesting stuff here about her becoming aware of race in a new way, even while she struggles to understand some of the coded racism that goes on around her, racism to which her American Black friends are keenly attuned and expect her to pick up on in the same way they do.

Her high school love moves to England for a while, and we get that experience as well, and the sections were Ifemelu and Obinze both struggle with staying afloat in a world that doesn't want to hire them are difficult. We also get their moves back to Nigeria, and how both the country and they have changed while they were away. The difficulties of expatriate life, and returned expatriate life are intertwined with a personal story of two people whose own tale is far from finished.

The book centres around difference, both that created and reinforced by societies, and that we create ourselves. Ifemelu thinks herself flexible, an outsider's view that lets her see American society through eyes that are and are not Black, that see race from a different perspective. But when she moves home, she finds that she has also carried assumptions about what Nigeria is like that make her life there startling, make her most at home with other Nigerians who have lived abroad and come back.

It is not that there is no common ground, but there is a good deal about the underlying assumptions, the ones we don't even think about. The ones we expect others to know without ever realizing how they come from cultural conditioning.

And all of this is wrapped around Ifemelu's story, and made extraordinarily personal. It's a less urgent book than Half of a Yellow Sun, but Americanah is one I'd have an easier time coming back to. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Iron Council by China Mieville


*Some Spoilers Below*

Iron Council is one of those books that you don't so much read as tussle with. It's an adventure, a quest, and I often feel like there are underlying themes deeper than the obvious ones, ones that make me wish Perdido Street Station, in particular, was more recent in my memory. I feel that the three New Crobuzon books I've read hang together as a commentary about revolution and rebellion. 

Even the parts I got are marvellously complex, and if I feel like there are still pieces just outside my reach, it's not in a frustrated way, but in a contented one, knowing that rereads will help build upon the understanding I have now, and that's the way it should be.

In this book, rebellion is still fomenting in New Crobuzon, even as they struggle on the outskirts of a war with a neighboring power, Tesh. In the city, some are engaging in direct and violent action, while others decry them as moving too quickly, acting too rashly, not stopping to plan. They shoot back that planning has gone on long enough. Both are probably right, and there's something here about both how popular movement work and how they fragment, on how hard it is to agree on tactics, let alone principles and hierarchies of concern. 

Meanwhile, a small group of revolutionaries have left the city in search of a man who inspires them, some politically, some personally. This is Judah Low, an enigmatic figure who is seeking the Iron Council, followed by a man who is his occasional sex partner and unrequited-to-the-level-he-desires lover and other members of one of the revolutionary cadre in the city. They are seeking the Iron Council. 

The book then flips backwards to when Judah was working on an advance team for a railroad being carved into the landscape outside New Crobuzon, and his disillusionment, his growing ability to to make golems, and eventual part in a worker's revolt after no pay and bad treatment brings them to the breaking point. 

The Iron Council has existed outside the city as a legend of for many years, staying ahead of the New Crobuzon militia by venturing close to an area within which mind and matter alter fundamentally, and continuing to build railway in front of them by pulling it up from behind as they pass. They're a ghost railroad, travelling through the country.

When Judah reaches them, they debate whether or not to return to the city and help with the fight there. Distances in this book are great, and travel not quick, so one of the largest threats is the sheer passage of time. 

This is all a vaguely Victorian time, from railroads to distance to gay men being described as "inverts," to the working class making rumblings that terrify the authorities. This is something I'd like to examine in more depth on future rereads.

There is the need for different voices, and yet at the same time, the feeling that if there could just be unity, for a second, something might be done. But in unity comes silencing, in the demand for purity exclusion. Mieville does a really interesting job capturing all that, all the moments where of course the political is personal because the political is made up of people.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins


*Massive Spoilers Below*

Okay, let me get my ranting hat on. You've been warned. I didn't like this book, and there are very specific reasons why. You may like it. I am not debating whether or not it is well written. I will concede that the author knows how to write. That's why it's so maddening that the author bent his talent to writing a world so needlessly cruel. If this is his worldview, I want no part of it.

This, you see, is the major premise of the book: that if you need to prepare someone to take over as God (albeit a God with a lot of enemies. At least, we're told a lot of enemies. We don't really see them), what you need to do is take a bunch of young children, brutalize, torture, kill, and resurrect them over about 25 years, (including making sure one of them becomes the worst monster of all time and rapes the girl you want to be the one to become God), until she is wily enough to kill you and all her siblings in order to make the pain fucking stop.

This is, the book posits, the only way to make someone tough and smart enough to survive and become God. You know, instead of making them into a traumatized shell. Carolyn is traumatized, but the message behind this book is that all this trauma, brutality, and torture has caused her to be the fittest. Survival of the fittest! The one who can kill everyone around her, including all her brothers and sisters, just to get to her father and one brother who raped her.

That's, uh...totally how you want God to be operating?

This assumption, that we learn best through pain and brutality, instead of through guidance and challenge, roils my stomach. As does the description of Carolyn's father digging one of her sibling's eyes out every day for a month. (Or maybe that was done to her. I'm losing track which torture happened to which person.)

Of course, it doesn't help that this book set off one of my own particular triggers, one I don't usually run into in books. I was explosion-adjacent when I was young, you see, and suffered second-degree burns on my face and arm. (You can't tell anymore, thankfully.) It's not necessarily fire itself that's triggering for me, it's people being burned. This comes up in movies sometimes. Rarely in books, because I don't think visually, and even if there's a fire, most authors don't feel the need to go into excruciating detail.

Not so Scott Hawkins, who details the slow roasting alive of one of Carolyn's brothers in great detail and at length, with positive relish.

But honestly, I'm pretty sure that no matter which kind of violence is the right kind to hit your particular buttons, you'll find it here, and then at the end of the book, be told that it was all done in a good cause and with love, to make Carolyn tough enough.

I wanted to scream. This is not how you create toughness. Or resiliency. Or compassion. Torture breaks people, and it's unrealistic and horrifying to posit that it actually makes you a supreme being.

Not to mention which, there's a hole in the narrative that I think found at the end. See, at the end, Father tells Carolyn. (this whole book is a very lengthy look at how Carolyn kills everyone) after she's resurrected him, that he initially thought David (the rapist) would be his heir, and Carolyn the monster David had to kill to be worthy. But David failed ten times when it came to facing down Carolyn, and Father had to reset the timeline, and eventually reversed the roles.

Except...it's explicitly part of it that the child has to kill the father before they take on the monster sibling. And he's really, truly dead. He's resurrected by Carolyn, yes, but that's after she succeeded. So...when David failed, ten times...who brought Father back to life?

Father talks about it as a risk he had to take, but it seems like it's a risk that should have stopped this book before it got started. How could he reset it if he was never resurrected? How was he resurrected if his scion died before he assumed power?

Maybe there's an explanation somewhere, but this book is too ugly to delve back into to see. Last week, I reviewed Marilynne Robinson's Lila, which was wrenching and touching and about connection and distance and faith. It packed more genuine emotion into its pages than practically anything I've ever read.

And then I get this, where it's just brutality, end to end, underlying a survival of the fittest mentality that is not about adaptation but about how torture and rape makes you stronger and able to kill a monster that someone literally just created for you to fight. It's about how learning can only come through pain. It's all about trying to hurt the characters and often feels like an attempt to make the reader feel bruised as well.

I know which one I'd rather read. This book can go fuck itself.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton


Hark! A Vagrant is not updated as frequently nowadays, but it still remains one of my very favourite webcomics, and I was delighted to get my hands on the second collection of Kate Beaton's fabulously funny work. As always, they're a delightful mix of history and literature.

The book feels a bit sparse at times - I don't think there's the sheer number of actual comics here as the first volume has. I'm not entirely complaining, and if my chief issue was that I wanted more, that's a pretty good complaint to have. But there were several sections where larger drawings were scattered over the page to take up more space, and it gave me a tiny twinge of disappointment.

On the other hand, we have such wonderful moments as Liszt and Chopin feuding that had me laughing out loud. Some great Julius Caesar jokes. (The one with Mark Antony giving his big speech over Brutus' body is another killer one.) Wonder Woman being badass.

I also think that the different series Kate Beaton does riffing on different book covers are just brilliant. The one Edward Gorey one with a duck and a person at a pond and the duck saying "Awww yiss. Motha fucking bread crumbs" also left me almost hysterical. 

In other words, these are really really funny comics, and Kate Beaton is a very, very funny person, and you should definitely read both books if you haven't already.

That seems like a short review, but it isn't like there's a plot here. Or deeper themes, other than that playing with historical and literary stories can be very enjoyable and irreverent indeed. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem


People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Rob

I finished this book and I think I enjoyed it. I didn't love it, but it was an interesting read. Still, something felt missing, and I have orbited around this review for several days, unsure of what I wanted to say or how. Then, unfortunately for Jonathan Lethem, I started reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and with one sentence, she sort of demolished this whole genre. This isn't to say that I suddenly didn't enjoy the book, but the distance I was feeling from it crystallized.

This is what she wrote, talking about how the main character's boyfriend was trying to "improve" her taste in reading, recommending:

"novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness."

Ouch. Because in a lot of ways, that does describe this book very well. I think my other problem is a quirk of what order I have read books in. There were a lot of times where this felt like an odd conflation of two Michael Chabon books - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which I loved) and Mysteries of Pittsburgh (which was okay.) Combine the comics and slight magical realism of superpowers, with a tale of growing up, and exploring sexuality. Lethem's book is certainly more about race, but there were still similarities.

I'm talking around it though, about books that seem similar or relevant to this book. Let's focus back in on what Fortress of Solitude is. It's the story of a young white man growing up in Brooklyn, the only white kid for blocks and blocks. It's how he negotiates that identity, the way it isolates him, and it's about his best friend Mingus, the son of a soul singer, and the ways in which they orbit around each other.

Oh, and there's a ring that grants the power of flight.

So part of it, particularly when we get to Mingus, is a very subtle look at who's the hero and who's the sidekick, and what heroism means in a real world, and how complicated and sticky low-level superpowers can be when they lead to vigilante justice. It's also about friendship and distance, the barriers society builds and those we build ourselves.

Only about half the book takes place in their youth - much of the rest covers Dylan when he goes away to college, and later, as a music writer. It's about his relationship to blackness, which he can never quite reconcile. It's also about his relationship to absence, with his mother having run when he was small, his father isolated in a studio creating an unending animation, Mingus only appearing some of the time Dylan wants him, and Dylan wanting to disappear or at least to blend in.

I don't know what I want to say about the core of the book being about how hard it is to be the one white kid in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I really don't. It bothered me, but I do not have my thoughts in order enough, beyond a tired "well, of course it's the white guy's book about race that gets published." Lethem has every right to write this story, but there's definitely an inequality of access to the publishing world.

I really wish this review were neater and better organized. Sometimes I come to reviews and they just flow. This one feels jerky and disconnected. But honestly, I think that's how I feel. I liked this book. But I was also made uneasy by it.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Lila by Marilynne Robinson


This review, I think, pairs nicely with one I'll write in a couple of days, because the world views of both are so diametrically opposed. So remember that when my review of The Library at Mount Char  comes along, because it'll be relevant.

I was having a discussion with a friend who had read, not this book, but Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and we were going back and forth over the difficulty of expressing how powerful these books are to people who haven't read them. How do I explain prose that is, on the surface, so plain and simple, and yet, with the accumulated weight of the three connected Gilead books, can move me to tears with a line?

How do you express what she does here? It's so masterful, it's so subtle. I suspect the moments that hit me to the core might not be the ones that hit you. And yet, if you read these books and are content with what they are, I'm very sure something will move you as it moved me.

It's the sheer amount of layering, without ever being blatant against it, or drawing attention to it. I am quite sure you could read this book just exactly as it is, without having read the others, and still enjoy it. I am equally sure that if you have read the two preceding books, the emotional wallop is magnified to an almost unbelievable degree. It's not done explicitly - much of the work here has to be done by the reader, bringing themselves to meet the prose, and when the two meet, it's so deep and subtle and powerful.

We move backwards in time for this one. The last two books have been centered around roughly the same time, when Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, comes home. The man Jack is named after, the Reverend Ames, has a much younger wife and young son, and sees his life drawing to a close, and is worried what will happen to his wife when he passes. There is worry whether or not Jack would attract her, either before or after his death, worry why Lila seems to have a kinship to Jack.

We jump back, to the days before and just after Ames marries Lila, and further back, to hear who Lila is and how she ended up where she does, and why she married him and what her life with him means to her. In this, in these books steeped in the idea of the ministry and Christianity, we get a further sense of different Christianities, those that can stretch to incorporate difference and those that can't.

Without getting into Lila's past, much of what Ames preaches makes no sense to her, is in a language that she can't apply to what she's been through. And there's a strong way in which that's a failing in comfortable Christianity, the assumptions that underlie theology, while feeling so normal they feel eternal rather than situational.

One of the themes of the book seems to be the impossibility of true communication across divides, yet Robinson bridges this through moments that it is hard to give any other name to but grace.

It's such a deep and complex book, even though it always feels simple. She takes the reader to unexpected places, and it's striking and deep. This is not sentimentality, going for feeling without any of the steps that lead to real emotion. Reading Lila is like drowning in a deep well of thought and feeling without realizing it.

Now that I've read the three Gilead books she's written, I feel a sense of loss. I'm not even Christian, and yet these books touch me on a level I can't explain. Part of it is that the Christianity that comes through is complicated and her gaze on it sometimes merciless but always serious, with, again, those moments of grace that point to connections beyond words.