Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review of "Alif the Unseen" by G. Willow Wilson

A boy with a computer program that can identify people on the Internet by their keystroke patterns. A girl with a book written by djinn entitled “The Thousand and One Days.” And outside their doors, it’s the beginning of the Spring Revolution all over the Middle East. Wilson finds the common thread between technology and mytholoy and wraps it all in a modern fantasy adventure that’s gripping and fun to read.

In Arab mythology the djinn are called the “invisible ones.” But Wilson quickly draws a parallel between the magical folk of myth and young people who spend most of their time socializing online. When the hero, Alif, is hunted down by State Security and forced to go offline, he wails to his two friends, Dina and Abdullah:

“And now I’m a ghost in the machine. By next week all the hacks and geeks and hats I call my friends will have forgotten who I am. That is the nature of this business. That is the Internet.”

“You still have real friends,” said Dina. The two men made identical derisive noises.

“Internet friends are real friends,” said Abdullah. “Now that you pious brothers and sisters have taken over half the planet, the Internet is the only place left to have a worthwhile conversation.”

But Wilson’s book doesn’t dismiss Islam in simple terms. One of the main characters is the Imam of the local mosque. And he has a very realistic view of what’s wrong with society:

“Oil,” the sheikh shook his head. “The great cursed wealth from beneath the ground that the Prophet foresaw would destroy us. And statehood--what a terrible idea that was, eh? This part of the world was never meant to function that way. Too many languages, too many tribes, too motivated by ideas those high-heeled cartographers from Paris couldn’t understand. Don’t understand. Will never understand. Well, God save them--they’re not the ones who have to live in this mess. They said a modern state needs a single leader, a secular leader, and the emir was the closest thing we had. So to the emir went all the power. And anyone who thinks that isn’t a good idea is hounded down and tossed in jail, as you have so recently discovered. All so that some pantywaist royal nephew can have a seat at the UN and carry a flag in the Olympics and be thoroughly ignored.”

The best parts of the novel involve the intervention of the unseen world into this reality, both the world of the djinn and the online world. Wilson makes strong connections between the zeros and ones that symbolize data and functions on a computer with the metaphors of mythology, literature, and the Koran which symbolize deeper themes, and have multiple meanings simultaneously. When her hero attempts to program a computer to understand metaphors, the narrative turns in a wild and unforeseen direction.

Even the characters themselves embody multiple meanings. Her hero, Alif, has two names: his online handle (Alif)--the first letter of the alphabet, shaped like a single vertical slash--and his given name, which remains unseen throughout most of the novel. He’s half-Arab and half-Indian, and is forced to master multiple languages: Arabic, Hindi, English, C++, and eventually the language of the djinn.

The unnamed city itself is a conglomeration, but not a melting pot, each area separate, but ultimately involved with the other: “The City, Abdullah had once quipped, is divided into three parts: old money, new money, and no money. It had never supported a middle class and had no ambition to do so--one was either a nonresident of Somewhere-istan, sending the bulk of one’s salary home to desperate relatives, or one was a scion of the oil boom.” Or one is like Alif, a child of two worlds, living with his Indian mother, but surviving on the “driblets” of money sent by his wealthy, absent father--a child of Nowhere-istan, unless you count the unseen world of the Internet.

This is a fantastic work of fiction (in multiple ways), and takes us inside the hearts and minds of the young protagonists who fueled the Spring Revolution. And it gives us a beautiful peek inside the unseen world (at least in the West) of Arab mythology and cultural concerns.


Review of "NW" by Zadie Smith

The novel is told in three voices:  two women who’ve grown up together in NW London and, between their separate sections of the book, a seemingly unrelated man who’s grown up in the same area and is trying to escape his past to make a better life. The two women have outwardly pulled themselves out of poverty, but Smith’s skill lies in showing the inner poverty of their lives; how external expectations keep them from even knowing what they really want from life, much less living the lives they want.

The first section, told through the eyes of Leah, is rough going. She’s depressed and lonely, feels trapped in her “happy” marriage and her respectable but boring job, and doesn’t want to have the child her husband craves so much. It’s only in the third section, told through her best friend Natalie’s eyes, that we see what kind of child Leah was: a empathic girl who becomes a rebel in high school, hangs out with artsy intellectuals, and flirts with lesbianism in college. And yet she ends up marrying a very conventional family man and living just a few doors down from the house where she grew up, in the same NW lower-class neighborhood.

Natalie’s story takes a different trajectory: she’s the little girl with a tough exterior who gets straight-A’s, goes to law school, puts in her requisite three years as a public defender, then takes a cushy job in a corporate law firm. She marries a rich, handsome, playboy banker and pops out two children, a boy and a girl, and seems to all outward appearances to have the perfect life. Except that inwardly, her life mirrors Leah’s more closely than she’s willing to admit.

The stories of these two women bracket the story of Felix, who as a black man, has a harder time making a success of his life. Whereas Leah (who’s white) and Natalie (who’s black) find it easier to climb the socioeconomic ladder, Smith reminds us that black men are viewed by all of society as inherently dangerous once they reach puberty. This applies even to Felix, whose name means “happy” and whose demeanor is always upbeat. He has a quick, creative mind, and is easily the most likable character in the book, yet he never gets a real break from anyone, except maybe his newest girlfriend, Grace. She’s presented in stark contrast to his former girlfriend, Annie, a drugged-out déclassé white woman who wants to support Felix’s work as a filmmaker, but whose drug habits pulled him down in the first place. As much as he loves Grace, Felix can’t easily let go of Annie, whose outlook on life, while more jaded, seems more realistic in the end.

In the fourth and final section, Smith artfully links together the three characters in a way that makes the reader feel as if you’ve been given the full tour of NW.

Overall, this book was fantastic, although a little hard to get into.  Once you reach Felix’s section, though, Smith hits her stride and there’s no turning back.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Review of The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

So many good reviews have been written about this book is that I was puzzled to find it lacking in many ways.
It’s a first novel written by a young poet, and it contains many of the elements of good poetry:  archetypes, vivid metaphors, wrenching themes, alternating stanzas that lead us eventually to a final reveal, and a strong central voice.  But for those reasons, it doesn’t quite hold together as a novel.  Archetypes, when used in a longer narrative format, quickly become uninteresting stereotypes—for example Sterling, the hard-bitten sergeant whom everyone agrees is the perfect soldier.  And we never get attached to the younger soldier that the narrator has promised to protect (conveniently named Murph, as if he were a cute, stuffed toy unable to hold his stitching intact in a hostile environment).
So instead the book becomes an exploration of the soul of its narrator, and succeeds on that level.  Its poetry reminds us that the young men we send into war are not machines, not the brutal automatons that the army wants them to be, but young people full of life and the urge to experience beauty and a sense of purpose.  As the narrator says of himself and Murph while they’re getting ready to be deployed: “Being from a place where a few facts are enough to define you, where a few habits can fill a life, causes a unique kind of shame.  We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.  So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be.”
But a novel is not just the poetry of its language and the insights of one narrative voice.  And sometimes the metaphors in this book stretch to the breaking point and beyond, as when the narrator struggles for an image to describe what it’s like to fly home as one of the survivors of a pointless war.  His words are buffeted by so much turbulence that the reader eventually loses the sense of what he’s saying or what the character is thinking.
And we never get a sense of the day-to-day routine of deployment in Iraq.  Amongst all the lovely metaphor, the book is strangely lacking in description.  I felt that less poetry and more straightforward narration would have served the story better.  Fortunately, the novel is short in length so that the reader isn’t asked to stay involved with the characters too long.  And the disjointed narration lends truth to its overall message, presented as a sudden insight the narrator has after going AWOL in Germany:  “I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.  And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.”
I can’t say I liked “The Yellow Birds” as much I expected to.  And I find the high praise that critics and other writers have given it to be more an expression of their guilt over not condemning a war that was obviously unnecessary from the beginning, than a clear-eyed look at the qualities of the book itself.  Nevertheless, I think everyone should read it in spite of its flaws, and take the opportunity to get inside a mind that’s been battered and torn by war.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review of "2312" by Kim Stanley Robinson

My first impression of this novel is that the author could use a good editor, or needs to take up short-form poetry to sharpen his descriptive skills.  Much of the book is repetitive and does little to propel the narrative or bolster the main themes.

And yet...I haven't read a book in decades that reminds me of the best long-form science fiction of the Silver Age ('60's and '70's) like this book does.  Robinson looks forward to an era when humans have populated and terraformed Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn, when space-flight within our solar system is common, and human lifespans have more than doubled.  And, of course, the main theme of the novel is not just whether humanity can grow up as it grows outward, but what will humanity become--what will being "human" mean--when people can incorporate genes from animal species and alien bacteria into their bodies, and even implant quantum computers into their brains.

In one passage that falls in the center of the book, Robinson riffs on the similarity between a linked group of quantum computers and the human brain.  He asks:  "if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will?  Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose?  Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains?  Is a programmed will a servile will?  Is human will a servile will?  And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?...could a quantum computer program itself?"

The difference, of course, is that humans "programming" themselves with their own brains is how we might define "free will."  But Robinson nicely illustrates that our free will is limited by physical externalities: our physical bodies, the environment around us, the society in which we live, and the deceptively remote influence of historical forces.

And so this big, sprawling work brings us back around to a question that lies at the heart of most American fiction:  how self-reliant and self-actualized do you really need to be?  In the end, don't you need other people--a connection to human society--as much or even more than your personal, individual freedom?

For that, the book is worth the time it takes to read all of its 560 pages.  And Robinson does provide many beautiful descriptive passages like this one of Titan, the terraformed moon of Saturn:  "True sunlight and mirrored sunlight crossed to make the landscape shadowless, or faintly double-shadowed--strange to Swan's eye, unreal-looking, like a stage set in a theater so vast the walls were not visible.  Gibbous Saturn flew through the clouds above, its edge-on rings like a white flaw cracking that part of the sky."  I just wish the book were as condensed and strking as this lively passage.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review of Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

This little, poetic book soared above my expectations.  Equal parts sunshine and shadow, it tells the story of Bit, a boy raised in a hippie commune in upstate New York.

Any fiction about alternative lifestyles of the 1960's and 70's has the unfortunate potential to become an anticommunist or antianarchist screed.  Groff easily avoids that pitfall by focusing on the hard work of a back-to-the-land, build-society-from-scratch commune, combined with an exacting eye for the personalities (and clash of personalties) involved.  Telling it from the perspective of a sensitive boy makes it possible for her to explore the outcome: what kind of man is made from a childhood that's built on hard labor and semi-starvation, livened with the beauty of nature and communal love.

The book is told in four parts: 1) Bit as a 5-year-old boy when the commune is first being built in the early 1970's, 2) Bit as a 14-year-old, experiencing the commune at it's height and sudden downfall, 3) Bit in his late 30's living in New York City with his young daughter, and 4) Bit in his 50's, returning to the land that once held the commune to care for his ailing mother.

What holds all these pieces together isn't just Bit's story, but the lives of the women around him.  Groff makes it clear that the women of the commune are its center and what keeps it together for so long, and Bit is their child more than he is the child of the men who ostensibly make the big decisions.  Each section of the book is defined by Bit's relationship to key women in his life: the first section belongs to his mother, the second to his teenage love, the third to his missing wife and daughter, and the fourth brings him back to his mother--to the source, so to speak, of his life.

In this journey, Groff touches on interesting themes of freedom vs. responsibility, individuality vs. community, and loneliness vs. connection.  And they emerge as a natural part of the narrative, never as a sermon, so that this book goes down as easily and sweetly as a fine glass of wine.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This book is number one on a list of twelve literary fiction books that I want to read this year, and it was a fantastic beginning.  Usually I don’t like historical fiction that uses real historical people as its main characters because it’s so difficult for a modern author to get the characters’ psychology right.  But Mantel is so steeped in the historical details of her time period and is so skilled at depicting her characters’ motivations that she makes it all look effortless. 

But the subtle psychological details are only one small part of the beauty of Wolf Hall.  Mantel weaves in the details of daily living in a way that propel the story forward and illuminate the characters like the details in a 15th century portrait.  As a consequence, you feel like you’re living in the period, and the details are never boring or a distraction to the narrative. 

But what I appreciated most is that Mantel understands politics at a level that’s difficult to find in historical fiction published in the US.  She captures both the political machinations at court and the toll that political scheming takes on her characters.  Take this example from an early scene in the novel when Thomas Cromwell witnesses the eviction of his mentor, Cardinal Woolsey, from his palace: “Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know.  You don’t get on by being original.  You don’t get on by being bright.  You don’t get on by being strong.  You get on by being a subtle crook…” (Page 49.) 

Or later in the novel, when Cromwell is discussing his own turbulent past with one of his rivals, the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys:  “But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain.  It is weak and anecdotal.  It is wise to conceal the past even if there’s nothing to conceal.  A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face.  It is the absence of facts that frightens people; the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” (Page 294.) 

And so Mantel conveys a deep link between the way a man like Cromwell wields power, and the way a historian must sift through facts to try and get at the deep inner lives of her characters, which in the end always remain somewhat remote, vessels into which she—and, in turn, her readers—pour their fears, fantasies, and desires. 

Most of all, the author masterfully reveals how the world works, even today.  In the scene in which Cromwell must talk sense into Harry Percy and force him to give up his attachment to Anne Boleyn, he tries to make Percy understand that he might not fear the king, but he should fear his creditors:  “How can he explain it to him?  The world is not run from where he thinks.  Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.  The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun.  Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus; not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.” (Page 309.) 

Which is, of course, the reason to study history and read historical novels:  because they remind us of lessons from the past that are still relevant today. 

But Mantel also understands the conflicts of that time period.  She’s been accused of doing what many historical novelists do:  imposing modern tastes on her main character.  Her depiction of Cromwell is of a man who treats women as human beings and not property, who is kind to children and animals, who’s skeptical about the existence of an all-powerful and all-knowing God.  But the final showdown between Cromwell and the inflexible Thomas More, who’s been imprisoned in the Tower of London, embodies the struggle of a rising middle class pulling Europe out of the religiously repressive Dark Ages and into a more secular, humanistic world.  The exchange begins with Cromwell: 

“I am glad I am not like you.” 

“Undoubtedly.  Or you would be sitting here.” 

“I mean, my mind fixed on the next world.  I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.” 

“And you do?” 

Almost a flippant question.  A handful of hail smacks itself against the window.  It startles them both; he gets up, restless.  He would rather know what’s outside, see the summer in its sad blowing wreckage, than cower behind the blind and wonder what the damage is.  “I once had every hope,” he says.  “The world corrupts me, I think.  Or perhaps it’s just the weather.  It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under glass…”  (Pages 519-520.) 

And this is what elevates Wolf Hall to the level of art; the fact that it works on so many levels makes it one of the best novels I’ve read in years.  I can’t remember reading a modern historical novel this good.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This Year's Reading List

This year I wanted to plan my recreational reading more than I have in past years.  I seem to flit from one mystery series to another, and while there’s nothing wrong with reading a good mystery or two, I haven’t been getting to the much better books that are gathering dust on my shelves.  With that in mind, I made a list of 12 fiction books that I want to read this year, approximately, one per month, although I probably won’t read them in the order I’ve listed them below.

Top Ten Fiction Books to Read in 2013 (plus a couple of classics)

1.    Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
2.    Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
3.    NW, Zadie Smith
4.    The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers
5.    Arcadia, Lauren Groff
6.    The Round House, Louise Erdrich
7.    Live By Night, Dennis Lehane
8.    This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
9.    State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
10.  The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin
11.  Classic #1: Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
12.  Classic #2: Germinal, Emile Zola

Numbers 1 and 2 are both winners of Britain’s Man Booker Prize for fiction, and they’re the first two books in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the infamous secretary to Henry VIII.  Historical fiction is right up my aisle, so these are must-reads for me.

Number 3 is Zadie Smith’s novel of four Londoners who grew up in the same council estate but who lead very different lives as adults.

The Yellow Birds made several of the year’s best novel lists for 2012.  It follows two, young US soldiers during a stint in northern Iraq, where they’re thrown into the midst of an urban battlefield.

Number 5 narrates the history of a commune in upstate New York from the 1960’s to the present day through the eyes of the first child born there.

Number 6 needs little explanation, since Erdrich’s works are heavily reviewed and discussed in the US media. This one has garnered a lot of praise, and I’m interested in taking a look.

Dennis Lehane is one of my perennial favorites, so Live By Night was going to make this list no matter what.  And it’s historical fiction novel set in Prohibition-era Boston.  What’s not to like about that?

I have a secret to confess:  I’ve never read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which would make me a pariah in any group of supposedly well-read people.  And I say, “So what.”  I’ll just make up for it by reading This Is How You Lose Her.

I’ve heard so many people rave about Patchett’s State of Wonder that I broke down and bought a copy, but it’s been gathering pixel dust on my Kindle ever since.  I’m determined to get to it this year.

Number 10 made a few of the year’s best lists, too.  The Orchardist was written by a local author and is set in the Cascade foothills, so I’m eager to see what the fuss is about.  And, again, it’s historical fiction, which I deeply enjoy.

The two classics on this list hardly need an introduction.  This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, so it’s about time I got around to reading the first book in Proust’s monumental work, Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time, depending on how literal you like your translations to be).

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Zola’s labor classic, Germinal, but it’s true, I haven’t.  It’s time to change that.