Monday, April 13, 2015

Jamaica me crazy

Marlon James
Well, it has been a really long time since my last post!  I did not expect to take such an abrupt departure from blogosphere, but sometimes life (and gloriously warm, sunny spring days) does not leave time for reading and blogging.  Or for sending out books to my blogiversary winners, which I promise I have not forgotten!

One of the reasons I have not been blogging, besides the sunny weather and some upheaval at work, is this book.  Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings.  This was my pick for the new book club I joined, and I only realized after the fact that it is like, 700 pages long, has about 15 different narrators, and is written is some seriously difficult to decipher dialect.

I admit that I only finished this book because I spent so much time convincing the book club to read it.  I would rate A Brief History of Seven Killings as, hands down, far and away, the most difficult book I have ever read.

The book is set mostly in Jamaica, though later on, the action moves to the US.  It focuses on the gang violence and culture that permeated every aspect of Jamaican life, and it makes clear just how difficult it is to escape that life, or to profit from it.  There is also a plot to kill Bob Marley (the singer) and the repercussions of that for both the people involved and the people who witnessed the act.

I think I probably understood about 25% of this book.  I struggled mightily with the dialect and trying to keep all the narrators straight.  One of the narrators in the book is actually a ghost, and I didn't even realize it until very late in the game.  There's also a CIA agent, and I am still unclear on what his purpose in the story was.  There were really only two narrators whose story arcs I completely understood.  I really liked their stories and what James did with them, which is part of my frustration with this book.  It was so dense and difficult for me to read, but the parts I did understand and follow were so well-written.  So if I had been able to understand the rest of the book, I have a feeling it would have completely blown me away.  But instead, I struggled for almost two months to get through it.

There is a lot of showing, not telling, in A Brief History, which in a way I appreciate.  I like that James expects his audience to be intelligent and familiar with what's going on.  Unfortunately, though, I have zero working knowledge of Jamaican politics or current events, and just as little knowledge about the drug wars in 1970s-1980s America.  So it was very difficult for me to understand the context of this book, which was maybe my ultimate downfall.  Or maybe it was that there were SO many characters and I couldn't keep them straight.  In addition to all this, there is SO MUCH VIOLENCE.  I am not sure what seven killings James refers to in his title because there are way more killings than that in the book.  Jamaica seems to be a pretty brutal place, once you get away from the resorts.  The juxtaposition of the expat community and the local community was pretty jarring.

Whatever the cause, I was utterly and completely lost through most of this book.  But I made it all the way to the end and, truly, the end was very good.  James pulls together all of his storylines (the ones I understood, anyway) and it is amazing.  In some ways, I think it was worth the struggle to the end just for that feeling, but in most ways, I would rather have been reading something a little happier.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review-itas: People coming together in difficult times

A Game for Swallows, by Zeina Abirached
Zeina Abirached's graphic novel A Game for Swallows:  To Die, to Leave, to Return is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I've seen.  The drawings are in black and white, but the style and personality that come through is so strong and evocative.  You can tell on the cover itself - the hairstyles, the faces, all of the characters are so distinct.

The book takes place one evening in Beirut.  Zeina's parents went to visit her grandmother and telephoned to say that they are on their way home, but it's been hours and they have not yet returned.  So all of the other residents of the apartment block come to spend time with Zeina and her brother.  Zeina tells their stories in asides and flashbacks.  By the end, readers have seen several personal stories about life in Lebanon during the civil war.

I enjoyed this book, but I found it a little difficult to follow the story line.  I was often confused by whether we were in a flashback or the present day, and I didn't always know who the narrator was, since different characters would tell either their stories or other people's stories.  And I didn't fully understand all of the context.  For example, Abirached describes how her family went from using the entirety of their apartment to slowly using only one room, but I didn't quite know why their lives had become so constricted.  And I didn't understand why snipers would be on every street trying to shoot all these civilians instead of fighting other soldiers.  I have been lucky in never living in a war zone, so I didn't always understand the whys or hows behind what Abirached was saying.

But the main takeaway, that war made everything difficult and changed people's lives so completely, was easy to understand.

March:  Book OneThe first two volumes of March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, relate John Lewis' childhood and college years working for the civil rights movement.  John Lewis is one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders in American history; he spoke in Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. and is now a US senator.

It is timely that these graphic novels about the struggle to end Jim Crow and obtain equal rights and voting privileges for African-Americans came out recently, as it becomes more and more clear that Blacks are still fighting for so many rights.

I really enjoy this series and hope that it continues.  I liked the second volume more than the first one, but I think that's because it focused a lot on the freedom riders and the lunch counter protests vs the first volume, which had more to do with setting up John Lewis as a character.

Hopefully, by writing his memoirs in a graphic novel format, John Lewis will reach a new set of American readers who don't always read memoirs or history books.  I'm of the opinion that, for important topics such as this one, it's vital to tell the history in as many ways as possible, to reach as many people as possible.  I've read a bit about the civil rights movement in recent years, but I really appreciate getting multiple perspectives and visions to bring the period to life for me.  These books show just how terrifying it was to be a civil rights leader - they must all have lived in near-constant fear for their lives, and still they went out every day to make a better world.

March:  Book 2
For some reason, a memoir written in graphic novel format feels so much more personal and intimate to me than one written in only prose.  I'm not sure why, but I feel like I know John Lewis much better now for having seen his actions brought to life in vivid artwork.

Highly recommend this read to anyone who wants to better understand the American civil rights movement.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, made so many Top Books of 2014 lists that I knew I had to read it.  Much like my trepidation around The Martian, I was mostly nervous because I didn't want to read a really depressing book.  And the premise of Station Eleven is that over 99% of the world's population is wiped out, seemingly within weeks, by a horrible strain of the flu.  20 years later, a small traveling symphony makes its way around the Great Lakes region, performing musical revues and Shakespeare plays.

So, obviously there is a lot that is depressing about this book.  Certainly for anyone (as all readers are) that remembers the world prior to the pandemic and can compare that life to what remains now.  But humankind marches on despite major setbacks, and there is something immensely comforting in the thought that people might still perform Shakespeare and classical music even when less than 1,000,000 people live on the entire planet.  There's a truism here about how you can kill people, but you can't kill art.

But obviously, when an entire global society breaks down so completely, so quickly, there are quite a few negative effects.  One of those is the rise of cults and religious zealots.  Another is the horrible loss of knowledge.  Perhaps the two are related.  It is so sad to think that everything we know, everything we've learned over thousands of years, could just be lost because no one remembers and there is no infrastructure to keep the books or photos or memory alive any more.

I actually wanted this book to be much longer than it was.  I feel like there was so much Mandel could have explored but chose not to.  I understand her decision; she wanted to make this a story about people, not about how to rebuild a society.  But gosh, I was truly thirsting for more of everything.  More on the disease.  More on its spread.  More on how people lived those first few years, completely shattered.  More about every single character.

That's the trouble with life, though, as Mandel makes clear.  You make grand plans as though your life will come to an end at the exact right moment when you have finished everything and have no regrets.  But instead, something happens and all you have are frayed edges, empty promises, and thoughts on what might have been.  And you make a life for yourself from all those mismatched pieces.

I enjoyed this book a lot, but I enjoyed it in a completely different way than I expected to, if that makes any sense.  I was expecting dramatic scenes and stand-offs and science and symbols of lost civilization.  Instead, I got deep personal introspection and vignettes of lives ended too soon.  It was a wonderful story all the same, populated by characters that I wish I could know better and spend more time with.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Happy Blogiversary to Me

This is probably the first time that I have acknowledged my blog's anniversary.  March 16th, 2015 marks the 9 year mark for me and book blogging.  In digital years, that probably makes me a great-grandmother.  But at least I am in good company (Andi, I'm looking at you!).

I am not sure what made me want to mark this year vs all the others that came before it.  One could say that I am less engaged in the broader blogging community than I have ever been.  I know none of the drama, none of the new sites, none of the most popular books.  I rarely review new books, and I now get more and more of my books from the library rather than publishers or the bookstore.  And, more and more, I struggle to visit other people's blogs and comment and engage in conversation in a timely manner.  I am usually at least a week late and a dollar short on all forms of blogger communication.

But I still believe in the power of books and authors to make a difference in people's lives, and I want so desperately to know that I have used my time here to make a positive impact on someone.

So for my blogiversary, I would like to buy three of you a book.  It can be any book that I have reviewed in the entirety of my blog experience (well, any that is under $20, please).  And preferably it's not just one that everyone has reviewed and is on a best-seller list and very easy to find or buy if you wanted to.  Instead, I hope it's one that is a little lesser-known and difficult to find but you really, really want to try it.  But hey, I am not going to set rules here.  If you really want to read The Martian and I'm the only way you're going to get to it, then please let me know.  I have been on the receiving end of wonderful, thoughtful book karma before, and I'm happy to pass it along to others.

So - what book have you seen reviewed here that you would like to have a copy of all for yourself?  And why that book particularly?

Let me know in the comments, and I'll pick three people at random by the end of the week (Saturday) and send you either the book or a gift certificate to your store of choice to purchase the book.  Hard copy or e-book copy both work for me.  Please keep your choice under $20; if the book happens to cost more than that, I'll give you $20 towards your purchase :-)

Thank you for reading books and thank you for reading this blog.  Here's to many more wonderful reads ahead for us all.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sir Pterry

Yesterday morning, my friend Sudha told me that Terry Pratchett passed away.  It was fitting that Sudha told me because it was through Sudha that I was introduced to Terry Pratchett in the first place, many years ago, when we were in high school.  I don't remember what my first Pratchett book was.  I think it was Small Gods.  Whatever it was, I loved it and I don't think I have gone a year since without reading a Pratchett book.  I will be forever grateful to Sudha's ex-boyfriend Connor (wherever he is now) for introducing her, and by extension me, to such a wonderful author.

It is difficult for me to put into words just how much Terry Pratchett has meant to me over the years.  I could say that he is one of my favorite authors of all time, but we live in an age of hyperbole and I know that I gush about authors often.  You wouldn't understand that my love for Terry Pratchett's writing is on a different level than my love for many other authors because there are only so many words in the English language to express fandom, and I overuse them all.  Suffice it to say that Pratchett wrote over 70 books in his lifetime, and he wrote prolifically for decades, and I still feel like he left us without enough.

Pratchett tackled diversity before it was a buzz word.  And he didn't just do it lip service - he really tackled diversity.  He confronted women's rights with Equal Rites, he integrated the Ankh-Morpork police force with awkwardness and humanity and humor, he respected and then poked fun at organized religion, banks, government, and so many other things.  And he made clear that ordinary people can be extraordinary heroes.

I don't know what my favorite Terry Pratchett book is, or which of his characters I love the most.  I loved the entire Discworld and the way all of his characters interacted with and learned from and treated each other.  I'll miss Death and his SPEECH IN ALL CAPITALS.  And the Death of Rats (SQUEAK).  I'll miss Susan and Lobsang and how I imagine their happily ever after to be.  I'll miss Tiffany Aching and her hilarious friends, the wee free men.  I'll miss Commander Vimes and his entire watch team.  Lord Vetinari.  The Librarian and the Luggage.  Unseen University.  Rincewind.  Lao-Tzu.  I may even miss Moist von Lipwig.

Pratchett wrote fantasy fiction but he was in no way limited by his genre.  When I hear people say that they don't read fantasy novels, I become frustrated with their response mostly because of Terry Pratchett.  Yes, his books feature other worlds and magic, but they also feature humor and wit and friendship and kindness.  If you like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, Tina Fey or Aziz Ansari, I think you would like Terry Pratchett.  I don't think I really understood fantasy novels as being a vehicle to comment on our world until I read Pratchett.  His ability to subvert the genre and pass judgment on our world at the same time was masterful.

In a genre that is overrun with magical quests to defeat powerful oligarchs, Pratchett focused most of his attention on the police force and had a healthy respect for the efficiency offered by a dictatorship.  In a genre that often overlooks women, he created a cast of powerful, wonderful, and kind females.  And in a genre that values brute strength and magic and often veers into cynicism, Pratchett stood firm in his belief that good people can make the world a better place.  And proved his faith by making sure that the good guys won.  In every book.  Because while Pratchett was searingly clear about all the ways in which the world disappointed him (and disappoints us all), he also made sure that you ended every book knowing that good people doing good things makes the world a good place.

Rest in peace, Sir Pterry.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A true fantasy winner from my bookshelf

I am not sure how long I have owned Lynn Flewelling's Luck in the Shadows.  I entered it into my
Luck in the Shadows, by Lynn Flewelling
LibraryThing account on December 18, 2006, which is quite early in my LibraryThing account history, so I've owned it for at least 8 years, if not more.  In the many shelf purges that have occurred since then, I never got rid of Flewelling's books because she is rated so highly by fantasy fans.  And, for me, winter is the perfect time for a quality epic fantasy novel.  I love to become immersed in the worlds and the cultures and the struggle of good vs. evil.  So when I saw that Luck in the Shadows was available for download as an audiobook, I decided it was finally time for me to read it.

I was nervous that my tastes had changed too much for me to enjoy this one still, but that was not true at all.  While I don't read epic fantasy as much as I used to, I still love authors who thoughtfully develop strong, multi-dimensional characters who live in rich, developed worlds.  Lynn Flewelling does both those things, and she reminded me of why I love fantasy writing so much.  The customs and cultures and religions and folklore that she brought to life here all pulled me completely into the story and kept my attention the whole way through.

The story centers on two characters, Alec and Seregil.  They meet in prison, escape together, and then get along so well that Seregil makes Alec his apprentice (though Alec is vague on the details of what exactly Seregil does).  The two set off for adventures in distant lands, steal something that looks pretty small but ends up causing them a lot of trouble (a la The Hobbit), and then spend a lot of time trying to understand why that thing is so important and trying to solve a big political mystery.

Along the way, readers meet many other wonderful characters, such as Micum and Nysander, two of Seregil's closest friends and advisors.  We also get to explore a beautiful, multi-faceted world.

One of my absolute favorite things about this story was the way Flewelling weaves so many things that are important to me.  For instance, Seregil's country is led by women, and this seems completely natural to him.  Women fill many roles, from military adviser to queen to innkeeper to wizard to traitor, and they fill all of those roles well.  This is so rare in fantasy novels, and I appreciated it so much.  While none of the main characters is female in this book (bummer), the world is very much one in which both sexes have power and respect.

I think it's due to that fact that the romantic relationships are also more fluid in Flewelling's world.  Alec and Seregil are great friends but you can see how that friendship will develop deeper into romance in the future.  The red light district in town appeals to people of all tastes equally.  I loved that Flewelling made a point of stating that the houses catered to both men and women, and to people who preferred both men and women.

I loved so many, many things about this book.  It truly is exactly the sort of fantasy novel that I've always loved and will continue to seek out.

To give fair warning, Luck in the Shadows is the first book in a duology and it ends rather abruptly.  Luckily, the book was published in the 1990s, so you need not be frustrated for long.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review-itas: Books for which I'm late to the party

The Martian, by Andy Weir
Based on everyone 2014 Best Of lists, I am on the second half of the bell curve on reading these books.  Therefore, I'll just give you a quick recap of my thoughts, and maybe these will serve as reminder to you about them, in case you were thinking of checking one or the other or both of them out!

The Martian, by Andy Weir.  Thanks so much to Trisha at eclectic/eccentric for lending me her copy of this audiobook!  As she promised, the audiobook is really good!

The book is about Mark, an astronaut who accidentally gets left behind on Mars after a wind storm (Home Alone x bazillion, right?).  He is really quite upbeat about the whole situation, and when NASA understands what happened, the whole world works together to try and bring Mark home.

My favorite part of this book was the gallows humor that Mark displays through its entirety.  We get to know him through his log entries, and you can just tell that he has many frustrating, painful, weeping moments, but he does not share any of that on the log.  He's upbeat and positive and really, really funny, and it's just so heart-warming to hear.  And then all the people working to save him, too - also very heart-warming.

Sometimes, I felt like the language was a little too technical for my tastes, but at the same time, I thought that the technical aspects were really fascinating.  I don't think I fully comprehended just how inhospitable a place Mars is.  Mark went around wearing his space suit pretty much everywhere.  And I can't imagine that was very comfortable.

One thing really annoyed me about this audiobook (and I admit that it annoyed me a lot).  Pretty much everyone with a non-Anglo name got a foreign accent.  There was one German astronaut, so I understood giving him a German accent.  But there was a main character who was ethnically Indian and a side character who was ethnically Asian, and both of them had very stereotypical accents.  Even though there was nothing in the story that implied that they hadn't been born in America.  And, in fact, their phrasing and language made it pretty clear (to me, at least) that they were American and therefore would have had American accents.

To be fair, there were also stereotypical Texan accents for people from Houston.  But that's just as annoying!  Just because someone lives in Texas now doesn't mean they have a Texas accent!  And the Indian guy lives in Houston, too - why didn't he have a Texan accent?

Bad Feminist, by Roxane GaySo, yes, that frustrated me.  But truly, the narrator did a great job of capturing Mark's voice.  And the story is really fun and enjoyable to read.  So don't let that turn you off!

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay.  This collection of essays was very entertaining to read via audiobook.  My only problem with books like this one, in which strong feminist women speak their mind about the world-at-large and women's rights specifically is that I often think they are preaching to the choir.  Actually, calling that a problem with the books is wrong.  There's nothing wrong with the books.  It's more that I get so riled up and very, "Amen, sistah!"

But then I realize that probably the people whose minds I want to change and whose minds the author wants to change are not reading this book, and I feel quite sad.

Maybe I'm wrong, though!  In which case, I think Gay's collection is a good addition to any bookshelf.  I liked some essays more than others, which is only to be expected.  My favorite was about how people today expect to find characters in the books they read "likable," especially female characters, and how flawed that approach to reading is.  I took this essay to heart because I'll often finish a book and think - great writing, but GOSH, those characters were horrible!  And my enjoyment will be less than if I liked the characters.  But as Gay points out, the point of a story isn't only to write about you and your friends, it's to take you outside of your realm of experience.  And so we should not look only for likable characters, we should look for great characters and stories that move us.  I really took this advice to heart, and I plan to be much more aware of my reaction to stories and characters in future.

There were many other wonderful essays in this collection, and I'm sure if you read it, you might go home with very different takeaways than me.  But that's much more a positive than a negative!  If you've read this collection, what do you remember most vividly about it?


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