Thursday, July 30, 2015

Joint Musings: The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagahira

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagahira
Ana and I read The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagahira, together a few months ago, and then spent quite a bit of time writing to each other in ALL CAPS and with lots of exclamation points.  Then Eva joined in and added a whole new level of complexity to our discussion, and the result was that we dissected this novel to a huge extent and the below discussion is full of massive spoilers.  You will probably only want to read it if you have already completed the book, or if you, like me, don't really care about spoilers.

The People in the Trees is based on real events.  The main character is Norton Perina, a brilliant but disturbing doctor who goes to a far-off, isolated island and discovers the secret to incredibly long life.  But long life comes with a price, as so many things do.  The novel explores Perina's life, the impact of colonization, the politics of power, and so much more.  All with the help of two extremely unreliable narrators.  It was one of the best books I've read this year and by far the most disturbing one to date.

Below is our detailed discussion.  We hope you weigh in with your thoughts, too!

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yangihara is written in the form of the fictional memoirs of Dr. Norton Perina, a once renowned scientist who won the Nobel for seemingly uncovering the secret of eternal life, but who has now fallen into disrepute. Perina has been convicted for sexual abuse; in the introduction, written in the voice of Perina's friend and defender Dr. Ronald Kubodera, we're told he's writing his memoirs in prison. The narrative then goes back to young Norton's life, particularly focusing on his expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu, the discovery that followed, and its far-reaching consequences for the islanders.

In the discussion that follows, we try to make sense of this novel's fascinating horrors. Be warned that some spoilers will be inevitable.

Ana: The People in the Trees has not one but two unreliable narrators, and I found it as troubling as it was accomplished and difficult to put down. I've seen it compared to Lolita on more than one occasion, and now that I've read it I can see why that's apt. Shall we start by talking about the two narrators, Perina and Kubodera, how their biases show, and what they might be hiding from the reader?

Aarti:  Yes!  I’ll start with Perina, since his narration is more apparent to the reader.  It’s always tricky with an unreliable narrator as you don’t know what he’s misconstrued or left out completely.  What was interesting to me about Perina was what he chose (I assume) not to leave out or misconstrue.  For example, he had no concerns about sharing with readers his treatment of his children because he didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.  He also seemed to feel no guilt about his treatment of the original Ivu’Ivuians that he brought to the US, even though their treatment was horrific.  It all ladders up to him coming across as a complete sociopath, so I wonder if there were any key scenes that he did present to us inaccurately (the gang rape ones immediately leap to mind, particularly as Esme reacted so differently to them).

Kubodera is a tougher nut to crack because so much of his work is invisible to us.  He claims that he only made grammatical changes and removed that one section near the end (which was then provided to readers later).  But is that true?  Considering the hero worship, I think it unlikely.  But, again, if Kubodera wanted to show us Perina in a positive light, then he probably would have edited more heavily.  What was his motivation?  Perina never once mentions Kubodera in his whole narrative, and Kubodera admits that he only recently learned that Perina had a brother, and yet Kubodera claims to have known Perina very well.  And, based on the way the book ends, the two clearly had a strong enough relationship to elope together.  So did Kubodera edit himself out of the story?  Or is Perina just so self-absorbed that he would leave out someone so integral to him?  Or is Kubodera just not that important to Perina except as an escape mechanism?

Ana: I do wonder if Kubodera's feelings for Perina are meant to echo Perina's feelings for Tallent, the anthropologist he follows in his first expedition to Ivu’Ivuians.

Aarti:  Oh, that’s a brilliant suggestion!  I never thought of that but it would be a nice parallel.  The aloof, just out of reach mentor.  Though Kubodera was more successful in pinning his unicorn down vs Perina losing Tallent forever.

[I do think Tallent would include Perina in his narrative (not very positively).  We’ll have to talk about Tallent later, too.  So many things to talk about.]

Ana: The fact that Perina never mentions his most ardent defender in his narration suggests that he's far more important to Kubodera than Kubodera is to him, and I wonder if there's a side of unrequited love in there along with the hero worship. At the end of the book I almost felt sorry for Kubodera -- his rape apology is of course horrifying, and in his own way he's as unpleasant a character as Perina. But it does seem to me that Perina is using him to escape, and I can't imagine they have much of a future together.

To go back to your earlier questions, I do wonder if Kubera's lack of heavier editing is as much a reflection of his worldview as Perina's casual admission of his atrocities towards the Ivu’Ivuians or his children (or his recurrent misogyny, which I'm sure we'll discuss in more depth later). I wonder if, because he's a contemporary man, he's more aware than Perina of how those admission would be judged by the world at large. But his decision to include Perina's descriptions of how he sexually assaulted Victor in the end makes it clearer than ever that he still thinks he's in the right. The fact that these two men don't see much wrong with what they admit to shows readers how pervasive their worldview is, and how convinced they are that treating people as things is simply your prerogative if you're a supposedly brilliant man.

Aarti:  Yes, exactly!  This whole belief they justified that science must move forward regardless of any associated costs was just horrifying to me.  The guiding principle of medicine is “do no harm,” and yet all Perina ever did, to everyone he came across, was harm.  For example, note how he completely skims over the work he was doing with pharmaceutical companies to achieve immortality, so that it comes across like he was only ever after the science (even though he clearly had enough money to adopt so many children).  And the way he withheld the information about long life being accompanied by a complete degradation of mental faculties, which I assume is the main reason he kept the Ivu’Ivuians imprisoned.  

And when you think about it, really, what impact did Perina have on the world?  Kubodera describes him as a genius, almost too good for the world at large, but nothing he did had a positive lasting impact.

Ana:  I remember reading in a comment somewhere that it was interesting that Perina was the only one to report the Ivu’Ivuian rape ceremony. We have Esme's reaction to his account of it, and then he takes her to see it another night, but he claims that afterwards she "refused to talk about it" and made no mention of it in any of her books about the island. So all we have is Perina's word that Esme was there at all. For a while I was convinced that what would happen in the end would be that Perina would use the ceremony to "break" Victor, and justify his sexual abuse to himself to his readers that way. But he doesn't even feel the need to justify it -- and to be honest, I can't decide which one of the two would be worse.

Aarti:  I was expecting that, too.  That he would say he was keeping the culture alive for his children in as many ways as he could and ignoring the fact that he was not, in fact, part of that culture, and watching one event with zero context does not make him an expert in it.

I disagree with your comment that Perina didn’t feel the need to justify his behavior, though, at least for that one moment.  To clarify, I agree with you that he didn’t feel at all guilty.  But I feel like the way he described the incident (and I’m going from memory, so I may be off), he talked about how much fear and resistance the boy (what was his name?) put up against him, and then how he covered the boy’s mouth to stifle his screams and explained how much he loved him.  Based on that behavior, he knew he was doing something evil, and that by sharing the story, he had to account for why.  From what I recall, it was almost like a corruption of the white man’s burden - he was trying to tame this boy, and the only way he knew how to do it was with this savage, brutal behavior.  Kind of like Heart of Darkness, instead of sharing the polite, civilized world of western civilization with the boy, he had reverted and become more beastly himself to establish his own superiority.  Does that make any sense?

Ana: Yes, I see what you mean, though his account of it is so horrifying that it takes a sociopath to think it could come across as anything other than what it is. Of course, that's exactly what Yanagihara is doing -- to give readers a glimpse of what the world looks like through the eyes of a sociopath like Perina by making us engage with the story from his perspective, and then read between the lines for what he left out.

For example, all through the novel I wanted to get a better sense of what the other characters might be like without the mediation of Perina's perspective, and without his no doubt countless omissions. To go back to Esme, Perina makes it sound like her view of the Ivu’Ivuians is shaped by "Noble Savage" ideas, which in the end are of course as racist and dehumanising as his own. He strongly implies that this is why she leaves the rapes out of her books and refuses to discuss them -- they don't fit with her preconceptions of a peaceful and idealistic "primitive" society, and so she edits them out of her reality. But of course we don't know whether that really is the case, because all we have is Perina's word. Perina's perception of Esme is distorted by many things, particularly his possessiveness towards Tallent and his blatant misogyny. Here's his description of Esme at one point during their first excursion:

I did not look at her, but around her seemed the sickening scent of menstrual blood, a tinnily feminine smell so oppressive that it was a relief finally to begin the day’s climb and to find it vanishing slowly into the odors of the jungle. And from then on I was unable to look at her without thinking of oozing liquids, as thick and heavy as honey but rank and spoiled, seeping from her every hidden orifice.

That right there tells us everything we need to know about his worldview, and about how much his assessment of a woman anthropologist's work can be trusted.

Aarti:  Yes, I completely agree.  It’s frustrating that we don’t get a sense of the facts at all, just his interpretation of them.  It’s like trying to drive in a heavy fog; you really have no idea of the context.  I wish there were more women in the book that we could use as a gauge, but of course, there are none because Perina pretends they don’t exist.  The only one we get is his mother, and he was quite cruel to her, too.  

His relationships with Esme and Tallent was very difficult to unravel.  Esme completely disappears from the narrative after that first trip to the island (except for that brief meeting back in California), and Tallent is more present in Perina’s dreams than in the flesh.  But then, everyone seems to disappear from Perina’s narrative.  We never hear about the original Ivu’Ivuians except for their horrible mistreatment, we barely know the names of any of the children Perina adopted (and I doubt that the adoption stories happen at all in the way that he describes them), Kubodera is not mentioned at all, and Perina’s brother is just a voice on the phone more than a tangible being.  It’s almost as if the further Perina goes into the science, the more he forgets about the human element and just leaves it behind.  I don’t know if I am explaining this well at all, but at the beginning of the book, many more characters had distinct personalities and physical descriptions; by the end, that seemed to be hardly the case at all.

Ana: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. And I think that's something Yanagihara is probably doing deliberately, because one of the key themes of The People in the Trees is dehumanisation and what happens when it's taken to its final consequences. Perina sees his co-workers, the Ivu'Ivuians and ultimately his children as things he can use and then cast aside; as tools as his disposal to help him achieve his goals rather than as human beings. For example, here's a revealing and disturbing passage about his adoptions that I bookmarked:

Shall I tell you how with each new child I acquired, I would irrationally think, This is the one. This is the one who will make me happy. This is the one who will complete my life. This is the one who will be able to repay me for years of looking.
Shall I tell you how I was always wrong--eighteen, nineteen, twenty times wrong--and how although I was always wrong, I didn't stop, I couldn't stop, I was searching, searching, searching.

Even his choice of verb -- "acquire" -- is immensely revealing. You acquire things, not children. He describes the growth of his family as a shopping compulsion, and that alone tells us everything we need to know about how he sees his children.

We haven't yet said much about how the novel deals with western imperialism, though there's plenty to discuss. There are the consequences of Perina's discovery on the island and what he sees as he goes back year after year; there's Victor's rejection of his westernized name; there's the horrible fate of the Ivu'Ivuians when they're forcibly removed from their home. Do you have any thoughts you want to share?

Aarti:  Oh, I have so many thoughts, but I probably can’t share them all!  Probably anyone who reads my blog or knows me will know that I have pretty strong opinions on imperialism and its effects on cultures and lifestyles, both good and bad (but mostly bad).  I don’t know that I can say much that is new except that Yanagahira makes her views on imperialism pretty obvious in this book.  Not only is there the destruction of an entire culture and way of life, there’s the extinction of a beautiful and peaceful animal, all the vices and problems that come when one person becomes very, very rich at the expense of other people, and all the rest of the horrible baggage that comes along with imperialism.

But I think what was most telling for me (and is particularly relevant now, especially given recent events in the US) was Perina’s COMPLETE lack of accountability.  He refused to accept that he had anything to do with the the stampede on Ivu’Ivu, even though he was a pretty direct cause, and he kept setting himself up as some sort of savior rather than a culprit.  It’s as though he was telling a very different story than the one I was reading, and I think that explains colonialism in a nutshell.

What do you think of Yanagahira’s strategy in doing this?  She seems to have set up Perina as the human embodiment of colonialism - a man who thought only of the benefits to himself and not of the consequences to other people.  Do you see anywhere that she gave Perina (and perhaps western Imperialism) the upper hand or the benefit of the doubt?  Or was everything just completely corrupted?

Ana: I really couldn't see anything about it that wasn't awful: what we see in what happens Ivu'Ivu is a perfect example of unshackled greed at work, be it for money (in the case of the big corporations who come in search of the turtles) or, in Perina's  case, greed for glory and recognition.

Since we started this discussion, Eva shared an interview with us that possibly casts Yamagihara's authorial intent in a different light:

Gajdusek’s story fascinated me. Here was an indisputably brilliant mind who also did terrible things. It’s so easy to affix a one-word description to someone, and it’s so easy for that description to change: if we call someone a genius, and then they become a monster, are they still a genius? How do we assess someone’s greatness: is it what they contribute to society, and is that contribution negated if they also inflict horrible pain on another? Or—as I have often wondered—is it not so binary?

What do you make of her statement, particularly in relation to how Perina is portrayed in the novel?

Aarti: Ohmigoodness, so much inner turmoil after seeing that statement.  I agree with Yanagahira that nothing is binary, but I also don’t think Perina had any redeeming features, so for him, I think monster is a pretty accurate term.  He did nothing to improve anyone’s lives, and did much to ruin many people’s lives.  As Eva said in our offline discussion:

“What’s weird to me is that her fictional scientist *doesn’t* help millions of people. Like, if his research had provided a cure to Alzheimer’s or dementia or cancer or something, that would provide a bit more of an argument the other way. But my impression from reading is that the island was wasted, and the people destroyed, and nothing came of it.”

Which, YES, exactly.  Personally, I see nothing redemptive there to tip him into the “genius” category.

Ana: Yes, it's a challenging one to make sense of. I don't want to dismiss the ambiguity Yamagihara hints at entirely, because I know it's possible to have a meaningful relationship with the work of someone whose actions you absolutely don't condone. My experience of this is in the arts more than in the sciences, but it's fundamentally the same thing: there are books that were important to me before I found out awful things about their authors. My relationship with their work continues to exist, even if I choose not to support them in the future (and that's always going to be a very personal decision -- different people draw the line differently). It's not so much that I separate the two in my head, but the two sets of feelings can exist side by side.

However, like you I had trouble seeing it here, for a few different reasons. First because I was also at a loss when it came to identifying a positive side to Perina's work; secondly and even more importantly, because his work is impossible to separate from the colonial impulse that does so much damage to Ivu’Ivu. It's not that the latter was an unintended consequence of his intellectual curiosity and quest for knowledge -- it's that the two are one and the same.

So to me this was one of those cases where I reminded myself that books belong to their readers. I don't know what Hanya Yanagihara intended when she wrote The People in the Trees, but to me it reads like a chilling denouncement of a worldview that costs people their lives, and of all the internal justifications that accompany. That's what I found so powerful, and that's what's going to stay with me.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee
There has been a lot of drama and speculation around the release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  It began with concerns around whether Harper Lee was taken advantage of; did she even want to release this book?  And then, once the book came out, it erupted into consternation that Atticus Finch was not the beloved hero we all know and love and name our kids/dogs/cats after, but was actually... well, kind of racist.

Luckily for readers, Atticus' daughter Scout is also appalled at learning that her dad's a racist.  Misery loves company!

It took a lot of effort for me to crack open the cover of Go Set a Watchman.  I really wasn't sure I wanted to read it.  I'm glad, now that I'm done, that I did read it, but I don't think I want to read it ever again.  I wouldn't say it is a very tightly-written novel.  The lack of editing is pretty obvious; a lot of conversations seem to swirl around without getting anywhere, and there is a very frustrating lack of resolution at the end of the book.

I want to believe that Harper Lee had some agency in the book's publication.  That she is aware of what's happening in the United States and thought, "Now's the time!" and thus published this book.  I want to believe that To Kill a Mockingbird was the book we all needed in the 1960s, with the white male hero swooping in with a grand (failing) effort to save the day.  And now, what we need is Go Set a Watchman, a way for us to see that ideals need to be cared for and tested for them to last long-term, and to show us just how hypocritical and ridiculous some of our arguments are.

But even if I do believe that Lee had agency in this whole situation, I just don't think she was very successful in her attempt.  There are a lot of important points made in this story, but hardly any deep discussion or introspection.  And everyone in the book is so unaware of their own privilege, it is almost laughable.

That's what ultimately frustrated me so much about this book.  It just doesn't challenge the status quo enough.  And maybe in that way, it's very much a product of the time it was written (in the 1950s and 1960s), and not a product of the time it was published.

I knew I was going to have trouble with this book as soon as I read the following:
Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, [Scout] may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her:  she was born color blind.
Seriously?!  The only people who ever say (and believe) they are color blind are white people, but Lee never once questioned Scout's flawed logic here.  Even later, when Scout's semi-boyfriend Hank (whom she now distrusts because he's racist) tries gently to point out her own privilege as a member of an old, wealthy and respected family in Maycomb, she is completely unwilling to accept it.

"Hank.  That is untrue and you know it.  It's unfair and it's ungenerous, but more than anything in this world it's just not true... you've got some kind of complex."
This story could have been so much stronger if later, Scout considered her own biases.  For example, after taking her high moral ground as "color blind," she goes to visit her nanny, Calpurnia, whose grandson is going to jail for manslaughter (great timing, Scout).  While there, she never once considers the fact that maybe she is not quite as color blind as she thinks she is, or that maybe it's easy to be blind to color when you are in a place of privilege.  Similarly, she never thinks about privilege as someone from a very wealthy Maycomb family.  She just assumes that everyone else is wrong and assumes that her kicking and screaming is evidence of her being a better person than they are.

Most people focus on Atticus' fall from grace in this book, and he does say some vile, miserable things that were very hard to stomach.  But Scout was a moral compass and strong character in To Kill a Mockingbird, too, and one that was far more approachable and real than Atticus probably was.  And so her fall from grace was even harder for me.  She says she's color blind but she uses the same ridiculous story about the federal government encroaching on "states' rights" that people have been using from the days of slavery to the days of civil rights to today.  And goes on to say, "Well, it seemed to me that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could - that could affect the vast majority of folks.  Adversely, that is."

But she's not racist.  She didn't care that it was black people who were the small portion of the population the Court "set up something horrible" for.  She would have felt the same way no matter which tiny population came barging into the schools, adversely affecting the lives of everyone else already there.

Can you see why I was so frustrated?

Honestly, Go Set a Watchman felt very much like a long-winded internal monologue without any resolution.  All that happened was that Scout realized her dad wasn't perfect (and yet had no such similar epiphany about herself), but that she loved him, anyway, for teaching her how to make up her own mind.  And that was that.

And it was just not even close to enough.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rags to Riches in Pakistan

Mohsin Hamid
I really enjoyed Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist on audiobook, so I was excited to find How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia in the same format.  It is written in a similar format, the rare second person that always reminds me of Choose Your Own Adventures stories from my childhood.  Hamid is much better at actually creating a plot and developing characters than the authors of Choose Your Own Adventures, which is much more difficult than you would think considering that no one in this story has a name.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is, I think, set in Karachi or Lahore, Pakistan.  I have never been to Pakistan, but I imagine it's fairly similar to India in that if you pay a lot of bribes and do a couple of shady things and know the right people, then you can probably be very successful.  Hamid starts the story with you in a small village, moves you to the city for education, has you leave school to start working, and then make your way up the economic ladder, with all the privileges and problems that come with it.

I found this book to be a very empathetic and moving account of trying to make it big in South Asia.  It reminded me a lot of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, except that it's much kinder and not quite as cynical as that book is.  The book is ostensibly a self-help guide (hence the use of the second person), and every chapter is laid out as a step on the path to success.  Parallel to the story of the young man's rise to prominence is a love story; he knew a "pretty girl" when he was growing up, and she too was determined to make something of herself.  Her path leads her away from and back to our hero, and as a reader, I was so thrilled any time their stories came together.

I also really enjoyed reading about the main character's relationship with his wife and son.  There was so much nuance there, so much miscommunication and missed opportunities, and so much yearning for more than is on offer.  I loved how well Hamid brought that to life.

Mohsin Hamid is an author I plan to keep my eye on going forward.  I've enjoyed everything (ok, two books) I've read by him so far, and I appreciate his unique narrative voice in the midst of a lot of books written in first or third person :-)  And if you're the kind of reader who enjoys a good audiobook, I definitely recommend this one on audio!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Steampunk computer scientists!

by Sydney Padua
Pretty much as soon as I heard about Sydney Padua's graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, I wanted to read it.  A graphic novel set in some sort of alternate universe in which Ada Lovelace grows old and uses computers to solve crimes with her genius-but-awkward partner, Charles Babbage?  Yes, please!

I was a little overwhelmed by this book at the beginning.  There are a LOT of footnotes, basically at the rate of one per sentence.  Most of them are related to mathematical theories, historical writing, obscure (to me) Victorians, etc.  I admit I didn't read all of the footnotes (mostly because, in addition to footnotes, there are also extensive endnotes), so it's possible I missed some key action points in the book.

But honestly, I didn't really care.  This book was fun, regardless.  I love the idea of just turning Victorian society on its head and showing us that maybe some of them had well-developed senses of humor and mischievous smiles and poorly-timed snorts of derision.  I always imagine Victorians as either completely buttoned up or letting loose in bizarre ways, and I liked how Padua made the Victorians much more vivid and real and relatable.


And at the center, of course, are Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.  (And, to a lesser extent, Queen Victoria.)  Partly because of the sense of motion and vigor in the artwork, partly because of Padua's great sense of fun, and partly because Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were just amazingly larger-than-life characters, they really made the stories come alive.

But it's not all fun and games.  Well, it is.  But it's also science and math and economics and probability and so much more.  Basically, these stories are based on the premise that Lovelace and Babbage design and refine a very complex machine (the Difference Engine) that Queen Victoria would like to use to solve ALL THE PROBLEMS.


And they make many reasonable (and unreasonable) attempts to do so, or solve more mundane matters, even including a fantastic cameo by George Eliot.  But generally, they don't really make great progress.  But again, who cares?  It's so fun.

I really enjoyed everything about this book, and I learned a lot of fun history and science along the way.  It is so entertaining and just so fun to read; I highly recommend it to anyone with even a modicum of interest in Ada Lovelace, computers, technology, Victorian England, pocket universes, or anything else.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review-itas: Books I didn't love

Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta, is one of those books that so many people recommended to me.  Or, I should say, Melina Marchetta is an author that many people love, and I have never read her.  But I've had Finnikin of the Rock on my Kindle forever, and I finally read it!

Or, tried to.

The book reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana.  It's a fantasy novel about displaced people trying to find their way home.  I really liked that part of the story - all these people, separated for years, finding each other and joining in The Quest, and trying to get home.

Unfortunately, there was also a massively inconsistent romance in the book that really annoyed me.  Sometimes Finnikin and this at-first-mute but then really talkative religious-novice (supposedly) Evanjalin are BFF, and sometimes they hate each other, and sometimes they love each other, and sometimes they want other people, and it was all just TOO MUCH for me.  Also, I thought Evanjalin was all over the place, character-wise.  So I didn't finish this one.

I did finish Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles, but that's really only because I was reading it on audiobook and I figured, since the book is about the apocalypse, that I should get to the end and see what happened to the world.

In this dystopian young adult novel, the earth's rotation is slowing.  The days are growing longer, the crops aren't growing at all, and Julia is growing up.  She's 11 years old, her best friend is moving away, and she has a big crush on a sk8r boi.

It's hard to be an adolescent at the best of times, and it's probably even harder to be one when the world is ending.  Julia goes through quite a bit of heavy stuff, but she also goes through life as a pre-teen.  She loses her best friend, she faces her parents' crumbling marriage, she tries to just be normal.  I liked the way Walker mixed the extraordinary with the ordinary to show what life could really be like in such a situation - people just keep trucking on.

That said, the book didn't really succeed for me.  Julia sometimes was far too deep for an 11-year-old.  And this was a very quiet book in many ways, which isn't exactly what I was expecting from a novel about the end of the world.  I appreciate that Walker didn't fill it with massive wars or thieving hordes, but I also wish she had done just a little bit more.

Monday, July 13, 2015

OMG, Asian-themed fantasy is so, so good!

About a month ago on Twitter, a bunch of us were talking about this amazing-sounding new book that comes out later this year, Sorcerer to the Crown.  It's by Zen Cho, and the quote about the book that got me salivating is from Naomi Novik, who says:
An enchanting cross between Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke, full of delights and surprises. Zen Cho unpins the edges of the canvas and throws them wide.

Sign.  Me.  Up!  This book is pretty much guaranteed to be on my #Diversiverse reading list this year, once I get around to promoting #Diversiverse.  (It will coincide with Banned Books Week, since so many books by POC are banned, so it's the last week of September, if you want to plan ahead.)

Anyway, after learning about Sorcerer to the Crown, I pretty much wanted to read everything else Zen Cho has written, and so I bought her short story collection, Spirits Abroad.  And while I think some of the cultural references went over my head, I AM SO EXCITED to read Sorceror to the Crown because I loved so much about this collection of stories!  What Aliette de Bodard did for me in science fiction - feminizing, globalizing it - Zen Cho is doing for me in fantasy.

The stories in Spirits Abroad cover a wide range of topics, from a vampire's first love to an old woman's remembrances of lost love, from an immigrant's desperation to fit in at school to a sister sprouting into a house, each and every one is fresh, original, and so full of wonderful depth.

I loved the way Cho infused every story with Malaysian folklore and history, and then helpfully provided author's notes for every story in which she explained the basis for the magical beings and events that took place.  And it's not like all of her stories were set in Malaysia or some small village, either.  Some of them revolve around a lion dance troupe-slash-ghost buster unit in the UK (and those stories are GREAT), and one is set on the moon.  But the way Cho brings her culture into each story, even if it's just a bunch of kids who traveled to English boarding school with sriracha in their suitcases (YES, I totally have done that before myself!), is great.  The dialect, the characters, the magical realism, it's all so different than anything I've read before, and I just loved everything about it.  It truly is one of those instances where you get a peek behind the curtain at everything that a more diverse publishing world can provide to us, and it's such an exhilarating, exciting peek.

I don't think I have a favorite story.  I would say that almost every story had truly funny bits - like the dragon who falls in love with a very practical woman in London, or the text messages two bystanders exchange while an old woman confronts her former lover in a very public space.  Some of them were heartbreaking, like the story about a girl and her sister and the home they have made for themselves, and the one about a lonely girl who is willing to sacrifice everything for a wish.  All of them speak to Cho's originality and depth of talent, and I am so excited to read more from her.  I cannot wait for Sorceror to the Crown to come out (September 1st!).  But until it's available, I highly encourage you to check this short story collection out.  It's so fun and so great, and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A series that improves with every book!

I generally dislike reviewing later books in a series, but I am making an exception for Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land because this series improved so much from one book to the next, and this last book in the trilogy was really, really good.

At a time when I really couldn't scrape together the effort required to finish any book, The Magician's Land was just what I needed.  I borrowed it from the library just before leaving on my trip to Europe, did nothing but read it on the whole trip to Budapest, and then finished it by reading in the evenings.  I was completely wrapped up in the story, and in a year when I've really struggled with my reading, it felt so great to sink my teeth into a book.  This year, it's really the fantasy stories that keep my attention; I seem unable to get through any other books.

The Magician's Land picks up shortly after The Magician King left off, though it's partly told in flashbacks.  Quentin Coldwater is back on Earth, and he has a new mission in life (that I won't share due to spoilers).  Suffice it to say that this mission involves many characters from previous books and brings the series to a satisfying conclusion.

Honestly, at the beginning of this series, Quentin was such a horrible person.  I wanted to spend zero time with him, and I disliked most of his friends, too.  But he really does improve with age, and in this book, he's really pretty great.  And just the whole plot of this book was fantastic.  I loved the whole Ocean's Eleven-esque heist and the dark humor with which the team approached the job, I loved Quentin's focus on his goal, I loved the time we spent in Fillory with Janet, the whole story around the gods, just everything.  Grossman clearly has great love and respect for the fantasy genre, but he's so willing to poke fun at it and turn it on its head, and it's wonderful.

Granted, you do need to read both the first book (which is, I feel, not all that great) and the second book (which is better, but not amazing) in order to reap the rewards of this one, and many people may not feel that it's worth the investment.  But I read all three books in pretty short order, and I think the world Grossman has created and the people with which he populates that world are worth the time.  The pay-off is a slow burn, but it's a good one.  Such a satisfying conclusion to the series!  I hope you give it a go, if you are a fan of the epic or urban fantasy genres.

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