Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan

I don't usually read other people's review of a book until after I have finished it and written my own review. When I was on Goodreads adding this book to my virtual shelves, however, I noticed that the very first review only had one star.  Given what I know about Amy Tan and her work, that seemed nonsensical.  I have found every book of hers to be well-written, at times both evocative and provocative, and generally moving and emotionally engaging.  As I scrolled down the list of reviews, I found that the first one-star reviewer was not the only one.  I suppose that everyone is entitled to an off day (or book), but given my track record with Tan I decided to go ahead.

Saving Fish from Drowning is in many ways a typical Tan novel, and in some ways something completely different.  Her usual setting and themes are there-China and southeast Asia; the relationship between parents and children, or husbands and wives; culture clashes, and/or trying to navigate two worlds by staying true to tradition while living in modern society.  But the narrator and the structure of the novel set it apart from her other works.  The narrator is wealthy art patron Bibi Chen, who spent her early years in China, and emigrated to the US during the Cultural Revolution.  As a member of the board of directors for an Asian art museum, she has taken on the role of tour guide for other wealthy Americans who wish to travel to Asia and explore the rich cultural heritage in places like China and Burma.  What makes her a unique narrator is that she is dead.  At the beginning of the novel we learn that she was found, throat cut, on the floor of her antique store in San Francisco.  The tour group she was supposed to take to Burma (which has recently begun to open its borders to more foreign visitors), decides to go ahead with the trip.  Things quickly go wrong when the group decides not to follow the carefully thought out and arranged plan Bibi created.  We know this because Bibi herself goes along on the trip, though of course, no one can see her, being dead and all.  After some initial problems, the group makes it to Burma, only to be kidnapped by members of a tribal group hiding out in the mountains, after two of the tribe's members become convinced that one of the Americans is in fact the long, lost savior they've been waiting for.

For me, the strongest aspects of the novel had to do with the cultural misunderstandings that occur between the Americans and the people they come across in both China and Burma.  There is the stereotype of the "ugly" American, someone who visits foreign places, looking for exotic experiences while at the same time expecting the people they encounter to change their own behavior to make the Americans more comfortable.  There is certainly some of that in the book, though the characters themselves believe that they are looking for "authentic" experiences.  But even these supposedly worldly travelers are shocked, dismayed, and judgmental about the conditions in the hotels and cultural sites they visit, exhibiting a basic lack of knowledge of their own privilege.  There is a minor celebrity, who seems rather put out when he is not recognized.  There are a few academics, who are interested in learning about the cultures they are visiting, but in a passive, waiting to be filled sort of way.  There is even a young American who works with an organization trying to aid the people of Burma and dismantle the oppressive regime, who considers herself to be on a sort of spy mission, showing a naivete that is more frustrating than charming or admirable.  And while Tan describes the various native characters as being essentially naive and superstitious in many ways, they definitely come off better than the Americans do in the end.

At the heart of the novel is an exploration of what it means to live life as a person who feels deeply.  Bibi herself admits that she long ago learned to turn off her own feelings, to live on the surface of an emotional life, mostly in response to a demeaning and cold step-mother.  This part of the book felt very much like Tan's other books.  But the concept of emotional connection is explored in various ways through the relationships the American travelers make with each other, both romantic and platonic.  There is a mother and daughter, a father and son, and various couples in various stages of commitment.  And, of course, there are some vacation hook-ups. To be honest, none of the characters was completely likable, except for maybe the two teenagers.  Each person has some flaw in their character that makes it difficult to be completely sympathetic when thing go wrong, which happen quite a lot.  When we discover what really happened to Bibi at the end of the novel, Tan's message seems to be that holding ourselves back from deep, authentic feelings towards others-through selfishness or fear or greed-will inevitably lead to disasters both small and large.

Do I think this book deserves a one-star review?  Absolutely not.  Most people seemed to find either the first-person omniscient narrator problematic, or they were put off by the characters in some way.  Some people didn't like that all of the Americans were so unsympathetic, some felt that there were too many, lots of people complained about the amount of detail Tan provides which they thought was irrelevant.  None of that really bothered me, but I don't think that this novel rises to the level of the Joy Luck Club or The Bonesetter's Daughter, either.  Overall, if you are a fan of Tan's work, it is worth it to read this novel so that you can be knowledgeable about her entire body of work.  If you have never read Amy Tan, don't start with this one.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

While support for the death penalty seems to be a forgone conclusion in the United States, most other developed nations long ago gave up the practice.  Regardless of how you as an individual American may feel about the morality and effectiveness of the ultimate punishment, surveys show that many people around the world find it odd that we have such a strong attachment to it.  I don't actually have evidence to support what I'm about to write, but I suspect that the people of Iceland would be among them.  At least, based on the fact that the last person to be executed in Iceland was over 150 years ago.  In her novel, Burial Rites, Hannah Kent uses the real-life case of the last people to be put to death under the death penalty in Iceland as the basis for a book has been labeled a mystery, though I think it could just as easily  be called historical fiction, for its examination of the intersection of religion and law in Icelandic society.  Or women's fiction, as it examines the role of women in a society that I imagine very few American's have much experience with.

Agnes Magnusdottir has been convicted of murdering her lover.  While awaiting execution, she is sent to a remote farm to live with a district official and his family.  Escape is essentially impossible, since no one could survive in the wilderness for long.  While there, she is expected to meet with a spiritual advisor in order to repent and make her peace with God before meeting Him face to face to be judged.  The wife of the district official is at first very resistant, but as Agnes works with the family, and her story comes out, it becomes clear that executing her would be a miscarriage of justice.

Kent uses a combination of third person and first person narrative (from Agnes' point of view) to tell the story.  Agnes' story is revealed both through the comments of the other characters and her own thoughts.  The official documents that were included, and the conversations of the other characters about Agnes, are then  given context when the truth from Agnes' point of view is revealed.

What really sets this book apart from other books in this genre is the setting.  Otherwise it's a sadly familiar story of a woman who was taken advantage of by a man she loved.  But the description of Icelandic culture and the interesting narrative structure help this novel stand out from other similar mysteries, even ones with historical settings.  I look forward to seeing if Kent's future books will continue to offer familiar stories with engaging twists.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forgive Me, by Amanda Eyre Ward

Nadine Morgan is a journalist.  She travels the world looking for dangerous assignments, living in exotic locales and covering wars, genocide, and crime rings.  When an assignment to report on the drug gangs in Mexico goes sideways, Nadine ends up back in her hometown on Cape Cod.  Desperate to escape, but still healing from wounds both physical and emotional, she passes up a chance for love with a local doctor to pursue a story in a part of the world she thought she would never see again, South Africa.  She goes back to report on a story about a young man from her own small town who was beaten to death while teaching in the black townships.  His killers were being brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job it was to determine whether people convicted of political violence during the years leading up to Nelson
Mandela's release from prison should continue to serve their sentences.  She is forced to confront her own personal demons from her time in Cape Town, and the reasons that she will do anything, including putting herself in harm's way, to avoid making the kind of connections that would tie her to one person or place.

I really enjoyed the other book by Amanda Eyre Ward that I read, Sleep Toward Heaven.  Like that book, Forgive Me deals with forgiveness and redemption.  The book is told alternately from Nadine's perspective and the diary of a young boy who, like Nadine herself, is desperate to leave his small town life behind for fame and fortune in the wider world.  Nadine's story is told through a series of flashbacks to her first time in South Africa, and how it affected her in the present.  At times it was really hard to like Nadine.  She used her journalistic liberalness as a shield for her own selfishness.  After all, how angry can you be when you have offered a person your house on Nantucket Island as a refuge when they leave with no notice to pursue the story of bringing a young man's murderer to justice.  Being a journalist allowed Nadine a certain distance from being personally connected to the things that were happening to the people around her, including the people that she considered friends.

Some of the characters were pretty one dimensional, especially Nadine's stepmother, and both of her love interests.  To be honest, I'm not sure if this was lazy storytelling or purposeful.  After all, Nadine didn't really see other people except as they related to herself.  The boy whose journal we are privy to was much more real than any of the other characters in the book, but I spent most of the book wondering what connection his story had to the rest of the narrative, other than his intense desire to get out of his small Cape Cod town. Once I realized who he was, it made a little more sense, but I feel like Ward never really connected the dots between Nadine and the other mothers.

The strange thing is that despite all of the flaws I found in the writing, I still really enjoyed the book.  It was an easy read, and the story of what happened to the people during the struggle to end apartheid and the aftermath of Nelson Madela's election as president were engaging enough to keep me reading.  The story was billed as one about motherhood, which I didn't really get.  To me, it was more about gaining forgiveness, both from the people that you have wronged and yourself.  After years of running away, Nadine needed to stay somewhere long enough to see the ramifications of her own choices, and to fulfill commitments she made to people in order to help them find justice in an unjust world.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Metaxy Project

Layton Green is an author that I discovered when he reached out to me about reviewing a new series he was writing, the Dominic Grey series.  That series now has three titles (The SummonerThe Egyptian, and The Diabolist), and I found them to be a delicious combination of well-paced action and interesting information about cults, the occult, and the psychology surrounding them.

Green is back with a new stand alone novel, The Metaxy Project.  Like his previous books, Green explores the supernatural from the point of view of a skeptic.  In this case, the skeptic is a young man named Derek Miller, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who had the good fortune to start a friendship with a rich kid from an influential family.  When his friend is killed in a car accident, his father (a wealthy, well-known professor and researcher) takes Derek under his wing and helps him get into and through law school.  Derek is just at the beginning of his career, and he has scored a plum job as an associate at a "biglaw" firm.  But when the professor is murdered, Derek is drawn into the search for the killer.  He discovers a super-secret government project related to the supernatural.  The government was experimenting with telekinesis, telepathy, and remote viewing in an effort to weaponize them.  Derek puts his life and sanity in danger to bring down the conspiracy and avenge his dead mentor.

This is going to be a strange connection, but Derek reminded me very much of the main character from the USA series Suits.  Both are young, down-and-out kids who are given a break by powerful men; both are whip smart and underestimated by those around them; both are prone to pretty women in distress.That's pretty much where the similarities end, but it did make me like Derek's character pretty much from the beginning, since I like that show so well.

As a skeptic myself, one of the things that I like about Green's writing is that he tries to make some connection between seemingly inexplicable phenomenon and actual science.  While the story in The Metaxy Project is very definitely in the realm of fantasy, it is not such a stretch, even for a confirmed atheist and realist like myself, to go along with the events of the plot.  Green's work is reminiscent of James Rollin's books, only smarter.  Whereas I sometimes read Rollin's stories with a good deal of eye-rolling at some of the more fantastical plot points, Green's stories sweep me up completely as a combination of reality and possibility.  While I certainly don't believe that things like mediums and ESP are evidence of some larger force at work, who's to say that science won't someday have an explanation for the seemingly supernatural experiences people have reported experiencing over the decades.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin

The subject of reparations for slavery is a controversial one.  There is no question that this country was built on the labor of African slaves and the bonded laborers from Europe and Asia that came here in the thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there is even some agreement about how to quantify the stolen wages and physical and emotional suffering.  But to whom would the money go?  How does one prove their ancestors were slaves, with so many records incomplete or lost?  And where does the money come from?  So many generations removed from the plantations, how would we even begin to trace where the present wealth came from, and is there any amount of money that can even begin to make up for the tragedy that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade?  Conklin uses this issue as the framework for her novel, The House Girl.

Set alternately in the late 1800s and the present day, the book tells the story of Josephine Bell, a house slave on a declining Virginia plantation.  Her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, is an aspiring artist.  She is also a high-strung woman, with an anxious temperament and poor health.  In a move that is unusual, and indeed illegal, for the time, Lu Ann taught her young house girl to read, and allowed her to draw and paint in her studio when she was feeling generous.  Lu Ann Bell is a capable artist, but Josephine's portraits and landscapes are luminous, capturing the inherent humanity of her fellow slaves while showcasing the lush beauty of the rural south.  Josephine is desperate to run away, has in fact tried to run away before, but she is conflicted about leaving her dying mistress, and her paintings.

The present day story follows lawyer Lina Sparrow.  Lina is tasked with working on a suit, to be brought against the federal government and many major US corporations, demanding reparations for slavery.  In researching a primary plaintiff for the suit, she is introduced to Lu Ann Bell and her art through a controversy brewing in the art world-was the work really done by Lu Ann Bell, or by her house slave, Josephine.  Bell's family is desperate to prove that she painted the works attributed to her, but others in the art world aren't so sure.  Lina discovers a possible descendant of Josephine's who would make a great plaintiff, but while preparing the case she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about her own past.

A story like this one could become little more than political speech as narrative, but Conklin manages to write an engaging story that highlights the many injustices of slavery, as well as present day controversy surrounding reparations, in a way that does not feel preachy.  I've read plenty of other books about slavery, but the art angle makes this one unique. And it is not just a slavery narrative, not that those aren't important and engaging, as well.  This story is about family connections, loss, motherhood, and identity in a more general sense.  Josephine and Lina both come alive on the pages with an emotional impact that draws the reader in.  The book will appeal to anyone interested in the legacy of slavery, or art, or the modern day reparations movement.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Uncle Stevie Learns a New Trick

There are few writers as prolific as Stephen King.  While is is primarily known as a writer of horror stories,
he has also written science fiction (Under the Dome), a series of books with women's themes (Rose Madder), realistic fiction (Misery), and magical realism (The Green Mile).  And, of course, his epic fantasy series The Dark Tower.  Readers of this blog know that he is one of my very favorite authors.  I think that he is sometimes overlooked by critics of "serious" literature, because of his reputation as a horror writer, but as far as I'm concerned The Stand is one of the best novels of the 20th century.

But as far as I know, King has never written a traditional thriller-until now.  Mr. Mercedes, his latest book, is your basic serial killer story.  Bill Hodges, a retired detective in a Midwestern city, is haunted (though not literally, this time) by his last unsolved case.  Someone drove a Mercedes sedan into a crowd of people lined up to apply for a job in the early morning hours, including a mother and her infant.  Bored, overweight, and lacking purpose, he considers suicide.  Until he gets a message from the Mercedes killer, suggesting that he should eat his own gun.  The killer may have hoped to push Hodges over the edge, but the message the message does the opposite, creating purpose in an otherwise meaningless life.  Bill investigates the case with the help if his teenage neighbor, and a mentally ill woman who is tangentially connected to the case. A more unlikely team doesn't come along much in detective novels, but these three are mighty when chance throws them together.

Regardless of the genre, King's books have extremely well-written characters.  Even the supernatural villains are believable, which I imagine is what makes his scary books so terrifying.  King uses his books to explore the human psyche, the things that people are willing to do, or to sacrifice, for love, power, or greed. And his plots are always well constructed and well-paced.  He's written books that would work as well doorstops, but despite their length they never feel too long.  Mr. Mercedes is no exception.  As I was reading, I was thinking why it took so long for King to write a thriller.  Everything about it suits his strengths so well. Intricate plot, "real" characters, and the darker side of humanity.  If this were any other author, I might say this is the first in a new detective series.  The characters are certainly series-worthy.  But with Uncle Stevie, one never knows. This could be the first in a series, or it could be a one-off detective story from an author who's tried just about everything else.  Maybe there is a little bit of Hodges in King himself.  Maybe trying out a new genre is akin to the message from a serial killer that gives his life purpose.  Whatever the reasoning, and whatever the future of Bill Hodges and the other characters from Mr. Mercedes may be, fans of Stephen King and hard-boiled detective stories alike will enjoy Mr. Mercedes.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones takes place during the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.  Esch lives in the small Louisiana town of Bois Sauvage with her alcoholic father and three brothers.  The oldest dreams of being a basketball star, the youngest is just six years old, and his birth brought about the death of their mother.  Esch is the only girl surrounded by men-her father, her brothers, and their friends.  She learned early that sex was something she could give away for some time and attention from the other boys in their group, and now she is 14 and pregnant.  As the storm grows in the Gulf, so too do the tensions in the family.

Esch is the main character and narrator, and Ward uses her to show the desperation in which she and her family live.  No one in the family has regular work, though they all have schemes for how they can improve their future.  Her oldest brother has his sights set on a basketball scholarship, with scouts coming to visit during the summer league.  Her closest brother, Skeet, breeds his fighting dog and plans to sell the puppies.  Esch herself has no real idea what her life can be, but she would just be happy if Manny, the father of her unborn child, would ditch his pretty girlfriend and choose her.  Their father is mostly absent, only paying attention to the children when he wants them to help him get ready for the storm that none of them actually think is coming.  Many of the choices that the family makes are questionable, but the reader can't help but root for them.  Underneath all of the poverty and desperation, there is a lot of love between Esch and her brothers.  They have taken care of each other for so long, and in such dire circumstances, that they function as parts of one machine.

Ultimately, nothing works out the way that anyone hopes.  Esch is a big fan of Greek mythology, and the story of her family follows the basic rules of a Greek tragedy.  It does seem as though the fates are against them, regardless of what they do or think will happen.  When the storm finally breaks, the family faces the loss of everything they have, except each other.  In the end, it is their love for each other, and their perseverance that proves that the human spirit can be amazingly resilient.