One of the recurring motifs in high fantasy is the idea of the average villager actually being the lost prince of Somewhere, or the reincarnation of the great sorcerer Whoever. Unsuspecting mortals who are suddenly confronted with a destiny that is larger and more important than they realized. Maybe that is part of the reason that people enjoy high fantasy. For the average-Joe, who may feel powerless to change their own lives, the idea of secretly being the heir to the kingdom of Everywhere is pretty attractive.
David Eddings has created just such a scenario in his epic fantasy series, The Belgariad. The first book in the series is called Pawn of Prophecy. It introduces us to Garion, a young boy living with his Aunt Pol on a farm in Sendaria, a peaceful kingdom of the west. His world is narrow but comfortable, with Aunt Pol and the blacksmith Durnik to guide him. But Garion is haunted by visions of a dark rider who casts no shadow-a rider that no one else ever sees. One day, a storyteller named Mr. Wolf comes to the farm, and it becomes clear that he and Aunt Pol know each other. Mr. Wolf brings news-something important and powerful has been stolen, and Mr. Wolf and Aunt Pol (who are clearly more than they seem), leave the farm with Garion in tow. Durnik insists on accompanying the party to protect Aunt Pol. They meet up with two shady characters in the woods-Silk, a crafty, sly man, and Barak, an enormous warrior. Together they embark on a journey to find the lost artifact, and to stop the war that may be coming if they don't. Somehow Garion is connected to this artifact, but at an angsty 14 no one tells him anything.
This first installment does an excellent job of setting up the background for the future books. The reader is in the position of having information that Garion does not have as the result of a short prologue, which allows the reader to understand the strange events that surround Garion even when he can not. While the roles played by the main characters are pretty common for epic fantasy-the powerful sorcerer, the witch, the rogue, the warrior-there is at least decent character development, especially for Garion's character. Despite the fact that the characters are in fact hiding or following a trail of the artifact, there is enough action to provide some relief from the tedium of constant travel. The only real criticism I have is the same criticism I have for most high fantasy-apparently women in fantasy land will have to wait a little longer to be released from their oppression, as the only woman in the story so far that has any real power is Aunt Pol, who we discover is more than a simple cook. I'd like to see a good female warrior or two, or a queen who has the same power as her husband the king. But while we wait for the feminist movement to come to the various kingdoms of the Land of Fantasy, we can enjoy well-crafted stories like Pawn of Prophecy.
Imagine while you are eating dinner tonight that every time you take a bite you can feel the emotions of the person who cooked it. This is the very unusual synesthesia that afflicts Rose, the main character of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. OK, it's not exactly synesthesia, which refers to the neaurological condition where sensory input gets confused in the brain. Sounds suddenly have color, or tastes. Certain words are associated with smells...But Rose's ability to taste the emotions of the people who made her food was just one special ability in her family's DNA.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, begins when Rose is a child. She comes home one day to a freshly-made chocolate lemon cake. When she takes a bite, she can suddenly feel how desperately lonely and unhappy her mother is. After an initial panic, she learns to eat as much food prepared by faceless factories-while she can tell where the ingredients came from and which factory manufactured it, she is not inundated with the feelings of strangers. But she can't avoid family dinners, and when her mother's food suddenly starts tasting of guilt, Rose knows that she is having an affair. At the same time, her brother Joe, who never really felt a part of the world, starts to disappear. Over the course of years, he is gone more frequently and for longer periods. Through it all, Rose deals with her relationship with her mother, her father, her friends, and George, her first crush and brother's best friend.
This book may be the most unique coming of age story that I have ever read. Rose's character is full of all the angst and uncertainty of any adolescent-I mean, aren't we already swimming in a storm of emotions as teens? Bender's writing is fluid and poetic, though she does have that annoying lack of quotation marks going against her. She manages to blend a rather surreal set of family quirks and strange events into a very realistic seeming story about a family who loves each other, but just can't seem to connect.
As a science fiction fan, I have considered it a personal failing that I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. As a pacifist, the fact that I had never read Slaughterhouse Five made that failing sting a little more. I wish I could say that reading this book was worth all of the years of self-recrimination. I wish I could say that I finished it. But the only thing I can say with any certainty is that I didn't get it.
I won't say that I don't understand why this book is considered a classic of science fiction specifically and literature generally. Vonnegut's writing is by turns funny, poignant, frightening, or evocative. Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an accidental soldier who is captured by the Germans in 1945 and taken to Dresden. He is there during the Dresden bombings, when the Allies bombed the non-military city of Dresden and killed over 100,000 people. Vonnegut himself was a German prisoner of war who lived through the Dresden bombing and its aftermath. But this is not in fact the major event of Billy's life. Billy becomes "unstuck in time", moving through his own lifeline from prisoner to wealthy optometrist to alien zoo exhibit...yes, I said alien exhibit. Because the other major fact of Billy's life is that he was abducted by aliens on the night of this daughter's wedding.
OK, I only know the last part because I read the SparkNotes for the complete novel. Because I couldn't finish the book. Even with the excellent writing, I could not get into this story. It wasn't the writing, or the war, or the time travel, or the alien abduction. The only explanation I can come up with is that my brain just doesn't think the way that Vonnegut's does. Even though I already knew the destination theme-wise, I just couldn't follow where Vonnegut was leading. Despite my natural inclination to agree with the book's anti-war message, I wasn't sure how Billy Pilgrim traveling through time and being abducted by aliens was supposed to articulate that message. Of course, had I finished it, maybe all would become clear. And that's on me. I guess I'll just have to continue living my life as a science fiction fan who hasn't read Vonnegut. But this time I'll forgive myself.
In Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs gave us a hilarious and horrifying look into his early life. When his parents divorced, Augusten's mother signed over guardianship of him to her psychotic psychiatrist. Refusing to go to school, he spent his days drinking or getting high with this foster sister, and being preyed upon by a 33 year old pedophile. It was a story like no other-hopefully because no one else has ever lived through that particular brand of hell.
Dry picks up the story of his life as an award winning copywriter at an ad agency and raging alcoholic. After a particularly disastrous business meeting, his company gives him an ultimatum-go to rehab or lose his job. He enters rehab determined to treat it as a spa vacation, only to be confronted pretty quickly with the strange world of group therapy and the 12 steps. He leaves rehab determined to stay sober, but the pressures of real life threaten his fragile sobriety. And this, this is a story I've heard before.
Granted, Dry is told with Burrough's usual wit. I admire his ability to laugh at himself, and unlike some recovery memoirs this one is not preachy or sentimental. But it also doesn't really have anything new to say on the subject of addiction. He was a drunk, for understandable reasons, but still a drunk. He nearly ruined his own (and a few other people's) life. He met some unusual characters in rehab, had difficulty re-entering the "real" (read: sober) world, etc...etc...If you are a fan of Augusten Burroughs, it is probably worth reading just so you can say you've read the "complete set", so to speak, but if you've never read his books before, start with Running with Scissors-much more compelling story.
So you may have heard of this author, Dan Brown? He wrote this relatively successful novel called The Da Vinci Code, all about this professor who chases down ancient conspiracies about Jesus and Mary Magdalene to solve a modern day mystery. I guess they made a movie about it or something...
Obviously Dan Brown's best-selling novel was more than relatively successful. Say what you will about Brown's writing, he seemed to have tapped into a part of our cultural consciousness that believes in conspiracies and secret societies and vaguely impossible sounding alchemical magic. And it's didn't start with Dan Brown, of course. Indiana Jones was searching for lost artifacts in the jungles of the world at least 20 years before Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code. I'm not sure why we as a society are so intrigued by the shadowy figures that we somehow fear are secretly running the world...perhaps it helps us make sense of the senseless, you know, like debt ceiling agreements or Donald Trump's hair.
Since every single literary phenomenon apparently needs its clones, there have been plenty of Da Vinci Code copycats. I've read a few, and liked a few of those, but I had always avoided the novels of one of the more successful ancient mystery/secret society authors to compete with Dan Brown, James Rollins. Something about his Sigma Force felt too militaristic and male to be of much interest to me. After all, I prefer even my mystery/thrillers to have female detectives. Sexist of me, probably, but that's a topic for another post.
Well, wouldn't you know, Audible.com had a James Rollins book, Map of Bones, available FREE the last time I was looking for something to listen to on a roadtrip. And who doesn't love free?!? So, over 13 hours later, I can tell you that my concerns about Sigma Force were unfounded. I was completely drawn into the world of Gray Pierce, Rachel Verona, and the mystery of the ancient mages they were trying to keep from the Imperial Dragon Court.
Map of Bones begins with a massacre in a church in Cologne, Germany. Armed men dressed as monks unleash some sort of device that cause people to be electrocuted in their seats. They also steal the scared relic of the cathedral-the supposed bones of the biblical Magi. Sigma Force is called upon by the Vatican to help them determine exactly who stole the bones and what their plans for them are. Gray Pierce and his team are sent to the Vatican, and much mayhem ensues.
The upside to this kind of book is that the action is pretty non-stop, and there are lots of twists and turns to keep you engaged along the way. And actually, there is some character development here, which you don't always find in this kind of action/adventure story. The downside of this type of story is the enormous amount of historical exposition the author must try to work in around the gun fights, bombs, and car/boat chases. Like most books of this types I've read, occasionally it felt slightly more like a history text than a novel, but Rollins actually does a decent job of having these little lesson occur in contexts that make sense-not, for instance, while standing over a dead body like one scene in Da Vinci Code. All in all this was a fun, satisfying use of 13 hours in the car!
When the Emperor was Divine is a little gem of a book. A slim 160 pages, Otsuka's debut novel tells the story of a Japanese family forced into an internment camp in 1942. Each of the five chapters is narrated by a different member of the family-the mother, who packs away the house and their old life after the relocation order came down; the daughter, who tells of the journey on the train to the Utah desert; the son, who describes life in the camp; and the father, who was arrested and held in a separate facility for the duration of the war and returns to his family a different man. The characters are nameless, which I assume is a purposeful attempt to portray the family as representatives of the 127,000 Japanese Americans who were "relocated" during World War II.
Otsuka's writing is spare, but conveys such emotion. This family lived in an America where their neighbors turned against them, or, worse, pretended they no longer existed. Their ties to the community where they lived and worked and went to school are suddenly severed, and it is apparent that everyone was too afraid of being seen as disloyal to stand up for anyone-themselves or their neighbors. There were two parts of the novel that stood out for me. The first was when the mother was packing up their house in order to evacuate. From my place in the 21st century I knew there was a good chance that no matter what she did to safeguard her family's things, they would not be there when and if she returned. But the most painful part was when she killed the family dog, because he was old and sick and there was no one to take care of him. The second part that struck me was the son's description of his mother's slow slide into depression and hopelessness. They say that children are adaptable, and in fact the boy never seemed to lose hope that they wold eventually go home. But even his youthful innocence could not spare him from watching his mother wither and lose interest in the world and what would happen to them.
Finally, after more than three years of imprisonment, the internment camp inmates were given $25, put on buses, and taken back to their hometowns. Many had no actual homes to return to, and no family or friends to help them. The opportunistic lawyers and businessmen who promised to collect rents from the people living in their houses or running their businesses had disappeared, along with the money they had promised to keep safe. No on apologized, or offered any compensation for their losses-but really, how can you compensate someone for their quality of life, for the loss of feeling safe and secure in your own home? And their neighbors, out of shame or anger, shunned them, which must have felt like a different kind of imprisonment. Otsuka does a wonderful job bringing her readers into this shameful era of American history.
Any long time readers of this blog know my deep respect for Octavia Butler. She takes the genre of science fiction and turns it into literature that not even the most pernicious lit snob can say is anything other than high quality. Kindred, Butler's best known work, is perhaps the clearest example I've yet read of the way that she combines issues of race, gender, and class into her work.
Kindred is the story of Dana, a black woman living in California in the 1970s. Through some process never fully explained, Dana is transported back to the early 1800s whenever Rufus, her white great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandfather is on the verge of getting himself killed. Unfortunately for Dana, this unknown ancestor is also the son of a slave-owner in Maryland. This means that once she is back in time with him, she must adjust her life to the customs of the time, acting the part of a slave. As Dana travels back and forth between the past and the present, she learns more about what it meant to be black and powerless in the United States than she ever wanted to. What was abstract to her and her white husband in 1976 becomes terrifyingly concrete in the world of 1830s Maryland.
Kindred is a bit of a cross-over novel, as the science fiction aspect of it is not nearly as important as the story itself. Perhaps that's why it is her most popular novel, because you don't have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy it. But I suspect it has more to do with the examination of race and slavery than with a genre preference. Through Dana's experiences, Butler shows the brutality and cruelty of slavery. Dana, with her 20th century moral superiority, begins by "acting" as a slave, but after being whipped, beaten, forced into the fields, and nearly raped, she comes to realize how easily people can be made slaves. Take away a person's humanity, and they will believe they are less than human. Value a person only because of the work that they can do or the price that they will fetch, and they will start to define themselves that way, even contribute to their own captivity.
It is this idea that is perhaps the most striking in Butler's work, especially given the 1979 release date. That close to the heyday of the civil rights movement, it must have been a risk for Butler to create the characters of Rufus, who while not likeable does at least become understandable as the slave owner's son, and eventual slave owner himself. Even though Dana hates what he does, she can't quite bring herself to hate him, though he certainly gives her ample reasons to do so. But Dana's relationship with Rufus, and the various attitudes of other slaves on the plantation, demonstrate that slavery and people's attitudes towards it were not as clear-cut as history books would make them out to be. To be sure, the institution of slavery is abhorrent, but those living within it sometimes had to do things that should not necessarily be judged by 20th (or 21st) century standards. Butler clearly shows how insidious the effects of living under such a brutal system can be, from the need to run away again and again, even after the most horrific beatings, to the need to try and secure your place by serving up another slave's transgressions to your masters, even though you know what the consequences for them will be. In the end, Dana is able to retain enough of her 20th century self to free herself from the bondage imposed on her by the involuntary time travel, but not without scars, both physical and emotional, that will leave a permanent impression on her, and on the reader.